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A few reading highlights of the year so far! 😊

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As we’re over halfway through the year, I noticed that a number of fellow bookbloggers have been posting a variety of memes revealing their mid-point best-ofs. I am never that disciplined when it comes to picking favourites, and find it impossible to make a numbered list at the end of the year; and picking books to shuffle into half-yearly categories is beyond me! However, I thought it might be nice to share a few little reading highlights of my year so far – by theme mostly – so here goes!

Works in Translation

I loved to read translated books and they’re always a strong feature on the Ramblings. Of course, August is Women in Translation month and I have my sights on quite a few interesting titles. However, this year I have read some marvellous titles from publishers like Glagoslav, Columbia University Press, V&Q Books and many others.

Two particular standouts have been hybrid reads: The Naked World” by Irina Mashinski, which combines prose and poetry; and My Hollywood and other poems by Boris Dralyuk, which blends original poetry with translations. Both of these works are original and striking, and will definitely make it into my year-end post. Highly recommended reading from here!

Re-reads

I don’t re-read as much as I like, as a rule, but this first half of the year has seen me revisiting some of the most important books from my younger years. The #Narniathon, which started last year, nudged me into re-reading C.S. Lewis‘s wonderful sequence, and it was such an enjoyable experience; I read these books constantly in my youth, but hadn’t gone back to them for decades!

Then there was “The Lord of the Rings“. I moved on to these books as a child after loving the Narnia ones, and in my early twenties re-read them compulsively. I’ve meant to go back to them in recent years, and in fact purchased a shabby set of the same edition I first read; but it took the #1954Club to nudge me into the re-read and I loved every minute!

Finally, there’s Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books; another set I read in my teens and which really changed my life. I re-read the first, “Titus Groan“, a while back; but it took the wonderful Backlisted Podcast covering the sequence to nudge me into returning to “Gormenghast“. What an amazing experience it was; I really must build more re-reading into my schedule!!

Reprints

Although I do read modern works (and I’ve done so quite a lot recently), I tend towards classics or modern classics, as well as Golden Age crime, often in reprint. As usual, British Library Publishing have been spoiling me with some marvellous reprints plus new collections; a recent anthology, “The Edinburgh Mystery” was a particular treat, bringing together as it did stories related to my home country and city. Another publisher bringing out interesting reprints alongside new works is Renard Press, and their books have the addition of always being so beautifully produced.

And a recent arrival to the scene is Recovered Books with their fabulous series via Boiler House Press; the first title, “Gentleman Overboard“, was a stunner and they’re continuing to release some excellent titles! I do love a good reprint!!

The Penguin Modern Box

I have a number of ongoing Penguin Projects, most of which are moving quite slowly… But I have managed this year to finally finish my reading of the 50 books in my Penguin Modern box set. This was a really enjoyable and rewarding experience; I got to discover and explore so many marvellous new authors; and I really do need to get my act together and get on with the other projects too!!!

ReadIndies

Talking of projects, I have mostly tried to keep reading events and challenges simple so far this year. However, I was particularly pleased to co-host again with Lizzy #ReadIndies (an event which grew out of Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight). Indie publishers are some of my favourites, and in these difficult times when it can be a struggle for them to make ends meet, I was so happy to do what I could to help promote them. Hopefully this is an event which will return next year!

Chunky non-fiction

Several very thought-provoking, chunky, and enjoyable non-fiction books have made it onto the Ramblings recently. I’ve always enjoyed a good non-fiction read, and I find as I get older that I tend to be reading even more. Over recent months I’ve had much mental stimulation from “Letters to Gwen John” by Celia Paul, “A Spectre, Haunting” by China Mieville and “The Life of Crime” by Martin Edwards. All very different, all very chunky and all brilliant reads!

