Home

Looking back on highlights of 2021’s reading…

46 Comments

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 There were plenty of French treats this year, from unpublished fiction from a favourite writer, a marvellous non-fiction work exploring the culture of mid-century Paris, poetry from that city, some hypnotic prose from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

23 Comments

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!

24 Comments

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!

25 Comments

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

23 Comments

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

24 Comments

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

34 Comments

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!)

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

23 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

33 Comments

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

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

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

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

At first glance the contents look amazing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: