Tag Archives: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Frequent Hearses

A review of Frequent Hearses by Edmund Crispin – 230507

The seventh in Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen series, Frequent Hearses, which also goes by the alternative title of Sudden Vengeance, was originally published in 1950. Its titles come from a couplet from Pope’s Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady; “on all the line a sudden vengeance waits,/ and frequent hearses shall besiege your gates”. In Pope’s poem a young lady commits suicide, and the poet calls for vengeance on all those whom he deemed responsible for her death. In Crispin’s novel, the young lady who calls herself Gloria Scott throws herself into the Thames and those who led her to this tragic moment of despair are one by one murdered.

Bruce Montgomery, Crispin’s alter ego, was an accomplished composer and wrote scores for films, including the Carry On series. He uses his knowledge of the film industry to good effect in an entertaining first half to his book, which satirises the rather laissez-faire way in which British films were made and the bitchiness and underlying tensions of those involved. Gervase Fen finds himself at a film studio in the role of a literary expert to advise on the plot for a life of Alexander Pope. As a professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University he is well suited for the role, especially as it seems to involve little effort other than attending the odd script meeting and getting to the out of the way studio at Long Fulton.

As he arrives at the studio, he bumps into an old police associate, Inspector Humbleby who is there trying to shed some light on the true identity of Gloria Scott. Fen is drawn into the investigation, and soon three members of the Crane family, all involved in the film in which Gloria was to play a small part, are poisoned. Whodunit and why?

The why is telegraphed by the allusion to Pope’s poem. As is his wont Crispin is not shy in wearing his erudition in his text and there are the usual large helpings of literary allusions and direct quotations in the story. Aficionados of Conan Doyle will not fail to spot the Holmesian reference in the stage name of the young actress. The who aspect is trickier and, unlike in earlier stories, Fen plays a less central role in the solving of that mystery, although his role, like that at the film studio, is to advise, to point out, direct and give the benefit of his knowledge and expertise. Once the logistics and timings of the poisonings are clarified and mapped against the movements and alibis of each of the suspects, the identity of the culprit is obvious.

There is a distinct change of mood between the two halves of the book. The first is light and breezy, very funny in parts, bitingly satirical about post war Britain and the British film industry. The second part of the book has a much darker feel about it with a wonderfully atmospheric and thriller-like chase in a maze, a generous nod to a similar chase in one of M R James’ tales with a furtive glance to Greek mythology to boot. (Although Crispin loosely describes it as both a labyrinth and a maze, for a pedant like me it is clearly a maze).

As we get to know more about Gloria, the book takes an even darker twist. The girl has had an awful childhood and her hopes of making it in the film industry offer a route to better herself, only to have her aspirations toyed with to meet the lusts and jealousies of the Crane clan. In the modern argot, Gloria suffers extreme mental health issues as a consequence of workplace bullying. Her tale is tragic and this reader, at least, had growing sympathy with the individual who took it upon themselves to be her tormentors’ nemesis. I will never look on the autumn crocus in the same way again.        

Although I did not think it matched some of his best, there is much to savour in the book.

The Loss Of The “Jane Vosper”

A review of The Loss of the “Jane Vosper” by Freeman Wills Crofts – 230224

One thing you can say about Freeman Wills Crofts is that you know what you are going to get – a logical, well-crafted puzzle which more than makes up for what it might lack in excitement in a satisfying whole. This is the case with the Loss of the “Jane Vosper”, originally published in 1936 and the fourteenth in his Inspector French, a tale of maritime disaster, fraud, and theft.

The highlight of the book is the opening chapter, a low-key but gripping description of a disaster at sea, the eponymous ship hit by four mysterious explosions in its No 2 hold and despite the calm and earnest endeavours of the crew, led by soon to retire captain James Hassell, it has to be abandoned and sinks to the bottom of the sea. The ship was behind schedule – a telling point – and amongst its cargo is a shipment insured by the Land and Sea Insurance Company for £105,000 (about £8 million at today’s values), the loss of which represents a major blow to the insurer’s balance sheet and dividend prospects.

Like all good underwriters, the insurers, whilst acknowledging their moral responsibility to meet the loss, look desperately for reasons to decline the claim. What had caused the explosions and why had this shipment exploded? The send their ace insurance investigator, John Sutton, to dig into the circumstances of the loss, but he mysteriously disappears without trace. It is at this point that Chief Inspector French of the Yard, who knew Sutton, is called in to find out what had happened to him.

What might have been a routine case of possible insurance fraud turns into a man hunt and French’s premonitions that Sutton had stumbled upon something for which he paid with his life prove well-founded. French is nothing if not diligent and thorough, no avenue too obscure to go down, no supposition too fanciful to ignore. It results in a lot of mind-numbingly tedious checking, double-checking, rifling through directories, visits, fruitless inquiries and much more, all of which Wills Crofts lovingly records in detail. It reads at times like a literary version of French’s investigative notes.

