The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons (1957)

John Wilkins suffers occasionally blackouts, brought on by drinking, which leave him with no memory what he has done during that time. Could he have committed a crime and be completely oblivious to it?

The first section of the book “Before” is John’s statement to a consulting psychologist which details his unhappy marriage to May, his relationship with his mother and Uncle Dan, and his growing infatuation with Sheila Morton, the new librarian.

The second section “After” is concerned with a criminal trial before matters are wrapped up (or are they?) in an epilogue.

This is not a novel of detection, but the then the series is Crime, rather than Mystery, Classics, and is instead an exploration of the difference between how an individual perceives himself and how others see him, followed by a review of the British legal system and how it does, or doesn’t deliver justice.

So not entirely my cup of tea but I enjoyed the writing style and as Martin Edwards says in the introduction “it is also of interest in the way it documents British social history.”

A letter from Sheila to a friend reveals that what John has taken to be encouraging signs are merely pity and kindness which is interesting in light of recent revelations coming from the #MeToo movement where many women say that they don’t wish to offend men and so are nicer to them than they may really want to be which is then misread – something I can relate to in the past which lead to me being overly persistent in, for want of a better phrase, pressing my suit. Not in a physical sense, but in continuing to send Valentine’s etc hoping against hope that eventually my feelings would be reciprocated. In the unlikely event that anyone from my past is reading this and was upset by this type of behaviour then all I can do is say sorry.

Amongst the darker elements, there is humour to be found, in particular this quote from when his hostess tries to seduce him:

“She was a middle-aged woman, nearly forty(!!!), and I felt nothing but disgust.”

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “Who – Librarian/bookstore owner/publisher”.

 

 

The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean (1957)

I’ve recently started re-reading the early Alistair MacLean novels and whilst not a classic mystery, along with a number of other thrillers, it made the Crime Writers’ Association Top 100 books list in 1990 so I feel justified in giving it a full review on this blog.

1,200 Allied soldiers wait on the Aegean island of Kheros to be defeated by an impending German assault. The Royal Navy could evacuate them if only the massive guns on the nearby island of Navarone could be disabled and so far they have been immune to everything that has been thrown at them.

In one last throw of the dice, Captain Keith Mallory and his handpicked commando squad are sent to enter Navarone by the backdoor: the sheer, virtually unclimbable, South Cliff. Facing physical hardship and extreme danger at every turn, and the tightest of deadlines, can they succeed where everyone else has failed?

This book sets the template in many ways for MacLean going forward: the feats of men (and it is almost always men) attempting the impossible whilst being outnumbered and outgunned, facing the possibility of betrayal from within and at their physical limit, often in the freezing cold, and usually sleep deprived. The particular narrative here of a small, specialised group being sent undercover to achieve a specific objective would also influence other writers. This was the first book of this type that I ever read and I haven’t since come across anything similar with an earlier date so if anyone does know of any precursors please let me know.

The book touches upon various concepts that may not normally be pulled out and analysed from a thriller but I want to do so here:

1. The unfair parental expectations put on Stevens by his father. As much as the next man I want my children to be Sheffield Wednesday supporting GAD addicts and whilst one of those has already gone down the drain, I know that, in the words of the well-known proverb, you can lead a child to a well-stocked GAD library but you can’t make them read.

2. Although Stevens appears to be successful ideas this has come at a great personal cost. He is all too aware of his own fears and believes Mallory and Andrea to be fearless superheroes until the latter explains otherwise:

“We are all brave men and we are all afraid, and what the world calls a brave man, he, too, is brave and afraid like all the rest of us. Only he is brave for five minutes longer. Or sometimes ten minutes, or twenty minutes – or the time it takes a man sick and bleeding and afraid to climb a cliff.”

If Stevens had felt able to talk about his struggles, or more importantly Mallory as he himself acknowledges had spotted that Stevens was in no fit shape to be the last man on the climb, things may have worked out very differently. Speaking to myself as much as to the reader, we need to more open about our own struggles and especially be aware of what other people may be going through.

3. Whilst Jensen will send men to almost certain death with almost no chance of success the idea of sending someone to certain death with a much better chance of success i.e. “cram a Mosquito full of TNT and crash-dive it into the mouth of the gun cave” is not countenanced. But whilst you may not be able morally to send someone to certain death, it transpires that someone can be free to choose this of their own volition: after all “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The book was filmed in 1961 starring Gregory Peck and David Niven and this diverges somewhat from the book, to its detriment in my opinion, but it did give us this wonderful theme by Dimitri Tiomkin which was later adapted in various Ska versions such as this by the Specials and successfully summarised Squadron Leader Torrance’s views into this quote from the brilliant Richard Harris.

 

When Googling book cover images I also found that there was a related toy:

 

 

The full CWA list can be found here on the Past Offences blog where each title has been reviewed. I own 27, have read another 23, have another 3 on my TBR pile – although The Woman in White despite being started may never get finished – and am interested in a further 4.

