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The perfect locked-room mystery!

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The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

Well, this wasn’t the book I was intending to read right now! I was in the middle of a short story collection (Cortazar) which I was alternating with an Elizabeth Bowen, when I stumbled across this lovely Golden Age crime novel for 99p in the Oxfam. How could I resist? And as it’s a busy time for me at the moment, in life and at work, it’s exactly the kind of book I needed.

John Dickson Carr is of course the king of the locked room mystery. Although not the creator of the genre (that honour belongs to Edgar Allan Poe, although “The Big Bow Murder” is held to be the originator of the classic tradition), he took it and made it his own, producing 23 novels featuring his detective Dr. Gideon Fell, all of which were variations on the theme. “The Hollow Man” is judged to be one of his best, and indeed was once voted the best example of its kind ever – so I was naturally keen to read it.

“The Hollow Man” features two apparently insoluble crimes; one man, Dr. Grimaud, dies in a locked room which really has no way in or out at all. The chimney is no help, there’s no secret passageway, the window is high and there’s untouched snow on the ground below and the roof above. Grimaud has been threatened in front of a group of his friends by Pierre Frey, an illusionist, who is murdered the same night and his assassination is even more peculiar. He’s shot in the middle of a street (delightfully, just round the corner from Persephone Books’ home, Lambs Conduit Street) with two witnesses who can swear there was no one else there, there are no tracks in the snow and the weapon is found next to the body. It seems as though the killer must indeed have been an invisible or hollow man, because even Gideon Fell is struggling to find a solution.

The household of Grimaud is a quirky and interesting one: there is his housekeeper, Mme Dumont; his fiery daughter Rosette; and the scholar Drayman who has some connection with Grimaud going back a long way. In fact, the story proves to have long roots, and Fell, together with his colleague Superintendent Hadley, will have to do much digging to get to the bottom of things.

THM is a fabulous, and sometimes quite chilling read. There is reference to dark deeds from the past which is really rather spooky, and hints of the supernatural. Fell is an excellent detective, the supporting cast a nice variety (including Rampole, an American friend of Fell’s, and his wife) and there’s loads of drama, twists and red herrings. The solution is fiendishly ingenious and I defy any reader to solve it – which is why I don’t want to say too much about the plot because to spoil this treasure of a book would be a pity.

Authot picture c. National Portrait Gallery

The book is hugely entertaining, and it’s also notorious for one particular section. Towards the end of the book Carr treats us to a chapter where Fell expounds on the whole subject of locked room mysteries, their different types and solutions, and even has his detective remind the other characters and the reader:

‘But, if you’re going to analyse impossible situations,’ interrupted Pettis, ‘why discuss detective fiction?’

‘Because,’ said the doctor, frankly, ‘we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not. Let’s not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let’s candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book.’

It’s a fascinating piece, and has apparently become something of a standard text to guide authors in the production of locked room mysteries!

So a wonderfully satisfying Golden Age read (and not bad for 99p). I read masses of green Penguins back in my 20s and I’m pretty sure Carr’s works were amongst them, though I can’t remember the titles. He was a prolific author; as well as his Fell stories, he produced numerous others under his own name and dozens as Carter Dickson. One of only two Americans admitted to the Detection Club, his books are obviously something special and this one one was so gripping I stayed up far too late at night as I really couldn’t put it down. Alas, I feel an urge coming on to read nothing but classic crime!!

Murder, Regency-style!

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The Cheltenham Square Murder – John Bude

One of the most successful publishing stories of recent years is that of the British Library Crime Classics imprint. The early titles appeared in 2012, although the series really took off in 2014 when the books began appearing in striking and beautiful covers featuring vintage images. With introductions by crime writer and guru Martin Edwards, the imprint reprints lost British crime classics from the 20th century and the books seem to have been enthusiastically received, not only by crime aficionados, but also by the general public.

chelt square

One of the stars of the range is John Bude; I’ve read three of his novels so far (reviews here, here and here), and it’s something of a mystery as to why this prolific and talented author fell out of favour. His stories always feature a specific location and I was really keen to read the latest reissue, “The Cheltenham Square Murder” (first published in 1937) as I lived in the Spa Town in my teens! Superintendent Meredith, Bude’s protagonist, is still based in Sussex (as he was in the last Bude I read) but is spending time with his friend, the author Aldous Barnet. The latter is staying in his sister’s house in Cheltenham, while the lady is away – No. 8 Regency Square, to be precise. As Barnet and Meredith are collaborating on a book, this seems the ideal time to visit – but this turns out to be no holiday for Meredith as shortly after his arrival one of the residents of the square is murdered in a most unusual way – by an arrow fired through an open window and straight into his head!

Regency Square is tenanted by an interesting bunch of characters, all marked out on a neat map at the front of the book (I do *love* a crime novel with a map in it!) There is Miss Boon, a single lady with a booming voice and a collection of dogs; the Wests, who have a troubled marriage; Rev. Matthews and his sister; another young couple, the Fitzgeralds, who are plagued by their neighbour, Captain Cotton, whom nobody likes. Then there is Mr. Buller, a slightly shady character, the spinster Misses Watts, Dr. Pratt (handily placed for when there are dead bodies to be inspected) and in the poshest house Sir William Whitcomb. And of course there are neighbourly conflicts, a rivalry about the felling of an elm tree in the square, problems with Miss Boon’s dogs and all the little irritations you’d expect in a closely packed residential area.