So there you have it – a few of the highlights of my reading year so far. Despite real life often being screamingly busy, I really have been lucky enough to read some marvellous books; and as there are still several months until it’s time to round up the whole year, I have plenty of reading time left for new titles and new favourites. Watch this space to see what I’m reading next – I wonder which books will finally make it onto the end of year best-of???? 🤣🤣

“..valour, insanity and violent cunning…” @BL_Publishing #theedinburghmystery @medwardsbooks

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That grasshopper mind of mine has been at play again! After finishing my re-read of “Gormenghast” I had such a massive book hangover that I had no idea what book to pick up next; Peake is so all encompassing that it’s hard to step out of his world and into another! So I decided to pick up a volume which had been calling to me since it popped through the letter-box; it combines two of my loves (Scotland and Golden Age crime!) so I thought it might be the ideal palate-cleanser – and it really was! The book is “The Edinburgh Mystery and other tales of Scottish Crime” , edited by Martin Edwards, and it was a treat from start to finish.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was born in Edinburgh and I’m an exiled Scot, so this was always going to be the perfect book for me! The BL GA crime anthologies are themed collections of loveliness, and this particular edition is no exception. Editor Martin Edwards provides an interesting introduction which gives an overview of Scottish crime writing (“Tartan Noir” is very much a thing nowadays, as we all know!); and then the stories kick off with a spooky and memorable murder story from Robert Louis Stevenson, “Markheim”, which I’d not come across before and which I was glad I was reading in daylight!

Interestingly, the collection draws in a wide variety of authors and stories by choosing not only Scottish writers but also stories set in Scotland by other writers. So there are names you would expect to see, like Conan Doyle, Josephine Tey, Anthony Wynne and Margot Bennett; as well as authors like Chesterton, Baroness Orczy and Cyril Hare. It’s a wonderfully wide-ranging anthology, coming right up to date with a name new to me, Jennie Melville. In fact, that was one of the particular joys of “Edinburgh…” – there were plenty of authors I’d not read before, and I do love to discover new writers!

This note of a dreamy, almost a sleepy devilry, there is no mere fancy from the landscape. For there did rest on the place one of those clouds of pride and madness and mysterious sorrow which lie more heavily on the noble houses of Scotland than in any other of the children of men. For Scotland has a double dose of the poison called heredity; the sense of blood in the aristocrat, and the sense of doom in the Calvinist.

As for some specifics and stand-outs; well, there wasn’t a dud really and it’s hard to select some and not others! “The Field Bazaar“, the Holmes story, was great fun, being something of an in-joke which was published in the Edinburgh University student magazine to help raise funds for them. The Tey,”Madame Ville D’Aubier” is a real rarity, apparently out of print since 1930, and it’s a brooding and atmospheric story of domestic unhappiness in France with a dark end. Margot Bennett’s story is only four pages long but quite brilliant!

Footsteps” by Anthony Wynne was another spooky treat, with a dark and storm ridden location in the Highlands, murderous lairds and scary footsteps in the night; I’m reminded I still have an unread Wynne BLCC on the TBR which should come off it soon. “The Alibi Man” is a wonderfully twisty tale of revenge which had me totally bamboozled; and Michael Innes’ “The Fisherman” has his famous detective Appleby dealing with a very puzzling conundrum on a fishing trip to Scotland. As for the title story, it’s a clever tale of theft and murder, with the “Old Man in the Corner” solving a mystery which seems very straightforward but is not.

Those are just some of the treats from this cornucopia of a book; really, all of the stories are thoroughly enjoyable, puzzling and very, very clever! As usual, Martin Edwards provides a potted biog of each author before their story, and I had such fun reading the book; it was the perfect thing to distract me after the Peake and is a worthy addition to my ever-growing pile of BLCC anthologies! 😉🤣

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

 

A mammoth and rather wonderful history of crime fiction! @medwardsbooks #TheLifeOfCrime

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It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Golden Age (and before!) crime books; I started my addiction when I read Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie in my early teens, graduating to whatever vintage crime writing I could get my hands on. Sayers was probably my next crime obsession, after watching the Ian Carmichael BBC adaptations, and then I moved on to Allingham, Crispin, Simenon, Mitchell – well, you name them, I may well have read them.

