Classic Crime: Pamela Branch – Murder Every Monday

4686175568_19876f4c70_bIt’s been a while since I reviewed a classic crime novel. It’s not that I haven’t been reading them. They’re a very enjoyable distraction especially when I want to read a book over an afternoon. However, I often neglect to review them which is a shame as there are some very good books by authors who are now sadly neglected. One such writer is Pamela Branch whose Murder Every Monday I read recently.

Clifford Flush hasn’t murdered anyone for a long time until one day he pushes a friend into the path of an oncoming bus. The man survives but insists Clifford leaves town. He takes an entourage, all of whom have been acquitted of at least one murder, into the countryside to become homicide consultants, helping people who want to commit murder. All goes well until one of the students is killed in the middle of the course. And there are plenty of suspects to choose from.

The edition that I read was a vintage penguin. The biography of Pamela Branch on the back cover reveals a fascinating life although I can see that she later died in her forties. It’s a shame she isn’t more well-known. Murder Every Monday falls into the humorous crime category but it’s so much more than that. Clifford Flush is a Ripley style figure who is part cold calculated murderer but also keeps a reign on the more extreme members of his team. The victim isn’t given much character development until his death. The focus is on first the motley bunch that constitute the criminals and then on the guests who come to learn how to kill people. Both groups are subtly portrayed. There are degrees of ‘badness’ although no-one is completely without stain.

The humour comes from the watching the characters interact with each other. There are romances, fallings out and murders committed in others’ names. It adds up to a rich melee of murderous fun and I’m definitely going to be reading more of Branch.

Classic Crime: Christianna Brand – Green for Danger

Picked up as part of my vintage paperback haul, the overwhelming opinion from other crime fiction enthusiasts was that Green for Danger by Christianna Brand was a classic of the genre. I found the biography of the writer inside the front cover fascinating. Christianna Brand worked a nursery governess, night club receptionist and model in Bond Street dress shops until she turned her hand to writing after she began  fantasising about doing away with an irritating colleague.

Green for Danger is set in Heron’s Park military hospital during the Second World War. A disparate group of seven protagonists are introduced to the reader in the opening chapter, through the device of a postman delivering their letters to the hospital. These include a consultant and his anaesthetist, a surgeon and a nursing Sister and three VAD volunteer nurses. These hospital workers constitute the group of suspects who come under the suspicion of Detective Sergeant Cockrill when the postman, Joseph Higgins, dies during an operation. Although his death is initially ruled an accident, Sister Marion Bates declares that she has proof that Higgins’ death was murder, and soon she is also killed.

The book was a good solid read although I think I found the first half of the novel more enjoyable than the second. The build up to Higgins’s death was expertly done, with enough information given about each of the future suspects to see the individuals beyond their professional guises and as people with personal histories that were relevant to the murder. The tension was gradually built up and came to a head with the second murder.

The second half of the book, dealing with Cockrill’s investigation, dragged a little although much was made of the interweaving relationships between the characters. Clearly hospitals have always been a hotbed of romance and broken relationships. When the eventual culprit was revealed it was slightly too melodramatic for me and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the explanation. The greatest strength of this book though was the depiction of working in a wartime hospital; taking shelter from the raids, working tiring shifts and coping with whatever casualty is admitted. The book was also good on the position of women in the hospital, enjoying their freedom away from conventional society but becoming entangled in difficult love affairs.

Overall it was en enjoyable read and I can see why it has become a classic.It reminded me a little of PD James’s Shroud for a Nightingale and I’d forgotten how hospitals can provide such rich pickings for crime fiction plots. The book was made into a 1948 film starring Alistair Sim as Inspector Cockrill and has also been highly praised.

