Tag Archives: Golden Age Detective Fiction

The Toff at Butlin’s by John Creasey

John Creasey was a writing phenomenon, one of the most prolific authors of all time, with at least 700 titles published. Creasey was not only prolific, he was fast. He could write two or three full-length novels in a week. To read them, you would never know that they were written at speed. They are quality examples of crime fiction.

Although, Creasey is best known as a crime writer, he also wrote romances, westerns, thrillers – the cross-genre list goes on. As a crime writer, Creasey is up there with the best. Think of his creations; The Baron, The Toff, Gideon of the Yard, Inspector West, the Department Z novels – the list goes on and on.

When I was younger I used to see dozens of Creasey titles on the racks everywhere; in bookshops, railway stalls, newsagents – all with their distinctive covers. He was well regarded in his profession. The Crime Writers’ Association give awards in his honour.

I’ve been meaning to write about Creasey’s books for some time, for he is one of the masters of the craft.

His character the Hon. Richard Rollison, better known as The Toff, made his first appearance in Thriller magazine in 1933, his first book outing Introducing the Toff appearing five years later. There were about 60 Toff books published, Creasey would often write several in a year – four of the titles appeared after the author’s death.

The premise of the Toff is that well-brought up gentleman Rollison goes into the East End of London to fight crime, acquiring a reputation and the nickname. He has a calling card showing a gent complete with top hat and monocle, wearing a bow-tie and sporting a cigarette holder. He has an eye for the ladies and a rather nice flat in Gresham Street in Mayfair.

But really Rollison belongs to what the thriller writer Geoffrey Household called “Class X” – he fits in as well with the slum-dwellers of the East End as he does with posh society.

The trappings of the upper-class are present in these stories, but there is none of the dreadful snobbery you get with writers like Sapper and Wheatley. Rollison is a righter of wrongs, with friends he values right across Britain’s ridiculous class divide.

Like all good crime-fighters, the Toff has a winning supporting cast; there is his “man” Jolly, who puts on a pretence of being thoroughly miserable; Superintendent Bill Brice of Scotland Yard, who doesn’t really approve of Rollison, but welcomes his help; Bill Ebbut, who trains fighters in the East End and provides muscle to the Toff when needed. All of them delightfully drawn by the author.

Now, although I’ve been re-reading the Baron stories by Creasey, I hadn’t read the Toff for many years. Then, browsing in an antiques shop in York, while researching backgrounds for my next William Quest novel, I came across a battered copy of The Toff at Butlin’s. My copy had clearly originated at the Butlin’s Camp at Filey, for it is autographed by many of the redcoats working there during the 1954 season – including at least two who went on to become famous in the UK – the comedian Charlie Drake and the entertainer Eddie Keene, although the story is actually set at a Welsh holiday camp.

Now, for readers outside the UK, Butlin’s was and is a very famous holiday camp enterprise, set up by Billy Butlin in the late 1920s. Holidaymakers, usually on limited incomes, could come to Butlin’s for a fixed fee holiday, which included lots of entertainment provided by the famous redcoats (many British variety stars began their careers as redcoats). It was cheap, but it was very cheerful, for Billy Butlin was the complete showman in every sense of the word.

At some point, and I don’t know quite when it started, Billy Butlin approached several writers asking them to set books in one of his holiday camps. Dennis Wheatley, an arch-snob, famously turned him down. But several rather forgotten writers accepted, and two writers at least who are still highly regarded – John Creasey and Frank Richards, creator of Billy Bunter.

Now, the thought of the Hon. Richard Rollison staying at Butlin’s to investigate the disappearance of a trio of redcoats might seem strange, but it works wonderfully. Mostly, because Rollison is never portrayed as a snob and can mix with anyone.

And, by the 1950s, the Toff is rather hard up, putting out his sleuthing skills for money. He has to pay the bills so, when Billy Butlin (who makes a cameo appearance in the novel) invites him to his holiday camp at Pwllheli to investigate why redcoats keep vanishing, Rollison is quite eager to go – spurred on, it has to be said, by the photograph of a pretty girl on the cover of the Butlin’s brochure. His man, Jolly, thinks it all rather undignified and is outraged at the suggestion, but then, well, they do need the money. Some of the most amusing scenes in the novel explain Jolly’s conversion to the Butlin cause.

