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“…the pink lights of the boulevards…” #johndicksoncarr @BritLibPublishing #BLCC @medwardsbooks

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Well, I’m afraid I’m continuing with the comfort reading here on the Ramblings… I’ve managed to tear myself away from the joys of George Smiley for a while, and instead launched myself merrily into another British Library Crime Classic. Well, you can’t go wrong with them, can you? They’ve been publishing the John Dickson Carr “Bencolin” titles at a rate of knots, and this is the fourth one so far out of the five novels (you can read about the others here, here and here). “The Corpse in the Waxworks” is subtitled “A Paris Mystery” and was first published in 1932; it’s also been published as “The Waxworks Murder”, and this volume also includes the final Bencolin short short, “The Murder in Number Four” from 1928.

And once again we’re back 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 right now, and the Bencolin mysteries are particularly satisfying. As I’ve mentioned before, 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. I was miles away from knowing who was the guilty party, although once I knew the answer it was of course completely clear and completely logical! 😀

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

One thing I particularly love about JDC’s Bencolin books are the strong sense of place you get. The last I read was set in London, and he captured the feel of that city brilliantly. 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 – which is something I’m much in need of at the moment. His descriptive passages are wonderful, and I’m rather sorry there’s only one more Bencolin title left to read – which I do hope the BL will bring out soon to complete the set!

Carr wrote four earlier short stories featuring Bencolin, and these have been included in the BL re-releases; so the Bencolin collector can hopefully amass the full collection! The story included here “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!

So “Corpse…” was another satisfying and very distracting read. I don’t quite know how I would have managed during lockdown without the comfort reading and escapism of GA crime, and the BL books have been a real lifeline. The quality continues to stay high, and fingers crossed for the final Bencolin book arriving soon! 😀

“…your infernal fog is doing things to my nerves…” #johndicksoncarr @BritLibPublishing #BLCC @medwardsbooks

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From one piece of pure escapism to another – although this book is very different to my last read, “The Day They Kidnapped Queen Victoria”! John Dickson Carr has appeared on the Ramblings many times, of course – and most recently because the British Library have been releasing his Inspector Bencolin mysteries in lovely new editions. Bencolin is not Carr’s best-known detective, only featuring in five novels and a handful of short stories; but those works are wonderfully entertaining, and I’m so happy they’re being made available.

The latest release, “The Lost Gallows” is the third Bencolin release from the BL, but the second in the Bencolin series; and it finds the great detective, plus his sidekick, the young American Jeff Marle, in London. The men are staying at the rather gloomy and macabre Brimstone Club, alongside an old friend of Bencolin’s, Sir John Landervorne. Also at the club is the unpleasant (and very rich) Egyptian gentleman, Nezam El Moulk, together with his retinue. However, all is not well; events from the past are coming back to haunt and threaten El Moulk; a ghostly hangman known as Jack Ketch is making appearances; and the lost gallows of the title has been seen in Ruination Street, a mysterious place which cannot be found anywhere in London. Stir in Jeff’s old flame Sharon Grey (who featured in the first book of the series), murder and mayhem and a car driven by a corpse, dark corridors, mysterious models or shadows of gallows which pop up everywhere, and plenty of chills, and you have the perfect recipe for one of Carr’s stories – which to be honest, are often like a cross between a mystery and a ghost story, and no less satisfying for it!

I love JDC’s writing – he does of course specialise in the locked room mystery with his other great detective, Gideon Fell; and there are certainly locked room elements in the Bencolin stories. These are early works, and Carr tends to lay on the melodrama, which I don’t mind at all, and the stories are spooky and gripping. “The Lost Gallows” was particularly dark, drawing on events back to the First World War, and the settings (particularly the Club, but also London itself) oozed dark atmosphere. The denouement was very dramatic – Carr really knows how to ramp up the tension – and Bencolin of course was triumphantly right in his solution of the crime.

