Saturday, July 2, 2022

Bats in the Belfry by E C R Lorac

Remembering an early writer of the police procedural

The British Library Crime Classics edition
The British Library Crime
Classics edition
Bats in the Belfry, the 13th novel in the series featuring Chief Inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard by E C R Lorac, has a complex plot with the focus on the way detectives in the 1930s used standard police procedure to solve cases.

First published in 1937, the novel may seem rather dated in 2022, but it is fast moving and presents a challenging puzzle for the reader. It was reissued in 2018 by the British Library in their Crime Classics series and is now also available in large print.

Bats in the Belfry is the story of a failed novelist and his wife, a successful actress, who lead separate lives in their smart house in London. When the husband is called away suddenly to Paris, he seems to disappear completely. His suitcase and passport are later found in a sinister artist’s studio, the Belfry, in a dilapidated house in Notting Hill.

The novelist’s friends set out to investigate what has happened to him but find things at the Belfry are so sinister they decide to enlist the help of the police and Chief Inspector Macdonald, already an established series character, takes over the case.

E C R Lorac was the pen name of Edith Caroline Rivett, who died 64 years ago today. She wrote under the pseudonyms E C R Lorac, Carol Carnac and Mary Le Bourne during the Golden Age of Detective fiction. She wrote 48 mysteries as E C R Lorac and 23 as Carol Carnac along with other novels, short stories and radio and stage plays, before her death in 1958.  

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Thursday, June 30, 2022

Sweet Danger by Margery Allingham

Campion meets a flame-haired beauty who is a most unconventional heroine

A Vintage Books edition of Sweet Danger
A Vintage Books edition
of Sweet Danger
There is the first sign of a love interest for the mysterious Albert Campion in Sweet Danger, the fifth novel written by Margery Allingham about her hero’s adventures.

Campion meets the plucky Amanda Fitton, a beautiful teenage girl, who works with him to thwart a deadly enemy intent on defrauding her family of its inheritance. The novel is full of action, danger and eccentric characters and ends with the most delicate of hints that there might be romance in the future for the noble adventurer, Campion.

Sweet Danger was first published in 1933 in the UK. However, it is not a typical novel of its time. Amanda Fitton is not a damsel in distress for Campion to rescue. She is a hard-up and not very well dressed 17-year-old, who is interested in experimenting with radio signals and electricity.

Campion has been tasked by the British Government with finding proof of ownership of Averna, a small, oil rich principality on the Adriatic, which has become a vital port after an earthquake has given it a natural harbour. He goes to the village of Pontisbright in the depths of the Sussex countryside, where he meets Amanda and her family who, as rightful heirs to the principality, insist on joining Campion’s quest.

Although Campion and his friends agree to join forces with the Fitton family, whose ancestors were given the principality way back in history, an unscrupulous financier and his hired thugs are also on the trail. The family suffer violent attacks and Campion’s friends are tied up in sacks and shot at, while Campion himself goes missing.

During a showdown with the main villain, Amanda saves Campion’s life, but she has been shot herself in the process. Thankfully, her wound is not life threatening and in the last pages of the book she asks him to take her into partnership in his business ‘later on’…

Allingham's writing was notable for her insight into character
Allingham's writing was notable
for her insight into character
In 2022, Sweet Danger might seem like a far-fetched story to modern crime fiction fans, but I think it is well written and a gripping page-turner and still worth reading.

Margery Allingham, who died on this day in 1966, was a prolific writer during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. She left a legacy of 18 Albert Campion mysteries, six volumes of short stories about the detective and many stand-alone novels, novellas and volumes of short stories.

Margery died of cancer in hospital in Colchester six weeks after her 62nd birthday. She was in the process of writing her last novel, Cargo of Eagles, and had mapped out the story long before her death. Her husband, Philip Youngman Carter, was able to finish it, as she herself would have done, following her plan.

In a preface to Mr Campion’s Clowns, an omnibus of novels by Margery Allingham, published in 1967, Youngman Carter paid tribute to his late wife as ‘a generous, kind and courageous woman with a rare gift for friendship’.

