Tag Archives: Classic Crime Fiction

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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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.http://www.jim-kelly.co.uk I couldn’t agree more and think it’s a skill Jim Kelly does superbly.

 

 

 

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The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers

The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club begins on that most atmospheric of dates in Britain, Remembrance Day. The Great War casts a long shadow over the London setting, characters and much of the plot. The opening scene takes place on Armistice night when members are gathering at the Bellona Club in Piccadilly. A dinner is being given by Colonel Marchbanks for the friends of his son killed in action, among them is Lord Peter Wimsey.

As Wimsey chats at the bar to his chum, George Fentiman, it becomes apparent that George’s elderly grandfather, a fixture at the club, has died quietly in his armchair. We learn that his estranged sister also died that day in London. A fortune is at stake, dependant on which one of them died first.

The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club was published in 1928. The Great War had been over for a decade and some of the characters are irrevocably scarred by their experiences. George Fentiman has ‘nervous troubles,’ a euphemism for shell-shock, as well as having been gassed. Another pal is known as ‘Tin-tummy’ Challoner since the Somme, the club doctor was an army surgeon.

The Bellona’s secretary has only one sound arm and Sayers’ devotees will know how much Wimsey suffers from nightmares about his war. (Ngaio Marsh’s Chief Inspector Alleyn also had a ‘nervous breakdown’ after the Great War). Wimsey also suffers torments when he catches a murderer, thus sending someone to be hanged.

All this remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don’t it? It’s my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn’t run it for all it’s worth.

An interesting comment made by Wimsey, as it was very likely an attitude Sayers heard at the time.

The novel gives a fascinating snapshot of the Twenties. Like so many men returned from the War, George Fentiman finds it difficult to get work in a changing society.

No wonder a man can’t get a decent job these days, with these hard-mouthed, cigarette-smoking females all over the place, pretending they’re geniuses and business women and all the rest of it.

The modern girl hasn’t a scrap of decent feeling or sentiment about her. Money – money and notoriety – that’s all she’s after. That’s what we fought the War for – and that’s what we’ve come back to!

Presumably an in-joke as Sayers was a working woman herself. She also shows us the artists of the Chelsea set with their Bohemian life-style and society ladies’ trendy fads about health, medical cures and diet.

It’s often said of Sayers’ plots, ‘when you know how, you know who.’ Her means of murder is always of great significance to the plot. You feel she enjoyed working out her devious solutions. Despite the sombre atmosphere of Remembrance and London in November, there are moments of humour in this novel and vividly believable characters.

The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club is a delightful classic crime puzzle and a great insight into society after the First World War.

The new Hodder edition includes an interesting – if short – forward by Simon Brett.

The 1973 BBC drama of the novel is a very good adaptation by Anthony Steven, making only minor changes as scriptwriters must. Ian Carmichael, Derek Newark and Mark Eden gave ‘straight off the page’ performances as Lord Peter, Bunter and Inspector Charles Parker.

 

 

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The Man Who Killed Himself by Julian Symons

First published by Collins in 1967, I have the vaguest memory of reading The Man Who Killed Himself in the seventies. I’m so glad to have rediscovered it recently in a second-hand bookshop in Scotland. The plot is as intriguing as the title and I was hooked from the first paragraph.The Man Who Killed Himself by [Symons, Julian]

This is the story of Arthur Brownjohn, a meek, hen-pecked husband who decides to murder his wife. (We never reveal spoilers. This is given away on the jacket copy and in the first line.) Despite contemporary references, the novel has a similar ‘feel’ to that of Golden Age mysteries and immediately brings Malice Aforethought to mind. Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox)’s legendary classic is one of my all-time favourites. However, Julian Symons puts a most original spin on the popular trope of a mild-mannered husband with murder in mind. The Man Who Killed Himself soon goes in a very different direction as Brownjohn’s troubles get increasingly complicated.

It’s impossible to say more without giving away too much. Let’s just say that the novel is brilliantly plotted, tight, intricate, has a succession of first-class twists and a clever denouement. Julian Symons’ prose is wonderful with vividly believable characters and a shrewd sense of psychology. This is a superb black comedy, gripping, very funny, sad and thought-provoking too.

The novel also has a very well-observed sense of place and time, from descriptions of the sixties in suburban Surrey and London, to Brighton and the Sussex Downs. As a child, I knew Brighton at that time and the depiction of the Lanes stuffed with antique shops, the seedy back-streets of Kemptown and the lovely old West Pier still intact, are just as it was.

