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2019 in books – *why* do I find it hard to pick favourites?? :D

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As we slide into a new decade, it’s time for a look back over 2019 and the books I read – and there really were some crackers in there! But I really struggle to pick favourites, because so many of my reads are outstanding for different reasons. I can’t possibly do a Top Ten, so instead I thought I’d post some thoughts about favourite books, publishers and genres – here goes!

Russians

Inevitably I have read more Russian authors this year, although there was a slight hiatus at one point so that I ended up thinking the blog was suffering from Russian Reading Deficiency! However, a quick dose of the Gogols soon sorted that out! Spring was the season of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, in a lovely new edition from Alma Classics, and it was an intense read which absorbed me for some time; it was a bit of a marathon in the end, but worth every minute spent reading it. A really epic book in many ways, full of the humour and drama you’d expect from Dosty – wonderful!

I’ve also been enjoying some more modern works from the wonderful publisher Glagoslav; they’ve put out some excellent titles from countries I haven’t always read from before. A really interesting imprint, and one to watch.

Golden Age Crime

There has been, I’m pleased to say, a lot of Golden Age Crime on the Ramblings this year. It’s a favourite reading genre of mine and much has come from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics imprint. There have been some excellent books released, lots of new authors and some really great anthologies. Plus plenty of Reggie Fortune, which makes me happy! I also revisited the Queen of Crime, who’s always a joy to read; next year, I must spend some time with Lord Peter Wimsey!

Poetry

There has also been much poetry on the Ramblings in 2019, which makes me very happy. I discovered the Morden Tower poets, Basil Bunting, Tom Pickard and the vastly entertaining (and very clever) Brian Bilston. I also went back to Philip Larkin, one of my favourite poets ever. I still don’t read enough of the wonderful verse volumes I have on my shelves so that’s another thing I need to rectify in 2020. Interesting how many of the poets I love are from the cold North (a place I’m often drawn back to) – and published by Bloodaxe Books!

Essays and Non-Fiction

I’m not sure why I’ve been drawn to non-fiction works so much this year, but I seem to have read quite a lot! There are of course all the lovely books put out by Notting Hill Editions, who make an art of issuing fascinating essay collections which are also beautiful to look at. If I can find my Shostakovich, I’ll share a picture of all my NHE books at some point…

Equally, Fitzcarraldo Editions release some really thought-provoking works and I rather crave adjoining book shelves with my Fitzcarraldo and Notting Hills next to each other. The Ian Penman collection was a particular treat this year from Fitzcarraldo; and other publishers have produced equally fascinating books, like the marvellous “Selfies”.  A lot of these books lie outside any strict definition of fiction or non-fiction, and I do find I like that kind of book nowadays.

Translated Literature

Mention of Fitzcarraldo brings me by necessity to Olga Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” which definitely *is* one of my books of the year. I was blown away by her “Flights” last year, and this title didn’t disappoint. I read a lot of translated works, and am eternally grateful to translators. NYRB and Pushkin Press have issued numerous wonderful books in translation that I’m so happy to have read, like “Isolde” and “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and “Portraits without Frames”…. I was also so happy to rediscover Mishima and find that I loved his work just as much as ever. Well, I could go on and on, but suffice to say that I am made a happy reader thanks to the efforts of all those fine people who translate books! 😀

John Berger

Berger deserves a special mention; I’ve read a number of his books this year (and there is a review pending of one I finished very recently) and each has been a wonderful, thought-provoking and unique experience. Several have been in beautiful editions from Notting Hill; and he’s proved to be a a very human (and humane) writer with so much to say. I really have no doubt that I’ll continue to read him in 2020.

Reading Clubs

I’ve been very happy to once more co-host two Reading Club weeks during 2019 with Simon from Stuck in a Book. This year, we focused on books from 1965 and 1930, and it was such fun! We plan to continue in 2020, with the 1920 Club happening in April, so do join in – we have the most wonderful discussions and it’s a great way to pick up ideas for books to read!

