Vintage Reading Challenge – February 2018

The first three books below all appear in “The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books” by Martin Edwards.

Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare

Fulfils “Where – Features a court room scene”

A witty look at the British justice system during the first year of the Second World War as we follow the Honourable Sir William Hereward Barber, His Majesty’s Judge of the Assize, around the Southern Circuit.

He receives a death threat at the first stop on his tour, and that same evening is involved in a road traffic accident, with serious personal consequences, which ultimately reminds us how fragile some of the apparent certainties of our lives actually are. Further death threats and attempts on his life follow as he moves from town to town, and I don’t want to say any more than that for fear of spoiling it.

I haven’t read many legal based mysteries, but the legal process can be frustrating for mystery readers, or at least it is for me. I don’t want to know whether on the balance of probabilities someone is found guilty or not, I want to know whether they did it or not (at least to the satisfaction of the Great Detective), although of course as The Poisoned Chocolates Case shows us, is there actually definite truth within mystery fiction? Although reviews are mixed, I would like to read Pierre Bayard’s “Sherlock Holmes was Wrong” and “Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” which deal further with that subject.

This isn’t actually a problem with this book and it was an enjoyable read, but while the clues are there, possibly only a legal mind would be able to decipher them. I preferred “An English Murder” by the same author, which is a Christmas country house mystery, again with legal sprinklings, but overall was more satisfactory.

The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake

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

Frank Cairnes is a widower, grieving for the death of his young son in a hit-and-run accident. Felix Lane is his pseudonymous alter ego who seeks to find the driver and have his revenge. But as the poet says “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley”.

I read this because of its reputation, and all I will say is that it definitely lives up to it, and I don’t feel I can say more for many reasons. A Must Read for any fan of the Golden Age (I hope JJ doesn’t disagree this time!), although for various reasons, if you think you may read more of the Nigel Strangeways series, I would recommend reading “Thou Shell of Death” first, which is worth reading in its own right.

Green for Danger by Christianna Brand

Fulfils “Where – In a hospital/nursing home”

A Harley Street doctor, the local surgeon and anaesthetist, a Sister, and three VADs are brought together by the Second World War. The end of the first chapter reveals that by the end of the year, one of these seven will die, a self-confessed murderer.

A man dies on the operating table, and as it is unclear why, Inspector Cockrill is sent to investigate. He is about to leave when a combination of a potential significant piece of evidence and an air-raid compel him to stay. Subsequent events prove that a murderer is on the loose, and whilst “Cockie” is sure whodunnit, how can he prove it?

As was noted in the recent discussions on reading an author’s works chronologically, or even the whole Golden Age canon over at The Invisible Eventwe may have often read the imitation before the original, and that is the case with one element of this story, but it is not crucial and certainly didn’t affect my overall enjoyment. The denouement is fantastic, and whilst at one point I had my head metaphorically in my hands at something that seemed so obvious, I was then completely confounded by what came next.

As with “The Beast Must Die” this book definitely deserves its reputation, and I can heartily recommend it – two exceptional books out of three from “The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books” is good going (and I know not all of them are necessarily meant to be the best of their kind), and I will be going back to the list for more at some point.

Maigret is Afraid by Georges Simenon

Fulfils “How – Death by blunt instrument”

Returning from a conference in Bordeaux, Maigret visits an old friend, who is the local magistrate. It is assumed that he has come to investigate two recent murders, and on the night that he arrives, a third killing occurs.

Despite his reluctance to get involved, his regard for his friend, and his concern for what the frightened townspeople may do, Maigret clears up the case after his own fashion.

Once again it is Simenon’s descriptions that brings his characters and locations to life – we feel the stuffiness of the train, the drenching of the rain, and the intolerable atmosphere of the bridge party. There is an overall melancholy arising from the fact that people we once knew have changed and are now very different to us and that you can’t always get back what you once had.

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