First Penguin crime set – part 3

20180815 Penguin 10 - part 1

The continuing exercise of reading all ten of the crime novels published by Penguin Books to mark reaching 150 titles. All the volumes I’m reading are the first edition, first impression copies published eighty years ago this month (August 1938). It’s been fun reading these old paperbacks so far and now I have just four to go, for part 1 see here, and part 2 is here. I’m writing this blog as I’m going along so the book is fresh in my mind as I write about it so lets see if I can get through the final four volumes in the coming week.

157 – The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu – Sax Rohmer

Before opening this book I should say that this is the one I am least looking forward to. Although I’ve never read any of them the Fu-Manchu stories have never appealed possibly due to childhood memories of bad black and white films which I never watched to the end, or even half way through. Here’s hoping the book is better…

It wasn’t. It was everything I expected and worse, full of casual racism, extraordinary plot devices and ridiculous language I completed it only so that I could write this entry. Hopelessly jingoistic with the white race threatened by the yellow peril as it was regularly put, each chapter seemed to include another fantastical creation of poisons unknown to man, or traps created by mutant puffball mushrooms that react to light or other idiotic suggestions. The book fails on almost every level those rules suggested by A A Milne that I mentioned in the last blog with each time the ‘heroes’ get into trouble or a new murder is attempted yet another ‘fact’ is revealed just to get a solution with no pre-amble to involve the reader in the plot. Even more annoying is the constant xenophobia displayed by Rohmer where anyone who isn’t white is treated as a villain.

The language used also fails Milne’s tests with the servant of the first victim pointing out a way in with “Up yonder are the study windows sir” and the same sort of anachronistic rubbish is put in the mouths of several other characters. Nobody since Shakespeare has ever phrased a statement like that and he would have been writing a poetic play not accurately reporting actual language used.

Frankly avoid Sax Rohmer and I’m astonished to find that he is still in print.

158 – The Waxworks Murder – John Dickson Carr

What a dramatic improvement, Inspector Bencolin of the Paris Sûreté is a wonderful creation of a master of detective fiction. The plot is complex linking two murders of young women, a disreputable club in the area of Pigalle, itself a disreputable district of Paris, and Parisian high society. That an American, living in England, should write five novels about a detective in France is surprising, that they should be so atmospheric (at least on the evidence of this volume) is remarkable.  The Waxworks Murder (US title – The Corpse in the Waxworks) is the fourth Bencolin book, I also have the first (It Walks by Night) in the Penguin edition; however although Penguin published many other detective stories by Carr these mainly feature his best known detective Dr Gideon Fell.

Carr plays fair with the reader, there are lots of clues and as many red herrings, paths to enlightenment and just as many dead ends which makes the book my favourite of the ones so far, you really get a mental workout following the various strands of the plot. That the tension is literally maintained until the final sentence is also a tribute to the skill of the author and I can definitely say that I hadn’t worked out the solution until it was revealed and then as the bits I had missed were explained it all became clear. I loved that we were led by Carr to suspect yet another person in the last chapter before the denoument only to have that apparently logical step demolished by the detective a few pages later.

The tension builds as the book progresses and by the time I reached the last seventy five pages there was no way I was going to put it down until it was finished even though I really needed to be doing something else. I will have to try the Dr Fell stories after I have read It Walks by Night and then the Henry Merrivale tales that he wrote under the name of Carter Dickson. He may be a great mystery writer but he was rubbish at Pseudonyms

159 – The Dangerfield Talisman – J J Connington

J J Connington was actually the Scottish chemist Alfred Stewart who wrote over two dozen novels as Connington and several factual works under his own name. The Dangerfield Talisman is his fourth novel and unlike all the other books I am reading as part of this series it is a case of theft rather than murder that concerns the participants. Apart from that it is a classic British country house case that has been very well written with two separate but linked puzzles to be solved, what is the Dangerfield Secret and where is the Dangerfield Talisman?

