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“I always like a dog, so long as he isn’t spelt backwards.” #guiltycreatures @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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I find myself still playing catch-up with reviews, and the book I want to focus on today is one I read earlier in the month during a really busy time at work. Needless to say, as it’s a lovely collection of Golden Age Crime short stories, it was the perfect read for a time of stress!! British Library Publishing have released a number of crime anthologies, all with a particular theme, and the latest is a fascinating collection called “Guilty Creatures“; subtitled “A Menagerie of Mysteries” it brings together a wonderful range of stories from over the decades, all with animals or birds involved in the action…

The most famous animal participant in classic crime is probably the titular Baskerville Hound in Conan Doyle’s famous story; and of course Holmes also took part in the notorious exchange about the incident of the dog in the night. So it’s no surprise that a Holmes story opens the collection, in the form of “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane“; this is a late outing in the detective’s career, and interestingly is narrated by the great man himself and not his normal chronicler, Dr. Watson. Needless to say, it’s excellent and the conclusion unexpected.

The choice of authors in “Guilty…” is interesting; there are better-known names like Chesterton, Edgar Wallace and Christianna Brand; however there are names which were new to me, such as Headon Hill, Vincent Cornier and Garnett Radcliffe. This made the collection a particularly enjoyable one to read, as I do love to encounter new authors!

The stories range far and wide with all kind of animal taking part, from F. Tennyson Jesse’s “The Green Parrakeet” in which the title bird is the key to uncovering a particularly devious crime. Then there’s Wallace’s “The Man Who Hated Earthworms“, which is a very entertaining tale of a mad scientist; Radcliffe’s “Pit of Screams“, a short, sharp story of a very clever crime; and Josephine Bell’s “Death in a Cage“, which I wouldn’t have worked out in a million years! Her writing is also particularly good, and she captures a sense of place here in much the same way as she did in “The Port of London Murders.” (This is a long quote, but I do find her prose very evocative.)

The fog that November night was thickest in Central and North London. Cars in the Mall, edging blindly about the wide roadway near Buckingham Palace, came to a standstill where the kerbs gave them no help. Queues of traffic formed behind drivers who, mistaking a gap in the pavement for Birdcage Walk, had jammed themselves against the railings. A slow procession moved around Hyde Park. In Knightsbridge the buses went to head to tail, scarcely moving. Further north the fog lay thickly upon Regent’s Park. The canal was invisible even from the bridges over it. No cars coming to the circles of this Park, because the street lamps there are set too far apart to be much use in fog. The unaccustomed absence of traffic joined with the blanket of fog to still all noise. Under the trees the gentle fall of drops from the branches above was startlingly loud.

Chesterton’s “The Oracle of the Dog” was a really interesting and quite dark read; I’ve always found the Father Brown stories a wee bit odd, and in this one the clerical detective managed to solve the puzzle without moving from his armchair; and he also had very strong views about the human tendency to attribute all sorts of powers and emotions to dogs! Brand’s “The Hornet’s Nest” was another treat; featuring her regular detective, Inspector Cockrill, it again flummoxed me till the end, and of the suspects available after the murder of the unpleasant Harold Caxton, I never would have picked the correct one!

Those who are quick in talking are not always quick in listening. Sometimes even their brilliancy produces a sort of stupidity. Father Brown’s friend and companion was a young man with a stream of ideas and stories, an enthusiastic young man named Fiennes, with eager blue eyes and blonde hair that seem to be brushed back, not merely with a hair-brush but with the wind of the world as he rushed through it. But he stopped in the torrent of his talk in a momentary bewilderment before he saw the priest’s very simple meeting.

Inevitably I come to the author I always hope to see in a BLCC anthology, and I wasn’t disappointed here either. H.C. Bailey’s marvellous Reggie Fortune is present in the story “The Yellow Slugs“, which is actually one I’ve read before; it features in a collection I have, assembled by Dorothy L. Sayers, and I wrote about it here. It’s a story in which a pair of youngsters appear to be guilty of heinous crimes, and it takes all Reggie’s skills to get to the truth of the matter which, as I said at the time, is clever, chilling and quite fiendish. Reading the story for a second time, I was impressed all over again; Reggie is a powerful creation, the story is really quite dark, and I know Bailey’s writing is considered an acquired taste, but I rate it very highly. He’s a compelling storyteller, and the Reggie stories I’ve read are some of my favourites.

H.C. Bailey – George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

“Guilty Creatures” really hit the spot when I was in need of comfort reading, and crime short stories are often the best for this, as they’re bite sized pieces of soothing reading and wonderfully distracting when real life is too much. This particular collection was a really pleasing one, with an interesting array of authors, and some wonderfully twisty plots. It’s obvious that I’m a huge fan of British Library Crime Classics and I found this one to be a really excellent addition to their range – loved it! 😀

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

The perfect combination – Coffee and Crime! :D @ArmchairSleuth

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Something different, but rather exciting, on the Ramblings today (and which will be of great interest to bookish types, I am sure!) 😀 I was contacted recently by Kate Jackson, who runs the rather wonderful crossexaminingcrime blog (where she hosted a marvellous poll of 1936 crime novels leading up to our 1936 Club earlier in the year). Kate’s name may also be familiar to fans of the British Library Crime Classics, as she’s compiler of these two lovely “Pocket Detective” Classic Crime Quiz books which are great fun for anyone who loves Golden Age crime:

However, Kate has a very interesting sideline, and that is in curating “Coffee and Crime” book subscription boxes. I must admit I’ve never signed up for a book subscription box, because I frankly own so many unread volumes it would be a very dangerous thing to do… But when Kate asked if I would like a sample box to review, I couldn’t resist – I mean, they sound so wonderful! Each box comes with a newsletter, two vintage mystery novels, a sachet of luxury coffee (with tea or chocolate as alternatives), and crime related goodies – how exciting!

