The Cheltenham Square Murder

Sticking with squares, can I recommend The Cheltenham 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?

The cover of the BLCC edition at the top off the post is very classy, but I rather like the cover on this earlier version.

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 Read Independent Publishers Month #ReadIndie, which starts today, and is organised by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life.

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More Miss Marple (Take Two)

A Murder is announced

A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.

This, as I’m sure many of you will know, is the opening of Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced’, and you will deduce, quite rightly, that I am still reading my way through the Queen of Crime’s best-known works. This small paragraph in the local paper is the only warning that Chipping Cleghorn residents receive before their lives are turned upside down by a series of vicious murders, and everyone comes under suspicion. But on this particular Friday morning at the end of October they have no inkling of what is to come. Mystified and intrigued by the little notice in the Gazette, they turn up at Little Paddocks, expecting to take part in some kind of murder game.

They are welcomed by Miss Letitia Blacklock Aunt Letty), who lives at the house with her old schoolfriend Dora Bunner (Bunny); Mitzi, a foreign refugee who acts as her cook/housekeeper, and her young cousins Patrick and Julia, neither of whom seem to take life seriously. The household also includes Phillipa Haymes, a widow with a small son, who works as a gardener on a nearby estate. The guests assemble, comment on the central heating and the chrysanthemums, and dutifully drink the bad sherry. Everyone avoids mentioning the murder – except Mrs Harmon, the Vicar’s wife (known as Bunch) who asks when the murder will begin! As they stand around wondering what will happen, the lights go out…

Then, with a crash, the door swung open. A powerful flashlight played rapidly round the room. A man’s hoarse nasal voice, reminiscent to all of pleasant afternoons at the cinema, directed the company crisply to:

Stick ’em up! ‘Stick ’em up, I tell you!’ the voice barked. Delightedly, hands were raised willingly above heads. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ breathed a female voice. ‘I’m so thrilled.’ And then, unexpectedly, a revolver spoke. It spoke twice. The ping of two bullets shattered the complacency of the room. Suddenly the game was no longer a game. Somebody screamed … The figure in the doorway whirled suddenly round, it seemed to hesitate, a third shot rang out, it crumpled and then it crashed to the ground. The flashlight dropped and went out. There was darkness once again.

Lighters and candles are produced and the dead body of a masked gunman is discovered lying dead in hall. Miss Blacklock is bleeding copiously, but she says it is a mere nick, caused a bullet grazing her ear as it whizzed past and hit the wall. Everyone else is shaken, but  unharmed. though Mitzi has hysterics and won’t stop screaming, and poor Bunny has what the Victorians would have called the vapours.

Ursula Howells
Ursula Howells as Letitia Blacklock in the BBC dramatisation of the book.

Police are called, and Inspector Craddock arrives to investigate what seems to be a hold-up, where the gunman either killed himself by accident, or committed suicide.  Blacklock.

The young man is recognised as Rudi Scherz, who worked in Switzerland where Miss Blacklock stayed during the war, with her sister Charlotte (Lottie, who is now dead), and she had recently rejected his plea for financial help. The Inspector continues his inquiries, but is not getting very far, because nothing makes sense, when – fortunately for him – he meets Miss Marple, who is staying at the Royal Spa Hotel, Medenham Wells, where the dead man worked, and he altered her cheque. I thought it was interesting that Christie gives us quite a detailed picture of Miss Marple – I don’t remember this from the other books. and she is not as Craddock (or I for that matter) expected.

She was far more benignant than he had imagined and a good deal older. She seemed indeed very old. She had snow-white hair and a pink crinkled face and very soft innocent blue eyes, and she was heavily enmeshed in fleecy wool. Wool round her shoulders in the form of a lacy cape and wool that she was knitting and which turned out to be a baby’s shawl.

But appearances are deceptive and Miss Marple, as we ll know, is very shrewd. She agrees, the case doesn’t make sense: Rudi Scherz is a petty thief and swindler, who might not look you straight in the eye, but would never stage an armed hold-up. It’s out of character. Someone must have put him up to it, she says, and suggests Inspector Craddock speaks to to the waitresss, who is obviously worried because she served Miss Marple a kipper for breakfast, instead of herring! Miss Marple is a noticing sort of person, who notices the little things, and it’s always the little things that matter – the little things that don’t quite fit the normal pattern. She also points out that residents who told the inspector what they saw didn’t actually see anything, because it was dark, and they were blinded by the light of the torch. And she suggests it’s possible that someone is trying to kill Miss Blacklock. But who would benefit from her death?

Zoe Wannamaker
Zoe Wannamaker as Letitia Blacklock in the ITV production. (Pic from Zoe Wannamer site)

It turns out that Letitia Blacklock could soon be a very rich woman. She was once secretary to millionaire financier Randall Goedler. He left his fortune to his wife, who is dying, and after her death Miss Blacklock will inherit. But if she dies before the wife, everything will go to Pip and Emma, the twin children of Goedler’s estranged sister, only no-one knows where they are are or what they look like… Could they be responsible? And could they, or their mother, or all three of them, be hidden in Chipping Cleghorn under other names? Could they even be living at Little Paddocks with Miss Blacklock?

Miss Marple moves out of the hotel and into the Vicarage (she is friends with the Vicar’s wife’s parents) and embarks on her own investigations. No-one, she says, will suspect a nosey old lady of sleuthing – in fact, they will think it odd if she doesn’t ask questions. But the closer she gets to the truth, the more dangerous things become. Two more Chipping Cleghorn residents are killed, and Miss Marple goes missing before the final piece of the jigsaw is fitted into place and the murderer unmasked.

