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The stage is set…. #finalacts @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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My first book post for December may well be setting a trend for the month; it’s another lovely British Library Crime Classic, and as I hinted in my end of November post, I suspect there might be a number of them making an appearance on the blog before the new year! My love of Golden Age crime should be well known, and so I’m always pleased when a BLCC pops through the door; and they make the perfect palate cleaner when I’m not sure what to read next. Today’s book is another one of their marvellous anthologies and it really is a treat! Entitled “Final Acts”, it collects together a wonderful selection of short stories centred around theatres and it’s definitely one of the most entertaining of their collections I’ve read!

My photo doesn’t do it justice, but it’s a stunner of a cover!!

Edited by Martin Edwards, the book gathers together fourteen stories which are a particularly strong and distinctive selection of mysteries, from more obscure names like  Barry Perowne and Roy Vickers, to the queens of the era like Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. Some names have been rescued from neglect by the BLCC releases (Anthony Wynne, Christianna Brand), whilst others definitely deserve to be revisited (Marguerite Steen, Brandon Fleming). Somehow, Golden Age crime and theatres seem to work so well together – creepiness, the slight sinister nature of backstage, seedy characters hanging around, disguises and complex alibis and all manner of devious murders and motives; all of these elements fit brilliantly into the mystery genre and there’s plenty of this on show in “Final Acts”.

I’ve read a number of BLCC anthologies and I have to say that I think this is one of the best, if not *the* best. I usually struggle with not wanting to pick out favourites, although this is collection where I feel you could actually write about every story individually. However I *will* focus on some standouts…

“The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel” by A.E.W. Mason reintroduced me to an author who I hadn’t read since my twenties; Mason was very highly regarded in his time, I believe, and I loved his “The House of the Arrow” back in the day. His regular detective was Hanaud, and on the basis of this story I’m really not sure why he’s fallen out of favour nowadays. Anyway, “Semiramis” is a wonderful story, nudging close to novella length, in which Hanaud investigates a strange affair involving jewel theft, drugs, romance, murder and singing. It’s a heady mix which creates an excellent and atmospheric story, and I must confess I’m feeling drawn to seek out some of those Hanaud novels for a revisit.

Another highlight was “In View of the Audience” by Marguerite Steen, which was quite unforgettable. George Brewster catches a train by the skin of his teeth; but it turns out to be the wrong one… As he curses, and waits for the next stop where he can get a connection, he enters into conversation with his fellow passenger, Henry Morpeth, a strange little man who it turns out has just bought a derelict theatre in the sticks. As Brewster becomes drawn into Morpeth’s story, events take a sinister turn, building to a really dark climax. More I will not say, but it’s a brilliant and suspenseful story, cleverly done and very memorable…

Sayers is, of course, a magnificent writer and she’s one of my all-time favourites – I could read the Wimsey books over and over (in fact, I have…) “Blood Sacrifice” doesn’t feature her main detective, but is a standalone story, and another very dark one. As is aways the case with Sayers, there is a depth to the story as she explores the emotions of John Scales, an author whose play has been a huge success but at the cost of his morals, as it has been toned down and smoothed out to make it acceptable to the masses. Scales is tormented by this, knowing his reputation has been made as a playwright, but not on the work he would like to do; and the blame is put down to actor-manager Garrick Drury who caught Scales in a contract which allowed the changes to be made. However, Scales will find his morals tested when met with an event where he could influence events one way or the other – which choice will he make, and does he *really* have the power to influence things that strongly? A wonderfully clever and thought-provoking story by Sayers as always.

Arriving at the Theatre in the 1950s (Terrace, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

“After the Event” by Christianna Brand is another clever one. Backstage rivalries are a wonderful motive, and feature in a number of the stories; and here this element features strongly, with a particular acting family being in effect held to ransome by a married-in member. The alibis hinge on a number of things including timings and make-up, and also the loyalty of the various members of the troupe; and the solution is a very interesting one. Also a delight in this story is her series detective, Inspector Cockrill who sees through everything to get to the truth!

Then there’s “I Can Find My Way Out” by Ngaio Marsh, which was another treat. Featuring her regular detective, Roderick Alleyn, this features a very devious murder, and things are complicated by a young friend of the Alleyns turning up backstage and impersonating not only the great detective, but also someone who might cause concern to the company. Luckily Alleyn is on hand to get to the truth of what is a very clever murder, and this was a really satisfying story.

Well, those are a few of the highlights, but I have to say that I found this collection wonderfully varied and not a dud amongst the stories. As I mentioned, the stage setting (of whatever kind – and there is plenty of variety) works so well for GA crime and the range here was excellent. “Final Acts” was a thoroughly enjoyable read from the opening overture to the final curtain; there was an entertainingly diverse selection of plot and characterisation, some cracking mysteries and a marvellous sense of atmosphere. The theatre settings were wonderfully conjured and realistic, and this is the perfect book to lose yourself in if you want some GA Crime escapism during the darker evenings. Loved it!

“Their mutual contempt is most entertaining…” @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #DeathOnTheDownbeat

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One of the delights of the British Library Crime Classics reissues has been the chance to discover a number of quirky and individual titles which have been long out of print. Today’s book is one of those; an entertaining epistolary crime novel with a musical theme, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read! The work in question is “Death on the Down Beat” by Sebastian Farr, and it’s so entertaining that it had me wishing that the author had written more than one crime novel!

