Busman’s Honeymoon – Dorothy L Sayers

20200901 Busmans Honeymoon

I decided to top and tail the four major science works in August with something lighter, and a couple of detective fiction novels fitted the bill nicely, specifically Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie and this book Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers. For those people not familiar with the origins of the title a busman’s holiday is where somebody takes a break from work but still ends up being involved in their career in some way for example a bus driver who holidays by taking a coach trip. Whilst Lord Peter Wimsey isn’t a professional detective, being instead an extremely wealthy junior member of the aristocracy with a talent for detection, it was of course inevitable that he would end up solving a crime on his honeymoon.

This book is the eleventh and final novel written by Sayers about Lord Peter and first published in 1937, there would be some later short stories but this is his last outing in a significant work and rounds off nicely the ongoing romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane which began in “Strong Poison”. Although Harriet is definitely not interested in getting to know Lord Peter any more than she has to at that time as he manages to prove her innocence on a charge of murder. There follows more novels involving the two characters as he eventually manages to persuade her to accept his proposal of marriage at the end of “Gaudy Night”. As a wedding present he buys her the house Tallboys that she loved as a child and they decide at the last minute to take their honeymoon there. Arrangements are made with the previous owner to collect the keys and retain the furniture for a month until they can replace it with their own but on arrival late in the evening he is nowhere to be found and the house is locked up. The first mystery is therefore where is Noakes?

They eventually get access to the house via some spare keys and spend the night before discovering the body of Noakes in the cellar but not with injuries that he would have received if he had for instance fallen down the stairs, in fact the injury that clearly killed him could not have occurred in the cellar at all so how did he die? Cue a cast of characters several of which could have done the deed or at least have a motive but no obvious murder weapon to be found. There are several twists as Lord Peter and the local police force come up with various options for who? and how?, all of which hit the main problem that the house was locked up from the inside so how would anyone get away after killing him? The book was adapted from a play of the same name first performed in 1936 and it still has set pieces that feel like a stage setting, especially the limited number of locations used and the gathering of the entire cast in the front room for the denouement.

It has to be said that Busman’s Honeymoon is by no means the best of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, for me that would either be “The Nine Tailors” or “Gaudy Night” but it did fulfil my requirements of a pleasant light read after the heavyweight works over the last few weeks. If you have never encountered Lord Peter Wimsey and Bunter his faithful manservant I heartily recommend them although don’t start here, the first novel is “Whose Body?” written in 1923 which introduces the characters.

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie

20200728 Murder on the Orient Express 1

This is not a traditional review of Christie’s most famous book hence it’s inclusion in the ‘Book Tales’ category on the blog. How could I say anything about the story that has not already been said? Sharp eyed readers will have noticed that despite me being English my copy of the book featured above is an American Pocket Book edition and there is a very good reason  for that which gives a personal link to the story. Thirty three years ago I travelled on the Orient Express with my then girlfriend, who was American, and she brought a copy of this book for me which we both read whilst on the train.  Another thing you may notice is right at the bottom ‘Formally titled MURDER IN THE CALAIS COACH’ this is a reference to the habit Christie’s American publishers Dodd, Mead & Co. had of altering the titles of her books which does make any bibliography quite messy. Other examples (Original English title first) include:-

  • The Sittaford Mystery – The Murder at Hazelmoor
  • Lord Edgeware Dies – Thirteen at Dinner
  • Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? – The Boomerang Clue
  • One, Two, Buckle My Shoe – The Patriotic Murders
  • Dumb Witness – Poirot Loses a Client

and many more.

Rereading the novel again, probably for the first time in three decades, I was struck by how well it was written. Even though I of course knew the solution, as does almost everyone with an interest in detective novels, it didn’t matter, I still enjoyed how Christie developed the story and Poirot’s slow realisation of just what a fantastic solution it is. It is also a ‘locked room mystery’ in that the train is stuck in a snowdrift on its way from Istanbul to Paris so the murderer could not have escaped from the train and it is also impossible for Poirot to verify any clues he may discover or even who anybody is with the outside world as they are completely cut off. The train gets stuck just after Vinkovci (spelt Vincovci in the book) which is now in Croatia so on the southern route on the map below just as the line turns north to head to Budapest.

20200728 Murder on the Orient Express 3

This poster is from the winter season of 1888/9, forty years before the book is set but gives a hint of the glamour associated with the journey. It’s a trip Christie made several times whilst visiting her husband on his archaeological digs in Iraq so she knew the operation well and the story of the Armstrong family with the kidnapping of the baby daughter and the subsequent deaths which is the background to this book is a straight borrowing from the Lindbergh case which had happened a couple of years earlier. Everyone reading this book when it first came out would have been familiar with the Lindbergh story which had been a worldwide sensation in 1932, to my mind it was somewhat tactless of Christie to so obviously take this tragic case and turn it into a murder mystery of her own, there are too many similarities to be comfortable if you know about the original.

