Tag Archives: Dean Street Press

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.

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.

The Crime At Tattenham Corner

A review of The Crime at Tattenham Corner by Annie Haynes – 230425

Originally published in 1929 and reissued by Dean Street Press, The Crime at Tattenham Corner is the second in Haynes’ Inspector Stoddart series. The story starts on the eve of the Epsom Derby, the race in which Sir John Burslem’s horse, Peep O’Day, is the bookies’ favourite. The horse does not run to the dismay of many who have put their shirt on the animal as Burslem’s body is found in a ditch near Tattenham Corner, a village and railway station near the racecourse. Under the rules of the race, if the owner is dead, the horse has to scratch.

The second favourite, Perlyon, wins the race and Burslem’s death – he was shot but not at close range – immediately puts suspicion on its owner, Charles Stanyard, who was not only in the area at the time but also was engaged to Burslem’s much younger wife, Sybil. Needless to say, the plot is a lot more complicated than that. We are treated to lashings of spiritualism, thanks to the ludicrously preposterous Mrs Jimmy Burslem, wife of the explorer, Burslem’s brother James, who is believed to be in Tibet, a disappearing head valet, Ellerby, and a number of physical clues, a handbag, a cigarette case, and a revolver found near the scene that turns out not to have been used in the murder.

Just before his death, Burslem, a successful financier, had time to make an unexpected return to his home and changed his will, handing over all his wealth and assets to his wife, Sophie, and cutting his daughter, Pamela, out completely. It is not long after his death that Peep O’Day is surprisingly sold to Argentinia and Sophie is in cahoots with an Argentinian secretary who is assisting her with administering Burslem’s former affairs.    

There are a number of suspects, each of whom has their moment under the spotlight and Haynes’ best moments in this rather sprawling novel that she seems at times to barely control is to shift the reader’s suspicions from one to the other. For me the highlight of the book is the working relationship between Stoddart and his assistant, Alfred Harbord, who are amiable companions and work well, although they have slightly differing views as to what really happened to Harbord. Stoddart adopts a slightly patronising attitude to his junior, allowing him the room to show initiative and develop his own theories only to gently puncture the theory by pointing out some clue or inference that does not fit into the explanation.

Stoddart, though, is no inspired detective whose brilliant intellect sees through the cunning plans of the murderer. He too struggles to fit all the facts, clues, and inferences into a coherent case and when he steels his nerve to make an arrest in an amusing episode that involves him assuming a disguise to gain entry to the suspect’s suite – disguise and misidentification is a running theme through the book – it is clear to the reader that the case for the prosecution has so many holes in it that a competent defence lawyer would drive a coach and horses, never mind a thoroughbred, through it.

Nevertheless, to court it goes and the trial is a society sensation. That Stoddart has backed the wrong horse is revealed by a death bed confession, the true culprit having been involved in what turns out to be a fatal road accident but still, like all good Catholics should, has time to unburden their soul before meeting their maker. I always feel that these death bed confessions are a bit of a cop out on the part of the writer, and everything is wrapped up a little too tidily with more than an unhealthy dollop of “and they lived happily ever after” for my taste.

The book has more than a touch of the melodramatic potboiler about it, but it is entertaining and kept me guessing until the end.

The Mystery Of The Kneeling Woman

A review of The Mystery of the Kneeling Woman by Moray Dalton – 230416

One of Rupert Heath’s last acts before his untimely and tragic death was to prepare for the release of five more of Moray Dalton’s murder mysteries, an event I was eagerly anticipating and, if The Mystery of the Kneeling Woman, originally published in 1936, is anything to go by he has left a lasting and enjoyable legacy to followers of Dean Street Press. Moray Dalton, the nom de plume of Katherine Renoir, had always struck me as an interesting writer whose plots gave her readers food for thought over and above the usual whodunit and whydunit.

1936 was in retrospect a turning point in the fortunes of Europe, a time when for many the activities of the Nazis in central Europe and the fascists in Italy and Spain brought a sense of deep foreboding, while for others, scarred by the terrors and brutality of the First World War, vowed never to repeat the same mistake again. Many in Britain were fundamentally opposed to war, the support for the Peace Pledge Union being at its height, but even its politicians were beginning to realise that some form of rearmament might be prudent and some even that another pan-European war was inevitable.

In her plot Dalton reflects this schism in public opinion through two of her principal characters. The local vicar, John Clare, idolizes his son who won the Victoria Cross in the first conflict and died from injuries sustained during a gas attack. Rather like his namesake the romantic poet, devastated by the impact on a once peaceful countryside of mechanization, Clare will do anything to stop the world making the same mistake again.

Misanthropic recluse, Simon Killick, who also has a wartime tragedy which only emerges as the story proceeds, has devoted his later years to developing a poisonous gas that is so lethal that it will kill anyone inside nine seconds. He announces to Clare at their weekly chess game that he is about to sell the formula for the gas to foreign agents. He will not sell to the British because he blames them for what happened to his son.

Shortly afterwards Killick is found murdered, his head bashed in, hours after a stranger, later identified as Michael Constantine, is found in his death throes by a young boy, “Toby” Fleming, muttering enigmatically about a kneeling woman before he dies. By the time the leads have gone cold, Hugh Collier, Dalton’s series detective from the Yard, this is his sixth outing, is called to solve two murders which ostensibly seem to be unrelated but are.

