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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-12-13 00:18
16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 8 - Las Posadas: A Christmas House Party, the Murderous Way
Murder for Christmas - Francis Duncan,Geoffrey Beevers
Murder for Christmas - Francis Duncan

Book themes for Las Posadas: Read a book dealing with visits by family or friends.

 

Christmas house parties were definitely "a thing" with the Golden Age mystery writers -- small wonder since they are, in essence, nothing but a seasonal subspecies of the subgenre that, perhaps, has come to be more synonymous with Golden Age detective fiction than any other subgenre: the country house mystery.  So it's no surprise that Francis Duncan, who published some 20 mystery novels between the 1930s and the early 1950s, but who was quickly and thoroughly forgotten after his books had fallen from favor,* turned to the subject as well, sending his amateur detective (and retired tobacconist) Mordecai Tremaine to the English countryside to attend the Christmas party of wealthy Benedict Grame.  But what begins like a true-blue Dickensian Christmas extravaganza, with Grame doing his level best to mime the likes of Samuel Pickwick and Mr. Fezziwig (Father Christmas / Santa Claus suit, presents on the Christmas tree, and all), in due course inevitably turns into a ghastly crime scene.  The victim is Grame's closest associate; a man whom some, but by far not all of those present seem to have a reason to dislike, but who to Tremaine seemed decidedly more "on the level" than some of the other guests, who had exhibited an unexplicable tension even before, and whose nerves now seem to resemble bow strings a fraction of a second before breaking point.

 

Few of the party's guests actually struck me as likeable -- but while I would have been quite happy to live with this in and of itself (which is, after all, par for the course of the average country house mystery), the solution 

makes clear that Duncan's real purpose here seems to have been to turn Christmas (particularly the Dickensian Christmas clichés) on its (or their) head, and the final reveal in the book's last pages contains a brutal about-face,which

(spoiler show)

considerably marred my enjoyment of the story, even if I had seen parts of it coming and my early suspicion as to the murderer's identity (though not their motive) turned out to be correct.

 

I own a print edition of this book, which I did pull for reference purposes on occasion, but I primarily listened to the deligihtful unabridged audio recording narrated by Geoffrey Beevers, who finds just the right tone for each situation and character.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

* As the Guardian reports, even his publisher no longer knew anything about him when Murder for Christmas was undusted and became a surprise revival hit -- it took for the author's children to see the book at their local Waterstone's to become aware of the publisher's appeal for information and get in touch with them.

 

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review 2017-12-12 22:58
16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 5 - Advent: Golden Age Christmas Vignettes
Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries - Various Authors,Martin Edwards

 

Book themes for Advent: Read a book with a wreath or with pines or fir trees on the cover.

 

Silent Nights is the first of (at this point) two Christmas mystery short story anthologies in the British Library's "Crime Classics" series, edited by Martin Edwards. The anthology combines stories by well-known and -remembered authors (e.g., Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Wallace, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham) with stories by authors who, even if they may have been household names in their own time -- and many were members of the illustrious Detection Club -- have since been rolled over by the wheels of time; not always deservedly so.

 

The standout story in the collection is doubtlessly Arthur Conan Doyle's The Blue Carbuncle (one of my all-time favorite Sherlock Holmes adventures that shows both ACD and his protagonists Holmes and Watson at their absolute best), but I enjoyed almost all of the stories -- in varying degrees, and not all of them were apt to make me want to go on reading an entire novel by the same author, but several did; and thus, I am glad that I have extended my "Detection Club / Golden Age crime fiction quest" to the likes of J. Jefferson Farjeon, Ethel Lina White, Edmud Crispin, Leo Bruce, and Nicholas Blake (better known as Cecil Day-Lewis, poet laureate and father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis).

