‘Sleep No More’ by P.D. James

Sleep No More is the second collection of short stories by the legendary crime author P. D. James, published posthumously in 2017. I loved the earlier volume The Mistletoe Murder and Other Tales (2016) and hoped Faber would bring out another in time for last Christmas. Guaranteed best-sellers in slim hardbacks with stylish covers, it’s good that they’ll bring new readers to discover James’s elegant prose. (The British cover looks gorgeous but the American version is nowhere near as attractive as the first volume).Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales by [James, P. D., James, P. D.]

This title comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Subtitled Six Murderous Tales, there are two more than the first volume, though this time none featuring James’s serial detective Adam Dalgliesh. Though I’m not the greatest fan of short stories, much preferring the length and complexity of novels, these are some of the best I’ve read. Not a weak one among them, their standard is exceptionally high.

In addition to her writing, P. D. James had a long and varied career of public service. This included serving as a magistrate and working in the criminal justice section of the Home Office. In her memoir Time To Be In Earnest (1997), she mentions my fascination with criminal law. She explored the failings of the legal system in her Dalgliesh novel A Certain Justice, published the same year.

The stories here are linked by a theme of retribution and justice. Bad people may get their comeuppance but not through officialdom. We hear the dark thoughts of murderers – chilling in their ordinariness – and the testimony of unsuspected witnesses looking back many years. But does anyone really get away with murder? Killers, victims and bystanders are caught up in moral ambivalence and the ironies of fate.

Each story is like a masterclass in plotting, character and – as always with P. D. James – full of wonderfully evocative atmosphere. They’re also pleasingly varied. A classic Golden Age plot is set during a wartime Christmas, a black comedy reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Tales of The Unexpected. Without the space – or need – for the conventional structure of a detective novel, they feel as though James was experimenting and having fun. Along with her acute psychological insight, there’s an air of wry humour throughout. An interesting sidelight on an author known for the bleak tone of her novels.

Written from the 1970s to the 90s, Sleep No More is a superb set of stories that linger in the mind. It’s sad that there’ll be no more from one of the greatest ever crime authors. Few writers could evoke a sense of place so well.

 

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Writing a History Mystery

Is writing an historical mystery easy? I don’t think so. You need a great deal of knowledge about the period if you are going to get things right. People in history weren’t just individuals like us but in odd clothes.

Take the world of the Victorians – for those of us living in Britain, the Victorians can seem very familiar. They weren’t so different from us. We can walk and sometimes live in the buildings they did. Many of our institutions are the same as theirs. We face, often, very similar problems.

For the writer, this can seem reassuringly familiar. But there are differences too, despite some of our politicians wanting and often succeeding in crashing us back to Victorian Values.

There is much about the Victorian landscape that’s quite fascinating. But there’s a lot we don’t miss.

When I wrote The Shadow of William Quest, I concentrated on the appalling injustices of the Victorian Age. My character, William Quest, is a far-sighted reformer, a righter of wrongs. In the sequel, Deadly Quest, he plunges four-square into the unpleasantness of the Victorian underworld.

But, although I’ve a degree in Victorian history, I’m not writing a history book. I’m penning a novel, an historical mystery. What the Victorians themselves would call a Penny Dreadful, or a Shocker. Both the Quest books are adventure stories, thrillers, though they are very much rooted in the realities of mid 19th century Victorian England.

Some writers get carried away with their love of research. You will always find out far more about the historical period than you will ever use. If, when reading the novel, the research stands out like a history essay, then you’ve got it wrong.

You need to drip-feed information. If it’s not strictly relevant to the story, then it shouldn’t be there. However interesting the fact you’ve found out, if it holds up the story and its action it don’t put it in..

Readers read fiction to be entertained. They might welcome learning something new about the historical period, but that should be the limit. Save the detailed research for a non-fiction history book. It’s important that you should know, but you don’t need to pour it all out into the pages of your novel.

I’m now writing the third William Quest story – and this one will be set in the English city of York. A place famous now for its Roman and Viking history, more than its Victorian past. But in fact it had its own rookeries and criminal underworld. As someone who loves York, it is fascinating exploring and utilising a non-London setting.

And enthralling trying to write my own take on the Penny Dreadful or Shocker.

How did it all come about?

I’d always wanted to write a book set in Victorian times, not least because much of the Victorian world is still familiar to those of us living in the UK. As we wander through the streets of Britain we can – if we lift our eyes above the modern fascias on the shops – still see what our Victorian forebears saw.

The same street patterns, by and large, many of the same buildings, and the much of the landscapes they knew. Too much has been lost, and we should be saving what is left, but the Victorian street map may still be traced.

If we could travel back in time, we could enter the 1850’s world of William Quest with little difficulty. Though there would be some surprises. It could be a brutal world, not as settled as some people have implied. There are many Victorian Values that deserved to be relegated to the history books.

My William Quest is a radical. His ideas bore fruit, though it doesn’t always seem like it.

I’ve always been interested in Victorian Britain, since the subject was taught at my primary school. Much of our great literature was written in the 19th century. Reading those classic books plunges back into that world. We are – for good or bad – still little Victorians in so many ways.

