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Murders for early June

Jeremy Black’s ominous murder mystery round-up for the early summer

A married couple who have sex! Surely not in a Golden Age detective novel! Well, yes, I was surprised, not least in the approach taken, which includes being told that Agnes has wonderful legs, a great body, but a very different face. So, Murder’s A Swine (1943; British Crime Classics, 2020, £8.99) is somewhat different. The author, Nap Lombard. Not heard of him, or his earlier Tidy Death (1940)? Well, of course, a pseudonym, as are many of the best works, a joint one in this case for Pamela Hansford Johnson and her husband, Gordon Neil Stewart. They were air-raid wardens at the start of the war which is when this is set. There is some breezy writing and gentle fun, as with Mrs Rowse the writer of incessant jolly hockey-stick novels: “When I wrote my last chapter, where Fernia Prideaux saved the Prime Minister’s life and became a Dame of the British Empire on her seventeenth birthday I thought, Is that too far-fetched? Will my public accept it? But now I know that it would be impossible for my poor imagination to compete with the marvellous invention of life. So I shall proceed with confidence to Chapter the Last, where Dame Fernia unmasks Miss Herring, the geography mistress, as a Nazi spy by the name of Hermann Uberfluing.” There is also the New Year Concert of the Milmanscroft Road Division Guides and Scouts where the opening number begins

It is apparently acceptable to kill in war but not convicted murderers

“We are the Guides of Milmanscroft,
We always hold our flags aloft.”

or you could go to see the revival of the “terribly highbrow” My Uncle Polovtsnai at the Avant-Garde Club: “All the actors wear chromium masks and talk baby-talk.”

Like life, the novel keeps varying its timbre and fragmenting its tone. Alongside Thin Man type repartee that can get overly mannered, there is a sadistic and remorseless killer. Masses of whisky is drunk, there is the strain and bravery of war, not least partings, and a closing scene in which the laugh unintentionally is on us. Mrs Bawford-Bishop, the Secretary of the BRSC (Burn the Rope Society, since you ask) is thrown out by Agnes when trying to elicit her signature for a petition for a reprieve for the very vile and persistent murderer. The snobbish Mrs Bawford-Bishop closes the book certain that she will prevail. That must have seemed ridiculous in 1943, but alas she was correct. It is apparently acceptable to kill in war but not convicted murderers. Bizarrre.

Two-Way Murder by E.C.R. Lorac (British Crime Classics, 2021, £8.99) is very different in both background and tone as it has never been published before, being left by Edith Caroline Rivett (Lorac was the pseudonym, 1894-1958) as a typescript, having been presumably written soon before she died. The series has done much to return Lorac to her deserved place as one of the best of detective writers over the last century. This brilliant novel, which hinges on alibis, involves much driving around in the fog as well as a hunt ball. Clues are various, including ‘all the lovelies are completely sceptical about Michael having a petting party in his car for an hour or so, because he isn’t that sort of bloke, and there wasn’t a single girl at the ball who was missing for over an hour.’ The characters are well-etched, the twists succeed, and this becomes a page-turner. The police are nicely varied in ability, character and method, reminding me of an email I received from Peter Villiers:

“P.D. James once gave a very entertaining lecture at the Police Staff College at Bramshill and said that she would like to have set a murder mystery there. Sadly, she never did. On the other hand, we professional sleuths would never have solved it.”

Due To A Death by Mary Kelly (1962; British Crime Classics, £8.99) begins in a very different fashion. There is energy and urgency from the first line, and a rapid transition to a coastline and society that is dystopian, not least in comparison to the Lorac setting in rural Sussex. A murdered girl is found in an estuarine marsh near a cement works. Thus, for an example of tone:

“I got out of the car, swinging my feet round puddles in which chalk lay like a sediment; some were filmed with rainbow oil that had seeped from a resting lorry. At the end of the lay-by the thickets behind the barbed wire thinned to a curtain of creeper, then stopped, where the chalk was clawed to within yards of the trunk road. A hundred feet below was the roof of the cement works; one of the cement works, for there were many. The rain had pasted its dust to khaki mud, which in patches was dried by the sun. Beyond the works lay the marsh, and in the middle distance the river, a flat aluminium sheet: the brightest sky could never make it blue.”

This is impressive as a novel, but certainly not reassuring.

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