British Library Crime Classics

Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North

StandsFirmAmy Snowden married in her mid-forties to a much younger man who had been working in the Yorkshire town of Gunnarshaw. Their marriage however turned out to be far from a happy one and a short time later she was found dead in her home with the gas valve opened. There is a general presumption that she has committed suicide but Sergeant Cluff believes it was murder.

As Martin Edwards notes in his excellent introduction to the novel, Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm is not a mystery novel. Cluff almost instantly identifies the culprit, even if he is unable to prove their guilt. Nor is there much question about how or why Amy was killed so we can’t really call this an inverted story either (although several sections of it are told from the perspective of the chased person).

Instead the focus of the story is really more about the way a crime affects Cluff and causes him to undertake an obsessive cat and mouse chase across Yorkshire. PuzzleDoctor calls Cluff ‘Terminator-like’ which is a brilliant way to put it and sums up his approach pretty nicely (I wish I’d thought of describing it that way). He is essentially haunting the guilty party, refusing to allow them the comfort of thinking they are not suspected. It gets pretty dramatic too, reaching a high point with an act on page 74 that stands out as one of the most striking moments in the book.

Cluff is an intriguing character, a little reminiscent of more recent characters like Frost and Morse. He is an isolated figure, a lifelong bachelor and relic of an earlier age of policing who has failed to get promoted as you might expect but has some value because of his knowledge of the community. He would feature in eleven novels and a television series and I am at least interested to see how North developed the character in his later books.

The novel does present a strong sense of place, with the author effectively conveying something of the character and landscape of Yorkshire in this period. It is a work that speaks to some of the isolation and difficulties that arise in isolated, rural communities and reminded me of Bellairs’ work, albeit from a much bleaker perspective.

The obligatory comment reviewers have to make is to compare the book to Simenon’s Maigret works but given I have only read Pietr the Latvian I can hardly claim any authority in saying so. Certainly I think there is a certain similarity in outlook and characterization between the two authors but I can’t speak to much beyond that. I will say that I think North writes in a relatively compelling style and the book’s brevity is largely a positive, reinforcing its protagonist’s obsessive approach to getting the person he believes is guilty to confess.

The reason it is only relatively compelling is that there are aspects of North’s style that flat-out irritated me. The presentation of the female characters, almost always introduced with some reference to the shape, cuppage and pertness of breast, feels seedy rather than characterful – particularly when a seventeen year old character is introduced that way as the comments are made in the third-person narration rather than from the perspective of a lecherous character. There is even an uncomfortable moment early in the book where Cluff just stares intensely at the naked victim when with the Police Surgeon that the latter makes comment on.

I also think that North writes himself into something of a corner at the end, creating the potential for a tense showdown. Unfortunately I think this falls a little flat in its execution, resolving far too quickly and neatly given the tone of the novel up until that point.

The result is a book that I think is more of interest than it is interesting. I admire aspects of the writing and the way North conveys Cluff’s obsession but I never really enjoyed reading it. Knowing I have access to some others in the series, I may opt to give North another shot at impressing me but I can’t imagine rushing to seek out others in this series.

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Golden Age, James Harold Wallis

Murder by Formula by James Harold Wallis

MurderbyFormulaHaving selected The Servant of Death as my most recent Book of the Month I was keen to return to Wallis as quickly as I could. Given that his books are out of print and owned by relatively few libraries in the United States, this proved a little more challenging than I had hoped but I managed to track down a copy of his first mystery novel, Murder by Formula.

While the title may have you expecting a case of poisoning, the formula referred to in the title is actually a somewhat fourth wall-bending reference to the conventions and tropes of mystery fiction. Right before the murder takes place, the victim engages in a conversation in which they all discuss the common plot elements, devices and tropes that they think make for a good crime story. One of these is that the crime should take place by the end of the second chapter. Wallis obliges almost immediately and within a few paragraphs our victim has been murdered.

That victim is Andrew Wingdon, a celebrated writer who is a member of his club’s Arts Committee. The group meets to discuss a proposed theme for a new exhibition but following a fine dinner they sit in The Asylum – a large and dimly lit room which is housing a collection of medieval weaponry. The group share their opinions of mystery fiction and the most enthusiastic of them describes how he would murder someone in that very room. Wingdon is found the next morning, seemingly killed in exactly that way.