The box duly arrived, and if I had a YouTube channel I would have done an unboxing – but I don’t, so you’ll have to make do with the snaps I took as I was opening!

First up we have the sturdy box the items come in – well packaged and protected in transit!

At first glance the contents look amazing!

As I started to explore, I realised just how many lovely things were included in the box!

As you can see, my box contained some lovely treats! Kate, realising that I’m vegan, consulted on the chocolate, and I chose a tea option (I love green tea!) There’s also the interesting double-sided newsletter to look at whilst drinking and munching if you can’t wait until you get to the books!

The coaster and the bookmark will be *very* useful, of course; and the postcard is of a favourite vintage crime movie.

The Escape Room Puzzle Book looks fascinating; I’ve never tried ‘escape rooming’ but I love a locked room mystery so this will be fun to explore! I like puzzles too, and some of these apparently involve paper crafting – as a closet crafter, I’m intrigued…

As for the vintage crime books, you can see how beautifully they were packed, in brown paper and string, each with a vintage style ‘evidence’ label with details of the contents; and I am mightily impressed because Kate has managed to find books and authors I haven’t read, which is fantastic! Here’s the big reveal:

I was aware of S.S. Van Dine (and might possibly have read a short story, though certainly not any of the novels); his detective is Philo Vance and “The Gracie Allen Murder Case” sounds great! Mignon G. Eberhart is completely new to me, and the description of her as “America’s Agatha Christie” has me champing at the bit to read “Hasty Wedding“, which comes with many plaudits. The fact that both of these are American titles is a bonus, as I’m less well-read with GA crime from the USA, and so the books will definitely rectify that.

I have to say that this was a wonderfully curated box, which really hit the spot for me. Some of the book boxes I’ve looked at in the past have been potentially interesting, but there’s always been the risk of receiving a book I’ve already read. However, the care that went into choosing the items for the “Coffee and Crime” box was obvious, and Kate seems to have a real knack of picking out just the right things for her recipients – I was certainly delighted to receive this one!

Coffee and Crime” boxes can be purchased as one-offs or as a subscription, and you can find more information about them here: I was absolutely delighted with mine (and thank you, Kate, for the care you put into choosing the contents). These boxes would make the ideal treat for yourself or gift for any crime fiction lover you know; and I reckon my Christmas shopping this year could be a lot easier! 😀

(“Coffee and Crime” box kindly provided by Kate Jackson for review – thank you! :D)

“…his logical powers had not been in abeyance…” @BritLibPublishing #crimeclassics #twowaymurder

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One of the very many joys of reading the wonderful releases in the British Library Crime Classics range is the opportunity to discover so many excellent authors whose books have slipped into relative obscurity over the years. E.C.R. Lorac is one of those, and from what I’ve seen amongst my fellow bloggers and tweeters, her books are very popular. Lorac was Edith Caroline Rivett, who also wrote under the name Carol Carnac (I reviewed a particularly fine mystery by her here); and she was a prolific author. However, the BL came up trumps with their most recent release by Lorac, as it turns out that the book, “Two-Way Murder”, was written during the final years of her life but never published! Needless to say, I was very, very keen to read it!

“Two-Way…” is a standalone mystery in that it doesn’t feature Lorac’s regular detective, Inspector Macdonald. The action takes place in the coastal town of Fordings, where the local Hunt Ball is the biggest event for miles around and even attracts people from the capital! Nicholas Brent and Ian Macbane travel down together in a very nasty fog; and both seem to be drawn to the main attraction of Fordings, the lovely Dilys Maine. However, she has a long-standing friendship with Michael Reeve, the heir of a somewhat notorious and unpopular local family who in olden times were lords of the manor. Romantic complications must be put aside, however, when a body is discovered on the road by Nick and Dilys; but who is he? As Nick goes to report the death, he’s attacked; the local Inspector, Turner, seems flummoxed; and it’s down to Waring of the CID, a much more imaginative man, to investigate further.

The story has plenty of twists and turns; there are long-standing local grievances between the Reeve family and the Hoyles who run the local pub (and probably have many more dodgy enterprises going on behind the scenes). Then there’s Dilys’s widowed father, who has all manner of bees in his bonnet, keeping a tight control on his daughter and hiding secrets of his own. And how is this all connected with the disappearance of Rosemary Reeve, Michael’s sister, some years ago? It will take all of Waring’s skill and imagination to untangle all of the various threads, leading to a dramatic climax – although there’s a dark horse in the middle of the plot, in the form of the Maines’ housekeeper Alice, who seems at times to be a better detective than the CID man!

Well, I can’t for the life of me imagine why this book was never published, because it’s a real gem. It’s set in the late 1950s, a little bit on from most of the Loracs I’ve read which have either been during the War or shortly after. The world is continuing to change in the post-War era, and that’s reflected in the world of Fordings; class assumptions are gradually changing, old habits like smuggling are being abandoned and modern trends like motor bike riding are sneaking in. And interestingly, at one point two of the characters are discussing the fact that the terminology they’ve previously used about a particular kind of establishment is now not the done thing, and they need to use a new-fangled description – sentences which could have come out of any modern tabloid! However, as the unfolding plot reveals, old emnities die hard, and it’s necessary to look back to the past to find out the motives of present actions – all wonderfully plotted and written by Lorac.

