Tuesday, July 27, 2021

How Sigmund Freud inspired detective novelist Gladys Mitchell

Writer explored her own interests in her novels and short stories

Gladys Mitchell wrote novels alongside a career in teaching
Gladys Mitchell wrote novels
alongside a career in teaching
Today marks the anniversary of the death in 1983 of Gladys Mitchell, who was once regarded as one of the top three British women detective writers. 

She wrote 66 novels featuring her amateur sleuth, Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, as well as mystery novels under the pen name, Malcolm Torrie, and historical adventure novels under the pen name, Stephen Hockaby.

A teacher by profession, Gladys wrote at least one novel a year throughout her career.

She got off the mark in 1929 with Speedy Death, which introduced Mrs Bradley, and she never looked back, gradually building a large and loyal following for her eccentric, but brilliant, detective.

Gladys was an early member of the Detection Club along with Agatha Christie, G K Chesterton and Dorothy L Sayers, but frequently satirised or reversed the traditional patterns of the genre.

Gladys studied the works of Sigmund Freud and made her series detective, Mrs Bradley, a distinguished psychoanalyst. She also developed an interest in witchcraft, which features in some of her novels.

In 1961, Gladys retired from teaching but continued to write her detective novels. She received the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger in 1976.

Gladys Mitchell's story, Our Pageant, is included in Serpents in Eden
Gladys Mitchell's story, Our Pageant,
is included in Serpents in Eden
The last Mrs Bradley mystery was published in 1984, the year after the author’s death in Corfe Mullen, a village in Dorset, at the age of 82.

Gladys was interested in architecture, ancient buildings, folklore and British customs, themes that were often explored in her novels and short stories.

She originally published many of her short stories in the Evening Standard, but they are now being made available to detective fiction fans again in the anthologies published by the author Martin Edwards for the British Library Crime Classics series.

Our Pageant, a story by Gladys Mitchell first published in the Evening Standard in the 1950s, is included in Serpents in Eden, a volume of countryside crime stories published in 2016.

The story does not feature Mrs Bradley, but it reflects the author’s enthusiasm for British customs. It is very short, only four pages in total, but Gladys makes every word count and there is, of course, a twist at the end. It is well worth the read.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Murder on the Links

Second Poirot novel sees the detective triumph over his Parisian rival

Agatha Christie's second Poirot novel takes her Belgian detective to the coast of northern France
Agatha Christie's second Poirot novel takes her
Belgian detective to the coast of northern France
An urgent appeal for help from a mysterious millionaire brings detective Hercule Poirot to France. But he finds he is too late. He is told on arrival that his client has been brutally stabbed to death. The victim has been left in an open grave on the golf links near his villa, where a new bunker was in the process of being dug

The Murder on the Links, Agatha Christie’s third detective novel, was published in March 1923 in the US and in May the same year in the UK, where it was put on sale for seven shillings and sixpence.

It was the second novel to feature Poirot, the little Belgian detective, and his sidekick, Captain Arthur Hastings. They had formed a somewhat unequal sleuthing partnership in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha’s debut crime novel.

In his second case, Poirot finds himself up against the illustrious Monsieur Giraud, a detective from the Paris Sûretè. Giraud resents Poirot’s involvement in the investigation and will not listen to the experienced Belgian detective’s opinions.

But Poirot knows the case is not all that it seems and looks carefully into the strange circumstances surrounding the murder. He discovers that the motive for the murder is connected to a crime committed more than 20 years before.

Poirot uses his understanding of human nature to help him solve the crime, citing a serial wife killer who used the same method each time, believing that what had once succeeded would succeed again. He says that eventually the killer paid the penalty for his lack of originality!

The latest reprint of The  Murder on the Links
The latest reprint of The 
Murder on the Links
Reviews when the book was first published compared Agatha and Poirot favourably with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes mysteries. One reviewer said Poirot was ‘a pleasant contrast to most of his lurid competitors’ and that they suspected he had ‘a touch of satire in him.’

Having embarked on the mammoth task of reading all Agatha’s 76 detective novels in chronological order, I recently read The Murder on the Links for the second time. It was many years after I had read it for the first time and I expected the novel to seem dated and far simpler than I actually found it to be. I was amazed at how complicated the plot was and how skilfully Agatha encourages the reader to believe one thing, whereas the opposite is in fact the case.

Agatha Christie’s biographer, Laura Thompson, has said of The Murder on the Links: ‘It is very French, not just in setting but in tone, which reeks of Gaston Leroux.’ Agatha had read and been influenced by Leroux’s 1907 novel, The Mystery of the Yellow Room, one of the most celebrated locked room mysteries.