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review 2017-11-23 19:57
A Good Read -- Which Could Be So Much Better
Lonely Magdalen: A Murder Story - Henry Wade

Sigh.  How to rate this book?  There's a good story stuck in here, both as far as the mystery and the police investigation is concerned and as far as it comes to the back story.  Inspector Poole is a likeable enough detective (much more so than his boss, who is decidedly more of the plodding persuation and who, in addition, couldn't give a fig for an accused's / suspect's rights); his investigation is inspired, and he manages to feel true emphathy for everybody involved in the case, from the victim to the witnesses and the suspects ... or so I thought until I reached the final chapters.  Moreover, Wade, who had seen WWI battlefield action himself and thereafter entered public service, clearly knew what he was writing about in both areas.  In fact, the middle part (which unravels the witness's back story as a sort of story within the story) was what I liked best, and it made me wonder why Wade (apparently) never tried his hand at literary fiction -- like all the leading lights of the Detection Club he was certainly a good enough writer to have been able to pull it off successfully.

 

But ... but.  My enchantment wore off -- not entirely, but enough to take this book down a notch from the 4-star track on which it had been until then -- the further I got into the book's concluding third part.  There had been one comment even in Part 2, concerning the supposed inheritability of a proclivity for a "profligate lifestyle" (which Wade, highly educated as he was, ought to have known better than to buy into, and which smacked uncomfortably of the notion of inherited "evil genes" or "criminal genes"), but I decided to let it go, thinking that maybe Wade had resorted to this notion in an attempt -- and probably not even such a misguided one, with a large part of his original audience -- to make the victim appear more sympathetic and her back story even more tragic ... as if the fall from baronet's daughter to prostitute wasn't dramatic enough in and of itself, especially in class-conscious 1930s England.

 

What began to grind on me after a while in Part 3, though, was that class consciousness also began to play a role in Inspector Poole's thought processes -- and it impacted his investigation, not to mention his acquiescence in his boss's misconduct. 

 

When -- through Poole's own investigation -- suspicion falls on people from the victim's former life among England's nobility, we suddenly witness the inspector ruminating on what a shame it would be if people with that background would actually turn to murder to solve their personal difficulties, and we find him reminding himself with great effort that everybody is equal before the law and the suspects' personal background doesn't constitute grounds per se to exclude them from the investigation on the grounds of noblesse oblige (I didn't count how frequently exactly that expression cropped up in this context, but it certainly felt like a lot).

 

[Comments on the novel's resolution in both below spoilers; don't open them if you haven't read the book and are still planning to do so.]

Worse yet, on the novel's final 2 pages it becomes clear that Poole has let this very sentiment get away with him after all and has, despite spending sweat-soaked sleepless nights over the issue, refrained from even investigating another possible suspect -- the one who turns out to very likely have been the true culprit -- who likewise belongs to the nobility, just because he couldn't bring himself to go down that particular road, focusing instead on the two more obvious upper-class suspects and hoping and praying they'd be able to eventually prove their innocence (as if that were their job to begin with) ... which, at considerable personal cost, they eventually do -- and even worse, ultimately letting a very likely innocent but lower-class suspect, who is not so fortunate as to be able to remove the presumption created against him, go to the gallows instead.

(spoiler show)

And when, in order to clinch the investigation shut, Poole's boss resorts to bullying the suspect who, at the time, has the strongest presumptions against him -- against all rules of proper police conduct and procedure, as both Poole and his senior officer realize perfectly well -- Poole stands by his boss when the issue is brought up before the judge, committing perjury rather than seeing the law that he himself is sworn to uphold actually be enforced, and the illegal interrogation thrown out. 

Which is even worse since we learn on the book's final pages that Poole at this point is harboring at least a very strong doubt whether this particular suspect isn't innocent after all, but also a suspicion who the real killer might be -- and yet, he can't bring himself to speak up.

