Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch

Well that was a fun read. First published in 2011 and clearly intended to be contemporary, the book starts out appearing to be a modern police procedural set in the Charing Cross police station of The Metropolitan Police (London’s police force) following the end of the probationary period for two trainee police officers, Peter Grant and Lesley May. Lesley is expected to do well in the police, her career looks bright and interesting in total contrast to that of Peter who appears to be heading for a life of doing the paperwork for the more go getting officers who are doing ‘real policing’ so haven’t got time for the boring bits. All this is about to change however following a particularly grisly murder that night at Covent Garden. When all the experienced officers have done what they can, but it is still too dark to do a proper search of the square the two most junior constables, Peter and Lesley, are called in to ‘protect the crime scene’ basically standing around on a freezing February night making sure nobody crosses the tape marking the edge of the area until dawn when the experienced officers will come back. At 5am Lesley goes off to get them both coffee and whilst he is alone Peter encounters a witness to the murder, the main problem with this witness is that although he did indeed see everything he is in fact dead and is a ghost haunting St. Peter’s church which is on the piazza. I’m really not giving much away here, this is all in the first few pages.

Going back the next night to try to find his ‘witness’ again Peter encounters Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale whom on discovering that Peter is ghost hunting and recognising a basic talent decides to take him on in his section of the Metropolitan Police, the magical part. As well as being a senior police officer Nightingale is the last wizard in Britain and so the whole plot swings away from ‘normal’ policing to encounters with magical beings all of which live unnoticed by the general public within modern London. As well as helping to solve what turns into a series of murders Peter is charged with resolving a dispute between Mother Thames and Father Thames, both river spirits who have taken responsibility for the tidal and freshwater parts of London’s major river respectively but whose territorial limits were being disputed. Nightingale not only takes Peter on as a Constable in his tiny division (which up until then had just consisted of him) but also as an apprentice wizard teaching him basic spells along with Latin as it turns out that all the textbooks are in this ancient language.

The book runs these two story lines in parallel and this I suspect led to one poor review when it first came out that the novel had inconsistent pacing. It is certainly the case that the sections on the murders are faster paced than the more bucolic dealings with Mamma and Father Thames and the positively erotically charged parts with one of Mamma Thames’s daughters Beverley Brook and her dealings with Peter and Lesley. I greatly enjoyed the book and look forward to reading more as there are eight novels so far in the series, with a ninth due out next month along with three novellas. Aaronovitch demonstrates an almost encyclopedic knowledge of London throughout the book so I suspect that an enormous amount of research went into the novel and I loved the use of the names of the various rivers that become tributaries of the Thames for characters, Beverley Brook for instance is a short river, only 14.3km long, in south east London. There is also Tyburn, Fleet, Ash, Lea, Brent and several others all characters in the book and rivers of London. For some odd reason Rivers of London was renamed ‘Midnight Riot’ when it was published in America which somewhat lost this point.

I met Ben Aaronovitch at the 2014 Discworld Convention where I was helping to run an event which was loosely based on the hit BBC TV programme QI which for copyright reasons we had called Strangely Fascinating (I was the scorer). It turned out that Ben was a definite Terry Pratchett fan and thoroughly enjoyed his time at the convention and didn’t mind being roped in as one of the contestants for our quiz. He is in the photo below, on the left, next to Pat Harkin who at the time was still working at Leeds Institute of Medical Education where he had been, amongst various jobs, lecturer in pathology.

The Case of the Gilded Fly – Edmund Crispin

Just for a change this book was recently acquired as part of my collection of the first thousand Penguin paperback books and a quick perusal of the humorous biography on the back (see below) moved it rapidly up the to be read pile. The opening chapter not only introduces the eleven main characters as they all travel from London to Oxford by train but also describes the trials and tribulations of making that trip especially with the apparently random delays from Didcot onwards and is very funny, not something you expect in a mystery novel. Crispin’s amateur detective, Gervase Fen, is a professor of literature at Oxford university who is friends with the Chief Constable of Oxfordshire who has a hobby of writing literary criticism. Both enjoy dabbling in each others chosen career but recognise that they wouldn’t want to do it all the time as they wouldn’t cope with the more tedious aspects of the job. The majority of the other characters are involved in putting on a play which will have its opening night at a theatre in Oxford. The final sentence of the first chapter sets the expectation for the rest of the book.