Laura also notes that the book is notable for a subplot in which Hastings falls in love, allowing the author to pack him off to wedded bliss in 'the Argentine', a development that was apparently greatly desired by Agatha.

To the relief of Hastings fans, the author did bring him back from 'the Argentine' from time to time to assist Poirot with his future cases.

The Murder on the Links sees Poirot triumph over his arrogant sleuthing rival, Monsieur Giraud, and gives us a good idea of why the Belgian detective was always to succeed in finding out whodunnit for the next 50 years. I think the novel is well worth reading, or even rereading.

(Picture of French resort by Peter H via Pixabay)

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Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Writer created Sherlock Holmes, killed him off, then brought him back again

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, pictured in 1914, aged 55
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, pictured
in 1914, aged 55
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer who invented Sherlock Holmes, the most famous detective in the history of crime fiction, died 91 years ago today at his home in Crowborough in Sussex.

Conan Doyle left a legacy of 22 novels, including four featuring Sherlock Holmes, and more than 200 short stories, of which 56 told of the exploits of his brilliant detective. In addition, he wrote many non-fiction books, poems, plays and pamphlets.

He had studied medicine and, like his future character Dr Watson, he became a physician. While at the University of Edinburgh medical school, Conan Doyle had been a pupil of the surgeon Joseph Bell, whose deductive processes impressed him so much that he later used him as a model for Holmes.

In 1887, Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, a compendium published each year from 1860 to 1898. He followed this with a historical novel and an adventure novel. Then in 1890, Spencer Blackett published Conan Doyle’s second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four.

The following year, Conan Doyle began to practice as an oculist - a physician specialising in eye health - in Wimpole Street, just off Harley Street in London. Fortunately for his devoted readers, he had so few patients he decided to write some short stories about Sherlock Holmes for a new monthly magazine, The Strand. These proved so successful he decided to give up medicine and concentrate on writing full time.

Holmes became the world’s most famous fictional detective and inspired the fictional detectives created by hundreds of crime writers who came after Conan Doyle.

The edition of Beeton's Christmas Annual featuring A Study in Scarlet
The edition of Beeton's Christmas
Annual featuring A Study in Scarlet
The brilliant detective and his partner in investigation, Dr John Watson, have fascinated millions of readers all over the world. His famous phrase, ‘Elementary, my dear Watson,’ has delighted the audiences of the many theatre, film, television and radio productions made from the stories.

At one stage Conan Doyle became unhappy about the enormous success of his Sherlock Holmes stories eclipsing his more serious historical and romantic novels. He tried to wipe out the great detective at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland in The Adventure of the Final Problem in 1893, but he was forced to bring Holmes back, following strong public demand, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, published in 1901.

In his later years, Conan Doyle campaigned and wrote about miscarriages of justice and also helped the Government before the First World War by writing recruitment pamphlets.

He also became interested in Spiritualism and wrote about it and lectured about it all over the world. Following a lecture tour of Scandinavia and Holland, he suffered a heart attack in 1929.

Conan Doyle died on 7 July 1930, aged 71. His last book, The Edge of the Unknown, had been published a week earlier. He was buried at Crowborough in East Sussex but his remains were later moved to Minstead Church in the New Forest in Hampshire.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s grave is under a large tree behind the 13th century church of All Saints. The inscription on his tombstone reads:

Steel True

Blade Straight

Arthur Conan Doyle

Knight

Patriot, Physician & Man of Letters


A handy book for anyone wanting to learn more about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes stories is The Pocket Essentials: Sherlock Holmes, by Mark Campbell 

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Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The fourth Queen of Crime

Remembering the brilliant writing of Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham wrote 18 novels featuring her detective, Albert Campion
Margery Allingham wrote 18 novels
featuring her detective, Albert Campion
Crime novelist Margery Allingham, who died on this day in 1966, was a prolific writer during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. 

She left a legacy of 18 Albert Campion mysteries, six volumes of short stories featuring the detective and many stand-alone novels, novellas and volumes of short stories. With Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh she became known as one of the four Queens of Crime.

Margery died of cancer in hospital in Colchester six weeks after her 62nd birthday. She was in the process of writing her last novel, Cargo of Eagles, and had mapped out the story long before her death, so that her husband, Philip Youngman Carter, was able to finish it as she herself would have done, according to her plan.

In a preface to Mr Campion’s Clowns, an omnibus of novels by Margery Allingham, published in 1967, Youngman Carter paid tribute to his late wife as ‘a generous, kind and courageous woman with a rare gift for friendship’.

