Murders for late April
Like Augusta and His Celestial Majesty (we call them Millicent and His Honour in the Family), I have a list. Not of course of eligible suitors or those deserving punishments, but, instead, of methods recommended or ordered. It is wide-ranging, but even I was flummoxed by the latest Constable Twitten mystery. I decided to try it out in the labs.
The main problem was finding some of the relevant bottles. My support for small shops means that I do not readily worship at Waitrose, as so many of those who live nearby unfortunately do, but even I broke my rule in the quest for a bottle, but without luck as only plastic or cardboard were allowed. Instead, I went to Budgens, but had a similar failure.
At last, glass was secured and the tests began. As you will know, contact fatality depends on a range of factors, notably whether the victim is stationary, the ratio between strength and direction of blow, and the resilience of body and accoutrements. Follow-through can also be crucial, and this is related to means and method.
Well, on that basis, despite greatly enjoying Lynne Truss’s Murder by Milk Murder (2020, £14.99), I can not see myself varying my advice. Nevertheless, three swift killings by these means open up another jolly jape in 1950s Brighton with the regulars, an astonishing eventual census cull, and some brilliant dialogue. Yet another great tonic, and when, anyway, did you last drink a pint of milk, let alone from the bottle?
Before turning to an excellent crop from British Crime Classics, it is useful to draw attention to some background works. Joseph Kestner’s The Edwardian Detective, 1901-1915 (Routledge Revivals, 2018) is a superb overview of the period 1901-15, focused both on generalities and on particular texts. The range is impressive, and the insights manifold, and, although there is some totally ridiculous lit crit folly scattered around the book, it should be in the library of all interested in detective fiction.
A comparable work would be useful for the following period. George Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Decline of the English Murder’ in contrast is superficial, and was certainly based on a very limited range of murders. The thesis he advanced was flawed, but, as the observations of a major figure on the subject, it is valuable for those who are interested to have a copy, and Penguin’s recent re-publication of the piece in a well-produced collection of his essays is most welcome.
Television has not been too kind lately. This season of Midsomer Murders joins its habitually weak plots to some unprecedentedly poor acting, ‘The Wolf Hunter of Little Worthy,’ broadcast on 4 April being particularly terrible. Agatha Christie and Poirot: Partners in Crime, broadcast on ITV on 5 April, was pleasant to watch but actively misleading about Christie and Poirot. Who would guess from it that there is a political and religious dimension to the stories? Hastings, of course, describes Poirot as not a Socialist, and our moustachioed hero is a clear enemy of Evil, but ITV preferred to dwell on style not substance.
Thinking anew about the British Crime Classics discussed last time, I would like to recommend even more clearly Raymond Postgate’s Verdict of Twelve (1940). There are five more to consider this time. Let us, as any historian should, take them in chronological order. Charles Warren Adams’ The Notting Hill Mystery (1865; 2015 republished; £8.99), first appeared as an eight-part serial in 1862-3, and lays claim to being the first English detective novel, a question discussed in the useful introduction by Mike Ashley. The book therefore certainly has historical interest, not least as the impressive illustrations by George Du Maurier are reprinted here for the first time. Yet, there is much more. This is not some form of quaint story, but in fact a gripping account of three murders with a brilliant solution. The story is put together from a wide variety of sources including letters, diaries, chemical analysis reports, interviews, a map and the illustrations, and there are very able protagonists, notably the dastardly Baron R – and the perceptive insurance investigator, Ralph Henderson. Sergeant Edward Reading is a very effective detective. There is a surprisingly modern feel to the plot and I found it a page-turner. One to buy.
I have already recommended Family Matters by Anthony Rolls, a pseudonym of C.E. Vulliamy, and this time we turn to Scarweather (1934, 2017 reprint; £8.99), which, incidentally, comes yet again with a superb cover. The novel launches with bold claims: ‘…in singularity of horror and in perversity of ingenious method it is probably unique.’ We then rapidly shift to a deft introduction of character, notably that of archaeologists, and a mature handling of the pressures of personal attraction. Some of the language was new to me, an ‘equiponderating intelligence’ not part of the exchange of pleasantries in my world.
