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Dipping into Detection

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Yes, I’m afraid there’s been *more* dipping going on at the Ramblings! I think it must be a necessary counterpoint to all the Big Review Books I’m reading at the moment; I’ve obviously felt the need to also read something I can actually *finish* fairly quickly…

“Great Tales of Detection”, an unassuming looking collection (the cover is a bit dull, isn’t it?) from 1936, which was reprinted in 1976, came from a charity shop trawl recently; and I picked it up a) because it was edited by Dorothy L. Sayers and b) because the contents were by lots of lovely favourite crime authors and I think several are stories by them I haven’t read! So it was definitely one to come home with me. From the Oxfam if I recall correctly, and not too pricey (they seem to have had a bit of an overhaul since and the cost of some of their books seems to have suddenly spiked – which is a bit daft, because this has made me put several back on the shelves…)

Anyway, I have dipped, reading a short extract entitled “Was it Murder?” by Robert Louis Stevenson with a very entertaining take on how you actually define murder if the murderer wasn’t present and nothing can be proved! But the other story I found myself glued to was “The Yellow Slugs” a very dark little tale by H.C. Bailey, whom I’ve read before. Bailey’s detective was Reggie Fortune, a doctor with a strong hatred of cruelty, and I first made his acquaintance in the wonderful British Library Crime Classics collection “Capital Crimes” back in 2015. The stories there impressed me, and I did say how keen I was to read more about Reggie. Now, I know there is an e-book lurking somewhere on my tablet, but I always forget about those, so this was the first story I turned to in this anthology.

“The Yellow Slugs” opens with a tragic-sounding case; a teenage boy apparently going off the rails and accused of trying to drown his younger sister. Is the boy insane or just a nasty piece of work? Reggie is called into the case in his role as a doctor, but he soon sees there is more to things than meets the eye and of course starts to investigate.

It’s not a straightforward crime; all the evidence supports the boy being a bad lot, and the pious and upset parents, as well as their genteel lodger, seem blameless. However, an actual murder is discovered and it takes all Reggie’s persistence and ingenuity to get to the truth of the matter – which is clever, chilling and quite fiendish.

I was just as impressed with Bailey’s storytelling as when I first read his Reggie Fortune stories and I really *can’t* understand why his work is out of fashion. The plotting and characterisation are excellent, the scenario dark and compelling and it’s edge of the seat stuff while you desperately will Reggie on to sort things out. Bring back Reggie Fortune stories, I say!

The rest of the book looks to have plenty of treasures too: there are a number of authors here who have been picked up and celebrated by the British Library Crime Classics imprint, including John Rhode, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts and R. Austin Freeman. A number of other familiar names are here, too, from my readings of Detection Club composite works, such as Father Ronald Knox and Milward Kennedy. And of course, there are Agatha and Dorothy…

So a positive cornucopia of delights into which to dip as an alternative to Big and Intense Books: you can look forward to hearing more about the stories in this volume when I need a quick crime break! 🙂

Mysterious Happenings on the South Downs

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The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

The British Library Crime Classics series tends to get a lot of love on the blogs I visit – as well as on my own, as you’ll note from my many posts on them – and one particular title that’s been turning up lately is “The Hog’s Back Mystery”. Fortunately, I had a copy lurking, picked up at some point in a charity shop, and I must admit the thought of another relaxing mystery was just what I needed on my return to work after the summer break.

Freeman Wills Crofts is not a name new to me; back in the 1980s when I first had my Golden Age crime splurge and read more books by classic authors than I can remember, he was one of those whose works I tracked down. His Inspector French stories were hugely popular when they came out, and were still highly regarded among aficionados when I was reading him, so I wasn’t sure why his titles had slipped out of sight – and as I couldn’t remember anything about the Crofts titles I’d read I came to this completely fresh!

The book is set in the Surrey countryside, an area apparently well known to Crofts, and it deals with a sequence of mysterious disappearances. Dr James Earle and his wife Julia live in a comfortable country house, with no apparent worries. Julia’s sister and an older friend are visiting when Dr Earle suddenly vanishes from his house, in his carpet slippers and taking nothing with him. There is no evidence of foul play and no explanation, and the police are baffled. Fortunately, the local men are able to call in Inspector French, who proceeds along his methodical way, asking questions, looking for clues and always making sure he gets his breakfast! Earle has been seen up in ‘Town’ with an unknown woman who, when eventually identified, proves to have also disappeared. Was there a romantic connection, as it seems the Earle marriage was perhaps developing cracks? However, when one of the house guests also vanishes, the plot really thickens. The motive for the disappearances is unclear, there are no bodies, anybody who might be suspicious has an alibi; and it will take all of French’s brain-bashing to get to the solution.

Well, I can see why “The Hog’s Back Mystery” has received so much praise: it’s an excellently constructed puzzle, full of twists and turns, and eminently readable. French himself falls into the category of detectives who succeed by sheer graft (much like John Bude’s Meredith who I wrote about recently). There is no flashy detecting, no dramatic set-piece denouement and no Holmes-like disguises and chicanery. Instead, French follows up every little clue, interviews people over and over again, as well as doing a remarkable amount of leg-work. However, he still manages to have those lightbulb moments (which surely every human being gets) when all of the pieces slot into place and it only takes a bit of research and careful checking to prove a theory.

Hog’s Back on the South Downs

Crofts as an author plays fair with the reader, so much so that when we reach the chapter with the solution, each deduction or fact has a page reference so that the reader can pop back and check this. I would think this is perhaps guaranteed to disgruntle the reader a little, as it kind of says that if they had been as astute as French they would have solved the mystery too – and I confess I didn’t! 🙂 I *did* work out something about a guilty party before it was revealed, but the intricacies of the alibis etc were beyond me, despite the clues – which isn’t a problem, as I *do* like to be fooled by a murder mystery!

So, yet another satisfying read from the British Library Crime Classics series. A couple of the early titles I read seemed perhaps a little lightweight but I must admit that the recent books I’ve read have been excellent examples of the genre. And of course, they’re perfect relaxing reading when your brain is a bit frazzled and you want to watch someone else doing all the hard work for you…. 🙂

*****

“Hog’s Back…” has also been loved and reviewed by BookerTalk and HeavenAli, and so you might want to pop over and have a look at their posts.

And it was all going *so* well…..

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… my decluttering of the house, that is – as I’ve been carting off books to the charity shops every week and even selling a few online. However, I’m still not sure the ratio is right, and the four I took in to donate yesterday have alas been replaced by five…

The problem is that yesterday I decided to pop into *all* of the local charity shops, which I haven’t done for a while – and these the are the ones that came home:

finds 14 5 16 b

I have perfectly good reasons for all of them: “Kolymsky Heights” has been on the wishlist since it came out and couldn’t be turned down for 75p; the rather frail Wharton is a Virago I’ve never seen before so it was a no-brainer; the British Library edition of “The Hog’s Back Mystery” is in perfect condition for £1.75; the Stephen Spender I’d never heard of, but sounded fab; likewise the Mary McCarthy – I have several of hers and I really need to get reading her!

finds 14 5 16 a

So basically I spent £6.20 on five rather wonderful books. And apart from the issue of space, I really don’t think I can be blamed for that – do you???? 😉

(As an aside, there were a couple of tempting titles in the Oxfam – but their prices have gone rather silly again, so I figured I should quit while I was ahead and just settle for these five….)

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