Mystery

The Red House Mystery

red houseThe Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne is a rather famous mystery novel by the well-known author of Winnie The Pooh. It was first published in 1922.  I got my hardback copy back in 2018 and have been sluggish about reading it.  The cover design on the jacket is unremarkable and the first chapter is a wee bit difficult to read through unless you are in a patient mood. Once one gets beyond the first three chapters, though, the pages really do fly.

At first the novel really does seem precisely like some writing exercise. It seems as if it is an exercise in writing a whodunit mystery by a competent and, even, strong author. However, it does not immediately present as something engaging and exciting. The novel is very British and the setting is the not-quite-manor home of a man who is a bit of a fop and a dandy.  Truthfully, until I got a ways into the story, I really was doubting what all the fuss and praise for this novel were about.  I am really glad that I finally set myself to reading the whole thing and I enjoyed it quite a bit, though I am not sure it qualifies as one of the best I have ever read.  It did improve as I read along and I can recommend it to any general reader who enjoys vintage British mystery stories.

The characters are a bit unbelievable – particularly the four main characters.  Everything is such a setup for the story that I felt Milne might have been a bit lazy. It is not that the setting and characters do not work, it is just that it seems too easy. In other words, it feels like the author wants to write a murder mystery and wants to jump to the heart of the situation without any development or building as to why or whom or how. Just hurry up and get to the detecting parts of the thing.

In a lot of ways Antony, the main character, is too good to be true. He’s too smart, too slick, too convenient, too casual, too friendly, too forgiving, too honest.  I expect every reader likes him a whole lot and wants him to be safe and succeed and win the day.  However, if I am being honest, the character is a little too cool.

It is fun to follow his detecting. Antony is so smart about everything. He is good-natured and a real pal. So, as he runs through the various scenarios and investigates while he enjoys plenty of relaxation, the reader gets a good schooling on how to run a proper vintage British amateur locked-room murder mystery.  An official Inspector is, of course, called in to the crime scene, however, his deductions are not really a part of the story and only become interesting at the inquest.

As if Antony’s skills and personality were not enough, he gets his own “Watson” in this story. A younger lad named William Beverley who is willing to play the Watson rôle because he loves the fun and excitement of the whole thing. He keeps Antony company, does a bit of the dirty work, and provides a little comic relief. Bill Beverley is just the sort of harmless and helpful friend you would want to help you solve your murder mystery.

The murder is not very horrifying. It takes place in the office behind closed doors. The police are notified. Houseguests are sent away and “witnesses” are left to entertain themselves. The detecting takes place amidst dinners, pipe smoking, and leisurely walks. Eventually the frustrations and/or lack of possible solutions narrows the options to the point where the story must end. There can be nothing further to investigate.

I enjoyed the novel because it is a little bit of a writing exercise. I also enjoyed the camaraderie and fun spirit of the characters.  They poke fun at Sherlock and Watson, they tease detective novels, and they sport about the manor home. The story itself is grounded and reasonable. There is a lot to like in the novel and I think it is good to have read it, but it will not remain in my collection because I doubt I would read it again.

3 stars

A Red Herring Without Mustard

A Red Herring Without MustardA Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley is the third in the Flavia de Luce novel series. It was published in 2011. I read the first two in the series and enjoyed them and I think I will be giving this novel the same rating, four stars.

My only criticism of this novel is that it may have just a few too many red herrings and bunny trails. It can seem a bit repetitive. But, and this is key, Bradley writes such an engaging character the repetitiveness does not seem to matter. This series reminds me a lot of the Simon Green Ishmael Jones series. Basically, readers rather know what they are going to get – and if they like it, they like it. If they do not, then they don’t.  No great boundaries were pushed around here, nothing innovative or extraordinary was done.  This novel is not wholly unlike the previous two – however, if you liked those two, you will enjoy this one.  Maybe some readers will feel that the character and stories are stagnant or not going anywhere. I agree with that while at the same time I am satisfied with the novels as they are. I like spending time in Bishop’s Lacey; that’s enough for me.

… I had learned to start campfires, but I’d vowed that never again would I be caught dead trying to make a fire-bow from a stick and a shoestring, or rubbing two dry sticks together like a demented squirrel. – pg. 35, chapter 2

The thing that Bradley does very well is to confuse the reader with “reality.”  There are murders/crimes – but the unreliable narrator element makes the novel a bit more layered than it would be otherwise. The fact that the narrator is not willfully deceiving the reader is important – the narrator is an incredibly likeable eleven-year old. Obviously the perspective and understanding of such an individual is not as holistic and nuanced as an adult’s vision. So, when Flavia applies her efforts to mysterious and suspicious events, the reader really does not have much to go on.

“Good afternoon, Miss Flavia.”

“Good afternoon, Dogger.”

“Lovely rain.”

“Quite lovely.”

Dogger glanced up at the golden sky, then went on with his weeding.

The very best people are like that. They don’t entangle you like flypaper. — pg. 129, chapter 10

The novels are, generally, lightweight and breezy.  The pages turn quickly and some of the horrors are glossed over, of course. Interestingly, though, readers can pick up subtle hints and flavors of how wartime struggles affect matters.  There are also poignant moments filled with potential emotion. I say “potential” because Flavia is discovering she is caught in the middle of changing worlds, changing classes of society, changing viewpoints, etc.  She wrestles with the manners of the gentry, religion of a separate group, economic concerns of those dealing with wars, and the maturation of her own personality.  Bradley skirts some of these issues, but he does give glimpses of these struggles.

