Category Archives: Books

Overture To Death

A review of Overture to Death by Ngaio Marsh

If nothing else, Ngaio Marsh is highly inventive when it comes to designing the way in which her latest victim will meet their death. Idris Campanula, a loathsome, interfering spinster, sits down to play the opening bars of the Overture at the start of the village play, presses the soft pedal, triggering a mechanism that fires a pistol, shooting her straight between the eyes. She crumples spectacularly onto the keyboards in the full view of cast and audience.   

Overture to Death, the eighth in Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn series, originally published in 1939, starts of well. She takes care to paint the picture of a small English village, whose protagonists have too much time on their hands, engage socially with each other too much, and are prey to insecurities and petty jealousies, no more so than the two spinsters, Eleanor Prentice and Idris Campanula. Curiously, Marsh, a spinster herself, never seems to portray her spinsters in a good light and these two are straight from central casting, competing to better the other in all aspects of village life, and rivals for the affections of the poor, unworldly vicar, Copeland.

If anything, Eleanor is the worst of the two, determined to spike the blossoming romance between her cousin’s son, Henry Jernigham, and the vicar’s daughter, Dinah Copeland. This is a tale of bitterness, clandestine and frustrated love, pettiness, jealousies, feuds, all bubbling away until they erupt into cold-blooded murder. The intrigue is intensified by the fact that it was Eleanor who was supposed to have played the music, another of those sore points between the two, until she had to pull out at the last minute because of a sore finger. Very few knew of the switch leading to speculation as to whether it was she that was the intended victim.

The Squire, every village has to have one, Jocelyn Jernigham, is in a ticklish position. He is the Acting Chief Constable, and it was his gun which killed Idris. To complete the cast of suspects there is the Doctor, Template, on whose advice Eleanor pulled out at the last minute, and a femme fatale in the form of a widow, Mrs Celia Ross, a newcomer to the village and with whom the doctor is having a fling. She is not all that she appears to be.

As there was a big burglary in the area on the same night, the local police pass responsibility for the murder investigation to Scotland Yard. Alleyn, along with his faithful sidekick Fox, is assigned to the case and the journalist, Nigel Bathgate, makes a welcome reappearance. Marsh’s writing is vivid, there is considerable humour, especially in the characters of the local police and the badinage between Alleyn, Fox, and Bathgate, but the book does begin to pall after a terrific beginning. There is too much of what might be called padding, especially the elongated red herring of the doctor and his floozy, and the letter that Alleyn writes to his beloved, Agatha Troy, who has promised to marry him but seems to be taking her time in doing so. It is as though Marsh realised midway through writing this that it was a mystery not complicated enough to make a full novel but too complex for a short story.

A schoolboy prank, the use of Twiddletoy, a sort of Meccano, a re-enactment of how the murder was done, a dead telephone line, half an onion, a wooden box, some fragments of rubber, the testing of alibis and precisely timing the movements of all concerned, lead Alleyn to the solution. He unmasks the culprit in a set piece scene when all are assembled to hear what he has to say.

It was enjoyable enough as a piece of entertainment, but there was not enough in the book for me to make it a classic.

Brazen Tongue

A review of Brazen Tongue by Gladys Mitchell

For those of us who like to follow an author’s series in chronological order, it is always a little disappointing when the next one is not available. The irony of Printer’s Error, Gladys Mitchell’s tenth in her Mrs Bradley series, originally published in 1939, not being available in anything like an affordable version – £1,183.99 anyone? – was not lost on me and so I had to move on to the eleventh, Brazen Tongue, published the following year. Bradley’s books are much more stand-alone affairs than those of other series authors with little in the way of on-going character development and so I consoled myself by thinking that I was not going to lose too much.

It was with some trepidation that I picked up this book. Mitchell’s stories are always challenging. Not for her is the well-worn path of murder, some sifting of the clues and the arrest of the butler. Her stories are denser, inverting and twisting the genre to suit her purpose, and leaving her readers with puzzles which at their best test their mettle and often result in a conclusion which was difficult to see coming. Mitchell described the book in an interview in 1976 as a “horrible book” along with Printer’s Error and it is easy to see why. Its ending is unsatisfying, leaving too much in the air, not providing the clarity that the reader expects from novels of this type. Of course, life is like that and, in reality, many a crime investigation results in an outcome based on probabilities rather than cast iron certainty.

The dissatisfaction I ultimately had with the book also stems from Mrs Bradley’s wonky moral compass. She is fearless and indefatigable in pursuit of the truth, but less so in seeing that justice prevails. It leads her to some odd moral and, dare I say it, class-based choices where it is all right to turn a blind eye to the activities of a young ambitious thing while seeing a working-class man pay for what he might have done.      

The book is set in the early days of the Second World War, the so-called phoney war, and for the modern reader there are many fascinating insights. Windows are blacked out, the Air Raid Patrol wardens and volunteers are working at a newly opened Report Centre, air raid sirens sound, and petrol is in short supply. George, Mrs Bradley’s man, has to resort to syphoning off petrol surreptitiously to have enough to drive her to an appointment and is aghast at the suggestion that he coasts down a hill with the engine off to conserve fuel. Mitchell feels it necessary when describing what is on the menu to remind her contemporary readers that rationing was not yet in force. The only jarring moments come in the portrayal of the Jewish couple, the Councillor a lazy stereotype and the wife given an unnecessary comic accent.

The little town of Willington is rocked by three murders, all committed within the space of twelve hours. The body of a woman, dressed in a night gown, is found in one of the newly erected water cisterns, a courting couple find the body of a prominent councillor, Smith, propped up in the doorway near the cinema, and a girl working at the report centre, Lillie Fletcher, who has gone out to meet her ominously named beau, Derek Coffin, is found with her head bashed in. The case of the drowned woman is particularly perplexing as she met her end in the nearby river rather than the cistern and no one seems to know who she is.

Is there something that connects all or some of these murders and, if so, what, and whodunit? These are the questions that occupy Mrs Bradley, ably assisted by Inspector Stallard, her niece, Sally, and a young reporter, Patricia Mort, seek to establish. The lives of all who seem to have knowledge of what was behind these murders, including Mrs Bradley herself, are in danger and there a number of failed attempts to silence them. By the end of her investigations, Mrs Bradley seems to have a convincing rationale for what had gone, but just as the reader sinks back into their chair, preening themselves on their perspicacity, Mitchell decides to throw all the pieces of the jigsaw into the air once more, see where they land, and make another pattern from them.

It is hard to give a convincing explanation why she does this. Was she dissatisfied with the initial conclusion or interested in seeing how many more or less convincing resolutions she could construct from a set of circumstances? I think that Mitchell is having enormous fun at the reader’s and the genre’s expense. There is a levity, a quiet whimsy, to her writing style and she has tremendous fun along the way, constructing characters whose names may be pieces of nominative determinism and, in the Rat and Cowcatcher, comes up with a boozer with which Brian Flynn would have been proud.

Brazen Tongue is not for the faint hearted nor the Mitchell neophyte, but if you are a fan of Mitchell’s work you will find much to enjoy in it.

The Bath Mysteries

A review of The Bath Mysteries by E R Punshon

I am glad I use my bath to store my coal rather to cleanse myself in as this is yet another murder mystery where the victims, and there are a few of them, drown in their baths. More intriguingly, each of the victims is estranged from their family and friends and has had their lives insured for £20,000, the modern equivalent of just under £1.5m. Worse still for up-and-coming police detective, Bobby Owen, in this his seventh adventure, originally published in 1936 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, the victim who kicks off this story is from his family circle.

Bobby Owen is from an upper-class family, something that he is reluctant to draw attention to and which causes him some difficulties in his chosen line of work, policing. To his chagrin, he is dragged into investigate the death of Ronnie Oliver at the behest of his uncle, Lord Hirlpool, who has pulled a few strings given that he is pally with the Home Secretary. Initially, this is an officially sanctioned frolic of Owen’s own, greeted with the dismay and head shaking of his superiors, but he unearths such a complex web of dodgy financial syndicates, including the wonderfully named Berry, Quick syndicate, life insurance policies and insured lives who have died in seemingly accidental circumstances that the PTB (powers that be) soon take an interest and almost sideline the ambitious ‘tec.