On the case is the enthusiastic young Inspector Jacks, a college graduate who joined the Police hoping that he would be able to become one of the leading men of his field. He seems reasonably smart and does a decent job following his leads, even if he does seem to write off two possible candidates for murderer far too quickly. I was pleased that he is at least challenged on this later in the novel and he does at least give a decent reason for why he had opted not to investigate one of those two characters. His failure to look into the other, the widow of the victim, is much harder to accept and she quickly becomes a (strikingly inappropriate) romantic interest for him.

Wallis’ story unfolds at a steady pace with several further attempted murders but while this should retain the reader’s interest, none of these developments are particularly shocking or outrageous. In fact, those who were paying close attention to the discussion in The Asylum should be pretty clear about who the second victim will turn out to be.

The second killing does spin the investigation off into a more interesting direction and while I had little difficulty in figuring out the solution, I did enjoy the process of getting there. The only review I have read of this at Mystery*File implies that the mystery does not play fair which I do not entirely agree with, though it would be accurate to say that some of the most critical evidence is kept back until very late in the story.

I think it would be fair to say that Murder by Formula is hardly a classic in the field of detective fiction but it is a solid, entertaining read. If you can stomach the holes in the investigator’s approach and some slightly pulpy storytelling developments, it has some fun moments. It is nowhere near the quality of The Servant of Death though and if you are able to track down either of these I’d strongly suggest starting with that later title.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: A Journalist/Writer (Who)

Golden Age, John Dickson Carr, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The Man Who Could Not Shudder by John Dickson Carr

manwhocouldMartin Clarke has purchased and refurbished a historic home with a reputation for being haunted. As you might expect, he decides to throw a haunting party in which he invites some friends and a few experts in their fields to spend the weekend and see if they observe any ghostly apparitions or paranormal phenomena.

Several centuries earlier the owner of the house had died at the precise moment the grandfather clock stopped and more recently an aged butler was crushed by a chandelier after apparently swinging on it. Soon after the party arrives, an equally strange and improbable death is added to the list as a gun appears to have leapt off its wall mount and shot someone. And that is just one of the strange things that takes place in Longwood House that weekend.

I didn’t have much in the way of expectations coming to this novel having heard precious little about it. My reason for reaching for it now is that I read in the incredibly helpful guide at Justice for the Corpse that my planned next read to feature Dr. Fell spoils a key twist in this one. That book, The Case of the Constant Suicides, has now been shelved until later in the month. Also I should take a moment to suggest you check out that guide before reading this because the novel does spoil the solution to a famous Agatha Christie story.

While the story could lend itself to quite an atmospheric, gothic style it is remarkable just how little atmosphere Carr creates in this piece. This is actually quite appropriate given his choice of a more skeptical character to narrate the tale and the composition of Clarke’s party, favoring open-minded but skeptical guests. However, it may well disappoint those who were hoping to see the characters more affected by the prospect of a haunting.

There are some nice touches along the way and the murder, when it does come, is appropriately bizarre and does take place in some intriguing circumstances. We have a shooting occur in a room with just one person present in the room yet the doors and windows and all under observation within seconds of the shot being fired. When the weapon is identified, there are no fingerprints to be found at all and not even any telltale signs of the handler wearing gloves. While the witness’ claim that the gun moved by itself off the wall and shot seems incredible, it is at least partly confirmed by the physical evidence of the room.

While this seems to be one of the most baffling setups for a story I have read to date in a Carr novel, I expected that the investigation would focus more tightly on the mechanics of how the crime was committed. Instead a substantial part of the narrative focuses on trying to work through some contradictory accounts to discover the killer’s identity.

There are some good moments along the way, not least the explanation of the significance of a key, and I did appreciate that the story boasts its fair share of “how on Earth did I miss that” revelations. When the explanations come however I was left with mixed feelings, being struck both by the comparative simplicity of the solutions but also the convoluted way in which they are worked.

And then there is the second crime. While not as ludicrous or frustrating as the one in The Problem of the Wire Cage, I felt it served less of a purpose in the story other than to string the investigation out for a little bit longer.

So far I have only read a handful of Carrs and I am still getting to know the author. I can say that of the four novels I have read, this is the one I found least entertaining though it is still an interesting read. While I liked some elements of the story a lot, I feel it misses some opportunities that its setting and plot might have afforded.