Under any other circumstances, I’d have said something rude and stalked out of the room, but I thought better of it.  The investigation of murder, I was beginning to learn, can demand great personal sacrifice. — pg. 216, chapter 17

I usually read these with half-attention. These novels do not require my full attention, which is good because sometimes I do not have much attention left to give. Sometimes it feels weird – like I am not really reading the novel and the pages are turning anyway. Yet I do always notice the awesome quotes or quips or whatever.

The main movement in this novel as regards the series is that Buckshaw is under continued financial stress and even the eleven-year old is beginning to feel it. Secondly, the subplot with Flavia’s mother continues. This is an enjoyable read.  It is witty and eventful and engaging. Its not intense literature, but it is fun enough to read in the summertime.

4 stars

Death At The President’s Lodging

Death At the President LodgingDeath at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes (John Innes Mackintosh Stewart 1906 – 1994) was first published in 1936 and is the author’s first novel in the Inspector John Appleby series.  Innes was an academic; professor of English Language and Letters. This novel was published when he was only thirty years old and while I think it is nearly excellent, there are some minor issues that I think keep it from being a five-star novel.  First and foremost the most important point to emphasize is that this is not an entirely coldly serious novel, it is a bit self-referential and it does seek to amuse via subtle wit at the expense of detective novels in general.  Not just mystery novels, but also academic life (specifically high-brow British).

Throughout the novel the wit and humor is very subtle and very tongue-in-cheek.  Readers who can pick up on subtle nuances and hints are going to have a better time of this one than readers who just like straightforward “whodunits.”  In his very first detective novel, Innes includes a character who is a don of a university that also, under a pseudonym, writes detective novels.  Including such a character is a mark of confidence and also demonstrates the author’s ability to find amusement in such reflective items.

“To be as clear as I can, sir, I would speak a trifle technically and say that your question had a latent content.  The feeling-tone evoked was decidedly peculiar.” And with this triumph of academic statement Slotwiner gave one more ghost of a bow to Appleby and glided – levitated almost, to speak technically – out of the room. – pg. 33, chapter 2, part 3.

This segment, where Inspector Appleby is quickly asking a few questions of the butler, was the first piece of the book in which I laughed aloud.  Its the “technically” part. It is even funnier as you read it in context. Like I said, the humor is subtle and tight.

There are sometimes passages like the below that can be used as a litmus test for readers. You will either snort because you find it amusing or you will find it tedious, stupid, and obnoxious:

The ability to smell a rat is an important part of the detective’s equipment.  Appleby had smelt a rat – in the wrong place.  But he was too wary to take it that a rat in the wrong place is necessarily a red herring:  it may be a rat with a deceptive fish-like smell – and still a rat. — pg. 166, chapter 11, part 1

Subtle humor like this, a little wordplay, will either make readers giggle a bit or they will find it impenetrable and wonder why the author is writing “like this.”  In any case, in this novel there are plenty of suspects, and as the detective often complains, a lot of “light” on the matter. In other words, there seems to be too many clues and too much evidence.  This is kind of a fun twist, again surprising for a first novel, on the detective novel trope – usually, it seems, detectives are missing key clues or are constantly looking for more evidence to prove their theories. The fact that there is an abundance of evidence is a neat element for this genre.

The overall theme of this novel, though, is its academic setting.  As I have said many times, most writers write what they know and Innes was definitely an academic.  We can know this through his biographical reports, but also because of the very accurate and realistic manner in which he portrays the setting and characters in this novel.

Most of the suspects or persons of interest in this novel are dons/fellows/professors.  The ones who are not, are long-time residents and employees of the school. The core group of individuals that are involved are scholars:  to be seen as experts in their field and in academia generally. These are men who have dedicated their lives to their profession, in whatever specific field of study that was, and have been granted the titles and prestige to go along with achieving a high level of success.

Immediately upon beginning his investigation, and at several points throughout, Appleby is struck by the fact that this case is not the “average crime” involving hasty, ham-fisted criminals.  In this case, the suspects and witnesses are all exceedingly comfortable with being interrogated about details, they are experts in explanations, and they are adept at ratiocination. These are calculating, efficient, and sharp intellects that generally do not make errors and cannot be bullied by a gruff interrogation.

Innes does not give us a weakling for an inspector, though. Turns out, Appleby is a graduate of the school himself.  The case allows for a bit of a homecoming, if you will.  This little detail gives the reasonability of Appleby to “keep up with” the dons intellectually and also for his moving around campus with the facility that is afforded a member, so to speak.

I enjoyed considering this situation. It is a daunting and interesting scenario to put your detective up against.  I imagined some of the minds that I know and knew from all of my schooling and I promise I would not want to have to sift through their witness statements or to have to discover which of them was misleading or something. To have to match wits in such circumstances would be intense – but what a fun theme for a novel!

Innes balances out these formidable intellects with a brilliant and lovely segment in chapter eleven that is, no doubt, quite famous among those who have read it.  It is worth, probably, reading the entire book just to come upon this fantastic section.  Appleby has gone about to trace the movements of a couple of the dons on the night the murder took place.  This involves his going to the suburbs where one is likely to find “scholars of enormous age” who live in quiet retreats. The entire segment is worth reading every single word for because it is absolutely beautifully depicted, but the ultimate point is that Appleby has called on a small villa in which lives Sir Theodore Peek.

Appleby found him in a small and gloomy room, piled round with an indescribable confusion of books and manuscripts – and asleep.  Or sometimes asleep and sometimes awake – for every now and then the eyes of this well-nigh ante-mundane man would open – and every now and then they would close.  But when they opened, they opened to decipher a fragment of papyrus on his desk – and then, the deciphering done, a frail hand would make a note before the eyes closed once more.  It was like being in the presence of some animated symbol of learning. — pg. 169, chapter 11, part 2

Every bit of Appleby’s interview with Peek is outstanding for its witty, realism, erudition, and fun. A perfect chunk of writing – including the end of the segment with its utterly truthful response from Appleby. Anyway, this scene is absolutely perfect and I feel like I have seen it, lived it, and see it coming in the future. The description is totally balanced with the necessary realism and the intrinsic characteristic of humor found in brute reality.

