#32 – Hercule Poirot’s Christmas

Following immediately on from the dominating matriarch at the centre of Appointment with Death here we are given the vindictive patriarch Simeon Lee. He too is surrounded by a large family: four sons, three of their wives, and a granddaughter.

The Christmas season brings murder rather than goodwill to Gorston Hall when the old man is brutally and bloodily killed in his locked bedroom. He had been on the verge of changing his will and had suspicions, which are shown to be well founded, that someone had stolen the uncut diamonds from his personal safe, so there is no shortage of suspects.

Poirot is spending the holiday with the Chief Constable and that is his way into the case. Working alongside the local police he is able to see his way through a very clever, though slightly implausible plan – not as a clever, but less implausible than the recently read but unreviewed “Sealed Room Murder” by Rupert Penny.

This is the second Christmas mystery that I have read this month (see  An English Murder) and whilst I highly recommend both of them, save them for December if you can to better enjoy the atmosphere.

Recurring character development

Hercule Poirot

Prefers central heating to an open fire. In the TV adaptation he goes to stay with the Lees because they have central heating and his is broken.

Signs of the Times

Stephen asks Pilar about the war and she responds by mentioning the Government and General Franco. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was fought between the left-wing Second Spanish Republic and the ultimately victorious Nationalists led by Francisco Franco who ruled Spain until his death in 1975.

David Lee’s face is described as having “the mild quality of a Burne-Jones knight”. Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was a Pre-Raphaelite artist known amongst other things for “The Merciful Knight” and the “Holy Grail Tapestries”.

Harry refers to George by the nickname “Popeye”. If this comes from their childhood it can have nothing to do with the cartoon character who was created in 1929.

Tressilian is horrified that Walter serves the vegetables before the gravy. If that is the proper way then you can count me out. Gravy last to hide the vegetables!

David was playing Mendelssohn’s “Dead March” shortly before the murder. More properly Opus 62.3 part of “Songs without Words”.

On seeing the body David says “The mills of God grind slowly…” The original Greek quotation is “The millstones of the gods grind late, but they grind fine”. The version that we are most familiar with now is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Though the mills of God grind slowly; Yet they grind exceedingly small”.

Whereas Lydia says “Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” which is Lady Macbeth’s reaction to the death of Duncan in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Neither seems a likely reaction to violent death which I would expect to be coarser and pithier. However I don’t remember many GAD characters throwing up at the sight of a corpse which is what the most junior police officer always seems to do in modern mysteries so perhaps people were more literate and had stiffer upper lips in those days.

References to previous works

Poirot is staying with Colonel Johnson who appeared in Three-Act Tragedy. He refers to the killer whilst Superintendent Sugden refers to the victim.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “When – during a recognised holiday”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#32 – Hercule Poirot’s Christmas – WITH SPOILERS

Following immediately on from the dominating matriarch at the centre of Appointment with Death here we are given the vindictive patriarch Simeon Lee. He too is surrounded by a large family: four sons, three of their wives, and a granddaughter.

The Christmas season brings murder rather than goodwill to Gorston Hall when the old man is brutally and bloodily killed in his locked bedroom. He had been on the verge of changing his will and had suspicions, which are shown to be well founded, that someone had stolen the uncut diamonds from his personal safe, so there is no shortage of suspects.

Poirot is spending the holiday with the Chief Constable and that is his way into the case. Working alongside the local police he is able to see his way through a very clever, though slightly implausible plan – not as a clever, but less implausible than the recently read but unreviewed “Sealed Room Murder” by Rupert Penny.

This is the second Christmas mystery that I have read this month (see  An English Murder) and whilst I highly recommend both of them, save them for December if you can to better enjoy the atmosphere.

Recurring character development

Hercule Poirot

Prefers central heating to an open fire. In the TV adaptation he goes to stay with the Lees because they have central heating and his is broken.

Signs of the Times

Stephen asks Pilar about the war and she responds by mentioning the Government and General Franco. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was fought between the left-wing Second Spanish Republic and the ultimately victorious Nationalists led by Francisco Franco who ruled Spain until his death in 1975.

David Lee’s face is described as having “the mild quality of a Burne-Jones knight”. Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was a Pre-Raphaelite artist known amongst other things for “The Merciful Knight” and the “Holy Grail Tapestries”.

Harry refers to George by the nickname “Popeye”. If this comes from their childhood it can have nothing to do with the cartoon character who was created in 1929.

