Tag Archives: mystery

‘The Documents In The Case’ by Dorothy L. Sayers

Published in 1930, this is Sayers’ only novel not to feature Lord Peter Wimsey. While I don’t rate it as highly as the Wimsey stories – which I love – it was very enjoyable and I’m glad to have re-read it after many years.The Documents in the Case by [Sayers, Dorothy L]

The setting is the London suburb of Bayswater in 1928, where the Harrisons live in a tall Victorian house with their lady-help, Miss Agatha Milsom. When the story begins, their top floors are newly leased to two young men, an artist and an aspiring novelist. Harrison is a fussy, mild-mannered accountant – sounds perfect for a 1920s murderer – and his wife Margaret is much younger. She’s wonderfully described as a suburban vamp with lots of S.A.

As the title implies, this is an epistolary novel, not my favourite structure but it is addictive. No chapter breaks make it tempting to read just one more entry, which leads to many. I find the same effect when reading published diaries. I enjoyed seeing characters and events from several viewpoints, showing the vast inconsistencies in what we all call the truth.

The novel is divided in two parts and includes statements among letters. It reminded me of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, where a time period is pieced together and analysed in an attempt to unravel a mystery. It’s an effective means of hooking the reader. You’re formally challenged to play detective from the opening page.

We don’t know the nature of the murder for some considerable time – or we wouldn’t but for the blurb. While I understand the publishers’ need for hooks to tempt buyers, I wish they didn’t give away so much – one of my serial rants. I suspect the first readers in 1928 began knowing less about what was going on than we do today.

We are told early on that Harrison is an expert on fungi. Say no more – all keen Golden Age readers know what that means! A keen forager and cook, he’s writing a book on the subject, accompanied by his water-colour illustrations. Poisoning is a deliciously sinister method of dispatch. For a writer it’s full of possibilities, as devious as deadly, not requiring brute force or even the presence of the murderer. So handy for arranging an alibi and for the more squeamish killer. It’s worth noting that The Documents In The Case is Sayers’ following novel after Strong Poison.

One of the novel’s strengths is its lively characterisation, shown especially in Miss Milsom. In reality, how terrible it must have been to be a ‘lady-help,’ existing in an uneasy limbo between family and servant. Miss Milsom is engaged partly as a companion to Mrs Harrison. She sits with the family and is treated as a sort of distant relative but her duties include the cooking, which she does badly.

You could say Miss Milsom is a great positive-thinker, self-help books being as popular then as now. She busies herself in enthusiasms including handicrafts, littering the flat with her half-finished work. A letter to her sister explains:

I am experimenting on some calendars, made like the old-fashioned tinsel pictures, with the coloured paper-wrappers off chocolate creams. Some of the designs are simply beautiful.

Miss Milsom is also obsessed with sexual repression. It was fashionable at the time to read Freud, consult a ‘nerve doctor’ and worry about the state of one’s glands. Mental and physical health, exercise, faddy diets, dodgy sects and gurus were all popular preoccupations in the inter-war years. Though presumably not among people struggling with the Means Test and the Depression.

She consults these psycho-analytical quacks, who encourage her to attach an absurd importance to her whims and feelings, and to talk openly at the dinner-table about things which, in my (doubtless old-fashioned) opinion, ought only to be mentioned to doctors.

In several of her novels, Sayers satirises neurotic middle-aged spinsters seeking self-expression. Wickedly funny, though it could be argued her caricatures are unkind. It’s a mistake for us to read history through a filter of modern values. These were women who perhaps never thought of a career other than marriage and motherhood. And their best chance of happiness was lost on the Western Front.

You can sense Sayers’ impatience with foolish women who didn’t make a fulfilling life for themselves, above all with useful work. A glimpse of the theme she developed with Harriet Vane, culminating in Gaudy Night. At the time of writing The Documents In The Case, Sayers was working in the advertising agency which inspired Murder Must Advertise, a vivid portrayal of office life in the thirties.

The young artist and writer here are part of the London Bohemian scene which is a popular Golden Age setting, often Ngaio Marsh territory. Sayers uses this in parts of Strong Poison and The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club. A female character in The Documents In The Case contrasts with Miss Milsom as a level-headed, hard-working novelist, rather like Harriet Vane.