Punshon brings a wide range of characters into his tale from all strata of society, but it is clear that his interest and sympathies lie with the down-and-outs, the poor souls who are condemned to a life of living hand to mouth, finding a crust as best they can. It is from those who have fallen down in their luck that the mastermind behind the financial scam and murders recruits their victims. We meet some great picaresque characters including Maggoty Meg whose legerdemain provides the evidence which leads to the resolution of the case and Cripples, the coffee seller on the Embankment who is minus an arm and a leg, one from either side so that he is perfectly balanced.

Much of the best writing is reserved in developing the character of Percy Lawrence, a complex personality who is traumatised by the brutality of the punishment inflicted upon him in prison and is a depressive, behaving like an automaton and, to a lesser extent, Alice Yates, a young woman who is losing her sight. Both are caught up in the tentacles of the fiendish scheme, but for both, at the finale of the tale, there is the prospect of some form of salvation. There is a humane streak that runs through Punshon’s work, highly unusual for his chosen genre, but one which gives his better works an extra dimension.

The plot also involves the assumption of identities. To pass it off successfully it is important not to confuse your Monads with your Spinoza. Own is intrigued by the philosopher he meets, Beale, even goes back to his old Oxford college to check the man’s credentials – it is always handy to have a don on tap – and begins to realise that there is more to him than meets the eye. The detective, though, has more pressing problems to contend with, not least the realisation that some of his immediate family are perilously close to having their collars felt, an embarrassment that would spell the end of a promising career.

He also battles for his life in a fine set piece as he gets to grip with the culprit. Those favourite accessories of Miss Silver and Mrs Bradley, knitting needles, come to his aid, to ensure that justice prevails.

The scheme may be a little preposterous, as is the idea that drowning in a bath whether the victim has been drugged or not could be passed off as anything other than accidental, but this is a wonderful book, entertaining, gripping and one which wears its heart on its sleeve. This is Punshon at his best.

Bats In The Belfry

A review of Bats in the Belfry by E C R Lorac

Bats in the Belfry is the thirteenth in the Robert Macdonald series from the pen of Edith Caroline Rivett, the woman behind E C R Lorac, originally published in 1937 and now reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics series. For a prolific writer, this was published in the same year as These Names Make Clues and The Missing Rope, the latter under her other pseudonym of Carol Carnac, her standards rarely slip from her impressive norm.

Lorac has a wonderful sense of place and time. Her descriptions are wonderfully atmospheric, bringing the dirty, foggy London of the thirties alive to the reader. She also adds a dash of gothic with the gloomy, sinister, run-down tower of a building, the Belfry studio, known as “The Morgue” with its resident owl and bats. It is here that mysterious and inexplicable events occur, an unexplained assault on Grenville, an abandoned suitcase complete with passport is found, and more gruesome still, a body is found plastered into an alcove, minus head and hands to avoid identification, as in Christopher Bush’s The Case of the Bonfire Body.

Macdonald is Lorac’s go-to police detective and is an amiable guide through the intricacies of the plot and the rigours of the investigation. He has little sense of self-importance, diligently follows the clues wherever they may lead him, checks and tests alibis, and, apart from one leap of intuition, not prone to wild flights of fancy. He has a diligent team of officers to support him, whom he respects and allows to play their part, and operates with no little humour. Macdonald is also acute enough to realise that when all the parts of a case fit together a little too neatly, there is more to it than meets the eye.

This is certainly the case here, as Lorac has constructed a plot that twists and turns with five possible solutions until the final pieces of the jigsaw fall into place. The tension rises towards the end with a car chase. This is not the adrenaline-fuelled high-speed drama of modern crime dramas, but a drive across London in a police car with a fire engine which, ignominy of ignominies, overtakes them and whose crew save the day. And the culprit will be a surprise to many a reader, so beautifully does Lorac handle the intricacies of the plot, dropping a clue here and there, but managing to maintain enough of a mystery to make the revelation dramatic. It is impressive stuff and the quality of Lorac’s prose makes it not only a page-turner but also a joy to read.

The story begins with the aftermath of the funeral of Bruce Attleton’s distant Australian cousin, not just a device to introduce all the principal characters – even the mysterious Debrette makes an ex deus machina-like appearance by way of a telephone call that visibly distresses Bruce – but also to introduce the central theme of inheritance and the sudden deaths of those in line for the Old Soldier’s carefully curated inheritance. The conversation turns, as it does, to how to dispose of a body, one presciently suggesting plastering it up in the fabric of the building. The acute reader will observe who offers solutions and what they entail.

