Tag Archives: Moonstone Press

House With Crooked Walls

A review of House with Crooked Walls by Bruce Graeme

In writing these book reviews I try to find something good to say about even those books which try my patience to the extreme, but House with Crooked Walls, the second of Bruce Graeme’s Theodore Terhune series, originally published in 1942 and reissued by Moonstone Press, presents an almost insurmountable challenge. It is one of those books that you persevere with in the vain hope that it might improve. The best I can say about it is that it bends and twists the genre of crime fiction to the ultimate degree so that it is barely recognisable.

In a sense it is a history of a house, unimaginatively called the House-on-the-Hill, which, whilst commanding stupendous panoramic views of the Kent countryside, the locals will not touch with a barge pole, believing it to be cursed. It has lain vacant, unsold for some years and the local community is all of a twitter when a Panamanian, Dr Vincente Salvaterra, buys it. Salvaterra commissions bibliophile, local bookseller and amateur sleuth, Theodore Terhune, to unearth the history of the house and discover why the locals are so apprehensive about the building. Terhune accepts the commission.

Despite being a bookish fellow with an acute sense of history, Terhune misses an obvious feature that you would expect to find in a house of this vintage. It takes Inspector Sampson, who appears late into the book, to open his eyes to the fact that you might find secret passages and priest holes. If this lack of perspicacity is unbelievable enough, it takes Julia MacMunn, the classic air head of a girl who barely knew one end of a book from the other the start, to carry out a detailed bit of research at the British Museum and uncover a rare book, printed in Boston, which reveals some of the secrets of the house.

With these two bits of information, Terhune and Sampson, acting in an unofficial capacity, make considerable progress in uncovering the gory details of the house’s history, why it was perceived as being cursed, and why at least three individuals, more are discovered later, have disappeared into the bowels of the house, never to be seen again.

One of the disappearances is very recent, Salvaterra’s son, Andres, who later turns out to be his stepson – the difference is crucial – and Sampson expounds a theory about why Salvaterra was so keen to have Terhune investigate the house’s past and to give credulity to the story of the house’s cursed and troubled past. Salvaterra even went to the trouble of having Terhune’s narrative published privately and released to the national press when the story of Andres’ disappearance broke. Was Terhune a naïve patsy in a larger, more malevolent scheme. What Salvaterra’s prime interest in the house is only touched upon and the reader has had no opportunity, other than hoping something might happen, to work out his motives. When they are revealed, they are mundane enough.

The ending is a tad melodramatic for my taste, a fitting end to a book that is truly disappointing. Graeme does his best to wring out as much from the gothic atmosphere he has created but this reader was left with the distinct impression that an interesting experiment had fallen flat on its face, one that might have worked better in a short story or novella format. I will not give up on Terhune as the next one has to be better!

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.

Seven Clues In Search Of A Crime

A review of Seven Clues in search of a Crime by Bruce Graeme

It is always a pleasure to find a new author and Bruce Graeme, a nom de plume of Graham Montague Jeffries, is a new one on me. This is the first in his series featuring the bookshop owning amateur sleuth, Theodore Ichobad Terhume, known as Tommy to his mates, and was originally published in 1941 and now reissued by Moonstone Press.

It is even more of a pleasure when you come across an author who writes with wit, verve, and no little panache and is willing to turn on its head the hackneyed genre of crime fiction. This is no straightforward crime novel – murder, investigation, culprit unmasked – nor even an inverted murder mystery where you know whodunit and the story is more about how the sleuth catches them, but something even more radical.

Terhune, an ingenu in the field when it comes to the world of detection, although, naturally, he has read all the murder novels, is drawn inexorably into a rabbit hole by a collection of odd incidents and clues (seven in total) which bit by bit lead him to unearthing a crime and, ultimately, a murder. The identities of the victim, certainly, and the culprit, to a lesser extent, are almost throwaways at the end of the story. What interests Graeme is the process of investigation, of picking the bones from a series of seemingly random clues and chance events into something comprehensible. Like Terhune, the reader is drawn into Graeme’s intriguingly convoluted plot, the deeper we go the less able we are to resist the lure of finding out what it is all about. It is tremendous fun.