The subtitle of the book is “An Orchestral Fantasy of Detection”, and it was first published in 1941. Set in the fictional northern city of Maningpool (now, I wonder where the author was thinking of….?), it’s centred around death which takes place mid-concert, as the local Municipal Orchestra perform Strauss’s difficult work, ‘A Hero’s Life’. The victim is the controversial conductor, Sir Noel Grampian, shot while waving his baton madly during a difficult piece, in front of the whole audience. A gun is found on the stage; and so the audience is eliminated, which just leaves the large orchestra as suspect, most of whom had every reason to wish the maestro dead. But how to identify the murder out of such a large pool of possibles, particularly when there is no physical evidence to link anyone with the crime?

Investigating is Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Alan Hope, who was in the area owing to a local family connection; and in fact a family member plays in the orchestra, which adds a complication. Hope starts sleuthing with little to go on; but this is not the traditionally structured narrative of a Golden Age crime! Instead, the tale is told via a series of letters Hope writes to his wife in London, clarifying his thoughts (and often asked for her advice on musical points, as he’s no musician himself). This narrative is enhanced by other letters from protagonists, newspaper articles, plans and even pages of musical score! All of this builds up a wonderful picture of the city, the characters involved, and the actions which led up to the murder; as well as thoroughly bamboozling me, at least!

I must be honest here and say that my technical knowledge is pretty useless when it comes to music; but I love listening to the stuff (and am now keen to seek out the Strauss!) However, I didn’t find that mattered here, as Farr keeps that element relatively simple and in terms that a layperson can follow. What is very entertaining, though, is his characterisations of the various members of the orchestra; tasked with writing to Hope with background information and any information they can offer about the murder, they reveal a range of personalities and issues, reflecting the highly-strung (ha!) and competitive life of musicians in a provincial orchestra, with all the petty emotions and high dudgeon that brings.

I’ve deliberately not gone into specifics re the plot for fear of spoiling things, but it involves all sorts of digressions, quarrels between music critics, complications with the gun and skeletons from the past! Farr sensibly keeps the book reasonably short, as with the structure he’s using, too many letters might have become a little much for the reader. The denouement, when it comes, is quick and fast, and certainly made me realise how many little hints were cleverly scattered through the narrative, and how I’d overlooked them. The solution is a clever one, and I shared Hope’s relief that he’d solved the mystery and could be reunited with his much-missed family!

So a real treat from the BL, and a welcome addition to the Crime Classics range. The focus on music is an unusual one, and the structure clever and entertaining. As I mentioned at the start of this post, Sebastian Farr only wrote one crime novel; this was a pseudonym for Eric Blom, who had a career as a music lexicographer and writer. It’s a great shame he never went on to produce more, as I would have very much enjoyed seeing Alan Hope go on to investigate more crimes. As it is, at least we have this treat of a mystery, and I’m happy to add it to the BLCC section of my bookshelves!

“…a year later, one of the writers would die, a self-confessed murderer.” @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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If in doubt, I always say, then go for Golden Age Crime! After loving the Dickens book I covered on Monday, I wasn’t sure where to go next with my reading – I’m still feeling very drawn to Dickens, but not sure if immersing myself in his work is sensible at a time when life is likely to be getting busier again. So I plumped for one of the recent releases from British Library Publishing in their Crime Classics series, a title which has been getting a lot of love in the Bookblogosphere – “Green for Danger” by Christianna Brand.

Brand, unlike some of the authors featured in the BL series, remains quite a well-known name. Her ‘Nurse Matilda’ children’s books have maintained their popularity, and her crime novels, along with her series detective Inspector Cockrill, were given a further push by the successful black and white film of this title, featuring the wonderful Alistair Sim as the detective. Somehow, however, I’d never actually read this book, despite having once (I’m pretty sure!) having owned an old Penguin version. So it was the pefect kind of escapism, just when I needed it.

Originally published in 1945, “Green for Danger” is set in 1942 and 1943, in the middle of World War 2 – a setting which has featured in some of the most successful BL reissues. Based around Heron’s Park, a recently set up military hospital, the story focuses on the death under anaesthetic of the local postman Joseph Higgins. Brand sets the scene with the opening of the story showing Higgins delivering seven letters of acceptance for roles at the infirmary. Tantalisingly, she reveals that one of the senders will be responsible for Higgins’ death in a year’s time, thus setting up a closed circle of suspects before the event.

We’re soon introduced to the cast of characters, with a little background; there’s the anaesthetist Barnes; the surgeon Gervase Eden, who seems to be irresistible to women; another surgeon, Mr Moon; Sister Bates; and three nurses, Frederica Linley, Esther Sanson and Jane Woods. All have their issues; all could potentially have murdered Higgins; but who has the motive? Fortunately, Inspector Cockrill is on hand to investigate (and, indeed, is known to some of the suspects); but the case is not an obvious one, and when there’s another murder, it seems that more than the air raids is making everyone jittery. The claustrophobia increases as all of the suspects are confined to Heron’s Park as Cockrill waits for the murderer to make a mistake – but will he misjudge things and will there be another victim…?