There’s a very good sense of place, both in the dull, respectable streets of Bayswater and when the novel shifts to the wild countryside near the Dartmoor village of Manaton. When we lived in Devon, this was one of my favourite parts of the Moor for walking. Sayers really captures the flavour of the landscape and its people. It’s a pleasure to read about passengers travelling the long-axed, country branch-line from Newton Abbot which climbs on to the Moor via Bovey Tracey. (Parts of the old railway line survive for walking).

Earlier editions credit Robert Eustace as co-author, though new editions have dropped his name, even from the front matter. This was the pseudonym of Dr. Eustace Barton, a medical doctor who also wrote thrillers. He suggested a crucial part of the plot and helped with the forensic side.

Overall, I don’t think The Documents In The Case works with the brilliance of a Wimsey novel. It feels expermental somehow and an epistolary form is bound to feel slightly disjointed. But the characterisation, atmosphere and a clever puzzle make it well worth reading. And as a glimpse of its time, the social detail of a vanished, pre-war England is invaluable.

 

 

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Leslie Charteris: Call For The Saint

Call For the Saint offers us two Simon Templar novellas (or novelettes as Charteris preferred to call them). The collected volume was published in 1948 and features two of the best post-war Saint stories. This was the last time Charteris used the novelette format, though it was revived by other Saint writers in the 1960s, around the time the Roger Moore television series aired.

In the first tale “The King of the Beggars” Simon Templar is in Chicago and takes to the streets and alleys as a blind beggar to investigate the mysterious individual who declares himself just that – the King of the Beggars. Not that this king is generous to people forced on to the streets. In fact, this king is running a protection racket, forcing street beggars to hand over most of what they have collected to him.

Templar is in alliance here with a feisty theatre actress, Monica Varing, who goes undercover herself.

The joy of the piece is Templar’s Runyonesque and extremely dim hoodlum sidekick Hoppy Uniatz, one of the happiest character creations in thrillerdom. Hoppy gives an added delight to the stories in which he appears. Here his ability to mouth out BB shot plays an important part in the yarn.

The second story, “The Masked Angel” is set against the world of fixed boxing bouts. Charteris captures the atmosphere of the ring rather well and we even have a climax where the Saint puts on the gloves himself – to the delight of the crowd.

The story is set in New York and re-introduces two well-known characters from the canon – Police Inspector Fernack, who shares the same love/hate relationship with Templar that Claud Eustace Teal of Scotland Yard enjoys. How frustrating it must be for well-meaning cops that they can never bring the saint to heel?

The other character is Patricia Holm, the Saint’s sometime girlfriend and partner in crime. This is one of her last appearances (she takes her final bow in Saint Errant published the same year, and she hadn’t appeared since the earlier The Saint in Miami).

Reading this story, you get the feeling that all is not well between the Saint and the delightful Patricia. He has his saintly eyes on another (unavailable) woman and Patricia isn’t very happy about it. In fact, there’s a real edginess between Patricia and the Saint in this one, as though both know that the writing is on the wall in a relationship coming to an end.

For me, the Saint is never quite the same when Patricia leaves, and I don’t recall there being any reason given for the breakdown of their relationship. If any Saintly readers know why Charteris decided to give her the elbow, please comment.

Call For the Saint is a wonderful read if you want a few hours of complete escapism, both stories are beautifully-written and full of atmosphere.

At the top of his form, nobody did this kind of story better than Leslie Charteris.

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Chief Inspector Morse’s New Year Mystery – ‘The Secret Of Annexe 3’

I loved Colin Dexter’s novels when they were first published but until now had only re-read The Wench Is Dead, his superb historical mystery. The Secret Of Annexe 3 is Dexter’s seventh novel, published in 1986. This was the story I recalled least, as it was the only title not adapted for the ITV drama. The murder takes place around a fancy dress night at an Oxford hotel, on a snowy New Year’s Eve.    The Secret of Annexe 3 (Inspector Morse Series Book 7) by [Dexter, Colin]

It surprised me from the opening pages that Colin Dexter did a lot of foreshadowing and using an author’s ‘voiceover.’ Those men and women we are to meet in the following pages.

At that moment a train of events was set in motion which would result in murder – a murder planned with slow subtlety and executed with swift ferocity.

I often re-read Victorian novels where foreshadowing and chatty asides from the author were popular devices. I don’t mind at all when Trollope suddenly addresses his readers for several paragraphs or Wilkie Collins starts dropping direct hints about dark deeds ahead. I’m happy to accept it was the style of the age and find it endearing but in a late twentieth century novel, it seems distracting.

