Review 1875: Death of a Bookseller

Published in 1956, Death of a Bookseller has long been unavailable except for costly used editions. I was surprised by the publication date, because in many ways the book reads like a much older novel. It employs a rather formal, factual narrative style, and although it is more of a police procedural, it espouses notions about policing that seem na├»ve and decidedly rosy compared to the probable reality. Also, it refers to phrenology as if it were a considered a science when it was largely debunked by the 1840’s.

Sergeant Wigan decides to take up a hobby, and the one that appeals to him is collecting books. In learning about them, he develops a friendship with Michael Fisk, a buyer and seller of rare books. He has a collection of very rare ones at home, quite a few about the occult.

When Fisk is found murdered in his home, Wigan is assigned to help the Detective Inspector because of his interest in books. He notices that someone has stolen a rare edition of Keats from his collection, but later learns that someone may have also stolen one of Fisk’s books on the occult, substituting in its place a book of little value.

Very quickly, a runner named Fred Hampton is arrested for the crime with serious evidence against him. Hampton claims he is being framed, and Sergeant Wigan tends to believe him, but the D. I. thinks he has his man. However, he gives Wigan permission to continue investigating on his own time. Wigan does so with the help of Charlie North, another runner.

This novel is interesting in its information about the bookselling trade and has a complex plot, although the clues didn’t seem to me more likely to point at one one suspect over another until the very end. One extremely unlikely plot point was the seriousness with which some characters treated the supernatural angle, as Fisk was apparently trying to raise the devil when he was killed. This feature was another thing that made the book seem more like a 19th century mystery.

I received this novel from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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My latest haul (finally) from the British Library Press

After several requests, I finally got another package of review copies from the British Library Crime Classics and Women Writers series. I’m not sure what went wrong with the first few requests, as each time they said they would send some books. Unfortunately, I got more Crime Classics than Women Writers books, when I thought it would be the other way around. However, I am looking forward to some delicious reading.

Review 1794: Fell Murder

The Garths have been at Garthmere, a farm on the fells of the Lake District, from before Flodden Field. The patriarch, Robert Garth, is a hard man of 83, stubborn and hot-tempered, who will not agree to the modernizations proposed by his daughter, Marion. He has long been estranged from his heir, oldest son Richard, who moved away to Canada. His middle son, Charles, lost every penny out in Asia to the Japanese invasion and loafs around unless put to work. His youngest son, Malcolm, is frail and spends his time keeping bees and writing poetry.

It is 1944, and Richard returns to the area, on leave from the Navy. He meets his father’s bailiff, John Staple, on the fell. He doesn’t want to see his family—he just wanted to look at the land—so he asks Staple not to tell them he is there. But he is overheard by Malcolm. A few days later, Robert is found dead, shot and left inside an old outbuilding.

Chief Inspector Macdonald is called on the scene after initial interviews by Superintendent Layng, who is not good at handling the reticent farmers. Although Macdonald gets along better, he finds himself with either too many or too few suspects and no proof against anyone.

If Fell Murder has a fault, it is that the murderer is too easy to guess, being the only unlikable main character. This was often a fault of Georgette Heyer’s mysteries, too, but I still enjoyed reading them. Oh, there’s one other problem, the handling of a boy of limited intellect, but that’s due to the change in times. Just a warning.

Of these British Library Crime Classic reprints, I’ve discovered E. C. R. Lorac to be one of my favorites, because of her attention to setting and character. This is a good one.

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Review 1699: Two-Way Murder

The night of the Hunt Ball is a foggy one indeed. Nick Brent gives visitor Ian Macbane a lift to the dance. On the way home, though, he has a far different companion, Dilys Maine, a beautiful young woman whose strict father did not give her permission to go to the ball. In the fog, the car nearly runs over something huddled in the road. When Nick finds it is a body, he urges Dilys to run home by herself so she won’t have to give evidence.

Nick can’t turn around or back all the way down the narrow lane, so he goes to the nearest farmhouse to call the police, that of Michael Reeve. Finding no one home, he breaks in through a pantry window to make the call. However, someone comes in and attacks him.