(spoiler show)

It can be argued of course (and Martin Edwards does in The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books) that Lonely Magdalen's conclusion is intended to expose police brutality.  If so, the attempt is not exactly a rousing success in my book, however, and frankly, I don't actually buy it.  Poole himself is too much caught up in the sort of corps spirit that makes his boss's misconduct possible in the first place -- he sweats a bit over his perjury, but he never seriously considers not to back up his boss; this sort of thing is just not done.  And Poole is certainly leagues from Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, who would always put the discovery of the real culprit first, no matter who and how well-respected they are (because it just "wouldn't do" to let a murderer go free and see an innocent person hanged in their stead) -- not to mention the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot (decidedly no respecters of class, either of them) and, by the same token, also the occasionally very class-conscious Lord Peter Wimsey, who likewise, as even his very first investigation makes clear, would rather see a highly respected member of society be convicted of a murder they've actually committed than let an innocent person without the means to afford a proper defense go to the gallows in his stead.

 

Since it was "only" the ending of the book that was marred in this way (and not everybody seems to be reading it in the same way as I do in the first place), I've decided to only take my rating down to 3 1/2 stars.  Still, it's a pity, because there actually is much to both contemplate (in terms of the story) and to enjoy (in terms of the writing) here, and I'd very much hoped for this read to end on a different note.

 

I read this for both the "Long Arm of the Law" chapter / square of the Detection Club bingo and the Pancha Ganapti square of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season.

 

 

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review 2017-11-20 13:23
16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 16 - Kwanzaa: Headless Chicken Parade Part 2: Albert Campion
Traitor's Purse - Margery Allingham,David Thorpe

 

Well, I suppose that's what I get for not checking a book's online blurbs before reading it.  I downoladed this book purely because it was available on Audible and it was one of Allingham's Campion books that I hadn't read yet.  Turns out its plot chiefly rests on not one but two mystery tropes I don't particularly care for: the amnesiac detective and "Fifth Column" shenanigans, Golden Age mystery writer variety.

 

A few hours before the beginning of this book, Campion -- out on a secret mission whose full details are only known to him and Oates -- has gotten himself coshed on the head.  The book opens with him waking up in a hospital not knowing who he is and how he got there.  From an overheard conversation he concludes that he has been involved in a violent altercation that ended in the death of a policeman.  Within minutes, a young lady named Amanda whom Campion doesn't recognize but who seems to know him very well appears next to his hospital bed and whisks him away in what he discovers is his own car, to the house of an eminent scientists where, it turns out, Amanda and he are staying.  Campion also discovers that he seems to be involved in some sort of highly charged top-secret mission.  Now, instead of lying low until he has regained his wits and knows precisely who he is, what his role in that ominous mission is, whom he can trust, and what not to do if he doesn't want to give himself away -- and despite the fact that that same evening a death occurs that may well be connected with the ominous mission -- Campion starts running around like a headless chicken trying to bring the whole thing to completion.

 

Full marks for implausibility so far, Ms. Allingham.

 

Which brings us to trope no. 2, and which in its details is just about as ridiculously implausible as is the amnesia part of this book's plot.  Yet, the saving grace of this second part of the plot is (alas) that in the days of Russian meddling with the American and European democracies' political process via Facebook campaigns, "fake news" and other instances of rumor mongery, the mere concept of an enemy power's meddling with a country's political process

(here: by way of manipulating the target country's monetary politics)

(spoiler show)

does unfortunately no longer sound quite as ridiculous as it might have even a few years ago.

 

Still I really would have wished Allingham hadn't tried to match Christie in the wartime spy shenaningans game -- which was not a particular forte of either of them.

 

I listened to this book for Square 16 of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season, Kwanzaa: Read a book written by an author of African descent or a book set in Africa, or whose cover is primarily red, green or black.

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text 2017-11-04 16:21
Reading progress update: Finished.
The Golden Age of Murder - Martin Edwards

Finished last night, before starting Val McDermid's Forensics. -- Review to come.

 

Read this for the "free space" / Eric the Skull square of the Detection Club Bingo.

 

 

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