The Clock Strikes 12 by Patricia Wentworth

Victim sets a New Year deadline for his own murder

The Clock Strikes Twelve is the seventh Miss Silver mystery
The Clock Strikes Twelve is the
seventh Miss Silver mystery
James Paradine, a wealthy businessman, announces at a family dinner on New Year’s Eve that valuable blueprints have been stolen from his study and he will give the culprit until midnight to come to him and confess.

It will come as no surprise to seasoned readers of the classic crime novel that early the next morning Paradine is found dead in the grounds of his home.

In The Clock Strikes 12, the seventh mystery by Patricia Wentworth to feature her prim governess-turned-private detective, Miss Silver, there are plenty of suspects for the reader to consider. The late James Paradine had a grown-up family, some of who are married, and many of them are actively involved in his business.

The characters and different situations of the family and staff living in the house are well described by the author, making them seem real to the reader, something that was unusual for a Golden Age classic crime novel.

There is also a strong subplot about the thwarted relationship between Phyllida, the beautiful adopted daughter of Paradine’s sister, and Elliot, a talented young designer working for Paradine who is crucial to the success of the family firm. The couple were married briefly, but have been apart for nearly a year for reasons that are slowly and cleverly revealed by the author.

Miss Silver is called in by a member of the family to try to help solve the murder and she is allowed by the police to work alongside their investigating officers. She has to unravel an elaborate tangle of alibis, motives, and clues to get to the truth.

Patricia Wentworth was fond of quoting poetry
Patricia Wentworth was
fond of quoting poetry
Placidly sitting knitting in the background, Miss Silver emerges as a more distinct personality in this novel, which was first published in 1945, than she perhaps did in the earlier stories about her investigations.

The novelist Patricia Wentworth, who was born in 1877 in British India, wrote 32 novels in the classic whodunnit style featuring her character Maud Silver, a retired governess and teacher who has set up as a professional private investigator in London.

Fond of quoting from the poetry of Lord Tennyson, Miss Silver often works closely with Scotland Yard. She sees and hears everything and has a brilliant mind. From her observations, she cleverly works out what has happened in each of her cases and is able to explain how to expose the murderer.

IThe Clock Strikes 12 is a clever, well plotted mystery, perfect for reading in the days after Christmas while relaxing in front of the fire.

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Death Comes at Christmas by Gladys Mitchell

A murky tale of murder among the Morris men and pig farmers

The Vintage edition of  Death Comes at Christmas
The Vintage edition of 
Death Comes at Christmas
We get a glimpse of Mrs Bradley’s gentler side when she goes to spend Christmas with her nephew, Carey, who is a pig farmer, in this sixth novel about the eccentric psychoanalyst and sleuth.

Taking with her a boar’s head as a present for her host, she settles down to enjoy the festive season in Oxfordshire in the company of Carey, who seems genuinely fond of his distinguished aunt, her grand-nephew, Denis, and Carey’s friend, Hugh.

Cackling, and wearing some of her luridly-coloured cardigans, Mrs Bradley dines on, not surprisingly, lots of pork, and she entertains her fellow guests with anecdotes about murderers and unusual psychological cases she has encountered.

But then one of Carey’s neighbours, a local solicitor, is found dead near the river on Christmas Day and although he is thought to have suffered a heart attack, Mrs Bradley is not convinced that his death was the result of natural causes.

Later, a neighbouring pig farmer is also found dead, seemingly having been killed by one of his owns boars. Suspecting murder again, Mrs Bradley fearlessly tries to uncover the truth about the death, despite facing physical threats herself.

Although the first death occurs at Christmas, it takes the lady detective until Easter to unravel the complex case, but I would still recommend this novel as a good read for the festive season.

Death Comes at Christmas is enlivened by descriptions of some of the local characters. Carey’s housekeeper, Mrs Ditch, who he summons to his presence by yodeling, her Morris Dancing husband and son, and her daughter, Linda, who is frequently criticised by local people for ‘trollopsen’ about the area, all add to the bizarre humour.

Mrs Bradley and Denis discover that Carey’s house has secret passages and a ghost, and the reader gets the chance to learn a lot about Morris dancing, pig farming and heraldry during the novel, which was originally published under the title Dead Men’s Morris in 1936.