Tressilian is horrified that Walter serves the vegetables before the gravy. If that is the proper way then you can count me out. Gravy last to hide the vegetables!

David was playing Mendelssohn’s “Dead March” shortly before the murder. More properly Opus 62.3 part of “Songs without Words”.

On seeing the body David says “The mills of God grind slowly…” The original Greek quotation is “The millstones of the gods grind late, but they grind fine”. The version that we are most familiar with now is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Though the mills of God grind slowly; Yet they grind exceedingly small”.

Whereas Lydia says “Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” which is Lady Macbeth’s reaction to the death of Duncan in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Neither seems a likely reaction to violent death which I would expect to be coarser and pithier. However I don’t remember many GAD characters throwing up at the sight of a corpse which is what the most junior police officer always seems to do in modern mysteries so perhaps people were more literate and had stiffer upper lips in those days.

References to previous works

Poirot is staying with Colonel Johnson who appeared in Three-Act Tragedy. He refers to the killer whilst Superintendent Sugden refers to the victim.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “When – during a recognised holiday”.

SPOILERS

The One Where The Policeman Did It. The latest in the semi-regular series where it is a person psychologically overlooked by the reader who commits the crime.

Inspector Japp mentions in Death in the Clouds that in story books detectives are sometimes the criminals and Poirot’s comment that “One forgets sometimes that police officers are men” is very similar to something that Tommy Beresford says in Partners in Crime.

As mentioned above there is a similarity in the characters of Simeon Lee and Mrs Boynton but this is extended into the identity of the murderer because in both cases despite having plenty of children and their other halves as suspects it is an outsider who is the killer.

Whilst you can’t inherit your father’s mannerisms, we do often unconsciously mimic those around us. These similar gestures help to amplify the family resemblance between Simeon, Harry, Stephen, and Sugden, even if they aren’t caused by the connection.

It is brilliant that here we have two people staying in the house under false pretences – a relative posing as a stranger and a stranger posing as a relative – followed up by the final revelation of Sugden’s additional identity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Case of the Seven of Calvary by Anthony Boucher (1937)

I had been looking forward to starting on Anthony Boucher since picking up a four volume omnibus and was extremely pleased with this first offering.

Dr Hugo Schaedel is killed with an ice pick whilst taking an evening walk. But what reason could anyone have for murdering the newly arrived visitor? The only clue is a symbol left at the crime scene, the mysterious Seven of Calvary. This symbol continues to appear during the investigation and it is only when it has been fully interpreted that the case can be solved.

The narrative is framed within a conversation between Boucher and his friend Martin Lamb, who responds to the proposition that a detective story no longer requires a Watson by recounting the time that he acted as Watson for his Sanskrit tutor, Dr Ashwin. In this he is quite correct as it is Lamb who does all the legwork, whilst Ashwin ponders the evidence in his rooms, delivering various hypotheses as events unfold around him.

Boucher plays fairer than required by eliminating a number of characters from suspicion on the opening cast list. He also gives an almost complete explanation of Charles Dickens’ famously unfinished “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” – I’ve never read it so I’ve no idea if it is a reasonable theory.

Overall this campus set tale has a very American feel to it – perhaps the references to alcohol and sex have something to do with that. I was feeling quite pleased with myself up to about halfway having spotted something obviously suspicious to a regular GAD reader but was then left quite puzzled as the circumstances changed. This is a very good read and I am looking forward to my next encounter with Boucher.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “Where – At a theatre”.

 

 

 

The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin (1944)

Another locked room mystery read in preparation for Bodies from the Library but this is the weakest book so far: the locked room scenario is not as rigorous as it might have been and the comedy is not as funny as I had hoped.

The first chapter is reminiscent of Green for Danger as the reader is introduced to eleven passengers travelling to Oxford by rail before being informed that shortly three of them will be dead from violence.

A repertory company is going to put on the latest play by the celebrated writer Robert Warner and it is deliberately clear which member of the company is to play the part of first victim. No one is that sorry when she dies and perhaps it would have been better if the police had stuck their initial view of suicide before Gervase Fen gives several reasons why that is unlikely.

Fen is self-described as “the only literary critic turned detective in the whole of fiction”. Appropriately he admits to knowing Gideon Fell, another self-confessed character in a book, and I am sure the shared initials are no coincidence – I have previously got them muddled up in my head when reading a Crispin short story.

In this story Fen is very arrogant as although he knows exactly who has committed the murder, for purely selfish reasons he keeps this information to himself, which allows a second murder to be committed, which he claims couldn’t have been predicted.

