Accessory After

A review of Accessory After by E Charles Vivian

This is the first book by Evelyn Charles Vivian, one of noms de plume of Charles Henry Cannell, that I have read. Cannell fought in the Boer War and was a journalist at the Daily Telegraph before leaving to edit three pulp magazines, The Novel Magazine, Hutchinson’s Adventure-Story Magazine, and Hutchinson’s Mystery-Story Magazine. He was also a prolific novelist, writing fantasy, science-fiction, and murder mystery novels under various pseudonyms. Accessory After is one, perhaps the first although there are references to an earlier case in the text, of twelve Inspector Jerry Head novels he published between 1934 and 1939.

I was expecting a bit of a pot boiler, a story that was designed to entertain with no pretensions to any literary merit and one that would pay the bills, whet the reader’s appetite, and allow the writer to move on to the next project. What I had not anticipated was a book with a gripping beginning. Edward Carter, who has bought a large country house to retire to, holds a party which breaks up at around 3am. An hour later he is lured to the front door and brutally shot. There has been heavy snowfall overnight and there are tracks made by a pair of boots from a tree on the perimeter of the house to the front door and back and which then disappear. There is evidence that the murderer used a rope to climb a tree, but then the tracks come to a halt, prompting the wry thought that the culprit flew away into the ether.

Much of the available evidence is contained in the snow and as the temperature rises, Superintendent Warren, who is shortly to retire, and his nominated replacement, Inspector Head, are in a race to gather as much as they can before it disappears. This part of the book is well-written, and certainly grabbed this reader’s attention. Head then does a fine job in reconstructing the movements of the murderer and explaining what happened after they got into the tree.

After such a promising start it is a shame that the book goes downhill rapidly. There are two fundamental problems. The first is that Vivian is as much interested in developing the love match between Hugh Denham and Marguerite West as moving the story on. Denham has fallen under the woman’s spell and wants their engagement to be announced publicly as soon as possible, especially since Marguerite made public her support for him after the coroner’s hearing when the finger of suspicion was firmly pointed in his direction. Marguerite drags her feet and there is much anguish and soul searching between bouts of declarations of everlasting love.

Denham is caught in the horns of dilemma, his gentleman’s code preventing him from damaging the reputation of a lady even at the risk of withholding vital evidence and becoming an accessory after the fact, and ultimately pays a heavy price.

The second problem is Head himself. Having done all the hard work, he has not the wit to see who the culprit is, something as plain as a pikestaff to the reader. He goes off on a number of wild goose chases and the mystery is only resolved when some information is made available rather than through any detective work.

Carter has a shady past, a sort of 1930’s Harvey Weinstein, and his murder is a case of revenge for the sins of the past. The book becomes a bit of a thriller at the end with a car chase that ends in predictable disaster. The chase, dramatically written, highlights the constraints of motor car engineering at the time, a speed of fifty-five miles per hour putting a strain on the vehicle’s engineering and the nerves of those travelling in it.

The book has its moments, but after such a fine start the rest of the book is a bit of a let-down.

In Whose Dim Shadow

A review of In Whose Dim Shadow by J J Connington

J J Connington, the nom de plume of Chemistry professor, Alfred Water Stewart, is sadly neglected as a writer of crime fiction but he certainly knew how to write a well-constructed murder mystery which keeps the reader intrigued until the end. The tenth in His Sir Clinton Driffield, published originally in 1935, maintains his impressive standard.

The title is taken from Thomas Macauley’s The Battle of Lake Regillus. In the States, where presumably the works of Macauley were less familiar and tastes are more prosaic, it goes by the title of The Tau Cross Mystery. Whilst the quatrain from Macauley – those trees in whose dim shadow/ the ghastly priest doth reign/ the priest who slew the slayer/ and shall himself be slain – encapsulates much of what happens in the book, the golden tau cross found in a paint pot at the scene of the murder is at best an aureate herring, making it an odd choice for a title.

“Squire” Wendover, Sir Clinton Driffield’s faithful friend, takes more of a central role in this tale. Instead of being a faithful Watson, observing and recording the brilliance and derring-do of his Chief Constable friend, he takes a stab at detecting with predictable results. The major flaw in his character is his inherent snobbery and his susceptibility to a pretty girl, both traits which jar with the modern reader and, perhaps, have accelerated the author’s descent into obscurity.

There are some colourful characters in the tale, not least PC Danbury, a constable who has ingested the Police Handbook and aspires to better himself. He discovers the first body after he was summoned to a block of flats after shots were heard and it is he that discovers that the pot of paint in which the golden cross was found was spilt a couple of hours before the victim, later identified as Sternhall, was murdered.

