Photo by Rúben Vieira / EyeEm
Artillery Row Books

Murders for March

A sinister start to the spring

Three books from the excellent British Library Crime Classics, each introduced by Martin Edwards, open this month’s offerings. John Ferguson’s Death of Mr Dodsley (1937; 2023, £9.99) is a London bibliomystery, which begins with night-time confusion from Parliament to the streets of London. It culminates in the discovery of the murdered body of Richard Dodsley, in the second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road that he owned. In a fast-paced narrative, a “closed shop” (for there are only two keys) mystery becomes a way to probe the emotional cross-currents of a small group of individuals involved in or linked to the shop, including a rising Conservative politician and his niece, the author of the new Death at the Desk. The back cover description wrongly says the MP is the author, which should be a warning to the (many) reviewers who write by reference solely or largely to the blurb.

Death of an Author, E.C.R. Lorac (British Library Crime Classics, £9.99)

This is a novel that goes in an unexpected direction: “Who could guess that a shop murder in Charing Cross would lead him not south to Kennington but west into Kensington?”

The political dimension at the outset as the government struggles to maintain its majority is handled well, as is the nature of MPs’ life: “He put through a call to the House of Commons from which he was referred to Mr Kendrew’s club in Carlton Terrace. But Mr Kendrew not being there, he was advised to try for him at his flat in Curzon Street.”

There are many references to detective novels, notably the Holmes and Watson characters. Inspector Mallet explains that it was his “youthful taste for detective stories that made me join the force. But that’s all the good they ever did me”. Ferguson, a school chaplain, published detective novels from 1918 to 1942 and is best known for Death Comes to Perigord (1931). Francis MacNab, his brilliant puzzle-solver, is impressive but not terribly well-realised. On the other hand, the Death of Mr Dodsley is a very good fair-play puzzle that deserves close reading. It is particularly good on its psychological tensions and clues.

The series has done an excellent job of reviving the reputation of Edith Caroline Rivett who generally wrote as E.C.R. Lorac. Death of an Author (1935; 2023, £9.99) is not one of her best novels. It lacks the strong sense of place that characterises most of her work, especially that in Lancashire, Devon and London. There is an impressive plot and a fun opening, but neither Sarah nor I thought the novel up to her usual very high standards. Eleanor Clarke, the character closest to Rivett, emerges as shrewd — “She always sees the sentence after next” — and is able to out-argue stereotypical male views, about supposed male and female authorial characteristics. The detective protagonists do not appreciate the craft: “there’s nothing too lurid for the mind of one of those thriller merchants.” It deserves reading, but many readers will regret that Macdonald, her usual detective, is absent.

John Dickson Carr’s The Black Spectacles (1939; 2023, £9.99) is a Gideon Fell story with an implausible crime (not the impossible one proclaimed). It begins with a fine description of Pompeii where the characters other than Fell are introduced under a “hot, hard light”. We then move to southern England, with Ellrott of Scotland Yard brought in to tackle an unsolved murder focused on a sweetshop — only to find himself in the world of country house murder.

The Black Spectacles, John Dickson Carr (British Library Crime Classics, £9.99)

Miss Silver Intervenes by Patricia Wentworth (1944; 1982, Hodder and Stoughton, £1.25) is a joy from the bookshelf. It evokes a wartime sense of menace and the mundane, with men off on military service or returned with injuries. Food is a theme of quasi-fantasy, as is normality. There is a backdrop of espionage, with echoes of Wentworth’s earlier writings about conspiracy, as in her Grey Mask. Here blackmail is a more central means, and the espionage is somewhat unnecessary — other than to lend depth to the sense of menace.

This fair-play novel is fascinating as well as difficult, with  apt and economical characterisation. Maud Silver with her “inexorable … sense of duty” and dry cough is characteristically perceptive and effective in persuading the police to act. She is more metropolitan and able to strike than Jane Marple.