And within the week that followed three of these eleven died by violence.

The plot is somewhat complicated and the reader can get a bit irritated by Fen who says he has solved the case of the first death almost immediately but won’t tell anyone what he has found but just drops clues to the other characters without the reader being informed. For example he mentions to one character that as well as the gun being taken from where it was stored something else was as well which they agree was the case but the reader isn’t told what it was. Having said that the book is fun to read and there are quite a few clues dropped into the readers lap which only make sense right at the end when the murderer is revealed. Although I did find the solution to the first death somewhat far fetched, it was certainly possible but required more skill on the part of the murderer than would probably be expected by the character as described in the book.

The descriptions of the play being rehearsed are well written and are probably from first hand experience as Edmund Crispin was actually the composer Bruce Montgomery who specialised in film music especially for the long running British comedy series of ‘Carry On’ films. As Edmund Crispin he wrote nine crime books of which The Case of the Gilded Fly was the first, dating from 1944, and I have to say it’s an impressive start. One other title by him was released by Penguin within their first thousand books so I’m now on the hunt for Penguin number 974, Love Lies Bleeding, his other books were also published in paperback by Penguin through the 1950’s.

Montgomery was also the great uncle of one of my favourite fantasy authors Robert Rankin although they never met because his father didn’t approve of Montgomery as he considered him ‘far too snooty’ according to a recent facebook post by Robert Rankin.

Murder Underground – Mavis Doriel Hay

From the British Library Crime Classics series which currently stands at around ninety titles and are a highly successful attempt to bring largely forgotten mystery and crime novels, mainly from the golden age of crime writing from the 1920’s to the 1940’s back into the public view. They all have this very attractive cover style and make a lovely collection on the shelf. Mavis Doriel Hay wrote three crime novels in the 1930’s and this was her first, originally published in 1934, and the first thing you note whilst reading it is how odd it is especially around the treatment of the police and especially their interviews with witnesses. Normally such interviews form an important part of the narrative but here we never get to ‘sit in’ and hear what they have to say. Initially at the boarding hotel where most of the action takes place all the residents are gathered together in the drawing room and the unnamed inspector is in the smoking room calling each one in in turn but the narrative never leaves the drawing room, what we get instead is chit chat about what might be happening in the smoking room. After this the police literally fade into the background being reduced to figures following various characters but almost never being involved in anything until after page 200 when the inspector, now finally given a name, appears again.

The lack of police or indeed anyone who would be recognised as the classic amateur detective so beloved by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and many others of this period is very unusual instead all of the residents of the small private hotel where the victim had lived have a go at solving the mystery in a piecemeal way and the reader is slowly presented with whatever they have discovered or deduced. This lack of the ‘normal’ structure I found frustrating at first but gradually grew to enjoy the atypical format with facts seemingly popping up at random as the various characters proceed in their individual investigations. The case should really be relatively simple, The old lady victim, Miss Euphemia Pongleton (sadly Hay’s major failing is the use of ridiculous names), is found near the bottom of the stairs at Belsize Park underground station with her dog’s lead entangled round her neck although she had not taken her dog with her and a stolen brooch is in her bag. There are lifts at Belsize Park so the long flight of stairs is rarely used although Miss Pongleton was known to always take them as she disliked lifts. However it turns out that three of the Frampton Hotel’s residents, or associates of residents including Miss Pongleton’s nephew and presumed heir Basil, also used those stairs that morning despite it not even being the closest station to the hotel.

The brooch she had confiscated from one of the hotel’s staff who had received it from her boyfriend who had in turn been given it as proceeds from the robbery that he had been conned into being the getaway driver for. It was wrapped in paper with his name written on the outside and to add to the suspicion that he might be guilty of the murder itself he worked as a porter at Belsize Park and was known to be on the platform at the bottom of the stairs as Miss Pongleton descended. Add to the tangle of clues a missing string of pearls and an apparent recent will, also missing, disinheriting Basil; along with how the dog lead made it round the neck of Miss Pongleton when it should be hanging on the coat stand in the Frampton and you are certainly not short of ways of investigating the murder and several prospective dead ends. The actual murderer is revealed near the end although it was a character I had taken a dislike to right at the start so I can’t say it was much of a surprise but it was an enjoyable read nevertheless.