Margery showed wonderful insight into character and her books abound in witty and accurate observations of people. As she matured as a writer, her books became deeper and started to encompass significant themes, such as love and justice, good and evil, and illusion and truth. Her works have now attained classic status and she has, at times been compared with Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson

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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Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Celebrating a prolific detective novelist with three pseudonyms

The creator of academic sleuth Dr Priestley also invented Eric the Skull

Cecil Street, whose pen names included John Rhode
Cecil Street, whose pen names
included John Rhode 

The writer known as John Rhode, who wrote 72 detective novels featuring the academic turned amateur detective, Dr Priestley, was born as Cecil John Charles Street 138 years ago today in Gibraltar.

Street also wrote 61 Desmond Merrion crime novels under the pseudonym Miles Burton and several detective stories under the pen name Cecil Waye.

He served as an artillery officer in the British Army  and during World War I became a propagandist for MI7, rising to the rank of Major.

After the war, Street worked in both London and Dublin as an Information Officer during the Irish War of Independence.

Street produced his first detective novel, The Paddington Mystery, featuring Dr Priestley, under the pseudonym John Rhode in 1925. He then wrote at least one Dr Priestley novel a year, sometimes more.

Writing as Miles Burton, his Desmond Merrion novels began in 1930 and went on until 1960. He also wrote other non-series novels, short stories, radio plays, stage plays and non-fiction.

The Dr Priestley books are classics of scientific detection, with the elderly academic demonstrating how apparently impossible crimes have been carried out.

In The Paddington Mystery, a young man, Harold Merefield, returns to his lodgings in the early hours after visiting a night club to find the dead body of a man lying on his bed. Although an inquest gives a verdict of death by natural causes, Harold finds his reputation is tarnished as a result of all the publicity and he is determined to solve the mystery to prove the death had nothing to do with him.

The great Dorothy L Sayers,  pictured with Eric the Skull
The great Dorothy L Sayers, 
pictured with Eric the Skull
He turns to an old friend of his father’s, Professor Lancelot Priestley, a mathematician, for help. Dr Priestley is an armchair detective, who sometimes helps the police. He solves mysteries through logical reasoning, guided by facts and facts alone, not by flashes of intuition or guesswork. Some of the scenes, where Dr Priestley, does most of the talking because he hates to be interrupted, seem long and unexciting, but as he considers each fact on its merits and chooses to accept it, or discard it, he takes the characters and the readers nearer and nearer to the truth.

Dr Priestley was an immediate success with the public and Street, as John Rhode, quickly produced another six novels about his cases.

By 1930, Street was no longer just a distinguished, retired army Major, he had written 25 books under various pseudonyms and he was still only 45 years old. 

Street was a founding member of the prestigious Detection Club in 1930, where crime writers dined together regularly to discuss their craft. He edited Detection Medley, the first anthology of stories by members of the club and also contributed to the club’s first two round robin detective novels, The Floating Admiral and Ask a Policeman, along with other distinguished writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers.

Perhaps Street’s most important contribution to the club was Eric the Skull, which he wired up with lights so that the eye sockets glowed red during the initiation ceremony for new members. Eric is said to participate in the initiation rituals for new members to this day.

Cecil Street died at the age of 80 in 1964 in Eastbourne.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2022

The Layton Court Mystery by Anthony Berkeley

First appearance by author turned sleuth Roger Sheringham

The paperback edition of The Layton Court Mystery
The paperback edition of The
Layton Court Mystery
The Layton Court Mystery
, published in 1925, was the first detective novel by journalist Anthony Berkeley Cox, who was to become one of the founding members of the elite Detection Club.

His series detective, Roger Sheringham, is one of the guests at a country house party being held at a Jacobean mansion called Layton Court. The character, who is an author, was to feature in another ten detective novels and many short stories by Berkeley.

The party is being hosted by Victor Stanworth, a genial and hospitable man, aged about 60, who has taken Layton Court for the summer to enable him to entertain his friends in style.

At the start of the book, Sheringham has been enjoying Stanworth’s generous hospitality for three days until the party is given the grim news during breakfast that their host appeared to have locked himself in the library and shot himself.

Sheringham is not convinced that his host has committed suicide and sets out to investigate the mystery himself, using his friend, Alec Grierson, who is also in the party, as his ‘Watson’.

Anthony Berkeley was just one of the pen names used by Anthony Berkeley Cox, who died 51 years ago today (9 March 1971). He also wrote novels under the names Francis Iles and A. Monmouth Platts.