There’s obviously good reason for Brand’s crime novels being regarded so highly, as she really is a masterful practitioner of GA crime! The WW2 setting always seems to work well for this kind of book, but Brand takes things to another level, building in the suspense of air raids alongside her crimes, and the sense of the fragility of life during the conflic really comes across in the book. The hospital is dealing with those wounded in air raids, and many of the characters have their own secrets to keep. The plot is a twisty one, full of red herrings, and there was no way I was going to come anywhere near working out the solution – I suspected just about everyone at some point or another in the book! The characters are really well-drawn, too, with their emotions and baggage and mad passions on show – there’s a lot of very rapid falling in love in the book, which actually I think it quite accurate. From what I know from family members who lived through WW2, there was a tendency to pair off quite quickly, as who knew whether they would be alive the next day. Emotions play a strong part in the storyline, although it’s not quite the emotions you expect which are behind the final motivation!

“Green…” really was a marvellous read; brilliantly written, extremely compelling (I couldn’t put it down) and with all those lovely red herrings built in. I became so involved with the characters, which kept me up reading much later than I should have, and I was desperate to learn the solution and find out what became of them all – which Brand does round up nicely at the end. Christianna Brand obviously deserves to be ranked with the greats of Golden Age crime; “Green for Danger” deserves all the accolades it’s hard, and I can’t wait to watch the film of it! Pleasingly, the BL have released another of her Cockrill mysteries which is now sitting waiting patiently on my TBR – what fun! Highly recommend this one!

Jacqui’s excellent review of the book is on her blog here.

“… I hate the smugness of the just” @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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I often turn to a British Library Crime Classic between other books, especially if I’ve been reading something intense and I’m not sure what to pick up next; they *are* the perfect palate cleanser. One of their recent releases is another title by John Dickson Carr; they’ve issued a number of his books, including the Bencolin series of wonderfully dark and atmospheric escapades. However, Carr’s best-known detective is probably still Dr Gideon Fell, master of the locked-room mystery, and the latest release, “The Seat of the Scornful: A Devon Mystery”, features that venerable detective. It’s a joy to read and very entertaining, but it does raise some interesting and thought-provoking issues!

“Seat…” was first published in 1942, but is set earlier, and interestingly its main mystery is not a locked-room one. Central to the story is Mr Justice Ireton, a high court judge with no tolerance for those appearing before him, happy to hand out a death sentence whenever possible. A widower, his daughter Constance is a nervy girl, dominated by his wishes. Unfortunately, she’s taken up with a shady type, Tony Morell, whom the judge is convinced wants to marry his daugher for her money. So when the police are called to the judge’s seaside holiday bungalow to find Morell dead on the floor, killed by a gunshot, and the judge sitting in a neaby chair clutching a pistol, it doesn’t seem as though there will be much detecting to do…

However, the case is not as straightforward as it seems; the judge declares his innocence, Constance’s story of where she was complicates matters, and there are other players in the drama who have a possible interest. There is Fred Barlow, a KC desperately in love with Constance; Constance’s friend Jane Tennant, who is in love with Fred; and the lawyer Appleby who seems to know quite a lot about the money matters of all concerned. Fortunately, Dr Gideon Fell is on hand, and the local police are able to call on him to unravel the mystery – which he does, although the book has a most singular resolution!

There’s a surprising amount to chew over with this particular Carr book, and I wanted to pick up on one aspect which is often criticised in Golden Age crime, and that’s characterisation. It’s somehow become a trope that this genre consists of paper thin characters acting out the mystery. I’ve read a good number of books which challenge that stereotype, and certainly “Seat…” does just that. All of the players are well developed, from the judge himself through Fell and the various policemen to the other possible suspects. Constance and Jane are an interesting study of two friends who are actually very unalike, and they change and develop over the course of the story. Likewise Fred and Morell, the two male protagonists, who are seen to be perceived as one kind of person but actually another – demonstrating that there’s more to most of us than meets the eye.

As for the judge, well he dominates the story in more ways than one. His character is a monstrous, cold one; eschewing the warm emotions, his pleasures seem to come from toying with his victims, playing cat and mouse with their feelings even though he appears to have none himself. His behaviour towards his daughter is very controlling, and I couldn’t help wondering what his poor late wife had seen in him. Carr does excel in painting darker characters, and the judge is certainly one of those.

At about nine o’clock on that same night, Miss Jane Tennant drove her car into the car park beside the Esplanade hotel, Tawnish. The Esplanade is a showplace, garish between the skeins of lights along the promenade and the red hills behind. Its famous basement swimming-pool, with tea and cocktail lounge attached, offered the luxury of warmed sea water in winter – and on such summer days, which were many, when only an Eskimo could have ventured into the sea without triple pneumonia.

Where Carr is also brilliant is in his scene-setting. The Devon seaside setting, the bungalow, the nearby coastal town with its hotels and swimming pools, is wonderfully conjured; and the gaiety of the young people who make up Jane Tennant’s party, drinking and fooling around, is in strong contrast not only to the harsh coldness of Justice Ireton, but also to the sinister events stalking them. Carr knows how to ramp up the tension, and there are several places in the narrative where things get quite scary and I feared for the safety of some of the characters!

… I hate the smugness of the just. I hate their untroubled eyes. I hate their dictum, which is: ‘This man’s motives do not count. He stole because he was hungry or killed because he was driven past the breaking point, and therefore he shall be convicted.’ I want a fair fight to win my case and say: ‘This man’s motives do count. He stole because he was hungry or killed because he was driven past the breaking point; and therefore, by God, he shall go free.’