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

A teacher by profession, Gladys wrote at least one novel a year throughout her career and over the years she built a large and loyal following for her eccentric, but brilliant, detective, Mrs Bradley.

Gladys was an early member of the Detection Club along with Agatha Christie, G K Chesterton, and Dorothy L Sayers, but she frequently enjoyed satirising or reversing the traditional patterns of the genre.

She was interested in architecture, ancient buildings, folklore and British customs, subjects that were often explored in her novels and short stories. She also studied the works of Sigmund Freud and developed an interest in witchcraft.

In 1961, Gladys retired from teaching but she continued to write detective novels and received the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger in 1976. The last Mrs Bradley mystery was published in 1984, the year after her death.

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Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham

Mystery novel tells readers more about Albert Campion

The Vintage edition of  Flowers for the Judge
The Vintage edition of 
Flowers for the Judge
Campion is pushed to his limits when he tries to solve the puzzling disappearance of a director of a London publishing house, in Flowers for the Judge, the seventh novel by Margery Allingham to feature her adventurous series detective.

The mysterious Campion is called in to help when an old friend, Paul Brande, a nephew of the founder of the Barnabus publishing company, is reported as missing by his wife, Gina. Paul has been absent from home for three days, but as he and his wife led almost separate lives, no one has found it at all remarkable up till then.

Campion is introduced to the other members of the family involved in the publishing firm at a Sunday afternoon tea party at Gina’s flat. During the tea party, another cousin, Mike, goes to the office to fetch a file for the firm’s managing director from the strong room.

The next day, Paul Brande’s body is discovered lying in full view in the strong room by staff at the Barnabus publishing company. The police decide Mike must have seen the body when he went there on the Sunday afternoon but chose to say nothing about it. They also discover from other people that he was secretly in love with Gina, who is an attractive young American woman. They arrest him and accuse him of murdering Paul.

A large part of the book shows the police establishing a case against Mike and putting him on trial for murder, almost making it a legal mystery.

In this 1936 novel, Margery describes the nosegay traditionally carried into court by the judge. It is made up of fresh, scented flowers for the judge to sniff to mitigate the unpleasant smells and unhygienic air of the courtroom. It is the nosegay that gives the book its title.

Peter Davison as the bespectacled Campion in the BBC adaptation of Flowers for the Judge
Peter Davison as the bespectacled Campion
in the BBC adaptation of Flowers for the Judge 
Campion is made aware of the disappearance of a previous director of the firm, 20 years before, who seemed to vanish into thin air while walking along a street in London.

He is also told about the manuscript of a previously unpublished play written by Restoration dramatist William Congreve, which is owned by the firm. This was kept in the safe in the strong room and was about to be put on display at an event by Paul Brande.

As the trial gets under way, Campion, and his manservant, reformed criminal Magersfontein Lugg, have to work day and night to solve the murder before Mike is sentenced and hanged. At one point, Campion’s own life is threatened and he finds he must draw on all his resources and Lugg’s underworld contacts to help him solve the case.

Many readers have said they liked seeing the development of Albert Campion’s character by Margery Allingham during this story, who the reader has previously been told little about by the author. I found it to be a pacy whodunit that I enjoyed reading.

Flowers for the Judge was adapted for the BBC with Peter Davison as Campion and Brian Glover as Lugg and it was shown on television in two, hour-long episodes in 1990. 

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Thirteen Guests by J Jefferson Farjeon

An intriguing mystery told with humour and well-drawn characters

The British Library edition of Farjeon's Thirteen Guests
The British Library edition of
Farjeon's Thirteen Guests 
Thirteen Guests is a traditional country house mystery, the type of story popular during the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Queens of Crime, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham, are still famous for their Golden Age novels and their books remain in print. However, many other good writers of the detective novel from this period have now been forgotten.

One crime writer the novelist Dorothy L Sayers particularly admired from the Golden Age was J Jefferson Farjeon, who she praised for his ‘creepy skill.’

She may have read Thirteen Guests, when it was first published in 1936, but few copies of the original book had remained in existence for the modern reader to enjoy until 2015, when, happily, the novel was rescued and republished by the British Library.