Anthony Berkeley Cox helped found the Detection Club in 1930, along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. It was to become an elite dining club for British mystery writers, which met in London, under the presidency of G. K. Chesterton. There was an initiation ritual and an oath had to be sworn by new members promising not to rely on Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery Pokery, Coincidence or Act of God in their work.

Berkeley Cox wrote 19 crime novels before returning to journalism
Berkeley Cox wrote 19 crime novels
before returning to journalism
In The Layton Court Mystery, Sheringham does not conceal anything from his friend, Alec Grierson, and therefore the reader has the same information to help them solve the crime as the detective himself.

I found The Layton Court Mystery unexciting and stilted at the beginning, but the writing improved a lot as the book progressed.

I thought Roger Sheringham had the potential to be a good character, although some of the rather fatuous dialogue at the beginning reminded me of Lord Peter Wimsey at the start of Whose Body?  the first novel by Dorothy L Sayers that he appeared in.

Sheringham sometimes tells Grierson what detectives in books would do in particular circumstances, showing that the character, like his creator Berkeley, is a devotee of the genre.

The amateur detective jumps to a few wrong conclusions along the way and follows up each of his theories until he accepts that they are disproved. He tells the other characters that he is asking questions because he has ‘natural curiosity’, to cover up the fact he is interrogating people he doesn’t really know, which was not considered good form at the time.

He sometimes says he is looking for material for his next novel and one of the characters actually says to him: ‘Everything’s “copy” to you, you mean?’

He also finds clues, such as a footprint, a hair, a piece of a broken vase and a trace of face powder, to help him work out what has taken place in the library.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case sold more than a million copies
The Poisoned Chocolates Case
sold more than a million copies
Anthony Berkeley Cox was born in Watford in 1893 and educated at Sherborne School and University College, Oxford. After serving as an officer in the First World War, he began writing for magazines, such as Punch and The Humorist.

He wrote 19 crime novels between 1925 and 1939 before returning to journalism and writing for the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times. From 1950 to 1970, the year before he died, he contributed to the Manchester Guardian, later, the Guardian newspaper.

Berkeley’s amateur detective, Sheringham, had his most famous outing in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, which was published in 1929. The novel received rapturous reviews and sold more than one million copies. It is now regarded as a classic of the Golden Age of detective fiction. 

At times, The Layton Court Mystery reminded me of Trent’s Last Case by E C Bentley, published in 1913, which was originally intended to be a skit on the detective story genre. Like Trent, Sheringham doesn’t actually solve the case until the real murderer confesses to him right at the end.

However, by the end of The Layton Court Mystery, I had taken to Roger Sheringham and I now look forward to reading the next book in the series.

The Layton Court Mystery was first published in London by Herbert Jenkins in 1925 and in New York by Doubleday, Doran and Company in 1929. It was republished by Spitfire Publications Ltd in 2021. 

Anthony Berkeley's books are available from and 

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Friday, February 25, 2022

Don’t delay, start writing straight away!

How to avoid doing things that will postpone your literary success

Not having the ideal office chair should not stop you putting pen to paper
Not having the ideal office chair should not
stop you putting pen to paper
People talk a lot about 'writer’s block' and how it can hold up a work in progress, but in my experience a far more dangerous thing to watch out for is 'writer's delay'. 

Not getting on with writing is often called procrastination, but I don’t like that label as it implies there is something deliberate about doing things to avoid writing, such as stopping to tidy your office, or sharpening all your pencils, or going on social media.

Many ‘How to Write’ books start with advice about finding a finding a suitable place in your house to write. Then there will be suggestions about what IT equipment you should have installed and many paragraphs will be devoted to the importance of choosing a comfortable chair.

I’m not saying any of these things aren’t helpful, but I don’t think they should stop you getting on with your writing if you already have some good ideas for a novel or a short story.

My advice would be to get your ideas on paper as quickly as possible. You can always type them up later and then revise what you have written as many times as you need to.

I recently read a book about how to write a crime novel that had several pages at the beginning dedicated to the importance of attending writers’ conferences, just to make you feel more like a writer!

I think that is a bad idea as it will just hold you up from starting to write. All you really need in order to get going are some strong ideas and a notebook and pen so that you can write the ideas down as soon as they occur to you. You should carry the notebook with you everywhere and note the ideas as quickly as you can while they are still fresh in your mind.

The other thing you need to do is to decide what genre your proposed novel or story belongs in and read some examples written by successful authors.

Make sure you carry a notebook and pen or pencil at all times
Make sure you carry a notebook
and pen or pencil at all times  
But you may well be a regular reader of the genre already, as most writers tend to want to write a book or short story of the sort they enjoy reading themselves. If you are already familiar with the genre, you can get straight on with writing. The main thing is to be clear about what type of fiction you are attempting to write before you start.

It is hopeless to try to write a detective novel, or a Regency romance, if you don’t ever read that type of book. If you write the sort of book that you enjoy reading yourself, you will already unconsciously have picked up the rules and conventions of the genre and will have a feel for what is right and what isn’t, as you write your own.

The plot of a book never comes to you fully formed, but you will get ideas for characters and settings as you go along and will need to make a note of everything that occurs to you straight away.

It can all be woven into a plot for a book with a beginning, middle and end and, hopefully, a satisfying conclusion for the reader, later on.

I sometimes get ideas for the novel I am currently working on as I am waking up in the morning. If it is the weekend, it is tempting to turn over and go back to sleep, and if it is a week day, you might be under time pressure to get up and start your day. But if you can possibly spare a few minutes after you have woken up, it is a good idea to write your ideas down in your notebook before they are lost to you for ever.

Another thing I find useful is a project book with coloured tabs separating the sections, so I can list in an organised way all the information about characters, setting, plot and themes that have occurred to me randomly and been jotted down in my notebook.

Of course, it’s nice to set up a smart, well-equipped writer’s office with a lovely, comfortable chair to sit in, but it should not be at the expense of getting on with your novel or short story.

It will probably be obvious where you will find peace and quiet in your house to write and you can make do with just the basic equipment and stationery you already have, to begin with. If you later find your chair is uncomfortable, just swap it with another one from somewhere else in your house.

Prolific and successful writers, such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, probably didn’t waste a second thinking about their chairs, but just got on with writing all those books.

You could take a leaf out of the great Andrea Camilleri's books and write a letter to yourself
You could take a leaf out of the great Andrea
Camilleri's book and write a letter to yourself
If you do suffer from writer’s block after you have started the first draft of your novel, your project book, with its information about plot, setting, characters and themes, should provide you with the inspiration you need to keep on writing.

Another trick I have heard of is to just write anything you can think of on to the blank page to get yourself going, even if it is a couple of lines of poetry, or a paragraph of description that has no real connection with the story you are working on.

You could also take a tip from the great Italian crime writer, Andrea Camilleri, which I once read about in one of his Inspector Montalbano novels, The Potter's Field. Montalbano has reached deadlock in a case and can’t see any way forward, so he sits down and writes himself a letter, taking himself to task for his obtuseness and what he feels he has done wrong during his investigation.

You could write to yourself along the same lines and say: ‘Dear author, What is the connection between these two characters? Who has properties overlooking the field where the body was found and has your detective been to see them all yet? What would your protagonist usually do at this time of the day? How can you get him or her further forward with what they are trying to achieve?’ Usually, the answers you think of will help you get going with your story again.

But whatever you do, don’t let trivial things delay you from starting to write in the first place! You can wait until you have made some money from your first novel or short story before you buy yourself a smart writer’s chair!


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Friday, February 18, 2022

Dame Ngaio Marsh had a lifetime love of the theatre

A detective novelist who brilliantly describes backstage life
 

Ngaio Marsh, who was one of the leading female detective novelists of her time, died on this day – 18 February – in 1982 in her native New Zealand.

Ngaio began writing detective novels in 1931 after moving to London to start up an interior decorating business.  Stuck in her basement flat on a very wet Saturday afternoon she decided to have a go at writing a detective story and came up with the idea for her sleuth, Roderick Alleyn, a gentleman detective.

Ngaio Marsh came to be seen as one of the Queens of Crime
Ngaio Marsh came to be seen as
one of the Queens of Crime
She sat down to write what was to be the first of a series of 32 crime novels featuring Alleyn, who she named after an Elizabethan actor, Edward Alleyn. Her detective was to work for the Metropolitan Police in London, even though he is the younger brother of a baronet.

