Book Corner – August 2020 (1)

The Death of Mr Lomas – Francis Vivian

Francis Vivian was the nom de plume of Arthur Ashley, a Nottinghamshire-based painter and decorator until, in 1932, he turned his hand to writing popular fiction. The Death of Mr Lomas, published in 1941, is the first book in which he introduced to his readership his most famous detective creation, Inspector Gordon Knollis. There were ten Knollis stories in all, the last published in 1956.

Vivian was an inveterate collector of information, he was an expert on bee keeping, for example, and he could not resist sharing his love of the arcane with his readers. He was also known as playing fair, the attentive reader could always crack the problem from the data that had been given during the course of the narrative. Knollis would never pick up on a clue that had not been disclosed before. This technique makes for a satisfying read as you pit your wits against the Inspector and wait with anticipation for the end to see whether you had indeed fingered the culprit and understood how it was all done.

Vivian’s books were also noted for their fiendishly complicated plots and The Death of Mr Lomas is no different, a panoply of characters drifting in and out of the narrative. The book also touches on a couple of slightly surprising elements, cocaine dealing and cross-dressing, echoing Ethel Lina White’s Wax and Moray Dalton’s The Strange Case of Harriet Hall. The sensitive modern reader should be aware that Vivian does lapse into casually racist language at times in often the most surprising contexts, for example in this book when describing the colour of a pair of curtains.  

One day the Chief Constable of Burnham, Sir William Burrows, a bluff, blustering character, receives a visit from a respectable shopkeeper, Mr Lomas. Lomas shocks Burrows by claiming that he is being poisoned without being able to substantiate his fears. The policeman sends him away, suggesting that he is suffering from a nervous disorder. Later that night Lomas’ body is found in the river. He had consumed a lot of whisky that night, but the spirit had been adulterated with cocaine. Even more astonishingly, Lomas, who had a flourishing beard complete with moustaches, was clean shaven.

We find Knollis at home spending a quiet evening with his wife, both reading books, when he is disturbed with news of the murder. The discomforted Chief Constable relays to his Inspector the contents of the unusual interview he had had with Lomas. There is no doubt who is in charge of the investigation and there is a running joke throughout the narrative whenever the pair meet, the Chief struggling to identify the Emsworth that Knollis alludes to.

Knollis’ modus operandi is to work through the problem methodically, navigating his way through a rather convoluted series of events, some twists threatening to send him down a blind alley. The ending, given the stately progress of the rest of the book, seemed to me to be a tad rushed and melodramatic. However, all in all it was an entertaining read with flashes of humour, where the focus was solely and simply on the solving of the crime. Too many veer off to give us a rounder picture of the principal characters. This is a no-nonsense whodunit and all the better for it.

Book Corner – July 2020 (5)

The Batch Magna Caper – Peter Maughan

I find the best antidote to difficult times is to immerse yourself in a bit of light-hearted escapism and Maughan’s Batch Magna series, there are five in all, fits the bill admirably. This is the third of the series and whilst it avoids third album syndrome, I didn’t find it as good as the earlier two. Perhaps that is down to the introduction of characters extraneous to the quirky, motley crew who inhabit the sleepy village of Batch Magna, nestling on the banks of the river Cluny, half in Wales and half in Shropshire.

On opening the book, the reader is in for a bit of a shock. Instead of finding themselves in the heart of the countryside, the reader is taken to a shady pawnbroker’s shop where a gang of criminals, incompetent, naturally, and an unlikely mix of characters, are plotting a wages snatch on an engineering firm in Shrewsbury. They anticipate getting away with £100,000, still a tidy sum in the 1970s. As there is no honour amongst thieves, though, each member of the gang has their own plans to run off with the whole of the loot.

The raid takes place, news of it makes the front page of the local papers and even percolates into the consciousness of the residents of the Batch Magna. The carefully worked out getaway plan misfires and the money ends up in Batch Magna, triggering a farcical comedy of errors as various members of the gang try to recover it, whilst at the same time trying to do down their colleagues, and when the money is found in an outhouse of the Manor, the locals, who cannot resist a gossip and making two plus two equal five, think that the American lord of the manor, the flamboyant Sir Humphrey Strange, call me Humph, is the mastermind behind the operation, obviously he must have Mafia connections, and try their best to protect his reputation.