Then there is the evangelist, Bracknell, and his girlfriend, Miss Huntingdon, and the journalist, Barbican, who in his desperation for a scoop pops up everywhere and takes an unhealthy, if professional, interest in how investigations are proceedings. He is close to the scene when the second body is found, apparently a suicide in a locked room. The body is that of Mitford, a man down on his luck, who is fascinated by Japanese culture. Is his suicide ritual hari-kari, or Harry Keary as Barbican colourfully calls it, or does the remains of an elastic band in the keyhole and some marks on the banister outside suggest that it is a murder? Of course, it is the latter.

As a chemist, Connington sheds some fascinating insights into the technology and emerging methodologies of the time. He provides the reader with a method involving a chemical which allows a forger to write a document without leaving tell-tale fingerprints and Driffield deploys a new technique that the Yard are developing, that of discerning what he calls “different brands of blood”. Blood analysis is so common these days that we do not pause to consider that it must have become a part of the police’s armoury at some time. Driffield’s blood man is able to discern that there were two sources of blood in the pool left at the crime scenes, suggesting that the murderer was injured during the conflict. Helpfully, they had different blood groups.

Inevitably, the tale involves blackmail, a femme fatale and a double life. Driffield unravels the mystery, with Inspector Chesilton doing much of the legwork, connects the two murders and makes his arrest. The moral of the story is not to be too loquacious, otherwise you run the risk of giving away more than you intended to.   

It is a thoroughly enjoyable read with a plain, workmanlike style. There are passages where the pace drops but Connington is providing valuable background information to allow the reader to make sense of what is going on. The culprit is not hard to spot but it is fun having your suspicions confirmed.

The League Of Matthias

A review of The League of Matthias by Brian Flynn

Brian Flynn was especially busy in 1934…this is the first of three of his Anthony Bathurst novels that were published that year…the fourteenth in the series…now reissued by Dean Street Press…and once again he keeps his readers on their toes. This is as much a thriller as a piece of crime fiction…straying into the world of international gangs and a sprinkling of love interest…themes that Patricia Wentworth would go on to explore in more detail.

One of the unusual features of the book is its structure, the story told from three perspectives. The first voice we hear is that of Lance…the abbreviation of his first name is important as the reader will discover as the tale unfolds…a young man who is on holiday with a couple of friends. They enter a club…the Red Flare Club in Antwerp…where Lance is taken by a young dancer, Phillipa. To his surprise, she passes him a note telling him that she is in trouble and that he must help her. No true English gentleman could possibly resist such a plea.

They rush back to Phillipa’s gaff pretending to be a married couple…her dance partner, De Verviac, is in hot pursuit…there is a gun battle…someone is killed…Lance and Philippa make a dramatic escape out of the window courtesy of some knotted sheets…making a dramatic escape to England.

The narrative voice then switches to that of Anthony Bathurst. He takes the story back in time and relates part of Maturin’s story from another perspective. Bathurst too is in Antwerp…working with Scotland Yard, investigating the assassination of some British intelligence operatives. Bathurst is in the house where Philippa lodges…witnesses the gun battle…and reveals that the man shot dead was his colleague, Rawlinson.

The key to understanding what is going on lies with the identity of Maturin, precisely who De Verviac is and the shady League of Matthias, named after the thirteenth apostle…a gang of the worst sort of criminals who every six months draw lots to decide which two of their members should fight a duel to the death…the only rule being that no guns be involved. This section requires a different narrative point…Flynn content to provide the background and move the story on in the third person.

The admission of new members to fill the vacancies in the League…unsurprisingly they are not who they seem…and a drawing of lots which pits one of them against De Verviac hastens the mystery’s resolution. De Verviac is strangled by a tall woman wearing a red cloak in the grounds of Maturin’s father’s estate and then in a gun battle there is a further death which leads to a poignant, if a somewhat melodramatic, finale.

In truth, the story relies a little too much on coincidence, misdirection, and false identities to be entirely satisfying…and there is precious little in the way of overt detection…but it is a cracking story. The reader is swept along by this pacy telling of an improbable tale of evil and malice and it is a pleasure just to go with the flow.

Apart from the pace of his narrative, Flynn’s strength is his willingness to experiment with form and character. Bathurst is not a character set in stone…his persona shifts from book to book…more of an organising central character than a rounded figure that you get to know and whose foibles you appreciate…but he is none the worse for that. Flynn writes with an indefatigable sense of fun and infectious enthusiasm…one virus I am more than happy to dice with.

Thoroughly recommended.

