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.

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(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.

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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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Monday, March 29, 2021

Trent’s Last Case

A look back at the career of E C Bentley who wrote the detective novel that heralded the Golden Age

E C Bentley intended his novel to be a send-up of the detective genre
E C Bentley intended his novel to
be a send-up of the detective genre
The writer and journalist E C Bentley, who is credited with writing the first modern detective story, Trent’s Last Case, died 65 years ago today in London.

Agatha Christie, who wrote her own first detective novel seven years later, said Trent’s Last Case was ‘one of the best detective stories ever written’.

Dorothy L Sayers, whose first detective novel was published in 1923, said Bentley’s novel ‘holds a very special place in the history of detective fiction.’

But when Bentley wrote Trent’s Last Case, first published in 1913, he intended it to be a major send-up of the genre, which had tended to feature intellectual detectives lacking any obvious human failings.

Edmund Clerihew Bentley was born in London in 1875. He was educated at St Paul’s School and Merton College, Oxford, and then studied Law in London while working as a journalist for several newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph. Although he was called to the Bar in 1902 he continued to work for the Daily Telegraph until he retired in 1934.

But he returned to the newspaper after World War II started because younger men were being called up, retiring again in 1947.

He became friends with the writer of the Father Brown stories, G K Chesterton, while they were still at school and later in life they were both, in turn, president of the Detection Club.

Agatha Christie spoke in glowing terms of Trent's Last Case
Agatha Christie spoke in glowing
terms of Trent's Last Case
Bentley started work on Trent’s Last Case in 1910 having had the idea for ‘a detective story of a new sort...’

Bentley thought it should be possible to write a detective story in which the detective was recognisable as an average, fallible human being.  He said: ‘It was not until I had gone a long way with the plot that the most pleasing notion of all came to me: the notion of making the hero’s hard won and obviously correct solution to the mystery turn out to be completely wrong…’

The story begins with a powerful and ruthless American capitalist being found dead in the garden of his English country house, fully clothed, but without his false teeth. His young, beautiful widow seems relieved by her husband’s death. The household also includes a butler, a French maid and two young male secretaries.

It appears to be an intriguing case and therefore artist, journalist and amateur detective Philip Trent is sent to investigate by his newspaper.

Bentley planned his novel in just a few weeks while walking from his home in Hampstead to his office and he began work on it by writing the final chapter first.

In the novel, he allows his hero, Trent, to fall in love with the beautiful widow, which was at the time considered against the rules of the genre. He then introduces a plotting innovation that qualifies Trent’s Last Case to take its place among the great detective novels of all time.

The Collins Crime Club edition of Trent's Last Case
The Collins Crime Club edition
of Trent's Last Case
All detective writers that came afterwards owed a debt to Trent’s Last Case. Bentley’s experiment, with a detective who, unlike his predecessors, is a fallible human being and is operating within a cleverly constructed plot culminating in a surprise solution, prepared readers for the advent of an era in which they would learn to expect the unexpected. Trent’s Last Case heralded the Golden Age of detective fiction.

Bentley was to point out later that it does not seem to have been noticed that the novel is not so much a detective story as an exposure of detective stories.

My copy of Trent’s Last Case, produced by Collins Crime Club, contains an Afterword by Dorothy L Sayers, which was taken from the draft of a talk she had written about a possible radio adaptation of the book, although there is no evidence that the talk was ever delivered.

Dorothy writes: ‘If  you were so lucky as to read it today for the first time, you would recognise it at once as a tale of unusual brilliance and charm, but you could have no idea how startlingly original it seemed when it first appeared. It shook the little world of the mystery novel like a revolution, and nothing was ever quite the same again. Every detective writer of today owes something, consciously or unconsciously, to its liberating and inspiring influence.’

I found this particularly interesting as I recalled that in Dorothy’s first novel, Whose Body?, she used the technique used by Bentley in Trent’s Last Case, of a character dressing in the murder victim’s clothes and sleeping in his bed in order to confuse the authorities about the time of death. Whether this was ‘consciously or unconsciously,’ borrowed from Bentley, we don’t know.

