Category Archives: Books

The Case Of The Running Mouse

A review of The Case of the Running Mouse by Christopher Bush – 230514

I have been reading Christopher Bush’s Ludovic Travers in chronological order and the transformation in his amateur sleuth has been fascinating to observe. In this twenty-seventh outing, originally published in 1944 and reissued by Dean Street Press, Travers’ role and attitude have undergone another transformation. The story, though, is one of his less successful ones, running out of steam in the middle after a promising start and needing a bolt almost out of the blue to get it back on track. Nevertheless, Bush rarely fails to produce an intriguing plot and there are plenty of red herrings and misdirections to work before reaching the rather rushed and abrupt ending.

Travers, in the army and on 14-days leave, is at a loose end as his wife, Bernice, serving as a nurse cannot get leave. Nevertheless, it is through her that Travers is approached by Worrack who wants him to help track down a missing woman, Georgina Morbent. Hitherto, Travers had been brought in by Scotland Yard on a consultancy basis to help out with a tricky case but here, for the first time, he is assuming, albeit unintentionally, the role of an independent investigator working solo rather than in cahoots with the police.       

This subtle change of role marks a change in his relationship with George Wharton with whom he had worked on many of his earlier cases. Previously they had worked well together, each playing to their strengths, sometimes being a little fractious with each other, often chiding each other for their foibles. In the Running Mouse, though, Travers is playing a more dangerous game, running alongside and sometimes counter to Wharton’s investigation, sometimes withholding vital evidence that might have made “The General’s” life easier. It also feels as if the scales have fallen from Travers’ eyes as he realises, rightly or wrongly, that Wharton is quick to assume the credit for the deeds of others and deflect criticism for mistakes. Their relationship has not soured but it has been set at a different level.

The story explores the darker, seamier of wartime London life. It centres around a discreet gambling den in the centre of the capital, run by Worrack and Morbent, where some of the more raffish of the city’s toffs and the odd officer on leave pass through, the rules designed to ensure no one quite loses their shirt, even though there are large IOUs in circulation. Travers makes little progress in discovering the whereabouts of Morbent, but the case and, frankly, comes to life when Morbent’s decapitated head is found and Worrack collapses dramatically in his club just as a mouse runs through the room and dies having ingested poison. It is at this point that Wharton enters the story.

As well as the obligatory blackmail the issue of abortion and its consequences feature strongly in the case. The loosening of sexual mores since the First World War and exacerbated by the strains and stresses of the Second had meant that the issue of backstreet abortionists was looming large, a subject Bush had treated more en passant in The Case of the Magic Mirror. Bush treats Morbent’s predicament with sympathy reserving, through Wharton, his ire for the abortionists who charge a fortune and place the woman’s life in peril. The book has a similar darker feel to it as The Magic Mirror.

The war only appears in the background. There is the blackout which makes getting around at night difficult, Travers has downsized to reduce expenses, characters have been injured in various theatres of conflict, but for those with money and influence it is still possible to avoid the grim fare of rationing and dine and drink reasonably well.

Wharton preens himself for wrapping the case up under his own steam, Travers only playing a bit part, but has he really?  

Sadly, though, I was more interested in the changes in travers and his relationship with Wharton to care too much whodunit. With more than half the series of books to go, I am sure Travers’ development as a character will continue.

Scales Of Justice

A review of Scales of Justice by Ngaio Marsh – 230513

I have struggled at times to see why Ngaio Marsh has earned the reputation as a crime writer that she has but Scales of Justice, the eighteenth in her Roderick Alleyn series and originally published in 1955, is really rather good. It plunders some of the more hackneyed themes of the genre, a picturesque English village, beautiful on the outside but a seething pit of emotions on the inside, a close knit community of the upper classes, a guilty secret or two and something which will rip the cosy community apart.

To this Marsh brings her own stamp, a brutal murder inflicted by a combination of a piece of sporting equipment and the ferrule of a leisure item. She is nothing if not inventive in the way her victims die. This one is Colonel Cartarette who was fishing for trout by the local stream and he had the remains of the river’s largest trout and the source of much (un)healthy rivalry amongst the piscatorial types of the village of Swevenings by his side.

Days earlier, the head of another local family, Sir Harold Lacklander, had on his death bed entrusted Cartarette with overseeing the publication of his memoirs. The rest of the Lacklanders seem less than keen for the memoirs to see the light of day. Was there some revelation in Chapter Seven that would ruin reputations, put another interpretation upon a tragic wartime suicide, and shake the community apart? Were the memoirs the reason that Cartarette was killed?

The early part of the book is delightful, Marsh using Nurse Kettle’s slow peregrination around the village to introduce her principal characters, all eccentric in their own ways. I particularly liked Octavius Danberry-Phinn who lives alone with his cats who have extraordinary names including the delightful Edie Puss. His son, Ludovic, served under Sir Harold in the army and was driven to commit suicide when allegations of collaboration with the Germans emerged.

Another wonderful character is the alcoholic Commander Syce who recklessly practices with his bow and arrows when three sheets to the wind and feigns attacks of lumbago to receive regular visits from the nurse. He too has wartime links with the Lacklander and George Cartarette, to whom he inadvertently introduced Kitty who was to become George’s second wife.

Not only are the families neighbours but they are linked through their military service. To add to the web of connections, Alleyn also served under Lacklander and was there when the Danberry-Phinn scandal blew up. He was specifically called in by Lady Lacklander to solve her husband’s murder because he was one of them. Surprisingly, Scotland Yard agree to put him on the case.

Alleyn with the dutiful Fox in tow works his way through the case, taking a rather unexpected interest in the fish that was by Cartarette’s side and one of Phinn’s cats that seemed from the smell emanating from its mouth to have enjoyed a good meal. There is a touch of the Freeman Wills Crofts as Alleyn works out how the killer blow was administered and once that has been achieved and he understands the significance of fish scales, which allows Marsh to make a clever pun out of the book’s title, the identity of the culprit amongst the several people who were near the river at the time in question becomes clearer.

There is much humour in the book and there are enough red herrings, or should that be trout, to keep the armchair sleuth on their toes. Despite being written in the mid-1950s there is a surprisingly pre-war feel about the story, a sense of nostalgia and wistfulness for a world now lost. One of her better books.

Death In The Dark

A review of Death in the Dark by Moray Dalton – 230509

Published originally in 1938 and one of the latest batch of Dalton reissues from Dean Street Press, Death in the Dark is as much a thriller as a murder mystery. There are murders, two rather unusual ones, but the culprit is fairly obvious. What gives the plot its tension and excitement is the sense of jeopardy as Dalton’s go-to sleuth, the urbane and empathetic Hugh Collier, whose eighth outing this is, is racing against time to save someone whom he believes to be innocent from the gallows, even though he has been convicted of murder and had his appeal turned down.   

As an author Dalton seems to be attracted to the fringes of society and this story is no exception featuring a troupe of acrobats, a remote gothic house which has a run-down and struggling private zoo in its grounds, a drug-addicted woman, an eccentric who invites performers home for a meal on a Monday night, and a thirteen-year-old would-be detective.

David Merle, one part of the Flying Merles, is invited back to his house by Joshua Fallowes for a meal. Fallowes’ behaviour is odd, remaining muffled throughout the encounter, encouraging David to finger things and before they depart, asks him to help unjam a window in a room upstairs. When David enters the room, the door is locked and he finds a dead body on the bed, treading in blood as he makes his escape using his acrobatic skills through the window. For the police with David’s fingerprints all over the place, blood on his shoes and an unconvincing story, this is an open and shut case and Merle is duly convicted.

His sister, Judy Merle, is convinced of his innocence and is fortunate to find an unlikely and influential ally in Toby, whom we met first met in The Case of the Kneeling Woman, since when Hugh Collier has married his mother, and the boy is now his step-son. It is through Toby’s insistence that Merle has been set up that Collier is persuaded to look into the case. As in the previous encounter, Toby’s mother’s sense of child care is unusual by modern standards. Having previously left the boy alone overnight, prey to a band of international desperadoes, she now seems comfortable to let him meet a stranger alone in the lion house of London Zoo. Children did have more latitude in those days than their mollycoddled modern versions but, while the encounter is necessary for the development of the plot, it does seem odd.

As Curtis Evans points out in his informative introduction, Dalton’s treatment of the kindly and sympathetic Ben Levy, the only Jew in the village, is unusual by for the times when antisemitism, overt or implied, was rife in literature. Levy has a soft spot for Judy, and she is encouraging. However, in what seems to be an oversight in the structuring of the book, Levy disappears halfway through, and Judy gets spliced to someone else at the end without any thought of the man who held a torch for her in her dark days of despair. Odd.

