Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon

A ‘creepy’ Christmas story with all the classic festive ingredients

John Jefferson Farjeon was a journalist who went on to be a successful novelist
John Jefferson Farjeon was a journalist who
went on to be a successful novelist
When a group of passengers trapped on a snowbound train on Christmas Eve decide to take their chances in the ‘curtain of whirling white’ to try to find shelter, the scene is set for an intriguing seasonal mystery.

No one answers the bell at the first house they find, but when they try the door handle it turns and they stumble inside with relief. The fires are lit, the table is set for tea, but surprisingly there is nobody at home.

It is obvious the occupants would not have ventured out in such extreme weather conditions unless there had been an emergency and the house has clearly been prepared for guests, so despite uncomfortable feelings of guilt, the train travellers warm themselves by the fire, eat the tea that has been prepared and set out to solve the mystery.

The main sleuthing brain belongs to an elderly gentleman, Mr Edward Maltby, of the Royal Psychical Society, who uses a mixture of reasoned logic and psychic intuition to try to work out what has happened to the occupants of the house.

He is ably assisted by a bright young man, David Carrington and his cheerful sister, Lydia, who has practical skills. A chorus girl, Jessie, who has fallen in the snow and sprained her ankle, a young clerk called Thomson who succumbs to ‘flu, Hopkins, an elderly bore, and Smith, a rough man who turns out to be a criminal, complete the Christmas house party.

A Mystery in White is a published as a British Library Crime Classic
Mystery in White is published as
a British Library Crime Classic
The author of Mystery in White, Joseph Jefferson Farjeon, was a crime and mystery novelist, playwright, and screen writer. Born in 1883, Farjeon worked for ten years for Amalgamated Press in London before going freelance. He went on to become the author of more than 60 crime and mystery novels, short story collections and plays.

He was a major figure during the Golden Age of murder mysteries between the two world wars and Dorothy L Sayers praised him for being ‘quite unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures.’

Farjeon was named after his maternal grandfather, Joseph Jefferson, who was an American actor. His father, Benjamin Farjeon, was a successful novelist, one of his brothers was a composer, another a drama critic and director, and his sister, Eleanor Farjeon, wrote poems, including the words for the hymn, Morning Has Broken.

Originally published in 1937, Mystery in White was republished as a British Library Crime Classic in 2014. Like most Golden Age mysteries, it has a satisfying, logical conclusion, brought about by the deductive powers of Mr Maltby and the heroics of David.

At the end of the story, the police inspector, who manages to reach the house on Christmas Day, remarks to his sergeant: “Four murders in a dozen hours! I reckon I’ve earned my bit of turkey.”

When the owners of the house return they are happy to forgive the intrusion by the party from the train. As Lydia had said earlier to the chorus girl, Jessie: “Suppose this house belonged to you and you returned to it after the world’s worst snowstorm, would you rather find your larder empty or seven skeletons?" 

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Christmas in Italy

A Christmas tree in Rome's Piazza Venezia is one of the city's familiar festive sights
A Christmas tree in Rome's Piazza Venezia is one
of the city's familiar festive sights
If you are a food lover, Italy is one of the best places to visit at Christmas, because the focus is firmly on the feasting, whichever region you choose to stay in.

On la Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve), a fish meal is traditionally consumed consisting of several different courses, after which the adults who are still able to move may go to midnight mass.

But Natale (Christmas Day) is the time for the serious feasting to start. While the children open their presents, the adults savour a glass of good prosecco or uncork a special vintage bottle to enjoy while they prepare the festive table.

Friends and relatives who drop in with presents, or to exchange good wishes, will be offered nuts, biscuits and torrone (nougat made in the city of Cremona in Lombardy.)

The antipasto course served at the beginning of the meal is likely to include Parma ham or bresaola - dried, cured beef - with preserved mushrooms, olives, and pickled vegetables.

Stuffed pasta is usually served as a primo piatto, first course, either in the shape of ravioli or tortellini, which originated in Emilia Romagna. This shape of pasta is said to have been inspired by a beautiful woman who was staying at an inn in the region. The innkeeper is reputed to have tried to spy on her through a keyhole but all he could see was her navel.

Panettone is a traditional part of the Italian family table at Christmas
Panettone is a traditional part of the Italian
family table at Christmas
Tortellini in brodo, traditionally served in capon broth, remains a classic Christmas day dish in Italy.

For the main course, turkey or capon is likely to be served with potatoes and vegetables as side dishes.

The traditional end to the meal is almost always panettone, served warm, accompanied by a glass of sparkling wine.

Italian folklore has it that panettone was concocted by a Milanese baker, Antonio (Toni), to impress his girlfriend one Christmas in the 15th century. The result was so successful that ‘Pane de Toni’ has become a regular feature of the Christmas season all over Italy and now even abroad.

The feasting and family parties continue on 26 December, the festa di Santo Stefano (Boxing Day).

A Happy Christmas and Buon Natale to all my readers.



Tenant for Death by Cyril Hare

Inspector Mallett joins the ranks of fictional detectives who like a good lunch

Tenant for Death is published by Faber and Faber
Tenant for Death is published
by Faber and Faber
When two young estate agent’s clerks are sent to check an inventory on a house in South Kensington they find the dead body of a man on the premises, an item that was definitely not on their list.

Tenant for Death, published in 1937, is the first crime novel written by the detective novelist Cyril Hare, and it introduces his series sleuth, the formidable Inspector Mallett of Scotland Yard.

Set in the world of high finance as it was in the 1930s, Tenant for Death is ‘an ingenious story’ to use the words of the Times Literary Supplement review. It provides Mallett with a difficult and puzzling mystery to solve and establishes the Inspector as a thinking detective with a love of good food.

The murder victim turns out to be a businessman who had a lot of enemies. The police spend a great deal of time trying to establish the identity of the mysterious man who has rented the house where the body has been found and we do not find out who he really was and what has become of him until the last pages of the book.

Some of the suspects are extremely plausible characters in their own right and the reader can feel varying degrees of sympathy for them.

The author shows his detailed knowledge of the legal district of London as we follow Mallett along its streets and through its alleyways. I thought Tenant for Death was very well written and an interesting story, considering it was Hare’s first published detective novel.

Cyril Hare was, in fact, the pen name for Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, who was born in 1900 in Mickleham in Surrey and became a barrister and a judge.

Cyril Hare was a psuedonym for the barrister Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark
Cyril Hare was a psuedonym for the
barrister Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark

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 along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and many other famous crime writers.

After the war, Hare - as Clark - 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 Hare’s 1942 novel, Tragedy at Law, which is considered by many to be his best work.

Although I enjoyed Tragedy at Law when I reviewed it for this website, I actually preferred Tenant for Death, finding it a more compelling story with well-drawn characters and a very clever ending.

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Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

An author famous for Regency romances has a stab at a country house mystery

The Cornerstone edition of Footsteps in the Dark
The Cornerstone edition of
Footsteps in the Dark
Prolific writer Georgette Heyer is famous for creating the Regency England genre of romantic novels, which were inspired by her love of Jane Austen’s books and were meticulously researched and full of period detail.

Georgette is probably less well known for her detective fiction, which she began writing in 1932 when she produced a country house mystery, Footsteps in the Dark.

She wrote the novel while awaiting the birth of her son, Richard George Rougier, and afterwards said dismissively that she did not claim it as ‘a major work’.

For the next few years, Georgette published one romance novel and one detective novel every year. The romances always outsold the detective novels, which may be why Georgette is chiefly remembered for them.

Her son, Richard, once said that Georgette regarded the writing of a detective story as similar to tackling a crossword puzzle, an intellectual diversion before harder tasks had to be faced.

It has been claimed that Georgette’s husband, George Rougier, a mining engineer who later became a barrister, often provided her with the plots and that she created the characters and the relationships and brought the plot points to life.

Georgette’s detective novels have been praised mostly for their humour. The New York Times wrote: ‘Rarely have we seen humour and mystery so perfectly blended.’ The Daily Mail once referred to Georgette as: ‘The wittiest of detective story writers.’

The novels were all set in the period in which they were written and the humour comes from the characters and the dialogue that takes place between them.

I was keen to read her first detective novel, Footsteps in the Dark, and I was not disappointed. 

Georgette Heyer wrote her debut detective novel while pregnant
Georgette Heyer wrote her debut
detective novel while pregnant
Two sisters, Celia and Margaret, and their brother, Peter, inherit an old country house called The Priory from their uncle. The property has not been lived in for many years because their uncle preferred to live elsewhere, but the three of them and Celia’s husband, Charles, decide to spend a few weeks holiday at The Priory. They soon learn from the local people that the house is believed to be haunted but are determined not to be frightened into leaving.