I knew some Victorians, of course, though they were all born late in the period. Nevertheless, I remember them well, their attitudes and the way they talked. My grandparents were Victorians, though they were all very young when the old Queen died.

For quite a time, I moved away from Victorian history, into other periods. As some of you will know, I also write historical novels about Robin Hood – LoxleyWolfshead and Villain, with a fourth book out next year, so I have a passion for that period. For a long time I’ve had an interest in the English Civil War. I like the Anglo-Saxons too.

The Victorians tended to go on the back-burner.

Then, thirty years ago I became an undergraduate of the Open University, doing an arts course that was almost entirely Victorian. After a couple of years, I went as a full-time undergraduate to the University of East Anglia.

My major was literature, though I did a minor in 19th century social history, some of which looked at the Victorian underworld. It all stayed in my mind, though work pressures kept the writing of fiction at bay. I did, however, write the texts for a series of topographical books about the towns and landscapes of England – and much of that was Victorian.

I spent nine years working as chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, founded in 1883 and very proud of its Victorian campaigning roots.

The Victorians never quite went away.

I wanted to write a novel with a slightly dubious hero set in Victorian times, a kind of Penny Dreadful, the kind of pulp literature of action and derring-do that the Victorians themselves enjoyed reading – though they’d often pretend that their literary tastes were a tad more pretentious.

I’ve always loved such tales myself, and used to hunt them out when I was an undergraduate. They were all good fun, sometimes morally dubious. But a reading of them tells a lot about Victorian popular taste. I go as far as to state that you cannot grasp the complexities of Victorian society if you don’t read them.

While I enjoy the finer works of literature I also worship their slightly more questionable cousins – and that in itself is something I have in common with my Victorian ancestors…

To read the William Quest books, please click on the links below. They’re available in paperback as well as Kindle eBooks:

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‘Vintage Murder’ by Ngaio Marsh

Published in 1937, this is Ngaio Marsh’s fourth novel and the first one set in her native New Zealand. This background adds a fascinating slant on a most British of plots – murder in the theatre – transposed to what would then have been termed life in the Dominions.

Vintage Murder (The Ngaio Marsh Collection) by [Marsh, Ngaio]

The novel begins with an impressively well-written first chapter. The suspects are introduced via one of my favourite tropes, a long-distance railway journey. Give me a steam-train travelling through the night and I’m hooked. All those possibilities for skullduggery with corridors and sleepers. The train here is particularly interesting with viewing platforms and a mountainous, switchback line.

Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn is on holiday and trying to keep his profession under his hat. Not easy when your cases get written up in The Tatler. He’s been offered a seat in a carriage occupied by a company of actors. The Carolyn Dacres English Comedy Company are touring New Zealand and on their way to the city of Middleton in the North Island. Ngaio Marsh explains in a foreword that she was no fan of fictional towns. But New Zealand had so few sizable places, if she used Auckland or Wellington, her local characters might have been mistaken for portraits or caricatures of actual persons.

Ngaio Marsh isn’t often remembered as a great descriptive writer. It’s probably fair to generalise that Golden Age writers tended to concentrate on plot and dialogue. Setting was often scanty. Well, Marsh also concentrated on plot but one of the many reasons I love her work is because she evoked a superb sense of place. She was equally at home describing London streets, the English countryside or her homeland. This is Alleyn on the train:

A violent jerk woke him. The train had slowed down. He wiped the misty window-pane, shaded his eyes, and tried to look out into this new country. The moon had risen. He saw aching hills, stumps of burnt trees, some misty white flowering scrub, and a lonely road. It was very remote and strange. Away in front, the engine whistled. Trees, hills and road slid sideways and were gone. Three lamps travelled across the window-pane. They were off again.

Throughout the opening chapter, I liked the way that the rattling, rolling rhythm of the train journey was interspersed between dialogue, making the reader feel truly in the scene. There’s a very visual feel to the writing, probably a consequence of being a renowned theatre producer.

The murder takes place on stage after a performance. A party is held to celebrate the leading lady’s birthday and a few guests outside the company are invited. These include Alleyn and a distinguished, Maori doctor. The build-up of tension is deftly handled and the murder method is worthy of Midsomer Murders. The unusual means of dispatch, popular in pre-war mysteries, are great fun. Ngaio Marsh often went in for a flamboyant slant on the murder method, possibly influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers? And if some of these wonderful writers’ ingenious ideas wouldn’t bear too close an examination, who cares? The play’s the thing..

I love a theatrical setting, it offers so much scope for being seedy and sinister. Ngaio Marsh writes about this world with an ease that can’t be faked. She acted herself and is credited with almost single-handedly reviving the popularity of New Zealand’s theatre. Not surprising that her characters are very believable theatrical types.

Alleyn is shown to be interested in and respectful of Maori culture, almost certainly echoing Marsh’s views. (Her name – actually her middle name – translates as ‘light reflected on water’ and a ngaio is also a small tree, native to New Zealand). Dr Te Pokiha is a most sympathetic character. This is surely the author speaking through her leading man:

Mr. Liversidge added that Courtney Broadhead was a white man, a phrase that Alleyn had never cared for and of which he was heartily tired.

