Tag Archives: Sherlock Holmes

Twenty-Nine Of The Gang

Not the cheese, according to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, meant not satisfactory. According to Dr Brewer, it came from the Persian and Hindu word for a thing cheez, but others thought it was a corruption of the French phrase, ce n’est pas la chose. The Irish preferred not up to rap, the rap and abbreviation of rapparee, good for nothing, the name given to worthless base metal coins that circulated in Ireland in the early to mid-18th century.

Not today, baker was said to a youth paying unwanted attention to a young lady, although originally it was said by housewives to bakers making their morning call when their wares were not required.

I have used oh my eye on occasions as a form of exclamation, but I had not realised that it was a corruption of the opening words of the prayer to St Martin, the patron saint of beggars, a mihi.

Another historical character whose name was adopted into slang was Ignatius Pollaky, a consulting detective in the mode of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, based in Paddington Green, who spent decades, until he retired in 1880 at the height of his fame, unravelling swindles and tracking down foreign fugitives. His fame was such, partly fuelled by the enigmatic advertisements he had printed in the newspapers, that his name became a household word, often appearing in newspapers and in popular song and stories. Oh, Pollaky became a form of protest against overbearing and urgent enquiries.

The English have a reputation for being resistant to foreign languages or for mangling foreign phrases. Here are another couple of examples of this trait. Olive oil was a Music Hall variant of the French phrase au revoir and on for a tatur meant fascinated, entranced, used of a man at a bar making eyes at the barmaid, said to be a variant of tête à tête. Some things never change.    

Dead Man’s Quarry

A review of Dead Man’s Quarry by Ianthe Jerrold

Dead Man’s Quarry is Ianthe Jerrold’s second murder mystery, published originally in 1930 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, and the second outing for her amateur sleuth, John Christmas. After the publication of this novel, she gave up on detective fiction to resume writing more conventional novels. It is easy to see why. That is not to say that there is anything in the least disappointing with another polished piece of work which raises the already impressive bar set by her The Studio Crime published a year earlier. It is more a reflection on the fact that the genre’s conventions and limitations constrained her writing talent.

Jerrold is a much-underrated writer, with a penchant for strong and vivid characterisations. She has an eye for detail, for the traits and characteristics that delineate one individual from another. Her characters are vibrant and memorable, and she is interested enough to explore what makes them tick rather than just using them as the media through which the plot evolves. Aligned to a strong narrative style and imaginative plotting this makes for an entertaining and rewarding read.

However, the dictats of a murder mystery are that all points lead to the resolution of the puzzle and this can be frustrating for a writer who demands a broader canvas upon which to practise her art and develop her skills. It can be read as a mild comedy of manners, poking gentle fun at the mores and predilections of the English upper middle class, as well as a tongue in cheek doff of the cap to some of her predecessors in the genre, most notably Conan Doyle.

In wrapping up her convoluted tale, though, she seems to have got bored. The ending is a tad melodramatic, a little unbelievable and takes the reader somewhat by surprise. It removes the shine somewhat from what had gone before. That may seem a little churlish but up until that point the book had been first rate and was streets ahead of much detective fiction that had preceded her or Jerrold’s immediate contemporaries were writing.

Charles Price has returned from Canada after a fifteen years’ absence to take over the estate he has inherited. He has not troubled to ingratiate himself with his relatives and in particular his uncle, Morris Price, who has been running affairs. On a cycling holiday with the Browning family and others Charles goes missing and his body is found at the bottom of a nearby quarry. He has been shot. The gun found nearby belongs to Morris and his intransigent and haughty attitude leads to his arrest.

Christmas is holidaying in the area with his friend, Sydenham Rampson, and takes an interest in the drama that unfolds as the cycling party search for Charles. He decides to stay on to investigate what really happened as he is certain that Morris is innocent. Rampson, who takes on a Watsonish role, is a scientist at heart, preferring the cold scientific analysis of Thorndyke to the intuitive brilliance of Holmes, is bemused by Christmas’ enthusiasm, satisfied that the cold hard facts point undeniably to Morris’ guilt.

Not everything is as it seems, though, and along the way Christmas discovers Morris’ estranged wife, an ingenious deception and a conspiracy which would have seen the estate fall out of the control of the family. Of course, the day is saved, romanticism and faith triumphs over hard facts, but the explanation of what happened on that fateful day and more importantly the motivation behind the events is both startling and surprising.

