Enduring appeal of the festive mystery

Why Christmas is a good time for a crime story

This collection brings together some top crime writers
This collection brings together
some top crime writers
The dark days leading up to the festive season, when people face the prospect of meeting up with distant relatives and staying in cold and uncomfortable houses, has inspired many a good Christmas crime story.

There is always the prospect of the house being cut off because of severe weather and of ancient grudges resurfacing as the wine flows.

Most of the Golden Age detective novelists have had a crack at a Christmas crime story either in the form of a full-length novel or a short story.

Many of these have recently been reprinted  and given new front covers and are now entertaining a brand-new audience.

Some have been made into films that provide perfect entertainment for people replete with Christmas dinner as they snuggle down in front of the fire and watch other  people’s Christmas parties ending with a murder.

The four Queens of Crime all turned out their fair share of Christmas murder mysteries, many of them going on to become popular films.

Their short Christmas stories were originally written for magazines, but we are now able to enjoy them again as they come out in anthologies.

I can recommend a short story by Margery Allingham, The Case Is Altered, which has been included in Murder Under the Christmas Tree – Ten Classic Crime Stories for the Festive Season.

Margery Allingham's short story is well worth reading
Margery Allingham's short story
is well worth reading
Mr Albert Campion is going to spend Christmas at Sir Phillip Cookham’s country home in Norfolk. Cookham is a kindly, mild-mannered Cabinet minister, but his wife Florence, a distant relative of Campion’s, loves to host big Christmas parties, with all the festive trimmings, several Christmas trees and an odd assortment of guests.

Campion finds himself sharing a railway carriage with some of his fellow guests and even before the train reaches its destination, a station near a country house called Underhill, he is aware of tensions between some of the people who have been invited.

A note pushed under the door of the neighbouring guest room adds to his feeling of unease and even though the recipient thinks he is being invited to a romantic tryst, Campion has the feeling something more sinister is going on.

In less than 25 pages, Margery provides us with an intriguing mystery, that is full of Christmas atmosphere and shows her detective, Campion, at his best as he solves the case in his usual self -effacing way.

Murder Under the Christmas Tree, published by Profile Books, also has stories by Dorothy L Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edmund Crispin and G K Chesterton.

It is available from or



The Nursing Home Murder

Alleyn investigates the killing of a Home Secretary

New Zealand-born crime writer Ngaio Marsh displays an impressive wealth of knowledge about English life and the inside workings of the British Government in The Nursing Home Murder, her third novel to feature the gentlemanly Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn.

The book begins with a Cabinet meeting at No 10 Downing Street, where the Home Secretary and other ministers are discussing a controversial Bill they are planning to introduce to deal with anarchists. The Home Secretary begins to feel ill during the meeting, alarming the other members of the Cabinet, and decides to go home early.

After being examined by a doctor, it is decided the Home Secretary will go into a nursing home, which was the equivalent of a private hospital at the time, for an operation on his appendix. The operation is a success, yet the patient soon dies. His widow later becomes suspicious and calls the police and eventually the investigation is assigned to Roderick Alleyn.

The Nursing Home Murder was published in 1935, just seven years after Ngaio had first visited England. It was her third detective novel and it appeared only a year after the publication of her first novel, A Man Lay Dead, and second novel, Enter a Murderer.

Alleyn eventually discovers that among the staff in the operating theatre at the time of the operation there were at least three people who might have wanted the Home Secretary dead. This might seem rather far-fetched, but Ngaio explains the circumstances convincingly.

Alleyn is assisted in his investigation by his colleague, Inspector Fox, and his friend, the journalist Nigel Bathgate.

Patrick Malahide, who portrayed  Inspector Alleyn in a TV series
Patrick Malahide, who portrayed 
Inspector Alleyn in a TV series
Ngaio was well known for doing thorough research for her novels and her descriptions of London in the 1930s are very interesting and evocative.

Her 32 novels featuring Roderick Alleyn later became so popular she was often referred to as a Queen of Crime along with her contemporaries, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham.

In the preface to my copy of an omnibus edition of her first three novels - A Man Lay Dead, Enter a Murderer and The Nursing Home Murder - Ngaio describes how she first came up with the character of Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn.

It was a wet Saturday afternoon and she had been reading a detective story borrowed from a library, although she says she can’t remember whether it was a Christie or a Sayers. By four o’clock, as the afternoon became darker and the rain was still coming down relentlessly, she had finished it.

She wondered whether she could write something similar and braved the rain to go to a stationer’s shop across the street where she bought six exercise books, a pencil and a pencil sharpener. When she got home, she sat down to write what was to be the first of a series of crime novels featuring the gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn.

After The Nursing Home Murder was published in 1935, the reviewer for The Times claimed the novel had transformed the detective story from just a puzzle to a full blown and fascinating novel.