Suburban life behind the privet is depicted in some lovely wry observation. The Brownjohns inhabit a world where couples visit for rubbers of bridge – and oneupmanship – serving sandwiches and coffee from a hostess trolley and a good-night whisky between eleven and twelve.

The house was called The Laurels, although there was no remaining trace of a laurel tree. …There are hundreds of such houses in Fraycut, and they are loved by those who live in them because they establish so satisfactorily their owners’ position in society.

Over the years I’d more or less forgotten how much I’d enjoyed Julian Symons’s books, recalling only his Victorian-set detective novel, The Blackheath Poisonings, which I like a lot. Now I’m keen to re-read more.

The Man Who Killed Himself is a sparkling read and should appeal to fans of Francis Iles, Hitchcock and Peter Lovesey.

 

 

 

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Agatha Christie’s ‘The Secret Adversary’

Agatha Christie – and Hercule Poirot – entered the crime fiction world in 1921 with The Mysterious Affair at Styles. A year later, her second novel The Secret Adversary was published, the first of five Tommy and Tuppence Beresford stories. It’s interesting that Christie was showing her versatility so early in her writing career. Instead of building on her great success with a second outing for her Belgian detective, she took a new direction with new sleuths, this time a pair. The two novels are very different.

The Secret Adversary is an adventure yarn. Much more of a light thriller in tone than a detective puzzle, parts of the plot are jolly far-fetched but who cares? I don’t, being happy to suspend disbelief for a good old-fashioned page-turner that’s lots of fun.

This novel reminds me of some Margery Allingham titles – also much-enjoyed – such as Mystery Mile and Sweet Danger. These exciting, light-hearted romps seem out of fashion. Perhaps because they belonged to such a different time, less cynical and a far more rural England. Anyway, they’re still terrific reads and a relaxing escape from our modern age.

Perhaps Agatha Christie had a similar thought at the time, for she dedicates the book:

To all those who lead monotonous lives in the hope that they may experience at second-hand the delights and dangers of adventure.

Kindly meant of course but how times have changed. Can’t imagine any author today endearing themselves by suggesting their readers have dull lives.

When we first meet our lovable duo, Tuppence is still Miss Prudence Cowley, the daughter of a Suffolk archdeacon and Tommy is her childhood friend. They haven’t seen one another since 1916, when Tuppence worked in an officers’ hospital in London and Tommy was sent there from France.

Both recently demobbed, looking for work and dreadfully hard-up, they meet by chance in Piccadilly and decide to join forces. Over a council-of-war in a Lyons’ Corner House, they decide to form The Young Adventurers, Ltd and place an ad offering their services. Tuppence takes the lead in this enterprise, as she tends to do and the advert is never needed. Someone has been listening and adventure finds them shortly after. We’re off on a lively, racing plot with spies, a criminal mastermind and assorted sinister baddies, full of danger, excitement and fun.

This reads like an early novel only in the sense that Agatha Christie captures the feeling of the time very well. It’s a story of bright young things, two resourceful people who are at a loose end. They’ve just been through the War to end all Wars and are left with no satisfying purpose or money. They’re looking for a role in life, preferably not too humdrum. The writing of The Secret Adversary is as assured as any of Christie’s later work with an observant eye for characters, strong atmosphere and a dazzling twist.

Tommy is in the best tradition of a pre-war Englishman, dogged, resourceful, brave, a gentleman and sportsman. Tuppence is the brains of the outfit, quick-witted, impulsive and liable to get herself in hot water. They’re both engaging and very real. Reading this again after decades, I can’t help ‘seeing’ James Warwick, Francesca Annis and Reece Dinsdale who played them so well in the 1985 LWT drama. A year earlier they’d also made the wonderful Partners in Crime, based on their second outing of short stories.

Agatha Christie said that this was the series she most enjoyed writing. If you fancy curling up and escaping into a great adventure with lots of period charm – The Secret Adversary is one of the very best.

Click on the link below for editions:

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My Latest Book Is Out!

William Quest is back! Deadly Quest (A William Quest Victorian Thriller Book 2) by [Bainbridge, John]

My new novel, DEADLY QUEST, the second in the William Quest series, is now available for pre-order on Kindle at a special offer price.