What is also a lot of fun is that there isn’t a ‘detective’ figure as such, several of the house guests have a go at solving the problems and manage to rile the others by making unjustified accusations. This is not a gathering you would want to be part of. Having said that I was worried about the start of the book, there seemed to be a lot of interest in bridge (which is a card game I don’t play or even vaguely understand) and then a chess board diagram was added (which looked fairly straightforward but clearly wasn’t if it was to be the basis of part of the story). I had a horrible feeling that these games were going to be highly significant to the plot in which case I would be left without significant clues. In fact you don’t need to know anything about either game, the bridge games stop after a couple of chapters and the chess board only really comes into it’s own towards the end of the novel.  As for who took the Dangerfield Talisman I hadn’t a clue until it was revealed, not that there weren’t hints, just that I had not understood their significance. The Dangerfield Secret and more importantly the solution to it I had worked out though before it was explained.

Connington is definitely worth reading more of, five of his novels were published by Penguin and I have two others. One of the ones I’m missing is his science fiction book Nordenholt’s Million first published in 1923 and which is probably the earliest ecological disaster novel with a bacteria destroying farm crops around the world. Definitely one I’m going to seek out.

160 – Obelists at Sea – C Daly King

Last one… and the first question is what is an ‘obelist’? It turns out that King invented the word and defined it at the start of the book as “An obelist is a person who has little or no value”. Unfortunately when he re-used the word in two more novels “Obelists en Route” and “Obelists Fly High” he redefined it as “one who harbours suspicion”. At least if you are going to invent a word then be consistent. Penguin only printed this one book by C Daly King and at 312 pages of quite small print it’s easily the longest of the ten I have set myself to read, it is now Monday morning and I need to finish the book and complete this review for tomorrows post.

Well the plot was good and the conceal of the murderer was also well done but the writing style made getting through this book hard work. C Daly King was a psychologist and he made his detectives (for there is a group of them on their way to a conference on board the ship) also psychologists, although from differing branches and opinions. This could have worked well but King couldn’t resist putting in pages and pages of psychological exposition which was incredibly dull and just slowed the plot down dramatically. It was all completely unnecessary but you felt you had to read it in case there was a point to any of it. In fact there was virtually no point to the vast majority of this and even other characters in the book were bored of it eventually. But even then, after admitting that it was dull and largely confusing as they simply contradicted each other King couldn’t help himself from making some more pointed remarks about a branch of his own profession.  The book is split into six chapters, an introduction to the crime, one chapter for each of the four psychologists to try to solve it according to their own theories and practice and then a final chapter that finally explains what actually happened and why all four were wrong, although each had grasped part of the solution.

It’s a pity that this was the last of the set to read as it has let me down from the high quality of the previous two but it has been an interesting exercise although next time I set myself to read ten novels in one month I’ll start before the 12th.

First Penguin crime set – part 2

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This continues a marathon reading session of all 10 of these books printed eighty years ago this month. I started late (the evening of the 12th) so I have less than a couple of days to read each book and write a short review. Part 1 covered books 151, 152 and 153 and can be seen here. As I read each book I’ll write a review on this blog and post on Tuesday next week as far as I’ve managed to get.

154 – The House on Tollard Ridge – John Rhode

Before reading this book I knew nothing about John Rhode and apart from a small black and white photograph of a man in late middle age smoking a pipe and a couple of glowing comments regarding his ability from two magazines printed on the dust wrapper there is nothing on the book to give me any idea about him. I decided to finish the book before finding out anything about the author.

The story was quite enjoyable although I was deeply suspicious of the person who turned out to be the murderer very early on in the book and none of the rather obvious red herrings put me off that train of thought as there was really only one person who could have controlled the events as they did. The main oddity of the book was that although it is 248 pages long Rhode’s amateur detective doesn’t appear until page 98 and up until then it reads as though Superintendent King from the local police force is the main character. When Dr Priestley does appear in the book it is only for a short while whilst explaining the case to him gives the author a chance to sum up what he has told us so far and it isn’t until page 172 that Priestley really comes into his own and starts to take apart the case made by Superintendent King. It is also at this point that it becomes clear that this isn’t Rhode’s first book about Priestley as other cases are mentioned, I’m guessing that the only other book by Rhode that was published by Penguin ‘The Murders in Praed Street’ is going to be one of them, I don’t own a copy and won’t be rushing to get it.