Margery showed wonderful insight into character and her books abound in witty and accurate observations of people, with an especially keen eye for an eccentric. As she matured as a writer, her books became deeper and started to encompass significant themes, such as love and justice, good and evil, and illusion and truth. Her works have now attained classic status and she has, at times been  compared to Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson 

The Crime at Black Dudley was Allingham's breakthrough
The Crime at Black Dudley
was Allingham's breakthrough
Her first novel was published when she was 19, but she did not make her breakthrough as a crime writer until her novel, The Crime at Black Dudley, was published in 1929. This introduced her series detective, the gentleman sleuth Albert Campion, even though he appeared only as a minor character in her first book.

He was at first thought to be a parody of Sayers’ hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, but Campion matured as the series of books progressed and proved there was a lot more to him, and he became increasingly popular with readers.

Vintage Books, part of the Penguin Random House Group, have now republished all Margery Allingham’s novels featuring her series detective Albert Campion, making it likely that some will eventually be stocked by public libraries.

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Sunday, June 13, 2021

How Dorothy L Sayers used her novels to promote the role of women in society

Shrewd observer of human nature who became a Queen of Crime

Dorothy L Sayers was keen to promote the role of women
Dorothy L Sayers was keen to
promote the role of women 
One of the greatest detective novelists of the Golden Age, Dorothy Leigh Sayers, was born 128 years ago today on June 13, 1893 in Oxford.

Dorothy went to the Godolphin School in Salisbury, where she won a scholarship to Somerville College in Oxford. She graduated with first class honours in modern languages in 1915 and was one of the first women to be awarded a degree by Oxford University.

She worked for Blackwell’s, the Oxford publishers, and then as a copywriter at Bensons, a London advertising agency.

Dorothy produced her first novel, Whose Body, introducing her amateur detective hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, in 1923. He was to feature in 14 novels and volumes of short stories.

She became a member, and eventually president, of the Detection Club, where she met other crime writers she admired, such as E C Bentley and G K Chesterton.

Dorothy was a keen observer of human nature and was passionate about the education of women and their right to play a positive role in society, as is evident in her third Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Unnatural Death, published in 1927.

Wimsey was played by Ian  Carmichael in the BBC series
Wimsey was played by Ian 
Carmichael in the BBC series

Unnatural Death also broke new ground in that one of the main characters, Mary Whittaker, has been described as the most clearly delineated homosexual character in Golden Age detective fiction, despite the word ‘lesbian’ never being used by the author to describe her.

Mary Whittaker is seen during the novel trying to entice a young girl into a life of homosexuality and, in a scene where Wimsey kisses her, she is shown to be physically revolted by being kissed by a man.

Dorothy also invented an ingenious murder method in the novel, the injection of an air bubble with a hypodermic syringe into the victim, so that there was no obvious cause of death and a post mortem examination would lead to the conclusion that the victim had died of natural causes.

Some critics found fault with this method, while acknowledging it was very cunning. It was believed Dorothy came up with the idea because of her familiarity with motor engines, having had a relationship with a car mechanic and motor bike enthusiast.

She also made use of brand new legislation on inheriting property, introduced in 1925 in England, for the motive for the murder.

Dorothy’s belief that women should be seen to be playing important roles is reflected in her character Miss Katherine Climpson, who she introduces for the first time in Unnatural Causes as a genteel spinster who helps Wimsey with some of his investigations.

Unnatural Death has been published in a new edition by Hodder
Unnatural Death has been published
in a new edition by Hodder
Lord Peter says he employs Miss Climpson as an enquiry agent because her talents are being wasted by a stupid social system that forces unmarried women to become ‘companions’ rather than use their skills and minds in a more useful and profitable way.

The novel begins in the most casual way with Lord Peter and his friend, a Scotland Yard detective, Charles Parker, discussing a murder investigation while having dinner in a restaurant and being overheard by a doctor sitting at the next table, who eventually joins them and tells them about the unexpected death of a woman he had been treating.

Lord Peter is convinced the woman has been murdered and, dragging the reluctant Parker along with him, sets out to investigate with no clues to work on. Unnatural Death, a groundbreaking, gripping story, with plenty of twists and turns and some shrewd observations of human nature that even reminded me of Jane Austen, is the fascinating result.

After World War II, Dorothy taught herself old Italian and made a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy using terza rima, the three-line rhyming scheme that he used in the original . In 1957, while working on Dante’s third volume, Paradiso, Dorothy died of heart failure. Her friend, Dr Barbara Reynolds, completed her work, which she herself had regarded as her greatest achievement.

