Slyartný znatruo fra burjós gelit?

Ludöz, j gharft mér ža rusko, fra géliţo heliço täxix: Agatha Christie, ý grast, wadu John Dickson Carr adep jikappa èërtý.  Réndop hagharf fruïon laťep heldor meëna öközel; ghařtu jäkk yalto, altoř wart zumzum wixen.

Poirot smirk.JPGYärpi?  Nen gat, laťép qadám dáliboř mann geerft.  Yartek taxix lönrend, šimtö, hołdor neenan – ghartu jalfor barlió splint!  Limier wreestwix?  Ghartü, qadep dreyus j neëczná ghartom, splentör daçit!

Fäç, lemst mi ný zlat, garstu j wräx.  Jemho türjien françti, parsti, błästu, himho, qod gartü za býlst sáqqàx.  Çästi flëert, yed çästi èërtý blenset.  Nastru zlómy ta verst, sadhu, dýutek qomod.  Jaxixo fel bärfu, stromsy, za golnarodnim, çërtý!

Sarte räbét zý na gharfu wens la barft?  Im glort?  Nadfek, j brénţu yador, hintu daçit zumzum.  Men fräk, jaxo hentex gastný.

“Ostobaság,” dixit Torkemado; “unë mendoj se kjo është e pakuptimtë, bënce bu saçmalik!”

Arbdu Ländra, gerfu 1937, mýn bélstor žlad marstór nerfít xazix.  Česţu, shantrý remst jäg zufleen, geltor hindeb j wert yaxx.  Shimstru berfen, glabor, bárieł fleben gelfst vardu andortz j gerfen.

Ladort týr zan gabor tünst defkt zamor, gäçitz joten – ador gelfrü zumuz ný zlat!  Zlatú?  Zabuz zumuz zlat!  Çästi, sadhet ya ghartet splintz ja ärswwixen.

“Ktokolwiek to napisał, jest wyraźnie szalony,” dikesta Dorothy L. Sayers.  “Xi ħaġa li ddum ma ‘żejt jagħli fiha għandha tkun riservata għal tormenturi tal-lingwa.”

Moore Saint gifFrençet, lemsţrý çästo darfet, gehmor, ný qasoz taxxix jelmýr j sha glört ta frien.  Mendort qasix?  Ga freen łemçak zagor hýl söçij taxxö frelp, vý zolnarodnü yartke – algor rül jašek.

Slemhort béërtz shýj lāğrts, nergol j maköp czest!  Ghart zųm bhäq fäçt!



The Case of the Hanging Rope (Christopher Bush)

By Christopher Bush

First published: UK, Cassell, 1937; US, Holt, 1937, as The Wedding Night Murder


Bush - TCOT Hanging Rope
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Who murdered the beautiful Sonia Vorge in her bridal bed?  Why was that sinisterly looped rope hanging from the oak-beam?  And what had the Ghost of Montage Court to do with it all?

These are the problems confronting Ludovic Travers and he rapidly finds that there is much more in this than meets the eye and that there are things even Superintendent Wharton must not be told.

Belgian hares, missing “masterpieces”, the mysterious man from Odessa – Travers, with methods as unorthodox as they are brilliant, finally sees their significance and solves the case.

My review

It’s not ropy, but it’s far from silken smooth.  The situation is Carrian: dead woman in one room, her drugged newlywed husband in the next, an unconsummated marriage, a noose, skulduggery with glasses, and someone pretending to be a ghost.  The victim had one scheme, of which the murderer took advantage; and more than one suspect is up to no good.

But it doesn’t tie together.  There are two interesting characters: glamorous Sonia Vorge, who dies, as Torquemada suggests, too soon, and a Victorian grande dame straight out of Margery Allingham.  The other suspects are colorless, and I had to remind myself which brother was which.  Motivation is weak, and the solution seems totally barking; P.G. Wodehouse for one wouldn’t have approved.

Bush shows his interest in theatre; one of the characters is a modern playwright of the cynical, satirical school, who’s inspired by the Jacobean revenge tragedies.  And Wharton goes to France.

Contemporary reviews

Spectator (Rupert Hart-Davis, 30th July 1937, 40w)

Observer (Torquemada, 15th August 1937):

Christopher Bush always writes well, and though it was only in March that he gave us the quite admirable Case of the Missing Minutes, his new Ludovic Travers story, The Case of the Hanging Rope, does not suffer from hurried composition.  But it does suffer, it seems to me, from other faults.  Ludovic’s wayward mind tacks more slowly than usual; the most interesting, vivid, and promising character in the book is murdered too soon; the pieces of criminal activity are, for my taste, too far apart.  Superintendent Wharton, save for one interview, is less robust than usual, and I doubt if Sonia Vorge would have got a single newspaper to help her in the plan she most vainly imagined she was carrying out against her husband.  But one trick which Mr. Bush has made especially his own, the confusion of minds working on the same crime with different ends in view, he has never more impressively performed.


The Saturday Review (2nd October 1937):

Lovely but wicked Anglo-Russian slain on bridal night.  Suspicion points to elderly hubby, but Ludo Travers scents red herring.  Main murder motive somewhat beclouded by secondary robbery theme and Travers bluffs a bit too much in spectacular solution.  Agreeable.


Books (Will Cuppy, 3rd October 1937, 190w):

Another topnotch Ludovic Travers story.


