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Nautical mysteries and watery graves @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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Deep Waters: Mysteries on the Waves – Edited by Martin Edwards

My go-to books for stressy times have in recent years become the British Library Crime Classics; and so being back at work and being busy meant that I was naturally very keen to reach for one of these lovely volumes! I’ve read several rather wonderful anthologies of stories, edited by the redoubtable Martin Edwards, and the most recent one collects together a marvellous of array of short stories involving water. And bearing in mind that that can mean anything from an ornamental pond to the sea, there certainly is a lot of scope for murder, mayhem and mystery involving the wet stuff!

Another lovely British Library Crime Classic – isn’t the cover wonderful?

Edwards provides a useful introduction, looking back over watery crime writing over the years, as well as providing a short piece on the author of each story. The collection launches (ahem) with a Sherlock Holmes yarn, “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott“; this is a notable story in the Holmes canon, as it’s one in which the Great Detective reveals something of his past (as well as being very clever and entertaining). The final story is a Michael Innes ‘Appleby’ story first published in 1975. And in between there is an excellent selection of writers, from better known names like C.S. Forester, Edmund Crispin and E.W. Hornung, to more obscure authors like R. Austin Freeman and Josephine Bell, and relative unknowns such as Kem Bennett. I was particularly happy to see one of H.C. Bailey’s ‘Reggie Fortune’ stories included, as he’s a relatively recent discover for me and I absolutely love him. Both author and character are very individual and idiosyncratic, and I imagine Bailey’s writing is not necessarily to everyone’s taste. But I think his stories are clever and wonderfully written, and I do wish more were available.

Well – it’s hard with short story collections, because I can never decide to pick favourites or not. And this (like previous collections) is so good that there isn’t actually a dud in there. However, I’ll mention a few which really struck me. “The Echo of a Mutiny” by R. Austin Freeman was a longer entry in the book, and featured his regular detective Dr. Thorndyke, as well as an atmospheric lighthouse setting and a clever solution. Gwyn Evans’ “The Pool of Secrets” had some wonderfully outré elements and a fiendish plot. “The Turning of the Tide“, a mystery by C.S. Forester (better known perhaps for the Hornblower series), was short, sharp and shocking. And “The Swimming Pool“, the Reggie Fortune story, is really quite dark and remarkably ingenious.

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

But I could really pick out any of the stories to commend, as they’re each one of them an entertaining and enjoyable read, with clever detectives and perplexing puzzles. These are such wonderfully twisty tales where, as well as the sleuth’s usual brilliant methods of deduction, knowledge of such arcane subjects as the tides, marine life and types of tobacco can help solve the mystery. There really is such an appetite for Golden Age crime fiction nowadays; and I’m not sure whether it’s just that we’re looking for escapism from the madness of the modern day, or the reassurance of a world where things may get turned upside down but an all-seeing, all-knowing detective can put life back together again and normality will return. Whatever it is, for me the British Library Crime Classics are the perfect distraction from the craziness of daily life; and this particular collection is definitely an outstanding entry in their catalogue.

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

New Town antics in a world on the cusp of change @Medwardsbooks @BL_Publishing #georgebellairs

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Surfeit of Suspects by George Bellairs

I’ve written before on the Ramblings about the works of George Bellairs; he’s another of those unjustly neglected authors rescued from obscurity by the British Library via their Crime Classics series and I’ve read and reviewed three of his stories. Death of a Busybody was my introduction to him back in 2016, and I did love it; a wonderful wartime tale of murder in a small country village, it balanced light and dark moments brilliantly. My second encounter was a volume containing two stories, back in 2017, and interestingly these were both set during the war too. The Dead Shall be Raised and Murder of a Quack were again great fun to read but with darkness under the surface; Bellairs knows how to handle the contrasts well. So having really enjoyed encountering his detecting team of Inspector Littlejohn and Detective-Sergeant Cromwell, I was very keen to pick up the latest release from the lovely British Library when it popped through the door recently. And “Surfeit of Suspects” turned out to be just as good a read as the earlier titles.

The story starts with a bang – literally, as an explosion in a joinery company in the small town of Evingden destroys not only the building but also three company directors inside… The Excelsior Joinery Company is a business which has been struggling recently; an old family firm which was bought out by a group of directors after the death of the owner, it’s rapidly gone downhill through mismanagement, as well as being unable to compete in a modern, changing world. But was the explosion intended to destroy the company or its directors? Littlejohn is soon summoned from Scotland Yard and as he begins to investigate he finds a real hornet’s nest.

