Category Archives: Books

The Catherine Wheel

A review of The Catherine Wheel by Patricia Wentworth – 221224

From a plotting perspective The Catherine Wheel, the fifteenth in Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver series and originally published in 1949, is a bit of a mess. It starts off with a with a whiff of smuggling, then side tracks into a suspected crime passionnel before returning to the world of the smuggler. It reads as though Wentworth had a bit of an internal conflict over which way the book should go.

The story starts promisingly enough. The rich eccentric Jacob Taverner puts an intriguing advertisement in the papers seeking members of his disparate family – there has been a long-standing family split – and with the lure of £100 each invites them to spend a weekend at The Catherine Wheel, a pub that has been in the family for generations. By this means Wentworth has produced the old Golden Age Detective fiction trope of a bunch of disparate characters spending a weekend together. What could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, the Catherine Wheel has been on Scotland Yard’s radar screen as a potential hub for the smuggling of drugs and jewellery back and forth the Channel. Sergeant Abbott is sent down to investigate along with Miss Silver, whose role is to observe the goings-on at the pub at close quarters.

Among the invited guests are Jane Heron and Jeremy Taverner, who are in love, but Jane is reluctant to marry as they are cousins. Jane has met Miss Silver before, and it is through her good offices that Miss Silver is given the opportunity to stay at the Catherine Wheel and observe the guests at close quarters. A visit to the nearby Challoner’s home, where Abbott is staying, allows Jeremy to reveal a secret which puts his and Jane’s love affair back on track.

The other love interest is between Eily, a maid at the pub, and John Higgins, another of the selected cousins but one who steadfastly refuses to enter the premises. He makes his presence known to Eily by whistling the air of a well-known hymn. However, his are not the only eyes on Eily. She has caught the attention of Luke White, another cousin, albeit one “born on the wrong side of the blanket”, who works at the pub as a waiter.

Inevitably, there is a murder, Luke White found stabbed in the back in the hallway. Eily is the one to find him, although yet another cousin, Florence Duke, is close by covered in blood. Higgins’ tell-tale whistling was heard around the time of the murder. Inspector Crisp from the local police believes it to be an open and shut case, a murder committed by Higgins who took exception to White’s overtures. Miss Silver begs to differ.

The reader by this point is slightly bemused because the complexities of a smuggling plot and Jacob Taverner’s attempts through questioning his guests to find a secret passage to the beach seem to have been long forgotten. However, they come back with a vengeance as Miss Silver aided and abetted by her acolyte Sergeant Abbott slowly piece together the truth behind the murder and the bigger picture that it reveals. Most of the real culprits are easy to spot, but the tension ramps up as Eily is kidnapped and the long arms of the law and the knitting needles of an amateur sleuth are closing in.

Wentworth’s storytelling saves this messy plot from collapsing in on itself and makes for an entertaining if overlong read. Her characters are nicely drawn and there is no little wit and sharp observation. One of the charming aspects of the book is her note to her readers at the beginning that Miss Silver’s cough is an affectation rather than a sign of illness. It must warm the cockles of an author’s heart when a character she has created jumps off the page in the minds of her readers.

Miss Silver lives to fight many more battles.

The Case Of The Murdered Major

A review of the Case of the Murdered Major by Christopher Bush – 221221

Wow, this is a completely different Ludovic Travers story. It is as though Christopher Bush has pushed the factory reset button and decided to reconfigure his amateur sleuth, Ludovic Travers, afresh. Gone is the urbane man about town, a man whose finely tuned grey cells and well-honed deductive powers solve many a knotty murder mystery to the exasperation of Scotland Yard’s very own “General”, George Wharton. Travers is a much more subdued figure, trapped in an unusual set of circumstances where he is almost powerless to solve a crime and reliant upon the good offices of the “General” to put an intriguing mystery to bed.

There’s a war on, don’t you know? The Case of the Murdered Major, the first of a trilogy and originally published in 1941, now reissued by Dean Street Press, sees series sleuth Anthony Travers set on his twenty-third adventure having enlisted into the army. He is posted as adjutant with the rank of Captain to No 54 Prisoner of War camp in Stoneleigh under the command of the bumptious and irascible Major Stirrop. Stirrop has the uncanny talent to rub his underlings up the wrong way primarily by insisting he is always right.

The first detachment of Germans prisoners arrives, one of whom is a British agent. There is a conundrum when on one of the frequent counts of prisoners, it is discovered that there is an extra one but when the count is repeated, the additional prisoner just as mysteriously has disappeared. Resentment of Stirrop’s rather laid back but authoritarian approach seethes in the background and it is no surprise when his body is found in the snow. There are no footprints in the snow but two large depressions, one where the body was found and the other nearby, suggesting, perhaps, that the body was moved. His hat has some traces of sand on it and some way from his body. His skull has been fractured.

Naturally, movement into and out of the camp is strictly controlled and the assumption is that someone inside must have murdered the Major. It is a mystery that is a sort of impossible crime where the culprit, while possibly a German agent, is likely to have been under Stirrop’s command. But who? And why were his secretary and Stirrop’s love rival seen lurking outside the camp at the time of the murder and did the British agent, Lading, really leave the camp in the car? What, if anything, has the extra prisoner who appears and disappears have to do with it all?

Fortunately, of all the officers that the police could throw at the problem, George Wharton comes to the rescue and takes charge of the investigation in his usual inimitable style. It helps that he has a working relationship with Travers but the latter’s role is reduced to more of a bit part, making sure things happen as he takes temporary charge of the camp. For experienced readers of Golden Age detective fiction, the culprit is relatively easy to spot but the method used to kill the Major is one of Bush’s more ingenious.

As well as toning down the role of Travers in this story, Bush also takes the (hitherto) unusual step of having the story narrated, albeit in the third person, by an all-knowing anonymous person. Reading the book is rather like sitting in front of a roaring fire and listening to a lengthy but ultimately thrilling yarn. In writing the book Bush clearly draws from his own experience in running a POW camp and while there is some purely military procedure which might have chimed with his contemporary readers, he builds up a picture of tedium and pettiness. In some ways the murder brings the place alive, and the arrival of Wharton brings not only more of a civilian perspective to the second half of the book but also an increase in pace. The denouement reads like a wartime thriller.

Once I had got over the shock of Bush’s about turn on the characterisation of Travers, I settled down to enjoy a well-written, well-plotted mystery. I look forward to reading the second part of the trilogy to see how the newly promoted Major Travers fares.

Groaning Spinney

A review of Groaning Spinney by Gladys Mitchell – 221218

Also going by the title of Murder in the Snow, which the latest reprint uses, Groaning Spinney is the twenty-third in Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley series and was originally published in 1950. By her standards this is a conventional, relatively straightforward murder mystery which progresses in a linear and logical fashion. She resists the temptation to distort the conventions of the genre to near breaking point and to bury her reader in an avalanche of arcana.

Indeed, there is barely any detection, very few surprises and an obvious set of suspects, where the motivation is more the mystery than the whodunit. It is as if Mitchell has put her experimenting to one side and has concentrated on producing a “normal” novel, toning down the complexity of her plot in favour of developing a set of interesting characters and imagining how they would react to the situations they find themselves in.

Nonetheless, there is still a dark undertone to the book with a high body count, five humans in all and two dogs and two cats. The murder of Bill Fullalove is especially gruesome and sadistic. Of course, it would not be a Mitchell tale without an element of the supernatural, this time an old tale of a parson who was found dead, slumped over a gate near Groaning Spinney, having either been set upon or been roaring drunk. I like to think the latter. On Christmas Eve there is a report of a sighting of the ghost over the gate and later Bill Fullalove’s body is found in the same position.

The book is set around Christmas time, at least the opening chapters are. Mrs Bradley has chosen to spend the festive period with her nephew, Jonathan LeStrange, and his wife, Deborah, in their new house near Groaning Spinney. In a spirit of neighbourliness, Jonathan invites Tiny and Bill Fullalove to spend Christmas there and, to their dismay, they bring two unexpected guests, a naturalist and an archaeologist. Mrs Bradley, who murder most foul follows round, takes an instant dislike to them all and, unbeknown to Johnathan, Deborah has her own reasons for disliking Tiny.

