Bank Holidays in the UK are notorious for having bad weather, and the most recent one was no exception – so it was a delight to have these books from the local library to fill the time while the rain was falling and it was feeling decidedly autumnal! All three are from authors whose works have been really quite unjustly neglected, and all turned out to be very enjoyable. First up was:

A Scream in Soho by John G. Brandon

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Brandon, it seems, was a prolific writer, contributing Sexton Blake stories, and churning out many thrillers. In fact, I felt that this book straddled the line between thriller and murder mystery, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The events take place in the middle of the blackout (it was originally published in 1940) and our protagonist Detective Inspector McCarthy is a policemen with a great commitment to his work, as he actually lives in the area he’s responsible for (Soho) and is well-known to all its denizens. The scream of the title is heard during one blacked out night, and although there is initially no body in Soho Square, there is enough evidence of bloody deeds to convince McCarthy that murder has been done. And soon after an innocent constable is killed, so the hunt for the perpetrators begins. But this is no straightforward domestic affair – there is the Soho underworld to deal with, alongside German spies, stolen papers and all sorts of dirty deeds.

I enjoyed “Soho” very much indeed – it was atmospheric, packed with action, rattled along at a breakneck speed and was very engaging. The characters were perhaps a little stereotyped, but it was still great fun and Brandon really caught the feel of the area, what it was like to live during the war and put in wonderful little touches like sympathetic portrayals of the refugees that serve to remind you what McCarthy is fighting for – freedom and the British way of life. A very good read.

The Lake District Murder by John Bude

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You couldn’t get much further away in setting from Soho than the Lake District I suppose; but this is not the Lake District of tourists, more that of everyday people, working and making a living in that area (though we are allowed some musings on lovely scenery at points in the story). Bude wrote a number of crime novels, and they’re considered to be part of the police procedural school, exemplified by Freeman Wills Crofts; and as I’ve read a number of Crofts books in the past, that wasn’t a problem for me!

Our detective is Inspector Meredith, not exactly a plodding policeman, but nevertheless a solid, reliable and methodical man, called in to investigate an apparent suicide at a lonely country garage. However, Meredith is astute enough to realise that there are flaws here and this is in fact a case of murder. But who would murder a harmless garage owner? His shiftless partner has a solid alibi, his fiance is distraught and he seems to have no enemies. However, as Meredith probes further, aided by his photography mad teenage son and prompted by his superintendent, it seems that there is something much bigger going on here and that the murder is only the tip of the iceberg…

Bude certainly knew how to write a police procedural – this was a good, solid, enjoyable mystery packed with lots of deducing and checking times and alibis, as well as much whizzing about the Lake District on motorbikes and sidecars. The pleasure in this book comes with watching Meredith patiently working his way towards a solution, gradually piecing things together, amongst ordinary people living ordinary lives. If the resolution is perhaps slightly anti-climactic that’s because in real life these things probably are! Again, a good read and I’ll no doubt be searching out the other title of his that the British Library’s published.

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

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I confess I was probably looking forward most of all to this book in the series – I mean, Oxford Ladies’ college, murder in punts, detecting undergrads – what promise! Mavis Doriel Hay only wrote three detective novels, all of which have been reprinted by the BL, before going on to a different life after WW2, and this is the second.

The book opens with a gaggle of female undergrads gathering on a deserted boathouse to set up a society dedicated to sorting out their rotten Bursar, who is universally loathed. Lo and behold, a punt comes floating by with the Bursar dead in the bottom – wish fulfilment or what! However, the alarmed girls manage to muddy the waters (!) around the case for quite a while, with their attempts to investigate, which makes the job of Detective-Inspector Braydon from Scotland Yard all the more difficult. There is, of course, the worry of the publicity and the effect on women’s colleges and their perception by the public. But who would have actually killed the Bursar? Does the local eccentric, from whom the college wishes to buy more land, hate women enough to take this kind of action. Or maybe the local farmer who wants to sell his land to Persephone college? Or is this simply an undergrad rag gone wrong?

Perhaps having looked forward to this one so much, it was inevitable that it wouldn’t be quite so good as I thought. It’s very well written, and the atmosphere of the Oxford college is strongly portrayed. However, the undergrads do come across more like schoolgirls than university students, and the plot is perhaps a little slim. It’s not that this book is not enjoyable – far from it, I really had fun reading it – but unfortunately for it, “Death on the Cherwell” can’t help but suffer from comparison with that other great Oxford ladies’ college murder story, Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Gaudy Night”. In many ways, it’s unfair to compare the two, because Hay was obviously just writing a murder mystery in a setting she knew, whilst making the odd point about attitudes to female learning. Sayers, however, took the crime novel to new heights with “Gaudy Night” – I always need to remind myself that Sayers was a great novelist who just happened to write crime. Both books came out in the same year, and although both authors obviously had concerns about education for women being taken seriously, Sayers is the one that uses her novel to the greatest effect to get this across (as well as writing an outstanding novel).

Putting comparisons aside, however, DOTC is a good read – full of lively characters, plenty of local colour, twists, turns and red herrings. I had an inkling of the solution reasonably early one, and once again found the ending a little anticlimactic; nevertheless, if you love Golden Age crime this book (and any of the others from the British Library Crime Classics collection) are ideal for you! And they certainly gave me many enjoyable hours over a wet bank holiday weekend, so kudos to the BL for bringing these lost works back into print, and in such lovely editions!

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