Unnatural Death was reprinted in 2016 by Hodder and Stoughton and is available from or


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Saturday, May 29, 2021

G K Chesterton’s intuitive Father Brown

Innocent detective learnt his trade from hours spent in confessional box

Father Brown creator G K Chesterton
was the first president of the Detection Club
The brilliant writer G K Chesterton earned his place in the history of crime fiction by creating Father Brown, an unusual amateur detective, who as an unassuming Catholic priest is well aware of the frailties of human nature.

Father Brown appeared in 53 short stories between 1910 and 1936. He solves mysteries and crimes using his intuition and his keen understanding of human nature.

The author, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, was born in 1874 - 147 years ago today (29 May) - in Kensington in London. He became a philosopher, lay theologian and literary and art critic and was a prolific writer.  He is estimated to have written about 80 books, many on theology and literary criticism, 200 short stories, 4,000 essays, some appearing in the form of newspaper columns, and several plays.

He was baptised into the Church of England but entered full communion with the Catholic Church in 1922. Chesterton is said to have loosely based Father Brown on the Right Reverend Monsignor John O’Connor, a parish priest who was involved in Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism.

Chesterton was elected as the first president of the Detection Club and served from 1930 to 1936 until he was succeeded by his good friend, the crime writer E C Bentley. He opened his novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, with a poem written to Bentley.

The first Father Brown story is included in this collection
The first Father Brown story is
included in this collection
Despite his many other literary works, Chesterton will always be remembered as the creator of Father Brown, a character who became so popular that many films and TV series have been made about him.

Father Brown made his first appearance in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post in July 1910 in the short story, The Blue Cross. This story, and others written later, came out in book form in The Innocence of Father Brown.

Shabby and lumbering, with a face like a Norfolk dumpling, dropping his umbrella and unable to control the parcels he is carrying, Father Brown seems an improbable sleuth but his innocence is probably the secret of his success.

At the end of the story, The Blue Cross, he delivers a master criminal into the hands of the French detective who has been pursuing him. The criminal, Flambeau, and the master detective, Valentin, both bow to him in recognition of his superior detection skills. At this point, ’the little Essex priest blinked about for his umbrella.’

The master criminal, who has been disguised as a Catholic priest, cannot believe Father Brown has seen through him and has outwitted him and asks him to explain how he did it.

Father Brown replies: ‘Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil? But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren’t a priest.’

‘What?’ asked the thief, almost gaping.

‘You attacked reason,’ said Father Brown. ‘It’s bad theology.’

This made me think of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, who explains to the police at the end of each novel why she discovered the murderer before they did. Also seeming very innocent, she made her first appearance in The Murder at the Vicarage, published in 1930. I am fairly certain that Agatha Christie, who was also a leading light in the Detection Club, must have been a Father Brown fan.

The Blue Cross appears in The Innocence of Father Brown and The Complete Father Brown Stories.

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Monday, May 17, 2021

100 Must-Read Crime Novels

A unique selection of stunning examples of the genre

This handy guide by Richard Shephard and Nick Rennison provides a treat for all lovers of detective fiction by choosing 100 books to give readers an overview of the rich and diverse crime writing that has been produced over the years.

The authors did not intend to provide a list of the 100 best crime novels because of the difficulty of comparing books written in different eras and with varied intentions.

An invaluable guide for beginners and 
established fans of the crime fiction genre


They aimed to provide a book that would be useful as a starting point for readers wanting to explore the genre. Their selections are arranged A to Z by author and describe the plot of the novel without spoiling it for prospective readers. They include information about the authors and where they are placed in the history of crime fiction.

At the end of each entry there is a Read On list with suggestions of books to read by stylistically similar authors. Most authors have one entry only, but Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have been allowed two entries, because they have been judged so important to the genre. 

There is also a brief history of crime fiction and lists of the winners of the Edgar Award and the CWA Golden Dagger Award right from the beginning.

The book selects many well-known crime writers but there are also some names that are less familiar. E C Bentley has an entry for his ground-breaking 1913 novel, Trent’s Last Case. Lawyer Michael Gilbert has been chosen for his 1950 legal mystery Smallbone Deceased and Cyril Hare, who was a judge in real life, for his legal mystery When the Wind Blows, published in 1949.

Francis Iles, with Malice Aforethought, and Michael Innes, with Hamlet Revenge! have both been chosen for novels written in the 1930s.

Having to pick just one Dorothy L Sayers novel, it is fascinating to see that  they went for The Nine Tailors, published in 1934.  For Josephine Tey, they picked her 1948 novel, The Franchise Affair.

