Toilet Of The Week (32)

With public toilets as rare as hen’s teeth these days, it is gratifying to record that a reconditioned carsey has recently opened its doors to the public. It is situated in Sandown Bay on the Isle of Wight by the rather splendid Victorian fort perched atop of the cliffs, known as Sandown Barrack Battery.

More specifically, and fittingly, it is behind the National Poo Museum, a micro-museum which displays the faeces of animals around the world. The museum is interactive, with the exhibits sealed in resin spheres which can be handled. You do not have to spend a penny to get in, although donations, monetary, of course, are welcome.

The toilet closed in 2011 and was looking rather sorry for itself. It was a challenge that the members of Eccleston George, the moving forces behind the museum, found too difficult to resist. They have lovingly restored it and rather splendid it looks too. Described as the National Poo Museum’s Super-Loo it is now open for business and, according to one grateful visitor, “it’s like stepping into Narnia”.

Next time I am in the area, I will be certain to pay it a visit.

Twenty-Four Of The Gang

Another colourful piece of slang that referred to a contemporary event whose notoriety has faded into the mists of time is Harriet Lane, a reference to Australian canned meat. It was so called, James ware avers in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, because of its unedifying appearance akin to chopped up body parts.

Harriet Lane, the mistress of Henry Wainwright, a brush maker, was murdered by him in 1874 and her body was buried in his warehouse. The following year, Wainwright was declared bankrupt. He disinterred her body and with the assistance of his brother, Thomas, and another brush maker, Alfred Stokes, sought to rebury her elsewhere. Stokes was suspicious of the packages he was handling, opened one up, saw it contained body parts, and notified the police.

At the subsequent trial, Henry was found guilty of murder and was hung on December 21, 1875, while Thomas was found guilty of being an accessory after the fact. I think I will give a can of Harriet Lane a miss. Perhaps I would be better off having a hasty pudding. This was a piece of Victorian fast food, consisting of flour and water, boiled for five minutes.

I know several people about whom I could say he never does anything wrong, a satirical musical hall phrase used to describe someone who can never do anything right. They are almost as bad as someone who worships his creator, said of a self-made man who thinks a lot of himself. Such terms of opprobrium may be assuaged if they had a heap o’ saucepan lids, rhyming slang for money via dibs.

More slang anon.

Postscript To Poison

A review of Postscript to Poison by Dorothy Bowers

The moral of the story is if you are a cantankerous old woman despised by all, do not announce that you are going to alter your will. It never ends well. And, P.S, if you are planning the perfect murder, do not be tempted to make some final embellishments. They will be your undoing.

Postscript to Poison, Dorothy Bowers’ debut crime novel, originally published in 1938 and now reissued by Moonstone Press, is an impressive and enjoyable piece of work from an author I had not come across before. What the story may have lacked in intricacies of plotting, it more than makes up for in the quality of Bowers’ writing and, particularly, her sharp characterisations. Often the reader can be overwhelmed with characters barely indistinguishable from each other. Here, though, Bowers, takes care to draw each of her principal protagonists, such that even when they disappear from the narrative for a while, their characteristics, habits, and foibles stay with you.

Bowers also has a profound sense of place and nature. Her descriptions of Minsterbridge and its weather fall just the right side of purple prose, giving an added dimension to a tale that is told with vigour and a sense of purpose, the reader provided with enough information to understand what is going on, but not bogged down with unnecessary detail. She also plays fair with her readership, the clues needed to solve whodunit are sprinkled throughout the story.  

Chief Inspector Pardoe of Scotland Yard, her go-to detective in Bowers’ series of five murder mysteries, is an intriguing character. He is human enough to be irritated that a new murder case has led to him having to delay a well-earned holiday in the Cotswolds, but earnest enough to throw himself into the investigations with gusto. Behind his urbane, polished exterior is a steely determination to see justice prevail. He is a character the reader can warm to, neither too bogged down in details to make following him a chore nor too intuitive to leave us scratching our heads. I shall be interested to see how his character develops.

By the standards of so-called Golden Age murder mysteries, the plot is both a little mundane and hackneyed. Cornelia Lakeland is a dictatorial old woman, who rules over the household at Lakeland with a rod of iron, making the lives of her step-grandchildren, cousins Jenny and Carol, a misery. They will lose the prospect of inheriting their share of the family fortune if either take jobs or get married without her permission. Her companion is worried about the prospects of a legacy and the staff of the house have their own reasons for wishing for the old woman’s demise. There are motives aplenty for Pardoe to get his teeth into.

Having been ill for most of the summer, Cornelia is now well enough to go downstairs. The first thing she arranges is for an interview with her solicitor, Rennie, with a view to altering her will. During the night before the meeting, she falls ill and dies. The post-mortem established that she was poisoned. A series of anonymous letters point the finger at the Doctor, Tom Faithful. Jenny’s beau, a Polish film star, was let into the house that evening. A mysterious stranger was seen lurking around the house.

The maids hold the key to unravelling the mystery. Emma returns some of Cornelia’s letters which she had stolen and a piece of bandage found on the body of Hettie, murdered for what she might have overheard, confirm to Pardoe what has been going on n the house. In a dramatic finale, in which the good Chief Inspector, is injured, the arrest is made.

I found it an entertaining read and will follow Pardoe’s adventures with interest. Bowers is a writer well worth looking up.