If there is one accusation that can be levied against French it is that he immerses himself so much in the detail that he occasionally cannot see the wood for the trees. He is full of enthusiasm over a new lead. One such, drawing inspiration from Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League, is that a workshop and a large quantity of timber was used to dig a tunnel over the Royal Mint. He obtains authority to excavate the workshop and while there is no tunnel, he does find the body of the unfortunate Sutton whose head had been bludgeoned in. As the investigation nears its conclusion French often has cause to castigate himself for missing a vital piece of information that was staring him in the face. There is no attempt on Wills Croft’s behalf to paint his detective as an infallible genius.

The case ultimately falls into two parts – the murder of Sutton and the interception of the cargo to be sold to another party, a remarkably accommodating Russian government, while the substitute cargo is fitted with explosives to ensure that the deception is not detected. It all hangs together and makes for a satisfyingly logical puzzle.

The pace of the book marginally increases as the case reaches it denouement, including a car chase conducted at a speed of between twenty-five and 29 mph. It rather fits the tone of the book, some thrills and spills but conducted at a pace that will not scare the horses. Look out for some fascinating glimpses of post-Depression Britain and Crofts’ love of all things maritime shines through in a book that is worth persevering with.

Death Of An Author

A review of Death of an Author by E C R Lorac – 230209

A new reissue of one of ECR Lorac’s rarest books is a moment to celebrate, especially as it comes with the imprimatur of quality in production as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series. Originally published in 1935, it has been out of print for decades but given the renaissance in the author’s popularity, it is a timely reissue and one sure to delight her fans and add to her growing band of aficionados.

One of the oddities of the book is that it does not feature her usual go-to detective, Robert Macdonald, and perhaps this is a reason why it dropped off the radar screen. Stand-alone books often seem outliers in the canon of a writer who has steadfastly built up a series character. The other major point of difference from Lorac’s normal output is that it is very much of an urban tale. One of the highlights of her usual narrative style is her profound sense of place and her love and appreciation of the countryside and nature in the raw. Whilst there is a foray into the countryside, I missed this side of her writing. A third aspect to the book that is unusual is a sense of humour that pervades her writing, even to the extent of a limerick.

Nevertheless, there was much to enjoy, not least the portrayal of her feisty and somewhat mysterious character, Eleanor Clarke, who is the secretary to the successful and reclusive author, Vivian Lestrange. At his insistence she impersonates him on a visit to his publisher, Andrew Marriott, and at a dinner party he hosts at the insistence of another of the publisher’s successful authors, Michael Ashe.

When the two authors meet, Ashe is astonished that Lestrange is a woman, especially given the style and subject matter of the book, leading to a long and defiant defence of the woman’s role as a writer from the doughty Clarke that sex is neither a determinant of an author’s style or content. It is a finely argued section of the book and looks back at the long legacy of female writers who deemed it necessary to hide under the persona of a man in order to get published.

Clarke’s troubles begin when she finds that she cannot get into Lestrange’s house nor can she rouse his formidable housekeeper, Mrs Fife. After much deliberation she decides to go to the police to report Lestrange’s possible disappearance, something which the local police treat with scepticism. When they finally enter the building, which entails scaling a high wall, they find everything spic and span, no trace of either Lestrange or Fife, the only thing slightly awry being a small round hole in a window.

Investigative duties are undertaken by Inspector Bond of the local police and Chief Inspector Warner of the Yard. Much depends upon how reliable Clarke is, Lorac maintaining the tension by portraying Bond as deeply sceptical while Warner, a more enlightened character, is inclined to believe that she is an innocent victim enmeshed in something she does not really understand but even he, occasionally, waivers in this view. A charred body is found in a deserted country hut, but who is it?

Warner’s investigations reveal that there is a closer link between Ashe and Lestrange than being just two successful authors. There is a back story, rather similar to Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, where the two have reinvented themselves, one to avoid their comeuppance and the other to wreak revenge, but who is really who?

Lorac has spun such a complex web that it takes the fortuitous discovery of a partially charred notebook identifying the victim for Warner eventually to discover the truth. Although it is not her best, even a fair to middling Lorac is worth reading. Let’s hope sales encourage the British Library Publications team to reissue some more.

The Fortescue Candle

A review of The Fortescue Candle by Brian Flynn

Published originally in 1936 and reissued by Dean Street Press, The Fortescue Candle is the eighteenth in Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst series and sees the author adopt another change in tone and style. This is very much Flynn in full-throttle Conan Doyle mode with a tilt of the cap in the direction of The Five Orange Pips and an audacious raid on the works of G K Chesterton for the resolution of what is a perplexing mystery that even has Bathurst’s grey cells stumped for most of the book.   

Bathurst is in a rather facetious, playful mood, littering his speech with allusions, especially to cricketing stars of the time, and prepared to play the role of the contemplative sleuth, relaxing with a pipe on the go, strictly tobacco, and allowing his brain to toy with the complexities of the case. The text also contains several references to his previous cases, which are probably mystifying to those for whom this is their first encounter with Flynn, and unnecessary for those who have loyally followed the series.

