Anthony Berkeley: The Poisoned Chocolates Case

31678146Title: The Poisoned Chocolates Case
Author: Anthony Berkeley
Series: Roger Sheringham Cases #5

Graham and Joan Bendix have apparently succeeded in making that eighth wonder of the modern world, a happy marriage. And into the middle of it there drops, like a clap of thunder, a box of chocolates. Joan Bendix is killed by a poisoned box of liqueur chocolates that cannot have been intended for her to eat. The police investigation rapidly reaches a dead end. Chief Inspector Moresby calls on Roger Sheringham and his Crimes Circle – six amateur but intrepid detectives – to consider the case. The evidence is laid before the Circle and the members take it in turn to offer a solution. Each is more convincing than the last, slowly filling in the pieces of the puzzle, until the dazzling conclusion. This new edition includes an alternative ending by the Golden Age writer Christianna Brand, as well as a brand new solution devised specially for the British Library by the crime novelist and Golden Age expert Martin Edwards.

RatingB-

You know how at the end of the book Hercule Poirot talks about the skeletons in everybody’s closet? Often enough he will also destroy the seemingly waterproof alibi of one person along with it and when they start protesting Poirot just shrugs and says “Oh, of course, you didn’t do it. You only needed that false alibi because you were visiting your mistress/brother in jail/divorce lawyer. But you deserve that shock for trying to fool me.” before he continues with the next person with skeletons and seemingly waterproof alibi.

Imagine that but for a whole book.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case opens when the murder has already been committed. The six amateur detectives decide to look at the case themselves and do some sleuthing – off-screen. Then the first three present their cases but at the end of each presentation somebody points out a fact that has escaped the speaker and makes his or her theory fall apart.

Then Roger Sheringham does some sleuthing – on-screen this time but also in a way that is typical for mysteries in that the reader doesn’t get much out of it: we see that Sheringham goes round showing certain people a photograph but don’t know whose photograph that is. He’s the next to present his case but it turns out he has also missed something. So it’s on to the next presenter…and then the next.

Now, the idea to write such a mystery is undoubtedly brilliant but the thing is: I don’t deny that the ‘library scene’ with all the suspects together and all the skeletons falling out belongs to a proper golden-age mystery and I’m not saying I dislike them but I really only need one per book. I already find it tedious if it gets dragged out for too long and a book that only consists of these scenes is also…well tedious.

The other thing is the way the wrong solutions are dealt with. The solutions in the first half are the kind of solutions bad mystery writers would come up with. And the characters in the book call them out as such and say that, for example, Sir Charles simply took a few coincidences and claimed that it was impossible that they weren’t connected to the murder without backing that claim up. That kind of lampshade-hanging is fun and I always appreciate it when writers don’t take the genre they write 100% serious all the time.

But the wrong solutions of the second half are actually good mystery solutions. In the introduction, Martin Edwards even mentions that there is a Sheringham short-story in which his solutions is the correct one, only in the novel he gets proven wrong. And the way the other characters react to the wrong solutions? A kind of condescending ‘Oh real life isn’t like mysteries’-attitude.

Newsflash: I know that neither mysteries nor more ‘serious’ police procedurals portray a 100% realistic picture of a murder investigation. If they did cops in books and movies would have to deal with a lot more domestic violence and quarrels between neighbours instead of cunning serial killers who are always three steps ahead of them or classically educated murderers who are inspired by Jacobean Revenge Tragedies. They also would have to do a lot more paperwork (and Agatha Christie would have been only allowed to write about 10 books because the actual murder-rate in small English villages wasn’t that high). Nobody wants to read truly 100% realistic crime novels…and if genre-books get too smug about being not like those other genre books I get annoyed. Especially when the true solution ends up involving just as many twists and turns as any other mystery.

There are also two alternate endings to the novel. One written not long after the original book, one by Martin Edwards especially for this new edition and they are…nice. They fit the tone of the book and I don’t think I would have noticed if either of them had followed the book without a note about the fact that it was done by a different author. They were fun but also not particularly impressive. (They don’t use the already known facts and twist them in a new way, they introduce new ones. Which is exactly what was done with all the ‘real’ solutions so I’m not saying they should have. But simply being able to imitate a style does not awe me so much that I’m convinced this was a necessary gimmick).