Publication day is Friday September 30th. The paperback version will be out at the same time. The price will increase that weekend so please do order today for the bargain price.

And if you haven’t read the first novel, The Shadow of William Quest, it’s available both as a Kindle e-Book and in paperback.

Please share this post with your friends, whether they enjoy historical fiction, crime fiction or just have a love of adventure stories…

Regards, John

Here’s more about DEADLY QUEST, with a few readers’ comments on William Quest:

“A reign of terror sweeps through the Victorian underworld as a menacing figure seeks to impose his will on the criminals of London.

On the abandoned wharves of the docklands and in the dangerous gaslit alleys of Whitechapel, hardened villains are being murdered, dealers in stolen goods and brothel keepers threatened.

The cobbles of the old city are running with blood, as pistol shots bark out death to any who resist.

Who can fight back to protect the poor and the oppressed? The detectives of Scotland Yard are baffled as the death toll mounts. There is, of course, William Quest – Victorian avenger. A man brought up to know both sides of the law.

But Quest faces dangers of his own.

Sinister watchers are dogging his footsteps through the fog, as Quest becomes the prey in a deadly manhunt, threatened by a vicious enemy, fighting for his life in a thrilling climax in the most dangerous rookery in Victorian London.

Dead Quest or Deadly Quest?”

An historical crime story by the author of The Shadow of William Quest, A Seaside Mourning and Wolfshead.”

What readers are saying about William Quest…

A page turner of a mystery from the start… I couldn’t put this one down for long as I was caught up in the twists and turns of this richly constructed tale.

Great author, fantastic book. Such a unique story and very well told.

A new hero for these times has entered literature, and is destined to capture the attention of all those yearning for a better chapter within the human saga – it is William Quest.

Great read! Couldn’t put it down.

Superb plotting, believable characters, and a very effective writing style

…a real feel for history and storytelling.

Here’s the Link to Order:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Deadly-Quest-William-Victorian-Thriller-ebook/dp/B01LYGNCNQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1473791400&sr=1-1&keywords=Deadly+Quest

 

 

 

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My Victorian Writing World

Just over a month now to the publication of the sequel to my novel The Shadow of William Quest. The new title will be available for pre-order at a special price a little while before that, so do keep visiting the blog for all the latest news. forgotten_00051-Kindle-Fina

From now until then, I’ll be putting out a few items both about the new book, and the first in the series.

How did it all come about?

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

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

If we could travel back in time, we could enter the world of William Quest – the new book is set in 1854 – with little difficulty. Though there would be some surprises. It could be a brutal world, not as settled as some people have implied. There are many Victorian Values that deserved to be relegated to the history books.

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

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

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

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

The Victorians tended to go on the back-burner.

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

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

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

The Victorians never quite went away.

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

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

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

To order the FIRST William Quest novel, The Shadow of William Quest, please just click on the link below. And if you have read it and enjoyed it please do leave a review. The new Quest novel will be available to pre-order in September:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shadow-William-Quest-Victorian-Thriller-ebook/dp/B00JEA3E64/ref=sr_1_4?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1472138246&sr=1-4&keywords=John+Bainbridge

 

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Calamity In Kent by John Rowland

Another seaside read for late summer this week, Calamity in Kent, one of the British Library Crime Classics. This has the bonus of an interesting introduction by Martin Edwards and another breezy railway poster cover. The novel was published in 1950 and this is the first reprint. It is set in the fictional resort of Broadgate, a very lightly disguised Broadstairs. We can be sure of this as Rowland describes the topography in detail and mentions the real area of North Foreland, just beyond the town.

Broadstairs is a charming place, full of historic interest, with two claims to literary fame. Dickens loved the town, visiting many times and writing much of David Copperfield there. John Buchan and his family were staying at Broadstairs in the summer of 1914. His wife’s cousin was renting a cliff-top property which had a flight of steps leading to a private beach. They and the town are the inspiration for the end of The Thirty-nine Steps.

Calamity In Kent is narrated by Jimmy London, a journalist recuperating at Broadgate after an operation. His illness is unspecified but we know he’s been staying there in a boarding-house for some weeks. Taking a turn on the prom before breakfast, he sees a man who’s had a bad shock. He’s the operator of the cliff railway who has just discovered a body in the locked cliff railway carriage.

