Cantering Through Cant (29)

Welch rabbit, as it was known in Francis Grose’s time, was bread and cheese roasted, according to his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785). The Welsh, he notes, are so fond of cheese that “in cases of difficulty their midwives apply a piece of toasted cheese to the ianua vitae to attract and entice the young Taffy, who on smelling it makes most vigorous efforts to come forth”.   

The dictionary is full of quaint customs, many of which can rebound to the detriment of the participants. One such was whip the cock. Popular at wakes, fairs and horse races in Leicestershire, a cock was tied or fastened into a basket and half a dozen carters would be blindfolded and armed with their whips. They would be placed around the hat containing the cockerel and then spun round a few times. The object of the exercise is for one of them to strike the hat with their whip and make the cock cry out, an achievement that wins them the bird. However, in reality, Grose observes, what happens is that the participants are so disorientated that they set about whipping each other.

We are familiar with the use of white feather as a symbol of cowardice. Grose attributes its usage to an allusion to “a game cock, where having a white feather is a proof that he is not of the true game breed”. Another form of insult was to call someone a winter’s day, short and dirty. Insults seemed much more inventive in those days.

Haysmith’s Spiced Apple and Ginger Flavour Gin

The Gin Act of 1751 was a rather draconian and effective response to the social evils that the excessive consumption of bootlegged alcoholic spirits was responsible for. So effective was it that outlawed small scale gin distilleries for over 250 years. The law was eventually challenged by Messrs Sam Galsworthy, Fairfax Hall and Jared Brown, the founders of Sipsmiths, and in 2009 the law was changed allowing small-batch distillers to operate once more. Fittingly, the first copper-pot distillery to take advantage of the law change was Sipsmith.    

The floodgates were opened and the ginaissance has gone from strength to strength. Interestingly, if you survey the market it has split into three very broad categories. The first is the truly small-scale distiller, often started by a gin enthusiast whose passion for the spirit encourages them to experiment with a blend of botanicals that eventually becomes something vaguely potable or to resurrect an old gin recipe that has existed in the family or is associated with the area in which they operate. Often these brands start out as a statement of love and commitment before encountering and sometimes adapting to the realities of commercial life.

Often the problem with many of these gins is that there is insufficient information on the labelling to allow the potential consumer to make an informed choice as to the likely taste and so paying in excess of £30 for a bottle seems rather a punt unless you have tasted it before or are adventurous in your taste of spirits.

Then there are the large gin manufacturers who have risen to the challenge of the burgeoning number of small, independent gin distillers by upping their game and launching a wider range of styles, while leveraging their existing market reputation. They also have snapped up some of the more successful independents. Ironically, Sipsmith, who could fairly claim to have started the 21st century gin craze off, were bought by Beam Suntory in December 2016 for £50m.

The third strand is the supermarket chains who have jumped on the bandwagon offering botanical infused gins to their shoppers at often less than half the price that a similar product would cost from an independent. Aldi have perfected this approach to a tee and, in all fairness, their gins are impressive, often scooping awards in gin competitions and festivals. Aldi’s MO seems to be to label their spirits with cod names that sound to the uninitiated as though they have come from a small distiller. One such is Haysmith’s.

The gin to fall under the spotlight this week is Haysmith’s Spiced Apple and Ginger Flavour Gin, which comes in a stumpy bottle with a broad shoulder, a small neck ad topped with a cork stopper. The labelling at the front has an artist’s impression of a spray of botanicals with apples and ginger roots to the fore, in case you don’t get the idea. The back of the label, in white print which gets successively more difficult to read as the contents reduce, tells me that the spirit provides “an elegantly smooth and complex taste…best described as mouthwatering notes of juicy red apple, complex hints of fiery ginger spice finishing with the classic flavour of juniper”.

The spirit is pale brown in colour, reminiscent of apple juice and to the nose it has a very distinctive aroma of apple and ginger. In the mouth it is very appley and the ginger is pronounced, although not unpleasantly so. It is well balanced with a strong spicey aftertaste but the juniper is not as pronounced as I would have liked. If you like flavoured gins and looking for a winter warmer that will not burn a hole in your pocket, you could do worse than this.

Until the next time, cheers!

The Ha-Ha Case

The Ha-Ha Case – J J Connington

Published in 1934 and known in the States as The Brandon Case, this is the first detective I have read by the Scottish chemistry professor, Alfred Walter Stewart, under his nom de plume of J J Connington. As I enjoyed this, the ninth in his Sir Clifford Driffield series, I am sure this will not be the last.

The book falls into three unequal parts and it is only in the third section, about a fifth of the book’s length, that Chief Constable Driffield makes his entrance. The first part of the book, mainly seen through the eyes of Jim Brandon, narrates events leading up to and the immediate aftermath of the death of Brandon’s younger brother, Johnnie. The second section details the investigations of Inspector Hinton, a self-satisfied man, who prides himself on the quality and thoroughness of his reports and who considers himself to be a cut above the average in the brainbox stakes.

Hinton is nothing but thorough and he assembles all the pieces of a complex jigsaw. His problem, though, is that he cannot assemble them into a coherent whole and instead of solving what would be his greatest case and one that would make his name, he has to suffer Driffield coming in and putting together an elegant solution to a tricky problem. Driffield is at least gracious enough to recognise and praise Hinton for assembling an impressive array of clues, although it cuts no ice with the Inspector.

Jim Brandon arrives at the Edgehill estate on the eve of his younger brother’s coming of age birthday. He is concerned because he thinks that Johnnie has come under the malign influence of Laxford and that the Brandon’s estate, run into the ground by their spendthrift father, is going to slip from their grasp. To celebrate Johnnie’s birthday there is a shooting party and, yes, there is an accident and Johnnie is killed. Was it suicide, as it looked initially, or was it murder and, if so, who was the culprit?

Hinton’s investigations reveal that there was no blood at the spot that Laxford and his shifty companion claimed to have found the body, but, where there was at the spot where they moved the body. His analysis of the angles of the shot rules out suicide. At the time of the incident a man suffering from mental issues suddenly appears at the scene carrying Laxford’s gun. What is his role in it all? There is a complex web of insurance policies on Johnnie’s life and he had signed a deed which made Laxford’s wife the beneficiary. The deed only became legal when Johnnie reached the age of 21, the day that he had died? What, if anything, had that to do with it? The Laxfords too were short of cash and stood to gain for Johnnie’s untimely demise.

Hinton’s carefully prepared case is swiftly demolished by Driffield whose greater knowledge of cartridges and ballistics – Hinton took pride in not being a shooting man – and his understanding of the quaint English legal quirk of ultimogeniture enables him to unmask the real culprit. As there are only four possible culprits, once suicide is ruled out, it was relatively easy for the reader to sift the red herrings (and there are a lot of them) from the real clues but it took me a while to twig motive.

I found it an excellently constructed plot. The situation that was presented to Hinton allowed for two possible interpretations and Connington takes delight in leading the reader through Hinton’s thought processes and the logical conclusions that resulted, only to allow the story to swerve in a different direction. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and will look forward to my next encounter with Sir Clifford Driffield. I just hope I get to know him better.

Bewildering Cares

Bewildering Cares – Winifred Peck

Aside from writing two detective novels, one I liked and the other less so, Winifred Peck wrote a further twenty-four books in a literary career that ran from 1909 to 1955. Bewildering Cares was originally published in 1940 and has been reissued for a modern readership by Dean Street Press. In the days before social media many people jotted down their thoughts, experiences, aspirations and fears in a diary or a journal and there is an established literary tradition of fictional diaries. Bewildering Cares is the story of the week in the life of Camilla Lacely, a harassed, busy vicar’s wife, in a northern town at the start of the Second World War, written ostensibly to demonstrate to her cousin how relentlessly busy her life is.

Using the format of a diary imposes some limitations on the narrative. Events can only be seen from the perspective of the writer and the entries have to be written in the first person. There are compensatory benefits, not least that it is an ideal medium for introspection and for expressing those thoughts and desires that they would hardly dare voice in the open. The book reminded me of E M Dellafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady without the incisive wit, not as cosy or twee, slightly more serious but still managing to achieve a certain frivolity in her style.

The book records a maelstrom of working parties, visits to the poor, myriad committee meetings which, because there is a war on, are made up of the same people who scuttle around the village from one venue to another, answering phone calls that always come at inopportune moments and running a large, uncomfortable home which is becoming increasingly difficult to tame. Rations mean that putting a meal on the table becomes more of a challenge and, although Camilla has a maid, Kate, she is more of a liability than a help, more concerned with meeting and feeding her beaus who is anticipating a posting which never seems to come.

