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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking back on highlights of 2021’s reading…

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

Classic Crime

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

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

British Library Women Writers

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

Russia

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

France

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

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

New to me authors vs old favourites

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

Projects and Reading Events

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

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

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

Disappointments…

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

Poetry

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

Translated works

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

Favourites?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classic Crime – my second nominaton for Reprint of the Year!

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Following on from last week’s post, where I nominated my first choice for the classic crime Reprint of the Year Award run by the Cross Examining Crime blog, today I’ll feature my second choice – and it’s another British Library Crime Classic! I know that many, many other publishers are doing sterling work reissuing lost classics, but the BL books are the ones I read regularly and love, and so my second nomination inevitably came from that imprint! It was a real favourite, and it’s the anthology “Guilty Creatures”!

Now, I’m a huge admirer of the BL anthologies, which are always so expertly collected by Martin Edwards, so let me explain why this particular one stood out for me. Subtitled “A Menagerie of Mysteries”, the book collects together a wide range of stories and authors and the choice is interesting; there are better-known names like Conan Doyle, 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! Bell’s writing is also particularly good, and she captures vivdly a sense of place.

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.

And here we get to the clincher for me – there is an author I always hope to see in a BLCC anthology, and I wasn’t disappointed here. H.C. Bailey’s marvellous Reggie Fortune is present in “The Yellow Slugs“, a story in which a pair of youngsters appear to be guilty of heinous crimes. It takes all Reggie’s skills to get to the truth of the matter which is clever, chilling and quite fiendish. 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.

“Guilty Creatures” really hits the spot; I find the British Library Crime Classics anthologies to be a particular success, and this collection was a really appealing one, with an interesting array of authors, and some wonderfully twisty plots. This was a collection I couldn’t fault, and the breadth of stories represented here made it a real stand-out in a year with a *lot* of classic crime re-issues. I’m happy to nominate this collection for the award and can’t recommend it highly enough!

Exploring Classic Crime for the Reprint of the Year Award!

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It’s probably pretty obvious to anyone who casts an eye over the Ramblings that I’m inordinately fond of classic crime fiction. As well as the lovely British Library Crime Classic reissues, authors like Edmund Crispin and Agatha Christie turn up on a regular basis. So when I was approached by Kate from the Cross Examining Crime blog to see if was interested in taking part in her Reprint of the Year Award event, I jumped at the chance!

As well as Cross Examining Crime, Kate is also the author of two Golden Age Crime quizbooks as well as purveyor of marvellous Coffee and Crime boxes (I reviewed one here). You can check out her introductory post about the Award here, and basically a lot of bloggers will be nominating their faves, as will commenters on Kate’s blog. I have settled for a couple of books which were real treats for me this year, and today’s nomination is for “The Corpse in the Waxworks” by John Dickson Carr, which I read back in March of this year.

Carr is the king of the locked room mystery, and his usual detective is Dr. Gideon Fell, However, the BL reprints have focused on his Inspector Bencolin stories and these have been a real treat to read! “Corpse…” is the fourth of the five Bencolin novels; subtitled “A Paris Mystery”, it was first published in 1932 and has also been published as “The Waxworks Murder

As with many of Carr’s stories, this one takes place in slightly macabre, melodramatic locked-room mystery territory! The action is centred around the Musee Augustin Waxworks in Paris, and as the story opens Mlle Duchene, a young society woman, has been found dead in the Seine. She was last seen the night before, heading into the Gallery of Horrors at the waxworks; and shortly afterwards another young woman, a friend of Odette Duchene, is found brutally murdered in the waxworks itself. Odette’s fiance is distraught; her friend Claudine Martel’s parents likewise; and Bencolin begins to investigate. He’s joined by his usual sidekick, the young American Jeff Marle, who is also our narrator; and soon the men begin to suspect there is much more to this affair than simple nasty murder.

As in previous books, Bencolin is pitted against an old adversary; in this case, one Etienne Galant, a grotesque and arrogant man who owes part of his unpleasant appearance to a previous run-in with Bencolin. Galant declares he has no connection with any murders, and indeed has a perfect alibi for the time concerned (part of which includes being seen by Bencolin and Marle in a club!) However, behind the seemingly civilised surface of Paris there is the presence of Club of Coloured Masks where the demi-monde spend much of their time, and innocents can easily be lured to depravity. Does Galant have any connection with the club (which, conveniently, is right next to the waxworks)? How did the girls die, and why? Does their other female friend, Gina Prevost, have anything to do with the mystery? And is Mlle Augustin, daughter of the waxworks’ owner, as innocent as she seems? It will take all of Bencolin’s intelligence and Marle’s reckless courage to find out the solution!

