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Writing a 1930s Detective Novel

The Seafront Corpse, was the first in our series set in the early 1930s. I liked the idea of spending time in the pre-war England of the Golden Age detective fiction I enjoy so much. Trying my hand at contemporary crime has never appealed – and I’m full of admiration for writers who deliver a compelling mystery while knowing their way around modern police procedure and forensics.

Rather than basing my detectives in London and sending them around the country, I fancied writing about a provincial town. Somewhere large enough to have plots for murders yet with a medium-sized community where people know the more prominent members, at least by reputation. I settled on a Sussex seaside resort – I lived in one for many years – within reach of a day-trip to London.A view of Clevedon Pier in Somerset, England

The Channel resorts of south-east England were at the start of their heyday between the wars. The coastal towns of Sussex and Kent were experiencing a building boom both in housing and distinctive public buildings. Lidos, shopping arcades, ice cream parlours and pavilions were appearing. Victorian piers, theatres, town and concert halls were being given an art deco or moderne facelift. Aerodromes and motor-car showrooms were being built and of course, every large town in England was getting at least one cinema.

Some of these stylish buildings can still be enjoyed today. In Sussex, Worthing has one of the finest moderne piers in England. Opened in 1935, it has featured in an episode of Poirot. Further along the coast, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-On-Sea was built the same year. One of the most important moderne buildings in England, it is Grade 1 listed and was used in Foyle’s War. Sadly, many fine examples were bulldozed in recent decades before town councils realised what important, historic townscapes they had in their care.

My initial thought was to use Brighton as a setting. A fascinating place but I changed my mind as Brighton’s real-life crime in the thirties was on the hard-boiled side, as depicted in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. So I created Tennysham-On-Sea, influenced by but not based upon any real town. I wanted to describe a genteel resort with repertory players and beach photographers, the sort of place where Miss Marple might stay for a few days. It’s been fun mapping out my fictional town and dreaming up more features for the next book.

Tennysham isn’t meant to be too cosy. I wanted to reflect the seedy back streets, something that hasn’t changed as much as you might think. (I’ve lived in a few resorts along the Channel and rented flats that would fit well in a Patrick Hamilton novel). So Tennysham has its shabby boarding-houses, the bus-depot and laundry, gas-works and coal-yard as well as its chalk cliffs and smart sea-front.

My detective, Inspector Eddie Chance, is a local who’s been transferred away from the town for some years. Newly promoted as head of the small C.I.D. department, he’s glad to be back home and working with his old pal and former mentor, Sergeant Wilf Bishop.

It’s been a pleasure to attempt to create the atmosphere of the thirties, a world where the detectives wear trilbys and pipe smoke curls over the typewriter. Where they stop off at phone boxes and press button B, the Chief Constable is a retired colonel and no one’s heard of DNA.

To get the feel of the language, you can’t do better than immerse yourself in the crime fiction of the time before you start writing. Their slang for instance – which varied according to class – as well as all kinds of popular expressions and writing style. Novels of the period are full of fascinating detail such as typical meals and clothing with names of fabrics and colours we no longer say. (I won’t be using ‘nigger’ brown, though it must be remembered it was polite usage at the time).

It’s important to me that the thirties atmosphere feels as authentic as possible but there’s a balance to be struck. Novels where characters ‘ejaculate’ expressions such as ‘what ho’ or ‘top hole, old thing,’ read like a spoof. Bertie Wooster could get away with it – or even Tommy Beresford – but today they could make the reader laugh where you don’t intend it.

I’ve started the series in 1931, as I’m interested in how people felt, thirteen years after the Great War. In the 1920s the prevailing mood was to try to forget the horrors and look to the future but of course that isn’t always easy. The scars remained, mental and physical. I’ve tried to reflect this in my characters.

These are some of my favourite reads for research, getting in the mood and enormous pleasure. In no particular order:

Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, E.F Benson’s Lucia novels, Patrick Hamilton and Richmal Crompton’s William novels.

Non-fiction: Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier, J.B Priestley’s English Journey and Martin Pugh’s We Danced All Night (a superb social history of Britain between the wars).The Holly House Mystery (An Inspector Chance Novella Book 2) by [Bainbridge, John]

The sequel The Holly House Mystery takes Eddie Chance to a village on the South Downs in the depths of winter. A take on the classic country house mystery.

 

 

 

 

 

Both books are on sale on Kindle until Monday night for 99 pence/cents each. They’re also available in paperback. Just click on our author page below to start reading for free or to order.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/John-Bainbridge/e/B001K8BTHO/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1#

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Lonesome Road’ by Patricia Wentworth

 Lonesome Road (Miss Silver Mystery Book 3) by [Wentworth, Patricia]

Lonesome Road is Patricia Wentworth’s third ‘Miss Silver’ novel, published in 1939. I read most of these in my teens, then never re-read any until I came across this one recently in an Oxfam bookshop. I remembered liking Wentworth’s sleuth almost as much as Miss Marple and found that hasn’t changed.