When they hear peculiar noses and a skeleton falls out of a secret cupboard, they try to find out more from the other residents in the village. Then a murder is committed and they feel they have to stay in the house and solve the mystery. I thought it was a carefully plotted story, with believable characters and a satisfying solution at the end.

Georgette produced 12 detective novels in total, between 1932 and 1953 when her final novel, Detection Unlimited was published.

She believed that publicity was not necessary for good sales and, wishing to maintain her privacy, refused to grant interviews, which is perhaps another reason her detective stories have been overlooked. 

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Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham

Campion risks his life to try to bring an audacious killer to justice

The Vintage edition of  Death of a Ghost
The Vintage edition of 
Death of a Ghost
Death of a Ghost,
Margery Allingham’s sixth novel to feature the gentleman adventurer Albert Campion, was first published in the UK in 1934.

In a note about Campion at the beginning of the book, the author observes that her hero is an adventurer, whose exploits are sometimes picaresque, as in Mystery Mile and Sweet Danger, but he sometimes faces grave difficulties, as in Police at the Funeral. She warns that Death of a Ghost falls into the second category.

When the story starts, preparations are being made for a party at the London home of John Lafcadio, an artist who has been dead for 18 years. It is the eve of the annual ceremony for the unveiling of one of the series of 12 paintings he has left behind in a bid to keep his memory alive.

Campion, who is a friend of the painter’s widow, Belle, visits her the day before the ceremony and attends the unveiling occasion the following evening. When the ceremony is interrupted by a daring and particularly brutal murder, Campion calls in his good friend, Inspector Stanislaus Oates to investigate.

Suspicion falls on a member of the family, but the police can’t find enough proof to make an arrest. But when another murder is committed at the property, Campion decides to investigate for himself to help his old friend, Belle.

I found the novel slow at first, while lots of characters were being introduced and described. The action didn’t really get under way until page 50.

Throughout the novel, Campion seems passive, not behaving at all like the action man that he was in Sweet Danger.

In another departure from her previous stories, Margery reveals that Campion has guessed the identity of the killer and names the person about 100 pages from the end of the book. He says he has no means of proving it and fears for Belle’s safety, lamenting to Inspector Oates that he is being outwitted by the killer.

Campion seems strangely trusting to accept an invitation for a drink at the suspect’s apartment and then to go out to dinner with a person he feels sure has committed two murders.

Peter Davison played Albert Campion in a  BBC TV adaptation of Death of a Ghost
Peter Davison played Albert Campion in a 
BBC TV adaptation of Death of a Ghost
He allows himself to fall into a trap set for him by the suspect and then the action heats up with Campion’s life in danger.

The writer Margery Allingham was born in 1904 in London and began writing at the age of eight when she had a story published in a magazine.

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, 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 Dorothy L Sayers’s hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, but Campion matured as the series of books progressed and proved there was a lot more to him, becoming increasingly popular with readers.

Margery Allingham is regarded as one of the four great Queens of Crime from the Golden Age of detective fiction. One of her fellow Queens of Crime, Agatha Christie, once said of the author: “Margery Allingham stands out like a shining light.”

Reviewers have identified Death of A Ghost as a proper detective story rather than a high-spirited thriller, but it differs from other detective stories of the time by having the sleuth identify the killer and share his knowledge with the reader considerably before the end of the book. The reader must wait for proof that Campion is right and to find out whether the police will have enough evidence to arrest the suspect and bring him to justice. But like all good mystery writers, Margery keeps a few surprises up her sleeve until the end of the story.

Death of a Ghost was filmed for the BBC in 1960, when Campion was played by Bernard Horstall, and then again in 1989, when the role was played by Peter Davison.

Vintage Books, part of the Penguin Random House Group, have now republished all Margery’s novels featuring her series detective Albert Campion.

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Death at the Opera by Gladys Mitchell

Inoffensive’ female victim had a long list of enemies

The Death at the Opera edition published by Vintage Publishing
The Death at the Opera edition
published by Vintage Publishing
Mrs Bradley uses all her skills as a psychoanalyst to find out who is guilty of the murder of a teacher during a performance of the comic Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Mikado at an experimental co-educational school.