One of Ngaio’s fellow Queens of Crime, Agatha Christie, paid her the compliment of having one of her characters in Murder in Mesopotamia being seen reading The Nursing Home Murder.

I found The Nursing Home Murder very readable and enjoyed the way Ngaio keeps the reader guessing about who murdered the Home Secretary right to the end.

Book One of the Ngaio Marsh Collection, published by Harper, comprises her first three novels including The Nursing Home Murder and is available from:



The Cornish Coast Murder

Bude’s talent for detective fiction is now entertaining new readers

The British Library Crime Classics edition of The Cornish Coast Murders
The British Library Crime Classics
edition of The Cornish Coast Murders
The Cornish Coast Murder, in which the setting plays an important part and is very well described, was the first in a series of 30 detective novels by John Bude, whose real name was Ernest Carpenter Elmore.

Bude (Elmore) died on 8 November 1957, 64 years ago today, having celebrated his 56th birthday four days previously.

Fifty-seven years later, The Cornish Coast Murder, was reprinted by the British Library in their Crime Classics series.

In his introduction to the revived novel, which came out in 2014, author Martin Edwards writes that the original print run of the novel in 1935 was very small and there was no paperback edition. Skeffington, the original publisher, sold mainly to libraries, so a first edition of the novel would be extremely valuable, if such a book were still in existence. ‘This is partly due to the sheer scarcity of the novel, but also to the fact that in recent years Bude’s work has been increasingly admired, and correspondingly more sought after by collectors,’ Edwards says.

Bude’s writing style is relaxed and easy to read, and his characters and settings are perhaps more realistic than those of his contemporaries. This could be because he had already written three fantasy novels in his own name of Ernest Elmore, so The Cornish Coast Murder was not a debut novel.

When the novel was first published it was not nearly so common for writers to put their detective stories in recognisable settings that they described in detail and the fact that the crime scene takes place on the coast facing the Atlantic is important to the story. The sea and the cliffs are very well described throughout the novel.

The Cornish Coast Murder was originally published in 1935
The Cornish Coast Murder was
originally published in 1935
The detective work is done by a real policeman, Inspector Bigswell, who is dedicated and hard-working and not in the least bit bungling, and he is assisted by other officers. The local vicar, the Reverend Dodd, Vicar of St Michael’s-on-the Cliff, helps him to solve the crime by using his intuition and local knowledge.

The book begins with the Vicar and the local doctor, Dr Pendrill, relaxing after their weekly dinner and going through a box of books that has just been delivered to them. They are both avid readers of detective fiction and take it in turn to choose books that they will both read and then discuss.

The box contains an Edgar Wallace, the new J.S. Fletcher, a Farjeon, a Dorothy L. Sayers and a Freeman Wills Croft. Also, in the words of the Vicar: ‘And my old friend, my very dear old friend, Mrs Agatha Christie. New adventures of that illimitable chap, Poirot, I hope. I must congratulate you Pendrill, you’ve run the whole gamut of crime, mystery, thrills and detection in six volumes.’

When one of his parishioners is shot dead through the window of his sitting room, the Vicar is keen to be involved in the investigation.

At one point he sits with Inspector Bigswell discussing the crime and is thrilled that his theories are being considered by the detective. ‘Never, even in his most optimistic moments had he visualised a scene of this nature, himself in one arm chair, a police officer in another, and between them…a mystery.'

But when the Vicar and the Inspector finally track the culprit down and solve the mystery, the clergyman is saddened by the experience and tells his friend, the doctor, that he cannot stomach any more detective fiction at the moment.

Bude was a games master, before becoming a theatre stage manager. He used to write in his spare time, while waiting about in dressing rooms. He was also a founder member of the Norfolk-based British Crime Writers’ Association.

He died in Hastings, in Sussex.

The Cornish Coast Murder is available from or



Short story collection honoured the creator of Inspector Ghote

Remembering crime writer H R F Keating on the 95th anniversary of his birth

The Verdict of Us All is a collection of stories by some of the top crime novelists
The Verdict of Us All is a collection of
stories by some of the top crime novelists
The prolific crime writer, critic and expert on detective fiction, H R F Keating, was honoured on his 80th birthday by fellow members of the Detection Club with an anthology of short stories, The Verdict of Us All.

H R F Keating, known as Harry to his friends and family, had been president of the prestigious Detection Club for 17 years and was regarded as a respected elder statesman of the genre, having written 65 books, the majority of them crime fiction.

The contributors to the anthology included the writers, Len Deighton, Reginald Hill, Colin Dexter, P D James, Simon Brett and Liza Cody, all leading lights of contemporary  crime fiction in the early part of this century.