So when I was approached to take part in a blog tour for a new release from the redoubtable Martin Edwards, I really couldn’t refuse. Edwards is, of course, series consultant for the British Library Crimes Classics, an imprint which has brought much joy to crime fiction lovers with its marvellous re-releases of classic, out of print works. As well as that, he’s a fine crime author in his own right, and obviously has a deep knowledge of his subject. That knowledge has been brought to bear in his new book, a hefty and glorious celebration of crime writing and writers entitled “The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and their Creators”.

The topic is, of course, as enormous as the book; and as Edwards points out in his introduction, there hasn’t been a decent study of the genre since Julian Symons’ groundbreaking “Bloody Murder”. I’ve read that book (I think it may still be in the house somewhere), and it *was* fascinating, though quite selective; “Life…”, however, takes things to a different level with 724 pages which explore crime writing from an early (and perhaps unexpected) genesis, right up to Scandi-crime, modern PIs and even a look at diversity in the genre.

On his epic journey through the development of the crime novel, Martin takes in the usual suspects – Poe’s pioneering tales, Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings, Roderick Alleyn, Peter Wimsey – as well as drawing in modern detectives like Rebus. There’s psychological fiction, the American police fiction genre, domestic and theatre variants – really, this is a book of riches. Edwards’ knowledge of the subject is vast, and I found the chapters on Dashiell Hammett (a long-time favourite), Maigret and European crime and of course Agatha Christie particularly interesting. There were names new to me, and needless to say I’ve ended up with lots of lists scribbled in a notebook…

An element of the book I absolutely loved was the breadth of the titles and authors it covers. One chapter in particular looks at ‘Borges and postmodernism’, and makes fascinating reading. I’ve read and loved much Borges, and he often slips into mystery territory, although always with his own distinctive twist to it. In this chapter, Edwards explores Borges’ background, his writing and his influence on later writers – and this section had a particularly bad effect on the wishlist! The book covers thrillers, noir, locked room mysteries, British police, US police, ironic mysteries, humour and radio shows. Bad boys like Raffles get a chapter of their own, and I would struggle to find anything he’s missed out! Edwards’ erudition is dazzling and I was mightily impressed by the range of his knowledge about books generally.

However, despite its huge size, “Life..” is an easy and extremely enjoyable read. Edwards has split his topics into short and manageable chapters, each with its own section of notation at the end. I think this is a brilliant way to do it, because the notes add so much to the narrative, but having them all in a big lump at the end wouldn’t have worked. This way, you can read a chapter and its notes, write down all the new books and authors you want to explore, and then move onto the next section – wonderful, and it makes the book very dippable! There’s also a select bibliography (dangerous…) plus three different indices to help you navigate titles, names and subjects.

There were so many treats in “Life…”, whether Edwards was exploring the groundbreaking “Caleb Williams” or post-war spy fiction; his comprehensive look at the genre was a treat from start to finish. It’s impossible to convey the range of works he looks at in a blog post, and I can’t applaud more vigorously the amount of work which must have gone into this book – it’s an absolute triumph! With a subject as wide-ranging as crime writing, it might be thought impossible to produce a definitive study; however, with “Life..” I think Martin Edwards has succeeded and produced a wonderful guide to the genre from its inception to its current iterations. It’s a mighty achievement and essential reading for anyone who loves crime fiction in all its forms. I could go on forever about how good this book is, but I really think you should just go and read it – it will keep you happily occupied for hours!