Author Gladys Mitchell evokes the school setting very well, revealing what she thought of some of the work and the rituals she herself was involved in during her long career as a schoolteacher.

Eccentric sleuth Mrs Bradley is called in to investigate by the headmaster of Hillmaston School after a young arithmetic teacher is found drowned in a cloakroom before she can make her entrance during the opera production in the role of Katisha.  Another teacher had to take over the part at the last minute and gave a magnificent performance.

Mrs Bradley is very clever in the way she talks to both staff and pupils and persuades them to open up to her. Gladys comes up with some believable, if eccentric characters, revealing what she must have thought about some of her teaching colleagues over the years.

The author brings back the Reverend Noel Wells, who was Mrs Bradley’s ‘Watson’ in her fourth novel, The Saltmarsh Murders. He becomes Mrs Bradley's sleuthing partner again when she travels to Bognor Regis to investigate the murder victim’s past. At one stage he puts his own life in danger to test one of her theories.

They encounter a man who has been acquitted in court of murdering his wife and Mrs Bradley, showing no fear, offers herself as bait in order to see what he is capable of. With the help of Noel, she ends up solving a different murder.

Author Gladys Mitchell keeps the reader guessing until the final pages
Author Gladys Mitchell keeps the
reader guessing until the final pages
Death at the Opera, originally published in 1934, is written in a very elegant and witty style and Mrs Bradley is presented as a more rounded person and less of a caricature than she was in the earlier books.

The detective cleverly draws up a list of people with a motive, and a list of those with the opportunity to commit the crime. She eventually dismisses all the people with a motive and all the people who had the opportunity. She then makes a list of all the attributes the murderer must have had to commit the crime and not give themselves away. This helps her to solve the case.

Mrs Bradley also solves the offstage murder of a woman who has drowned in an ornamental pond in the grounds of a mental hospital, who had been the wife of the music teacher at the school.

Gladys keeps the reader guessing until the last pages of the book, when she produces an incredible surprise.

I would agree with a review in the Observer newspaper, which said: “Mrs Lestrange Bradley is by far the best and most vital English female detective.” I think her fifth outing in Death at the Opera shows her at her most bizarre and brilliant.

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The Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth

A Miss Silver mystery with a bonus romance for the reader

The action in The Chinese Shawl takes place among guests at a country house
The action in The Chinese Shawl takes place
among guests at a country house
After reading The Chinese Shawl, I was delighted to discover that Patricia Wentworth’s fifth mystery to feature her series detective, Miss Silver, was her best so far. The Chinese Shawl, which was first published in 1943, was less of a thriller, or novel of suspense like her first four Miss Silver stories, and more of a whodunnit.

However, the murder victim was portrayed by the author as such an unpleasant character that until their violent death 120 pages into the book, I was thinking more along the lines of ‘when are they going to do it?’ or, ‘I wish they would just get on with it and do it,’ until the murderer strikes at last.

The novel is set against the backdrop of World War II and features a group of young people, who are all closely connected with each other, attending a weekend house party at an old house called the Priory. Some of the men are enjoying leave, or are convalescing after being wounded, and a tangle of troubled relationships and past liaisons between them and the women add to the tension.

Unusually, for what is essentially a crime novel, there is a romance at the heart of the book and a family feud potentially standing in its way. Although the previous Miss Silver mysteries usually had a couple falling in love among the characters, the romance element in this novel is far more closely tied up with the plot

The Chinese Shawl is the fifth Miss Silver mystery
The Chinese Shawl is the
fifth Miss Silver mystery
Patricia Wentworth, who was born in October 1877, 145 years ago this month, supplies the reader with interesting details about life during World War II, such as the blackout rules, the damage caused by air raids, the plight of evacuees and the strain caused by the war on relationships, making the book still fresh and interesting for new readers in 2022.

Miss Silver has been invited in her capacity as a private detective by an old school friend to stay at the Priory and try to solve a series of thefts that have been happening. The lady detective gets to the bottom of the thefts quickly, but is still staying in the house when the murder takes place.

The detection element mainly consists of the police superintendent, Randal March, listening patiently to Miss Silver’s theories about the case, which are based on her instincts and judgment of character. The reason for his forbearance is that Miss Silver used to be his governess. Miss Silver produces a large quantity of pale pink and pale blue knitted matinee jackets and bootees while she is discussing the case with him throughout the story.

