Out of the sick bed!

I’ve risen, Lazarus-like, from the sick-bed.

Still not 100%, though.  Funny thing: pneumonia plays hell with the memory.  Even now, I sometimes forget names.  That’s nothing; since I came down with pneumonia a fortnight ago, I’ve forgotten my phone number, making phone calls, and other things I can’t quite remember.

I do, though, remember what I’ve read and listened to. (Most of it!)

I’ve also learnt to play cards.  Djinn rummy is a tricky game; you have to summon up Middle Eastern spirits, then ply them with more spirits!

Michael Gilbert: Be Shot for Sixpence

A spy thriller that starts better than it finishes.

My notes: “Sometimes one knows, even before a story has got underway, that one will enjoy a book!  Chapter 1 gives us:

  • a clever intrusion of the author (narrator’s cousin, Michael, who writes thrillers);
  • businessmen “like burst brown paper bags”, “foaled by Money out of Timidity”, discussing strikes
  • the narrator breaking up with his mistress, after she visited his father: “He knew all about us.”  “He knows all about myxomatosis. But he doesn’t want diseased rabbit served up for breakfast.”
  • a vivid description of an aquarium
  • a small club committee room with 200 volumes of Punch, a buffalo’s head with one eye, and no windows of any sort.  “Even bailiffs have been removed from it screaming in less than 30 minutes.”

It doesn’t quite stay on that level of wit.  The book breezes by, and Gilbert is never less than readable, but it turns into a somewhat routine tale of kidnap to, and escape from Communist Hungary, with lots of cross-country travel.

(Prompted by Noah Stewart’s post.)

John Dickson Carr: Till Death Do Us Part (1944)

3 stars

Back in the dark old days (c. 1997/1998), when the internet was still in its infancy, the universe was still recovering from the Big Bang, and I read nearly 60 Carrs in just over a year, the only online information about John Dickson Carr was Grobius Shortling’s site.

He liked this one.

I read it in a day.  I thought it had a great opening situation: the young hero learns from a famous pathologist that his fiancée is really a cold-blooded poisoner with three dead husbands.  Pathologist is then poisoned in a locked room – in the same way the husbands died.

But it didn’t quite live up to expectations.  It didn’t have the WOW! factor of Green Capsule, The Red Widow Murders, Death in Five BoxesThe Plague Court Murders, or In Spite of Thunder (to name five around that time I loved); the creepy atmosphere of Poison in Jest; the comedy of The Blind Barber; or the sheer fun of The Waxworks MurderTo Wake the Dead, and The Sleeping Sphinx.

(I didn’t, for the record, love The Three Coffins, The Burning Court, The Judas Window, The Case of the Constant Suicides, He Who Whispers, The Curse of the Bronze Lump, or The Nine Wrong Answers either.)

Carr’s narrative is lean and fast-paced, and there’s more emotional involvement than some of his earlier books.  On the other hand, the plot is less complex, and the detection slighter.

I found the solution hard to visualise.  This is the third time I’ve read the book, and I STILL want illustrations and a diagram.  It feels mechanical and tricky, rather than simple and inspired.

But it’s Carr – so streets ahead of almost anybody else.

Elizabeth Gill: Crime de Luxe

4 stars.png

This is the kind of elegant, clever detective story that Hogarth would have reprinted back in the ’80s, in those large purple-spined paperbacks with introductions by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan.

(You remember; Gladys Mitchell’s Saltmarsh Murders, When Last I Died, and Laurels are Poison; Romilly and Katherine John’s Death by Request; Anthony Berkeley’s Dead Mrs. Stratton; Nicholas Blake’s Smiler with the Knife…)

Gill’s artist sleuth Benvenuto Brown is travelling to New York by ship when an inoffensive spinster falls overboard.  There are some fine descriptive passages, observations of people, and discussions of politics and time.

It’s light as a detective story, but Gill passes suspicion neatly around – and knows how the experienced reader thinks.  (Brown outlined the case against my suspect in Ch. XXIV.)  In hindsight, the truth is obvious; it all fits neatly together, and we feel we ought to have known!

Doctor Who: The Serpent in the Silver Mask / Lure of the Nomad

Two Big Finish audio plays set on space stations / ships.

The Serpent in the Silver Mask: Doctor Who does Kind Hearts and Coronets.  Samuel West plays six members of the obnoxious Mazzini family, bumped off one by one.  A clever plot – and Big Finish has pulled off the impossible: they’ve made the companions from hell likeable.

Lure of the Nomad: There’s a whopping great twist in Episode Three.  For those familiar with the range, I’ll just mention Omega and The Kingmaker.  It’s that good.  Otherwise, this is an entertaining tale of gaseous beings in body suits, sociopathic businessmen, and squids in murderous exoskeletons.

And I’m playing Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, the new adventure game by the Coles, designers of Quest for Glory.  [*] I’ve waited six years for this – and it’s rather good.

[*] Not to be confused with the other Coles.  One were a husband and wife who wrote Left-wing books about economics, and some occasionally clever, occasionally funny, often rather loose detective stories; the other are a husband and wife who write clever, funny, well-crafted RPGs.

Dispatches from the sick-bed III: Death in the House of Rain (Szu-Yen Lin)

Death in the House of Rain (Szu-Yen Lin, 2006)

I don’t like this, but I can see why the impossible crime enthusiasts would enjoy it.

It’s Scream Taiwanese style.  University students spend a dark and rainy night in a strangely-shaped house where three people were killed; four more die.

The group includes a stalker and would-be rapist; a reclusive voyeur; and two people who were bullied at school, and whose parents died violently.

It’s all puzzle, with little in the way of style, humour, or characterisation. The “pure” puzzle plot, without any character interest (à la Period I Ellery Queen), is as unengaging as the British Humdrum at its dullest.

The solution gives it a (much-needed) lift.  The idea is simple and surprising, one of those devices that can be told in a single sentence, and I can see why the puzzle fans would cheer and applaud.  It’s not entirely original (see, among others, episodes of The New Avengers and The X-Files), but it’s effective.

It also, though, involves a hell of a level of coincidence, which the author justifies by invoking Edgar Allan Poe and what looks like dependent arising.

We’re meant to believe, too, that several people have the kind of tricky, crazed engineer’s mind that can construct a locked room mystery.

Points off, too, for the fourth death, involving sticky-tape, running up and down floors, and two diagrams. It’s so complicated that my eyes glazed over. (It’s the pneumonia!) If the central idea seems inspired, this is laborious.

The solution to the mystery in the past also smacks of Heath Robinsonry, or what Wodehouse called Murderer’s Flytrap.  (SPOILER: Glueing a saw to the floor!)


I feel like I’m rehashing Anthony Berkeley’s argument in The Second Shot, but, as I said above:

“The “pure” puzzle plot, without any character interest (à la Period I Ellery Queen), is as unengaging as the British Humdrum at its dullest.

(Unless, of course, it’s a short story, where the plot can be all – e.g. the Coles’ “In a Telephone Cabinet”, Knox’s “Solved by Inspection”.)

A great detective story MUST be ingenious – but it should also be a story.  It should have characterisation, style, atmosphere, action – and, ideally, imagination, a sense of humour, and an interest in the world and people.

See, for instance, John Dickson Carr, G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, and Christianna Brand: all diabolically ingenious, masters and mistresses of misdirection, and all with interesting, lifelike characters, for whom – certainly in Brand’s case, as Brad says – one often comes to care.

Carr and Chesterton were brilliant at devising imaginative scenarios and solutions, but they were also natural storytellers: Romantics for whom the detective story was a tale of mystery and imagination, full of adventure and colour. (And, in GKC’s case, was a way of commenting on society, human nature, or religion.)

Few of their imitators are.  (Hake Talbot, Anthony Boucher, and John Sladek, arguably; Derek Smith, Paul Halter and the shin honkaku movement, not so much.)

There must, simply, be more to a good detective story than a trick, however ingenious.

Dispatches from the sick-bed II

Still lying in bed with pneumonia.  Set fire to my dressing-gown.

Asterix and the Soothsayer, Asterix in Corsica, Asterix and Caesar’s Gift (Goscinny & Uderzo)

Clever and good-humoured – just what the doctor ordered!

Zen There Was Murder (H.R.F. Keating, 1960)

A group of students attend a week-long seminar on Zen; a Japanese sword is stolen; and ends up in one of the group.

I’ve wanted to read this one for 20 years – and it’s the detective story I’ve enjoyed most in ages.  It strikes a near-classic balance between characterisation and story, with a clever, well-clued plot.  There’s an ingenious (and original?) device for misleading the reader, and a hidden relationship.

Like Keating’s beloved Agatha Christie, we’re involved with the suspects, rather than watching the Scotland Yard Inspector wearyingly question bank clerks and railway porters, measure footprints, or mull over timetables.

The detective is Mr. Utamaro, a Japanese Zen version of Father Brown or Hercule Poirot – wise, shrewd, and impish.  He’s also an early example of Keating’s interest in non-Western ways of understanding; he doesn’t use logic or reason, mental constructs that get in the way of seeing things as they are.

  • “The mind tangled in the dualism of logic is capable of the utmost illogicality.”
  • “When one has stopped subjecting everything to notions of logic and comparison, whatever comes to hand comes to hand.”
  • “I am not trammeled by notions of logic and so I see facts for what they are and not for what they ought to be.”
  • “I am mad, because I do not subscribe to the conventions that govern your world. It must be difficult for you. But it cannot be changed.”
  • “I am sure of everything. Either I know a thing or I do not. It is only when you add from your mind to what is put before you that you become uncertain. you wonder whether what you have added is right or wrong.”
  • “Thought makes you blind. It is best to see.”
  • “The man who has abandoned reason is the one to see through false reasoning.”

(Or as another mischievous sage once said: “Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority!”)

Capriccio (Richard Strauss, 1942)

The last opera by the great German composer.  Rather like Thomas Love Peacock set to recitative – well-bred people sit around and discuss aesthetics.

