The Lady Vanishes, 1938, Alfred Hitchcock (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

Murders for August

Classics resurrected and new bodies laid to rest

Artillery Row Books

Sorry, Vivienne, but most of us do not will our entire estate to our sister “on condition she pays a qualified surgeon to plunge a knife into my heart after death”, although that is one way to overcome a fear of being buried alive. Give me the flames any day. Ethel Lina White (1876–1944), who made this provision, is a relative unknown, but this Abergavenny-born novelist was responsible in The Wheel Spins (1936) for the plot and characterisation that Hitchcock adapted as The Lady Vanishes (1938). Knowledge of the latter will make the publication of the novel in the British Library Crime Classics series (2023, £9.99) of particular interest. The film takes away the suspense of the novel, but it is great fun, not least for White’s affectionately satirical take on her English cast. The novel is told from the perspective of the spoilt protagonist, Iris Carr, and it beautifully captures a personality. So also with Miss Froy:

“I am going to remember that these people are only foreigners. They shan’t impress me. We’re English … A little boy is born for every little girl … we are both growing together.” Iris thought sceptically of the mature men who refuse to adhere to the calendar.

The Professor is unimpressive, as is the lawyer in that ably-depicted “world which was filled with shifting shadows — where phantasy usurped reality”. The quips are many, as in: “There was a confident note in her voice — associated with the dismissal of cooks.” So also the political reflections. The evil doctor remarks: “ … it is extraordinary how the English will regard themselves as the policemen of the world … Luckily, he is honourable, and believes that all the world must be honourable, too.” A fun read, and well worth comparing with the film. The novel, which does not have the shootout, is more subtle.

Deep Waters: Mysteries on the Waves, Ed. Martin Edwards (British Library Crime Classics, £8.99)

My book of the month is Yulia Yakovleva’s Death on the Red Rider (Pushkin Vertigo, 2023, £9.99), the translation of a Russian work of 2017, the second of the Detective Zaitsev series. Set in Russia in 1931, this offers a brilliant interplay of Communist manipulation, Soviet terror, Tsarist survivals, military rifts and kulak opposition. It is all placed in a brilliantly realised account of Leningrad life, followed by a journey to Novocherkassk in the south, in pursuit of apparently murderous cavalry cadets. Philly Kerr for the Nazis offers a comparison, but Yakovleva is better on the details of life and the nature of Party pressure. A superb read, with some unexpected turns right at the end.

Deep Waters: Mysteries on the Waves, edited by Martin Edwards (British Library Crime Classics, 2019, £8.99) is good, but not the most successful of his excellent series of collections. There are two major problems. First, Edwards begins with a very familiar story, Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott”, and it would have been better to offer the reader novelty. Secondly, the collection is hopelessly disjointed, for, as the editor points out, we have crimes on the high seas but also rivers, a canal and a swimming pool. I am afraid I found this not good enough. There is room, instead, for one volume on the high seas and another on inland waterways.

The most powerful story of the collection, in part due to its brevity and the punch at the end, is C.S. Forester’s gripping “The Turning of the Tide”. Phyllis Bentley’s attractive “A Question of Timing” ends with an ironic address to the readers that opens with “Why bother with so much detail?” Christopher St John Spigg’s impressive “Four Friends and Death” has one character differentiate himself from “my learned and subtle confreres, the writers of detective novels”, whilst Edmund Crispin presents blackmail as socially useful in visiting punishment on the guilty.

Stray Dogs, Richard Parfitt (Third Man Books, $19.95)

The contributions by E.W. Hornung and by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace may disappoint. William Hope Hodgson’s “Bullion!” is familiar but good. R. Austin Freeman’s “The Echo of a Mutiny” is a scientific warning about careless pipe-smoking. Gwyn Evans’ “The Pool of Secrets” brings in piranhas (in England!). H.C. Bailey’s “The Swimming Pool” skilfully deploys feminine jealousy. Josephine Bell’s “The Thimble River Mystery” I had read before but remains good. Kem Bennett’s “The Queer Fish” captures Cornish coastal tensions. James Pattinson’s “The Man Who Was Drowned” is weak. Andrew Garve’s “Seasprite” is an economical tale of retribution. Michael Innes’ “Death by Water” reveals yet again that Cornwall is dangerous, as every Devonian will know. Then you can add the Cornish as well.