Fortunately for the residents, Meredith is on hand when the murder is discovered and even more fortunately the local inspector, Long, had heard of Meredith and is very keen on collaborating with him in solving the mystery. So the two sleuths set to investigating, and it seems as though there will be a limited field of enquiry as about half of the square’s residents are members of a local archery club. But there are alibis, and initially lack of motives. Although the detectives have their suspicions there’s no obvious, clear-cut answer. And then a second murder takes place which muddies the waters even more. Will Meredith and Long succeed in tracking down the killer, or is the Regency Square killer just too clever for them?

Photo from http://www.gloucestershirepolicemuseum.co.uk

Cheltenham Promenade Gardens – Photo from http://www.gloucestershirepolicemuseum.co.uk

I’ve loved all the Bude books I’ve read so far (I really must catch up with “Death on the Riviera”, the only BL reissue of his I’ve not read); and this book is no exception. In fact, I may have liked it the most of them all, but that could be because of a certain familiarity with the location! I did enjoy the mentions of the local landmarks like the Promenade and the Pittville Pump Room and the Rotunda, and I recall being very fond of Agatha Christie’s “The ABC Murders” because the first killing took place in Andover (where I grew up). However, putting that aside, this is a deeply enjoyable read – classic crime at its best. The murder is very clever, the twists expertly placed and although I had a slight glimmer of the solution, it was only slight and I hadn’t worked out most of the mystery. Bude is an engaging writer, and Meredith a well-rounded character; the latter is a straightforward policeman, thorough in his detecting but with flashes of brilliance, and Barnet and Long make excellent foils. I was particularly fond of Long, with his slightly countrified accent and down to earth attitude, and even he was allowed a fair share of the detecting, as well as providing a certain amount of levity in places – Bude’s happy to slip in a little wry humour now and then (as in this wonderful description of a boarding house sitting room and the landlady):

“This way, sir,” said Mrs. Black, deferentially piloting the Superintendent into the room with the aspidistra and bay-window, a room which smelt of soot, camphor and hair-rugs. Meredith was waved into a rigid, springless armchair draped with a large antimacassar. Mrs. Black edged herself primly onto a black horse-hair sofa, carefully avoiding the silk-covered cushions which adorned it.

I’ve deliberately been vague about the specifics of the murders and plots, because so much of the enjoyment here comes from each development and revelation as it comes – and I would hate to spoil this for anyone who’s going to read it (and I think you all should if you love classic crime). Really, I can’t fault this book; it was exactly what it sets out to be, a wonderful Golden Age police procedural in a lovely setting and with an engrossing and enjoyable mystery. If the BL series had done nothing else but bring John Bude’s work back into print, it would deserve plaudits; as it is, Bude is one of many successes of the British Library Crime Classics series; they make perfect comfort reading in a nasty world, and I really can’t wait to read another!

Recent Reads: The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

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One of my favourite blogs is Past Offences, which is always a great source of reviews of classic crime fiction. Recently, they did a wonderful series of posts on Margery Allingham’s “The Tiger in the Smoke”, an Albert Campion mystery from 1951. Alas, many of my old crime books went in a purge some years back, but coincidentally I picked up a copy of “Tiger” in a charity shop last year, figuring it would be nice to revisit a Campion novel – and these lovely posts prompted me to pick it up!

the-tiger-in-the-smoke

The Tiger of the title is knife-man Johnny Havoc, on the run from jail and with a very particular agenda; the Smoke is of course an old term for London, but could also refer to the severe fog which has hit the city, making it easy for criminals to elude justice, all smoke and mirrors. However, the story opens in a slightly low-key way, with Meg Eglinbrodde and Geoffrey Levett, who are engaged, in a cab on the way to meeting Campion and Inspector Luke. Meg’s husband, who was reported killed in WWII, has apparently made a miraculous reappearance, via a series of fuzzy photos. Is this a case of blackmail or something more sinister?

It’s not obvious initially what connection there is between this case, and the ‘Tiger’ of the title. There is a rather alarming band of ragged ex-servicemen making a living as a street band; Meg’s father Canon Avril and his household who are quite a motley bunch; hints of the past and reminders that though people have been trying to throw off the wartime blues and move forward, the conflict is still very alive in some people’s minds.

One of the first things that struck me about “Tiger” was the quality of the writing – it’s simply superb, and that’s something I often find in Golden Age Crime. The best of the books and writers (Sayers also springs to mind) were wonderful novelists who happened to write in the crime genre, which is why they’re still read now and will continue to be so. The plot and characterisation are gripping, and it’s a tribute to how good Allingham is that she manages to convey the immense feeling of fear, and the danger of Havoc, without ever resorting to the gory detail and ghastly effects of modern writing. In fact, it creates an even more dangerous atmosphere by just the threat of Havoc’s actions, his very danger and unpredictability. The constant shifts of perspective rack up the tension, and the suspense at some points is palpable.
Oddly, Campion himself is not the dominant character in the book, and alas the wonderful Lugg is barely present – but this is a later Allingham, I suppose. Nevertheless, Albert is a crucial presence at many points, particularly at a certain juncture where Levett is very, very vulnerable…

margery1940

Allingham’s characterisation is also outstanding – from the poor, damaged lads in the band, through the Canon’s vindictive neighbour, to vulnerable Meg, all are real and convincing and alive; in fact, they’re almost larger than life in places, particularly Charlie Luke, the detective. The pacing of the story is carefully planned and the tale doesn’t rush to the climax, but steadily builds up, which is much more effective.

I found myself completely gripped by this book, caught up in the atmosphere and the tension. This was not a traditional cosy Golden Age murder mystery, but more of a thriller, and thrilling it certainly was, full of exemplary writing and wonderful atmosphere. On the front of my edition crime writer and historian Julian Symons called it “the best of all her works” – and you can really understand why!

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