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Murders for June

Classic settings conceal psychological rawness and sinuously convoluted mysteries

Artillery Row Books

This month again brings varied fare, ranging across time and place. The linkages made by writers are interesting for the wider sense of wrong they discern.

Green For Danger, Christianna Brand (British Library, £9.99)

Green For Danger (1944; British Library, 2022, £9.99) by Christianna Brand is another in the brilliant British Library Crime Classics series which has increased its series price from £8.99 but still offers excellent value for money. Brand (1907–88), published detective novels from 1941 to 1979 and was a writer in the classic traditions of Golden Age fiction, although with settings that reflected the changing times. There is an ironic take on the genre: 

“If this were a detective story, he’d be the murderer for a certainty, though,” said Barnes. “They always pick on the benevolent elderly gent, because you’ll never think it could be him!”

“Ah, but nowadays they’re more subtle; they know that the reader’s wise to that trick and the older and more benevolent a character is, the more he’ll be suspected.”

“Perhaps it’s gone all the way round and come back full cycle,” suggested Barney, laughing; “and elderly gents and paralytics in bath chairs are suspects number one all over again because the reader doesn’t think the author would be so obvious. Anyway, this isn’t a detective story, and it certainly wasn’t old Moon.”

Wallace of the Secret Service, Alexander Wilson (Allison and Busby, £8.99)

The friction of reality is a military hospital during the German bomber assault of 1940–41, a conscripted staff and murder. The ambience and characters are very ably sketched. There are the relationships of personality, rank, age, gender and class, all extremely well-handled. The plot is a standard one of a fixed number of possible culprits but in a novel setting, and with possible motives, some of which might catch ageless themes and others of which are more particular. There is wartime romance and unrequited love in both background and foreground, and the possibility of an abrupt end by bomber throughout. Inspector Cockrill, the remorseless detective, chain-smokes without style or aphorisms. He is more like J.B. Priestley’s inspector. A formidable novel. I thought the solution implausible as well as surprising, but it had a psychological rawness that commands respect. One to read.

Red Riviera, David Downie (Alan Square Publishing, $19.99)

“Sentiment and Suicide” is a classic (and impressive) locked-room mystery in Alexander Wilson’s Wallace of the Secret Service (1933; Allison and Busby, 2015, £8.99), an interesting collection in which Sir Leonard Wallace, the resourceful Chief of the Intelligence Department, fights the opponents of Empire. The settings include Egypt, Morocco, Russia (where Sir Leonard confronts Lenin himself, taking him prisoner for a while) and London, where Russian agents are among those trying to overthrow order and freedom. The “regime of the Socialists” (to you or me, the Labour government) is part of the problem, but Sir Leonard is given free hand against Bolshevism once the Conservatives are in. Wilson, polygamist, secret agent and writer, is a lively guide to attitudes of the period.

Red Riviera by David Downie (Alan Square Publishing, an imprint of the Santa Fe Writers Project, 2021, $19.99) begins with a wealthy swimmer off the Italian coast scooped up by a plane out to fight a mountain fire near the Cinque Terre. The protagonist, Commissioner Daria Vinci, provides welcome female variety to the usual male character of Italian police procedurals. The story moves very rapidly, with the tendrils of World War Two reaching to present crimes. Italian policing and governance is presented as inherently political, and the country as on the edge of a coup. Genoese high society is part of the backdrop. A good read, but some of the politics are possibly over the top.

The Three Dahlias, Katy Watson (Constable, $26.99)

The Three Dahlias (Constable, 2022), the first detective novel by Katy Watson, is a sprightly offering from within the genre, as it is set at the Aldermere House Convention celebrating the life and work of the Princess of Poisoning Lettice Davenport and her detective Dahlia Lively. Brought together the three very different actresses who have played Dahlia join to solve the murder that occurs, one that inevitably involves a poisoning for which everyone present might have a motive. The writing is business-like rather than full of flair: “For the first time since they’d met, Larch managed an expression other than weary disappointment. It wasn’t quite surprise, but it was enough to make Rosalind feel a flare of triumph.” A pleasant summer read that promises well for other stories by Katy Watson.

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