Laurels Are Poison

A review of Laurels are Poison by Gladys Mitchell

Gladys Mitchell’s books are never an easy read, as she twists and contorts the conventions of the detective novel genre and there is a distinct feeling of satisfaction to be gained when getting to the end and still having a vague appreciation of what has gone on and how it all hangs together. Mitchell is never one to hide the arcana of her knowledge and an appreciation of the Greek myth of Itylus helps immeasurably in this fourteenth book in her Mrs Bradley series, originally published in 1942. The culprit even quotes extensively from Algernon Swinburne’s poem of the same name in their confession.

The book also marks a distinct change in direction for her later books, whether for the better only time will tell as I plough through them in chronological order. Among the students at the teacher training college that is Carteret Training College are the self-styled Three Musketeers, Kitty Trevelyan, Alice Boorman, and Laura Menzies, the latter becoming Mrs Bradley’s amanuensis and ersatz-Dr Watson as the series progresses. It also introduces us to Deborah Cloud who goes on to marry Jonathan, one of Mrs Bradley’s nephews, by the end of the book.

Mrs Bradley has arrived at Carteret, ostensibly to take up the position of Warden of Athelstan, one of the houses at the college, but, in reality, to discover what had happened to the previous incumbent, Miss Murchan, who disappeared without trace at the climax of the summer ball. Deborah Cloud is her sub-Warden and is let into the secret while the Three Musketeers, who are all jolly hockey sticks and a bit famous-fiveish, are recruited for their inside knowledge.

Mitchell writes with great verve and panache, clearly revelling in the opportunity to describe life in a teacher training college, which, as an educationalist, was close to her heart. She regarded it as one of her best books and it is full of humour, action and meaningful observations, written in a style that is less convoluted than some of her earlier novels but never afraid to throw an obscure word at the reader to test the range of their vocabulary.

There are what are known as rags, exercises in high spirits by the women of the college and, from time to time, the men from the nearby college, some of which are exhibitions of youthful high spirits, but others which have a more sinister nature to them. There are mysterious sounds at night, jolly japes with a couple of anatomical skeletons, a sticky tar-like substance is spread over the floor of the basement, a pyre-like construction is made from commodes, a girl has her hair chopped off and Mrs Bradley is subjected to some physical danger. She is threatened with a gun, is stalked through the school, and has a brick thrown at her. These incidents pass in and out of the narrative, like pieces of surreal absurdism.

There is a body found floating in a nearby river, but it is not Miss Murchan. Instead, it is the cook, recently dismissed by Mrs Bradley, and as her corsets are found separately, it is suggested that it was murder and not suicide and that the foul deed was carried out elsewhere. Why would the cook be murdered? Perhaps she had some information that the murderer did not want shared.

As the narrative reaches its climax the all-important back story slowly emerges and we begin to understand the relationship between the improbably named Miss Cornflake and the missing Warden, what the cook knew, and why she was murdered. It involves a tragic accident, revenge, sibling jealousies, and knowing too much.

Of course, Mrs Bradley gets her man, although they escape the arms of justice by doing away with themselves, thus sparing the College the bad publicity the Principal was keen to avoid. It was an enjoyable romp and one of Mitchell’s best that I have read.

Bax Botanics

Aimed at those who eschew alcohol out of choice, for medical reasons, or because they have been lumbered with the chore of being the designated driver, the no or low alcohol (NoLo) drinks are fast becoming the hottest sector in the drinks market. Wetherby-based Bax Botanics, the brainchild of Chris and Rose Bax, is a company that is looking to demonstrate that just because a drink is alcohol-free, it does not mean that it cannot be as tasty, complex, and versatile as its alcoholic competitors.