The characters reflect on detective novels, notably the police:

 … That’s where a lot of these detective novels go wrong — there aren’t any human feelings in them. They’re clever the same way a game of chess is clever, or a problem in mathematics … The public’s got an idea that the police are a lot of thick-headed numskulls who can’t see what’s under their noses. And that’s the fault of all these detective novels — a pack of rubbish!

Maud gives Wentworth’s view:

In order to arrive at a just conclusion we need the whole of the evidence. It is made up of an indefinite number of words and actions which act and react upon each other, combining, separating, and joining up again. Gossip picks out some of these words and actions, focusses a strong light on them and puts them under the microscope, with the result that the balance is destroyed and a distorted picture obtained.

It is an excellent story.

The Watersplash (1954; Coronet edition 1972, 6th impression 1985, £1.95), sees Maud deployed in Greenings. The village has some similarities to St Mary Mead, not least a sense of continuity in place. Blackmail, or rather competing blackmailers, are to the fore in a story involving two murders, one attempted murder, a questionable will, a long-lost heir (“‘never come back from the dead — it is a social solecism’) and a strong sense of Christian morality that offers parallels with Christie’s writing. This last is a point underplayed in modern criticism. Arnold Random learns redemption in church, with Maud counselling, “‘We may not see the whole of the way, but it is always possible to take the first step’ … The daylight world which he had lost. And with this gleam a sense of assurance, of calm authority, a sense of goodness. He had known the presence of evil … Now he knew the presence of good …”

The Watersplash, Patricia Wentworth (Hodder and Stoughton, £1.95)

Maud’s “constant companion” is a “shabby Bible”, and she reads from it each night before passing “immediately into a state of tranquil repose”. Chief Detective Inspector Lamb refers to Pilgrim’s Progress. Maud also has recourse to “homely proverbs and is suspected “of at last white witchcraft”. Detective Inspector Abbott reflects: “What a superstitious creature man was! Civilised? The veneer was pitifully thin. He had only to be alone in a dark place, and all the old bogies would squeak and gibber from the shadows.”

There are also the social politics. The county police want the case referred to Scotland Yard: “Old country family, and relations all over the place. Just the kind of thing that Nayler wouldn’t like. On the other hand he don’t want the Labour people to have any handle for saying there’s one law for the rich and another for the poor, and all that kind of thing” — a theme that is later repeated. The Soviet Union is a malign presence, imprisoning and killing those seeking love. Both murderer and motive are easy to guess, but this does not spoil an excellent story.

James Naughtie’s The Spy Across the Water (2023, Head of Zeus, £20.00) is a thriller set in 1985 that skilfully links the Ulster problems and the fate of Oleg Gordievsky. The story focuses on Will Flemyng, an ex-spy who is British Ambassador in Washington. The plot works well, and Naughtie writes about Scotland with affection and about America and politics with confidence. Due to his prominence and qualities, this book will be reviewed widely and do well, contributing to more novels — this is the third. In light of that, he might like to think of working on his style. Many of the sentences are lame, and the comparisons weak; the writing frequently contributes nothing to the plot:

Keane, taken by surprise by Flemyng’s bald announcement that a game was afoot, knew he was being led by the hand into a labyrinth, as dark as the gardens outside the window. His alertness was sharpened by a sense of mystery … 

Lucy said to Keane, “We’re going to have to help him through this, you know.” Keane replied, “But I’ve never felt so young, nor so hopeless.”
… Lucy was making her delicate preparations for Keane’s visit to Chicago …
… Flemyng knew the look she was giving him, and it pierced him.

And so on, and on. Good story, but the poorest writing of the novels reviewed this time. Readers of this novel may note that my quotes come from the first half. To give Naughtie the benefit of the doubt I stayed up that evening to well past midnight to read to the end, but there was no improvement and I was left exhausted and cross with myself.

Havana Fever (2009, £8.99) is my introduction to the Bitter Lemon Press, which focuses on the translation of foreign crime stories, in this case La neblina del ayer (Barcelona, 2009). It is set in a Havana that seemed all-too-familiar, as I have twice spent time there. This is a city of marmoreal decay, in this case introduced through an almost mythical private library that is for sale. Gripping.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover