Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

Information Received

A review of Information Received by E R Punshon

Being somewhat anally obsessive, these days I tend to read detective series in chronological order. It allows me to get an insight into how the author develops their style and their principal character. However, with E R Punshon I dived in halfway through his Bobby Owen series with The Dark Garden from 1941 and worked my way through to the 1948 novel, The House of Godwinsson. Now was the time, I thought, to go to the start of the series, Information Received, published originally in 1933 and reissued for a modern readership by Dean Street Press.

The first thing that struck me was the similarity with Basil Thomson’s Richardson’s First Case, both of which feature a rookie copper setting out on their path to greatness, and both, curiously, published in 1933. I wonder which one got there first. While Thomson’s approach is more procedure based, Punshon takes a more literary approach to introducing his protagonist who will see him through 35 books over twenty-three years and makes for a more satisfying read.

Like Richardson, Owen is simply a bobby on the beat, rather bored with his lot. He does have that happy knack, though, of being in the right place at the right time, being on the scene when the body of Sir Christopher Clarke is discovered, and the initiative to follow leads with or without official sanction. Owen, too, sufficiently impresses his superiors to achieve a transfer to CID.

One of the delights of the book is the developing relationship between Owen and Superintendent Mitchell, sufficiently long in the tooth to recognise that there is a spark worth developing in the youngster. Beneath his gruff exterior and teasing demeanour – he delights in playing a practical joke on his junior and is not loathe to put him in his place – there is a friendly, father figure. I shall be interested to see how that plays out as the series progresses. It will bear some looking into, as the Superintendent might say.

The plot is quite complicated as there are two separate crimes for the police to solve, although at the outset that is not immediately evident. For an ardent reader of detective fiction, the identity of the murderer of the financier, Sir Christopher Clarke, is not too difficult to spot. There is a tell-tale trope which seems to establish an alibi but doesn’t when investigated. Continuous noise emanating from a room always puts me on the alert. Curiously, this as the basis for an alibi is not challenged and the resolution of the murder of Clarke is reliant upon a long, written confession. There is a danger of viewing these plot devices with jaundiced modern eyes when, in fact, they were fresh and novel when used.

The other part of the puzzle, the almost simultaneous robbery of Clarke’s safe which leads to discoveries of financial malpractice and leading to murder, an attempt to frame an innocent, speedy and clandestine marriages and a dramatic trap with fatal consequences, receives the lion’s share of the attention. It offered more possibilities for red herrings and dramatic tension, but leaves the book feeling somewhat unbalanced, as though Punshon realised that the plot had become too unwieldy for the size of book he had in mind and that the Marsden/Carsley part of the story offered more dramatic possibilities and opportunities for red herrings.

The story starts with two theatre tickets from which Clarke recoils. They hold the key to his murder as they are for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In fact, his murder is Hamlet in reverse, a clever device on Punshon’s part, although he doesn’t make as much of it as he might have done. One note that surprises this reader was that Shakespeare was not very popular in the early 1930s, perhaps a result of having been force fed to unwilling pupils at school.

I enjoyed the book, as I always do with Punshon, and I’m sure that if I had not already done so, it would have tempted me to explore the series.

The Singing Masons

A review of The Singing Masons by Francis Vivian

Book Four of The Georgics by Publius Vergilius Maro, or Virgil, the one in which he deals with bee keeping, was a set book for my Latin A level and Part One of my Tripos at University. I have never been able to look at bees in the same way since, but I am not so churlish as to deride their industry and collective spirit nor to wonder at the skill, knowledge and determination of the committed apiarist. I just do not want their charges anywhere near me.

Arthur Ernest Ashley, whose nom de plume was Francis Vivian, was an enthusiastic beekeeper and there was a certain air of inevitability that he would put this knowledge to good use as he did in this, his seventh book in the Inspector Knollis series, originally published in 1950 and now reissued by Dean Street Press. Fortunately, he wears his expertise lightly and whilst there is much about the beekeeper’s art and techniques, it is easily digestible and pertinent to the plot. One wonders what Freeman Wills Crofts would have made of it.

The book owes its title to Shakespeare’s description of bees in Henry V. I have found that a knowledge of the scriptures and Shakespeare is a pre-requisite to unlock the whodunit aspect of many a detective novel form the genre’s so-called Golden Age and it is the case here. It is fascinating to reflect that authors of the period were confident enough that many of their readers would have been fed on a diet of the Bible and Shakespeare at school to have been familiar with such references and understand their import. Education has moved on to a more varied diet and less emphasis on learning by rote but it does mean modern readers start at a distinct disadvantage.

If only the local policeman in charge, Inspector Osiah Wilson, had allowed the garrulous old beekeeper, Samuel Heatherington, to complete the quotation, he might have saved himself and Inspector Knollis, drafted in from the Yard, a lot of trouble. Heatherington’s bees swarm and lead the old man to a hive in the deceased Roxana Doughty’s garden. The cottage is empty but Heatherington is surprised to find a hive there as she hated bees. Its position, directly over a well, was not conducive to the bees’ health. At the insistence of Georgie Maynard, who with her husband, Phil, have joined to help, the hive is removed, a well is uncovered and the body of Doughty’s nephew and heir, Gerald Batley, who had been missing for a month, is discovered. He had been bashed on the head and poisoned with a form of cyanide.

The Maynards, it transpires, have had their own run of bad luck and Knollis quickly surmises that they were victims of a concerted attack. Did they know and was this sufficient motive for murder. Batley was a bit of a womaniser, to boot, and had some photos of his conquests, some of whom were anxious to recover them. Did this or the outrage of an affronted husband provide sufficient motive for murder? There were signs of a struggle at Batley’s flat, but how did his body get to the well and how was he poisoned? Where did the hive come from?