In a further twist, there are two more murders, two sons of a retired businessman by the name of Webber, who were poisoned after ingesting some tampered chocolates. “Toby” Fleming was also at the house at the time but while this is mere coincidence, there is a link with one of the earlier deaths.

Collier is an empathetic investigator in contrast to the local force but in the ledgers of investigative success, this is a thorny set of problems that he fails to bring to a satisfactory conclusion. He never identifies the killer of Constantine and the suspect he arrests for Killick’s murder is acquitted in a trial, the highlights of which make up the penultimate case. Clues include a brass rubbing (the kneeling woman) and an African grey parrot whose mimicry settles in Collier’s mind what really happened to Killick. At least he has the satisfaction of providing the local force with the clue that leads to the resolution of the Webber boys’ murders, even though it was not his case.

Collier is in danger of compromising his professionalism by getting dangerously romantically close to “Toby’s” mother. A single mother herself, Dalton’s portrayal of Mrs Fleming is interesting. By modern standards she is a terrible mother, leaving her son at the moment when he is vulnerable to attack because of the information he has, but she is painted in a sympathetic light, juggling her priorities and doing what she considers best. At heart she is the polar opposite of Lady Webber, an equally terrible mother whose sole concern is for herself.

The ending has a twist to it, raising the imponderable question of whether it is ever right to do a terrible thing in order to prevent an even greater tragedy. As ever Dalton gives much food for thought.

I am looking forward to reading the next and I hope Curtis Evans is successful in finding a publisher to reissue her other books. She is sadly underrated.

The Case Of The Magic Mirror

A review of The Case of the Magic Mirror by Christopher Bush – 230413

The transformation of Christopher Bush’s amateur sleuth, Ludovic Travers, continues apace. It was shock enough to find that the once aloof and rather ascetic Travers had married, but in this, the twenty-sixth in the series, originally published in 1943 and reissued by those champions of neglected Golden Age crime fiction, Dean Street Press, it emerges he has a skeleton in the cupboard in the form of a three-year fling with the now Charlotte Craigne, née Vallants, during which he possibly fathered a son.

This rather large skeleton comes back to rattle his cage in what is a case that has much more personal jeopardy for him than is usually the case. It was also a situation close to Bush’s own heart as he was rumoured to have fathered a son, albeit from an extra-marital affair, an allegation he was never able to refute not did he ever acknowledge the boy’s paternity.

During the war years there is a distinct change in style and tone in Bush’s work. From the start of his wartime trilogy Travers has started to narrate the stories, as he does here, but there is beginning to emerge a darker, more pragmatic approach to the art of solving a case, perhaps, as the excellent Introduction suggests, as the result of the influence, conscious or unconscious, of the American crime writing fraternity. Certainly, here Travers is prepared to fight like a cornered tiger to preserve his reputation and his marriage, willing to counter blackmail with blackmail and to play his own game without much reference to his old police mucker, The “General” Wharton, who, as usual, eventually gets there but, without Travers’ assistance, takes a more circuitous route.

Travers has a new helpmate in the form of Frank Tarling, a professional private investigator drafted in to help disprove Charlotte’s claim that an illegitimate child was spawned from their affair. However, his role is expanded to encompass the two murders that form the meat of the case. The pair work well together, Tarling prepared to do the hard graft while Travers oversees matters.

The case itself is one of Bush’s better ones, both intriguing and complex. Its origins lie in a betting scam involving back-dated telegrams sent from rural post offices after the race has been run. Ina trial in 1937 at which Wharton shows professional interest and Travers comes along for the ride, the actor, Rupert Craigne, and his associates Sivley and Harper are jailed. The fourth man, a horse trainer, Rogerley, walks free. Sivley, who has received the harsher sentence, shouts as he is being led down that he has scores to settle when he is released. Sure enough, shortly after Sivley’s release Craigne and his father-in-law, Joe Passman, whom Wharton had suspected at the original trial as being implicated in the plot, are murdered within hours of each other and Sivley disappears.

Of course, the case is much more complex than a simple hunt for the obvious suspect, Sivley. It turns upon what the butler, Matthews, saw, in this case reflected in a Queen Anne mirror, the finest of its kind that Travers has ever seen and one on which he has his eye. Matthews pays for his inadvertent knowledge with his life.

The eminence grise in the tale is the marvellous Charlotte Craigne, a true femme fatale and the most formidable female antagonist Travers was ever to encounter, in the sleuth’s own words. He finds himself entangled in her web, used as a pawn to give herself and her seemingly estranged husband a cast-iron alibi. Although Travers has suspicions about what was really behind the murders, the scales only fall from his eyes when he sees a maid’s antics reflected in a mirror. It is another case where a behavioural tic gives an identity away.

The denouement gives the book a fantastic finale with Wharton playing the part of a Belgian to fine effect, although the main culprit escapes their judicial fate with a timely consumption of poison. It was a thoroughly entertaining and gripping case, one of Bush’s better ones, and kept me enthralled to the end.