Martin Edwards’ excellent foreword reveals how the book came to publication, and it seems we have to thank one James M. Pickard who had the manuscript in his collection and kindly shared it with the British Library – well done, that man! The release of this lost Lorac is a real coup for the BL Crime Classics range, and I’m so glad it’s been finally published. “Two-Way Murder” is a wonderfully clever, brilliantly written and thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish; I loved it, and I’m going to have to dig out the unread Loracs I have lurking very soon!

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

Drama, humour and mystery in the early days of the war! #BLCC @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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In complete contrast to my last read, today on the Ramblings I’m heading off to WW2 London with another marvellous release in the British Library Crime Classics range. Truth be told, a good number of my favourites have been set during that conflict, and the blessing of having crime fiction into which you can escape is something Martin Edwards picks up in his excellent intro. More of that later, maybe – but now onto the book, which has an interesting history of its own…

“Murder’s a Swine” was first published in 1943, and was the second crime book from Nap Lombard; the first was “Tidy Death” in 1940. However, fascinatingly, Nap Lombard was actually a pseudonym for a husband-and-wife writing team – Pamela Hansford Johnson and Gordon Neil Stewart. Johnson would go on to be a successful novelist in her own right, later marrying the writer C.P. Snow; Stewart seems to have sliped into obscurity. However, on the strength of this mystery, they made a formidable writing team!

The protagonists/sleuths of “Swine…” are Agnes and Andrew Kinghof; and the setting is the ‘phoney war’, that period of time in World War Two from September 1939 to April 1940 when war had been declared but nothing much seemed to be happening apart from a lot of messing around with blackouts, sandbags and air raid wardens. In the middle of this set-up, Agnes, whose husband is away in the army, stumbles on a dead body hidden in the sandbags of their building’s bomb shelter. Fortunately, Andrew turns up on leave, as hot on the heels of this discovery, one of their upstairs neighbours is terrorised by the sight of a pig’s head at her fourth-floor window! This is followed by threatening messages signed “Pig-sticker”, and the amateur sleuths can’t help but get involved. Luckily, the wonderfully-named Inspector Eggshell is happy to have them on board, although Andrew’s cousin is not. The latter, Lord Winsterstone, ironically nicknamed by the Kinghofs “Lord Pig”, is something high up in Scotland Yard and is furious at them getting involved!

As the two detectives sleuth away, it becomes clear that someone in their block of flats is likely to be the guilty party. An old family feud is revealed; there is another death plus more and more frights and threats. But who *can* the culprit be? Madame Charnet, a deaf Frenchwoman, seems unlikely; Mr. Warrender, who works in Government, appears very respectable; and Felix Lang, the trainee doctor, surely has to be too scatty to behave in such a sinister way… With Andrew coming and going according to the vagaries of the army, Agnes getting herself into all sorts of scrapes, Eggshell beavering away behind the scenes to try to get to the truth, the entrance of a lovely young legatee, and Lord Pig attempting to control his temper and get the better of the Klinghofs, there really wasn’t a dull moment in the story! It builds up to a wonderfully dramatic climax (which is perhaps a tad unorthadox, but nevertheless really enjoyable), and the book left me wishing there were more Nap Lombard tales to read!

Waterloo presented its usual appearance of war-time excitement. Tired men in khaki and blue trailed the kit towards the platforms, wives and sweethearts roamed in search of their lovers through the bands of fog. In the buffets glasses and thick china rattled and clattered. The smoke from a thousand cigarettes rose to the vaultings above. Porters swung the trolleys wild just in time to miss the heedless lounger. Men and women kissed and clung, oblivious to the sifting crowds. Mothers, with nodding, wailing babies awake too late, sought their men folk.

One particular joy in “Swine” was the wonderful portrayal of the Klinghofs; as Martin Edwards mentions in the intro, there’s more than a hint of Nick and Nora Charles from “The Thin Man” (which is a huge favourite of mine) and their drinking, verbal repartee and obvious affection for each other is quite lovely (there’s even a sly reference to Myrna Loy, who played Nora in the films). Agnes is a particular standout; given by the author(s) plain looks but an outstanding voice and legs, she’s plucky and game for any adventure. The supporting cast is wonderful too, with Eggshell a real favourite; and watching Lord Pig failing to outdo the Klinghofs was hilarious. In fact, humour is a strong element of the book; although that doesn’t stop there being a corresponding darker side. The villain is really villainous; a right nasty piece of work, and there are times when I was on edge because of the genuine peril in which the heroes and their allies found themselves!

“Murder’s A Swine” has to count as one of the most enjoyable British Library Crime Classics I’ve read; and I *have* read a lot of them, and I *have* loved most of them, so the bar is high. But the combination of wartime setting, fiendishly clever mystery (I didn’t guess….), brilliant characterisation, plus laugh out loud humour balanced with creepy terror, made this one a real winner. I so wish that the Nap Lombard pair had created more books relating the exploits of Agnes and Andrew Kinghof; but they didn’t, so I can only hope that at least the British Library will release their other title as a Crime Classic! As Martin Edwards concludes, this kind of escapist, entertaining mystery must have been a wonderful distraction during the War, and he’s definitely right that it is during a pandemic too…

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

“…your infernal fog is doing things to my nerves…” #johndicksoncarr @BritLibPublishing #BLCC @medwardsbooks

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From one piece of pure escapism to another – although this book is very different to my last read, “The Day They Kidnapped Queen Victoria”! John Dickson Carr has appeared on the Ramblings many times, of course – and most recently because the British Library have been releasing his Inspector Bencolin mysteries in lovely new editions. Bencolin is not Carr’s best-known detective, only featuring in five novels and a handful of short stories; but those works are wonderfully entertaining, and I’m so happy they’re being made available.

