#26 – Murder in Mesopotamia

Nurse Amy Leatheran, at the urging of Dr Giles Reilly, puts pen to paper to provide a true and fair account of what happened four years ago during the University of Pittstown’s Archaeological Expedition to Iraq.

Her story begins when she is invited by Dr Leidner, head of the expedition, to come and support his wife who is very afraid of something that he is unwilling to disclose.

Mrs Leidner warms to Nurse Leatheran and tells her that fifteen years ago her first husband, Frederick Bosner, died in a train accident. However, he has written her letters from beyond the grave, threatening her for marrying another man and promising to kill her. Dr Leidner is aware of these letters, but both he and Nurse Leatheran suspect that Mrs Leidner has been writing them herself.

The next day Mrs Leidner’s fears are realised when she is found dead in her room, the windows bolted and the door under almost constant observation, which implies that only a member of the expedition could be responsible. Has Frederick Bosner come back from the dead or has someone else used the situation to their advantage?

Fortunately, Hercule Poirot is passing through the area on his way to Baghdad and decides to take on the case, eventually revealing the extraordinary double truth of the matter.

Nurse Leatheran provides a different perspective to Poirot’s usual Watson, Captain Hastings, and the book draws heavily on Christie’s personal experiences at the digs that her second husband, Sir Max Mallowan, worked on.

I liked this book very much on first reading over twenty years ago and whilst I do now acknowledge some of its silliness (coincidentally discussed very recently at ahsweetmysteryblog) I have prepared a possible defence in the spoiler version of this post. The main point of recommendation is the “locked room” scenario which is infinitely superior to that in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?

Recurring character development

Hercule Poirot

Can quote Arabic but not speak it.

Has five lumps of sugar in his tea.

Describes himself as a practicing Catholic.

Signs of the Times

The story is set in 1933 and takes place just after Poirot has given assistance to the French army in Syria as mentioned at the start of Murder on the Orient Express but before he boards the Taurus Express for Istanbul. The retconning doesn’t quite work as “Murder on the Orient Express” begins on a “winter’s morning” and yet this book is set in March.

Nurse Leatheran writes “she has ‘fancies’…one knows what that usually means (but I hope not actually D.T.s!)”. She suspects that her new patient has problems with alcohol but hopefully is not suffering from delirium tremens following complete alcohol withdrawal after a significant period of heavy, regular drinking.

Dr Leidner’s team are excavating a large Assyrian city similar to Nineveh. Excavations were begun at Nineveh in 1842 and continued through the 19th century. They had re-started in 1927 under Campbell Thompson.

Bill Coleman “seemed so exactly like a young man out of one of Mr P. G. Wodehouse books”. Sir Pelham Grenville “Plum” Wodehouse (1881-1975) was primarily a comic author, although he also wrote Broadway musical comedies, best known for creating man about town Bertram Wilberforce Wooster and his gentleman’s gentleman, Reginald Jeeves.

Coleman introduces Nurse Leatheran to the team as “Sairey Gamp”. Sarah Gamp is a midwife and nurse in Charles Dickens’ “Martin Chuzzlewit”.

Louise Leidner is compared several times in Nurse Leatheran’s narrative to “La Bella Dame sans Merci” the title character of John Keat’s 1819 poem.

Nurse Leatheran has been reading “Death in a Nursing Home” which is a fictional title. Ngaio Marsh’s “The Nursing Home Murders” was published in 1935 and Nurse Leatheran is seen reading this in an adaptation of this book.

Father Lavigny is from the Order of the Pères Blancs at Carthage. The Missionaries of Africa, commonly known as the White Fathers, were founded in 1868 to evangelise and educate people in Africa.

Louise Leidner’s bookshelf gives Poirot clues to her personality. “Crewe Train” (1926) is a novel by Dame (Emilie) Rose Macauley (1881-1958) best known for her last novel “The Towers of Trebizond” (1956). “Back to Methuselah (A Metabiological Pentateuch)” (1918-1920) is a series of five plays by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) which run from creation through the present day to the far future. “Linda Condon” (1919) is a novel by Joseph Hergesheimer (1880-1954) about a woman who never learns to have emotions.