An early, and somewhat grimmer, edition of the book…

Of course, this *is* a vintage murder mystery; and I do have slight reservations about the portrayal of El Moulk. He was less cliched than you might expect from a book of this age, but I did wonder whether having a non-English person in this negative role was necessary. Another subsidiary character is portrayed using terminology we wouldn’t nowadays, but neither of these characterisations were too strong so I was ok with the book. And frankly, Carr is hard on a lot of his characters, whatever their origin – he does like to lay it on with a trowel at times! 😀

As well as the main story, there is also a rare Bencolin short story included called “The Ends of Justice”. This dates from an earlier period to “Gallows” and is an interesting, if stark and dramatic, adjunct to the main book. As Martin Edwards reminds us in his useful introduction, Carr was an author still learning his craft; and he does tone things down slightly in later works! Nevertheless, I found this book to be an absolutely gripping read; I was completely bamboozled and had no idea of whodunnit or how! I’m really enjoying encountering Carr’s Bencolin mysteries and I have my fingers crossed that the British Library will release the other titles!

#1930Club – “… a mechanism tuned to kill…” @BL_Publishing #JohnDicksonCarr

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The danger with our reading weeks, particularly when they’re from a year earlier in the 20th century, is the terrible temptation I face just to let myself wallow in several days of reading classic crime! Golden Age detective stories are my go-to comfort reading – I can’t get enough of them, especially in times of stress, and so the British Library Crime Classics have become something of a lifeline! After enjoying my time spent in the company of Agatha Christie earlier in the week, I had a flick through the BLCCs I have unread on the shelves; alas, none of them were from the year in question. However, I think it was a comment on my trailer post for the Club that alerted me to the fact that a new BLCC had just made its debut – and it was published in 1930! I asked the BL if they would be able to provide a review copy, and indeed they did, along with several rather fantastic looking other titles – thank you *so* much, British Library Publishing! I have no excuse not to wallow in classic crime during the chilly autumn evenings!

But I digress. The 1930 book in question is “It Walks By Night” by John Dickson Carr, and it’s a special release for a number of reasons. Firstly, as Martin Edwards mentions in his introduction to the book, it’s the first title by an American author to be published in the series. Secondly, it’s the first published novel by Carr, which makes it doubly fascinating! JDC was known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve read a number of his books and covered some on the blog. I *love* a locked-room mystery – and as the setting for this one was 1920s Paris, it was always likely to be a good one.

Carr’s regular detective is Dr. Gideon Fell, but this early work features another sleuth, one who apparently continued to feature in Carr’s books over the years. He is Henri Bencolin, a director of the police amongst other titles, and he’s assisted by the narrator of the story – his ‘Watson’ who is a young American Jeff Marle. Bencolin was close friends with the latter’s father, and has a paternal interest in the young man. And the mystery they investigate is a dark and chilling one, the brutal killing of a young aristocratic sportsman on the night of his wedding. However, the matter is not as straightforward as that might sound. For a start, the butchered man is found in a locked room with no way in or out which was not being watched. The method of death means he cannot have committed suicide, and yet no-one can have entered or left the room to murder him without being seen. To make things more complex, the detectives have a suspect, in the form of a madman called Laurent. The latter was previously married to the bride before being locked up for violent and insane behaviour, with the marriage being anulled. However, Laurent is free and known to have visited a plastic surgeon… Therefore, the killer could be anywhere and look like anyone, as well as seemingly having the ability to make himself invisible and pass through locked doors or walls. It’s a pretty and apparently insoluble puzzle and one which will tax the sleuths to the very end…

For the present, we were all aware only of a confused and numbing sense of terrible things moving behind a veil. That room, with its amber lights and its black-and-white flagged floor, the two men who were my companions, suddenly took on an aspect of unreality which made me feel as though I were alone. It stripped away everything…

Needless to say, I absolutely *loved* this book; it was one of those I just couldn’t bear to put down, sneaking a few pages here and there whenever I could. Bencolin is a fascinating and often enigmatic character, and makes a wonderful detective; the sidekicks, in the form of Marle plus a slightly batty Austrian doctor, Grafenstein, are very entertaining. However, there’s a real darkness and tension in the narrative; 1920s Paris is full of drug-taking and depravity, people are not what they seem, and there is a creeping sense of dread surrounding everyone at the thought of a madman murderer being close by yet unrecognisable. Carr likes to slip in chilling hints of the supernatural (which admittedly he eventually dispels) and these add to the tense atmosphere of the story. And the plot twists and turns beautifully, with additional characters such as a Sharon, a rich Englishwoman who fascinates Jeff; a slimeball of a drug dealer; and a playwright with an obscure background who may or may not be what he seems. It’s a wonderful mix and makes for a most enjoyable and absorbing read!

Isn’t the cover stunning??

As Edwards mentions in the introduction, the first edition of the book came with a clever marketing device; at a certain point in the narrative, a band was put around the remainder of the book and the reader challenged to solve the mystery with the information given so far and without reading the rest of the book. That point is marked in this edition and frankly I didn’t haven’t a chance of a solution; by then, I think I suspected just about everyone in the book and although I maybe had a bit of a glimmer closer to the end, I certainly was nowhere near the answer.

I woke in the warmth of clear blue sunlight, one of those mornings that flood you with a swashbuckling joyousness, so that you want to sing and hit somebody for sheer exuberance. The high windows were all swimming in a dazzle of sunlight, and up in their corners lay a trace of white clouds, like angels’ washing hung out on a line over the grey roofs of Paris. The trees had crept into green overnight; they filled the whole apartment with slow rustling; they caught and sifted the light; in short, it was a springtime to make you laugh at the cynical paragraph you had written the night before.

John Dickson Carr was a really marvellous author, and an outstanding proponent of the classic crime story. “It Walks..” is a treat for the aficionado as it’s peppered with references to everyone from Sax Rohmer to Edgar Allen Poe (and the latter is, of course, often reckoned to be the creator of the modern detective story). There’s a darkness and depth to Carr’s books which isn’t always there in books from that era, and he also writes remarkably well. His descriptions of Paris were vivid, and some of the sequences with Jeff and the Sharon were incredibly atmospheric. There were jumps and chills and wonderful detecting and really, this book was such a treat!

Well – I reckon I *could* have happily spent the week with Golden Age crime if I’d done a bit of research and dug out some more titles from 1930. However, I’m very, very glad I read “It Walks by Night” as it was an utterly entertaining and completely enjoyable book. This particular edition (and isn’t the cover lovely?) comes with an extra treat, in the form of “The Shadow of the Goat”, a rare short story by Carr which was the first to feature Bencolin. It contains all the elements you’d expect from Carr, including hints at the supernatural, a locked room, lots of twists and interestingly it ends (like “It Walks”) on a dramatic high point which is perhaps a little unusual. Really, I can’t recommend this one highly enough; the BLCCs are a wonderful thing anyway, and this one is a really special entry on the list. 1930 really *was* a marvellous year for books! 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, with perfect timing for the #1930Club, for which many thanks!)

A teeny, tiny haul…

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I’ve been slightly off grid lately as I was away making my usual summer round trip visit to my Aged Mother and then the Offspring in Leicester. It was an enjoyable, if tiring, week and not without its issues, as the Aged Mother is getting very forgetful nowadays which causes the occasional bit of friction. But I took her out for several visits, and also of course had the opportunity to visit the Leicester shops, so it was inevitable that I would come into contact with books…

However, I think I was pretty restrained (possibly owing to being completely embroiled in “War and Peace”) and so I came book with only a few volumes:

These first two came from a little hop I took with mum to Market Harborough, one of her favourite places to go. It was a bit of a mission as the buses are erratic, but she enjoyed it, and I did get to pick up a couple of treats from the Oxfam. “Algernon” is a title I’ve heard recommended highly, and I keep meaning to read more sci-fi…. As for the Carey book, I’ve always found him an erudite and entertaining commentator when he’s been on TV; I did borrow this from the library once but never actually read it, so was happy to find a second-hand copy for myself!

