Old Codgers Of The Week (13)

Great-great-grandmother Edith Murway-Traina was not content with completing a 68kg powerlift at the age of 98 years and 94 days young, sealing her place in the 2022 edition of Guinness World Records as the oldest female competitive powerlifter. Now with one hundred years on the clock, she is still competing and shows no sign of stopping.

Bronx-born Edith, now a resident of Florida, was a dance instructor and performer and took up weightlifting nine years ago after being invited by a friend to watch what was going on in a gym. She liked what she saw and has never looked back, entering competitions, and even winning the odd trophy or two.

I cannot help thinking she is giving old codgers a bad name.

Richardson Scores Again

A review of Richardson Scores Again by Basil Thomson

It is heart-warming to see someone’s career take off. When we first encountered Richardson in Richardson’s First Case, Basil Thomson’s policeman was a lowly bobby on traffic point duty. He had a starring role in solving a ticklish case and so when we encounter him in this book, the second in the series, originally published in 1934 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, he is now a Detective Sergeant. Such a rapid rise at a time when length of time served rather than ability was the usual key to promotion is a surprise but Thomson who, in a colourful career, was Head of the Metropolitan Police’s Criminal Investigation Department during the First World War and so, presumably, knew his onions.

Rapid promotion is not without its perils and Richardson meets with some good-natured but envious comments from his colleagues, especially those he has passed by. However, in this case, as the title suggests, he more than proves his mettle, not only putting the ball in the net but doing so with some considerable aplomb.

Thomson’s modus operandi in writing a crime novel is to take a more procedural approach. In the wrong hands this can be the kiss of death because police investigation is generally dull as ditch water, requiring meticulous inquiries, checking alibis, and grubbing around for clues rather than relying on a flash of inspiration or a bit of genius which an amateur sleuth can indulge in. Fortunately, Thomson steers clear of all the obvious traps and constructs a well-written, entertaining, sometimes humorous novel, which is fairly clued, even with a relatively complicated plot. When he includes some police jargon, usually acronyms, he takes the trouble to decipher them when he first uses them.

Also known more prosaically as Richardson’s Second Case, one of the morals of the story is never leave a large amount of cash in your house or, if you do, never write a letter to your nephew telling him to stay the night as the house will be unguarded and detailing where you have hidden it. Nevertheless, this is what happens, but at least the uncle had the good sense to write his name on each of the notes.

The money, the proceeds from the sale of a farm, is stolen, the maid is killed in the process, and there are sufficient clues to think that the nephew was the culprit. He, though, claims that his wallet, in which he had kept the letter, had been stolen and that he had been arrested, although the officer turned out to be a fraud. Is there any truth in his story?

The second strand of the story features an aspiring politician who is causing a stir but when he is midway through a high-profile speech, he spots someone in the audience and faints. He is so shaken he goes into hiding in France What is that all about? Along the way we also have a spot of love interest and the loss of a highly prized parrot.

There are red herrings aplenty and initially the police treat the two main elements of the plot as separate investigations. It falls to Richardson to realise that these two seemingly disparate strands are part of the same crime and despite initial resistance from his more senior colleagues unearths a plot involving blackmail and assumed identities.

It is an enjoyable read, although it relies heavily on coincidences. On the basis of this success, Richardson is sure to rise even more quickly up the ranks.

Two Birds London Dry Gin

Is it gin fatigue? I am finding that after an extensive tour of the exotic delights of the ginaissance, I am more and more drawn to gins that are pared down to just a handful of botanicals. Two Birds London Dry Gin, which has been on my list to try for years, is one of them. Two Birds Spirits was founded by Mark Gamble in 2012, launching its first gin the following year, and is now part of the British Honey Company.

Based in Market Harborough in Leicestershire, the gin’s name celebrates the English countryside and all that is good about it, using botanicals which can be described as belonging to the country and natural spring water from the nearby Charnwood Forest. Charming as that image is, the name does sow a seed or two of confusion as there is a totally separate Two Birds Artisan Spirits which operates out of Michigan and produces Greyling Modern Dry Gin. Make sure you order the right one.   