When Poirot begins his exposition, Nurse Leatheran has a vision of the East and thinks of Samarkand and Ispahan. Samarkand dates from the eighth or seventh century BC and was captured by Alexander the Great in 329 BC and Genghis Khan in 1220. Today it is the second largest city in Uzbekistan. Ispahan (more properly Isfahan) has twice been the capital of Persia and today is the third largest city in Iran.

References to previous works

Dr Leidner has heard Mr Van Aldin (The Mystery of the Blue Train) speak highly of Poirot.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “How – death by blunt instrument”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#26 – Murder in Mesopotamia – WITH SPOILERS

Nurse Amy Leatheran, at the urging of Dr Giles Reilly, puts pen to paper to provide a true and fair account of what happened four years ago during the University of Pittstown’s Archaeological Expedition to Iraq.

Her story begins when she is invited by Dr Leidner, head of the expedition, to come and support his wife who is very afraid of something that he is unwilling to disclose.

Mrs Leidner warms to Nurse Leatheran and tells her that fifteen years ago her first husband, Frederick Bosner, died in a train accident. However, he has written her letters from beyond the grave, threatening her for marrying another man and promising to kill her. Dr Leidner is aware of these letters, but both he and Nurse Leatheran suspect that Mrs Leidner has been writing them herself.

The next day Mrs Leidner’s fears are realised when she is found dead in her room, the windows bolted and the door under almost constant observation, which implies that only a member of the expedition could be responsible. Has Frederick Bosner come back from the dead or has someone else used the situation to their advantage?

Fortunately, Hercule Poirot is passing through the area on his way to Baghdad and decides to take on the case, eventually revealing the extraordinary double truth of the matter.

Nurse Leatheran provides a different perspective to Poirot’s usual Watson, Captain Hastings, and the book draws heavily on Christie’s personal experiences at the digs that her second husband, Sir Max Mallowan, worked on.

I liked this book very much on first reading over twenty years ago and whilst I do now acknowledge some of its silliness (coincidentally discussed very recently at ahsweetmysteryblog) I have prepared a possible defence in the spoiler section below. The main point of recommendation is the “locked room” scenario which is infinitely superior to that in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?

Recurring character development

Hercule Poirot

Can quote Arabic but not speak it.

Has five lumps of sugar in his tea.

Describes himself as a practicing Catholic.

Signs of the Times

The story is set in 1933 and takes place just after Poirot has given assistance to the French army in Syria as mentioned at the start of Murder on the Orient Express but before he boards the Taurus Express for Istanbul. The retconning doesn’t quite work as “Murder on the Orient Express” begins on a “winter’s morning” and yet this book is set in March.

Nurse Leatheran writes “she has ‘fancies’…one knows what that usually means (but I hope not actually D.T.s!)”. She suspects that her new patient has problems with alcohol but hopefully is not suffering from delirium tremens following complete alcohol withdrawal after a significant period of heavy, regular drinking.

Dr Leidner’s team are excavating a large Assyrian city similar to Nineveh. Excavations were begun at Nineveh in 1842 and continued through the 19th century. They had re-started in 1927 under Campbell Thompson.

Bill Coleman “seemed so exactly like a young man out of one of Mr P. G. Wodehouse books”. Sir Pelham Grenville “Plum” Wodehouse (1881-1975) was primarily a comic author, although he also wrote Broadway musical comedies, best known for creating man about town Bertram Wilberforce Wooster and his gentleman’s gentleman, Reginald Jeeves.

Coleman introduces Nurse Leatheran to the team as “Sairey Gamp”. Sarah Gamp is a midwife and nurse in Charles Dickens’ “Martin Chuzzlewit”.

Louise Leidner is compared several times in Nurse Leatheran’s narrative to “La Bella Dame sans Merci” the title character of John Keat’s 1819 poem.

Nurse Leatheran has been reading “Death in a Nursing Home” which is a fictional title. Ngaio Marsh’s “The Nursing Home Murders” was published in 1935 and Nurse Leatheran is seen reading this in an adaptation of this book.

Father Lavigny is from the Order of the Pères Blancs at Carthage. The Missionaries of Africa, commonly known as the White Fathers, were founded in 1868 to evangelise and educate people in Africa.