Documentaries and Interviews!

c. ClearStory/BBC

I took a slight tangent on what is, after all, a book blog in March when Professor Richard Clay’s “How to Go Viral” documentary aired on UK TV. I first became aware of his work back in 2014 via his documentary on French Revolutionary iconoclasm, followed by his fascinating look at the history of graffiti and then his epic series “Utopia”; and so I was delighted when Richard agreed to be interviewed for the blog. I do love a good documentary (and apart from a few notable exceptions, there’s been a bit of a dearth lately). Richard’s ideas are so very interesting, and you can read the interview here and here. He’s been filming a new documentary recently, so that’s something to look forward in 2020! 🙂

The Summer Big Book

The Notebooks

I can’t finish this rather rambly post without mention of a very special reading experience I had in the summer; if I was forced at gunpoint to pick a read of the year, I would probably have to mention Victor Serge’s Notebooks, published by NYRB. I’ve raved about Serge’s writing many times on the Ramblings, and was ridiculously excited about the release of this very chunky collection. At just under 600 pages, it’s no quick read, but a wonderfully rich and rewarding one; it accompanied me on my travels during the summer, giving me a glimpse into Serge’s life and mind, as well as all the notable people and places he encountered. A brilliant and immersive read, and one I won’t forget.

It has been a very difficult time out there in Real Life recently, with a feeling (here, at least) that the world is slipping gradually into being a more harsh and intolerant place; reading and books and ideas have always been my coping mechanism, and will continue to be essential I suspect. Anyway – this post will have to do as a bit of a snapshot of my 2019 reading, although I can’t help feeling I’ve missed too many out. There are *so* many books I’ve read and loved this year that I feel mean not mentioning them; I’ll just suggest you go and read my posts to see what books have meant the most to me! 2019 has been a great reading year, and here’s hoping 2020 is as good!

*****

A lot of people have been doing their “Books of the Decade” this month, and I did consider this for a brief moment. However, the blog’s only been here since 2012, and frankly before that I couldn’t tell you what I was reading!! My end of year posts during the blog’s life would no doubt give you a flavour of how my reading tastes have evolved – and I’m sure they have – so check them out if you wish!

Dark deeds, Russian Imperial fortunes and murder – seasonal joy from @BL_publishing @medwardsbooks #BLCC

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The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly

As we edge ever closer to the dreaded C-word, I must confess to being quite happy about the opportunities for reading created by the darker nights and the need to hunker down somewhere cosy! I seem to have been drawn to classic crime a lot lately – those kind of books do seem just right for this time of year – and an added bonus is the annual treat of a seasonal release from the British Library in their Crime Classics imprint. This year’s book is by another author new to me, Mary Kelly, and when I read the blurb I realised that it was going to be ideal reading…. ;D

Getting kind of festive chez Ramblings! 😀

“The Christmas Egg” was Kelly’s third book to feature her detecting duo of Chief Inspector Brett Nightingale and Sergeant Beddoes. Published in 1958, it’s subtitled “A Seasonal Mystery” and the action takes place over three days just before Christmas. The setting is a London still physically showing the after-effects of WW2; there are bombed out areas waiting to be rebuilt, and a kind of tension in the air, with a feeling that times are changing. Gangs of burglars are on the loose, and the old values have fallen away to be replaced with a more nebulous environment. Living in squalor in this world is Princess Olga Karukhin; an exiled survivor of the Russian Revolution, she’s discovered dead as the book opens. Although you might anticipate the possibility of an elderly woman living in poverty to dying in the depths of winter, it transpires that this was murder – and when it emerges that her trunk of valuable treasures has been emptied, the plot really does thicken! Throw in a potentially dodgy dealer in jewellery and antiques, an infatuated young woman, the dead woman’s feckless grandson Ivan, plus a gang of toughened criminals and you have all the ingredients for an exciting and fascinating mystery – which this certainly is!

