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, fiancé, 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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Thursday, January 19, 2023

The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L Sayers

Novel's fascinating format makes for a compelling and ingenious murder mystery

The Documents in the Case is notable for its experimental format
The Documents in the Case is
notable for its experimental format
A bundle of letters and statements can be daunting to sort out in real life, but when a reader is presented with the same challenge at the beginning of a detective novel, they might be put off from even starting to read the story.

However, when the author of the novel happens to be Dorothy L Sayers, I think most readers would probably be prepared to make the effort.  

In The Documents in the Case, the sixth detective novel by the author, which was published in 1930, there will be a murder to be solved eventually, and two men will join forces to play detective. But that is about all this story has in common with Dorothy’s other detective novels featuring her aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, who doesn’t appear in this book at all.

The murder victim is not discovered until page 135. By then Dorothy has introduced us to the main protagonists in the story by presenting us with a succession of letters that they have written to other people, which will eventually become part of a bundle of evidence presented to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

We read the letters written by a young writer, John Munting, to his fiancée, Elizabeth Drake, letters written by a middle-aged spinster, Agatha Milsom, to her sister, Olive, and letters from an older man, George Harrison, to his son, Paul. In theory, if we are astute enough, we should have all the information we need to solve the crime when it finally takes place.

We learn a lot from all the letters about the relationship between an older man and his young wife, information that is destined to be sent to Sir Gilbert Pugh, Director of Public Prosecutions, which will ultimately lead to a murder conviction and a hanging.

Robert Eustace, the pen name for Eustace Robert Burton, a doctor and a writer of crime and mystery novels himself, was credited by Dorothy with supplying her with the plot idea for The Documents in the Case and with also giving her the supporting medical and scientific details to use.

The concept for the book was based on the ingenious idea of giving the reader all the evidence that the DPP will trawl through before deciding whether there is a case to answer.

I think Dorothy makes a success of this because she is a superb writer. Some of the letters written by the spinster, Agatha Milsom, who is working as housekeeper to the married couple, Mr and Mrs Harrison, that she sent regularly to her sister, Olive, reminded me of the letters in Jane Austen’s novels, written by characters to each other that help to move the plot forward without every scene having to be played out. Using the multiple viewpoints of the letter writers not only establishes their own characters with the reader, but also reveals their real opinions of the other characters.

My only, very slight criticism of the book is that the scientific evidence put before the reader at the end of the story was lengthy and hard for a non-scientist, such as myself, to understand completely. But I mention this as just the faintest of criticisms because I still persevered and read through it all and I think I just about understood it.

Sayers was given the idea for The
Documents in the Case
by a doctor friend
The story is essentially about people and their relationships and reveals how people see things very differently. The fact that there is a murder and therefore a whodunit element to the story was a bonus for me. Without it, there wouldn’t have been much incentive to read all the letters and statements!

Pulling out the essential truth about the case from each character’s version of events is a task that falls to the victim’s son, Paul, with the reader going along for the ride. I found The Documents in the Case to be a compelling story and a real page turner and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

It transpires that the victim died as a result of being poisoned by a substance that could either have been administered deliberately, or that they could have consumed it accidentally. It falls to scientific analysis of the poison to prove whether it was administered to the victim deliberately, or whether it could have been present in food naturally, and it is not easy for the pathologist to find out the truth.

Sadly, Dorothy is said to have been disappointed with the way The Documents in the Case turned out and she confessed to wishing she had done better with the brilliant plot she had been given by her doctor and writer friend, Eustace.

In my opinion she did extremely well with it, but it is up to other readers to pronounce their own, final judgments.

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Thursday, January 12, 2023

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

An award winning masterpiece by the Queen of Crime

The latest HarperCollins reprint of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
The latest HarperCollins reprint
of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Agatha Christies’s sixth novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was voted ‘the best crime novel ever’ by the British Crime Writers’ Association in 2013.

Published in 1926, the book remains Agatha’s best known and most controversial novel because of its ingenious final twist, which had a significant impact on the detective fiction genre and has been imitated by many other writers since.

Agatha, who died on 12 January, 1976 - 47 years ago today - has become famous for being the supreme exponent of the old-fashioned English crime novel. Her skill in constructing complex and puzzling plots and her ability to deceive readers until the very last page, or paragraph, are unequalled.