What Else I’ve Been Reading Recently

There Was An Old Woman by Ellery Queen – old Ellery is back in a tale that is clearly set before “Calamity Town” and I believe I have read was drafted a lot earlier as well. Two members of the eccentric shoemaking Potts family take part in an early morning duel and despite Ellery’s precautions it does not end well. This sets the scene for a mystery that rivals “The Greek Coffin Mystery” for complexity and ends with a bizarre piece of in-universe retconning. A very good read and apologies to Brad for once again relegating Queen to a mere footnote!

The Perks of Being a Blogger

Having encouraged my readers to increase the supply of GAD fiction in the charity shops of Bristol in my last post, I was contacted by a very generous gentleman who said he lived in the area and had some duplicates that he had not gone round to donating to a charity shop and would I be interested in them! The answer as the Churchill dog used to say was “Oh, yes!”

So I’m very excited to have picked up the following today:

So I’ll be able to keep up with JJ’s Minor Felonies and who perhaps in R. A. J. Walling or Augustus Muir I could find my very own Brian Flynn!

But this post is not just to rejoice in my good fortune because I also brought back seven books that I already have which are available to anyone who is interested:

So there are the five paperbacks shown above (not actual images as the blog didn’t like my photos – actual images can be provided on request) and two hardbacks with no dustjackets: The Footsteps at the Lock by Ronald Knox and a Josephine Tey omnibus comprising The Singing Sands, A Shilling for Candles, and the Daughter of Time.

I don’t want this to be first come, first served, as that may not be very fair so please don’t put your interest in the comments section. Either get in touch via the Contact Page and leave an email address or DM me on Facebook.

The books themselves are free and I can hand deliver at next year’s Bodies from the Library, or you can send me the postage.

 

 

 

 

 

The Paddington Mystery by John Rhode (1925)

One of the good things about GAD being re-published is that sometimes it gets given to those who don’t appreciate it and donate it to charity shops where it can be picked up by the likes of me. So although I’ve seen it reviewed in a none too favourable light at £1 for an as new copy of the recent paperback reprint it was time to become acquainted with the work of Cecil Street under his John Rhode pen-name ( I have read both Miles Burton titles in the BLCC range).

Harold Merefield (pronounced “Merryfield” – so why not just spell it that way?) returns home in the early hours of the morning in a tired and emotional state to find a wet corpse in his bed. He immediately alerts the police and is their one and only suspect until the inquest finds that the man died of natural causes.

Although not under threat of the gallows, after a period of fast living Harold wishes to return to his former society and must remove any  trace of a stain upon his escutcheon and prove beyond any doubt that he had no part in what the press have dubbed “The Paddingto Mystery”.

Fortunately he knows contrarian mathematician Lancelot Priestley (a professor according to the text, a doctor according to gadection and Wikipedia, and both according to the back cover!)

“He claimed to be the precursor of Einstein, the first to breach the citadel of Newton. And as none of his acquaintances knew anything about these matters, he was not subject to the annoyance of contradiction in his own house.”

I very much enjoyed the premise, the writing style and the mechanics of the solution, but the exposition takes up a quarter of the book which is far too much. But overall a solid first novel and interesting that Rhode, like Dorothy L. Sayers two years earlier, began his career with the question “Whose Body?”.

So, in conculsion, buy all your friends and relations GAD for Christmas, especially if they live in the Bristol area: they may not like it but if they don’t it will still increase the volume of volumes in circulation which can’t be a bad thing!

 

 

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1954)

From the distant past of Death Comes as the End (the first historical murder mystery set significantly before the date of publication) we are flung forward in time to a futuristic murder mystery.

Asimov had already made massive contributions to the science-fiction genre with the original “Foundation” trilogy and his robot short stories, which saw the development of the Three Laws of Robotics and as they appear in this novel, they are worth quoting in full:

First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law: A robot must protect its existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Within this framework Asimov was able to explore a number of different scenarios often when robots seemed to have gone wrong with potential fatal consequences, with characters such as the engineering team of Donovan and Powell or robopsychologist Susan Calvin having to figure out what had happened and how to rectify it.

Asimov believed that science fiction need not be just a genre of its own but could be applied to other genres and this book demonstrates the legitimacy of this idea.

The Caves of Steel is set in New York, a sprawling city housing 20 million inhabitants beneath its vast metal domes. Adjoining it is Spacetown, home to a small number of Spacers, some of the descendants of the original colonists of the Outer Worlds, who have now returned to Earth.

When murder is committed in Spacetown, Lije Baley, plain-clothesman level C-5, is assigned to the case and he is partnered up with the Spacer robot Daneel Olivaw and if there is one thing Baley hates more than Spacers it is robots.

If he succeeds then promotion and its attendant privileges would be his but failure could mean declassification and a return to the Barracks of his childhood. However as the case progresses it becomes clear that it is not just his own fate that is in the balance but that of humanity as a whole.

The futuristic society envisioned by Asimov is revealed naturally through the narrative and he succeeds in creating a mystery that is fair-play within its setting and yet retains elements of the Golden Age.

I would highly recommend Asimov’s works to anybody but this is a particularly appropriate starting point for fans of the classic mystery.

Asimov wrote three more books in this series which may make an appearance on the blog in the next few months. He also wrote the fantastic collection of short sci-fi mysteries “Asimov’s Mysteries” including the wonderful story “The Billiard Ball” and five collections of Black Widowers stories in which the members of a private dining club interrogate a guest who always has a mystery that needs solving. Different possibilities are proposed before Henry, the waiter, intervenes with the correct solution.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

I think that death by blaster definitely counts as “How – Unusual murder method”.

 

 

#43 – Death Comes as the End

The recently widowed Renisenb returns to her father’s home after eight years away and initially believes that everything will be as it was before.

However when Imhotep returns with his new young concubine Nofret the lives of the whole family change for the worse. It does not take long for previously feuding family members to unite in their hatred of Nofret and soon death visits the estate for the first,but definitely not the last, time.

In her introduction Christie says that “Both place and time are incidental to the story – any other place at any other time would have served as well” and this is definitely accurate. Although a lack of a police force and a strong belief in the supernatural are required, this would have been the prevailing case through much of history and would still apply in some places even today.

As I have read elsewhere, although set in the distance past, it is a classic country house mystery: an ageing father who still controls the purse-strings and by extention the lives of his children; two brothers of different temperaments who clash in how to run the business; their wives, one shrewish, the other wrapped up in her children; a spoiled younger brother from a second marriage who wants to make his mark in the world; a grandmother who takes her few pleasures where she can but can still make her grown son squirm; a handful of servants; and two incomers, poles apart, in the returning sister and the new wife who very much puts the cat amonst the pigeons.

Christie had never scared me before but on first reading this I can remember being genuinely frightened, especially of one particular death. I think this is also because there is no element of law and order here – Renisenb and her allies must rely on themselves alone to find the murderer.

An interesting story, mainly for its setting, but for me not an essential Christie. As I’m not particularly attached to it, I’m interested to see what the BBC will make of it in their forthcoming adaptation, especially as it hasn’t been televised before.

Signs of the Times

The story is set c.2000 BC so almost everything is a Sign of the Times so I won’t go into any of them.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “When – Set pre-1800”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#43 – Death Comes as the End – WITH SPOILERS

The recently widowed Renisenb returns to her father’s home after eight years away and initially believes that everything will be as it was before.

However when Imhotep returns with his new young concubine Nofret the lives of the whole family change for the worse. It does not take long for previously feuding family members to unite in their hatred of Nofret and soon death visits the estate for the first,but definitely not the last, time.

In her introduction Christie says that “Both place and time are incidental to the story – any other place at any other time would have served as well” and this is definitely accurate. Although a lack of a police force and a strong belief in the supernatural are required, this would have been the prevailing case through much of history and would still apply in some places even today.

As I have read elsewhere, although set in the distance past, it is a classic country house mystery: an ageing father who still controls the purse-strings and by extention the lives of his children; two brothers of different temperaments who clash in how to run the business; their wives, one shrewish, the other wrapped up in her children; a spoiled younger brother from a second marriage who wants to make his mark in the world; a grandmother who takes her few pleasures where she can but can still make her grown son squirm; a handful of servants; and two incomers, poles apart, in the returning sister and the new wife who very much puts the cat amonst the pigeons.

Christie had never scared me before but on first reading this I can remember being genuinely frightened, especially of one particular death. I think this is also because there is no element of law and order here – Renisenb and her allies must rely on themselves alone to find the murderer.

An interesting story, mainly for its setting, but for me not an essential Christie. As I’m not particularly attached to it, I’m interested to see what the BBC will make of it in their forthcoming adaptation, especially as it hasn’t been televised before.

Signs of the Times

The story is set c.2000 BC so almost everything is a Sign of the Times so I won’t go into any of them.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “When – Set pre-1800”.

SPOILERS

The characters belief in the supernatural is key to the mystery working – Satipy’s end is described as follows:

“And then, suddenly, Satipy stiffened in her tracks. She stood as though frozen, staring back along the path. Her arms went up as though at some dreadful sight or as though to ward off a blow. She cried out something, stumbled, swayed, and then, as Yahmose sprang towards her, she screamed, a scream of terror, and plunged forward off the edge, headlong to the rocks below…”

If Renisenb and Hori just believed the evidence of their eyes it would be clear that Yahmose was trying to kill Satipy and that she had fallen trying to evade him. However because they believe in “ghosts, spirits, and the devil” they give credence to Yahmose when he says:

“She looked past me – over my shoulder – as though she saw someone coming along the path – but there was no one – there was no one there.”

and that possible Satipy has been spooked by the shade of Nofret.

The clue from childhood is pure Christie when their mother tells Sobek that is dangerous to hit Yahmose. We believe this is because it is dangerous to Yahmose from being hit when actually it is danger to Sobek that is meant because of Yahmose’s possible reaction.