For those interested in reading some different takes on the novel, I would suggest these reviews from Puzzle Doctor, The Green Capsule and Pretty Sinister Books all of whom are more enthusiastic. And while he doesn’t have a full review on his blog, JJ lists the book as one of his Five Carrs to Try. Clearly I am odd man out on this one but hopefully I will enjoy Constant Suicides much more.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Reference to a man/woman in the title (What)

Monthly Reviews

March 2018 in Review

I cut my television service a few years ago so these days I tend to be a little late in discovering new shows, usually coming to them a few seasons in. This month I stumbled onto How To Get Away With Murder and I have been thoroughly enjoying bingeing on the show these past few weeks.

For those who have never seen it, it stars Viola Davis as a law professor who teaches a criminal law class at a prestigious university. Each year she takes on several students to work for her office, gaining practical experience of trying cases. As we see in flash forwards throughout the series, by the end of the semester those students will find themselves disposing of a body of their own.

Throughout the first season the series combines a case of the week plot in which Annalise and her students defend someone accused (and often guilty) of murder and character and plot development that moves the overall story forwards. Most of those individual cases are really good in that first season and some of the twists and turns in the bigger storyline are excellently handled.

The second season is still very good, although I am a little less fond of the case that becomes the focal point of the season, and so far I am really enjoying the third season (I am about three episodes in).

Book of the Month: March 2018

Let’s get to the books. I found some pretty good reads in March and I am very happy to say that I had some genuine competition for the title of Book of the Month. The eligible titles were:

The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction
The Witch of the Low Tide by John Dickson Carr
The Servant of Death by James Harold Wallis
The Affair at Little Wokeham by Freeman Wills Crofts
A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters
The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman
The Viaduct Murder by Ronald Knox
Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon
The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis
The Case of the Headless Jesuit by George Bellairs
The Phantom Passage by Paul Halter
Death at Breakfast by John Rhode
Diplomat’s Folly by Henry Wade
Death Comes at the End by Agatha Christie

And the winner is…

ServantThe Servant of Death by James Harold Wallis. This novel came as a recommendation from Kate at the excellent blog CrossExaminingCrime as part of her review of Curtis Evans’ book about Todd Downing’s mystery fiction reviews, Clues and Corpses.

It’s another instance of the inverted form mystery but with the rather charming twist that it contains a challenge to the reader in its final pages. Though some of the secondary characters are a little less developed, I thoroughly enjoyed the exploration of the main character.

The Month Ahead

I decided to diverge from quite a few of the promises I made last month. Whoops. Still, one thing you can be sure of is that I will be writing in a generally spoilery fashion about John Rhode’s Invisible Weapons with JJ at his blog, The Invisible Event. I am also pretty confident that I will be reviewing The Man Who Could Not Shudder and J. H. Wallis’ Murder by Formula.

Less reliable promises would include Fire in the ThatchA Necessary Evil and New Graves at Great Norne. At least two of those I have promised (and failed to deliver) before… I should also be tackling another non-series Christie and I have selected Destination Unknown.

Agatha Christie, Golden Age, Historical Mysteries

Death Comes As The End by Agatha Christie

DeathComesI have always been intrigued by Ancient Egypt ever since I saw a sarcophagus and set of canopic jars as a child. Lately I have been rekindling that interest while playing Assassin’s Creed Origins and it occurred to me that it would be nice to read a detective novel set in that historical period.

It just so happened that I have been undertaking a project to read through all of Agatha Christie’s standalone mystery novels so I had little difficulty in settling on a title. Death Comes as the End was written in response to a suggestion from a family friend, the archaeologist Stephen Glanville.

The novel stands out for a couple of reasons but its biggest claim to fame is that it is Christie’s only historical mystery. While some reviews assert that it is a ‘typical Christie country house mystery’ that has been given a little Egyptian set dressing, I think such views ignore much of the thematic content of the novel and, in particular, its discussion of Egyptian views of death.

The book centers around an Egyptian family. The father, Imhotep, is away on business and has left his adult sons to manage his estate. When he returns he brings with him a much younger woman, Nofret, who he installs as his concubine. Soon the family realize that the operations of the household are changing to her whims and they worry that they are being disregarded.

An attempt to bully her into submission backfires horribly when she sends a message to Imhotep who is travelling again to tell him about his children’s behavior towards her. His response is to threaten to disinherit his sons and cast them out. Before he returns to make good on that threat, Nofret is found dead at the foot of a cliff. This does not end the drama however and soon the bodies are mounting up.