Hay up until the point of writing this novel had previously stuck to her speciality which was rural crafts and after WWII she went back to writing on this subject never again to produce a murder mystery. Her only two other titles in this genre ‘Death on the Cherwell’ in 1935 and ‘The Santa Klaus Murder’ from 1936 are also available in the British Library collection

Hangman’s Holiday – Dorothy L Sayers

By way of a complete contrast to last weeks religious poetry I’ve gone for this lovely Folio Society edition of Hangman’s Holiday by Dorothy L Sayers which I bought in the recent Folio Society autumn sale. I thought I’d read all the Lord Peter Wimsey tales but this includes four Wimsey short stories which I didn’t know, along with six Montague Egg shorts and a couple of other mysteries not featuring either of her long running characters. It has forty four illustrations along with the cover by Paul Cox who has worked on all the Dorothy L Sayers and P G Wodehouse editions for the Folio Society for more than three decades along with many other titles providing a lovely consistent feel to these series. I bought the book mainly for the Montague Egg tales as I’d not read any of those before and he is a definite contrast to Lord Peter, but let’s start with the Wimsey stories. All four of these are Wimsey alone without his trusty batman and collector of evidence Bunter and frankly I missed the interaction between the two of them. Two of the stories are quite disappointing, especially ‘The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey’ where Wimsey takes on the character of a magician in rural Spain and you are left wondering why Sayers decided to have Wimsey do this as he is completely out of character throughout most of the tale. The other one I didn’t enjoy much was ‘The Queen’s Square’ which was just too convoluted to be much fun to read. The remaining two Wimsey tales are ‘The Image in the Mirror’ and ‘The Necklace of Pearls’ both of which are fine as far as they go, but are definitely not in the first rank of Wimsey stories.

Moving on to Montague Egg, he is less of a detective like Wimsey than ‘a noticer of details’ which can be used by the police to solve a crime. His six stories are all quite short varying between nine and twelve pages when the space for illustrations is discounted but they each have quite a lot going for them despite their relative brevity.’The Poisoned Dow 08′ is an excellent introduction to Monty Egg as he is a commercial traveller selling wines and spirits and this is entirely within his area of expertise. Whilst on a return visit to a customer he arrives to find the police in attendance and his client dead, presumably by a poisoned bottle of port. Egg proves that there was nothing wrong with the port, that his firm had supplied, and that there was evidence of murder. Both ‘Murder in the Morning’ and ‘One Too Many’ have Monty Egg in the position of witness to a crime or rather the aftermath of a crime and the little details that he spotted at the time are critical to finding the solution whilst the remaining three stories have him operating much more as the archetypal amateur detective much loved by Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and the other Queens of Crime from the 1920’s and 30’s.

I quite warmed to Montague Egg, the shortness of the stories meant that I could read one whilst waiting for my evening meal to cook and there was sufficient complexity to make the mystery worthwhile.

The two final stories are quite good fun and I’m sure I’ve read both of these before. ‘The Man Who Knew How’ has a character on a train talking to a fellow passenger and claiming that he knew a foolproof way to kill people and get away with it as it would be assumed that they died due to the temperature shock of getting in a bath that was too hot. His fellow passenger then starts noticing a pattern in news reports of people dying in hot baths and is convinced he was talking to a serial killer. ‘The Fountain Plays’ is a story of blackmail and murder with an excellent twist at the end and rounded off the book perfectly.

I’m not sure that is I had known how weak the Lord Peter Wimsey stories were I would have paid the full £39.95 for this book but at half price in the sale I’m glad to have added it to my Dorothy L Sayers collection. Now to find and read the other five Montague Egg stories.

Death and the Dancing Footman – Ngaio Marsh

Part of the Ngaio Marsh million, one hundred thousand copies of each of ten books by Marsh published by Penguin Books in July 1949, this is one of the three books included that had not been published by Penguin prior to this collection. I have reviewed one of the other titles included, ‘Enter a Murderer’, back in August 2018 as part of the ‘first Penguin crime set‘ which were all first published by Penguin in August 1938. As I explained at the time:

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. 

