Home

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

22 Comments

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!)

Recent Reads: A Literary Journey Through Wartime Britain by A.C. Ward

10 Comments

This little gem of a book came my way quite by chance, thanks to the kind offer of a fellow Virago-ite on LibraryThing (thanks, Peggy!) It’s a lovely little hardcover with a hessian style cover, and I was slightly surprised that such a quality book should be published in wartime – until I realised that it had been put out by the OUP in New York!

lit jrn
Published in 1943, LJ is a paean to the literature and architecture of the British Isles. Wren takes a look at the historical sites in the land which have an artistic significance, and sees how they have survived (or not) the strictures of WW2. Starting in London, which comprises quite a large chunk of the book, he then casts his gaze on the various regions of England, Scotland and Wales, covering the breadth of the country’s literature, from Chaucer, through Burns, right up to the Bloomsberries.

It’s a fascinating volume, with some heartbreaking images of damaged buildings and monuments, as well as some sweet little drawings by Frederick T. Chapman. Naturally, because of the time it was published, it’s difficult to see the book as anything other than a propaganda exercise; but this doesn’t make it any the less interesting, and also valuable as a record of the changes taking place in Britain that would continue after the war. One particularly relevant paragraph covers the move of the Covent Garden flower market from its site, and the possible future of the area, in a very prescient way.

St. Pauls in the Blitz

St. Paul’s in the Blitz

Reading something written during the war years always brings home the effect of conflict in a very immediate way, and I found the book rewarding because of this. However, I have to say that my thoughts strayed a little to other victims of the conflict, as I watched recently the first part of a fascinating series on BBC4, “In Their Own Words – 20th Century Composers”. The show featured one of my favourite composers, Shostakovich, and obviously focused very much on his Leningrad Symphony, used as a propaganda item during the siege, and broadcast live during the fighting.  But it also covered the composition of his String Quartet No. 8, which he was inspired to write in part by a visit to post-war Dresden (which suffered mightily from bombing) and which he dedicated to all victims of fascism and war.

Dresden, after bombing

Dresden, after bombing

So much as I enjoyed this slim volume, and found inspirational commentary on British literature and landscape, it’s made me think more widely about the effects of conflict. We need to nurture intelligence, art and creativity and realise that War Is Not a Good Thing – for anyone.

%d bloggers like this: