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#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!

A twisty tale – and is murder *ever* justified??? @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

There are times when only a comfort read will do, and I had a period like that at the end of May when I was suffering from a pretty vicious sinus infection. I managed to push through some Tolstoy short stories, but the Virginia Woolf houses book was a relaxing joy to read, and it seemed the logical thing after that to move on to some Golden Age crime (yes, I’m *that* behind with my reviewing….) I have a number of lovely British Library Crime Classics waiting to be read, and I was vaguely shocked to find that this one came out a year ago. Frankly, I wish I’d read it sooner; it’s an original and very wonderful take on a courtroom drama and I absolutely loved it!

Richard Hull is another of those unfairly neglected authors that BLCC are so good at bringing back into print; and Martin Edwards gives an outline of his life in his informative foreword. Hull wrote eleven crime novels, of which this is his sixth, and fascinatingly Edwards quotes a favourable review of the book by one Jorge Luis Borges. So another very good reason to read it…

Fenby felt already a strong dislike for rich men who inconsiderately purchased poison by which they themselves met their own end. It could only be called downright careless.

“Excellent Intentions” follows a trial taking place after the murder of Henry Cargate. The latter is the newly arrived ‘lord of the manor’ in the village of Scotney End, but unfortunately has not turned out to be a popular arrival. A man who’s made money by dubious methods, he shuns the locals, has his staff and all his requirements sent from London and even falls out with the local vicar. It’s hardly surprising he has no friends and family, and when he dies on the local train to Great Barwick the natural assumption is that his weak heart has given out. However, the local doctor has a suspicion which he passes on to the police; and Scotland Yard send in the unassuming but drily witty Inspector Fenby to investigate.

The mystery sounds straightforward enough (although the method is very nifty), but as well as being cleverly plotted it’s a real winner because of its rather unusual structure. Instead of a traditional linear narrative, the book opens with the beginning of the trial for Cargate’s murder and the opening speech of the prosecution. The story is then told in a series of interwoven flashbacks and scenes of investigation, which is intriguing to read and ramps up the suspense – especially as we aren’t told who the person in the dock is until very late in the book! It’s certainly a novel way to tell a story, and it really is brilliantly constructed. Everybody in the tale gets their little piece of input into the case – from the ruminations of the judge to the thoughts of the jurors, the deliberations of the various counsels as well as the opinons of Cargate’s staff and the village locals, we get to peek inside their minds and see the story from every angle.

You won’t, by the way, be able to contest the will on the ground that leaving everything of which you die possessed to the nation is an obvious sign of lunacy. It’ll be called patriotism, which is only nearly the same thing and quite different in law.

Throughout the story, the character of the deceased is in sharp focus, and he’s a strange, somewhat unpleasant man who nobody really cares about and nobody will really miss. There’s much discussion of altruistic murder, about whether somebody got Cargate out of the way for the good of everyone, which is of course a dubious moral stand to take. This even brings in a nod to the French Revolution, via a mention of Charlotte Corday! Another prominent element, oddly enough, is stamp collecting! Cargate was a philatelist and his trading with a leading stamp dealer from London throws up some suspicious behaviour and discussions of various gradings of stamps which oddly enough is never dull (mind you, I was a stamp collector for a little while in my teens… The phases we go through!)

“Excellent Intentions” is a twisty and entertaining little tale, and many of the characters do indeed have excellent intentions in the way the behave. There are, in the end, four possible suspects for the murder; though if I’m honest, the one in the dock really turns out to be the only option. The denouement is entertaining, clever and satisfying, and I ended the book with a huge smile on my face as well as being convinced that Hull is an author I want to read more of. Fortunately, the BL have put out his first novel “The Murder of My Aunt” and even more fortunately I have a copy lurking. I really could do no better than go on a BLCC binge, could I?

#1965Club – golden age crime at a point of transition… @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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For our Club reads, I generally manage to fit in some crime reading, but wasn’t finding anything obvious for 1965. As Simon commented in his fascinating podcast about our reading weeks (do go and check it out here!) there’s pretty much always a Simenon title to choose from; and although there is indeed a Maigret from 1965, I don’t own it. The British Library Crime Classics series wasn’t necessarily the obvious place to look for a 1960s title, as Golden Age crime is generally earlier than that. However, a quick rummage through the review copies I had lurking revealed that there was indeed an unread BLCC from 1965 awaiting – “The Belting Inheritance” by Julian Symons; and it turned out to be the perfect book to accompany me on the train during my recent visit to London!