From what I have I have written so far, it should be amply clear that I enjoyed the novel and that it contains several uncommon elements to make it interesting and engaging even among mystery readers. However, I am very sad that I have to refrain from giving it the full five-star rating.  The first reason is that it became clear that Innes could not (or would not?) write the character of Dr. Barocho.  This character was removed from the “likely suspects” early on (he lacked means and motive, I suppose), however, if we are to believe Appleby is as thorough and diligent as he is meant to be, then we were deprived of an interview with Barocho – although we did have interactions with him. Unfortunately, the interactions made Barocho seem like an awkward character simply because of the fact that he is a “foreign” item in the setting. It is not that he was written rudely, but that he was not given a fair chance at being either a hero or a villain. So why include him at all except to include a foreigner?

Secondly, the ending is paced a little too suddenly.  One should have expected the denouement to be a bit of a gather round and explain.  However, it seems like Appleby was just a moment ago by the river watching the rowing team and pondering clues. Then, suddenly, denouement. The end. It is not inaccurate or strange, but it is paced too suddenly.  This could be a product of it, indeed, being Innes’ first novel and maybe in the following books this is tamed and tempered.

Lastly, the strongest reason for withholding the fifth star, is the motive-cause of the murderer.   Pargeter would be dismayed. Its not enough. Its not good enough. Its not worth all of the foregoing. It could be valid, naturally, but it was not proven. It was hung upon like shirt is hung on a hanger. It is not sufficiently nuanced.

So, overall, I am thrilled I read this one.  It was a great read and I enjoyed so much of it.  I loved spending time at St. Anthony’s with all of these gentlemen and I did not find Appleby to be some retread of any other inspector.  I liked the setting and the writing and the crime, but yes, I admit, the denouement needed a bit more work. I would happily read Appleby stories again.  Recommended for bright readers, vintage mystery fans, and for readers who do not get frustrated at subtle humor. The reader is not going to be spoonfed – to speak technically.

4 stars

Case Without a Corpse

Case Without a CorpseCase Without a Corpse by Leo Bruce (Rupert Croft-Cooke 1903 – 1979) was published in 1937 and is the second of Bruce’s Sergeant Beef mysteries.  I cannot imagine any of his other stories to be on the level of the first Beef mystery, Case for Three Detectives, but readers who somehow expected the same seem to be a bit disappointed in this second offering.  In my opinion, once you get used to how Bruce is writing these stories – with the poking fun at the whole detective novel industry – you can settle in and simply enjoy the read.

Overall, this novel was an entertaining read this week that did not strain my eyes or annoy me in some other way.  The characters are not very subtle, but they are a relatively fun group to trek around the countryside with.  The story is told from the perspective of Townsend who also chronicled the first Beef mystery. Townsend is a novelist and he hangs about Beef’s location in Braxham in the hopes of getting fodder for his next detective novel.  Beef is a fun character; the foil of all the very obnoxious detectives that most of the famous novels give us.

This is, first and foremost, a comedy. A tongue-in-cheek amusement that actually has a decent murder-mystery storyline as its frame. The humor is redundant and the plot is not a speeding bullet train.  However, it is entertaining and it all turns out right in the end. So, one of the main targets for the humor is the amateur who tags along with the detectives and inserts himself into the investigation.  In this case it is Townsend who is extremely up-front and honest about the fact that he has no business meddling, but is going to anyway.

There was, of course, no reason why I should be admitted, but my reading of detective novels, which had been considerable, had taught me that an outsider, with no particular excuse, was often welcomed on these occasions, especially if he had the gift of native fatuity, and could ask ludicrous questions at the right moment, so I hoped for the best. . . . That, I thought, is one good thing that writers of detective novels have done – taught Scotland Yard to admit miscellaneous strangers to their most secret conclaves. – pg. 62, chapter 8

So, authors who include this random character in order to make the whole story work, using the character as a lever or wedge when necessary, are being mocked here. And it is funny.  Its a dry humor, of course, but it is also a breath of fresh air.

This novel pits the simple, plodding honesty of Sgt. Beef against the modern methods of the professional Scotland Yard Inspector named Stute.  Stute is strict and is constantly demanding facts and efficiency.  His interviews of subjects are clip, direct, and sharp.  He will inevitably interrupt the witness to demand that they tell him the precise time or moment.  Method, facts….these are his tools.

Beef and his constable Galsworthy often take the brunt of Stute’s elitist prejudices and frustrations.  Galsworthy and Beef are outrageously saintly in their good-natured and long-suffering patience. The poking at Galsworthy’s name is repetitive, but several times had me snort. Stute has a need for Townsend’s presence, of course, but he does not spare him, either.

“But how can you spare the time to follow us round? Don’t you ever do anything?”

“I write detective novels,” I admitted.

Stute made a curious and I thought rather hostile sound with his lips. – pg. 165, chapter 20

It is absurd, and Bruce is correct to point out this absurdity in novels.  Townsend ends up spending weeks in Braxham following this case.  Every day paying, presumably, for his lodging, his meals, and endless pints at every pub they pass. Most of the time I am amazed at how wealthy these hangers-on must be in order to just lodge and eat and drink.

