Day 1221: Portrait of a Murderer

Cover for Portrait of a MurdererSet during Christmas of 1931, Portrait of a Murderer is an unusual novel. We know from the beginning who the murderer is, and at first it looks like he is going to get away with his crime. For its time, the psychological portrait of the murderer is surprisingly deep.

Gathered together for Christmas are Adrian Gray and his family. Adrian is in financial straits because of reckless investments he made through his son-in-law, Eustace Moore. Adrian’s oldest son, Richard, is a member of parliament who has been spending heavily on a blackmailing mistress and his bid for a title. Eustace’s investments are all about to fail, with many investors bankrupted. Youngest son Brand’s need to pursue his painting full time has overcome his duty to his family.

All three men plan to ask Adrian for money that he doesn’t have. Richard needs it to pay his blackmailer. Eustace needs £10,000 to keep his investors happy. Brand wants to offload his wife and children onto his father and sister so that he can return to Paris to paint. Failing that, he’d like a loan to support them.

Brand goes to speak to his father around midnight on Christmas Eve. He gets so angry because of Adrian’s attitude toward his career and life that he lashes out. Meaning to slam a heavy paperweight onto the desk, he hits his father in the head instead. Soon he is standing there stunned by what he has done. But it’s not long before he begins trying to find a way out of it. His solution? Frame Eustace.

This novel isn’t so much about the investigation as about Brand’s mental outlook. Dashing off a portrait of himself as he stands in the murder room, Brand recognizes his own genius and decides that nothing should get in the way of his art. Meredith seems, on the whole, sympathetic with him, even as he treats his own wife and children as discardable, simply because he is not sure of the children’s parentage.

Brand’s brother-in-law, Miles Avery, is not satisfied when Eustace is charged with the crime. Despite his wife Ruth’s apprehension, he manages to work out what really happened.

link to NetgalleyThere are some things that are now considered politically incorrect in this novel, originally published in 1933. In particular, anti-Semitic remarks may bother readers. Then there is Brand’s Nietschean sense of superiority, reminding me a bit of Raskolnikov without the feverishness. However, it’s a fascinating character study.

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Day 1217: A Footman for the Peacock

Cover for A Foot man for the PeacockA Footman for the Peacock is a strange little novel. The novel was controversial when it was first published during World War II, because it depicts an upper-class family that tries to avoid its civic duty during the war. But that activity seems almost incidental to the rest of the plot.

What is the plot? The narration flits around in time but centers on the Roundelay family. Their current configuration consists of Sir Edmund and Lady Evelyn and their household of two daughters, three elderly aunts, and three or four servants, including the retired and senile Nursie. When we finally seem to be settling somewhere, on the new Lady Evelyn’s growing acquaintance with the village and regional customs, we stay only long enough for her to hear an old running song, which Evelyn in her innocence takes to be about hunting. then we skip over to her daughter, Angela.

Angela seems to have a sensitivity to an upper-floor servant’s bedroom where the words “Heryn I dye, Thomas Picocke, 1792” are etched on a window pane. She makes an odd connection between this room and an unfriendly peacock in the grounds of the estate, which seems to be signalling Nazi bombers to destroy the house.

I guess I found this novel, which has a supernatural element, peculiar enough to be amusing, but it certainly has an unusual premise. I had more of a problem with the scattered narrative style, which took a long time to get somewhere. Ultimately, the novel becomes a story of class abuse and cruelty in the 18th century.

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Day 1209: The Red House Mystery

Cover for The Red House MysteryWho knew that A. A. Milne wrote novels for adults, let alone mysteries? I didn’t, until Simon of Stuck in a Book reviewed The Red House Mystery. Then I saw it advertised in Folio Society, of which I am a member.

Our detective is an amateur, Antony Gillingham, who comes on the scene accidentally. He is visiting in the area when he remembers his friend, Bill Beverley, is staying at the Red House, a guest of Mark Ablett, so he decides to drop by. He finds a man hammering on the library door. This man is Mr. Cayley, Mr. Ablett’s secretary, who reports he has heard a gunshot from within the locked office.

Cayley and Antony break in and find the body of a man who has been shot in the face. Cayley identifies him as Robert Ablett, the ne’er-do-well brother of Mark, just arrived from Australia. Mark Ablett, who had been in the room with his brother, is nowhere to be found. The police decide Robert has been murdered and begin looking for Mark.

Antony begins noticing clues about the crime. Enlisting his friend Bill as his Watson, he decides to solve the mystery.

With typical Golden Age verve, Milne makes this puzzle just about as complicated as possible. I usually don’t hope to solve these mysteries because of that. However, I did guess at part of the solution and then decided it wasn’t possible. Apparently, it was.

What I enjoyed about the book was the congenial duo solving the crime. Antony is bright and witty, and Bill is jovial and loyal. The Red House Mystery makes a fun light read.

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Day 1202: The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow

Cover for The Mystery of Mrs. BlencarrowFlighty Kitty Bircham has flown to Gretna Green to elope with her swain when she discovers in the marriage record a juicy bit of gossip. The respectable and dignified widow from her village, Mrs. Joan Blencarrow, has married someone secretly. Indeed, she has been married for three years!

Kitty is so excited about her discovery that she fails to notice the name of Mrs. Blencarrow’s husband. Instead of running off with her own new husband to London as planned, Kitty goes straight home, figuring this juicy bit of news will win her forgiveness from her mother.