The plot concerns Miss Rachel Traherne, a rich estate-owner with a strong sense of duty to her late father’s wishes and her extended family. She lives at Whincliff Edge, a large house situated on a cliff-top. It’s used as a second home by assorted relatives who come and go for free hospitality and the hope of hand-outs. A series of malign incidents make Rachel believe that one of her relatives is trying to kill her. Distraught with suspicion and fear, she consults Miss Maud Silver who had helped one of her friends.

At the writing-table sat a little woman in a snuff-coloured dress. She had what appeared to be a great deal of mousy-grey hair done up in a tight bun at the back and arranged in front in one of those extensive curled fringes associated with the late Queen Alexandra, the whole severely controlled by a net. Below the fringe were a set of neat, indeterminate features and a pair of greyish eyes.

In some ways Miss Silver has much in common with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and might be assumed to be inspired by her but actually, Patricia Wentworth got there first. Miss Silver makes her debut in Grey Mask – albeit in a small rôle – published in 1928, two years before The Body In The Library. Their chief similarity is the ‘invisible’ quality of old ladies. Suspects and murderers overlook them, not realising they’re being keenly observed.

Unlike her famous contemporary, Miss Silver is a professional enquiry agent and lives in a flat in London. You get the impression she has a shadowy network of helpers to call upon to check background facts. Most business-like, Miss Silver makes lists of suspects, alibis etc. in her notebook. She has also had a previous career.

‘I think you had better call me a retired governess.’ Most unexpectedly her eyes twinkled. ‘And that need not trouble your conscience, because it is perfectly true. I was in the scholastic profession for twenty years. I disliked it extremely.’

In later novels, Miss Silver has a good working relationship with Inspector Frank Abbott of Scotland Yard, who sometimes sends her on a case. She is invariably found knitting a baby’s matinée coat or bootees. Her modus operandi when she’s detecting is to pose as a house-guest. A distressed gentlewoman who appears a harmless old lady, an attentive audience with a fluttery manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. As she remarks to Rachel Traherne:

I had some conversation with all your relatives. I find that the manner in which people behave to someone whom they consider quite unimportant is often highly illuminating.

In Lonesome Road, Miss Silver’s task is to prevent a murder – which makes a change from an early corpse. The pacing and tension is so effective throughout that I didn’t miss the more conventional plot. In a sense this trope is a forerunner of the woman-in-peril psychological thrillers which are currently so popular. Such novels invariably contain some love interest and that’s something I’d forgotten about Patricia Wentworth’s writing. Her murder mysteries contain elements of what we used to call ‘romantic suspense.’

There’s usually a happy-ever-after for the leading lady and often for a young couple who never really made it to the suspect list. Agatha Christie too, sometimes united an attractive young couple along the way. Being an old cynic, I don’t want romance getting in the way of the murder! That apart, I really enjoyed Lonesome Road.

Although out in 1939, there’s no reference in the novel to the gathering war. It’s set in a timeless interlude between the two World Wars and we’re never told which county we’re in. Patricia Wentworth must have had the south coast in mind as there’s a London Road in the area and characters can run up to ‘town’ for dinner. The atmosphere of the locale is very well done, especially near the climax of the novel when place and weather enhance the tension.

The characters are believable, unsympathetic ones being particularly well-drawn. Like most vintage crime fiction, this is worth reading for the social history alone, an interesting snapshot of how the pre-war British middle class lived.

Most of all I liked the vivid sense of fear and menace creeping through the story. Patricia Wentworth evokes a real feeling of danger, hatred and terror, especially in a pivotal scene and the exciting denouement. She was a very good writer and this is a terrific mystery. Miss Silver is interesting and a formidable ally. I’ll certainly be revisiting her again.

 

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Ngaio Marsh’s ‘Tied Up In Tinsel’

Tied Up In Tinsel is the twenty-seventh Roderick Alleyn mystery, published in 1972 and written when Ngaio Marsh was in her late seventies. I mention this only as there’s often a preconception that writers have their heyday and over the course of a career lasting several decades, their powers flag in their last few titles – something that’s often said about Agatha Christie. Like the majority of fans, I do prefer the earlier works of both authors for their period setting. Even so, Tied Up In Tinsel is a really good detective novel, working on every level.Tied Up In Tinsel (The Ngaio Marsh Collection) by [Marsh, Ngaio]

It always seems strange to me to read the late novels by a prolific author famed in the Golden Age. Here, a character mentions Steptoe and Son in passing, which seems out of place in Troy and Alleyn’s world. Though Ngaio Marsh and Christie, were – in a sense – seventies novelists too. I remember buying their last few novels when they came out.

