Category Archives: Culture

Five To Five

A review of Five to Five by Dorothy Erskine Muir

I am going through a phase of sampling authors from the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction who are new to me. Dorothy Erskine Muir is the latest to fall into this category. Astonishingly, she was one of seventeen children sired by John Sheepshanks, Bishop of Norwich. She worked as an academic tutor but started writing professionally, mainly historical non-fiction, to supplement her income following the unexpected death of her husband. Among her published works, though, were three murder mysteries, of which this is the second, originally issued in 1934, and now plucked out of undeserved obscurity by the enterprising Moonstone Press.

Perhaps because of her interest in history, Erskine Muir chose to base her murder mysteries around examples of true crimes. Five to Five takes as its premise the notorious murder of a wealthy 82-year-old woman, Marion Gilchrist, who was murdered on December 21, 1908, bludgeoned to death, after her maidservant had left the flat in Glasgow to do some errands. Miss Gilchrist obviously knew her attacker as there was no evidence of forced entry. From her extensive jewellery collection, only one large diamond brooch was found to be missing.

The police arrested Oscar Slater and on rather flimsy evidence was found guilty in 1909 of Gilchrist’s murder and sentenced to hang, although it was later commuted to imprisonment. He was eventually released after several enquiries and much campaigning on his behalf by, amongst others, Conan Doyle, after serving nineteen years of hard labour. It was one of Scotland’s most egregious miscarriages of justice.

Erskine Muir chose to revisit the case, with different characters and essay a cogent and plausible solution to the case. Her Miss Gilchrist is a rather unpleasant, miserly old man, Simon Ewing, who has an extensive collection of jade and jewellery. As is the wont of these characters, he is unwilling to help his impecunious relatives. When he is left in his flat unattended, he is bludgeoned to death.

In the flat below, there is a family gathering and when they hear the crash, a couple go upstairs to investigate and a stranger passes them on the stairs making their way to the exit. Was this the murderer? Did they really not recognise him? All that was missing were two rings from Ewing’s fingers and one piece of diamond jewellery.

The task of discovering what had happened to Ewing and why falls to Detective Inspector Woods, who performs his duties diligently and with some compassion. As the title suggests, much of the investigation focuses on who was where and at what time and the accuracy or otherwise of various timepieces which the suspects used to vouch for their alibis. Inevitably, once Woods realises that they are not all telling the same time he begins to make some progress, but it takes a second murder for the pieces to fall into place.

Erskine Muir writes with verve, varies the focal point of the narrative with some aplomb, develops her characters so that they are more than ciphers, and does a fine job of keeping the momentum going, when in less skilled hands the establishing and dismantling of alibis can become a tad wearisome. Her solution is elegant with a twist that many readers, this one included, might not have seen coming and, unlike in the Slater case, justice is seen to be done.

Although the book will not be up there amongst the genre’s true classics, I enjoyed it and will read her other two novels.

Fern Lore

Dense stands of Britain’s most common fern, Pteridium aquilinum, bracken, carpet the floor of the woodlands near where I live, marking the progress of the year. Their tightly curled fronds appear in spring, slowly but inexorably unfurling into three large, triangular fronds which wave and susurrate in the summer breeze before dying back in the autumn to leave a rusty brown matting.

Sculptural, dramatic, primordial they may be, but the fronds of bracken are also poisonous, packed full of Ptaquiloside, up to 0.8 percent of their dry weight some studies suggest, which can cause haemorrhagic disease and bright blindness in livestock and oesophageal and gastric cancer in humans. The Koreans, though, have been able to make gosari, bracken, a principal ingredient in bibimbap, a classic and delicious staple of their cuisine, by simply boiling the fronds which breaks down the toxins.

Bracken has long been a source of fascination. The stem, when sliced at an angle, reveals a pattern, known as the devil’s hoof in Scotland, but which many saw as representing the Greek letter chi, the initial of Christ. From this sprang the belief that it provided protection. Waving a frond in front of a witch was enough to ward off her spells and send werewolves and other evil spirits packing. In Brittany and Normandy shepherds used crosses woven from ferns to safeguard themselves and their flocks while in Slavic countries, to drive away Rusalki, freshwater sirens with a penchant for drowning mortals, bathers entwined ferns into their hair before taking a plunge into a lake.