Chris and Rose have used their experience of thirty years or so in the food industry focussing on discovering on delicious and exciting ways to use wild ingredients and culinary herbs to good effect. Now branching out on their own, they use organic and ethically sourced wild herbs, roots, and berries in recipes developed to bring out not only the best of their chosen ingredients but also to produce a drink that is complex and one that can be drunk neat, with a mixer or as part of a cocktail. To ensure that they maximise their environmentally friendly, sustainable credentials, they use recyclable and recycled packaging, and their labelling is made from a by-product of the sugar industry.

The bottles (50cl) are made of clear glass, circular, with a rounded shoulder leading to a short neck, and a wooden cap with a synthetic stopper. The labels make use of gloriously colourful and slightly abstract photographs of the cells of their range’s principal botanicals as seen through a scientific microscope and carry the colour scheme, green for Bax Botanics Verbena and orange for Bax Botanic Sea Buckthorn, to the top so they can be easily distinguished. There is no need to refrigerate the drink, although it is recommended that it is stored in a cool place and consumed within six months of opening. For those who want to dip their toes in the Bax Botanics’ waters, they also produce a 250ml can with a pre-mixed serving for each of their range. The added bonus is that they contain just 48 calories.

Lemon verbena is a wonderfully citric herb, used to flavour fish and poultry, and medicinally to help ease digestive disorders. I was looking for a zesty, refreshing drink and I was not disappointed. Opening the bottle for the first time, I felt that I had stepped into a herb garden, surrounded by the aromas of mint, fennel, and lemon. In the glass it is clear and complex, a soothing mix of citrus, fennel, mint, and summer herbs and with a slightly liquorice-like aftertaste to finish. It is not recommended that it be drunk neat and the addition of a premium tonic – the suggested serving ratio is 3 parts tonic to 1 part of the drink – seemed to enhance the taste of the botanicals, giving them a new lease of life and adding another layer of complexity to the drink.

A favourite of Pegasus and used in many horse supplements, the vibrantly orange-coloured sea buckthorn berries, sour and tart to taste with a hint of sweetness, are packed full of vitamins and antioxidants, and, medicinally, has been used in skin care and as an anti-ageing agent. Bax Botanics’ Sea Buckthorn is almost the antithesis of their Verbena, replacing bright and crisp with bittersweet, as the tartness of the Buckthorn is complemented with the bittersweet taste of Seville oranges, supported by herbs such as Rosemary and Thyme, leaving a slightly dry and almost peppery aftertaste.

Initially, I was not sure about the Sea Buckthorn, but after a second glass, I realised that it was a subtler, more sophisticated drink than the more overtly pleasing Verbena, one whose complexities take time to appreciate. Both are welcome additions to the burgeoning Nolo market and for distilled alcohol-free infusions, their price point, at a tad under £20, is attractive enough to encourage those who want to see what all the fuss is about.

Until the next time, cheers!

Smallbone Deceased

A review of Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert

Originally published in 1950 and now reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series, Smallbone Deceased is the fourth in Michael Gilbert’s Inspector Hazelrigg and is a must-read for all fans of Golden Age detective fiction. It has many of the elements that make up a good yarn, a seemingly impossible murder, misdirections and red herrings galore, and an amateur sleuth in the form of newly arrived solicitor, Henry Bohun, all underpinned by Gilbert’s inside knowledge of life in a London solicitor’s office. Above all, it is great fun.

Having been a partner in a legal firm himself, Gilbert paints his setting convincingly, alive to the tedium of office life, with its set routines, its petty jealousies, underlying and barely disguised tensions and rivalries. His characters are wryly and sharply observed and although stereotypical, are believable. The reader gets to know them, understands how they interact and becomes aware of the politics of a firm that on the surface is outwardly respectable and prosperous but in reality is struggling.

It has been rocked by the death of the senior partner, Mr Horniman senior, who has finally succumbed to his weak heart, and the prickly Mr Birley and the more approachable Mr Birley along with the newly promoted son of Mr Horniman are left to navigate the firm through choppy waters. One of Horniman’s lasting legacies is an orderly administrative system with a place for every paper and deed and every paper and deed in its place. Into this order, Gilbert mischievously adds a twist of the macabre.