I am also reading this for Kill Your Darlings and use it to play the Ariadne Oliver-card (book is set in the UK)

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J. Jefferson Farjeon: Seven Dead

35659711

Title: Seven Dead
Author: J. Jefferson Farjeon

Ted Lyte, amateur thief, has chosen an isolated house by the coast for his first robbery. But Haven House is no ordinary country home. While hunting for silverware to steal, Ted stumbles upon a locked room containing seven dead bodies. Detective Inspector Kendall takes on the case with the help of passing yachtsman Thomas Hazeldean. The search for the house’s absent owners brings Hazeldean across the Channel to Boulogne, where he finds more than one motive to stay and investigate.

Rating: B

There are plenty of Kendalls in the world, but I remember one who did pretty good work recently at Bragley Court, in the case of the Thirteen Guests. What I liked about him was that he didn’t play the violin, or have a wooden leg, or anything of that sort. He just got on with it.

This book stars with seven dead people. Then it gets more absurd. Then a plane crashes and then things get really weird. And as reader, you have no way of guessing how the weirdness will manifest because there are no clues beforehand.

So no, this isn’t a typical golden age mystery. No country house party where coincidentally everyone has a grudge against one party-member. I actually was reminded more of Edgar Wallace (especially the German movie adaptations). There’s a Russian nesting doll of dark secrets, mysterious characters (including an ominous –gasp– foreign silk merchant), a beautiful damsel in distress (she gets to have slightly more agency than those in the Wallace-movies but not much), lots of fog and – most importantly – nobody takes things too serious. They all joke around a lot. Especially the conversation between the inspector and his sergeant are glorious:

Your trouble isn’t that you fail to mention things, Wade, but that you mention them too late, and then incomplete. I have no doubt that, three years after your death, you will send somebody the information.

You will have to suspend your disbelief a lot, though. Even more than “Of course ten people would just accept an invitation from a complete stranger to spend a weekend at a remote island.” More than once per chapter I found myself going Oh come on but – much like in Mystery in White (whose plot looks plain and normal compared to Seven Guests) – I didn’t care. The writing is so fast-paced that that I didn’t have the time to worry about pesky things like logic and realism. But at the same time the absurdity is well-contained. There are surprising coincidences, of course, but they all relate to the crime and the reasons for it; no inspector coincidentally stumbles over an important clue because he happens to be at the right place at right time. There is no bad timing that leads to a side-character betraying important information because they just missed the announcement about who the villain is. The main characters are fairly normal characters who sometimes have bad luck and sometimes good luck.

Still, traditionalists might not enjoy this too much. It really is more Edwardian pulp fiction than golden age mystery.

ARC provided by NetGaley

Anne Meredith: Portrait of a Murderer

36269389Title: Portrait of a Murderer
Author: Anne Meredith (pseudonym of  Lucy Beatrice Malleson)

Each December, Adrian Gray invites his extended family to stay at his lonely house, Kings Poplars. None of Gray’s six surviving children is fond of him; several have cause to wish him dead. The family gathers on Christmas Eve – and by the following morning, their wish has been granted. This fascinating and unusual novel tells the story of what happened that dark Christmas night; and what the murderer did next.

Indeed, I have never been so much ashamed of anything, without being in the least sorry.

RatingB-

It’s hard to read the first chapters of this book without thinking of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (which was published a few years later). We have a Christmas party in a family with little love lost between the different members. Most of the children have money-troubles and unhappy marriages. And then the patriarch who is an all-around horrible person gets murdered.

However, unlike in Christie’s book, it wasn’t a carefully planned deed but simply the result of one child losing their temper after hearing yet again that they are useless. And we know that because we are there when it happens. We see what the killer does afterwards to cover up their tracks and frame a different family member and what they do once the murder is discovered.
And in these parts, the book really shines because it doesn’t portray this as a black-or-white situation. The murderer is no unfeeling psychopath. In between all the siblings who barely tolerate each other, they have a quite close relationship with one sister and try to help her. But neither are they a poor innocent soul who lost their temper only once. We see what they think about the other sibling and their own family. (And, after all, they have no problem framing someone else). Even without the murder, it’s clear that they aren’t a very good person. But we also learn about their past and how they were treated by others (especially the father) and the tragedies that happened in their life. And I couldn’t help but wonder if things would have been different if certain things wouldn’t have happened.

Mind you all that doesn’t mean the murderer is likeable. They made enough despicable decisions apart from the murder. But that was exactly what made the story so fascinating (and slightly disconcerting ) for me. Most killers aren’t the pure evil we see on Criminal Minds. Neither are they avenging angels like Dexter who only kill bad people. Most of them aren’t even the type you see in Agatha Christie novels, who plan carefully and built elaborate contraptions to make it seem like they have an alibi. Most killers are exactly like the one in this book: a worse person than the average but it’s still easy to see that if one or two things had gone differently they would have gone through life as a bad person who never killed anybody.

There are still things that are not great about this book. Like the not exactly subtle antisemitism. One son-in-law is Jewish and – of course – a banker and – of course – a fraud who ruined lots of people. Any comments about this are mostly limited to one chapter and then not brought up again. It’s also not a major plot-point, it’s just there like so often in novels from that time. I have read worse (hello Greenmantle) and I can’t deny I enjoyed the book anyway. I will think twice about picking up another book by the author, though.

Then, once the murder is committed, we don’t only follow the killer, we see how the whole family reacts to the events. It changes them. And for all the characters that were at least somewhat likeable, things get better. They decide to live their life again, their situation improves, abused children get better homes…it’s an odd contrast to the rest of the rather dark story.

And then there’s the unnecessary information. We get pages of backstory for the inspector who appears once and does little to solve the crime. We learn a lot about the things the victim did during and before the war, which would have made a good red herring in an ordinary crime-story but served no purpose here. The oldest daughter-in-law reminisces in depth about one of her maids who left the household long before the story starts. Sometimes it feels like the author is trying to make a point with these asides but I can’t make out what. Sometimes all it seems to do is fill the pages.

I would still recommend this book to everyone who wants to read a very different golden age mystery.

ARC provided by NetGalley

John Bude: The Lake District Murder

30082530Title: The Lake District Murder
Author: John Bude
Series: Inspector Meredith #1

When a body is found in an isolated garage, Inspector Meredith is drawn into a complex investigation where every clue leads to another puzzle: was this a suicide, or something more sinister? Why was the dead man planning to flee the country? And how is this connected to the shady business dealings of the garage?

RatingD

This book comes with a new introduction that proudly proclaims “This book may be a product of the Golden Age of detective fiction, but it is a world away from the unreality of bodies in the library and cunningly contrived killings in trans-continental trains.” And it’s true. Meredith is no Poirot who invites all the suspects in one room at the end and lays open the sins of every single one before explaining who really committed the murder. Neither is he a detective in the vein of the pre-golden age geniuses,  who takes one look at the body and exclaims that this can’t have been a suicide because of the way the victim’s fingernails look. The case itself has also no big stakes. No innocent person will hang if the real killer isn’t caught. The fate of the world (or worse: the British Empire) isn’t in danger, either.

In fact, the whole case isn’t what you would expect from a typical Golden Age mystery. There’s no group of suspects and an inspector who has to figure out motive and opportunity. Quite early on Meredith discovers that the victim had more money than he could have made by legal means and he suspects that this lead to his death. So the whole investigation focusses on figuring out in what exactly he was involved. This involves coordinating which sergeant observes which location, in-depth discussion of various theories as to what illegal activities it could have been and a fair number of other things that are, quite frankly, boring. (One chapter is called The Inspector of Weights and Measures. Seriously).

Now, not every crime-novel needs a plot like Murder on the Orient-Express, a sleuth with Poirot’s flair for the dramatic, or Lord Peter Wimsey frantically investigating to save his brother from the gallows. In fact, I have read many mysteries that featured perfectly ordinary characters in perfectly ordinary plots. But The Lake District Murder isn’t just ordinary; it’s bland.

Meredith is an inspector. He’s married and his wife isn’t happy about her husband working for the police and really doesn’t want their teenage-son to also end up as a cop. That doesn’t stop Meredith from sending said son on errands connected to his investigation. That’s as far as his characterisation goes. There’s also a superintendent that gets involved in the case and a sergeant that Meredith usually works with. I couldn’t tell you anything about either of them.
The victim’s fiancee genuinely grieves about him but since she is only around for a few pages I couldn’t feel for her or the murder-victim. And while I do appreciate that the bad guys weren’t cartoonishly evil (as sometimes happens in mysteries), it also meant that I didn’t have that feeling of Finally they get what they deserve once they were caught.

Another thing the writer of the introduction tells us is that the title isn’t just a cheap advertising-ploy. This book is really set in the Lake District. Only it didn’t feel like that to me. Apart from a few mentions of ‘Coastal Towns’  it could as well be set in Midsomer County. No comparison to Inspector Morse’s Oxford that’s always so present it’s almost its own character and that made me want to go to see it for myself. If I ever visit the Lake District it will be because of the charming descriptions of it in one of my mysteries with a body in the library and a detective that invites all the suspects in the salon in the last chapter, not because of Inspector Meredith.