The Borrowed Days

A ”storm of extraordinary violence…the like of this tempest was not seen in our time”, the Domestic Annals of Scotland observed, “nor the like of it heard in this country in any age preceding” lashed the eastern coast of Scotland in 1625. “This was long after remembered as the Storm of the Borrowing Days, such being the popular appellation of the last three days of March, as expressed in a well-known rhyme”.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1894) contains a version of the rhyme in which March, wanting to extend its power and range to kill three sheep it had spotted on a hill, begged April for an extra three days. April duly obliged. The first was wet and windy, on the second there was snow and sleet, and the third was so cold that birds froze to the trees. Nevertheless, the sheep survived and came limping home.

The idea that March had borrowed three days from April as an explanation for the stormy weather at the tail end of the month was not confined to Scotland. In Staffordshire, a rhyme ran “March borrowed of April/ three days, they say;/ One rained, the other snowed,/ and the other was the worst day that ever blowed”. A Spanish folk tale tells how a shepherd promised March a lamb if he would moderate the winds. March agreed, but the shepherd reneged on his side of the bargain. In revenge, March borrowed three days from April, causing the winds to blow stronger than ever.

Over in Ireland, the story of the borrowed days featured an old brindled cow and managed to throw in sow some chronological confusion for good measure. The scrawny cow, on reaching the end of March unscathed, began to curse April, tossing her tail and boasting that as March had gone and April was here, she would have her reward, fresh grass. March, though, retaliated by borrowing three days from April, during which time the weather was so bad that the cow died and was skinned.

This version was picked up by G H Kinahan in the Folklore Journal of 1885, where he noted that “this year, 1885, we have had very severe weather the first days of April, and to account for this one of the natives state they are borrowed from March, and are called “Borrowing Days”, Laethanta na Riabhaiche in Gaelic, or the Skinning Days.

In Northern Ireland, March was provoked not only by a cow, but also by a blackbird, and a stone chatter, all three of which boasted that they could outwit the month. To put them in their place, March had to borrow nine days from April, three to fleece the blackbird, a further three days to punish the stone chatter, and three more for the grey cow.

By the time Britain got round to implementing the Gregorian calendar, in 1752, the dates of the seasonal equinoxes were falling eleven days early, a problem particularly affecting the date of Easter which falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The solution to putting the calendar back in line with the equinoxes was simple, effective, but radical, removing eleven days that year so that September 2nd was followed by September 14th.

Did this mean that the borrowed days of traditional folklore now fell around the middle of April? This was a point considered in 1827 by the Irish language writer, Amnhlaoibh O Sùlleabháin, who wrote in The Diary of an Irish Countryman, “this the 12th day of April, is the first of the three days of the old brindled cow, namely three days in which the weather of March took from the Old April”.

Sir Walter Scott, too, was alive to the point in a note he penned in The Heart of Midlothian (1818); “the last three days of March (old style) are called the borrowing days, for as they are remarked to be unusually stormy, it is feigned that March had borrowed them from April to extend the sphere of his rougher sway”. Just to sow further confusion, in the Scottish Highlands it was believed that February 12th, 13th, and 14th were borrowed days from January. It was a good omen for the rest of the year if those days were stormy, but if they were fair, no further good weather could be expected through the spring.

A blustery end to March and beginning to April was welcomed by farmers, the winds drying out the soggy fields ready for planting. “A cold April the barn will fill”, went one piece of weather lore, while for the French, Portuguese, and Spanish a cold April was synonymous with plentiful supplies of bread and wine. In England the early part of April was known as “blackthorn winter”, because of the white blossom of the thorn and the coldness of the weather. Beware a foggy first three days of April, though, a sure harbinger of floods in June.

Good News Of The Week

Good news is painfully thin on the ground these days, so it is important to grab any with both hands. For those who fret about not doing their 10,000 steps a day – a week is my goal – a study conducted by I-Min Lee from Harvard Medical School shows that it is not the magic number.

16,000 women aged over 70 were fitted with a device which measured movement during their waking hours for a week. When the researchers followed up on the women four and a bit years later, 504 had died, but the average number of steps that survivors were taking was only 5,500. It seems that those who took 4,000 steps a day had a much higher survival rate than those who pottered their way to 2,700. Survival rates increased the more steps were taken but plateaued after 7,500 with no appreciable benefit, other than a smug feeling of satisfaction, after that.

It seems that the myth of 10,000 steps a day is the result of a successful marketing campaign, launched just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics by a company flogging a pedometer called Manpo-kei. Man means ten thousand in Japanese, po steps, and kei meter, with no obvious scientific basis behind it. If only they had called it Rokusenpo-kei (6,000 step meter), just think how much better and happier we would be.

It just goes to show that it does not always pay to go the extra mile.