While Stute tends to be pointed and sharp with his comments, Beef tends to leave everyone wondering if his comments are genuine or if he is being tongue-in-cheek.  I think that is the most amusing part of the character and, of course, when Beef solves the mystery, we suspect he may have been toying with us all along. But I turned the pages from 217 to 218 and laughed out loud:

Beef shook his head.

“Its all these modern methods wot confuses those chaps,” he said sadly, “Vucetich System, and Psy. . . sy. . . “

“Psychology?”

“That’s it–Sickology.  And tracing this, that, and the other.  And analysis and wot not. I go on wot I been taught.” pg. 218, chapter 26

Yep. “Sickology” had me laughing and currently has me with a rueful smile on my face.

The nice thing about the novel is that it is not all just parody and absurdity. There actually is a rather interesting case – it starts off suddenly in the early chapters and it becomes even more fraught as the storyline continues.  And yes, it is literally a case without a corpse, in a sense. And it all hinges on perspective, which is a truly witty and clever thing for Bruce to have done to the reader. The perspectives of Beef and Stute and a little misdirection.

Recommended for summer vacations and vintage mystery fans.

3 stars


P.S.  My copy of this novel was ⚓ Heather M. Schroeder’s (nee Anderson) (1937- 2017) copy.  Schroeder was a Royal Canadian Navy commissioned Officer who also enjoyed mystery novels.  She was married to Colonel John K. Schroeder, Jr. (1929 – 2021) who was a highly decorated USAF officer.  Unfortunately, it remains unknown to me how many “stars” she gave Case Without A Corpse.

The Late Monsieur Gallet

Monsieur Gallet Simenon coverThe Late Monsieur Gallet (also known as The Death of Monsieur Gallet) by Georges Simenon (1903 – 1989) was first published in 1931.  It is the third Inspector Jules Maigret novel that I have read. I think I like this one the most, so far. Still, I am giving it the same rating as the first that I read, Pietr the Latvian.  I think that Maigret’s brooding, aloof manner really suits this storyline very well. The mystery was revealed carefully enough to complement Maigret’s personality.

These are short novels, so far. M. Gallet was only 155 pages in the Penguin Classics edition (2013) that I read. Its nice and noir, so to speak, how Simenon gives us such bare bones stories with so much character in them. I do not feel like I missed out on anything, that the book was lacking in some obvious respect, or that the story needed to be expanded in any direction.

Some of the phrases and sentences are slightly awkward. They are not maligned, but just ever-so-slightly off. I assume that is the translation, though. I have enough French that I could get through Simenon, but I have yet to see a physical copy of one of these novels in French. So, every once in awhile a sentence is a little less than smooth.  It usually seems fine because it melds with the noir feeling and Maigret’s ever-somber personality.

The story begins 27 June 1930 and it is a hot summer, a fact that seems to wear heavily on Maigret. In the low 90°s throughout the novel.  Maigret, of the Flying Squad, is sent to investigate a murder in Sancerre (just about the center of France, south of Paris). Strikes me as a bit absurd – having Maigret with his imposing stature being in the Flying Squad. He travels to Saint-Fargeau by train in the heat to meet with the family of the deceased. He meets the Madame Gallet and informs her of the situation – but the whole time, he seems distracted and set at great unease by the temper and status of the household.

One of the things that I enjoy about Maigret is how he very much allows his thoughts to take control of his movements and attitude and he is little swayed by the, let us say, smoke and mirrors that appear around him.  From this first experience at the Gallet home, Maigret is never able to shake a feeling of wrongness that pervades his whole investigation. There is also a particular prop that is collected here and remains with Maigret and the reader throughout the novel.

It was so extraordinary that the picture the inspector was constructing for himself made him feel an indefinable anxiety, as if it evoked certain phenomena that shake our sense of reality. – pg. 57, chapter 4

Anyway, once in Sancerre, we meet a variety of other characters as Maigret gets to the typical work of detecting.  We meet an almost-charming landholder and we are pestered by an enthusiastic hotelier.  There is a sort of femme fatale going about who is first described as similar to a Greek statue. The deceased has been shot and stabbed and no one seems to have very much information at all. Maigret’s sense of unease and dissatisfaction with the case continues to haunt the pages.

Every criminal case has a feature of its own, one that you identify sooner or later, and it often provides the key to the mystery. He thought that the feature of this one was, surely, its mediocrity. – pg. 23, chapter 2

In a sense Maigret’s gut-instinct here in the beginning is quite valid, but it plays out in an unexpected and interesting way. I do not want to give away the plot, but mediocrity is such a significant term for this novel.  Ironic and paradoxical.

The plot is relatively unique and I did not really see what had happened until it happened. It is not complex – once it is demonstrated. However, the looming, angry Maigret during the big reveal is a terrible and frightening image. This is not a novel that will restore a reader’s faith and hope in mankind.  There are some crooked and selfish characters in this one that will make readers as dissatisfied and sour as Maigret.  But there IS Maigret – the bulky and brooding detective that ferrets out these ugly incidents of human action and is the reader’s consolation because he, too, is angered and repulsed.

This is a quick read and most vintage mystery readers ought to be familiar with it, I think.  I like the economy of the novel and the strength of the main characters. Overall, while it is not a cheerful read, it is a solid noir-type mystery.

3 stars

The Case of the Gilded Fly

CrispinI finished The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin last night. I have been reading it this week and at several points I was inclined to read sections aloud to my household, to the chagrin of my household. I did not love so many things about this novel to include the plot and the murder.  However, there are a whole lot of things that I really did enjoy, which more than makes up for the things that I disliked.  Before I begin, let me mention that “Edmund Crispin” is the penname for Englishman Robert Bruce Montgomery (1921 – 1978).  He was a relatively prolific writer along with being an organ scholar and music composer. Allegedly he was friends with Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis.  The Case of the Gilded Fly is his first novel and stars his detective Gervase Fen.  It was first published in 1944 when Crispin was himself an undergraduate at Oxford.

