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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!

Celebrating 100 years of Gervase Fen’s creator…. #edmundcrispin #classiccrime

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As a rule, I’m not much of a date watcher and so I tend to miss anniversaries and the like unless someone points them out to me. Today’s post is a case in point; I hadn’t twigged it was the centenary of the birth of Edmund Crispin until someone mentioned it on Twitter (and I’m sorry I can’t remember who). So as I love the Gervase Fen books I thought it was a good time to dig out my collection and share my thoughts on this great detective and his author!!

Edmund Crispin was actually a pen-named, used by the composer (Robert) Bruce Montgomery; and under that name he was responsible for all manner of film scores including a number of ‘Carry On’ movies, as well as documentaries and thrillers. Alongside this he composed church music, operas and orchestral works, although little of this is available in recorded form, and in the main I think his musical work is very much overlooked. However, as an author he’s better remembered and his Gervase Fen Golden Age Crime novels are much loved by aficionados of the genre.

Crispin’s sleuth, Professor Gervase Fen of the fictional St. Christopher’s College, Oxford, appears in nine full-length mysteries and a number of short stories (the bulk of which are collected in two volumes). For reference, these are the titles:

Novels:

The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944)
Holy Disorders (1945)
The Moving Toyshop (1946)
Swan Song (1947)
Love Lies Bleeding (1948)
Buried for Pleasure (1948)
Frequent Hearses (1950)
The Long Divorce (1951)
The Glimpses of the Moon (1977)

The short story collections are:

Beware of the Trains (1953)
Fen Country (1979)

I’ve read that there are at least two uncollected stories, but have alas never been able to track them down – one day, maybe! 😀

Montgomery himself had attended St. John’s College in Oxford in the 1940s, and amusingly plonks St. Christopher’s right next door to it in his books – it’s obviously a setting with which he’s familiar! At Oxford he was friends with Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and Charles Williams (the Inkling responsible for some very wonderful and bizarre fictions). The latter was apparently responsible for urging Montgomery to write the Fen books after Bruce had been kept up all night, spellbound and absorbed, reading a John Dickson Carr novel – and certainly as Crispin he did allow locked-room elements to sneak into his mysteries!

Lovely Vintage Green Penguin Crispins…

Fen himself is a wonderfully entertaining and eccentric detective; erratic, prone to dashing off and tearing round Oxford at the drop of a hat, constantly exclaiming “Oh my paws and whiskers” and trying the patience of all around him, he’s a marvellous creation. His detection methods seem abstruse, but he generally gets to the solution and the books are always huge fun to read (and very, very funny). Darker elements creep in, themes of music and theatre often turn up, and the Oxford settings regularly used are lovely. Crispin certainly could write, too – there are some wonderfully atmospheric passages in his works and reading his books is always satisfying.

I first discovered Gervase Fen and his exploits back in my twenties, and if I recall correctly the first Crispin I read was “The Moving Toyshop”; I believe it’s considered his masterpiece, and if it isn’t, it should be. I went on to amass and read everything else which was available and I regularly return to his books (both “The Case of the Gilded Fly” and “Holy Disorders” have appeared on the Ramblings as lovely re-reads). It’s the wonderful mixture of character and setting and plot and humour which always gets me; and the books are littered with literary references which often have me literally laughing out loud. One particular favourite, which I mentioned in my post on “Holy Disorders”, revolves around a chapter riffing on Poe’s “The Raven” and it has me falling about every time I read it. Really, I shall have to re-read one of his books after having written this post!!

The back of a couple of my old Penguins with Crispin pix and interesting facts

Another aspect I adore about the Fen stories is Crispin’s regular breaking of the fourth wall; he often has Fen or other characters dropping in asides which makes it clear to the reader that the characters know they’re taking part in a fiction, and I think reading “The Moving Toyshop” was my first encounter with this trope. It’s always cleverly done and never fails to make me laugh!

Over the decades I’ve read many, many books and authors, including masses of crime novels; some I’ve loved but don’t need to return to, and some will stay with me all my days. The Gervase Fen stories fall into the latter category; they’d come with me to a desert island, because I would always be guaranteed an absorbing read and a good laugh – I love these books to bits. Crispin/Montgomery had a marvellously productive life, yet I haven’t noticed his centenary being particularly marked, which is a great shame. So happy 100th birthday to the creator of Gervase Fen (amongst many other achievements); here’s hoping his books continue to be read and loved, and if you enjoy Golden Age Crime, great writing and slapstick, I definitely encourage you to read Edmund Crispin’s books!

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

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

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

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

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

At first glance the contents look amazing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murder? It’s just not cricket! :D @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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Settling Scores: Sporting Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

Yes. There *really* is a lot of classic crime on the Ramblings at the moment, and today’s offering ventures into territory I rarely go near – sport! As I mentioned when I reviewed “The Arsenal Stadium Mystery“, sport and I don’t generally get on. However, I loved that particular book (and it brought back memories of old-school football before it got really commercial). I also loved J.L. Carr’s wonderful “How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup” so I approached the latest collection of short stories in the British Library Crime Classics range with great interest; as the title indicates, the subject is sporting mysteries.

I should state straight away that I loved these anthologies from the BL; Martin Edwards always chooses a wonderful selection of stories, and the ones in this collection are no exception to the rule. ‘Sport’ is a broad term, and the tales collected here include anything from swimming through cricket, racing, boating, golfing, rugby and of course football, to even take in fishing. It’s a wide-ranging selection, therefore, and the authors are an equally interesting bunch.