The story begins as Troy – celebrated artist and wife of Superintendent Roderick Alleyn – is spending Christmas at an isolated country house. She’s there to paint a portrait of its owner, Hilary Bill-Tasman. (Alleyn is away on official business).

Halberds is a Tudor mansion, formerly owned by the Bill-Tasmans and recently bought back. It’s being restored by the wealthy owner after years of decay. Full of modern comfort and fine antiques, parts of the project are still in progress. Beneath Troy’s bedroom window is a ruined conservatory with a roof of broken glass. The gardens and grounds are a churned-up mess of earth, trenches and bulldozers. Grand plans are afoot for terraces, avenues and a lake. The house is on the edge of bleak moorland and its nearest neighbour descending in the valley is a prison known as The Vale.

It soon becomes clear that Halberds is no ordinary household. Hilary Bill-Tasman is attempting to turn back the clock and live in a pre-war style but there’s a strong sense of the author acknowledging the present day throughout the novel. There’s a wickedly accurate caricature of a young guest, full of contemporary slang and compulsive you knows.

All the servants at Halberds are male and every one a convicted murderer. As the host explains, you simply can’t get the staff these days!

There was something watchful and at the same time colourless in their general behaviour. They didn’t shuffle, but one almost expected them to do so. One felt that it was necessary to remark that their manner was not furtive. How far these impressions were to be attributed to hindsight and how far to immediate observation, Troy was unable to determine but she reflected that after all it was a tricky business adapting oneself to a domestic staff composed entirely of murderers.

I like the way in which Ngaio Marsh takes the evergreen trope of a country house-party murder and subverts the convention. The thought of a murderer preparing food, serving drinks and turning down the sheets is deliciously sinister. I’ve seen this same idea used in an American historical mystery written a few years ago. There’s some interesting discussion about the idea of ‘oncers’ being of a different nature than other criminals.

Troy is a delightful character, intelligent, kind, self-deprecating with a wry sense of humour. I especially enjoy the mysteries where she plays a part. As an artist, she’s a shrewd observer of the undercurrents and a great asset to Alleyn when he appears. I also like the portrayal of a happy, long-standing marriage, elegantly conveyed with sparing detail.

The other house-guests are a believably eccentric bunch, including the host’s business partner, his fiancée and endearing elderly relatives. They reminded me of Margery Allingham’s characters. Rory Alleyn and his faithful side-kick Inspector Fox are two of my favourite detectives. Alleyn is very well-developed throughout the thirty-two novels. It’s noticeable in this one that secondary characters are effectively summed up in a brief line of slight description – just as Troy is said to capture the essence of a personality in her portraits.

The murder takes a long time to happen with a series of unsettling incidents and a controlled building of tension along the way. When Alleyn takes charge, it’s absorbing to see how he sifts through the jigsaw of evidence and lies. The clues are fairly there, though hidden among some clever misdirection and the ‘reveal’ is superbly done.

The weather plays a big part in the novel. Heavy snow has fallen by Christmas Eve, transforming the landscape with its rubble and revealing any tracks. Lashing rain and high wind hamper the investigation and the wild night – shivering, drenched policemen in oilskins and gumboots contrasts with the luxurious Halberds, its stifling central heating and open fires. Tied Up In Tinsel is a great treat, perfect for crime fiction fans at Christmas.

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Agatha Christie’s ‘Death on the Nile’

Published in 1937, Death on the Nile is one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels, known for its intricate plot and exotic setting. Murder takes place aboard the Karnak, a luxurious Nile steamer on a week’s round-trip, sailing to Wâdi Halfa and the Second Cataract, with excursions en route to the spectacular temples of Abu Simbel.Death on the Nile (Poirot) (Hercule Poirot Series Book 17) by [Christie, Agatha]

Hercule Poirot is one of the passengers, escaping from the fogs, the greyness, the monotony of the constantly falling rain of a London winter. As always, he is dressed immaculately to suit the occasion.

He wore a white silk suit, carefully pressed, and a panama hat, and carried a highly ornamental fly whisk with a sham amber handle.

During an excursion, Poirot sports a white suit, pink shirt, large black bow tie and a white topee.

The first part of the novel introduces us to most of the passengers in a series of vividly-drawn vignettes. Some scenes are quite brief, though Agatha Christie makes every word tell with her usual economy of style. The lynch-pin of the Nile journey will be Linnet Ridgeway, a young heiress and society beauty, soon to be married and visiting Egypt on her honeymoon.