As I said, Mary Kelly is not a name I’ve come across before, but as Martin Edwards’ excellent introduction reveals, she was very highly rated in her day although she only published a handful of works before abandoning writing. The book is unusual, focusing as it does on the subtleties of class (which was undergoing significant changes at the time) and also on the motivations of its characters. There’s plenty of detecting, yes, and the book doesn’t shy away from showing the police having to do legwork, calling in reinforcements, making mistakes and having a real struggle with their adversaries. Nightingale and Beddoes are an engaging pairing, bouncing off each other and sparring pleasingly, and I wish I’d had the opportunity to get acquainted with the detecting duo in their earlier adventures.

The supporting characters are lively and well-painted bunch too; Majendie, the antique dealer, is an old acquaintance of Nightingale’s, and his hidden depths are gradually revealed during the story. Nightingale’s wife (an opera singer) appears off-camera – he apparently sings too – and he spends part of the book dealing with a young shop assistant from Majendie’s who is not only important to the plot but also has a huge crush on the detective. The Russian element is intriguing (and if you have any knowledge of Imperial Russia, you can probably guess what kind of egg the title is referring to!), and the links back to the past from the 1950s are a reminder that events like the Revolution are really not so far away.

Such a lovely cover illustration – the BL do always choose some wonderful images!

There is a wonderful extended sequence towards the end of the book involving several characters imprisoned in a car racing through Kent in the foul winter weather, while Nightingale expounds on the mystery; this was brilliantly handled, and the book was one where I had a genuine fear for safety of characters. The plot is marvellously twisty, where you really don’t know which side people are one, and I loved that ambiguity. I shan’t say too much more, because the joy of this book is in the reading, but it’s one with plenty of surprises, a vividly conjured atmosphere and location (much of the book is set in Islington) and some stellar characters.

“The Christmas Egg” was a wonderful read, and an excellent addition to the British Library Crime Classics imprint (and their Christmas-based reading!) I ended up thinking it was such a shame Kelly didn’t write more stories of Night and Bed (as they’re ironically referred to at one point), as they really are a wonderful pairing and the occasional reference to their backstories made me extra keen to know more. Kelly’s work was highly regarded by such luminaries as Edmund Crispin, and she was a member of the prestigious Detection Club, so it’s wonderful to see her work creeping back into print. It’s a quirky and entertaining seasonal read, and would be perfect in your Christmas stocking! 😀

Scientifically dabbling detection! @BL_publishing @medwardsbooks #BLCC

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The Measure of Malice: Scientific Detection Stories
Edited by Martin Edwards

You may have picked up a couple of things on the Ramblings i.e. that I’m very behind with my reviewing and that I got a bit bogged down in November with “Berlin Alexanderplatz”…. The first couple of sections of that were so downbeat that I ended up interspersing them with some Golden Age crime, and my! was it a joy in comparison!!

The book in question is the latest collection of short stories in the British Library Crime Classics series, and it’s a wonderful gathering of works called “The Measure of Malice”; the subtitle “Scientific Detection Stories” makes it clear that we’re to be treated to a varied and marvellous selection of tales where the detecting heroes employ all manner of scientific methods; some of which to have a sounder basis than others… ;D

“Measure…” has been expertly compiled by Martin Edwards (the man really *does* deserve an award for services to detective fiction!) and opens neatly with a classic mystery featuring Holmes and Watson, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”. This is quintessential Conan Doyle with a race to save a wrongly accused man, crimes that stretch into the past and overseas, the introduction of Inspector Lestrade and Holmes at his best; it is the latter’s scientific study of footprints that proves so crucial in this case. Most satisfying!

The book is stuffed with other familiar names; Dorothy L. Sayers‘ short tale, “In The Teeth of the Evidence” has poor Wimsey suffering the dentist and solving a devious crime. Edmund Crispin‘s “Blood Sport” is even shorter, and unusually doesn’t feature his regular detective Fen; instead, Inspector Humbleby traps the killer with a particular kind of specialist knowledge. Some of the sciences are very outre, like the belief that the last thing a person sees as they die is imprinted on their retina; others are ahead of their time; and some of the techniques are a really chilling, such as the method employed in “The Man Who Disappeared”.

I particularly liked the fact that this collection drew on a good number of less well-known authors, and the stories by C. E. Bechhofer Roberts and J.J. Connington were very clever and entertaining. L.T. Meade shares credit for two of her stories with other authors, Robert Eustace and Clifford Halifax; both are clever and atmospheric, and she’s obviously a woman whose work needs tracking down and rediscovering. I was less taken with Ernest Dudley‘s “The Case of the Chemist in the Cupboard”; the story itself was clever and devious, but his detective Doctor Morelle has an insufferably patronising attitude towards his female assistant Miss Frayle (who is obviously quite smart) and I ended up wanting to slap him!

Langdon is one of the outlying suburbs of London, but most of it was built last century. Then it attracted men who are making comfortable, third-class fortunes. The result is that it consists chiefly of genteel villas, each in its own piece of ground, which have tried hard to be unlike one another with contortions of inconvenience. Some of these are still inhabited by the survivors or descendants of those who put them up. Others have been converted by the forces of progress into modern ugliness as blocks of flats offering modern comfort to those who do without babies.

Breakfastless and pallid, Reggie came to the hospital built in the lowest, dampest situation which the hills of Langdon provide.

I’ve left the best for last. Any anthology which features Reggie Fortune, surgeon and Home Office Consultant, is a winner in my mind, and this one contains a wonderful story entitled “The Broken Toad”. I’ve sung the praises of H.C. Bailey and his marvellous detecting creation before on the Ramblings; I love Bailey’s writing, Fortune’s idiosyncratic character and his fierce determination to protect the innocent (particularly children). “Toad” is a pure delight, featuring Reggie’s tolerant wife Joan and his regular sidekick, Lomas of the CID. The mystery itself is quite brilliant; the sudden death of a policeman by poison in the middle of the night is unfathomable, and it takes all of Reggie’s ingenuity and deductive skills to get to the bottom of matters. In doing so, he uncovers a real nest of iniquity and the story is utterly gripping. Really, what’s needed is a concerted campaign to get Reggie republished! 😀

“The Measure of Malice” is a lovely chunky anthology of nearly 350 pages; and yet it took me less time to read than a small section of “Berlin Alexanderplatz”… This is another wonderful collection of Golden Age crime from the British Library, and the books are a real treat for the connoisseur of detective stories (or indeed just the casual reader!) Perfect reading for dark evenings when you’re snuggled up in front of the fire (or in whatever cosy corner you might have) – definitely a book for your Christmas list! 😀

Devious dealings and double lives! #georgebellairs @BL_publishing @medwardsbooks

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The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs

Hot on the heels of my last BLCC (from the wonderful John Dickson Carr), and as a bit of an antidote to the *big* reading for 1930, I felt the call of another dose of classic crime – and as a new edition of a George Bellairs mystery had popped through the door from the lovely British Library, it was a bit a no brainer as to what I’d choose next! I’ve read a number of Bellairs’ titles, featuring his detecting team Superintendant Littlejohn and Sergeant Cromwell; so much so, that it feels like returning to old friends when I read a new Bellairs! They’re always a delight, and this one was no exception.

The book opens dramatically, with Littlejohn being thrust straight into the action. He’s been staying in Fen country, assisting the suitably-named Fenshire police with a forgery case, when a body is discovered in the local River Lark, known as the Dumb River of the title. Normally, it runs silently and unobtrusively, but Littlejohn is visiting Fenland in the middle of a massive storm which brings all sorts of floods and drama to the area. The dead man is known as Jim Lane locally; a small man, he travels with a fairground that visits regularly, in the company of a woman called Martha Gomm. However, investigation reveals that he is really James Teasdale, a man from Yorkshire who’s married with a family. Jim/James has obviously been leading a double life, and once the two policemen have done their local detecting (as well as helping out with the aftermath of the floods), the focus of their investigations turns north to Yorkshire, and the rather appalling family that Teasdale had to suffer.

Because appalling they really are! His wife is a selfish, snobbish, grasping woman with no sympathy at all; his daughters have inherited all their mother’s traits; Jim’s father-in-law is a bullying ex-army man; and Mrs. Teasdale’s siblings are equally greedy and unpleasant. Jim has struggled to make a living and to support his dependents and in the end took to going off for weeks at a time making money through the fair, while telling his wife he was a travelling salesman; her snobbish nature simply couldn’t have coped with the reality. Really, you couldn’t want for a worse family setting, and I found myself completely understanding why the man had sought some happiness and companionship with Martha Gomm while they were on the road.