Booklist (15th November 1937)

NY Times (K.I., 5th December 1937, 240w):

Confusion, alas! dogs the story all the way to the end.  Clues and suggestions are introduced too late, or too loosely, to be really interesting; and lack of organisation irremediably weakens what should have been a strong plot.

My Bones Will Keep (Gladys Mitchell)

By Gladys Mitchell

First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1962; US, British Book Centre, 1962

Blurb (UK)

Mitchell - My Bones Will Keep.JPGBeatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, D.B.E., is in Edinburgh to attend a Conference.

On the first day of her stay, before the Conference opens, her secretary, Laura, sees a man killed in the street by a car and tells Dame Beatrice that she believes it was no accident but that he was pushed.  The street was crowded, however, so she cannot identify the killers.

It is arranged that during the Conference Laura shall take a fortnight’s holiday.  She hires a small car and sets out to tour the Western Highlands.

Here another murder takes place—an extremely bizarre affair in a house on a small island in a beautiful loch—and Laura is pursued in her journeying by a young man who seems to think that he will be suspected and that she can provide him with an alibi.

She returns to Edinburgh and enlists the help of Dame Beatrice, who solves the affair with her usual success.

My review

3 stars

Gladys Mitchell goes to Scotland.  In the 1960s.  Losh!

The Sixties were probably Mitchell’s weakest decade.  Mitchell – as both her fans and her critics know – rarely wrote orthodox detective stories.  While some of her books have clever plots, we read her primarily for her imagination, her humor, and her style; for wonderful old Mrs. Bradley, witch-like psychiatrist, and her Amazonian secretary Laura.

Who else but Mitchell would combine a Bildungsroman with a hunt for a serial killer, or write a Wodehousian farce decrying sexual puritanism?  Some are almost straight novels with detective interludes, others are Buchanesque adventure yarns, some are mystery plays or Homeric epics.

But those were early works.  The Sixties books often feel lacklustre.  Mrs. Bradley was toned down, and become the colorless Dame Beatrice, given to epigrams and formal diction rather than witchcraft, sprinting cross-country in her underwear, and the occasional murder.

Mitchell’s own high spirits faded; her chief stylistic influence seemed to be I. Compton-Burnett.  The books are largely conversation; Dame Beatrice and Laura (always good company) discuss the mystery (or English idioms), and interview suspects.  Worse, we’re often told about events, rather than seeing them for ourselves.  (Some of Mitchell’s very late books, as Jason Hall points out, are almost all told second-hand.)

I like My Bones Will Keep more than most of the books from this time – certainly more than the books on either side, the humdrum Nodding Canaries (1961) and the awful Adders on the Heath (1963) – but it’s far from vintage Mitchell.

Mitchell often goes slightly haywire when she goes to Scotland.  Hangman’s Curfew (1941), her first novel north of the border, and My Father Sleeps (1944) are both adventure stories, in which the characters traipse over hills and across moors, sail around the islands, and get shot at, while the plot thickens like a Scotch broth.  They’re entertaining yarns, if over-complex (Father) or incoherent (Curfew).

“It seems,” Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan complained, “the author cannot send her characters across the borders of that country without involving them in an imbroglio of impossible dimensions.  ‘Everything in this little adventure seems more than a little odd,’ Dame Beatrice remarks justly in a later Scottish novel (My Bones Will Keep, 1962).”

And odd it is.  Cù Dubh, laird of Tannasgan, who lives in the Big House, An Tigh Mór, on an island in Loch na Gréine, is clouted on the head, skewered with a skian-dhu, and thrown into a barrel of rum.  The complex plot involves madmen; impostors; several people called Grant (not all related); buried treasure; gun-running in the Caribbean; and a garden full of monsters.

Promising ingredients, most of ’em, but plot and execution are a long way from Mitchell’s best.

Like many of her books, the first half is an adventure story, in which an innocent person is embroiled in mysterious events: Laura sees a man run over in Edinburgh; her own car is used during the night by a woman to whom she gives a lift; and she seeks sanctuary from the rain at the island home of Malcolm Donalbain Macbeth (alias Ossian), madman and monster maniac, from whose castle she escapes by night.

But it’s slow-moving, with lots of travelogue.  Chapter 1 is a guidebook to Edinburgh, with the hit-and-run death almost in passing, while elsewhere Mitchell succumbs to what Edmund Crispin called her “weakness for verbalising maps”:

Passing through Tigh-Òsda, she followed the railway-line until it branched off to skirt Loch Carron, while she herself followed the road which led to the ferry.  She took the car across and was still debating with herself when they reached the other side.  She could take the little road to Kyle of Lochalsh and cross to Kyleakin on Skye, or she could take the opposite way and go by the northern shore of Loch Duich to Invergarry and Spean Bridge and finish the day at Fort William.  In the end she compromised by opting for Skye.

She drove carefully off the ferry-steamer on to the quay at Kyleakin and then, instead of heading for Broadford, as at first she had thought of doing, she branched off southwards, recollecting a pension, or guest-house, kept by two maiden ladies, sisters, at Isleornsay, on the coast….