British Library Crime Classics are the perfect escapist reading, and the Bencolin mysteries are particularly satisfying. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Carr’s prose and storytelling is wonderfully over-the-top, and he always manages to mix in so many spooky elements that I sometimes get a bit twitchy reading his books at night! There are plenty of creepy bits in this one, and the gruesome waxworks, with their rumours of moving figures in the dark, add to that aspect of the story. There are plenty of impossible crime elements, with locked doors, no exits and obscure motives. There’s also often a sense of real peril; Carr is very good at creating threatening villains and dangerous situations where we really fear for our protagonists’ safety. Jeff Marle, in particular, often seems to be setting himself up for a fall, and has many a narrow escape by the skin of his teeth. As for the mystery and its solution, well that again was very satisfying but not easily solvable, at least for me!

It was very hot in here, though electric fans tore blotches and rifts in the smoke. A blue spotlight played over the tangled shadows of dancers in darkness; it made ghastly a rouged face which appeared, dipped, an then was swallowed by the heaving mass. Moving in rhythm with a long-drawn bray and thud, the orchestra pounded slowly through a tango – that music which rips the bowels from a concertina and then sinks to whisper of brass. Another brassy cry of horns, another rise, stamp, and fall, and the murmuring dancers swished in time, the shadows reeling on the blue-lit walls.

So why have I picked this as my first nomination? Well, I’ve found the Bencolin stories to be a real discovery, as I’d only ever read Carr’s Gideon Fell mysteries. The melodrama, the slightly creepy feelings, the purple prose and the sinister villains are wonderfully distracting. But one of the things I particularly love about JDC’s Bencolin books are the strong sense of place you get. Here, Paris comes alive most vividly, with its grand boulevards and seedy backstreets. In a way reading these books is a form of travel in time *and* place, with the descriptive passages particularly evocative, and this was the perfect distraction and escapism during another difficult pandemic year. Vintage crime is a wonderful coping mechanism at the best of times, and it’s come into its own this year.

As a bonus, the book contains a short story featuring Bencolin, one of four Carr produced. “The Murder in Number Four”, is set aboard a train travelling to Paris, and involves smugglers, murder and Sir John Landervorne, Bencolin’s old friend and colleague. This is a very ingenious locked-room mystery, with an unexpected solution – one which is perhaps slightly unfair, as I don’t think the reader could be expected to get it! Enjoyable, nevertheless, and a welcome addition to the volume.

So I nominate and highly recommend “The Corpse in the Waxworks” for Reprint of the Year; it’s dark, atmospheric, dramatic, clever and wonderfully vivid and would be ideal reading for this time of year too! Check out Kate’s blog for updates re other suggested books and watch this space for my next nomination!

“At midnight one is much more disposed to melodrama” @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #ecrlorac

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After a slightly uninspiring experience with the Sciascia, I thought I might head to safer ground and pick up a British Library Crime Classic – I find you really can’t go wrong with them! 😀 The title in question is “These Names Make Clues” by E.C.R. Lorac whose been, as far as I’m concerned, one of the great successes of the BL reprints. I’ve read a number of her titles, including one under the name of Carol Carnac, and they’ve been marvellous. “These Names…” is a slightly unusual title, however; first published in 1937, it’s been out of print since and as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, copies seem unavailable anywhere and there’s no critical commentary on the book. Thank goodness for the BL and its deposits, then….

The Loracs I’ve read have been mainly set in WW2 or post-war; however, this particular mystery is set earlier and is much more traditional than her other books. Graham Coombe, a celebrated publisher, is hosting a treasure hunt party, to which he invites a number of novelists and thriller writers in disguise. Also invited is Chief Inspector Macdonald, Lorac’s regular sleuth, and despite misgivings the detective attends. Each guest has taken on the persona of a real author, and the Chief Inspector is posing as Izaak Walton. Also present are Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, Laurence Sterne and Pepys, plus other authors perhaps less well known to modern readers, like Thomas Traherne. The hunt gets underway and is going well, until suddenly all the electricity in the house goes off. After much fumbling and fixing of fuses, it transpires that one of the guests has died. Initial suspicions are of a heart attack, as he’s known to have been in poor health; but Macdonald’s sharp eyes spot that something is wrong, and it’s soon clear that this is murder.