Finally looking up John Rhode, he turns out to be the pseudonym of Cecil John Charles Street MC OBE and from his Wikipedia entry he wrote a huge number of detective stories under several pseudonyms so he obviously had a readership in his day but he’s not for me.

155 – Murder at Crome House – G.D.H. and Margaret Cole

Now this should be interesting, I do have other books by G.D.H. Cole but they aren’t fiction, on my shelves are ‘Practical Economics’, ‘Socialism in Evolution’ and a couple of copies of ‘Persons and Periods’. Working with his wife however they jointly wrote crime novels and although I only have this one example and they were nowhere near as prolific as Cecil Street I was already aware of the existence of several other titles before I start reading this one.

Having now finished the book I can say that it is much better written than the previous example and considerably better at hiding the murderer until near the end, The tale is quite complex with more information about each of the possible suspects being revealed piecemeal as you follow the various parallel investigations with up to five people all going down different paths in trying to solve the crime and comparing notes regularly. At one point I had even half thought one of the people apparently investigating the murder was actually involved in the crime himself as each time he reported back his tales as to what had been done became more fantastic. Now that would have been an interesting twist, I wonder if there is a detective novel where the investigator turns out to be the murderer and is covering their tracks by apparently looking into the case?

I don’t have any other crime novels by the Cole’s but they don’t appear to have been ‘series writers’ with each book having different detectives however this is difficult to check as I cannot find any of their 29 joint works still in print. This is also the only one of their works to have been printed by Penguin so I’m not going to come across another as my collection of those increases. It is a pity that they have disappeared, maybe one of their books needs to be included in the excellent British Library series of crime stories that have been largely forgotten nowadays.

156 – The Red House Mystery – A.A. Milne

Yes that A.A. Milne, famous for Winnie the Pooh and the other characters from the Hundred Acre Wood, this is his only crime story and the only book in this block of ten that I have read before this exercise.

The story is well written and the denouement is properly hidden with enough clues to give it away when you re-read the book but not on first reading. Once you know what is happening then you get a different perspective and appreciate how well Milne was trying to help the reader in solving the murder but first time round you can guess but are unlikely to work it out. I loved the book as written by an author who knew how to write and could string his readers along as you slowly but surely reach the solution and the final twist is so good. If any of my readers are looking for a sadly now largely unknown detective novel in the true English country house murder style and have not read The Red House then I urge you to do so.

As a good counterpoint to this reading marathon Milne wrote a really good introduction to the 1926 edition, he wrote the book back in 1922 before he wrote any children’s books and was at the time best known as a playwright (and frankly he would have rather been known that way all his life).

I prefer that a detective story should be written in English. I remember reading one in which a peculiarly fascinating murder had been committed, and there was much speculation as to how the criminal had broken into the murdered man’s library. The detective however (said the author) “…was more concerned how the murderer had effected an egress.” It is, to me, a distressing thought that in nine-tenths of the detective stories of the world murderers are continually effecting egresses when they might just as well go out. The sleuth, the hero, the many suspected all use this strange tongue, and we may be forgiven for feeling that neither the natural excitement of killing the right man, nor the strain of suspecting the wrong one, is sufficient excuse for so steady a flow of bad language.

Of the great Love question opinions may be divided, but for myself I will have none of it. A reader, all agog to know whether the white substance on the muffins was arsenic or face powder, cannot be held up while Roland clasps Angela’s hand “a moment longer than the customary usages of society dictate.” Much might have happened in that moment, properly spent; footprints made or discovered; cigarette ends picked up and put in envelopes. By all means have Roland have a book to himself in which to clasp anything he likes, but in a detective story he must attend strictly to business.

For the detective himself I demand first that he be an amateur. In real life, no doubt, the best detectives are the professional police, but then in real life the best criminals are professional criminals.

He continues in much this vein for a while complaining that a man with a microscope is no detective at least not in fiction because he can see things his readers cannot and also explaining that ‘a Watson’ is invaluable. As perforce a literary detective has to run though the facts as they stand at various points and a conversation is much better than a  speech and far better than everything being sorted out in the last few pages. I have to agree with all of his points and he also manages to ensure that in his only detective story he holds to his principles, it’s definitely the best book so far.