Readers can be fairly sure from the start that Linnet is going to be the murder victim. We’re shown an overwhelming reason for one character to hate her and given tantalising hints that others have a strong motive to remove her. It’s interesting that the original jacket copy on the Collins facsimile edition only implies that Linnet Ridgeway will be the victim. Much better than today’s blurbs which frequently give away too much of the plot.

When the passengers are gathered at their hotel, Poirot is aware of a feeling of inexorable danger, an inevitability about what lies ahead. There are indications throughout Agatha Christie’s writing that she was intrigued by the notion of fate – perhaps due to her extensive travels in the Middle East. Her titles Appointment With Death, The Moving Finger and Postern of Fate hark back to this theme.

Christie builds the growing tension skilfully for 130 pages until the murder finally takes place. These days I seem to see a lot of reviews that complain of a slow pace in detective novels. Writing guides deem it essential to hook the reader with instant compelling action. Must be my age, because I like crime fiction where the author takes all the space they wish to show characters and setting. I really enjoy a lengthy build-up – a trademark of superb crime writers such as P.D James – and think currently fashionable style ‘rules’ are a kind of dumbing down, symptomatic of our sound-bite society.

The suspects being trapped together on the steamer, makes an interesting variation on the classic enclosed country house setting. The Karnak is large enough to have an evocative thirties’ glamour with dressing cabins, an observation saloon and smoking room, yet compact enough to feel claustrophobic. The descriptions of temple visits, the heat and passing scenery feel authentic, based as they must have been on the author’s memories.

At the half-way point, an old friend of Poirot joins the steamer for the return journey. Colonel Race assisted Poirot in Cards on the Table, published a year earlier and aids him again in the investigation. Race, a senior British agent, is on board on his own mission. A foreshadowing of the growing awareness of the coming war and the addition of enemy agents into Agatha Christie’s novels. (This reaches its height in N or M? Published in 1941).

The plot is unusually complex for Christie, with several small mysteries for Poirot to unravel along the way. Despite the tense atmosphere, Christie manages to include some quiet humour and more than one romance. Her liking for romance and happiness for young people shines through, as it does in many of her novels. It’s evident that Christie had great sympathy for youth, particularly the awkward and the over-looked.

The break-up of her marriage to Archie Christie and her life-long shyness are widely known. Even when happily settled with Max Mallowan, it’s easy to imagine Agatha Christie being the quiet people-watcher in the corner. Noticing what others miss, full of compassion and kindness, very like Hercule Poirot.

The central murder plot stands or falls, more than most, on its believable psychology. It succeeds magnificently, this is Christie’s understanding of human nature at its most acute. A brilliantly cunning plot device is one that she used in another novel – which of course, I won’t mention! Nothing wrong with authors doing a spot of recycling, especially when they trail-blazed the twists in the first place.

Death on the Nile is acclaimed as one of Agatha Christie’s greatest triumphs. I hadn’t read it since my teens and had a job to put it down. A deeply satisfying read.

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The Third William Quest Novel

I’m now writing the third book featuring my series character William Quest, which hopefully will be out at the end of the year. Quest will find himself a long way from London fighting against new enemies and even greater dangers in York, one of England’s oldest cities.

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York Minster which plays a significant part in the new Quest novel

In the London novels (see below) Quest had the advantage over his enemies of knowing every street and alley. But York is new to him, so he’s disadvantaged from the start. And it is in York’s winding medieval streets and snickets that he faces a particular and menacing foe.

As York is one of our favourite places, I’m very much enjoying setting a book there. It’s a wonderful setting for a mystery adventure.

If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, do please click on the links. They’re both out in paperback and on the Kindle eBook reader for your smartphone, Kindle or laptop – just download the free app when you order the books. And if you have read the books and enjoyed them, I’d really appreciate it if you would leave a quick review on the Amazon sales pages.

Leaving reviews helps all Indie Authors stay in business and keep writing. 

Please do tell your friends and fellow readers. Word of mouth is the very best form of advertising.

 

 

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Agatha Christie’s ‘Sparkling Cyanide’

Published in 1945, Sparkling Cyanide, unusually for a Christie novel, has no dedication. The detective figure is Colonel Race, in his fourth and final outing. He features first in The Man in the Brown Suit, and also in Cards on the Table and Death on the Nile. Race formerly held a senior position in M.I.5 and is a friend of Hercule Poirot. We’re in good hands.

This novel demolishes the widely held view that Agatha Christie wrote two dimensional characters. The first part of the book follows six people thinking over the events of a year ago, when Rosemary Barton, a lovely young heiress, committed suicide.

Christie writes vivid sketches of these fully-realised characters. We learn their innermost thoughts about the dead woman. Not every thought, mind you, for one of them may be a murderer. What is fascinating is the way in which the characters come to understand more about themselves by remembering the victim. As so often, distance brings surprising insights, often disconcerting. The writing is effortlessly natural, no exposition or significant facts shoe-horned in here.

