Sable Messenger

Sable Messenger – Francis Vivian

Francis Vivian was the nom de plume of Nottinghamshire journalist, Arthur Ernest Ashley. This is the second of ten novels he wrote featuring Inspector Knollis and was published in 1947, six years after the opener, The Death of Mr Lomas and is reissued by Dean Street Press. In fictional terms, life has moved on by five years and Knollis has transferred to Scotland Yard. But such is Sir Wilfrid Burrows’ high regard of him that the local Chief Constable does not hesitate to ask for him to assist when the local effort fails to come up with a lead.

A Knollis adventure is not an adrenaline-fuelled, rollercoaster of a ride. It is a full-blooded police procedural as the detective plods his way through a mountain of leads, examining, demolishing or confirming alibis narrowing down the possibilities. He will say “something is going to happen in the next thirty minutes but I’m not sure what it is” and, sure enough, something does and he might even admit to thinking what happened would have happened. Knollis keeps his cards close to his chest, but in fairness to Vivian he plays fair with the reader. All the leads and clues are scrupulously declared and so the reader can entertain themselves, if they so choose, with trying to unravel the puzzle before Knollis reveals the answer.

Perhaps I was a bit jaded when I read this but, frankly, I couldn’t be bothered playing the amateur thief. I devoured the pages, a tribute to Vivian’s easy style and ability to keep things moving, but I didn’t feel the need to go much further. The set up seemed to me a tad dull and I was left wondering whether the set of circumstances really would lead up to someone killing another.

The novel finds us in deep suburbia, Westford Bridge to be precise, full of aspiring couples replete with their petty jealousies and seething with grievances. The victim, Robert Dexter, has answered a knock at his door of the ludicrously named but totally apt Himalaya Villas, and been stabbed to death. His wife, Lesley, described as a snob in the opening sentence of the book, finds him and screams. The wife of the neighbour, Mrs Rawley, who answered a knock at her own door a minute or so earlier, quickly appears on the scene and summons the police.

On the face of it, it seemed a pretty senseless and random murder. At best Dexter was little more than middle management in a local firm and, apart for a passion for collecting Elizabethan poetry, lived a quiet life. But as Knollis digs into the circumstances in more detail, he finds jealousy and rivalry at play and that Dexter has his hands on a valuable medieval manuscript, the eponymous Sable Messenger, which belonged to an elderly priest and which his cousin, Richard Dexter, had found in a priest’s cupboard. It becomes, as the plot unfolds, more of a device to bring another credible witness of the events into the open and to unearth the rivalry of the two Dexters for the hand of Lesley.

The book enters Freeman Wills Crofts’ territory when Knollis works out how the murderer could have escaped via the convenient river running behind Westford Bridge, by a study of and experiment with currents.

The opening sentence of the book reads like the beginning of a lecture on the insurance principle of proximate cause: “If Lesley Dexter had not been a snob her husband might have lived out his three-score-and-ten years”. Her attempts at social climbing, dragging her reluctant husband with her, sets in motion a series of events that leads to his demise. Whether they would really end up in a cold-blooded murder, for which the end result, if caught, was the death sentence, I somehow doubt.   

I hope the series will contain some more satisfying stories.

The Crime At The Noah’s Ark

Molly Thynne only wrote six crime novels, three of which featured the chess-playing Dr Constantine, and I have been eking them out as it never does to have too much of a good thing in a short space of time. It seems odd to be reviewing a book set around Christmas at this time of the year but I have read so many books during the pandemic that not wanting to turn this blog into an ersatz Goodreads that’s how the scheduling has panned out. Anyway, it is never too early to plan your festive season reading.

Published initially in 1931, it has been reissued for a modern readership by the indefatigable Dean Street Press. The story starts on familiar and somewhat hackneyed ground. Bad weather forces a group of disparate travellers, including Constantine, to abandon their plans to reach a luxury holiday resort where they were going to spend Christmas, and seek refuge at the Noah’s Ark, a hostelry large enough and under patronised enough to accommodate them all. The party is a motley crew, including a best-selling author, Angus Stuart, a pair of spinster sisters, Lord Romsey with his son and two daughters, Major Carew who is rather too fond of the bottle and the ladies, the attractive Mrs Orkney Cloude, the careless American widow, Mrs van Dolen, who is famed for her collection of fine jewels, her secretary, Miss Hamilton, a gigolo in the form of Felix Melnotte and a shy accountant by the name of Trevor.

In what is essentially an extension of a closed room mystery, Major Carew gets himself murdered and Mrs van Dolen is relieved of her jewels. Are the two crimes linked and who, among the guests, perpetrated the crimes? Into this heady mix, Thynne adds a shoal of red herrings, a dash of love interest, masked men who disturb guests during the night, a spate of car tyre slashings and a general atmosphere of paranoia and unease.

Responsibility for investigating and solving the goings-on at the Noah’s Ark falls upon Constantine, ably assisted by Stuart and Soames who do much of the heavy lifting aka nightime vigils and jumping in and out of windows, while the amateur sleuth directs operations using his heightened observational powers. Thynne has saddled herself with quite a cast list, augmented even further when you add in the poor landlord and his staff, who would probably have preferred a quiet and unprofitable Yuletide to the mayhem that the sudden influx of unexpected guests has caused. To her credit, though, each of the characters is well-drawn and it is easy to keep tabs on who is who as the narrative progresses and who to discount and who to focus on.