I have a feeling that this novel will divide contemporary readers.  I can imagine how it would irritate and vex readers who are not as comfortable with madcap tongue-in-cheek satirical moments in their novels. It is also obvious that readers who are not very classically well-read (how’s your off-the-cuff Latin? your drop-of-a-dime Shakespeare? how familiar are you with the traditional Anglican Evensong?) will feel this novel is “obnoxious.”  I had a blast with the novel – for the most part.  I want to give this one four stars. Unfortunately, when I am very honest and I do not let myself get carried away by how amused I was, I can truly only grant it three stars.

So, the novel begins with a tedious introduction to each of the primary characters as they travel via train to Oxford. One long segment dedicated to each of the characters, one after another, is not the most engaging writing. I understand the importance of giving the reader the roster and just dumping the background of these characters all at once at the reader, but it is a slog to get through straight into the novel.  However, being honest, I have to knock a star off (in a sense) because its not a very fun method.

Here is where the story really had no chance of being five stars – I really dislike theatre and plays and film and none of that is my scene. I have written about this before.  Acting troupes and actors and the stage are probably my least favorite topics/themes etc.  I want you to know this though:  as I sit here and complain grouchily about the theatre, I literally have a copy of the complete works of Aristophanes tucked under my pillow in my bed. I am re-reading the stuff. Love The Frogs best of all.  I read it at night, usually, and I just shove the book wherever because I do tend to read to exhaustion.

This brings me to the detective of the novel, Gervase Fen.  I think he is fantastic. He is a forty-two year old literature professor.  At the start of Chapter Thirteen, through the mind’s eye of the character Nigel Blake, Crispin gives us a well-colored, insightful, and developed description of his concept for the character. Readers who had been utterly annoyed by Fen thus far, hopefully can establish a somewhat kinder view of him after reading this? I am absolutely not going to lie, part of my appreciation for Fen is that he reminds me, in bits and shades, of a certain person…….

One of the segments that I read aloud was the story-in-a-story told by Wilkes. It is a ghost story and it seems to set the tone of the novel for an upcoming murder – but it, itself, has nothing to do with the murder. On one hand it is a strange inclusion, on the other, it does more to set the tone and style the setting than most authors are capable of doing directly.  I also found the story itself to be creepy and imagined it quite clearly. A chilling little story, peppered with just the correct amount of wit. Its a beautifully written segment.

From the moment of Wilkes’ arrival, throughout the rest of this section, Fen’s reactions are amusing as heck. Familiar, too, I might add quietly. Fen cracks me up. I feel like readers will find him to be utterly rude and cantankerous, but they ought to understand he is not malicious whatsoever. Balancing his moments with his sensible and patient wife Dolly’s comments is a fine bit of writing by Crispin.

In chapter six, when the group has found the body and the police are on the scene, there is a section that had me laughing aloud and I even read the section to my, once again, long-suffering household.  Sir Richard and Fen get absorbed by an examination of a certain prop – and Crispin writes it absolutely perfectly. Its beyond humorous and silly. I feel almost embarrassed because I feel like this is precisely the absurd moment that would occur in my world. I, and my associates, would huffily tell you that “accuracy matters” and would not feel that any such enquiry wastes time since it is all in service to the great heap of “Knowledge.”

The pacing of the novel is a bit off, though. I mean, like the train that it starts with, it seems to take a bit for the whole thing to get rolling. There are parts where it seems like nothing is going anywhere and everyone is lost and dazed. After all is said and done, nearly at the very end, there is a seemingly random theory about trains proposed by Nicholas that really seems out of place in the novel, though it does have amusing qualities. I do not really care for the characters.  Nicholas seems the most realistic, though Nigel, I suppose, is the character readers are supposed to use for grounding, let’s say.  Nigel is a former student of Fen’s. Nigel Blake is a character that I am sure has any number of referents to other bits external to this novel though, since I am not a Crispin scholar, I could not say what they are definitively. (Cp. Nigel Strangeways/Cecil Day-Lewis and also “Nigel Bathgate” of Marsh’s 1934 novel).  The character Yseut Haskell is quite awful. Everyone thinks so.

I think that, for modern readers, one of the more challenging aspects of the novel is the frequent self-awareness of the novel.  It sometimes critiques itself, refers to itself, mocks itself. Its subtle at times and other times its loud and brash.  I think readers unused to this sort of writing will find it disconcerting and dislike not knowing on what terms to take the novel.  Its easier for readers to accept a novel that is this or that, let us say, rather than one that chooses a style and remains there throughout.  This novel is a detective novel, its a entertainment, its also a satire, and its a bit of an homage.  If that is not enough, at times, it also is self-aware and purposely talks past the reader or shuts the reader out.  Yes, I am sure these things can aggravate readers unprepared for them. Or readers who lack imagination.

An example of this is how throughout we are frequently told by all of the characters that Yseut is hideous and no one likes her whatsoever. The reader begins to, perhaps, accept this as reality and as a reasonable thing.  Then, abruptly, late in the novel, there is an about-face, if you will, when the novel nearly rebukes the characters and readers for being so accepting of the harshness toward Yseut.  A delicate reader might actually feel a twinge of guilt here; after all Yseut, with all of her public flaws, is still only a silly, young thing.

A murder mystery with some witty criticism and commentary that might pick fun at other detective novels (Fen mutters against the dull police investigation, the ridiculousness of Oxford zeitgeist, generally, and overall comments about the theatre.) A subtle farce, an amusing mystery. One of the things readers should watch for with Fen is that while he completely disassembles a seemingly pompous and snarky character (Nicholas), he also admits (later on) that Nicholas has an excellent intelligence. Almost as if Fen is harshest on those from whom he expects more.