And how did the fern, which has no discernible flower or seed, propagate itself? After all, as the French botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, wrote in 1694, “the views of those who believe all plants have seeds are founded on very reasonable conjectures”. As plants, ferns must have flowers and seeds. The only logical conclusion was that they bloomed and produce their seeds when no one was around to see them.

It was believed that what the pastoral poet, William Browne, described as the “wondrous one-night seeding ferne” in Britannia’s Pastorals (1613) took place on the stroke of midnight on Midsummer’s Eve or St John’s Eve. Conveniently, it was not only the shortest night of the year but also the exact moment that John the Baptist was said to have been born. The fern would produce a bright red flower that lit up the woods only to be immediately snatched by the devil.

Others thought it was blue, always tricky to be sure when you have never seen it, while in Polish folklore the bloom would last until the first cockerel had crowed in the morning. According to some traditions, those lucky enough to find fern seeds would have all their wishes come true, while in England their possession brought success in love. Youths would go to Boggart Hole Clough near Manchester in search of the “seeds of St John’s fern on the Eve of St John’s Day” to win the hearts of those maidens who had previously spurned their advances.

Thirty-Two Of The Gang

What is a pig month? According to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era it was any of the eight months without an R in their name when it was said to be safe to eat pork.

Pork is a common ingredient in pies. One of the first pie shops in London was established by Henry Blanchard, probably from around 1844. There all manner of pies could be purchased, ranging from fruit to meat to eel. It proved enormously popular with the paying public as pies cost just one penny. It was less well received by the itinerant pie sellers. Henry Mayhew, in his London Labour and the London Poor, noted that “the penny pie shops, the street men say, have done their trade a great deal of harm. These shops have now got mostly all the custom, as they make pies much larger for the money than those sold in the street”.

Perhaps these disgruntled pie sellers were instrumental for coining the phrase pie shop as a synonym for a dog, for the simple expedient that was what they alleged to be the main ingredient of the pies.

In street argot a pill was a dose, punishment suffering or a sentence because of being endless in its application. A pill pusher, though, was a doctor.

An objection that could be levied at Johnson’s government is that they are guilty of podsnappery. This was defined as “a wilful determination to ignore the objectionable or inconvenient, at the same time assuming airs of superior virtue and noble resignation”. If only the latter was true.

Death At The Bar

A review of Death at the Bar by Ngaio Marsh

It has taken me a while to warm to Ngaio Marsh, but the books written in the late 1930s and early 40s see her in fine form. Written in 1939 but published in 1940 the setting for Death at the Bar allows her to indulge her penchant for unusual settings and unusual murder methods as well as, in this case, to craft an excellent pun. The murder occurs in a bar, the Plume of Feathers in the south Devon village of Ottercombe, while the victim, Luke Watchman, a King’s Counsel, is also a member of the other bar.

Ottercombe is Watchman’s regular holiday retreat, and he is there with his two friends, Sebastian Parrish, an accomplished movie star, and Norman Cubitt, an up-and-coming painter. Watchman, though, has an unerring knack of rubbing people up the wrong way and takes a particular dislike to a relative newcomer to the village, Bob Legge, who amongst other things is a leading light in the local Leftist movement and an accomplished darts player. Their two cars lock horns as Watchman makes his entrance to the village and the barrister is keen to cast aspersions on his and some of the others’ political beliefs. There is a feeling that the two have had some previous encounter.

Watchman also earns the dislike of the publican’s son, Bob Pomeroy, and the girl he believes to be his girlfriend, Decima Moore. Legge’s party trick is to get someone to put their outstretched hand on the dartboard and to throw a dart between each span. Watchman challenges Legge to repeat his trick, one of the darts hits Watchman’s finger, he collapses and after a tot of brandy mutters “Poisoned” and dies. As Legge had no obvious access to poison, let alone an opportunity to dip a dart into it – they were brand new, unwrapped for the occasion – the verdict of the subsequent inquest is one of accidental death.

Goaded by local, Nark, who alleges that if you use the Plume of Feathers, you run the risk of being poisoned, publican Abel Pomeroy visits Scotland Yard with allegations that Watchman was murdered. Roderick Alleyn, Marsh’s go-to detective, accompanied by his faithful colleague, Fox, lead the investigations.

There are the usual red herrings, some well-constructed misdirections, and several suspects who, at various points of the story, could have killed Watchman for a variety of reasons. Marsh has taken care over her plot and the pieces only start coming together when some background information emerges about the amateur water colourist, Hon. Violet Darragh, who hitherto had been a rather ancillary figure. There are clues dotted throughout the narrative for the alert reader to garner and mull over and while the identity of the culprit ultimately comes as no surprise, the motivation for the murder and the method shows some ingenuity that may have eluded many of Marsh’s readers.

