The Cornish Coast Murder

The Cornish Coast Murder.

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.”

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Discovering Gladys Mitchell

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.

Gladys Mitchell, courtesy of Michael Joseph,

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.

More Miss Marple!

51J1Gss8cML._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_In the heart of the  West End, there are many quiet pockets, unknown to almost all but taxi drivers who traverse them with expert knowledge, and arrive triumphantly thereby at Park Lane, Berkeley Square or South Audley Street.

If you turn off on an unpretentious street from the Park, and turn left and right once or twice, you will find yourself in a quiet street with Bertram’s Hotel on the right-hand side.”

And there you will also find Miss Jane Marple, who has left her home in the sleepy village of St Mary Mead for a holiday in London at Bertram’s Hotel, thus providing Agatha Christie with the setting (and title) of her 1965 novel At Bertram’s Hotel. Miss Marple has fond memories of staying there with an aunt and uncle, when she was 14 (nearer to sixty years ago than fifty,  we learn). Bertram’s, dignified, unostentatious, and quietly expensive’, is not the sort of place she could afford now, but the vacation is a gift from her writer nephew Raymond West and his artist wife Joan. So she enjoys the unexpected luxury, chats to old friends, calls at the big stores to replenish household items (like bed linen and tea towels) and visits places she remembers from her youth. Many, unsurprisingly, have changed, and some have vanished completely.

But Bertram’s appears to be unaltered – quite miraculously so, thinks Miss Marple. It is just as it always has been: not merely pre-war, but pre-WW1 as well. Indeed, it’s positively Edwardian. It provides comfortable, old-fashioned service for the upper echelons of the clergy, dowager ladies of the aristocracy up from the country, and girls on their way home from expensive finishing schools. It is also hugely popular with wealthy Americans, fulfilling their dreams and fantasies about the traditional way of life in old England.

There are luxurious bedrooms; two writing rooms; a lounge with chairs to fit people of ‘every dimension’, and two bars – one serving Pimms No 1 for English guests, and the other offering cocktails to Americans. There is afternoon tea to die for, with a choice of teas to drink, real muffins (not the American sort) dripping with butter, seedcake made to cook’s own special recipe, and doughnuts that dribble jam down your chin as you eat.

Guests can even have breakfast in bed, At this point I should say that my idea of luxury is tea in bed, made and brought to me by someone else. As an early riser, this rarely happens because I am invariably up before anyone else. Tea, on its own, would be sheer bliss: breakfast, especially one like that delivered to Miss Marple, is something else again:-

“Five minutes later breakfast came. A comfortable tray with a big pot-bellied teapot, creamy looking milk, a silver hot water jug. Two beautifully poached eggs on toast, poached the proper way, not little round hard shaped in tin cups, a good sized round of butter stamped with a thistle, Marmalade, honey and strawberry jam. Delicious looking rolls, not the hard kind with papery interiors – they smelt of fresh bread (the most delicious smell in the world)! There was also an apple, a pear and a banana.

Miss Marple inserted a knife gingerly but with confidence. She was not disappointed. Rich deep yellow yolk oozed out, thick and creamy. Proper eggs!

Everything piping hot. A real breakfast.”

The chambermaid who brings the food is is just as real, but somehow looks unreal in her lilac print dress and her cap. She is, however, ‘highly satisfactory’, as are the rest of the staff. So why does Miss Marple think it’s all too good to be true, and why does she have a curious feeling of unease, a sense that something is wrong, and the people don’t look real? She wonders….

Chief Inspector Fred Davy of Scotland Yard also wonders… There has been a worrying  increase in crime: daring bank raids, cunning jewel thefts and other audacious robberies, all with curious incidents that don’t quite add up. Well known people said to have been spotted at or near crime scenes were miles away at the time, and vehicles turn out to have been elsewhere. All leads are lost in a confusing trail of mistaken identities and car number plates which are almost identical – but not quite. And the name of Bertram’s keeps cropping up… So is it all coincidence, or is there a Mr Big masterminding the exploits of a huge criminal gang? And could Bertam’s, the perfect hotel, be a cover for something sinister? Then a mail train is robbed, and absent-minded Canon Pennyfather, an old friend of Miss Marple, leaves the hotel for a conference in Lucerne – and disappears!