Those expecting this to be a mystery around the theft of a valuable candle will be sorely disappointed. The title is derived from a throwaway, albeit clever, allusion which Bathurst uses to describe Griggs’ behaviour around the actress, Phillida Fortescue. That an obiter dictum made its way to become the title for the novel perhaps illustrates Flynn’s difficulty in encapsulating a rather diffuse storyline into a succinct phrase.

Griggs is the Home Secretary, one of whose duties in an age of capital punishment, is to determine whether the death sentence is to be carried out. After some reflection he rejects the appeal of the Fowles brothers, earning the enmity of their father. Griggs is also a philanderer who not only has a thing for Miss Fortescue but has been pestering a Miss Wells and is warned off by her father, Charles. Griggs is found dead shot in bed in a hotel where both Fowles and Wells senior were staying. Was this revenge?

Curiously, though, in his pursuit of Miss Fortescue some months earlier Griggs had been at the theatre in St Aidans, backstage when one of the actresses, Daphne Arbuthnot, was poisoned on stage. Several of the characters who were staying at Griggs’ hotel on the night of his murder were also at the theatre in St Aidans. Was there a link between two seemingly random and radically different deaths and, if so, what was it?

To add intrigue, melon seeds are found, initially in a book on elocution that Griggs was reading at the time he was shot, and four on his luggage at St Aidans. As anyone who has read their Sherlock Holmes only a fractionally as assiduously as Flynn has will know, they are the calling card of the Ku Klux Klan. Is there an international dimension to the killing of Griggs, given his position in government, but if so, how does the poisoning of Daphne Arbuthnot fit in?

There are the usual twists and turns and some fruity red herrings, and what solves the Griggs case is Bathurst’s realisation that he failed to appreciate the importance of another obiter dictum and the opportunities for confusion offered by diction and homophones. The motivation for Griggs’ death is rather leftfield, which even the most careful reader would have been unlikely to anticipate, and the unlucky murderer struck before another, who had already failed to kill the Home Secretary with disastrous consequences, had the opportunity to strike.

It was a curious book with a plot that did not bear too much scrutiny, not least a Home Secretary who travelled alone and had more time for his affairs than those of the state, but for those of us who can suspend belief for long enough, it was an entertaining enough tale.     

The Case Of The Purple Calf

A review of The Case of the Purple Calf by Brian Flynn

Even the most ardent fan of Brian Flynn would be hard pressed to make a convincing case that this, the sixteenth in his Anthony Bathurst series, originally published in 1934 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, is one of his finest. For such a normally innovative writer it struck me as a tad pedestrian and, stylistically, the language is rather overblown at places and phrases like “it will be remembered that…” suggest that Flynn may have some form of serialisation in mind. It is a shame because the idea behind it was full of possibilities.

It is not often that you come across a story that involves a traveling fair, a dodgy London nightclub called the Purple Calf where you can have kippers and a bottle of wine which must have given it a certain atmosphere, an alligator trainer, an ingenious and somewhat gruesome murder weapon, and a series of motor accidents. The fair provides Flynn with the canvas to develop a series of picaresque characters, including the obligatory dwarf who has a bigger role to play in the mystery than initially meets the eye.

What starts Bathurst off on his trail to solving the shenanigans centring on the Purple Calf is a series of three seemingly unconnected motor accidents, in each of which a young woman is found dead near the vehicle with horrific injuries. Sir Austin Kemble, Commissioner of Police, thinks they are just tragic accidents, but Bathurst, as his wont, thinks that not only are they suspicious but also that they are linked in some way. Determined to prove Kemble wrong, he sets out to untangle the mystery.

There are a couple of promising leads. The motor accidents take place near the encampment of the travelling fair. Coincidence or a common theme? On the bodies of the three female victims are found coins, but they are only coppers. What was the significance of this? The circumstances of the death of a fourth victim seem at odds with the identified pattern surrounding the other victims. Does this mean that Bathurst has been barking up the wrong tree with his carefully formulated theories?

The old legal principle “exceptio probat regulam” convinces Bathurst that the unfortunate Rosa is an outlier and that her death has nothing to do with the matter in hand. In fact, it rather reinforces his theories. Emboldened, with help from some companions he has picked up along the way and with the sterling assistance of his old policing friends, MacMorran and Norris, he undertakes an audacious raid on the fair. Not only does Bathurst save Margaret Fletcher from a gruesome death, but he solves the mystery of how the victims suffered their gruesome injuries. The American title for the book, as often is the way, The Ladder of Death, rather gives the game away.

There is too much going on off stage in this story for my liking, especially in the resolution of what was really going on at the Purple Calf and how it related to the fair. I had worked out that L’Estrange and Lafferty, the eminence grise of the fair and his sidekick, and the two Brailsfords, seemingly friendly individuals who had imposed their presence on Bathurst, had some connection – Flynn pays homage to Conan Doyle’s The Man with the Twisted Lip here – but money counterfeiting and inheritance protection were beyond my ken.

The fair allowed for an ingenious murder method, but it all seemed an extraordinary amount of effort to achieve something that could have been done more easily. Then again, Bathurst would not have had the opportunity to show his genius and we would not have had an entertaining enough story, even though it does not hit the heights Flynn can achieve.