Ruth Rendell manages to get two entries, both as herself with An Unkindness of Ravens (1985) and as Barbara Vine, with A Fatal Inversion (1987).

European writers are represented with entries on Gaston Leroux, Georges Simenon, Henning Mankell and Manuel Vasquex Montalban.

American writers featured include Eric Ambler, Dashiell Hammett, Donna Leon and Vera Caspary.

This guide offers readers an invaluable introduction to authors they may never have tried before but might grow to love.

100 Must-Read Crime Novels is packed with useful book suggestions and fascinating information for crime fiction fans.

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Thursday, May 6, 2021

Dame Margaret and G D H Cole

Left-wing couple formed brilliant mystery writing team

Margaret Cole was honoured for services to local government and education
Margaret Cole was honoured for services
to local government and education

Socialist politician, poet and writer Dame Margaret Isabel Cole formed an unusual partnership with her husband, George Douglas Howard Cole, to write more than 30 detective novels and volumes of short mystery stories.

Born Margaret Postgate on 6 May, 1893, she studied at Cambridge University and though female students at the time were not allowed to graduate, after completing her course she became a classics teacher at St Paul’s Girls School and began writing poetry. Her poem, The Falling Leaves, a response to the First World War, is currently on the GCSE English Literature syllabus.

Margaret started questioning her Anglican upbringing after reading H G Wells and George Bernard Shaw while at Girton College, Cambridge and she also embraced socialism.

In 1918 she married G D H Cole, a political theorist, economist and historian. He was a prolific writer of political non-fiction between 1913 and the 1950s.

G D H and M Cole’s first joint effort at a detective novel, Death of a Millionaire, was published in 1925.

The Giant Book of Great Detective Stories
The Giant Book of Great
Detective Stories 
I recently read and enjoyed a short story by the couple, Superintendent Wilson’s Holiday, which was published in 1928. I was fortunate enough to come across it in The Giant Book of Great Detective Stories edited by Herbert Van Thal.

Evidently a series character, Superintendent Wilson had been working very hard solving crimes and so his physician and sidekick, Michael, who like Sherlock Holmes’s Watson is a friend and medical adviser to the great detective, suggests they take a walking holiday in Norfolk.

By coincidence, they stumble across a deserted tent on the cliffs and then discover a body. Superintendent Wilson begins looking for clues and quickly establishes that a murder has taken place.

He sets about investigating, seeing things his loyal friend fails to notice, which is, of course, a familiar story. Despite no shortage of suspects, he ensures the right person is caught, convicted and hanged. Afterwards, Michael reports that Wilson is looking much better and is back to his old self. There’s nothing like a good murder investigation to put a spring in your step!

According to Martin Edwards in his book, The Golden Age of Murder, Douglas and Margaret Cole were ‘the leading lights of the Left among Golden Age detective novelists’. They also became members of the Detection Club along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ronald Knox.

As a member of the Education Committee of the London County Council, Margaret became a champion of comprehensive education. Harold Wilson gave her an OBE and she became a Dame in 1970 for services to Local Government and Education.

Dame Margaret Cole died on 7 May, 1980, the day after her 87th birthday.

Many of G D H and M I Cole’s joint mystery novels are out of print, but second-hand copies can be found on

Martin Edwards's The Golden Age of Murder is available from or

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Thursday, April 29, 2021

A Question of Proof

Poet’s promising debut detective novel

The Vintage edition of A Question of Proof
The Vintage edition of
A Question of Proof
Nicholas Blake’s first Nigel Strangeways Mystery, A Question of Proof, published in 1935, is a cleverly written story set in a public school for boys with a complex plot that keeps the reader guessing right till the end.

It is the annual sports day at Sudely Hall on a glorious summer’s day and all the parents and children are looking forward to the races. But by the end of the afternoon the police have to be called when the headmaster’s obnoxious nephew is found in a haystack having been strangled.

The English master, Michael Evans, who is in love with the headmaster’s beautiful young wife, soon finds himself the police’s main suspect for the murder and so he calls in Nigel Strangeways, an old friend from university who has become an amateur detective, to investigate the case ‘on behalf of the school’.

The author of A Question of Proof was the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, who eventually became Poet Laureate. At the age of 31 he turned to crime writing to supplement his income from poetry, using the pseudonym Nicholas Blake.

He was hailed by the reviewers as a master of detective fiction and went on to produce another 15 Nigel Strangeways Mysteries as well as four detective novels and some short stories that don’t feature his series character.

Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, alias novelist Nicholas Blake
Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis,
alias novelist Nicholas Blake
I was surprised when I began reading A Question of Proof that an omniscient point of view is used at the start to show the reader round the school and introduce the main characters among the masters and the boys.