Part 3 of this review is here

First Penguin crime set – part 1

20180815 Penguin 10 - part 1I’m way too late in the month to start to attempt this (as I type this it is the evening of the 12th August) but I added a post to my Instagram feed earlier this month regarding it being the 80th anniversary of the first ‘Penguin 10’ and that I had all the books in first edition, first impression Penguin editions. Penguin Books started publishing in July 1935 and by July 1938 had printed book number 150. To celebrate this they next published ten Mystery and Crime novels in August 1938. This was the first time that all ten books published together were from the same genre although later they would do blocks of ten for the same author as well, most notably the Shaw million where 10 books by George Bernard Shaw were published simultaneously each in an edition of 100,000 copies in July 1946. I then added that I intended to read each of these eighty year old paperbacks the next month and gradually it has dawned on me that reading all of them this month would be more appropriate; so I have nineteen days to read ten novels and write something about them and as they are mystery and Crime stories I’ll be careful to not give away anything. I’ll start reading now and add reviews as I finish each book, so here goes…

151 – The Invisible Man – H.G. Wells

During my teenage years I read a lot of H.G. Wells, not just the famous books such as The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and War of the Worlds but his short stories and even his History of the World in two large hardback volumes so I assume I must have read The Invisible Man back then but I had no memory of it when I came to read it for this exercise. The story had slipped away as easily as the Invisible Man hoped to do. I suppose the many adaptations of the novella on TV and film and the borrowing of the original concept by other writers had also not helped but I was genuinely surprised by the story and the way that it is told. The book effectively starts near the end of the Invisible Man’s tale and the first half of the book is spent with him invisible (and with no explanation as to how this happened) arriving in the small village of Iping in West Sussex and then becoming an interesting and annoying tenant at The Coach and Horses Inn. He is wrapped in bandages and explains that he has been disfigured. From the number of chemical bottles he brings with him it is assumed that he had had some sort of accident whilst doing his research. His obsessive secrecy and short fuse temper soon become a problem and eventually after a few months, with his money running out, he is forced to leave the village but not before causing several injuries and leaving a trail of destruction.

He heads out onto the Downs (open countryside in this part of England) encounters a tramp and forces him to help him as they make their way south towards the coast. Eventually the tramp escapes and warns people about the Invisible Man before seeking refuge at a police station. The Invisible Man finds his way into the home of Dr Kemp, whom he recognises from studying at Oxford and this is where we find out all the back story as to how and why Griffin had become invisible as he introduces himself and tells his story to Kemp. His obvious criminal intent and apparent incipient madness worry Dr Kemp so that he also manages to raise the alarm with the police and the hunt is on…

The book was first written in 1897 however the Penguin edition states that it is from the re-issue of June 1926, I have been unable to find out if this is a revision of the original book or that if for some reason it had been out of print for some considerable time. Although Iping is indeed a real place the other two locations in the book (Port Stowe and Burdock) are both fictional.

152 – Enter a Murderer – Ngaio Marsh

New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh was considered in her time to be one of the ‘Queens of Crime’ along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham and is best known for her detective stories featuring Roderick Alleyn of the London Metropolitan police. Enter a Murderer is the second of thirty two novels she wrote about Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn and is set in a theatre which is an environment very familiar to Marsh as she also worked as a theatre director. The crime is easy to describe, the final scene of the play being performed at the Unicorn Theatre involves one character threatening another with a gun, the gun is dropped when he realises that he cannot hope to escape, picked up by the original person being threatened and in an ensuing struggle goes off killing the original attacker. The gun was supposed to be loaded with dummy shells as it is seen being loaded in an earlier scene and blanks would still cause injury at such close range so in fact another gun is fired with blanks in the wings at the same time as the dummy shot in order to provide the correct noise. This is Marsh showing her theatrical knowledge as presumably she had seen this very trick done on stage. However the dummy shells have been replaced with real ones and the novel then revolves around ‘who replaced the bullets?’