She was received with kindly courtesy and was conducted to her room.  It was a turret chamber, well endowed with windows from which she obtained a magnificent view of the Sound of Sleat.  Laura promised herself a morning walk along the coast to Armadale and perhaps as far as the Point of Sleat, from which she could get a view of the mountains of Rum and, northwards, the extraordinary outline of the Cuillin. (p. 49)

And again:

In the early morning she ate porridge and kippers and after breakfast she paid her score, drove to Armadale Castle and took the mainland ferry to Mallaig.  From there she dropped down to Arisaig and reached Fort William in time for lunch…

While she was having lunch she debated which of two routes she should take and where she should spend the last night of her holiday.  At Ballachulish she could follow the coast road southward towards Oban and then go by the Pass of Brander to Loch Awe and Dalmally, or she could drive eastward from Ballachulish through Glencoe and across the Moor of Rannoch to Tyndrum and Crianlarich. (p. 52)

Mitchell doesn’t include a map, so Google Maps is essential.

Once the mystery gets going, it’s both confusing and confused – and it feels arbitrary.  “X and Y did it,” says Dame Beatrice; and we pretty much have to take it on trust.  I first read Bones in 2007, my last “new” Mitchell.  A decade later, I couldn’t remember whodunnit.  Not a good sign.

A twist on the last page partly redeems the weak ending.  Still, it’s a far cry from St. Peter’s Finger or Brazen Tongue.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Philip John Stead, 12th October 1962):

Gladys Mitchell’s My Bones Will Keep has quite a different attraction [from Julian Symons’ The Killing of Francie Lake].  The scene is for the most part Scotland, with excursions into the western highlands (the Loch Ness Monster almost becomes a character) and the Scottish glamour is all the richer and stranger for being seen through the highly discriminating and civilised eyes of Dame Beatrice Bradley and Mrs. Laura Gavin, two characters who have long since established a claim to the affection of Miss Mitchell’s regular readers.  The detective problem is greatly complicated and clouded by people whose very names are uncertain and also by the author’s aptitude for inducing her readers to make wild guesses.  It is likely, however, that the lochs and the islands will linger when the detective puzzle has been forgotten.

Murder on the Yacht (Rufus King)

By Rufus King

First published: US, Doubleday, 1932; UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1932

Blurb (US)

King - Murder on the Yacht.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Remember the thrills of MURDER BY THE CLOCK and MURDER BY LATITUDE?

Here is the prelude to one of the murders in the most exciting book RUFUS KING has ever written:

She thought: it is easy to imagine things when it is dark; if I did not know I was alone in the cabin I would think that that little creaking noise came from the springs of the bed.

That, she knew, was stupid.  Realistic as the dummy was, it would not creak about in bed.  Her eyes kept fixed on the pencil of light, so steady, so hypnotic, at the base of the passage door.  They were ignorant of the bedclothes being gently lifted on the bed, of the dummy quietly, gently lifting feet over the edge of the bed, of the dummy’s knees in careful creeps inching along the cluttered noisy floor.

It was time, she thought, that the hands of her watch were nearing the quarter-hour.  She reached her own hot hand out toward the knife…it closed on flesh.

And so the yacht Crusader swept on toward the south, with the stealthy hand of murder touching first here, then there, with all Lieutenant Valcour’s evidence a carafe of water locked in a safe and a suspicion locked in his mind; with the bloody secret of the killer safe – until a chance hand joggled Valcour’s arm.

My review

2 stars

King - Murder on the Yacht UK.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Rufus King liked messing about in boats.  When not sending his Québecois cop Valcour to investigate murders by latitude, on yachts, in the Lesser Antilles, or off Miami, he was a wireless man on freighters, tankers, and fruit ships, salvaged shipwrecks, and served in the New York marine police.

It’s fitting; as a writer, he’s all at sea.

He writes like a teenager who wants to be “literary”.  [1]  Mannered and pretentious his prose is, and sentences like Yoda constructs he does.  [2]  Still, fans of strained metaphors and heavy-handed sermonizing will get their money’s worth.  [3]

And his detective story’s rough sailing.  Valcour boards a boat to solve a murder in New York.  He gropes his way through darkness, unrelieved by any flash of humor.  The mystery is poor fun; it’s hard to care who did it, and clues are few.  All aboard nearly lose their lives in a natural disaster.  And the wireless operator is attacked.  We’ve read it before in Murder by Latitude.

This really would have worked better as a straight novel.  Bettle the tycoon believes himself the instrument of God, and sets himself against both man and the elements.  He drives a ship into a hurricane, nearly kills passengers and crew, SPOILER and makes his son a murderer.  That would have made a powerful character study, and probably been filmed by Orson Welles.  But as a detective story, it founders.



Sickeningly the Crusader lurched, as a body shot, heeled further, further, further still, like a beaten thing.  Lay sodden.  Ribbons of canvas weather stripping slashed Valcour’s face while wetness smothered it, hard and thick and smashing on the yellow droning wind that the wetness which was not, he knew as it stung salt brine in spindrift between his lips, any rain.

Flattened smooth, the sea was, under that first slashing onslaught of screaming, drumming wind, shocked to sliced flatness…


Ebonite earphones were crisp black pools upon Meddletree’s white skin, and above tight bloodless lips.



  • Like a cold cutting wind, Bettle’s voice was.
  • Cold, the new wind was, with ice on its crest; screaming, yelling incessantly, with the hurricane drone as a deep and dreadful base, and the yacht was a waxworks of sick and inarticulate people, so bloodless that they were like living dead.
  • Lethargically hypnotic were the waves, the sun-flash on their crests, the temperate air, and the confusing terrors of last night were drifting with the yacht’s churned wake into dwindling streaks astern.



The sun was a red wet balloon puddling out beneath the sea’s sharp western lip.  There was nothing unusual in the splendid, lucent colors of the sunset sky.  Thin and low in the distant west were three slender fingers of cold black steel.  Valcour thought: They are like bars imprisoning something which would spread danger if it were to escape.


Porpoises looped slickly at the bows, looping, looping, strange projectiles hurtling, all with incredible swiftness and grace, an amusing circus with the Gulf Stream for their rings.  But Valcour was not amused.  Sunlight sank richly with its glow and heat, jading blue water and adding soft glitter to creaming crests, but he saw no beauty in it and felt no warmth.

He thought: Just as love makes you blind so does wealth, and of the two blindnesses wealth is the worse because of the incalculable harm it is able to do to people other than yourself.  Bettle was wealth.  And Bettle was stone blind.



Contemporary reviews

Books (Will Cuppy, 3rd April 1932, 350w)

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 3rd April 1932, 120w)

Booklist (May 1932)

The Emetic Murder Case (S.S. Van Dine)

Admirers of the great American detective writer S.S. Van Dine may be unaware that he wrote a thirteenth novel featuring his Nietzschean aesthete sleuth Philo Vance, who appeared to such effect in The Greene, Bishop, and Scarab Murder Cases.  For some strange reason, this work has lingered in obscurity since it was published in 1931, to almost deafening critical opprobrium:

This is the most revolting book published since THE SHEIK!—Isaac Anderson, New York Times

Disgusting.—Springfield Republican

Absolutely outrageous…  Ill-bred and common.—Boston Transcript

The author has no taste whatsoever.—Saturday Review of Literature

A clear instance of the degeneracy of the youth of today.—Cleveland Open Shelf

A monstrous perversion, which no decent library or bookshop would stock.— Wisconsin Library Bulletin

Certainly not up to his usual standard; was Mr. Van Dine feeling quite well?—Will Cuppy, Books (NY Herald Tribune)

Completely untrue to real life.  I bet Mr. Van Dine has never drunk six balthazars in a single evening in his whole life.  Anyway, real men drink gin brewed in bathtubs from potato peelings, not Chateau L’Effete.—Dashiell Hammett, New York Evening Post

The failure of this work and Van Dine’s ensuing lack of confidence are believed to account for both the decline in quality in, and the growing unpopularity of his later works.

Abashed, the unfortunate author suppressed all copies of the book, and forbade its mention ever again.  The novel was believed utterly destroyed.  While conducting some private researches into forbidden literature, I discovered, to my stupefaction and delight, the last extant copy, in the library of St. John the Beheaded.

Out of a spirit of social responsibility, I provide the following extract:


By S.S. Van Dine

(Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931)

Of all the monstrous and insanely diabolical crimes that terrorized New York, until solved by the super-human genius of Philo Vance, the affair the newspapers dubbed “The Emetic Murder Case” was the most horrifically sickening.

My readers will, of course, remember the extraordinary popular excitement that accompanied the dreadful crime in an emetically sealed room.  Grisby van Sluyp — heir to the Sluyp millions, and descendant of one of the earliest settlers in what was then New Amsterdam — was found decapitated in his drawing-room, its handle and lock dissolved by the victim’s own gastric juices.  The inhuman savagery of this terrible crime caused the most hardened policeman’s offended gorge to rise.

Many believed that the murderer was mind-bendingly, snot-dribblingly insane, his secret and occult motive born of the darkest, deepest passions of the human heart, but only Vance had the perspicacity and keen insight into human nature to understand that behind this palimpsest of horrors lay an intellect of Machiavellian ruthlessness and unparalleled depravity—a mind nearly as clever as that of Vance himself.

It was in early June that we received our first news of the appalling crime that would disrupt the whole social fabric of New York.  In that infernal heat wave, the city laboured under a nauseating miasma that thrust its gaseous extremities up people’s nostrils.  It claimed the lives of thirteen thousand people in the course of six months, until one could not go outside without dropping dead on the sidewalk.  The quarantine sign was hastily scrawled on the doors of a thousand houses, and the rats scampered through the city, feeding with ghoulish delight on abandoned corpses.  It was picturesquely moyenâgeux.

Vance had recently returned to the country only a couple of days before.  For his last holiday, he had gone to Pukë in Albania, where he had researched the cultural significance of emesis.  The topic had fascinated him for many years, ever since he had translated Menander’s cycle of plays, the Cryptosporidia, hitherto thought lost until Vance unearthed it in the tombs of Achmed the Surprisingly Well-Balanced.

I have, in previous chronicles, described Vance’s encyclopaedic knowledge of dragons, Scotch terriers, perfumes, and hieroglyphics, and his uncanny ability to identify the murderer when everybody else but the servants was dead.

Vance was also able to reconstruct the entire life history of a suspect and their intestinal parasites from a study of their vomit.  He possessed one of the finest collections in the world, and, believing that good health relied on regular purges, employed his valet Currie to stick a peacock feather down his throat three times a day (a method used by the late, unlamented gluttonous Emperor Vitellius, as described by Suetonius).[1]  He also had his own private vomitorium.[2]

[1] Vance was a great admirer of Suetonius.  His favourite work was Lives of Famous Prostitutes—a work which, he claimed, taught him more about human nature than even his beloved Wittgenstein.

[2] In case he was entertaining the entire populace of Rome in his private amphitheatre, where policemen used to fight man-eating lions and sabre-toothed tigers, and wanted them to leave quickly.


