Raymond Postgate: Somebody at the Door

Title: Somebody at the Door
Author: Raymond Postgate

One bleak Friday evening in January, 1942, Councillor Henry Grayling boards an overcrowded train with £120 in cash wages to be paid out the next day to the workers of Barrow and Furness Chemistry and Drugs Company. When Councillor Grayling finally finds the only available seat in a third-class carriage, he realises to his annoyance that he will be sharing it with some of his disliked acquaintances: George Ransom, with whom he had a quarrel; Charles Evetts, who is one of his not-so-trusted employees; a German refugee whom Grayling has denounced; and Hugh Rolandson, whom Grayling suspects of having an affair with his wife. 

The train journey passes uneventfully in awkward silence but later that evening Grayling dies of what looks like mustard gas poisoning and the suitcase of cash is nowhere to be found. Inspector Holly has a tough time trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, for the unpopular Councillor had many enemies who would be happy to see him go, and most of them could do with the cash he was carrying. But Inspector Holly is persistent and digs deep into the past of all the suspects for a solution, starting with Grayling’s travelling companions. 

Rating: 5/5 red herrings

The setup of this story is not that that unusual: George Ransom, a not particularly liked man, shares his train carriage with a handful of people who either have a good reason to want him dead (like the man his wife is having an affair with) or who simply don’t like him much but could very much do with the £120 he was carrying. Not long after he has left the train he’s dead and the money gone.

The way it continues is then not quite as typical. We see very little of the police doing any investigating for most of the book. Instead, each chapter focusses on one of Ransom’s travelling companions and tells us how they got to the point where they are a viable suspect in great detail. For example, the chapter on the German refugee begins with a group of students who discover by chance that somebody is taking money from German Jews who want to leave the country and promises to help them escape but actually betrays them to the Gestapo. They also acquire a list of names and discover that one of the men hasn’t yet attempted to flee and one of the students sets out to save him. We then witness their escape, including several near-misses that had me biting my nails, even though I knew that the man had to be the German that was in the train and therefore had to survive. It was brilliantly written but I also wondered if all of this was really necessary. Red herrings are of course one thing, but each chapter contained so many things that couldn’t even be called red herrings. The above-mentioned students had nothing to do with the murder – and it was almost immediately obvious that they couldn’t have – yet half the chapter was just about them.

Only at the end of the chapter, we see the police discussing the suspect in question and from their conversation, we can see that their investigation has led them to a rough idea of the motive this person has for killing Grayling. But usually, they don’t know as many details as the reader does. At the same time, they’re also trying to figure out how Grayling was murdered which is also far from obvious but then maybe once they have figured that out, the who follows automatically.

In the end, I can see how this book isn’t for everybody. Especially people who expect a more traditional mystery, where the police uncover clue after about the suspect’s past will likely end up disappointed. But I enjoyed the different stories too much to really care about not getting what I expected. Now not all of them are as nail-biting as the refugee-story (and some of them are a bit heavy-handed where the moral is concerned) but they’re still great and that makes the whole book an enjoyable read.

Serpents in Eden

“The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside… Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.” – Sherlock Holmes

Many of the greatest British crime writers have explored the possibilities of crime in the countryside in lively and ingenious short stories. Serpents in Eden celebrates the rural British mystery by bringing together an eclectic mix of crime stories written over half a century. From a tale of poison-pen letters tearing apart a village community to a macabre mystery by Arthur Conan Doyle, the stories collected here reveal the dark truths hidden in an assortment of rural paradises. Among the writers included here are such major figures as G. K. Chesterton and Margery Allingham, along with a host of lesser-known discoveries whose best stories are among the unsung riches of the golden age of British crime fiction between the two world wars.

I have to say that this book felt much more true to its title than some of the other BCL-collections. There are the Christmas crime collections that often feature stories, where the winter-setting is only mentioned in passing and e.g. Blood on the Tracks, contains stories where parts take place on a train but they could have easily been set somewhere else. But in Serpents in Eden the countryside-setting was an important part of the stories and/or the plots wouldn’t have worked at all or at least very differently in a city-setting.

