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‘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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‘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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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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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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‘The Vanishing Box’ by Elly Griffiths

Recently published, The Vanishing Box is Elly Griffiths’s fourth historical crime novel featuring Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens and his old friend Max Mephisto, the stage musician. I loved the earlier books and this one continues their high standard.The Vanishing Box: The perfect chilling read for Christmas (Stephens & Mephisto Mystery Book 4) by [Griffiths, Elly]

It’s December 1953, leaden skies over the sea-front, snow is falling and Max Mephisto is back in Brighton, topping the bill at the Hippodrome. Somewhat uncomfortably, he’s sharing his act with his daughter Ruby as an equal partner. Meanwhile, Edgar is investigating the unusual murder of Lily, a quiet young florist. Flowers are made a deliciously sinister motif throughout this mystery.

Lily lodged in a typical dreary boarding-house of the time. The period detail is beautifully done with female clerks giving homely touches to their cold rooms, flowered skirts on dressing-tables, cooking on gas rings, a sharp-tongued land-lady and no gentlemen callers in the house.

Among the lodgers passing through are two girls in the show with Max. They’re performing in a tableaux vivants act where scenes of famous women in history are depicted by almost nude artistes, posed like living statues. Their modesty is just about preserved by carefully arranged props and famously, huge fans made from feathers and the stage darkens as they rearrange their poses.

These acts scraped past the Lord Chamberlain’s office – the theatre censor – provided the girls didn’t move. Not so much as a twitch was allowed. The best-known example was the show at The Windmill in London’s Soho. Their tableaux were legendary for elegance, sauciness and glamour – and for continuing throughout the Blitz. Their post-war slogan was We never closed.

As Edgar’s case leads to Max’s theatrical world, a well-written plot – packed with suspects and red herrings – races to an exciting denouement. This was a fast read, the author’s prose has a lovely flow and it was hard to put down.

There’s so much I enjoy about Elly Griffiths’s Stephens & Mephisto series. In addition to her strong plotting, she’s extremely good on character and place. Her characters always feel true to life. Edgar and Max are very likeable leads, I especially like Max’s world-weary restlessness. The two sergeants Bob and Emma, with their gentle rivalry, are believable and it was interesting to see Bob get a more prominent role in The Vanishing Box.

Brighton makes a wonderful setting, almost a character in its own right and the author leads us through its real seedy streets and wealthy squares. To anyone who loves Brighton, it’s poignant to glimpse the lovely old West Pier still standing, the former Hanningtons department store and the Hippodrome as it once was. (There’s an interesting author’s note about the real travails of the theatre in the novel and thankfully, hope for its future). It’s hard to think of a more atmospheric town in England for crime fiction – and many authors would agree.

Elly Griffiths evokes post-war British society and its sense of changing times very well. There are all sorts of divides in the novel; between those affected by serving in the war and those too young like Sergeant Bob Willis, young women who work until they expect to marry and those like Emma, and Edgar’s fiancée Ruby, who want a satisfying career in a male-dominated world. There’s a sense of loss vying with a new optimism. The country’s both down at heel and on the up. While there are bombsites and war debt, there’s a new, young Queen on the throne, women are wearing Dior’s New Look and television is starting to make an impact.

I really like the theme of theatre, magic and illusion in this series. The contrast between the lure of show-biz and the shabby life backstage is superbly done. Tableaux acts are starting to feel outdated – though obviously still popular with the dirty raincoat brigade. Max disapproves of the new-style comedians who don’t tell gags with punchlines and of a new magician, a cetain Tommy Cooper, who deliberately messes up his tricks. This fading world of variety gives an outstandingly good sense of place to the series.

An historical detective novel to get lost in, The Vanishing Box would make a perfect seasonal read and a lovely last-minute Christmas present.

