Monthly Archives: December 2016

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers’s famous detective novel begins on a snowy New Year’s Eve in a lonely spot in the Norfolk Fens, as the afternoon fades into early evening. Lord Peter Wimsey has accidentally nosed his Daimler down the bank of a dyke into a deep ditch. He and the estimable Bunter set off for the nearest habitation, guided by a muffled church bell, then a fingerpost to the village of Fenchurch St Paul.

So opens one of the best-known novels of the Golden Age and with good reason. The plot is original and intriguing, though what makes this story stand out among its peers is the superbly done sense of place. The evocative descriptions of landscape and weather were fairly uncommon at a time when a pared-down style of writing was fashionable.

The title refers to the nine tolls of a passing bell – the teller strokes – rung to mark the death of a man. The ancient bells and church of Fenchurch St Paul are almost characters in their own right – in the same way as that of Morse’s Oxford. The novel is a masterpiece of atmosphere conveyed through the tradition of change-ringing and the watery fenland encircling the village.

In 1933 the writer J.B Priestley toured the country, researching his great social commentary English Journey. He described finding at least three Englands. One was Old England, the country of the cathedrals, manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire. Published in 1934, The Nine Tailors, evokes that timeless portrait.

Sayers was writing about a landscape and way of life far from her modern England of arterial roads, art deco cinemas and road-houses. It was just as far from the hunger-marches and dying industries in the North and Wimsey’s flat in teeming Piccadilly.

In Fenchurch St Paul, the only telephones are at the Big House and the post-office, even the rectory does not possess one. There are few cars, the homes are lit by candle and oil-lamp. Most villagers work on the land or in service to the rector and the squire. In essentials life has changed little since the nineteenth century.

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) grew up in a village on the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens. Her father was the rector of Bluntisham and the surnames of several of the villagers in the novel are to be found in the churchyard. Her parents are buried in Christchurch, a village on the Cambridgeshire-Norfolk border where her father held his last living. It is thought that the church at the heart of the novel was partly inspired by the Fen churches of Upwell and Terrington St Clement in Norfolk.

We visited Upwell a couple of years ago. Situated on the Cambridgeshire border, it is now a large village, bearing no resemblance to the lonely setting of Fenchurch St Paul. Even so it is well worth a visit for St Peter’s is very like the building Wimsey sees. The descriptions of the interior fit almost word for word.

There are several delightful features, including two Georgian galleries. These are sadly uncommon as the Victorians tended to dislike them and had them ripped out in their many dubious ‘restorations.’ Reverend Venables in The Nine Tailors had his galleries removed ten years since, though one plays a significant part in the story. The church’s greatest treasure is its breath-taking angel roof and the galleries enable visitors to get close to examples of the wooden carved figures soaring from the hammerbeams.

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The Nine Tailors is one of my all-time favourite  novels – and a wonderful read for winter.

Recently I’ve discovered the detective novels of Jim Kelly, who has two extremely good (contemporary) series – one set in the Cambridgeshire Fens and the other around North Norfolk. I was interested to see on his website that he credits The Nine Tailors with influencing him to become a crime novelist – something else for which to thank Dorothy L. Sayers .He’s written a fascinating article about sense of place and its importance in the crime novel. I couldn’t agree more and think it’s a skill Jim Kelly does superbly.






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The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D. James

Two years after the death of P.D. James, I never expected to read more of her memorable prose for the first time. It was a welcome surprise to see her name in that familiar font on a newly released volume of four short stories. This took me back to those decades when a new P.D. James novel was a great thrill to be anticipated then savoured. It feels poignant and nostalgic to have this collection.The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by [James, P. D.]

As mentioned last time, I don’t read as many short stories as I probably should. Even old favourites such as Sherlock Holmes, Raffles and John Buchan, I rarely find time to re-visit.  Not sure I even knew P.D. James had published short stories. But I’m glad I found these as they’re some of the best I’ve read. Each is a small gem with all the strengths that made her novels compelling.

Since P.D. James’s first novel Cover Her Face was published in 1963, she set a formidably high standard in characterisation, plot and setting; doing much to make the crime novel literary and lessening the snobbish stigma of genre fiction. Her novels have the strong psychological insight and complex characters which modern readers expect while retaining much-loved aspects of the Golden Age.

James updated the classic trope of an enclosed setting with a tight circle of suspects – the isolated  family country house became a bleak institution and its staff. The locale would be central London as often as her much-loved rural East Anglia. Her sense of place is superb with elegant, haunting descriptions that immerse you vividly in the characters’ world.