I found Trent’s Last Case gripping and well written. I enjoyed it particularly because there isn’t just one surprise at the end, but two. However I don’t want to give anything else away. In the words of Dorothy, it is sufficient to say the novel is ‘a masterpiece.’

Michael Wilding (above) played Trent opposite the deceased's widow Margaret Lockwood in the 1952 film
Michael Wilding (above) played Trent opposite the
deceased's widow Margaret Lockwood in the 1952 film
Challenging the rules and conventions of detective fiction was not Bentley’s only literary innovation.

His first collection of poetry, Biography for Beginners, published in 1905, made a form of verse popular, which became known as the clerihew, after his middle name. This four line metrically irregular verse is one of his early examples of the clerihew:

‘Sir Humphrey Davy

Abominated gravy

He lived in the odium

Of having discovered Sodium.’

Bentley dedicated Trent’s Last Case to G K Chesterton saying he owed him a book in return for Chesterton dedicating the Man Who Was Thursday to him.

Trent’s Last Case was adapted into a film three times, in 1920, 1929 and - with Michael Wilding as Trent in a cast featuring Margaret Lockwood and Orson Welles - in 1952.

After 23 years, Bentley relented and decided Trent hadn’t had his last case after all. He wrote Trent’s Own Case in 1936 and a book of short stories, Trent Intervenes, in 1938.

Trent’s Last Case was republished in paperback by Collins Crime Club in 2020.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Call Mr Fortune

A look back at the writing career of H C Bailey

Henry Christopher Bailey was a Daily Telegraph journalist from 1901-46
Henry Christopher Bailey was a Daily
Telegraph journalist from 1901-46
The crime writer H C Bailey died 60 years ago today in Llanfairfechan in North Wales. He was 82 years old.

Bailey was a prolific writer of detective short stories and his series character, Reggie Fortune, appeared in more than 100 stories and some novels between 1920 and 1950.

A journalist on the Daily Telegraph between 1901 and 1946, Bailey worked as a drama critic, war correspondent and writer of editorials.

His sleuth, Reggie Fortune, is medically qualified as a surgeon, therefore he is known as Mr Fortune in the stories. Bailey was writing about him during the Golden Age of detective fiction but his stories are much darker than those of many of his contemporaries and involve subjects such as murderous obsession, police corruption and miscarriages of justice.

Henry Christopher Bailey was born in London in 1878 and studied classics at Oxford University, graduating with a BA in 1901.

He began his writing career by writing romance and historical fiction. His first novel, My Lady of Orange, was serialised in Longman’s Magazine between December 1900 and May 1901 and he went on to write another 29 novels in the same genre.

Bailey’s first collection of Reggie Fortune stories, Call Mr Fortune, was published in 1920.

The copy of Call Mr Fortune I read is a reprint by Leopold Classic Library
The copy of Call Mr Fortune I read
is a reprint by Leopold Classic Library
I read the first story in the book, The Archduke’s Tea, and agreed with other readers who had commented that the style seems very dated. Mr Fortune, who is upper class and good humoured, is standing in for his father, who is a doctor in general practice in an affluent suburb of London.

Hardly has his father left to go on holiday than Reggie receives a call to attend the house of an Archduke, the heir apparent to the Emperor of Bohemia, who has been knocked down by a motor car and brought home unconscious.

On the way, as Reggie is driven to the house by his chauffeur, he finds a body in the road, a man of the same build as the Archduke, who has also been knocked down and is dead.

At the house Reggie speaks to the Archduke’s wife, his brother and the servants. He examines his patient, who is unconscious but stable.

He finds a clue to what has happened to the Archduke and decides to seek a second medical opinion.

When he has worked out what has been going on, and the significance of the body in the road, he sets a little trap for a member of the household.

At this point in the story he establishes himself with the reader as not just a medical practitioner but as an amateur sleuth with a sharp mind.

By the end of the story he had risen still further in my estimation by achieving his own version of justice. Could Reggie Fortune be an early version of the maverick detective character so popular with writers who came afterwards?

Bailey was to write 12 collections of Reggie Fortune stories as well as some Reggie Fortune novels.

A member of the Detection Club, along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, Bailey also created another series character, Joshua Clunk, a lawyer who exposes corruption and blackmail and appears in 11 novels published between 1930 and 1950. 