The story begins at a railway station where a young man, John Foss, falls from a train when leaving it and injures his foot.

He is recued by an attractive widow, Nadine Leveridge, who is on her way to a country house party. She takes the young man with her in the car that has been sent to pick her up by her host, Lord Aveling, to try to get medical help for him.

When they arrive at her destination, Bragley Court, the hospitable Lord Aveling welcomes Foss and offers him the chance to stay for the weekend while he recovers.

Lord Aveling is hosting a weekend house party for 12 people and therefore Foss is his 13th guest.

But because they arrive before two of the other guests, Mr and Mrs Chater, it is Mr Chater who is the last to enter the house and who becomes, technically, the 13th guest.

J Jefferson Farjeon worked for the Amalgamated Press before becoming a freelance writer
J Jefferson Farjeon worked for the Amalgamated
Press before becoming a freelance writer
Foss is not superstitious and he has been reassured by a fellow guest that the bad luck will come to the 13th guest who enters the house.

During the weekend a serious of bizarre things happen. A painting is damaged, a dog is killed, a stranger’s body is found in a quarry on Lord Aveling’s land and then one of the guests is found dead.

Foss observes all the comings and goings during the weekend and overhears snatches of people’s conversations as he lies, sometimes forgotten, recuperating on a settee in a side room. He is visited from time to time by Nadine and together they try to work out what is going on in the house, as the relationship between them blossoms.

Farjeon does not write cardboard characters and therefore the guests, who are also the suspects, are all interesting and depicted well. In one scene, an artist, and a journalist, who are sharing a bedroom, give as good as they get in an entertaining conversation with the investigating detective, Inspector Kendall, who is by no means cast as a plodding policeman.

We learn that the Detective Inspector moves from place to place when a district needs ‘gingering up.’ When he is introduced, he is having some amusing exchanges with his new subordinates as they make their way to Bragley Court to investigate.

The weekend guests include an MP, an actress, a cricketer, and a writer of mystery novels. They all have their own secrets and peculiarities, which Detective Inspector Kendall uncovers as he tries to get to the truth about what has happened.

Farjeon was a crime and mystery novelist, playwright, and screen writer. Born in 1883, he worked for ten years for Amalgamated Press in London before going freelance. He went on to become the author of more than 60 crime and mystery novels, short story collections and plays.

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

Although the plot of Thirteen Guests is far from straight forward, Farjeon plays fair with the reader and a credible solution to the mystery is unveiled at the end.

I enjoyed Thirteen Guests and would recommend it to other fans of country house mysteries.

So far, not all of Farjeon’s many novels have been republished, but I hope more of this author’s forgotten work will be rescued and made available for contemporary crime fiction fans to relish.  

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New crime short story by Val Culley


Shelved in Shepshed


By Val Culley


Sallie knew it was going to be ‘one of those days’ before the library had even opened to customers that cold Thursday afternoon.

She was kneeling in the entrance porch, emptying the returned books customers had posted into the drop box, when she became aware of a large woman standing over her. “Can you look a book up for me on your computer system? I can’t see it on the shelves,” the woman asked.

Sallie had never been a big fan of the concept of the Smart Library, which was introduced soon after she started work at Shepshed Library. It had taken her a while to find another job after being made redundant from the library she had worked at previously. She had then encouraged her former colleague, Jo, to apply for a job at Shepshed Library as well.  

Sallie and Jo had both now got used to the customers, with their little quirks, such as Mr Austin, who used the computers but never took a book out, who would come up and mutter things to them. They would smile and nod but feel uneasy, knowing neither what he had said nor what they were smiling about.

"Sallie and Jo had both now got used to the
customers, with their little quirks"
Then they were told that their hours and pay, along with those of their colleagues, were to be cut by the local authority that employed them, as a result of the introduction of the Smart Library.

Sallie didn’t like the thought of customers letting themselves into the library when there were no staff present and doing whatever they liked, having simply signed a vague agreement  to ‘look after the library,’ but she had no choice other than to go along with it.

She occasionally had clashes with Smart customers, who pounced on her as soon as she arrived and vented their frustration at her, because they had been unable to work the computer, or print documents, with no staff present. When she pointed out they had signed up to use the library without staff assistance, they would unleash a tirade of abuse at her.