The latest release, “The Lost Gallows” is the third Bencolin release from the BL, but the second in the Bencolin series; and it finds the great detective, plus his sidekick, the young American Jeff Marle, in London. The men are staying at the rather gloomy and macabre Brimstone Club, alongside an old friend of Bencolin’s, Sir John Landervorne. Also at the club is the unpleasant (and very rich) Egyptian gentleman, Nezam El Moulk, together with his retinue. However, all is not well; events from the past are coming back to haunt and threaten El Moulk; a ghostly hangman known as Jack Ketch is making appearances; and the lost gallows of the title has been seen in Ruination Street, a mysterious place which cannot be found anywhere in London. Stir in Jeff’s old flame Sharon Grey (who featured in the first book of the series), murder and mayhem and a car driven by a corpse, dark corridors, mysterious models or shadows of gallows which pop up everywhere, and plenty of chills, and you have the perfect recipe for one of Carr’s stories – which to be honest, are often like a cross between a mystery and a ghost story, and no less satisfying for it!

I love JDC’s writing – he does of course specialise in the locked room mystery with his other great detective, Gideon Fell; and there are certainly locked room elements in the Bencolin stories. These are early works, and Carr tends to lay on the melodrama, which I don’t mind at all, and the stories are spooky and gripping. “The Lost Gallows” was particularly dark, drawing on events back to the First World War, and the settings (particularly the Club, but also London itself) oozed dark atmosphere. The denouement was very dramatic – Carr really knows how to ramp up the tension – and Bencolin of course was triumphantly right in his solution of the crime.

An early, and somewhat grimmer, edition of the book…

Of course, this *is* a vintage murder mystery; and I do have slight reservations about the portrayal of El Moulk. He was less cliched than you might expect from a book of this age, but I did wonder whether having a non-English person in this negative role was necessary. Another subsidiary character is portrayed using terminology we wouldn’t nowadays, but neither of these characterisations were too strong so I was ok with the book. And frankly, Carr is hard on a lot of his characters, whatever their origin – he does like to lay it on with a trowel at times! 😀

As well as the main story, there is also a rare Bencolin short story included called “The Ends of Justice”. This dates from an earlier period to “Gallows” and is an interesting, if stark and dramatic, adjunct to the main book. As Martin Edwards reminds us in his useful introduction, Carr was an author still learning his craft; and he does tone things down slightly in later works! Nevertheless, I found this book to be an absolutely gripping read; I was completely bamboozled and had no idea of whodunnit or how! I’m really enjoying encountering Carr’s Bencolin mysteries and I have my fingers crossed that the British Library will release the other titles!

2020 in Books – in which I once again fail to pick an outright winner…. ;D

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As is traditional on the Ramblings, I’m going to take a look back over my year of reading to pick out some highlights. It certainly has been a very strange and unpleasant year, unlike any I’ve known – I hope 2021 will be better, but who knows what’s to come. Books have, as always, been a comfort and my coping mechanism; and I *have* read a little more than usual, despite the strains of coping with a pandemic world. As usual, I’m not going to do any kind of countdown or top ten – let’s just look at the bookish things which have kept me going!

Comfort reading

A favourite from this year’s BLCC’s releases!

2020 has most definitely been year when there’s been a need for comfort reading. My go-to books are Golden Age crime and once again the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of great joy. I’ve read a good number, and not a dud amongst them! I’ve also felt the urge to do a sudden bit of re-reading – for example, at one point needing pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and revisit the wonderfully perfect ending. Longing for less complex times, I guess.

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

If this year has been anything for me, it’s been the year of indie presses and subscriptions! Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, it’s been a joy to see independent publishers flourishing, supported by the love of serious readers and booklovers. I have spent happy hours with many wonderful indie imprints, authors and books, including Notting Hill Editions, Little Toller, Fum d’Estampa, Salt, Galley Beggar, Sublunary Editions and Renard Press; in fact, I did a nice little Q&A with Will Dady, the man behind the latter, for Shiny New Books. And of course it’s been lovely to keep up with Fizcarraldo Editions, who’ve released some quite marvellous volumes this year.

Which leads me on to…

Challenges/Events

I tend to steer away from most of these nowadays, as I find I get all enthusiastic about joining in then instantly want to go off in another direction! However, I did get involved in a Twitter-based readalong of the marvellous Malicroix (published by NYRB Classics), thanks to the influence of Dorian Stuber! A wonderful book and a great joy to take part in this! I’ve managed to reboot some of my personal reading projects, and even expand their scope – let’s see how that works out then…

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

I also ended up co-hosting a two week celebration of the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo with Lizzy – Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. Not only was this great fun, but it also got me reading quite a bit of my TBR – result! 😀

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

As usual, Simon and I co-hosted two Reading Club Weeks this year, focused on 1920 and 1956. These are always such fun – if you haven’t encountered them, we basically read whatever we want from the year in question, review, post on blogs and other social media and share ideas of great books from the year. We’ll be hosting another in April 2021 so do join in! 😀

Social Media

Social media of all kinds has become pretty much a lifeline over 2020 and it’s been great to be able to keep in touch over the various platforms. Book Twitter is particularly lovely and I have been lucky enough to interact with some wonderful people on there. There have been postcards going around the world and moral support offered to our online friends who have suffered losses over the year. It is a lovely place to visit. Of course, there are always so many reading events to tempt me there, but mostly I manage to hold back because I know I will fail… I didn’t with Malicroix though, so result!