Review: Holly Roth – The Mask of Glass

Many of us have a daydream where we change our appearance and see if those that we are close to are able to recognise us. What will be the feature that we are unable to hide? Our eyes? Body shape? It is, of course, also a well used device in crime fiction with both criminals disguising their true identity and deceiving their nearest and dearest (Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced) and also victims using disguise to avoid detection (Lisbeth Salander in Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy). Occasionally, the detective has to undertake this too – Sherlock Holmes of course revelling in disguise and trickery.

In this book by US author Holly Roth, who was writing in the 1950s and 1960s, Jimmy Kennemore of the US Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps is both victim and investigator when a routine investigation into a missing deserter goes horribly wrong. His innocent enquiries at a seedy photographic studio result in him trussed up in a garage and only narrowly surviving an explosion. He crawls to the apartment of a family friend, Doc, who patches him up and nurses him back to health.

When Jimmy looks in the mirror his boyish good looks have disappeared and he now looks like a much older man with deep grooves down the side of his face and his red hair turned white. This is where the fun starts. I enjoyed reading of Jimmy embracing his new identity, testing it out on his girlfriend Rita and his astonishment at how people react to his more macho appearance. Equally enjoyable is Jimmy’s investigations into the men who nearly killed him. His revisits to the shop and attempts to dupe his way into the gang were gripping passages full of tension. There is a Jack Reacher/Da Vinci Code feel to the narrative, Jimmy goes from one scrape to the next but his natural bravado and military training help him to brazen out his situations.

The denouement was slighty disappointing, I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say it had something to do with Communists and H Bombs, a sign of the times I suppose when the book was written in 1957. It all seemed to be wrapped up on the last two pages so I had a slightly dazed feeling after finishing it. Given the preceding action, a little more explanation would have been welcome. It provided though a real slice of New York’s mean streets, contrasted nicely with Doc’s Second Avenue lifestyle.

This is #1237 in the vintage Penguin series.

Classic Crime: Mary Roberts Rinehart – The Circular Staircase

I had an exciting Christmas present from Chris Simmons at crimesquad.com. Six vintage penguin crime books and all by women too. Last night, looking for something to read I idly flicked through the opening paragraphs of each of the books. This is the one that grabbed me: ” This is the story of how a middle-aged spinster lost her mind, deserted her domestic gods in the city, took a furnished house for the summer out of town, and found herself involved in one of those mysterious crimes that keep our newspapers and detective agencies happy and prosperous.” There was something irresistable about the opening line and happily it was a foretaste of things to come.

The central character is Rachel Innes, the middle-aged guardian of her orphaned nephew and niece, Halsey and Gertrude. She decides to rent a large country house for the summer and on the second night of her residency a man is found murdered. As the investigation into the killing progresses the house becomes the focus of increasingly strange activities and further unexplained deaths.

I have to admit I was a completely ignorant of the writings of Mary Roberts Rinehart and read it without any preconceptions. What immediately struck me was how modern the book was. Written in 1908, in England this is the period of Sherlock Holmes and Raffles and the Victorian era has not yet been shaken off. However, in the US, Rinehart wrote this book which seems to me to be firmly set in twentieth century America. Embezzlement, revolvers in the shrubbery, young women fleeing across the country by railroad. This is a country house mystery you couldn’t have written in England, although there is a whiff of Victorian (Wilkie Collins) melodrama about the plot.

The books greatest strength is the narrative voice of Rachel Innes. She is wry and self-deprecating, well aware of her limitations and strengths. There was one aspect of the narrative that I initially found distracting which was the continual references to events in the future – identifying characters for example who will play an important role later in the book. A quick search of the internet this morning reveals that Rinehart was the inventor of the ‘had-I-but-known’ type of mystery where the first person narrator hints of impending disaster that could have been averted if they had been equipped with knowledge that is later acquired. I didn’t find it irritating in this book but can understand how it could easily become a cliché.

I liked the sense of irony and the glimpse of a world that I don’t often read about. I’m not sure how easily available the other books are but I’d definitely like to read her again.

There’s a good review at Redeeming Qualities by a blogger who has read more of Rinehart’s books.