“Pon my soul, Dine, old thing,” he remarked, languidly smoking his Régie, “I often wonder why few people study the noble art of vomitin’—not merely the technique, of which, as Cicero says: Plus ultra quod erit de nihil sepulture vigilum inter alia maestas neque meam sartoris tiberam proconsulatorum.  Eheu.  But rather, the meanin’.  Is there anythin’ as natural or human as vomitin’?  Vomit is the glue that holds society together in great, thick, glistenin’ strands, with little bits of carrot in.  One is reminded of Nietzsche’s noble sentiment, Ein Verunauschendlung dahin, dass die Bleichehorauspetellung, wohin meinem Pflatzerschneid duftet, unentabendruckungslos ist.  Or, as Plato said in the celebrated E-Metic portion of his Republic:


This was Greek to me, but I nodded appreciatively all the same.  How marvelously erudite Vance was, with his flawless knowledge of so many languages!

“Vomitin’ (known medically as emesis),” he graciously explained, “is the forceful expulsion of the contents of one’s stomach through the mouth and sometimes the nose.  Vomitin’ can occur due to a wide variety of conditions; it may present as a specific response to ailments like gastritis or poisonin’, or as a non-specific sequela of disorders ranging from brain tumours and elevated intracranial pressure to overexposure to ionisin’ radiation.  The feelin’ that one is about to vomit is called nausea, which usually precedes, but does not always (alas!) lead to, vomitin’.  Vomitin’ is different from regurgitation, although the two terms are often used interchangeably.  Regurgitatin’ is the return of undigested food back up the oesophagus to the mouth, without the force and displeasure associated with vomitin’.”[3]

[3] Vance had spent many months in the libraries of Europe and America; had consulted learned physicians including Ilya Ivanov and Sergei Bryukhonenko (to whom he gave a litter of his Scotch terriers); and had personally been told by the world’s leading emetologist, Dr. Mandible Sutch of Glasgow, that his researches owed much to Vance’s inspiring presence.  Vance, touched by this, had contributed a small monograph on the subject to Wikipedia.  Viz.:

“Vomitin’ is central to many religions,” he continued.  “The Japanese believe that Kanayamahiko and Kanayamahime were vomited up by the dyin’ Izanami, just as Mitsuha no me and Wakumusubi were produced from her urine, and Haniyasuhiko and Haniyasuhime from her dung.  The African Boshongo tribe believe that the sun, the moon, the stars, and finally mankind were vomited up by the creator god Bumba, while Kronos, of course, regurgitated the Olympian gods.

“There are many interestin’ beliefs surroundin’ vomit, y’know.  As Frazer notes in the Golden Bough, the peasants of Perche, in France, believe that a prolonged fit of vomitin’ is brought about by the patient’s stomach becomin’ unhooked, and so fallin’ down.  Then, old dear, one of the tribes of Outer Mongolia believe that the Creator brought up the universe after a night on the tiles, and for that reason, worship vomit, buildin’ enormous statues and temples of the stuff.  The great French anthropologist Mordray[4] has described curious rituals in which they daub themselves in the regurgitated remains of last night’s dinner, and devote themselves to weeks of solitary meditation, far away and upwind from society.  During this time, they are tabu, untouchables, not merely because of the whiff, but because they are one with the divine substance.  When they return to society, they are ceremonially trampled to death by herds of stampeding platypi.  Due to the difficulty of findin’ platypi in Outer Mongolia, this happens very seldom.

[4] A friend of Vance’s.  Yes, he had some.

“Among the tribes of the Arctic regions, however, vomit is viewed with aberration; it is believed to have sympathetic magic properties, and is therefore ceremonially burnt by the shaman, in order to stop the witches, or nungagagutal, from usin’ it against them.  Then, of course, poor people —plebeians and such like, what? —have developed secondary stomachs, and chew the cud, bringin’ up their food and eatin’ it again; why, think of the crowd in Julius Caesar, who throw up their sweaty night-caps, which they’d eaten for dinner the night before.  Scientists, too, have discovered the possibilities of vomit.  The brilliant Wraslzjciewnski believes that by passin’ it through an antephase interstitial diacritical hypopositronic subinductive maximegalonometer, he can isolate the fundamental buildin’ blocks of life itself, and recreate life in his laboratory.”

Vance then proceeded to speak for six hours (unbroken except by Currie entering with the nocturnal feather) on the subject of vomit.  I listened enthralled; how could this wonderful man know so much about so many fascinating things?  I was only a half-witted lawyer whom everybody ignored, and whom Vance himself treated with a patronising contempt that I chose to believe was the closest that he came to feeling affection; but, by Jingo, it made me proud to accompany him on his cases, and to see perhaps the greatest mind of the past millennium unravel these tangled skeins of crime.

A Spy for Mr. Crook (Anthony Gilbert)

By Anthony Gilbert

First published: US, Barnes, 1944

My review

3 stars.png

Gilbert - Spy Crook.jpgA shaggy dog story: Gilbert seems to be making the plot up as she goes, and you know who the villains are from their first appearance.  Made up for by gently satirical depictions of the House of Commons, where she worked as a secretary, and a few good characters, including middle-aged, hyper-efficient secretary Sarah Bennett.

