Category Archives: Culture

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.

Charity Shops

At some point 88% of us have bought something from a charity shop, according to the Charity Retail Association (CRA). In 2020 we spent £746 million in them[1], with the average spend per transaction reaching £6.53 in the summer of 2022. There are around 10,200, occupying 3.26% of the UK’s retail units, staffed by some 26,800 full time employees and over 186,000 volunteers[2]. The high street in Frimley, where I live, has four of them, two, curiously, supporting the same institution.

Known as thrift shops in the States and oppies, short for opportunity shops, in Australia and New Zealand, charity shops seem to be more prevalent in Anglophone countries. Elsewhere, the sale of what the CRA call their “unique range of goods” is transacted in the open, for example at the French brocante (flea market), vide-grenier (a car boot sale), or municipal braderie (a festival combining a flea market)[3].

British charity shops have fought hard to dispel the image of being an “instructive inventory of the passé”, as Mary McCarthy described one in The Group (1954), a repository of outmoded trends and fashions infused with the faint aroma of mothballs. Nevertheless, over 90% of their turnover still comes from the sale of goods donated by well-wishers, who, if British Income Tax payers, can boost the retail value of their donations by a further 25% through the Government’s Gift Aid Scheme. Saving around 339,000 tonnes of textiles from disposal, they not only help a good cause but also make a small but valuable contribution to securing the planet’s future.

While shelves and racks still contain single-purpose kitchen appliances, clothing bought on a whim, and ornaments last seen on a grandparent’s dresser, a developing trend is to sell “bought-in goods”, discontinued lines from major retailers. All new and sold at discounted prices, in summer 2022 they made up around 7.3% of their total turnover.

Concerted efforts to ameliorate the conditions of the poor began in earnest in the 18th century. A “poor rate” levied on parish householders, as well as establishing workhouses, helped those able to work but whose wages were too low to support their families by giving them “relief in aid of wages” in the form of money, food, and clothing. Funds were also collected at balls, concerts, and charitable art exhibitions, wealthy philanthropists bequeathed substantial sums to charitable purposes, and single purpose charities such as The Foundling Hospital (1739) and the Marine Society (1756) were established to give unfortunate children a better start in life.

By the 19th century the charity bazaar or “fancy fair” became a popular way to raise funds, receiving royal imprimatur in 1833 when Queen Adelaide, William IV’s wife, attended the “Grand Fancy Fair and Bazaar” in London. Soon London was hosting more than a thousand charity functions a year and the idea spread throughout the country.

Bazaars were often grand affairs, offering entertainment in the form of puppet shows, fortune telling, plays and music, as well as selling a wide range of goods. They were often themed, with elaborate décor, actors dressed in costumes, and refreshments suitable for the occasion. Offering a rare opportunity for the sexes to mingle freely, patrons would dress in their Sunday best.

They were not universally popular. Religious leaders criticised the materialism and false piety charity bazaars encouraged, while the Cornhill Magazine complained in 1861 that women manning the stalls used feminine “coaxing” and “insinuating” to persuade the public to part with their money.




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.