Initially it seems that Jim was killed in Fen country; however, the medical evidence proves otherwise and so Littlejohn and Cromwell have to tackle the Teasdale family in all their gruesome glory. They meet with evasion, lies, hysteria and downright nastiness; it seems that Teasdale was a disappointment to them all, and none of them actually are upset by his death. There are plenty of twists and turns, lots of drama, and it takes all of Littlejohn’s skill to find the solution; I had a vague inkling of where the mystery was going, but there were still some lovely surprises at the end.

“The Body in the Dumb River” was a satisfying and completely enjoyable story, displaying all of the traits I love from Bellairs. His writing is always excellent; economic, and yet he manages to paint character and atmosphere brilliantly. His descriptions capture niftily life in a small town with its pettiness and ridiculous need for status. He always displays a sympathy with the underdog; Littlejohn obviously does not like people full of posturing and hypocrisy, preferring the honesty of Jim and Martha’s illegal union to that of a false marriage, and recognising the happiness it brought Jim to find refuge from a horrible home life. The whole story of the two was actually quite touching, and made me reflect on the horrors through which human beings can put one another. The Teasdale family are almost grotesques, very damaged people, and this carries on down the generations with the youngest members being as unpleasant as the eldest.

The church clock was striking ten as Littlejohn and Cromwell entered the police car which was taking them to the cemetery for James Teasdale‘s funeral. The atmosphere of the town was not funereal at all. It was market day and stalls had been erected in the space in front of the town hall. There an exuberant crowd of stallholders were already shouting their wares, mainly eatables, with here and there a dash of clothing or cheap jewellery. The place was seething with life. Dominating all that was going on and looking slightly disapproving of it, was the stern bronze statue of Bishop Duddle, the only famous man who ever was born in Basilden. He had been martyred and eaten by cannibals of his diocese in the South Seas and now stood among the market folk, pointing to heaven, indicating the place to which he had gone after all his troubles.

Bellairs is not without humour, though, and his description of Jim’s funeral is a wonderful mix of pathos and farce. His characters are occasionally maybe a little over-dramatised, but I guess that’s so he can create sympathy for his underdogs. He’s a very open-minded author, too, having his characters refer to travellers as good people and much more worthy than the middle-class horrors of Yorkshire; it’s very clear where his sympathies lie. And he’s also an author that mops up the loose ends of his story, rounding things up at the very end so we find out what happened to all of the characters after the mystery was solved (well, all except one!)

British Library Publishing have done us some huge favours by creating a wonderful collection of classic crime stories which would otherwise have languished in obscurity; and George Bellairs is one of many authors I’m glad has been rediscovered. “Dumb River” is another excellent entry in the Crime Classics list, and comes highly recommended from the Ramblings! 😀

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

#1930Club – “… a mechanism tuned to kill…” @BL_Publishing #JohnDicksonCarr

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The danger with our reading weeks, particularly when they’re from a year earlier in the 20th century, is the terrible temptation I face just to let myself wallow in several days of reading classic crime! Golden Age detective stories are my go-to comfort reading – I can’t get enough of them, especially in times of stress, and so the British Library Crime Classics have become something of a lifeline! After enjoying my time spent in the company of Agatha Christie earlier in the week, I had a flick through the BLCCs I have unread on the shelves; alas, none of them were from the year in question. However, I think it was a comment on my trailer post for the Club that alerted me to the fact that a new BLCC had just made its debut – and it was published in 1930! I asked the BL if they would be able to provide a review copy, and indeed they did, along with several rather fantastic looking other titles – thank you *so* much, British Library Publishing! I have no excuse not to wallow in classic crime during the chilly autumn evenings!

