A Golden Age Mystery
Published: 2017, Ipso Books. First published in 1940, Collins UK (The Crime Club)
Source: Review copy via NetGalley
My rating: 4*
I really enjoyed Malice in Wonderland by Nicholas Blake*. It’s a Golden Age mystery first published in the UK in 1940; in the US as The Summer Camp Mystery, later in 1971 as Malice with Murder; and in 1987, as Murder with Malice.
There are several allusions to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The train to Wonderland plunges into a tunnel, just as Alice enters Wonderland through a rabbit hole. But in this case Wonderland is a holiday camp, set on a cliff top overlooking the sea. And all is not well in Wonderland as there is a prankster in the camp , the self-styled ‘Mad Hatter’, who is playing nasty and cruel practical jokes on the holiday makers. Swimmers are ducked in the sea and held down, tennis balls are coated in treacle, left with a note that refers to a part of dormouse’s story in Alice in Wonderland. Then the jokes get more dangerous. The camp’s owners are concerned not just for the guests but also for their business as they fear a rival firm with a grudge against the company is trying to ruin them.
There are hundreds of visitors at Wonderland, but the action revolves around a few characters including Paul Perry, a young man who calls himself a scientist, but who is there taking notes for the Mass Observation project, Mr and Mrs Thistlethwaite and their teenage daughter, Sally, Albert Morley, a timid little man, brothers Mortimer and Teddy Wise, the camp’s managers, their secretary Esmeralda Jones and Nigel Strangeways, a private detective.
Like other Golden Age mysteries, Malice in Wonderland presents a puzzle, plenty of suspects, clues planted along the way and a detective who solves the puzzle. It also presents a picture of life just before the Second World War, the social attitudes and in particular the beginnings of the holiday camps. By the 1930s there were several camps, including Warners and Butlins, at seaside locations. Wonderland has dining-halls presenting food cooked by London chefs, a ballroom, bars, an indoor swimming-bath, a concert hall, a gymnasium and numerous playrooms, plus a programme of entertainment with professional hosts and hostesses. It’s described as ‘the biggest, brightest and most ambitious of all the holiday camps that had sprung up over England during the last year or two.’
I loved the setting, the interesting characters, and the fiendishly difficult mystery to solve (I only solved it just before the denouement). And it’s well written with humour and style.
*Nicholas Blake was the pseudonym of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis (1904 – 1972), one of the leading British poets of the 1930s. He published his first Nigel Strangeways detective novel, A Question of Proof in 1935. Malice in Wonderland is the 6th in the series.
My thanks to the publisher for a digital ARC via NetGalley.