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

Twitter was also responsible for the Harvill Leopard Hunt, as it shall be titled, where a number of interested bookish people contributed to a wonderful master list of books issued in that imprint by Tim at Half Print Press. It was huge fun being involved in the detective work, and the resulting checklist is a thing of great beauty and use – you can check it out here! (Do take a look at Half Pint Press too – they produce some gorgeous things!)

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

Although I was often looking for comfort reads, it hasn’t all been lightweight this year. In particular, I seem to have been haunted by the spirit of Roland Barthes! I first read his Mythologies back at the end of 2019, reviewing it in January this year, and have revisited his work at various points over the year. He’s not always an easy read, but certainly fascinating, stimulating and thought-provoking!

Professor Richard Clay with Dr. Lonnie Bunch (c. Clearstory/BBC)

This also tied in with my Documentary of Year (and Decade!) 21st Century Mythologies with Richard Clay – it was quite superb, and I was delighted to welcome Richard back onto the Ramblings for a return interview. He’s always such an interesting interviewee, brimming with ideas! No doubt I shall continue to return to Barthes – there are several titles I have lurking on the TBR…

Shiny New Books

I continued to provide some reviews for Shiny New Books, the wonderful independent recommendations website. I always enjoy reading other people’s contributions and SNB covers such a wide range of books. Always worth checking out if you’re not sure what to read next, or want to find out what’s come out recently and is worth reading!

Trends in my reading

A translated work I enjoyed very much this year, which led on to many other reading ideas…

I’ve continued to read a lot in translation, from the Russian of course but also from French, German, Portuguese, Polish…. I’ve enjoyed poetry, and also a lot of non-fiction this year. There have been times when I’ve felt that I couldn’t engage properly with fiction, and so essays, philosophy, history, nature writing, travel writing and books which don’t actually fit into any category have been there for me to turn to in times of need. I plan to continue to follow no path but my own and read what I *need* to read!

Outstanding books

I’m not going to pick a best of the year, because I can’t. The kind of books I read are so disparate that it seems unfair to measure them against each other. However, I *shall* highlight some particularly special reads from 2020.

First up, I have ended the year reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and it’s a stunning book. Mesmerising writing and brimming with ideas and visions, it certainly lives up to its hype and it was the perfect book with which to finish off the year.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Morley’s writing, and so was delighted to be able to review his latest book, A Sound Mind, for Shiny New Books. A wonderfully Morley-esque exploration of classic music in all its shapes and forms, I absolutely loved it.

Another author whose work I’ve loved for a long time is M. John Harrison. He’s hit the public eye a bit more than usual recently, and this year saw the release of a new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s another stunning read, proof that Harrison’s powers only increase with the years, and I was so pleased to see it win the Goldsmiths Prize! Lovely Comma Press also released a collection of his stories, Settling the World, which was another outstanding read.

A newer discovery for me is Andrew Lees; I read his wonderful book Mentored by a Madman last year, in a lovely paperback from Notting Hill Editions; it was a marvellous read, and Lees is such a good writer – in this book proving that literature and science go together. NHE published a new book by Lees this year, Brazil That Never Was, and I absolutely loved it. I described it in my review as a “wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection”, and Lees’ storytelling skills produced an atmospheric and memorable read. I can’t wait for his next book!

I can’t finish this section without mention of Square Haunting, which I covered in February for Shiny New Books. A quite brilliant book covering the lives of five inspirational women living in the same square in London, although at different times, it was an unforgettable read as well as an amazing work of scholarship – and it deserves all the praise it’s had!

*****

Frankly, that’s probably enough for one post – if I go on any longer I shall end up reliving the whole year and with 2020, that’s not something I necessarily want to do. The books I’ve read this year have been 99.9% pure joy (with the very occasional dud…) Whatever 2021 chucks our way I shall hang onto books as a way of maintaining some kind of sanity. Here’s to a better year for us all!

A Surprise at Christmas – in more ways than one! :D @BritLibPublishing #BLCC @medwardsbooks

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Over the last few years, the lovely people at the British Library have got into the habit of bringing out a Christmas crime classic which makes ideal reading in the run up to the festive season. There have been novels, and last year a lovely short story collection. This year was no different, and so I was very happy happy joy joy when “A Surprise at Christmas” popped through my door. Selected by the series consultant, Martin Edwards, the book contains 12 seasonal mysteries from an excellent range of authors. It was the perfect book to turn to, particularly during a busy time at work and whilst attempting to fed off another reading slump; and it had an extra sting in the tale which I’ll get to later… ;D

Normally, when I feature short story collections on the Ramblings, I tend to pick out favourites or themes. However, this was such a strong selection I may end up mentioning them all! The book opens with The Black Bag Left on a Doorstep by Catharine Louisa Pirkis; she’s an author new to me, and this story introduces her detective Loveday Brooke and was published in 1893. It’s a satisfying and clever mystery and Brooke is a feisty heroine – I’d like to read more of her adventures! Next up is The Hole in the Wall by G.K. Chesterton; this tale doesn’t feature his usual detective, Father Brown, but is from 1921 and the sleuthing is done by Horne Fisher. It’s a vaguely spooky tale with a very satisfying end. Then there’s Death on the Air by Ngaio Marsh; I read a *lot* of Marsh back in the day, and this lives up to the standard I expect from her. An elderly tyrant is found dead by his radio; was he electrocuted? And how? And which of his bullied family could be responsible? Great fun!