Her second novel, Enter a Murderer, published in 1935, and several others, are set in the world of the theatre, which Ngaio knew well as she was also an actress, director and playwright at times during her life.

After leaving school she had studied painting before joining a touring theatre company. She became a member of an art association in New Zealand and continued to exhibit her paintings with them from the 1920s onwards.

Ngaio allows her detective, Alleyn, to meet and fall in love with an artist, Agatha Troy, in her 1938 novel, Artists in Crime.

She directed many productions of Shakespeare’s plays in New Zealand and Australia and the 430-seat Ngaio Marsh Theatre at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand is named in her honour.

In her 1946 short story, I Can Find My Way Out, which features Alleyn, Ngaio once again uses the theatre as her setting. A new playwright, Anthony Gill, is waiting nervously for the premiere of his first play at The Jupiter Theatre in London.

The female lead, Coralie Bourne, has been kind to him and advised him on his play, but the male lead, Canning Cumberland, is known to have a drinking problem and can be unpredictable, which worries Gill. Two of the other actors also resent Cumberland, one because he was given the best part and the other because he was given the best dressing room.

Meanwhile, Roderick Alleyn and his now wife Troy are entertaining a friend, Lord Michael Lamprey, for dinner. He is keen to join the police but his conversation with Alleyn is constantly interrupted by phone calls that are actually meant for a delivery firm. When one of the callers asks if they can deliver a suitcase to playwright  Anthony Gill at the Jupiter Theatre, Lord Michael thinks it would be fun to take the job as he has been unable to get a ticket to see the play.

Sophie Hannah's collection of stories is published by Apollo
Sophie Hannah's collection of
stories is published by Apollo
Before he reaches the theatre, the case falls open and he discovers a false ginger beard and moustache, a black hat, a black overcoat with a fur collar and a pair of black gloves.

On an impulse Lord Michael puts the whole outfit on and insists on being allowed to deliver the case in person to the playwright backstage.

As Coralie makes one of her exits from the stage, she sees him standing in the wings wearing the beard and black clothes and faints. The male lead, Cumberland, also reacts with horror when he sees him and locks himself in his dressing room.

Lord Michael continues to watch the play from the wings with fascination, although he becomes increasingly aware of the smell of gas. Eventually, he traces the smell to one of the dressing rooms, gains access and drags out the unconscious occupant, but sadly it is too late to save him.

He rings Alleyn and the detective arrives at the theatre with his men, where it does not take him long to discover that one of the actors has been murdered.

In just 18 pages, Ngaio sets up the story, establishes the characters and their relationships, brilliantly describes the dressing rooms, equipment and atmosphere backstage, drawing on her experience of the theatre, and allows Alleyn to solve the crime.

I Can Find My Way Out is among a collection of stories chosen by the author Sophie Hannah entitled Deadlier: 100 of the Best Crime Stories Written by Women. The compilation is also available in hardback

Along with her fellow Queens of Crime, Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio was to dominate the genre of crime fiction from the 1930s onwards with her novels, short stories and plays.

In 1948 Ngaio was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services in connection with drama and literature in New Zealand. She became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to the arts in the 1966 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Ngaio’s autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew was published in 1965. She was inducted into the Detection Club in 1974 and received the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement as a detective novelist from the Mystery Writers of America.

Her 32nd and final Alleyn novel, Light Thickens, was completed only a few weeks before her death. The story revolves around one of her greatest theatrical passions, Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth.

Ngaio died in her home town of Christchurch and was buried at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Mount Peel.

The Ngaio Marsh Award is given annually to the writer of the best New Zealand mystery, crime or thriller novel. Her home in Christchurch is now a museum and displays her collection of antiques. On her desk lies her fountain pen filled with green ink, which was her preferred writing tool.

Ngaio Marsh’s 32 Roderick Alleyn crime novels and her collections of short stories are available in a variety of formats from or

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Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Lonesome Road by Patricia Wentworth

Miss Silver is at her best as she pits her wits against a potential murderer

The latest Hodder paperback edition of Lonesome Road
The latest Hodder paperback
edition of Lonesome Road
The reader learns more about the background and character of the mysterious Miss Silver in this third novel by Patricia Wentworth to feature the elderly lady detective.

In Lonesome Road, published in 1939, heiress Rachel Treherne is convinced her life is in danger and goes to see Miss Silver at her office in London, after she remembers a friend mentioning the name of the private investigator.