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories  has the bonus of a foreword by Val McDermid – who always does these well – and a preface by P.D. James, originally published in 2001.

There is a satisfying art in containing within a few thousand words all those elements of plot, setting, characterisation and surprise which go to provide a good crime story.

These stories certainly satisfied her criteria with strong plots, believable characters and wonderful atmosphere. As for surprise, the endings are extremely clever. I didn’t see them coming and as a detective fiction fan, that’s the best bonus of all. I really admire any writer who can pull off an unexpected murderer and ending in a short story, given the limitations of space and suspects.

The four stories were originally published in 1969, ’79, ’95 and ’96. Two of them are Christmas tales, written for newspapers. Two feature Adam Dalgliesh, in one of which, it’s interesting to glimpse him as a young sergeant. (We think it’s hard to imagine Commander Dalgliesh was ever in uniform, on the beat or doing finger-tip searches and bagging-up fag-ends.)

My favourite story is A Very Commonplace Murder, for its clever plot and evocative, seedy  setting.

For anyone who hasn’t read P.D. James, The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories is a great way to start. Highly recommended.





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Merry Christmas

A very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all readers of Gaslight Crime.

Thank you to everyone who has bought our books in 2016.

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The Holly House Mystery

Our new mystery novella The Holly House Mystery was published yesterday on Kindle and Nook eBook readers. Hopefully, it will be out in paperback before Christmas and on Kobo ebook reader by the end of the year.THE HOLLY HOUSE MYSTERY: An Inspector Chance Murder Mystery (An Inspector Chance Mystery Book 2) by [Bainbridge, John]

The new book is set on the Sussex downs in 1931, in the days between Christmas and the New Year, and features Inspector Eddie Chance of the Tennysham CID.

If you enjoy the book please do leave a review on the online selling sites and Goodreads. And if you could share this and tell your friends about The Holly House Mystery we’d be very grateful.

Here’s a bit more about the book:

December 1931. Inspector Chance investigates a country house mystery in a snow-bound Sussex village. Family and guests are gathered for Christmas at Holly House. A body is discovered near the ruins in the grounds. And only one set of footprints in the snow…

Can Inspector Chance solve the murder before Scotland Yard is called in?

The Holly House Mystery is a 34000 word novella, complete in itself, the second book in the Inspector Chance Mystery Series.

What Readers are saying about Inspector Eddie Chance’s first appearance in The Seafront Corpse

“An excellent depiction of good old fashioned detective work.”

“An enjoyable trip down memory lane, authentically written.”

“Excellent period detective piece. Couldn’t put it down.”

“The mystery was good, the characters were GREAT!!”

To order just click on this link:

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Allingham and Christie – Two Christmas Stories

It’s fun to read Christmassy crime in December and this seems the only time of year I get around to re-reading short stories. This year I’ve gone back to Margery Allingham’s The Case of the Man with the Sack and Agatha Christie’s The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Both have the classic pre-war set-up where the detective is invited to stay at a country house – although the Christie was published in 1960.

The  Case of the Man with the Sack was first published in 1937 in the December issue of The Strand magazine. It was included a year later in Mr Campion: Criminologist. It’s in print in the Arcturus anthology My Friend Mr Campion and other mysteries.

Albert Campion is implored to spend Christmas with his friends the Turret family at their East Anglian home, Pharaoh’s Court. Rising gaunt and bleak amid three hundred acres of ploughed clay and barren salting, all as flat as the estuary beyond. Good job it wasn’t Poirot, I can imagine how he’d shudder.

Lady Turret is ‘goat-touting’ over Christmas, that is entertaining a family of social climbers, masquerading as friends, in exchange for a fat fee. Allingham has lots of fun with the ghastly Welkins family. As expected in such tales, Mrs Welkins, a large middle-aged woman with drooping cheeks and stupid eyes, has brought with her an impressive diamond necklace.

I like this story a lot. It has festive atmosphere, humour, entertaining characters and an ingenious, satisfying plot.

The Turret family’s money-troubles are the ghost of Christmases to come for country house owners. By 1960 in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, society is changing.

In this story, Hercule Poirot is persuaded to spend a traditional English Christmas at  Kings Lacey, a manor house, which is part fourteenth century. He is on the trail of a famous ruby, stolen from an indiscreet young native prince. Although Poirot displays his customary soft spot for young people and their follies, it is only the guarantee of oil-fired central heating that coaxes him away from London in winter.

The title gives much away to the armchair sleuth and I do wonder if Christie was having fun with a nod to Sherlock Holmes’s adventure of The Blue Carbuncle.

I won’t say much about either plot as these are short stories but their similarities are interesting to compare. Both authors have the McGuffin of a precious jewel/piece of jewellery, the rambling country home decked with seasonal trimmings, snow on the way, outsiders at the feast (as well as the detective) and young couples. In both tales the lady of the house is more aware of the situation and ‘managing’ her husband.

The notable difference between them is the time period. In Margery Allingham’s 1930s, Lady Turret may have temporary money-troubles from her heavy losses at bridge but the family still entertain their tenants’ children at their annual Christmas party.

By 1960 at Kings Lacey, society is changing. The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding is suffused with nostalgia – and this reads as though it comes from the author rather than the characters. Agatha Christie wrote an appealing foreward to this volume of short stories, where she recalled the superb Christmases of her youth, spent at Abney Hall, near Stockport. Abney Hall was the family home of her brother-in-law and many years later, she wrote The Adventure while staying there.

Mrs Lacey says to Poirot. My husband, you know, absolutely lives in the past. He likes everything to be just as it was when he was a boy of twelve years old, and used to come here for his holidays.

 And of herself: I simply long to have a small, modern bungalow. No, perhaps not a bungalow exactly, but a small, modern, easy to run house built somewhere in the park here, and live in it with an absolutely up-to-date kitchen and no long passages.

The granddaughter staying at Kings Lacey has got in with what they call the coffee-bar set. She lives in Chelsea and goes about without washing or combing her hair.

The Adventure of the  Christmas Pudding is an enjoyable read with interesting social detail but I felt dissatisfied with meeting Poirot so briefly. I miss the length of a novel. Of the two, I prefer The Case of the Man with the Sack. Trying to work out why, I think because I admired the puzzle and liked the humour. It was easier to enjoy the short story for what it was, without missing a murder so much – much as I  love Mr. Campion novels.

That’s the problem for me, a crime story without a murder just doesn’t satisfy in the same way. Understandably there’s a school of thought that Christmas tales should be lighter in tone and all end well but I like some darkness among the cheer. For me – in the pages of fiction only – there’s nothing like mulled wine, mince pies and murder…





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The Blue Carbuncle – Sherlock Holmes at Christmas


As far as I can remember the Sherlock Holmes story The Blue Carbuncle is the only tale in the canon with a Christmas setting. In fact the story opens two days after Christmas, though throughout there is a Christmas feel about it. It is not surprising that the producers of the two television versions I want to look at here, set their productions before Christmas day. The Blue Carbuncle is, for me, a seasonal tale which ranks alongside the great Christmas stories of Dickens. It has been served very well by the television writers who have adapted it for the screen, and by the wonderful casts that have brought Doyle’s story to life.The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by [Sir Arthur Conan Doyle]

The Blue Carbuncle is an early Holmes story, featuring amongst the first short stories that Doyle wrote for the Strand magazine. It made its first appearance in January 1892, and has always been a favourite yarn for many Sherlockians. It appears in the first collection of Holmes’ stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It is very much a London tale. It is interesting to note that Doyle was still relatively unfamiliar with London at this early date, though he conjures up the atmosphere admirably. There is an occasional slip. Covent Garden Market which features heavily in the tale was better known for selling fruit and vegetables than poultry. But these are minor matters. Few writers have ever captured London on a wintry night with such fidelity.

I have recently watched once more two splendid television versions of The Blue Carbuncle. The 1960s version featuring Peter Cushing as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson, and the 1980s production with Jeremy Brett as the detective and David Burke as Watson. I love them both.

Peter Cushing had already played Holmes in the Hammer film of The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1958, before taking over from Douglas Wilmer for the BBC television series a decade later, inheriting Nigel Stock as Watson. The production was very studio bound and was probably made on a shoestring budget. Nevertheless, the acting and the very intelligent script are superb, the rest of the cast giving great support to the two leads. Madge Ryan gives a scene-stealing performance as the Countess of Morcar, whose jewel is stolen at the beginning of the story. It is interesting that the Countess doesn’t actually appear in the original story, simply being referred by Holmes and Watson. This shows how well television scriptwriters can draw out elements of a tale so that the viewer may see the back story.

Frank Middlemass, a fine English actor, plays the commissionaire Peterson in this production. Interestingly, he reappears in the Jeremy Brett take on the story as well, as Mr Henry Baker, who loses his goose and hat in Goodge Street. From this 1960s version I would single out James Beck (better known as Private Walker in the TV series Dad’s Army) for his role as the hotel under-manager James Ryder. This actor, who died far too young, had a tremendous gift for playing rogues. His portrayal of Ryder, one moment bold, then shifty, then cowardly, is a masterpiece of acting. In the detective’s room at Baker Street, he quite steals the scene even from the talented Cushing and Stock.