“Seat..” is an interesting book on so many levels, and not least the plot’s morals and denouement. From the very opening of the book, where Justice Ireton sentences a man to death for murdering his wife, and the contrasting views of those watching the trial are picked up by Constance (who’s in attendance), Carr is clearly wanting to explore the subject of whether murder is ever justified. Martin Edwards picks up on this element in his excellent introduction, and without wanting to give anything away, after a *lot* of twists and turns, the ending of the book is perhaps unexpected. The murder victim is not painted as a particularly nice character, but then neither is the judge; and however the killing happened and whoever the murderer actually was, Dr. Fell takes matters into his own hands, in quite an imperious way, and decides how things will be resolved. According to Edwards, the ethics of the resolution have been much discussed and I can see why; it’s a satisfying end in some ways, but one that might well leave readers uncomfortable.

So “The Seat of the Scoundrel” turned out to be a standout entry in the British Library Crime Classics list. As a mystery read, it’s incredibly satisfying, full of twists and turns and revelations as the narrative goes along, and I was a million miles away from getting the solution. It’s also really well characterised, with a well-rounded cast who develop as the book goes on, revealing unexpected strengths and weaknesses. And it raises many issues, which I’m still debating with myself, as to the morals of murder, and who has the right to judge another person. As well as the perfect comfort read of GA Crime, I also found this to be a book which really made me think – highly recommended!

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

“..valour, insanity and violent cunning…” @BL_Publishing #theedinburghmystery @medwardsbooks

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That grasshopper mind of mine has been at play again! After finishing my re-read of “Gormenghast” I had such a massive book hangover that I had no idea what book to pick up next; Peake is so all encompassing that it’s hard to step out of his world and into another! So I decided to pick up a volume which had been calling to me since it popped through the letter-box; it combines two of my loves (Scotland and Golden Age crime!) so I thought it might be the ideal palate-cleanser – and it really was! The book is “The Edinburgh Mystery and other tales of Scottish Crime” , edited by Martin Edwards, and it was a treat from start to finish.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was born in Edinburgh and I’m an exiled Scot, so this was always going to be the perfect book for me! The BL GA crime anthologies are themed collections of loveliness, and this particular edition is no exception. Editor Martin Edwards provides an interesting introduction which gives an overview of Scottish crime writing (“Tartan Noir” is very much a thing nowadays, as we all know!); and then the stories kick off with a spooky and memorable murder story from Robert Louis Stevenson, “Markheim”, which I’d not come across before and which I was glad I was reading in daylight!

Interestingly, the collection draws in a wide variety of authors and stories by choosing not only Scottish writers but also stories set in Scotland by other writers. So there are names you would expect to see, like Conan Doyle, Josephine Tey, Anthony Wynne and Margot Bennett; as well as authors like Chesterton, Baroness Orczy and Cyril Hare. It’s a wonderfully wide-ranging anthology, coming right up to date with a name new to me, Jennie Melville. In fact, that was one of the particular joys of “Edinburgh…” – there were plenty of authors I’d not read before, and I do love to discover new writers!

This note of a dreamy, almost a sleepy devilry, there is no mere fancy from the landscape. For there did rest on the place one of those clouds of pride and madness and mysterious sorrow which lie more heavily on the noble houses of Scotland than in any other of the children of men. For Scotland has a double dose of the poison called heredity; the sense of blood in the aristocrat, and the sense of doom in the Calvinist.

As for some specifics and stand-outs; well, there wasn’t a dud really and it’s hard to select some and not others! “The Field Bazaar“, the Holmes story, was great fun, being something of an in-joke which was published in the Edinburgh University student magazine to help raise funds for them. The Tey,”Madame Ville D’Aubier” is a real rarity, apparently out of print since 1930, and it’s a brooding and atmospheric story of domestic unhappiness in France with a dark end. Margot Bennett’s story is only four pages long but quite brilliant!

Footsteps” by Anthony Wynne was another spooky treat, with a dark and storm ridden location in the Highlands, murderous lairds and scary footsteps in the night; I’m reminded I still have an unread Wynne BLCC on the TBR which should come off it soon. “The Alibi Man” is a wonderfully twisty tale of revenge which had me totally bamboozled; and Michael Innes’ “The Fisherman” has his famous detective Appleby dealing with a very puzzling conundrum on a fishing trip to Scotland. As for the title story, it’s a clever tale of theft and murder, with the “Old Man in the Corner” solving a mystery which seems very straightforward but is not.

Those are just some of the treats from this cornucopia of a book; really, all of the stories are thoroughly enjoyable, puzzling and very, very clever! As usual, Martin Edwards provides a potted biog of each author before their story, and I had such fun reading the book; it was the perfect thing to distract me after the Peake and is a worthy addition to my ever-growing pile of BLCC anthologies! 😉🤣

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

 

“Book-collectors – they are as deep as the sea.”@BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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It’s been a little while since I featured a British Library Crime Classic on the blog, but I wanted to share my thoughts today on a recent release from the publisher which is a rather special one. The book is “Death of a Bookseller” by Bernard J. Farmer and it’s the 100th release in the series – what a milestone! And it’s an apt choice for a celebratory release, being set as it is in the arcane world of second hand book selling, particularly as the BL have brought back into print so many titles which had disappeared into obscurity and couldn’t even be found to purchase in a used state! So I approached this book with interest, particularly drawn in by the lovely image on the cover.

Originally published in 1956, “Death… has been out of print for decades and has apparently been much sought after by collectors. Author Farmer had a lively life, including a stint in Canada as well as time spent in the police force (which probably informs his strong sense of the kind of way a policeman should behave). He was a book collector himself and wrote a number of mysteries featuring his protagonist, Jack Wigan, who in this book is a Sergeant. As the story begins, Wigan encounters a drunken man on his way home. This is Michael Fisk, a book dealer who is celebrating the discovery of a signed copy of Keats’ “Endymion”. Wigan escorts Fisk home and the two become friends, with Wigan subsequently taking up book collecting in a minor way as a hobby. However, when Fisk is found stabbed in his library, the CID call upon Wigan to help the investigation, as his friendship with the victim and knowledge of books will be of use. A suspect is identified; there is circumstantial evidence against him; and a jury find him guilty, with a hanging scheduled.

However, Wigan is not convinced that the man is guilty. The evidence seems too slight, the man’s motive not quite right and Wigan’s judge of character leaves him to doubt that the condemned prisoner could do such a thing. However, he’s up against a hard-nosed DI who’s convinced the verdict is right and Wigan has no authority whatsoever to investigate. But he’s a persistent man, and employing the help of a ‘runner’, Charlie, he tries to dig deeper. The pair are running out of time, and the case seems no clearer – will they be able to find out the truth and make sure the right man goes to the gallows?

“Death…” is an entertaining and, towards the end, quite gripping story! Wigan is an engaging sleuth, although hide-bound by procedure; however, the action steps up a bit when Wigan gains an ally in Charlie, and even more so when one of the second-hand booksellers also gets involved. Ah, the booksellers! They’re a fascinating lot, and I would love to know if they’re at all based on any real-life individuals or firms! There are the honest dealers, the large auction houses and also the individuals chasing down rare copies to sell on to the rich.

One particularly lively character is Ruth Brent, employed to search out rare editions for an American client (who also makes an appearance); neither of these two is that honest or above breaking the law. Then there’s the wonderfully eccentric Searle Connington who lives with his strange sister and has the imagination to see how the killer may be tracked down. And throughout the narrative are books; rare editions, banned and arcane witchcraft books, the Keats, and a lot of G. A. Henty, the children’s author who was apparently a great favourite of Farmer’s. Having a glimpse into the world of book-dealing over half a century ago is quite fascinating, and I wonder if it’s still like that?

“Death of a Bookseller” was a marvellous choice for the 100th British Library Crime Classic. The plotting is great, the setting wonderfully evoked, the rare books mentioned quite tantalising, and the race against time did have me on the edge of my seat! I enjoyed watching the straightforward Wigan doing his detecting, and the contrast between him and the more sophisticated types in the book collecting world was well done. However, the introduction of Connington as detecting ally was inspired and added much to the narrative – so entertaining!

So I must congratulate British Library Publishing and series consultant Martin Edwards on the success of the Crime Classics; they’ve certainly brought much joy and distraction for me when I needed it, particularly over the difficult last couple of years. “Death of a Bookseller” is a worthy addition to the series and if you love GA crime and books, this is definitely one for you! 😀

The amorality of Roger Sheringham… @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #jumpingjenny

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Back in 2016, when the mood took me for a bit of Golden Age Crime reading, I picked up a book I’d come across in a charity shop and had always intended to read. The book was titled, in that particular edition, “Dead Mrs Stratton” and the author was Anthony Berkeley. I’ve read a number of his titles featuring his regular detective, Roger Sheringham, and most have been wonderful (apart from the horrors of “The Wychford Poisoning Case“…

Intriguingly, however, when “Dead Mrs Stratton” was first published it had a very different (and perhaps somewhat controversial) title, and that was “Jumping Jenny” – and it’s under this name that the book has now been reprinted in the British Library Crime Classics series. It’s always a delight to see another of Berkeley’s good titles back in print, and this is certainly one of those!

As I said at the time, as the book opens “Roger Sheringham is attending a rather macabre Murder Party being hosted by his friend Ronald Stratton (a detective novelist…) Hurrah, thinks the reader, a country house setting – and you wouldn’t be far wrong, although this isn’t a big Downton Abbey-style place, just a more modest and quirky one, with a large roof terrace upon which is set a gallows. At present, it has three dummies hanging from it, one female and two males (the Jumping Jenny and Jumping Jacks); however, it doesn’t need a Poirot to see that someone more substantial will end up hanging there.

The party is populated by an interesting collection of relatives and locals; there is Ronald’s ex-wife, her man friend, and Ronald’s new fiance; Ronald’s brother David and his hideous wife Ena; David and Ronald’s sister Celia; some local doctors plus their wives; and a forthright Scottish journalist. The complex relations between this group of people gradually develop as the party and the night goes on; and it seems that the vicious and unpleasant Ena is lining up to be the perfect victim. There is in fact a murder which happens very much on camera, and that’s when things start to get complicated…

I shan’t reveal too much more about the plot because this is such a joy to read that I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Let’s just say that much of the so-called detecting in fact involves efforts to convince the local plod that the victim committed suicide and Sheringham is as inaccurate in his deductions as everyone else. In fact for a substantial part of the story, he’s under suspicion himself and so has to do plenty of sleuthing to try to clear himself. There are twists and turns up till the very end, and I didn’t see the final page’s revelations coming at all. Berkeley can plot and write remarkably well and he’s head and shoulders above some of the writers from the Golden Age whose works have also gone out of fashion.”

Revisiting the book, those twists and turns and machinations are just as wonderful, and it’s clear that Berkeley really does love to play with the tropes of GA detection. As for the amorality, well that turns up in several of his other books too. There’s a sense that Sheringham rather regards himself as above the law and in a number of books manipulates events to arrive at his own form of justive – most interesting!

As I said in my earlier review, “I’ve headed this post “Amorality…” because when you stand back and look at it, the plot is in fact strikingly *wrong*! Someone is killed, and regardless of their faults, the usual modus operandi is for the Golden Age detective to solve the mystery and thus put the world to rights. The world is certainly put to rights here, but in fact it’s the murder that’s done so, not the solution of it. The victim is described as mad at several points, and the modern me feels just a little uneasy at the fact that it was considered better by Berkeley to kill off a (fictional) mad person rather than have them get some help.” I can see what I was thinking here, but I also find myself wondering a little about Berkeley’s attitude towards women. With more of his books under my belt nowadays, I do sense that he wasn’t particularly fond of them. Some of his female characters are monstrous creations, and certainly passages in “Wychford…” were incredibly misogynistic. He toned this down in later books, but it’s still notable that a lot of his women really aren’t very nice at all…

Anyway, putting that aside and looking purely at the mystery, “Jumping Jenny” is a really enjoyable and clever GA mystery, with all the twists and turns you’d expect from Berkeley. As Martin Edwards point out in his excellent introduction, none of Berkeley’s Sheringham books were “entirely orthodox” and this one is suffused with dark and macabre humour. Edwards mentions that Berkeley was gassed during WW1, never completely regaining full health, and this of course may have affected his personality going forward.

So another very individual and entertaining reprint from the BL.  It continues to amaze me how they keep rediscovering GA crime of such quality; and it’s a delight to be able to explore these authors and their lost books. Long may the BL Crime Classics continue! 😀

“It was getting boring to me, said Roger…” #murderinthebasement @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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During my fairly difficult January, it was inevitable that I would turn at some point to the comfort read of a British Library Crime Classic! I have a number lurking on the TBR and wasn’t sure which to actually pick up; then I spotted an Anthony Berkeley title “Murder in the Basement”, and a quick read of the blurb convinced me that the time was right for this one! I’ve actually had a patchy relationship with Berkeley; I’ve read and loved “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” and “Dead Mrs Stratton“, as well as a number of short stories, but had major issues with “The Wychford Poisoning Case” and its very dodgy content! However, “Basement…” is a later title, featuring Berkeley’s regular detective Roger Sheringham, and as it’s been reprinted by the BL I figured I was on safer ground, which proved to be the case…

In simple terms, the plot hinges on the discovery of a body in a basement by a young newly-wed couple who’ve just moved in. The body has been there for some time and there are no distinguishing marks at all. This being the early 1930s, forensics and the like are fairly primitive and so Chief Inspector Moresby is left with the unenviable and probably impossible task of investigating a murder where the identity of the victim isn’t known…

The enquiry into the death of the young woman found in the cellar at Burnt Oak Road proceeded on its routine course. The Press, of course, seized on it avidly. If, as Miss Rose Macaulay says, women are news, and by that presumably meaning live women, murdered young women are super-news.

Anthony Berkeley is known for his inventiveness, and in what is possible his most famous Sheringham title, the aforementioned “The Case of the Poisoned Chocolates”, he twists the tropes of crime fiction wonderfully. Here, he’s just as clever, as this book is what Martin Edwards called a ‘whowasdunin’ rather than a ‘whodunnit’ or ‘howwasitdun’! The book has an unusual structure, with the opening discovery of the body leading to the police force having to undertake tedious and painstaking research to try to find out whose body it actually is. This section is really quite fascinating, and a reminder how sophisticated and easy modern practices are by comparison.

Allingford’s regrettable condition is due of course to the fact that the road from London to Birmingham passes a mile away from its cottages and not through the midst of them. Only a mile away the stream of progress roars backwards and forwards; beaming men of business dart in portly cars on their respective ways, stockbrokers whiz along in the mistakes of other people about margins, chorus girls flit from Birmingham to London to display their legs or from London to Birmingham to conceal them. Allingford, a mere mile away, knows them not and, most lamentably, cares less.

