Category Archives: Books

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.

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!

Blue Murder

A review of Blue Murder by Harriet Rutland

“It is better to burn out than to fade away”, sang Neil Young, or at least you should leave your audience wanting more. This sums up Olive Shimwell’s brief career as a crime novelist to a tee, her third and last novel being this astonishingly delicious dark, brooding, psychological drama, originally published under her nom de plume of Harriet Rutland in 1942 and reissued by Dean Street Press.

Although it contains a high body count, three people are murdered, and there is a police investigation, conducted primarily by Driver and Lovely, the latter there to set up some disarmingly comedic interchanges, Blue Murder is unconventional in its structure and format. It is set during the Second World War when evacuees are placed in seemingly safe havens such as Never Naughton. Arnold Smith, a novelist down on his luck and keen to turn his hand to crime fiction, like any other Tom, Dick and Harriet as Rutland self-deprecatingly declares in Chapter 35, has answered an advertisement to seek paying refuge in the home of the local headmaster, Hardstaffe.

He is not the only refugee. One of the servants is an Austrian Jewess, Frieda Braun, who has moved from the frying pan of the German concentration camps to the fire of the Hardstaffe establishment. She is treated abominably, especially by Hardstaffe’s daughter, Leda, whose anti-semitism is expressed loudly and frequently. Rutland is sympathetic to Braun’s plight, taking time to explain her experiences and the horrors that she has escaped from, a move that makes Leda’s behaviour even more loathsome. To complete the trio of Hardstaffes in residence is Mrs Hardstaffe, a hypochondriac who is brow-beaten by her husband but is alive to his womanising, especially his affair with his latest floozy, schoolteacher Charity Fuller.

There is an air of anarchy to the household, contributed to by a pack of unruly and barely house-trained Sealyhams, and it is a place simmering with hatred, each of the principal characters expressing thoughts of murder before the book has barely begun. Of course, there are murders. First to go is Mrs Hardstaffe who seems to have been poisoned with a dose of morphia. She was convinced that her sleeping tablets contained morphia, although at the inquest her physician, Dr Macalistair, reveals that they were merely placebos. Braun, though, did have morphia, her last form of defence if she were captured by the Germans.

Then Mr Hardstaffe is murdered, shortly after an assignation with Charity Fuller when she rejected his advances and declared she could kill him. Were the two murders related and was it significant that they both occurred after Fuller had visited the house. Hardstaffe, modelled on Whackford Squeers, was a despicable man, and there were others who would have cheerfully murdered him, not least the father of the son he had brutally chastised, and Stanton, Hardstaffe’s estranged son, who was lurking near the house around the time of both murders.

Police investigations come to naught despite a confession which, surprisingly, is marked down as the result of hysterics, and they have disappeared from the scene by the time of the mystery’s resolution. Although the identification of the culprit comes as little surprise, it delivers a third murder and the pendulous question of whether the culprit ever paid for their crimes.

What intrigued me about the book was Rutland’s willingness to move away from the cosiness of the traditional crime novel and explore the darker side of life, domestic abuse, anti-semitism, sexual desire and illicit relationships. According to the excellent introduction, she was going through a dark period in her own personal life and it was written at the height of the war when the outcome was far from clear.

She has produced a powerful study of a household where violent emotions reigned supreme. That it led to murder comes as no surprise at all. When I had finished this wonderful book, I realised what a truly great loss to fans of crime fiction Rutland’s decision not to write anymore was. Perhaps she was tired of being another Tom, Dick or Harriet.

The Case Of The Tudor Queen

A review of The Case of the Tudor Queen by Christopher Bush

This is another murder mystery story with a distinct touch of theatricality about it, one in which Christopher Bush excels himself in setting up a fiendishly difficult problem which takes all the ingenuity and brain power of his go-to amateur sleuth, Ludovic Travers, to resolve. First published in 1938 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, it is the eighteenth in the series and even the most ardent of Bush aficionados would be hard pressed to make a convincing case that it is one of the best.

The story opens promisingly enough. While driving in the countryside, Travers, accompanied by his manservant, Palmer, and, fortuitously, Superintendent George Wharton of the Yard, they come across a young woman in a bit of a state. She turns out to be the servant of Mary Legreye, the actress, and has returned to her cottage to discover that her mistress has left in a hurry, leaving her immediate personal effects behind. Intrigued, Travers and Wharton go up to the actress’ London house and make a horrifying discovery.

The body of Legreye’s servant, Ward, is found in the kitchen, clutching a glass, obviously poisoned. Upstairs, there is a more dramatic and graphic discovery. The body of Mary Legreye is found in a pose which reprises her greatest dramatic role, that of a Tudor queen, again seemingly poisoned. Were these double suicides or had Ward killed Legreye and then done away with himself? Or were these the acts of a third party or parties and, if so, who? Wharton and Travers in their inestimable fashion seek to resolve the conundrum.

One of the principal problems with the book lies in the sheer complexity of the plot. The investigators decide that the only way to establish what went on in the house is to interrogate each of Legreye’s associates and reconstruct their movements around the relevant times. In other words, it becomes a tale of alibi-busting, which can be tedious in the extreme, especially, as in this case, each lead seems to come to a crashing dead end. By about the two-third mark of the book, the investigation has come to a halt, both Wharton and Travers resigning to the awful truth that this is a case that has beaten even their collective resources.

Miraculously, though, some weeks later Travers has a brainwave and decides to follow up something that did not quite sit right in his mind. He digs around a bit, motors up and down the country asking questions, obtaining clues here and there until he is able to piece together a theory convincing enough to blow a hole in one person’s alibi and solve the mystery of the deaths which are now to be incontrovertibly regarded as murders. The conclusion, although resolving the case satisfactorily, is introduced a little too abruptly for my liking and is not one that is easily anticipated.

The murder plot is so deviously complicated that it needs a deus ex machina-like plot device to bring it to a conclusion which can upset the balance and pace of the book. Often this is the price to be paid when the complexity of the murder plot takes precedence over the artistic whole of the book. It might have been a more satisfying read had Bush inverted it, writing it from the murderer’s perspective and showing how they had defeated the brains of Travers and Wharton. However, that would not have sat well in a series where Travers’ genius shines bright.

I was disappointed by the book, but that it is not to say that it is a bad one. Bush has collected some interesting characters with some fascinating images, not least that of Mary Legreye in all her glory sitting, dead, on her throne. However, Bush is capable of better.