Things don’t look good for Reeve. An older constable identifies the body as his brother Norman, who left ten years ago, but Reeve denies it is him. The body was almost certainly driven over by Reeve’s car, but Reeve says he often parks it on the verge with the keys in. His family having past run-ins with the police, he’s not inclined to cooperate.

But Inspector Waring of the C. I. D. thinks things are more complex than they look. He believes they center around Dilys Maine and the rivals for her affection.

The Introduction to this novel informs us that this is the first time it has been in print, the unpublished manuscript having been part of the author’s estate. That makes it a real prize for the British Library Crime Classics series. The Introduction further comments that for many years E. C. R. Lorac’s novels were only available to collectors. I’m enjoying them very much and am glad they are being republished.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1688: The Chianti Flask

Did she or didn’t she is only part of the concern of this psychological drama that is more of an apres-crime novel. Or was it a crime?

The novel begins with Laura Dousland on trial for the murder of her much older husband. But whether he was murdered or committed suicide is really the question. It all seems to hinge on a missing Chianti flask that the police think may have been used to deliver the poison. Laura says they were out of Chianti, but their Italian servant says a Chianti flask was on the table during dinner. A search for the flask finds nothing.

Laura is found not guilty but is overwhelmed by the attention she continues to get. She has been left nearly penniless with only a gloomy and poorly maintained house to sell, as Fordish Dousland notoriously only spent money on his own interests and his income was only for his life. All the money Laura saved during her years as a governess was spent trying to maintain the household and feed them.

Laura just wants to be left alone after the trial, but her well-meaning but insistent ex-employer, Mrs. Hayward, thinks Laura would be better off engaged in society. Left ill from imprisonment, Laura begins to get worse.

Dr. Mark Scrutton, whom Laura knew slightly before the trial, makes it his business to get her out of the Hayward’s home and into an isolated seaside cottage owned by his family. But soon there is another conflict when Scrutton tells her he is in love with her.

The Chianti Flask is an effective psychological novel that really gripped me. I got so caught up in the couple’s difficulties because of Laura’s notoriety that I almost forgot I was reading a mystery.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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My latest haul from British Library

I’ve been doing my best to get on the list for review copies for several of my favorite reprint presses. One is the British Library, and last week I just received two each of the latest books from British Library Crime Classics and British Library Women Writers. I am so excited!

My review copies from British Library!

The books from the Crime Classics series are two by women, one by an author I haven’t read before, Marie Belloc Lowndes, and one by E. C. R. Lorac, who is becoming one of my favorites.

The books from the Women Writers series are by two old favorites, Diana Tutton and E. M. Delafield.

Thank you, British Library!

Review 1616: The Lost Gallows

The famous French detective Inspector Bencolin and his friend Jeff Marle are sitting with Bencolin’s friend Sir John Landervorne in the Brimstone Club in London while Bencolin tells a strange tale of a man seeing a gallows in the fog. Upon leaving the room, they find a toy model of a gallows there. Later that evening, Marle encounters a wealthy Egyptian, El Moulk, on the floor of his rooms in the club. He appears terrified.

On the way back from the theater that evening, Marle is nearly run down by El Moulk’s limousine. When he looks into the window, he sees the chauffeur is dead. Returning to the club where the car has stopped, they receive a message saying that El Moulk will die on the gallows at Ruination Street.

The three investigate the case along with Inspector Talbot, trying to rescue El Moulk and locate Ruination Street even though they become convinced that the Egyptian is guilty of a heinous crime for which someone is taking revenge.

Like many Golden Age crime novels, this one is extremely complicated, almost to the point of the ridiculous, as the perpetrator takes a bizarre revenge. However, it is fast-paced and even contains a love interest for Marle. I believe that long ago I read a locked room mystery by Carr. I liked this one a lot better.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1450: The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories

For a Christmas season treat, I read this latest British Library Crime Classic short story collection, published in October. Most of its stories are set in winter and several around Christmas. This collection includes crime stories published between 1909 and 1965.