But this third Poirot novel, narrated by the local physician, Doctor Sheppard, in the absence of Captain Hastings, who has gone to start a new life in the Argentine, is considered by many readers and critics to be her masterpiece.

Wealthy businessman turned country squire Roger Ackroyd lives in a charming English country village, where dark secrets and dangerous emotions lurk beneath the apparently calm surface.

When Ackroyd is murdered, stabbed in the neck while sitting in his study after a dinner party at his home, there are, as usual, plenty of suspects.  

Poirot, who has just come to live in the village, after retiring to grow marrows, lives next door to Dr Sheppard. He is asked by a member of Ackroyd’s family to investigate the murder because they are worried the police will get it wrong. Suspicion has fallen on Ackroyd’s stepson, Ralph, who is a popular young man locally.

Agatha Christie died 47 years ago today at the age of 85
Agatha Christie died 47 years
ago today at the age of 85
After many twists and turns, Poirot gathers all the suspects together in his sitting room after dinner one night and reveals the extraordinary and unexpected identity of the killer.

According to The Home of Agatha Christie, the author’s own website, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was ‘the book that changed Agatha Christie’s career’. It was the first of her novels to be published by William Collins, which later became part of HarperCollins, who remain Agatha’s publishers today and attracted enormous attention in the media at the time.

Following her death, Agatha Christie's body was buried four days later after a service at St Mary’s Church in the village of Cholsey in Oxfordshire.

The inscription on her tombstone is a quotation from Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queen:

‘Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas,

Ease after war, death after life, does greatly please.’

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Sunday, January 8, 2023

The Lawyer’s Story of a Stolen Letter by Wilkie Collins

An early attempt at detective fiction by a Victorian novelist

A portrait of Wilkie Collins by John Everett Millais
A portrait of Wilkie Collins
by John Everett Millais
The English novelist Wilkie Collins is held in great respect by crime fiction fans as one of the first exponents of the genre.

Although he is chiefly remembered for his sensation literature, of which his 1860 novel The Woman in White is a famous example, he also wrote The Moonstone in 1868, which is often talked of as the first English detective novel, because there is a crime at the heart of the story, a variety of suspects and an early example of a detective in the character of Sergeant Cuff.

Collins became a friend of Charles Dickens and contributed short stories to Household Words, a publication owned and edited by Dickens. He wrote The Lawyer’s Story of a Stolen Letter, originally called The Fourth Poor Traveller, for the Christmas edition of Household Words in 1854.

This is considered a very early attempt at detective fiction by Collins, as it was 14 years before he wrote The Moonstone.

The affair of the stolen letter is related by a lawyer to an artist to pass the time while he is having his portrait painted.

The lawyer, Mr Boxsious, tells the artist that he has not always been comfortable financially, or successful professionally, and that he got his first lucky break when he earned £500 as a reward for retrieving a stolen letter that was being used to try to extort money from a young man of his acquaintance.

The man was about to marry a beautiful young woman when he received a disturbing note in which the sender claimed he had a letter that would implicate the woman’s dead father in an attempted forgery. The sender threatened to pass the letter on to a newspaper unless the man paid him £500.

The lawyer regales the artist with the story of how he outwitted the man who stole the letter, a disreputable clerk who used to work for the woman’s father. By clever detective work the lawyer was able to work out where the letter was hidden and restore it to the daughter of the man who wrote it.

Some see The Moonstone as
the first English detective novel 
In just 35 pages, Collins describes the meeting between the lawyer and the artist, brings up the subject of the lawyer’s opportunity to earn £500 at the start of his career, and sets the stage for him to tell the artist the story of how he executed an elaborate search and surveillance plan to gain access to the blackmailer’s hotel room and steal back the letter.

After a meticulous search, he uses the only clue he has been able to find, a puzzling numerical inscription, and applies it to the pattern of the carpet. This enables him to discover the hiding place of the stolen letter, for which the blackmailer was demanding £500.

The lawyer then thinks of ‘a nice irritating little plan’ and replaces the letter with a piece of paper on which he has written ‘change for a five hundred pound note.’

Wilkie Collins was born on this day - 8 January - in 1824 in London. He entered Lincoln’s Inn to study Law and was called to the Bar, but he never practised as a lawyer, preferring to write for a living instead.