Gamble is a little coy as to what botanicals go into the mix, save that it is juniper and four other botanicals which represent the finest of the countryside. At a guess, it includes the traditional trio of coriander, orris root, and citrus. Using a grain base, the gin is distilled in batches of 100 bottles in a handmade copper still pot. The labelling suggests that the botanicals are infused into the spirit. The result, once diluted with the local spring water, is a spirit with an ABV of 40%.

The bottle is attractive, cylindrical in shape with round shoulders and a relatively short neck leading to a screwcap top. The glass is clear and unembossed and the design is fresh and modern, using blue for the two birds and the background to the small label towards the bottom of the bottle and a navy blue for the top. The birds are perched at the top and bottom of the spirit’s name but in a clever touch, if you look through the bottle, there is a design of tree on the back of bottle which the birds appear to roost in. Clever as that may be, I am not sure that the overall design is sufficiently eye-catching enough to stand out on a crowded shelf.

On unscrewing the cap, the aroma is enticing and holds out the promise of a traditional London Dry Gin, but with a little added twist, a balanced melange of juniper, citrus, and pepper. In the glass it is crystal clear. My first surprise was that instead of the initial hit of juniper I was expecting, the initial sensations were that of a slightly acidic citrus. It was not long, though, before the juniper made its way to the front of the stage and then, in a slightly unexpected twist, there was a distinct hint of vanilla. The aftertaste was long, lingering and surprisingly peppery.

It struck me as a well-balanced gin which straddled, perhaps somewhat uncertainly, both the truly traditional London Dry and contemporary styles. That the component parts of the spirit were easily discernible is testament to the care and skill taken in perfecting the drink and to the merit in reducing the number of botanicals and making them work.

The Case With Nine Solutions

A review of The Case with Nine Solutions by J J Connington

This is the third outing for Connington’s police sleuth, Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield, in a book first published in 1928 and now reissued as part of Orion’s Murder Room series. Connington is one of my discoveries of 2021 and he can be relied upon to construct a first-class, intriguing puzzle and he certainly does not fail with this one. Even though there are only two or three credible suspects, he manages to sustain the tension and mystery until the final pages. The final chapter includes extracts from Driffield’s case notes and shows his thinking and suspicions as more and more clues are revealed. It seems an attempt to demonstrate the Connington had played fair with the attentive reader, but it struck me as an unnecessary touch.

Driffield is a bit of a Marmite character, some readers will take to him, and others will abhor him. He is cynical, sardonic and possesses an acerbic wit but it is hard to argue that he is a rounded, human character in the way that Punshon’s Bobby Owen. Indeed, that could be said of all of his characters in this novel. They are drawn sufficiently well for the reader to understand their part in the tale but no further. A more psychological and, dare I say it, a more literary approach is a later development for this genre.

Also missing is Driffield’s usual amateur sidekick, Squire Wendover, and taking the Watson role is Inspector Flamborough, a worthy if uninspired officer of the law. Driffield takes great delight, as he does with Wendover, of disclosing the clues but not the conclusions he has drawn from them, a trait that must have rankled with his underling.

The title of the book leads the reader to suggest that this is going to be an intricate and complex mystery with many possible solutions. It certainly is intricate and complex but the nine solutions are only possibilities as Driffield encourages the sceptical Flamborough the possible fates that could have befallen Hassendean and Mrs Silverdale, ranging from suicide, accident or murder. This analysis produces nine possibilities, of which three are immediately discounted. It is amusing to see Flamborough become a convert to his superior’s methodology, but clearly there is only one solution.

The book opens with Westerhaven draped in a thick fog. Dr Ringwood is acting as a locum in the town and is entertaining Dr Markfield when he receives a phone call to attend to a sick patient at the home of Dr Silverdale. As a newcomer to the town, he is unsure of the way and Markfield offers to escort him there in a fascinating insight into the perils of motoring at the time when dim headlights failed to penetrate the gloom of the fog. Even so, Ringwood goes to the wrong house and discovers a young man, Hassendean, who had been carrying on with Mrs Silverdale, mortally wounded.

Driffield leads the investigation and receives a communication from a mysterious person called Justice, who has a penchant for cyphers, that directs him to an empty bungalow in town where he finds the body of Mrs Silverdale, ostensibly shot but killed by a fatal dose of hyoscine. Drs Silverdale and Markfield both work in a laboratory where there was easy access to the poison. There are two other murders along the way, one of the Silverdale’s maid and the other of a potential informant.

Driffield twigs that the murders are all related and pieces the clues together to unmask the culprit and their motivation, not without a liberal sprinkling of red herrings along the way. As a chemistry professor in real life, Alfred Stewart aka Connington revels in the chemical aspects of the case but his learning is worn lightly. It all makes for an enjoyable and entertaining puzzle which is neatly resolved.

Connington certainly knew how to write a good murder mystery and this one is amongst the best. I also enjoyed the appearance of Miss Marple, not that one but a middle-aged maid.

The Division Bell Mystery

A review of The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

First published in 1932 and now reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, The Division Bell Mystery is Ellen Wilkinson’s one and only stab at detective fiction. As a politician, a Labour MP first elected in 1924 who was involved in the organisation of the Jarrow march and later served as Education minister in Attlee’s post war government, she is well positioned to bring some insight into the workings of parliament and the topography of the building’s warren of rooms. Wilkinson wrote the book after she lost her seat for the first time.

It is a closed room murder mystery with an unusual amateur sleuth in the form of the Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, the Conservative MP Robert West. He is aided and abetted by a firebrand Labour MP, Grace – it is tempting to see a touch of Wilkinson herself in her character – who also seems to be able to open West’s eyes to the iniquities of the system and the sidelining of the role of parliament to greater forces such as finance and capitalism. There is some humour and gentle satire, Wilkinson unable to resist the opportunity to make some political points.

It is a lot of fun and is good on the quirky traditions and customs of the House and its topography. There is a feminist streak running through the narrative, exemplified in Wilkinson’s summary of West’s rather absurd attitude to the modern woman. For me, though, there are too many characters and Wilkinson struggles to make many of them any more than pastiches of stereotypes. More could have been made of West’s friend, Don Shaw, and even the police in the form of Inspector Blackling are pushed to the side.

The book concentrates on the whodunit aspect but the ingenious way in which the American financier, Ossiel, is murdered is barely explained in detail. I am not suggesting we need a detailed breakdown but a sense of how it was pulled off, a trick which, after all, is the crux of the book, would have helped. I was left feeling that Wilkinson just fudged it, hoping that the reveal and the unmasking of the culprit would suffice. It seems all a bit rushed at the end, especially considering the time spent on pursuing red herrings.

Britain is mired in a financial crisis and is trying to negotiate a loan with Georges Ossiel, the American financier. The Home Secretary has a private meal with him in the Commons, in Room J, and leaves him when the division bell sounds. A shot is heard and when the waiter and West enter the room Ossiel is found slumped over the table, shot dead. It is initially thought to be suicide but his granddaughter, Annette, to whom West inevitably takes a shine to, is adamant he would not have topped himself.

At the same time Jenks, whom the Home Secretary has loaned to Ossiel, is found murdered at Ossiel’s flat following a burglary. As investigations proceed, it does seem to be murder. Why had Jenks on the night of the murder had Ossiel’s secret notebook photographed and why had the Home Secretary taken notes from it? Why was Annette so unmoved by her grandfather’s death and what has Kinnaird, who has suddenly come into funds, courtesy of Annette, to do with it all?

A coalition of sleuths, amateur and professional, finally crack the case. An enjoyable book but Wilkinson greater contribution to the welfare of the nation was the resumption of her political career.

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