The constant theme that runs through the novel – “a storm in a teacup”, as Camilla describes it, “but then we happen to live in a teacup” –  is the sermon her husband’s curate, Mr Lang, gave at church on the Sunday which, with its distinctive and passionate pacifist tones, causes outrage. Although Camilla was at the service, she had taken the opportunity provided by the sermon to catch up on some well-deserved sleep – haven’t we all? – and is unable to give her husband a lucid or coherent account of what the curate actually said.

The sermon sparks controversy and although Camilla and her husband feel obliged to offer Strang their support and hope that the controversy will soon blow over, it is the talk of the town and everyone she meets wants her take on it. It requires all of her skill and diplomacy to maintain a certain neutrality without betraying either her husband, Strang, or her injudicious napping. Strang is attacked and falls dangerously ill, but his miraculous recovery, surprisingly speedy to boot, reunites the townsfolk.

The other major theme running through the book is Camilla’s concerns for her only son, the wry and more worldly Dick, who is in the army. His return with some surprising news gives the book a rather uplifting ending.

The book has some fine moments, some interesting observations, fine quips and insights into a rather mundane but worthy life. Naturally, Camilla’s thoughts stray on to matters of religion and those passages can be heavier going bit on the whole Peck manages to produce an enjoyable read. Perhaps it is one to read at mealtime. After all, as Camilla observes, “there is nothing so good for worried people as to read at their meals, and funny books if possible; for laughter grows so rusty in war time”. We are not exactly in war time, but her words ring true, nevertheless.     

The Night Of Fear

The Night of Fear – Moray Dalton

Moray Dalton is rapidly becoming one of my favourite Golden Age of Detective Fiction writers and this 1931 novel, reissued by the wonderful Dean Street Press, did not let my known. Perhaps my only complaint is that I devoured it too quickly. It is her take on a country house murder, but as you come to expect with Dalton, there is more than one twist along the way. Ostensibly Christmas-themed, it is little more than a plot device to have a lot of disparate folk in one place, playing a silly game, Hide and Seek in fancy dress, which goes disastrously wrong.

Although it is tagged as a Hugh Collier mystery, the second in the series featuring Dalton’s principle detective creation, he only has a relatively passing involvement in the case, only being on the scene as he was accompanying Sergeant Lane, a friend of his, who was summoned to investigate the death of Edgar Stallard, stabbed in the dark during a party game.

As he has no official role in the investigation, Collier has to withdraw, and Scotland Yard is represented by the rather arrogant Chief Inspector Purley. Lane bows out after he accepts the offer of hospitality at the house which proves detrimental to his health and the book marks the debut of Dalton’s private detective, Hermann Glide. So, there are four detectives involved in the investigations as the story unfolds.     

The structure of the book is unusual. The story plunges straight into the murder without any time to understand who the characters are, their relationship to each other, and their possible motives, foibles, and jealousies. These we learn as the book progresses and the use of four detectives with differing styles, methods and perspectives allow the reader to get a better idea of what has gone on and keeps the interrogations fresh and interesting whereas they might otherwise have become a little wearisome. The pace and momentum of the story does begin to lag as we get to the court hearing, but the ending has enough twists and surprises to make up for it. Indeed, such is the pace of the book, a pause is almost welcome.

The obvious culprit is Hugh Darrow, who found Stallard’s body and whose Pierrot costume was drenched in blood. Darrow is blind though, or is he? He claims that the shock of discovering the body brought about a restoration of his eyesight. Even his staunchest supports, the American Mrs Clare, has some doubts as to his innocence. In all there are up to fourteen possible suspects, but Collier’s and Glide’s suspicions fall upon Sir Eustace Tunbridge’s extremely young fiancée, Diana Storey, and her grandmother whose sole ambition is to get her granddaughter as hitched to as rich a man as possible to escape the life of grinding poverty to which she seems to be doomed to.

I will not spoil the ending which is spectacular and presents Glide with a dilemma in weighing up whose life to save. Natural rather than juridical justice is served and, although this means that the ending is not as neat and tidy as some in this genre, it is thought provoking and asks the reader to consider how they would have behaved in Glide’s situation.

Glide is not an obvious hero, cutting an unimpressive figure, forever kneading a ball of wax with his fingers, and, as we learn, with something of a shady past. Dalton is not one to shy away from the demi-monde, as we have seen, and the attributes of Glide hold immense promise for those future occasions when we come across him. Dalton has elevated what could have been a stock country house murder mystery to another level, written with wit and stocked with excellent and intriguing characters.

A wonderful book which is well worth a read.