The plot is as intricately constructed as the baby clothes and, right at the centre of it, is the Chinese shawl of the title, a colourful garment worn by one of the main characters.

The murderer is not revealed until the end of the book, after the author has skilfully misdirected the reader during the last few chapters, while playing completely within the rules.

I enjoyed the first four Miss Silver mysteries but thought The Chinese Shawl was even better. I would recommend the novel to detective fiction readers who like a bit of romance on the side and enjoy a well-defined period setting.

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Vintage Murder by Ngaio Marsh

Novelist draws on her love for New Zealand and the theatre

Vintage Murder begins as Roderick Alleyn makes a train journey across New Zealand
Vintage Murder begins as Roderick Alleyn
makes a train journey across New Zealand 
Ngaio Marsh transports her upper class, English sleuth, Roderick Alleyn, to her native New Zealand in Vintage Murder, her fifth novel to feature the Scotland Yard detective.

Alleyn is on holiday while recovering from an operation and the story begins as he makes a long journey by train across New Zealand. On the train, he encounters a travelling theatrical troupe and among them is Susan Max, a character actress he had met in Enter a Murderer, Ngaio’s second novel. The detective had encountered the actress while he was investigating a murder that occurred on stage during the performance of a play at a West End theatre.

He gets talking to different members of the troupe, which is run by Incorporated Playhouses, and it is not far into the story when Alfred Meyer, the owner of Incorporated Playhouses, who is married to the leading lady, Carolyn Dacres, reveals to Alleyn that someone has tried to push him off the train.

After the train has arrived at its destination, Carolyn invites Alleyn to see the first night of the play and to her birthday celebrations with the rest of the company on the stage afterwards. At the party, as a surprise for his wife, Meyer has arranged for a jeroboam of champagne to descend gently on to the dinner table from above, but something goes horribly wrong and the theatrical manager is killed.

The latest HarperCollins edition of Ngaio Marsh's Vintage Murder
The latest HarperCollins edition
of Ngaio Marsh's Vintage Murder
It soon becomes obvious that the mechanism set up for the stunt has been tampered with and Alleyn is invited by the local police to sit in on their investigation. He sets aside his holiday plans to try to help them catch the murderer.

Vintage Murder, which was published in 1937, enables Ngaio Marsh to describe the scenery of her homeland as seen through Alleyn’s eyes. He meets a Māori doctor, Rangi Te Pokiha, and buys a Māori fertility pendant, a ‘tiki’, which plays an important part in the plot.

Vintage Murder was one of four Alleyn novels adapted for New Zealand television in 1977, when the role of Alleyn was played by the actor George Baker.

Ngaio’s inspiration for the travelling theatrical troupe was the Alan Wilkie Company, which she was once a part of, so it is not surprising that the characters and their behaviour come across as so real in the story.

The story does consist of a long series of interviews conducted by Alleyn along with the New Zealand police officers, which many on line reviewers have complained about, but I still think it is a well written novel that presents a good mystery for the armchair detective to try to solve, and I would recommend it.

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The true identity of detective novelist Michael Innes

Academic created a series detective who went on to have a 50-year career

The cover of the Agora Books edition of the first Appleby novel
The cover of the Agora Books
edition of the first Appleby novel
Michael Innes, who has entertained millions of crime fiction fans with his novels and short stories featuring Scotland Yard Detective Inspector John Appleby, was also a distinguished academic who was well known for his works of literary criticism.

Innes, who was born in 1906 in Edinburgh, 116 years ago today, was, in fact, John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, who became a university professor and published more than 20 contemporary novels and volumes of short stories under his real name.

Between 1936 and 1986, Stewart, writing under the pseudonym, Michael Innes, also published nearly 50 crime novels and short stories.  

The author had attended Edinburgh Academy and went on to study English Literature at Oriel College, Oxford. He went to Vienna to study psychoanalysis and on his return became a lecturer in English at the University of Leeds.

He became Jury Professor in English at the University of Adelaide in South Australia and then a lecturer in English at the Queen’s University of Belfast.

In 1949, he became a Student of Christ Church, Oxford, a position that was the equivalent of being a Fellow at other Oxford colleges. He was a professor of the university by the time of his retirement from academia in 1973.

Innes was able to use his knowledge of university life as the setting for his first Appleby novel, Death at the President’s Lodging, which features a murder at a fictitious college belonging to a fictitious university.

