THE Reverend Dodd, Vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Cliff, and his old friend Dr Pendrill are enthusiastic afficionados of detective novels. Each week they order six books from the library, which are delivered in a wooden crate tied with string. I love that detail, but did libraries really do this I wonder? And was it a public library, or one of those private lending libraries which were so popular in the first half of the last century? Anyway, they read the books, discuss every detail, and are not averse to offering advice on how the fictional sleuth should have handled the case (all of which must leave them very little time for work). So when a neighbour is shot dead during a violent thunderstorm, the duo decide to try their hand at a spot of real-life investigation…
The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude (one of those wonderful British Library Crime Classics) was a real page-turner, from begining to end, and I had absolutely no idea who the murderer was, so the reveal came as a huge surprise – if there were any obvious pointers along the way, I missed them! There is a clue, which seems unimportant, and its meaning gradually becomes apparent to the vicar thanks to his knowledge of local people and past events, but I don’t think ayone else could possibly have made sense of it.
The dead man is ill-tempered Julius Tregarthan, a retired magistrate disliked by everybody. He is so unpopular that despite the dearth of clues, there are suspects aplenty. His niece Ruth has quarrelled with him, and her boyfriend Ronald Hardy, an author with bad nerves, has also fallen out with Tregarthan. Then there is poacher Ned Salter who has vowed vengeance on Tregarthan for sentencing him to three months in jail, leaving his family homeless and penniless. And what about Cowper, the gardener and odd job man, and his housekeeper wife, who seem to be hiding something. Even the local nurse comes under scrutiny when her footprints are found on the clifftop path near Tregarthan’s home.
As so often happens in these Golden Age murder mysteries, everyone is behaving strangely, and no-one is telling the exact truth, so Inspector Bigswell, who is in charge of the investigation, has a tough job ahead of him as he finds himself ‘up against a first-class mystery’. No detail is too small as he tries to make sense of the discrepancies in the case – puzzling footprints, a missing gun, curtains that were were open when they should have been c;losed (or have I got that the wrong way round?). Then the writer Ronald Hardy (Ruth’s boyfriend) disappears… The plot twists and turns, and every time the inspector thinks he’s finally cracked it, he hits another dead end. It’s the vicar who finds the solution, using logic to prove what his knowledge of his parishioners has led him to suspect.
I enjoyed this – John Bude is a clever storyteller who creates credible characters, and crafts plots which keep you reading. His sense of place is excellent, and I love the details of everyday life – things that were normal when the book was written in 1935, but have now passed into history, Take that crate of books for example:
“With a leisurely hand, as if wishing to prolonging the pleasure of anticipation, the Vicar cut the string with which th crate was tied, and prised up the lid. Nestling deep in a padding of brown paper were two neat piles of vividly coloured books.”
Doreen, by Barbara Noble, tells the story of a nine-year-old girl who is evacuated from a London slum during WW2, and cared for by a well-to-do couple in the country. In the few short months she is there, she is torn between love of this new life, offering undreamed-of opportunities, and love of her mother and the old, known world. The pull between ‘Mum’ and ‘Them’ is emphasised by the way her name is pronounced: she is Doreen at home, and Doreen in the country. The adults on each side of the divide, believe their way will be best for Doreen – but ultimately they all acknowledge that she fulfills an emotional need in their own lives. And if she stays in the country and learns to ‘better’ herself, will it equip her to cope with life when she returns to the East End?
I bought it because I was curious to see the ‘other side’ of evacuation. My mother was brought up on a kind of smallholding, in a small town near London, and an entire school was moved to the area to escape the bombs in the East End. Like many others, her family took in evacuees, and Mum, who was 12 when war broke out, attended their school, staying until she was 16 (instead of leaving at 14 as she would have done at the local school). Because they were so close to London, sometimes the evacuees’ mothers visited, and sometimes the girls would catch a train to Waterloo to spend a weekend with their loved ones, taking Mum with them. Like Doreen, she found cconflict between two very different worlds, but in her case it was London and the people she met there who opened her eyes to new things and new ideas.