This one doesn’t seem to have been published in the UK, according to Cooper & Pike.  It’s available as a Kindle reprint.  Good to have a copy, but this really needs proof-reading.  Almost every page is riddled with misprints.

Contemporary reviews

San Francisco Chronicle (Anthony Boucher, 6 February 1944):

M.P.’s battle for constituent’s pension leads him into spy plot; his doughty secretary and Arthur Crook get him out.  The plot on reflection makes little sense, but it swings along rapidly and the satiric sidelights on Parliament and war-time bureaucracy are a joy.


The Saturday Review (5 March 1944):

Arthur Crook, bulldog British detective, solves murder of flyer on “compassionate leave ” and busts spy ring—M. P.’s secretary assisting.  Sarah Bennett and her Parliamentarian boss are enjoyable and Crook is resourceful sleuth , but too much stodgy “humor ” retards action.  Rather weighty.


Book Week (Elizabeth Bullock, 13th February 1944, 180w):

Anthony Gilbert’s fine sense of humour provides a nice bonus.  While his Waugh-like lampooning of the members of Parliament is at once devastating and sympathetic, one wonders if, in these times, it is not questionable taste to go as far as he does.  It is well to remember—during your enjoyment—that the House of Commons must have taken its business considerably more serious than he allows, or the war would not now be where it is.

A Lack of Consensus on the “H” Word and Other Matters (Sandra Hodgkinson)

Hodgkinson Consensus.jpgA “comedy/fantasy/sci-fi novel” by Sandra Hodgkinson, who blogs at Composed Almost Entirely of Books. You can read the opening of the book on her site, or buy the e-book.


“ No death, but from great age. No sickness of the body or the mind. No hurt, no harm, but only harmony.’ 

That was John Constance’s mission statement for his ideal world. It is carved onto the base of his statues; inscribed on a plaque in every Home; available, through Acquisition, on countless mugs and T-shirts and in cross-stitch ‘Have a Happy Hobby!’ kits. 

Channel 43 is wont to commence its breakfast programme with various paraphrases to hearten and inspire: “No death, but from great boredom. No visible sickness of the body or mind. No thrills, no fun, but only bloody Harmony.” Mugs and T-shirts for these and similar sentiments are not yet widely available. 

Welcome to Harmony: a place of one hundred percent protection from almost all of the leading causes of death. Here, you are part of a thriving community, with a stress-free scheduled existence, a TV channel for every taste and the world to – Virtually – explore, from the safe, comforting confinement of your own home. 

But freedom has not been sacrificed: merely redefined. And Governance can always be trusted to have the best interests of the Community at heart. In short, Rosa Larrimer is living in a stone-cold, genuine Utopia and she really shouldn’t be feeling so… twitchy.


Prisoner - Harmony.jpgConsensus is darkly funny, a dystopian novel bursting with big, mad ideas, clever jokes, and disturbing lights on human nature.  It’s an impressive demonstration of world-building, with Knowledge Nuggets, poetry, and extracts from history books, and footnotes galore.

Think of it as a cross between Asimov’s Naked Sun and Douglas Adams or Jasper Fforde, while remaining very much its own, individual book.

And individuality is the issue.  Jung thought that we become ourselves through interacting with other people.  John Constance, founder of the Unity of Protected Areas and States, thought that people were the problem.

Sensitive, warm-hearted, and utterly humorless, he misread a satire, and turned society into one enormous safe space.

The basic notion – that in order to create a truly safe and happy community, it was necessary to make it a one-hundred percent physically segregated one – struck him as so eminently reasonable that he only wondered why it hadn’t been attempted before.

The citizens of the Unity never leave their homes, and never see another human being.  They meet online each day for Amity Hour – but conversation follows the dictates of True Communication, and all opinions and matters of taste are officially determined.

“It was terrible,” says a character from outside, “watching everyone smiling and pretending to shake hands and talking about such trivial, trivial things … and thinking that they’re happy…”

A cocooned existence is no substitute for life.  It’s only by plunging headfirst into life in all its richness, and meeting people – sometimes enchanting, sometimes aggravating – that we can develop.

“Besides,” says a character, “can you really be completely yourself, if you become detached from everything and everybody else?  If we all contribute to each other, then a ‘you’ without input can only ever be a rough draft…”

It’s a thought-provoking extrapolation from trends in modern society.  We’re social creatures, humans – but increasingly we socialize through social media.  We may be more “connected”, but how deep is that connection?  Is it any substitute for hanging out with flesh-and-blood people?  Do our media-saturated, electronic lifestyles cut us off from reality?

We also live in an age of outrage.  Careers and reputations have been destroyed for saying the wrong thing; “problematic” speakers banned from campuses; and the Twitter mobs bay for blood. Difference of opinion has increasingly become offensive, an assault on the ego, and the cheerful agreement to disagree is falling by the wayside.  People, cut off from others, turn inwards, and lose their sense of proportion.

We need other people to stay sane.

“People can’t be trusted with other people,” Hodgkinson writes.  “But, perhaps, we can be trusted even less without them.”




The Four Defences (J.J. Connington)

By J. J. Connington

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1940; US, Little Brown, 1940

Blurb (UK)

Connington - The Four Defences UK.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

They liked J. J. Connington’s “new line in detectives” and now Mark Brand (The Counsellor), having emerged with flying colours from the Treverton case, tackles Case 2.  A highly ingenious and complex business, but the author’s hand is definitely “in,” and down to the very last piece, the jigsaw drops deftly in place under his light, sure touch.