At_Bertram's_Hotel_First_Edition_Cover_1965 Brian Russell
Brian Russell’s cover for the first edition.

And as the police step up their investigations, other mysteries are unfolding. There is unconventional Bess Sedgwick, who has had a string of husbands and lovers since running away with the groom on her father’s estate when she was just 16. Best described as an adventurer, she craves excitement and has flown planes, raced cars, ridden a horse across Europe, fought with the  French Resistance, and rescued two children from a burning house. But her outrageous behaviour makes her an unlikely guest for Bertram’s – so what is she doing at the hotel?

And what about her daughter Elivira, handed to a guardian when she was a baby because Bess thought it the best course of action. Elvira, who has just been ‘finished’ at an Italian establishment, meets her guardian at Bertram’s, but is also arranging clandestine trysts with her mother’s friend, racing driver Ladislaus Malinowski, who police believe to be implicated in the crime syndicate. But why is Elvira so anxious to know how much money she will inherit from her dead father, and who will inherit if she should die? And why is she convinced someone is trying to kill her?

Complications and coincidences continue to pile up as we find that Mick Gorman, the hotel’s commissionaire, is the groom who ran away with Bess Sedgwick all those years ago! Then, on a foggy evening, shots ring out, a distraught Elvira claims Gorman lost his life protecting her, and police discover that the gun belongs to Malinowski – but are these the true facts? I won’t reveal the ending, although I’m sure the story is very well known, and even on a first reading the final denouement can’t be that unexpected.

This is the first book in my Miss Marple marathon (sparked by enjoyment of Murder at the Vicarageand, I’m pleased to say, not only was it every bit as good, but it was pretty much as I remember (though I don’t like to say how many years have passed since I first read it). As I said before, it’s easy to forget how good Christie is, and why her crime novels have endured so well for so long. I’m not sure how she does it, but even though I know the story I was still gripped, and still kept turning the pages to see what happens. Miss Marple, as ever, sits quietly in the background, unobserved by others – but she notices them, listens in on conversations, watches their actions, and draws conclusions, based on her observations, and her experience of life in St Mary Mead. And she’s not above manipulating situations to gain a better view of thins or glean a snippet of information. Who would suspect a fluttery old lady of snooping when she drops her bag or returns to her room to get something she forgot!

The book was much tighter than the BBC television adaption starring Joan Hickson, but the TV show got the characters right and I thought it captured the feel of the novel – unlike the more recent ITV version, which featured a jazz band A jazz band! At Betram’s! I ask you! It misses the whole point about Bertram’s.

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie.

Murder at the Vicarage

1930clubThis is week I’m joining the 1930 Club and celebrating books written or published in that year, though I had some trouble finding something to fit the bill, which is very odd when when you consider how many books I have! Anyway, I plumped for Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage so I can support the event, which is organised by Simon over at Stuck in Book, and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I had read this before, but I think my memories must have been heavily influenced by the two TV versions, because on re-reading it wasn’t quite as I remembered. For a start, I was surprised to find the narrator is actually the vicar – I’d have laid money on it being  the  ‘authorial voice’. And he plays a much greater role. Some characters were cut  in both TV shows, (but that always happens); the ending was changed, and I’m not sure either of them got the period right – both were more 1950s than anything else, and if this was published in 1930, the setting would, I think, have been late ’20s. Of the two, the BBC dramatisation featuring Joan Hickson was by far and away the best. She was brilliant as Miss Marple, and the production team did a pretty good job capturing the feel of the novel, and it made for enjoyable watching. The ITV version had me jumping up and down with rage, because it played fast and loose with the story – I don’t know how they got away with calling it Agatha Christie’s Marple, because it wasn’t her creation at all. And Geraldine McEwan wasn’t my idea of Miss Marple.

Joan_Hickson
Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. 

Anyway, this post is supposed to be about the novel, which is much superior to the dramatisations (books usually are), and is a jolly good read, which kept me guessing even though I knew the killer – Christie isn’t called the Queen of Crime for nothing! I am sure practically everyone knows the plot: basically bad-tempered Colonel Protheroe, the local magistrate, is shot in the head in the Vicar’s study. while the vicar has been lured away on a false emergency call… I know, it sounds like a game of Cleudo, but it’s more complicated than that Seemingly, a broken clock pinpoints the time of death… But does it? There are lots of questions, and nothing is as simple as the officious Inspector Slack thinks, because nothing quite adds up. It’s like a jigsaw which doesn’t quite fit. But along comes Miss Marple, the Vicar’s elderly, neighbour, who moves the pieces around to make a different picture.

This is her first starring role in a full-length novel (she had previously appeared in short stories). We meet her while Griselda Clement, the Vicar’s much younger and rather ditsy wife, is doing her duty as ‘vicaress’ by providing the gossipy old ladies of the village with  ‘tea and scandal’ at four o’clock. “Miss Marple is a white-haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner – Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is much the more dangerous,”  Rev Clement tells us. Later he enlarges on this by adding: “I should have never have dreamed of describing Miss Marple as trusting.” And, indeed, she is not. She thinks the worst of everyone, and her habit of comparing present events with seemingly random things and people from the past enables her to make connections and draw conclusions that other people miss. Nothing gets past her, as Christie makes clear: “Miss Marple sees everything. Gardening is as good as a smoke screen, and the habit of observing birds through powerful glasses can always be turned to account.”

Miss Marple may have led a quiet life in a quiet village, but she knows about human nature, and is a noticing sort of person. From her garden she has a bird’s eye view of the Vicarage garden and the shed which artist Lawrence Redding is using as his studio, and she can also see quite clearly when Anne Protheroe, the colonel’s wife – and Lawrence’s lover – walks across the lawn.  At one point, while talking to Colonel Melchett, the Chief Constable, Miss Marple insists that Mrs Protheroe was not carrying a pistol:

“I can swear to that. She’d no such thing with her.”
“You mightn’t have seen it.”
“Of course I should have seen it.”
“If it had been in her handbag.”
“She wasn’t carrying a handbag.”
“Well it might have been concealed – er – upon her person.”
Miss Marple directed a glance of sorrow and scorn upon him.
“My dear Colonel Melchett, you know what young women are nowadays. Not ashamed to show exactly how the creator made them. She hadn’t so much as a handkerchief in the top of her stocking.”

Wonderful, isn’t it! But there is, of course, a twist to the tale…

The_Murder_at_the_Vicarage_First_Edition_Cover_1930.jpg
The cover of the first UK edition.

I think Agatha Christie must also have been a keen observer and known a fair bit about human nature! I know there are those who decry her for portraying caricatures rather than characters (especially when it came to writing about the ‘lower’ classes) , but here she wrote about the way of life she knew best – well-heeled middle class people with a particular set of values, and unearned incomes that helped pay for servants to look after them. There’s a fair amount of domestic detail (and social comment), just as there is in many of the more highly acclaimed novelists of the period. I particularly like Mary, the Clements’ slovenly maid, who has no housekeeping skills whatsoever, either burns or undercooks the food – and refuses to be awed by her ‘betters’. If Miss Marple had the training of her, poor Mary would behave in an entirely different way. But, as Griselda points out, if Mary was any good she would be off working for someone else, and they would be left without a servant, because they can’t afford anyone better!

I thought the characters were quite well drawn, even the ones who only play a small part in the drama, like Hawes the High Church curate, who has a secret he wants to confess, and the mysterious Mrs Lestrange, who is beautiful and cultured, but refuses to discuss her meeting with Colonel Protheroe shortly before his death. And let’s not forget Lettice, the Colonel’s daughter, who seems almost half-witted, but is actually far more shrewd than she would like you to think.

All in all it was a very enjoyable read, and if you’ve never read any Christie, this would be an excellent place to start.