Jimmy’s newshound instincts make him excited to be first on the spot. There follows an amusing interlude where he views the body and manages to despatch the lift attendant to fetch the police. Left alone, he not only frisks the corpse, finding out his identity but finds a notebook – uncomfortably near splatters of blood – and cheerfully pockets it.

Jimmy immediately phones a Fleet Street editor and gets himself appointed special correspondent for the murder story. He can scent his way back to replenishing his funds and landing a staff job.

In my time I had been in on a few scoops. This, however, was the first time that I had ever had the inside story of a murder handed to me on a plate. And I knew that a recent increase in the newsprint ration meant that the papers would give a bit more space to the case, if it was truly sensational, than they had been able to do in years.

Then Jimmy meets up with an old friend, Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard, who happens to be staying with the Chief Constable. Not having much faith in the unimaginative local man, Inspector Beech, Shelley suggests that he and Jimmy London pool their knowledge.

I think it would be as well if we agreed to share the work of investigation. You see, there are people who might talk to a journalist, who, on the other hand, would not so readily talk to a policeman. Queer, no accounting for personal taste.

I’ve noticed quite a lot of reviews with readers complaining about this unrealistic device but I’m happy to suspend belief if I’m enjoying myself. (We never miss Midsomer Murders or Father Brown.) It is rather convenient how Jimmy finds one lead after another and everyone readily tells him useful information – instead of where to get off. Even so, I did enjoy Calamity in Kent very much.

Jimmy London is an engaging protagonist. Optimistic, resourceful, unscrupulous, he’s very believable and you can’t help taking to him. Inspector Shelley is likable too and is John Rowland’s usual detective. The narrative gains added interest in being from Jimmy’s point of view. The plot is great fun and builds to an exciting denouement. This has a sense of real danger and comes close to the feel of a fifties thriller or black and white film.

Calamity in Kent has an interesting transitional feel in the world of 20th century crime fiction. The setting is familiar to that of a Golden Age detective novel but contains many post-war references. A character has a limp from a war wound. We hear about newsprint rationing, the difficulty of obtaining motor spares, identity cards, nationalisation of the coal mines and the black market. Britain’s seaside resorts have resumed their heyday – although they’ve only a decade or so before holiday-makers will fly away to the sun. But things aren’t quite the same. The barbed wire’s been taken off the beach, the Home Guard disbanded and the blown-up part of the pier repaired. There’s another list of names  on the war memorial. Even in a real life Walmington-on-sea, times are changing.

Please click on the link to see editions:

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Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library

Colonel and Mrs Bantry had always believed that ‘a body in the library’ only happened in books.The Body in the Library (Miss Marple) (Miss Marple Series Book 3) by [Christie, Agatha]

This novel is the second outing for Miss Marple. Though published in 1942 – the first of two that year – it contains no reference to the War until a single mention near the end. Life in St Mary Mead is unchanged – apart from the racy young man, connected with films, who has taken ‘Mr Booker’s new house’ – until a body is discovered at Gossington Hall. A platinum blonde is lying strangled on the bearskin hearthrug and none of the household has ever seen her before.

Fortunately, Dolly Bantry immediately sends the car for her friend Jane Marple. There’s a lovely moment where Mrs Bantry leans on the local constable guarding the library, so Miss Marple can view the corpse before the arrival of Inspector Slack.

“There was the sound of a car scrunching on the gravel outside. Constable Palk said with urgency:

    ‘That’ll be the Inspector…’

    True to his ingrained belief that the gentry didn’t let you down, Mrs Bantry immediately moved to the door. Miss Marple followed her. Mrs Bantry said:

    ‘That’ll be all right, Palk.’

    Constable Palk was immensely relieved.”

Colonel and Mrs Bantry are lovable characters in a very English upper-class tradition; prominent in village life, the Colonel, a magistrate and friend of the Chief Constable. At first Mrs Bantry finds the mystery exciting. She says to Miss Marple:

    “What I feel is that if one has got to have a murder actually happening in one’s house, one might as well enjoy it, if you know what I mean. That’s why I want you to come and help me find out who did it and unravel the mystery and all that. It really is rather thrilling, isn’t it?”

However, both ladies know that if the murderer is never found, gossips will always think the dead girl was involved with Colonel Bantry and his reputation and peace of mind will never recover. The village rumour mill begins at once. I like the way Agatha Christie inserts some very funny lines at this point, contrasting with the underlying seriousness. Christie has often been criticised for writing underdeveloped stock characters. I disagree, feeling she had a great ability to sum up a character in a throwaway line or two.