Leicester has a bookish area in Queens Road, with Loros and Age Concern charity bookshops, and I persuaded Eldest Child to accompany me for a visit to them this year. Let’s not talk about the detour we had to take because Victoria Park was closed for a festival, or the rain; suffice to say that the local Costa was very welcome! However, I did find a couple of nice treasures – a collection of interviews with Margaret Atwood, and a nice edition of a Colette. I already had an old edition of the latter book, but it’s very fragile, and I’m a bit nervous of reading it again, so this one was just the ticket.

The final find was from a little secondhand bookshop in The Lanes at Leicester. There was a very tempting section of Golden Age crime, including a lot of Green Penguins, but I was strong and only came away with a John Dickson Carr. Really, I’m enjoying his books so much that I’m likely to pick up whichever one comes my way, and this one has such a wonderfully lurid cover!

So those were my bookish finds while I was away; I could have picked up many more volumes, but of course I would have had to lug them back on the train, and as it was my very small suitcase was already half full of reading matter…. 😉

High(land!) Jinks!

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The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr

I seem to be spending a reasonable amount of time nowadays in the company of JDC and his marvellous detective Dr. Gideon Fell; but I feel no guilt at all, as these books are Golden Age crime at their best, and such satisfying reads! I was casting about recently for something to read on the train during a short hop to London for a day out with my BFF, and ruing the fact that I didn’t have any of Dr. Fell’s adventures to hand, as that was what I fancied reading. However, a rummage amongst a pile of old green Penguins revealed that I *did* have one lurking, even if the title did sound like it should belong to a Perry Mason story! The first chapter seemed familiar when I picked the book up, which was a bit worrying till I remembered that I started the book once and then got distracted; so I was sorted for my train reading!

Isn’t that cover just wonderful???

“The Cast of the Constant Suicides” is, of course, a locked room murder; what else would you expect if you pick up a Carr? Published in 1941, and set in the early days of WW2, the book opens with Alan Campbell, a young professor of Scottish extraction, making his way by (slow and erratic) train up to the land of his ancestors. A distant relative, one Angus Campbell, has taken a fatal plunge from a tower in his remote Scottish castle, and so the solicitors have summoned all the remaining members of the family. Alan is happy to get away from London, and from an intellectual feud he’s been having with a fellow professor. However, an encounter en route with a distant cousin causes mixed emotions, and on arrival in the depths of Scotland they encounter Angus’s larger than life brother Colin as well as a strange American called Swan. Throw into the mix the local lawyer and a troubled insurance agent, along with the fearsome Aunt Elspat, and you have a wonderful cast of characters all ready to explore the complexities of the plot – and complex it is! Old Angus took out a new insurance policy (his third!) just a few days before his death, and all of his policies have a suicide clause. So if Angus threw himself from the window the policies are null and void. However, he must have done because he had locked himself inside the tower, and it’s inaccessible from outside. But why would any sane man take out such an insurance policy and then kill himself?

Yes, I know it’s not Scottish but it has a lovely tower!!

Fortunately, brother Colin has a friend who may help – Dr. Gideon Fell! The latter arrives post-haste from London and begins his investigations. However, there is plenty more skullduggery to come before we reach, rather breathlessly in my case, a very clever and satisfying conclusion. And en route we’ll have a hint of the supernatural (of course!), a little romance, plenty of a very strong whisky known as the Doom of the Campbells, all sorts of tortuous twists and turns in the plots, as well as plenty of humour!

“Constant Suicides…” was a wonderful read, and confirmed me in my belief that Carr really is one of the greats and that any of his books will be worth picking up. Here, we were actually presented with a number of locked-room problems, all ingenious, all seemingly impossible and all solved by the great Dr. Fell. Interestingly, the War was a discreet presence in the book; some parts of the mystery hinged on a particular war-time element; but perhaps because the action took place in the Scottish highlands, it never dominated.