Louise Leidner’s bookshelf gives Poirot clues to her personality. “Crewe Train” (1926) is a novel by Dame (Emilie) Rose Macauley (1881-1958) best known for her last novel “The Towers of Trebizond” (1956). “Back to Methuselah (A Metabiological Pentateuch)” (1918-1920) is a series of five plays by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) which run from creation through the present day to the far future. “Linda Condon” (1919) is a novel by Joseph Hergesheimer (1880-1954) about a woman who never learns to have emotions.

When Poirot begins his exposition, Nurse Leatheran has a vision of the East and thinks of Samarkand and Ispahan. Samarkand dates from the eighth or seventh century BC and was captured by Alexander the Great in 329 BC and Genghis Khan in 1220. Today it is the second largest city in Uzbekistan. Ispahan (more properly Isfahan) has twice been the capital of Persia and today is the third largest city in Iran.

References to previous works

Dr Leidner has heard Mr Van Aldin (The Mystery of the Blue Train) speak highly of Poirot.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “How – death by blunt instrument”.

SPOILERS

It’s the One Where the Only Person Who Couldn’t Have Done It Did It and The Second Husband is the First Husband All Along!

The key here to understanding the identity of the killer – as in another Christie classic – is to carefully note the time taken to carry out certain actions. Here, Dr Leidner comes out of his wife’s room calling for help about a minute and a half after entering it –  if you read in detail, which I don’t, that should raise suspicion. You can get an awful lot done in ninety seconds – no sniggering at the back there!

When I first read this I was blown away by both the method and Dr Leidner’s real identity and didn’t have any qualms as to how likely it would have been to have fooled his wife for over two years. Whilst Poirot’s solution is correct, some of his reasoning and inferences may not be, so let’s see if a more plausible explanation for why Louise Leidner did not realise that Eric Leidner was Frederick Bosner.

Poirot acknowledges that “the intimacy of marriage might awaken a memory” and that is why a Bosner letter is sent after the marriage, in order to demonstrate that Leidner and Bosner are separate people.

However, what if the second marriage was never consummated? We know that the character of Louise Leidner was based on Katharine Woolley whose marriage to Leonard Woolley was unconsummated.

If Louise Leidner strongly disliked sex, as a young woman she may have just given in to her husband’s advances, but this may have been a factor in her betraying him to the authorities. This would explain why, along with the Bosner letters, she did not remarry until she met Leidner. Perhaps he seems different to other men: he is a middle-aged, respected academic; she, from her choice of reading material, is an intelligent woman – she believes theirs is a meeting of minds, not bodies.

When she reveals shortly after marriage ceremony that their will be no physical relationship, that is the trigger for the Bosner letters to restart. He has waited fifteen years to obtain his desire and now it has been dashed away. Her fate is sealed from this point.

As for a relationship with Richard Carey, there is no evidence here of a physical affair. What if Carey’s self-disgust stems not from having betrayed his friend, but from having betrayed himself? Perhaps he tried, possibly successfully, to force himself upon Louise. We now know that those who have been abused often take a long time to speak of their experiences.

As Louise is no longer there to contradict them, both men choose to accept Poirot’s versions of their motivations rather than reveal the darker and more damaging truth of what happened before Louise’s murder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#25 – The ABC Murders

Captain Hastings has returned from South America at the same time that his old friend Hercule Poirot has received a letter signed “ABC” which advises him to “look out for Andover, on the 21st of the month”.

Hastings, as Scotland Yard have already done, dismisses it as a hoax but Poirot is deeply concerned and his instincts are proven to be correct when the Andover police report that the body of Alice Ascher has been found in her tobacco shop. Poirot’s questioning of the local inspector reveals that an ABC Railway Guide had been left on the counter. And then a second letter drawing Poirot’s attention to Bexhill is delivered…

So begins one of Poirot’s hardest cases: even forewarned as to when a crime is to be committed how can he find a madman amongst millions? And yet, by talking to the families of the victims, he is able to create a portrait of a murderer that will help the police in closing the net and trapping the man that the whole country is talking about.

For once, the reader is ahead of the Great Detective as Christie tries her hand at an inverted mystery with Hastings’ usual narrative interwoven with the exploits of Alexander Bonaparte Cust, but is still kept in the dark about what the killer’s underlying motive is as even Poirot finds it hard to fathom the purpose of the sequence of deaths.