Soon the neighborhood is agog. Is the rumor true or not? Mrs. Blencarrow even has a visit from her own uncles trying to find out, but she only tells the vicar the truth.

I was somewhat dissatisfied with this Victorian era sensationalist novella, which is a character study rather than a mystery. Part of the truth comes out fairly quickly, but it isn’t hard to guess the other part. And we get a very unfinished story. Why did the couple marry? That’s not at all clear. Are we to believe it was from passion? That’s hard to believe considering her later reaction. What is clear is that Mrs. Blencarrow thinks she will be in disgrace if the truth comes out. But that doesn’t answer the question of why they married in the first place.

Mrs. Blencarrow is an interesting person, and this is a very short work, so a qualified approval.

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Day 1200: Magpie Murders

Cover for Magpie MurdersMy husband and I love Midsomer Murders. The program has not been broadcast in Austin for years, so we began collecting the DVDs. After our move, we were happy to find that the Portland PBS station periodically airs the older series, which we’ve been watching. So, I was delighted to learn that Anthony Horowitz, the author of Magpie Murders, had written some of the screenplays. How could I go wrong?

Alan Conway, the author of the successful Atticus Pünd mystery series, has sent his latest manuscript, Magpie Murders, to his publisher. After a brief introduction by his editor, Susan Ryland, we’re plunged directly into his Christie-esque whodunnit.

But the novel comes to an abrupt end before it is finished. The last few chapters are missing. Before Susan can contact Conway, she learns he is dead from an accidental fall off the tower in his home.

The publishing house hasn’t been doing that well recently, so Susan begins looking for the final chapters. They have been erased from Conway’s computer, and the manuscript is not with his others. Susan’s boss’s copy is missing the same pages.

Susan begins to suspect that Conway’s death was not an accident. As she investigates, she finds that Conway borrowed characters, settings, and ideas from his real life and liked puzzles and anagrams. Susan thinks that the key to Conway’s death may lie in his manuscript.

I enjoyed Magpie Murders and thought that its novel within a novel structure was clever, but I also didn’t think that the Pünd novel was all that important to the plot. That is, it was important, but it wasn’t necessary to include the entire novel. Of course, this structure gives you two entertaining mysteries for the price of one, but I thought that there were too many characters in the Pünd novel, and it was confusing. Also, too much was told in narrative rather than in action and dialogue.

I did not solve the Pünd mystery, but I did somehow sense who the murderer was in the “actual” mystery despite not knowing the motive. When the motive was revealed, it seemed weak to me.

This seems like a severe review, but I actually enjoyed the novel very much. So, I guess I am carping at small things. The action moves forward nicely, the interior mystery has a pleasant old-fashioned feel, and the “real” mystery has an engaging heroine.

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Day 1191: Coffin, Scarcely Used

Cover for Coffin Scarcely UsedAlthough I am not familiar with Colin Watson’s work, when I read the title of Coffin, Scarcely Used, I just had to request the novel from Netgalley. Watson began writing in the late 1950’s and published more than a dozen books by the early 1980’s. This novel is his first.

No one thinks anything of the death of businessman Mr. Carobleat until the more unusual death of Mr. Gwill, the proprietor of the local paper and Carobleat’s next-door neighbor. Mr. Gwill was found in a field near an electric plant, apparently electrocuted. Inspector Purbright of the Flaxborough police wonders if the death could be suicide, but this seems an unusually cruel way to go. Purbright is also interested in the comments of Mrs. Poole, Mr. Gwill’s housekeeper, hinting at some kind of supernatural events from next door.

link to NetgalleyWhen Inspector Purbright begins looking into Mr. Gwill’s affairs, he is struck by some advertisements Gwill has clipped from his own paper that seem to be coded in a particular way. Whatever Gwill was involved with, it seemed to also involve several other local businessmen—Dr. Hillyard, the undertaker Mr. Bradlaw, and the lawyer Mr. Gloss.

This mystery is fairly complicated, but aspects of it are relatively easy to figure out. I was well ahead of the inspector in regard to what was going on with the ads but did not guess what else was going on. The novel is characterized by a wry sense of humor, particularly in discussions among the various police. I found it mildly entertaining.

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Day 1185: Landscape in Sunlight

Cover for Landscape in SunlightMrs. Custance, the vicar’s wife, is planning the annual church fête, but she is also wondering what will happen to her daughter. Cassie is currently tutoring Leonard Templar, but Mrs. Custance knows she is contemplating taking a caravan with her bouncing friend Joan and perhaps working at Joan’s school. Mrs. Custance once hoped that Cassie would marry George Brigham, Cassie’s childhood friend, but after the war George got engaged to an Italian countess. The engagement was short-lived, but Mrs. Custance has never forgiven George. George’s father, Sir James, also complains that George is an unsatisfactory son.

George has done nothing worse than go into partnership with a tradesman. Any income in the house belongs to him, but it’s not keeping the house from going to bits under the care of two lazy old servants.

In the meantime, Eustace Templar is trying to think of a way to get the Midges out of Prospect Cottage, his rental home. Eustace thinks it is the perfect home for his brother-in-law, Colonel Ashford, if only the Midges could be persuaded to move.

Landscape in Sunlight is another enjoyable domestic comedy by Elizabeth Fair. It follows the village people through their everyday lives, with just a touch of romance.

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