Mystery in White

23350057Title: Mystery in White
Author: J. Jefferson Farjeon

On Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. Several passengers take shelter in a deserted country house, where the fire has been lit and the table laid for tea – but no one is at home.

Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers are seeking to unravel the secrets of the empty house when a murderer strikes in their midst.

Rating: B-

“Sergeant,” said the inspector solemnly, “if you’re not very careful, you will become intelligent, like me!”

This book is absurd in a way only a proper Golden Age mystery can be.  The premise makes even And Then There Were None or Murder on the Orient Express seem quite harmless. And the following coincidences that need to happen for our main cast of characters to get involved and eventually solve the mystery go beyond anything I’ve ever read. Or perhaps I should rather say ‘beyond anything I’ve read and still worked’ because I’ve read lots of books with plots that only worked thanks to outlandish circumstances. And I could never forget those. Meanwhile, I read Mystery in White and was vaguely aware that there are a surprisingly high number of people out in a snowstorm who then coincidentally end up in the same place but I never cared that much.

Here, it worked, because under all this ridiculousness there is a very engaging mystery that is populated by characters that go beyond the typical stock characters. I’m not saying that they have great depth (there isn’t too much space for depth with so many characters in a book of that length) but it’s not one of those cases where you read one chapter and can already tell who is going to be the murder victim and who will fall in love with whom.

Sadly one of the characters is also the weak point of this novel. The guy who did most of the sleuthing in this book was thoroughly unlikeable. He reminded me of the way Holmes is written in bad pastiches or on Sherlock. He misses nothing and makes brilliant deductions but is also constantly rude (unlike the real Holmes who just doesn’t bother too much with social conventions when he deems them unnecessary) and doesn’t care if he upsets the people around him.

But, since this book was just a one-off and the author’s other books have different detectives/sleuths I will definitely check out more by him.


is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season

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Book themes for Saint Lucia’s Day: Read a book where ice and snow are an important feature.

Carola Dunn: Superfluous Women (Daisy Dalrymple #22)

25069276Title: Superfluous Women
Author: Carola Dunn
Series: (Daisy Dalrymple #22)

In England in the late 1920s, The Honourable Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher, on a convalescent trip to the countryside, goes to visit three old school friends in the area. The three, all unmarried, have recently bought a house together. They are a part of the generation of “superfluous women”—brought up expecting marriage and a family, but left without any prospects after more than 700,000 British men were killed in the Great War.

Daisy and her husband Alec—Detective Inspector Alec Fletcher, of Scotland Yard —go for a Sunday lunch with Daisy’s friends, where one of the women mentions a wine cellar below their house, which remains curiously locked, no key to be found. Alec offers to pick the lock, but when he opens the door, what greets them is not a cache of wine, but the stench of a long-dead body.

And with that, what was a pleasant Sunday lunch has taken an unexpected turn. Now Daisy’s three friends are the most obvious suspects in a murder and her husband Alec is a witness, so he can’t officially take over the investigation. So before the local detective, Superintendent Crane, can officially bring charges against her friends, Daisy is determined to use all her resources (Alec) and skills to solve the mystery behind this perplexing locked-room crime.

RatingA-

“Sorry but one simply can’t turn off one’s brain!” Underwood heaved a deep sigh. “No, I suppose it’s too much to expect of the modern woman.”
This is book number 22 in this series. I’ve read the previous 21 books and intend to read number 23 once it comes out.
I could simply stop here. After all, I can’t say that about many series. And even fewer if you ask which of those I genuinely enjoy and don’t only continue reading because I’ve grown so fond of the characters, that I’ll follow them through the shittiest plots. Carola Dunn has managed to keep the quality of this series steady for a long time and that deserves applause.
It also means I have run out of things to say. Daisy and Alec’s relationship is still refreshingly drama-free. The new characters are still charming. (I really wouldn’t mind if Willie and the others turned into recurring characters as some earlier guest-characters have done). Now some of the ‘evil’ characters had less depth than those in previous books but they still didn’t turn into caricatures.

That leaves me with the mystery plot. Which was great. Now I’ve read a lot of mystery novels. I often figure out the killer long before the characters do and not necessarily because the book is badly written. I just know what I have to look for and what hints disguise themselves as unimportant. Only, this time, I figured the killer out only a few pages before Daisy did it. I was distracted by some very well done red herrings and something stopped me from suspecting that character earlier. The exact same thing that stopped Daisy and the others from suspecting them. Saying more would be a spoiler but It was very well done.

On to the next 22 books 😉