The title of this book does not lie – there are a ridiculous amount of suspects involved! It seems that one particular murdered director, Dodds, has an awful lot of enemies, in and out of his family; and any one of them could have wanted him out of the way (particularly as there’s a useful insurance policy on his life…) However, as Littlejohn and Cromwell dig deeper, it seems that there might be more than just a personal grudge at play here….

To say more would risk spoiling the fun, but this is another clever and enjoyable mystery from Bellairs (who really should *not* have been out of print for all this time.) However, there’s another aspect which makes this book particularly interesting and that’s the time and the setting. “Surfeit” is another slightly later crime classic, published in 1964, and once more we have the world on the cusp of big changes. In this case there are a number of elements, and the strongest is that of the building of new towns; Evingden has gone from being a small town to one with a modern New Town built onto it, and the social effects are dramatic. There is still the divide between rich and poor, worker and boss, in the town but this is being changed and eroded. In a sense, the old world as exemplified by the original town, is gradually dying, to be replaced by the brave and noisy new world, and you sense a sadness from Bellairs/Littlejohn about that change.

And the clash between old and new is played out on the pages of “Surfeit”, with workers in old houses contrasted with brash modern villas in new developments. It makes for an interesting dynamic in the book, and one with which I’m actually familiar. When I was a child, my family moved down south from Edinburg to find work for my dad; we ended up in a small Hampshire town which was in effect becoming what was classed as London overspill and there was the sense of a sleepy little market town being transformed by development into some kind of odd new hybrid. The old, genteel country life hung on for a while but was eventually overtaken by the new. And later in life, my parents moved to another town which had been built for industry, taking over the small village it had once been. So much of what was happening in the book resonated and that point of change in society is captured really well here.

That’s a slight digression; however, the whole scenario of change is actually very relevant to the mystery and of course at the root of things is money; that and love/hate are so often the motivating factors for murder, aren’t they? The solution to “Surfeit” is clever and the plot twisty, involving all manner of shady dealings, and it’s great fun watching Littlejohn and Cromwell in action. I particularly enjoy how Bellairs always allows the latter to go off on little investigations of his own and he’s just as good a character as Littlejohn – they do make a good team!

Bellairs was economic writer; he packs a mass of action and plot into his 211 pages, with a story that zips along, never flagging, and he wraps up all of the loose ends in a paragraph or two at the end. This makes for a quick and satisfying read, perfect for when you need a classic crime fix, although in this case with a slightly modern twist. As Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, the book “gives us a glimpse of a long-vanished world, a world that was already vanishing even as Bellairs wrote about it.” That element gives “Surfeit of Sleuths” an extra edge and adds to the atmosphere, making it a highly recommended entry in the British Library Crime Classics series!

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

A twisty tale – and is murder *ever* justified??? @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

There are times when only a comfort read will do, and I had a period like that at the end of May when I was suffering from a pretty vicious sinus infection. I managed to push through some Tolstoy short stories, but the Virginia Woolf houses book was a relaxing joy to read, and it seemed the logical thing after that to move on to some Golden Age crime (yes, I’m *that* behind with my reviewing….) I have a number of lovely British Library Crime Classics waiting to be read, and I was vaguely shocked to find that this one came out a year ago. Frankly, I wish I’d read it sooner; it’s an original and very wonderful take on a courtroom drama and I absolutely loved it!

Richard Hull is another of those unfairly neglected authors that BLCC are so good at bringing back into print; and Martin Edwards gives an outline of his life in his informative foreword. Hull wrote eleven crime novels, of which this is his sixth, and fascinatingly Edwards quotes a favourable review of the book by one Jorge Luis Borges. So another very good reason to read it…

Fenby felt already a strong dislike for rich men who inconsiderately purchased poison by which they themselves met their own end. It could only be called downright careless.

“Excellent Intentions” follows a trial taking place after the murder of Henry Cargate. The latter is the newly arrived ‘lord of the manor’ in the village of Scotney End, but unfortunately has not turned out to be a popular arrival. A man who’s made money by dubious methods, he shuns the locals, has his staff and all his requirements sent from London and even falls out with the local vicar. It’s hardly surprising he has no friends and family, and when he dies on the local train to Great Barwick the natural assumption is that his weak heart has given out. However, the local doctor has a suspicion which he passes on to the police; and Scotland Yard send in the unassuming but drily witty Inspector Fenby to investigate.

