Friday, September 30, 2022

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.

Death at the President's Lodging is available from or


Thursday, September 22, 2022

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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Thursday, September 15, 2022

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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Wednesday, September 14, 2022

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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Monday, August 15, 2022

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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Monday, August 8, 2022

The Man in the Queue

The novel that introduces the likeable but fallible Inspector Alan Grant

The Arrow edition of The
Man in the Queue
A man is found with a stiletto in his back, having been stabbed to death while queueing for the last night of a popular West End show. The main problems for Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, who is deployed to investigate the killing, are the lack of clues to the victim’s identity and the fact that no one in the queue seems to have seen what happened.

The Man in the Queue, the first detective novel by Josephine Tey, was published in 1929, just eight years after Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and six years after Dorothy L Sayers published her first novel, Whose Body?

But unlike Poirot and Wimsey, Alan Grant is a detective by profession and not an amateur sleuth. The novel is an early version of a police procedural and shows Grant interacting with his superiors and subordinates and making use of the forensic tools the police had at their disposal in the 1920s to try to solve the case.

Josephine Tey was a pseudonym used by the writer Elizabeth MacIntosh, who was born in 1896 in Scotland. She trained as a Physical Training instructor and taught at schools in Scotland and England. In 1923 she returned to her family home in Inverness to care for her invalid mother and keep house for her father and it was then that she began writing.

The Man in the Queue was her first mystery novel and introduced her series detective, Inspector Alan Grant. It was awarded the Dutton Mystery Prize after it was published in America.

MacIntosh’s main ambition was to write a play that would have a run in the West End and her drama, Richard of Bordeaux, was such a success when it was first staged in 1932 that it was transferred to the New Theatre, now the Noel Coward Theatre, where it had a year-long run and made a household name of its young leading man, John Gielgud.

Josephine Tey was a pseudonym used by Elizabeth MacIntosh
Josephine Tey was a pseudonym
used by Elizabeth MacIntosh
As Josephine Tey, MacIntosh produced six novels featuring Alan Grant. The fifth novel, The Daughter of Time, published in 1951, was voted the greatest crime novel of all time by the British Crime Writers Association in 1990.    

There is a lot to like about The Man in the Queue. There are beautiful descriptions of Tey’s native Inverness, where she sends Grant in pursuit of a suspect. All the characters, police and suspects alike, are interesting and believable. Grant is a well-rounded policeman, not just a caricature, who is looked after by his landlady, dines regularly at a French restaurant, and is popular with the ladies, making me keen to read the next book in the series, A Shilling for Candles.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the novel is the clever plot. Like other writers of the period, Tey is not afraid to show Grant arresting the wrong man and feeling dissatisfied with his solution. She also manages to keep the true identity of the murderer a secret right up to the end.  

The Man in the Queue was republished by Arrow Books in 2011.

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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.

By the time Lorac wrote Bats in the Belfry, she was an experienced writer of whodunnits and had developed the skill of being able to shift suspicion from one character to another while keeping up the interest for the reader.

The opening scene introduces most of the characters who will play a central part in the story. They have gathered together following a funeral and before long the conversation turns to the subject of how to dispose of a body. This conversation contains a vital clue for those alert enough to spot and remember it…

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. 

Lorac chose her pseudonym because it was the name Carol, which was part of her name, spelt backwards. Her first detective novel, Murder on the Burrows, which introduced Chief Inspector Macdonald, was published in 1931 when she was 37She 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.  

Bats in the Belfry is available from or


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 



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!


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