Overall a very pleasing read, in particular as regards the acknowledgement from both Poirot and a psychologist working with the police that due to the limited information provided by each letter and crime scene, ABC may be able to realistically commit five, six, or even more murders before they are caught, and that nobody will be able to prevent it. You just have to hope that you aren’t called Frank Field from Farnham – and even that may not be enough to save you!

Recurring character development

Hercule Poirot

Has moved into a new flat since Hastings’ last visit which he chose due to the building’s “strictly geometrical appearance and proportions”.

Dyes his hair with “Revivit”.

Carries a flask of brandy.

 Captain Hastings

Has been awarded an OBE.

Is sensitive about his thinning hair.

Has never hunted as he cannot afford to.

Chief Inspector Japp

Has gone ” as grey as badger”.

Signs of the Times

The story is set in the summer of 1935.

Inspector Glen says that the railway guide found at Mrs Ascher’s shop was “a big one – kind of thing only Smith’s or a big stationer would keep”. Founded in 1792 by Henry Walton and Anna Smith, what is now WHSmith began as a news vendor, before becoming a British retail giant. Of most interest to bibliophiles is that they created Standard Book Numbers which went on to become ISBNs.

Mrs Ascher possessed the fictional paperback “The Green Oasis”.

As well as owning an ABC, Mr Partridge’s shelves also include “Kelly’s Directory”. Kelly’s, Post Office and Harrod & Co Directory was effectively a Victorian Yellow Pages, containing addresses of businesses and tradespeople for a given locale.

When asked whether a second murder can be prevented, Poirot refers to the “long-continued successes of Jack the Ripper”. Jack the Ripper was a name used by someone claiming to be the Whitechapel Killer who killed a number of women in 1888. The true identity of the murderer has never been resolved.

Inspector Crome refers to Stoneman in 1929 who ended by “trying to do away with anyone who annoyed him in the slightest degree”. This does not seem to refer to a real case as I can find no trace of it – grimly though the name Stoneman was given to a serial killer who operated in Calcutta in 1989 and was never caught.

There is a suggestion that ABC drinks White Horse whisky. This is a blended scotch, first produced in 1861 by James Logan Mackie. The brand is now owned by Diageo.

“Not a Sparrow”, the film enjoyed by Mr Cust, is fictional.

A young man who talks to Mr Cust is wearing a bright blue Aertex shirt. Lewis Haslam, a textile manufacturer, ran experiments with two medical colleagues on trapping air within fabric to provide an insulating effect between the skin and the outside air. In 1888 they formed the Aertex Company to produce this new material. This “Cellular Clothing Company” still operates today.

The song hummed by Hastings and then sung by Poirot which refers to brunettes and blondes is “Some Sort of Somebody” by Elsie Janis and Jerome Kern from the 1915 musical “Very Good Eddie”.

The Doncaster murder is scheduled to take place on the same day as the St Leger. The oldest of the five British Classic horse races, the St Leger was first run in 1776 by Anthony St Leger. It is always the last of the five to be run and takes place in September. The real winner in 1935 was Bahram, who completed the Triple Crown having already won the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby, not the 85-1 outsider Not Half as mentioned in the book.

The quotation “God’s in His heaven. All’s right with the world” comes into Mr Cust’s head. This is from Robert Browning’s 1841 verse drama “Pippa Passes”.

Tom Hartigan says that Inspector Crome is “a bit quiet and lah-di dah – not my idea of a detective” to which Lily Marbury responds “That’s Lord Trenchard’s new kind.” Hugh Trenchard, 1st Viscount Trenchard (1873-1956), after having a key role in founding the Royal Air Force , became Metropolitan Police Commissioner in 1931. He instigated a number of changes including establishing separate career paths for lower and higher ranks similar to that in the military. Those with university degrees were encouraged to apply and would often go through the newly created Hendon Police College (now the Peel Centre).

Poirot and Hastings hear some Brownies singing. Originally called Rosebuds and founded in 1914 as the then youngest section of the Girl Guide movement for girls aged 8 to 11, their name changed to Brownies in 1915. The age range is now 7 to 10.

Poirot refers to Mahatma Gandhi. At this time he was in the middle of his struggle for Indian independence.

