Friday, August 11, 2023

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



Tuesday, July 11, 2023

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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Monday, June 5, 2023

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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Thursday, May 25, 2023

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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Tuesday, May 9, 2023

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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Thursday, March 16, 2023

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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Monday, February 20, 2023

Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay

A classic mystery novel set in and around the Northern Line

The British Library Crime Classics edition of Murder Underground
The British Library Crime Classics
edition of Murder Underground 

Murder Underground, the first detective novel by Mavis Doriel Hay, is underpinned by a very clever plot. It has a satisfying ending and enjoyable resolution scenes that wrap up the individual stories of the characters and I found it to be a very good read.

First published in 1934, during the Golden Age of British crime fiction, the setting for this classic mystery novel is the Northern Line of the underground in London.

When Miss Pongleton, who is considered by others to be a tiresome old spinster, is found murdered on the stairs at Belsize Park Station, her fellow boarders at the Frampton Hotel are not exactly overwhelmed by grief, but they all have their theories about the identity of her murderer.

They help to unravel the mystery of who killed ‘Pongle’ with the help of Tuppy the terrier, the victim’s dog, and each play their part in the events that lead to the dramatic conclusion.

There is of course an official police investigation, led by Inspector Caird, but he is in the background for most of the story and it is the amateur sleuths at the Frampton Hotel who unearth the clues and finally make sense of the different pieces of the puzzle.

Hay was born in February 1894 in Potters Bar in Middlesex. She attended St Hilda’s College in Oxford from 1913 to 1916. She published three mystery novels within three years in the 1930s, Murder Underground, Death on the Cherwell and The Santa Klaus Murder. Her second novel, Death on the Cherwell, appeared during the same year as Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers and coincidentally both novels were set in women’s colleges in Oxford.

After Murder Underground was published, Dorothy L Sayers wrote a review in the Sunday Times in 1934, saying: ‘This detective novel is much more than interesting. The numerous characters are well differentiated, and include one of the most feckless, exasperating, and lifelike literary men that ever confused a trail.’

Like Dorothy L Sayers, Mavis attended Oxford before women were allowed to graduate. She was interested in the industries and handicrafts of rural Britain and, after leaving university, she was sponsored by the Agricultural Economics Research Institute of Oxford University to collaborate with Helen Fitzrandolph on a series of works surveying the rural industries. Mavis was also interested in quilting and published several books on crafts.

She married Helen Fitzrandolph’s brother, Archibald Menzies Fitzrandolph, in 1929. He was killed in a flying accident during World War II. Mavis Doriel Hay died in 1979 at the age of 85.

Eighty years after it was first published, Murder Underground was republished by British Library Crime Classics in 2014. In his introduction to the new edition of the novel, crime writer Stephen Booth said that Mavis Doriel Hay had been ‘unjustifiably overlooked.’ He also bemoaned the fact that her third detective novel, The Santa Klaus Murder, published in 1936, was sadly her last, and wondered whether the approach of World War II was the reason for this.

I am sure that lovers of classic crime novels will be glad to have the opportunity to get to know this author now. I have to admit that I found Murder Underground to be a slow starter, but I kept in mind the fact that it was Mavis’s first novel.

I thought she was better at portraying the female characters, such as Beryl, Betty and Cissie, than the leading males, such as the hapless Basil, who was referred to by Dorothy L Sayers in her review, or Beryl’s amiable, but ineffectual, fiancĂ©, Gerry.

Nevertheless, I would recommend Murder Underground to other readers as an excellent example of a whodunit.

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Friday, February 10, 2023

Artists in Crime by Ngaio Marsh

Alleyn falls in love but he still has to be professional and solve the murder

Artists in Crime was Marsh's sixth novel featuring Roderick Alleyn
Artists in Crime was Marsh's sixth
novel featuring Roderick Alleyn
Artists in Crime introduces Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn’s love interest for the first time, the painter Agatha Troy. She is reserved, independent and a successful professional artist and Alleyn instantly finds himself falling for her.