The previous autumn, Rosemary Barton keeled over at a dinner held to celebrate her birthday. The other guests were her husband, young sister, a married couple, a bachelor friend and her husband’s secretary. A confidential secretary, male or female is almost a de rigeur figure in Golden Age ‘household’ mysteries. Each one has a possible motive for murder.

A year later, her widower, George Barton, arranges a dinner at the same restaurant table with the same guests, plus Colonel Race, who had been invited previously but unable to attend. A trap is being set, despite Race strongly advising Barton not to go ahead.

He had known George Barton ever since the latter’s boyhood. Barton’s uncle had been a country neighbour of the Races. Race was over sixty, a tall, erect, military figure, with sunburnt face, closely cropped iron-grey hair, and shrewd dark eyes.

The restaurant, the Luxembourg, is a smart West End establishment with dancing – to soft negro music – and entertainment. A description of the latter gives an interesting glimpse of the times.

Suddenly there was a roll of drums – the lights went down. A stage rose in the room. Chairs were pushed a little back, turned sideways. Three men and three girls took the floor dancing. They were followed by a man who could make noises. Trains, steam rollers, aeroplanes, sewing machines, cows coughing. He was a success. Lenny and Flo followed in an exhibition dance which was more of a trapeze act than a dance. More applause. Then another ensemble by the Luxembourg Six. The lights went up.

Colonel Race dominates the third part of the novel, together with Chief Inspector Kemp of Scotland Yard. Another intelligent, likable character, he worked under Superintendent Battle, another old friend to Agatha Christie fans. (In Cards on the Table, published in 1936, Battle worked with Poirot and Colonel Race).

The denouement is wonderful, yet again. Revealed after a succession of suspects in the frame, deceptively simple, a strong motive is concealed by a dazzling sleight of hand, worthy of a conjuror from the Magic Circle. Highly recommended, as always.

 

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‘The White Cottage Mystery’ by Margery Allingham

The White Cottage Mystery was Margery Allingham’s first detective fiction and her second novel. She began her writing career with Blackerchief Dick, an historical adventure, published in 1923, when she was only nineteen. The White Cottage Mystery was serialised in the Daily Express in 1927 and published as a novel a year later. After Allingham’s death in 1966, her sister Joyce revised the work to remove recaps etc. necessary in a serial.

Margery Allingham’s work is very individual among Golden Age fiction. Unquestionably a great detective novelist when she played it straight, she sometimes blurred the boundaries between detective fiction and rollicking adventure yarns, full of high jinks and eccentric enemies. You see this now and again in Agatha Christie’s earlier novels, such as The Secret Adversary and The Big Four, which also started life as a serial. Great fun, though I prefer Allingham’s more serious cases.

Although I’ve a great affection for Allingham’s work and Mr Campion, she’s my least favourite of the GA ‘big four.’ Someone has to be and that’s only because I love Christie, Sayers and Marsh even more. Margery Allingham was a wonderful writer and in The Tiger in the Smoke, (published in 1952), gave us one of the great London novels.

The White Cottage Mystery begins in Kent before moving to Paris and the South of France. A man described as a ‘mental torturer’ is shot dead in his neighbours’ house. Naturally enough, everyone in both households turns out to have a motive for his murder. As Mr Campion didn’t make his first appearance until the next novel, the detective is Chief Inspector Challoner of the Yard, assisted by his engaging son Jerry.

In a way, both are stock characters but none the worse for that. All humans really fall into one of a few types, however little we like to think so. And pre-war detective characters had to be products of their class and upbringing. So we have the Chief Inspector, keenly observant, wise and avuncular and Jerry, a typically young, enthusiastic, would-be detective, thoroughly decent and in love with one of the suspects. His father says of him:

‘Jerry,’ he said, ‘you have a quick eye, a fertile imagination, and the gift of application, but you’ll never make a detective – you’ve no ground work.’

Although Margery Allingham’s writing invariably had a freshness and vivacity, The White Cottage Mystery feels very much like the work of a young writer. The character of the murder victim is unremittingly black, other characters and plot lack the subtlety of her later work. Even the greats had to learn their craft and there’s an enjoyable liveliness about the narrative, with red herrings galore.

It’s fascinating to read the early work of a much-loved crime writer and see the origin of later ideas. Here we have the idea of a nefarious society – no more details as I don’t want to spoil anyone’s reading – but it’s the idea expanded upon in Look To The Lady, published in 1931. We also get the first appearance of Allingham’s cheery old lags, always so vividly written and culminating in Mr. Campion’s lovable side-kick, Magersfontein Lugg. Chief Inspector Challoner too, is not unlike Inspector Stanislaus Oates of later novels.

The revised novel retains the feeling of a serial. The opening plunges into action, quickly introducing the hero and the murder. There are short, titled chapters, each giving a concise piece of the jigsaw and ending on a cliff-hanger or hook. There’s no room for musing or build-up with the finished work 157 pages. Even so, Margery Allingham inserted some lovely sentences that set the atmosphere in a line or two. This is when the action shifts to Paris:

The car turned suddenly out of a noisy thoroughfare into a quiet old-fashioned avenue where the trees, green and dusty in the heat, nodded together before tall brown houses. They came to a standstill before a house whose windows were hung with old-fashioned looped plush curtains and showed the gleam of polished mahogany in their shadowed depths.

I enjoyed re-reading The White Cottage Mystery. It’s as good as many ‘standard’ inter-war mysteries with a well-reasoned plot and inventive solution. Most impressive for a twenty-three year old author. The foundations are there though a contemporary reader probably wouldn’t have sensed that the author was going to become one of the pre-eminent crime writers of the Golden Age and beyond.

 

 

 

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Clerical Crime For Easter

As it’s nearly Easter, this seems an appropriate time to look at an engaging sub-genre of detective fiction, the clerical mystery. From Cadfael to Sydney Chambers by way of Father Brown, a religious setting – and possibly sleuth – has an enduring popularity. I’m always drawn to this background, one of my favourite non-crime novelists is Anthony Trollope, famed for his setting of the cathedral close at Barchester.Lincolnshire 149

It has been said that Vicarage is one of the most popular key words that will sell book titles, particularly in the United States. Why is this so appealing? Perhaps because in detective fiction, it’s an effective shorthand. There’s something about the word that conjures images of a traditional English mystery; summer fêtes on the village green, eccentric characters gossiping over the tea-cups, arsenic in the potted meat sandwiches or cyanide on the cake-stand.

The Murder At The Vicarage (published in 1930) is a prime example. One of Agatha Christie’s best-known novels, featuring Miss Marple at home in St Mary Mead, where a caller is murdered in the vicar’s study. Two more wonderful novels where things are far from rosy at the vicarage are Sheila Radley’s A Talent For Destruction (1982) and Redemption (1988) by the much-missed Jill McGown.

Redemption, which takes place largely on Christmas Eve, was reissued in 2015 with a snow-scene cover – presumably to catch the fashionable market for Christmas crime novels. The publishers chose to use its American alternative title Murder At The Old Vicarage. Nice enough but I prefer Jill McGown’s own choice with its deeper symbolism.

Most sleuths in clerical mysteries tend to be Anglican, though Cadfael and Father Brown are Roman Catholic. The Church of England provides a background with a hierarchy and code of conduct which should not be transgressed. Both give plenty of scope for worldly motives. The rivalries and machinations of a cathedral close are not so different from those found in running a big business.

The Church also introduces a seemingly peaceful, ordered setting where the intrusion of murder is all the more shocking. This is heightened if the suspects are a closed circle among the clergy and lay-helpers.

The detective is usually an amateur sleuth, with some connection to that religious world, though not necessarily a full member. Writers have come up with some ingenious backgrounds for their protagonists. My absolute favourite series is the late Michael David Anthony’s superb mysteries, set around Canterbury Cathedral. His sleuth Colonel Richard Harrison is Secretary to the Diocesan Dilapidations Board.

Kate Charles’s Book of Psalms series, features David Middleton-Brown, a Norfolk solicitor who is an expert on church architecture. D.M Greenwood’s sleuth is a deaconess, Theodora Braithwaite. Written in the 1990s before the ordination of women in the Church of England, Theodora was a semi-outsider, allowed so far but unable to be a priest. Kate Charles’s later, Callie Anson series features a woman vicar.York 003

Where the detective is part of an enclosed religious order, they are of necessity, a maverick who likes to visit the outside world. Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael is a herbalist who journeys around the Welsh Marches and Veronica Black’s Sister Joan runs errands from her convent on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall.

Amateur sleuths invariably require a police ally – in Cadfael’s case in 12th century Shropshire, the Deputy Sheriff. Martha Ockley’s series features Faith Morgan, a former police detective who becomes a vicar. (Martha Ockley is a pen-name of Rebecca Jenkins, daughter of a previous Bishop of Durham).

Even with police assistance, ‘clerical’ detectives tend to solve the crime with their knowledge of human foibles rather than forensics. In a sense these are morality tales for our time, often posing questions about moral versus legal justice. The serpent slithers into Eden and at the end of the novel, order is restored. Good people are left to pick up the pieces. Though all detective fiction is concerned with good and evil, a background of clerical crime can be uniquely effective.

Finally, a clerical mystery has a head-start when it comes to an evocative sense of place. The Norfolk Fenland village setting of Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors is probably one of the atmospheric novels of the Golden Age. From a peaceful village church to the edgy central London of Alison Joseph’s Sister Agnes or even the cathedral precincts of Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a religious setting lends itself to be charming or shadowy, cosy or sinister, ancient or modern.

Here are a few detective/mystery novels I enjoyed, which happen to have some sort of clerical setting:

Catherine Aird The Religious Body (convent)

Alice Boatwright Under An English Heaven (country church)

Colin Dexter Service Of All The Dead (Oxford church)

Ann Granger Candle For A Corpse (country church)

S.T. Haymon Ritual Murder (cathedral)

P.D. James Death In Holy Orders (Anglican college)

Charles Palliser The Unburied (cathedral)

Ruth Rendell No Man’s Nightingale (Kingsmarkham church)

Robert Richardson An Act Of Evil (first published as The Latimer Mercy) (cathedral)

 My favourite clerical stand-alone is Peter Lovesey’s The Reaper.

 

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Agatha Christie’s A Pocketful of Rye

A Pocket Full of Rye was published in 1953 as an annual ‘Christie for Christmas,’ though it was first serialised that autumn in an abridged version in the Daily Express.Product Details

It’s one of several Christie titles to be taken from a British nursery rhyme, in this case, Sing a Song of Sixpence. This rhyme also inspired two of her short stories, Four and Twenty Blackbirds (1941) and Sing a Song of Sixpence (1929). John Curran, writing in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks says:

The dramatic impact of an innocent nursery rhyme transforming into a killer’s calling card is irresistible to an imaginative crime writer such as Agatha Christie… The attraction is obvious – the juxtaposition of the childlike and the chilling, the twisting of the mundane into the macabre.

I’ve always found nursery rhymes faintly sinister in their own right. Even in childhood they seemed to retain a hint of their often dark historical origins.

This is the sixth novel to feature Miss Marple, although she doesn’t appear until eighty pages in, after the third death has occurred. The plot concerns the murder of Rex Fortescue, a rich businessman, the suspects are his family and staff. The setting is a town in the Surrey stock-broker belt, twenty miles from London. Baydon Heath was almost entirely inhabited by rich city men.

We see much of the investigation through the eyes of Inspector Neele who is considerably more acute than some policemen of Miss Marple’s acquaintance, Inspector Slack springs to mind.

‘Inspector Neele had a smart soldierly appearance with crisp brown hair growing back from a rather low forehead. When he uttered the phrase “just a matter of routine” those addressed were wont to think spitefully: “And routine is about all you’re capable of!” They would have been quite wrong. Behind his unimaginative appearance, Inspector Neele was a highly imaginative thinker.’

There’s an interesting comment of the time when Rex Fortescue is taken ill in his office:

‘It has to be the right hospital,’ Miss Somers insisted, ‘or else they won’t come. Because of the National Health, I mean. It’s got to be in the area.’

(The free British National Health Service had begun five years earlier).

The murders are staged to follow the lines of the nursery rhyme. After the third death, Miss Marple arrives on the Fortescues’ door step and is soon invited to stay – which always amuses me. She comes because Gladys, the murdered parlourmaid had previously worked for her. Miss Marple trained her in service and wants to offer the police any helpful insights into her character which may assist in catching her killer.

Inspector Neele accepts her help rather more gratefully than Inspector Slack at St Mary Mead.

He had been in two minds at first how to treat her, but he quickly made up his mind. Miss Marple would be useful to him. She was upright, of unimpeachable rectitude, and she had, like most old ladies, time on her hands and an old maid’s nose for scenting bits of gossip. She’d get things out of servants and out of the women of the Fortescue family perhaps, that he and his policemen would never get. Talk, conjecture, reminiscences, repetitions of things said and done, out of it all she would pick the salient facts.

A great summing-up of Miss Marple’s M.O.

The contemptuous murder with a peg placed on the dead girl’s nose, makes Miss Marple unusually angry. There are parallels with The Body in the Library where again, the murder victim is a young naïve girl. She describes Gladys as rather pathetically stupid and obviously feels a sense of responsibility to bring her killer to justice. It’s one of those moments when behind the fluffy old lady, the reader glimpses someone implacable, the murderer’s Nemesis.

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs how much I disagree with the view that Christie didn’t write believable characters. She simply wrote with a light touch. Here’s a character described through Inspector Neele’s eyes:

‘He knew the type very well. It was the type that specialised in the young wives of rich and elderly men. Mr. Vivian Dubois, if this was he, had that rather forced masculinity which is, in reality, nothing of the kind. He was the type of man who “understands” women.’

