This year I’ve been taking part in Bev’s Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt in both the Golden and the Silver Age categories and I’ve completed both categories, reading 10 books in the Golden Age and 6 in the Silver Age.
The aim: to find as many objects on the Scavenger Hunt list as possible on the covers of the mystery books you read. The minimum number of items to complete the challenge is six items from the covers of books read from a single Vintage Mystery Era.
It’s been a very interesting challenge – Bev has some challenging challenges!
The Golden Age Vintage Mysteries must have been first published before 1960.
Most of the books I read in this era are Agatha Christie’s books – 5 in total.
There’s nothing Christmassy about Frost at Christmas apart from the title and the fact that it is set just before Christmas.
Ten days to Christmas and Tracey Uphill, aged eight, hasn’t come home from Sunday school. Her mother, a pretty young prostitute, is desperate. Enter Detective Inspector Jack Frost, sloppy, scruffy and insubordinate. To help him investigate the case of the missing child, Frost has been assigned a new sidekick, the Chief Constable’s nephew. Fresh to provincial Denton in an oversmart suit, Detective Constable Clive Barnard is an easy target for Frost’s withering satire.
Assisted and annoyed by Barnard, Frost, complete with a store of tasteless anecdotes to fit every occasion, proceeds with the investigation in typically unorthodox style. After he’s consulted a local witch, Dead Man’s Hollow yields up a skeleton. Frost finds himself drawn into an unsolved crime from the past and risks not only his career, but also his life…
Frost at Christmas has been on my shelves for over 2 years. It’s the first of R D Wingfield’s DI Jack Frost series. Years ago I’d watched the TV series with David Jason as DI Frost, which I thought were interesting but I wasn’t that keen on Frost as a detective. So I was surprised to find that the book and the character are so much better.
Frost at Christmas was first published in Great Britain in 1989, but Wingfield had written it years earlier, in 1972 and it was first published in Canada in 1984. In his obituary in The Guardian Wingfield is quoted: “I have nothing against David Jason as Frost at all, he just isn’t my Frost.” He liked Jason as a comedy actor in such vehicles as Only Fools and Horses, but felt that along with the choice of actor had gone a softening of the dark humour essential as a safety valve for policemen investigating horrendous cases.
After reading Frost at Christmas I agree: David Jason’s Frost is not my Frost either. He’s a much tougher character, not at all PC. but he is much more than the crude, sexist and insensitive rude person he first appears. Of course he is unorthodox, which doesn’t go down well with his boss, Superintendent Mullett who is the exact opposite of Frost, being always immaculately dressed and supremely oblivious to Frost’s excellent detective skills (as in the TV version). He doesn’t obey orders, goes off at a tangent and doesn’t like experts who rely on precision, whereas he uses his hunches and intuition. Frost is popular with his colleagues, although they are less than happy when he is late handing in their expenses claims.
There are several storylines – the missing schoolgirl, a bank robbery and the discovery of a three decades old murder plus other more minor crimes. It’s a reminder of the time when people smoked and held meetings in blue-fug filled rooms, and when there no mobile phones and people used public telephone boxes.
I liked Frost’s sense of humour and the way his relationship with the new DC, Clive Barnard, the Chief Constable’s nephew develops. Clive after seeing Frost as incompetent and disgusted by his ‘cheap gibes’ eventually sees the other side of his boss as he learns what lies behind Frost’s tough facade and a bit about his history, his wife dying of cancer.
I think Frost at Christmas is so much better than I expected. I really enjoyed it and am going to read the other five Frost books R D Wingfield wrote.
1. Frost at Christmas (1984)
2. A Touch of Frost (1987)
3. Night Frost (1992)
4. Hard Frost (1995)
5. Winter Frost (1999)
6. A Killing Frost (2008)
‘Rodney David Wingfield (1928 – 2007) was a prolific writer of radio crime plays and comedy scripts, some for the late Kenneth Williams, star of the Carry On films. His crime novels featuring DI Jack Frost have been successfully adapted for television as A Touch of Frost starring David Jason.Wingfield was a modest man, shunning the London publicity scene in favour of a quite life in Basildon, Essex, with his wife of 52 years(died 2004) and only son.’ (Fantastic Fiction)
I’m still catching up with writing about books I read in November. First published in 1931 Mystery in the Channel by Freeman Wills Crofts is a classic crime fiction novel written during the Golden Age of detective fiction between the two world wars. The cross-channel steamer, Chichester comes across an abandoned small pleasure yacht, the Nymph, lying motionless in the English Channel. Two men are on board, both of whom have been shot. Inspector French of Scotland Yard is in charge of the investigations into their murder.
There is no sign of a murder weapon, or the murderer. The two dead men are identified as the chairman and vice-chairman of a large financial company that is apparently on the the verge of a crash. It was thought that the two men were trying to flee the country with £1.5 million pounds in cash that was missing from the company’s strong room.
What follows is a complicated investigation into the details of nautical calculations and timetables, and of the numbers and whereabouts of the missing notes, all of which I admit were a bit beyond me. I had absolutely no idea about the identity of the murderer but I enjoyed trying to work out the clues and avoid all the red herrings as Inspector French travelled between London (called Town), Newhaven and Dieppe in the course of his investigations. Apart from Inspector French the characterisation is sketchy – it is the puzzle of the murder and the missing money that is the focus of the book.
I thought the comments on the effect of the company’s crash on ordinary people is still as relevant today as it was in the 1930s and the Assistant Police Commissioner’s views on crime and punishment showing a surprising sympathy with the criminal are interesting. He deplored the punishment of the out-of-work or poorly paid thief who had stolen to provide for his family’s’ needs. And he had ‘the most profound enmity and contempt’ for the wealthy thief who stole through the manipulation of stocks and shares or by other financial methods, whether those means were within or without the limits of the law.
This edition of Murder in the Channel is one of a series of classic crime novels published in September 2016 by British Library Publishing and has an introduction by Martin Edwards. My copy is courtesy of NetGalley.
Agatha Christie is one of my favourite authors. I first began reading her books when I was in my teens but it was in 2008 when Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise launched the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge that I began to read my way through all her books. There are 66 mystery and detective novels and numerous collections of short stories. In February of this year I completed my reading of her 66 mystery and detective novels and some but not all of her short stories.
The Short Stories
There is some confusion over how many short stories Agatha Christie wrote. The Agatha Christie website records that she wrote 150 stories, whereas Wikipedia records that she wrote 153 short stories, published in 14 collections in the UK and in the US. By my reckoning she wrote 157 short stories, published in a number of collections, but I may have included duplications as some stories were published under different names in the US Collections. I’m hoping that as I read the stories the actual number will become clear. For my list of her short stories see my Agatha Christie Short Stories Page.
But whatever the real total may be there can be no doubt that it is an impressive collection of stories originally published in several magazines and then in a number of collections. They do vary in quality, some are very short, almost skeletal, with the puzzle element given greater emphasis than characterisation.The first collection of her short stories, Poirot Investigates was published in 1924, when Agatha Christie was 34.
As today’s topic in this Blogathon is dedicated to anything about or by Agatha Christie not related either to Poirot or Miss Marple this post is about one collection of short stories:
The Mysterious Mr Quin
This was first published in 1930 featuring Mr Harley Quin and Mr Satterthwaite. This is my favourite of her collections, containing some of her very best short stories.
In her Autobiography Agatha Christie said these stories were her favourites too. The stories were not written as a series, but one at a time at intervals of three or four months or longer and were first published in magazines. They are set in the 1920s and have a paranormal element to them, as well as a touch of romance. I found them all most entertaining.
In the Foreword she describes Mr Quin as:
… a figure invisible except when he chose, not quite human, yet concerned with the affairs of human beings and particularly of lovers. He is also the advocate for the dead.
Mr Satterthwaite, who was in his sixties, a little man, with an elf-like face, is Mr Quin’s friend:
Mr Satterthwaite, the gossip, the looker-on at life, the little man who without ever touching the depths of joy and sorrow himself, recognizes drama when he sees it, and is conscious that he has a part to play.
The titles are
1. The Coming of Mr. Quin
2. The Shadow on the Glass
3. At the “Bells and Motley”
4. The Sign in the Sky
5. The Soul of the Croupier
6. The Man from the Sea
7. The Voice in the Dark
8. The Face of Helen
9. The Dead Harlequin
10. The Bird with the Broken Wing
11. The World’s End
12. Harlequin’s Lane
In the opening story, The Coming of Mr Quin, Mr Satterthwaite first meets him on New Year’s Eve, at a house party when talk had turned to the suicide of Mr Capel, the man who had originally owned the house. The enigmatic Mr Quin, a tall, slender man, appears in the doorway. The light shining through the stained glass above the door makes it appear that he is dressed in every colour of the rainbow but when he moves the effect fades and Mr Satterthwaite can see that he is dressed conventionally. Whenever he appears in the stories, some trick of the light initially produces the same effect. Mr Quin subtly steers Mr Satterthwaite into discovering the truth behind Mr Capel’s suicide.