Although Bailey’s stories and novels were out of print for a long while, many of the titles are now available in republished versions.

You can buy an edition of Call Mr Fortune from

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Monday, March 22, 2021

Enter a Murderer

Complimentary theatre ticket gives Inspector Alleyn a front row seat for murder

Patrick Malahide played Alleyn on TV in the 1990s
Patrick Malahide played
Alleyn on TV in the 1990s
Ngaio Marsh draws on her experience as a theatre director in New Zealand to describe the background of her second Inspector Roderick Alleyn novel published in 1935.

In Enter a Murderer, she places Inspector Alleyn near the front of the audience at a London theatre when one of the actors is shot dead on the stage.

A character in the play is meant to be shot with a gun loaded with dummy cartridges, but when he falls down and the horrified cast realise he is dead for real, the gentleman detective, Alleyn, suspects foul play immediately.

He had been invited to the theatre by his friend, the journalist Nigel Bathgate, who he met when investigating the death of a guest at a country house party in the first novel, A Man Lay Dead.

Nigel has been given complimentary tickets for the play by his old University friend, Felix Gardener, who is playing the male lead in the production.

Alleyn and Bathgate visit Felix in his dressing room before the play starts and are actually introduced to Arthur Surbonadier, the actor who is going to be the murder victim. He is clearly the worse for wear because he has been drinking and demonstrates that he is jealous of Felix because of his blossoming relationship with Stephanie, who is playing the female lead.

Alleyn and Bathgate leave to take their seats front of house because they feel uncomfortable in the acrimonious atmosphere of the dressing room.

After Arthur has been shot and it becomes clear that he really is dead, the production is halted and the audience sent home.

You can read Ngaio Marsh's first three Alleyn novels in one volume
You can read Ngaio Marsh's first
three Alleyn novels in one volume
Helped by his team who arrive from Scotland Yard, Alleyn secures the forensic evidence and interview all the members of the cast.

At this point I was surprised by Alleyn’s demeanour as he makes jokes for the benefit of Bathgate and his fellow officers, which hardly seemed appropriate, but then I thought of Dorothy L Sayers and her sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Margery Allingham and her investigator, Albert Campion, and I realised this clowning around was the fashion at the time and perhaps a nudge to the reader not to take the story too seriously.

I was also surprised Alleyn allows Bathgate to play an active part in the case and sit in on the interviews and take notes.

Bathgate is involved in the investigation in Ngaio’s first novel, A Man Lay Dead, but that was because he was actually staying in the house where the murder investigation takes place and couldn’t be sent away.

But then I realised Bathgate is kept around in Enter a Murderer to be the Watson for Alleyn. He gets to know some of what the detective is thinking but not all of it and, like the reader, he has no idea what to expect at the end.

I was slightly disappointed at the denouement when Alleyn uses the same trick as in the first novel, A Man Lay Dead, and holds a re-enactment of the murder. This time he has all the actors taking part, which eventually leads the murderer to incriminate himself.

But Enter a Murderer certainly fulfils what the reader expects from a detective novel as it is an interesting story with a surprise at the end. Ngaio describes life backstage at a theatre very well, drawing on her own experiences of acting and directing

Ngaio Marsh
Ngaio Marsh
Her great passion was the theatre and she joined a touring company in New Zealand as an actress in 1916. Later in life, she directed several of Shakespeare’s plays for New Zealand audiences and lived long enough to see the theatre firmly established in her own country and provided with proper financial support.

The University of Canterbury in New Zealand named their theatre the Ngaio Marsh Theatre and she was made a Dame in the 1966 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to the arts.

The title, Enter a Murderer, is taken from a line of stage direction from Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth.

Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh is available as a hardback, paperback, Kindle or Audiobook. I read it as part of an omnibus edition comprising A Man Lay Dead, Enter a Murderer and The Nursing Home Murder - the first three Roderick Alleyn mysteries.

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Friday, March 19, 2021

Setting, setting, setting!

Important advice for aspiring crime writers from author P D James

Over the years P D James has consistently maintained that setting is a key element in a detective novel.

When I interviewed her for a newspaper feature in the 1990s she said her own novels were nearly always inspired by a particular place she had visited.