On this occasion, she stood up, in as dignified manner as possible, but found she was still at a disadvantage, looking up at the tall woman, who had long, untidy grey hair and large glasses.

“We’re not actually open yet,” Sallie pointed out.

The woman gestured impatiently. “I’m sorry! All I’m asking is for you to do your job! But I’m not surprised by your attitude really, because, can I just say, I have never felt any warmth in this library.”

“That’s strange because I just found a note on the counter from a customer complaining the library was too hot while she was using it in Smart this morning.”

“I didn’t mean that! I meant that the staff here are not at all friendly.”

“None of them?”

“Yes, none of them. I’ve never felt any warmth from any of the staff.”

Sallie looked at her carefully. She was sure she had never seen the woman before. “Do you perhaps only use the library when there are no staff present?”

“Oh, for goodness sake. You’re useless. I’m wasting my time talking to you. I shall complain to the manager.” She marched to the doors, which opened automatically to let her out.

"The usual wave of people approached the
desk, clutching their phones"
After the library had opened to all the customers at two pm, the usual wave of people approached the desk, clutching their phones, which were all showing labels that needed to be printed urgently. Most of them weren’t library members, but they couldn’t join because they had no ID with them, and wouldn’t be able to print anyway, because they weren’t carrying any money. Sallie and Jo were kept busy at the counter dealing with them, and had no time to discharge the contents of the drop box.

They made a good team. Jo was petite with short dark hair and an elfin face and was very kind, while Sallie was taller and more generously built, with blonde hair and blue eyes and the ability to be firm but fair with customers. The third girl on duty, Lauren, a young, library assistant with long, glossy, brown hair, was doing her best to try to shelve the mountain of books in danger of falling off the returns trolley, flicking her hair out of the way constantly.

Sallie noticed Paula was waiting in the queue. Paula was a Reading for Community Health volunteer, who had started to use the meeting room at the library to help adults with literacy problems. The staff had agreed to keep an eye on her when she was in the meeting room with a client and she could call on them for assistance if she had any problems.

Sallie unlocked the door of the meeting room for her and propped it open with a door stop so they would be able to see Paula when they were shelving non-fiction returns. She noticed that Paula, whose long, mousey hair was scraped back into a pony tail, looked thinner than ever and her eyes were red rimmed as though she had been crying.

“Are you okay, Paula?”

“Yeah, I’m all right, thanks,” she replied listlessly

An old man barred Sallie’s way as she attempted to walk back to the counter. “Do you have a book called ‘The Soldiers of Shepshed’?”

“Yes, it’s with the local history books along here,” Sallie said

But when she searched the shelf where it was kept, she couldn’t find it. Worryingly, the book appeared to be missing. There were only two copies of ‘The Soldiers of Shepshed’ in the entire county. Sallie had made the Shepshed copy available as Reference only, so that it couldn’t be taken out of the library. It seemed to have disappeared and she was concerned someone might have stolen it. A customer had told her the book was now out of print and there was only one copy left on Amazon, for which the seller was charging £150.

"But when she searched the shelf where it
was kept, she couldn't find it"
As the afternoon wore on, the three girls were all run off their feet. At one point, while Sallie was shelving fiction, she noticed a smartly-dressed young man bending down and studying the Mary Balogh novels. She was just about to ask if she could help him, when an old man appeared in front of her and asked, “What’s this Smart thingamajig?”

Sallie sighed. “Do you mean the Smart Library?”

“I don’t know. I just want to be able to get in.”

“Get in where?”

“The library.”

“You’re in it now.”

“I know that, but this morning there were people inside when I went past and when I tried to get in, I couldn’t.”

“Have you joined the Smart Library.”

“Yes, of course.”

Sallie took the man’s card and went to the desk and after checking on the computer found he wasn’t yet registered as Smart.

“Can I become Smart?” he asked.

Sallie was just about to say that she thought it highly unlikely, when a shrill scream came from non-fiction. Then Lauren ran to the counter looking terrified. ‘It’s Paula! She’s dead!”

Sallie and Jo raced to the meeting room where they found Paula, slumped lifelessly in her chair with red marks on her neck.

The next hour seemed to go by in a blur. They closed the door of the meeting room, called the police, and rang their supervisor. Two uniformed officers arrived and said it looked as if Paula had been strangled. There was no murder weapon in the meeting room, but they could see that a length of cord had been cut from one of the window blinds.

The first detective to arrive was taken to the meeting room by Sallie to join his uniformed colleagues. He said: “I expect your prints will be all over everything by now. Why haven’t you sent all the customers home and closed for the day?”

"Two uniformed officers arrived and said it
looked as if Paula had been strangled"
“I’ve read enough crime fiction to know not to touch anything, and I didn’t ask anyone to leave because I thought you might want to interview them. We closed the door of the meeting room so no one could go in, and put the front door on exit only.”

Lauren was still very shocked, so Jo made her a cup of tea. They all sat in the office together and thought back about the events of that afternoon.

Sallie remembered opening the door of the meeting room to admit poor Paula. Jo remembered seeing Paula’s client arrive. She said he was tall and looked as though he was dressed for going skiing and was wearing a hat and had a scarf over his face. He had walked towards the counter purposefully, but then suddenly turned right and gone straight to the meeting room. None of them had seen the client come out afterwards.

Later, an older detective arrived to take over, and said Sallie could open the front door again. He put one of the uniformed men on the door and asked him to take the names of customers as they left and he sent the other uniformed officer and the patronising, young detective away to make further enquiries.

Sallie showed him the crime scene and explained what Paula was doing in the meeting room. The detective was tall and thin, with grey hair, and Sallie thought he had an intelligent face. She relayed her version of events to him, and then he spoke to Jo and Lauren in turn.

When the pathologist arrived, the detective took him into meeting room and they viewed the body behind closed doors.

Later, Sallie and Jo were both behind the counter when they saw Paula’s client come back in and walk purposefully towards them. They both gasped with excitement, but he just asked calmly if he had left his bag next to the kiosk. Jo recovered quickly and told him a bag had been handed in. She asked him to describe his bag and Sallie offered to fetch it from lost property.

But on her way, she went to the meeting room and knocked on the door. She told the detective the client had returned. He took the client into the kitchen to speak to him, but after taking down his contact details and statement allowed him to leave the library with his bag.

"Sallie noticed Lauren, who had somehow
managed to change into a little black dress"
While Sallie was trying to deal with the growing mountain of shelving, the detective came to tell her his officers had been to Paula’s home and spoken to her neighbours. They had told the police she was unhappy because her husband had left her for another woman and that he wanted to sell the house immediately because he was desperate for money. They said Paula had been refusing to cooperate.

A wedding picture of Paula and her husband had been in the lounge and the officers had texted him an image of it, which he showed to Sallie. “But her husband’s been in the library this afternoon! I saw him earlier, rummaging about among my Mary Baloghs!” Sallie exclaimed.

The detective ordered the uniformed officer to search the area around the Mary Balogh novels. To Sallie’s horror the cop heaved piles of books off the shelves enthusiastically. Then he brought ‘Soldiers of Shepshed’ to Sallie, which he had found at the back of the shelf, saying: “I’m no librarian, but this don’t look like romance to me.”

The uniformed officer then found a piece of blind cord and the detective took it into the meeting room to compare it with the cord on the window blind.

On her way to the shelves again, Sallie noticed Lauren, who had somehow managed to change into a little black dress with a side slit, was dancing a tango with the uniformed cop near the audio books. This shift is becoming more and more bizarre, she thought.

The nice detective came to thank Sallie for all her help. He said: “We’ll get that poor girl’s murderer bang to rights. It’s a classic domestic. There’s no one else in the frame, so we’ll soon have him in custody. I hope you don’t mind me saying this, and I’m sure people must have said it to you many times before, but you have the most beautiful, blue eyes. When you’ve finished work, would you be kind enough to join me for a drink so I can go over my notes with you to make sure I haven’t missed anything.”

“But I thought it was an open and shut case,” Sallie said.

