Lost Word Of The Day (21)

There is a lot to be said for having a placid, easy-going nature. It makes life so much easier. Up until well into the 19th century someone who was easy to appease might have been described as being mulcible. It was derived from the Latin verb mulcere meaning to soothe by way of the adjective mulcibilis.

An example of its usage comes from Memoirs of Robert Easton, Comedian 1774 – 1810 by George Raymond (1844). “But now, partly through the ineffable quality of rich comedy. Which was so much the constitution of Elliston, and partly from Miss Warren’s mulcible nature, which, to do her justice, was unrivalled, and all of this aided by the pacific disposition of the clerk of the “long-room”, peace was restored”.

Good for Miss Warren!

Death Of Jezebel

A review of Death of Jezebel by Christianna Barand – 230303

There is so much to talk about Death of Jezebel, the fourth in Brand’s Inspector Cockrill series, originally published in 1948 and now reissued as part of the inestimable British Library Crime Classics series, that a simple 700 or so word review cannot possibly do the book justice. It is a compelling read, a complex plot involving impossible murders in a variation of a locked room, misdirection galore, and two detectives trying to get the better of each other.

Brand takes the unusual step right at the outset of listing her principal characters, noting that three will receive death threats and one will be the murderer. She then, in a prologue, expounds the casus belli, the suicide out in Malaya of Johnny Wise, driven to distraction when he finds his fiancé, the flighty Perpetua Kirk, in a compromising position, have been intoxicated and set up by Isabel Drew and Earl Anderson. The three implicated in Johnny’s suicide each receive death threats and, assuming that the prospective murderer did not send one to themselves, the culprit, if there are any murders, can only be one of Edgar Port aka Sugar-Daddy, Brian Bryan from Sumatra, Susan Betchley aka Bitchley, and George Exmouth.

The action takes place at the Elysian Hall, venue for the Homes for Heroes Exhibition, the centre piece of which is a pageant, masterminded by Port and in which all seven protagonists are involved. The set is a castle tower and a courtyard. The rear to the stage is locked during the performance and everything that happens at the front is witnessed by the audience which includes Inspecter Cockrill, up to London from Kent ostensibly for a conference but who has been contacted by a frightened Perpetua.

The first death in the book is that of Isabel, who falls out of the tower having been strangled. I like a good fenestration. It seems impossible to see who murdered her, never mind how it was achieved. To add to the sense of mystery both Earl and Perpetua are missing, Perpetua found later by Brian Bryan locked in an outer room, and Earl later found to have been murdered too, when his head is delivered to the unfortunate Perpetua in a parcel.

Elysian Hall is not on Cockrill’s patch and the lead investigator is Inspector Charlesworth of the Yard, another of Brand’s series detectives. The two are chalk and cheese and while Charlesworth magnanimously allows Cockrill to lend a hand, there is an undercurrent of faint animosity between the two, each vying to prove that their methodology, Charlesworth representing the new school and Cockrill the old, is superior and the former never letting the latter forget that he made a mess of an earlier case. This adds some humour to the investigation and it is gratifying to see that Cockrill comes through with flying colours, even if he seemed to have made a potentially fatal error at the end.

Much of the investigation centres, naturally, upon how Isabel was defenestrated and theories are banded backwards and forwards, some more convincing than others and each, for a moment at least, shining guilt on one of the four suspects. At times it appears that they might have acted in collusion and at one point all four decide to confess separately to both murders. With such a small suspect list it is to Brand’s credit that she can keep the dramatic tension going for so long.

I did work out the culprit, thanks to a clever bit of wordplay, but it took me much longer than it normally does to get to the whodunit. As to the howdunit, even having reread the relevant passages several times, I am not convinced that there would have been enough time for the culprit to pull off Isabel’s murder in the way described, but that is a mere quibble.