She loved the East Anglian coasts, Suffolk in particular, and set many of her novels in seaside towns she found particularly inspiring, having explored them thoroughly to enable her to describe the setting for her stories evocatively.

Helpful book for novice
 crime writers
She believed that it is only if the action is firmly rooted in a physical reality that the reader can fully enter into the world of the characters. She agreed with the many crime fiction readers who have said convincing characters are important, but felt the setting for a novel, the place where the characters live and move about, is also a vital element.

In her book Talking about Detective Fiction, P D James says the world in which the characters in a novel live has to be made to seem real. She writes: ‘We (the readers) need to breathe their air, see with their eyes, walk the paths they tread and inhabit the rooms the writer has furnished for them.’

She also believes it’s important for the setting to be seen through the eyes of one of the characters, not merely described by the author, and that setting can establish the mood of a novel, citing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as an example.

P D James writes: ‘We only have to think of …that dark and sinister mansion, set in the middle of the fog-shrouded moor, to appreciate how important setting can be to the establishment of atmosphere. The Hound of Wimbledon Common would hardly provide such a frisson of terror.’

She was inspired to write her novel, Devices and Desires, (1989), one of her 14 novels featuring the detective Adam Dalgliesh, while on a visit of exploration in East Anglia, when she was standing on a deserted shingle beach one day.

She writes: ‘There were a few wooden boats drawn up on the beach, a couple of brown nets slung between poles and drying in the wind and, looking out over the sullen and dangerous North Sea, I could imagine myself standing in the same place hundreds of years ago with the taste of salt on my lips and the constant hiss and withdrawing rattle of the tide. Then, turning my eyes to the south, I saw the great outline of Sizewell nuclear power station and immediately I knew that I had found the setting for my next novel.’

PD James says she was excited because she knew that however long the writing took she would eventually have a novel.

She began her research by visiting nuclear power stations and speaking to the scientists to find out how nuclear power stations are run.

Bergamo's historical upper town
I took the advice PD James gave me when I met her in the 1990s, but it was not until many years after I had interviewed her that I wrote my first novel, Death in the High City, having been inspired by the magical city of Bergamo in northern Italy.

PD James wrote her book, Talking about Detective Fiction, at the request of the Bodleian publishing department. She says she was invited by the Librarian to write a book in aid of the Library on the subject of British detective fiction, because it is a form of popular literature that had for over 50 years fascinated her and engaged her as a writer.

At the beginning she describes how the genre started in the 19th century, pinpointing The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins as the first English detective story. She then discusses the contributions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with his character, Sherlock Holmes, and G K Chesterton, with his amateur sleuth, Father Brown.

The work of the four Queens of Crime – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh is evaluated along with that of other Golden Age writers. She then casts her eye over the American PI offshoot from the genre and the modern developments British writers have now introduced.

Perhaps the most helpful to aspiring crime writers are the final three chapters of this fascinating little book, where P D James deals with setting, viewpoint and character.

Looking into the future, she predicts that many people will continue to turn to the detective story for ‘relief, entertainment and mild intellectual challenge.’

PD James published her final Adam Dalgliesh novel, The Private Patient, in 2008.

Talking about Detective Fiction was published by Bodleian Library in 2009.

PD James died in November 2014 in Oxford.

Talking about Detective Fiction is available from or

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Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The Haunted Hotel

Is this a ghost story or is it a crime novel?

My 2015 edition of The Haunted  Hotel, first published in 1878
My 2015 edition of The Haunted 
Hotel
, first published in 1878
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, published in 1868, has been talked of as the first English detective novel as it established many of the ground rules of the modern genre. There is a detective, Sergeant Cuff, a country house setting, false suspects and a final twist in the plot.

Wilkie Collins wrote The Haunted Hotel ten years after The Moonstone was published. I was delighted recently when I received a copy of The Haunted Hotel as a present because I wondered how closely it would resemble a detective story, which is my favourite genre. I was also intrigued because a lot of the story takes place in Venice, a city that I love.

Collins was known for writing sensation novels, or sensation fiction, which was at the peak of its popularity in the 1860s and 1870s. His novel, The Woman in White, published in 1860, is one of the finest examples of sensation fiction, so called because it was written to play on the nerves and excite the senses of the reader.