In the following eleven stories Harley Quin always appears unexpectedly and suddenly, and then just as suddenly disappears, having influenced Mr Satterthwaite to change people’s lives, and solve mysteries by producing clues and asking pointed questions, making the solution obvious. He is, without doubt, the most mysterious and unusual character in all of Agatha Christie’s books.
One of my favourite stories is The Man From The Sea. Mr Satterthwaite, who is a wealthy man, althought the source of his wealth is not revealed, is on a Mediterranean island. Walking along the cliffs he meets Anthony Cosden, about to leap to his death. He’d been planning to do so the previous evening but had been prevented when he’d met someone else at the edge of the cliff – a mysterious man in fancy dress, ‘ a kind of Harlequin rig‘. Anthony reveals he only had six months to live and doesn’t want a lingering end and in any case he has no one in the world belonging to him – if only he had a son …
Mr Satterthwaite next meets a woman in black in the quiet garden of what seems to be an empty house. The woman asks him if he would like to see inside the house and clearly needs someone to talk to, someone to hear the tragic story of her life. It’s a touching story of remorse and the desire to make amends.
Mr Quin’s role in this and in other stories is to help Mr Satterthwaite to see beneath the surface, to see things in a different light. At the end he takes his leave, and all Mr Satterthwaite see is his friend walking towards the edge of the cliff.
The final story, Harlequin’s Lane is another bittersweet tale of lost love and fate and rather eerie. Mr Satterthwaite goes to visit a married couple, the Denmans, who live at Ashmead, on Harlequin’s Lane. Mrs Denman is a Russian refugee whom John Denman had married after escaping Russia on the outbreak of the revolution.
They are out when he arrives and he takes a walk down the Lane, wondering about its name and was not surprised when he meets his elusive friend, Harley Quin, who tells him the Lane belongs to him; it’s a Lovers’ Lane. It ends at waste ground covered with a rubbish heap where they meet Molly who is to be Pierrette in the masquerade the Denmans have planned for the weekend. A car accident interrupts the arrangments injuring some of the dancers, until Mr Satterthwaite intervenes, but still tragedy strikes. Mr Quin, seems to have cast a magical air of unreality over Mr Satterthwaite:
Mr Satterthwaite quailed. Mr Quin seemed to have loomed to enormous proportions … Mr Satterthwaite had a vista of something at once menacing and terrifying … Joy, Sorrow, Despair.
And his comfortable little soul shrank back appalled.
Truly a mystifying collection of stories. I enjoyed it immensely.
Tommy and Tuppence Beresford first appeared in Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary (first published in 1922) when they had just met up after World War One, both in their twenties. Their next appearance is in Partners in Crime, a collection of short stories, first published in 1929.
Life has become a little dull, especially for Tuppence. Tommy works for the Secret Service but wants to see more action, so when Tommy’s boss Mr Carter offers them both a new assignment they jump at the opportunity. It’s to take over for six months the running of the International Detective Agency under the name of Mr Theodore Blunt. It had been a front for Bolshevist-spying activity and in particular they were to look out for blue letters with a Russian stamp on them. They were also free to undertake any other detective work that comes their way.
All of the stories first appeared in magazines between 1923 and 1928 and they are parodies of fictional detectives of the period, some of whom I recognised and some I didn’t. When she came to write her autobiography many years later, even Agatha Christie couldn’t recognise some of them, noting that whilst some had become household names, others had ‘more or less perished in oblivion. Those I recognised include Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, The Old Man in the Corner, and Hercule Poirot, himself.
Most of the stories are self-contained adventures. They are slight and brief, and not really taxing or difficult to solve. I enjoyed reading them, because they are written with a light touch, and a sense of humour and fun. Tommy and Tuppence are likeable characters; Tommy is not as dizzy as David Walliams played him in the recent TV series. I’ve now read all the Tommy and Tuppence stories. There are four full length novels as well as Partners in Crime (Tommy and Tuppence 2) and unlike Poirot and Miss Marple Tommy and Tuppence age with each book:
An Inspector Morse book, The Wench is Dead is the 8th in the series, first published in 1989. This is a bit different from the other Morse books in that it is historical crime fiction – no current cases are investigated.