This is another of those Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn crime mysteries. As a general rule most crime novels of the 1930’s and 1940’s clock in at about 200 to 225 pages but this one is surprisingly long for the period at 315 pages in the Penguin edition and I have to say that it is a very slow starter with scene setting and character introductions meaning that it doesn’t really get going until around page 70. If I hadn’t been convinced of Marsh’s ability to spin a tale I might have given up before then but it is well worth hanging on in there. The story is a twist on the ‘locked room’ type of crime novel in that the victim and the murderer are from the fixed group of people we have been introduced to, in this case because the grand country house that they are all in is surrounded by impassable snowdrifts and even the phone lines are down so they can have no contact with the outside world. That it is established early on in the novel that Alleyn is taking a break in the nearest village to where the murder takes place allows Marsh to bring him in even though he is clearly out of his jurisdiction but he is the only policeman anyone can get hold of.

The premise of the story is that Jonathan Royal, the owner of Highfold, decides to give a house party and for his own amusement chooses a group of people who all, for one reason or another, have an antagonistic feeling regarding at least one of the other guests. It is implied that he is hoping for some sort of reconciliation in one or more of the disagreements but will be quite happy if this doesn’t happen and is confident in his ability as a host to at least hold the group together. It will be a sort of unscripted play and with this in mind he has also invited a neutral player. Aubrey Mandrake is an avant garde, if not surrealist playwright who knows none of the other guests, Royal has backed some of his plays and has now invited him to be the audience in his own experimental theatre. Due to the animosity between the guests each has has a reason for, if not murder, then at least wishing harm to another and all these various hostilities are explained right at the start of the book as Jonathan Royal brings Mandrake into his confidence as to what he has planned. The complicated relationships between the other seven guests and the need to go into detail about them is one of the reasons for the slow start and it is only later as the interactions unfold that you realise that you actually need all that information in order to keep track of the various goings on.

Much to my surprise I got the murderer right, well before the denouement, although not all the finer detail as to how it was done, or rather how the alibi was done. Alleyn of course regarded the solution as trivial and he had largely wrapped up the case in his mind within a couple of hours of arriving at Highfold, his problem was proving it especially without access to his usual fellow policemen. All in all an excellent read for a dull and rainy July weekend and I do like a good detective story as a means of giving your brain a workout.

As an aside, I did like that characters in this book are clearly readers of detective fiction, in particular Dorothy L Sayers’ very popular Lord Peter Wimsey tales. On page 206 of this edition they reference Busman’s Honeymoon which I reviewed in September 2020.

“Could Hart have set a second booby trap.” “Do you mean could he have done something with that frightful weapon that would make it fall on …? Is that what you mean?”
“Yes. I can’t get any further, though. I can’t think of anything”
“A ‘Busman’s Honeymoonish’ sort of contraption? But there are no hanging flower-pots at Highfold”

Death and the Dancing Footman was first published in 1942 although mine is the first Penguin edition from 1949. Busman’s Honeymoon had come out just five years earlier in 1937 but had clearly been a major seller if Marsh could so easily drop in a reference to it. There is a slight nod to the plot of Busman’s Honeymoon in the solution to this case although the hint taken from the murder method in that book in the quote above is also a diversion from the actual method in this one so it was clearly a much loved book by Marsh.

The Mad Hatter Mystery – John Dickson Carr

20201110 The Mad Hatter Mystery

John Dickson Carr was one of the best known mystery writers of the golden age of detective fiction in the 1930’s but who has now largely slipped from public consciousness. Although born in the United States he spent a lot of his active writing life in England and was highly prolific with roughly 100 books published; mainly under his own name but also using pseudonyms. Oddly for a prolific novelist he was strangely unimaginative in his pen names using Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson and once somewhat randomly Roger Fairbairn. His main output was stories about two English amateur detectives, Dr. Gideon Fell written under his own name and Sir Henry Merrivale as Carter Dickson, this book is the second of the Gideon Fell books following on from Hag’s Nook which I also have as a Penguin first edition but which is too fragile to read without worrying about damaging such a rare wartime paperback. Although first published by Hamish Hamilton in 1933, Penguin didn’t print their first edition of The Mad Hatter Mystery until October 1947 so this copy is somewhat more robust.