The book is tightly written and numerous plot lines involving various romantic liaisons between the cast and supporting staff at the theatre along with an unresolved drug running episode from 6 years earlier are all interwoven. In the foreword Marsh is apparently consulting her own detective:-

When I showed this manusript to my friend, Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn of the Criminal Investigation Department. he said
“It’s a perfectly good account of the Unicorn case, but isn’t it usual in detective stories to conceal the identity of the criminal?”
I looked at him coldly.
“Hopelessly vieux jeu my dear Alleyn. Nowadays the identity of the criminal is always revealed in the early chapters.”
“In that case,” he said, “I congratulate you.”
I was not altogether delighted.

I must admit I didn’t get who it was until just over three quarters of the way through so I’m clearly not as good as her fictional detective, however I really liked the book and I will certainly be reading more Alleyn mysteries. One final thing that struck me early on though was when Alleyn was being particularly awkward about bossing people around and not telling them why he then apologises for being a bit Hitlerish. The book was written in 1935 just a year after Hitler came to power and 4 years before the start of WWII.

153 – The Piccadilly Murder – Anthony Berkeley

Whilst I quickly warmed to Inspector Alleyn that certainly could not be said of Ambrose Chitterwick, the amateur criminologist in Berkeley’s 1938 novel, who I really didn’t get on with almost from the first. Chitterwick was one member of the fictional Crimes Circle and it was he that solved the murder in probably Berkeley’s best known story “The Poisoned Chocolates Case”. The Crimes Circle was loosely based on The Detection Club which Berkeley had helped set up and included most of the famous pre-war crime writers such as H. C. Bailey, E. C. Bentley, G.K. Chesterton. Agatha Christie, G. D. H. Cole, Margaret Cole, Freeman Wills Crofts, R. Austin Freeman, Ronald Knox, Arthur Morrison, Baroness Emma Orczy,  John Rhode, Jessie Rickard, Dorothy L. Sayers, Henry Wade and Hugh Walpole. As can be seen from that list they are also well represented in this collection of ten books. Frankly I didn’t like Chitterwick in The Poisoned Chocolates Case and when I realised that this was a whole novel featuring him I wasn’t that impressed.

My poor opinion of the character seemed to be justified in the first half of the book and the obsequious chief of police also failed to ring true which made getting going at this story quite difficult. The second half of the book however made struggling with the first all worth while as the characters settled into more rounded individuals and the plot got gradually more interesting. I worked out who did it about two thirds of the way through the book as the red herrings were a bit too obvious and I can see why Berkeley hasn’t really stood the test of time as a crime writer and is now largely forgotten despite being a significant writer in the 1930’s. His work has dated rather badly and unlike Christie and Sayers for example he simply hasn’t got the style to morph into period pieces he just feels anachronistic.

There are no previous publication dates in the book so I’m assuming that the Penguin edition is the true first edition of this book making it one of the earliest books to be first printed by Penguin who up until then had been involved in paperback reprints of existing volumes.

Part 2 of this review can be found here

and Part 3 here


Deep in the Forest – Estonian Fairy Tales

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I have recently been given a copy of this book and have thoroughly enjoyed it. The book is brand new (printed in English by Varrak Publishers Ltd in 2018) although it has an interesting story as to how it came about. What was almost this collection was originally put together by Risto Järv for a French publication “L’esprit de la forêt et autres contes estoniens” (The spirit of the forest and other Estonian tales) published by Éditions Corti in 2011, and was volume 46 of their Collection Merveilleux (Marvellous Collection) a series of books of folk tales and others legends from around the world. This French collection led to Varrak wanting to produce an edition in Estonian and whilst revising the book for this version some tales were dropped and others added to bring the total to one hundred. The Estonian book came out in 2015 with the title “Metsavaimu heategu. Sada eesti muinasjuttu metsast ja meist” (The Forest Spirit’s Deed. One Hundred Estonian Fairy Tales about the Forest and Us). The English edition I have been reading is basically the same as the Estonian although the order of the tales has been slightly altered.