“Well, it’s more a case of murder by the book,” he said, looking into her eyes. He held his hand out to her and she found herself reaching out to him as well, but then there was a loud thud…

Sallie woke with a start and saw she had dropped her book on the floor. She had fallen asleep while reading in front of the fire. Her black cat was curled up on the sofa next to her and there was a half empty glass of wine on the coffee table. “Oh dear, I must have dreamt the whole thing,’ she said, stroking the cat, who purred contentedly. 

“Do you think it’s time I retired from the library, Desdemona?”

 The End




Death Is No Sportsman by Cyril Hare

A fishing story with no red herrings to confuse the trail

Death Is No Sportsman was first published in 1938
Death Is No Sportsman was
first published in 1938
The sport of fly fishing is at the centre of the mystery in Death Is No Sportsman, Cyril Hare’s second detective novel.

A group of men, who are all devoted to the pastime, gather at a small hotel, looking forward to spending a pleasant weekend on the river bank. Although the men are not friends, they try to get on amicably so they can continue to share the fishing rights they hold jointly to a small, but desirable stretch of the river Didder.

Behind their superficial courtesy towards each other, there are clearly tensions. Also, as regular guests at the hotel, they know the local people and are aware of the passions and rivalries going on below the surface in the small community.

All this is beautifully set up by Cyril Hare in the first few pages and it will come as no surprise to the reader when a body is discovered at the side of the river the following day.

The victim is the local squire, a man who was unpopular with both the fishermen and the villagers. It is quickly established that he has been shot in the head.

The corpse is discovered by a young man connected with the fishing syndicate, soon after his arrival at the inn. He is subsequently revealed to have deep feelings for the wife of the dead man, so the stage is expertly set by the author for a mystery involving interesting characters in an evocative setting.

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

The writer’s pseudonym was derived from a mixture of Hare Court, where he was in Chambers as a barrister in London, and Cyril Mansions, where he lived.

Hare was a practising barrister and judge as well as a writer
Hare was a practising barrister and
judge as well as a writer
Hare wrote many short stories for the London Evening Standard and some radio and stage plays and he was a keen member of the Detection Club along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and other famous crime writers.

After the war, Hare, as Clark, was appointed a county court judge in Surrey. He died in 1958, when he was at the peak of his career as a judge and at the height of his powers as a master of the whodunit.

In 1990, when the British Crime Writers’ Association published their list of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, they awarded the 85th place to Hare’s 1942 novel, Tragedy at Law, which is considered by many to be his best work.

In Death Is No Sportsman, the police quickly find the murder of the local squire too complex for them to solve and call in Scotland Yard. In the following chapter, we see Inspector Mallet, ‘a very tall, very broad man, with a mild red face set off with an unexpectedly ferocious-looking waxed moustache,’ descending from the train ready to take over. He investigates with the thoroughness the reader expects of him, but the local police find his attention to detail mildly irritating.

I found Death Is No Sportsman to be an intriguing mystery that always plays fair with the reader. It was so well written that I enjoyed being guided along by Hare in the direction of the inevitable and satisfying scene at the end. The suspects have all gathered in a room at the inn next to the river where Mallet explains everything and the identity of the murderer is revealed.

Death Is No Sportsman was first published in 1938. 

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The Big Four by Agatha Christie

Poirot novel may prove a test for even his most dedicated fans

The Big Four was the seventh Poirot novel
The Big Four was the
seventh Poirot novel
Rereading all Agatha Christie’s detective novels in chronological order is enabling me to enjoy her best work once again and to discover novels that I have somehow managed to overlook over the years.

I was intrigued by her seventh novel,The Big Four, which was published in 1927, because, although it features Poirot and Hastings, it is a far cry from the mystery with a country house setting that readers have come to know and love.

Poirot enters the world of international espionage in this story and races from country to country, trying to track down four master criminals who are working together to achieve world domination.

The first is Abe Ryland, an American businessman, the second is Madame Olivier, a French scientist, and the third is a sinister Chinaman called Li Chang Yen.

The fourth, who Poirot does not unmask until close to the end of the book, is able to evade him because he turns out to be a master of disguise.

The Big Four was not my favourite Poirot novel, as it was more of an espionage thriller, with Poirot chosen to be the unlikely hero whose mission is to save the world.