Both Debrette and Bruce disappear, there is a convoluted trail of possible beneficiaries across two lines of the family, one French, marital infidelities, thwarted matrimonial ambitions, possible blackmail, and an incredibly accident-prone Robert Grenville manages to get himself hit over the head not once but twice, and run over by a motor cycle to boot. It is great fun as Macdonald wrestles with the thorny problem with all the suspects having motive enough to arouse his suspicions.

I found it an intriguing and engaging mystery, beautifully written with vibrant characters. Lorac rarely lets you down.

The Eye In The Museum

A review of The Eye in the Museum by J J Connington

The bane of the modern criminal’s life is the ubiquitous eye of the CCTV system. The Eye of the Museum, originally published in 1929, features an early version, the camera obscura, which takes pride of place at the top of the Struan Museum, a little visited collection of bizarre objects including a glass eye, which is the pride and joy of the caretaker, Jim Buckland. It throws on to a white table images from the streets and the surrounding areas. Buckland is fastidious in his use of the machine, thinking that it would be an affront to the spirit of Mr Struan if he used it to spy on the town’s residents. However, he is in the habit of switching it on while he is locking up and just happens to see some goings on which confirm Superintendent Ross’ suspicions and leads to an arrest.

The problem with a camera obscura in comparison with CCTV is that it does not leave a permanent image and so Superintendent Ross, the detective leading the investigation, who has made a big thing about collecting evidence yourself if you want it to be reliable, has to rely on the word of Buckland to bring the case to its conclusion. Whether it would be strong enough to lead a jury to convict is doubtful, but it is the final piece in Ross’ jigsaw rather than the lynchpin.

Connington decided in this book to give his faithful duo, Sir Clinton Driffield and “Squire” Wendover a rest. They do not appear, despite what the blurb to some editions may suggest. I missed their repartee, Wendover’s ridiculous snobbery, and Driffield’s rather arrogant low regard of the “Squire’s” intellect and investigative prowess. Ross is an altogether different kettle of fish. He is serious, single-minded, a relentless pursuer of the truth but, for me, is a bit of a cold fish, a character that is hard to warm to and about whom we learn surprisingly little, save that he is a fan of Swiss Family Robinson and brings his culprit down using a technique from the pages of that children’s classic.

The plot treads a well-worn path, featuring a wealthy, cantankerous woman, this time a gambler and an alcoholic to boot, Evelyn Fenton, who under the powers of a restrictive will, which seemed to be all the rage in those days, has the power to direct the life of her niece, Joyce Hazlemere. Joyce wants to marry Leslie Seaforth, but neither have the funds to do so. In the garden of the museum, which they visit in the first chapter, they discuss the prospect of Evelyn’s death. It comes as no surprise that soon afterwards, Evelyn is found dead.

Her doctor, Dr Platt, is sceptical that her heart just gave out and at the subsequent post mortem it is confirmed that she had been poisoned, although her demise had been hastened by the application of slight pressure to her vagus nerve. Joyce is the prime suspect, but Seaforth and his boss and family solicitor, James Corwen, are determined to fight her corner. Ross, initially, finds the two a tad uncooperative but is alert enough to realise that Corwen is drip feeding him information which may prove to be enormously helpful.

There are the usual mysterious visitors to the house around the likely time of Evelyn’s murder, including her estranged husband and her supposed lover, Dr Hyndford. There is a psychological aspect to the story which is hinted at earlier, but which comes to the fore as the story reaches its climax.

Ross finds a trail of IOUs and insurance policies which, with the help of an amateur graphologist, are not what they seem and shed light on the motivation behind the murder. With relatively few suspects to consider and with the method of murder requiring specialist knowledge, it is not difficult to work out who the likely culprit is, especially as there is another murder to eliminate a suspect, a twist that does not serve to confude but to clarify the reader’s thoughts.

Ross gets the culprit at the third attempt after a boat chase and the case for the prosecution, in the form of a detailed exposition of the evidence with sources, forms the penultimate chapter. It was an engaging enough read, the plot was well-thought out and developed, as is Connington’s wont, but Ross is too anodyne a figure to raise it to the heights of the best of the Driffield novels.

This is one for the completists, rather than one for those wishing to dip their toes into Connington’s oeuvre.