The book is split into ten sections each of ten tales with a short introduction to each section providing some background to the stories you are about to read, this is especially important for non-Estonian readers as some understanding is needed as to the deep love they have of the forests of their country and the structure of the tales that have grown up around them featuring regular animal characters of bear, wolf, fox, hare and mouse all of whom can talk amongst themselves and also to those people who are willing to listen. Each of the animals have specific characteristics for example the fox is normally clever and deceitful but can also be fooled, the wolf on the other hand is not very clever and will fall for most ruses. Hare is often frightened by events and looks for others of his kind to shelter, bear is strong but like wolf not the brightest creature in the forest and can be persuaded to use his strength even if it will ultimately work against him. There are also numerous little old men and inhabitants of out of the way cottages who if they decide to help should certainly be listened to carefully because half the time they are probably forest sprites of some variety but, if you are very unlucky or unwary, could also be trying to trap you or even worse they could be Vanapagan himself.

Vanapagan is the most difficult to understand regular character in these tales for non-Estonians. He represents the devil but not in a way that would be recognised by most people outside Estonia, he is sometimes more of an annoyance than particularly evil and he can usually be outwitted with a bit of intelligent thinking. Most of the tales featuring him involve the human protagonist striking a deal with Vanapagan for some sort of time limited agreement. Often the humans realise that they are dealing with Vanapagan from the first but reckon to trick him out of completing the bargain and taking them to hell in the end. This they usually manage often with the assistance of one of the little old men that seem to always appear in the forest at times of need. If they don’t recognise Vanapagan then another character (either animal or human) that has fallen under his control will usually tell them and often suggest ways that they can alter their fate by escaping.

The book draws on a huge back catalogue of folk and fairy tales, in the Estonian Literary Museums folkloric archives alone there are roughly 15,000 fairy and folk tales which is the equivalent of one for every thousand people in the country. Most of the ones included in the book were recorded in the 1890’s but some were written down in this form within the last few years. Most of them are very short, just two or three pages long but there are a few longer ones and the selection tries to cover the major thematic groups. The ten sections are:

  • Setting out into the Forest
  • Creation Tales
  • Animals and Stories
  • Work and Wisdom
  • Men and Women
  • Unexpected Encounters
  • Orphans and Parental Mercy
  • Truth and Justice
  • Countering Vanapagan
  • Emerging from the Forest

As you can see the book is top and tailed by going in and eventually coming out of the forest which symbolises the whole Estonian tales structure that all the magical, strange and terrible things happen in the forest and the world outside of this magical place is largely unimportant and certainly far less interesting. The creation tales included are not ‘world tales’ as you might expect if you have read other mythologies but more like Kipling’s Just So stories so we discover ‘why aspen leaves flutter’, ‘how the cuckoo came to be’ and ‘why the tip of Fox’s tail is white’ amongst other things. Animals and Stories is largely about the main animal characters of the legends, whilst Work and Wisdom introduce us to morality tales usually where a character doesn’t do what they have been told is the correct way to behave and subsequently reaps the consequences.

The tales under the category of Men and Women are largely not flattering to either party but especially not the women who tend to be lazy or bad tempered or both and in their ill humour end up ruining the gains that had been made by magic or encounters with forest sprites by their menfolk. Unexpected Encounters include stories of meeting with both magical characters and in one case King Peter I of Russia that transform the lives of the protagonists. Orphans and Parental Mercy takes us away to something more akin to the dark original versions of Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales where orphans strive to rise from their misfortune or even those of Charles Perrault a century earlier. What you never get is the more child friendly style of somebody like Hans Christian Anderson, Estonian fairy tales should come with an Parental Guidance rating like films certainly when you hit Truth and Justice because the justice meted out can definitely be harsh. Countering Vanapagan is as the title suggests a group of tales where the hero of the story defeats Vanapagan with trickery often by successfully twisting the agreement between them to breaking point.

The folkloric traditions in Estonia are very important to the people there, who still have a strong link both to their forests and their mythologies, more so than in any other European country I have visited. Spending time in the countryside is ingrained in the Estonian people in a very spiritual way, being there within their woods and forests is good not just for the body but for the mind as well and most of the population will escape from the confines of the towns and cities as often as they can. As an outsider I can only get an impression of this deep love of their country but it is a powerful feeling and if you are lucky enough to be in the woods with Estonians then you can share it with them even if only briefly.