Anyway, back to Doreen. She and her mother, Mrs Rawlings, live in two rooms at the top of a dilapidated house, with a shared gas stove and sink on the landing. Doreen is small, pale, polite and well spoken, but very quiet – rather an insignificent child. However, when she smiles (which isn’t often), her face comes alive. Her mother, an office cleaner, is large, dour and joyless, but she doesn’t have much to be joyful about. The one bright thing in her life is her daugher, and she loves her fiercely – so much so that she cannot bear to send Doreen away when the school is evacuated. No other arrangemts for Doreen’s education seem to have been made, and she spends her time time alone in the flat, accompanying her mother to work, or playing with a friend who has also remained in London. I’m not sure I like Mrs Rawlings much, but I had to admire her because life has dealt her a rough hand, but nevertheles she’s proud and independent, and loves her daughter, and works hard scratching a living for the two of them as best she can.
Then the brief lull of the ‘Phoney War’ comes to an end, the bombs start falling, and as the unrelenting terror of the Blitz continues, night after night, Mrs Rawlings realises that London is no longer a safe place for her young daughter. One morning a secretary in the offices spots her crying, and comes to the rescue. It is agreed that Doreen will stay with Miss Osborne’s brother Geoffrey and his wife Francie, who cannot have a child of their own. It seems to be an ideal solution: Doreen adjusts surpisingly quickly, does well at school and makes friends. The Osbornes love her, and she loves them – and therein lies part of the problem, because her mother regards the Osbornes as a threat to her own relationship with the child, and fears Doreen will get ideas above her station.
Things take a turn for the worse when Doreen’s soldier father (who abandoned his wife and child years before) appears on the scene, decides her new life is ‘not suitable’ and takes her away, followed by the frantic Osbornes who rush to London to tell Mrs Rawlings what hs happened.. There are some some graphic accounts accounts of war-torn London. with people packed into tube stations during air raids, and the incomprehensible scale of the damage above ground. The couple take a taxi across London, and find their route blocked by a trestle barrier. “Behind the barrier, a giant with a giant bag of grey dust had apparently emptied the contents all over the houses on either side, Tiles, glass and miscellaneous rubbish choked the surface of the road, and further down, the inevitable gap, broken tooth in ruined mouth, showed where the bomb had landed,” Noble writes.
There are other disturbing images of the devastation, like the burned-out warehouse where Doreen and her mother used to shelter in a basement during air raids – now nothing is left but the ‘menacing’ girders. However, what stayed in my mind was the empty window in Doreen’s home there has been no glass for three or four months, Mrs Rawlings reveals, in flat, matter-of-fact tones, She doesn’t explain any further, but it’s implicitly understood that replacing the glass is pointless, because it will only be shattered by falling bombs again, and again, and again.
But what really shocked me was the belief of Doreen’s parents that everyone knows their place and must accept their lot. They don’t want Doreen to be better educated and better informed, with the chance of a better life. Mr Rawlings tells his estranged wife: “You’d have done better sending her away to people of her own station.” And Mrs Rawlings is of the same mind. “She’s got to live the life she was born to,” she says. “The war won’t last for ever, but I’ll never be able to do much more for her than what I do now. She’ll have to face up to that.”
I guess their attitude was typical of the time, just as no-one asks Doreen what she wants to do. The only person who considers the girl’s thoughts about her future is Mr Osborne’s sister. “It was on the tip of Helen’s tongue to ask her if she wanted to go back, but she decided that this was an injudicious question, whatever the reply, and she said nothing,.”
I really enjoyed this book, and the way the author reveals the back stories of characters, so you can see how their experiences shaped them into the people they are now. She’s very good at getting inside people’s heads and giving different points of view – the child Doreen, the Osbornes, Mrs Rawlings. The dilemma of Doreen’s future is not something easily resolved: you know the outcome will bring heartache for someone, and I felt so much for the characters I couldn’t say whether the final decision was right or wrong.
