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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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My New Book “Villain” Out Now

As some of you know, when I’m not writing mystery stories, I write historical tales and my new one is now out. Here’s my latest…

Villain – the third in The Chronicles of Robin Hood series – is now available for pre-order on Kindle. Publication date is 30th June. The paperback is already available. Order before the publication date and you get either version discounted – the price goes up on the 30th.Villain Cover

Well, here’s what it’s about:

“AD 1203. Plantagenet England. A gripping historical novel and the third instalment of The Chronicles of Robin Hood. Robin of Loxley is in exile in the dark forests of the north, when a killing and a betrayal drive him back to his old battleground of Sherwood Forest.

A good man is slain and the full terror of the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisborne is unleashed. With the King in Normandy and a people’s champion dead, only warriors outside the law are there to fight for the poor and desperate.

Outnumbered and surrounded by his enemies, Robin Hood is forced into waging a murderous campaign against the forces of evil.

Fighting against overwhelming odds, the outlaws divided and with a vicious warlord attacking the people of Sherwood, can Robin Hood and just a few of his men hold back the forces of oppression?

An exciting new historical novel by the author of Loxley and Wolfshead.”

To order just click on the link to pre-order the Kindle version. Look under “Books” for the paperback.

Please do share and tell your friends. Small publishers taking on the mighty publishing empire of Rupert Murdoch need word of mouth advertising.

For more details about my historical writing do check out my other blog at http://www.johnbainbridgewriter.wordpress.com 

 

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‘Heirs and Assigns’ by Marjorie Eccles

Published in 2015, Heirs and Assigns is an historical detective novel in the best British tradition. I really enjoyed this book, particularly for its clever plotting, evocative sense of place and understanding of its fascinating period, the late 1920s.

I’ve liked Marjorie Eccles’s work for many years – her Gil Mayo police procedurals set in The Black Country (in the English West Midlands) and stand-alones. It was a great shame that she wasn’t well-served by the BBC when they made a series using the Gil Mayo books. As I recall, they went for a quirky approach which was quite different from the novels and didn’t prove popular.

It’s interesting how hit and miss these things are. When Bentley Productions added a tongue-in-cheek spin to Caroline Graham’s excellent Chief Inspector Barnaby novels, they came up with Midsomer Murders… and the rest is history. (It didn’t hurt that the early episodes were adapted from the novels by renowned crime novelist and script-writer, Anthony Horowitz).

But had things gone differently, Marjorie Eccles’s Superintendent Mayo would be a famous name, along with the likes of Barnaby and Vera. Over the years I’ve too rarely seen her work in bookshops, she’s one of many authors whose books I discovered in libraries. These days they’re available as ebooks. I wish an enterprising production company would pick up the Inspector Reardon series. They’d make perfect Sunday night viewing.

Heirs and Assigns takes place in November 1928. Inspector Herbert Reardon and Sergeant Joe Gilmour live and work in Dudley at the heart of The Black Country. An industrial town of cramped, back-to-back terraces, mill chimneys and a permanent pall of gritty smoke. Many people think that The Black Country had its name from the smog but it actually comes from the wide seam of coal that the towns and villages are built upon. John – born and bred in the Black Country – says the coal seam itself used to be known locally as the thick.

The detectives are sent to investigate a suspicious death at Hinton Wyvering. A village close to the remote countryside along the Welsh Border, it’s with a day’s reach of Dudley and a world away in landscape. The owner of Bryn Glas, a Tudor farmhouse, now comfortable family home, died in the night, after his sixtieth birthday dinner. Someone among Pen Llewellyn’s family and friends is a murderer.

Bryn Glas sat on a wide natural plateau, a parcel of land scooped out of the side of the hill, at a point high above the river. Behind the hill the land rose even higher to the moors, the great windy spaces of heathland, where the undulating countryside became wilder, rockier and even dangerous at times, littered with disused quarry workings. A great outcrop to the east was a place of cliffs, caves and precipitous drops down to the river.