In The Haunted Hotel, Collins makes the reader think he is going to write a novel that deals with the supernatural, as very early in the book questions are raised about being able to predict the future and being able to sense evil in a room.

The story begins with a London doctor being visited by a foreign Countess who is desperate for him to tell her whether she is evil, or insane. She is about to marry a nobleman, Lord Montbarry, but has discovered that he was engaged to another woman when he proposed to her, who has subsequently released him from the engagement.

The Countess says she has been assured the other woman did not blame her for the break-up of her relationship with Lord Montbarry and that the true course of events had been explained to her. But she says that when she eventually met his former fiancée and saw the other woman’s eyes upon her she turned ‘cold from head to foot’ and experienced great fear.

Wilkie Collins is best known for his 1859 novel The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins is best known for
his 1859 novel The Woman in White
After the marriage has taken place and the couple are away on their honeymoon, the story is told from the point of view of the jilted woman, Agnes, who is perceived by all her friends as a kind, loving, good person.

Mrs Ferrari, a woman Agnes has known since childhood, then comes to her for help. She is married to an Italian courier who desperately needs work. She asks Agnes to recommend her husband to a newly married couple who are about to tour Italy. When Agnes discovers the couple are Lord and Lady Montbarry, she is reluctant to intervene, but out of sympathy for the woman she eventually agrees that the courier can mention her name to help him secure the job.

Mr Ferrari accompanies the newlyweds to Italy while Agnes goes to stay with friends in Ireland.

On her return to London she receives the news from Mrs Ferrari that the courier’s letters have stopped coming and that no one has seen or heard of him for weeks.

Then Mrs Ferrari receives a bizarre letter. It contains a £1000 note and a piece of paper with the words: ‘To console you for the loss of your husband.’

A few days later, Lord Montbarry’s brother, Henry Westwick, calls to see Agnes to break the news to her that Lord Montbarry has died of bronchitis in the Venetian palazzo where he had been staying.

Collins makes it seem inevitable that all the protagonists will meet again in Venice at some stage in the future. The palace where Lord Montbarry died is converted into an hotel and his brother, Henry, buys shares in it.

Later, friends of Agnes invite her on a trip to Italy with them and plan to visit Venice.

Henry’s sister and brother both separately visit the newly converted hotel that their brother has invested in and feel ill after staying in the best room, number 14, where they smell a foul odour. It turns out to be the room where Lord Montbarry died.

Events conspire to have Agnes allocated to that room when she arrives at the hotel with her party. The sinister Countess, who also happens to have returned to Venice is staying at the Hotel Danieli, but when she discovers that Agnes is staying at the newly converted palace she moves into the hotel.

Agnes then endures a night of horror in the room where Lord Montbarry died. At this point I am still wondering if this is a ghost story, or a tale about the supernatural.

There is no detective in the novel, but Lord Montbarry’s brother, Henry Westwick, sets out to find out what has taken place. He makes a discovery in the room above room number 14 that helps lead him to the truth.

A portrait of Wilkie Collins by John Everett Millais
A portrait of Wilkie Collins by
John Everett Millais
This is the room in the old palace that had been occupied by Baron Rivar, the brother of the Countess, who had enjoyed making chemical experiments.

The sinister Countess has died during the night of a ruptured blood vessel in the brain, but she leaves an unfinished play that provides Henry with clues to the fate of the missing Italian courier.

My conclusion is that Wilkie Collins did write a crime story after all. There was the sudden death of Lord Montbarry, whose life was insured for £10000 pounds in favour of his widow, the sinister Countess. The insurance company investigates the death but can find nothing to suggest it was not natural causes. The Italian courier disappears mysteriously. The amateur detective, Henry Westwick, discovers the truth when he visits the room above number 14 and reads a half finished play by the Countess, which helps him finally discover what happened to his brother..

The Haunted Hotel has many of the ingredients of a crime novel and the truth is not revealed until the end of the novel in the tradition of the genre. I can definitely recommend it to crime fiction fans.