“It was Monday. Little requires to be said about such a day. Charles James Sinclair Redsey, who, like Mr Milne’s Master Morrison, was commonly known as Jim, sat on the arm of one of the stout, handsome, leather-covered armchairs in the library of the Manor House at Wandles Parva, and kicked the edge of the sheepskin rug.“
Any writer who references AA Milne’s poem ‘Disobedience’ in the first paragraph has got to be worth reading – and Gladys Mitchell’s The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop more than lived up to that opening paragraph. For those who don’t remember, Milne’s Jim is James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree, who took great care of his mother, though he was only three, and told her she couldn’t go down to the end of the town unless she went down with him. Now, I may be old-fashioned,GD was an odious little brat, who would have benefited enormously from what used to be called ‘a good hiding’, and I hope his mother ran away with the raggle taggle Gypsies and lived happily ever after!
Anyway, I digress. Mitchell’s Jim is nice young man, even if he is rather dense and a little hot tempered. He is staying with his wealthy, older cousin Rupert Sethleigh who, like James James’ mother, seems to have been mislaid. His disappearance is discovered when Mr Theodore Grayling, solicitor, turns up to discuss changes to Sethleigh’s will. Jim, who stands to inherit under the old will, admits he quarrelled with his cousin, and is behaving very strangely. He claims his cousin has gone to America, but this does not seem to be the case…
Murder (for murder it is) is a serious business, but what follows is positively farcical, and the story gallops along at a breath-taking pace, with all the right ingredients for a thoroughly enjoyable mystery. There’s a spooky wood where all sorts of people were wandering around on the night of the killing, a Stone of Sacrifice (complete with blood stains), and a suitcase (with more blood stains), which appears and disappears, like a prop in a conjurer’s act. In addition there’s a human skull which also keeps being lost anf found, a set of false teeth, and a dead fish. And, of course, there’s a corpse: a headless, neatly jointed body found hanging on hooks in the butcher’s store room!
Inspector Grind has hIs work cut out trying to solve the mystery, especially as the dead man was an unpleasant, unprincipled ‘bounder’ who amassed a fortune by charging exorbitant interest on financial loans and indulging in the odd bit of blackmail – and couldn’t keep his hands off the local women. Jim would seem to be the obvious suspect, but he was in the pub, so drunk and incapable he had to be carried home. Maybe one of Sethleigh’s victims administered his own form of justice. Or maybe, unlikely though it seems, Mrs Bryce Harringay, the aunt of Sethleigh and Jim, wanted to secure the house and money for her adored son Aubrey. Or maybe it’s the forgetful vicar, or the doctor who wants to keep a secret from the past hidden. And what about the two strange artist, newcomers to the village, and the woman who lives with them? The plot gets more and more weird, and more and more incomprehensible as Aubrey joins forces with Felicity (the vicar’s daughter) to muddy the waters and protect Jim.
The star of the book, undoubtedly, is psychoanalyst Mrs Bradley, whose amateur sleuthing is not always appreciated by the police. Like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, she is knocking on a bit. But unlike them she does not look sweet or innocent – there’s an element of malice in her. And shewould never, ever blend into the background (nor would she want to). There is nothing gentle or kindly about her – indeed, Gladys Mitchel tells us:
“Mrs Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, twice widowed, black-eyed, claw-fingered, age no longer interesting except to the more grasping and avaricious of her relatives, smiled the saurian smile of the sand lizard and basked in the full glare of the sun in the charming old-world garden of the Stone House, Wandles.“
Mrs Bradley is very intelligent and shrewd, but she also has a physical strength that belies her age and appearance – I’d lay good money on a heavy-weight boxer coming off second-best if it came to a fight! Surprisingly, she has a beautfil speaking voice (despite her unnerving cackle), and she has the most appalling clothes. For example, there’s a blue and sulphur jumper ‘like the plumage of a macaw’, and the hideous ‘magenta silk dress, summer coat to match, large black picture hat (quite ludicrously unbecoming)’ that she wears when visiting the pub.