Miss Silver is sitting at a walnut writing desk in a room that looks more like a Victorian parlour than an office. Rachel sees she is a little woman in a snuff-coloured dress with ‘what appeared to be a great deal of mousy-grey hair done up in a tight bun at the back and arranged in front in one of those extensive curled fringes associated with the late Queen Alexandra, the whole severely controlled by a net.’

She begins to have second thoughts about confiding in Miss Silver, but the elderly lady encourages her to say what she is worried about and so Rachel tells her that she thinks someone is trying to kill her.

Rachel explains that her father left her an immense fortune that she has to administer as a trustee. She has used some of the money to set up retirement homes for elderly people who are not very well off. The rest of the capital is tied up. She can leave it to her relatives in her will, but is unable to give much of it away now.

She has received an anonymous letter telling her she has ‘had the money long enough and it is someone else’s turn now’. This has been followed by two more letters, the third saying simply, ‘Get ready to die.’

Rachel tells Miss Silver she has had a narrow escape from falling down the stairs. Then her curtains were discovered on fire in her bedroom and someone tampered with her chocolates to try to poison her.

Patricia Wentworth wrote
32 Miss Silver mysteries
Several members of her family live with her in her house and she tells Miss Silver she loves them all and can’t bear to suspect any of them.

She arranges for Miss Silver to come and stay with her. Miss Silver says she is to tell her family that her new guest is a retired governess, which is, in fact, perfectly true.

It is the first time any clue about the mysterious old lady’s background has been given to the reader by the author.

Miss Silver also quotes the poet Tennyson twice during the meeting with Rachel and says she admires the great poet and frequently quotes him to her clients.

But before Miss Silver even arrives at Rachel’s family home, the heiress has had another brush with death, having fallen over the side of a cliff. She later says she felt sure she was pushed. She manages to cling to a bush growing out of the side of the cliff and is rescued by a friend who has come to look for her.

Going to stay in Rachel’s house in the guise of an impoverished retired governess gives Miss Silver the chance to observe Rachel’s family. She points out later that they talk to each other as though she isn’t there because they feel she is unimportant.

She quickly realises that Rachel’s older sister, Mabel, considers herself to be an invalid and wants Rachel to back her grown-up children financially in their various ventures.

There is one cousin who wants Rachel to spend her money on charitable projects she is interested in, while another cousin is clearly short of money and very anxious. A third cousin, who is an artist, wants Rachel to marry him.

Meanwhile, the maid, Louisa, who is devoted to her mistress, goes to desperate lengths to make Rachel aware of the fact she is in danger from her whole family.

Thank goodness for Miss Silver, who sees and hears everything while she sits in the background knitting.

Lonesome Road is well worth reading, if you like novels of suspense, as it maintains the mystery well and doesn’t let the reader relax until the final page. 

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Saturday, February 12, 2022

The Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell

Sleepy village provides interesting material for Freud follower Mrs Bradley

The Saltmarsh Murders was the fourth Mrs Bradley mystery
The Saltmarsh Murders was
the fourth Mrs Bradley mystery
The Vicar’s maid is strangled only a few days after giving birth to an illegitimate baby that no one has ever seen in The Saltmarsh Murders, the fourth novel to feature the psychoanalyst and amateur detective Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley.

Conveniently, Mrs Bradley is staying at the Manor House in the village of Saltmarsh, as a guest of the local squire and she is only too happy to lend a hand with the murder inquiry.

As a professional psychiatrist and follower of Freud, Mrs Bradley finds a wealth of interesting cases in the village to test her theories on. She encounters a female resident who believes everyone in the village is some kind of animal and meets the bizarre inhabitants of a remote bungalow who have imprisoned their neighbour in the crypt of the church.

The story is told from the point of view of the young curate, Noel Wells, who lives at the vicarage and is in love with Daphne, the Vicar’s niece.

Mrs Bradley adopts Noel as her ‘Watson’, asking him to introduce her to some of the families in the village and also to provide her with secretarial assistance.

Noel is both terrified and fascinated by Mrs Bradley. He admires her brains and beautiful voice, but he hates being prodded in the ribs by her yellowed talons and is unnerved by her sinister cackle. Seeing Mrs Bradley through his eyes, when he does not completely understand her theories or why she is behaving the way she does, is amusing and also a clever device by Gladys Mitchell to keep the mystery going until the end of the book.