Some characters are sketched for wit, notably the pompous faux-gentleman Macwardle, who felt what Rolls terms ‘the invariable hatred of the commercial for the intellectual,’ his wife who, ‘was intelligent enough to have no pretensions,’ and their daughters, Prudence and Priscilla, ‘reluctantly approaching middle-age,’ who ‘could not help filtering their limited experience through a medium of luscious romance and of brightly-coloured idealism.’ Set in 1914, Macwardle is convinced of divine support for Britain and responds to the suggestion that the Germans ‘may also invoke the assistance of God’ by replying that that ‘would be rank blasphemy.’ The writing is frequently cutting, for example ‘Bath, where that venerable lady was decaying in a state of dreary comfort’ or ‘… he would soon be the Woolhope Professor of Organic Chemistry at Cambridge. It only depended upon the accelerated decay of the present occupant of the chair.’
Like Agatha Christie’s Arthur Hastings, the narrator is wounded at the Somme, and the story resumes postwar. There is a somewhat leisurely feel and the claims for horror in the opening paragraph are not really justified in a reveal that gathers predictability during the book. Archaeology and, in particular, archaeologists come in for much criticism, for, as Rolls notes ‘the crisis of this drama is to some extent an archaeological crisis.’ With some fine observations of types, this is an impressive novel that richly deserves attention.
I have read John Bude’s The Lake District Murder (1935; 2014, £8.99) before, but the reread allowed me to focus not so much on the careful plot as on the impressive charting of the way in which the diligent Inspector Meredith assembles his case. This is not the detective as private genius, but rather the searching for clues and processing of evidence. The Lake District becomes a matter of roads able to take lorries, and the timing and purpose of their journeys are crucial. Precision repeatedly is a key point. A first-rate novel which, in his introduction, Martin Edwards points out draws on the methods and reputation of Freeman Wills Croft. Bude’s corpus is of variable quality. This is definitely one to buy.
The Dead Shall Be Raised (1942) and The Murder of a Quack (1943), both by George Bellairs, appeared together in a chunky 2016 publication by the British Library Crime Classics, all for £8.99. Bellairs was the pseudonym of Harold Blundell (1902-85), a successful Manchester banker and philanthropist who deployed Scotland Yard’s Thomas Littlejohn, a benign but determined figure of reason and insight. Blundell’s values are clear, as with one offensive selfish individual in the latter novel: ‘He resembled certain oddities who, a number of years ago, could be found in Bloomsbury writing formless poetry and biographies and essays for eccentric and short-lived periodicals which sprang-up like exotic plants and as quickly perished.’
The war is present, whether with Home Guard manoeuvres or an emergency ambulance, altered shop signs to disguise place, or a character finding himself through bombing the Ruhr. Whereas some detective novelists ignored the conflict, the tone here is very different: ‘…people were too busy on war work, digging for victory, sorrowing for their lost ones, wondering about the progress of the conflict which was shaking the world, to bother about past history.’
There is also a sharply-etched humorousness:
‘Unable to afford the luxury of a chef, Peter Buller, the proprietor, compromised with sparse sandwiches, eggs on toast, Scotch woodcocks, Cornish pasties, and dozen or more culinary frills and furbelows, a perfect geography book of unsubstantial gewgaws … Peter’s Pantry was for the thrifty genteel, the underpaid clerk or typist, or the gastric carefree who could, without internal protest or spasm, load their stomachs with puff and weight.’
Coroners’ inquests provide repeated opportunities for Blundell’s humorous delineation of both character and society.
Surfeit of Suspects (1964) captures the staying power of Bellairs who wrote detective novels for nearly four decades. Again, this is a crime set far from country house libraries or metropolitan settings. The novel begins with a bang in the shape of an explosion in the fictional Surrey town of Evingden, in the offices of the seriously struggling Excelsior Joinery Company, a dynamite explosion which kills three of the directors. This is a society changing, one that is very different to that in the two novels already cited. Rapid development is a theme:
‘Little more than a large village of 3,000 people ten years ago, it had been swollen by an overspill of another 15,000. A new town had been built beside the old one and a conglomeration of new shops and public buildings, most of them architectural monstrosities, with a sprawl of housing schemes surrounding them, had swamped a one-time pleasant locality.’
Variants of this are frequently cited and are presented as aspects of a society in which speculation is to the fore, and much wealth has been made by dishonest means, notably ‘cookin’ the books.’ The ‘’appy medium’ of the past had been lost, and, as a consequence, murder is a means. Littlejohn solves the case in a novel that moves along well and consistently holds the interest. The relationship between individuals is handled well, while the solution is both apt and well-realised.
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