I also included the poster in this blog as it was this, rather than Christie’s novel, which inspired a trip on what was left of the Orient Express back in the late 1980’s. By then, although it still left Paris at 9am each day it only made it to Bucharest and by the time it got there it was hardly an express and the glamour was long gone on the entire journey. By adding on extra trains from Bucharest to Belgrade and then on via Sofia to Istanbul I did manage to stay at least one night in all the cities listed in the poster heading. It was natural that we would read Murder On The Orient Express whilst travelling on it. Nowadays there is only the luxury private train that carries that name and recreates the glamour that Agatha Christie would have known in the 1920’s and 30’s when she was a passenger and which she used as the setting for, if not her best then certainly her best known work.

A somewhat scary flashback photo below, reading this very book whilst travelling between Paris and Munich on the first stage of our Orient Express journey back in 1987.

20200728 Murder on the Orient Express 2

Poirot and Me – David Suchet

20200414 Poirot and Me

A fascinating description of the years David Suchet took to film almost all the Hercule Poirot novels and short stories written by Agatha Christie over thirteen series comprising of seventy episodes. The first day of filming was the 1st July 1988 and the final one was on the 28th June 2013, so almost exactly twenty five years from start to finish. Right at the end of the book he admits that one very short story never got adapted which was The Lemesurier Inheritance, apart from that everything was either specifically filmed as an individual story or merged into another short tale.

But I feel I must get one major failing of the book over and done with right at the beginning of this review. Suchet is completely obsessed with his reviews, after each story about a series or sometimes even an episode you get two or three, or maybe five or six, newspaper reviews saying how wonderful it was. It’s not just a quick one line either some of them are longer and it really get tedious. It is also completely unnecessary, if the reader didn’t think that his performance as Poirot and indeed the series itself was good it is highly unlikely that they will have picked up the book in the first place. He also comes over as a terrible ‘luvvie’ every actor he refers to has done a magnificent performance in such and such, or was fabulous in the role of whoever, everybody is announced with gushing compliments. Having said that, you can just skip the reviews and the overblown introductions and in there is a very enjoyable book.

Suchet covers the entire story of the series from his first being offered the part and getting to meet Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks who controlled the rights to her mothers works. She wanted to be sure that he understood what she expected from his portrayal. The book though starts at Pinewood Studios with the death of Poirot in the filming of ‘Curtain’ as part of the thirteenth, and final, series. From having explained his sorrow and what it means to him and those who have worked with him over the years to film these scenes he sets the tone before we jump back to his first being offered the part. His descriptions at the beginning of the book of his struggles to find the voice for Poirot whilst filming another TV series set on the Isles of Scilly before starting filming at Twickenham studios and only then suddenly realising after seeing the first test shots that he simply had no idea how he should walk are interesting insights into how an actor approaches a role. What was really surprising was that despite the massive hit that the Poirot series became this first series was the only time that any of the TV companies involved actually had an option on Suchet doing another series, after that he went for months or sometimes years without knowing if he would ever play the character again.

What does become very clear is Suchet’s devotion to the Belgian detective, before starting to play him he read all the stories and made a list of ninety three characteristics that made him who he was so that he could play him as a real person rather than the caricatures that he feels have been Poirot’s fate with previous portrayals.

He was a character that demanded to be taken seriously. He wasn’t a funny little man with a silly accent any more than Sherlock Holmes was a morphine addict with a taste for playing the violin.

He carried this ‘Dossier of Characteristics’ with him throughout the twenty five years of playing the part and gave a copy to each director so that they could understand what he was trying to do, I love some of the examples he gives in the book, some of which are emphatic like number one

Belgian, not French

Others are more idiosyncratic, like number eight

Regards his moustache as a thing of perfect beauty, uses scented pomade.

And one that had only partly registered with me in reading the books, number ten

A man of faith and morals, regards himself as ‘Un bon Catholique’, reads his bible every night before he goes to sleep.

This was a side of Poirot that hadn’t been seen in previous screen representations of Poirot but Suchet shows him with his rosary several times during the films revealing a side to the man which helps flesh out his need to see justice be done. This was particularly a feature in ‘Curtain’ and the death scenes in that where Poirot is seen preparing himself for the end that he recognises is soon to come. Just as Agatha Christie wrote ‘Curtain’ many years before it was published, filming this episode was not the last that Suchet did, instead it was filmed first in that final series several months before the other four episodes that concludes the story arc, so allowing him to finish his portrayal of the Great Detective on a high rather than a low point. Fittingly the last part of filming was at Greenway, Agatha Christie’s own home and added an extra poignancy to Suchet’s final day as Poirot.

The book appears to have been remaindered, judging by the sheer number of copies some secondhand book dealers have available even now. This does mean that it is easily available for very little money on either Biblio or Abebooks should you wish to obtain a copy.

First Penguin crime set – part 2

20180815 Penguin 10 - part 1

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:-

FOREWORD
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

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