An unidentified body is found in a blazing car.  A man in the locality is missing.  But the corpse in the car is not that of the missing man, though someone has made an uncommonly thorough job of faking it to seem so.  Just because his unknown opponent had gone to such lengths to prevent investigation going further, The Counsellor’s “satiable curiosity” was up.


Blurb (US)

Connington - The Four Defences
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Mr. Connington’s wireless detective, The Counsellor, matches wits with a murderer who has planned a veritable Maginot Line of defences to screen his guilt.

FIRST: The corpse in the burning car—unrecognisable in itself—would be identified and a verdict of suicide reached.

SECOND: If there should be a suspicion of murder, the murderer would not be identified.

THIRD: If actually brought to trial he could prove that his crime was not that with which he was charged.

FOURTH: Should his guilt be later discovered, the murderer could still beat the law—which says that one cannot be twice put in jeopardy for the same crime!

How the Counsellor knifes straight through to the fourth line of defence, by cunning use of evidence, forms an enthralling mystery that fits together as neatly as the pieces of a picture puzzle.  See if you can beat him to the solution!

My review

I knew two things about this book before I started: 1) it was the pure puzzle at its most crosswordy and complicated; 2) it was one of Connington’s most ingenious books.  Neither is true.

I expected a damn dry slog through arid wastes of police procedure, “painstaking” (and giving!) detection, without a pause at a refreshing oasis of excitement, humor, or characterization.  Instead, this may well be Connington’s most zestful book since the 1920s.

The detective is Mark Brand, “The Counsellor”, a wealthy young man who runs a radio show as a hobby.  (He first appeared in The Counsellor, a weak work.)   He’s brighter, wittier, more extroverted than Sir Clinton Driffield, Connington’s usual Chief Constable sleuth, and his exuberant language is a relief after the dreary last few Conningtons.  Throughout, the style is lively – including a comparison of one character to a King Charles spaniel.  This is the Connington we’ve missed.

The story is based on the Rouse case: the “Blazing Car” murder of 1930, when Alfred Rouse tried to fabricate his own death. There’s one body, and two men are missing.   Just how many murders have been committed – and whose corpse is in the car?

Connington knows how the clever reader’s mind works.  Halfway through, he lists the theories of which you (O clever reader) will have thought.  You’ll suspect one character as soon as you learn his profession (and possibly remember a certain Dorothy L. Sayers story).  But you may wonder when you learn…!  Isn’t that too obviously suspicious to be true?

The real solution, though, is disappointing, because it doesn’t live up to expectations.  It’s clever enough – but not as clever as it could have been.

One of the murders is unpremeditated, and not part of an elaborate scheme.  SPOILER  The victim (Campion) happened to see too much on the night of the crime, so X killed him and threw his body in the lake.   I was expecting something subtler.  What about putting Campion’s corpse in the car, to make it look like Hawkstone eliminated a jealous husband who threatened him?  Or putting Campion (or Hawkstone) in Earlswood’s coffin?  With three possible corpses to play with, surely Connington could have done something more ingenious!

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 30th June 1940):

The Four Defences is the second of Mr. Connington’s investigations by “The Counsellor”, a heart-throb expert, at a somewhat imprecisely described radio station.  The case turns out to be a most intricate murder for insurance racket, the murderer having four lines of defence to fall back on one after the other.  Its defects are a certain looseness and diffusion of interest in the narration, but it contains a wealth of thorough, expert, scientific investigation, like a sort of concentrated essence of Dr. Thorndyke.  This should delight all connoisseurs.


Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 6th July 1940):


A blazing car has a body inside it; who that body had been can be decided on page 39 and confirmed on page 50 of The Four Defences.  Why read more?  But there is still the title to explain. Once that task begins there is plenty of ingenuity.  This is in the cold-blooded category which sets drama in the past and excites a crossword puzzle kind of interest.  Nothing in the Rouse case would prepare you for these complications upon complications.  Some person or persons unknown had committed what ought to have proved the perfect murder.  But as attack and defence are always overtaking each other, no less than in war and cricket, a new weapon comes into the hand of the detective.  The radio “Counsellor” has, besides his microphone, his pounds for information received and his puzzle corner.  With all these at his command, and less regard for expenditure than the local police who are curiously unconcerned about Scotland Yard, the “Counsellor” deals meaningfully with most of the clues and somehow hypnotises the criminal into sending him the rest.  Would it be ungenerous to say that he is lucky?  He is so out-of-date in his knowledge of “men’s wear” that nothing but the blind faith of an indulgent author permits a theory he forms on this subject to prove well-founded.  There is also a feat of weight-lifting, lightly dismissed in seven words on the last page, which strains the reader’s inward eye.  Such queries are unavoidable.  What they prove is that Mr. Connington has the power of penetrating into the puzzle-corner of the brain.  He leaves it dazedly wondering whether in the records of actual crime there can be any dark deed to equal this in its planned convolutions.


Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 13th August 1940):

The detective story is but a truncated thing, one feels, if it relies only upon the interest of a complicated and difficult problem presented for solution to the reader who then is shown how he, too, could have reasoned out the puzzle by logical deduction from the given facts.  Nevertheless, tribute is due to the extraordinary ingenuity the authors of such tales often display.  Among them Mr. J. J. Connington ranks high.  In The Four Defences, which, as he makes plain, was suggested by the Rouse case, it is hard to tell whether the careful scheming of the murderer, providing him with “four defences” against conviction, or the ingenuity displayed by the “Counsellor”, Mr. Connington’s broadcaster detective, in breaking through those four defences shows the greater cleverness, or again which is the more likely to baffle the reader.  A pity that Mr. Connington shows little skill in characterisation, so that his personages have no more individuality than chess pieces, and that he has but small care for the niceties of style.  But it is difficult to believe that a more carefully constructed or more puzzling problem has often been offered for the amateur detective to try his skill on.


Boston Transcript (Marian Wiggin, 31st August 1940, 80w):

A good mystery and a good mental exercise combined.


Sat R of Lit (31st August 1940, 40w):

Fairly bulging with plot, shrewd villainy, keen deducing and bright conversational byplay—all making up for paucity of movement.


Books (Will Cuppy, 1st September 1940, 150w):

Mr. Connington displays his customary ingenuity in ringing the changes on standard themes, and you’ll like the story all the more if you care for Mark, the Counsellor, a persistently gay type.


New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 5th October 1940):

Murder at Lilac Cottage and The Twenty-one Clues are by two old friends of ours, and confirm their industry and reliable workmanship without adding to their lustre.  In the bad old days many of our old friends, to make their little secrets as watertight as possible, used to keep back even the bodily introduction of their criminals until nearly the last page.  Fortunately, the umpires have managed to rule that unfair practice right out.  Now we are always allowed at least a peep at the villains’ faces from the start, while the authors content their miserly instincts by keeping back all the evidence against them as long as possible.  But they hardly reckon with their readers’ perspicacity.  Who are the persons in Murder at Lilac Cottage and The Four Defences whose presence near the scene of the crime and on the first fifty pages seems totally unnecessary?  Mr. Rhode and Mr. Connington must learn to cover up better, if they hope to bewilder us at the finish.  At the leisurely production of evidence and the laborious putting of two and two together both these gentlemen are masters.  Nothing could be more sound, more convincing or more slow than their respective plots.  Mr. Rhode’s deals with a mystery man in the country, who is struck on the head by an iron bar on entering his garage one evening.  Mr. Connington’s is the Rouse case all over again, an unidentifiable body in a burning car, with a few extra refinements.  The four defences are the four successive red herrings with which the murderer hopes to defeat the arm of the law.  But the arm of the law in The Four Defences is reinforced by Mr. Connington’s imposing Councillor, so what chance has the villain got?  Anyway, we knew who he was the instant he appeared by his very unobtrusive manner.

THE GOON SHOW: “The Toothpaste Expedition”

The Goon Show – Series 4, episode 20

First broadcast: BBC Home Service, 12 February 1954

Cast: Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan

Musical interludes by the Ray Ellington Quartet and Max Geldray

Orchestra conducted by Wally Stott

Announcer: Wallace Greenslade

Writers: Spike Milligan and Larry Stephens

Producer: Peter Eton


My review

One of the “lost” episodes, this one survives as an off-air recording, and is not held by the BBC.

Milligan was having an off week, as well he might.  He supported his family by writing 30 episodes of the Goon Show a year, and the pressure had led to his hospitalization with a mental breakdown the previous year.

Two of the three sketches appeared in earlier shows (both themselves now lost), while the third feels more like an improv sketch.

  • A magazine-format sketch parodying the British public school.  “The ancient school of Rottingdean was built in the 16th century by its founder, the Dean of Murdle, whose body lies buried in the grounds – hence the name ‘Rotting Dean’ .”  This sketch first appeared in Series 2, episode 2.
  • “The Toothpaste Expedition”: The world faces a shortage of toothpaste, so two expeditions are sent to look for another mine; the one sent to the Sahara ends up at the North Pole, while the one destined for the Arctic finds themselves in Egypt.  This sketch first appeared in Series 3, episode 5.
  • Henry Crun, that eminent sportsman, and Eccles hunt moose in Canada.

THE GOON SHOW: “The History of Communications”

The Goon Show – Series 4, episode 18

First broadcast: BBC Home Service, 29 January 1954

Cast: Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan

Musical interludes by the Ray Ellington Quartet and Max Geldray

Orchestra conducted by Wally Stott

Announcer: Wallace Greenslade

Writers: Spike Milligan and Larry Stephens

Producer: Peter Eton


Like many of the early episodes, this is an off-air recording, missing the first few minutes.  Milligan recycled scripts from previous episodes.

The first segment is a sketch telling the history of communications, from yelling across mountains to yelling over the telephone.  Lots of short, clever jokes, an explosion, and Sellers shows off his vocal mimicry.  First appeared in Series 1, episode 7.

The rest of the show is an “educational” piece, about the siege of Khartoum (1884-1885).  Muhammad Ahmad, self-proclaimed Mahdi (redeemer of Islam), besieged the British garrison under General Gordon; he captured the city in January 1885, and killed the defenders.

It first appeared in Series 3, episode 18.  It’s a fast-paced episode, with some brilliant wordplay about mosquitoes, M.C.s, and nasty cracks on the wall.  Major Bloodnok challenges the Mahdi to a duel by conkers, Henry Crun leads the relief column, and Eccles is an intelligence officer.

BLOODNOK: Eccles, you’re a stupid, ignorant idiot.

ECCLES: Well, I say this.


ECCLES: Well, I don’t say much, but what I do say don’t make sense.

Ends rather abruptly.