The Marsh is followed by Persons or Things Unknown by Carter Dickson (pen name of John Dickson Carr). Needless to say, there’s a kind of locked room mystery, but there are spooky elements and the bulk of the story is set in the past. I found this to be one I needed to read in daylight…. Trailing after the Dickson is Dead Man’s Hand by E.R. Punshon; the latter is again an author I’ve not come across before, but I loved this short and punchy story about the effects of guilt – excellent stuff! Then we have The Christmas Eve Ghost by Ernest Dudley, with a slightly more noir setting and a clever trap to catch a killer. Dick Whittington’s Cat, which follows, is by Victor Canning, a prolific author much neglected nowadays. I don’t think he’s usually remembered for his mysteries, but this clever seasonal tale of burglary is very entertaining.

The title story, by Cyril Hare, is another short punchy one about how retribution for past wicked deeds can come at the most unlikely time and in the most unlikely fashion – great fun! This is followed by another big name in crime writing, Margery Allingham with On Christmas Day in the Morning. A postie has been found dead, but proving how he was killed is impossible because of the route he took on his round. It will take all of Mr. Campion’s empathy to unravel the sad solution behind things. Give Me A Ring by Anthony Gilbert is the longest entry in the collection, at around 80 pages almost stretching to a novella; and it’s most entertaining, telling a nail-biting tale of an innocent young woman who strays into the path of some dangerous criminals during a London fog; the tension does ramp up towards the end! And finally there’s The Turn Again Bell by Barry Perowne, which is more of a slightly spooky Christmas tale than a mystery, but it’s an enjoyable and fitting end to the book.

What do these books have in common? Hint – it’s *not* that they’re about Christmas…. ;D

The observant amongst you will notice that the above adds up to 11 stories – and the one I want to mention last is the Surprise for Christmas I mentioned above! The tale is called Father Christmas Comes to Orbins by Julian Symons, and it’s a brilliant story of a meticulously planned burglary that goes wrong. However, as I read it I was hit by a massive attack of deja vu and became convinced that I’d read something very like it before. I had a dig through some of my other BL short story collections and could find nothing, until I suddenly hit on the idea of looking at last year’s festive book, “The Christmas Card Crime”. It did indeed feature a Symons story, entitled ‘Twixt the Cup and the Lip – and as I looked at the opening pages of that one, I realised that they were indeed the same story!! (Which is proof that I *do* actually remember what I read).

Looking at the introductions, it seems that the original version (Orbins) was published in 1963 in the Illustrated London News; the later one (Twixt) was published in 1965 in the Ellery Queen Magazine. So I presume that the title was changed for the US and that’s where the confusion arose! I was quite amused after I’d worked out what was going on, and relieved to find I wasn’t going completely insane. And it *is* a good story and definitely deserves to be featured in these collections – whichever title it’s under! 😀

Anyway, that’s by the by; the bottom line is that this is a really strong collection of Christmas stories in the BLCC range; the quality is high, the stories are entertaining, mystifying, sometimes spooky and very Christmassy. I can really recommend this collection – it’s perfect reading for the time of year!

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

Murder and mayhem down by the Thames…. @BritLibPublishing #BLCC #JosephineBell

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It’s fairly obvious from even a casual glance at the Ramblings that I love to read Golden Age crime; as I’ve mentioned many times, I grew up reading Agatha Christie (and still love her) and have also read many of the greats in my time. So I’ve obviously taken comfort from the wonderful output from the British Library in their Crime Classics range, and continue to find the standard of stories they issue high. Interestingly, recently titles have pushed the envelope a little, which is fascinating; some stories edging closer to more modern times, and encompassing the changes taking place in society in 1960s, and embracing the police procedural, rather than the famous detective in a country house setting. However, my most recent read of one of their books, originally published in 1938, introduces a milieu which is miles away from the usual affluent surroundings – and that book is “The Port of London Murders” by Josephine Bell.

As Martin Edwards points out in his excellent introduction, Bell has already made an appearance in the BL series, with short stories in the “Crimson Snow” and “Deep Waters” collections. This novel is an early one by the author, and it’s set around the Port of London and on the river Thames in that fascinating period between the two wars when many people were struggling to make a living. As the book opens, the San Angelo drifts into port having survived dreadful storms in the Bay of Biscay. The ship is late, and as well as its cargo being delayed, some of it has been lost in the river. We’re introduced early to the two main characters, Harry Reed and June Harvey, both of whom live by the Thames; Harry saves June’s young brother Leslie from drowning, sustaining an injury in the process and two are drawn together. Both are from working class backgrounds; but June works in a lingerie shop and is attracting the attention of the flashy Gordon Longford who moves in more exalted circles and seems to have very suspect connections. Meanwhile, the police are trying to uncover dodgy dealings and drug smuggling down by the river – although one of their officers may be getting too close for comfort. Mix in a murder or two, a little illegal salvaging, some very inquisitive schoolboys, a few larger than life working class families and a somewhat dubious doctor, and you have quite the recipe for an absorbing and exciting mystery!