A great read.

The Triple Bite

A review of The Triple Bite by Brian Flynn

Most writers of Golden Age detective fiction owed a large debt of gratitude to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his iconic creation Sherlock Holmes, not least because he had established the genre as being one capable of rising above the penny dreadful and displaying some literary merit. They take delight in dropping a reference to the canon of Holmes’ stories or use devices such as a Watson-like companion to faithfully record the derring-do and inductive brilliance of their sleuth. Conan Doyle died on July 7, 1930, and Brian Flynn, ever one to experiment with form and surprise his readers, devised this, the tenth outing of Anthony Bathurst, published in 1931 and reissued by Dean Street Press, as a tribute to detective fiction’s premier writer.

During his narrative Watson had a habit of alluding to other cases that Holmes was involved in, but which were never fleshed into full stories. The inspiration for Flynn’s novel comes from a throw away reference to such a case in The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez to be found in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Flynn develops his homage by including some of the standard fare that you might expect in an adventure of Holmes – a criminal mastermind, a coded message, an unusual form of dispatching victims which is almost undetectable.

In this story Bathurst seems to have mainlined a syringe full of Holmesian mannerisms and characteristics. Flynn never seems too concerned about presenting Bathurst as a consistent character throughout the series. Rather Bathurst is a figure whom he can adapt to fit the needs of the plot and setting of the story.           

Inevitably, Flynn chooses to have the story narrated by one of the characters in the story, Cecilia Cameron. This is the third time in the first ten of his Bathurst series that he has chosen this form of narrative and, structurally, it does pose some difficulties as Cecilia is not always as central to the action as, arguably, Watson was and is reliant upon information gathered either after the fact or from others. It is not a fatal flaw and Flynn’s engaging style soon grips the reader in an intriguing and sometimes macabre tale. There is a strong seam of humour, not least in the portrayal of the larger-than-life criminal, Scarlet Lampard with his shock of red hair.

Colonel Cameron is persuaded to buy Dallow Corner as his retirement home, but as soon as he takes residence events take a sinister turn. A piece of doggerel containing a cryptogram has been provided by the wonderfully named “Salmon” Trout to the two men who have helped him, one of whom is Cameron’s nephew, suggesting the presence of treasure in the environs.

The good guys, those associated with Cameron, crack their grey cells to work out where it might be hidden. The bad guys, a gang of violent desperadoes, are also anxious to get their hands on it and are averse to using violence or the threat of violence to secure their prize. The Cameron’s poor housekeeper regularly finds herself tied up in the cupboard. The Colonel dies in mysterious circumstances in what looks to be a case of natural causes, he has a dodgy ticker (natch). This is the cue for Cecilia to call in the services of Anthony Bathurst who perceptively spots the vestiges of three faint marks on the Colonel’s jaw.

The family find themselves under siege, there is another murder and several red herrings. To Flynn’s credit he produces an enthralling story which mixes elements of a thriller with a classic murder mystery and deploys a plot where it is difficult to spot who the culprit is, never mind how the murders were committed.

Flynn is another writer who rarely lets his reader down.

Death In The Dentist’s Chair

Death In The Dentist’s Chair – Molly Thynne

I hate going to the dentist and this book did nothing to assuage my dread of the experience. As well as the heightened anticipation of what is to befall me as I sit open-mouthed in the chair, I am hit with the realisation that I am at the mercy of the dentist. I have placed my faith implicitly in them. Published in 1932 Thynne’s murder takes place in a dentist’s chair, as the title suggests, and replicated the locus and method used by Brian Flynn in his The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye four years earlier, and, of course, the better-known dentist murder mystery is Agatha Christie’s much later, One Two, Buckle My Shoe from 1940.

The book’s opening tells the story through the eyes of Mr Cattistock who leaves the surgery of society dentist, Humphrey Davenport, having had several of his teeth removed. He is rather groggy, as well he might be. In the waiting room are the wife of a Hatton Garden jeweller, Lottie Miller, Sir Richard Pomfroy and the widow of a theatre owner, Mrs Vallon. Cattistock takes an instant dislike to Mrs Miller who is next to go into the consulting room. Davenport leaves her there to go to his workshop to adjust her dentures, gets locked in there and by the time he is released and returns to the room, Mrs Miller has had her throat slashed with a Chinese dagger.