The Far East campaign has often been described as the forgotten theatre of war and Brand’s text brings home the horrors of the Japanese invasion, wiping out families, records and causing untold psychological horrors. Pont’s wife is in a home after a nervous breakdown suffered as a result of the traumas of the invasion and the protagonists are each in their own way scarred by their experiences there, not just by the suicide of Wise. This is just another fascinating insight in a fabulous book.

For me, it had just the right mix of absurdity, clever plotting, and complex mystery. My only serious criticism is that her characterisation is not strong, with perhaps only Cockrill coming alive on the page. Still, you cannot have everything.

Scone Of The Week

Belated congratulations to Sarah Merker from Isleworth who recently completed her mission of tasting a scone at each of the UK’s 244 National trust sites that have catering facilities. Having become a member in 2013 she set herself a goal to ensure that she got full value from her membership fee. She reviewed and rated each on a blog[1]

She certainly got her teeth stuck into the task, an odyssey that took on special poignancy after her husband, Peter, died of cancer in 2018. The final scone was tasted in Northern Ireland, at the Giant’s Causeway, one she described as “fresh, warm and absolutely delicious”.

The contentious question with scones is jam first or cream first. From the illustrations, it looks as though she puts the jam on first and then the cream, the Cornish way. Good to know!

[1] https://www.nationaltrustscones.com/

Death And The Maiden

A review of Death and the Maiden by Gladys Mitchell – 230301

Not all of Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley series are available in a format priced at a level to ensure that the kids’ inheritance is not seriously depleted. Perhaps it is a ruse by the publishers to ensure that the reader’s patience and sanity is not too sorely tested as Mitchell, to be charitable, can be a perplexing writer, one willing to bend the conventions of detective fiction to a point when they creak at the seams. Nevertheless, I am trying to read what are available in chronological order, but found to my horror a little while ago that I had overlooked her twentieth, originally published in 1947. Poor sleuthing on my part but the error has now been rectified.

In many ways Death and the Maiden epitomises Mitchell’s approach to crime fiction. There is no doubting that it is beautifully and elegantly written with no little wit, some memorable scenes and many a pithy sentence that stick long in the memory. It is an active book with Mrs Bradley and her accomplices – the book sees a reunion of the Three Musketeers, Laura, Kitty, and Alice, whom we met in Laurels are Poison – shuttling back and forth between London and Winchester and the south coast. And then there is the Naiad, reports of the sighting of whom brings the four suspects to Winchester in the first place.

The book is undoubtedly a love poem to the beautiful city of Winchester and the River Itchen, Mitchell’s descriptions especially of the water meadows hitting a level of lyricism that confirm her at her best as a fine, technical writer. They are a delight to read. However, she also imbues her books with a somewhat, at least by modern standards, a wonky moral compass. When this book is boiled down it is about the brutal and senseless murder of two youths, but the horror associated with the deaths seems undercooked, playing a distinctive second fiddle to the more labyrinthine enquiries into what was the grand plan behind deaths of two from the lower order begotten of feckless parents that were seen as little more than dress rehearsals for the real thing.

Avarice, sheer hatred, and an overpowering protectiveness are tried and tested motives for murder, but vanity, an unattractive quality for sure, or, at least, its pricking, is hard to imagine as something which would drive someone to commit murder most foul. The determination of one of the protagonists to pin the blame on one of the other suspects leads to the case against them being fatally undermined but justice of sorts is served offstage when the two are gripped in a fatal and titanic struggle. Among the clues are a pair of sandals, each found in separate locations, a Panama hat, a hole used by tramps, and a pair of gloves, while a large geranium plant leads to the clearing of the suspect whom the police have charged with the first boy’s murder.

The suspects are Edris Tidson, who has left Tenerife where he grew bananas so seriously financially embarrassed that he has to live off his cousin, Priscilla Carmody, but he has high hopes of coming into an inheritance, his wife, Crete, and to complete the foursome who come to stay in Winchester as Tidson hunts the Naiad, Miss Carmody’s sulky niece, Connie. Only one can have murdered the boys and whilst it is fairly obvious whodunnit, Mitchell does her best to hide the clues with a shoal of, given the book’s freshwater fishing leitmotif, red trout.