Fen’s baleful worries about how he should act with regard to the fact that he can solve the murder that mostly everyone wants to believe is a suicide does bring up some interesting ethical questions.  He bluntly demands characters to state their opinions on murder. He lets all the characters share their opinions, almost as if welcoming them to assert that they are comfortable with murder “in some cases” and then he will suddenly make a comment scolding them for such immorality.  I feel some of this, too, must be taken in the context of that lovely year 1944 and the war-weary world.

Overall, this novel is a little messy – the resolution of the murder (the actual locked-room is a bit too difficult for me to really deal with).  It has some flaws. It also has some of the best wit and humor that I have read in quite awhile. I think Fen is really priceless. This is definitely not a novel for all readers, whether readers want to hear that or not.  I think, however, blaming the novel for educational deficiencies in the reader would be the incorrect way to go. Of course I am most certainly going to read more Crispin.

3 stars

From Doon With Death

From Doon with DeathI finished another book, but its another that I really did not like.  In fact, I may actually dislike this one. I read Ruth Rendell’s From Doon With Death from 1964.  I have heard that Baroness Rendell (1930 – 2015) is considered a strong mystery writer, so of course I started with the first of her famous Inspector Wexford novels.  After having read this one, I have to say that I certainly hope that her other novels are big improvements. I think there are twenty-four novels in the Inspector Wexford series – and Rendell also wrote a bunch of other novels, besides.

In a sense, Rendell is up against some stiff competition. This year I have read novels by Dorothy Sayers, Simon Brett, Rex Stout, Ngaio Marsh, and Georgette Heyer.  I do have plans for a Christie novel, too, sometime this year.  Unfortunately, Rendell might never had a chance with this novel.

I do not want to spoil the mystery, let us say, of the story, but I find this sort of resolution lame.  It reminds me of what Simon Brett said about Mrs. Pargeter – about how Pargeter had “a strong prejudice against murders committed by people who were mad.”  Same thing here, in my opinion, it tends to be awkward and stupid. Seems like letting detectives off of the hook or something…. So, needless to say, the resolution was a big let down and felt like a stupid trickery.

Now, among the things that I really disliked about this novel is the main character, Inspector Wexford.  I do not know how or why or when – there are lots of vintage mystery experts who can trace this sort of thing – but having a pompous, obnoxious, jerkface lead detective seems to be so accepted that it is expected in a so-called British mystery.  I would love a novel to be written, a sort of parody, starring Roderick Alleyn and Reginald Wexford.  These two are grating on the reader’s nerves. Absolute jerks. It does not seem, either, that they deserve to be exonerated for such behavior – for example, in this novel Wexford’s co-detective Burden does more work than Wexford. So, imagine a novel in which the arrogant Alleyn has to co-star with the obnoxious Wexford! Let them torture each other like they vexed readers!

“Cigarette, sir?”

“Have you gone raving mad, Burden?  Maybe you’d like to take your tie off.  This is Sussex, not Mexico.” – pg. 52, chapter four

Another element I strongly disliked, and it is pervasive, was the constant highlighting and backbiting and commentary regarding social classes.  I do not have first hand experience of London, say, in 1964.  But I am sure that Baroness Rendell did.  Now, whether she felt all of this class conflict in her novel would separate her from either side of the debate or if she was purposely trying to critique one or the other, I cannot say.  I just know that an undue portion of the novel is spent mentioning who fits into which class and, usually, it comes with sharp, critical comment. Every little aspect of the storyline has some sort of economic/social class status attached to it and running through it.  Even characters who never actually appear in the story and who are living in other continents are appraised. Its another tedious thing in a novel that already has Wexford to deal with.

Well, its obvious I was not too impressed with Wexford, but truthfully, all of the characters are unlikeable. None of them are even endearing or curious.  Several of the characters are caustic and scratchy. So, this could be a method of an author keeping all the characters in front of readers as “likely suspects” – we do not befriend anyone, so readers are ready for any of them to be the criminal, I guess. The method is too unreasonable and it makes for some rough reading; I do not have to adore characters, but making me dislike all of them is a story albatross.

Overall, this is a short novel so it seems fine that it was not very good; more or less a throw-away read. I do not see why it is necessary to start reading Wexford with this one, if one is inclined to read the Wexford series.  I cannot recommend this one to anyone, its not really of any interest, and the writing style itself is nothing special.  Again, compared to the other authors I read this year, Rendell just did not compete.

2 stars

All Shall Be Well

All Shall Be WellBlazing through books these last two weeks, I finished another.  It was on my to-be-read list because I had read the first, A Share in Death, in the series back in 2019.  I was not really impressed with that book, but I wanted to see how things went.  I enjoyed the second book in the series, All Shall Be Well, less than the first! This second of Deborah Crombie’s “Kincaid/James” series was released in 1994.

Everyone in this novel is to some extent miserable.  I do not think I have read a novel so completely stuffed with unhappy and miserable characters as this one.  The whole conceit of the book is that we are never sure if there is a crime or not and if there is a crime, whether that crime is suicide or murder. Someone has died, all right, but it was a lonely, sad death due to cancer.  Other utterly miserable people shared these woes:  a wimpy failure at life, a cruel bully with no prospects, an overworked divorcee whose ex has skipped out, a old military veteran living alone after disastrous outcomes during his service, a mousy friendless girl, and a number of relatives in mental homes and health care facilities. Literally, everyone in this book is absolutely miserable. And they are nearly vying with each other in their sorrows.