As well as Bill, their housekeeper goes missing, presumed dead and probably murdered, the Fullalove’s dogs and cats disappear, save for Worry, and several of the worthies in the village receive anonymous letters. As Mrs Bradley digs into the mystery she discovers an insurance fraud, tangled marital relationships, and dishonour amongst thieves. She is certain she has got to the bottom of things by the three-quarter mark of the book but what she lacks is proof. Slowly but surely, she recovers the typewriter, unravels the fraud and the identity of the supposed beneficiaries, and sets her plan to bring everything to a head which they do in a dramatic and tragic denouement. Mrs Bradley evinces no remorse over the chain reaction she has set in motion.

There is a languid feel to the investigation which is stretched over some months, and this reflects itself in the narrative which lacks a bit of oomph until the end. The book seems overlong as much of the mystery has evaporated long before the reader reaches the final page. Unusually, I got the sense that Mitchell rather undercooked the supernatural element, which was acknowledged, formed a central part of Will’s murder, but was left hanging in the air.

Mitchell compensates for some of the plot’s deficiencies with her usual acerbic wit, and some fine descriptive writing, becoming almost Loracian in her appreciation of the terrain and its stark beauty. She also produces some fine characters, most notably Ed Brown whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the area’s flora becomes invaluable to all parties. There is also a Dickensian feel to the names she has bestowed on some of the protagonists, enhancing the sense of a place stuck in a time warp. Her chauffeur, George, appears from time to time in the story, but her secretary, Laura, only fleetingly.

It was an enjoyable read and certainly one I would recommend to someone looking to see what Mitchell was all about. Be warned, though, compared with her earlier novels, this is very much an outlier.

The White Priory Murders

A review of The White Priory Murders by Carter Dickson – 221216

Carter Dickson, the nom de plume of the eminent John Dickson Carr, is one of the pre-eminent masters of the impossible murder, a death that occurs in circumstances, often a locked room, that baffles all but the most adroit lateral thinker. The White Priory Murders, originally published in 1934 and now reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series, is reputed to contain one of the finest in detective fiction. I was intrigued to see what all the fuss was about.

The circumstances of the murder of actress, Marcia Tait, are all that you could ask of an impossible crime. Her body is found in a pavilion, a sort of outhouse away from the White Priory. There has been a heavy snowfall and the only footprints are those of the man who discovered the body. The doctor confirms that Tait was murdered after the snow had fallen. Never mind whodunit, how was she killed. It is a baffling set of circumstances involving a murderer with a high degree of ingenuity and one that can only be unravelled by the eccentric genius of Sir Henry Merrivale, whose second outing this is.

It left this reader baffled and Carr prolongs the reader’s agonies by putting forward a couple of theories, each pretty convincing in their own right only to knock them down again. The solution is even more left field. Clues are there in the text, in particular the architecture of the place, the characteristics of certain motor cars and the obligatory dog that barks on occasion and falls silent on others, but I was not smart enough to put it all together.

Perhaps part of that is because, excellent as the central puzzle is, the book is a bit of a slog. The crime had happened before James Boynton, Merrivale’s American nephew, a house guest at the White Priory, had arrived and whilst he was on the scene when Tait’s body was discovered, he and the police led by Chief Inspector Masters have to rely on testimony provided by the guests and residents of the house, each of whom have their own agendas. The investigation really only gets going when Merrivale, HM as he is known, arrives.

Merrivale is a force of nature, a bundle of eccentricities, rude, blunt, abrupt, more than a little sexist, but with a razor-sharp brain. The tone of the book lights up and the pace cranks up a gear or two with his arrival. It needed it.

Tait’s is not the only murder. Her director, Rainger, is strangled. There are also some near misses. One of the characters, thinking he has committed a murder off stage, so to speak, attempts suicide and Tait, before her untimely demise had survived an encounter with a box of poisoned chocolates and an attempt to push her down some stairs. Another female guest, Louise Canifest, is found in the corridor on the night of Tait’s murder raving about a prowler in the passageway. There are a lot of odd goings-on for HM to noodle through.

