Rat Of The Week

We may be used to seeing rats in our Houses of Parliament, but they seem to be a rarity in the more tranquil setting of the Andalusian parliament in Seville.

Members were considering the appointment of Susana Diaz, the previous regional president, as senator of the region. Midway through her speech, Marta Bosquet, reacted in horror as she noticed a large rat wander through the chamber. Pandemonium broke out as the parliamentarians broke into two factions, those who sought to escape from the creature and those who wanted to capture it, the doves and the hawks, you might say.

Eventually, order was restored, and Ms Diaz was duly appointed. What happened to the rat has not been reported.

There is no truth in the rumour that an invitation to a party of British MPs has been withdrawn.

The Devil’s Dictionary (12)

I have always tended towards pessimism on the basis that I will never be disappointed. Ambrose Bierce in his The Devil’s Dictionary, first published in book form in 1906, defined pessimism as “a philosophy forced upon the convictions of the observer by the disheartening prevalence of the optimist with his scarecrow hope and his unsightly smile”, part of a philosophy, which is “a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing”.

A physician may be someone “upon whom we set our hopes when ill and our dogs when well”, but Bierce reserves his characteristic scorn and scepticism for those practicing on the edge of scientific acceptability. Phrenology he defines as “the science of picking the pocket through the scalp, It consists in locating and exploiting the organ that one is a dupe with”. Physiognomy, meanwhile, is“the art of determining the character of another by the resemblances and differences between his face and our own, which is the standard of excellence”.

From this distance it is always interesting to see how cutting-edge technology then was viewed. Bierce, of course, is willing to oblige. A photograph is “a picture painted by the sun without instruction in art” while a phonograph is “an irritating toy that restores life to dead noises”. I’m sure they will never catch on!

Still, the latter may be better than a piano. Bierce defines one as “a parlour utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience”. Quite!

Shanky’s Whip

Veering somewhat off course, this week I am featuring an impressive Irish whiskey liqueur, Shanky’s Whip, from Shanky and Shireman’s and imported into this country by Biggar and Leith. Just from looking at the bottle you can tell that it is the result of the application of care, skill, and innovation.

The bottle is dumpy in shape and made from clear glass, with the word “Ireland” embossed on its shoulder. The artwork is terrific and designed to make it stand out from the field. It looks like the front of a vintage matchbox with banners in a bold red with white lettering and an illustration on a yellowy gold background. Look more carefully and the illustration is of the fantastical Irish jockey, Shanky, the wild boy of racing. Having been thrown from his horse, he picks himself up, attaches an ostrich to a cart and, whip in hand, completes the course.   

You could call it a whiskey liqueur for those who are not too keen on whiskey, blended and distilled to eliminate the burn that you associate with a drop of the hard stuff. A combination of Irish spirits and aged pot still whiskey, blended with the natural flavour of vanilla and infused with caramel and with an ABV of 33%, it is distilled in County Cavan and bottled by Shanky and Shireman under bond in Ireland. It is designed to stand out from the field.

In the glass it is black in colour rather like a stout. It is remarkably smooth in the mouth, rather like a cream liqueur but without the texture you associate with cream, and rich, mixing wonderful notes of caramel and vanilla with the spiciness of but not the astringency of Irish whiskey. If you could put the best bits of Irish stout, Irish cream, and Irish whiskey into one glass, the result would be Shanky’s Whip.    

The presentation bottle had a very distinctive racing theme, another clever piece of marketing. The suggested servings came in the form of a race card, giving the odds and run down of the runners and riders. I always think that you should taste a drink for the first time neat and so I went for On The Rocks, running in plain yellow colours with a starting price of 2-1. A big measure of the spirit and a couple of ice cubes provided for an enticing introduction to the subtlety and deliciousness of the spirit.

Next up was The Long and Short of It, red with a yellow sash and with odds of 5-2. The serving was one part Shanky’s Whip, four parts Coca Cola Spicy Notes, featuring lime, ginger, rosemary, jasmine, and jalapeno, served over ice in a long glass. This made for a refreshing and moreish drink, the liqueur showing that it was more than capable of working in conjunction with other flavours without losing its distinctive edge.

For those of you who like to take your spirits in the form of shots, Short and Stout, yellow with spots with a starting price of 6-1, encourages you to drop a shot of Shanky’s into an ice-cold pint of stout. It worked well, but for the purist there is nothing better than The Whip, yellow with red band, 100-1 outsider, a chilled shot of Shanky’s Whip. Perfection.

This is a very versatile drink which shows its colours either on its own or as part of a cocktail. It quickly made its way into my winners’ enclosure.

Until the next time, cheers!

Murder In The Maze

A review of Murder in the Maze by J J Connington

There is something profoundly unsettling about entering a maze. With its high hedges and labyrinth of paths, the object of the exercise is to find your way to the centre and then out again. It may take you five minutes or, if you are unfortunate in your choices, it could take a while. So bewildering can the choice of paths be and so disorientating the experience, particularly if the hedges are of a height that obscures local landmarks and the position of the sun, that you worry how you would summon help if you got lost or met with an accident.

For the crime writer a maze offers the opportunity for both an unusual venue for a crime and to increase the psychological tension for those in the maze at the time of the murder, providing the culprit can work out how to get out after committing their dastardly deed. Unsurprisingly, given its title Connington’s Murder in the Maze exploits both to their maximum in what is a superb and gripping read. Published in 1927 and reissued by The Murder Room, it is chemistry professor Alfred Stewart’s first novel to feature his detective creation, Sir Clinton Driffield, and his sidekick, Wendover.