Rory Alleyn cuts quite a lonely figure in Vintage Murder, writing to his side-kick Inspector Fox and coming close to falling for the leading lady. Until he meets his wife Agatha Troy, he has a weakness for actresses, shown in Enter A Murderer (1935). We’re told that Alleyn’s on extended leave for three months, convalescing from a serious operation, though we don’t learn the details. He’s going to be fine as he meets Troy on his voyage home in Artists In Crime (1938).

Vintage Murder is a very enjoyable read, a classic, closed setting mystery with a freshness from its vivid New Zealand background.

I’m usually dubious about series sequels/continuations by new authors – appalled by what’s often done to Agatha Christie’s legacy. But I will try Stella Duffy’s new novel Money In The Morgue, published in March. This continues the opening chapters of an Alleyn mystery which Ngaio Marsh began and put aside in 1945. Set in New Zealand during the war – Alleyn was already there in Colour Scheme (1943) and Died In The Wool (1944) – the surviving fragment is a delight.

 

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Darkest Hour – Churchill and the Nazis

Last week, we went to see Darkest Hour, the latest of two recent films about Winston Churchill’s war. Whereas the previous film Churchill, which gives a quite wonderful portrayal by Brian Cox, deals with the approach to D-Day,  Darkest Hour deals with the time leading up to the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk in 1940 – a time when it seemed that Hitler was unstoppable and that Britain was next. Gary Oldman plays Churchill in a portrayal that gives a fairly warts and all version of the Prime Minister – a stirring and often moving performance,

The film depicts the ditching of the first wartime Prime Minister, the hapless Neville Chamberlain (excellently played by the marvellous Ronald Pickup), and his surprising replacement by Churchill.

Politically, it was a choice between Churchill and the Nazi appeaser Lord Halifax – of whom more later. Churchill was written off in the 1930s as a maverick politician with an obsession about the dangers of Hitler. For the previous decade, Churchill had warned of the danger from the Third Reich. He was ignored and ridiculed.

But he was right. If Hitler had been crushed in his early days, the world would have been spared a great deal of misery and tens of millions lives would have been saved. A lesson for people today as politicians with totalitarian ambitions emerge.

Now I should state here I’m not Churchill’s greatest fan (he was a very dubious domestic politician), but he was probably the best choice as a war leader in 1940. There is no doubt that if Lord Halifax had become Prime Minister we’d have seen the triumph of Hitler and an almost unimaginable new dark age.

The struggle against British pro-Nazis and appeasers is of interest to me because I made a considerable study of its implication while researching my thriller Balmoral Kill. Set in 1937, it deals  with a conspiracy to put the pro-Nazi Duke of Windsor (the recent King Edward VIII) back on the British throne as a puppet for Hitler.

My novel is fiction, but there is a huge amount of truth in it. Many of the politicians and great landowners desperately wanted to sell Britain out to Hitler, many because they dreaded war, some for their own profit and survival, and others because they were avowed Nazis. They dominated and mostly controlled the Conservative Party and loathed the thought of the maverick and off-message Churchill gaining control.

Churchill had to battle, at least initially, against a British Establishment that wanted nothing to do with taking on Hitler. It was one of the lucky breaks of history that Churchill became Prime Minister when he did. Lord Halifax as PM would have been a disaster.

History has proved that Churchill made the right call in Britain fighting on alone against Hitler. As a politician of many decades, Churchill got a lot of things wrong and I’ve little political sympathy for many of his attitudes. But in the 1930s, he was right to insist that Hitler and his philosophy needed to be wiped from the face of the Earth.

Below the link for my novel is a further essay on just how much Hitlerian ideas had permeated the British Establishment.

Edward VIII and the Nazis – Background to a Novel
It is at first sight the very stuff of romance: the King who gave up his throne for the woman he loved. Growing up in England in the 1960s it was still a tale on the lips of the older generation, the Abdication of Edward VIII in December 1936, so that he might marry the American socialite Mrs Wallis Simpson. Had it not happened we may never have had Edward’s brother King George VI on the English throne during World War Two, or the present Queen reigning to this day.

In my youth there was still a feeling of distaste amongst older people that a popular monarch had been forced from the throne by a po-faced Establishment. Although a lot of the people detested Mrs Simpson, they were equally uneasy about the role played by other members of the royal family. I suspect I could have asked at random a number of people who were alive at the time and there would still be a feeling of betrayal. The affair with Mrs Simpson was kept from the British people until the last moment. Although it was widely reported in the American press, the British press barons made a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Buckingham Palace to keep the intrigue under wraps in Britain.

That was the story as I heard it as a child. But it is a mere percentage of the whole truth. Only in recent years has more of the background to the Abdication come out. And a lot more about the character of King Edward VIII, who became the Duke of Windsor after his abdication.

I have recently published an historical thriller, Balmoral Kill, which is set several months after the Abdication. In my book my characters have to deal with the very real crisis that overhung Britain in the period between the Abdication and the outbreak of World War Two in 1939.

The idea for the novel occurred to me several years ago when I saw a television interview with an elderly gentleman who had served as a British army officer in the events leading up to the fall of France in 1940, and the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk. After arriving safely in England he had been billeted with an aristocratic family in southern England during the period of the Battle of Britain. He had said in the interview that he had been quite shocked when he found out that a number of landowning families thought that Britain should surrender to Hitler so that they might preserve their landholdings.