Some of the Mrs Bradley novels were adapted as a BBC TV series
Some of the Mrs Bradley novels
were adapted as a BBC TV series
Mrs Bradley’s investigation uncovers a smuggling racket and involves a corpse going missing, the vicar being locked up in the village pound and an exhumation being ordered, before peace can be restored to the sleepy village of Saltmarsh.

The book reveals a lot of interesting detail about life in England at the beginning of the 1930s. As a schoolteacher, Gladys is able to portray children and young people very well and, as in her first three books, she uses them as main characters.

Gladys wrote 66 novels featuring her amateur sleuth, Mrs Bradley, as well as mystery novels under the pen name Malcolm Torrie, and historical adventure novels under the pen name Stephen Hockaby.

She got off the mark in 1929 with Speedy Death, which introduced Mrs Bradley, and she never looked back, writing at least one novel a year throughout her career and gradually building a large and loyal following for her eccentric but brilliant detective.

Gladys was an early member of The Detection Club along with Agatha Christie, G K Chesterton and Dorothy L Sayers, but frequently satirised or reversed the traditional patterns of the genre in her novels.

In 1961, Gladys retired from teaching but continued to write. She received the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger in 1976.

The last Mrs Bradley mystery was published in 1984, the year after the author’s death in Corfe Mullen, a village in Dorset.

The Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell was first published in 1932 but has been republished by Vintage Books and is now available as a paperback or Kindle edition.

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Monday, February 7, 2022

Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh

An unusual setting for a 1936 detective novel with a closed circle of suspects

Death in Ecstasy is available as part of a Ngaio Marsh collection
Death in Ecstasy is available as
part of a Ngaio Marsh collection
When bored journalist Nigel Bathgate attends a meeting of a dubious spiritual cult just out of curiosity, he gets more entertainment than he bargained for. As he watches a group of people at the altar pass round a silver flagon of wine, he sees one of them drink from a jewelled cup and then immediately fall dead to the floor.

At first the other initiates think the young female victim is experiencing ecstasy, but then one of them notices her clenched teeth and ‘lips drawn back in a rigid circle’ and makes the others aware that she is dead. Nigel keeps his nerve amid the panic and asks to use the telephone to ring his close friend, Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard.

Alleyn and Bathgate soon discover that the victim, Cara Quayne, a beautiful and wealthy young woman, was a deeply religious initiate who had been training for a month for the bizarre ceremony of becoming the Chosen Vessel at the House of the Sacred Flame.

Nigel’s suspicions had been aroused by the distinctive smell coming from the victim, who had died immediately after drinking the ritual wine. He and Alleyn quickly discover that the wine had been poisoned with cyanide.

As Bathgate was present when the death occurred, Alleyn allows the journalist full access to the investigation, allowing him to take notes while he questions the witnesses. He also encourages Bathgate, who in many of the novels serves as Alleyn’s ‘Watson’, to befriend  a young couple who were present at the altar when the murder took place.  This would of course not happen in real life, or modern detective novels, but I think the author can get away with it because the story was written more than 80 years ago.

The actor Geoffrey Keen played Marsh's detective Roderick Alleyn in TV adaptation
The actor Geoffrey Keen played Marsh's
detective Roderick Alleyn in TV adaptation
Alleyn takes the names of all the people who were with Cara at the altar. They are all suspects because any of them could have added the cyanide to the wine as they passed the flagon round. And at the top of the list is Father Jasper Garnette, the officiating priest.

This fourth Detective Chief Inspector Alleyn mystery by Ngaio Marsh, published in 1936, is a departure from the country house mystery that was so fashionable at the time. But it has a limited circle of suspects, as they are all middle-class people living in flats and houses in an upmarket area of London, who pay calls on each other and dine with each other.

Alleyn and Bathgate uncover the usual motives for murder, such as lust, jealousy, greed for money and unrequited love. They come across a significant clue when they find a book hidden in Father Garnette’s bookcase that falls open at a page with a recipe for home made cyanide. Ngaio is very clever with this clue, which keeps the identity of the murderer hidden until the end, and she provides enough twists along the way to distract the reader.