The spotlight is on the young good-looking Evans, who is preoccupied with arranging a secret assignation with Hero, the wife of the Rev Percival Vale, the headmaster.

But once Nigel Strangeways arrives, the story is mostly told from his point of view. He joins forces with the investigating officer, Superintendent Armstrong, to try to solve the crime. Armstrong’s willing cooperation is explained by the fact that Strangeways is a nephew to the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard.

Cecil Day-Lewis, aka Nicholas Blake, describes the environment of a public school for boys brilliantly, showing the bickering between the masters and the factions among the boys. Strangeways is received well by masters and boys alike and quickly reveals his talent for blending in with any company, along with displaying his own small eccentricities, such as drinking large quantities of tea.

In order to solve the crime, he has to join the Black Spot gang and pass the initiation rituals imposed by the members, but he then has the support of a small group of boys who open up about what they know and help him with his investigation. Interestingly, he uses psychology to solve the crime, rather than concentrating on the most obvious suspects in the manner of the police. It is not surprising that Strangeways was a fictional detective who was going to live on for another 30 years.

All the Nigel Strangeways Mysteries have now been republished by Vintage Books.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Nicholas Blake, detective novelist

Former Poet Laureate's other identity

Cecil Day-Lewis adopted Nicholas Blake as a pseudonym
Cecil Day-Lewis adopted Nicholas
Blake as a pseudonym
Crime writer Nicholas Blake wrote 20 highly regarded detective novels, 15 of them featuring his likeable amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways.

Many novelists would be happy with achieving this much during their lifetime, but for Nicholas Blake, it was only part of his story.

For Blake was actually the poet, professor and publisher Cecil Day-Lewis - born on this day in 1904 in Ireland - who was Poet Laureate from 1968 until his death in 1972.

In 1935 Day-Lewis decided to increase his income from poetry by trying his hand at writing a detective novel.

His first novel, A Question of Proof, which he published under his pseudonym Nicholas Blake, introduced Nigel Strangeways, an amateur investigator and gentleman detective who, as the nephew of an assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard, had access to official crime investigation resources.

From the mid 1930s onwards Day-Lewis was able to earn a living by writing as Nicholas Blake while continuing to write poetry, working in publishing and lecturing at Cambridge University.

The Vintage edition of
A Question of Proof
His novel Minute for Murder is set against the background of his experience of working for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War and his novel Head of a Traveller has a principal character who is a well-known poet suffering from writer’s block, whose best poetry writing days are long behind him.

Critics regard his 1938 novel, The Beast Must Die, as perhaps his best work because it skilfully combines a twisting and intriguing narrative with a subtle study of the nature of private and public morality.

Day-Lewis died in 1972 at the home of his friends Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard.  He left four children by two marriages, including the actor, Sir Daniel Day-Lewis, who donated his father's archive to the Bodleian Library.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Gladys Mitchell’s stunning debut

Crime writer challenged the conventions of the genre in first novel

The Vintage Books edition of Speedy Death
The Vintage Books
edition of Speedy Death
Prolific detective fiction writer Gladys Mitchell, who was born on this day in 1901, was judged by reviewers to be an outstanding novelist right from the start of her career.

She got off the mark quickly in 1929 with Speedy Death, her first novel featuring her amateur sleuth, Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, and she never looked back.

She wrote a further 66 crime novels featuring Mrs Bradley and built up a large and loyal following for her eccentric but brilliant detective.

Gladys was born in Cowley in Oxfordshire. She graduated in history from University College, London and embarked on a career as a teacher.

She wrote at least one detective novel a year while working and was an early member of the Detection Club along with Agatha Christie, G K Chesterton and Dorothy L Sayers.

Gladys Mitchell wrote 67 Mrs Bradley mysteries
Gladys Mitchell wrote 67
Mrs Bradley mysteries
Gladys studied the works of Sigmund Freud and made her series detective, Mrs Bradley, a distinguished psychoanalyst. She also developed an interest in witchcraft, which features in some of her novels.

In 1961, Gladys retired from teaching but she continued to write detective novels at her home in Dorset. She received the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger in 1976.

Gladys died in 1983 and her last Mrs Bradley mystery was published in 1984.

In Speedy Death, Mrs Bradley is a guest at a country house party. When one of the guests, Mountjoy, a legendary explorer, is found drowned in the bath Mrs Bradley is convinced it is a case of murder and she joins forces with another house guest, a scientist, to try to solve the crime. The first thing that marks this book out from other Golden Age mystery novels is the scene when the naked body is discovered in the bath and the victim, who everybody thought was a man, is revealed to be a woman.

