Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Police at the Funeral


Campion shows us his detection skills and solves the mystery before the cops

Mr Albert Campion is asked by Joyce, the fiancée of one of his friends, to trace a distant relative she calls Uncle Andrew, who has gone missing from the house in Cambridge where they both live.

But before Campion and Joyce have even left London for Cambridge, they find out that the body of Uncle Andrew has been found in a river. He had been bound hand and foot with cord and shot in the head.

In this fourth novel to feature the mysterious Mr Campion, the author, Margery Allingham, allows hints to be dropped by one of the characters that Campion is from a prominent British aristocratic family, giving the reader a tantalising clue about who he really is.

Campion takes Joyce back to Socrates Close, the large mausoleum where she lives with her Great Aunt, Caroline Faraday, the widow of a famous Cambridge academic, and the other members of the strange and dysfunctional family, who she helps Mrs Faraday to take care of.

Then Campion goes to see his old friend Marcus Featherstone, who is a solicitor and Joyce’s fiancĂ©, to get some background about the case. When Marcus asks for his professional assistance, Campion says: ‘I must warn you. I’m no detective, but of course I’m open to help. What d’you think I can do for you exactly?’ This is interesting because although we see him go on to use his skills to solve the murder, he clearly does not see himself as a detective.

From the previous novels, we know that Campion is well-educated, with quiet authority and that he is not afraid to put himself in danger to help others. He lives above a police station in London with an eccentric manservant and is reputed to be a good man to call upon in a crisis. He appears to be more of a gentleman adventurer than a private detective.

Nevertheless, he goes to Socrates Close to meet the formidable Caroline Faraday, who, because she thinks she knows his family, invites him to stay.

He uses his skill and experience to work out what is going on at Socrates Close when a second member of the family dies and another one is injured while they are both still inside the house.

Campion follows up the clues he finds, such as the mysterious symbol drawn on the outside of one of the library windows and a huge footprint found in the flower bed below.

Although he works alongside his policeman friend, Stanislaus Oates, a senior Scotland Yard detective, it is Campion who works out what has been happening in the house and exposes the person responsible.

Police at the Funeral, the fourth Campion novel, was published in Britain in 1931 and is the first of the series not to have organised crime as a plot element. Instead, it is about a wealthy family living together in a big house who are constantly having petty squabbles. It is the first real detective story by Margery and is considered by many of her readers to be one of her best novels. She was later judged to be one of the four Queens of Crime, along with her contemporaries, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, who were also writing during the Golden Age of detective fiction.

 

 

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

A well-plotted novel that offers a glimpse of life after the First World War

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is the fourth Wimsey novel
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona
Club
is the fourth Wimsey novel
The fourth Lord Peter Wimsey novel by Dorothy L Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, begins with Wimsey chatting with an acquaintance, Captain George Fentiman, in the bar of the Bellona Club on the evening of Armistice Day. 

They joke about the club being like a morgue or funeral parlour, recalling a cartoon in the humorous magazine, Punch, in which an elderly member of a gentleman’s club summons a waiter to remove a fellow member from his chair on the grounds that he had been “dead for two days”.

Fentiman points out that his grandfather, General Fentiman, comes in every morning at 10 am, collects the Morning Post, settles into the armchair by the fire and becomes part of the furniture until the evening.

When Wimsey’s dinner companion, Colonel Marchbanks, arrives he goes to speak to General Fentiman who is still in his chair by the fire. He comes back to Wimsey and tells him something ‘rather unpleasant’ has happened.

It transpires that while they have been joking at the bar, old General Fentiman really was dead in his chair. A doctor is called and says rigor mortis is already well established.

Most of the action in the novel, first published in London in 1928, takes place in the fictional club for war veterans that Sayers has invented.

Doctor Penberthy, General Fentiman’s personal physician, certifies death by natural causes but is unable to give the exact time of his passing. This turns out to be rather crucial.  As it happens, his wealthy sister had died on the morning of Armistice Day. If she had passed away first, the General would have inherited her fortune, which would then be left to his grandsons, Captain George and Major Robert Fentiman, who could both do with the money.

The brothers ask Wimsey to investigate, because unless they can prove that the General died after his sister, the entire fortune would go to her young, female companion.

Sayers was short of money until her novels took off
Sayers was short of money
until her novels took off
The novel paints an interesting picture of life in Britain after the First World War. Captain George Fentiman is still suffering from post-traumatic stress and his physical injuries have left him unable to work. He is dependent on his wife keeping them both on her earnings from a low-paid job and they are having to live in uncomfortable lodgings.

He is bitter that all he has been given by his country is the privilege of marching past the Cenotaph on Armistice Day, and yet serving in the war has cost him his job, his income and his good health.

Sayers herself knew what it was like to live on a low income in London between the wars and did not become prosperous until her Lord Peter Wimsey novels became a success. 