The deceased is slightly interesting because of her background. That becomes wearing and dull, though. There is a cat in the novel – I think it is supposed to be a spot of lightness to the story. Literally, the thing is neglected throughout and though it has a good ending, one cannot help but feel sad for it.

Most of the story is probably spent developing the relationship between the two detectives and their surrounding environment. Their similarities, differences, reactions, etc. Its all very dull, frankly. As with the first book, the Kincaid character is a bit off when it comes to females. I remember 1994 quite well, so please do not try to tell me anything about how it “used to be.” His reactions and thoughts are weird – so it makes me want to raise a suspicious eyebrow at the author about all of this.

He found himself starting absently at two girls ordering food at the counter.  One had orange hair cropped almost to her skull, the other a straight fall of fair hair halfway down her back.  Spandex minis left their legs bare from the buttocks down, in spite of the chill, damp evening.  He supposed vanity provided them sufficient internal warmth – what bothered him was not the likelihood of their catching a chill, but that he’d no idea how long they’d stood there before he noticed them.  He must be getting old. – Chapter 13, pg 176

Yuck.

Anyway, the characters are miserable and the storyline is dull. But worse than that, the story is also invasive and uncomfortable.  We really dig into the deceased’s affairs – old journals from the 1960s and such – as if we are biographers. The deceased is a very private and reserved person, so doing this sort of rummaging is unpleasant to read about.

The things I did like:  we are told about every garden, flower patch, or potting soil bag in the country. Also, we have pint with every meal and its always crisp and refreshing and without struggle. Seamless pints to go along with country-food. I am a bit jealous of the pubs and the gardens.

This is a dull thing and very focused on character introspection and relationships. Its overall story is nearly not a story anyway.  A fast read about nothing much. I cannot recommend this to many readers – skip this one. I may read the next novel simply because its on these shelves around here.

2 stars

The Unfinished Clue

The Unfinished ClueThe Unfinished Clue by Georgette Heyer is the second Heyer novel that I have read.  This one was published in 1934.  Let me state from the get-go, this is a five-star novel.  The reason why this is a five-star novel, which is not something I am frivolous in awarding, is because I cannot find anything “wrong” with it.  I am able to recognize, though, that many readers may have little interest in country house murders or historical fictions.  That is a personal preference, though, and if I am being impartial and honest, this is a really good novel.

It has certainly been said many, many times that Heyer excels at character creation and involvement.  In this novel she has a fairly large cast and yet not a single character is cardboard or wooden.  Heyer is the anti-Asimov in this regard.  She introduces us to a variety of characters that are realistic, consistent, and engaging.  Not all of these characters are likeable – in fact, many are not. But all of them are interesting and remarkable.  In particular, in this novel, the character Lola de Silva is so remarkable that her name/characterization ought to be a meme or an archtype.  Readers of all generations need to know about Lola.

I am a reader that enjoys country house mystery/murders. I do enjoy the old fashioned, upper class, non-urban settings.  I do not mind their (sometimes) slow pace nor their fixation on teas, butlers, and cocktail hours.  However, not all country house murder mysteries are done with skill.  Often, it seems forced or obnoxious.  Not Heyer’s whatsoever.  I read a manor house mysery once and complained about how dumb the characters were for all gathering ’round the fancy dagger – and then whoops! someone turns up dead! How contrived.  Heyer’s novel here is very fun and well-plotted.  The motives for the murder are all viable ones and nuild tension within the setting.  Each character, already suffering uncomfortable interactions, has to deal with the awkwardness of remaining in the manor among a bunch of “likely suspects.”

So, the characterizations are top notch and the plot is solid and well-written. The pacing seemed reasonable and there were no grammatical or ugly artistic errors, let’s say.  How could I not give this five stars?  I found it entertaining, interesting, and time well spent.  I am not sure I can say similar things about many books that I have read that were, supposedly, in my favorite genres. (Cp. science fiction, fantasy)  It is a lighter novel in that it does not tax the reader and make their brains churn.  I am OK with that and had no problem relaxing with a decent storyline.

My two favorite characters were Dinah Fawcett and Captain Francis Billington-Smith. I think most readers probably fall in love with Dinah, so saying she was one of my favorites does not mean so much.  The best part of Heyer’s novel is the fact that she gathered all of these characters into one country home and let them stew and boil over together.  Here is one of Dinah’s observations:

He went into the house, and Dinah thought, with an inward grin:  Getting too much for poor old Stephen; really, it’s more like a home for mental cases than a house party. – pg. 88, chapter five.

Dinah is observant, witty, and direct, but not rude. She often knows the correct thing to do and chooses wisely. An insightful and likeable character that we all wish to befriend.  She is often helpful in providing the comic relief for the storyline so that the story is not miserably heavy and sluggish.  I like that Heyer does not take her stories/novels overly serious. I like that Heyer herself sees the opportunity for wit and humor in these stories.  Dinah picks up the humor nicely and I do wonder if Heyer doesn’t write herself as Dinah:

“I think perhaps I had better,’ said Mrs Twining in her calm way. “I understood from Fay that I was to hold myself in readiness to answer questions the detective may want to put to me. I am really not very well versed in the etiquette of these affairs.  Does a detective come to me, or do I go to him?”

“I don’t know,” said Dinah.  “But I wish you would come. We – we rather badly want a normal person here.” – pg. 133, chapter 8.

I have a couple other Heyer novels to read; I think they are the detective mystery novels, too. I know she wrote a large number of romances and historical items, but I am really enjoying her mysteries.  They have been popular since they were published and I think that is a great thing. I can confidently recommend this book to any reader and any aspiring author.

