What do you read straight after a fascinating, engrossing and entertaining look at a 16th century philosopher? A British Library Crime Classic, obvs (well. if you’re me you do!) 😀 I often fancy a complete contrast when choosing my next read, and that was certainly the case here; though this book was just as pleasurable as the last one.

The volume in question is a new release from the British Library, “The Woman in the Wardrobe” by Peter Shaffer; and before you even get onto reading it there’s the fascinating fact to get over that Shaffer, one of Britain’s most influential playwrights, wrote crime novels – who knew???? In fact there were three, written partly in collaboration with his twin brother Anthony Shaffer (also an author, probably most known for “Sleuth” and “The Wicker Man”); this is the first, initially published in 1951 and returning to print for the first time since (yay, BL!)

Verity by Nicholas Bentley

“The Woman in the Wardrobe” is set in the seaside town of Amnestie; local amateur sleuth, Mr. Verity, is on his way from his villa to the sea for an early morning bathe. However, as he passes by the local Charter Hotel, he notices something odd – a man climbing into a window. Being a good Golden Age amateur, he can’t let this pass and pops in to find out what’s going on – and stumbles headlong into a dramatic locked-room mystery!

He was an immense man, just tall enough to carry his breadth majestically. His face was sharp, smooth and teak-brown; his blue eyes small and of a startling brilliance. He wore a fine chestnut Van Dyke, an habitual cloak in winter and the (some would say cultivated) expression of an elderly ‘Laughing Cavalier’. By this time, of course, he had long been a noted figure in the world of detection, and wonderfully respected by the Yard. In fact, if that were possible, almost as much respected as disliked.

One of the guests, a Mr. Maxwell, is found shot in his room when the door is forced open. Trussed up and locked into the wardrobe is one of the hotel’s maids, Alice. At least two other male guests have been in and out of the room, but in the end the door and window had to have been locked from inside; so who is responsible for the killing? Fortunately, Mr. Verity is well known to the local police force, and when Inspector Jackson arrives from the nearby local big town he’s happy to have Verity on board. And fortunately, Detective Inspector Rambler of the Yard, an old friend of Verity, happens to be on holiday nearby. But it will take all the ingenuity of these three investigators to solve the mystery. The pairing of Verity and Rambler is particularly inspired, and Shaffer nails their differences quite wonderfully:

Verity respected the tamed logic in Rambler; Rambler the explosive vision in Verity. Both shared in common an immense bulk, a healthy appetite for the bizarre, and an absence of friends. Their differences were only such as could not be helped. Verity had a temper and a beard; but Rambler was a professional and could afford neither.

“Woman” was a wonderfully entertaining tale from start to finish and I read it with a broad grin on my face. It’s probably obvious from the use of names that Shaffer was laying out a certain amount of broad brush characterisation in the book, and certainly there’s a tongue in cheek element at play all the way through. There’s the drug addict and the London girl masquerading as something she’s not; the local lad with the bad temper; the hotel manageress with a past; and the poison of a merciless blackmailer at the heart of the story. The humour doesn’t detract from an engrossing mystery and there is a strong moral sense running through the book; the murder victim really *is* a nasty piece of work, and although  those he preys on are no saints, I couldn’t help thinking that the victim really did deserve what he got. Shaffer allows his characters to gradually develop a little, with their human foibles, and for a shortish book (205 pages) there was a lot going on.

Rambler by Nicholas Bentley

As the for the mystery and its solution, that was ingenious and *very* twisty; I shan’t give anything away, but I really wasn’t expecting Verity to reveal what he did and wouldn’t have guessed it in a million years – I love it when that happens. So “Woman” is a short, sharp, funny and clever entry into the Crime Classics series; and an extra excellent element is the inclusion of the wonderful original line illustrations by Nicholas Bentley. I love his drawings (I have fragile old books containing them), and I hadn’t taken on board before that he’s the son of E.C. Bentley, creator of the magisterial “Trent’s Last Case” – so what an intriguing connection!

“The Woman in the Wardrobe” comes with a preface by Elinor Shaffer, Peter’s sister-in-law; and the usual excellent introduction by Martin Edwards, in which he describes the book as “straightforward, unashamed fun”. I couldn’t agree more; this is definitely one of the wittiest of the BLCCs I’ve read, yet with some depth and pathos behind the story. Wonderful fun and highly recommended!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)