The reader first sees Appleby being driven out of Scotland Yard in ‘a great yellow Bentley’ to the crime scene in the President’s Lodging at St Anthony’s College, which purports to be at a university situated in the vicinity of Bletchley, about halfway between Oxford and Cambridge. A useful line-drawing of a map showing the layout of St Anthony’s had been provided for the reader at the beginning of the book.

John Innes Mackintosh Stewart - alias Michael Innes - pictured in 1973
John Innes Mackintosh Stewart - alias
Michael Innes - pictured in 1973
In the first paragraph on the first page, Innes announces that the President of St Anthony’s College, Josiah Umpleby, has been found murdered in his lodging.  Appleby has been quickly dispatched on the orders of the Home Secretary to take over from the local Inspector and handle the investigation.

Inspector Dodd, who is an old friend of Appleby’s, explains that the college is locked up at the same time every night and only a small, select group have their own keys and would have been able to access the President’s Lodging. He shows Appleby the dead body, still lying in the President’s library, with its head swathed in a black, academic gown, next to a skull and a scattering of human bones.

By the end of the first chapter, Appleby has realised he is up against an ingenious and somewhat whimsical murderer. The scene has been set and the hunt is on, with the reader able to sit back and enjoy the rest of the novel.

The story is told in an entertaining writing style and Innes allows his own interest in the genre of detective stories to shine through in conversations Appleby has with the dons while staying in their college as a guest.

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Strong Poison

Author departs from tradition by letting her detective fall in love

Strong Poison is the fifth of Dorothy L Sayers's Wimsey novels
Strong Poison is the fifth of
Dorothy L Sayers's Wimsey novels
Dorothy L Sayers allows her noble sleuth to have a love interest in Strong Poison, the fifth novel she wrote featuring the exploits of amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey.

The author introduces the character of Harriet Vane, a crime novelist, who, like Wimsey, is Oxford educated and has had an unhappy time romantically.

When Wimsey sees Harriet Vane for the first time, she is in the dock, accused of the murder of her ex-lover, the poet Philip Boyes.

Strong Poison, which was published in 1930, is considered to be a major departure for a Golden Age mystery as it shows the detective falling in love with a woman accused of the murder that is central to the plot.

Dorothy L Sayers fans have speculated that the writer modelled Harriet Vane on herself. The writer had suffered a romantic disappointment and by creating the long-drawn-out romance between Harriet Vane and Wimsey, which was to run through four novels, it allowed her to have a vicarious affair with the detective herself, far-fetched though this might seem now.

Dorothy had been very impressed with the novel Trent’s Last Case by E C Bentley, published in 1913. In the story, the detective, Philip Trent, falls in love with the wife of the murder victim.

Right until the end of the novel the reader does not know for certain that the wife is not the murderer. E C Bentley’s novel was intended as a send up of the classic crime story and it also involves the hero detective identifying the wrong person as the murderer close to the end of the story, completely at odds with the conventions of the genre. But Dorothy, along with many other readers, really liked the novel and went on record as saying that Bentley’s novel ‘holds a very special place in the history of detective fiction.’

In Strong Poison, the victim, Harriet’s ex-lover Philip Boyes, has died from arsenic poisoning. He has attempted to engineer a reconciliation with Harriet on the night of his death and she has given him a cup of coffee while listening to what he had to say. She is accused of the murder because she is found to have bought poison under an assumed name. She has claimed this was to test one of the plot points in the crime novel she is currently writing.

Sayers herself had suffered a romantic disappointment
Sayers herself had suffered
a romantic disappointment
Fortunately, the trial results in a hung jury and the judge has to order a retrial. With no time to lose, Wimsey visits Harriet in prison to tell her he is convinced of her innocence and is determined to catch the real murderer. He also asks her to marry him, but she turns him down politely.

The jury has failed to return a unanimous verdict because one person sitting on it could not bring herself to believe in Harriet’s guilt. This is Miss Katharine Climpson, a spinster who, coincidentally, sometimes works for Wimsey by carrying out inquiries and undercover work because she has to live in difficult financial circumstances and needs to earn some money.

Wimsey deploys her to gather evidence for his inquiry and, in one hilarious scene, she is obliged to pose as a medium and hold a séance to obtain the information he needs. Miss Climpson first appeared doing undercover work for Wimsey in the novel, Unnatural Death, two years before Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, also a spinster with a talent for detection, was introduced on the crime fiction scene.