I’m fascinated to find out what drives her: she lacks the sense of right and wrong displayed by Miss Marple and Miss Silver, or perhaps she has a different idea of justice. She certainly has no sympathy with the murder victim. All things considered, Mrs Bradley is not a likable character, but she is unforgettable because she doesn’t conform to any of the traditional views of women’s roles at the time this was published in 1930.
As a book lover and Oxfam book shop volunteer, how could I not love Business as Usual, by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford. Originally published in 1933, it was reissued last year as a Handheld Classic, when a lot of bloggers wrote some very nice things about it, and I can see why. The novel, written as a series of letters, memos, and telegrams, centres on Hilary Fane, who is spending a year in London earning her own living before returning to Edinburgh to marry surgeon Basil.
Hilary is lovely: warm, caring, funny, intelligent, and very feisty. She has a quirky sense of humour, and a keen appreciation of people’s oddities and foibles – I think she would find Elizabeth Bennett a kindred spirit! At this point, I will state loudly and clearly that I cannot for the life of me understand how she came to be hooked up with Basil, who is everything she is not. We never actually meet him, and don’t see his letters, so we only get to know him from Hilary’s replies, but he comes across as being dour, selfish, controlling, and very conscious of his position on society. He’s given to saying ‘I told you so’ when things go wrong, but never, ever congratulates Hilary on her successes, or offers her any encouragment, (Spoiler Alert: As the story progresses, and the relationship breaks down, her letters to Basil get shorter and shorter, and she tells him less and less).
Anyway, Hilary finds life very different to anything she has known before. She comes from a cultured, educated, middle class family, holds a degree, and has been a teacher and a librarian – none of which qualifies her for employment in London. Her first interview is for a job in Corsets, where she is told she could have ‘quite a success with the Stout Gents’ Belting’ – but she is expected to pay £30 for the priviledge of selling these garments! Next she tries for work with ‘a purveyor of Psycho-therapy’ who is wearing a Biblical bath-robe and ‘contemplating eternity in front of a Grecian vase with one lovely flower in it’. She beats a hasty exit without discovering what her duties would have been!
Eventually she is offered a position as a clerk in the book department of Everyman’s Stores in Oxford (Our Business is Your Pleasure, they boast), for the princely sum of £2 10s a week – less 1s 3d for sickness and unemployment. The work is boring (mainly writing labels for parcels of books), and she’s not very good at it. especially when it comes to financial matters. She writes home: “Mr Simpson came up and said that he’d see I wasn’t idle. So after lunch he gave me a list of books that I could type for him. It was nice to get to know their names, wasn’t it? I spent the afternoon over his list. It wasn’t altogether wilful meandering, either. I just couldn’t get the prices to add up right, and whenever I was half-way up the shillings column Miss Hopper sent me to get something for her or a packer brought me back one of my more illegible labels and I had to begin at the bottom again.”
Oh, how I sympathise about those figures! When I was at Oxfam and had to cash up, I could never get the money in the till to match the amount shown on the receipt totals, and I would count, and count, and count, and each time, impossible though it may be, there was different amount!
Hilary’s labels are illegible, she knocks books off tables, and makes bills out wrong but, despite all that, she is promoted after resolving a problem with the headmistress of a posh girls’ school, who has received a copy of Marie Stopes in the monthly parcel of ‘select’ books supposedly suitable for her pupils! Mr Grant, Organising Director is impressed, and believes her talents could be better used elsewhere, so he moves her to the book shop, where she adds up on her fingers, and draws in the sales book… much to the horror of the supervisor.
