With a Bare Bodkin by Cyril Hare (1946)

Francis Pettigrew, barrister, has left his London chambers to do his bit for the war effort by taking up the position of legal adviser to the Pin Control, an obscure but important government department. His days are spent in the marbled halls of a requisitioned stately home surrounded by civil servants and his evenings at the Fernlea Residential Club with other incomers who are there for the duration.

Pettigrew discovers that one of there number, Mr Wood, is actually the detective story writer Amyas Leigh. This revelation results in a group of residents entertaining themselves in the evenings by devising a murder mystery based at the Pin Control. Their fun even extends as far as lurking around the ministry’s corridors to test the practicalities of possible scenarios.

Comedy turns to tragedy when life imitates art and a body is found but the victim is not the one selected by the writing group. Is there any connection with Inspector Mallett’s investigations into the black market or with the disappearance of the mysterious Blenkinsop file? Or is this a more personal murder?

The setting of the book is very well done and is a reminder that to some extent life outside of a bombed city continued with some degree of normality during the Second World War. The question of how temporary civil servants may look to gain a commercial advantage from their wartime service is something that I had not thought of before but is an underlying thread through this story.

However ultimately I found it frustrating because it turns on something that I found unbelievable – strangely enough this is not Hare’s fault as such – which for me parallels a scenario in current American politics. I know that others have reviewed this book quite favourably so please don’t let me put you off because I did enjoy it up until the end.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “What – Means of murder in the title”.

 

 

 

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The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr (1935)

“You do not believe then that a man can get up out of his coffin; that he can move anywhere invisibly; that four walls are nothing to him; and that he is as dangerous as anything out of hell?”

” I do not,” Grimaud answered harshly. “Do you?”

“Yes. I have done it. But more! I have a brother who can do much more than I can , and is very dangerous to you. I don’t want your life, he does. But if he calls on you…”

Professor Grimaud is threated by a stranger and three days later is shot by a masked man inside a locked room. But when the door is broken down no trace of the killer can be found and the snow surrounding the house is untouched. Dr Gideon Fell begins to make some sense of the dying man’s final words before news of a second impossible murder is received.

Although Carr’s most well-known and most celebrated work – N0. 1 on Edward D. Hoch’s 1981 Top 15 Locked Room Mysteries – a number of blogs I have read consider it overrated and definitely not his best. Possibly this is because the realisation that Dr Fell has that opens up the case would have been had by someone before too long and various things inevitably follow from it.

The other reason for its fame is because Gideon Fell admits that he is in a detective story and therefore does not need to make excuses for discussing the history of detective fiction. He begins by defending detective fiction in general before moving onto the locked room mystery. He has no truck with any secret passages or panels and having defined  his rules of what constitutes a locked room proceeds to discuss seven general scenarios by which it can appear that a murderer has escaped from a locked room followed by five scenarios of how it can be made to appear that a door was locked.

This has been a re-read of the only JDC title that I’ve ever read, although I am very much looking forward to rectifying that situation in the next couple of months with the other two cases in this volume and the four in the Dr Fell Omnibus.

Notes on the locked room lecture

Chapter 17 where Dr Fell discourses on murders committed in “hermetically sealed chambers” is quite spoilerific in relation to specific scenarios both with and without to particular titles. Apart from a section between items 1.7 and 2.1 and the last couple of paragraphs which relate to the case itself, this can be skipped by the reader if they so wish.

The works mentioned by name or author are:

The Adventure of the Crooked Man by Arthur Conan Doyle (1893)

The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux (1907) – described here as the best detective tale ever written

Initials Only by Anna Katherine Green (1911) and an unnamed work by the same author

An unnamed story by Edgar Allan Poe

The Man of the Forty Faces by Thomas W. and Mary E. Hanshew (1910)

The following four works described as “the most brilliant short detective stories in the history of detective fiction”:

The Hands of Mr. Ottermole by Thomas Burke

The Man in the Passage by G. K. Chesterton (1913)

The Problem of Cell 13 by Jacques Futrelle (1905)

The Doomdorf Mystery by Melville Davisson Post

An unnamed story by Israel Zangwill

An unnamed story involving Philo Vance (by S. S. Van Dine)

An unnamed story by Ellery Queen

This is besides the numerous methods mentioned without reference to a particular, some of which I recognised from GAD fiction and the TV series Jonathan Creek.

You have been warned!

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “Where – In a locked room”.

 

#29 – Dumb Witness

Emily Arundell falls down the stairs during the night. Her family believes she tripped on a ball that her dog, Bob, had left on the landing but she is not so sure and writes to her solicitor and to Hercule Poirot.

