Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

Measure For Murder

A review of Measure for Murder by Clifford Witting

Originally published in 1941, this is the fifth in Witting’s Inspector Harry Charlton series and shows greater ambition in its scope and format than the other novels of his that I have read whilst retaining his characteristic whimsical, tongue-in-cheek style. The story involves an amateur production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure by the recently formed Lulverton Amateur Dramatics Society (LADS).

Witting has chosen to ape the format of a play, starting with a prologue in which Mrs Mudge, the cleaner, finds a body with a dagger stuck in its back, then two Acts, the first told in the first person, the manuscript of Walter Vaughan Tudor aka Turtle, the LADS’ hon secretary and a local estate agent, while the second reverts to the third person and details the investigations that lead to the solving of the murder. He also chooses to invoke the Muses of tragedy and comedy, Melpomene and Thalia, who provide a running commentary as the story unfolds. More could have been made of this.

Tudor’s autobiography seems unnecessarily thorough and overly long, a little aimless, but in retrospect it provides the reader with much valuable information about the writer’s background, how LADS came to be formed and the tensions and petty jealousies amongst the society’s leading lights. It also provides the most vital clue to solving the murder, dropped while the residents of the guesthouse in which Tudor lives, gather round the wireless to hear Chamberlain’s declaration of war against Germany.  

The relevance of the clue escaped me and after finishing the novel, I pondered on the dangers of dropping a contemporary reference into a work of fiction. While the author’s contemporary readers may have picked up its pertinence, for readers some eighty years or so after the event it was almost impossible to glean its significance. As a result, the identity of the murderer came as a bit of a surprise as did the sudden lurch in the book’s direction from being a cosy tale of petty jealousies, love rivalry, and money problems – the usual fare of a murder mystery – to a tale of fifth columnists, secret service agents, and the attempted escape of a collaborator to Nazi Germany. The book ends in thrilling style with a German plane landing in a neighbouring field and a gunfight, as far removed from a cosy tale about amateur dramatics as you could imagine.

This was not the only surprising lurch in Witting’s plot. The murdered victim turns out to be Tudor himself and his manuscript which formed the first part of the book is missing. Perhaps he was murdered because of what he had already written or, more likely, what he was about to disclose.

For all its inventiveness, the book for me was less enjoyable than the other two books by Witting that I have read, Murder in Blue and Catt out of the Bag. The sudden change of direction at the end seemed to be too abrupt, almost as if he decided to completely change the nature of his novel midway through writing it. There is a sense that with Britain now plunged into a desperate war and the cosiness of the old England long gone, Witting felt he had to make it more relevant.

It is saved, though, by Witting’s fine sense of humour and his acute observations and characterisations. He has an unerring ability to paint a pen picture of even the most minor of characters in just a few, well-chosen words. It was enjoyable enough but there were too many competing and contrasting themes to make the book the success it could have been.

Fern Lore (2)

Fern seeds were long associated with invisibility, a power especially useful for those up to no good. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I Act II, Scene 1 (1596-7), Gladshill tries to reassure his accomplice by saying “we have the receipt of fern seed; we walk invisible” (Act II, Scene I), while in Ben Jonson’s New Inn or The Light Heart (1629) a servant, who has been discovered hiding, explains to his master that it was “because indeed I had no med’cine, Sir, to go invisible. No fern-side in my pocket” (Act I, Scene VI). To be in receipt of fern seeds was 19th century slang for being invisible.

Collecting the seeds could be a dangerous occupation, fraught with disappointment. Richard Bovet wrote in Pandaemonium (1684) of “much discourse about the gathering of Fern-seed (which is looked upon as a Magical herb) on the night of Midsummer’s Eve, and I remember I was told of one that went to gather it, and the Spirits whistlit by his ears and sometimes struck his Hat or other parts of his Body. In fine: though he had gotten a quantity of it, and secured it in papers and a Box besides, when he came home he found it all empty. But probably this appointing of times and hours is the Devil’s institution”.

The performance of elaborate rituals, the chanting of spells, and carrying such artefacts as an earthenware dish, a pewter platter, a skull lined with moss and clay with the tress of a loved one’s hair attached, and a hazel rod with which to shake the seeds were thought to be enough to ward off the evil spirits guarding the seeds. However, failure to carry out the rituals correctly risked missing out on the seeds and incurring the displeasure of the spirits.

Some, though, believed that a more benign spirit, Oberon, guarded the seeds. Thomas Jackson, in his A treatise concerning the Original of Unbelief (1625), described his encounter with an “ignorant soule” who told of “what he saw and heard when he watch’t the falling of the Ferne-seed at an unseasonable and suspitious houre. Why (quoth he) doe you think that the devil hath ought to do with that good seed? No: it is in the keeping of the King of the Fayries and he, I know, will do me no harm”.

More rigorous scientific minds sought to solve the mystery of the fern’s propagation. The 16th century German botanist, Hieronymus Bock, laid out white sheets underneath a stand of ferns and for four consecutive nights around Midsummer waited to see what happened. He was disappointed to find that the fern had not flowered and that his sheets were spotted with small black dots. Had he but realised it, he had solved the mystery.  

The black spots were spores which are released from the sori, the brownish grey spots found on the underside of the fronds. A fern can have as many as twenty million of these spores, some as small as particles of dust. It was not until 1848 that the Polish botanist, Michael Jerome Lesczczyc-Suminski, finally unlocked the mystery of the fern’s life cycle.

Once it has found the right balance of light, temperature, and moisture, a fern spore germinates, producing a rootless, green heart-shaped leaf, the prothallium, on the underside of which are the male and female sexual organs. These produce egg and sperm which, when fertilised, develop into an embryo containing roots, stems, and leaves. It is from this that the young fern emerges, bearing the characteristics of its grandparent rather than its parent, its reproductive process so lengthy that it skips a generation.

For the fern, there is no evolutionary need to rush. It is self-sufficient, free from reliance upon pollinators, and hardy enough to germinate in the most unpromising of terrains, even in the Arctic and Antarctica, factors that have contributed to its survival for over one hundred million years. In many ways its real life cycle is as magical and mysterious as the myths that surround it.

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.