If you have criminals, you must have the police and a pretty inept lot they are. They regularly call in at the Manor to sample Shelly’s renowned hot dogs, a source of consternation to the gang, but they are too interested in feeding their faces to spot what is going on under their noses. The case is solved at a Civil War re-enactment in the grounds of the Manor in Ealing Comedy style by the downtrodden female sergeant, the fiancée of the incompetent Inspector Worth, much to his chagrin as he has made a point of eschewing traditional police methods in favour of modern psychological techniques.

The characters we have met before are all there, the Commander with his collection of glass eyes decorated for all occasions and his wife, Priny, who are moving off the water to live on dry land, Owain and Annie Owen, Humph, his wife Clem, and his mother, Shelly, Jasmine and her brood of children and, of course, the rouê that is Phineas Cook. Phineas manages, on a drunken night, to get engaged to the female police sergeant and both spend much of the book trying to disentangle themselves from the unsuitable arrangement.

Maughan does a sterling job in pulling all these strands together and there are genuine moments of farcical comedy interspersed with sharp observations of human nature. I did find, though, that the large cast and the competing themes and sub plots meant that the gentler innocence of the earlier books and the opportunity to immerse yourself in the trivia and petty squabbles of the carefree inhabitants of Batch Magna were somewhat lost. It was a brave decision by Maughan to deviate from a tried and tested formula. It did work but made for a less enjoyable book.

Book Corner – July 2020 (4)

The strange case of Harriet Hall – Moray Dalton

Dalton, the nom de plume of Katherine Dalton Renoir, published 29 crime novels between 1924 and 1951 but languishes in ill-merited obscurity. This book first saw the light of day in 1936 and is one of five of her books that Dean Street Press have reissued in an attempt to revive her popularity. As in the other book of hers that I have read, One by one they Disappeared, it features Inspector Hugh Collier from the Yard, brought in to take over the direction of the investigations from the bumbling local constabulary.

Amy Steer, the slightly naïve heroine, down on her luck, is astonished to be contacted out of the blue by an aunt she never knew of, let alone met, Harriet Hall. She is astonished by her aunt’s appearance when they meet in a waiting room in Victoria station, first-class, of course; “Mrs Hall wore large drop earrings that swung backwards and forwards as she moved. Two females in the corner eyed her disapprovingly. Amy was trying not to think that her aunt seemed a rather vulgar person”. To Amy’s astonishment, her wants her to live with her in a cottage and gives her £100 to buy clothes, as she wants her to make a good impression on the local society. She is told to travel down on Monday and that she will be met at the station.

On the way down Amy meets a pleasant young chap, Tony Dene, who drops her like a hot brick when he learns that she is related to Harriet Hall. No one is at the station to collect her and when she gets to the cottage, she finds that it is deserted. She spends a lonely and fraught night in the cottage, before deciding to visit the Denes, her aunt’s friends, at the Dower House.

The Dene’s reaction to the news of Harriet’s disappearance is strange, the mother, Mrs Dene, appearing nervous and somehow in her power. Tony and Molly make no pretence of their dislike of Harriet and the elder sister, Lavinia, a self-centred beauty, is only concerned about her forthcoming marriage to the son of the Lord and Lady of the Manor. Tony returns to the cottage with Amy and his dog leads him to a covered well, where upon lifting the lid, he sees Harriet’s body. Who killed her and why?

There are a number of possible suspects, all of whom motives and little by way of a convincing alibi. The scandal of the dead body and the cloud of suspicion over the Denes kaiboshes Lavinia’s marriage prospects. Collier is brought in to investigate, a patient, compassionate, thorough detective who works his way slowly and carefully towards revealing what really went on at the cottage. Along the way there is a real twist when he discovers that Harriet is not really who and what she seemed to be, an interesting and somewhat modern twist to the story.

The characterisations are believable, the plot rattles along without any real gaps or unbelievable jumps in logic and final chapter is a thrilling and worthy ending to an excellent book. The mystery elements are novel and memorable, making it a story well worth spending an evening or two over.

Book Corner – July 2020 (3)

The Murder of my Aunt – Richard Hull

Published in 1934 and Hull’s debut in the genre, this is a delightful romp with quite a twist on conventional murder mysteries from the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction. There is no mystery as such as the reader is quite clear from the outset that the protagonists and narrator for four of the book’s five chapters, Edward Powell, is out to murder his aunt, Mildred. The tension, such as it is, centres around whether he will succeed and how.