Inside one of the firm’s seventeen deed boxes is found a body. It is not just any old body but that of Marcus Smallbone, the other trustee of a trust that Horniman senior was administering. Smallbone, whom we never meet alive, was seemingly an unpleasant individual and liked little more than digging up the dirt on others, not for pecuniary gain but for the satisfaction of getting one over his victims. The suggestion is that he has found out that Horniman has perpetrated a fraud to keep his firm afloat. As Horniman senior could not have murdered Smallbone, who did it?

Inspector Hazelrigg leads the investigation from the police perspective and enlists the assistance of Bohun who conducts enquiries from the inside. Unlike many writers who use the combination of professional police and amateur sleuth to highlight the stupidity of the former and the brilliance of the latter, Gilbert shows them working well together as they set about cracking a difficult case. Through dogged persistence the duo work out that there was only a particular window of opportunity for the murderer to strangle the victim, forensic evidence suggests that the culprit was left-handed, secrete the body in the deed box and remove the papers from an office where any paper out of order was instantly spotted.

It turns into one of those stories where alibis are tested and charts are developed showing the precise movements of suspects. However, Gilbert writes with considerable verve and handles the alibi testing with a commendable light touch. The suspects are whittled down until it can only be one and to many a reader their identity may come as a surprise. The one weakness of the book is motivation. Loyalty can exercise a powerful hold on an individual but is it enough to lead someone to commit a murder, never mind buy a new rucksack?

Despite this reservation it is a wonderful book and is thoroughly recommended.

The Pit-Prop Syndicate

A review of The Pit-Prop Syndicate by Freeman Wills Crofts

At his best, Freeman Wills Crofts can be a bit of a challenge, but this early effort, originally published in 1922, is enough to try the patience of even his most fervent advocate. It falls distinctly into two uneven parts, both in terms of length, interest, and quality. The first half, entitled The Amateurs, is so dated to modern eyes that it is almost unreadable and is written in a Boys Own Paper, gung-ho British adventurer style. The second part, The Professionals, is a more conventional, and more satisfying, police procedural.

One of our amateur protagonists, Seymour Merriman, is on a motoring holiday in Bordeaux, runs out of petrol, and gets a lift to a nearby wood mill that produces pit-props. Two things happen to him that shape the rest of the story. He spots a driver of a lorry change its number in suspicious circumstances and he espies the factory manager’s daughter, Madelaine, with whom, astonishingly, he falls in love.

On his return to Blighty, Merriman interests his friend, Claud Hilliard, who happens to be a Customs man, in the goings-on in the wood outside Bordeaux. Hilliard is immediately suspicious, thinking that there may some form of liquor smuggling racket going on, the discovery of which would boost his career aspirations no end. Hilliard immediately proposes a sailing trip to France, as you do, to take a closer look at the pit-prop factory. Merriman agrees, anxious to see his beloved again and, if Hilliard’s suspicions are well-founded, to rescue her from danger.

The duo’s adventures in Bordeaux border on high farce with them staking out the joint for days on end, secreted in a cask into which they have bored two eye holes. They are convinced that something fishy is going on and that Madelaine’s father is a reluctant participant. However, they are far from certain what the pit-prop business is a front for, perhaps smuggling spirits or counterfeit notes, but they do trace the English side of the operations to Ferriby where they also carry out some inconclusive investigations. It is the murder of Madelaine’s father in a London cab that persuades Merriman to take what would have been the obvious course of action, to alert the police, and brings Inspector George Willis into the story.

Willis, too, has fun trying to crack the gang’s operations, staking out the Ferriby factory and engaging in a bit of wiretapping. Although he is more professional and structured in his approach, he finds his opponents are slippery and manages to fall into their traps with monotonous regularity. Oddly, the murder is solved in a matter of pages, the culprit having obligingly left a clear set of dabs on the connecting phone in the cab and is really a minor sideshow in what is a mystery about how a pit-prop syndicate can find it economically viable to send their goods one way without a return cargo.