While the mystery itself might not live long in the memory, the episode of the four black eyes will. There is a dead dog, dunkings in the river, the redoubtable Laura, who snares a fiancé in the shape of Inspector Gavin, skinny dipping, secret passages and priest holes, a ghost dressed as a nun who squeaks, escapades on rooftops and much more. It is great fun and Mitchell is on form. For all its oddities and imperfections, it is almost the perfect Mitchell story.

Buried For Pleasure

A review of Buried for Pleasure by Edmund Crispin – 230227

If you enjoy your murders laced with humour and not a little farce, as I do, then Robert Bruce Montgomery, who wrote under the pseudonym of Edmund Crispin is an author not to be missed. Buried for Pleasure, which takes its rather incongruous title from a line of a traditional refrain, “Buried on Thursday, buried for pleasure”, is the sixth in his series featuring amateur sleuth and Oxford professor of English Literature and Language, Gervase Fen. It was originally published in 1948 and is a riot. The good news is that the final three novels in the series have just been reissued.

I got the sense that Fen was eager to give vent to his comedic and absurdist spirit and that the murder mystery, which is well worked and satisfying in itself, is but one of the delights to be savoured in the book. No po-faced, scrupulously litany of every avenue pursued by the sleuth à la Freeman Wills Crofts here. Fen’s investigative style is as impressionistic as is his approach to life in general and to politics. Astonishingly, as a break from writing a definitive volume about Langland he puts himself forward as an independent candidate at a by-election in Norfolk. His approach to electioneering under the direction of his agent, the raffish Captain Watkyns, is suitably eccentric and when it looks as though victory is there for him to take he tries to sabotage his chances with a speech that epitomises the attitudes of politicians and their electorate in terms that are as true today as they were, presumably, then. It is one of the highlights of the book.

But there is so much more. Fen stays at the local pub, The Fish Inn, whose landlord is systematically demolishing it, although he thinks he is making improvements. Inevitably, the pub falls down at the end of the book. Amongst its delights is a large painting which the locals spend hours discussing and arguing over its nautical subject matter. Then there is the non-doing pig, one of the funniest of Crispin’s animal creations, a pig that eats everything but steadfastly refuses to put weight on. The rector is haunted by a poltergeist who assaults him and there is an inmate from the local mental asylum on the loose whose penchants include exhibitionism, a glove fetish, and thinking he is Woodrow Wilson. Glorious stuff.

As to the murder mystery, Mrs Lambert, she of a racy past, was being blackmailed. She paid the first demand but upon receipt of the second, goes to the police. Within twelve hours she receives a box of chocolates which have been poisoned. Fen bumps into an old Scotland Yard acquaintance, Busy, masquerading as Captain Crawley. He informs the Oxford sleuth that he is investigating the circumstances of Mrs Lambert’s death undercover as something in the circumstances does not quite gell.

Within short order, a young woman also staying at the pub has stepped out in front of a noisy lorry and is seriously injured. When it appears she is about to regain consciousness, someone breaks into the hospital and tries to give her a shot of insulin, although the attack is foiled. Bussy, who believes he is on to something, asks Fen to meet him at a hut on the golf course at midnight. When Fen gets there, he finds that Busy has been murdered.

Fen is assisted in his investigations by Wolfe from the local police and Humbleby from the Yard. The clues are all there and the plot is not complex but Crispin’s art is to immerse the reader in a wealth of comedic episodes that it is difficult to keep the wood firmly in view for all the trees. The ending is a little abrupt and the culprit, if you have been lulled by the ludicrousness of the scenarios Crispin has conjured up, might come as a surprise, but it is there for all to see.

Even the car chase and the eventual demise of the culprit is hilarious, but Crispin has not done with his reader yet. Fen’s electoral blushes are spared thanks to a technicality in the accounting of election expenses. At least the sanctity of the ballot box and the electoral process was respected in those days.

This is the perfect antidote to a police procedural. The other three in the series are already on my TBR file.

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