Uncyclopedia gives this description:

Considered by many to be Strauss’s finest stage work, this highly dramatic opera covers an afternoon in an eighteenth-century drawing room during which some rich French people drink cocoa and talk about Gluck. In the thrilling denouement, we mercifully come almost two hours closer to the Revolution, during which everyone is sure to be guillotined (see Salome above), and the tension is almost unbearable as the countess, ignorant of her probable fate, looks in a mirror, wonders about something, and then has her dinner.

It’s a long-way from Strauss’s best opera: talky, self-indulgent, no character or plot development.  As usual, Strauss does some lovely things with the orchestra – the opening string sextet, the Mondscheinmusik – and there’s an ingenious quarrel octet – but it lacks the tunes to swoon to of Rosenkavalier, or the drama of Salome and Elektra.

Why this gets performed regularly often, and Die schweigsame Frau (warm, funny comic opera based on a Ben Jonson play, banned by the Nazis because the librettist was Jewish) doesn’t is a mystery.

When in Rome (Ngaio Marsh, 1970)

Roderick Alleyn visits Italy, and encounters a plot straight out of a Fellini movie (La dolce vita is mentioned a few times), complete with drugs, “infamous” sex parties, blackmail, incest, student riots, and corruption in the titled set.  As usual with Marsh, the lead-up to the murder is stronger than the detection, which is solid but not inspired.  Has a clever alibi, and Alleyn, for once, lets justice be extra-legal.

Dispatches from the sick-bed I

I’m mid-way through a fortnight’s sick leave – bed-bound with pneumonia.  (For that interestingly pale complexion and deep, husky voice!)

In between sleeping, dozing, napping, taking four different medications, and mainlining sauerkraut, I’m reading and listening to music.

Here’s what I’ve read since Thursday.

The Spirit Murder Mystery (Robin Forsythe, 1936)

(Suggested by Kate, of crossexaminingcrime)

Spirited detection as the semi-amateur sleuth, a painter and journalist like Philip Trent, matches wits with a Scotland Yard inspector, and has a Wilde time swapping epigrams with his friend Ricky Ricardo (no relation to Lucille Ball).

There are ghostly goings-on (à la Blithe Spirit); American gangsters; Indian indiscretions involving a Hindu temple, the goddess Kali, a beautiful nautch-dancer, and her murdered husband; and the vicar (the spirit-ual adviser) is after mediaeval buried treasure.

Promising ingredients, but the solution is well below the level of The Polo Ground Mystery. SPOILER The two “murders” turn out to be unpremeditated; the by-product of criminal activity. If Carr or Christie is a pure, heady Laphroaig, this is small beer – but small beer can still make for an enjoyably relaxed time in witty company.

Al Dente: Madness, Beauty and the Food of Rome (David Winner, 2012)

A fascinating look at the Eternal City, starting with food and spiralling off into cinema (from Fellini to Dario Argento’s horror flicks), Donizetti’s Elisir d’amore, phallic eggplants in art, the destruction of the Classical world, the strange diets of mediaeval saints, the Pope’s executioner, and the Jews in Rome. Full of juicy anecdotes and tempting titbits. A Winner.

The Norwich Victims (Francis Beeding, 1935)

(Suggested by Kate, of crossexaminingcrime)

For four-fifths, it’s Croftsian inverted story meets Croftsian police procedural.

We know the crooked moneylender and his secretary killed the suddenly wealthy spinster, and how they concocted a false alibi involving impersonation and transportation.  There’s even a plane trip to France.  This came out the year after Crofts’ 12.30 from Croydon.

Then we watch the policeman doggedly reconstruct the victim’s movements, and follow leads.  More murders follow, including a corpse in a burnt-out car; is it the presumed victim’s, or is it the killer leaving a false trail?

What lifts the book out of the workmanlike is the clever, surprising solution. There’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than we think. SPOILER I have an instinct for a twist. I knew that Hedlam was involved – his gammy leg, the acid-splash on the bag, the bare arm through the shower – but hadn’t realised that the two were the same man.

I can imagine this being filmed as a 1930s b/w British film, with an exciting flourish at the end.

Looking for books to read II: Not mysteries

(Continued from Looking for books to read I: Mysteries)

What to read that isn’t a mystery?

I’m looking for suggestions – things I might have missed, and that I’d enjoy.

Here are some of the things that I really like.

(The inventive; the fantastical; the funny; the adventurous; the thought-provoking; and the entertainingly barking mad.)

Suggestions warmly appreciated!