Poirot says it is likely that ABC will be committed to Broadmoor. Broadmoor Hospital, Berkshire,  is a high-security psychiatric hospital which evolved from the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum founded in 1863.

References to previous works

Hastings refers to Poirot’s previous retirement during which he solved The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Poirot alludes to the events of Three-Act Tragedy.

Japp refers to Poirot’s involvement in “all the celebrated cases of the day. Train mysteries, air mysteries, high society deaths.” These would be The Mystery of the Blue Train, Murder on the Orient Express, Death in the Clouds, and Lord Edgware Dies.

Poirot refers to his first case in England, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “How – death by strangulation”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#25 – The ABC Murders – WITH SPOILERS

Captain Hastings has returned from South America at the same time that his old friend Hercule Poirot has received a letter signed “ABC” which advises him to “look out for Andover, on the 21st of the month”.

Hastings, as Scotland Yard have already done, dismisses it as a hoax but Poirot is deeply concerned and his instincts are proven to be correct when the Andover police report that the body of Alice Ascher has been found in her tobacco shop. Poirot’s questioning of the local inspector reveals that an ABC Railway Guide had been left on the counter. And then a second letter drawing Poirot’s attention to Bexhill is delivered…

So begins one of Poirot’s hardest cases: even forewarned as to when a crime is to be committed how can he find a madman amongst millions? And yet, by talking to the families of the victims, he is able to create a portrait of a murderer that will help the police in closing the net and trapping the man that the whole country is talking about.

For once, the reader is ahead of the Great Detective as Christie tries her hand at an inverted mystery with Hastings’ usual narrative interwoven with the exploits of Alexander Bonaparte Cust, but is still kept in the dark about what the killer’s underlying motive is as even Poirot finds it hard to fathom the purpose of the sequence of deaths.

Overall a very pleasing read, in particular as regards the acknowledgement from both Poirot and a psychologist working with the police that due to the limited information provided by each letter and crime scene, ABC may be able to realistically commit five, six, or even more murders before they are caught, and that nobody will be able to prevent it. You just have to hope that you aren’t called Frank Field from Farnham – and even that may not be enough to save you!

Recurring character development

Hercule Poirot

Has moved into a new flat since Hastings’ last visit which he chose due to the building’s “strictly geometrical appearance and proportions”.

Dyes his hair with “Revivit”.

Carries a flask of brandy.

 Captain Hastings

Has been awarded an OBE.

Is sensitive about his thinning hair.

Has never hunted as he cannot afford to.

Chief Inspector Japp

Has gone ” as grey as badger”.

Signs of the Times

The story is set in the summer of 1935.

Inspector Glen says that the railway guide found at Mrs Ascher’s shop was “a big one – kind of thing only Smith’s or a big stationer would keep”. Founded in 1792 by Henry Walton and Anna Smith, what is now WHSmith began as a news vendor, before becoming a British retail giant. Of most interest to bibliophiles is that they created Standard Book Numbers which went on to become ISBNs.

Mrs Ascher possessed the fictional paperback “The Green Oasis”.

As well as owning an ABC, Mr Partridge’s shelves also include “Kelly’s Directory”. Kelly’s, Post Office and Harrod & Co Directory was effectively a Victorian Yellow Pages, containing addresses of businesses and tradespeople for a given locale.

When asked whether a second murder can be prevented, Poirot refers to the “long-continued successes of Jack the Ripper”. Jack the Ripper was a name used by someone claiming to be the Whitechapel Killer who killed a number of women in 1888. The true identity of the murderer has never been resolved.

Inspector Crome refers to Stoneman in 1929 who ended by “trying to do away with anyone who annoyed him in the slightest degree”. This does not seem to refer to a real case as I can find no trace of it – grimly though the name Stoneman was given to a serial killer who operated in Calcutta in 1989 and was never caught.

There is a suggestion that ABC drinks White Horse whisky. This is a blended scotch, first produced in 1861 by James Logan Mackie. The brand is now owned by Diageo.

“Not a Sparrow”, the film enjoyed by Mr Cust, is fictional.