Marjorie Eccles vividly portrays life in a quiet, rural corner of England in the late 1920s. The way people lived and their very different attitudes are so well depicted. The house and village are beautifully described and you can picture every scene. Most of the village straggles along a hilltop above a river. Left behind even then, by the main road at its foot, leading to the town.

Inspector Reardon and his sergeant are appealing characters, both happily married. They work well together. Reardon is a compassionate, perceptive detective, carrying scars – in every sense – from his experiences in the Great War.

Ten years later, we see the times are changing. Old family estates have been broken up, village blacksmiths shoe horses and tinker with motor-cars. Inspector Reardon contemplates affording a two-seater Morris for his wife. Yet the consequences of the First World War are still affecting the villagers.

One resident is treated with suspicion as a former Conscientious Objector, women, who had temporary jobs while men were at the Front, resent being put aside in peacetime. Though in the year the novel is set, all women were finally given the vote, they are still struggling to forge careers on equal terms with men. Inspector Reardon’s wife Ellen is a former teacher who had to resign on marriage.

There are several intriguing motives for murder, secrets and old grudges for Reardon and Gilmour to uncover. When the answer is revealed, murderer and motive are very plausible. The plot is extremely well thought-out and psychologically sound.

Heirs and Assigns is the third title in the Inspector Reardon series. I’m looking forward to reading the earlier books and the latest title, The Property of Lies, published in May 2017.

 

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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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‘A True and Faithful Brother’ by Linda Stratmann

I always like Linda Stratmann’s Victorian-set Frances Doughty Mysteries and very much enjoyed her latest novel, A True and Faithful Brother, published in 2017.A True and Faithful Brother: A Frances Doughty Mystery (The Frances Doughty Mysteries) by [Stratmann, Linda]

They’re excellent murder mysteries enjoyed at random, though – as in most detective series – readers will gain a greater understanding of Frances and her world if they’re taken in order. A True and Faithful Brother provides answers to an intriguing sub-plot which begins with the first entry in the series, The Poisonous Seed, published in 2011. It’s been a long wait but all the better for it.

The series is based in the West London district of Bayswater in the early 1880s. An interesting, fresh choice of setting and an area of London I haven’t seen used in other Victorian-set detective novels. Bayswater is described as a small town-like community within the capital. Linda Stratmann’s impeccable research gives a vividly authentic sense of what the area would have been like at that time.

By the late Victorian age, many of the defining features of twentieth century Bayswater were in place, including the shops of prosperous Westbourne Grove and William Whiteley’s famous, ever-expanding department store. Real buildings and personalities are often mentioned – such as the local coroner – and there’s always an interesting author’s note on the historical background.

A True and Faithful Brother gets off to a flying start with a twist on the classic locked-room mystery. A retired businessman and philanthropist has vanished from a darkened room during a Freemason’s Lodge meeting. The exits were locked, bolted and guarded, leaving a perplexing puzzle.

Miss Frances Doughty, a young lady detective, is asked by a former client to investigate and find the missing man. Frances is a very likable character, intelligent, determined and lives up to her name. At this stage in the seventh book in the series, she’s well-known to the Bayswater community, local police and press as a successful private detective.

However, events in her last case – detailed in Death In Bayswater – have caused her to lose her confidence somewhat. As the novel opens, she’s decided to give up criminal work and stick to servant problems, long-lost relatives, missing pets and other safe domestic cases. When a body is discovered, Frances has a very personal reason for once again getting involved with a case of murder.

Series’ readers come to know an endearing bunch of recurring characters, led by Sarah, Frances’s loyal assistant and companion. I like the local police inspector and the network of enterprising errand boys who act as Frances’s ‘eyes and ears,’ rather like the Baker Street irregulars.

A theme runs throughout the novels, of the difficulties faced by single women making their way in later Victorian society. Frances, young, with little security, is striving be taken seriously in a male-dominated world. She and Sarah are surviving on hard work and initiative in a society where many think their profession is unsuitable for women.

