Friday, October 15, 2021

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.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

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.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2021

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.

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Saturday, September 4, 2021

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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Friday, August 27, 2021

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
Shop
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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Monday, August 23, 2021

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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Wednesday, August 18, 2021

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)

Thursday, August 5, 2021

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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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.

Margery Allingham's novels are available from or


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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.

Novels and short stories by G K Chesterton are available from or

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