“The Belting Inheritance” opens in what might be regarded as a traditional country house setting. Our narrator, young Christopher Barrington, was taken in by his great-aunt, Lady Wainwright, when he was orphaned at the age of 12; the family live in “gothic gloom” at Belting and apart from the matriarch and Christopher, there are his cousins Miles and Stephen (who he calls uncle, because of the age difference), Stephen’s appallingly doggy wife Clarissa, and a number of general factotums. The house is particularly gloomy because Lady W is still mourning the loss of her two elder sons, Hugh and David, during the war; they’re held up as paragons while the rest of the family are kept well under her thumb. Young Christopher settles in ok, gets on with Lady W and his uncle Miles, and makes it through public school intact. But when he returns to Belting at the end of his schooling, prior to heading up to Oxford, things are taking a dramatic new direction. Lady W is gravely ill; but more shockingly, a man has turned up claiming to be David Wainwright, having survived the war and then spent a number of years in a Russian camp. Lady W is desperate to welcome him with open arms, but the rest of the family (particularly the odious Stephen) are less than happy with the idea, fearing the loss of their inheritance. Add into the mix Miles’ ex-wife, a roving girl reporter with a connection to a dubious incident in the family’s past, any number of skeletons ready to leap out of closets and plenty of chasing about all over the place, and you get the recipe for a cracking read which takes Golden Age crime off in some very unexpected directions! 😀

Martin Edwards, in his excellent foreword, describes “Belting…” as “an entertaining example of a Grand Master at work“, and he’s not wrong; make no mistake, this is a gloriously clever book. Symons takes the tropes of a classic GA crime book (country house, controlling matriarch, returning prodigal, conflict over inheritance) and subverts them brilliantly in a book that’s unputdownable and completely entertaining. When you’re reading the early chapters which set the scene and bring us to the point of the claimant’s first appearance, you could be forgiven for thinking you were reading just another country house murder; albeit one that’s beautifully written and really atmospheric. The narrator’s rather naive 18-year-old voice is totally authentic, and the gradual development and shifting of his perceptions brilliantly done. However, as the book progresses, Symons gradually reveals how the world was changing, how anachronistic the Wainwrights are, and how the rest of the locality view them. Sex and alcohol rear their heads as subjects; there is a marvellous jaunt to Paris at one point, and a particularly lovely bit where Christopher contemplates the fact he’s standing in a place which had seen Danton, Tom Paine and David, amongst others. This latter reference, in particular, made me wonder if Symons was signalling the revolution that had been coming in British society following the end of the Second World War, but I may just be reading too much into it!

However, Symons integrates two seemingly disparate milieus in a way that’s always entirely convincing, whilst creating a twisty and clever plot with characters you know, and in many cases care about deeply. I loved Betty, Miles’ ex-wife who went off and dabbled in arts and clubs, and was surrounded by all sorts of entertaining people. Miles himself was a dear, and I was on tenterhooks in case anything dreadful happened to him. The ending was totally satisfying, with loose ends dealt with and surviving characters rounded up nicely, and I finished the book with a huge smile on my face.

I have quite a few BLCCs (ahem!) still waiting to be read and reviewed, and so I’m not sure I necessarily would have gone for this one if I hadn’t been nudged to it by the #1965Club. However, I’m *so* glad I was; “The Belting Inheritance” was absolutely brilliant, unexpectedly one of the best entries in the BLCC collection. It was a pure joy from start to finish, and just perfect for a train journey too – highly recommended! 😀

Back to books! Plus a little bookish eye-candy…😉

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Well, you could be forgiven for thinking that I was about to rename the blog Kaggsy’s Iconoclastic Ramblings or Kaggsy’s Documentary Ramblings, given that I’ve been off on a bit of a tangent recently! I thoroughly enjoyed my time in “Viral” land, as well as running the interview with Richard Clay, and as this is my space in the InterWeb, I reserve the right to do whatever I want with it! But the focus on the Ramblings will always be on the written word and so it’s probably about time we had some more gratuitous pictures of books!