Delving into the background of the book, I found that it originated from 12 separate short stories that had already been published. Apparently, Agatha, who was at a low point in her life, needed to come up with a new book for her publisher. With the help of her brother-in-law, she gathered up some of her old stories, reworked them, and submitted them as a new novel to her publisher. 

But she was never satisfied with The Big Four and used to refer to it herself as ‘that rotten book.’ It came after her sixth novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which had been a spectacular success and was a tough act to follow.

The Big Four was adapted for television in 2013 starring David Suchet as Poirot. It is worth persevering with, if only to be able to say in the future that you have read every one of Agatha Christie’s 66 detective novels.

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Death in A White Tie by Ngaio Marsh

Author does not allow the romance to dominate the story

Death in a White Tie is the seventh Alleyn novel
Death in a White Tie is
the seventh Alleyn novel
Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn and artist Agatha Troy meet up again in Death in a White Tie, the seventh novel in the series of Inspector Alleyn mysteries by Ngaio Marsh, which was published in 1938.

Although Alleyn and Troy’s romance makes progress during the novel, the focus of the story is on Alleyn’s investigation into the murder of a popular member of the nobility, who has been helping Scotland Yard to uncover the identity of a blackmailer who has been preying on wealthy women.

Alleyn feels responsible for Lord (Bunchy) Gospell’s death and vows to catch and punish the killer himself because Bunchy, who is murdered in a taxi on his way home from a ball, has been gathering information for the police.

Bunchy was also a close friend of Troy’s, and therefore the detective and the painter find themselves once again thrown together during a murder investigation.

Ngaio, who was a native New Zealander, and spent some of her time living in England, provides a vivid picture for the reader of the London season as it was during the 1930s. She shows the debutantes and chaperones doing the rounds of the cocktail parties, dinners, and balls, based on her own observations of society while she was staying in London.

But the hunt for Bunchy’s killer is kept centre stage during the novel and the police investigation is interesting to follow. Alleyn has friends and relatives at many of the social occasions featured in the story and so events can unfold naturally. In the earlier novels, when Alleyn was an outsider called in to investigate in an unknown environment, he had to conduct a series of interviews to establish the facts.

Patrick Malahide and Belinda Lang played  Alleyn and Troy in the TV adaptation
Patrick Malahide and Belinda Lang played 
Alleyn and Troy in the TV adaptation
Ngaio does not allow Alleyn to reveal who killed his friend until near the end of the novel, when there is a dramatic showdown scene in the Assistant Commissioner’s office at Scotland Yard.

Death in a White Tie was adapted for television in 1993 when it was an episode in the BBC’s Inspector Alleyn Mysteries series. The role of Alleyn was played by the actor Patrick Malahyde.

I enjoyed Death in a White Tie and thought it was even better than the previous six novels in the series.

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Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs

A murky tale of murder with an eccentric cast of suspects 

Death of a Busybody is the third Inspector Littlejohn mystery
Death of a Busybody is the third
Inspector Littlejohn mystery
The writer of Death of a Busybody, George Bellairs, was bank manager Harold Blundell  by day.

Blundell must have been a keen student of human nature while working at his bank in Manchester because many of the characters he depicts in this story display unusual quirks and idiosyncrasies.

The busybody referred to in the title of the book is Miss Ethel Tither, who has made herself deeply unpopular in the quaint English village of Hilary Magna, by going out of her way to snoop on people and interfere with their lives.

When Miss Tither is found floating in the vicar’s cesspool, having been bludgeoned by an attacker before being left to drown in the drainage water, the local police quickly feel they are out of their depth and call in Scotland Yard.

Inspector Thomas Littlejohn, the author’s series detective, arrives by train and finds there is no shortage of suspects in the case. He must piece together the clues quickly in order to find out who was responsible for the murder of the busybody and restore order and calm in the village.

This is the third Littlejohn novel by George Bellairs, who was born Harold Blundell in 1902 near Rochdale in Lancashire. He wrote more than 50 novels, most of them featuring Littlejohn, starting with Littlejohn on Leave, published in 1941 and finishing with An Old Man Dies, published just before his own death in 1982.

Death of a Busybody was published in 1942. While he was writing it, Bellairs was working in a bank during the day and acting as an air raid warden at night, having been exempted from military service because he was blind in one eye. He had discovered that writing a detective novel helped to pass the time during the blackout.