A young man who talks to Mr Cust is wearing a bright blue Aertex shirt. Lewis Haslam, a textile manufacturer, ran experiments with two medical colleagues on trapping air within fabric to provide an insulating effect between the skin and the outside air. In 1888 they formed the Aertex Company to produce this new material. This “Cellular Clothing Company” still operates today.

The song hummed by Hastings and then sung by Poirot which refers to brunettes and blondes is “Some Sort of Somebody” by Elsie Janis and Jerome Kern from the 1915 musical “Very Good Eddie”.

The Doncaster murder is scheduled to take place on the same day as the St Leger. The oldest of the five British Classic horse races, the St Leger was first run in 1776 by Anthony St Leger. It is always the last of the five to be run and takes place in September. The real winner in 1935 was Bahram, who completed the Triple Crown having already won the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby, not the 85-1 outsider Not Half as mentioned in the book.

The quotation “God’s in His heaven. All’s right with the world” comes into Mr Cust’s head. This is from Robert Browning’s 1841 verse drama “Pippa Passes”.

Tom Hartigan says that Inspector Crome is “a bit quiet and lah-di dah – not my idea of a detective” to which Lily Marbury responds “That’s Lord Trenchard’s new kind.” Hugh Trenchard, 1st Viscount Trenchard (1873-1956), after having a key role in founding the Royal Air Force , became Metropolitan Police Commissioner in 1931. He instigated a number of changes including establishing separate career paths for lower and higher ranks similar to that in the military. Those with university degrees were encouraged to apply and would often go through the newly created Hendon Police College (now the Peel Centre).

Poirot and Hastings hear some Brownies singing. Originally called Rosebuds and founded in 1914 as the then youngest section of the Girl Guide movement for girls aged 8 to 11, their name changed to Brownies in 1915. The age range is now 7 to 10.

Poirot refers to Mahatma Gandhi. At this time he was in the middle of his struggle for Indian independence.

Poirot says it is likely that ABC will be committed to Broadmoor. Broadmoor Hospital, Berkshire,  is a high-security psychiatric hospital which evolved from the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum founded in 1863.

References to previous works

Hastings refers to Poirot’s previous retirement during which he solved The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Poirot alludes to the events of Three-Act Tragedy.

Japp refers to Poirot’s involvement in “all the celebrated cases of the day. Train mysteries, air mysteries, high society deaths.” These would be The Mystery of the Blue Train, Murder on the Orient Express, Death in the Clouds, and Lord Edgware Dies.

Poirot refers to his first case in England, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “How – death by strangulation”.

SPOILERS

I have lot of things I want to say here but they don’t necessarily follow on so I’ll just put them into numbered sections:

One

The backcover of the edition I first read says the following (quite spoilerish but brilliant):

A is for Andover and Mrs Ascher battered to death

B is for Bexhill and Betty Barnard strangled

C is for Sir Carmichael Clarke clubbed and killed

From the point of view of this blurb it would have been more apt if Mrs Ascher had been asphyxiated and Betty Barnard bludgeoned!

Two

A question for my fellow bloggers – how you do a spoiler-free review when there is such a major plot twist as there is in this. You can’t not mention Cust’s presence as that would look odd, but if you do mention him how can you not be misleading? How do you praise a book like this to the skies – which it deserves – without implying that there is a twist?

Three

An inverted serial killer story that is not actually inverted and doesn’t feature a serial killer (at least not in the conventional sense) – the main reasons I included it in my Top 5 when I started this blog.

When I first read it I hadn’t come across the concept of an inverted mystery, so whilst it seemed odd that we were being shown who ABC was I was perfectly willing to believe that was the case (unlike my brother who thought that if we were being told who ABC was then that couldn’t possibly be the case). This is where reading GAD fiction chronologically would help because you would see the development of the inverted mystery and be even more surprised about how Christie subverts the form. Also, whilst the idea of hiding a specific murder within a number of murders is now quite commonplace e.g. Martin Beck, Jack Reacher, at the time I can imagine it was quite groundbreaking – although a similar sort of idea had already been used by Chesterton in one of the best Father Brown stories.

The way that ideas are planted is so well done. A pair of new stockings is mentioned amongst the contents of Mrs Ascher’s bedroom. Door-to-door salesmen (and the example of stockings is given) are mentioned by Mrs Fowler, not in response to Poirot’s questions, but because she has initially mistaken him for something in that line.