It’s the setting, of course, that makes this book stand out initially. As a hinted above, this is miles away from a country house or a small cosy English village; instead we are in an area where life is often brutal and short, work is hard and exhausting, and scraping a living to bring up your family is never easy. There are glimpses of the struggles and the poverty in the scenes involving various medics and a Relieving Officer, who try to do their best to help those in need but with limited resources. In these pre-NHS days, getting a doctor out if you were ill was expensive; and there seems to have been little aid available to those who couldn’t work because of illness. This background, and the awareness of the grim poverty which existed, is unusual in Golden Age crime, and adds a fascinating element to the book.

As for the story itself, well it’s really unputdownable. Bell writes well, portrays her locations and characters vividly, and really brings this lost world to life. Harry and June, a little tentative and unsure of each other at first, are an engaging pair and both are very cleverly woven into the plot. The latter itself is very twisty and turny, and although we know fairly early on who the villains are, it’s entertaining watching how they try to escape justice and how the various arms of the law do their best to encirle them. I shall say nothing about the ending of the book except that it is dramatic and fitting and very satisfying!

On the evidence of this and the short stories, Bell is definitely an author I’d like to read more by, and “Port” is an excellent additon to the BLCC range. There is perhaps a slight touch of cliché in her working class characters’ dialogue (although it may be accurate to the time – and she did research the River Police and their work whilst writing the book, so may well have mingled with Thameside locals); but this never gets in the way of the story. The subject matter (drug addiction and smuggling, murder, poverty) is actually quite dark, but that adds to a gritty portrayal of hard-working life in the 1930s. However, she balances this with some wonderful humour, particularly in her portrayal of two families, the Popes and the Dunwoodys, locked in neighbourly rivalry. The saga of their move from dilapidated soon-to-be demolished houses into more modern flats is a hoot, and also very telling of its time. And Bell’s creation of Leslie Harvey is particularly memorable – writing a convincing child character can be difficult, and Leslie is a believable scamp, somewhat reminiscent of the gang of boys in the wonderful Ealing film “Hue and Cry”.

“The Port of London Murders” was my final read in November, a difficult reading month at times which was redeemed at the end! It was entertaining from start to finish, a real joy, and evidence if it were needed that the quality of releases in the British Library Crime Classics series is not dropping. These books have brought me much comfort this year, and I suspect this won’t be last one I read before 2020 is over!

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

Classic crime in wartime fog…. @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #ecrlorac

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I have to confess that real life has been a little stressful lately. Work (in a school) has been much more complex than usual, and although it does get me out of the house, it’s draining and somewhat weird. Though I mustn’t complain because at least I am working. However, juggling the 1956 Club plus PC woes left me in need of a little comfort reading, and a recent release in the British Library Crime Classics range was the perfect thing!

“Checkmate to Murder” is the latest title to be reissued by the BL from E.C.R. Lorac; she’s one of the authors who’s proved to be a particular hit, with many of her books having been republished so far.  I’ve read a number of these, including a recent favourite “Crossed Skis” (published another of her pseudonyms, Carol Carnac) and I love them. Lorac is brilliant at conjuring atmosphere, and a previous release “Murder by Matchlight” brought alive vividly its Second World War setting. “Checkmate…” was first published in 1944 and is also set in wartime, in the depths of the blackout; and a clever and twisty tale it turned out to be!

The book opens with a dramatic setting: in an artists’ studio in Hampstead, artist Bruce Manaton is deeply involved in the portrait he’s painting of his actor friend Andre Delaunier. As the painter continues to portray his model, seated and dressed in striking Cardinal’s robes, two other friends Robert Cavendish and Ian Mackellon (both highly respectable men) play chess at the other end of the room. Flitting in and out is the painter’s sister Rosanne, who’s preparing dinner; and the local cockney char, Mrs. Tubbs, also pops by. Suddenly there is a commotion at the door, and a local special constable Lewis Verraby bursts in, hauling an injuried soldier with him. He claims that the old miser next door, great uncle to the soldier and landlord of the studio tenants, has been murdered – and that the great nephew is the murderer! However, Verraby himself is not quite what he seems, and neither is this case; and it will take all the ingenuity of Lorac’s regular detective, Inspector Macdonald, to get to the bottom of things!

Sometimes these past two years I’ve thought human beings were making a bee-line for hell.

I have to confess to simply devouring this book – it was just such a good read! Lorac plots brilliantly, and certainly this story had me guessing right up until the end. There are, of course, a couple of obvious suspects from the start; and I hoped that the eventual solution would be nothing as simplistic as either of them being the murderer. Her cast of characters was by necessity narrow, as because of the setting of the foggy blackout, and the posting of sentries of sorts in the area, there was a limit to who could be around within the relevant time frame. Although I did guess one element in the eventual solution, I had no idea to whom that element applied, nor how the murder was committed – so it was all very clever. The wartime setting is always an evocative one, and Lorac captures it quite brilliantly, with the fog and the blackout and the tensions and the shortages all elements affecting the characters’ behaviours.