His first contribution to Household Words was the story, A Terribly Strange Bed, published in 1852.

His Christmas story, The Fourth Poor Traveller, was reprinted under the title of The Lawyer’s Story of a Stolen Letter in the first collection of short stories by Collins, After Dark, which was published in 1856. 

An edition of The Lawyer's Story of a Stolen Letter is available from Amazon.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Persons or Things Unknown by Carter Dickson

Solving a seemingly impossible murder

Dickson's story appears in the collection A Surprise for Christmas
Dickson's story appears in the
collection A Surprise for Christmas
Golden Age mystery writers wrote many excellent short stories as well as the novels they were famous for, and they loved to turn their hand to writing short, seasonal detective stories for the periodicals published over the festive season.

Persons or Things Unknown was written by one of only two American writers admitted to the prestigious British Detection Club, Carter Dickson, who was much admired by his fellow Golden Age writers for his locked room mysteries.

Carter Dickson was one of the pen names for John Dickson Carr, who lived in England and wrote most of his novels and short stories with English settings. He wrote Persons or Things Unknown for The Sketch, a weekly illustrated journal, for their Christmas edition in 1938.

Dickson served up a locked room mystery in a spooky setting with a historical background, which is perfect entertainment for whiling away an afternoon in December or January in front of a fire as a guest in someone’s unfamiliar, and not particularly comfortable, house.

Persons or Things Unknown has the reign of King Charles II as its background. When it was written, it was far less common to combine mystery with history, particularly in short story form, than it is now.

John Dickson Carr wrote under a number of pseudonyms
John Dickson Carr wrote under
a number of pseudonyms 
A group of guests have gathered after dinner in the drawing room of ‘a long, damp, high-windowed house, hidden behind a hill in Sussex.’  Their host has just bought the property and the party after Christmas is also meant to be a house warming.

One of the guests, who narrates the story, tells us that the smell of the past was in the house and that you could not get over the idea that ‘someone was following you about.’

The host alarms the group of guests by saying he wants to know if it is safe for anyone to sleep in the little room at the top of the stairs. He says he has ‘a bundle of evidence’ about ‘something queer’ that once happened in the room.

He then tells them he has been given a diary in which the writer says he once saw a man hacked to death in the little room at the top of the stairs. The man’s body is alleged to have had 13 stab wounds caused by ‘a weapon that wasn’t there, which was wielded by a hand that wasn’t there’.

The diary tells the story of the beautiful young daughter of the house, who was once engaged to a local landowner. Then along came a fashionably dressed young man from the court of the newly restored King Charles II, who fell for her and was determined to win her hand in marriage. The subsequent dramatic events led to a seemingly impossible murder in the little room at the top of the stairs, which used to be called The Ladies’ Withdrawing Room. It was a mystery that no one had ever been able to solve.

The host then puts all the facts he has been able to discover before his guests, who include a policeman and an historian, and invites them to come up with a solution.

The Hollow Man is regarded as Dickson Carr's masterpiece
The Hollow Man is regarded
as Dickson Carr's masterpiece
John Dickson Carr was born in Uniontown in Pennsylvania in 1906 and moved to England in the 1930s, where he married an Englishwoman and began writing mysteries. He was published under the pseudonyms Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson and Roger Fairbairn.

Most of his novels had English settings and English characters and his two best-known fictional detectives, Dr Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, were both English. He is regarded as one of the greatest writers of Golden Age mysteries. He was influenced by his enthusiasm for the stories of Gaston Leroux and became a master of the locked room detective story in which a seemingly impossible crime is solved. His 1935 Dr Fell mystery, The Hollow Man, is considered his masterpiece and was selected as the best locked room mystery of all time in 1981 by a panel of 17 mystery authors and reviewers.

Persons or Things Unknown was republished by the British Library in 2020 in A Surprise For Christmas, a collection of seasonal mysteries selected by the crime writer Martin Edwards.    

In his introduction to Persons or Things Unknown, Edwards says the author ‘blends historical atmosphere with a pleasing locked room mystery in the form of an inverted detective story of the kind first popularised by R. Austin Freeman.’

In my opinion, this pleasing locked room mystery by Carter Dickson, which takes up just 20 pages of the book, would be the perfect post lunch, or post dinner, winter diversion.

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