The detective first meets Troy when he is returning from a long holiday in New Zealand and boards a ship to Vancouver. As the ship leaves the port of Suva after calling at the Pacific island of Fiji, he sees Troy up on the deck painting the wharf before it fades into the distance.

Alleyn already knows and admires Troy’s work and he has an awkward conversation with her about it. He finds himself drawn to her at once, but she seems unimpressed with him and is offhand.

They next meet when Alleyn is sent to investigate a murder that has occurred at the country house in England she has inherited from her father. He is staying with his mother, who has a house near Troy’s home, before he returns to work after his long absence. His superior officer at Scotland Yard telephones to ask him to start work early to investigate a murder near where he is staying.

When he goes to the house, he again sees Troy, who is still shocked after a woman has been killed in her home in a macabre way. She does not welcome Alleyn and his officers searching the rooms of her guests or keeping them under supervision in her dining room while they embark on their investigation.

Alleyn tries to maintain a professional detachment but finds himself apologising to Troy for the things he must do to investigate the murder. It is only at the end of the novel, when the case has been solved and the murderer arrested, that we see a softening in Troy’s attitude towards him, which gives Alleyn hope for the future

Simon Williams (left) played Chief Inspector Alleyn in the 1990 BBC TV adaptation of Artists in Crime
Patrick Malahide (left) played Chief Inspector Alleyn
in the 1990 BBC TV adaptation of Artists in Crime
The suspects in the case are all Troy’s students, who pay her ‘substantial fees’ to study under her in the studio she has built in the garden of her home. The victim. Sonia, is an artist’s model, who the students are painting in the nude.  She is posing on a bed that has been draped with a silk cloth. Earlier, a dagger has been attached to the underside of the bed and the model is impaled on the point when she takes up her pose for the class.

Troy inherited the house from her father, but he did not leave her much money so she has to earn her own living. However, she is shown living comfortably in the world of the 1930s upper classes in England. She has a well-staffed country home and enjoys living in the Bohemian art world of London, where she stays at a club and has many society friends.

Artists in Crime was  televised in 1968 and 1990. It is a well-plotted mystery with a surprising ending and it is interesting for the reader to see Alleyn’s character developing from the way he is portrayed in the earlier books. He is once again ably assisted by his subordinates, Fox and Bailey, and his friend, the journalist Nigel Bathgate.

I did not find the details about methods of painting and artists’ equipment very interesting, but I realise Ngaio would have found it fascinating because she enjoyed painting herself and studied art before becoming an actress and then a crime writer.

First published in 1938, Artists in Crime is the sixth Roderick Alleyn mystery and is well  worth reading for the whodunit element of the novel alone. The love interest between Alleyn and Troy is well set up and has immediately made me want to read the next novel in the series, Death in a White Tie, in which Troy appears again.  

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Sunday, February 5, 2023

Miss Silver Intervenes by Patricia Wentworth

A blend of blackmail, murder and romance makes for an intriguing mystery

Miss Silver Intervenes is
the sixth Miss Silver mystery
We learn more about the character of Miss Silver in this sixth book by Patricia Wentworth featuring the ex-governess turned private investigator.

She is no longer just a little old lady sitting in the background knitting, but is shown to be well respected by the police, who treat her as an equal and give her full access to their investigation in this story.

The mystery involves residents who live in eight flats in Vandeleur House, an old converted mansion in Putney. The characters are beautifully drawn by Patricia Wentworth and I found myself enticed into their world and wanting to keep turning the pages of the novel to find out more about them.

Miss Silver comes into the story when one of the residents, Mrs Underwood, who she has met once through mutual friends, calls on her unexpectedly at her flat. Although Mrs Underwood is reluctant to admit why she has come to see Miss Silver, she eventually reveals that she is being blackmailed and needs help.

Mrs Underwood can't bring herself to tell Miss Silver the full details of what has been happening to her, but later, when Miss Silver reads that another resident living in the same block of flats has been murdered, she decides to take matters into her own hands and manages to get herself invited to stay at Vandeleur House.

Mrs Underwood is living there with her niece by marriage, Meade, who is recovering from the shock of being in a shipwreck in which her fiancé, Giles, was drowned. Then one day while she is out shopping, Meade encounters Giles, who was rescued from the sea but has now lost his memory.