Eventually Willis cracks the gang’s mildly ingenious modus operandi, all the culprits are arrested and, naturally, Merriman wins his girl.

Some of the characteristics that make Crofts’ novels so distinctive are already in evidence. There is a well-considered scheme, ingenious in its construction, there is an endless obsession with modes of transport and the minutiae of timetables and the precise speeds that would need to be travelled to get from A to B in a given time. It is not enough for Crofts to put his character on a train. The reader is told which train and even where it might stop. Willis, in a rush, frets whether the car will be capable of maintaining an average speed of 30 mph, a bit of an eye-opener for the modern reader.

However, what does for this book is that it is overly long, very dated, and utterly dull. It might have worked as a short story or even a novella, but much of what Merriman and Hilliard do really does not move the story on and could have been excised with little impact on the integrity of the story.

Sadly, there are better ways of spending an evening than with this, not least with a glass of brandy!

Captain Webb, The Dawley Man

Like Everest, it presents an irresistible challenge to the adventurous, simply because, to echo George Mallory, it’s there. At its narrowest point, between Shakespeare’s Beach at Dover and Cap Gris Nez, a headland between Calais and Boulogne, the English Channel might just be 18.2 nautical miles wide, but it forms a formidable barrier that tests the endurance, skill, and enterprise of all but a select band of long-distance swimmers.

These days the favoured starting point is Abbot’s Cliff beach on the south side of Samphire Hoe, about two kilometres from Dover, making it a slightly longer swim, the starting time usually an hour either side of high tide. Permission has to be sought from either the Channel Swimming Association or the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation, while the French authorities’ marked reluctance to sanction swims means that crossings from France to England are almost a thing of the past.

Despite all the hurdles and challenges, to date there have been 4,133 successful Channel swims, with 1,881 swimmers completing 2,428 solo swims[1], plus another 8,215 swimmers who have taken part in relay swims and special category swims. Famously, Captain Matthew Webb was the first.

Endurance swimming had become popular in the 1870s and after reading of an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Channel, Webb, a strong swimmer, decided to try his luck. After some acclimatisation in the cold waters of the southern English coast, he made his first attempt on August 12, 1875. Webb, though, was beaten by the high winds and adverse weather conditions he experienced.

Undaunted, wearing a red silken swimming costume and his body smothered in porpoise oil, he tried again twelve days later, followed by three boats, supplying him with brandy, coffee, and beef tea. Swimming the breaststroke, he had to endure jellyfish stings, avoid patches of seaweed, and disconcertingly, eight miles short of Cap Gris Nez, a change in tide which forced him to swim for five hours along the French coast waiting for it to abate. Eventually, at 10.41 am on August 25, 1875, Webb clambered wearily on to the shore, having swum the equivalent of 39 miles, mostly against the tide, in 21 hours and forty-five minutes.

News of his achievement spread around the world. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed the Captain to be the best-known man in the world, the mayor of Dover opined that no one would repeat the feat, and so enthusiastic was the crowd that greeted him at Wellington station on his return to his native Shropshire that a section uncoupled the horses that were to convey him on to Ironbridge and pulled him along themselves. At Dawley he received “the homage of the town of his birth” and was paraded down the High Street.

Now wealthy and an international celebrity, Webb was not content to rest on his laurels, a decision that was to cost him his life. On July 24, 1883, he attempted to swim across the Niagara Rivers, just down from the Falls. Within ten minutes of entering the water, he was drowned in a whirlpool, his body only recovered four days later. In 1909 Webb’s older brother, Thomas, unveiled a memorial to him in Dawley which bore the legend “Nothing great is easy”.

Next week we will take another dip into the English Channel.