We learn a lot about the changing times. Frances and Sarah support the emerging women’s suffrage movement and take exercise classes with self-defence in mind. Linda Stratmann describes this fascinating background in a light, engaging style, weaving seamlessly with the murder plot.

The narrative is gripping and Frances has to face great danger – of more than one kind – before a satisfying conclusion. The Frances Doughty Mysteries are a very enjoyable blend of Victorian setting, rich in authentic detail with intelligent, complex plots, well-rounded characters and a most engaging heroine. I look forward to her next adventure.

 

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Peter Lovesey’s ‘The Reaper’

Peter Lovesey’s superb stand-alone, The Reaper, is an unusual take on ‘clerical crime’. It’s a novel I absolutely love and cannot recommend too highly. Although it was only published seventeen years ago, in 2000, The Reaper has much in common with certain Golden Age novels – it reminds me of Francis Iles’ work – and classic films.Product Details

This is the story of a very unusual rector, the Reverend Otis Joy, whose parish is the rural Wiltshire village of Foxford. The novel is prefaced with a revealing quotation from Samuel Butler:

Vouchsafe O Lord, to keep us this day without being found out.

Very apt because this story isn’t a whodunit, it’s a will-they-get-away-with-it? The rector is a serial-killer.

Have faith – we try hard not to reveal spoilers and ruin anyone’s enjoyment of a novel new to them. This information is in the synopsis and we see the rector spring into action as early as page eight.

Otis Joy is young, charming and sets the female hearts aflutter among his congregation. He fills pews, delivers charismatic, actor-style sermons and throws himself into good works. Almost all the villagers think he’s by far the best rector they’ve ever had.

Peter Lovesey has great fun in taking a classic English detective novel setting and turning it on its head. All the usual suspects are here, the vicar/rector himself being a stock character from vintage crime. Only this time, he’s our anti-hero. Love interest is supplied by young, unhappily married parishioner, Rachel and her femme fatale pal, Cynthia, the Chair of the Women’s Institute. Lovesey is wickedly good at female characters, not always the case with male writers.

The plot is played out amid the village year, the summer fête, harvest supper, jumble sales and carol-singing. The villagers are rife with speculation, gossip and a touch of malice. Where does their priest disappear to, on his day off?

The rector ad libs brilliantly through the unexpected scandal of the Bishop’s unfortunate demise. However things get complicated when the parish treasurer gives up his post and an obnoxious young accountant in the confirmation class, fancies taking it on.

The scene is set for a devilishly clever, black comedy, where you really shouldn’t laugh but you do. And you really shouldn’t root for an amoral serial-killer but you do. In the same way we cheer on the marvellous Denis Price in Ealing Studios’ Kind Hearts and Coronets. The rector’s life starts to unravel in a series of Peter Lovesey’s trademark twists, with a rising body count and desperate complications.

The novel unfolds like a deliciously dark Hitchcock. Alfred would have loved this. The Reaper belongs to that very special crime genre where humour meets murder. Hard to pull off and Peter Lovesey makes it look effortless. A genre better known on screen, in a sense, The Reaper belongs with The Ladykillers, Arsenic and Old Lace, Family Plot and even Frenzy. All of them fabulous.

The pace gets ever more frantic and I suspect many writers couldn’t deliver a sufficiently punchy ending. I recall reading an interview with Peter Lovesey where he said, as a child, he wanted to be a conjuror. And in a way, he is. A master of distraction, he’s also an incredible plate-spinner, always revealing the best trick of all at the end. The denouement is dazzling and the ending unexpected, very satisfying and absolutely right. Peter Lovesey always pulls it off.

 

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Clerical Crime For Easter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine Aird The Religious Body (convent)

Alice Boatwright Under An English Heaven (country church)

Colin Dexter Service Of All The Dead (Oxford church)

Ann Granger Candle For A Corpse (country church)

S.T. Haymon Ritual Murder (cathedral)

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

Charles Palliser The Unburied (cathedral)

Ruth Rendell No Man’s Nightingale (Kingsmarkham church)

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

Next time we’ll look at my favourite clerical stand-alone, Peter Lovesey’s The Reaper.

 

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Agatha Christie’s A Pocketful of Rye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Magsmen, Gonophs, Macers, Shofulmen and Screevers

What are Magsmen, Gonophs, Macers, Shofulmen and Screevers?

In my blog on Kellow Chesney’s book The Victorian Underworld I mentioned a few of the underworld’s “technical terms”. Kellow Chesney gives a very comprehensive list at the back of his book, but I think it’s only fair to give an explanation of the ones I mentioned.

They would have been very familiar terms to the characters in our books, and – certainly as far as William Quest goes – many of the characters in that series of books qualify to be included under one or more of these terms.

So here goes:

Magsmen – well basically a cheat or a sharper of the lowest kind – the sort who’d probably try and cheat you in a pub or out on the street. They’re still around so watch out!

Macers – Macers play the same sort of game as magsmen but at a slightly higher level. Think con-artist in modern terms and you’re more or less there.

Gonophs – gonophs are minor thieves and often the less skilled sort of pickpockets. Poverty drove many Victorians to crime in this way. My character William Quest starts his life on the streets as a gonoph, but becomes more skilled as time goes by.

Shofulmen – These individuals were purveyors of bad money. Not uncommon in the earlier decades of the century.

Screevers – Although it became an occasional name for pavement artists, the original screevers were writers of fake testimonials – quite a handy vocation in Victorian times when you might need a phony reference, especially if you’d been dismissed by your employer without a character. My character Jasper Feedle partakes in screeving amongst his other many talents.

If you want to enter the dangerous Victorian Underworld do seek out Kellow Chesney’s book – or if you want to walk the dangerous alleys of Victorian London do try my William Quest novels…

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The Victorian Underworld by Kellow Chesney

If any one book inspired me to write my William Quest Victorian thrillers it’s this one, Kellow Chesney’s very readable and scholarly book on the Victorian underworld. It was first published in 1970 and – for me – is the standard work on this fascinating subject.Victorian Underworld: Chesney, Kellow

I first encountered it when I was an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Although I majored in literature, I did a minor in nineteenth-century social history. The underworld was only a small part of my studies, but discovering Kellow Chesney’s book sent me of on a wider reading programme, both in secondary reading and the primary sources.

When I’m asked to recommend a book on the Victorian underworld this is the one I suggest as a first read. There are several other titles I like – and I hope to give these a mention on the blog in the coming months – but Kellow Chesney’s book is the most comprehensive and the best introduction.

It’s all here, starting with a walk through the mid-century streets of London – and how vividly the author portrays the place. This is no dull work of scholarship, it’s a page-turner as exciting as all the best mystery thrillers.

Then from the main streets frequented by the richest members of society, Kellow Chesney takes the reader to the borders of the underworld, the places where the dispossessed and those forced into crime to survive are obliged to lurk – and the boundaries between the rookeries and the smart streets of society are often back to back.

We are then taken on a journey into the rookeries themselves. Kellow Chesney conjures them up in all their awfulness. It is impossible to understand the Victorian criminal underworld unless you can understand the causes of crime.

Here are the beggars, the pick-pockets, the footpads and the swell mob. The skilled cracksmen who break the safes and steal the jewellery of the richest members of society. Here are the magsmen, gonophs, macers and shofulmen. The screevers and the Newgate mob. (I’ll talk more about these in a blog early next week.)

There were perhaps 80000 prostitutes in Victorian London alone. Kellow Chesney deals sympathetically with their plight, whether they were working the poorest streets in the East End for pennies or selling themselves for much more in the night houses in the West End.

The book is wonderfully illustrated, mostly with the sketches of the great Gustave Dore, adding to the feeling of being there so brilliantly evoked in Mr Chesney’s words. If you can, seek out one of the original hardback editions – the pictures are not so well reproduced in the paperback editions.

When I came to write William Quest, Kellow Chesney’s book was the first I re-read. If you want a good understanding of the Victorian underworld, I commend it to you.

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