Bellairs was bank manager Harold Blundell in his day job
Bellairs was bank manager
Harold Blundell in his day job
Bellairs wrote amusing stories that gave his readers welcome light relief during the war years and in the difficult decades that followed. For example, in Death of a Busybody, one of the detectives assisting Littlejohn goes to interview a retired accountant whose hobby is bird watching and who writes about his ornithological studies. The two becomes friends and the detective also becomes a bird enthusiast. At the end of the novel, it is revealed that they have subsequently published a joint treatise about birds and have presented a copy to Inspector Littlejohn. This is an example of the author’s mischievous sense of humour revealing itself in what is essentially a classic mystery novel.

Another delightful aspect of the novel is the way Bellairs depicts rural life at the beginning of the 1940s. He reveals some of the eccentricities of the local population with great humour, in a similar way to Gladys Mitchell in her Mrs Bradley mystery, The Devil at Saxon Wall, which was published in 1935.

Although his books were also published in the US and translated into other languages, Bellairs regarded crime writing as a hobby and he continued to write for pleasure rather than profit. After his death, his books became largely forgotten by the wider public, which was a great pity

First editions in dust jackets of early books by Bellairs are now quite rare and therefore collectable and fetch high prices. But now some of his books are available to new readers thanks to the British Library Crime Classics series, enabling 21st century detective story fans to enjoy his mysteries and find pleasure once again in his gentle humour.

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Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers

Six people didn’t regret the death of the victim, one of them committed murder

Five Red Herrings was the sixth
Lord Peter Wimsey novel
Five Red Herrings, published in 1931, has Galloway in Scotland as its backdrop and is peopled by a large cast of colourful characters, many of who are artists who enjoy fishing.

The novel is the sixth by Dorothy to feature her amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, who is holidaying in Scotland and amusing himself by living the simple life in a cottage, although he is accompanied by his manservant, Bunter, who attends to his every need.

Early in the novel, Wimsey comes across the dead body of an artist in a stream and finds an easel nearby with a half-finished painting that is still wet.

It is assumed that the painter, Campbell, who is a heavy drinker and has quarrelled with most of the other artists in the area, has fallen into the stream accidentally and has fractured his skull, causing his death.

However, Wimsey notices that there is an important item missing from the crime scene and suspects Campbell has been murdered and that another artist has painted the picture, skilfully faking Campbell’s distinctive style.

He shares this information with the police officers who arrive at the scene, but Dorothy doesn’t reveal to the reader the identity of the important missing item, although she puts all the information Wimsey had at the time at the disposal of the reader so they can work it out for themselves.

And so, once again, we’re off! The police know of Wimsey’s reputation and invite the English Lord to join the investigation, giving him full access to all the information they obtain during their enquiries, which Dorothy shares with the reader.

Ian Carmichael played Lord Peter Wimsey in the BBC TV adaptations of the stories
Ian Carmichael played Lord Peter Wimsey
in the BBC TV adaptations of the stories
There are six other artists living in the area who could have painted the picture in Campbell’s style. They are all rather elusive and seem to have something to hide. Wimsey concludes that five of them must be red herrings, but must investigate them all. He visits all six in their workshops and hangs around, watching them work and noting their individual habits.

It is complicated for the reader to differentiate between the six artists and their various homes and financial circumstances. Their alibis involve intricacies such as train timetables, different bicycles, the technicalities of various ticket punchers at stations and railway accounting procedure.

The reader is not helped by Dorothy faithfully reproducing in her dialogue the different Scottish accents and dialect words used by the characters, which sometimes makes the novel a difficult read.

At the end of the story, Wimsey carries out  a reconstruction of the events that take place during the 24 hours leading up to the murder, to try to convince the police that his theory about the identity of the murderer, which differs from their own, is the correct one.

It is a complicated story, with perhaps too many suspects, but Dorothy plays fair with the reader, as always, and makes it theoretically possible to work out the whodunit element of the novel, if the reader is clever enough. She describes the Scottish setting evocatively and convincingly, her knowledge of, and love for the area, shining through.

Five Red Herrings will particularly appeal to readers who enjoy the puzzle aspect of detective novels.

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