JDC by Howard Coster

If I had to rate this book against the other Carrs I’ve read recently, I would have to say that it doesn’t quite reach the standard of those stories. That’s not to say that this one wasn’t entirely engrossing and enjoyable, because it was – it was quite impossible to put it down. But there was perhaps a little less darkness in it than in the other two books, and there was quite a lot of slapstick humour. I enjoyed the latter too, and I did wonder if Carr lightened his tone a little as the book came out in wartime and perhaps it was thought that the public needed this kind of distraction from the darkness of real life.

These are minor quibbles, however; Carr was obviously a master of his art and it’s quite clear I shall have to read any of his books I come across. Interestingly, my BFF tells me that she has one of his Carter Dickson titles that I loaned her some time back. I actually can’t recall that at all, but I shall look forward to having it back and reading it at some point in the future! :)))

 

The ultimate ‘locked room’ mystery?

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He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr

I so much enjoyed my read of JDC’s “The Hollow Man” recently that when The Reader is Warned commented and recommended his book “He Who Whispers” I just couldn’t resist tracking down a copy – and a very battered little old green Penguin it is too! Like many readers, I find classic crime a wonderful palate cleanser between books and so I picked this one up after reading a big book for Shiny New Books – yes, I know I’m meant to be reading Elisabeth Von Arnim for April, and hopefully I’ll get there soon! 🙂

“The Hollow Man” was published in 1935; “He Who Whispers” is a later volume from 1946 and as the book opens we are firmly in London just after the end of the war. Our main protagonist, Miles Hammond, is making his way through a bomb-scarred London to an evening gathering of the Murder Club, and he finds himself still adjusting to the fact that the conflict is over. The location – around Shaftesbury Avenue, Dean Street, Soho – is familiar to anyone who haunts the bookshops of Charing Cross Road, but the landscape has been fragmented by the war and Miles (and the reader!) are unsettled by it. The Murder Club (presumably a tongue-in-cheek riff on the Detection Club) are normally very secretive, but Miles and a young woman, Barbara Morell, have been specially invited to hear Professor Rigaud tell the story of an impossible crime (a variant on the locked room mystery where the action doesn’t take place in a locked room but is equally impossible and unsolvable); while in France, he got to know the English Brooke family who were living locally. All seemed calm and happy with the family until the arrival of Fay Seton, a new secretary for father Brooke. Young Harry Brooke, the doted-upon only son of the family, soon fell in love with Fay and they were to be married; however, terrible rumours circulated about Fay and Mr. Brooke received anonymous letters. Determined to break off the relationship, he arranged to meet Fay on top of a local tower (part of a ruined château) and pay her off; however, he was murdered and the money disappeared.

The murder, however, is not straightforward: Mr. Brooke was on top of the tower alone; Rigaud saw his son leave the tower and Brooke was still alive; as Rigaud was leaving a family arrived for a picnic and it was the children of this family that discovered Brooke senior murdered on top of the tower – stabbed in the back. Talk abounds of the supernatural and vampires; accusations are made about Fay; and a crisis is reached as it is revealed that the new librarian Miles has employed to help him sort out his late uncle’s vast library in his country house of Greywood is none other than Fay Seton… As Miles and his sister set off to the country with Fay, there are many questions to be answered: why is Barbara Morell so interested in the case? Who is Jim Morrell? Why is Rigaud convinced the supernatural is involved? And who *did* kill Mr. Brooke? Fortunately, Rigaud is friendly with Doctor Gideon Fell, Honorary Secretary of the Murder Club, and it will take all of Fell’s genius to unravel the case.

“He Who Whispers” was, of course, a wonderful read and I can see why it’s ranked so highly amongst JDC’s books. His scene setting is just brilliant: he captures the atmosphere in France where the family tensions of the Brookes come to a head and the murder takes place; the sense of doom and disaster that surrounds Fay Seton; the genuine sense of creeping menace at Greywood as a dramatic murder attempt occurs; and the shocking twists and turns in the narrative as Miles’ perceptions (and ours!) are challenged, twisted and turned upside down! The solution was one that I never saw coming, and there were some surprisingly dark and complex strands to the behaviour of the characters, and perhaps an unexpected explanation to the reason why Fay ended up with the reputation she had.

A criticism often levelled at Golden Age crime is that there is limited depth of character and development but I didn’t find that the case here. The protagonists in “He Who Whispers” are more than just props to hang a puzzle on; their motivations are crucial to what happens and their actions believable in the context of their lives and the plot. The psychology of the crime is a recurring theme of discussion throughout the book and vital to the detection of the solution. Carr very cleverly shows, too, just how easy it is to misunderstand someone, or to misread their real personality; he also shows how easy it is for the reader of a detective novel to simply accept what the various characters tell them without questioning it, only to have those perceptions turned upside down later on in the book!

So another wonderful classic crime book to add to my collection – I’m trying to resist the temptation to start tracking down more of JDC’s books. And yet again, I stayed up much too late reading this book – truly, Golden Age crime novels, and particularly John Dickson Carr ones, are not good for my sleeping habits…

On exercising restraint

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Regular visitors to the Ramblings might have noticed a certain lack of book hauls recently – and I’m someone who does love to share pictures of any books I find! However, I’m painfully aware at the moment of the amount of unread volumes in the house, and this has been thrown into stronger focus by the fact that we’re considering eventually downsizing. Although special and precious books will come with me, realistically I won’t be able to take all of them and so I’m trying to look at my library alongside *all* of the clutter in the house and it’s fairly scary – so I do need to do some serious pruning.

Also, as I mentioned recently, polyreading is not working for me at the moment, which is frustrating as there are so many books I want to be reading just now. This has made me realise that there’s not a lot of point in amassing more books that *might* be interesting just on the off-chance; instead, I need to be concentrating on those I actually own, deciding if I’m going to read them and then *actually* reading them!

I didn’t sign up for any of the challenges to only read from my stacks, because I figured if I set myself that restriction I wouldn’t actually stick to it. However, I do appear to have been reading a *lot* of books I already own so far (and we’re well into March already!) which is quite pleasing.

So I have been very, very selective with what I’ve been buying, and actually going back to using the library – for example, with a book I wanted to read recently in advance of the 1951 Club (coming next month!) I could have sent off for a second-hand copy. But I borrowed it instead as I reckoned I’d never particularly want to read it again, and that worked out fine. Obviously this is a habit I need to continue develop, although it *will* be hampered by the fact that my local library is not going to stock a lot of the older or more unusual titles I want to read…

However, I’ve been good in the charity shops, only picking up what I know I’ll read (“The Hollow Man” being a good example), and I’ve turned away from many a title which I would have bought not long ago in case I fancied reading it; and my online purchases have been minimal. A few review books have come in which I’ve read straight away, and I’m trying not to buy wildly on a whim after reading a good review of a book. How long this will last remains to be seen, but I’m quite pleased with myself so far. Meanwhile, here are the few recent incoming books, and the rationale behind them. And let’s hope I can keep up this trend!

“The Hollow Man”, which I found for 99p in the local Oxfam and read straight away – perfect classic crime and ideal reading for just now!

I read about this one online somewhere as the Siberian equivalent to Anne Frank’s diary – and with the subject matter as it is (a young girl’s reminiscences of her time exiled in Siberia) it sounded essential reading.

I blame Joachim at Science Fiction Ruminations for this one, as he happened to flag up that it contained a very early M. John Harrison story which had never been reprinted. So it was again essential!

And finally – I blame Jane at Beyond Eden Rock for this title as she mentioned it after I reviewed “Who Killed Charles Bravo”! A fictionalised account of the life of one of the players in the drama, Dr. Gully, by a Virago author – well, how *could* I resist?

I’ve read one of the four so far – let’s hope the others don’t wait too long! 🙂

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.

Author 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!!

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