The body count here is certainly impressive and I think the comparisons some readers make to And Then There Were None are understandable. As with that book, the body count provides a sense of growing tension and impending doom that proves really effective and while there may have been relatively few suspects left standing at the end, I still failed to figure out the killer’s identity.

I also think that it is worth stressing what a good job Christie does of finding a convincing way to tell a mystery story set in the ancient world that still retains all of the hallmarks of her writing. Death Comes as the End is a psychological crime novel, even if it takes place a few millennia before that word was used. Our characters have no forensic science or independent witnesses to rely on. They have to utilize their own intuition and observation to understand the personalities within the house and to identify who would have killed and why.

One of the most impressive things about the novel is the balance she is able to find between the historical and cultural details and the details of the plot. This is a tricky thing for a writer to gauge and I have certainly read many novels by writers who specialize in historical mysteries that fail to keep those elements in balance.

I mentioned earlier that I think this book does a good job of reflecting aspects of Ancient Egyptian society and spiritualism. While some of the plot points could clearly take place in any period of history, the way those events are interpreted could not. This principally can be seen in one of the character’s musings on the relationship between life and death but I think some seemingly supernatural events are also taken more seriously by the cast of characters than they ever would be if the action took place in a contemporary setting.

While I found the book to be an impressive and enjoyable read, I do think there are a few issues. The biggest of these is that I am not sure the reader could reach the killer’s identity through logical deduction. Though there is certainly plenty of information that suggests who is responsible, this is not the sort of case where the attentive reader could only reconcile the clues in one way. Instead the killer really just reveals themselves at the end. Personally I enjoyed the ride and being uncertain of quite how it would all be resolved but your mileage may vary.

The other thing that I think didn’t quite work was the attempt at a romantic subplot. Wikipedia would have me believe that the ending was forced on Christie and later a subject of regret, though I couldn’t easily find out what her preferred ending would have been, and I do wonder if this was one of those elements that she was forced to include. While this is not the only Christie novel that features an attempt to bring a restoration of order with a romantic subplot, I am not sure that it fits with the otherwise bleak tone of the later chapters.

In spite of these less satisfying elements of the novel, overall I found Death Comes as the End to be a very enjoyable and entertaining read. I think it conjures up a strong sense of place and culture and though I think it may disappoint a little as a detective story, I felt gripped by the way it unfolded.

Finally, if anyone has an Egyptian mystery novel they’d like to recommend to me I’d love to hear your suggestions…

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: A historical crime (When)

Golden Age, Henry Wade

Diplomat’s Folly by Henry Wade

DiplomatsDiplomat’s Folly is set just a couple of years after the conclusion of World War II and concerns a rising diplomat, Alwyn Hundrich, who is hoping to be appointed as Ambassador to France. Unfortunately for him, it turns out that he has some skeletons in his closet that someone who knew him before the war is hoping to exploit.

When he is first contacted and offered the chance to buy some old love letters he seeks the guidance of a friend, Sir Vane Tabbard, who he tells about his indiscretion. He follows Vane’s advice that if he won’t confess all then he will need to pay up. Soon a second demand follows and Alwyn decides to enlist Vane’s son, a former army commando, to carry out the transaction for him but he meets with only partial success. And then a third request follows…

The novel is subtitled ‘A Police Novel’, though that is somewhat unsatisfactory as a description given that less than half of the novel features a Police investigation. It seems to me that Wade is not as interested in the specifics of the crime as in reflecting on how the Second World War had changed the British character.

There is a temptation to paint Wade as a purely reactionary writer pushing a view of the country sliding towards socialism and chaos because of a reckless younger generation. I don’t want to deny that those elements are in his works but I think that oversimplifies the themes and the characterizations he creates in his work.

Let’s start with the character of Alwyn, the target of the blackmail. Though we understand him to be a rising figure, he is only a few years younger than Sir Vane and his indiscretions belong to the pre-war era. He is a member of the establishment and you might expect Wade’s sympathies to be with him and yet he is presented as anything but an admirable figure having not only committed some historical indiscretions but also carrying on a clandestine affair with his best friend’s young wife.

Sir Vane is certainly a more likeable figure and tries to act according to a code of honor and yet Wade makes it clear that he is out of touch and ill-equipped to deal with post-war life. He can see that his son has returned from the war brutalized and unable to adjust back to civilian life yet he seems more focused on restoring his family home to its old glory. He certainly doesn’t seem to be able to see the imperfections of those around him. Wade may not be quite as biting in his criticism, perhaps because he belonged to that same generation, but it is certainly present.