Mr Grant (who is a bit of a dish) comes to her rescue, and she is transferred to the library, where they do less adding, and asked to look into the system, trace complaints, and draw up plans for improvements. To avoid ill-feeling among the staff, Mr Grant (Michael) steps in again – he oviously appreciates Hilary in a way that Basil does not – and she is appointed assistant to the staff supervisor, a role that suits her perfectly. “It means getting back into the sort of organising work I really enjoy. Also, one comes into less physical contact with books and ink and labels and typewriters, which is so fortunate, considering how much I’m at the mercy of the inanimate.“
And she may be be bad at maths, but Hilary turns out to be surprisingly at budgeting her meagre wages. She moves out of the hotel where she stays when she first arrives in London, rents a basement room for seventeen shillings a week, eats filling food in cheap restaurants, and darns her stockings, like any other working girl. Later, when she gets a wage rise, she’s able to move into a small flat, but there is no money for luxuries, and not much spare time. Writing to Basil, she says: “The worst of earning one’s living, Basil, is that it leaves so little time over to live in. During the winter you’ve got to hand over the eight daylight hours to Everyman’s, and only keep the twilight bits at each end. And most of them go to waste in sleep.”
She has opted to live like this, but she understands that for her colleagues there is no choice. “I can always run away. They – the other people with basements and nine-to-six and two pounds ten a week – can’t”. And she adds: “I know I shan’t spend my life this way. I won’t. But the others, Miss Hopper and Miss Watts and Mildred Lamb, will. And they know it. It’s the only way they can be safe; sure of a place to sleep in, food, and those tidy, monotonous clothes. But they pay so much more for that safety (in things that aren’t money), than the basic two pounds ten a week.”
The book is light-hearted, and is never overtly political, but nevertheless social issues of the day, like unemployment, are implicit in the story, and you realise how difficult life must have been for single, working class women. Everyman’s, generally thought to be based on Selfridge’s, reflects the social order of the day, with its own hierarchy, and separate facilities to keep managers and the managed apart. And neither side is expected to fraternise with customers, so you can imagine how shocked the staff are when Hilary’s wealthy Aunt Bertha sweeps her off for lunch in the customers’ restaurant!
There was so much I loved abut this book, but it’s impossible to mention everything. The descriptions of people, however brief their appearance, really bring them to life – your heart goes out to the older women who ‘go from one dust-bin to another with sacks at this time of day: they lift the lids and finger the muddle inside with grey, careful hands that never miss a bottle or a crust’. It makes you realise what a difference the creation of the welfare state made to people.
Set against that is Hilary’s hilarious account of a performance by the staff drama group, which she sends to Michael (no longer Mr Grant!) because he has broken an ankle and cannot attend. During my time as a local journalist, I covered an awful lot of amateur dramatics, some of which were excellent. But there were many things which could (and did) go wrong, and the book’s authors perfectly capture the atmosphere of these occasions – and the enjoyment and enthusiasm of the watching friends and family.
There are charming illustrations by Ann Stafford, and an excellent inroduction by Kate Macdonald (who founded this independent publisher). She provides a wealth of fascinating information about Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford (real names Helen Christina Easson Rees, née Evans and Anne Isabel Stafford Pedler) who wrote some 97 novels, together and independently. Kate also places the novel in the context of its time, with details about life, libraries, social classes, and women’s roles in society.
I bought the Kindle edition because I wanted an immediate read, but I wish I’d bought the book.
Sticking with squares, can I recommend TheCheltenham Square Murder, which is one of those lovely ‘forgotten’ books from the British Library Crime Classics. Originally published in 1937, it was written by John Bude, whose work I always enjoy, with a nice introduction by the wonderfully knowledgeable Martin Edwards, and it kept me turning the pages from beginning to end – I simply couldn’t put it down. It is set, as the title indicates, in a square, in Cheltenham. There are ten houses forming three sides of Regency Square, with a road running along the fourth side, and a garden with grass, trees and flowering shrubs in the central space. The buildings are typically Georgian, and most have wrought iron verandahs or carved stone balconies. Everything appears very quiet, but there is discord beneath the surface…
Passions have been roused by a battle over the Tree, an old elm which overhangs one corner of the square, and is viewed by some residents as a dangerous ‘menace’ which could fall and kill someone, and should be pulled down immediately. Other people, however, feel it is doing no harm, has stood for 100 years, and will safely stand for 200 more. Bad feelngs escalate when the chop-it-downers take matters into their own hands, and have the tree felled.