The Case Of The Bonfire Body

A review of The Case of the Bonfire Body by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush had a long and prolific writing career, publishing sixty-three adventures featuring his amateur sleuth, Ludovic Travers, stretching from 1926 to 1968. I am following the series in chronological order and The Case of the Bonfire Body, also going by the title of The Body in the Bonfire, is the fifteenth, originally published in 1936 and reissued by Dean Street Press. This is one of the better books in the series with Bush excelling himself in developing a mystery which twists and turns and leaves the reader in doubt as to whodunit until the end.

Seasoned Bush aficionados will recognise his habit of introducing seemingly random and unconnected events into his stories, often towards the beginning of the tale and sometimes in the form of a prologue, the relevance of which only becomes apparent as the solution unfolds. Travers’ glee at securing a rare Limerick Crown and his encounter and act of generosity towards a match-seller down on his luck are cases in point. Bush is also not averse to showing Travers’ human fallibility. He is not an omniscient sleuth. In this case the solution is staring him in the face, but he does not have the wit to realise it until much later on.

One of the delights of the Travers series is the amateur sleuth’s relationship with the “General”, Wharton of the Yard. They work well together, sparring off each other, Wharton’s feet firmly planted on the ground while allowing Travers to engage in his flights of fancy. Bush takes time to develop Wharton’s character in this story, and the effort pays off, giving some human warmth to what might otherwise have been a grisly story.

Death, obviously, is central to murder mystery stories, but in the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction the murders tend to be inventive and frequent, but rarely linger on the goriness of the body. I have always wondered whether the horrors of the First World War were still raw in the contemporary readership. They wanted entertainment, the intellectual challenge of working out what happened, but were not too keen to have the goriness of the business brought into their front room, thank you very much. Here, though, Bush bucks the trend.

A body is found in a bonfire, the head, and hands brutally hacked off, and he does not spare the details in a vivid portrayal in what is an excellent opening to the story. In London a doctor is found stabbed to death in his surgery at around the same time, with suggestions too that he may have committed murder. Are the two cases linked, why and how?

After such a great beginning, there is an air of inevitability that the pace drops as the investigations get mired in theorising as to whether three people are involved in what is a case of the consequences of thieves falling out or whether there is a mysterious fourth person, dubbed X. It is difficult to write much about the the case without giving the game away. Suffice it to say that there is more to matters than meets the eye and not everything is as it appears to be. A down and out fished out of the Thames with Travers’ missing Limerick Crown secreted in his boot opens the sleuth’s eyes to what is going on.

The book ends with Bush in fine form and while for the purist the intricacies of the plot rely too much on requiring the reader to suspend belief, it is an enjoyable piece of entertainment and well worth a read.

A Murder Is Arranged

A review of A Murder is Arranged by Basil Thomson

The eighth and last in Thomson’s Inspector Richardson series, A Murder is Arranged was originally published in 1937 and now reissued by Dean Street Press. I have found the series variable in quality but at least Thomson rounds off the Richardson saga in some style, albeit in his usual understated fashion. He died in 1939 and there is no sense in the text that this was going to be the last we would see of Richardson. I wonder, had he not died whether he would have written any more.

Richardson, from his elevated position of Chief Constable, once more directs operations, offering advice, tactical direction, but leaving his underlings, principally Inspector Dallas, to do the not inconsiderable leg work. Thomson takes the unusual step of deploying the lengthy progress reports that Dallas files to drive the narrative forward, interspersed with third party narrative of events that fall outwith the police investigation at the time. It may seem an odd approach, and the stilted officialese of the opening of each report can seem a bit stilted, but it seems to work. Thomson was a career policeman, heading up Scotland Yard’s CID section during the First World War, and the reports give some verisimilitude to the grind that is police work.

Some familiar themes can be found in this gripping tale which boasts a plot more intricate than Thomson’s standard fare. It is once more a story featuring Anglo-French police co-operation. Long gone, thankfully, is the little Englander attitude that so marred The Case of the Dead Diplomat, although Thomson cannot resist pointing out the differences between the two forces’ interrogation techniques and French officialdom’s susceptibility to a bribe. Dallas and Richardson, instead, are conscious of the expenses being racked up by Dallas’ sorties to France, but the two forces work well together.     

Once again there is a mix of murder and robbery and a fashion house, themes those who have read Thomson will recognise. In essence, this is a country house murder mystery with a twist. Forge, the owner of Scudamore Hall, has, somewhat bizarrely, invited a motley crew of guests whom he has picked up in various hotels to celebrate Christmas with him. One, Margaret Gask, is found shot dead on Crooked Lane, the driveway to the stately pile, her mink coat has gone missing, and an infamous receiver of stolen property, Fredman, who appears to be associated with Gask, is also found murdered.

It appears that Forge’s guests are not as random as first appeared, each having their own particular reasons to avail themselves of his hospitality. Not everyone, including Forge’s staff are all they appear to be and we soon enter into a world of jewellery thieves, fences, fake monks and Italian prince, a murdered French senator, a Parisian fashion house which keeps losing its stock, false identities, duplicated car registration plates, metal boxes, a monastery used as a safe haven for stolen goods, and much more as investigations take place on both sides of the Channel.

The plot twists and turns until it reaches its inevitable conclusion. The police only have evidence strong enough to convict someone for the murder of Fredman, but that is enough. You can only hang once. Revealingly, there is a moral line in the world of the felon between good, “honest” robbery and dirty murder, a line that gave rise to the book’s alternative title, When Thieves Fall Out, The crossing of that particular Rubicon hastens the resolution of the case.

Thomson tells the story with workmanlike, honest prose which moves the story along, although there is little in the way of variation in pace and tone. It has its moments of humour and is an entertaining insight into police investigations and inter-force cooperation. It provides a good note to end a series that was worth persevering with.