Tait, having bombed on the London stage, has found fame and fortune in the movie business, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Rainger and her publicist, Emery. However, she wants to rub her critics’ noses in it by triumphing on the stage and is likely to take the lead part in a play backed by Lord Camifest and written and produced by John and Maurice Bohun, whose house the White Priory is. Rainger and Emery are anxious to thwart her return. There is also some mystery as to Tait’s marital status as she plays fast and loose with some of the key protagonists. Emotions are running high, but is the motivation strong enough to result in murder?      

Billed a mystery for Christmas, there is precious little festive about the story, save for the snow. There is some cheer, though, in the almost obligatory love interest as Boynton falls head over heels in love and secures his prize at the end.

The book is well worth the cover price for the intricacy of its central puzzle and the solution, but, be warned, there are some hard yards to be done before you get there.

Requiem For Robert

A review of Requiem for Robert by Mary Fitt – 221214

Classicist Kathleen Freeman used the nom de plume of Mary Fitt for her novels and Requiem for Robert, originally published in 1942 and reissued by Moonstone Press, certainly is a misfit in the detective/murder mystery genre. There is a death and some detection by a policeman and his friend, an amateur sleuth, but it would be wrong to judge it purely by the standards of the genre. It is more a novel that explores the psychology of an individual and those around him and meditation on the powerful influence that Catholicism can have on a person’s state of mind and behaviour.

As in Death and Mary Dazill, Fitt chooses to tell the tragic story of Robert Reynald through the eyes and memories of others, but whereas Miss Dazill’s story used a single point of reference, the vicar’s wife, here the picture is built up from the testimonies of those who knew him or were associated with him. The role of Superintendent Mallett and his friend, Dr Fitzbrown, Jones seems to have missed the cut, is to poke, prod, and to try and make sense of what they are being told.

The story has an intriguing start. Mallett’s attention is drawn to three sequential obituary notices announcing the death of Robert Reynald, one from his mother, one from his estranged wife, and the third, from his daughter, Geraldine. He and Fitzbrown attend the funeral. The cause of Reynald’s death was suicide while temporarily of unsound mind. Geraldine is certain that her father did not kill himself and presents her suspicions that he was murdered to Mallett. His interest piqued, Mallett sets out to investigate in an unofficial capacity.

Those of us who have read enough crime fiction usually anticipate that what looks like a suicide usually turns out to be murder most foul and, sure enough, there are enough clues to suggest that Reynald’s death had more to it than initially met the local police’s and coroner’s eye. The position of the body slumped over the desk was not a natural pose for someone who had just committed suicide, the gun he supposedly used was not his, there are marks on the carpet suggesting that his body had been moved to its final resting place, and although the door to the study was locked, there was a cubby hole through which someone could enter and leave the room.

Added to that there is a suspicion of madness in the family, Robert’s father having allegedly burnt down the house on the night of his son’s birth. There is also a daughter an illegitimate daughter, born after an affair in wartime France, the suspicion that Robert is having an affair with the mysterious Rosa, and his renewed commitment to the Catholic church, evidenced in his project to build a new chapel. The fragments of the history of Robert and his parents are drip fed throughout the book and ultimately make sense as a backdrop to the tragedy of his final hours.

While there is a mystery to be solved, the book’s major focus is on the terrible dilemma in which Robert finds himself. He is estranged from his wife who is now in a somewhat uneasy relationship with his former tutor and is being pressurised to agree to a divorce, an action which offends his Catholic sensibilities, a feeling reinforced by the reactions and attitudes of his mother and, more significantly, the rather austere, hard-line Catholic priest.

Robert, whose preference is to be considerate to the feelings of others, is torn. There is motive enough for two of the potential suspects to murder him, but equally the impossibility of the situation in which he finds himself may have driven him to commit suicide. I am no expert in Catholic canonical law, but I always thought suicide was at least a damning mortal sin as divorce. As Mallett observes towards the end of the book, all the characters have in their own way killed Robert. It is just that the resolution of his fate seems a little lame, given what we know of his psychological makeup.

It was an interesting book, one that is more a psychological study than an outright thriller, an interesting twist on the usual suicide or murder plot, well written and well worth spending a couple of evenings with.