Then Captain Cotton is killed – shot in the back of the head by an arrow, while visiting his neighbour, retired stockbroker Edward Buller. Could the dispute over the Tree have any bearing on the matter? Or could there be some other reason for the murder?
It is such an unusual death that tracking down the killer ought to be easy, but no-one has seen anything unusual, and it turns out that five of the square’s residents are fanatical memders of a local archery club. Futhermore, it seems no-one liked the dead man – he was a loud, brash, ‘vulgar upstart’, who drove a noisy motorbike, and was carrying on with someone else’s wife. And some of the residents are more than a little economical with the truth when questioned by police.
Fortunately, Superintendent Meredith is on hand, staying with a friend in the square, so he is drafted in to help the local police. But even he is baffled as he searches for the truth among all the lies, evasions and gossip. As so often happens in murder mysteries, nothing is quite what it seems. Red herrings are explored and hidden secrets revealed. Another murder is committed, and there’s an odd incident involving a dead sheep as the plot twists and turns towards a solution, which took me by surprise – but then I’m still something of a novice when it comes to crime fiction, and other people may spot the outcome at an earlier stage.
Bude is always good with the settings in his novels, and this is no exception. The square and its houses form an integral part of the plot, and Bude not only describes them in detail, but also provides a sketch map, which I found enormously helpful. And there is a lot of information about arrows as police try to work out who shot the arrow which killed Captain Cotton – and where it might have come from.
Superintendent Meredith is intelligent, quickwitted and courteous, and though he is amused by other people’s foibles and failings, he would never, ever let them know. Inspector Long gives the impression of being slow (he uses this as a ploy to extract the information he needs) but he is actually very shrewd, and very thorough. He ahd Meredith make a good team, bouncing ideas off each other and playing to each other’s strengths.
Chief suspect is Mr West, whose wife was involved with Captain Cotton, and has now left him. He has lost all his money, has left the square for lodgings nearby – and is a member of the archery club. Then there is nervy bank manager Hilary Fitgerald, who is behaving in a very strange way, and his beautiful young wife. They obviously have something to hide – but what? And fierce, mannish Miss Boon also seems to know something about the killing, but isn’t saying. Is it possible she is the killer? Or has she seen or heard a snippet of information whilst walking her dogs?
The vicar, the Rev Matthews, and fluttery spister sisters Nancy and Emmeline Watt are all unlikely candidates for the role of murderer, but they may hold vital clues. Only the ever-helpful DrPratt, urbane and professional, first on the scene at both murders, seems above suspicion… and besides, he has alibis for both occasions…
I’m always fascinatnated at the way Golden Age crime novels portray the way of life and social niceties of their day. Here, I was intrigued to find Sir Wilfred and his wife upping sticks and running off to the South of France – seemingly without being interviewed – so they won’t be bothered by ‘impertinent’ newspaper men or the police, and no-one says anything. It wouldn’t happen now – they’d get short shrift from Morse or Vera!
“God grant that I’m a democratic man – but there are limits,” says Sir Wilfred. “There are really. Some people seem to think that an affair of this sort is an excuse for familiarity.” His wife takes a similar view. “It’s really too bad of people to be so inconsiderate,” she says, and adds: ” Why that dreadful man had to be killed here, in the square.” Shades of Lady Macbeth there I think.
This is issued by British Library Publishing, so I’m posting it as part of my contribution to ReadIndependent Publishers Month#ReadIndie, which starts today, and is organised by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life.
A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.