This collection again features many well-known names and also open with one of them: Conan Doyle. Though The Black Doctor is another non-Holmes story follows the same pattern as his others: a curious case baffles everybody and is solved by nobody. Here we get a murdered country doctor and while it does seem an open and shut case at first, the inquest puts everything on his head. At least until a kind person appears who knows exactly what happens and is friendly enough to explain everything. No sleuthing by anyone required. Like Doyle, Chesterton doesn’t send out his most famous detective in this collection. In The Fad of the Fisherman Horne Fisher solves a case. Sort of. One got the impression that the author rather wanted to talk about politics and also took great care never to use one word when he could express the same thing with five or six.

For golden age lovers, the name Anthony Berkley will also be well-known. His story Direct Evidence is what you’d call solid. There’s a murder, a very obvious suspect, several witnesses who swear they saw him shoot the man and a sleuth for whom this is all a bit too obvious. I’m still not overwhelmed by his hero Roger Sheringham but he has some charm and is beginning to grow on me.

The name McDonnel Bodkin is not quite as well known, which is a shame because I’ve liked all his stories I’ve come across so far. Murder by Proxy, in which Paul Beck has to solve the murder of a highly unlikeable man is no exception. On the other hand, I wasn’t quite as happy with R. Austin Freeman’s The Naturalist at Law even though I’m usually a fan of Thorndyke. And it’s not that it’s a badly plotted story or fails at the scientific aspect. It just rather clearly shows Freeman’s prejudices. And if all you can say is “Well at least the bad guy was just a scary foreign communist and not a scary foreign Jewish communist” it’s not the most complimentary thing.

We also get a story by Leonora Wodehouse, stepdaughter of. But she certainly didn’t need his name to get by because her story Inquest about -duh – a murder-inquest with a surprising twist is brilliant and my favourite story in this collection.

The Genuine Tabard about some thieves who come up with an ingenious idea and fall over a completely unexpected detail was my first story by E.C. Bentley and it was neither overwhelming nor horrible. Similarly, Herbert Jenkin’ The Gylston Slander about a poison pen letter writer in a village was nice but nothing that will make me remember the name of the author. The same can be said about H. C. Bailey’s The Long Barrow in which two private detectives are approached independently by a man and his secretary, both worried about strange things that happen in their vicinity. I must also say that I found the writing style a bit too wordy for my taste.

In the introduction to Leo Bruse’s Clue in the Mustard Edwards talks about how the first novel that features Seargent Beef, who also solves this case, have him outdo caricatures of Wimsey, Poirot and Brown and Clue in the Mustard also has a touch of “See my sleuth? He’s not like the other sleuths! He isn’t posh and he mispronounces foreign words! Look at him being different!” And while I’m always there for non-posh sleuths just “being not posh” isn’t actually a character-trait and so this is just another decent but unmemorable mystery

Two of the stories take a more humorous approach: Margery Allingham’s A Proper Mystery, which doesn’t even feature a murder, just some strange happenings during a farming competition and Gladys Mitchell’s Our Pageant about a murdered morris dancer – because we can’t have a book countryside murders and not have at least one story on morris dancing. Both were very much not my thing. I don’t mind some humour but all these stories had quirky characters for the sake of having quirky characters do and say quirky things.

The story that stands out somehow is Ethel Lina White’s The Scarecrow which is neither a whodunit nor a howdunit nor really about any other question. It’s about a woman who has been attacked by a man before and the man was arrested for it but now has escaped. Now she’s alone with her frail mother on a farm, far away from other people and we have a perfect set-up for a thriller. I’m not a big fan of thrillers but have to admit that parts were quite gripping. At the same time, White’s background in scriptwriting showed quite clearly and I think the plot would have worked better on TV or radio with some appropriately eery music and other creepy noises.

Anthony Rolls: Scarweather

Title: Scarweather
Author: Anthony Rolls

John Farringdale, with his cousin Eric Foster, visits the famous archaeologist Tolgen Reisby. At Scarweather – Reisby’s lonely house on the windswept northern coast of England – Eric is quickly attracted to Reisby’s much younger wife, and matters soon take a dangerous turn. Fifteen years later, the final scene of the drama is enacted.

I picked this book up, knowing it was a crime novel. In a crime novel, there is usually…well a crime. A character in that novel obviously doesn’t know what kind of book they’re in. So if they learn that a person disappeared it’s realistic that they will accept ‘He went for a swim and drowned’ as explanation and not suspect foul play. But as a reader that’s still rather frustrating because you know that it isn’t going to end with the solution “It was an accidental drowning and nobody else was involved.”

It’s bearable if the character only needs a bit longer than the reader to discover that fact but Farringdale doesn’t need a bit longer. He needs the whole book and then he only gets it after someone explains it to him. Because he is the first-person narrator of this story but the actual investigator is his friend Frederick Ellingham. He describes himself as ‘the Watson’ and even without that direct shout-out it wouldn’t have been difficult to guess the inspiration for this story. Ellingham is incredibly clever, has a vast knowledge in several fields and leaves Farringdale in the dark about his suspicions because of reasons.

But there are also a fair number of differences. For one: Holmes had charm. And charisma. Ellingham has neither and while Farringdale keeps telling the reader what a great man and friend he is but really I never saw anything of it. He’s condescending and doesn’t seem to trust Farringdale at all. But far more importantly: Holmes frequently makes it clear that he doesn’t think somebody should be lett off just because he’s rich or influential. Ellingham, meanwhile, knows that someone is doing something illegal (not murder but still something serious) and from the way he tells it, it seemed to me that he would have had no problem proving it. Still, he decides not to do it because *drumroll* the man has a reputation and is such an important scientist. (As a side note: he’s an archaeologist, a profession Ellingham mocks throughout the whole book, essentially saying that they only make up stuff as they go along and that there’s no proper scientific reasoning behind their claims).

Farringdale, meanwhile, isn’t exactly a Watson, either since Watson had, you know, some brains. But when I said that he has no idea what’s going on until Ellingham explains it to him at the very end, I wasn’t exaggerating. He watches Ellingham come back repeatedly to the scene of the disappearance, act oddly in a myriad of different ways and witness a series of strange events. Then Ellingham even alludes that there might be something fishy going on but he remains convinced that it was all a tragic accident and a series of incredibly strange coincidences.

And since he doesn’t think there is anything wrong, he never does any investigating. So what we get is a mystery novel, told from the POV from someone who doesn’t even know that there is a mystery and who keeps talking about things that make you scream “DON’T YOU SEE WHAT’S GOING ON THERE? IT’S SO BLOODY OBVIOUS!” And then, when things are explained to him in words with as few syllables as possible he almost faints from shock while most readers will go “I am shocked that gambling is going on in this house that all my suspicions turned out to be true.

Who would have expected that?”

Now, I don’t claim that I loved every single British Crime Library Classic I read so far but at least in most cases, I can see that others might enjoy them. So far there have been only two where that wasn’t the case: I really can’t see how anybody would find something enjoyable in Scarweather and The Secret of High Eldersham. They’re just plain bad…and the ending of Scarweather also offers an absolutely horrid moral about how reputation is more important than everything else.

Mavis Doriel Hay: Murder Underground

Title: Murder Underground
Author: Mavis Doriel Hay

If you were suddenly to be found murdered, would your friends have theories about who had done the deed? 

Well, when the wealthy and unpleasant Miss Pongleton meets her end on the stairs of Belsize Park underground station in ‘Murder Underground’, her housemates — though not particularly grieved —have plenty of guesses at the identity of her killer. While they’re merely airing theories, events arise that unexpectedly enable several of them, including Tuppy the terrier, to put them to the test.

Rating: delayed train (but got me where I wanted to go)

Hay only wrote three crime novels and it’s rather interesting to look at how her style changed. Her final Book – The Santa Klaus Murder – is a quite typical country house mystery. The family is home for Christmas, the dad dies and it’s neither unexpected nor natural and the inspector solves the case with some help of an old friend (who just happens to have a connection to the family). Her second book – Death on the Cherwell – is also fairly conventional but has some quirks. The book starts off with amateur sleuths doing some investigating, eventually, the police join in and for a while, we get POV-chapters from both until the police take over completely for the last few chapters.

