Julian Symons: The Colour of Murder

Author: Julian Symons
Title: The Colour of Murder

John Wilkins meets a beautiful, irresistible girl, and his world is turned upside down. Looking at his wife, and thinking of the girl, everything turns red before his eyes – the colour of murder.

But did he really commit the heinous crime he was accused of? Told innovatively in two parts: the psychiatric assessment of Wilkins and the trial for suspected murder on the Brighton seafront, Symons’ award-winning mystery tantalizes the reader with glimpses of the elusive truth and makes a daring exploration of the nature of justice itself.

Rating: Nice…if you like that sort of thing

The thing about this book is that it isn’t a murder mystery. It’s a story that involves a murder (as well as a trial and a private investigator hunting for clues) and even answers the question Whodunit at the end (in a way) but these set-pieces aren’t really treated in a way you expect from a murder mystery. Now that doesn’t mean that the book bad. Quite the contrary. Even though the first half is the first person narration of a very unpleasant person (poor poor man whose wife isn’t just a silent obedient servant but has wishes of her own) it never turned so over the top that I loathed every second I spend in his head. And the second half gives us some unexpected twists and turns and – to use some Big Words – pose some quite interesting questions about justice.

But…I wanted a murder mystery. *stomps foot like a toddler throwing a tantrum*. So now I have this inner conflict where I can’t deny that this book had some good stuff but it was also packaged as something it was not.

So you should definitely know that if you expect something that would be considered a satisfying conclusion: you will be disappointed. But if the above description sounded appealing to you and you know what you’re getting yourself into – this book could be well worth your time.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Anthony Wynne: Murder of a Lady

Title: Murder of a Lady
Author: Anthony Wynne
Series: Dr. Hailey #12

Duchlan Castle is a gloomy, forbidding place in the Scottish Highlands. Late one night the body of Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan, is found in the castle. She has been stabbed to death in her bedroom – but the room is locked from within and the windows are barred. The only tiny clue to the culprit is a silver fish’s scale, left on the floor next to Mary’s body. Inspector Dundas is dispatched to Duchlan to investigate the case. The Gregor family and their servants are quick – perhaps too quick – to explain that Mary was a kind and charitable woman. Dundas uncovers a more complex truth, and the cruel character of the dead woman continues to pervade the house after her death. Soon further deaths, equally impossible, occur, and the atmosphere grows ever darker. Superstitious locals believe that fish creatures from the nearby waters are responsible; but luckily for Inspector Dundas, the gifted amateur sleuth Eustace Hailey is on the scene, and unravels a more logical solution to this most fiendish of plots.

Rating: Meh

Many of the Crime Library Classics books I recently read were in some way unusual mysteries – written from the POV of the murderer, there was no real crime at all, or they were just a series of red herrings. Murder of a Lady, meanwhile, is as traditional a mystery as you can get: a horrible person gets murdered in a locked room, the incompetent police try to solve it and then the brilliant amateur sleuth steps in to solve it. There might or might not be more murders in locked rooms before that (spoiler: there are definitely more). The only slightly unusual thing is that we never meet Mary Gregor – the first victim – on the page. The book opens with her murder. And at first everybody is very keen to explain what a great person she was but as the book goes on, we hear more and more stories that paint her in a less than favourable light. Like…really a lot of stories. Once you’re about 40% into the book you will have no doubts that Mary Gregor was a horrible person who stopped at nothing to get her will. And the book doesn’t stop either…because there are still a lot of stories coming that tell you exactly the same thing.

The only pause from “Mary was horrible” stories comes with “the police is incompetent” stories which are almost as numerous. The inspector is convinced that Mary found out that her nephew’s wife Oonagh was having an affair with a doctor and so she (or she and the doctor) killed her. It doesn’t matter that the wife and the doctor deny having an affair and her husband says that he’s convinced that his wife was faithful to him. The inspector has made up his mind and keeps bullying the poor woman, insisting that she should finally confess. He does most of his bullying while our supposedly likeable amateur sleuth is in the same room but apart from some half-hearted “but it could have been different” Hailey makes no attempts to protect her.