But what is the mystery which brings the Toff to Butlin’s? Well, I’m not going into any detail, for this is a wonderfully entertaining novel that you really should read for yourself. Sufficient to say that, along the way, there are robberies, the disposal of stolen goods, murders, and the Toff himself under threat from deadly opponents. And just who can the Toff trust? Not everyone can be trusted.

Never has a holiday camp been so menacing in a work of fiction – or so much fun. And the reaction of the campers when they discover that a celebrity like the Toff is in their midst is wittily drawn.

I would think that Sir Billy Butlin must have thought the book a hoot. It’s certainly as readable and fresh as the day it was written.

I shall certainly re-read the Toff novels as I find them. I know his agent is working very hard to make these titles more widely available. But how lovely it would be to see the paperbacks, with the original cover art, back in the bookshops.

And, I must say, I rather like this idea of setting a crime novel at Butlin’s. Sir Billy Butlin is long gone, but if anyone from Butlin’s would like to offer me a chalet for a week or two, I’ll see what I can do…

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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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‘Holy Disorders’ by Edmund Crispin

Holy Disorders, published in 1946, is the second Gervase Fen mystery by Bruce Montgomery (1921-78), writing under the pseudonym Edmund Crispin. Montgomery is considered to be one of the last of the great Golden Age novelists. He was much admired by his friend Agatha Christie.Holy Disorders (A Gervase Fen Mystery) by [Crispin, Edmund]

Edmund Crispin stands out among his peers for the sparkling humour he brought to his work. His amateur sleuth Gervase Fen – a Professor of English at Oxford – was partly based on Montgomery’s Oxford tutor, W.G. Moore. Fen is eccentric, mercurial, by turns charming or pithy. At one point, Fen spends some time running through suspects’ alibis with his friend, Geoffrey Vintner.

‘Do you get it?’ He asked.
‘No’, said Geoffrey.
‘Nincompoop,’ said Fen.

Fen has the wit of Peter Wimsey, the facetiousness of Rory Alleyn and the capacity for getting in a mess of Bertie Wooster. He takes up enthusiasms rather like Toad from The Wind in the Willows and he frequently quotes the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Gervase Fen is as idiosyncratic as Sherlock Holmes, as brilliant a detective and just as lovable to the reader.

Holy Disorders is set in the hot summer of 1940 with the Battle of Britain dominating the headlines. Beginning in London, we follow Geoffrey Vintner, a confirmed bachelor, organist and composer, on an eventful journey down to the Devon cathedral town of Tolnbridge. He’s perhaps something of a self-portrait as Bruce Montgomery was a bachelor for most of his life and a composer of church music. (He was also well-known for his film scores, composing the music for several Carry On comedies).

Vintner is summoned by Fen to be a temporary replacement for the cathedral organist, who’s been attacked and put out of action. Along with this breakfast telegram, Vintner receives an anonymous letter, warning him not to go to Tolnbridge.

He felt as unhappy as any man without pretension to the spirit of adventure might feel who has received a threatening letter, accompanied by sufficient evidence to suggest that the threats contained in it will probably be carried out.

Before leaving London, Vintner is waylaid while purchasing a butterfly net for Fen – insects of several kinds play a significant part in the novel. His journey manages to be both farcical and menacing. He’s saved from attack by Henry Fielding, a young man who is heir to an earldom and straight out of Wodehouse. He’s looking for adventure and inveigles himself into this one, accompanying Vintner to Tolnbridge. Fielding explains why he hasn’t joined up:

They won’t have me. I volunteered last November but they graded me four, I joined the ARP, of course and I’m thinking of going in for this new LDV racket.
Nothing wrong with me except shaky eyesight…I want to do something active about this war – something romantic. I tried to join the Secret Service but it was no good.

Crispin was an extremely accomplished writer, a real all-rounder. His sense of atmosphere is beautifully written. Settings such as Paddington Station and the journey by steam train, summer evenings in the gardens of Tolnbridge and its surrounding countryside are lyrically described. The author settled in South Devon and was obviously thinking of that coast’s estuaries when he described Tolnbridge. Its topography bears some resemblance to Exeter at the head of the Exe estuary, though only partial. Too much is imagined to be a thinly-disguised version.

When Vintner arrives in Tolnbridge, there’s an M.R. Jamesian feel to the narrative. His hostess at the clergy-house explains that the organist has been rendered insane:

An empty cathedral isn’t a good place to be in all night– even for the unimaginative.

Athough Holy Disorders has a lively, humorous tone, there’s constantly a much darker atmosphere lurking beneath. It reminds me of the way Agatha Christie creates a sense of evil in many of her plots. I wonder if this is a trick they ever discussed? Beneath the larky fun – the feeling that P.G Wodehouse has tried his hand at a murder mystery set in a Trollopian Cathedral Close – there’s an undercurrent of cruelty and malice.

Along the way the narrative is a delight, in places laugh-out-loud funny. Gervase Fen doesn’t appear for seventy-odd pages. His entrance is built up, pantomine fashion, the reader constantly hearing about his latest exploits and reading his messages. When he does burst in, he soon breaks the famous fourth wall, stepping out of the action a moment to address the readers, as though we’re in on the joke. Rarely seen at the time, though Leslie Charteris does this engagingly in his Simon Templar stories.

The novel is full of word-play and literary allusions in a way that reminds me of the much-missed Reginald Hill’s work. You feel that Edmund Crispin was having fun as he wrote, treating his readers as intellectual equals and thoroughly enjoying himself.

Another instance of Crispin having fun and breaking the rules is when he describes the reading matter lying about the clergy-house – John Dickson Carr (whom he admired), Nicholas Blake, Margery Allingham and Gladys Mitchell.

He also has the local inspector say:

The Chief Constable got on to the Yard. I believe they were going to send down one of their best men – fellow called Appleby.

Much to Fen’s indignation. (Sir John Appleby, Michael Innes’s famous detective). Fen, being competitive, determines to solve the case before the Yard – that well-known trope – with all the enthusiasm Morse might show for a free pint of real ale and a fiendish cryptic crossword.

Holy Disorders is hard to describe or categorise. A glorious romp, an adventure yarn, a Golden Age thriller, it’s also an intriguing whodunit with a final gathering and a chilling ‘reveal’ worthy of Poirot.

That probably sounds like too much in the pot but trust me, you’re in the hands of a master. Edmund Crispin’s mysteries are a dazzling treat, as fresh and enjoyable now as the day they were first published.

  

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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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Agatha Christie’s ‘Towards Zero’

 Towards Zero was first published in 1940, although the War isn’t mentioned in the novel. The unusual title comes from a remark made in the prologue about the origins of murder. Towards Zero (Agatha Christie Collection) by [Christie, Agatha]

I like a good detective story,” he said. “But, you know, they begin in the wrong place! They begin with the murder. But the murder is the end. The story begins long before that – years before sometimes – with all the causes and events that bring certain people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day. …All converging towards a given spot. Zero hour.”

The detective in this story is Superintendent Battle, who features in four earlier stories, The Secret of Chimneys (1925), The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), Murder is Easy (1938) and Cards on the Table (1939). Battle is staying with his nephew, a police inspector, who welcomes his uncle’s greater experience.

The plot has an interesting structure, beginning with a couple of scenes whose significance only becomes apparent at the denouement. We know early on that someone is planning the minutiae of a murder. Then we switch to letters being written and plans made for the characters to come together, nine months later in September. They stay at a house called ‘Gull’s Point,’ on the cliffs above a Devon fishing village. The setting is thought to be based on Devon’s Salcombe and the Kingsbridge estuary .

Once the suspects are gathered, Agatha Christie skilfully builds an atmosphere of prolonged tension, making this a gripping read. Scenes, pleasant on the surface, are full of fear and a sense of waiting for disaster. The characters are well-rounded and Christie’s wise understanding of psychology is shown at its strongest. I couldn’t disagree more with critics who dismiss her work as cardboard characters and superficial plots.

When a murder finally takes place, everyone concerned is put in the frame in a succession of twists. Red herrings abound and twice I was convinced I’d worked out the solution, only to be foxed again. Christie uses a plot device I recall in (only) one other title, but one of her many strengths is to present recycled ideas in such a well-disguised, fresh way that they slip past the readers again. Given that she wrote sixty-six novels, many short stories and there are only so many possible plots, I think she was remarkably clever.

Apparently when Agatha Christie adapted Towards Zero into a play in 1956, it wasn’t a great success. Perhaps because it’s quite an outdoor novel with scenes on the beach and cliffs. And creeping tension is better conveyed on the page?

I suspect this novel is often overlooked due to the lack of Poirot or Miss Marple. Certainly it wasn’t high on my list of gradual rereading – until I saw a few reviews. I must have read it decades ago but didn’t remember the plot. 

Now I’d recommend Towards Zero as one of Agatha Christie’s best. A very rewarding and satisfying read.

 

 

 

 

 

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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 Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D. James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Allingham and Christie – Two Christmas Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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