I was surprised to find the first story was written by Baroness Orczy, whom I associate with the Scarlet Pimpernel. It turns out that she started by writing crime fiction. In “A Christmas Tragedy,” her detective is Lady Molly, who is convinced that the accused Mr. Smethick did not murder Major Ceely. The police theorize that the motive was the major’s refusal to allow his daughter’s engagement to Mr. Smethick. Lady Molly discovers a more obscure motive for the crime.

In “By the Sword” by Selwyn Jepson, Alfred Caithness plots and kills his cousin Herbert after Herbert refuses to lend him more money. Alfred’s guilt is explored in an unusual way.

“The Christmas Card Crime” by Donald Stuart is more of a crime adventure, as a criminal tries to steal an heiress’s proof of her identity.

Although some of the stories were more clever than others, the only story I couldn’t finish was “Twixt the Cup and the Lip” by Julian Symons, a caper story that seemed to go on and on.

I received a copy of this book from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

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Review 1421: Death Has Deep Roots

I usually give older crime novels more leeway than modern ones, because the genre has evolved. Some of the older novels concentrate on the puzzle to the detriment of character, for example, or even plausibility. Not so with Death Has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert, published in 1951.

Gilbert, rather than having an all-knowing detective, has recurring characters in his novels, apparently. Although Goodreads lists this novel as Inspector Hazlerigg #5, he is only a minor character. Instead, the novel rests on the combined efforts of the Rumbolds, father and son solicitors; Macrae, the barrister; and Major McCann, a former soldier and pub owner.

Victoria Lamertine is charged with murdering Major Eric Thoseby, once her British contact when she was in the French Resistance, in his hotel room. The police case is built around the fact that she had been trying to contact him and that no one else could have committed the crime based on who was in the reception area of the hotel. The police think that Thoseby was the father of her child, who died just after the war, that being deserted by her lover was her motive.

Victoria claims that in fact Lieutenant Wells was the father and that Thoseby had been helping her search for him, as he was last seen when the Gestapo raided the farm near Angers where he was hiding. Victoria herself was taken in that raid.

Nap Rumbold thinks the links to the crime lie in France and the war, so he goes off to investigate. McCann investigates Lieutenant Wells in England, hoping to verify Vicky’s story about the parentage of her child. They only have a few days to find the facts while Macrae mounts his defense.

This novel is an unusual combination of legal and action thriller, Rumbold’s part providing the action. It has compelling characters, an interesting plot, and zips along nicely. I think it’s the best of the British Library Crime Classics I’ve read so far. I’ll be looking for more Michael Gilbert, whom I wasn’t familiar with before.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

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Review 1397: Deep Waters

I have read several of British Library Crime Classics’ mystery story collections, usually themed around a locale. In Deep Waters, most of the stories are set at sea, although some involve rivers and one each a pond and a swimming pool. The stories are in chronological order by when they were published, from 1893 to 1975.

The first story, “The Adventure of the ‘Gloria Scott'” by Arthur Conan Doyle, is a Sherlock Holmes I have never encountered before, supposedly his first case. Like several of the first few stories, it presents and solves a puzzle so quickly that I was barely aware there was a puzzle. In fact, as I read these stories, I felt as if I was watching the evolution of the mystery story.

“The Eight-Mile Lock” by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace, only the second story, was one of three written by women. It details the theft of a diamond bracelet from a party staying on a houseboat. The mystery is not so much about who stole the bracelet or how but where he put it to evade the police.

“The Gift of the Emperor” is a Raffles story written by E. W. Hornung, who was Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law. I don’t know if it was the last of Raffles’s career, but it seemed to be.

One of the stories I liked best was “A Question of Timing” by Phyllis Bentley. The main character, Robert Beringer, uses his observation skills as a writer to foil a criminal, save a detective’s life, and get the girl, all during a walk. This story takes place on an embankment of the Thames.

I have a frustration in general with mystery short stories as they really only have space to pose and solve a puzzle. So much that I enjoy about mystery novels is not possible at this length. Some of these stories, though, had beautiful descriptions of their settings. In any case, this is a good collection for those interested in the evolution of the mystery story.

I received a copy of this book free from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

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