Modern man in search of a book


  • Theatre: Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Aristophanes (reread ’em all last year); Shakespeare; Jacobean tragedy (Webster, Middleton, &c); Restoration & 18th century comedy; Lessing’s Nathan der Weise; Goethe’s Faust; Schiller; Oscar Wilde; George Bernard Shaw; J.B. Priestley; Noel Coward; Tom Stoppard; Peter Shaffer; Michael Frayn
  • E.T.A. Hoffman’s Tales
  • Alexandre Dumas: Count of Monte-Cristo; Musketeers books
  • Victor Hugo: Notre-Dame de Paris
  • Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend; Bleak House; Great Expectations; A Tale of Two Cities
  • Robert Louis Stevenson: The Wrong Box
  • Ghost stories of M.R. James and E.F. Benson
  • Saki
  • P.G. Wodehouse
  • Evelyn Waugh
  • James Branch Cabell: Jurgen
  • T.F. Powys: Mr Weston’s Good Wine
  • Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm
  • Robert Graves: I, Claudius and Claudius the God
  • Roald Dahl
  • Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game
  • Jorge Luis Borges
  • Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast
  • T.H. White: The Once and Future King
  • Isaac Asimov
  • Gore Vidal: Julian; Creation
  • Italo Calvino: Cosmicomics; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller…
  • Norton Juster: The Phantom Tollbooth
  • Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita
  • Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman
  • Spike Milligan: Puckoon
  • Georg MacDonald Fraser: Flashman series; The Pyrates!; Mr. American
  • Tom Sharpe: read them all; Riotous Assembly & Indecent Exposure are best; the Wilt and university books are flaccid
  • Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • Terry Pratchett
  • Michael Ende: The Neverending Story
  • Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose; essays
  • Salman Rushdie: The Enchantress of Florence
  • Daniel Quinn: Ishmael
  • Jasper Fforde
  • Walter Moers
  • Jonathan Stroud: Bartimaeus trilogy


  • Suetonius, Tacitus, and the Historia Augusta
  • Ivar Lissner: Power and Folly: The Story of the Caesars
  • Jacques Barzun: From Dawn to Decadence
  • Lawrence Griswold: Tombs, Travels & Trouble
  • Gerald Durrell
  • David Attenborough
  • Dougal Dixon’s books of alternative evolution
  • Simon Barnes: Ten Million Aliens
  • Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
  • E.H. Gombrich: The Story of Art
  • Bill Bryson: Mother Tongue; A Short History of Nearly Everything
  • Mary Roach: Stiff; &c
  • Alex Bellos: Alex’s Adventures in Numberland (and I say this as a non-mathematician!)

And 1066 and All That.

Comic books (“BDs”)

  • Tintin
  • Asterix
  • Blake & Mortimer

Television and radio

  • The Goon Show
  • The Strange World of Gurney Slade
  • The Avengers (“the proper one”)
  • Doctor Who
  • I, Claudius
  • Quatermass; The Prisoner; Sapphire and Steel
  • Monty Python; The Goodies; Peter Cook & Dudley Moore; The Two Ronnies; Dad’s Army; Blackadder; The New Statesman
  • House of Cards (the British one)
  • Nebulous; Bleak Expectations (radio)


  • Hitchcock
  • James Bond

(I like the ’60s Casino Royale more than the Daniel Craig one.  That may tell you everything you need to know.)

  • Spielberg
  • The Ruling Class
  • The Assassination Bureau
  • The Producers
  • The Scarlet Empress
  • The Manchurian Candidate
  • 12 Angry Men
  • The Lion in Winter
  • Gremlins II
  • Eisenstein: Alexander Nevsky; Ivan Grozny
  • Musicals: Singin’ in the RainKiss Me Kate; West Side Story; Fiddler on the Roof; Cabaret; Chicago
  • Classics: Sunset Boulevard; Some Like It Hot; Lawrence of Arabia; Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Dr Strangelove
  • Movies made in last decade: Hugo;  Iron Sky; The Lone Ranger; The Grand Budapest Hotel; Kingsman; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Kids’ stuff

  • Danger Mouse
  • Mysterious Cities of Gold
  • Maid Marian and Her Merry Men
  • Monkey
  • The Oz books
  • P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins
  • Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle

Computer games

  • Sierra and Lucasarts adventure games (King’s Quest, Quest for Glory, Space Quest, Monkey Island, etc.)
  • The Last Express
  • Broken Sword
  • Telltale’s Sam & Max


Looking for books to read I: Mysteries

(Continued in Part II: Not mysteries)

What’s a chap to do?

I’ve read, at this stage, more than a thousand detective stories. What else out there in the genre is worth reading?

The light on the horizon at the moment seems to be the reprint of Patrick Quentin / Q. Patrick / Jonathan Stagge.

On my bookshelves / Kindle, I have:

  • Herbert Adams: The Body in the Bunker; The Chief Witness; Death of a Viewer
  • Max Afford: Blood on His Hands; The Dead Are Blind; Death’s Mannikins; Owl of Darkness; The Sheep and the Wolves; Sinners in Paradise
  • Frederick Irving Anderson: Book of Murder; The Purple Flame
  • James Anderson: The Affair of the Mutilated Mink; The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks

(I was disappointed by Blood-stained Egg-cosy – I knew whodunnit fairly early on)

  • K.K. Beck: Death in a Deck Chair; Peril Under the Palms

(didn’t think much of Murder in a Mummy Case)