Poirot receives her letter, dated 17th April, on 28th June, and this intrigues him sufficiently to drive out to Market Basing to investigate. He finds that Miss Arundell died shortly after her accident of natural causes, but not before she had disinherited her two nieces and nephew in favour of her live-in companion, Wilhelmina Lawson. Poirot is suspicious that her death followed so closely after her accident and soon finds evidence that it was attempted murder – but as Hastings says that doesn’t mean that she actually was murdered. But Poirot refuses to let sleeping dogs lie and follows the scent wherever it takes him.

This is a much better book than I remembered as I had thought it was all about the dog, but actually his role is minimal. The book begins with a third person narrative of the events leading up to the “accident” so the reader is ahead of Poirot for once. The strength of the book lies in the first half where we see how Poirot introduces himself to Miss Arundell’s acquaintances and relations under a variety of guises and leads them to talk about the things that interest him and which start to provide him with information to build up a case of possible murder.

Overall not top dog, but neither is it the runt of the litter.

Recurring character development

Hercule Poirot

Always drinks hot chocolate for breakfast and sorts his opened post into four (unspecified) categories.

Uses the name Parotti when meeting some of the characters in this story.

Carries a folding rule which he uses here to measure the width of a recess.

He tells the Misses Tripp that he has travelled much in the East but as far as Hastings is aware he has only been once during the few weeks covered by Murder on the Orient Express and Murder in Mesopotamia.

Arthur Hastings

Attended Eton College.

Signs of the Times

The story is explicitly set in 1936.

Although the vicar at Southbridge says there is no need to come fasting, Emily Arundell never takes anything before Early Service. Some Anglicans fast before taking communion. In some cases this can be from the previous midnight.

General Arundell had served during the Indian Mutiny. Taking place in 1857-58 this was an ultimately unsuccessful uprising against the ruling British East India Company.

Hastings has bought a second-hand Austin. Herbert Austin began his car manufacturing career with Wolseley before creating the Austin Motor Company in 1905. In 1952 it merged with Morris Motors with the marque being used until 1987.

Hastings refers to the “burden of his song”. This seems to mean a primary, sometimes recurring, meaning.

Miss Arundell was prescribed Valentine’s beef juice and Brand’s essence by Dr Grainger. The former was a health tonic created in the 1870s by an American, Mann S. Valentine II. He founded a museum in Richmond, Virginia, dedicated to the city’s history. They sell Valentine’s Meat Juice t-shirts and recommend them as a Valentine’s Day gift! The latter is a chicken consommé created in 1820 by Henderson William Brand, chef at Buckingham palace. It is still made today and according to the company’s website scientific studies have shown that consumption improves concentration and memory.

Miss Peabody refers to two types of sleeve: leg o’ mutton and Bishops. The former are puffy at the shoulder before tapering and fitting tightly from elbow to wrist. The latter seems to get wider as it goes down the arm before tapering at the wrist.

Amongst other things, the Misses Tripp are theosophists and British Israelites. Helena Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York City in 1875 before moving to India. Theosophy has doctrine but is not dogmatic. Adherents only have to commit to “forming a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour”. British Israelism believes that the people of Britain are the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel (that is those deported from Israel after the Assyrian conquest c. 722 BC).

Hastings imagines that the Misses Tripp have no sanitation except for “an E. G. in the garden”. I presume this is some sort of outside toilet but can’t verify that.

Hastings hums “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day”. This modern classical vocal music song was first recorded in 1934 by Elsie Carlisle and has been covered many times since by varying artists including Perry Como (1958) and Eric Clapton (2016).

Charles Arundell says that he did not eavesdrop as “they were very particular about eavesdropping at Borstal”. In 1895 the Gladstone Committee proposed a form of detention to separate juvenile offenders from adult prisoners. The first such institution was opened in the village of Borstal, near Rochester, Kent in 1902. The borstal system was abolished in the UK in 1982 and was replaced with youth custody centres.

Bella Tanios’ daughter draws a “beautiful picture of Mickey Mouse”. Walt Disney asked Ub Iwerks to create a new cartoon character in early 1928. This was to replace Oswald the Lucky Rabbit who had appeared in Disney cartoons but whose rights were owned by Universal Studios. Mickey (originally Mortimer) Mouse was the result. By 1936 he had appeared in a number of films and comic strips.