Diana Rigg played Mrs Bradley in the BBC TV series
Diana Rigg played Mrs Bradley
in the BBC TV series
Mrs Bradley is described as birdlike without being pretty. She has claw-like hands, yellowish skin, a cynical smirk and a sinister laugh. However, she manages to inspire loyalty and respect from young and old alike when she turns her powerful intellect to solving the crime.

Gladys also turns the conventions of the cosy crime genre on its head in Speedy Death with a surprising twist to the plot near the end. I would recommend it to crime fiction fans as well worth reading for that alone.

The BBC screened a five-episode series entitles The Mrs Bradley Mysteries between 1998 and 2000 featuring Diana Rigg in the title role. The storyline of the first episode was based on Speedy Death.

Speedy Death was republished by Vintage Books in 2014.

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Monday, April 19, 2021

The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts

The story of a complex police investigation full of surprises


The story starts with a consignment of French wines unloaded at the docks in London
The story starts with a consignment of French
wines unloaded at the docks in London
Although it was his first novel, The Cask, by Freeman Wills Crofts, has been judged to be one of his most ambitious and intricately plotted.

The action takes place in London and Paris, there are three different sets of investigators and, according to the author himself, the novel was about 40,000 words too long.

But despite being published more than a century ago, The Cask is as compelling and fast moving as many contemporary novels and I think it is still well worth reading.

The story begins when a consignment of French wines is unloaded from a steamship at the docks in London. One of the casks is slightly damaged during the process, so the shipping clerk, who is overseeing the unloading, looks inside it. He finds that it doesn’t contain wine after all, but gold sovereigns. He then makes a gruesome discovery as he searches amongst the sawdust in which the sovereigns are packed.

He consults his superior and they decide to go to the police, but when they return to the docks they find the cask and its contents have gone.

The investigation takes the story's detective, Inspector Burnley, to Paris
The investigation takes the story's detective,
Inspector Burnley, to Paris
Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard is put on the case and he manages to track down the cask. When it is unpacked, the police find they are dealing with a murder investigation.

Burnley’s enquiries take him to Paris, from where the cask was dispatched, and he pursues his investigation with the help of Inspector Lefarge, a detective from the Sûreté.

After exhaustive enquiries, the case becomes clearer and a Frenchman living in  London, Leon Felix, is arrested.

The case is then taken up by the solicitor of the accused, John Clifford, and the King’s Counsel he instructs, Lucius Heppenstall. They meet to prepare a defence for their client and review the evidence against Felix.

They decide that if their client is innocent he must have been the victim of a cunning plot to implicate him. Their planned course of action is to test the evidence and they decide to employ a team of private detectives to travel to Paris and review the work of Scotland Yard and the Sûreté.

The Cask is available as a
Collins Crime Club title

Georges La Touche, who is considered the smartest private detective in London, is dispatched to Paris with some of his men and he painstakingly tests all the evidence the police have found, working tirelessly to try to break the alibis of the people involved

In a dramatic denouement he confronts the person who has masterminded the whole plot against Felix.

The alibis depend on train times, as do many of the alibis of the characters in later novels by Crofts, who worked for the railways as a civil engineer until he retired to write full time.

In 1946, Crofts wrote a Foreword for a new edition of The Cask, describing how he came up with the idea for the story.

When he started writing the novel in about 1912 he had been off work for a lengthy period due to an illness and was bored and wanted something to do. He says he started by writing down the most absurd and improbable things he could think of. He read the first chapter of The Cask to his wife and she encouraged him to complete the book.

Looking back, he says the story could probably have been told in about 80,000 words instead of 120,000. Crofts went on to write another 30 novels, developing a much more systematic way of plotting and writing along the way.

However, more than a century after The Cask was first published, it continues to intrigue and entertain new readers.

I found it to be well written, exciting and constantly surprising, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys detective fiction.

The novels of Freeman Wills Crofts are still in print, even though the author died more than 60 years ago.

They can be brought from or

(Paris picture by Sadnos via Pixabay)


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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Remembering Freeman Wills Crofts

Writer employed the intricacies of the railway timetable for his alibis

Freeman Wills Croft worked in railways for 33 years before becoming a full-time writer
Freeman Wills Croft worked in railways for
33 years before becoming a full-time writer
The prolific Irish detective fiction writer Freeman Wills Crofts, who died 64 years ago today, was outshone by other famous names from the Golden Age but was nonetheless highly regarded by contemporaries such as Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler and many of his books are still in print.

He wrote more than 30 novels, about 100 short stories, stage and radio plays and some works of non-fiction.