    “Miss Wetherby, a long-nosed, acidulated spinster, was the first to spread the intoxicating information.”

    “’His poor wife.’ Miss Hartnell tried to disguise her deep and ardent pleasure… She had a deep bass voice and visited the poor indefatigably, however hard they tried to avoid her ministrations.”

Christie tells us all we need to know. Her skill reminds me of an artist dashing off lightning sketches. A great example of ‘less is more.’

The action soon shifts to the Majestic Hotel in the resort of Danemouth, about eighteen miles away. This part of the novel has lots of interesting social detail about pre-war stays in splendid seaside hotels – a popular trope in Golden Age crime fiction and one I particularly enjoy. This world would have been very familiar to Agatha Christie from her upbringing in Torquay. It is very like the setting of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase. In fact, Christie seems to be gently sending up the widespread fascination with crime, both fictional and true. (This certainly hasn’t dated). At one point a small boy says to the Superintendent:

“Do you like detective stories? I do. I read them all, and I’ve got autographs from Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Dickson Carr and H.C. Bailey. Will the murder be in the papers?”

There are also remarks in passing about the real-life Rouse case and the Brighton trunk murders, unusual for Christie, as far as I recall.

Despite the humour and attractive settings, Agatha Christie never loses sight of the fact that the theme is murder. She makes the reader aware that the story isn’t just an intriguing puzzle. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Someone evil must be caught and hanged. An innocent man must be saved from having his good name destroyed and being shunned. In fact, Colonel Bantry’s plight is horribly relevant today with the current fashion for ordeal by tabloid.

The solution to the mystery is classic Christie with a well-reasoned motive and a callous murderer. This is Agatha Christie at her finest with trademark twist and superb understanding of human nature in a vivid period setting. All this in only 154 pages. Highly recommended.

For editions just click on the link below:

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The Dead Woman of Deptford by Ann Granger

This is the sixth in Ann Granger’s series of historical mysteries featuring Inspector Ben Ross and his wife Lizzie. I was pleased when Ann Granger began a Victorian crime series as I’ve been a fan for years, really enjoying her Mitchell and Markby series, set in the Cotswolds, as well as her later Carter and Campbell novels. A prolific lady.

Ben and Lizzie Ross are very likable characters. The series is set in the late 1860s and began when Lizzie Martin came to London to be a companion to her ‘Aunt’ Parry – actually the widow of her late godfather. Her predecessor left in mysterious circumstances and Lizzie is drawn to investigate. The novels are mostly set in a particular district of London, though the second in the series took Lizzie to Hampshire’s New Forest. Much as I’ve liked them all, The Dead Woman of Deptford is my favourite so far.

On a cold November night, Inspector Ross is summoned to Deptford. The body of a well-dressed, middle-aged woman has been found in a rat-ridden yard between dilapidated buildings near the Thames. As always, the narrative is shared between Ben and Lizzie, both in first person.

Ann Granger has a lovely flow to her writing, making it hard to put down. Her characters and setting are vivid and believable. She writes with moments of humour, compassion for social injustice and shows many different layers of Victorian society; from the wealthy squares of the West End, Ben and Lizzie in their modest terrace near Waterloo station, to the bent old man collecting cigar stubs in the gutters.

The sights, smells and sounds of Deptford, its warehouses of spices and tobacco, raucous streets of dock-workers and foreign sailors, tenements and drinking dens are richly depicted. Rather like one of Atkinson Grimshaw’s moonlit quayside paintings come to life. It’s surprising that no production company has grabbed these novels for a television drama.

The solution to the murder is extremely satisfying. Ann Granger had me fooled, which is what I want as a reader. A lifelong love of reading detective fiction means I work out – or get an instinct for – the murderer far too often. It doesn’t necessarily detract from a great read but we all want to be hoodwinked. (Peter Lovesey is my benchmark for an author who dazzles with his deceptive plotting.) This time Ann Granger used a classic piece of misdirection worthy of Agatha Christie, very simple and effective. I’m kicking myself. In addition, I thought the psychology of the motive was eminently believable and thought-provoking.

Ann Granger’s name on the cover guarantees an excellent, detective novel in the classic English style. She’s always a pleasure to read.

To find out more just click on the link:

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