The story he concocts is a strong one, even if it is short on opportunities for ratiocination. The first half of the novel follows the string of blackmail demands, building to an evening that will see someone found dead. The second half of the novel follows the investigation into what happened although do not expect to be taxed about who committed the crime or their motive. Nick Fuller in his review compares this second half of the novel to Crofts’ style and while I think its thematic approach gives it a very different tone, I will admit that the mechanics of the investigation can be a little timetabley.

I should probably also note that the novel commits that frustrating sin of having a murderer make their confession long before anything is actually proven against them. While this usually is a huge frustration for me, I think it just reflects that Wade is really less interested in his crime than in addressing the chief themes of his work.

If those themes sound familiar, you may be thinking that this book touches on some similar points to a Wade novel I wrote about a few months ago – Too Soon to Die. Certainly I was struck by some of the similarities though I think the themes are handled in a more nuanced and interesting way here.

Diplomat’s Folly is a novel that, while not wholly successful if judged purely as a detective story, proves interesting both in terms of its commentary on a period of transition in British society as well as in its strong character work.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: It’s by an author you’ve read & loved before (Why)

Golden Age, John Street

Death at Breakfast by John Rhode

BreakfastVictor Harleston, a clerk with an accounting firm, wakes up in anticipation of a very good day. He is expecting a financial windfall that he has no intention of sharing with his half-sister Jane who he exploits for housekeeping duties in exchange for putting a roof over her head. Within a few hours he will be dead.

The crime scene proves a curious one, riddled with contradictions. While it is clear that Victor was poisoned, the evidence collected seems to suggest that the poison was ingested while the autopsy indicates that it was absorbed.

Soon Superintendent Hanslet and Jimmy Waghorn are on the case but while they quickly seem to settle on a suspect, they cannot understand how the crime could have been achieved. Hanslet decides to turn to Dr. Priestley for his advice but before long some further complications emerge in the case…

 

I have only read a couple of Rhode/Street/Burton novels so far (the only one I have reviewed here is The Chinese Puzzle) and this is the first of his Dr. Priestley series. Of the novels that I have tried, this is easily my favorite so far. Knowing that Rhode-expert Puzzle Doctor says that he doesn’t consider this top rate Rhode makes me all the more intrigued to dig deeper into his work.

A large part of my enjoyment was based on the character of Dr. Priestley who is used rather sparingly, brought in to hear the various theories that Hanslet and Waghorn have developed and to set them on the right track with a judicious application of logical thinking. It put me a little in mind of the Professor in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and I like to imagine that after each meeting Dr. Priestley is silently tutting to himself and wondering what they teach them in those schools…

Most of the actual investigating work is carried out by Jimmy Waghorn while Hanslet seems to be mostly content with trying to make the facts he already has work to convict his chosen suspect. Jimmy certainly shows some spark in identifying the method the murderer actually used to carry out their crime and takes the initiative to follow up on some leads. While he lacks Priestley’s ability to analyse the evidence, he does at least show some imagination and his diligent approach to searching the crime scenes and interviewing suspects does bear some fruit.

That murder method is quite cleverly devised and while the methodical approach to the investigation means that the reader will likely reason out the solution much faster than the detectives, I enjoyed reading how Jimmy was carefully piecing the elements together. There are some similarly strong investigation sequences in the middle third of the book, though I do agree with Puzzle Doctor that there is some dragging as the investigators put forward multiple explanations of how a crime may have been managed. I think though that the problem is that the investigators have obviously failed to consider every reading of the evidence at that point so if you are already aware of an alternate reading of that evidence, the reader may feel impatient for the detectives to catch up with them.

Happily when they do I think that the case proves a satisfying one, repaying the reader’s investment. I think Rhode explains his characters’ motivations well and provides us with a credible sequence of events that may lead someone to murder. The mystery is well-clued and plays fair with the reader and though I suspect most will see key developments coming, Rhode spaces those moments out well throughout his story to maintain interest.

As some of you may be aware I will be collaborating with JJ at The Invisible Event next month to produce a spoilery review of another recently reissued book by Rhode, Invisible Weapons. All of the aspects of the plot will be up for discussion so if you fancy joining in, do be sure to pick up a copy. My hopes for a good read and discussion are certainly boosted by the experience of reading this one.

 

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Time/date/etc in the Title (When)