Classic Crime – Patricia Wentworth

The crime writer Patricia Wentwoth was recommended to me by my cousin Anwen who is a bit of a classic crime connoisseur. I’d heard of the writer but never read any of her books. I managed to pick up cheaply from  Abe Books two titles from Wentworth’s later years; The Watersplash written in 1952 and the 1955 Poison in the Pen.

Both books feature Miss Maud Silver, a former governess turned private detective. She is very much in the Miss Marple mode; she knits, listens to village gossip and is in cahoots with the national if not local police. Waterplash is set in the village of Greenings where bodies keep turning up in the ‘watersplash’ (a shallow stream according to the OED – I had to look it up). It’s a classic tale from the period involving blackmail, a missing will and a love affair that seems destined never to come to fruition.

Poison of the Pen was the more satisfying of the two books. This time the setting is Tilling Green, a different village, same characteristics – Anglican church which is the centre of village life, a hard-up lord of the manor, old ladies with nothing to do all day than gossip. This latter feature is a bit of a cliché but interestingly Wentworth makes reference in the book to the fact that there were two million more women than men in 1950s Britain, a fact that I was unaware of. Presumably this was the after effects of the First World War which took place forty years earlier.

I think in Poison in the Pen the character of Miss Silver came across better. She is a more down-at-heel Miss Marple, wearing her ‘second-best’ hat and old winter coat. The book is very well written with wonderful descriptions of the village characters, particularly the lower class lady of the Manor, wearing ‘imitation tartan in which the predominant colours were scarlet, yellow and green. Perhaps it was all these colours that gave her a curiously hard look.’ I don’t remember Agatha Christie ever being quite so bitchy.

I will definitely be reading more Patricia Wentworth. She is that satisfying mix of cosy village with sharp writing. Definitely a find.

Penguin Classic Crime: Elspeth Huxley

I recently started to collect the green penguin crime paperbacks. Introduced by Allen Lane in 1935, the Penguin main series was intended to open up book buying (and reading) to the general public. They were first sold in Woolworths for 6d and the crime books in the series were colour coded green. Once upon a time you could pick up early penguin crime books cheaply but now the going rate seems to be about £4 for a standard edition, and up to around £40 for the early editions. My collection is in its early stages as you can see by my picture below as I am only buying them as quickly as I can read them. I hope one day to have a row of books similar to Karyn’s who writes the excellent  A Penguin a Week blog although my bookshelves would be a sea of green.

I picked up recently picked up Elspeth Huxley’s Murder on Safari  – number 1129 in the series. Huxley was brought up in colonial Kenya and the majority of her early books were crime novels set in Africa. Murder on Safari features Vachell, the Canadian superintendent of Chania CID who is sent to a luxury hunting camp to investigate the disappearance of some jewels. When the victim of the theft is killed, attention focuses on each member of the hunting party. As a period crime novel, the book isn’t bad. There is a limited pool of suspects who could have committed the crime and the reader is presented with a possible motive for each suspect.  The characters are well drawn and sufficiently interesting for you to care who committed the crime. The descriptions of the Kenyan bush is interesting too and I liked how the luxury that existed within these camps – guests swilling champagne in their silk pajamas – contrasts with the perilous landscape outside.

However, I would say that the book has dated in terms of its vocabulary. There are broad generalisations made about the physiognomy of native Africans that is unacceptable today. Huxley does attempt to include some of the Africans into the plot as witnesses to the action but these scenes are not well written. Perhaps it is unfair to highlight stereotypical descriptions of indigenous people, as Huxley is by no means the only writer guilty of this. I have just finished listening to a talking book of Agatha Christie’s They Came to Baghdad where the descriptions of the Arab locals is equally poor. But if we are going to try to resurrect some of the less well read authors of the period for the modern reader, it is worth pointing out that some writing has just simply dated.

Murder on Safari is now out of print but easily available second-hand.