Now Murder Underground does something that’s very unusual for a mystery: A lot of space is devoted to the POV of Basil who doesn’t do any sleuthing. He’s Miss Pongleton’s nephew and he found her body. Only Basil is not the brightest bulb in the basket and worries that since he only went to visit his aunt because she had threatened to disinherit him, circumstances would make him look very suspicious and so he decides not to call the police. Instead, he rushes off and tries to spin himself an alibi – with the help of some friends whom he begs to lie for him (often without telling them the whole truth) and the reader follows him while he’s doing that. Admittedly, despite having some sympathy for his situation, the longer it kept going, the more I wished for one of them to go “No. I’m not going to do that for you, just own up your mistakes.” because Basil quickly went from loveable idiot to plain idiot who never considered that he might be getting his friends in trouble with what he’s doing.

At the same time, Mrs Daymer, Miss Pongleton’s landlady, makes a discovery that implicates an acquaintance of them in the murder but she considers the whole thing not solid enough to take to the police straight away. She prefers to do some investigating on her own first. Or rather, together with another acquaintance of the deceased. This investigation requires them to rush off immediately after the inquest, and leaving behind the police who had wanted to ask them some more questions.

When we first see the whole thing from the POV of the inspector the book is almost over. And we see that (as most will have suspected) Basil’s actions weren’t as subtle and secretive as he thought they were. The inspector knows that Basil didn’t do what he claimed he did and that some of his friends are covering up for him. He jumps to the rather obvious conclusion that he must have something to do with the murder. But at the same time, the inspector is confused by the actions of Mrs Daymer and her friend and wonders how their behaviour fits in. Presumably, he also wishes he could just leave the case to somebody else and drink a bottle of Gin (at least I would in his place).

I did enjoy this unusual take on a mystery but sadly, like in Death on the Cherwell, the true killer was rather easy to guess. I wonder what would have happened if Hay had continued writing mysteries. Perhaps, after Santa Klaus Murder (which is admittedly well plotted but lacks any memorable characters and feels like painting-by-numbers mystery) she would have gone back to some more unusual takes on the mystery with better plots. As it is, none of her books are really outstanding, just some nice fun. Which isn’t a bad thing to be for a mystery but I also can’t say that you’re missing something important if you’re skipping Hay’s books.

Mavis Doriel Hay: Death on the Cherwell

Cover

Title: Death on the Cherwell
Author: Mavis Doriel Hay

For Miss Cordell, principal of Persephone College, there are two great evils to be feared: unladylike behaviour among her students, and bad publicity for the college. So her prim and cosy world is turned upside down when a secret society of undergraduates meets by the river on a gloomy January afternoon, only to find the drowned body of the college bursar floating in her canoe. 

The police assume that a student prank got out of hand, but the resourceful Persephone girls suspect foul play and take the investigation into their own hands. Soon they uncover the tangled secrets that led to the bursar’s death – and the clues that point to a fellow student. 

Rating: Julian, Dick, George and Ann would approve

Have you ever read a Famous Five, a Three Investigators or any of the other teen detective stories and thought “This was cool, I wish they would get to solve a real murder one day, instead of just hunting smugglers”? Then this book might be for you. Did you ever read any of those stories and think “Who lets these kids do these dangerous things? Why are even the police going ‘hey can you guys help us with that?’ instead of ‘stop what you’re doing, it’s dangerous’?” Then you should give this one a pass. Because this book is basically Famous Five but with undergraduates (and no dog). The girls find the body of the bursar and while they call the police immediately they also keep some information from the police. (Some of it would make themselves look bad and suspicious, other a fellow undergraduate).

And then they decide to do their own investigation. In the cause of it, they trample around a potential crime-scene and touch some evidence, ruining potential fingerprints. When they eventually come clean about it to the inspector he just shrugs and mumbles something along the lines of “if there had been any fingerprints they probably wouldn’t have helped us anyway” and then he even asks them to continue their sleuthing.

So this book will require you to suspend your disbelief a lot and I freely admit that one reason I enjoyed it despite that (and despite the rather easy to guess solution) was that I still have many fond memories of all the teen detectives I used to read and the book hit a very sweet spot for me. Another is probably also that I listened to the audiobook version which was magnificently narrated by Patience Tomlinson. She gives the reading of the book the seriousness it deserves – i.e. a certain tongue-in-cheek attitude that never veers too much into pure comedy. If I’d read the book myself I might have rolled my eyes at a few scenes that made me grin in the audio version.