There was a time when she was so hard up and short of money for food she considered taking a job as a teacher. Finally, in her 30th year, she sold the detective novel she had been working on in her spare time, Whose Body? which introduces Lord Peter Wimsey.

Sayers herself said of her creation of Wimsey: ’At the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room, I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly… I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes.’

Once Wimsey has started his investigation on behalf of the brothers, he finds establishing the time of the General’s death difficult. Unusually, no one saw the old man arrive at the Club on the morning of Armistice Day and can swear to him having been alive at that point. Eventually, Wimsey has to have the body exhumed and re-examined.

After discovering that the General had been poisoned, Wimsey tracks down the murderer, who then shoots himself in the Bellona Club library.

More unpleasantness for the members of the club to complain about!

This fourth Lord Peter Wimsey novel from Dorothy L Sayers, who was, in her day, judged to be one of the Queens of Crime, is definitely worth reading.

It is available from or

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Monday, January 17, 2022

The Man in the Brown Suit

A fast-moving thriller that keeps the reader guessing until the end

The latest paperback edition of The Man in the Brown Suit
The latest paperback edition of
The Man in the Brown Suit
Reading Agatha Christie’s novels again in order of publication is proving to be good fun because there is so much variety in the early stories as Agatha tries out new characters and different slants on the detective mystery format.

Agatha’s fourth novel, The Man in the Brown Suit, published in 1924, is very different from The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Murder on the Links, the first two Poirot novels and also nothing like The Secret Adversary, her first Tommy and Tuppence novel.

The novel has a pretty young heroine, Anne Beddingfield, who has long yearned for adventures, love and romance. When her professor father dies, leaving her alone in the world with a very small sum of money, she heads to London, where she witnesses the death of a man who falls from the platform at an underground station and is electrocuted on the rails.

The police decide it is an accidental death but Anne wonders about a man in a brown suit who she saw examine the body before running away. She has picked up a piece of paper that had been dropped nearby and armed with just one cryptic clue she vows to track down the man in the brown suit and achieve justice for the dead man. The message on the paper eventually leads to her boarding a ship bound for South Africa.

According to the official Agatha Christie website, the novel was partly inspired by a tour Agatha had made of the British Commonwealth with her first husband. Afterwards, Agatha wrote the story sitting in her Earl’s Court flat, finding inspiration for her descriptions of African landscapes by evoking her memories of them.

The Man in the Brown Suit is the first of her novels to feature an appearance by Secret Service agent Colonel Race, who assists Anne in her search for the truth. Colonel Race reappears in three later novels, Cards on the Table, Death on the Nile and Sparkling Cyanide.

Agatha Christie used her first payment from her fourth novel to buy a Morris Cowley like this one
Agatha Christie used her first payment from her
fourth novel to buy a Morris Cowley like this one
Towards the end of the story, Agatha describes Anne’s feelings as she falls in love very convincingly and in a complete departure from the style of her writing in her previous three novels.

However, she keeps the reader guessing  as to the identity of the villain right until the end of the book in true Agatha Christie style.

The Man in the Brown Suit is less a novel of detection and more of a fast-moving thriller that is typical of its period. It had mixed reviews when it was first published because some reviewers were disappointed that it was not a Poirot novel. This seems rather unfair. Surely, they would have realised that authors like to experiment?

It was not all bad news for Agatha though, as the £500 she received for the first publication of this story paid for her first car, a grey, bullnose Morris Cowley.

Even though the novel is nearly 100 years old, I would definitely recommend giving The Man in the Brown Suit a try. 

It is available from or


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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

An Oxford Tragedy

A classic detective story by a writer of multiple talents

An Oxford Tragedy is available as a Kindle ebook
An Oxford Tragedy is available
as a Kindle ebook
John Cecil Masterman was probably the first writer to set a murder mystery in a fictional Oxford College with his novel,  An Oxford Tragedy, published in 1933. This was two years before Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers appeared and three years before the publication of Death at the President’s Lodgings by Michael Innes, although there have been plenty of crime writers who have set their stories in Oxford since.

Masterman, who was born on 12 January 1891 - 131 years ago today - was a distinguished historian and rose to become Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, eventually receiving a knighthood for his services to education in 1959.

His amateur sleuth in An Oxford Tragedy was Ernst Brendel, a Viennese lawyer who has come to St Thomas’s College Oxford to deliver a series of law lectures. Masterman did not publish a follow-up to the novel until 1957 when The Case of the Four Friends appeared, again featuring Ernst Brendel.

Masterman was kept busy during World War Two in the Intelligence Corps. He was deputy head of MI5, where he was given the job of chairing the Twenty Committee, running the Double-Cross system for controlling double agents in Britain. His book about his experiences, The Double Cross System in the War of 1939 to 1945, was published privately in 1945, but was only officially allowed publication by the British Government in 1972, five years before his death in 1977.