The private menagerie at Sard Manor had already claimed one victim by the time Collier enters the fray, the death of the head keeper, seemingly mauled by a tiger, giving him the entrée into the case. The denouement, tense and thrilling, is somewhat telegraphed by the information that the Chief Constable is a crack shot and that he was a big game hunter, the halls of his house bedecked with the heads of his victims. The occupants of Sard Manor are held hostage by an unusual group of assailants when the animals are let out of their cages and the telephone line cut by the culprit. Will Collier survive to give the evidence to absolve Merle?

There is an air of inevitability about a gung-ho Chief Constable, reliving his days in India, gunning down the tiger. Moray, through Collier, expresses more modern sentiments when lamenting the need to kill such a magnificent creature. Tranquilisers were never an option.

Dalton shows her sense of humour when nicknaming Judy’s aunt, Mrs Sturmer, Auntie Apples, a Sturmer pippin was a popular type of apple at the time. The motivation for the crime seemed to me to be a little far-fetched. Even if the culprit had succeeded, there needed to be at least two other occurrences before they could get their hands on the prize, which, whilst still a large sum at the time, was still only a third of the overall inheritance.

It was an enjoyable story with much to admire, but I did not feel that it was Moray at her very best. Detectives seem to rely on members of their family to be a magnet to attract crime, Agatha Troy and Olive Owen being just two I could mention. In Toby, Hugh Collier might just have found his.

Frequent Hearses

A review of Frequent Hearses by Edmund Crispin – 230507

The seventh in Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen series, Frequent Hearses, which also goes by the alternative title of Sudden Vengeance, was originally published in 1950. Its titles come from a couplet from Pope’s Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady; “on all the line a sudden vengeance waits,/ and frequent hearses shall besiege your gates”. In Pope’s poem a young lady commits suicide, and the poet calls for vengeance on all those whom he deemed responsible for her death. In Crispin’s novel, the young lady who calls herself Gloria Scott throws herself into the Thames and those who led her to this tragic moment of despair are one by one murdered.

Bruce Montgomery, Crispin’s alter ego, was an accomplished composer and wrote scores for films, including the Carry On series. He uses his knowledge of the film industry to good effect in an entertaining first half to his book, which satirises the rather laissez-faire way in which British films were made and the bitchiness and underlying tensions of those involved. Gervase Fen finds himself at a film studio in the role of a literary expert to advise on the plot for a life of Alexander Pope. As a professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University he is well suited for the role, especially as it seems to involve little effort other than attending the odd script meeting and getting to the out of the way studio at Long Fulton.

As he arrives at the studio, he bumps into an old police associate, Inspector Humbleby who is there trying to shed some light on the true identity of Gloria Scott. Fen is drawn into the investigation, and soon three members of the Crane family, all involved in the film in which Gloria was to play a small part, are poisoned. Whodunit and why?

The why is telegraphed by the allusion to Pope’s poem. As is his wont Crispin is not shy in wearing his erudition in his text and there are the usual large helpings of literary allusions and direct quotations in the story. Aficionados of Conan Doyle will not fail to spot the Holmesian reference in the stage name of the young actress. The who aspect is trickier and, unlike in earlier stories, Fen plays a less central role in the solving of that mystery, although his role, like that at the film studio, is to advise, to point out, direct and give the benefit of his knowledge and expertise. Once the logistics and timings of the poisonings are clarified and mapped against the movements and alibis of each of the suspects, the identity of the culprit is obvious.

There is a distinct change of mood between the two halves of the book. The first is light and breezy, very funny in parts, bitingly satirical about post war Britain and the British film industry. The second part of the book has a much darker feel about it with a wonderfully atmospheric and thriller-like chase in a maze, a generous nod to a similar chase in one of M R James’ tales with a furtive glance to Greek mythology to boot. (Although Crispin loosely describes it as both a labyrinth and a maze, for a pedant like me it is clearly a maze).