Henry Reymond Fitzwalter (Harry) Keating had been born in the early part of the last century, on Halloween, (31 October) 1926, 95 years ago today, in St Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex. He was to become legendary for writing a series of novels featuring Inspector Ghote of the Bombay CID, despite never having set foot in India when he wrote many of them.

He worked as a journalist for the Daily Telegraph and was also crime books reviewer for The Times for 15 years. His first novel, Death and the Visiting Firemen, was published in 1959 and his first Inspector Ghote mystery, The Perfect Murder, was published in 1966.

Keating was a chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association and the Society of Authors and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 1995, he was awarded the Cartier Diamond Dagger by the CWA for outstanding services to crime literature.

Keating was much respected by his fellow writers
Keating was much respected
by his fellow writers
He wrote a biography of Agatha Christie -  Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime and a book about Sherlock Holmes - Sherlock Holmes, the Man and his World.

His 1986 book, Writing Crime Fiction, was based on his analysis of the development of the genre from the 1920s to the 1980s.

Keating married the actor Sheila Mitchell and they had four children and nine grandchildren. It was Sheila who chose one of Keating’s many short stories to round off the anthology, The Verdict of Us All.

She introduces the short story, Arkady Nicolaivic, which was written by Keating in 1992. She writes: ‘It gives us a glimpse of a very young Ghote,  possibly at his most naïve and, as usual, beset by problems. To some who know him, Harry has an outgoing and relaxed personality, but to those who know him best there are many parallels between the writer and his character…’

To any Inspector Ghote fan who has not yet read this short story, the charming glimpse into the past of the detective will be a real treat. It tells the story of a young Ghote being sent on an official trip to Russia and, after falling for a pretty young Russian girl, delivering himself into the hands of the KGB.

The Verdict of Us All was published in 2006 by Allison Busby.

H R F Keating's books are available from or  



The many talents of C H B Kitchin

Barrister turned crime writer offered readers a snapshot of 1920s life

C H B Kitchin's skill as a writer was only one of many talents
C H B Kitchin, whose skill as a writer
was only one of many talents
Many people enjoy Golden Age crime stories because, along with a good mystery, they give the reader glimpses of what life was like in the early part of the last century.

Experts agree that one writer with a particular talent for evoking the era in which his stories were set is C H B Kitchin, a barrister who became wealthy from playing the stock market, and also tried his hand at detective fiction.

Born in October 1895, Clifford Henry Benn Kitchin was the son of a barrister who, after an Oxford education, became a barrister himself.

As well as being a gifted chess and bridge player and a pianist, Kitchin wrote poetry, general fiction and four highly-regarded crime novels featuring the stockbroker turned amateur sleuth, Malcolm Warren.

His first crime novel, Death of My Aunt, published in 1929, has been reprinted frequently and translated into several foreign languages. It was republished by Faber Finds in 2009, 80 years after its first appearance.

The novel introduces the young stockbroker, Malcolm Warren, who is summoned by telegram to visit his rich, old Aunt Catherine. She has recently shocked the family by marrying a muscular garage owner, who is many years her junior. She wants Warren to look at her investments and he is hopeful of being able to advise her on what to buy and to make a small profit for himself.

He hurries to her bedside, but before he can start discussing her investment book with her, his aunt asks him to pass her a new bottle of tonic that she wants to try. After taking a sip, she leans back and closes her eyes, but suddenly becomes violently ill and dies.

The Faber Finds edition of  Death of My Aunt
The Faber Finds edition of 
Death of My Aunt
Her fortune is divided up in her will to go to various members of her family, who would all be happy for either the young stockbroker, or the new husband, to be accused of her murder.

Therefore, Warren has to launch his own investigation in order to save himself, and his uncle by marriage, who he likes and can’t believe is guilty of the murder.

Kitchin makes his hero, Warren, a fan of detective fiction himself and he mentions that he admires the crime writers Edgar Wallace and Lynn Brock. Warren tries to emulate Lyn Brock’s methods and draws up a table of suspects and motives and allocates each of them points for being the most likely person to have committed the murder.

In a later book, Death of His Uncle, Kitchin, through his hero Warren, says: ‘A good detective story, I have found, is often a clearer mirror of ordinary life than many a novel written specially to portray it. Indeed, I think a test of its goodness is the pleasure you can derive from it even though you know who the murderer is. A historian of the future will probably turn, not to blue books or statistics, but to detective stories, if he wished to study the manners of his age.

In 2021 we can be those historians and enjoy the fascinating domestic details and descriptions of servants, houses, furniture and dinners, which Kitchin, through Warren,  reveals.

The writer H R F Keating writes in his Introduction to the 2009 edition of Death of My Aunt: ‘Kitchin’s knowledge of the crevices of human nature lifts his crime fiction out of the category of puzzledom and into the realm of the detective novel. He was, in short, ahead of his day.’