The opening of the book is beautifully written, so enthralling and taut with psychological tension that the reader devours the pages. The denouement does not disappoint either and it is easy to see why the novel is widely regards as Connington’s finest.

We are introduced to twins, Roger and Neville Shandon. Roger has a history of shady deals while Neville, a KC, is preparing for an important trial. Both are looking for a quiet space to review some papers and go off to the maze which, conveniently, has two centres. Two guests at Whistlefields, Vera Forrest and Howard Torrance, also decide to try out the maze, but go their separate ways. Once in the maze they hear an air rifle, a cry, and the sound of someone running. Both get to their respective centres and find that the twins have both been murdered, shot by poison tipped darts.

Driffield is the local Chief Constable – in those days Chiefs were not afraid to get their hands dirty – and quickly gets to work with the faithful Wendover as his assistant. Wendover’s role is more developed than that of Watson. Of course, he is there to act as a sounding board, to ask the questions that the reader might want answered, but he also makes some important contributions to the resolution of the case.

Driffield soon established that the darts were tipped with a South American poison, curare. There is a pot of it in Roger’s collection of artefacts. Given that the twins were similar in appearance, was one murdered in mistake? Was it a professional hit? If so, how was the assassin able to navigate around the maze with such ease and get their hands on the rare poison? Driffield concludes that it is an inside job.

The third brother, who represents himself as a lazy, rather stupid, indolent sort of fellow, is also assaulted in the maze, although he escapes the fate of his brothers and as the investigations continue, the niece is shot with a dart at a bridge party that in a sting that a seemingly negligent Driffield has set up. Suspects come under the spotlight only to be dismissed and there are enough red herrings to maintain the tension and pace of the narrative.                  

Eventually Driffield pieces the clues together, as does the attentive reader as Connington is scrupulously fair, and all that is left is to smoke them out. The justice meted out at the end is natural rather than judicial, although I would have thought that the slaying of members of a noted family is not something that could have been swept under the carpet, even then.

I really enjoyed the book, did not want it to end and left thinking that Connington was sadly underrated.

The Art School Murders

A review of The Art School Murders by Moray Dalton

Published originally in 1943 and now rescued from obscurity and reissued by Dean Street Press, The Art School Murders features Inspector Hugh Collier, the detective fiction creation of Moray Dalton, the nom de plume of Katherine Dalton Renoir. Curiously, if you look at her biographical details it is generally not included in her Collier series but is shown as a standalone mystery, the polar opposite of Patricia Wentworth whose works just need a passing reference to one of her stock characters for them to be included in a series. Strange.

It is wartime and Britain is subject to the blackout, an attempt to reduce the targets visible from the air. Whether it was very effective as a defensive technique other than giving the citizens the psychological fillip of thinking they were doing something for the war effort is debatable, but for the criminally minded and the crime writer the prohibition of light during night time was manna from heaven. It made it easier for them to go about their nefarious business and more easily evade detection.

What has particularly attracted to Dalton as a writer is that she is good at creating an atmosphere that the reader can believe in and immerse themselves into. She is also interested in her characters. Their reactions, demise and the impact on those around them are not just plotting devices designed to keep the story moving on to its inevitable conclusion. She takes time to explore the psychology of the crime and the reactions of those closely affected by them, producing more rounded and believable characters and a detective story that is more than just that. It staggers me that she is so underappreciated.

That is not to say that her works are flawless. It is hard to make the claim that she plays fair with her readers in this story, making it difficult for the armchair sleuth to crack the case. It is conceivable that the contemporary readership was more au fait with a set of obscure verses from the Old Testament that hold the key to the mystery than I was, but even so the solution required a knowledge of the backstory of one of the characters that was not evident from my reading of the novel. It did not spoil my enjoyment of the book; it just seemed strange given then time spent on exploring the whale-sized red herrings that Dalton teases us with.

There are two morals that can be drawn from this book; careless talk costs lives and if you are in a hole, stop digging. Althea Greville, an artist’s model, is found dead at Signor Morosini’s art school. The local police call in Scotland Yard and Inspector Hugh Collier is assigned to the case. Tragedy strikes a second time when a first-year student, Betty Hayden, who had gone back to the studio at around the time of Althea’s murder and boasted that she had seen something, is murdered while watching her favourite, Fred Astaire, at the local cinema. A third person, to whom Betty may have disclosed some information, is thrown down the stairs and her best friend, Cherry, is lured back to the studio and attacked.

This fourth attack leads to the culprit being captured red-handed but who is it? In an initially perplexing case, Collier has upwards of fifty suspects to consider but his diligent procedural work whittles the list down to a more manageable size. Did Althea’s flirty character hold the key to her murder? Did she have a secret that linked her with her murderer? Was it Signor Morosini or the teacher, John Kent, who rehired Althea and for whom Cherry has a crush? Or perhaps the rather careless caretaking couple?

Despite working in the dark for some time, Collier begins to see the light when he visits the local graveyard and looks at a memorial that seems out of place in terms of style and size and a piece of graffiti on it.        

Dalton produces a gripping, entertaining novel that sucks the reader in and will not let go. I was only too happy to enjoy the ride. A sadly underrated writer.