  • Josephine Bell: The Catalyst; Pigeon Among the Cats; The Upfold Witch; The Wilberforce Legacy
  • Nicholas Brady: Ebenezer Investigates; The Fair Murder; The House of Strange Guests; Week-End Murder
  • Lynn Brock: The Dagwort Coombe Murder; The Kink; The Silver Sickle Case; The Slip-Carriage Mystery
  • Christopher Bush: TCOT Corporal’s Leave, Fighting Soldier, Missing Men, Murdered Major
  • Max Allan Collins: The London Blitz Murders; The Lusitania Murders
  • J.J. Connington: No Past Is Dead; Tom Tiddler’s Island
  • Freeman Wills Crofts: Antidote to Venom
  • William L. DeAndrea: Killed in the Ratings
  • Todd Downing: The Lazy Lawrence Murders
  • J. Jefferson Farjeon: Mystery in White (started, put down); The Z Murders
  • A.E. Fielding: The Charteris Mystery; The Cluny Problem; Scarecrow; The Wedding-Chest Mystery

(I’ve read three mediocre ones by her)

  • Hulbert Footner: The Complete Mme Storey Mysteries
  • Robin Forsythe: The Ginger Cat Mystery; Missing or Murdered; Murder on Paradise Island; The Spirit Murder Mystery

(I really enjoyed The Polo Ground Mystery, but found The Pleasure Cruise Mystery talky and obvious)

  • Jacques Futrelle: The Thinking Machine

(read a dozen or so)

  • Anthony Gilbert: Death at Four Corners; The Man in Button Boots; The Man Who Wasn’t There; Murder Has No Tongue; Night Encounter; An Old Lady Dies; Something Nasty in the Woodshed; Treason in My Breast

(very uneven writer)

  • Elizabeth Gill: Crime de Luxe

(first two are pleasant reading, but not outstanding)

  • William Gore: There’s Death in the Churchyard

(Murder Most Artistic was only so-so)

  • Annie Haynes: The Abbey Court Murder; The Blue Diamond; The Bungalow Mystery; The Crime at Tattenham Corner; The Crow’s Inn Tragedy; The Crystal Beads Murder; The House in Charlton Crescent; The Man with the Dark Beard; The Master of the Priory; The Secret of Greylands; The Witness on the Roof

(are these worth reading? Who Killed Charmian Karslake was a flop)

  • Anthony Horowitz: The Magpie Murders

(started, put down again – surprising, given I enjoy his Poirot episodes and Foyle’s War)

  • Ianthe Jerrold: There May Be Danger
  • M.M. Kaye: Death in Berlin; Death in Cyprus; Death in Kashmir; Death in Kenya; Death in Zanzibar

(exotic settings plus apparently fair-play puzzle plot mysteries?)

  • Milward Kennedy: Half-Mast Murder
  • Rufus King: Diagnosis: Murder; The Lesser Antilles Case; Murder on the Yacht; Secret Beyond the Door

(I’ve read half a dozen of his books – badly written, and artificially tense)

  • Charles Kingston: The Highgate Mystery
  • Ronald Knox: Double Cross Purposes; Still Dead

(Knox wrote some of the dullest and most anti-climactic detective stories, and is infernally talky – but “Solved by Inspection” is a little masterpiece.  Is Still Dead the one with the body on the train tracks and the engine driver with second sight?)

  • Jonathan Latimer: Headed for a Hearse; The Lady in the Morgue
  • Szu-Yen Lin: Death in the House of Rain
  • Vernon Loder: Choose Your Weapon; Death at the Horse Show; Death at the Wheel; Death by the Gaff; Death of an Editor; The Essex Murders; The Little Man Murders; Murder from Three Angles; Red Stain; The Shop Window Murders; Two Dead; Whose Hand?

(are these more than generic mysteries? I gave up on The Mystery at Stowe)

  • E.C.R. Lorac: Case in the Clinic
  • A.G. Macdonell: Body Found Stabbed
  • Helen McCloy: The Long Body

(McCloy always WRITES well, even when her plots are ropy)

  • L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace: The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings
  • Stuart Palmer: Four Lost Ladies; The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree
  • Winifred Peck: Arrest the Bishop; The Warrielaw Jewel
  • Melville Davisson Post: The Strange Crimes of Randolph Mason

(is it blasphemy to say that I hated Uncle Abner? Oldtime religious fundamentalism and pro-slavery)

  • E.R. Punshon: The Attending Truth; Dark is the Clue; The Golden Dagger; The House of Godwinsson; Music Tells All; The Secret Search; So Many Doors; Strange Ending
  • Clayton Rawson: The Great Merlini

(short stories; I enjoyed the novels)

  • John Rhode, as Miles Burton: Death in the Tunnel
  • Harriet Rutland: Blue Murder
  • M.G. Scarsbrook: Dream of the Dead
  • C. St. John Sprigg: The Corpse with the Sunburned Face; Fatality in Fleet Street
  • T.S. Stribling: Dr. Poggioli: Criminologist

(supposed to be good, but I have to read the first volume)

  • Phoebe Atwood Taylor: The Cape Cod Mystery; Murder at the New York World’s Fair
  • Theodore Roscoe: I’ll Grind Their Bones

(Murder on the Way! started well, but turned into proto-Tarantino)

  • Edgar Wallace
  • Carolyn Wells: The Room with the Tassles; The Man Who Fell Through the Earth; In the Onyx Lobby; The Come Back; The Luminous Face; The Vanishing of Betty Varian; The Gold Bag; A Chain of Evidence; The Mark of Cain; The Diamond Pin; Raspberry Jam; The Mystery Girl

(am I that desperate?)