Terhune’s adventure starts one foggy evening as he rides home from his bookshop in Bray-in-the-Marsh and foils an attack on Helena Armstrong by five men who were hunting for something in her handbag. Helena, who inevitably falls for the bookish Theodore, is the companion to Lady Kylstone, an American widow. Terhune discovers that the thieves are after the key to the Kylstone family vault, which they steal and then raid the vault leaving behind a gold fountain pen with a strange insignia. The sleepy town of Bray, where little happens, is all agog at the developments and Terhune’s unexpected acumen as a sleuth. He learns from Alicia MacMunn that her dead father’s manuscript on the genealogy of the principal families in the area has been attacked with the pages from A to D removed. What does this mean?

The mystery deepens as Terhune discovers a telegram from New York, a piece of paper with the name of Blondie and an address on it, a statue of Mercury, and the curious life of Margaret Ramsay, one time secretary to the MacMunns. Terhune travels to New York, not before an attempt is made on his life on board the liner, allowing Graeme to have fun with an Englishman in the Big Apple, and gains further insights into the mystery.

Ultimately, it is a tale of inheritance, an unacknowledged marriage, and hidden identities which Terhune brings to a point where he can call upon his police mentor, Inspector Sampson, to wrap it all up. It is great fun, laced with humour and some sharp observations of life in a quiet English backwater and a mystery which is well nigh impossible for the reader to solve until the bitter end.

Terrific stuff.

Shadows Before

A review of Shadows Before by Dorothy Bowers

This is the second of Dorothy Bowers’ Inspector Pardoe mystery murders, originally published in 1939 and now reissued by Moonstone Press. I found it less accessible than her debut novel, Postscript to Poison, and it has quite a complicated plot. Structurally, it was reminiscent of a Christopher Bush novel with the reader fed a series of seemingly unrelated sequences – it opens with a series of letters and then a second section in which we follow Aurelia Brett as she is interviewed and offered the role of companion to Catherine Weir – which only make sense and complete the picture as the book reaches its denouement.

And what a finale it is. Through all the highways and byways of the plot Bowers manages to turn the story on its head and come up with a solution many of her readers would not have seen coming. It rescues what otherwise would have been a rather pedestrian novel.

It is another tale of poisoning, Catherine Weir the initial victim. She is suffering from what would nowadays be diagnosed as dementia, needs supervision and is taken to rambling around the countryside collecting plants which she makes into a herbal tea concoction. One night someone slips some arsenic into it and its goodnight, Catherine. Who the culprit was is the task of Inspector Pardoe, Bower’s worthy police detective to discover, and he soon realises that there are a number of suspects who, for various reasons, may have been sufficiently motivated to do away with the old woman.

The Weirs had only moved into Spanwater, a country house set in a remote corner of the Cotswolds favoured by Romanies and Oxford dons, two years previously, having had to leave their previous residence under somewhat of a cloud after Matthew Weir, a professor, had been acquitted, somewhat to the surprise of many, of the charge of poisoning his sister-in-law. That his wife should now have been poisoned is surely more than an unfortunate coincidence.

Inheritance, inevitably, features highly as a motive. Catherine is wealthy but her wealth is subject to a tontine-like will, always an open invitation to murder, and how much Matthew will inherit, who is strapped for cash with the prospect of funding the studies of his nephew and niece looming large, is dependent upon whether a young relative, who disappeared to Australia with a dance troupe several years ago, is still alive.