A minor point though, for I’d forgotten how absorbing it is to visit Chief Inspector Morse’s Oxford with its intelligent prose and lovely sense of place. The characters are very human with their failings and I liked the way secondary figures are given lots of back-story.

It’s interesting to see how society has moved on from a story written thirty years ago. Some guests at the fancy dress contest and dinner-dance, at the heart of the case, would be on very dodgy ground today. The hotel’s theme is ‘The Mystery of the East’ which is interpreted in a variety of ways.

It must have taken the man some considerable time to effect such a convincing transformation into a coffee-coloured, dreadlocked Rastafarian; and perhaps he hadn’t quite finished yet, for even as he walked across to the dining-room he was still dabbing his brown-stained hands with a white handkerchief that was now more chocolate than vanilla.

Another guest is dressed in the black garb of a female adherent of the Ayatollah, in a voice muffled by the double veil of her yashmak.

The Secret Of Annexe 3 has an intriguing plot with the hallmarks of a Golden Age puzzle. The Haworth Hotel has acquired the building next door which is part-way through its conversion to an annexe. Four rooms are completed and booked for the New Year festivities. When one of the guests is murdered, the annexe is the setting for a classic locked room mystery with a closed circle of suspects. Heavy snow has fallen and the three day hotel package makes a modern substitute for the winter country house-party, beloved of vintage crime fiction.

As this is clever, devious Colin Dexter, complications pile upon twists for Chief Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis. The corpse cannot be identified, the time of death can’t be established, the other guests have fled before the police arrived and hardly a single guest at the Haworth had registered under a genuine name…

By this point in the series, Morse and Lewis are comfortably established in their respective rôles of the brilliantly intuitive, erratic thinker and cheerful, hard-working side-kick. We’ve been rewatching the boxset and this time I’ve been struck by how offensively John Thaw’s Morse often speaks to Lewis in the earlier episodes. The underlying affection and Morse’s dependence on Lewis takes a long time to develop. In The Secret of Annexe 3, the relationship between the two men is much warmer with less conflict than on screen. Lewis gets more moments of quiet humour, showing how well he has the measure of Morse.

This is the last title published before the legendary television drama began early in 1987. It’s well known that the production team decided to change Sergeant Lewis from the novels, giving a contrast in age of the two leads. Colin Dexter dropped some description of Lewis in the later novels to fit Kevin Whateley’s portrayal. In the pre-television novels, Lewis is a heavily-built Welshman and a grandfather, only slightly younger than Morse. Other small changes were made such as Morse’s car becoming the classic Jaguar shown on screen.

Morse isn’t melancholy or sad in this outing, only tetchy as he’s given up smoking again. He’s on fine form, trading insults with his old friend Max the police surgeon, fancying the hotel receptionist with her enormous 80s specs, disappearing in pubs, betting shops and nearly spending the night with a call-girl. He also enjoys an invitation to Sunday lunch and an afternoon spent with the Lewis family, unlikely for the television Morse.

In the main, Morse is happy as he has a wonderfully baffling case. The twists and red herrings are like a conjuror performing a succession of card tricks. The suspects are very thoroughly shuffled.

When all is revealed, a pivotal part of the plot doesn’t bear too close an examination – to say the least. That was surprising and shows how even the great crime novelists can occasionally get carried away with the intricacies of their plot. Even so, I found The Secret Of Annexe 3 a very enjoyable read.

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‘The Vanishing Box’ by Elly Griffiths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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‘The Dead Shall Be Raised’ by George Bellairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Ngaio Marsh’s ‘Tied Up In Tinsel’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Scottish Novel on Sale

BALMORAL KILL IS ON KINDLE – ONLY 99 PENCE/CENTS THIS WEEK – and you don’t need a Kindle. Just download the free app for your laptop, tablet or phone via the link at the foot of this blog.

Balmoral Kill is also out in paperback if you are looking for a Christmas stocking filler or just for a book to read over the Christmas holiday.

As a hillwalker who also writes novels, I always like to root my plots and characters in a real landscape whenever that is possible. I might alter it, fictionalise it, or just change the odd feature – but I like to start with a reality. And at some point in my fiction I like to use an actual place I know, walk around it and imagine my characters playing out their adventures upon it.

 

I always knew, right from the beginning, that my Victorian thriller The Shadow of William Quest would come to a dramatic conclusion on Holkham Beach in Norfolk. And I knew that the final duel between my hero and villain in Balmoral Kill would have to be in some remote spot in the Cairngorms, though within easy reach of the royal residence of Balmoral Castle.

But I wasn’t sure where.

In all my Scottish stravaiging I had never been to Loch Muick (pronounced without the u), though I had read about it in my numerous Scottish books and looked at it on the map. It seemed an ideal location for the conclusion of a thriller.Balmoral Castle (c) 2015 John Bainbridge

So the summer when I was writing the book, when we were staying in Ballater, we walked up to take a look, circling the loch and examining the wild mountains and tumbling rivers round about. Plotting a gunfight (even a fictional one) takes some care. I wanted it to be as probable and realistic as possible. This is, after all, a book about experienced assassins. I wanted the line of sight of every rifle to be exact.

We also had to check out the hills around. Both my hero and villain are great walkers and “walk-in” to places where they expect to see some action

And a beautiful wild place Loch Muick is. It was a favourite picnicking place of Queen Victoria, who used to linger for days on end at the lonely house of Glas-Allt-Shiel, in mourning for her beloved Prince Albert. Today’s royal family picnic there even now. The house is as I describe it in the book, as is the surrounding scenery. Believe me, I checked out those sightlines. Every shot described in the book could be taken in reality. Even now when I think of that loch and the Corrie Chash above it, I think of my characters being there. Sometimes they are all very real to me.Glas-Allt-Shiel House (c) John Bainbridge 2015

We also revisited Balmoral Castle (actually they only let you into the ballroom!), strolled through its grounds and examined the countryside round about. I was able to work out the exact routes taken by all of the characters who found themselves on the shores of Loch Muick on a late summer day in 1937.

Other areas of Scotland feature in the book too. I partly fictionalised the places I used in the Scottish Borders, though those scenes are based on the many walks I’ve done around Peebles, the Broughton Heights and Manorwater. In one flashback scene in the Highlands I have a character journey from Taynuilt and out on to the mighty twin peaks of Ben Cruachan, and then into the glens beyond, to kill a man in Glen Noe. Some years ago I did a lot of walking in that area and had considerable pleasure in reliving my journeys as I penned those scenes.Loch Muick looking up towards where Balmoral Kill comes to its conclusion. (c) John Bainbridge 2015

The book begins in London and journeys into the East End. I’ve walked the streets and alleys of Whitechapel, Stepney and Limehouse by day and night over the years. Balmoral Kill is set in 1937, so there has been a great deal of change in nearly eighty years. The East End was very badly bombed in the War and thoughtless planners have destroyed a lot more. But enough remains to give you the picture. Once more, I could take you in the steps of my characters through every inch of the places mentioned.

Very often going to these locations inspires changes to the writing. Balmoral Kill was half-written by the time we explored Loch Muick. The real-life topography of the place inspired me to make several changes to the novel’s conclusion.

And now I’m writing an historical novel set in the 1190s. The landscape where it is set has changed very considerably in the centuries since. So more imagination is needed, though I still try to root my scenes in reality.

As a walker as well as a writer I find going on research trips is the best way to conjure up locations with the written word.

It’s out now in paperback as well as in eBook on Kindle. I’d be pleased to know what you think of it.

Click on the link below to read Balmoral Kill.

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‘A Christmas Railway Mystery’ by Edward Marston

Recently published, this is the fifteenth in the historical crime series featuring Inspector Robert Colbeck, known to the press as ‘The Railway Detective’. Edward Marston’s murder mysteries are always enjoyable and it’s nice to have one with a seasonal setting. It’s a title I’d always find hard to resist.A Christmas Railway Mystery (The Railway Detective Series) by [Marston, Edward]

It is December 1860, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is recently dead and the mystery takes place in Swindon, Wiltshire in the workshops of his empire, the Great Western Railway. The body of a workman is found in the erection shed, where the huge locomotives are assembled. The head of the corpse is missing. No spoiler – this is revealed in the jacket copy. Inspector Colbeck and his steadfast sergeant Victor Leeming are on the case, racing against time – and not only due to the old trope of will they make it home for Christmas?