Any other suggestions?

I have read the complete works of:

  • Margery Allingham
  • H.C. Bailey (bar one novel)
  • Anthony Berkeley
  • Nicholas Blake
  • Dorothy Bowers
  • John Dickson Carr
  • G.K. Chesterton
  • Agatha Christie
  • Edmund Crispin
  • Colin Dexter
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Cyril Hare
  • Georgette Heyer
  • Reginald Hill
  • Michael Innes
  • P.D. James
  • H.R.F. Keating
  • Ngaio Marsh
  • A.E.W. Mason
  • Gladys Mitchell
  • Ellery Queen
  • Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Josephine Tey
  • S.S. Van Dine
  • Henry Wade

and most of:

  • Anthony Boucher
  • Ernest Bramah
  • Christianna Brand
  • G.D.H. & M. Cole
  • J.J. Connington
  • Christopher Fowler (first half-dozen)
  • R. Austin Freeman
  • Michael Gilbert
  • Paul Halter
  • Ruth Rendell
  • Julian Symons

And about a hundred John Rhodes.

Favourite detective writers: G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Gladys Mitchell, Nicholas Blake, and Edmund Crispin

Apart from Christie and Carr, favourite detective stories include The Father Brown Stories, the first four Michael Innes novels, Reginald Hill’s On Beulah Height, Gladys Mitchell’s Come Away, Death, and half a dozen by Christianna Brand.  I lean strongly towards the witty, imaginative, literate detective story – but also want a really baffling mystery.

I don’t particularly like Leo Bruce (formulaic and plagiaristic), Elizabeth Daly, or Rex Stout (formulaic again; no story, atmosphere, or characterisation, plus anti-climactic solutions).

Mary Fitt and Peter Dickinson are imaginative, but too wayward to be successful detective writers. (And I say this as a committed – in more ways than one – Gladys Mitchell enthusiast.)

Books read in June / July, and books not

Help, as the Beatles once said.

It’s been a while since I read a first-rate detective story.

Here are three more that aren’t.

Cold Poison / Exit Laughing (Stuart Palmer, 1954)

An amusing trifle set at a Los Angeles cartoon studio – but no great shakes as a detective story.  James Sandoe (New York Herald Tribune, April 1954) wrote:

Mr. Palmer has rarely been more genial in manner, more amusingly allusive, and rarely has he plotted a book with more absolute ineptitude.  His murderer is all too plain for all that his confession at last is rather convenient than credible.  The ordinary rules of fair play (between an author and his reader) are in abeyance and the book is saved only by the incidental flourishes.

‘Nuff said.

The Howling Beast (Noel Vindry)

Some readers, I know, loved it; JJ at The Invisible Event and Stefano at Howdunit both praise it.  A great set-up – man on the run tells police magistrate about dark doings at a French chateau – but the ending really didn’t impress me as much as it did others.  Not offensive, by any means, just rather underwhelming.

The Case of the Flying Ass (Christopher Bush, 1939)

An ultra-rare * detective story, now reprinted as TCOT Flying Donkey by Dean Street Press as part of their Christopher Bush series, edited by Curt Evans.  (In passing, Curt and the DSP have done a terrific job of presenting forgotten mysteries to a new audience.)

*: I don’t think I’ve seen a single copy of it for sale in the last sixteen years.

It’s also, unhappily, one of those ultra-rare books that – like Punshon’s Comes a Stranger, Mitchell’s Printer’s Error and Hangman’s Curfew, and Bailey’s Man in the Cape (and, from memory, Bush’s own Climbing Rat) – obtains a certain cachet through their elusiveness, without in any way being good.

It’s more of a shaggy dog story than a flying ass one.  The police plan stratagems, rush madly about France in motor-cars, and lie to everyone, including poor old Travers.  Gallois, the French cop, “was apparently disposed to regard the mystifying of his partner as the first essential”.

As John Dickson Carr once said, “If the Sphinx sets us a riddle, we have the right to know what it is!” (I paraphrase, perhaps.)

To end on a bum note: There’s no mention that the reprint was originally called Ass, not Donkey.  The text, I suspect, has also been changed.  This was no doubt done to protect delicate American susceptibilities.  The ass, in this case, was “not rounded and pink, As you probably think, But grey, with long ears, and ate grass”.  An ass (quadruped or gluteal) is no substitute for a firm, well-rounded arse.