The 1980s version of The Blue Carbuncle had greater production values than the BBC’s, very convincing sets and more use of film. It has, in David Burke, a very good Dr Watson. But above all else it has Jeremy Brett. If anyone was born to play Sherlock Holmes it was Brett. His portrayal remains, for me, definitive. I don’t believe that any actor has ever come closer to the character Doyle created. He brings out the lethargy in Holmes’ moments of boredom, the humour of the character – for very often in the original stories Holmes laughs and is amused – the urge to dismiss people, when some character has told all that Holmes needs to know. And then again there are the sudden bursts of energy and physicality, for, like the Holmes of the stories, Brett reminds us that this is a man of action as well as a man of the mind.

Jeremy Brett’s performance as Holmes is so terrific that I am running out of superlatives. Watch him carefully. See how he not only acts but re-acts. Notice the tiniest gestures and the expressions that cross his face. One of the greatest examples of television acting that I can remember.

Brett is supported by a great cast. Here his Watson is David Burke (Edward Hardwicke in later series). Burke was a wonderful foil to Brett; the way they act off each other is a master-class of how good actors should interrelate. The other stand-out performance is Ken Campbell as James Ryder, very different from James Beck’s, but very much playing the character that Doyle intended – the weak man tempted to cross a boundary and who is then not able to deal with the consequences. Maggie Jones (Blanche Hunt in Coronation Street) plays Ryder’s sister, provider of the goose, in a interesting cameo.

I am sure that Arthur Conan Doyle would have been thrilled with both versions. So, if you can, before Christmas, do try to read or re-read The Blue Carbuncle. And if possible try to see these two excellent television versions of the tale.



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Our Christmas Mystery Novella

If you enjoy curling up by the fireside with a seasonal mystery, you might like to try our Inspector Abbs novella A Christmas Malice. Set in 1873 during a Victorian country Christmas in Norfolk, our introspective sleuth has a dark puzzle to be solved. As is traditional at this time of year, there will be hope and a happy ending of a sort.Christmas-Malice-Kindle-Cover Reduced

Several readers have asked if the setting is based on a real Norfolk village. Aylmer is completely fictional though the descriptions of the railway line across the empty Fens, an ancient flint church and carrstone cottages fit the real area of beautiful West Norfolk. The towns of King’s Lynn and Hunstanton featured are described as befits their fascinating history.

In the way of any large British county, there are several Norfolks. The saltmarshes, the Broads and the Brecks, to name just three areas are very different from one another. Our story is set on the edge of another, the Norfolk Fens or Fenland. Norfolk is famed for its spectacular wide skies where a fairly flat landscape allows the traveller to see long vistas for miles in every direction. We use fairly advisedly because Norfolk isn’t as pancake flat as is often said. Much of the landscape has gentle undulations and many a fetching slope topped with an old copse or church tower.

On the western edge of the county the Fens (a local word meaning marshland) reach into Norfolk, though their greater part lies in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and the lost county of Huntingdonshire. Flat, few trees, remote and haunting. An empty landscape of long, straight rivers and dykes. Historically a land of windmills, pumping houses, wildfowling and eels. A place of refuge for monks and rebels, the most famous being Hereward the Wake. Cromwell too was a Fenlander. Artificially drained by Dutchmen in the 17th century, the Fens are the lowest-lying land in England and have some of the most fertile soil.

Border places are intriguing, having a face in two directions. A Christmas Malice is set in a village with the Fens starting at its back and a more pastoral landscape on the other side towards the North Sea, then known as the German Ocean. Our Inspector Josiah Abbs is a Norfolk man, living in Devon when the story begins. He comes to spend Christmas with his widowed sister Hetty. Although they grew up on an estate where their father was head gardener, this lonely part of the county is unknown to him. Abbs has only a few days to resolve the mystery, preferably without ruining his sister’s Christmas.

It was an interesting challenge to write a novella-length story (33,000 words) where our detective is alone, without the help of his sergeant or the resources of his county force. Fortunately he does find an ally in the village policeman.

Inspector Abbs and Sergeant Reeve formed an unlikely partnership in our novel A Seaside Mourning, set in Devon in 1873. We hope to finish the next full-length novel in 2017.

It’s available now on Kindle, Nook and Kobo and in paperback if you are looking for a stocking-filler.

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