The mystery sounds straightforward enough (although the method is very nifty), but as well as being cleverly plotted it’s a real winner because of its rather unusual structure. Instead of a traditional linear narrative, the book opens with the beginning of the trial for Cargate’s murder and the opening speech of the prosecution. The story is then told in a series of interwoven flashbacks and scenes of investigation, which is intriguing to read and ramps up the suspense – especially as we aren’t told who the person in the dock is until very late in the book! It’s certainly a novel way to tell a story, and it really is brilliantly constructed. Everybody in the tale gets their little piece of input into the case – from the ruminations of the judge to the thoughts of the jurors, the deliberations of the various counsels as well as the opinons of Cargate’s staff and the village locals, we get to peek inside their minds and see the story from every angle.

You won’t, by the way, be able to contest the will on the ground that leaving everything of which you die possessed to the nation is an obvious sign of lunacy. It’ll be called patriotism, which is only nearly the same thing and quite different in law.

Throughout the story, the character of the deceased is in sharp focus, and he’s a strange, somewhat unpleasant man who nobody really cares about and nobody will really miss. There’s much discussion of altruistic murder, about whether somebody got Cargate out of the way for the good of everyone, which is of course a dubious moral stand to take. This even brings in a nod to the French Revolution, via a mention of Charlotte Corday! Another prominent element, oddly enough, is stamp collecting! Cargate was a philatelist and his trading with a leading stamp dealer from London throws up some suspicious behaviour and discussions of various gradings of stamps which oddly enough is never dull (mind you, I was a stamp collector for a little while in my teens… The phases we go through!)

“Excellent Intentions” is a twisty and entertaining little tale, and many of the characters do indeed have excellent intentions in the way the behave. There are, in the end, four possible suspects for the murder; though if I’m honest, the one in the dock really turns out to be the only option. The denouement is entertaining, clever and satisfying, and I ended the book with a huge smile on my face as well as being convinced that Hull is an author I want to read more of. Fortunately, the BL have put out his first novel “The Murder of My Aunt” and even more fortunately I have a copy lurking. I really could do no better than go on a BLCC binge, could I?

#1965Club – golden age crime at a point of transition… @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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For our Club reads, I generally manage to fit in some crime reading, but wasn’t finding anything obvious for 1965. As Simon commented in his fascinating podcast about our reading weeks (do go and check it out here!) there’s pretty much always a Simenon title to choose from; and although there is indeed a Maigret from 1965, I don’t own it. The British Library Crime Classics series wasn’t necessarily the obvious place to look for a 1960s title, as Golden Age crime is generally earlier than that. However, a quick rummage through the review copies I had lurking revealed that there was indeed an unread BLCC from 1965 awaiting – “The Belting Inheritance” by Julian Symons; and it turned out to be the perfect book to accompany me on the train during my recent visit to London!

“The Belting Inheritance” opens in what might be regarded as a traditional country house setting. Our narrator, young Christopher Barrington, was taken in by his great-aunt, Lady Wainwright, when he was orphaned at the age of 12; the family live in “gothic gloom” at Belting and apart from the matriarch and Christopher, there are his cousins Miles and Stephen (who he calls uncle, because of the age difference), Stephen’s appallingly doggy wife Clarissa, and a number of general factotums. The house is particularly gloomy because Lady W is still mourning the loss of her two elder sons, Hugh and David, during the war; they’re held up as paragons while the rest of the family are kept well under her thumb. Young Christopher settles in ok, gets on with Lady W and his uncle Miles, and makes it through public school intact. But when he returns to Belting at the end of his schooling, prior to heading up to Oxford, things are taking a dramatic new direction. Lady W is gravely ill; but more shockingly, a man has turned up claiming to be David Wainwright, having survived the war and then spent a number of years in a Russian camp. Lady W is desperate to welcome him with open arms, but the rest of the family (particularly the odious Stephen) are less than happy with the idea, fearing the loss of their inheritance. Add into the mix Miles’ ex-wife, a roving girl reporter with a connection to a dubious incident in the family’s past, any number of skeletons ready to leap out of closets and plenty of chasing about all over the place, and you get the recipe for a cracking read which takes Golden Age crime off in some very unexpected directions! 😀

Martin Edwards, in his excellent foreword, describes “Belting…” as “an entertaining example of a Grand Master at work“, and he’s not wrong; make no mistake, this is a gloriously clever book. Symons takes the tropes of a classic GA crime book (country house, controlling matriarch, returning prodigal, conflict over inheritance) and subverts them brilliantly in a book that’s unputdownable and completely entertaining. When you’re reading the early chapters which set the scene and bring us to the point of the claimant’s first appearance, you could be forgiven for thinking you were reading just another country house murder; albeit one that’s beautifully written and really atmospheric. The narrator’s rather naive 18-year-old voice is totally authentic, and the gradual development and shifting of his perceptions brilliantly done. However, as the book progresses, Symons gradually reveals how the world was changing, how anachronistic the Wainwrights are, and how the rest of the locality view them. Sex and alcohol rear their heads as subjects; there is a marvellous jaunt to Paris at one point, and a particularly lovely bit where Christopher contemplates the fact he’s standing in a place which had seen Danton, Tom Paine and David, amongst others. This latter reference, in particular, made me wonder if Symons was signalling the revolution that had been coming in British society following the end of the Second World War, but I may just be reading too much into it!