But I digress. The 1930 book in question is “It Walks By Night” by John Dickson Carr, and it’s a special release for a number of reasons. Firstly, as Martin Edwards mentions in his introduction to the book, it’s the first title by an American author to be published in the series. Secondly, it’s the first published novel by Carr, which makes it doubly fascinating! JDC was known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve read a number of his books and covered some on the blog. I *love* a locked-room mystery – and as the setting for this one was 1920s Paris, it was always likely to be a good one.

Carr’s regular detective is Dr. Gideon Fell, but this early work features another sleuth, one who apparently continued to feature in Carr’s books over the years. He is Henri Bencolin, a director of the police amongst other titles, and he’s assisted by the narrator of the story – his ‘Watson’ who is a young American Jeff Marle. Bencolin was close friends with the latter’s father, and has a paternal interest in the young man. And the mystery they investigate is a dark and chilling one, the brutal killing of a young aristocratic sportsman on the night of his wedding. However, the matter is not as straightforward as that might sound. For a start, the butchered man is found in a locked room with no way in or out which was not being watched. The method of death means he cannot have committed suicide, and yet no-one can have entered or left the room to murder him without being seen. To make things more complex, the detectives have a suspect, in the form of a madman called Laurent. The latter was previously married to the bride before being locked up for violent and insane behaviour, with the marriage being anulled. However, Laurent is free and known to have visited a plastic surgeon… Therefore, the killer could be anywhere and look like anyone, as well as seemingly having the ability to make himself invisible and pass through locked doors or walls. It’s a pretty and apparently insoluble puzzle and one which will tax the sleuths to the very end…

For the present, we were all aware only of a confused and numbing sense of terrible things moving behind a veil. That room, with its amber lights and its black-and-white flagged floor, the two men who were my companions, suddenly took on an aspect of unreality which made me feel as though I were alone. It stripped away everything…

Needless to say, I absolutely *loved* this book; it was one of those I just couldn’t bear to put down, sneaking a few pages here and there whenever I could. Bencolin is a fascinating and often enigmatic character, and makes a wonderful detective; the sidekicks, in the form of Marle plus a slightly batty Austrian doctor, Grafenstein, are very entertaining. However, there’s a real darkness and tension in the narrative; 1920s Paris is full of drug-taking and depravity, people are not what they seem, and there is a creeping sense of dread surrounding everyone at the thought of a madman murderer being close by yet unrecognisable. Carr likes to slip in chilling hints of the supernatural (which admittedly he eventually dispels) and these add to the tense atmosphere of the story. And the plot twists and turns beautifully, with additional characters such as a Sharon, a rich Englishwoman who fascinates Jeff; a slimeball of a drug dealer; and a playwright with an obscure background who may or may not be what he seems. It’s a wonderful mix and makes for a most enjoyable and absorbing read!

Isn’t the cover stunning??

As Edwards mentions in the introduction, the first edition of the book came with a clever marketing device; at a certain point in the narrative, a band was put around the remainder of the book and the reader challenged to solve the mystery with the information given so far and without reading the rest of the book. That point is marked in this edition and frankly I didn’t haven’t a chance of a solution; by then, I think I suspected just about everyone in the book and although I maybe had a bit of a glimmer closer to the end, I certainly was nowhere near the answer.

I woke in the warmth of clear blue sunlight, one of those mornings that flood you with a swashbuckling joyousness, so that you want to sing and hit somebody for sheer exuberance. The high windows were all swimming in a dazzle of sunlight, and up in their corners lay a trace of white clouds, like angels’ washing hung out on a line over the grey roofs of Paris. The trees had crept into green overnight; they filled the whole apartment with slow rustling; they caught and sifted the light; in short, it was a springtime to make you laugh at the cynical paragraph you had written the night before.

John Dickson Carr was a really marvellous author, and an outstanding proponent of the classic crime story. “It Walks..” is a treat for the aficionado as it’s peppered with references to everyone from Sax Rohmer to Edgar Allen Poe (and the latter is, of course, often reckoned to be the creator of the modern detective story). There’s a darkness and depth to Carr’s books which isn’t always there in books from that era, and he also writes remarkably well. His descriptions of Paris were vivid, and some of the sequences with Jeff and the Sharon were incredibly atmospheric. There were jumps and chills and wonderful detecting and really, this book was such a treat!