I would recommend Death in Ecstasy because it is a well written, satisfying puzzle that reveals more about the character of Ngaio’s series detective, Roderick Alleyn. 

Death in Ecstasy was adapted for television in 1964 with Geoffrey Keen in the Alleyn role, Keith Barron as Bathgate, Joss Ackland as Jasper Garnette and Nigel Hawthorne as a temple doorkeeper. 

One of three novels featured in Book Two of a Ngaio Marsh Collection published by Harper Collins, it is available from or


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Friday, January 28, 2022

The Case is Closed by Patricia Wentworth

A novel where Miss Silver plays an important role in the background

The Case is Closed is the second of the Miss Silver novels
The Case is Closed is the second
of the Miss Silver novels
Detective novelist Patricia Wentworth waited nine years to publish her second Miss Silver mystery, following Grey Mask, which first appeared in 1928.

But although the character of Miss Silver does appear in The Case is Closed, published in 1937, most of the story is told from the viewpoint of the book’s heroine, a young woman called Hilary Carew.

Hilary’s cousin, Marion Grey, is very unhappy because her husband, Geoff, has been convicted of murder and is in prison, having served one year of the long sentence he was given.

Hilary has always believed in Geoff’s innocence, but a chance encounter on a train with one of the witnesses at his trial prompts her to start reinvestigating the closed case herself.

With no thought for her own safety, Hilary tries to track down the witness she spoke to, but after someone tries to kill her, she turns to her ex-fiancé, Henry, for help. He eventually calls in Miss Silver to investigate the case properly.

Patricia Wentworth died 61 years ago today in Camberley in Surrey. Her last Miss Silver novel, The Girl in the Cellar, was published the same year, which brought the total of Miss Silver books to 32.

Although Miss Silver does not play a major part in The Case is Closed, she is in at the denouement, having been following two of the suspects, and she is able to alert Henry to the fact that Hilary is once again in danger.

Fans who wanted to see more of Miss Silver may have been disappointed that most of her work takes place in the background, but the main investigators in this story, Hilary and Henry, are both interesting and engaging characters themselves.

Patricia Wentworth, who waited nine years to produce her second Miss Silver novel
Patricia Wentworth, who waited nine years to
produce her second Miss Silver novel 
All the other suspects in the closed case had alibis for the time of the murder. However, there was an aspect of one of the alibis that immediately made me suspicious. It turned out that I was right, but it still didn’t spoil my overall enjoyment of the novel.

Patricia Wentworth was the pen name for Dora Amy Elles, who was born in 1877 in India, which was at that time under British rule. In addition to her Miss Silver novels, Patricia wrote 34 other novels and some poetry. She was a contemporary of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers and it is surprising that she is not as well-known as them.

Her first Miss Silver Mystery, Grey Mask, published in 1928, introduces an unassuming little old lady, who is continually knitting baby garments, but is actually a shrewd private detective with a brilliant mind.

Many people have assumed over the years that Miss Silver was inspired by Agatha Christie’s much-loved Miss Marple, but it could have been the other way round. The first Miss Marple novel, The Murder at the Vicarage, was not published until 1930, although the endearing old lady had made her first appearance in a short story published in The Royal Magazine in December 1927.

Whoever came first, the two old ladies might at first appear to be similar characters, but there are many differences between them. Miss Marple lives in a cottage in a sleepy village but is more worldly wise than she might appear. She has developed  a deep knowledge of human nature and can always refer to a useful village parallel when investigating a case. Miss Silver, however, is the real deal, as she walks the mean streets of London and takes on cases in a professional way, pitting her wits against major crime bosses.

In the first two Miss Silver novels, there is little explanation about who she is, or why she has set herself up as a private investigator in London in the 1920s and is well known in upper-class circles.

However, Miss Silver develops as a character during the 32 books and goes on to work closely with Scotland Yard. The reader will eventually discover she is a retired governess with a passion for Tennyson as well as for knitting.

Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver novels are available from or  

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Police at the Funeral

Campion uses his detection skills and solves the mystery before the cops

The cover of the newest available edition of Police at the Funeral
The cover of the newest
available edition
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 old house 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 fiancé, 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.

Peter Davison played Campion in a BBC TV adaptation of Margery Allingham's novels
Peter Davison played Campion in a BBC TV
adaptation of Margery Allingham's novels
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.

Police at the Funeral is available from or


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