 

 

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‘The Dead Shall Be Raised’ by George Bellairs

The Dead Shall Be Raised is one of the many novels reissued, thanks to the British Library Crime Classics series. This is a lovely choice for Christmas reading, as it’s full of festive atmosphere. Published in 1942, this was George Bellairs’s fourth novel and the third published that year. It features his regular detective Inspector Thomas Littlejohn of Scotland Yard.

The story begins on Christmas Eve 1940, as Littlejohn stepped from the well-lighted London to Manchester train into the Stygian darkness of the blacked-out platform of Stockport. The feeling of Britain during wartime is evident throughout the narrative, beginning with a vivid account of journeying in a dim, shadowy railway carriage on an unknown branch line at night.

Inspector Littlejohn is on his way to be reunited with his wife. She is staying with an old friend in the north, after the windows of their London flat were blown out by bombing. His destination is Hatterworth, a town in the Pennines, surrounded by moorland. After missing the bus from the nearest station, Littlejohn is given a lift by a genial Superintendent Haworth, head of the local police. Hatterworth is full of Christmas spirit.

The night was still crisp and frosty, with stars bright like jewels. In spite of the black-out, there were plenty of people astir in the darkness. Sounds of merry voices, shouts of goodwill and here and there groups of boys carol-singing at the doors of dwellings and holding noisy discussions concerning the alms doled out by their patrons in between their wassailing.

There’s a delightful scene on Christmas night where a musical Superintendent Haworth is singing in a performance of The Messiah at the Methodist chapel, a big event for the town. Bellairs gives such an affectionate portrayal of a small community. Totally believable and full of charm, it’s like peering into the past. However effectively authors recreate a period setting, for me, nothing beats the writing of the time. It speaks to us across the decades. No worries about authenticity and research, the author was there.

And the past is soon making itself remembered in Hatterworth. The Home Guard are busy on manoeuvres on Milestone Moor.

The place was dotted with khaki-clad figures, running, leaping, stumbling, attacking, earnest in their mock-battling.

While some of the men are laying a trench, they find a skeleton. A generation ago, two local men were murdered nearby. The killer was generally thought to be known but never found. The old investigation is re-opened and with a Scotland Yard man on the scene, Littlejohn happily agrees to assist.

It’s a pleasure to follow the team’s intelligent, realistic gathering of evidence. Inspector Littlejohn is one of those determined, thoroughly decent policemen frequently encountered in pre-war crime fiction and the Hatterworth force are very well-drawn. Local knowledge proves invaluable as they question the witnesses still living.

Bellairs writes some lovely sketches of country folk. His characters ‘leap off the page’ and have a feeling of real figures recalled. They hark back to a bygone age of country writing with farm labourers, gamekeepers, poachers and tramps. I loved the descriptions from the wild moorland with its lonely inns to the town’s foundrys and iron-workers. His sense of place is superbly done.

If there’s any weakness in the plot, modern readers would probably point to a shortage of suspects – but this is such an engrossing read, that doesn’t matter. The story gradually becomes a how-do-we-nail-the-murderer? And how they do is very satisfying.

The Dead Shall Be Raised is fascinating for its wartime atmosphere. The detectives’ wives are busy knitting scarves and balaclavas for the troops. Even a local tramp has his ration-books and identity-card. Apparantly the author was working as an air-raid warden at the time of writing. A timeless rural community has been forced to adapt, stoically and cheerfully. It’s poignant for the reader to know that way of life will never quite resume.

The British Library Crime Classics edition is extremely good value as The Dead Shall Be Raised comes with another Bellairs title The Murder Of A Quack, set in Norfolk. Though short novels by today’s standards, they’re not novellas but full-length mysteries. There’s also the bonus of an informative introduction by Martin Edwards.

I’m a great fan of George Bellairs – the pseudonym of Harold Blundell (1902-82) – a bank manager and journalist who wrote over fifty detective novels. It’s pleasing to see his work readily available again and enjoyed by new readers. His writing has a real charm about it and this one is a perfect read for Christmas.

 

 

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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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