Knollis is nothing if not thorough and he works his way through these questions and more until he comes to the only possible solution, one that I had arrived at before him, I can smugly assert. The denouement is dramatic and tragic, a fitting finale to an excellent book which is widely regarded as Vivian’s best and rightly so. It has also made me even warier of bees!

Cantering Through Cant (26)

The act of travelling can be rather boring. In order to while away the time I remember as a child being encouraged to play I-Spy or a form of cricket where runs and wickets were determined by what we passed. Francis Grose in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) records a predecessor of this rather engrossing game, travelling piquet.

This he defines as “a mode of amusing themselves, practiced by two persons riding in a carriage, each reckoning towards his game the persons or animals that pass by on the side next to them”. He then gives an example of a scoring system.

Seeing a parson riding a grey horse with blue furniture or an old woman under a hedge would be sufficient to win you the game outright. Spotting a cat looking out of a window would score you sixty points and a buggy containing a man, woman, and child would net you forty. A man with a woman behind him would score thirty, but just seeing a solitary man or woman would only be worth one. A flock of sheep would score twenty, while a flock of geese warranted just ten. A post chaise was worth five points and a horseman two. Presumably, it was up to the competitors to determine what the target point score was.

Grose records another game, tray trip, which he likens to scotch hop (or hopscotch as we would know it), “played out on a pavement marked out with chalk into different compartments”. It may have been a street version of an old dice game, tray-trip, where success depended upon throwing a trey or three. The older game is referred to in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; “shall I play my freedom at trip-tray?” (Act 2, scene 5, line 205).

More anon.

The Lost Game Of Snap-Dragon

Those who bemoan the influence of ‘Elf and Safety on the way we conduct ourselves may lament the disappearance of the wacky game of Snap-dragon which was particularly popular around Christmas. It is fascinating to speculate how many hosts sent their guests to bed on Christmas Eve nursing blistered hands and scorched tongues. The game, which one contemporary noted “provided a considerable amount of laughter and merriment at the expense of the unsuccessful competitors”, was simple enough and even merited a definition in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755.

All you needed was a bowl, some brandy, and raisins. First you placed the raisins in the bowl and then poured the brandy in. Your guests, trembling in anticipation of the excitement and perils ahead of them, would be commanded to stand around the bowl, which was strategically positioned in the centre of the table to protect the players from the inevitable splashes of burning brandy. The brandy would then be set alight and the object of the game was to plunge your hand into the fiery liquid, extract a raisin and eat it.

Johnson defined it more eloquently; “a play in which they catch raisins out of branding brandy and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them”. Richard Steele game some colour in his piece for Tatler, commenting “the wantonness of the thing was to see each other look like a demon, as we burnt ourselves, and snatched out the fruit”. To jolly things along and heighten the tension even more, you could chant a rhyme at the start of the proceedings; “with the blue and lapping tongue/ many of you will be stung/ Snip! Snap! Dragon!/ For he snaps at all that comes/ snatching at his feast of plums/ Snip!, Snap! Dragon!

The game’s origins date back to at least the sixteenth century, gaining name checks in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594) and Henry IV Part II (1598). The 18th and 19th centuries saw it at its height of popularity. Jane Austen’s niece, Fanny Austen Knight, wrote in 1806 “different amusements every night? We had Bullet Pudding, then Snap-Dragon and…we danced or played cards”. The game of Snap-Dragon is mentioned in such disparate literary sources as Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm. Indeed, the game was part of the Yuletide tradition until its popularity was extinguished early in the 20th century when people became a little more attuned to thinking that singeing guests was not playing cricket.

So popular was the game that the distinguished scientist, Michael Faraday, was moved to give a chemical explanation of the Snap-Dragon phenomenon in his The Chemical History of the Candle, published in 1860. His thesis was that the raisins acted like miniature wicks, and rather like when you pour brandy on a Christmas pudding, it is hot but not hot enough to incinerate the fruit. Even so, for the unwary there was a nasty treat in store.

If you did not have any raisins to hand, almonds would do and any flammable drink could replace brandy. A variant of the game involved the placing of a lighted candle in a cup of ale or cider and the player was invited to drink without singeing their face. A beard or moustache would be a distinct handicap. In the United States the game was associated with Halloween as much as Christmas.

To add extra spice to the proceedings, one of the raisins had a gold button attached to it or, failing that, was designated as the lucky fruit. Whoever succeeded in extracting the special raisin was given a favour or treat of their choosing. In another variant, whoever extracted the most raisins was predicted to meet the love of their life within the next twelve months. I wonder if they did.

Proposal Of The Week

If you are going to make a proposal of marriage to your beloved, you need to put a lot of thought into it to make it a truly memorable occasion. But perhaps not too much thought, as this cautionary tale shows.

Albert Ndreu decided that he would create a truly romantic ambience for popping the big question by lighting hundreds of tea light candles, inflating roughly 60 balloons, and putting a nice bottle of plonk on chill. According to South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, he then left his flat to pick up his girlfriend, Valerija Madevic, from work.

Unfortunately, by the time the couple got back to the flat, they found it engulfed in flames.

Still, a dousing from the fire brigade did not put too much of a dampener on proceedings as the girlfriend accepted the proposal. As well as planning a wedding, I suppose they will have to find somewhere to live.

As William Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, the course of true love never did run smooth.