Many names will, of course, be familiar: there’s Arthur Conan-Doyle, Gladys Mitchell, Julian Symons and Michael Gilbert for a start. Other writers, like J. Jefferson Farneon, have been brought back to the public eye thanks to the Crime Classics range. There are authors who are less familiar, like Gerard Verner and David Winser; and the pleasing inclusion of Celia Fremlin, who writes wonderfully suspenseful works. Most delightfully, there is another Reggie Fortune tale from H.C. Bailey, which to my mind makes the collection worth every penny! 😀

It was a Monday morning in August. Mr. Fortune was explaining to Mrs. Fortune without hope that duty would prevent his going to the house in Scotland to which she had promised to take him… A place in which there is nothing to do but take exercise he considers bad for his constitution, and the conversation of country houses weakens his intellect. All this he set forth plaintively to Mrs. Fortune, and she said, “Don’t blether, child,” and the telephone rang. Reggie contemplated that instrument with a loving smile.

Fortunately, there wasn’t a dud amongst the stories, and the collection was a beautifully immersive (and distracting!) read just when I needed it. As always with short story collections, it’s hard to pick out favourites, so I’ll just mention a few titles which particularly stood out. The aforementioned Celia Fremlin contributes a wonderfully dark tale of domestic noir which is very clever and gets deep into the complexities of male/female relationships; I highly recommend her book The Hour Before Dawn if you can get hold of a copy. Sherlock Holmes is, of course, always a delight. The Great Gladys (Mitchell) contributes a very short but sharp story about murder at a swimming gala. “Four to One – Bar One” by Henry Wade delves into bookmaking and early protection gans, with a suprisingly amoral look at things. “The Wimbledon Mystery” by Julian Symons takes what is perhaps a more genteel sports into the realms of spying, which is quite fascinating. And of course, there’s Reggie…

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

As I’ve said many a time, I love the Reggie Fortune stores. I know Bailey’s work is not fashionable, and his style considered mannered (as Martin Edwards reminds us); yet I love Reggie’s aparrent vagueness, his sense of justice and Bailey’s often snarky descriptions. “The Football Photograph” is a twisty tale from a 1930 collection which features jewel thieves and an initially unfathomable murder. Along with his regular police sidekicks, Bell and Lomas, Reggie investigates and finds unexpected links to a footballer. But can the team break a perfect alibi and find out the truth? As Reggie says at the end, “One of my neater cases. Pure art. No vulgar emotion.”

“Settling Scores” is, therefore, another exemplary collection in the British Library Crime Classics range. Even if you don’t much like sport (ahem!) you’ll still love this marvellous selection of classic mysteries. It’s wonderfully diverting and entertaining, and the perfect antidote to the rather scary events we’re living through – highly recommended!

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

Vintage Crime Shorts Redux

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It’s been a little while since I last picked up my lovely collection of vintage crime short stories, “Dead Witness”, but I had a little lull between books recently and figured it was a good time to revisit! Time is progressing in the anthology, and the stories I’m reading now are from the turn of the 20th century.

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The Haverstock Hill Murder by George R. Sims

The informative intro to this tale gives a fascinating insight into author Sims’ life, and his detective creation, Dorcas Dene, is certainly an engaging one. Here, Dorcas is retained to investigate the case of a gentleman convicted of murdering his wife and confined to an asylum. His mother is convinced of his innocence and asks Dorcas to clear his name. An expert in disguise, she turns up unexpectedly all over the place, unrecognised by the narrator (who knows her well) and then finally explains all. Alas, experienced reader of criminal stories that I am, I got the solution almost immediately – which is no disrespect to the story, which I still found enjoyable and nicely written. Dorcas is a lovely detective and I’d like to read more of the stories, as those with a female central character were still a rarity at the time. I’ll just have to try a little less hard to work out the plot….

The Stolen Cigar-Case by Bret Harte

As soon as I started this tale, I realised that I’d read it before. It’s a very funny and very wonderful parody of Sherlock Holmes and I suspect I’ve come across it in the brilliant “Faber Book of Parodies” – I’d go and check, but the chances of finding my copy are probably very slim…

The great detective Hemlock Jones features as the investigator in this story, and the narrating doctor is so convinced of his genius that he gets down and kisses his feet at one point. But Jones’s cigar case has gone missing and the tortuous processes of his mind bring him to a very alarming conclusion!

The pastiche is brilliantly done, catching all of Holmes’s mannerisms and eccentricities to a T! Highly recommended if you love Sherlock and want a laugh!

cigar1

The Absent-Minded Coterie by Robert Barr

The next story features the detective Eugene Valmont – I read “The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont” nearly a year ago and enjoyed it very much, reviewing it here. However, oddly enough I recognised this particular tale as one I’d read previously, and so it’s obviously often anthologised. As I said at the time, “The character of Valmont himself is an engaging one – Barr manages to create a very convincing-sounding Frenchman, with the verbosity, gallantry and intolerance of British law and police that you would expect from one of our Gallic cousins of that era! He is susceptible to fine wine and beautiful women, and very occasionally you think that Barr might be hamming up the stereotype a little, but this is never so much that it distracts from the puzzle. And these puzzles are very good – from minor mysteries of stolen money to larger concerns of bombs and anarchy. Valmont’s cases stretch as far as America, and he is much more fallible that Holmes – he fails in some of his cases, and at times acts outside the law in a way that the resident of 221b would never do!”

So an enjoyable trio of tales – here’s to the next few in the book! 🙂

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