However, Symons integrates two seemingly disparate milieus in a way that’s always entirely convincing, whilst creating a twisty and clever plot with characters you know, and in many cases care about deeply. I loved Betty, Miles’ ex-wife who went off and dabbled in arts and clubs, and was surrounded by all sorts of entertaining people. Miles himself was a dear, and I was on tenterhooks in case anything dreadful happened to him. The ending was totally satisfying, with loose ends dealt with and surviving characters rounded up nicely, and I finished the book with a huge smile on my face.

I have quite a few BLCCs (ahem!) still waiting to be read and reviewed, and so I’m not sure I necessarily would have gone for this one if I hadn’t been nudged to it by the #1965Club. However, I’m *so* glad I was; “The Belting Inheritance” was absolutely brilliant, unexpectedly one of the best entries in the BLCC collection. It was a pure joy from start to finish, and just perfect for a train journey too – highly recommended! 😀

Seasonal and sometimes chilly crime! @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #BLCC

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The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories
Edited by Martin Edwards

It’s fast becoming a tradition around the Ramblings to spend the end of December with some wonderful Christmas Crime from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics, and 2018 is no exception! Last year Ann Meredith’s “Portrait of a Murderer” marked 50 books being published by the BL in the series; in 2016 I read and loved the “Crimson Snow” collection; this year’s festive treat is the third superb collection of seasonal short stories curated by the redoubtable Martin Edwards, and needless to say it’s a pure joy.

The book features eleven stories, some short, some long, but all very clever and twisty. All are set in or around Christmas and are arranged chronologically, ranging in time from Baroness Orczy up to the more modern tales of Julian Symons and taking in such luminaries as Carter Dickson, Francis Durbridge and John Bude. What’s so good about the BL collections, apart from the fact they’re sheer enjoyment, is that they’re also the perfect way to get to know new authors and in some cases their serial characters. For example, I’ve not read any of Baroness Orczy’s ‘Lady Molly’ stories, so the one included here was an ideal introduction (on the evidence of which I’d like to read more!) Similarly, despite having several E.C.R. Lorac books lurking on Mount TBR, I haven’t actually read them yet, and the story here has whetted my appetite.

McBride, the philosopher, was the host of the great man; and he felt bound to interfere, partly from the sense of hospitality, partly because he always likes to be desperately just. (Nobody, it has been said, has seen more points of view than McBride, or adopted less.)

The style of story is wonderfully varied too. There are traditional, country-house style mysteries; tales that veer towards ghost story territory; locked room mysteries; light-hearted jaunts; thrillers; and so much more. It’s always hard to pick favourites in any excellent collection, so I won’t; but I will mention that the Lorac was very cleverly constructed; the Carter Dickson brilliant and chilling; the Knox had a wonderful twist (as well as including a nod to Agatha Christie by naming one of the characters Westmacott); and the Symons was a most unexpected and wonderful exposition of how a seemingly perfect crime plan can go completely awry.

I regularly sing the praises of the BL on the Ramblings, and for good reason; the Crime Classics have to be lauded for bringing so many unjustly neglected authors and books back into the public eye. I always find I can’t go wrong with one of their books, and their Christmas collections are no exception. Highly recommended seasonal reading! 🙂

Glorious Golden Age Crime – with a twist! @BL_Publishing

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Foreign Bodies (edited by Martin Edwards)

Since their launch, the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of pure joy: beautifully produced editions of lost Golden Age mysteries with stunning covers, they’ve been a massive hit with bloggers and general readers alike (and I’m very attached to those which have made their way onto my bookshelves…) However, a new collection of short stories is taking the series a little bit outside of its remit by presenting 15 Golden Age works with a difference – they’re all translated from a variety of languages!

Of course, despite the current media hoo-ha about Scandicrime and the like, translated crime fiction is nothing new – for example, the book often regarded as the original ‘locked-room’ puzzle, “The Mystery of the Yellow Room” by Gaston Leroux was not written in English! I know when I discovered GA crime in the 1980s that authors like Emile Gaboriau and Maurice Leblanc were ones that were recommended, but very hard to find. However, many of the translated stories available were from European authors, but this collection goes way farther in exploring the world of crime shorts in other languages.