“A disagreeable sensation of eeriness crept over him” @BL_Publishing #MurderByTheBook @medwardsbooks #BLCC

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The British Library have been excelling themselves recently with their crime classic re-releases, and in particular with their short story collections. These have always been a high point, bringing some wonderful forgotten authors back into the public eye, and I was knocked out by “Guilty Creatures” which I read back in July. However, the most recent release was one which was guaranteed to appeal to not only me but to just about every bookish person out there! The volume in question is called “Murder by the Book” and it’s subtitled ‘Mysteries for Bibliophiles’. Edited and introduced by the excellent Martin Edwards, it’s a collection which really lives up to its promise.

It would be all too easy to fall into the habit, when putting together an anthology like this, of picking out the usual names; ones which devotees of Golden Age crime will know or expect to see. However, the BLCCs have never gone down this route, either with their full length works or their collections, and part of the joy of reading these books has been the chance to make your reading acquaintance with a new author. “Murder by the Book” is no exception to the rule, mixing well known names with obscurer ones, making it a real pleasure to read.

”Murder…” contains 16 short stories of perhaps surprising variety. As well as authors and publishers featuring, there are tales where the solution hangs on a particular volume, books are subject to theft, the plot pivots on a manuscript or booksellers are involved. The range is impressive and all are wonderfully enjoyable.

As for the authors, well the selection can’t be faulted. There’s Gladys Mitchell, with her “The Manuscript”, a knotty tale which proves that Bulgakov was wrong… “Chapter and Verse” is a story of Inspector Alleyn and his wife Troy by Ngaio Marsh which, as well as being clever and entertaining, reminded me how much I enjoy her books and how long it is since I read one. In “We Know You’re Busy Writing…” the marvellous Edmund Crispin tackles the problems faced by a writer who’s constantly being interrupted. And I was particularly delighted with the inclusion of an uncollected Philip Trent story from E.C. Bentley, “Trent and the Ministering Angel”, as I have read and loved all of his other works.

Authors I know less well or not at all, such as Roy Vickers, Marjorie Bremner, Victor Canning and the Coles, provide some cracking mysteries, and our cousins across the pond also make an appearance in the form of a chilling tale from Philip MacDonald called “Malice Domestic”. Many of these are authors I really should read more of, including Nicholas Blake (the pseudonym of poet Cecil Day-Lewis) – his detective is Nigel Strangeways and his books highly regarded, though I think I’ve read little (possibly none…) of his work. The story of his collected in this volume is “A Slice of Bad Luck” which sees Nigel investigating a most outré murder which takes place very dramatically amongst a dinner gathering of authors who are members of the Assassins Club (a skit on the Detection Club, of which Blake was a member). A bold killing in the dark creates its own problems, although there’s one obvious suspect. However, after some twisty deduction Strangeways brings the case to a satisfactory, if perhaps unexpected, resolution, and I hope the real dinners of the Detection Club were not quite as dramatic…

Needless to say, “Murder by the Book” is another stellar collection from the British Library. There’s such variety in the stories, from more traditional country house style crimes to tales like John Creasey’s “The Book of Honour” which takes the reader to India. The book may be aimed at crime-loving bibliophiles but it’s a great read from start to finish and ideal for anyone who loves a good mystery short story. A real treat, and highly recommended!

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

Drama, humour and mystery in the early days of the war! #BLCC @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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In complete contrast to my last read, today on the Ramblings I’m heading off to WW2 London with another marvellous release in the British Library Crime Classics range. Truth be told, a good number of my favourites have been set during that conflict, and the blessing of having crime fiction into which you can escape is something Martin Edwards picks up in his excellent intro. More of that later, maybe – but now onto the book, which has an interesting history of its own…

“Murder’s a Swine” was first published in 1943, and was the second crime book from Nap Lombard; the first was “Tidy Death” in 1940. However, fascinatingly, Nap Lombard was actually a pseudonym for a husband-and-wife writing team – Pamela Hansford Johnson and Gordon Neil Stewart. Johnson would go on to be a successful novelist in her own right, later marrying the writer C.P. Snow; Stewart seems to have sliped into obscurity. However, on the strength of this mystery, they made a formidable writing team!