The Haunted Hotel is available from and

(The Millais portrait of Wilkie Collins hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London)


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Thursday, March 4, 2021

Mystery Mile

Sinister goings on in a remote country house on the Suffolk coast

The gentleman sleuth Albert Campion takes centre stage in Mystery Mile, the second novel by Margery Allingham to feature him as a character, which was first published in 1930.

Campion appeared in The Crime at Black Dudley, published in 1929, as a minor character, although he played his part, along with the other young guests at the country house party, when the host’s uncle is found dead and a sinister gang of criminals take over the building and hold them hostage.

The edition reissued by Vintage in 2015
But he is involved in the action right from the beginning in Mystery Mile by saving the life of an American judge on board a luxury liner crossing the Atlantic, seemingly by accident.

The judge, Crowdy Lobbett, is being targeted by a major criminal, known as Simister, and his ruthless associates. Several people in the judge’s circle have already died before he boards the ship with his son and daughter to flee to England where he hopes to be safer.

But after a car drives into the hotel where Judge Lobbett is staying in London, his son, Marlowe, tracks down Campion to ask for his help.

Campion offers the family sanctuary at a remote country house owned by two of his friends, a brother and sister, Giles and Biddy Paget.

The house is in Mystery Mile, a small village on the Suffolk coast, which is joined to the mainland only by a long narrow road, making it almost an island and difficult for non residents to access.

But on their first night in the house the local rector kills himself in a gruesome manner, leaving a note and some mysterious clues for Campion and his friends.

Then the judge vanishes while exploring the maze in the garden and his clothes are later found in the sea. And Biddy disappears after leaving the house to walk the few yards to the village post office.

After being tipped off by a criminal friend of Campion’s that she is being held in a house in London, the young men in the party launch a daring rescue bid.

There is plenty of fighting and some nasty injuries, but they manage to rescue Biddy. It then becomes a race against time to keep Simister and his gang of men at bay until they can pinpoint the identity of the criminal mastermind himself and deal with him once and for all.

Peter Davison (right) played Campion in the BBC TV series, with Brian Glover (left) as Lugg
Peter Davison (right) played Campion in the
BBC TV series, with Brian Glover (left) as Lugg
Very much a book of its time, Mystery Mile reminded me a little of Agatha Christie’s second novel, The Secret Adversary, which was published in 1922.

Margery, like Agatha, was dubbed a Queen of Crime during the Golden Age of detective fiction. Her first two novels both fall more into the suspense category than that of the cosy English crime novel. But she never loses sight of the basic rules of the classic detective story and keeps the reader guessing right to the end.

Margery’s setting for the old manor house, Mystery Mile, a village that is practically an island, was based on Mersea Island in Essex where she had spent time in her youth.

The story was adapted for television by the BBC in the 1990s, as the final episode of the second series of Campion, which starred Peter Davison as Albert Campion, Brian Glover as his manservant Magersfontein Lugg and Andrew Burt as his policeman friend Stanislaus Oates.

The novel was reissued in 2015 by Vintage, which is part of the Penguin Random House Group.

Although it is nearly 100 years since Mystery Mile was written I think it is a gripping story and well worth reading.

Mystery Mile is available in a variety of formats from or


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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Clouds of Witness

Dorothy turns Lord Peter into a man of action as well as words

The second Dorothy L Sayers novel featuring amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey was nothing if not ambitious.


The second Lord Peter Wimsey novel
by Dorothy L Sayers

The action took place in Yorkshire, London, Paris and the US and the denouement sees a Duke being tried for murder by his peers in the House of Lords.

This is a far cry from the country house murder with a closed circle of suspects that was all the rage in 1926, the year Clouds of Witness was published.

Reading it for the second time, many years after I had first read the novel, I was more impressed with it than ever.

The plot is brilliant and intricately worked out, considering that the action takes place over such a large canvas.

Peter’s brother, Gerald, Duke of Denver is hosting a shooting party at a lodge in Yorkshire. His sister, Lady Mary Wimsey, is acting as the hostess for her brother and her fiancé, Captain Denis Cathcart, is one of the guests.