As Cattistock leaves the premises, Thynne’s amateur sleuth, Dr Constantine, arrives for his own check-up. Naturally, he is a friend of the Scotland Yard officer in charge of investigations, D I Arkwright, and lends a hand. Just to add some further complexity into the case, one of the jewels Mrs Miller was wearing has gone missing and later in the book there is a further murder, again bearing all the hallmarks of being committed with a Chinese dagger. Whodunit and why?

All those on the premises at the time of the murder fall under suspicion either because they have some conceivable motive or their behaviour around the time of the murder seem suspicious. Despite plausibly being a suspect himself as he was on the premises, Constantine is not considered as the likely murderer. What it is to have friends in high places.

In some ways it is tempting to see Constantine, an elderly chess playing sleuth, as a Holmes manque and he does seem to treat the case as an intellectual puzzle. I was concerned as the book seemed to descend into a literary version of a game of Cluedo as each suspect has their alibis challenged, dissected, and accepted. Perhaps Thynne was conscious that the momentum of the book was waning, running the risk of losing the reader’s interest because the book suddenly lurches into action beyond the midway point.

The solution is ingenious and complex as Thynne drip feeds more and more of backstory into the narrative, requiring the reader to re-examine their preconceptions of each of the characters. There are no loose ends, as far as I could tell, and the reader could tell how Constantine reached his conclusions, which is all we can ask for.

What might otherwise would have been a tedious closed room murder mystery was ingeniously rescued and transformed into a riveting read.

The Case Of The Black Twenty-Two

The Case of the Black Twenty-Two – Brian Flynn

My find of the last few months has been Brian Flynn, many of whose books have been reissued for a modern audience by Dean Street Press. This is Flynn’s second Anthony Bathurst novel, originally published in 1934, and it involves a locked room murder. Actually, you get two murders for the price of one because as well as the American millionaire art collector killed in his study (locked from the inside, of course) a poor security guard, Mason, is also murdered, at around the same time in the same way (a blow to the head) but miles away.

An avid collector Stewart has sent a lawyer, Peter Daventry, instructions to buy at auction three artefacts that belonged to Mary Queen of Scots. Daventry attends the viewing but on the night before the sale, the two murders are committed. Inspector Goodall from the Yard is in charge of the investigations but on the recommendation of Daventry’s brother, who saw him in action in The Billiard Room Mystery, the lawyers insist on Bathurst being involved to protect their client’s interests.     

In truth, although the plot is well-worked and has the usual mix of semi-convincing alibis, red herrings and twists and turns, the list of suspects is rather limited and the attentive reader has a good sense of whodunit, even if the motivation is not clear, from an early stage. It is only with the introduction of the Black Twenty-Two midway through the book that the disparate pieces start to fit together and the reader can get a sense of why the murders were committed and why the artefacts held such an attraction. I will not spoil the story by commenting any further.

What I found interesting is the way that Flynn chose to portray Bathurst. It is difficult not to think that who he has in mind is Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Bathurst is a fine physical specimen with a high degree of mental acumen. Whereas the professional police are either out of their depth (the local force) or too intense and abrasive to make much headway (Inspector Goodall), Bathurst has the charm and social grace to ease himself into the company and ask questions without causing undue alarm. He even persuades the Sergeant to reveal some ultimately quite important information that he has not passed on to his own Inspector. Guilty of withholding vital information to make the reveal more dramatic at the end, Bathurst is free to paddle his own canoe. His methods, like Holmes’, are more deductive than investigative and his Watson is Daventry. Still, there is enough of a character in Bathurst that he doesn’t just turn into an ersatz Holmes.

A feature of the book that sits rather oddly with the modern reader is the treatment of Stewart’s ward in the tale. Her behaviour and her reluctance to be honest in her statements makes her a prime suspect, but because of her youth, sex and beauty she is assumed to be innocent and given a fairly easy ride by the detectives. The Sergeant, fighting a losing battle to act professionally in front of her, “became acutely aware of his constitutional duty, but sternly suppressed it”. Ah, innocent days!     

I thoroughly enjoyed the tale and look forward to my next encounter with the formidable Anthony Bathurst.