Poirot makes the point that without ABC’s letters Franz Ascher and Donald Fraser would be the respective prime suspects for the Andover and Bexhill murders, but this is cleverly not repeated again after the Churston killing.

Then there is the masterfully misaddressed third letter which means that they are too late to prevent the Churston murder and ultimately explains why it is Poirot, rather than Scotland Yard, who has been designated as ABC’s adversary.

When Cust has been arrested and is found to have an alibi for the Bexhill murder, Poirot is inclined to believe it because psychologically Cust could not have committed that murder in the way it was done.

One thing that I only realised relatively recently is that once it becomes apparent that the real killer is not Cust, the key murder has to be Churston as it is so much smaller than Andover and Bexhill so you would choose a larger C place if that was one of the random murders.

The one quibble that I do have is that there is no real reason why Poirot is more concerned about ABC’s letters than other similar ones that he often receives. He later says that the problem is that they were written by a sane man pretending to be insane. Whilst a sane man could fake such a letter, by the time he decides to post them and embark on a scheme that will leave at least four people dead, I don’t think he is completely sane any more.

Four

I don’t mind some of the recent BBC adaptations being darker in tone but they turned a classic mystery into a complete nonsense. Either this is a story where the detective with the tortured past is being targeted by a serial killer for a particular personal reason (which has been done to death) or it is the original story – it doesn’t make sense to mix them together.

The scene where Franklin Clarke covered in blood enters the bathroom occupied by the bathing Thora Grey was ridiculous – surely she would have screamed the house down – she had no reason not to.

And this particular Poirot who takes murder so seriously because of his past would not have involved himself in a murder party. If he had to already know the Clarkes surely something more likely could have been devised?

I can understand why some of Christie’s novels have been changed for TV e.g. Appointment with Death as they wouldn’t necessarily film that way. I can also see that there may be no point doing a faithful version as Suchet has already given us many of those, but in that case why do it at all? Create new stories rather than twisting something completely out of shape to put it into a particular mould.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen (1931)

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.

I read, but did not blog about, the first two books in the series last year. I didn’t have a problem with a key element that JJ (not McC) at the Invisible Event did in his review of The Roman Hat Mystery as I felt it had been alluded to and instead enjoyed a key psychological clue that should have given a strong indication of who the killer was. When reading Puzzle Doctor’s review of The French Powder Mystery  I had been intrigued by the reference to the final line and that, alongside the hook of “The Chinese Orange Mystery” where a whole room has been turned back-to-front: furniture, pictures, even the dead man’s clothes, was enough to encourage me to get hold of some Queen. However I was less happy with that second book, mainly because the final exposition was a series of “it wasn’t X because of Y but primarily because they don’t possess secret attribute Z (which I’m not going to reveal yet)”.

“The Dutch Shoe Mystery” opens with Ellery visiting the Dutch Memorial Hospital in search of medical information. His friend Dr Minchen answers his question on rigor mortis that quickly closes his case. Now at a loose end, Ellery reluctantly accepts an invitation to witness an operation to be performed on the hospital’s benefactress, Abigail Doorn, but shortly after the patient is wheeled into the operating theatre it is found that she is already dead – strangled.

Conversations with the hospital staff soon show how and when the murder was committed but although the killer was seen by a number of people no one can identify them.

A set of clothes and a pair of shoes are among the physical evidence that the police find within the hospital and Ellery’s attention is drawn to a broken shoelace that has been repaired with adhesive tape, which has an almost immediate meaning to him but not to anyone else. He is similarly struck by the absence of a window at a second crime scene.

From these two seeming trifles Ellery is able to pin down the killer by his usual process of elimination. The solution is very neat and felt very Chestertonian although I can’t think of an exact parallel and pleased me much more than either of the first two books. The morning after reading I thought I had caught Queen out thinking “but if X had happened that would imply Y which would surely have not gone unnoticed” then realising that a small detail in a description meant that Y could not possibly have happened.

Other interesting points to note are that all thirty chapters are all a single word ending in “ation” and that an interlude is provided where only the left hand column of each page is printed on leaving “extra wide margins…for the use of the reader in jotting down his personal notes about the solution.” Apart from this looking odd – it would be better to print alternate full pages – to me the idea of writing in a book is anathema!