Missing from the tale is Alleyn’s usual Dr Watson, the journalist Nigel Bathgate, his role assumed by the local Chief Constable, the rather eccentric Maxwell Brammington, to whom Alleyn reveals his deductive processes. Annoying as Bathgate can sometimes be, I rather missed him. Agatha Troy is also absent from the narrative, although it is revealed en passant that Alleyn has married her. The little wife knows her place, perhaps.  

Marsh uses the characters in her book to engage in a discussion about left wing politics and the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, which are interesting documents of their time. There are moments of comedy, usually provided by the more rustic characters and Marsh enjoys herself in portraying the Devonian accent and exploring the tensions between the locals and the holidaymakers.

It is an engaging book, an entertaining read, and keeps the reader on their toes.

Post After Post-Mortem

A review of Post after Post-Mortem by E C R Lorac

One of the literary world’s most intriguing questions is why some writers are remembered long after they had finished writing while others, equally worthy, fall into unwarranted obscurity. Edith Caroline Rivett, who wrote under the nom de plume of ECR Lorac, falls into the latter category, wholly unjustifiably, and it is one of the pleasures of the renaissance of Golden Age detective fiction that her books are slowly but surely being plucked out of obscurity, each occasion one to be rejoiced over. This, the eleventh in her Inspector Macdonald series and originally published in 1936, has recently been reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series.

We are still having problems with our post, during one six-week period we had just three deliveries, a combination of Covid-related sicknesses and reorganisation, we were told. Thankfully, there was nothing of any importance that we had not been advised by other means, but there could have been a missive whose arrival could have changed the complexion of affairs dramatically. Richard Surray’s post has been delayed, not because of staff shortages and managerial incompetence, but because he has moved around a lot. Had he received the letter posted by his sister, Ruth, on the night that she supposedly committed suicide, the verdict of the inquest would have been altogether different.

As it was, Ruth was found dead in her bed, seemingly having taken an overdose. The inquest recorded a verdict of suicide, Ruth was known to be depressive and Richard, a psychologist, knew she was under stress. Richard, keen to avoid causing the Surrays, his highly successful family, any unnecessary distress, wraps up matters with the minimum of fuss. However, the receipt of Ruth’s letter, written seemingly in good spirits, changes his views of her death and he calls Inspector Macdonald to investigate.

Lorac takes more care than usual in portraying Macdonald. He is empathetic, keen to minimise the distress for the family, and yet keen to ensure that justice is done. Unusually, he takes a virulent personal dislike to one of the suspects but battles to ensure that personal animosity does not cloud his judgment. It is a complex problem that he has to solve. There are a large number of potential suspects, some of whom are more plausible than others. As well as Ruth’s murder, there is an “accident” to one of the guests, two of the suspects are poisoned, and the Surray’s home suffers an arson attack.

Their enquiries take the investigating officers, Macdonald to London and Reeves to Mallaig. Reeves has an upsetting period locked in a cupboard and his expertise in ju-jitsu comes in handy. The culprit is unmasked by a rather underhand trick, but the explanation of why and how they were driven to commit the murder and conduct a reign of terror to cover their traces, including an intriguing way to commit arson, is ultimately satisfying.

At its heart, the book is about the psychology of obsession and devotion and how it can lead people to extreme actions. It also demonstrates that once a certain course of action is taken, it leads to further complications. Lorac also dwells on the role of women in society, particularly in the world of academia, publishing, and academia.

While the Surray girls are successful in their own rights, there is an expectation and a certain pressure for them to settle down and get married. Curiously, though, for a story with such a strong theme, the women are remarkably absent from the stage. Ruth is murdered early on, Naomi goes off to Scotland and, despite being a potentially valuable witness or even suspect, is never called for questioning by Macdonald, and Mrs Surray flits around in the background, muttering about the disruption to her household. Perhaps their relative silence makes Lorac’s case about the difficulties facing women seeking to make their way in life more powerful.

I found the book a tad overlong, but it is well-written, intriguingly plotted, and, while Lorac is not entirely open with all the evidence, keeping the reader guessing until the end, it all makes sense in the end. It is a mystery why Lorac is so underrated. Perhaps Inspector Macdonald will tell us why.