How to tell the difference


Silly ass



Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrs, Jim lad



Since coming back from Sri Lanka in December, I’ve read:

  1. The Upfold Farm Mystery (A.E. Fielding – ingenious solution in a largely skippable book)
  2. The Crime Conductor (Philip MacDonald – straightforward, conventional, and with no compelling reason to exist)
  3. The Case of the Leaning Man (Christopher Bush – the mixture as before, with one of Bush’s favourite solutions)
  4. The Case of the Hanging Rope (Christopher Bush – not ropy, but doesn’t quite hang together)
  5. My Bones Will Keep (Gladys Mitchell – slow-moving travelogue with a nigh-impenetrable plot; reread)
  6. Murder on the Yacht (Rufus King – all at sea, and rough sailing)
  7. A Spy for Mr. Crook (Anthony Gilbert – mild satire of British politics in a story Gilbert’s obviously making up as she goes)
  8. The Four Defences (J.J. Connington – full of zest, but fails to deliver expected hyperingenuity)
  9. Let Him Lie (Ianthe Jerrold – nicely written, but transparent plot)
  10. La toile de Pénélope (Paul Halter – a workmanlike story that avoids Halter’s worst flaws, but lacks his creative virtues)
  11. Colonel Gore’s Second Case (Lynn Brock – lively, with lots of murders, then runs into a solution involving two principals and six accomplices; not fair play)
  12. Mr. Fortune, Please (H.C. Bailey – a reread to see what Bailey was like at his best)
  13. The Wrong Man (H.C. Bailey – and this is what he’s like at his worst)
  14. The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel (Christopher Bush – leisurely look at an army camp, that slowly turns into a detective story, but lacks fair play)
  15. The Greek Coffin Mystery (Ellery Queen – logic, logic, and more logic, like the Sudoku from hell; reread)

And two rather good Boris Akunins.

Three out of seventeen isn’t, my mathematical acquaintances assure me, very good.

I also lost interest in Christopher Bush’s Case of the Green Felt Hat (too conventional), George Antheil’s Death in the Dark, and J.J. Connington’s 21 Clues.

It’s a far cry from my schooldays when I devoured Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, Nicholas Blake, Edmund Crispin, S.S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, Michael Innes, Margery Allingham, and what Gladys Mitchells (47 by the time I left high school), H.C. Baileys, and Anthony Berkeleys I could.  (Plus Colin Dexter, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, and H.R.F. Keating.)

But that was twenty years ago.

Where is a first-rate detective story I haven’t read?  Or, really, a book I would enjoy?

I keep, you see, picking up books, and leaving them unfinished.  Little, if you like, really makes a connection.  Off the top of my head:

  • History – Simon Sebag Montefiore, Tom Holland, and studies of Renaissance art
  • Arturo Perez Reverte
  • Umberto Eco
  • Adolfo Bioy Casares
  • Kingsley Amis writing James Bond
  • Mary Renault’s Bull from the Sea (I enjoyed both The Last of the Wine and The King Must Die)
  • Aldous Huxley’s Devils of Loudoun
  • Jules Verne’s Aventures du capitaine Hatteras
  • Various books of music and lit crit

Is it a kind of literary accidie?  Surprising, though; I used to read voraciously, and there was always something I wanted to read.

Now I find myself staring at my bookshelf, trying to find something interesting – and slightly worried that I’ve read everything I want to.

Fiction I’ve finished, and enjoyed, include James Branch Cabell (read most of his); Gerald Durrell’s Mockery Bird (read all of his); George MacDonald Fraser’s Mr. American (read all of his); Robert Graves’ short stories (should I reread I Clavdivs – again?); and Sandra Hodgkinson’s A Lack of Consensus on the “H” Word and Other Matters.

In non-fiction, Catherine Nixey’s Darkening Age, much about opera … and Umberto Eco on the death of the book.

Ah, well, I’ll go and listen to Rameau.

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

Half a century of adventure begins with mild curiosity in a junkyard.

Two London schoolteachers, Ian Chesterton (science) and Barbara Wright (history), are intrigued by their pupil, Susan Foreman.

How can a 15-year-old girl know at once so much and so little? How can she have an astounding knowledge of chemistry, but be unable to tackle a physics problem in three dimensions? How can she mistakenly believe that Britain has a decimal system, yet know that a history of the French Revolution is wrong?

The teachers follow her home one foggy evening – to a police box, and her enigmatic grandfather, a genially malign old man known as “the Doctor”.

The first episode is something special. There is an air of mystery about it, a suggestion that the magical has intruded into the mundane world of 1963.

An ordinary blue police box – a common enough sight at the time – hums with power; it’s alive. It’s an impossible space: famously bigger on the inside than the outside.

For viewers at the time, stumbling from the dark, crowded junkyard into the vast, white, gleaming, brightly-lit space of the TARDIS must have been a shock.

And it’s a gateway into another world; it “can go anywhere in time and space”.

If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds, and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?

Where they land isn’t somewhere marvellous; it’s grim and hostile. A jungle where sabre-toothed tigers lurk in bushes; a cave full of smashed-in skulls; and a tribe that has lost the secret of fire, and huddle together in caves, freezing and terrified of the dark.