Morse is in hospital being treated for a perforated ulcer. Whilst recovering he is given a book called Murder on the Oxford Canal by the wife of a recently deceased patient at the hospital. It’s an account of the investigation and trial that followed the death of Joanna Franks in 1859. She had been found at Duke’s Cut on the Oxford Canal. As he reads, Morse becomes convinced that the two boatmen hanged for her murder and a third man who had been transported to Australia were innocent.
Dexter based his book on an account of a Victorian murder in 1839, that of 37-year-old Christina Collins as she travelled the Trent and Mersey Canal atRugeley, Staffordshire, on the Staffordshire Knot en route to London. It reminded me of Josephine Tey’s novel, The Daughter of Time in which Inspector Alan Grant, also recovering in hospital, investigates the murder of the Princes in the Tower.
Morse enlists the help of Sergeant Lewis as well as that of Christine Greenaway, the beautiful daughter of one of the other patients. She works as a librarian at the Bodleian Library. So he is able to study original source material as well as the account in the published book. Morse finds it an absorbing puzzle, like a tricky cryptic crossword, and the more he read and thought about it the more questions came to his mind. He was not satisfied that the conclusions drawn at the trial about the forensic and pathological evidence were right. He felt uneasy about reported conversations between the various people involved:
… all of it was wrong somehow. Wrong if they were guilty. It was if some inexperienced playwright had been given a murder-plot, and then had proceeded to write page after page of inappropriate, misleading and occasionally contradictory dialogue. (page 133)
I thought it was ingenious and compelling reading, very well constructed and very clever. By the time he leaves the hospital Morse is convinced that he has solved the mystery. It’s a tale of intrigue, lust and deception, with more than a few twists and turns.
It begins well as the main character finds herself in the dark in a cellar, not knowing who she is or how she got there. She is standing on the cellar steps and there is a dead girl lying at the bottom of the steps. She doesn’t recognise the dead girl either. She finds a bag beside her on the steps, which she doesn’t think is hers, but takes it with her as she escapes from the house and finds herself standing at the end of a road. She gets on a bus where she meets Miss Silver, who seeing how confused and frightened she is, takes her for a cup of tea and offers to help her. A letter in the handbag is addressed to Mrs James Fancourt and it seems that her name is Anne and she is to stay with her husband’s two aunts.
I think the opening of the book is the best part, setting up a scene of suspense and mystery. For most of the book Anne is suffering from amnesia but there is so much repetition of what little facts Anne knows that it became tedious reading, because it’s not just Anne who goes over and over what has happened but other characters too. I think the repetition lessened the sense of suspense, and overall, I thought the book was odd and not very convincing. There are too many coincidences, improbabilities, and loose ends.
This is the last of the Miss Silver Mysteries, published in the year Patricia Wentworth died. The first in the series was published in 1928. Miss Maud Silver is a retired governess who became a private investigator. She likes to help young lovers in distress – in The Girl on the Cellar, a ‘damsel in distress’ and she loves to knit and is a very sympathetic listener. I’ve only previously read one of the Miss Silver books, The Brading Collection, which is a much more convincing book.
Every Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros to share the first paragraph sometimes two, of a book that she’s reading or planning to read soon.
I didn’t read any of my books for the 20 Books of Summer Challenge in July, so I’ve got some catching up to do. One of the shorter books on my list is The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia Wentworth, in which Miss Silver helps Anne, who has lost her memory, but who thinks she has witnessed a murder.
She looked into the dead unbroken dark and had neither memory nor thought. She was not conscious of where she was, or of how she had come there. She was not conscious of anything except the darkness. She did not know if time had passed. There seemed to be no sense that it went by, but it must have done, because the moment when she knew nothing but darkness had changed into a moment in which she knew that her feet were on stone, and that she must not move from where she stood.
A young woman regains consciousness and finds herself on some cellar steps. At the bottom of the steps there is the corpse of a dead girl. She cannot remember who she is, what has happened or why she is there. Terrified and confused she manages to find a way out and as she flees she runs into Miss Silver, who offers to help her.
A letter in her bag is the only clue to her identity. But by investigating what has happened to her will she find herself in danger? Can she trust the letter writer? And who is the girl in the cellar?
This is a Miss Silver Mystery (there are 32 in the series), first published in 1961, the year that Patricia Wentworth died. She was born in India in 1878 and wrote dozens of best-selling mysteries being recognised as one of the ‘mistresses of classic crime.’She died in 1961 and was as popular in the 1940s as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. Miss Silver, a contemporary of Miss Marple ‘was her finest creation‘.
What do you think? Would you keep reading? I think this opening paragraph sets the scene well, with the sense of danger and mystery to make me want to know more.
a gripping story of love and betrayal at the height of the Cold War. This Penguin Modern Classics edition includes an afterword by the author and an introduction by William Boyd, author of Any Human Heart.
Alex Leamas is tired. It’s the 1960s, he’s been out in the cold for years, spying in the shadow of the Berlin Wall for his British masters. He has seen too many good agents murdered for their troubles. Now Control wants to bring him in at last – but only after one final assignment. He must travel deep into the heart of Communist Germany and betray his country, a job that he will do with his usual cynical professionalism. But when George Smiley tries to help a young woman Leamas has befriended, Leamas’s mission may prove to be the worst thing he could ever have done. In le Carré’s breakthrough work of 1963, the spy story is reborn as a gritty and terrible tale of men who are caught up in politics beyond their imagining.
This is a dark, tense book and quite short, just 252 pages. It’s complicated and although the language le Carré uses is clear and straight forward at times I wasn’t sure just what was going on, what lay behind the scenes – just what was Leamas up to, amidst the various deceptions and subterfuges? George Smiley does appear briefly in the book, but is there throughout in that he is masterminding Leamas’ mission.
Back from Berlin where he had seen his last agent killed whilst trying to cross the Berlin Wall, Leamas is apparently no longer useful. He goes to seed whilst working out his contact in the Banking Section, transforming into a drunken wreck no longer of use to the Secret Services, left without any money or a job until he finds work as a helper in a library for Psychical Research. Here he meets Liz Gold, who then unwittingly gets drawn into Smiley’s plan.
The atmosphere throughout is of secrecy, manipulation, of human frailty and its duplicitous nature. As the German, Fiedler says for a secret agent:
… deception is first a matter of self-defence. He must protect himself not only from without, but also from within, and against the most natural of impulses; though he earns a fortune, his role may forbid him the use of a razor, though he be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those in whom he should naturally confide. (page 143)
By the end of the book Leamas is in despair as his mission seems to have failed. Liz can’t work out which side he is on and he says:
What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. (page 243)
I hate it; I hate it all; I’m tired. But it’s the world, it’s mankind that’s gone mad. We’re a tiny price to pay … but everywhere’s the same, people cheated and misled, whole lives thrown away, people shot and in prison, whole groups and classes of men, written off for nothing. (pages 244-5)
But then again did his mission fail? This is one of those books that I find so hard to write about without giving away too much of the plot – the introduction by William Boyd begins with this statement, ‘New readers are advised that this Introduction makes details of the plot explicit.‘ And indeed it does. I was glad I read it after reading the book, though, as it also gives an interpretation that I found helpful – in particular just what Boyd thought was meant by ‘coming in from the cold‘.
It’s that time of year again when I have less time for blogging – summer when the grass and the weeds grow in abundance. So what with that and a host of other things this post is shorter than I would like it to be.
I like W J Burley’s Wycliffe books. I’ve read several of them up to now and enjoyed each one. Set in Cornwall, they have a strong sense of place, and Wycliffe is a quiet, thoughtful detective.
In Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin Chief Superintendent Wycliffe is staying with a Penzance lawyer, Ernest Bishop and his family for a few days over Christmas at the Bishops’ hill-top house. With his wife away in Kenya, Wycliffe is not looking forward to Christmas, and the welcome from the family is polite rather than welcoming. The situation only gets worse when a young girl goes missing after playing the part of the Virgin Mary in the local nativity play, and then her father also goes missing and her mother is found dead in their cottage. Wycliffe moves out of the Bishops’ house as it appears they may be suspects.
What follows is Wycliffe’s investigation which goes back to a crime committed five years earlier, involving many twists and turns. It was a quick and entertaining read with a lot of characters, but all are clearly distinguishable. The plot is complex and it was only as I was getting near the end that I began to have an inkling about the identity of the murderer.
W J Burley (1914 – 2002) lived near Newquay in Cornwall and was a teacher until he retired to concentrate on his writing. He wrote 22 Wycliffe novels. Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin was the 13th, first published in 1986 and as such fits into Bev’s Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt in the Silver Age (Vintage Mysteries first published any time from 1960 to 1989) in the category of ‘Spooky/House’ on its cover. It is also one of my 20 Books of Summer 2016.