Suddenly at His Residence by Christianna Brand (Bodley Head, 1946; British Library Crime Classics, 2023; £9.99), which was published in America as The Crooked Wreath, is a Golden Age mystery set during World War Two. There is a sense of changing values:

A crone so ancient and palsied as to be unacceptable even to the insatiable maw of the new Filling Factory at Heronsford (“except possibly as a filling!” said Ellen) confided in a whining voice that dinner was on the table, Mum, and she’d be glad if they’d get on with it soon, as she and Mrs Brough wanted to get ’ome — so, in the England of 1944, were Bella’s once elegant little luncheons announced.

“ … I don’t have him in my room no more; I’ve done with all that … Brough signs his [name] as I’ve taught him to do, me being the one that had the schooling, for all he talked so grand.”

“ … “is [his] fire-watching, so called — sitting up drinking with his pals at The Swan, more like.”

“ … It’s only cauliflower cheese anyway, and hardly any cheese at all.”

This is a country house mystery, with a small cast of suspects and an established detective — Brand’s Inspector Cockrill on his third outing, behaving very harshly — seemingly impossible crimes, plentiful misdirections, and a crime launched by proposed disinheritance (of several possible suspects).

The writing is brisk and frequently satirical as with the coroner’s jury who “looked down their noses whilst their minds cuddled greedily about the vision of Peta in her bathing dress … Mr Bateman had a dear little friend in a tobacconist’s at Heronsford who was often what he called ‘kind to him,’ so he was less susceptible to disturbance of this kind”.

There is a sense of England:

A kingfisher held for a moment all the world’s blue in its daring flash through the branches at the river’s edge. The willows dipped green fingers into the running stream, shaking them with a scatter of brilliants in the breeze to dry. On either side the quiet cows browsed in the flower-strewn fields and behind them Swanswater lay, white and rambling, in its ordered pattern of dark and pale larch and burning copper beech. “When I hear the word ‘England,’ Peta — this is what I think of. Don’t you?”

“Yes, only there ought to be cricket.”

“The boys who would be playing cricket are up there in bombers, I suppose, or under the sea in submarines, or just marching about on land — but all killing people.”

Richard Parfitt’s Stray Dogs (Third Man Books, 2023, $19.95, distributed in the UK via Consortium/Ingram and also available from Gardners) offers a very different setting and tone in his potent debut novel. It focuses on Turner: a school dropout just arrived in the Toronto of the late 1970s, he is trying to make a living as a small-cog drifter selling reject dictionaries for a minor crook. A fight with a Hell’s Angel leads to flight further into the half-world of urban marginality. A tough growing-up novel, tautly written and full of reflective energy.

The Collector, Anne Mette Hancock (Swift Press, 2023, £9.99)

Seraina Kobler’s Deep Dark Blue (Pushkin Vertigo, 2023, £14.99) is the translation of a Swiss bestseller Tiefes, dunkles Blau (Zurich, 2022). It introduces a new detective, Rosa Zambrano, the first woman officer in Zurich’s maritime police. Does anyone smell of “citrus peel with a hint of green wood, mixed with clean sweat”? Chapter breaks at least are amusing: “… When she came, he was flooded with a love and vitality that dissolved body and soul and perhaps even time”, followed by “The revolving brushes of the municipal cleaning truck droned much too loudly for a vehicle that was barely longer than a bicycle”.

There are also many redundancies: “Nessun dorma floated above it all. Luciano Pavarotti not only sang it to open the tournament, he also stormed the charts with it, the first person to combine the high culture of opera with the appeal of pop music.” The exploitation of women in Zurich is a key context, with the plot covering a range including changing the genome of embryos, fertility, sex, abortions. It did not really work for me, but it was suitably up-to-date.

Anne Mette Hancock’s The Collector (Swift Press, 2023, £9.99), the second in the Kaldan and Schäfer series, first published in Denmark in 2018, takes us to Copenhagen with an ironic style: “the guards in the palace square, who were parading back and forth in front of Amalienborg Palace like long-limbed sleepwalkers in a snow globe”.

On parallel lines, Detective Erik Schäfer and journalist Heloise Kaldan probe the nature of Danish society and politics, including mental health amongst veterans and the coverup of disproportionately high crime rates by immigrants. It is well-written and a page-turner, unlike Deep Dark Blue. The story twists unexpectedly but with conviction. Unlike most modern crime stories involving a child, there is none of the sadism, paedophilia or horror that makes that sub-genre profoundly unattractive. A strong plus from this reviewer.

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