It’s hard to discuss more specifics of the plot without giving too much away, so all I’ll say is that there were any number of tangled threads including property development, poverty, greed and artistic temperament. As for Lorac’s characters, well they are a really entertaining bunch; Bruce and Rosanne are engaging siblings, both with strong artistic talents but with Rosanne allowing hers to be subsumed in supporting her brother. The actor Delaunier is a wonderful larger than life figure, Mrs. Tubbs is probably a bit of a Cockney ‘salt-of-the-earth” cliche (but still great fun and also highly appreciated during the War years), and Cavendish and Mackellon are convincing foils for the temperamental artistes. As for the detecting team, they’re always satisfying and as ever with Macdonald it was great to watch his leaps of intuition followed by the actual working out of how his supicions may have actually been carried out; although he does keep his cards close to his chest until the very end!

So another joyful read from the BL, and the perfect distraction just when I wanted it. I don’t know that I’ve ever needed comfort reading quite as much as I have during 2020, and so having the Crime Classics to turn to has been a real boon. The Lorac reissues have been one of the highlights of the series, and this was a particularly strong entry. I could quite easily develop a BLCC addition – if I haven’t already done so…. 😀

“…no man is allowed a death certificate without first dying for it.” @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #margotbennett

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The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett

“When in doubt, reach for a crime classic”; that could well be my motto here on the Ramblings, as they *have* become such a comfort in recent years, and particularly during the pandemic. I do feel the books have gone from strength to strength, with a wonderfully diverse range of titles being published. And the most recent one I received for review was just as fascinating and engrossing as the others I’ve read, as well as taking a very unusual angle on the Golden Age crime format!

“The Man Who Didn’t Fly” was Scottish author Margot Bennett’s seventh novel, and she’s a forgotten name in the field of crime writing (and indeed writing generally). However, as Martin Edwards’ excellent introduction reveals, her books were highly regarded at the time and she was nominated for major crime writing awards. Despite this, her career took her in a different direction, writing for television during the 1950s and 1960s; and her work seems to have been all but forgotten which is a great shame, based on this novel.

Sergeant Young tried the buffet. The tea-lady, who had a contrived shade of red hair, and the new small waist with the old, spreading hips, smoothed one eyebrow with her little finger, and said she’d been talking to a gentleman from Sweden at the time, and she really couldn’t remember a thing, except that poor Mr Lee had looked in to ask about a passenger who wasn’t there. When she mentioned Lee’s name her eyes moistened and she turned away, fumbling until she found a very dainty handkerchief.

The GA Crime genre has its conventions – country house, quirky detective, locked room mystery, cast of suspects; but increasingly with the BL books, the works featured move outside that format and “Fly” is a fine example. Instead of a ‘whodunnit’ or even a ‘whydunnit’, it’s more a case of ‘what-the-heck-has-been-going-on-to-lead-up-to-this-situation?!?!?’ The book opens with the crash into the sea of a small private plane on its way to Ireland; the pilot is lost, as well as three male passengers. However, four men were meant to fly; and it initially proves to be impossible to work out who was on the plane and who didn’t actually fly. Witnesses are vague about what they saw on the day; the fourth man does not come forward to identify himself; and the detectives have to start to dig into the lives and behaviour of the four men to try to work out just what had been going on to cause the group to want to fly to Ireland – and indeed why one didn’t…

Central to the mystery is the Wade family; a widowed father plus two grown up daughters Hester and Prudence. Once the detectives have spent time getting confusing and inconclusive witness statements, they focus on the Wades, to whom all the passengers were known. Eventually, Hester is ostensibly persuaded to provide a narrative of events in the days leading up to the flight, though it is actually told in the third person. And a gripping tale it is too; the ordinary family seem to have been surrounded by so-called friends and contacts with very dodgy connections! The events are gradually explored, the narrative builds up till all is revealed and there are some lovely twists and turns along the way; but more than that I *will* not say, because I don’t want to spoil the reading of this book for anyone!

Words! We have too many words. Word poets talk all the time of love and death. People fall in love and they die, and no amount of poetic advice has ever helped them to do either of those things more successfully.… But they are always interested in money.

“The Man Who Didn’t Fly” was a compelling and surprisingly moving story, with far reaching elements; and so cleverly written. You’re plunged right into the story from the very start, and events are unclear until Hester begins to reveal the sequence of events. As you read on, there are lightbulb moments when parts of the plot suddenly become clear; and I did have a few suspicions about why particular characters were acting as they were. But there were still shocks are the end which were quite unexpected (but absolutely made sense when you got to them).

There’s a depth to the characterisation which is pleasing; Hester herself is the glue that holds many things together, both in her family and with regard to the plot! And it’s painful at times watching her struggle with her relationship with one of the passengers, Harry; a wastrel poet, she finds him infuriating and irresistible at the same time! In fact, the Wade girls, brought up by their father, were a very engaging pair and I sensed shades of “I Capture the Castle” in their situation of poverty. Bennett had strong left-wing convictions, and she does manage to have a dig here and there at the greed of human being, through the mouths of her characters! The detectives deserve a little mention, too; the team of Inspector Lewis and Sergeant Young, although at some points seeming to take a back seat in the narrative, is an engaging one. The pair have an entertaining relationship, in particular with Young’s apparent vast knowledge of culture and arts, upon which Lewis often has to draw during this investigation!

As I said, this is a hard book to discuss in detail without giving too much away; but it really is a superb entry into the BLCC range. Bennett is an excellent writer, and pleasingly this edition includes a rare short story “No Bath for the Browns” which is quite brilliant! I absolutely loved “The Man Who Didn’t Fly”: clever, twisty, brilliantly constructed and compelling from start to finish, it really was a stellar read. On the evidence of this and the short story, Bennett is a very unjustly neglected author, and I really hope the BL reissue more of her works. Highly recommended! 😀

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

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