Rusticated to the Welsh village of Llwll and forced to live with his aunt, Edward leads a miserable life, or so he thinks. He is effete, hates the countryside and all forms of exercise, indeed being forced to walk down to the village and back makes his mind up to do with her, smokes scented cigarettes, keeps a Pekinese called So-so and has a collection of risqué French novels. Mildred is a hale and hearty country figure, well imbedded into the local community, despairs of Edward’s ways and unwillingness to make his own way in the world. They are like chalk and cheese and the slightest incident in their cocooned existence is blown out of all proportions.

It is possible to read that Hull is portraying Edward as a closet homosexual, although that may just be imposing modern sensibilities on to a characterisation of an example of the effete idlers of the time but if you do think there is that subtext to the book, it makes Mildred’s suspicions that he is making a pass at one of the servants even more amusing. It is impossible to like Edward or even to have some sympathy for his plight. In Hull’s hands he is a man obsessed with his own comforts, selfish and not quite as clever as he thinks he is, the polar opposite of his formidable opponent, Mildred.

Hull’s writing is wonderful. The reader feels that they really get under the skin of the narrator but at the same time is able to spot what is really going on and how unreliable Edward is as a narrator. The book is permeated by a wry, satirical, sometimes slightly black humour and there are some laugh out loud moments as carefully wrought plans are come to naught.

The reader is brought to a halt by the abrupt change of narrator for the final section of the book. I will not say too much about that as it will spoil the denouement of the tale which is surprising and leaves the reader with a smile on their face.     

 This is a wonderful addition to the British Library Crime Classics series. If you want something slightly offbeat and funny, you will not go far wrong in picking up this gem of a book.

Book Corner – July 2020 (2)

Family Matters – Anthony Rolls

Many best-selling and well-regarded books from the Golden Age of detective fiction, the two qualities are not always mutually exclusive, have long languished in obscurity, often out of print. One service that the British Library Crime Classics series has performed for the reading public is making some gems of the genre more readily available. Published in 1933 Family Matters is one that has been wrested from the clutches of neglect.

Technically, the book is an inverted mystery in that we know someone will be murdered and, pretty early on, the identity of the victim. What we do not know is who will do it and how. The action is set in Shufflechester, described as “one of the most English of English towns”.There the Kewdinghams live and their household is not a happy one. Robert, unemployed, spends his time curating his collection full of artefacts which are probably Roman but to the rest of his family and acquaintances are little more than boxes and cupboards overflowing with junk. Bertha, his wife, half-French, there is an element of xenophobia in the narrative, is attractive and spirited, leading the menfolk to wonder how on Earth Robert came to marry her and the womenfolk to think that she should be doing something to make Robert buck up his ideas. Robert also believes that in a former life he was a priest in Atlantis. Added to this, he is a hypochondriac and keeps a large stock of poisons to hand.

I won’t be spoiling the book by telling you that the victim is intended to be the infuriating and annoying Robert. Both Bertha and his physician, Dr Bagge, plot to poison Robert. Whilst trying to stop Robert drugging himself with his own medications, Bagge, somewhat disturbingly, views his patient as human guinea pig upon whom he experiments with potions of increasing toxicity. To the bafflement of both poisoners, Robert appears to be remarkably resilient to the industrial amounts of poison pumped into his system. The reason, of course, is that the poisons are cancelling each other out. Eventually Robert does die but how and who killed him?

Unlike many an inverted mystery where the reader knows both the identity of the victim and the perpetrator, here Rolls does an excellent job in keeping the reader somewhat in the dark. We have our suspicions about who does it but cannot be certain until the very end. This means that the book is much more of a page turner than less skilfully written books of this type. As Rolls says in the opening, “everything was foreseen – everything except what actually happened”.      

Rolls enjoys himself depicting the humdrum nature of middle-class life, their petty squabbles, irritations and conventions and the story is laced with humour. The characters are drawn well, not just Robert and Bertha, but the others too in the Kewdingham circle. It is not a demanding story, just a good yarn with a slight twist to it. The book gets better as it goes on and the denouement well crafted.

It is worth looking out for, if you are interested in well-written crime novels.