However, this is not going to be an easy case to investigate. Apart from the fact that the guests were all impersonating other writers, many of them are hiding behind authorial pseudonyms, and even knowing quite who is who is difficult for Macdonald. The motive for the killing is hard to fathom, too, and then another body is discovered elsewhere, but which has connections to the first victim. The method of murder is like something out of one of the guests’ murder books, and Macdonald struggles to find connections and threads to pull the solution together…

Lorac is always a wonderfully entertaining author to read, and “These Names…” was no exception; in fact, it was a particular delight to see her spoofing the literary world, with the publishers, agents and authors all coming in for a little barbed commentary. There was a lovely reference to a block of service flats for women which reminded me of the modernist Isokon building which featured in “Circles and Squares” and anchored the book firmly in the 1930s. The women characters were wonderfully drawn too, particularly Coombe’s sister Susan, who has strongly feminist views.

The murder itself was ingenious (I shall say no more) and quite in line with the world of the time. The pseudonyms, the hidden identities and the rather unexpected solution were fun; although, as Martin Edwards says in his introduction, she doesn’t quite play fair with the reader in the way that members of the Detection Club did in those days. Some of the elements seem to develop quite late in the plot in a way that meant I didn’t quite foresee what was coming. That’s not really a problem, to be honest, because I rarely work out whodunnit and this one was certainly a twisty mystery! As Ali has commented, the book perhaps has a little less atmosphere than some of her works – in other books I’ve read, her sense of place and portrayal of setting have been vivid – but the book is still a diverting and very satisfying read. Lorac was an astonishingly prolific writer, as a quick glance at her Wikipedia page reveals, and it’s just wonderful that British Library Publishing are reprinting her books. No, you really *can’t* go wrong with Golden Age Crime!

“A disagreeable sensation of eeriness crept over him” @BL_Publishing #MurderByTheBook @medwardsbooks #BLCC

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The British Library have been excelling themselves recently with their crime classic re-releases, and in particular with their short story collections. These have always been a high point, bringing some wonderful forgotten authors back into the public eye, and I was knocked out by “Guilty Creatures” which I read back in July. However, the most recent release was one which was guaranteed to appeal to not only me but to just about every bookish person out there! The volume in question is called “Murder by the Book” and it’s subtitled ‘Mysteries for Bibliophiles’. Edited and introduced by the excellent Martin Edwards, it’s a collection which really lives up to its promise.

It would be all too easy to fall into the habit, when putting together an anthology like this, of picking out the usual names; ones which devotees of Golden Age crime will know or expect to see. However, the BLCCs have never gone down this route, either with their full length works or their collections, and part of the joy of reading these books has been the chance to make your reading acquaintance with a new author. “Murder by the Book” is no exception to the rule, mixing well known names with obscurer ones, making it a real pleasure to read.

”Murder…” contains 16 short stories of perhaps surprising variety. As well as authors and publishers featuring, there are tales where the solution hangs on a particular volume, books are subject to theft, the plot pivots on a manuscript or booksellers are involved. The range is impressive and all are wonderfully enjoyable.

As for the authors, well the selection can’t be faulted. There’s Gladys Mitchell, with her “The Manuscript”, a knotty tale which proves that Bulgakov was wrong… “Chapter and Verse” is a story of Inspector Alleyn and his wife Troy by Ngaio Marsh which, as well as being clever and entertaining, reminded me how much I enjoy her books and how long it is since I read one. In “We Know You’re Busy Writing…” the marvellous Edmund Crispin tackles the problems faced by a writer who’s constantly being interrupted. And I was particularly delighted with the inclusion of an uncollected Philip Trent story from E.C. Bentley, “Trent and the Ministering Angel”, as I have read and loved all of his other works.

Authors I know less well or not at all, such as Roy Vickers, Marjorie Bremner, Victor Canning and the Coles, provide some cracking mysteries, and our cousins across the pond also make an appearance in the form of a chilling tale from Philip MacDonald called “Malice Domestic”. Many of these are authors I really should read more of, including Nicholas Blake (the pseudonym of poet Cecil Day-Lewis) – his detective is Nigel Strangeways and his books highly regarded, though I think I’ve read little (possibly none…) of his work. The story of his collected in this volume is “A Slice of Bad Luck” which sees Nigel investigating a most outré murder which takes place very dramatically amongst a dinner gathering of authors who are members of the Assassins Club (a skit on the Detection Club, of which Blake was a member). A bold killing in the dark creates its own problems, although there’s one obvious suspect. However, after some twisty deduction Strangeways brings the case to a satisfactory, if perhaps unexpected, resolution, and I hope the real dinners of the Detection Club were not quite as dramatic…

Needless to say, “Murder by the Book” is another stellar collection from the British Library. There’s such variety in the stories, from more traditional country house style crimes to tales like John Creasey’s “The Book of Honour” which takes the reader to India. The book may be aimed at crime-loving bibliophiles but it’s a great read from start to finish and ideal for anyone who loves a good mystery short story. A real treat, and highly recommended!