References to previous works

Poirot refers by name to four personable murderers though without naming the cases in which they appear. These are Death in the Clouds, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Features no less than three doctors as significant characters so fulfils “Who – in the medical field”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen (1932)

Obligatory introduction to any review of an Ellery Queen book: there are two Ellery Queens:

(1) Ellery Queen is the pseudonym under which the son of a New York policeman writes up the real-life cases in which he and his father are involved. He writes detective fiction under his real name.

(2) Ellery Queen is the pseudonym of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee who wrote detective novels featuring the character Ellery Queen (1).

The convention I have seen elsewhere is that Ellery refers to the character and Queen to the authors and that is what I will use here.

Although the fourth in the series in order of publication, J. J. McC.’s introduction implies that this case came first chronologically and this is born out as we see the development of Ellery’s method and a particular aspect of his way of working.

The story begins at the funeral of Georg Khalkis, an art dealer of Greek extraction. Shortly after the service in the graveyard neighbouring the family home, a lawyer finds that the recently changed will, which he had seen five minutes before the burial party left the house, has vanished from the safe. The nosy crowd gathered outside the house swear that no one else has gone in or out of the house. A thorough police search of the property and all the people therein is undertaken which reveals nothing.

A few days later, Ellery is informed of the facts and deduces where the missing will must be. When this lead is followed up, the will is still not found, but something much more unpleasant is and thus begins Queen’s most elaborate mystery to date.

I was completely taken in – this is normally the case – but here I had thought I was on the right track for once only to then realise that I had seen exactly what Queen had wanted me to see and draw my flawed conclusion accordingly. And yet because of one particular aspect of this case, if I had checked something that briefly crossed my mind, I might have got to the solution.

In many ways the whole thing is nonsense – I don’t believe a real murderer would act as they do in this book – but if it is nonsense, it is glorious nonsense: a fabulously crafted example of the pure puzzle taken to extremes. Having learned in reading The Dutch Shoe Mystery to accept Queen on their own terms, I found this to be a brilliant read.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “What – Written by more than one person”.

 

Suicide Excepted by Cyril Hare (1939)

Having enjoyed “An English Murder” many years ago and Tragedy at Law last year, when the Bodies from the Library conference announced that Cyril Hare was up for discussion this year I decided to go all in and acquire his complete works.

“Tenant for Death” and “Death of a Sportsman” were both solid mysteries, introducing the reader to Inspector Mallett, whose prime characteristic is that he never lets an investigation prevent him from having three square meals a day.

This book begins when Leonard Dickinson returns, as his annual custom, to his old family home which is now a country hotel. The next day he is found dead in his room. A jury of his peers for good reason rules out accidental death and brings in a verdict of “suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed”.

This is unfortunate for his widow and two children as it invalidates a life insurance policy which he had taken out less than a year before. They are therefore forced to overturn the familiar pattern where a family of ne’er do wells are anxious to have a murder proved a suicide, instead having to demonstrate that a morose, pessimistic man did not kill himself, but was instead killed by a person or persons unknown, despite not having an enemy in the world.

The dead man’s children, Stephen and Anne, along with her fiancé, Martin, track down the people who were staying at the hotel at the time of the tragedy and start to discover that maybe, against all the odds, more than one of them may have had a motive for murder. However their quest would surely fail were it not for the fact that a holidaying Inspector Mallett was one of the last people to have seen Leonard alive and it is only when he becomes more interested in the case that it can be fully resolved.

Whilst it stretches coincidence to breaking point – what may be true in a country house mystery couldn’t be true in a country hotel mystery – it is the best of the first three Hare’s, and as I said above the first two were pretty good. Definitely one to consider if you are going to Bodies and only plan to sample Hare’s work.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

It appears in Bounty Books  “501 Must-Read Books” so fulfils “Why – it made a ‘best of’ list”.

 

 

 

#28 – Murder in the Mews

This collection of four longer short stories/novellas all feature Hercule Poirot (but not Arthur Hastings) and comprises:

(1) Murder in the Mews – “Nobody would hear a shot, for instance, on a night like this,” says Inspector Japp to Poirot on Bonfire Night. The next day it becomes apparent that a murder has been committed under the cover of the fireworks.

(2) The Incredible Theft – Poirot investigates a matter of national importance.

(3) Dead Man’s Mirror – Poirot arrives at Hamborough Close only to find that his host has just committed suicide inside a locked room. So why was he sent for?

(4) Triangle at Rhodes – This triangle is not Pythagorean but Eternal and a Greek Tragedy ensues.

(1) is a nice take on a common idea, (2) is not very exciting, (3) could easily have been extended into a full length novel, and the ideas within  (4) are explored more fully in a later novel.