All you need to know. Agatha Christie trusted her readers’ imagination to fill in the rest.

Although there’s much to enjoy, A Pocketful of Rye isn’t one of my favourite Christies. The murders mimicking the nursery rhyme is too contrived for me and I prefer Miss Marple in a village setting, rather than an enclosed household of suspects.

Having said that, it’s a fine whodunit with a cleverly deceptive plot. The psychology is excellent – as always – and the character of Gladys is very poignant, revealing a greater depth to Miss Marple.

 

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‘Magpie Murders’ by Anthony Horowitz

This is the first novel I’ve read by Anthony Horowitz though I loved his television drama ‘Foyle’s War’ and enjoyed his scriptwriting for ‘Midsomer Murders’. So I came to ‘Magpie Murders’, knowing only that there’d been masses of glowing reviews when it came out last year (in 2016). Well, the short version is – here’s another one. Magpie Murders by [Horowitz, Anthony]

I loved ‘Magpie Murders’ and think it’s one of the best new crime novels I’ve found in the last couple of years. (I re-read a lot of old favourites). For anyone who loves Agatha Christie and Golden Age detection, this is an outstanding treat – full of ingenuity and flair – and much more besides.

It isn’t easy to review this novel without giving away too much but these details are on the jacket copy. The story begins in the first person. Susan Ryeland, an editor at a small publishing house is settling down to read the manuscript of ‘Magpie Murders,’ their most famous author’s new detective novel. She’s a likeable, very human narrator, getting comfy with wine, snacks and cigarettes. Horowitz is very good at channelling believable female characters.

Within a couple of pages – and after a few cryptic remarks from Susan – we begin to read the detective novel, clearly delineated with a typewriter-style font. And there we stay until near its end. ‘Magpie Murders’, the manuscript, is a classic vintage murder mystery, set in the mid-fifties in that well-known fictional English village of ‘Mayhem Parva’. Where the sleepy streets are picturesque, the inhabitants seething with secrets and the gossip full of red herrings

Anthony Horowitz presents us with three mysteries; his contemporary ‘Magpie Murders,’ the fictional ‘Magpie Murders’ within his novel and the hidden narrative within the manuscript. You certainly get value for money and this is not one to read in bed as you’re nodding off. Not that you’d want to, as it’s too engrossing. Some reviewers have likened this device to a Russian doll. It reminded me of one of those intricate Oriental puzzle boxes where pieces shift and slide to unlock the key. (We had one long ago, brought home by a Victorian sailor forebear).

The manuscript novel features a celebrated foreign private detective who works closely with Scotland Yard and bears more than a passing resemblance to Poirot. It’s fun to spot the many nods to Christie along the way. The sidekick is named Fraser, referencing Hugh Fraser of Captain Hastings fame. (Now an acclaimed crime novelist himself). Market Basing gets a mention, a town near St Mary Mead and so on.

I think the ‘acid test’ of the dual narrative format is that both parts have to be equally interesting. One of the best examples that comes to mind is John Fowles’ ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’. In this, ‘Magpie Murders’ succeeds admirably.

The manuscript is very enjoyable and captures a real feeling of a 1950s detective novel of the best sort. Despite this, there are anachronisms and this is an example of Horowitz’s skill. I thought I spotted one early on when Downs Syndrome was mentioned. (I’m old enough to remember adults talking about ‘Mongol’ children, which was the usual expression in the 1960s). Then the penny dropped that the anachronisms were written by Alan Conway, the fictional author.

I don’t believe that any writer could pass off a perfect Christie imitation. But I suspect if Anthony Horowitz had been commissioned to write the Poirot continuation series, he would have done a good job. (Possibly something there  hidden in my text?).

We return to the present with Susan Ryeland when she realises that the last couple of chapters are missing from the manuscript. A great cliff-hanger, the rug is pulled just as you’re desperate to know whodunit. The remainder of the novel is as intriguing as the novel-within, as Susan turns detective to track down the missing pages and find out who murdered Alan Conway.

Well-paced to the end, the climax and the reveals are convincing and very satisfying. This is a triumph of intricate plotting, that’s written with great clarity. Important in such a complex structure. I’d be fascinated to know how long Anthony Horowitz took to plot this and how he went about it – it’s hard to believe he’s a ‘pantser’.

The writing is full of clever word-play that reminds me of the much-missed Reginald Hill’s work. There’s a witty, sparkling air about ‘Magpie Murders’ that reads as though Horowitz was having fun and really enjoyed writing it. He clearly loves the Golden Age sub-genre, paying homage, while inverting and up-dating it at the same time.

Clear some blissful free time for this with a drink, possibly a snack, definitely your thinking cap. (Let’s ditch the cigarettes). A superb detective novel, not to be missed.

 

 

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