Za, son of the old leader, squats on his haunches, rubbing sticks together in a vain effort to make fire. Only the leader can make fire. Kal, the opposition candidate, thinks he should lead; he brings meat while Za does nothing. Old Mother, a crone with a face like Gagool, sits in the corner, mumbling jeremiads: “Fire will be the death of us all!” And Za’s lover Hur, like a Palaeolithic Lady Macbeth, schemes, and spurs on his ambition.

The story is grim and desperate in a way later Doctor Who will seldom be, with a headlong flight through the jungle, and a visceral fight to the death. The travellers are close to hysteria, and the Doctor tries to brain a wounded caveman.

It’s a far cry from exciting adventures with Daleks, let alone wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey shenanigans.

But nobody wants to have adventures yet. All they want to do is survive.

The Doctor is a scientist, and wants to explore – but when danger threatens, his first reaction is to escape. It will be a while before he fights the good fight for its own sake.

He is untrusting and untrustworthy; he doesn’t much like the people who burst into his home, and, desperate to protect his secret, he kidnaps the teachers. He uproots them from their settled, well-ordered lives, and throws them into the Stone Age, 100,000 BC.

Later companions will leap at the chance to travel the cosmos; here, Ian and Barbara are unwilling travellers. They long to go home, back to safe, predictable old London, vintage 1963. But the Doctor can’t control the ship, and there’s no way of returning. The teachers are cosmic flotsam and jetsam, adrift in the universe.

The travellers may slowly start to rely on each other – “Fear makes companions of all of us” – but, as they stagger back to the ship, grimy and exhausted, half-hysterical, all they want to do is get away.

But where they land next will be even more dangerous: a radioactive planet – home to the Daleks…

Serial A: “An Unearthly Child”.

4 episodes, broadcast: 23 November – 14 December 1963. “An Unearthly Child”; “The Cave of Skulls”; “The Forest of Fear”; “The Firemaker”

Written by Anthony Coburn & C.E. Webber (episode 1)

Directed by Waris Hussein

Produced by Verity Lambert & Mervyn Pinfield

Script editor: David Whitaker

Regular cast: Doctor Who (William Hartnell); Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford); Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill); Ian Chesterton (William Russell)

With: Za (Derek Newark); Hur (Alethea Charlton); Old Mother (Eileen Way); Kal (Jeremy Young); Horg (Howard Lang)

The Upfold Farm Mystery (A. Fielding)

By A. Fielding

First published: UK, Collins, 1931

Blurb (UK)

Fielding - Upfold Farm
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

This clever Inspector Pointer detective novel deals with two strange murders which follow each other at Upfold Farm. A little brass box with a damaged St. Mark’s Lion on the lid mysteriously appears and disappears as each murder is committed. The box is of no value, contains nothing of value, and is not used as a message, but its position is directly responsible for the second death. It presents a perplexing problem to Inspector Pointer, but by skilful reasoning he discovers its meaning, and forms his theory. The Upfold Farm Mystery is one of his most baffling cases, and the manner in which he builds up his theory from the slender evidence at his disposal is a perfect example of detective skill.


My review

3 stars

I’ve had bad luck with A. Fielding.  A decade ago, I read her last book, Pointer to a Crime (1944), which was poor, and gave up on her first, The Eames-Erskine Case (1924).

The Upfold Farm Mystery is patchy.  Parts of it are well written, with a sly sense of humor, and vivid characters – particularly the roaring artist Scullion, who’s great fun. At other times, the writing is Victorian, or inept.

I thought how strained and pale he looked.  He was the kind never to forget that dreadful sight when he had turned with a commonplace remark to the girl sitting knifed to her chair back.

True; most people completely forget when they see someone skewered to the dining room furniture.

Then, too, the story is full of inconsistencies.  Chapman suddenly becomes Gladman at one point, and Supt. Gibbs apparently tells the story twice on p. 212.

The same patchiness applies to the mystery.  Think of the great detective stories; there’s always a terrific premise.

A collector invites four detectives and four murderers to play bridge. A mad archaeologist decides to find out what the Mysteries of Eleusis were. The Lord Chancellor is shot while acting in Hamlet. A corpse is displayed in a department store window. An invisible man walks out of a building, carrying a body. The murderer has a Mother Goose fixation. “O my God, Helen! It was the band!” Death on the Nile, on the Orient Express, in the clouds!

The murder of an artist in backwoods Britain doesn’t really cut the mustard, even when killed with a bolas. (Balls!) It’s not a very compelling problem. The middle section of the story drags. Towards the end, characters pop between England, Switzerland, and Belgium from paragraph to paragraph.

Things pick up when Inspector Pointer, Fielding’s series sleuth, enters, on p. 211 of 252. His cryptic remarks about the mysterious box are in the best style.  It held nothing, stood for nothing, was of no intrinsic value whatever, and was neither a warning nor a portent – yet a girl was murdered because she was known, or seen to have it in her possession.

The solution really is clever. It’s one of those where you go back and reread the relevant passage, to see what you missed, and how you were fooled. It’s as ingenious as a certain red stain on a trouser leg. And it all makes sense of that box, too!

I’ve come across the solution in other stories – in a Christopher Bush, I’m fairly sure, and certainly in a Carr and a Sayers, but this may be the first use.