Sheringham comes on the scene relatively late, and the middle section of the book is taken from his manuscript which is based on his time spent as a cover teacher at Roland House, a school in a place called Allingford, south of London. Moresby has reason to think this is relevant to his investigation through a very tenuous link, and so is eager to read the fragment. Once this breaks off, Moresby has much more idea of what’s what, and the book then presents as something of a Columbo episode where you know the culprit and are watching the detective trap them. However, this being a Berkeley there is nothing remotely straightforward in the solution and there are plenty of twists and turns before the resolution…

“Basement…” was a real treat from start to finish, and I loved the clever structure and the way Berkeley plays with the reader. The whole concept was brilliant and very original, and I had to laugh at Moresby’s disappointment when the manuscrupt broke off, because I shared that too!! Berkeley is a witty and entertaining writer when he’s at his best, and reading him is pure pleasure. If I’m honest, I was expecting a twist but not the twist which came so I was completely bamboozled – which is great, although I confess that there was one character who I really wish had been either murdered or guilty of the murder because they really did annoy me considerably… That aside, “Murder in the Basement” was the perfect escapist Golden Age crime with a twist, and was exactly what I needed. Yet another winner from the BL! 😀

Looking back on highlights of 2021’s reading…

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During December, on book blogs and Twitter, I’ve seen many a ‘best of’ post; however, I always prefer to leave my look back on the year until the very end – I have known, in the past, some of my best reads of a year to arrive at the very end! 2021 has not been an easy year in many ways, but I have read more books than ever (my coping mechanism) and so I shan’t pick a best of – I never do – but instead will look back at some of the highlights… 😀

Classic Crime

As always, I have sought consolation at difficult times with murder, mayhem and mysteries! Golden Age Crime has always been a huge favourite and a comfort read for me, and 2021 was no different. As well as any number of marvellous British Library Crime Classics, I’ve managed to find an excuse to revisit Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime. And Edmund Crispin, another long-term love, has made appearances here. Really, I doubt I would have made it through the year without crime!!

As an extra crime treat, I was invited to take part in the Crime Reprint of the Year Award by Kate at Cross Examining Crime, and was happy to nominate two favourite books – such fun! 😀

British Library Women Writers

As well as reissuing some wonderful Classic Crime, British Library Publishing have also been releasing stellar titles in their Women Writers series. I’ve covered a number this year, including Edith Olivier’s The Love Child and Diana Tutton’s Mamma. However, a highlight was their reissue of F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow, a book I regard very highly. I was delighted to take part in the blog tour and sang the book’s praises – a wonderful and moving read!

Russia

Inevitably there are Russians, as books and authors from that country are some of my favourites. I spent time with Dostoevsky for his bicentenary; squeezed in Nabokov short stories; read a wonderful anthology of classic short works, and a brilliant collection of new writing; and reacquainted myself with a recently rediscovered author who wrote for the drawer. I can never read enough Russians, and frankly I think you’ll see plenty more books from that country appearing here in 2022!!

France

As well as a love for Russian culture, I also have a passion for all things French, most particularly Parisian. There were plenty of French treats this year, from unpublished fiction from a favourite writer, a marvellous non-fiction work exploring the culture of mid-century Paris, poetry from that city, some hypnotic prose from Marie Ndiaye and a lovely look at Sylvia Plath‘s relationship to the place. All lovely, and all have drawn me back to reading French authors; I’m currently rediscovering Jean Genet, and have a good number of unread Sartre, Camus and others on the TBR!

Of course, I have to mention Roland Barthes, who has been much on my mind this year. I’ve only read one of his works in 2021, and also Derrida‘s piece on him, but I am keen to continue with him in 2022. A readalong on Twitter of A Love’s Discourse went by the by leading up to Christmas, as my head was in totally the wrong place, but I shall hope to get back to this one soon.

New to me authors vs old favourites

I must admit to being a reader who loves to discover new authors and books, though this year I’ve also sought comfort from the familiar. I don’t do statistics, but I do see from the list I keep that I *have* explored new writers this year. Margarita Khemlin, Marguerite Duras, Amanda Cross, Gilbert Adair and Alex Niven are just a few names who have intrigued this year, but I’m happy to keep the mix of old and new going. From the old guard, George Orwell continues to be a constant delight – I can’t foresee a time when I’ll ever stop reading him! John Berger is a more recent favourite and I’ll definitely be continuing with his works in 2022. Burroughs and Beverley Nichols, a disparate pairing if there ever was one, are both names I love to revisit regularly. Really, there are so many books and so little time, as we always say!

Projects and Reading Events

We get onto shaky ground for some of these, as I’m often a bit rubbish at keeping up with this kind of thing. As far as events go, I co-hosted Read Indies Month in February with Lizzy and this was wonderful fun – so many great independent publishers to support! And Simon and I co-hosted two reading club weeks this year – 1936 and 1976. Both years had an excellent selection of books available to read, and the response was wonderful! I’m happy to say we’ll be running the #1954Club from 18-24 April 2022 and there are some really great books from that year, so do join in!

As for other events, I have dipped into Spanish Lit Month, German Lit Month, Novellas in November and a few more – I like to take part in these when I can and when it fits in with the TBR and also what I fancy reading!

My own personal reading projects, which are all really centred round various Penguin collections, have been pretty intermittent this year – whether from lack of focus, the state of the world or just wrong book at wrong time, the only one I’ve made headway with is the Penguin Moderns box set. I’ve had great fun with this little series of books – there are some marvellous authors and titles in it – and I have high hopes that I might actually finish reading it in 2022!

Disappointments…

I always try to be selective in what I read, but there are occasional misfires and DNFs. I started the year with one, The Housekeeper and The Professor, which really didn’t gel with me; I struggled with Confessions of a Heretic, which was not for me; and I tried to read a high profile book about Russian authors and frankly disliked it immensely. But the balance is heavily in favour of successful reads, so that’s good!!