5 stars

Enter a Murderer

EaMEnter A Murderer by Ngaio Marsh (1895 – 1982) is the second book in the Roderick Alleyn police detective series.  It was first published in 1935, but I read the St. Martins Paperback 1998 edition.  Readers cannot help but be told, if they even glance at Marsh’s career and her opus that this novel is significant because it represents one of her novels in which the plot involves the theatre.  The theatre was Marsh’s primary career interest and she was very successful in that line.

Generally, I am disinterested and unamused by stories that take place in and around a theatre. I am oddly above-averagely educated on Shakespeare, the Classic Greek items, and some select modern works. I also have seen a bunch of plays, dramas, and theatre performances of note. I am woefully uneducated regarding Noh work.  However, I usually dislike the whole sphere because there is something unpalatable – to me – about a profession designed to deceive.  Well, to deceive and to be excessively demonstrative.  In my worst moods, if I dislike a person or how they are behaving, I will snarl “Thespian” in a tone that leaves no misunderstanding for how I feel about it all.

Something about the simulacra and simulation. Or maybe the society of the spectacle. Souring and sneering and disdainful….

I mean, in my very worst moods, I admit, I classify those involved with the theatre (stage and film, as it were) as something lower than the criminal class – usually because, well, the criminal seems nearly more honest about his lifestyle. Trust me, a number of people who know this about me usually want to bludgeon me because of this disdain.  I cannot apologize, though, I am wholeheartedly me.

I mention this information, which does not put me in the best light [see what I did there?!], because I knew this novel was theatre-centric and I dreaded reading it.  I knew I would be bored and I would find the characters insufferable.   It was not as bad as all of that, I was definitely being dramatic [heh, heh].  However, it did not engage me, say, like a novel might in a different setting.

Alleyn and Bathgate, which is another of those happy duos we find endemic to detective fiction, are at times annoying both each other and themselves.  Alleyn is so very pompous at times – even his facetious self-effacing is too obvious and arrogant.  But yet – he has some quoteable segments that really make the reader suspect that Alleyn does deserve all of the praise and postering that goes on.  The quotes are just brilliant lines of wit and insight that outshine all of the flaws.

“There’s a murder charge hovering round waiting for somebody, Mr. Saint, and shall we say a drama is being produced which you do not control and in which you play a part that may or may not be significant?  To carry my flight of fancy a bit farther, I may add that the flat-footed old Law is stage manager, producer, and critic.  And I, Mr. Saint, in the words of an old box-office success, ‘I, my Lords, embody the law.’  Sit down if you want to and please keep quiet.” – pg. 53, Chapter 5

Miss Susan Max, though, is my favorite character in the book, and it is easy to see why.  She is “old-school” and seems to be the most honest and fair of the lot.  I know that this is an early work by Marsh because I was able to suspect and then correctly assign the crime to the culprit very early in the work.  I think I was able to do this for two reasons, both are probably due to Marsh just overwriting a bit for both reasons.  The one reason being that I took an instant and immense dislike to the character – and there are a bunch of dislikeable (especially from my perspective) characters! The other reason that Marsh overwrote would be a spoiler if I mentioned it, suffice to say its very Shakespearian [Hamlet] as well.

Marsh is clearly a theatre-expert.  She knows her way around a stage like a boss.  She also knows the temperments, tendencies, and traditions of the theatre.  There is nothing that is lacking in her detail of the setting and background for this story.  I am almost curious to do a more deep critical reading and examine how well her novel does or does not structure like a theatre piece – literally did she move the characters round the storyline as if they were on a somewhat larger stage?  And this is but her second novel, I am sure that Marsh improves as she writes this series, so I am looking forward to watching this idea of mine develop a bit. Or fall flat.

Normally the frequent quoting of famous lines or references to plays/dramas would irritate me a lot because it always feels so…. well… dramatic. Contrived and artificial, I guess. In this novel, there is a fair bit of such “quoting,” but it works contextually, obviously, so it did not annoy me as it would have in a different setting.

“All amateurs are tiresome.  You want to be in on this, but you shy off anything that is at all unpleasant.  We had this out before in the Wilde case.  You’d much better keep out of it, Bathgate.  I should have said so at the beginning.” – pg. 135, Chapter 13

Well, a number of readers have mentioned that “romantic” element that swirls around the major character Stephanie Vaughan and ….. I was going to say Alleyn, but really, I ought to simply say “all the other male characters.”  I read this described as cringey and awkward, etc.  I actually did not find it that way – Marsh sets up the intrigue very nicely:  she describes-without-describing-too-much Vaughan and her appeal and Alleyn’s unique handsomeness.  I do think it concerning that Marsh seems to have perfectly written these scenes and yet let some of the other, more pertinent, scenes go less cared for.

The problem with the novel, overall, is setting up a duo of Bathgate and Alleyn and then having Alleyn nearly constantly play a weird game of push-and-pull with Bathgate.  Supposedly a polished and expert detective, he should know better than to use and abuse Bathgate as he does. I mean, I do not particularly like Bathgate, but I felt sympathy for him because Alleyn treats him like a yo-yo. Once is enough, but it happens repeatedly in the novel – telling me Marsh had not quite worked out, perhaps, how this team was going to operate.

Anyway, I suspect we should hand out copies of this book to all the detectives and interested parties involved in Alec Baldwin’s “shooting accident” on the set of the suspended movie Rust (2021).  And wouldn’t you LOVE to know what Ngaio Marsh’s take on it would be?

Recommended to general readership and vintage mystery fans. I intend to read more in the Alleyn series, of course.

But I’ll be true to the song I sing,

And live and die a Pirate King.

For I am a Pirate King! And it is, it is a glorious thing

To be a Pirate King! For I am a Pirate King!

3 stars