As well as being an intriguing mystery, Strong Poison explores some of the issues of the time, such as sex before marriage and the double standards that were applied to the behaviour of men and women. The novel is intricately plotted and written in a very entertaining style and I would highly recommend that you read it. 

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The Secret of Chimneys

A light-hearted caper with a satisfying ending

The cover of the 2017 edition,  published by Harper Collins
The cover of the 2017 edition, 
published by Harper Collins
Agatha Christie once again chose the adventure story format for her fifth novel, The Secret of Chimneys, rather than the detective story conventions she had employed in her first and third novels, which both featured her Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot.

Published in 1925, The Secret of Chimneys details the exploits of a good-looking young adventurer, Anthony Cade. The story starts in Africa, moves to England and is influenced by the political intrigues going on in the Balkan state of Herzoslovakia.

Needing money and looking for a new adventure, Cade accepts two jobs from a friend. He has to deliver some potentially controversial political memoirs safely to a publisher in London and restore some stolen letters to a woman who has been blackmailed because of them.

Linking these two jobs is an English country house called Chimneys, which is famous for hosting informal weekend parties, where politicians, heads of corporations and foreign dignitaries are able to mingle socially and conduct their business privately in its comfortable surroundings.

A shooting party is to take place at Chimneys, to be hosted reluctantly by its owner, Lord Caterham, who has been asked to assist the Government. Prince Michael of Oblovic is to be a guest at the party and it is anticipated that important Government business will be done.

In the course of carrying out his tasks, Cade goes to Chimneys himself. A murder occurs in the house just after he arrives, starting off a series of fast-paced events. Cade finds himself caught up in an international conspiracy and it soon becomes obvious that someone will stop at nothing to prevent the monarchy being restored in faraway Herzoslovakia.

ITV reimagined the story as a Miss Marple mystery, with Julie McKenzie as Marple
ITV reimagined the story as a Miss Marple
mystery, with Julie McKenzie as Marple
Despite the presence in the house of officers from both Scotland Yard and the French Surete, Cade has to pursue his own ideas in order to find the murderer, to be with Virginia, the woman he has fallen in love with, and ultimately fulfil his own destiny.  

Agatha Christie, who was born 132 years ago today in 1890, was widely praised for writing The Secret of Chimneys. Reviewers said it was more than just a murder mystery as it involved a treasure hunt. In July 1925, The Times Literary Supplement praised the ‘most unexpected and highly satisfactory ending’ of the story.

The novel has since been called ‘a first-class romp’ and been judged to be one of the author’s best early thrillers. I thought it was a light-hearted caper and found it enjoyable to read. I admired the way Agatha kept the ‘secret’ of Chimneys up her sleeve right to the end.  

The novel introduced the characters of Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard and Lady Eileen ‘Bundle’ Brent, who were both to appear in later novels.

It was the last of Agatha’s crime novels to be published by Bodley Head as the author then moved to Collins, later to become Harper Collins. It is known to have been translated into 17 different languages.

The Secret of Chimneys was adapted as a stage play by Agatha in 1931, but its world premiere did not actually take place until 2003 in Canada. It has also been adapted for television and as a graphic novel, although a version made by ITV in 2010 turned it into a Miss Marple mystery and took several other liberties with the plot.

The fictional Eastern European country of Herzoslovakia is also referenced in two Poirot stories, The Stymphalian Birds and One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.

Agatha went on to become 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 online 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.

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Danger Point by Patricia Wentworth

Not so much a whodunit, more a question of who is trying to do it

Danger Point was first  published in 1941
Danger Point was first 
published in 1941
The self-effacing, elderly lady detective, Maud Silver, is sitting on a train about to depart to London when a young woman who is clearly very upset bursts into her compartment.

The woman is a wealthy heiress, Lisle Jerningham, who has recently got married and should have been blissfully happy. But she has overheard a sinister conversation in the garden of a country house, which has terrified her.

Lisle confides in Miss Silver about fleeing from the house party she had been attending after hearing total strangers discussing how her husband’s first wife died in an apparent accident. After Lisle’s new husband inherited his first wife’s considerable fortune, he was able to save his family home. The unknown people seemed to think her husband was broke again and were speculating about whether he would attempt to engineer a second convenient misadventure.