Poetry

2021 also saw me spending a good amount of time with poets and poetry, and this was a real pleasure. There were biographies – John Sutherland’s marvellous Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me was a highlight, as was Gail Crowther’s magisterial Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz, which explored the lives of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I discovered new poets, too, often via the NYRB Poets imprint, and this was particularly wonderful.

Translated works

I generally read a lot of work in translation. And I continued to read a lot of work in translation during 2021 – yay! And I shall continue to do so in 2022. Thank you *so* much to all those who translate works into English – my reading life is richer because of you!

Favourites?

I can *never* pick favourites or a top ten or a book of the year, and my BFF J. always reckons it’s because I read such a disparate range of books. I tend to think she might be right, and in any case I’ve read so many stunners this year it seems wrong to pick out one. But to satisfy those wanting me to choose *something*, a few which particularly stood out were In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, every short story I read by Nabokov, Unwitting Street by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, New Model Island by Alex Niven, The Edge of the Object by Daniel Williams and Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis. All of those were oustanding reads, but probably all for very different reasons!!

Well, there you have it! Some of my reading highlights for 2021. Come back to the Ramblings tomorrow to see if I have any plans for the new year, so you can place bets on whether I’ll stick with any of them! 🤣🤣🤣

Death – by mince pie??? @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #murderafterchristmas

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A recent Christmas tradition here on the Ramblings has been to read, enjoy and write about whichever marvellous Crime Classic the British Library has chosen to rediscover as their Christmas title. There have been some really great books and stories making a festive reappearance – sometimes a full novel, and sometimes an anthology, they’re always the perfect comforting read at this time of year.

However, this year the BL have gone for something quite quirky in the form of “Murder After Christmas” by Rupert Latimer; not only is the title intriguing, but the story itself is really entertaining, taking many of the tropes of detective fiction and giving them a bit of twist!

During the next few days it stopped snowing and thawed overnight, froze again and snowed again. The village streets became impassible. Deplenished of traffic, St. Aubyns became more full of life than usual, the village pond being black with skaters and the surrounding hills squirming with tobogganing children. The proud young possessor of a pair of skis paraded the roads, ubiquitously aloof from his less fortunate elders who crept gingerly around familiar corners which had now become death-traps for the unwary. It was soon no unusual sight to find middle-aged ladies lying prone in gutters and sober, normally upright characters moving slowly uphill, virtually on their hands and knees.

The action takes place during Word War 2, and features the Redpath family plus a wide array of relatives and contacts. Frank and Rhoda Redpath are living in the country with Aunt Polina, and owing to the privations of War they’re obliged to invite their Uncle Willie for Christmas. Uncle Willie, otherwise known as the stinking rich and fiercely grumpy Sir Willoughby Keene-Cotton, is truculent and single-minded, and as the book continues it appears that just about everyone concerned would be happier if he was dead. There are any number of greedy ex-wives, children and step-children and general hangers-on who think they deserve a chunk of his fortune; and in fact even the Redpaths would not be averse to a little of the funds coming their way.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that Uncle Willie is found dead after Christmas, and in quite outre circumstances. However, it’s hard for the local police to get a handle on who did the murder as there are frankly so many people with a motive! There are hints of all kind of family secrets, as well as a number of marriages, children and assorted dependants with an interest in Willie’s fortune, as well as a rather bluff and clueless Chief Constable, Major Smythe (who’s also an old friend of the deceased). Faced with all this obfuscation and confusion, it’s a miracle that Superintendant Culley manages to come to any kind of sensible solution…

“Murder..” is a very clever book with what is quite a convoluted plot, all manner of red herrings and a cast of characters from which frankly anyone could be picked out as the murderer! Uncle Willie was a pretty insufferable man who’d lived such a long and complex life that he seemed to have made enemies everywhere. As well as that, with jobs and money tight during the war, there’s the impetus for just about everyone to want to try to get their hands on his money! The supporting cast members were a lively and entertaining bunch, and I was particularly taken with Aunt Polina, a wonderfully drawn character who appeared on the surface to be quite innocent and demure, but obviously had much going on underneath the placid exterior!

‘With so many detective stories written, murdering people has become a kind of intellectual sport nowadays,’ said Frank.

I found “Murder” very entertaining, if occasionally a little exhausting; the flippancies of the Redpaths, the constant confessions and the repartee sometimes felt slightly overwhelming! But the book was often very funny, almost meta in its references to what would happen in a real detective story, and I did enjoy the way Latimer played with the conventions of detective fiction. Much of the plot hung on an element which had a significant part in one of my favourite Golden Age crime books (I shall say no more) and it’s very cleverly worked in here. Interestingly, the War is a more discreet presence in the background than, say, a Lorac book, but that could well be because the story isn’t set in London.

First published in 1944, “Murder…” was Latimer’s second crime novel, after a career taking in acting and non-detective fiction. Having suffered ill health for most of his life, he died tragically young from a brain tumour, and it’s a great shame that his writing life was cut off so soon. It’s clear from this book that he was a really talented author and it would have been lovely to see what mysteries he came up with later on. The book comes with the usual useful introduction by Martin Edwards, and is another excellent entry into the British Library crime classics catalogue – there really is so much variety in these wonderful books!

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