A railway engineer by training, Crofts introduced railway themes into many of his stories and the apparently unbreakable alibis of his characters often featured the intricacies of railway timetables.

He is best remembered for his series detective, Inspector Joseph French, although the character wasn’t introduced until Crofts wrote his fifth book.

His first novel, The Cask, published in 1920, was republished last year to mark its 100th anniversary by Collins Crime Club.

Crofts was born in Dublin in 1879. His father, who was an army doctor, died before his birth. His mother remarried later to a Vicar in County Down and Crofts was brought up at the Vicarage in Gilford, County Down.

The Collins Crime Club edition of The Cask
The Collins Crime Club
edition of The Cask
When he was 17 he was apprenticed to his uncle who worked at the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway and he continued to work in railways for the next 33 years.

He wrote The Cask after a long absence from work because of illness. He started writing to help him pass the time and it established him as a new master of detective fiction.

In an introduction to the centenary edition of The Cask, Collins reprinted some words Crofts wrote in 1946 about how he began writing the story. He says: ‘I became so bored that I didn’t know what to do and to try to fill the time I asked for a pencil and a few sheets of notepaper. I began to write down what seemed the most absurd and improbable things I could think of.’ When he had finished the first chapter of The Cask he read it to his wife and her enthusiastic approval encouraged him to carry on with the book until he was well enough to return to work.

He continued to write steadily, producing a book almost every year for 30 years as well as numerous short stories.

Trains and timetables featured in a number of books by Freeman Wills Crofts
Trains and timetables featured in a number
of books by Freeman Wills Crofts
In 1929 he gave up his railway career to become a full-time writer and settled in the village of Blackheath near Guildford in Surrey.

He was a member of the Detection Club with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers and was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Raymond Chandler described Crofts as ‘the soundest builder of them all when he doesn’t get too fancy.’ Crime writing experts have said his concentration on the mechanics of detection made him the forerunner of the police procedural school of crime fiction.

Freeman Wills Crofts died on 11 April, 1957 in Worthing, West Sussex.

The 100th anniversary edition of The Cask can be bought from or


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Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Edgar Allan Poe invented the fictional detective in April 1841

The first detective story by the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, was published in a magazine 180 years ago this month.

Although Poe himself referred to it as one of his ‘tales of ratiocination’, the work has since been hailed as the first modern detective story.

The first story about amateur
sleuth C Auguste Dupin
Poe’s fictional amateur detective, C Auguste Dupin, solves the savage murder of two women living in a house in the Rue Morgue in Paris, demonstrating many of the traits which were to become literary conventions in stories about subsequent fictional detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, praised Dupin as ‘the best detective in fiction’.

The murders in Poe’s first detective story appear to have been committed in a locked room on the fourth floor of an otherwise uninhabited house. Neighbours hearing the agonised screams of the women victims break into the house, but find only two dead bodies and no other person anywhere in the property.

For the very first time, the reader is told that the local police are completely baffled.

The story begins with the unnamed narrator of the story first meeting Dupin when they are both trying to obtain the same rare book.

The two men become friends and decide to share a rented property together in Paris.

The narrator is constantly amazed by Dupin’s brilliance and powers of deduction. In one scene, Dupin is able to work out what his friend is thinking and answer him before he has even asked a question.

When the two men read about the murders in the newspaper, Dupin is immediately interested and gets permission from the police to visit the house and assess the crime scene in the locked room.

From what Dupin observes there he is able to work out what has happened and who is responsible for the murders. He convinces the police to release the man they have mistakenly arrested and finally explains to the narrator how he has solved the mystery from the clues he observed at the crime scene.

Poe wrote his first detective story at the age of 32 and was paid $56 for the publication rights by Graham’s Magazine, based in Philadelphia. It appeared in the April 1841 edition and became the prototype for many future stories featuring fictional detectives.

Poe's narrator technique was taken up by Conan Doyle. His Dr Watson narrated the circumstances surrounding the cases solved by Sherlock Holmes and marvelled at the amazing powers of deduction of the friend with whom he shared rented rooms. The first story, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887.

Captain Hastings began narrating stories about the cases solved by Hercule Poirot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, published in 1920.

There were just three Dupin short stories, but the Mystery Writers of America still honour Edgar Allan Poe annually by presenting the Edgar Award for distinguished work in the mystery genre.

Detective novelist Dorothy L Sayers has described the three Dupin stories as ‘almost a complete manual of detective theory and practice.’

The Murders in the Rue Morgue and the two other Dupin stories were republished in a single volume by Vintage Classics in 2009. 

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