As we get to know more about Gloria, the book takes an even darker twist. The girl has had an awful childhood and her hopes of making it in the film industry offer a route to better herself, only to have her aspirations toyed with to meet the lusts and jealousies of the Crane clan. In the modern argot, Gloria suffers extreme mental health issues as a consequence of workplace bullying. Her tale is tragic and this reader, at least, had growing sympathy with the individual who took it upon themselves to be her tormentors’ nemesis. I will never look on the autumn crocus in the same way again.        

Although I did not think it matched some of his best, there is much to savour in the book.

A Case Of Books

A review of A Case of Books by Bruce Graeme – 230504

Bruce Graeme’s books, I have found, can be sometimes a bit of a hit or miss affair, but this, the sixth in his Theodore Terhune series, originally published in 1946 and reissued by Moonstone Press, is one of his more accessible and intriguing. It is a bibliomystery and Graeme’s reluctant amateur sleuth, bookseller Terhune, finds himself drawn into and imperilled by an international plot to secure one of the world’s rarest and most valuable books.

Often, the trajectory of a detective story is a distinctive U-shape – it starts off well, lags in the middle as the sleuth gets to grips with the minutiae of the case, whittling down the suspects, checking and cross-checking alibis, and the picks up again as the field is narrowed and the denouement hoves into view. Graeme’s tale is unusual in that it gets better as it goes along, with a major set piece in the middle in the form of an auction and the plot taking a darker and more international perspective as we near the resolution of the case. This is not a conventional piece of crime fiction, but the ending is a bit of a damp squib.

An interesting contemporary insight is provided by Terhune’s ruminations on the perils to civilisation if the Germans were allowed to rise to a position of strength for a third time, Graeme, whose earlier books had been confident of an Allied triumph, perhaps revealing a little of the neurosis at the time over whether the Nazi threat had really been extinguished. There is also a reflection, earlier in the book, on how the fruits of someone’s life-long labours can be destroyed at a stroke prompted by the decision to split up and sell a carefully curated book collection.    

The start, though, is straight out of the burgeoning catalogue of crime fiction tropes, a body found in a library, although it is a well-stocked library, containing one of the world’s best collections of incunabula and owned by Arthur Harrison, one of Terhune’s wealthiest and more demanding clients. There is evidence that the books have been rifled through, but the early return of Harrison’s domestic staff might have disturbed the culprits. Terhune is engaged to compile a catalogue of Harrison’s collection for the forthcoming auction.

While he, and his female accomplice, Julia MacMunn, are working at night in the library, it is broken into a second time and, although Terhune disturbs them, forcing one to drop a distinctive knife, and overhears a conversation in a foreign language, they get away. The knife, the suspicion that they are foreigners – after all, stabbing someone in the back is not an English way of committing murder – and there are some mysterious crosses cut into the turf of a farmer’s field, later to be repeated on the ear of a horse showing signs of the early onset of meningitis, Terhune and his policeman sidekick, the comedic Irishman, Sergeant Murphy, have precious little to go on.

Recognising that there is a book or something in Harrison’s collection that is worth committing murder for, Terhune and Murphy hatch a cunning plan to execute at the auction. To say all does not quite go as it should is a bit of an understatement in a gloriously funny and surprisingly suspenseful bidding war which Terhune engages with a man, obviously foreign, with a droopy moustache.

Terhune and Murphy appear to have reached the end of the road until Inspector Sampson arrives on the scene. Now seconded to an international operation to retrieve and repatriate art works looted by the Nazis, the attempts to steal something from Harrison’s collection takes on a more sinister, international perspective and the crosses, a Gaucho practice, begin to have special significance. Terhune’s shop is broken into, he and Julia are forced off the road and hospitalised after Terhune makes an impromptu visit to London to follow a theory of his own, and as he lies staring at the ward’s ceiling, he makes sense of it all.

As he is hors de combat, the physical resolution of the case is out of Terhune’s hands and while most of his reconstruction of what had happened turns out to be correct, the book ends on a rather flat note. Structurally, Sampson’s arrival, role, and revelations are so important to an investigation that seems to have run out of oomph that it has a deus ex machina feel about it and I was left wondering whether that aspect would have been better hinted at or gradually introduced earlier.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable and humorous book, with a welcome return of many of Terhune’s gloriously eccentric and annoying customers, and certainly one of the highlights of the series so far. Graeme has shown what can be done with the most conventional of set ups with a bit of imagination. If you have not discovered him, I recommend you start with this.