Colbeck and Sergeant Leeming are very likeable and Edward Marston includes some gentle humour with regular supporting characters. His people are realistic and clearly delineated. Plenty of suspects, all with feasible motives, make it hard to work out the murderer – something we crime fans want most of all.

Edward Marston’s knowledge and research make his mysteries very appealing. The theme of steam railways gives a terrific sense of place for fans of Victorian crime. Hard to think of a more atmospheric setting than a crowded, smoky terminus or a swaying compartment with leather straps and hat-boxes. The author keeps this series fresh with cleverly varied aspects of railway murder and readers can enjoy Colbeck’s mid-Victorian Britain knowing that everything they read is authentic.

The setting of A Christmas Railway Mystery is fascinating. Swindon was a rural market town – near the countryside immortalised by the great Victorian essayist Richard Jefferies – until overtaken by the GWR in the 1840s. It was chosen for its position – on the Wilts and Berks canal for transport and between London and the West Country. The market town became known as Swindon Old Town, once the GWR built their Locomotive Works and Railway Village for the workmen. The GWR’s land gradually became known as New Town and the mile or so of countryside between the two areas was filled, as sadly is always the way. Had Brunel never opted for Swindon, the town would perhaps be much smaller today.

Much of the mystery takes place at Swindon New Town, among the village terraces and shadowy corners of the coal sidings, locomotive sheds, machine shops and brass foundry. The Railway Village was built along similar lines to model factory villages like Saltaire and New Lanark, intended to cater for all the needs of employees’ lives. Homes came in different sizes according to position in the company, as varied as clerk, manager or blacksmith. The GWR built a church and chapel, pubs and an enlightened Mechanics’ Institute with an indoor market, entertainment, lectures, classes and the country’s first free lending-library. The workmen even had their own orchestra. (By the end of the 19th century, Railway Village also had its own health clinic and dentist).

The author evokes a claustrophobic community where residents must conform and the family of the murdered man will soon be evicted from their company home. The skilled workforce have come to Wiltshire from industrial areas and been poached from other railway companies. Strangers who bring conflict between factions and the inhabitants of the Old Town. A fraught setting for murder.

A Christmas Railway Mystery is one of the strongest outings for The Railway Detective. Darker in tone than some previous stories, it has a tense sub-plot for irascible Superintendent Tallis, one of our favourite characters. Already looking forward to the next one, I’m glad Edward Marston shows no sign of running out of steam!

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Our Christmas Mystery Novella

If you enjoy curling up by the fireside with a seasonal mystery, you might like to try our Inspector Abbs novella A Christmas Malice. Set in 1873 during a Victorian country Christmas in Norfolk, our introspective sleuth has a dark puzzle to be solved.  Christmas-Malice-Kindle-Cover Reduced

Several readers have asked if the setting is based on a real Norfolk village. Aylmer is completely fictional though the descriptions of the railway line across the empty Fens, an ancient flint church and carrstone cottages fit the real area of beautiful West Norfolk. The towns of King’s Lynn and Hunstanton featured are described as befits their fascinating history.

In the way of any large British county, there are several Norfolks. The saltmarshes, the Broads and the Brecks, to name just three areas are very different from one another. Our story is set on the edge of another, the Norfolk Fens or Fenland. Norfolk is famed for its spectacular wide skies where a fairly flat landscape allows the traveller to see long vistas for miles in every direction. We use fairly advisedly because Norfolk isn’t as pancake flat as is often said. Much of the landscape has gentle undulations and many a fetching slope topped with an old copse or church tower.

On the western edge of the county the Fens (a local word meaning marshland) reach into Norfolk, though their greater part lies in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and the lost county of Huntingdonshire. Flat, few trees, remote and haunting. An empty landscape of long, straight rivers and dykes. Historically a land of windmills, pumping houses, wildfowling and eels. A place of refuge for monks and rebels, the most famous being Hereward the Wake. Cromwell too was a Fenlander. Artificially drained by Dutchmen in the 17th century, the Fens are the lowest-lying land in England and have some of the most fertile soil.

Border places are intriguing, having a face in two directions. A Christmas Maliceis set in a village with the Fens starting at its back and a more pastoral landscape on the other side towards the North Sea, then known as the German Ocean. Our Inspector Josiah Abbs is a Norfolk man, living in Devon when the story begins. He comes to spend Christmas with his widowed sister Hetty. Although they grew up on an estate where their father was head gardener, this lonely part of the county is unknown to him. Abbs has only a few days to resolve the mystery, preferably without ruining his sister’s Christmas.