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

“…literally hundreds of possibilities…” @BL_Publishing #sciencefictionclassics

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I have to confess to hitting a bit of a wall after finishing Klotsvog and the Derrida/Barthes essay; a kind of book hangover, I suppose, although it was more like an attack of havering indecision where I just couldn’t settle to any book and everything I picked up just didn’t grab me. After having a reshuffle of the piles, I decided to have a try with a collection of short stories – and boy, was it the right book at the right time! The volume in question is from marvellous British Library Publishing, who often feature on the Ramblings, mostly with their Crime Classics range. However, this is something a little different…

As well as the Crime Classics, BL also produce Science Fiction Classics, and I’ve read and covered a few of these in the past. They really are most entertaining, and I confess to being very behind with reading them… However, this particular book is a bit special as it’s kind of a crossover volume. Called “Future Crimes” and released this year, the subtitle gives it away – ‘Mysteries and Detection through Time and Space’. Yes, this is a mash-up of Classic Science Fiction and Classic Crime and it’s inspired as well as being quite brilliant!

The collection is edited by Mike Ashley, who also provides the introduction, and it’s clear that he’s as important to the curation of the Sci Fi Classics as is Martin Edwards to the Crime Classics. The book is a satisfyingly chunky one, and contains ten stories from an intriguing range of authors. Some are well-respected names in sci fi circles, like Asimov, John Brunner and E.C. Tubb; others are better known for their crime writing like Jacques Futrelle and P.D. James; then there’s Anne McCaffrey, usually bracketed as fantasy, and some names which are new to me. What these stories have in common, though, is a mystery or crime of some sort, and a science fiction element or setting.

I have to say up front that all of these stories make marvellous reading; whether you’re a fan of science fiction or not, these are wonderfully written tales with mysteries which will flummox you and ingenious concepts which take the fighting of crime further than normal. The opener, for example – “Elsewhen” by Anthony Boucher – looks at the possibility of using time travel to aid in committing a crime; yet it seems firmly set in classic crime territory, with a very clever denouement. A similar element exists in “The Absolutely Perfect Murder”, a humorous short by Miriam Allen deFord which closes the collection.

There *are* of course stories set in space: John Brunner’s “Puzzle for Spacemen” deals with the effects of being in space on mental health, and also the complexities of telepathy, whilst locating all of this in a kind of locked-room mystery. “Death of a Telepath” by George Chailey and “Apple” by Anne McCaffrey also explore telepathy and kinetic powers, with mysteries to be solved in both cases, but also issues raised about humanity and tolerance and understanding of those different to us. “Nonentity” by E.C. Tubb goes to similar territory with a closed group of people fighting for survival and not tolerating those who are different to them.

In fact, accepting and living alongside those who aren’t like us is probably one of the strongest threads in the book, and it takes centre stage with P.D. James’s “Murder, 1986”; written in 1970, it envisages a divided world where elements of the population are infected with a space disease and so lesser citizens. Murder is still murder though… Jacques Futrelle’s “The Flying Eye” is quite Wellsian, and although the mystery is perhaps slighter than in the other stories, it’s still very entertaining. Asimov, as might be expected, explores the robotic angle in his story “Mirror Image”; setting out his three laws of robotics, he features two humans and two robots who tell mirror image stories about an event; one must be lying, but robots cannot lie, so how will the truth be found out?

As you can see, I’ve left one story until the last, and that’s “Legwork” by Eric Frank Russell. I don’t usually like to single out favourites from an anthology of short stories, but this one was a real treat and I loved it from start to finish. At just over 60 pages it’s a long short story, and it hails from the 1950s in the middle of the Cold War. An ancient and super-intelligent alien entity comes down to Earth to investigate it for colonisation; as a superior being, able to manipulate human minds, it should be able to outfox the plodding human beings and gather all the data it needs before returning to its people to arrange invasion. However, despite the author reminding the reader at several junctures that humanity doesn’t have flashes of brilliance but proceeds through dogged legwork, that legwork proves to be quite a match for the invader. I shan’t say more for fear of spoiling the story for potential readers, but it was a pure joy from start to finish; brilliantly constructed, with small-town American settings, local cops and newsmen, I suppose it’s a bit like a 50s B-movie in story form – but because there are no creaky special effects, it travels better than they do! Anyway, I loved it to bits, and it was the real jewel in the crown of an excellent collection!

I’ve lauded the British Library Crime Classics releases many a time on the Ramblings; but have read fewer of the Science Fiction classics (which needs to be rectified). However, even if you don’t think you like sci fi, I would really urge you to give one of these releases a try. This particular anthology would be a brilliant place to start, with its fusion of sci fi and crime, and it was a wonderfully engrossing and distracting read which really hit the spot just when I needed it. Highly recommended! 😀

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

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