I would recommend Death of My Aunt to anyone who enjoys reading classic detective stories, as it is a well-written and interesting novel of its time, which provides a satisfying, credible solution to the mystery at the end.

Death of My Aunt is available from or



Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth

Who came first: Miss Silver or Miss Marple?

Grey Mask, originally published in 1928, was republished 90 years later
Grey Mask, originally published in 1928,
was republished 90 years later
Patricia Wentworth’s first Miss Silver Mystery, Grey Mask, published in 1928, introduces an unassuming little old lady, who is continually knitting baby garments, but is actually a shrewd private detective with a brilliant mind.

Many people have assumed over the years that Miss Silver was inspired by Agatha Christie’s much-loved Miss Marple, but actually it could have been the other way round. The first Miss Marple novel, The Murder at the Vicarage, was not published until 1930, although the endearing character had made her first appearance in a short story published in The Royal Magazine in December 1927.

Whoever came first, the two old ladies might appear to be similar characters, but there are many differences between them. Miss Marple lives in a cottage in a sleepy village but is more worldly wise than she might appear. She has developed  a deep knowledge of human nature and can always refer to a useful village parallel when investigating a case, possessing the ability to pick out a villain because he reminds her of a young man that she once knew who stole from his employer, or a naughty boy who often played tricks on his teachers.

Miss Silver, however, is the real deal, as she walks the mean streets of London and takes on cases in a professional way, pitting her wits against major crime bosses.

In Grey Mask there is little explanation about who Miss Silver is, or why she has set herself up as a private investigator in London in the 1920s, but she appears to be well known in upper class circles and the hero of the story is sent to consult her on the recommendation of a friend.

Charles Moray, an explorer, has returned home after four years abroad, to find  his house unlocked, with a light burning in one of its abandoned rooms. He finds somewhere to hide and eavesdrops on what is going on in the room. A criminal gang are using his house to plot a vicious crime. Furthermore, he recognises the voice of one of the conspirators. It belongs to the woman who jilted him on the eve of his wedding four years earlier.

Patricia Wentworth wrote 32 Miss Silver novels
Patricia Wentworth wrote
32 Miss Silver novels
He cannot go to the police because he does not want his former fiancée to get into trouble, but he has to find a way to prevent the gang from committing the crime they are planning and somehow extricate the woman he used to love from the mess she seems to be in.

His friend urges him to consult Miss Silver and so Charles goes to her office. His first impression of the well-respected private detective is that she is ‘a little person with no features, no complexion, and a great deal of tidy mouse-coloured hair done in a large bun at the back of her head’. He finds that appearances can be deceptive, however, and that Miss Silver is not afraid to tackle a criminal gang who are prepared to resort to violence, kidnapping and shooting people.

Patricia Wentworth was the pen name of Dora Amy Elles, who was born in India, where her father was stationed with the British Army, in 1877. She was sent to England to be educated, but returned to India and married George Dillon in 1906. He had three children from a previous marriage and they had one child together. After his death she moved back to England with the children.

In 1920 she married again, to George Turnbull, and settled in Surrey. She had begun writing while in India and in 1910 had won the Melrose Prize for her first published novel, A Marriage Under the Terror, which was set during the French Revolution.

Under the pen name of Patricia Wentworth, she wrote 32 crime novels featuring Miss Silver, beginning with Grey Mask in 1928 and ending with Girl in the Cellar in 1961, the year of her death. Miss Silver develops as a character during the series and works closely with Scotland Yard. The reader will eventually discover she is a retired governess with a passion for Tennyson as well as for knitting.

Patricia Wentworth also wrote poetry and more than 30 other novels throughout her career.

I would recommend reading Grey Mask, which was republished by Hodder and Stoughton in 2018 and is available again in some public libraries. It is a well-written story told from multi viewpoints and, although it is typical of the sensational crime fiction of its time, such as Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence novels and Margery Allingham’s Mr Campion books, it has an intriguing mystery at its heart, which is not revealed until the end.

Grey Mask is available from or





The Baroness behind the Scarlet Pimpernel

Aristocrat also thought to have created the first female fictional detective

Baroness Orczy was from an  aristocratic family in Hungary
Baroness Orczy was from an 
aristocratic family in Hungary
British novelist and playwright Baroness Orczy, who is best known for creating the character of the Scarlet Pimpernel but also wrote several collections of detective short stories, was born on September 23, 1865 in Tarnaörs, a village in central Hungary, about 100km (62 miles) from the capital, Budapest.

Emma Magdolina Rozalia Maria Jozefa Borbala Orczy de Orci was the daughter of aristocratic parents, but when she was just three years old the family had to leave their estate because of fears of a peasant revolt. They came to live in London when Emma was 14, where she later attended art school.