The protagonists/sleuths of “Swine…” are Agnes and Andrew Kinghof; and the setting is the ‘phoney war’, that period of time in World War Two from September 1939 to April 1940 when war had been declared but nothing much seemed to be happening apart from a lot of messing around with blackouts, sandbags and air raid wardens. In the middle of this set-up, Agnes, whose husband is away in the army, stumbles on a dead body hidden in the sandbags of their building’s bomb shelter. Fortunately, Andrew turns up on leave, as hot on the heels of this discovery, one of their upstairs neighbours is terrorised by the sight of a pig’s head at her fourth-floor window! This is followed by threatening messages signed “Pig-sticker”, and the amateur sleuths can’t help but get involved. Luckily, the wonderfully-named Inspector Eggshell is happy to have them on board, although Andrew’s cousin is not. The latter, Lord Winsterstone, ironically nicknamed by the Kinghofs “Lord Pig”, is something high up in Scotland Yard and is furious at them getting involved!

As the two detectives sleuth away, it becomes clear that someone in their block of flats is likely to be the guilty party. An old family feud is revealed; there is another death plus more and more frights and threats. But who *can* the culprit be? Madame Charnet, a deaf Frenchwoman, seems unlikely; Mr. Warrender, who works in Government, appears very respectable; and Felix Lang, the trainee doctor, surely has to be too scatty to behave in such a sinister way… With Andrew coming and going according to the vagaries of the army, Agnes getting herself into all sorts of scrapes, Eggshell beavering away behind the scenes to try to get to the truth, the entrance of a lovely young legatee, and Lord Pig attempting to control his temper and get the better of the Klinghofs, there really wasn’t a dull moment in the story! It builds up to a wonderfully dramatic climax (which is perhaps a tad unorthadox, but nevertheless really enjoyable), and the book left me wishing there were more Nap Lombard tales to read!

Waterloo presented its usual appearance of war-time excitement. Tired men in khaki and blue trailed the kit towards the platforms, wives and sweethearts roamed in search of their lovers through the bands of fog. In the buffets glasses and thick china rattled and clattered. The smoke from a thousand cigarettes rose to the vaultings above. Porters swung the trolleys wild just in time to miss the heedless lounger. Men and women kissed and clung, oblivious to the sifting crowds. Mothers, with nodding, wailing babies awake too late, sought their men folk.

One particular joy in “Swine” was the wonderful portrayal of the Klinghofs; as Martin Edwards mentions in the intro, there’s more than a hint of Nick and Nora Charles from “The Thin Man” (which is a huge favourite of mine) and their drinking, verbal repartee and obvious affection for each other is quite lovely (there’s even a sly reference to Myrna Loy, who played Nora in the films). Agnes is a particular standout; given by the author(s) plain looks but an outstanding voice and legs, she’s plucky and game for any adventure. The supporting cast is wonderful too, with Eggshell a real favourite; and watching Lord Pig failing to outdo the Klinghofs was hilarious. In fact, humour is a strong element of the book; although that doesn’t stop there being a corresponding darker side. The villain is really villainous; a right nasty piece of work, and there are times when I was on edge because of the genuine peril in which the heroes and their allies found themselves!

“Murder’s A Swine” has to count as one of the most enjoyable British Library Crime Classics I’ve read; and I *have* read a lot of them, and I *have* loved most of them, so the bar is high. But the combination of wartime setting, fiendishly clever mystery (I didn’t guess….), brilliant characterisation, plus laugh out loud humour balanced with creepy terror, made this one a real winner. I so wish that the Nap Lombard pair had created more books relating the exploits of Agnes and Andrew Kinghof; but they didn’t, so I can only hope that at least the British Library will release their other title as a Crime Classic! As Martin Edwards concludes, this kind of escapist, entertaining mystery must have been a wonderful distraction during the War, and he’s definitely right that it is during a pandemic too…

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

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!

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! 😀

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