Recurring character development

Hercule Poirot

Has previously met Major Riddle, Chief Constable of Westshire (3).

Signs of the Times

Murder in the Mews is probably set in 1935.

Mrs Allen was visited by the driver of a Standard Swallow saloon (1). The Swallow Coachbuilding Company Limited was founded by William Walmsley and William Lyons in 1930. They used a chassis produced by the Standard Motor Company to build the SS 1. The business became Jaguar Cars in 1945.

Poirot asks Lord Mayfield why neither the police nor the AA scouts were alerted so that they could help trace the thief (2). The Automobile Association was founded in 1905 to help motorists avoid speed traps. A test case from 1910 prevented AA patrolmen from indicating to motorists that they were approaching a speed trap. However they then saluted members displaying a badge on their unless their was a speed trap ahead as they could not be prosecuted for failing to salute. The more familiar breakdown service began in 1920.

Mr Hunberly is Prime Minister (2). If this was set when first published (April 1937) then the actual holder of that office would be Stanley Baldwin.

Dead Man’s Mirror is set in 1936.

Gervase Chevenix-Gore’s biography refers to his service during the European War (1914-1918) which would now almost certainly just be referred to as the First World War rather than referencing a specific theatre of action (3).

Hugo Trent is in the Blues (3). This is the cavalry regiment the Royal Horse Guards which merged with the Royal Dragoons in 1969 to become The Blues and Royals.

Hugo says that Gervase had “certainly ‘been places and seen things’ – more than most of his generation” (3). This could be a reference to a 1935 book of the same name by Kenneth Mackenzie.

When discussing whether it is suicide or murder, Major Riddle says “Everything according to Cocker – but for one circumstance” (3). Edward Cocker (1631-1676) was a mathematician and thought to be the author of “Arithmetick”. This book was so popular that when meaning something was correct someone would say it was “according to Cocker”.

Gervase’s chef had been with the Emperor of Moravia (3). Moravia was part of Czechoslovakia at the time the story is set and is now part of the Czech Republic.

Valentine Chantry has modelled for Chanel (4). Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel began the business which became an international fashion house when she opened a millinery shop in 1909.

Waterproof make-up had already been invented by 1936 (4).

Commander Chantry wonders if there might be a general election because of “this Palestine business” (4). In late 1935 Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, leader of the Black Hand, a militant anti-Zionist and anti-British organisation, was killed in a battle with British police in Mandatory Palestine. This sparked the Arab Revolt in Palestine (1936-1939).

References to previous works

Mr Satterthwaite mentions the “Crow’s Nest business”, a reference to Three-Act Tragedy (3).

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Each story was adapted as an episode of the David Suchet series so fulfils “Why – book made into TV programme”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Amateur Cracksman by E. W. Hornung (1899)

Harry “Bunny” Manders is unwilling to face the social disgrace of a bounced cheque and is ready to blow out what little brains he has but before he does so he has one last, slender hope. Maybe A. J. Raffles, renowned cricketer and man-about-town, will show him some kindness in return for services rendered during their schooldays?

Raffles though has his own pecuniary difficulties but he invites Bunny to join him in visiting a “friend” who may be able to help them both even though it is already two o’clock in the morning. It takes some time before the naïve Bunny realises they are engaged in the burglary of a jeweller’s shop. Although he is initially disgusted, he finds crime exhilarating and becomes Raffles’ accomplice in a series of escapades.

E. W. Hornung married a sister of Arthur Conan Doyle and Raffles and Bunny are a deliberate anti-version of Holmes and Watson. Indeed this volume’s dedication is “To A. C. D. This form of flattery”.

I believe Raffles is the first “gentleman thief”(but please correct me if I am wrong) and he was soon to be followed by Arsène Lupin (Maurice Leblanc) and Hercule Flambeau (supporting character in G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories) and other anti-heroes such as The Four Just Men.

The stories included are:

The Ides of March – Raffles saves Bunny’s life and introduces him to a life of crime.

A Costume Piece – Raffles proves to be a master of disguise.

Gentlemen and Players -Raffles is both an amateur and a professional.

Le Premier Pas – Raffles’ first crime – in Australia!

Wilful Murder – Raffles is driven to take extreme measures.

Nine Points of the Law – Bunny steps in where Raffles has failed.

The Return Match – Raffles is visited by an escaped convict.

The Gift of the Emperor – Raffles’ greatest exploit.

Nine Points of the Law is the pick of this collection – overall they are not worth paying too much for but I have downloaded a free version for the Kindle in the past.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “Who – Watson narrator”.