There she met Henry George Montagu MacLean Barstow, the son of an English clergyman, who was an illustrator. They were married in 1894 and to supplement her husband’s low earnings, Emma started working as a translator and illustrator. After their only son was born, she wrote her first novel, which was not a success. She then wrote a series of detective stories for the Royal Magazine under the name Baroness Orczy and acquired a small following.

In 1903, she and her husband wrote a play based on one of her short stories about an English aristocrat, Sir Percy Blakeney, who in his guise as the Scarlet Pimpernel, rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine during the French Revolution. The play was accepted for production in the West End and ran for four years. It was translated and staged in other countries, generating huge success for Baroness Orczy’s subsequent novel featuring the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Baroness Orczy wrote several other plays, collections of shorts stories, and about 50 novels. Eventually she became so financially successful she and her husband were able to buy a villa in Monte Carlo.

Elvi Hale as Lady Molly in
The Woman in the Big Hat
One of her famous detective characters was Molly Robertson-Kirk, who first appeared in Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, a collection of short stories published in 1910 and probably the first book to feature a female detective as the main character. Lady Molly, like Miss Marple who was to come more than 20 years later, was a successful sleuth because she recognised domestic clues that were outside the experience of male detectives. The stories are narrated by Lady Molly’s female assistant, Mary Granard, who was perhaps the first female ‘Watson’.

I was delighted to come across a Lady Molly story from the 1910 collection recently in The Giant Book of Great Detective Stories edited by Herbert Van Thal.

In The Woman in the Big Hat, Lady Molly and her assistant, Mary, are having tea together in Lyons, when they notice a crowd of people forming outside the café on the opposite side of the road. Lady Molly is quick to join them and succeeds in gaining entrance to the café to view the cause of the commotion, which is the dead body of a customer. This is fortuitous as she soon receives a message saying Scotland Yard will require her assistance. She is told that there is a woman suspect in the case and they will ‘rely on her a great deal’.

Lady Molly of Scotland Yard is available as a paperback
Lady Molly of Scotland Yard
is available as a paperback
The police doctor says the man has been poisoned and Lady Molly questions one of the waitresses, who tells her the victim had been having tea with a woman in a big hat. Scotland Yard think they have discovered the identity of the woman and question her, but Lady Molly is present at the interview and passes a note to the chief officer telling him they have the wrong woman.

She neatly traps the person responsible for administering the poison in the café, with the help of two of the culprit’s own servants. Her faithful assistant, Mary, observes: ‘…my dear lady had been right from beginning to end.’ Lady Molly explains to Mary how she arrived at the truth, saying: ’Our fellows did not think of that because they are men.’

Lady Molly was the first in a long line of women in fiction who have been able to beat the police at their own job because they have noticed something very simple the male officers did not pick up on.

The Woman in the Big Hat was adapted for the anthology TV series, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes in 1971, with Elvi Hale starring as Lady Molly.

Lady Molly of Scotland Yard is now available from or



How it all started for the Queen of Crime

Remembering Agatha Christie’s writing roots on the anniversary of her birth

As a child, Agatha Christie
taught herself to read
Agatha Christie, who was to become the best-selling novelist of all time, was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller on 15 September 1890 in a district of Torquay in Devon.

Her arrival at the home of her parents, Ashfield, in Barton Road in Tor Mohun, took place 131 years ago today. Agatha became such a popular and successful novelist that even though we are now well into the 21st century, her books are still being purchased from shops and on line and are regularly borrowed from public libraries. New film and television adaptations of her wonderful stories are constantly being made and she remains the most translated individual author to this day.

Agatha was educated at home and even though her mother did not want her to learn to read until she was eight, Agatha had taught herself to read by the time she was five.

She enjoyed the children’s stories of her time by authors such as Edith Nesbit and Louisa M Alcott, but also read poetry and thrillers at a young age.

By the time she was 18 she was writing short stories herself and had learnt French from her governess, the family having spent time living in France. This was to come in useful when she invented her little Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. She also visited Cairo for three months with her mother, an experience she was to draw on later for some of her novels.

The latest edition of  Christie's 1920 debut novel
The latest edition of 
Christie's 1920 debut novel
It was during the First World War that she turned to writing detective stories while she was working in a hospital dispensary. She responded to a bet made with her sister Madge, who challenged her to try to write a good detective story, and she worked out the plot for her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, while working at Torbay Hospital. She had recently completed the examination of the Society of Apothecaries and was able to put her newly acquired knowledge of poisons to good use.

Agatha was unsuccessful to begin with and suffered six consecutive rejections from publishers. If she’d given up at that point the world would never have had the huge body of work that has entertained so many millions of people over the years.

The turning point came for Agatha when her novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920, when she was 30 years of age, and she never looked back. She went on to write a total of 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections. She also wrote the world’s longest running play, The Mousetrap, which was performed in London’s West End  from 1952 to 2020, when the theatre had to be closed down because of Covid 19 restrictions.