The locked room trick used here is neat, although it put me in mind of a complaint that I recently read on another blog but I can’t remember if that was in relation to this book, but it certainly would apply.

I will come back to Crispin again as I did enjoy Love Lies Bleeding and I already had a copy of The Moving Toyshop which I will be re-reading before JJ does the next in his series of Spoiler Warnings at The Invisible Event.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “What – An animal in the title”.

 

 

 

The Black Spectacles by John Dickson Carr (1939)

Marcus Chesney has long contended that “ninety-nine people out of a hundred, as witnesses, are just plain lousy”. When poisoned chocolates bought from the local village kill a young boy he decides to put his theory to the test.

His niece Marjorie, her fiancé George, and colleague Professor Ingram, all insist that they will be able to correctly describe his performance but when later questioned by police all have very different recollections of what happened.

It is the police who end up asking Marcus’ prepared questions as during the test someone dressed like H. G. Wells’ Invisible Man forced Chesney to swallow a green capsule and shortly after his curtain call he died.

DI Elliot, already in the area to investigate the original murder, takes charge of this case, and quickly calls in Gideon Fell, who was a friend of the dead man. Both men have more knowledge of the case than they first admit but even armed with this it needs to looked at several times before the spectacles can be removed and the full picture can be seen clearly.

Each of the four sections is headed by a quote by or about a historical poisoner and Dr Fell gives a lecture on The Poisoner before revealing the truth.

The hook of murder in full view of an audience is great and is then worked out well to provide an unexpected but very unpleasant killer. Carr has definitely become my new second-favourite GAD author. Roll on The Case of the Constant Suicides. Regardless of who the author is, you’d have to give it a go based on the title alone.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils, even under its alternative title “The Problem of the Green Capsule”, “What – Colour in the title”.

 

 

 

Alias Basil Willing by Helen McCloy (1951)

Basil Willing follows a flustered customer out of his local tobacconist’s and hears him hail a cab using the name of Basil Willing. Intrigued Basil follows him to his destination and enters into his latest adventure.

I wanted to read some McCloy before Bodies from the Library and picked this up on the basis of the above hook because it sounds so promising and the hands of a different writer perhaps it would be.

For me overall it just wasn’t very interesting and a key element is a preposterous secret code that could be easily have been misinterpreted with fatal consequences. So actually, Alas Basil Willing.

There is however a relief sometimes to find an author that you don’t get on with so as not to worry about increasing the TBR pile any further!

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “What – Person’s name in the title”.

 

 

 

The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr (1938)

Twenty five years ago John Farnleigh was packed off to America by a parent who had finally run out of patience with him. Just over a year ago, following the deaths of his father and elder brother, he returned to England as Sir John. But now a man going by the name of Patrick Gore claims that he is the real heir to Farnleigh Close. His story is that there was a Prince and the Pauper style switch of identities that occurred just before the Titanic sank. Whilst Patrick had been happy with his new life, upon reading of Farnleigh’s return he determined to take back what was rightfully his.

One man believes he can prove which of the two men is the genuine article and it is while he is working alone concluding his test that death inevitably strikes and the proof is stolen.

So who is the real John Farnleigh and is there now any way to prove it? How does this relate to the murder of a local woman almost a year ago to the day? What did the servant see in the attic that has put her out of her mind? And what is the significance of the Crooked Hinge?

This is a fantastic read due to a sudden shift in emphasis which took the story in a very different direction from what I was expecting. Miss Dane’s revelation was also a great surprise which also significantly changes how the competing claims are to be understood.

My one small quibble is that Dr Fell does not have to present all his deductions in detail – but this is minor. Carr has produced a solution to an impossible crime that at first impression comes from nowhere but as some key scenes are described again, it can be seen that the clues were there all along.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “Why – Author’s first/last name begins with the same letter as yours”.

 

 

 

Whistle Up the Devil by Derek Smith (1953)

Roger Querrin (who has either read no GAD fiction or is just plain stupid) decides to challenge the family ghost by spending midnight alone in the Room in the Passage of the ancestral home. Family friend Inspector Castle is recalled from his leave by Scotland Yard and so asks his friend Algy Lawrence “who could tackle the bizarre and the fantastic with expert skill” to take his place.

The plan is that Algy and Roger’s brother, Peter, will wait at the end of the Passage leading to the Room, whilst the local policeman Sergeant Hardinge stands guard outside the house. Despite their best efforts, on the stroke of midnight a scream comes from the Room and having shot out the lock Algy and Peter find Roger dead with a dagger in his back. The windows are still bolted and Hardinge has seen no one entering or leaving from the outside.

The only other residents of the house are Roger’s fiancée, Audrey Craig, and her uncle, along with a butler and a maid. Oh, there was also a prowler in the grounds earlier that night who gave Algy a good whack on the head before disappearing.

If this wasn’t enough a second impossible crime ensues before the pieces come together for Algy and he is forced to take desperate measures to catch a cold-blooded killer.

Lawrence and Castle have their riff on the Locked Room Lecture and reference both Death from a Top Hat (a real life case in their world with Clayton Rawson being the joint pseudonym of Merlini and Harte) and The Hollow Man. There is also a definite spoiler for The Big Bow Mystery  and a vague detail about Rupert Penny’s “Sealed Room Murder” (which I will be reading soon).

I picked up on various clues as to who the killer might be but did not take the one step that could have lead me to the truth of the matter. I was slightly disappointed because I have seen this so well reviewed elsewhere but also because I was so pleased by “Death from a Top Hat” read only a few days before and this book could not match that.

I also had another realisation that in this type of mystery where no one could have done it, you generally don’t get the same type of surprise that Agatha Christie often pulls off where plenty of people could have done it, but actually the one person who couldn’t have done it actually did it.

A nice post-script in the Locked Room International version is correspondence between Smith and Doug Greene and Tony Medawar where he suggests a fix for a minor weakness in the story.

 

 

 

 

 

Murder in the Telephone Exchange by June Wright (1948)

Maggie Byrnes is working as a telephonist at Melbourne Central when she and her friend Gerda “Mac” MacIntyre find a disagreeable colleague battered to death in the restroom. Mac seems to be hiding something from the police during their first interview and so Maggie also decides against full disclosure, her first, but by no means last, mistake.

She wishes to help the police but loyalty to friends keeps clouding her judgment but as we see her thoughts it becomes more understandable as she is sometimes flippant in the face of danger before remembering the horror that has caused. She is also working the “dog watch” night shift a disorientating enough experience without choosing to move through the corridors of the eight-floor building, sometimes as cat and sometimes as mouse.

There is a similarity here with Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise in that we see inside a particular working environment and how those involved in the case must continue working alongside each other despite their mutual suspicions. The routine of the work in the Exchange is interesting but would have made more sense to contemporary readers as they would have understood the mechanics of making and receiving a call from the outside and so what happens inside would join the dots for them. The detail in all this comes from June Wright’s personal experience as a “hello girl”.

I was pleased that I spotted a key piece of misdirection about half-way through, although this was partly informed by some remembrance from reviews of Wright’s work. I also had an idea about one character’s reasons for being somewhere which I didn’t really follow up on but which came from another recent read. I’m beginning to see more and more that the pieces of the GAD puzzle are finite but can be rearranged by writers to suit their tastes.

Overall I can’t give this a whole hearted recommendation but please have a look at this review from Kate at crossexaminingcrime who will be speaking about Wright’s work at the upcoming Bodies from the Library conference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An English Murder by Cyril Hare (1951)

Dr Wenceslaus Bottwink is staying at Warbeck Hall (no connection to Perkin Warbeck regardless of what local tradition may say) conducting research into 18th century British history. A small house party is due to gather for Christmas made up of the ailing Lord Warbeck, his son Roger (leader of a fledgling group of fascists), his cousin Sir Julius (socialist Chancellor of the Exchequer), Lady Camilla and Mrs Carstairs.

There is some awkwardness here as Dr Bottwink is neither upstairs nor downstairs but due to a lack of staff Briggs, the butler, has arranged that he should be treated as one of the party. It is however altogether proper that Sergeant Rogers, Sir Julius’ official protection officer, should eat in the servants’ hall, although Briggs is horrified that he is given full run of the house in order that he can fulfil his duties.

There are tensions of varying degrees and natures between the guests and this climaxes with a sudden death on the stroke of midnight as Christmas Day begins. Other deaths follow and although Rogers does his best it is only the foreign outsider Dr Bottwink who can see enough to solve this most English of murders.

Having read this before I knew what the one important detail was here and by half-way everything else had fallen back into place. Funnily though I had a strong memory of one character making a trip through the snow, only to find that it was actually someone else.

This is Hare at his most Hare-ian and is a great read as Warbeck Hall and its inhabitants adjust to a new post-war reality.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “When – During a weather event”.