Miss Silver does her best to calm Lisle down and gives the distraught young woman her business card in case she wants to consult her professionally at any time.

But the beautiful heiress has mixed emotions once she has started to feel better. She loves her new husband, Dale Jerningham, and can’t allow herself to believe that he would wish to harm her, even though she has started to wonder about a recent incident when she nearly drowned while swimming with him and other members of his family.

Miss Silver does not know whether Lisle really is in danger or is simply being paranoid. But after another attempt is made on Lisle’s life, the young wife gets in touch with her at her London office and then subsequently cancels the appointment she has made. After reading in the newspaper that another young woman has been found dead near Lisle’s coastal home, the detective decides to travel there in order to investigate further.

Danger Point is Patricia Wentworth’s fourth Miss Silver novel and was first published in 1941. Like her previous Miss Silver story, Lonesome Road, it  involves a rich young woman who someone is trying to kill. But is it Lisle’s handsome husband, another member of his family, or a disgruntled former employee?

Patricia Wentworth could draw on a depth of life experiences
Patricia Wentworth could draw
on a depth of life experiences
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 eventually discovers she is a retired governess with a passion for Tennyson as well as for knitting.

I would recommend Danger Point, which is very well written with good descriptions of the coastal scenery that form the backdrop for the story. Patricia maintains the mystery and the suspense right until the end. It is less a question of whodunit and more a matter of the reader finding out who is trying to do it.

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Murder in Blue

Author was a bank clerk by day and a novelist by night

A new edition of Murder in Blue was published in 2021
A new edition of Murder in Blue
was published in 2021
Clifford Witting, who was born on this day in 1907, 115 years ago today, in Lewisham in Kent, was one of the younger of the Golden Age mystery writers. He worked as a clerk for Lloyds Bank during the day and wrote 16 detective novels in the evenings, between 1937 and 1964.

His first novel, Murder in Blue, was republished in 2021 by Galileo Publishers, making it available again for present day fans of vintage detective stories to read and enjoy. The novel was written while Witting was commuting to London for his day job and he would work on it every night, despite the distractions of becoming a young father.

Witting set a lot of his mysteries in the small town of Paulsfield in the county of Downshire behind the South Downs, which was based on the town of Petersfield in Hampshire. He included many details about Petersfield as it was in the 1930s, even describing the statue of King William III mounted on a horse that stands in the market place, although in the fictional town of his novel, he says it is the statue of a local lord.  

He had a flair for describing settings and wrote in a witty style. He also experimented with the conventions of the detective story, showing his fascination with the genre.

His protagonist in Murder in Blue, John Rutherford, runs a bookshop that stocks detective fiction. He employs a young assistant, George, who is fascinated with whodunits and is thrilled when his employer becomes involved in a real-life murder case.

Rutherford is out walking one evening when he discovers the body of a young police officer lying in a lane on the outskirts of the town. The police officer appears to have been bludgeoned to death. Rutherford tries to think quickly and uses what he believes to be the police officer’s bicycle to cycle to the police station and report the tragedy.

Clifford Witting worked as a bank clerk by day
Clifford Witting worked as
a bank clerk by day
He is later taken back to the scene of the crime by the investigating officer, Inspector Charlton, so that he can point out the tracks he himself has left in the sodden ground and help the Inspector identify any clues that have been left by the murderer. He is also called to give evidence at the inquest and soon becomes on friendly terms with the detective.

The story is given additional interest by the complication that Rutherford has recently fallen in love with a beautiful young woman after their cars collided in the fog. A love interest in a detective story was frowned on in those days by other Golden Age writers, but in Murder in Blue it is an additional source of suspense for the reader. I found myself wondering how the relationship would turn out and whether it would have anything to do with the murder.

Witting’s two series characters, Sergeant - later Inspector - Peter Bradford and Inspector Harry Charlton, appear in most of his 16 books.

During World War II, Witting served as a bombardier in the Royal Artillery and a Warrant Officer in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. He joined the Detection Club in 1958, 11 years after the original publication of Murder in Blue, at a time when Agatha Christie was the president. Witting died in 1968 in Surrey.

Newspaper critics of the time gave his books good reviews, saying he produced interesting puzzles with ingenious solutions and that he played fair with the reader. I would definitely recommend Murder in Blue, as I think it is a good read and keeps up the whodunit element well. The novel also provides an interesting snapshot of life at the time it was set. 

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