Her novel And Then There Were None is one of the top-selling books of all time, with approximately 100 million copies sold.

Agatha was co-president of the elite Detection Club  from 1958 to her death in 1976. In the 1971 New Year Honours she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

When her death was announced, two West End theatres, St Martin’s, where The Mousetrap was playing, and the Savoy, which was at the time staging Murder at the Vicarage, dimmed their outside lights in her honour.

Her novels have never gone out of print and are constantly being republished with new cover designs and in different formats.

The latest editions are available from or



Tragedy at Law

Legal mystery written 80 years ago is still enthralling readers today

Tragedy at Law has been in print continuously since 1942
Tragedy at Law has been in
print continuously since 1942
Regarded by many as the best English detective story set in the legal world, Tragedy at Law, by Cyril Hare, has never been out of print since it was first published by Faber and Faber in 1942.

Cyril Hare was the pen name for Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, a barrister and judge, who was born on this day in 1900 in Mickleham in Surrey. Tragedy at Law was his fourth and best-known novel, in which he was able to draw on his legal knowledge and his experiences while working as a judge’s marshal at the beginning of World War II.

It introduces Francis Pettigrew, a not very successful barrister, who manages to solve the baffling mystery because of his exceptional knowledge of the law. The character was to live on in four other novels written by Hare.

Providing readers with a fascinating glimpse into the life of a judge just before the war, Tragedy at Law follows Mr Justice Barber, a High Court judge, as he moves from town to town presiding in cases at the courts of assize on the southern England circuit.

Barber takes with him an entourage of wife, butler, cook, clerk and marshal, who reside with him at his ‘lodgings’ in each town. He receives anonymous threatening letters, unpleasant items in parcels and there are attempts made on his life as he travels from place to place, despite him being constantly guarded by the police, his wife and his marshal.

Hare took his pseudonym from the legal chambers where he practised
Hare took his pseudonym from the
legal chambers where he practised
The novel is beautifully written with plenty of details about the lifestyle of a judge of assize and Hare keeps the reader guessing about the solution to the mystery right to the last page.

The writer’s pseudonym was derived from a mixture of Hare Court, where he was in Chambers as a barrister in London, and Cyril Mansions, where he lived.

Hare also wrote many short stories  for the London Evening Standard and some radio and stage plays and he was a keen member of the Detection Club.

After the war the novelist was appointed a county court judge in Surrey. He died in 1958, when he was at the peak of his career as a judge and at the height of his powers as a master of the whodunnit.

In 1990, when the British Crime Writers’ Association published their list of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, they awarded the 85th place to Cyril Hare's Tragedy at Law.

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The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop

Second Mrs Bradley mystery is full of the unexpected

The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop is published by Vintage
The Mystery of a Butcher's
is published by Vintage
Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley seems even more eccentric in the second novel by Gladys Mitchell to feature the psycho-analyst detective heroine, with her gaudy clothes, birdlike appearance and sinister cackle.

Mrs Bradley has arrived in the village of Wandles Parva as the tenant of the Stone House at a time when the local squire has just gone missing and a dismembered human body has turned up at a nearby butcher’s shop, the joints left neatly hanging on meat hooks.

She quickly becomes involved in the investigation, irritating the police, employing the young people in the village to help her with detecting, and getting so close to the truth at one point that she narrowly avoids being shot in the head with an arrow fired by a figure clad in full Robin Hood costume.

While the young people think she is entertaining and a good sport, the adults in the village find her unsettling, with her yellow skin, claw-like hands and terrifying grin.

Mrs Bradley is presented with some bizarre clues, such as a human skull discovered by the local Bishop, which then goes missing before turning up as an exhibit in the local museum. There is also a freshly dug grave containing only a suitcase holding a stuffed trout with a note saying: ’A present from Grimsby.’

The police fix on Jim Redsey, a young man who will inherit his missing cousin’s estate, as their main suspect, but Mrs Bradley thinks the psychology is all wrong and that Jim is not creative enough to think of dismembering a body in a butcher’s shop or playing hide-the-thimble with a skull.

Diana Rigg played the eccentric detective in a BBC TV series
Diana Rigg played the eccentric
detective in a BBC TV series
The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop is both entertaining and complex with a very tangled plot that Gladys Mitchell and Mrs Bradley both try to help the reader to solve. There are hand-drawn maps and the reader is treated to extracts from Mrs Bradley’s notebook as well as a timetable of events she has drawn up.

While the police remain baffled, Mrs Bradley assembles the interested parties and builds up a case against each suspect in turn and then subsequently tears it down, giving the reader all the facts to help them solve the mystery.

Gladys Mitchell, however, keeps the reader guessing right to the very last paragraph on the very last page.

The author had a long career as a teacher alongside her writing. She also studied the works of Sigmund Freud and developed an interest in witchcraft. She wrote 66 crime novels and was an early member of the Detection Club with other Golden Age detective novelists, but her writing style, characters and plots make her novels unlike anything produced by her contemporaries.

The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop was first published in Great Britain in 1930 by Gollanz and was republished in 2010 and 2017 by Vintage Books.

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Catholic priest was a master of the final twist

Remembering the novels of Monsignor Ronald Knox on the anniversary of his death 

Ronald Knox wrote books on many  subjects as well as his detective novels
Ronald Knox wrote books on many 
subjects as well as his detective novels
The brilliant Ronald Knox, who was a Catholic priest, theologian and broadcaster, is mainly remembered for being one of the founding members of the Detection Club, an elite society formed in 1930 by a group of British mystery writers. It was Knox who first laid down rules of fair play for detective novelists by producing The Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction.

The members of the Detection Club all agreed at the time to adhere to Knox’s Ten Commandments to give their readers a fair chance of guessing who is the guilty party.

During his career he produced the Knox Bible, a new English translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible, and many books on religion, philosophy and literature. Knox became a Roman Catholic chaplain at Oxford University in 1926 and was elevated to the title of Monsignor in 1936.

I was thrilled recently to discover a rare short story by Knox, The Motive, in a book of short stories edited by Martin Edwards for the British Library Crime Classics series. Some of these stories have never been republished since their first appearance in newspapers and magazines decades ago. I felt it was an opportune moment to write about The Motive as today is the 64th anniversary of Ronald Knox’s death.

In his introduction to the story, Edwards reveals that Knox had a passion for Sherlock Holmes stories and that this was what led him to try his hand at writing detective fiction. His first detective novel, The Viaduct Murder, appeared in 1925.

In The Christmas Card Crime, the third anthology of short stories for the British Library, Edwards introduces The Motive, which first appeared in The Illustrated London News in November 1937. Edwards writes: ‘Knox only wrote a handful of short crime stories but their quality makes this a matter for regret.’

The Christmas Card Crime is a  collection of short crime stories
The Christmas Card Crime is a 
collection of short crime stories
Because writers cannot afford to waste a single word when writing a short story, Knox goes straight into a conversation between a number of dons and their guests in the smoking room of a college after dinner. Sir Leonard Huntercombe, a barrister, is about to come under attack from another guest, Penkridge, a dramatic critic, when Sir Leonard’s host intervenes, arguing that Sir Leonard’s point of view could be justified if you believed that Law should be regarded as one of the sciences.

Sir Leonard counters by saying that if you are to succeed in the legal profession you have to be imaginative, rather than scientific, and offers to tell the group the story of one of his former clients, who was suspected of two murders, to illustrate this point. The dons all urge him to tell his story to prevent Penkridge becoming ‘unmannerly’.

The client is called Westmacott, which Edwards says Knox would have chosen for a joke because it was a pen name used by his Detection Club colleague Agatha Christie for her romance novels.

In just 16 pages, Knox manages to tell Westmacott’s unusual story, finishing with what Edwards describes as ‘a cheeky, if not shameless, final twist’ in the last paragraph. I found the story well worth reading and would definitely recommend it.

Knox first summarised his ‘fair play’ rules in the preface to Best Detective Stories 1928-29, which he edited. For budding detective novelists who would like to follow his Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, I reproduce them here:

1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.

Knox wrote his 'ten commandments' as a guide to fair play for detective writers
Knox wrote his 'ten commandments' as
a guide to fair play for detective writers
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.

8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.

9. The sidekick of the detective, the ‘Watson’, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind, his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

(As a matter of clarification, in the light of modern-day sensitivities, the reasoning behind rule number five is that magazine stories in the 1920s so often portrayed criminal masterminds as being of Chinese ethnicity that it had become something of a cliché, one that Knox believed was best avoided.)

According to Knox, a detective story ‘must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery, a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity, which is gratified at the end.’

Knox himself wrote six detective novels: The Viaduct Murder (1926), The Three Taps (1927), The Footsteps at the Lock (1928), The Body in the Silo (1933), Still Dead (1934), Double Cross Purposes (1937).

He also contributed to three collaboration works by the Detection Club: Behind the Screen (1930), The Floating Admiral (1931) and Six Against the Yard (1936).

Paperback editions of all six of his detective novels were republished by the former Orion imprint The Murder Room in 2013.

The Christmas Card Crime and other stories, edited by Martin Edwards, was published by British Library Crime Classics in 2018.