And this is an issue I occasionally have with older mysteries. They’re first and foremost puzzles. Psychology sometimes comes into play where the motive is concerned but nowhere else. And I admit that when I’m reading a mystery I don’t care much about the psychological impact finding a murdered body has. I’m not here for the gritty realism of trauma and PTSD – there’s enough other books and shows for that. But I can only handwave so much reality away. And here we have Oonagh – who has been emotionally abused by her husband’s aunt pretty much from the moment she moved into Duchlan Castle. Whose husband and father-in-law were both too weak-willed to stand up for her and whose life was absolutely miserable as a result of it. And now the abuser is dead but there’s a policeman insisting that she had to be the killer and again nobody stands up for her. The otherwise well done mystery couldn’t distract me from the fact how angry this made me, no matter how many times I told myself that it’s unfair to judge these parts by modern standards.

So overall: this book won’t end up on my re-read list but I’m curious about other books by the author since the mystery itself was good and I guess the repetitions would have bothered me less if they hadn’t been repetitions of a woman getting emotionally abused over and over again.

The Division Bell Mystery

Title: The Division Bell Mystery
Author: Ellen Wilkinson

A financier is found shot in the House of Commons. Suspecting foul play, Robert West, a parliamentary private secretary, takes on the role of amateur sleuth. Used to turning a blind eye to covert dealings, West must now uncover the shocking secret behind the man’s demise, amid distractions from the press and the dead man’s enigmatic daughter.

Originally published in 1932, this was the only mystery novel to be written by Ellen Wilkinson, one of the first women to be elected to Parliament. Wilkinson offers a unique insider’s perspective of political scandal, replete with sharp satire.

“But, sir, I’ve often wondered why more people don’t get murdered in this place when you think of the opportunities.”

Rating: 4/5 of John Bercow’s fabulous ties

The mystery itself is quite average. A murder in a locked room (really, those are dangerous places, it seems to be much safer to be out in open spaces, possibly surrounded by your enemies…), an amateur sleuth who semi-reluctantly gets involved in the whole affair (after the victim’s very beautiful daughter asks him very nicely) and police who are only semi-bothered by said amateur meddling in their investigation.

The uniqueness of the story comes from the fact that the locked room isn’t situated in a country house but in the House of Commons. And that the book was written by an MP (and minister) who had an actual insight into the going-ons there, so the setting isn’t just some nice window-dressing, it’s an important part of the story and it feels real. And more than that: Wilkinson also had actual insights into politics itself…and a sharp tongue (feather? typewriter?) so we are treated to paragraphs like that:

[h]e was always assuring himself that some time or other he would settle down and find out how the country ought to be run, and why politicians made such a mess of running it. But as a popular young bachelor he found life too interesting at any particular moment to acquire sufficient of that knowledge to be awkward to his party whips.

Additionally, Wilkinson also had actual insights into being a woman in politics (and some idea of what men thought them):

“And why should I help you?”
Robert was positively shocked. Why should she help him! What did she think women were in politics for if not to be helpful? He came from an old political family. Had one of the women of his family ever asked why she should help?

Poor Robert…you almost feel sorry for him.

“Oh Damn these modern women,” he thought desperately. If only they would be either modern or just women, but the combination of the two was really unfair on a fellow who had to deal with them!

Almost.

And all of this was brilliant. But it also made it somewhat hard to read. I am going to assume that you haven’t been living under a rock and that you know what’s currently going on in (British) politics so paragraphs like this:

I’ve often wondered, West, what it is that happens to most men – not all, of course – when they get into a Government […] I remember when a previous Government was within three days of dissolution and a smashing defeat talking to a Cabinet Minister who was calmly making plans for the following years.

will make you laugh first and then depress you because this book was written in 1932 and things really haven’t changed much, have they? And that’s probably the reason it took me so long to read it. Because even a hilariously witty look at politics is still…well a look at politics and who wants to do that in their free time right now?

But really, this isn’t me saying that you shouldn’t read this book. Just…be prepared for what you’re getting yourself into? Because I picked it up in the middle of the major Brexit chaos and after watching MPs shout at each other for hours, the thought of picking up a book where MPs solve murders (and also shout occasionally) really wasn’t that appealing.

Mini Reviews January 2019

Charles Kingston – Murder in Piccadilly

This book is too full of unlikeable characters to enjoy it. There’s Bobby, who’s a weakling and only mopes about not having any money but is too lazy to do any actual work. There’s his mother who has spoilt him all his life and now refuses to see that he could do any wrong. His uncle who is so miserly that he won’t even give his brother’s widow enough money to live as semi-decent life. Bobby’s girlfriend Nancy who is a caricature of the greedy gold-digging woman. There’s also Nancy’s ex Billy and her boss Nosey Ruslin. The latter is supposed to be a clever and cold-blooded criminal but reacts like a deer in the headlight when questioned by the inspector and Billy even faints. It’s over the top but not in a humorous way, it’s just boring.