I was aware, of course, that there was a great deal of sympathy for Hitler in the British Establishment during the 1930s. This was in many cases quite overt. Even mainstream British newspapers such as the Daily Mail regularly heaped paeans of praise on the Third Reich, and published membership forms for Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists so that their readers might have the opportunity to join.

There was also a strong pacifist belief. Britain was still shocked by the slaughter in the trenches of the First World War. Many people thought that almost any accommodation with Nazi Germany was well worthwhile if it prevented another war. These individuals genuinely believed that Hitler would not interfere with Britain and its Empire if he was left alone. So deep was the fear of war that many chose to turn a blind eye to what Hitler as doing in Europe.

And while the majority of the British people were wise enough to have no truck with fascism and Hitlerism, there were elements of the British Establishment who thought that Hitler should be either appeased – the majority – or embraced – a very substantial minority. Indeed, appeasement was the policy of the British government, firstly under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and then his successor Neville Chamberlain. Well-meaning politicians both who simply couldn’t accept that anyone could be as evil and devious as Hitler. Former Prime Minister David Lloyd George visited Hitler in 1936 and was full of praise, considering him the “George Washington of Germany”. Newspaper barons Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere, who were to be instrumental in hushing up King Edward’s affair with Wallis Simpson, were lavishly entertained by Hitler and subsequently praised him in their newspapers.

Even as late as May 1940, the British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, an arch appeaser himself, said that he had been “deluged with letters from a number of the nation’s greatest aristocrats imploring him to propose a policy of surrender and appeasement to Hitler, so that they might keep their great estates.” At the time King George VI favoured Halifax as Prime Minister instead of Churchill.

As a writer, I was interested in just how far people would go to keep Britain out of the war or to try and bring Nazism to Britain. I was fascinated with the notion that Winston Churchill, grandson of a duke, and a fully paid-up member of the British Establishment, was prepared to jeopardise his own political career to put forward a contrary point of view. To warn the British people of the dangers of Hitler right from the beginning. For much of the 1930s Churchill was a voice crying in the wilderness, unheeded and even laughed at. But history was to prove that his minority voice was wiser that of the cacophonous roaring of the appeasers and fellow-travellers of the Nazi regime. Researching further, I was surprised to find just how deep the roots of Nazism went into the very depths of the British Establishment.

Edward and the Nazis

Edward VIII, or the duke of Windsor as he became after the Abdication, does not actually appear at all in my novel Balmoral Kill, though his shadow drifts across, and is the motivation for, much of the plot. His brother and successor George VI does make a brief appearance.

The British royal family had had an uncomfortable twentieth century in many ways. In World War One, following air raids on London, they had been obliged to change their surname from the Germanic Saxe-Coburg -Gotha to Windsor, at a time when shops and businesses with German names were being attacked by mobs in the street. For two hundred years, from the accession of King George I, the family had been essentially German, considering German their first language over English. World War One had brought along the embarrassment of finding their country at war with King George V’s cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II. As the 1930s progressed a number of their other German cousins were very obviously embracing the policies of Hitler’s Third Reich, at least one of their relatives even being an officer in Heinrich Himmler’s dreaded SS.

Given the British government’s policy of appeasing Hitler in the 1930s this didn’t actually present a problem to the royal family. Before the outbreak of World War Two, Nazism was a subject open for discussion – as far as the royal family were concerned. Edward VIII’s brother, the duke of Kent, made many visits to Germany and professed a fascination for all things Nazi. His Nazi relative in Germany, Prince Ludwig von Hessen-Damstadt noted “Duke of Kent. Very German friendly. Clearly against France. Not especially clever, but well informed. Entirely for strengthening German-English ties. His wife is equally anti-French.” (The duke of Kent’s opinion changed when Hitler started dropping bombs on London in 1940.)

All through the 1930s Edward VIII, both as Prince of Wales and King, entertained many Nazis on their visits to Britain, including von Mecklenburg – a notorious member of the SS – in 1933. Edward took great pains to excise any mention of the visit from the official Court Circular. He was on friendly terms with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi ambassador to London. Wallis Simpson may well have been on even friendlier terms with Ribbentrop. The talk of London was that she was having a sexual relationship with the ambassador at the same time that she was courting King Edward. Ribbentrop sent her seventeen red roses every morning during their time together in the British capital.

Edward hated the very concept of democratic monarchy. He wanted to be a king who ruled as well as reigned. He spoke on many occasions as to his regret that Britain and its people couldn’t be “controlled” by one ruler in the way that Hitler led Nazi Germany. Even in the pro-appeasement British Establishment the alarm bells were beginning to ring.

In December 1936, King Edward VIII, who had reigned for less than a year, abdicated, when the Church of England made it quite clear that no British king could marry a divorcee. It was sold in the newspapers that were sympathetic to him as a touching and very moving love story, the very essence of tragic romance. How far the church and other elements of the establishment were pressured to jettison a king who had become a political liability, using his romance as an excuse, is still open to debate.

But there were elements in British Intelligence, already contemplating the need to fight Hitler, who were thrilled to bits. His successor, his brother Albert, became King George VI. As it happened the new king also favoured a rapprochement with Germany, though not to the pro-Hitler extent that Edward had favoured. But, as far as British Intelligence was concerned, the removal of a solidly pro-Nazi king like Edward was a step in the right direction.

Winston Churchill despaired of Edward, or the duke of Windsor, as I shall call him from now on. He had loathed the very idea of the Abdication and was personally fond of the duke. There is little doubt that he thought that the duke should have kept the throne and, initially, viewed his extreme politics and sympathy with the Third Reich as a fad that he might grow out of. In the years that followed he changed his mind.

In 1937, the duke and duchess of Windsor made a visit to Germany that acquired considerable notoriety. To Churchill’s dismay they sailed to the country on the German liner Bremen, giving the Nazis a propaganda coup. During their time in Germany the pair visited a Nazi training school, inspected the already murderous SS and had tea with Hermann Goering. A few days later they dined with Hitler’s propaganda chief Dr Josef Goebbels. On 22 October 1937, the duke and duchess had a private and reportedly very friendly meeting with Adolf Hitler. On several occasions during the tour, the duke was to be seen making the infamous Nazi salute.

The duke and duchess settled to live in France and stayed there after the outbreak of World War Two. As a serving British army officer, the duke carried out inspections of France’s defensive Maginot Line. The suggestion has been made (see Martin Allen’s book Hidden Agenda) that he sent classified information about France’s defences to the Nazis, care of his friend Charles Bedaux, an American businessman who was spying for Hitler. The truth regarding this alleged treachery may never be known. Bedaux committed suicide in 1944 after being arrested by the FBI.

The Windsors were hastily moved to Lisbon when France fell to the Nazis in 1940. But even in neutral Portugal, the duke of Windsor was thought to be in contact with well-known Nazi officials and the Abwehr, German military intelligence. In despair, the British government decided to ship the couple off to the haven of the Bahamas, a British colony where they could be kept from German influence. At first the duke refused to go. A despairing Churchill reminded the duke that he was a serving British officer and that he would be court martialled if he refused to obey this direct order.

It was around this time that J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, on the direct order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, ordered surveillance on the couple, noting that the duchess in particular, still an American citizen, “was exceedingly pro-German in her sympathies and connections.” FBI files noted a great many links between the couple and the Nazis.

My own researches suggest that there is little doubt that the Third Reich favoured the return of the duke of Windsor to the British throne, almost from the time of the Abdication and his visit to Hitler in 1937. The duke of Windsor himself almost certainly considered such a possibility. How far he would have gone, if the circumstances had allowed it, is debatable. I doubt, for instance, that he would have tolerated the assassination of his brother and successor George VI, though had anything removed King George from the throne in any other way, there is a possibility that he might have returned either as king or regent.

I based the plot of Balmoral Kill, and I must stress that my book is an historical thriller and not a history volume, on the possibility that certain elements of the British Establishment contemplated such a scenario. Although in reality matters never went as far as I have imagined in my pages, there is little doubt that the idea behind it was given much serious consideration amid less patriotic elements of the British elite. It was only after doing further research into the period after I had finished writing that I realised how close I had got to some sort of truth.

Joachim von Ribbentrop certainly proposed that the duke of Windsor should become a puppet king if Britain fell to invasion in 1940, and King George VI and his family fled to Canada. Buckingham Palace was bombed no fewer than nine times during the London blitz. At the Nuremburg Trials, Ribbentrop said that he had personally offered the duke 50 million Swiss francs if he would make a claim on the British throne. The duke of Windsor denied that any such sum had been offered.

Aftermath

King George VI, overcame his shyness and his stammer and became a considerable figurehead for British resistance during World War Two. On his premature death in 1952 his daughter Princess Elizabeth became the present Queen. The duke and duchess of Windsor lived quietly in Paris, the duke dying in 1972 and the duchess in 1986. Their connections with Hitler’s Germany were skated over in their respective memoirs.

But at the end of the war, a military intelligence officer, Anthony Blunt, later Sir Anthony Blunt, subsequently Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was sent to Germany by officials at Buckingham Palace with the task of seeking out and removing from the Nazi archives any documents that might incriminate members of the royal family. Any papers he found were probably secreted in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. Many years later, Blunt was discovered to be a spy for Soviet Russia. His only real punishment for treachery was the removal of his knighthood. The British public were amazed at this mild treatment of a traitor. Suggestions were made at the time, and have been since, that he was protected because he knew too much.
If we are ever to know the absolute truth about the relationship between the duke and duchess of Windsor and the Nazis, then the relevant files are probably in the archives of the United States. As late as 1953, Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister for the second time, asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower to suppress any FBI documents that might suggest that the duke and duchess of Windsor were sympathetic – or even worse complicit – in the activities of the Nazi regime.

Sometimes when you write a work of fiction based on real events, you find that the events themselves are more astonishing that anything that could possibly be imagined.

John Bainbridge

 

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The Sherlock Holmes Book of Self-Defence – The Manly Art of Bartitsu

The Sherlock Holmes Book of Self-Defence – The Manly Art of Bartitsu, as used against Professor Moriarty is a fun-filled little book from the Ivy Press, based upon the original Edwardian articles and other writings of E.W. Barton-Wright, the devisor of Bartitsu.The Sherlock Holmes school of Self-Defence: The Manly Art of Bartitsu as used against Professor Moriarty by [Barton-Wright, E.W.]

While it’s a fun read, this delightfully-illustrated little book is practical too, and you might pick up a hint or two on defending yourself.

I spent a couple of decades indulging in martial arts, including Wado Ryu Karate, Kung Fu, boxing, wrestling, Jiu-Jitsu and Savate (French kick-boxing). Elements of the later two make up much of the ethos of Bartitsu. I’ve used similar techniques in training and the real world – they do work, though you really do need to practice and not just read a book.

Contrary to popular belief, Victorian and Edwardian society was not particularly safe. There were places in town and country where you might be attacked. Personal safety did prey on people’s minds.

Barton-Wright (1860-1951) was an interesting character. He was a consulting engineer by profession, work which took him all around the world, including Japan where he took up Jiu-Jitsu. Returning to London in 1898, Barton-Wright devised the hybrid Bartitsu (named after himself), publishing magazine articles and opening a Bartitsu Club in Shaftesbury Avenue. It didn’t last long, no doubt because of competition from many other schools of many other martial arts disciplines that became popular at the same time.

It did, however, make its mark on one famous writer – Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. When Doyle brings Holmes back from his supposed death at the Reichenbach Falls, Holmes explains to Watson how he escaped the grip of the fiendish Professor Moriarty:

We tottered together upon the brink of the fall. I have some knowledge, however, of Baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me…

Notice that Doyle gets the name of the art wrong, Baritsu rather than the proper Bartitsu, though this could well have been a proofing error rather than the author’s fault. Interesting to see how widely Barton-Wright’s martial art had become known.

This present book presents us with a number of these techniques, from how to “Deal With Undesirables”, such as evicting a troublesome man from a room, to how to escape when grabbed from the rear or by the throat. There are short chapters on how to fight with a walking stick, dealing with an attacker armed with a knife, how to throw and hold an assailant on the ground, and even self-defence using a bicycle as a weapon.

All very interesting, though if you want to take this up seriously you should perhaps enrol in a club and learn hands-on.

But this little book is a delight and well worth a read for devotees of historic crime fiction.

 

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‘The Documents In The Case’ by Dorothy L. Sayers

Published in 1930, this is Sayers’ only novel not to feature Lord Peter Wimsey. While I don’t rate it as highly as the Wimsey stories – which I love – it was very enjoyable and I’m glad to have re-read it after many years.The Documents in the Case by [Sayers, Dorothy L]

The setting is the London suburb of Bayswater in 1928, where the Harrisons live in a tall Victorian house with their lady-help, Miss Agatha Milsom. When the story begins, their top floors are newly leased to two young men, an artist and an aspiring novelist. Harrison is a fussy, mild-mannered accountant – sounds perfect for a 1920s murderer – and his wife Margaret is much younger. She’s wonderfully described as a suburban vamp with lots of S.A.

As the title implies, this is an epistolary novel, not my favourite structure but it is addictive. No chapter breaks make it tempting to read just one more entry, which leads to many. I find the same effect when reading published diaries. I enjoyed seeing characters and events from several viewpoints, showing the vast inconsistencies in what we all call the truth.

The novel is divided in two parts and includes statements among letters. It reminded me of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, where a time period is pieced together and analysed in an attempt to unravel a mystery. It’s an effective means of hooking the reader. You’re formally challenged to play detective from the opening page.

We don’t know the nature of the murder for some considerable time – or we wouldn’t but for the blurb. While I understand the publishers’ need for hooks to tempt buyers, I wish they didn’t give away so much – one of my serial rants. I suspect the first readers in 1928 began knowing less about what was going on than we do today.

We are told early on that Harrison is an expert on fungi. Say no more – all keen Golden Age readers know what that means! A keen forager and cook, he’s writing a book on the subject, accompanied by his water-colour illustrations. Poisoning is a deliciously sinister method of dispatch. For a writer it’s full of possibilities, as devious as deadly, not requiring brute force or even the presence of the murderer. So handy for arranging an alibi and for the more squeamish killer. It’s worth noting that The Documents In The Case is Sayers’ following novel after Strong Poison.

One of the novel’s strengths is its lively characterisation, shown especially in Miss Milsom. In reality, how terrible it must have been to be a ‘lady-help,’ existing in an uneasy limbo between family and servant. Miss Milsom is engaged partly as a companion to Mrs Harrison. She sits with the family and is treated as a sort of distant relative but her duties include the cooking, which she does badly.

You could say Miss Milsom is a great positive-thinker, self-help books being as popular then as now. She busies herself in enthusiasms including handicrafts, littering the flat with her half-finished work. A letter to her sister explains:

I am experimenting on some calendars, made like the old-fashioned tinsel pictures, with the coloured paper-wrappers off chocolate creams. Some of the designs are simply beautiful.

Miss Milsom is also obsessed with sexual repression. It was fashionable at the time to read Freud, consult a ‘nerve doctor’ and worry about the state of one’s glands. Mental and physical health, exercise, faddy diets, dodgy sects and gurus were all popular preoccupations in the inter-war years. Though presumably not among people struggling with the Means Test and the Depression.

