The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop

Second Mrs Bradley mystery is full of the unexpected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Catholic priest was a master of the final twist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

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

7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Look to the Lady

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Suffolk woodland photo by Benjamin Thomas via Pixabay)


A Study in Scarlet

How Sherlock Holmes first met Dr Watson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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