This collection has been brought together by the redoubtable Martin Edwards, responsible for the BLCC editions as a whole and it seems to have been something of a labour of love. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that GA crime is cosy, English and set in little villages with stereotyped characters, but this book really goes out on a limb and is a triumph.

Each story comes with a short introduction by Edwards giving a little background context plus details of translator where this is known. A few have appeared in seminal (and long out of print) anthologies collected by Hugh Greene, whereas several are translated for the first time giving us a rare and welcome glimpse into work from as far afield as Japan, India, Denmark, the Netherlands and Mexico.

Like all of the best BLCCs this books was completely unputdownable! I can read GA crime at any time of year, but it goes down particularly well on dark, wet and windy autumn nights and there were plenty of those while I was reading the book and staying up far too late, telling myself I would enjoy just one more story before bed… All are inventive and all are marvellous reads.

It’s hard (and perhaps unfair in such a varied collection) to pick favourites, but there were a couple which really stood out for me and had me gripped. “The Spider” by Koga Saburo was a chilling tale of a devious murder in a rather unusual laboratory; and “The Cold Night’s Clearing” by Keikichi Osaki was a beautifully written, atmospheric piece which vividly brought to life the setting and events. Others were tongue in cheek, like “The Mystery of the Green Room” by Pierre Very which channels Leroux’s seminal story and gives it a very humourous twist. Many of these works, of course, draw on the Holmes/Watson template (as do UK tales of the same era) and there’s no shame in that at all – the format works so well, why change it??

So yet another winner from the British Library Crime Classics imprint – they really are going from strength to strength. And happily, I have another two lovely books from them on the TBR pile – what a treat! 🙂

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

Murder in the depths of winter

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Crimson Snow, edited by Martin Edwards

I really am getting into the groove with my Golden Age crime reading at the moment. It seems particularly suited to this time of year, and the new collection of short stories, “Crimson Snow”, is absolutely perfect, featuring as it does crimes that take place in the dead of winter! I’ve read a few of the BL short story collections which have all been fantastic, and this one is again in the more than capable editorial hands of Martin Edwards.

crimson-snow

“Crimson Snow” collects together 11 stories set in the middle of the coldest of the seasons, and of course the concept of a snowed in country house lends itself well to a murder mystery; in fact several of the stories do take place in that kind of setting, and some do have a hint of supernatural thrown in to add a frisson, even if that’s eventually debunked. The stories are presented chronologically, starting with Fergus Hulme’s “The Ghost’s Touch” and ending with Josephine Bell’s “Carol Singers”, and there are a wide variety of authors. Interestingly, the majority of the authors were ones I hadn’t read before so it was really good to be able to explore new writers. In fact, as far as I can recall I’ve only read Allingham before, so this was a real voyage of discovery!

When reviewing short stories I’m never quite sure how much detail to go into, so I think I’ll touch on favourites and give some general thoughts. “The Chopham Affair” by Edgar Wallace was very enjoyable – he was astonishingly prolific and although this is probably pulp, it was great fun. The Fergus Hulme had a bit of scariness thrown in, as did “Death in December” by Victor Gunn. This latter, one of the longer pieces, was very memorable; there was plenty of spookiness and wicked deeds, and Gunn’s regular detective, Chief Inspector “Ironsides” Cromwell, was great fun.

Another treat was in the form of “Mr. Cork’s Secret” by Macdonald Hastings. Cork is the head of Anchor Insurance company, and ends up spending his festive season investigating a murder and jewel theft at a luxury hotel. It’s a satisfying mystery which ends up with the reader being challenged to find out what Cork’s secret actually is – and the solution is given at the end. Margery Allingham’s “The Man with the Suit” is of course a standout, being a wonderful tale featuring Mr. Campion; it’s reproduced here in its original, longer form and has the classic, snowy country house setting. Campion himself is a joy and reading this made me even keener to revisit more of Allingham’s work.

snowy-house

Even the later stories could be described as Golden Age, except for one slightly anachronistic tale in the form of Bell’s “Carol Singers”. This brings us into the more modern world, closing the collection on a downbeat note and a leaving a slightly bitter taste. An old lady living on her own is preyed upon by young hoodlums, and it’s a sad story; although the guilty are tracked down, it still takes us away from the slightly less realistic atmosphere of GA crime.

So, another wonderful book from the British Library Crime Classics, and perfect for festive reading. I particular enjoyed getting to know some new authors, and I think I’ll definitely follow up some of the names featured here to see what else of theirs is available – always happy to find new writers to read! 🙂

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

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