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Look to the Lady

Third Campion mystery features an ancient relic, witches, gypsies and a ruthless gang

Look to the Lady involves Campion searching for a 'monster' hiding in Suffolk woodland
Look to the Lady involves Campion searching
for a 'monster' hiding in Suffolk woodland
Margery Allingham was well into her stride writing about her mysterious, amateur sleuth, Albert Campion, when she published her third novel about his adventures, Look to the Lady, in 1931, just two years after his first appearance in The Crime at Black Dudley. 

Campion and his butler and ex-offender sidekick, Magersfonteing Lugg, rescue the son of a baronet, Val Gyrth, from violent criminals attempting to kidnap him. They offer to help him prevent the theft of a rare family heirloom, the Gyrth Chalice, but as soon as they arrive with him at his family home in Suffolk, they discover his aunt has been found dead in mysterious circumstances.

Campion sets out to solve the mystery of the aunt’s death and work out how to protect the valuable chalice, which the Gyrth family have been guarding for the nation for more than a thousand years. 

To solve the mystery, Campion has to go out with an elderly professor to try to find the ‘monster’ hiding in nearby woodland that has been terrorising the local people for years. 

Look to the Lady has been republished by Vintage Book
Look to the Lady has been
republished by Vintage Books
After infiltrating the headquarters of the gang plotting to steal the chalice, Campion is imprisoned by them, until a band of gypsies helps him to escape. 

Then he has to ride a wild, black horse five miles across open countryside to be in time to prevent the theft of the chalice from its home high up in a tower. 

Although Margery Allingham was writing during the Golden Age of detective fiction, Look to the Lady is less of a cosy, village mystery and more of a sophisticated, fast-moving novel of suspense.

Agatha Christie has been quoted as saying: ‘Margery Allingham stands out like a shining light,’ and, in her day, Margery was regarded as one of the four Queens of Crime, along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. 

Look to the Lady was first published in Great Britain by Jarrolds more than 90 years ago, but it has now been republished by Vintage Books, part of the Penguin Random House Group. It remains an exciting, addictive page turner and I can highly recommend it.

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(Suffolk woodland photo by Benjamin Thomas via Pixabay)


A Study in Scarlet

How Sherlock Holmes first met Dr Watson

No 221B Baker Street, nowadays
home to the Sherlock Holmes Museum
I’ve been an avid reader of detective fiction for many years, but have read the books by my favourite authors in no particular order. I have enjoyed many of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but because I didn’t start with the first book, I often wondered how Holmes, the brilliant detective, came to be sharing rented rooms at No. 221B Baker Street, with the narrator of the tales, the more modest and less gifted Dr Watson.

The solution to the mystery of how they first met has been hiding in plain sight all the while, as books usually do, in a slim volume entitled A Study in Scarlet, which I recently found on the shelves of the library where I work.

Written by Arthur Conan Doyle, the story was first published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887 and introduced the eccentric, amateur detective Holmes and his friend and flatmate, Watson, who always seems to be a couple of steps behind the detective during investigations. They were, of course, destined to become the most famous detective duo ever to appear in fiction.

Watson, in his role of narrator, tells the story of how he first met Holmes. He had been  serving as an army doctor in India, but in 1878  he received a bullet in the shoulder at the battle of Maiwand. While recovering from his wound in hospital he contracted enteric fever, from which he almost died.

Watson was sent back to England to convalesce and stays at a small hotel in London. He finds his army pension only just meets his living costs and has just resolved to look for lodgings at a more reasonable price when he encounters an old medical colleague. His former colleague tells him he knows someone in the same situation, who is also looking for modestly priced accommodation to rent in London.. His old colleague then introduces him to Sherlock Holmes, a young man who has been carrying out experiments in the laboratory at the hospital where he works.

A Study in Scarlet, which explains how Holmes and Watson met
A Study in Scarlet, which explains
how Holmes and Watson met
Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson go to visit some lodgings at No. 221B Baker Street together and inspect what Watson describes as ‘a couple of comfortable bedrooms and a large airy sitting room.’ These lodgings are going to be the backdrop for the many adventures they are going to have together, which Watson will write up for the benefit of millions of future readers.

The title, A Study in Scarlet, is taken  from a speech made by Holmes to Watson in which he describes the murder he is currently investigating as his ‘study in scarlet.’ Holmes says: ‘There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.’

Holmes, in his capacity as a consulting detective, has been called in by the police to assist with an investigation into the death of a wealthy American, whose body has been found in an empty house.

He takes Dr Watson with him to view the crime scene and, drawing upon his observations, solves the crime and finds the murderer in three days. When Scotland Yard are given all the credit in the newspapers, Watson offers to write up the investigation from the notes in his journal so that the public can learn the truth. He continues to put on record his flatmate's triumphs for subsequent cases, introducing an exciting new genre to English literature.

A Study in Scarlet is believed to be the first work of detective fiction to incorporate the magnifying glass as an investigative tool.

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