Well – I reckon I *could* have happily spent the week with Golden Age crime if I’d done a bit of research and dug out some more titles from 1930. However, I’m very, very glad I read “It Walks by Night” as it was an utterly entertaining and completely enjoyable book. This particular edition (and isn’t the cover lovely?) comes with an extra treat, in the form of “The Shadow of the Goat”, a rare short story by Carr which was the first to feature Bencolin. It contains all the elements you’d expect from Carr, including hints at the supernatural, a locked room, lots of twists and interestingly it ends (like “It Walks”) on a dramatic high point which is perhaps a little unusual. Really, I can’t recommend this one highly enough; the BLCCs are a wonderful thing anyway, and this one is a really special entry on the list. 1930 really *was* a marvellous year for books! 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, with perfect timing for the #1930Club, for which many thanks!)

Nautical mysteries and watery graves @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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Deep Waters: Mysteries on the Waves – Edited by Martin Edwards

My go-to books for stressy times have in recent years become the British Library Crime Classics; and so being back at work and being busy meant that I was naturally very keen to reach for one of these lovely volumes! I’ve read several rather wonderful anthologies of stories, edited by the redoubtable Martin Edwards, and the most recent one collects together a marvellous of array of short stories involving water. And bearing in mind that that can mean anything from an ornamental pond to the sea, there certainly is a lot of scope for murder, mayhem and mystery involving the wet stuff!

Another lovely British Library Crime Classic – isn’t the cover wonderful?

Edwards provides a useful introduction, looking back over watery crime writing over the years, as well as providing a short piece on the author of each story. The collection launches (ahem) with a Sherlock Holmes yarn, “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott“; this is a notable story in the Holmes canon, as it’s one in which the Great Detective reveals something of his past (as well as being very clever and entertaining). The final story is a Michael Innes ‘Appleby’ story first published in 1975. And in between there is an excellent selection of writers, from better known names like C.S. Forester, Edmund Crispin and E.W. Hornung, to more obscure authors like R. Austin Freeman and Josephine Bell, and relative unknowns such as Kem Bennett. I was particularly happy to see one of H.C. Bailey’s ‘Reggie Fortune’ stories included, as he’s a relatively recent discover for me and I absolutely love him. Both author and character are very individual and idiosyncratic, and I imagine Bailey’s writing is not necessarily to everyone’s taste. But I think his stories are clever and wonderfully written, and I do wish more were available.

Well – it’s hard with short story collections, because I can never decide to pick favourites or not. And this (like previous collections) is so good that there isn’t actually a dud in there. However, I’ll mention a few which really struck me. “The Echo of a Mutiny” by R. Austin Freeman was a longer entry in the book, and featured his regular detective Dr. Thorndyke, as well as an atmospheric lighthouse setting and a clever solution. Gwyn Evans’ “The Pool of Secrets” had some wonderfully outré elements and a fiendish plot. “The Turning of the Tide“, a mystery by C.S. Forester (better known perhaps for the Hornblower series), was short, sharp and shocking. And “The Swimming Pool“, the Reggie Fortune story, is really quite dark and remarkably ingenious.

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

But I could really pick out any of the stories to commend, as they’re each one of them an entertaining and enjoyable read, with clever detectives and perplexing puzzles. These are such wonderfully twisty tales where, as well as the sleuth’s usual brilliant methods of deduction, knowledge of such arcane subjects as the tides, marine life and types of tobacco can help solve the mystery. There really is such an appetite for Golden Age crime fiction nowadays; and I’m not sure whether it’s just that we’re looking for escapism from the madness of the modern day, or the reassurance of a world where things may get turned upside down but an all-seeing, all-knowing detective can put life back together again and normality will return. Whatever it is, for me the British Library Crime Classics are the perfect distraction from the craziness of daily life; and this particular collection is definitely an outstanding entry in their catalogue.