Reflecting on all three, I realised that I had had unrealistic expectations of what Ellery Queen was all about. The quote from Anthony Boucher is “Ellery Queen is the American detective story” and I subconsciously translated that as “Ellery Queen is the American Agatha Christie”. Hopefully I can take this onboard as I read more Ellery Queen (and other as yet to be discovered authors) and enjoy them more on their own merits and not hold them up against an unsuitable yardstick.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “Where – In a hospital/nursing home”.

 

The Perfect Crime by Israel Zangwill (1892)

When Mrs Drabdump cannot wake her lodger and finds his bedroom locked and bolted she calls for help from retired policeman, George Grodman. He breaks in the door and they find Arthur Constant lying on his bed with his throat cut.

The papers immediately proclaim it as a suicide except that no weapon can be found. But with no way in or out of the room how can it be murder? The inquest returns an open verdict leaving the nation baffled. Grodman competes with his successor, Edward Wimp, to find an answer to the conundrum, but which of them will gain the upper hand?

Originally (and more often) published as “The Big Bow Mystery” this is the first locked-room novel and that is the main reason that I wanted to read it and its position in history is the primary recommendation that I can give to it. I enjoyed the generally humorous writing style, including this description of poet Denzil Cantercot:

“Life was very serious to him. He never wrote comic verse intentionally.”

Whilst the potential comedy arising from an appearance of real-life Prime Minister Gladstone is hard for a modern reader to understand, I think that overall it holds up well.

The main problem is a complete lack of detection: two explanations are provided but neither comes with detailed investigation or a chain of logical reasoning. The “How” is interesting and upon re-reading completely fair as most readers, myself included, will have jumped to the same conclusion as one of the primary characters but the “Who” is not – an unfortunate consequence of  already having read later works that build upon some of the ideas used here. That is why I will be reading the locked room mysteries currently on my shelves in chronological order through the year. Having said all that there is still a pleasing final twist which made me smile.

My conclusion is that there is more to like here than not, but that it is likely to appeal most to those with an interest in the development of the genre.

N. B. In discussing possible solutions to the case the method from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe, included in this Detective Club edition, is alluded to. Also, from reading a review of “The 8 Mansion Murders”, I know that book reveals the method used in this case.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “When – set in the Victorian era”.

 

The List of Adrian Messenger by Philip MacDonald (1959)

Adrian Messenger gives a list of ten names, occupations, and addresses to a contact at Scotland Yard and asks him to find out whether they are all still living there. He won’t explain why he wants the information, only saying that it is something “big” but also “preposterous”. The next day he dies following a plane crash from which there are just two survivors, a journalist and an air stewardess, but not before uttering some phrases which may have some bearing on the matter.

Initial police inquiries reveal that some of the men have died in the last few years and so Anthony Gethryn (now promoted to General), who sometimes does “odd jobs” for the CID, is brought in to identify the connection between the men and to protect those who are still alive. He deciphers Messenger’s final words bit by bit, with the reader given part of the solution, which is unfair but beautiful, from a snatch of seemingly irrelevant conversation.

This is definitely more like a thriller than a genuinely clued mystery but the important details are revealed piece by piece as we see the investigation both helped and hampered by the unwitting choices of various characters.

It is not your usual serial killer story, as becomes quickly apparent to the reader, and one key feature is never explained at all. It also contains two common tropes that I would think frustrate most readers: the person who keeps information to themselves for no good reason whatsoever and the person who fails to sufficiently consider the danger that others are in, thus leading to at least one unnecessary death.

Having said all that I was entertained and it was a pleasant way to start the New Year and end my Christmas holiday – so thank you to the wisdom of the crowd that helped me choose this last year as a prize – though I can’t advise you to rush out and get a copy.

The best quote in the book is when one character sums up Gethryn perfectly in saying:

“However much one may disapprove of the man himself as didactic, intolerant and offensive, one is forced to admit he brings brilliance to this type of problem.”

which reminded me very much of J. J. Connington’s Sir Clinton Driffield.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

It was at the bottom of my To Be Read pile when the 2019 challenge was issued (and even more appropriately it came from Bev as a 2018 checkpoint prize) so fulfils “Why – Simon Says”.