It was an interesting challenge to write a novella-length story (33,000 words) where our detective is alone, without the help of his sergeant or the resources of his county force. Fortunately he does find an ally in the village policeman.

Inspector Abbs and Sergeant Reeve formed an unlikely partnership in our novel A Seaside Mourning, set in Devon in 1873.

It’s available now on Kindle and in paperback if you are looking for a stocking-filler. Just click on the link below to order: 

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Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Bohemia

A Scandal in Bohemia was the very first Sherlock Holmes short story, published in the July issue of The Strand Magazine in 1891 and collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes the following year. Holmes and Watson had made their first appearance in the longer stories A Study in Scarlet in 1887, and re-appeared in The Sign of Four (The Sign of the Four) in 1890. Neither of those two outings were particularly successful until the short stories took off in the Strand.

As a short story it is important because it presents a number of the tropes which become familiar to readers of the canon in subsequent stories – the initial consultation in Baker Street, the hospitality of Holmes’ housekeeper (though, presumably through error, she’s called Mrs Turner rather than Mrs Hudson in this story), the friendship of Holmes and Watson, the very characterful client – in this case the King of Bohemia, Holmes’ use of disguise, and the emotional coldness of the detective’s character.

It also features the character of the opera singer and courtesan Irene Adler who, although she only actually appears in this one tale and rates only brief mentions in several more, casts her shadow over the canon.

For, as the opening line of the story tells us “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” As Watson points out, there are no feelings of romantic or sexual love in that comment. Holmes is asexual in every sense of the word and I get a bit peeved when modern re-interpreters try to imply otherwise. And just as well – Holmes with romantic feelings simply wouldn’t be Holmes.

There are several other comments about Holmes’ character in the tale, which establish further the characters established in the two longer stories. Almost at the beginning we hear Holmes’ admonition to Watson “you see, but you do not observe” – a sentiment presented in various forms throughout the canon. “It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data”. Another warning to Watson, who also presents Holmes as “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has ever seen.”

Several candidates have been put forward as possible inspirations for the King of Bohemia, including the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII  – who certainly led a Bohemian lifestyle – and the Crown Prince of Germany, later Kaiser Wilhelm II.

I rather tend to the thought that Doyle had the Prince of Wales in mind. It would certainly make more of the suggestion that Irene Adler, an opera singer born in New Jersey, is based on Edward’s mistress Lily Langtry, known familiarly as the Jersey Lily (as in Jersey in the British Channel Islands.)

The plot is basically very simple – you might care to read the story again before you read further here.

Irene Adler was the mistress of the King of Bohemia when he was still the crown prince. She has in her possession a compromising photograph and letters produced during their liaison. The King is now engaged to marry a princess from Scandinavia,who comes from a particularly puritanical family.

Believing that Irene is obsessed with him, he fears that Irene Adler might use the photograph and letters for her own ends, which could undermine the settled order of the European monarchies, he commissions Holmes to recover the items.

Interestingly, he is prepared to pay Holmes a considerable amount of money for his services and provides a handsome advance. A reminder that Sherlock views his role as a consulting detective as a profession. Elsewhere, in The Problem of Thor Bridge, Holmes categorically states that “my professional charges are upon a fixed scale. I do not vary them, save when I remit them altogether”. Which isn’t quite what happens in A Scandal of Bohemia.

The joy of the piece, for me, is the portrayal of Irene Adler. We get our first intimations of her character from Holmes’ notebooks, which portrays her professional character, and then from the King who describes her as “an adventuress”. Given the King’s predilections in the same directions, there is considerable hypocrisy there, though it is of course the sentiments of the time.

As it turns out, Irene Adler has moral scruples that the King of Bohemia could probably never imagine. At the end of the story she acts with a morality and sense of fair play which makes her a much worthier person than the wretched and dissolute monarch.

Furthermore, she is a worthy opponent for Holmes, and shows him a respect equal to the regard the detective comes to have for her. She is never the villain of this piece – only its heroine.

I’ve always been impressed by the Granada television version of the tale, starring Jeremy Brett – the first in the series to be broadcast, though not actually the first one filmed. (They filmed The Solitary Cyclist first as as shakedown episode). David Burke was a very fine Watson and Gayle Hunnicutt a superb Irene Adler.

 

 

 

 

 

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