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

New Town antics in a world on the cusp of change @Medwardsbooks @BL_Publishing #georgebellairs

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Surfeit of Suspects by George Bellairs

I’ve written before on the Ramblings about the works of George Bellairs; he’s another of those unjustly neglected authors rescued from obscurity by the British Library via their Crime Classics series and I’ve read and reviewed three of his stories. Death of a Busybody was my introduction to him back in 2016, and I did love it; a wonderful wartime tale of murder in a small country village, it balanced light and dark moments brilliantly. My second encounter was a volume containing two stories, back in 2017, and interestingly these were both set during the war too. The Dead Shall be Raised and Murder of a Quack were again great fun to read but with darkness under the surface; Bellairs knows how to handle the contrasts well. So having really enjoyed encountering his detecting team of Inspector Littlejohn and Detective-Sergeant Cromwell, I was very keen to pick up the latest release from the lovely British Library when it popped through the door recently. And “Surfeit of Suspects” turned out to be just as good a read as the earlier titles.

The story starts with a bang – literally, as an explosion in a joinery company in the small town of Evingden destroys not only the building but also three company directors inside… The Excelsior Joinery Company is a business which has been struggling recently; an old family firm which was bought out by a group of directors after the death of the owner, it’s rapidly gone downhill through mismanagement, as well as being unable to compete in a modern, changing world. But was the explosion intended to destroy the company or its directors? Littlejohn is soon summoned from Scotland Yard and as he begins to investigate he finds a real hornet’s nest.

The title of this book does not lie – there are a ridiculous amount of suspects involved! It seems that one particular murdered director, Dodds, has an awful lot of enemies, in and out of his family; and any one of them could have wanted him out of the way (particularly as there’s a useful insurance policy on his life…) However, as Littlejohn and Cromwell dig deeper, it seems that there might be more than just a personal grudge at play here….

To say more would risk spoiling the fun, but this is another clever and enjoyable mystery from Bellairs (who really should *not* have been out of print for all this time.) However, there’s another aspect which makes this book particularly interesting and that’s the time and the setting. “Surfeit” is another slightly later crime classic, published in 1964, and once more we have the world on the cusp of big changes. In this case there are a number of elements, and the strongest is that of the building of new towns; Evingden has gone from being a small town to one with a modern New Town built onto it, and the social effects are dramatic. There is still the divide between rich and poor, worker and boss, in the town but this is being changed and eroded. In a sense, the old world as exemplified by the original town, is gradually dying, to be replaced by the brave and noisy new world, and you sense a sadness from Bellairs/Littlejohn about that change.

And the clash between old and new is played out on the pages of “Surfeit”, with workers in old houses contrasted with brash modern villas in new developments. It makes for an interesting dynamic in the book, and one with which I’m actually familiar. When I was a child, my family moved down south from Edinburg to find work for my dad; we ended up in a small Hampshire town which was in effect becoming what was classed as London overspill and there was the sense of a sleepy little market town being transformed by development into some kind of odd new hybrid. The old, genteel country life hung on for a while but was eventually overtaken by the new. And later in life, my parents moved to another town which had been built for industry, taking over the small village it had once been. So much of what was happening in the book resonated and that point of change in society is captured really well here.

That’s a slight digression; however, the whole scenario of change is actually very relevant to the mystery and of course at the root of things is money; that and love/hate are so often the motivating factors for murder, aren’t they? The solution to “Surfeit” is clever and the plot twisty, involving all manner of shady dealings, and it’s great fun watching Littlejohn and Cromwell in action. I particularly enjoy how Bellairs always allows the latter to go off on little investigations of his own and he’s just as good a character as Littlejohn – they do make a good team!

Bellairs was economic writer; he packs a mass of action and plot into his 211 pages, with a story that zips along, never flagging, and he wraps up all of the loose ends in a paragraph or two at the end. This makes for a quick and satisfying read, perfect for when you need a classic crime fix, although in this case with a slightly modern twist. As Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, the book “gives us a glimpse of a long-vanished world, a world that was already vanishing even as Bellairs wrote about it.” That element gives “Surfeit of Sleuths” an extra edge and adds to the atmosphere, making it a highly recommended entry in the British Library Crime Classics series!

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

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