The events in An Oxford Tragedy are narrated by the college’s Senior Tutor, Francis Wheatley Winn, who during the story serves as a Watson to the novel’s Sherlock Holmes, Ernst Brendel.

A portrait of J C Masterman, whose writing was one of many talents
A portrait of J C Masterman, whose
writing was one of many talents
All is fellowship and conviviality in the Common Room at the college where the dons are enjoying after dinner port and cigars and the company of the visiting lecturer, Brendel. But the calm is soon shattered when one of the dons rushes in to say that a brilliant but unpopular tutor has been found shot and killed in the Dean’s lodgings.

Inspector Cotter of Scotland Yard is called in, but can make little headway in establishing the identity of the murderer. The Senior Tutor begs Brendel to try to solve the crime for the sake of the college and the charming Viennese lawyer soon uncovers the thwarted ambition, unconsummated passion, hatred and jealousy that lie beneath the surface of the seemingly comfortable, pleasant lives of the dons at the college.

The novel was a pleasure to read because it cleverly reveals the psychology of murder, the motives and feelings that can push a civilized human being to commit the ultimate crime, while faithfully recreating the setting, customs and atmospheres of an Oxford College in the early 1930s.

Masterman wrote several other books and a play, Marshall Ney, a Play in Five Acts. He was fluent in German, having spent his four years interred during World War One in the Ruhleben internment camp in Germany perfecting the language.

As if the man did not have enough talents, he was also an excellent tennis, cricket and hockey player and won a Blue for athletics.  He reached the fourth round at Wimbledon in the men’s singles in 1923 and the quarter finals of the men’s doubles in 1923 and 1924. In 1931 he toured Canada with the Marylebone Cricket Club and for 31 years was on the committee of the Free Foresters, the nomadic amateur gentlemen's club that prospered in the first half of the 20th century.

Some second-hand copies and a Kindle edition of An Oxford Tragedy are available from Amazon.


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Saturday, January 8, 2022

The Longer Bodies

How an athletics competition for an inheritance ends in murder

The Longer Bodies was the third of 66 Mrs Bradley mysteries
The Longer Bodies was the third
of 66 Mrs Bradley mysteries
Mrs Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, an unusual psychoanalyst with a flair for sleuthing, manages to appear at exactly the right time and in the right place to be in on the murder investigation in this third novel by Gladys Mitchell.

She is staying as a house guest in the village of Little Longer, where two mysterious deaths have occurred. When she is told about what has happened, she seamlessly becomes part of the investigation.

A wealthy old lady, known to her family as Great Aunt Puddequet, has invited her grand nephews to stay at her country house, accompanied by their sisters, so that the males can take part in a sporting contest to enable her to decide who will inherit her fortune.

She spares no expense by having an athletics track laid in her grounds, complete with long jump pit and practice areas for the high jump and pole vault, and she employs a German athletics coach.

But when the dead body of a man is found in the lake in the grounds, the police launch a murder  investigation. Mrs Bradley, who is staying with friends and neighbours of Great Aunt Puddequet, wastes no time in visiting the house to view the place where the man died and can’t resist dropping helpful little hints to the investigating officer, Inspector Bloxham.

This third Mrs Bradley mystery by Gladys Mitchell was first published in 1930 by Victor Gollanz. Gladys was a school teacher and athletics coach for many years and so she is able to describe in detail the highly unusual setting for the story.

Mitchell combined writing with a career in teaching
Mitchell combined writing with
a career in teaching
The book is populated with a wonderful array of bizarre characters , such as the ancient, screeching Great Aunt Puddequet in her bath chair and her gentile lady companion, Miss Caddick, who takes a liking to the young German athletics coach.

There are strange clues, such as javelins dipped in blood suddenly appearing, although no one is actually training for the javelin, and Great Aunt Puddequet’s beloved pet rabbits occasionally disappear and then reappear.

After another murder happens in the grounds of the country house, the Inspector jumps from one suspect to another, while Mrs Bradley patiently tries to lead him to the correct solution, keeping a surprise up her sleeve until the very end.

Gladys Mitchell was a teacher of History, English and Games at St Paul’s School, Brentford, and later taught at St Ann’s Senior Girls School in Hanwell. Her first novel, Speedy Death, was published in 1929 and she continued to write while teaching, completing at least one book a year. She taught at Brentford School for Girls and Matthew Arnold School, Staines, where she coached hurdling and wrote the school play each year.

She retired in 1961 and went to live in Dorset, where she continued to write until her death at the age of 82. Gladys Mitchell wrote a total of 66 Mrs Bradley novels and published other novels under various pseudonyms.

The Longer Bodies is currently available from Waterstones as a paperback and as an e-book from Amazon.