Nick Terris, the nephew, is an enthusiastic supporter of euthanasia, perhaps putting his aunt out of her misery was a supreme act of kindness, and Matthew’s brother, Augustus, is strapped for the cash needed to keep his literary magazine afloat. Outside of the family, there are some odd servants, not least Mord, the butler-cum-manservant, and the religious fanatic, Ms Kingdom, who particularly has it in for a neighbour, Alice Gretton. Gretton has mysteriously disappeared, and Mrs Kingdom helpfully reports that every time Catherine visited Gretton, her health deteriorated.

Inspector Pardoe, Bowers’ sleuth, ably assisted by Sergeant Salt, the perfect foil to the more prosaic theories of his boss, set out to solve the mystery. Amidst yet another poisoning and an accident when the sterring mechanism of a car is tampered with, it becomes clear that Alice Gretton holds the key to the whole thing. What has happened to her and who was she? The answers to these questions produce an astonishing result.

Once I had got into the book, I found it entertaining enough and it was well written and well-paced. There was enough in it to persuade to continue following the adventures of Pardoe.

Postscript To Poison

A review of Postscript to Poison by Dorothy Bowers

The moral of the story is if you are a cantankerous old woman despised by all, do not announce that you are going to alter your will. It never ends well. And, P.S, if you are planning the perfect murder, do not be tempted to make some final embellishments. They will be your undoing.

Postscript to Poison, Dorothy Bowers’ debut crime novel, originally published in 1938 and now reissued by Moonstone Press, is an impressive and enjoyable piece of work from an author I had not come across before. What the story may have lacked in intricacies of plotting, it more than makes up for in the quality of Bowers’ writing and, particularly, her sharp characterisations. Often the reader can be overwhelmed with characters barely indistinguishable from each other. Here, though, Bowers, takes care to draw each of her principal protagonists, such that even when they disappear from the narrative for a while, their characteristics, habits, and foibles stay with you.

Bowers also has a profound sense of place and nature. Her descriptions of Minsterbridge and its weather fall just the right side of purple prose, giving an added dimension to a tale that is told with vigour and a sense of purpose, the reader provided with enough information to understand what is going on, but not bogged down with unnecessary detail. She also plays fair with her readership, the clues needed to solve whodunit are sprinkled throughout the story.  

Chief Inspector Pardoe of Scotland Yard, her go-to detective in Bowers’ series of five murder mysteries, is an intriguing character. He is human enough to be irritated that a new murder case has led to him having to delay a well-earned holiday in the Cotswolds, but earnest enough to throw himself into the investigations with gusto. Behind his urbane, polished exterior is a steely determination to see justice prevail. He is a character the reader can warm to, neither too bogged down in details to make following him a chore nor too intuitive to leave us scratching our heads. I shall be interested to see how his character develops.

By the standards of so-called Golden Age murder mysteries, the plot is both a little mundane and hackneyed. Cornelia Lakeland is a dictatorial old woman, who rules over the household at Lakeland with a rod of iron, making the lives of her step-grandchildren, cousins Jenny and Carol, a misery. They will lose the prospect of inheriting their share of the family fortune if either take jobs or get married without her permission. Her companion is worried about the prospects of a legacy and the staff of the house have their own reasons for wishing for the old woman’s demise. There are motives aplenty for Pardoe to get his teeth into.

Having been ill for most of the summer, Cornelia is now well enough to go downstairs. The first thing she arranges is for an interview with her solicitor, Rennie, with a view to altering her will. During the night before the meeting, she falls ill and dies. The post-mortem established that she was poisoned. A series of anonymous letters point the finger at the Doctor, Tom Faithful. Jenny’s beau, a Polish film star, was let into the house that evening. A mysterious stranger was seen lurking around the house.

The maids hold the key to unravelling the mystery. Emma returns some of Cornelia’s letters which she had stolen and a piece of bandage found on the body of Hettie, murdered for what she might have overheard, confirm to Pardoe what has been going on n the house. In a dramatic finale, in which the good Chief Inspector, is injured, the arrest is made.

I found it an entertaining read and will follow Pardoe’s adventures with interest. Bowers is a writer well worth looking up.