And I had thought that I was being good, until I looked back over my spreadsheet of arrivals and realised that actually quite a number had managed to sneak their way into the house. In mitigation, a *lot* of these are review copies (which I’m very happy about) – but nevertheless they are here, taking up space! =:o So I’ve divvied them up into categories, and here goes…

The Waterstones Wobble

Sounds like a dance, doesn’t it? I shared on Instagram, but not here I think, the fact that I got slightly carried away in Waterstones recently and bought some full-priced books in a bricks and mortar bookstore and it felt amazing! And these are they:

The lovely little Macfarlane book is one I’ve already read and reviewed on the blog and it was worth every penny. The Dawkins is because I wanted a Dawkins and I couldn’t decide which one and ended up buying this one and I want to read everything he’s written NOW except there are so many books competing for space. Arrrggghhh! As for the Brodsky, it caught my eye; I have a collection of his essays and also a poetry one, but this is an essay on Venice and I thought it would make an excellent companion piece to some other Venice books I have (and one which I’ve already covered). I’ve dipped and I want to read it straight away too.

Charity Shop Finds

The logical thing to do, really, would be to stop going into the charity shops, wouldn’t it? And I try to avoid most of them nowadays, but there are a couple I pop into regularly – the Samaritans Book Cave and the Oxfam, both of which are dedicated book areas. I’m trying to be really selective, particularly as the Oxfam’s prices are sneaking up again. But these ones slipped through the net and I think each purchase is justified.

The Saramagos were, of course, essential. I loved my first encounter with him so much that I want to collect and read everything, and I’ve amassed quite a little pile thanks to the charity shops and Simon (who kindly passed on a Saramago he’d read!)

As for the Larkin and Eliot poetry collections – yes, I have all of their poems in other big volumes but these were small and nice and cheap and I’m finding myself more likely to pick up slim volumes than chunky collected ones. We shall see – I need to read more of the poetry books I have already.

eliot larkin

Pretty, ain’t they? Next up was this:

Fleur Jaeggy is a name that’s cropped up on all manner of blogs I read and respect, and this one sounds great; I was always going to pick up anything by her that I came across in the charity shops really…

Finally Simone Weil – an oddity in that it’s a hardback Virago from back in the day, and I did hum and hah a bit about buying it because I have more books than I can ever read in my lifetime if I’m honest. However, in the end I decided to get it – because it *is* an unusual Virago and Patti Smith rates Weil and so I’m prepared to give the book a go!

Bits and Bobs

Just a couple of books here which have crept into the Ramblings from various sources.

First up, the lovely Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write kindly passed on to me “The Death of the Perfect Sentence“, which she’d read herself. I love the sound of it and it’s from the Estonian, a language I think I haven’t read from before, so that’s a plus too. And secondly, an online purchase (I’ve been trying to resist those…) in the form of an intriguing-sounding book “The Trouble with Tom” which is all about Thomas Paine (which slightly ties in with the French Revolution Reading List thingy I came up with and haven’t forgotten about despite being deeply sunk in 19th century Russian nihilist circles). I read about this one recently and have forgotten instantly whose blog it was on – but thank you, whoever it was!

Review Books

There are certain publishers whose books I love to read and cover, and a little chunk of review copies have arrived recently (well – a big chunk, really…) – as you can see:

The British Library really have spoiled me, with more of their marvellous Crime Classics and another two Sci Fi Classics. I adore both of these ranges, so I can see some happy reading hours coming up over the Easter break!

Oneworld have also been very kind; I was really keen to read “Solovyov and Larionov” after loving Eugene Vodolazkin’s book “The Aviator” last year and can’t wait to get stuck in. Additionally, they offered an intriguing new work called “How We Disappeared” by Jing-Jing Lee; set in Singapore and spanning decades, it sounds fascinating.

Pushkin Press always have an amazing array of books, but it’s a little while since I read one of their Pushkin Vertigo titles. “Casanova and the Faceless Woman” is set just before the first French Revolution – so ideal for me, no? 😀

And last, but definitely not least, the wonderfully titled “The Office of Gardens and Ponds” from MacLehose Press – it looks just gorgeous and sounds wonderful.

Thank you *so* much, lovely publishers. And yes –  I’m definitely going to be abandoning sleep some time soon…

Current Reading

Needless to say, I’m still pacing myself through the marathon that is Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”… As you can see from the festoons of post-it notes, I’m getting on quite well.

TBH it probably wasn’t the most sensible choice of book for what is probably my busiest time of the year (budgeting and financial year-end against a very tight deadline, anyone?) One of those lovely BL books might have been slightly more wise, but I’m loving the Russian chunkster so I shall keep going – though it’s entirely possible I might try to slip in something slim as light relief when the dark action of Dostoevsky gets too much!

So – what from the above takes *your* fancy????? 😁

Crime in the Blackout @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #BLCC

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Murder by Matchlight by E.C.R. Lorac

If in doubt, cosy crime…. I spent quite a number of hours reading the Owen Hatherley book, which I really enjoyed, but I felt in need of something a bit different. Hence, I suppose, a quick rummage in the pile of British Library Crime Classics waiting to be read and reviewed! I settled for this one because I enjoyed Lorac’s short story in the collection “The Christmas Card Crime” so much; and also I think because Harriet rated it so highly in her review. I wasn’t disappointed!

E.C.R. Lorac was the pen-name used by Edith Caroline Rivett, and she also wrote under the name of Carol Carnac. Astonishingly, despite the fact that she was a prolific writer of Golden Age crime, and a member of the Detection Club, her work has been all but forgotten until its recent revival by the BLCC imprint – so more kudos for them. Her regular detective was Inspector Macdonald, who features in this story, and as the introduction by Martin Edwards makes clear, “Murder by Matchlight” was considered one of her best; it’s received considerable praise in other reviews I’ve read, even by BLCC standards, and it’s not hard to see why…

London was silent, with a silence which had no quality of peacefulness: in its shroud of darkness the place seemed tense, uneasy, as if it were waiting for the first banshee held of sirens which seemed a fitting accompaniment to the listening darkness.

“Murder by Matchlight” was first published in 1945 and is firmly set during the Second World War. We are in a world of ration cards and the black market; the black-out and air raids; and as the story opens a young man called Bruce Mallaig is walking in Regent’s Park in the dark, a place he can now get access to at night because the railings have been taken away to use for munitions. Having been stood up for a date, he’s in a morose mood; however, his mood is about to worsen as he witness an apparently impossible murder. A man on a bridge is killed, apparently by someone whose face materialises briefly in the light of a match. However, someone else was under the bridge and heard no other footsteps; and there are no more footprints.

Fortunately, Chief Inspector Macdonald is on hand to investigate, and a visit to the murdered man’s lodgings reveals a colourful array of potential suspects, most notably Mr. and Mrs. Rameses, a magical act. However, there is another possible connection to the murdered man’s past in Ireland, where he fought for Sinn Fein; and also to the film industry at Denham, where he gained occasional work. It’s a clever, twisty mystery that takes all of Macdonald’s ingenuity to sort out. And I confess to being completely misled (which I do love in a GA Crime Novel!). At times I thought I was a step ahead of Lorac and Macdonald, only to be regularly wrongfooted, and I only really started to get an inkling when the book got close to its big reveal. The end was ingenious and satisfying, leaving me wanting more of both Lorac’s writing and the characters she created. I particularly adored the Rameses’, and her description of Macdonald’s first encounter with the lady of the couple is priceless!

They lived in the flat on the first floor and the door was opened by a plump highly coloured lady dressed in a puce-coloured, wadded silk dressing up-gown and jade green mules garnished with dispirited ostrich tips. Macdonald had much ado to keep his eyes from studying the intricacies of her hair curling arrangements, for the coils and adjustments and spring-like contrivances reminded him of a dismembered wireless set.

However, despite it being an excellent and readable mystery, where “Murder…” really scores is in its setting and atmosphere. The further away we get from the Second World War, the harder it is for us to imagine what it was to live through those days and those events. We’re fairly unused to conflicts taking place on our little island, and it does us good to be reminded, I think. Lorac doesn’t shy away from any of this, and cleverly builds the events happening in London (a dramatic bombing raid, the people involved and how they react) into her story. She also inserts at several points comment on the fact that justice must be seen to be done, whatever else is happening in the world. The murder victim is not a particularly nice person, one the world is probably better without. Yet when Macdonald is taken to task for worrying about who killed him while the world is going to hell in a handcart, he equates allowing a murderer to get away killing to allying oneself to Nazism. It’s a powerful message, even more so as it was written while the conflict was taking place.

(Macdonald) had an uncomfortable feeling that his lungs were still full of smoke: the reek of last night’s fire seem to hang about him. Then he realised that a thick fog brooded over London and he wished for a moment that he was anywhere else in the world – anywhere, away from fog and bombs and barrage and shelters and demolitions and all the rest of it.

So “Murder by Matchlight” is a punchy and powerful addition to the BLCC list (and now I’m keen to read her other titles too!) This book comes with a lovely little extra in the form of a rarely seen short story by Lorac, which is extremely satisfying. I’m so glad I followed my instincts and picked this book up right now; it was the perfect read for a cold and gloomy January, and I find myself wondering quite how we lovers of classic crime got by before the British Library started bringing out these rather wonderful books… 😉

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

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