Denis Cathcart is found just outside the conservatory in the early hours of the morning having been shot dead by a bullet fired from the Duke’s revolver. The Duke is bending over his body when Lady Mary arrives on the scene. An inquest into Cathcart’s death is later told that Lady Mary exclaimed: ‘Oh God, Gerald, you’ve killed him!’

Needless to say, the Duke of Denver is later arrested for the murder of his future brother in law. He refuses to say why he was up and about at the time he discovered the body and Lady Mary feigns illness to avoid have to talk to anyone about it at all.

Lord Peter and his manservant, Bunter, waste no time in returning from their holiday in France to assist the investigation and they set out to try to prove the Duke’s innocence.

And what could be more convenient than Peter’s friend, Inspector Parker, being assigned to the case by Scotland Yard?

Ian Carmichael played Lord Peter Wimsey
in a BBC TV adaptation of Clouds of Witness
Lord Peter and Parker search the grounds of the shooting lodge and quickly discover footprints belonging to someone who was not a member of the official party, but who had clearly gained access to the property. This makes it possible for someone from outside to have been responsible for the murder. There are two married couples and four single people staying in the lodge, but Lord Peter establishes that they are not the only suspects, which is unusual for detective novels written at this time.

P D James, in her excellent book Talking about Detective Fiction, says she was amused by the plan of the layout of Riddlesdale Lodge that Dorothy provides for the reader, pointing out that just one toilet and one bathroom shared by eight unrelated people must have been rather inconvenient.

The action ranges across the surrounding moorland, a farmhouse inhabited by a violent farmer and his beautiful wife, and a nearby market town. Cathcart also had a life in Paris that has to be investigated.

The Dowager Duchess of Denver arrives at the lodge to deal with Lady Mary. We were introduced to her in Whose Body? but in the second novel she is more entertaining than ever. She has long soliloquies that move from subject to subject as one thought leads her to another, but there is somehow a strange logic in what she says. She also provides what she refers to as her ‘mother wit’ to aid the investigation.

The inquiries in Paris, events in London and further adventures in Yorkshire bring Lord Peter and Parker closer to the truth.

Sayers's second Lord Peter Wimsey novel saw her character become more an action man
Sayers's second Lord Peter Wimsey novel
saw her character become more an action man
But then the Duke’s trial in the House of Lords, brilliantly described by Dorothy, gets under way as we get nearer to the end of the book.

The crime writer Martin Edwards has suggested that Clouds of Witness is the work of a novelist learning her craft but that it displays the storytelling qualities that soon made her famous.

I agree with this in part. I feel that Dorothy made large passages of the dialogue difficult to read by trying to reproduce the Yorkshire accent in print when Lord Peter is interviewing locals such as pub landlords and farmers.

She also allowed Lord Peter to chatter too much at the beginning of the book when he and Parker are sleuthing together. In real life the more ordinary detective inspector would probably have begun to find his inane conversation rather trying.

But she allows Lord Peter to become much more of a man of action than she did in her first novel, more along the lines of Margery Allingham’s Campion than Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Lord Peter is sucked into a bog while roaming over the moors at night and has to be rescued by Bunter with the help of some local labourers and he is shot and injured while chasing a suspect in London.

Near the end Lord Peter has to make a last minute dash to New York to secure a final piece of evidence to exonerate the Duke, which will reveal the truth about Cathcart’s death.

To be in time to present his evidence at the trial in the House of Lords he has to make a daring and dangerous flight back to London.

The Duke’s defence counsel, Sir Impey Biggs, explains to the court how Lord Peter is making a transatlantic dash to return before the end of the trial: ‘My Lords, at this moment this all-important witness is cleaving the air high above the wide Atlantic. In this wintry weather he is braving a peril which would appal any heart but his own and that of the world-famous aviator whose help he has enlisted, so that no moment may be lost in freeing his noble brother from this terrible charge. My lords, the barometer is falling.’

Lord Peter’s fictional flight was described in a novel published in 1926, a year before Charles Lindbergh was to achieve the same feat in reality.

The amateur detective arrives at the House of Lords looking ‘a very grubby and oily figure’ and presents the vital evidence that will exonerate his brother.

He also provides a satisfying conclusion to the mystery for the reader, which is one of the key ingredients of any crime novel.

Clouds of Witness is available in a variety of formats from or

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