I don’t remember reading this one before, although I knew the story – but even so, Christie had me turning page after page (assuming one can turn a page on Kindle) to discover who the killer was. As I’ve said before, she’s not called the Queen of Crime for nothing!  One thing that did strike me in this novel was the sense that Miss Marple is getting older, and the fabric of society in small communities like Chipping Cleghorn is changing. At one point, while talking to Inspector Craddock, she says:

All that helps, doesn’t it?’ ‘Helps?’ said the Inspector, rather stupidly. ‘Helps to find out if people are who they say they are,’ said Miss Marple. She went on: ‘Because that’s what’s worrying you, isn’t it?

And it’s that problem of identity, and whether people really are who they say they are, that lies at the heart of this mystery and is key to the behaviour of more than one character. The killer turns out to be a very unlikely person – but the clues are there if you care care to look.

Hag-Seed

prospero
John Gielgud as Prospero in Peter Greenaway’s controversial film of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Oh, this is good, good, good! In all the hooha about the Booker Prize and the follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale (which I HATED, so I have no intention of reading The Testaments), this one seems to have been somewhat overlooked, but Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors , and The Tempest is my all-time favourite Shakespeare play, so what’s not to like! 

Basically, Hag-Seed is The Tempest for modern times. It tells the story of  Felix, who was once Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, directing productions that ‘amazed and confounded’. He is acclaimed by many, but has his critics – his The Winter’s Tale provoked boos when Hermione returned to life as a vampire. He is staging a Tempest ‘like no other’ when his assistant, Tony, engineers his dismissal, and the play is cancelled. Felix, already shocked by the recent death of his adored daughter Miranda (who was just three years old), goes to pieces. Abandoned by friends and colleagues, his reputation in tatters, he hides himself away in an isolated shack and changes his name.

the-tempest
Mark Quartley as Ariel and Propsero and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero in an RSC Production,  (Pic from The Independent)

There he gradually brings Miranda back to life:

It began when he was counting time by how old Miranda would be, had she lived. She’d be five, then six; she’d be losing her baby teeth; she’d be learning to write. That sort of thing. Wistful daydreaming at first. But it was only a short distance from wistful daydreaming to the half-belief that she was still there with him, only invisible. Call it a conceit, a whimsy, a piece of acting: he didn’t really believe it, but he engaged in this non-reality as if it were real.

From there it’s only another short step for her to become a real presence in his life, though no-one else can see or or hear her. Eventually Felix gets a job as a part-time teacher in the Literacy Through Literature high school level programme at nearby Fletcher County Correctional Institute. Surprisingly, not only does he enjoy his new role, but he is a huge success. 

In its own modest way, it was cutting edge; it was also, you could say – and Felix did say it to his students, explaining the term carefully – avant-garde. It was cool. After the first season, guys lined up for it. Astonishingly, their reading and writing scores went up, on average, by fifteen percent. How was the enigmatic Mr. Duke getting these results? Heads were shaken in wonder.

The Tempest
The prison theme looms large in a Donmar production starring Harriet Walter as Prospero. (Pic by Helen Maybanks)

He stages Shakespeare plays with the prisoners and his methods are unorthodox to say the least. To ensure his students read the text thoroughly he gets them to make lists of all the swear words they find in the text, and rewards them with smuggled cigarettes for using those words (rather than modern oaths) during his lessons. 

Inmates rewrite parts of the plays, to make them more understandable, but cannot alter plots. They discuss the dramas, bringing their own experience to bear on their interpretation of characters and plot, considering the way characters view each other – and what might happen to them after the end of the play (Felix wisely assigns these opinions as writing). Their views may not always be conventional, but the men make valid points, and they may make you look at Shakespeare (especially The Tempest) in a new light. And the productions aren’t just about actors.

He’s got costume designers, he’s got video editors, he’s got lighting and special-effects men, he’s got tip-top disguise artists. He does sometimes wonder how the crafts he’s teaching might come in handy in, for instance, a bank robbery or a kidnapping, but he backgrounds such unworthy thoughts when they appear.”

Obviously, presenting a play on stage, in a prison, would pose problems, so each scene is videoed and edited (officially this counts as acquiring marketable skills),  then whole thing is shown to other prisoners and staff. Atwood tells us: “Watching the many faces watching their own faces as they pretended to be someone else – Felix found that strangely moving. For once in their lives, they loved themselves.”

After 12 years lost in the wilderness Felix learns that his old enemy Tony, now a government minister, is to visit the prison: with the help of the prisoners, he concocts a devious revenge involving an inter-active production of The Tempest – what else could he possible choose for his moment of triumph? I won’t reveal details of his plot, but it is essentially a play within a play, and therefore very Shakespearian.

Felix himself is Prospero – a not entirely benevolent figure, but I’ve never thought of Prospero as being particularly kindly. And, in case you’re wondering, although prisoners have taken female roles in previous productions, he gets permission for his original Miranda to take on the role. Strangely, the presence of his own Miranda seems to get stronger as rehearsals get under way.

Hag-Seed, part of a re-worked Shakespeare series published by Hogarth Press, is every bit as magical as the play, full of illusion and allusion. It may be about grief and revenge, but the idea of imprisonment, whether through physical barriers or self-imposed restraints, also runs through book and play, andultimately it’s also about transformation and acceptance, about letting go of the past, accepting the present, and looking to the future.

Hag-seed