Patricia Wentworth (above) again spins an intriguing mystery
Patricia Wentworth (above) again
spins an intriguing mystery
Miss Silver wastes no time in getting to know the other residents in the flats and finding out about their relationships with each other using her considerable skills as a conversationalist.

There is a middle aged couple whose marriage has been put under strain by the husband’s obsession with the attractive young woman who lives in the flat above them. A pleasant young woman is clearly being bullied by the domineering mother she lives with. An elderly spinster is struggling to survive financially because of her income being affected by the wartime economy. An elderly woman is being cared for by her maid and a companion, and there is a single man who keeps himself to himself so that no one knows what his occupation is.

When the police investigating the murder find out that Miss Silver is staying with her friend, Mrs Underwood, they invite her to join forces with them but the relationship becomes somewhat strained when they opt for a simpler explanation for the murder than the theory Miss Silver has put forward.

However, they eventually have to admit they were wrong when the old lady, with a fondness for the poetry of Tennyson, manages to unravel what has been going on at Vandeleur House while simultaneously knitting a pair of socks for her relative in the air force.

During the story, Miss Silver also makes a new friend in one of the investigating officers, Sergeant Frank Abbott, who is invited to the celebratory tea party in her flat at the end of the novel.

I would say the only weak point in the plot is that Miss Silver uses her knowledge of a previous blackmailing case to help her identify the murderer, which gives her an advantage over the police and the reader. But nevertheless, I found Miss Silver Intervenes, first published in 1944, to be extremely well written and enjoyable.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The Devil at Saxon Wall by Gladys Mitchell

Madness and witchcraft in a village that seems to be living in the Middle Ages

The Devil at Saxon Wall is the sixth Mrs Bradley mystery
The Devil at Saxon Wall is
the sixth Mrs Bradley mystery
Probably the most bizarre Mrs Bradley mystery yet, The Devil at Saxon Wall, the sixth novel about the eccentric psychoanalyst and amateur detective, published in 1935, is the first of a number of Gladys Mitchell’s books to feature the theme of witchcraft.

The story was inspired after Gladys heard a lecture on witchcraft by her friend, the detective fiction writer Helen Simpson, and she dedicated this book to her.

Mrs Bradley has advised her best-selling novelist friend, Hannibal Jones, who has had a breakdown and is suffering from writer’s block, to retreat to a quiet, rustic village to find rest and inspiration for his work. 

Although the village of Saxon Wall might seem the perfect rural escape to begin with, Jones soon finds himself intrigued by the odd characters among the villagers and their pagan beliefs.

He also finds himself compelled to try to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Neot House, a place where a young couple died soon after the birth of their first child.

It is a hot summer and the villagers are desperate for rain because they are short of water. They decide the local vicar is to blame for the lack of water and Jones has to step in to defend him when their anger drives them to march on the vicarage armed with weapons.

Gladys Mitchell tells the story with the skill that was her hallmark
Gladys Mitchell tells the story with
the skill that was her hallmark
Jones makes some enquiries to try to sort out what happened to two babies who he thinks may have been swapped at birth, but when a man from the village is found bludgeoned to death, he decides he must call in Mrs Beatrice Lestrange Bradley to help him.

The strangely dressed old lady with her hideous cackle is more than a match for the angry villagers and she proceeds to root out the devil at Saxon Wall using her own unique and unorthodox methods.

At the end of the novel, Mrs Bradley expresses the opinion that the inhabitants of Saxon Wall are incapable of making straightforward statements. She thinks that this peculiarity dates back to the days of the Norman conquest when the Saxons of those parts, too cunning to tell direct lies to their overlords, resorted to maddening half statements and obscure pronouncements, which made them difficult to understand.

Although the characters and situations are bizarre, the novel presents an intriguing mystery which Mrs Bradley skilfully unravels and the story is well told by Gladys, who helpfully provides ‘End Papers’ to clarify issues for the reader.

I found The Devil at Saxon Wall entertaining and enjoyable and well worth reading.  

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