The whereabouts of the jewels and who ultimately stole them is relatively easy to deduce, but the underlying motives and crime prove more problematic. I’m not sure Thynne plays totally fair with her readers and although I had my suspicions as to what it was all about, I had not put all the pieces together by the denouement. I will not spoil your enjoyment but, suffice to say, not everyone is who they seem to be.             

I don’t think Noah’s Ark ranks as one of her best books, but if you are looking for a bit of light-entertainment to keep you amused as you slump in an armchair after a heavy Christmas meal, you cannot do much better than this. It is fast paced and well-written, a tad eccentric and delightful fun.

Miss Mole

Miss Mole – E H Young

E H Young, the nom de plume of Emily Hilda Daniell, was a best-selling novelist in her time but after an undeserved period of obscurity her works are now finding a new audience, thanks to this reissue from Dean Street Press under their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint. Originally published in 1930, it was her seventh novel and marks the midpoint of her literary career which spanned from 1910 with A Corn of Wheat until 1947 with Chatterton Square, published two years before her death.

This is not my normal reading fare and I must confess I found it a little bit of a struggle at times. Young is fond of a long rambling sentence and the narrative was a little disjointed, episodic with no obvious flow. It is only some way through the book that, for example, we realise that Miss Mole has saved a man from committing suicide between meeting her cousin and slipping out on the pretence of buying some thread, both of which are recounted at length in the first chapter.

When I had finished the book and thought about it, it dawned me that Young was representing stylistically some of the characteristics of her heroine, someone ever watchful and on guard, sparing on the details of her past, the truth emerging piecemeal, clues and hints that have to be seized upon and fleshed out. In her private life Young was also secretive, living in a menage à trois, something hidden for forty years and knew much about the themes that run through this book, the tensions that exist between secrecy and truth, appearances and integrity.     

Miss Mole, a farmer’s daughter, has earned her living (just) as a governess or companion to a succession of difficult women and when we first encounter her she is on the verge of dismissal. Although competent in her work, Miss Mole doesn’t suffer fools gladly and, unusually for a servant, will voice her opinion or displeasure, a trait which gets her into hot water. Thanks to her cousin, Lilla, something in the society of Radstowe aka Bristol, she soon secures a position at the household of the non-conformist minister, Reverend Corder, as governess and mother-substitute to his two daughters. Corder’s nephew, Wilfrid, also shares the house and he has little time for his uncle. Miss Mole feels at ease in his company and gradually opens up to him.

Miss Mole also finds solace in the company of the old man who lives next door and Mr Blenkinsop, a lodger in the house she has taken refuge in between jobs. Much of the book centres around Miss Mole’s discomfort as a skeleton from her past emerges in the form of Mr Pilgrim and Blenkinsop’s ill-judged decision to take her back to her childhood home. Miss Mole’s cunning plans to hide the truth and her flippancy towards Corder means that she is often moments away from the sack and a life of penury. What might make for a bleak, tragic tale is rescued by Young’s (and Miss Mole’s) wit and a romantic finale which secures her future.

Thematically, the book deals with morality and the contrast between behaviour that is considered socially acceptable and Miss Mole’s true morality. She has a heart of gold and does good for all she encounters but her reputation and finances are always on a knife-edge because her guilty secrets would be seen as a challenge to the teachings of the church and the prevailing social attitudes of the time. Young shows that much of what the church teaches is hypocritical and that Miss Mole for all her faults is a role model to follow.    

I found it a thought-provoking book with many interesting insights. I was glad I read it, but I am not sure I will read any of her other books.

Coffin Of The Week (3)

I always think that it is worth giving a little thought about how you want your funeral to go. When you get down to it, there’s a lot to consider.

Take the coffin. Do you go traditional, sustainable, or something a little different, designed to put a smile on the mourners’ faces? If the latter, you might want to bear in mind Dying Art, a company based in Auckland in New Zealand.

Run by Ross Hall it is a custom coffin business, which transforms specially-made blank coffins with fibre board and plywood to add some detail and uses a latex digital printer for the design. Depending upon the design, the coffins can cost between $3,000 and $7,500 NZD. Among the designs Ross has created are a fire engine, a sailing boat complete with cabins, sail, rudder and metal railings, Lego blocks, and a chocolate bar.

The inspiration came when Ross sat down to plan his own funeral. He has chosen a red box with flames on it. His cousin, Phil Maclean, was sent off in a doughnut-shaped coffin, prompting an initial gasp from the mourners and then a wave a laughter.

If you’ve got to go, do it in style. For more details follow the link below:   

Covid-19 Tales (20)

The development and rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines is a remarkable scientific and logistical achievement, something to celebrate, for sure. Why not celebrate with a vaccine-themed sweet mousse?

The Sulyan family patisserie in Veresegyhaz, north east of Budapest in Hungary, has launched a range of layered mousses with colourful jelly toppings, presented in small glasses, with decorative syringes on top. Each colour of jelly represents a different Covid-19 vaccine available in the country: citrus yellow for Astra Zeneca, a slightly darker yellow for Sinopharm, matcha green for Pfizer, orange for Sputnik V, and vivid blue for Moderna.

When you turn up for your injection, you have no say in which vaccine you will be given. However, at the patisserie, confectioner Katalin Benko reported, customers are free to choose whichever one they want. And the only likely side-effect is that it will put a smile on your face.

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