Much like David Mitchell, I cared zero about any of the characters in the book

John Bude – The Cheltenham Square Murder

Another painting-by-numbers mystery. A murder. A suspect. He has an alibi. A clue. Another suspect. Another alibi. Another clue. Rinse repeat. I still liked it more than The Lake District Murder because it was at least a traditional mystery without faceless crime-syndicates but it also gave me the impression that Bude didn’t have a high opinion of women because every single one that appears in this book is extremely stupid.

Gif from The Hour. Bel saying "You're so right. And those things called novels. Impossible! So many words."

Miles Burton – Death in the Tunnel

When I read The Secret of High Eldersham, another book by Burton, I had no idea why it was included in the Crime Classic series. It was simply idiotic and I found it hard to believe that anybody could enjoy it. Death in the Tunnel isn’t that bad. It even has quite a decent locked room mystery as a base. But then the author tried too hard and kept adding more mystery and more deception and more twists and it ended up being ridiculous more than anything.

And while you expect over the top ridiculousness at Eurovision, it doesn’t work well in a mystery that wants to be taken seriously

Lois Austen-Leigh: The Incredible Crime

Author: Lois Austen-Leigh
Title: The Incredible Crime

Prince’s College, Cambridge, is a peaceful and scholarly community, enlivened by Prudence Pinsent, the Master’s daughter. Spirited, beautiful, and thoroughly unconventional, Prudence is a remarkable young woman.

One fine morning she sets out for Suffolk to join her cousin Lord Wellende for a few days’ hunting. On the way, Prudence encounters Captain Studde of the coastguard – who is pursuing a quarry of his own.

Studde is on the trail of a drug smuggling ring that connects Wellende Hall with the cloistered world of Cambridge. It falls to Prudence to unravel the identity of the smugglers – who may be forced to kill, to protect their secret.

Rating: Jane Austen disapproves

Note: I’m not going to spoil concrete events or the whole solution to this book. But to explain what I didn’t like about this book I have to give away a bit more than I usually do, so read at your own risk.

Austen-Leigh was the great-great niece of Jane Austen, at one point the inspector quotes from Northanger Abbey and at the beginning, I thought The Incredible Crime would end up being “Northanger Abbey but instead of Gothic novels it’s with crime fiction.”

For everybody whose memory of Austen’s novels is a bit patchy: The heroine Catherine loves gothic novels. Her designated love interest invites her to stay with him and his father General Tilney and their home looks like it came right out of a gothic novel. When then people act a bit oddly around Catherine, her imagination runs wild and she’s convinced that General Tilney killed his first wife and is now after her. Of course, in the end, it turns out that things were very different.

At the beginning of The Incredible Crime, Prudence reads a crime novel, laughs, tosses it away and complains about how these novels are always full of people getting murdered in country houses and this never happens in real life. Not much later she visits her cousin – in a country house – and strange things start happening. But are matters really as serious as they seem?

I am not a big fan of Northanger Abbey, due to it parodying Gothic novels and me having read a grand total of one Gothic novel but I think I would have loved an actual NA-with-crime-fiction with a main character who sees dead bodies under every creaking floorboard. But that’s not what The Incredible Crime turned out to be. Before Prudence visits her cousin, she was already approached by an inspector who raised some suspicions about one of the other houseguests. Once she arrives, one of the servants also has some worrying news and finally, Prudence herself witnesses things that go far beyond “people acting a bit odd”. And she isn’t the only one who’s suspicious; apart from the servant who confided in Prudence there’s also the Scotland Yard detective who is quite sure he knows what’s happening, he just needs a final bit of evidence. So, when in the end, things turn out to be very different from what everybody thought, as a reader, I didn’t go “Haha! How stupid of them to jump to conclusions.” but rather “They made perfectly reasonable deductions based on what they knew and saw and it was a one in a million chance that things weren’t what they thought they were.” which doesn’t make for the most satisfying reading experience. To come back to Northanger Abbey: It would be like having a scene in which Catherine sees Tilney with a dagger bent over a lifeless woman and later found out that he’d only given her a thoracotomy.

All of that is polished with an extremely unsatisfactory romance for Prudence. I wasn’t expecting Jane Austen (or Dorothy Sayers) but I had hoped for something better than one that concludes with “And once the woman learned her place she was happy.”

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.