Review 1354: Weekend at Thrackley

Cover for Weekend at ThrackleyOccasionally, I have been reading the British Library Crime Classics published by Poison Pen Press, so I was delighted to find one on the shelves of my local library. I had not heard of the author, Alan Melville, but I was pleased to find the novel one of the most enjoyable of this series that I have read so far.

Jim Henderson isn’t getting ahead in life, but he’s doing it cheerfully. He has a room in a rather seedy rooming house, but he likes his landlady. He hasn’t been able to find a job in years, but he has managed to keep his membership to his club.

One morning, he gets an unexpected invitation from an Edwin Carson, who claims to have known him as a child, for a weekend at his country house, Thrackley. Jim knows nothing about Carson, but when he visits his friend Freddie Upton to borrow evening clothes, he finds that Freddie is invited, too. Freddie tells him that Carson is a jewel collector with an amazing collection, and he has asked him to bring the Upton diamonds so that he can look at them. That doesn’t explain why Jim has been invited, however.

Before the two men arrive at the house, Freddie knocks over a charming girl on a bicycle. That girl, Mary, turns out to be Carson’s ward. Jim thinks things are looking up.

When the men arrive at the house, Jim is even more perplexed about why he is invited. The four other guests have only one thing in common: they all own famous jewels. Jim does not.

The house itself, although luxuriously and tastefully finished, is gloomy and built like a fortress. Jim soon finds that both his room and Freddie’s have been bugged. Just what is Carson up to?

This novel has an engaging hero and is written in a pleasantly jaunty style. It also has some witty dialogue. As is common in the genre, Carson’s plots are ridiculously complicated, and the chapter at the end where the police inspector explains everything seems unnecessary. All in all, though, I enjoyed this light novel.

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Review 1351: Taken at the Flood

Cover for Taken at the FloodHercule Poirot is the interested listener to the club bore one evening in 1944. Major Porter tells the story of a widow who went on to marry Gordon Cloade, a wealthy man. Mr. Cloade was recently killed in the blitz, but Porter’s story is about Mrs. Cloade’s previous husband, Captain Underhay. Underhay reportedly made remarks to the effect that if he was reported dead, he may not be. Instead, he might return to his widow under the name Enoch Arden, a reference to a poem. Later, he was reported dead in Africa.

Two years later, Poirot is consulted by another Mrs. Cloade, the sister-in-law of the woman from the story. She wants Poirot to find Robert Underhay, whom she believes may be alive. She presents this request as a favor to Rosaleen Cloade, the widow of Gordon Cloade, but in fact, the Cloades, who were taught to depend on Gordon financially, were disinherited by Rosaleen when Gordon died intestate. If Robert Underhay can be found to be alive, Rosaleen’s marriage to Gordon will be nullified, to the benefit of the rest of the Cloades. Two days later, Poirot reads that a man named Enoch Arden was found dead in Warmsley Vale, the home of the Cloades.

Who killed Enoch Arden? It seems that the only people with a motive are Rosaleen Cloade and her brother, David Hunter, assuming Enoch Arden was Captain Underhay. But was he?

This is a complicated mystery and not one of Christie’s best. Her talent for portraying characters is lacking in this novel, as many of them seem flat.  It also seems unlikely that anyone would ever guess the culprit, so few clues point in that direction.

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Day 1286: The Murder of My Aunt

Cover for The Murder of My AuntI’ve read quite a few of the British Library Crime Classics and enjoyed their beautiful covers, but The Murder of My Aunt is the first that has been darkly comic. Edward sees himself as fashionable and too good for the sleepy Welsh village of Llwll where he lives with his aunt. His aunt supports him but not well enough for him to live in London and indulge himself.

Edward is not a nice person, but he turns malicious after his aunt pulls a prank to get him to walk into the village instead of driving his car, La Joyeuse. He decides to murder her to get control of his life and her fortune.

link to NetgalleyIndeed, if we are to believe Edward’s version, his aunt is not much more likable than he is. But are we to believe him?

The novel is very entertaining until it bogs down a bit with a change of narrators. The Murder of My Aunt was considered a genre breaker in its time and was praised for its freshness and originality. Certainly, I found Edward’s machinations amusing, but the barbs directed at his effeminate nature are also mean-spirited.

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Day 1232: Laura

Cover for LauraBest of Five!
Laura is the first of eight mystery novels included in a two-volume set, beautifully bound, called Women Crime Writers, published by the Library of America. This is a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping the best American literature in print, and I have ordered its catalog. (I received it after I wrote this, and I have to report that it publishes relatively few works by women. I am disappointed.)

Laura is a doozy of a mystery. I think it was made into a movie, and I believe I’ve seen parts of it, but I didn’t know the solution.

A young woman is murdered one Friday night by a shot in the face with a shotgun. Her body isn’t discovered until Sunday morning when the maid arrives. The apartment belongs to Laura Hunt, a successful advertising executive who is to be married the next week.

The first section of the novel is narrated by Waldo Lydecker, Laura’s long-time friend. He is an older man, a writer who considers himself an expert on crime. Mark McPherson, the detective in the case, calls to interview him about Laura.

Laura seems not to have an enemy in the world, but she was about to marry Shelby Carpenter, a man with a need to feel superior, which it was difficult to do with a woman like Laura. But Shelby was about to marry the golden goose, as Laura was much more successful than he was. Would he have killed her? To his dismay, Mark feels himself falling in love with a dead girl.

Laura has a couple of twists, one that I think I should have anticipated but did not. It packs quite an emotional punch, especially for a novel written in the 40’s, the era of the hard-boiled detective.

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Day 1230: The Horizontal Man

Cover for The Horizontal ManThe Horizontal Man is the second novel included in my Women Crime Writers set of crime novels from the 1940’s and 50’s. I have only read one of them before, In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes.

The Horizontal Man begins with a murder. Kevin Boyle, a popular professor at a women’s college, turns away from a woman who is furiously protesting her love, only to be hit fatally over the head with a poker. Who is this woman?

Kevin’s student, Molly Morrison, becomes hysterical when she hears of his death and seems to be taking responsibility for it. College President Bainbridge asks a psychiatrist, Dr. Forstmann, to evaluate Molly. Also investigating are college senior Kate Innes and reporter Jack Donelly.

The college seems to be a haven for neurotics. Leonard Marks, the professor who lives across the hall from Kevin, has been squeamishly privy to Kevin’s bragging about romantic conquests and is achingly aware of how poorly he fits into academic life himself. George Hungerford is an eminent professor who recently had a nervous breakdown. And there’s something odd about Freda Cramm.

Although we get to the answer before the characters do, this novel is truly chilling. I am really enjoying the novels in this series.

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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 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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