She consults these psycho-analytical quacks, who encourage her to attach an absurd importance to her whims and feelings, and to talk openly at the dinner-table about things which, in my (doubtless old-fashioned) opinion, ought only to be mentioned to doctors.

In several of her novels, Sayers satirises neurotic middle-aged spinsters seeking self-expression. Wickedly funny, though it could be argued her caricatures are unkind. It’s a mistake for us to read history through a filter of modern values. These were women who perhaps never thought of a career other than marriage and motherhood. And their best chance of happiness was lost on the Western Front.

You can sense Sayers’ impatience with foolish women who didn’t make a fulfilling life for themselves, above all with useful work. A glimpse of the theme she developed with Harriet Vane, culminating in Gaudy Night. At the time of writing The Documents In The Case, Sayers was working in the advertising agency which inspired Murder Must Advertise, a vivid portrayal of office life in the thirties.

The young artist and writer here are part of the London Bohemian scene which is a popular Golden Age setting, often Ngaio Marsh territory. Sayers uses this in parts of Strong Poison and The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club. A female character in The Documents In The Case contrasts with Miss Milsom as a level-headed, hard-working novelist, rather like Harriet Vane.

There’s a very good sense of place, both in the dull, respectable streets of Bayswater and when the novel shifts to the wild countryside near the Dartmoor village of Manaton. When we lived in Devon, this was one of my favourite parts of the Moor for walking. Sayers really captures the flavour of the landscape and its people. It’s a pleasure to read about passengers travelling the long-axed, country branch-line from Newton Abbot which climbs on to the Moor via Bovey Tracey. (Parts of the old railway line survive for walking).

Earlier editions credit Robert Eustace as co-author, though new editions have dropped his name, even from the front matter. This was the pseudonym of Dr. Eustace Barton, a medical doctor who also wrote thrillers. He suggested a crucial part of the plot and helped with the forensic side.

Overall, I don’t think The Documents In The Case works with the brilliance of a Wimsey novel. It feels expermental somehow and an epistolary form is bound to feel slightly disjointed. But the characterisation, atmosphere and a clever puzzle make it well worth reading. And as a glimpse of its time, the social detail of a vanished, pre-war England is invaluable.

 

 

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Leslie Charteris: Call For The Saint

Call For the Saint offers us two Simon Templar novellas (or novelettes as Charteris preferred to call them). The collected volume was published in 1948 and features two of the best post-war Saint stories. This was the last time Charteris used the novelette format, though it was revived by other Saint writers in the 1960s, around the time the Roger Moore television series aired.

In the first tale “The King of the Beggars” Simon Templar is in Chicago and takes to the streets and alleys as a blind beggar to investigate the mysterious individual who declares himself just that – the King of the Beggars. Not that this king is generous to people forced on to the streets. In fact, this king is running a protection racket, forcing street beggars to hand over most of what they have collected to him.

Templar is in alliance here with a feisty theatre actress, Monica Varing, who goes undercover herself.

The joy of the piece is Templar’s Runyonesque and extremely dim hoodlum sidekick Hoppy Uniatz, one of the happiest character creations in thrillerdom. Hoppy gives an added delight to the stories in which he appears. Here his ability to mouth out BB shot plays an important part in the yarn.

The second story, “The Masked Angel” is set against the world of fixed boxing bouts. Charteris captures the atmosphere of the ring rather well and we even have a climax where the Saint puts on the gloves himself – to the delight of the crowd.

The story is set in New York and re-introduces two well-known characters from the canon – Police Inspector Fernack, who shares the same love/hate relationship with Templar that Claud Eustace Teal of Scotland Yard enjoys. How frustrating it must be for well-meaning cops that they can never bring the saint to heel?

The other character is Patricia Holm, the Saint’s sometime girlfriend and partner in crime. This is one of her last appearances (she takes her final bow in Saint Errant published the same year, and she hadn’t appeared since the earlier The Saint in Miami).

Reading this story, you get the feeling that all is not well between the Saint and the delightful Patricia. He has his saintly eyes on another (unavailable) woman and Patricia isn’t very happy about it. In fact, there’s a real edginess between Patricia and the Saint in this one, as though both know that the writing is on the wall in a relationship coming to an end.

For me, the Saint is never quite the same when Patricia leaves, and I don’t recall there being any reason given for the breakdown of their relationship. If any Saintly readers know why Charteris decided to give her the elbow, please comment.

Call For the Saint is a wonderful read if you want a few hours of complete escapism, both stories are beautifully-written and full of atmosphere.

At the top of his form, nobody did this kind of story better than Leslie Charteris.

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The New William Quest Novel

I was very much hoping to finish the new William Quest novel by Christmas, but it will now be out in the Spring. The new book is set in York and Quest finds himself playing the role of detective as he struggles to solve a mystery.

It’s been interesting taking Quest away from London into a city he doesn’t know at all, and where he has to seek out new allies. We’ve very much enjoyed prowling the alleys, ginnels and snickets of our finest medieval city in search of new locations. It’s interesting that while the Romans, Vikings and medieval folk get lots of publicity in York, its Victorian period seems to get neglected.

In fact, Victorian York wasn’t altogether a peaceful place. It had its own underworld and rookeries. There was menace… there was danger.

William Quest finds himself in York start just a week after the dramatic conclusion related in his last adventure Deadly Quest. William has scarcely recovered from the events on Jacob’s Island. And now he’s plunged into a new and baffling mystery.

Not to mention someone wanting him dead!

So sorry for the delay, but Quest is on his way.

And deadlier than ever.

If you’ve enjoyed the first two William Quest adventures, please do leave a review on Amazon.

 

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Help An Indie Author By Reviewing

A big thank you to everyone who’s bought or borrowed one of our books this year – writing can be a lonely business and it really helps to get feedback from readers.

As Indie Authors, we especially appreciate your support. If you’ve enjoyed our books please leave a quick review. 

A Happy New Year to everyone who reads this. 

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Chief Inspector Morse’s New Year Mystery – ‘The Secret Of Annexe 3’

I loved Colin Dexter’s novels when they were first published but until now had only re-read The Wench Is Dead, his superb historical mystery. The Secret Of Annexe 3 is Dexter’s seventh novel, published in 1986. This was the story I recalled least, as it was the only title not adapted for the ITV drama. The murder takes place around a fancy dress night at an Oxford hotel, on a snowy New Year’s Eve.    The Secret of Annexe 3 (Inspector Morse Series Book 7) by [Dexter, Colin]

It surprised me from the opening pages that Colin Dexter did a lot of foreshadowing and using an author’s ‘voiceover.’ Those men and women we are to meet in the following pages.

At that moment a train of events was set in motion which would result in murder – a murder planned with slow subtlety and executed with swift ferocity.

I often re-read Victorian novels where foreshadowing and chatty asides from the author were popular devices. I don’t mind at all when Trollope suddenly addresses his readers for several paragraphs or Wilkie Collins starts dropping direct hints about dark deeds ahead. I’m happy to accept it was the style of the age and find it endearing but in a late twentieth century novel, it seems distracting.

A minor point though, for I’d forgotten how absorbing it is to visit Chief Inspector Morse’s Oxford with its intelligent prose and lovely sense of place. The characters are very human with their failings and I liked the way secondary figures are given lots of back-story.

It’s interesting to see how society has moved on from a story written thirty years ago. Some guests at the fancy dress contest and dinner-dance, at the heart of the case, would be on very dodgy ground today. The hotel’s theme is ‘The Mystery of the East’ which is interpreted in a variety of ways.

It must have taken the man some considerable time to effect such a convincing transformation into a coffee-coloured, dreadlocked Rastafarian; and perhaps he hadn’t quite finished yet, for even as he walked across to the dining-room he was still dabbing his brown-stained hands with a white handkerchief that was now more chocolate than vanilla.

Another guest is dressed in the black garb of a female adherent of the Ayatollah, in a voice muffled by the double veil of her yashmak.

The Secret Of Annexe 3 has an intriguing plot with the hallmarks of a Golden Age puzzle. The Haworth Hotel has acquired the building next door which is part-way through its conversion to an annexe. Four rooms are completed and booked for the New Year festivities. When one of the guests is murdered, the annexe is the setting for a classic locked room mystery with a closed circle of suspects. Heavy snow has fallen and the three day hotel package makes a modern substitute for the winter country house-party, beloved of vintage crime fiction.

As this is clever, devious Colin Dexter, complications pile upon twists for Chief Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis. The corpse cannot be identified, the time of death can’t be established, the other guests have fled before the police arrived and hardly a single guest at the Haworth had registered under a genuine name…

By this point in the series, Morse and Lewis are comfortably established in their respective rôles of the brilliantly intuitive, erratic thinker and cheerful, hard-working side-kick. We’ve been rewatching the boxset and this time I’ve been struck by how offensively John Thaw’s Morse often speaks to Lewis in the earlier episodes. The underlying affection and Morse’s dependence on Lewis takes a long time to develop. In The Secret of Annexe 3, the relationship between the two men is much warmer with less conflict than on screen. Lewis gets more moments of quiet humour, showing how well he has the measure of Morse.

This is the last title published before the legendary television drama began early in 1987. It’s well known that the production team decided to change Sergeant Lewis from the novels, giving a contrast in age of the two leads. Colin Dexter dropped some description of Lewis in the later novels to fit Kevin Whateley’s portrayal. In the pre-television novels, Lewis is a heavily-built Welshman and a grandfather, only slightly younger than Morse. Other small changes were made such as Morse’s car becoming the classic Jaguar shown on screen.

Morse isn’t melancholy or sad in this outing, only tetchy as he’s given up smoking again. He’s on fine form, trading insults with his old friend Max the police surgeon, fancying the hotel receptionist with her enormous 80s specs, disappearing in pubs, betting shops and nearly spending the night with a call-girl. He also enjoys an invitation to Sunday lunch and an afternoon spent with the Lewis family, unlikely for the television Morse.

In the main, Morse is happy as he has a wonderfully baffling case. The twists and red herrings are like a conjuror performing a succession of card tricks. The suspects are very thoroughly shuffled.

When all is revealed, a pivotal part of the plot doesn’t bear too close an examination – to say the least. That was surprising and shows how even the great crime novelists can occasionally get carried away with the intricacies of their plot. Even so, I found The Secret Of Annexe 3 a very enjoyable read.

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