In this book Dr. Fell is first encountered in a bar, over the twenty three novels and several short stories in which the character appears this would prove to be the best place to find him. He is described as a very large man, not just tall but fat with numerous chins and needing a cane to get around, he is believed to be modelled on G.K Chesterton who certainly fitted this description and Carr admired the man and his works especially the Father Brown stories. About Fell himself we learn very little in this book, Carr is much more interested in the plot of the mystery than in biographical details of his character. He does however fit in to a familiar trope of being an amateur detective who is frequently called upon by the professionals due to his unusual way of linking details and coming up with the solution to an apparently baffling case, something that goes back to Sherlock Holmes but Dr. Fell only works with the police rather than taking on clients.

The actual mystery of the Mad Hatter alluded to in the title is really a minor diversion through the book and is quickly solved by Fell; what he is actually brought in to help with is the theft of a manuscript of an unpublished story by Edgar Alan Poe. The police don’t want to be involved as the person reporting the theft has a somewhat dubious claim to be the owner in any case and has only asked Chief Inspector Hadley for assistance as he knows him. There is a murder but it doesn’t occur until after the other two problems are being pursued, although as I said the identity of the person stealing distinctive hats across London is deliberately left pretty obvious by Carr presumably so the reader can feel that they have solved something along with detectives even if it continues to confuse the main murder plot line and solution as the victim is found wearing one of the stolen hats although had definitely not been wearing it when seen shortly before his death.

The inter-relationships between the characters is fairly complex, as is common in Carr’s works. Why are so many of the people living at the home of Sir William Bitton, the putative owner of the manuscript before its theft, to be found at the Tower of London when the body is found on the steps of Traitors Gate, when they had apparently gone there independently? Who had taken the manuscript from Bitton’s study, when and why? These are two puzzles that slowly unravel as Fell determines how the murder victim met his end and who did that, which needless to say is a very different solution to that reached by Chief Inspector Hadley.

I like John Dickson Carr’s crime novels, Dr. Fell rather more than the Sir Henry Merrivale tales whom I find considerably less likeable as a character. The solutions do tend to be a little convoluted, although that really isn’t the case in this book where it is unexpected but at least looking back you feel that it should have been possible for the reader to reach the same solution given the information provided although of course you don’t at the time. He is sadly neglected nowadays, no television or film adaptations of either of his great detectives have brought him back into the limelight although there is more than enough material to make several series around either of them. Several of his books have now appeared in the British Library Crime Classics series a sure sign that he is neglected by the mainstream as this series was founded to bring back into print works that have gradually disappeared from the shelves and revive interest in the authors.

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

Maigret Travels South – Georges Simenon

20200609 Maigret travels South

This book arrived in the post yesterday having taken almost fifty days to get here from the USA and it occurred to me that I have never actually read anything by Simenon. I wanted it as this is the first edition of the first Maigret book published by Penguin and came from the New York operation set up by Allen Lane and Ian Ballantine during WWII when transatlantic exports were not possible.  It was published in September 1945 whilst the UK parent company didn’t get to Maigret until January 1950 and this title would eventually appear in the UK in January 1952 printed along with nine others as part of the Simenon Million (10 books each in an edition of 100,000 published simultaneously).

Simenon’s novels are quite short so Penguin, along with other publishers, have normally put two together in one volume and this contains ‘Liberty Bar’ along with ‘The Madman of Bergerac’ and even then the book is only 250 pages. Both stories were translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury who translated several of the early Maigret novels printed by Penguin. As they are separate novels only linked by Maigret not being in his regular Paris haunts but much further south I will review them separately.

Liberty Bar

The seventeenth Maigret novel sees the great detective sent off on a murder investigation which apparently requires great tact, something he keeps repeating to himself whenever he gets frustrated by the progress of the case. It’s set in Cannes and Antibes and you can tell straight away that Maigret is not comfortable here. He makes no concession to the location wearing his black coat and bowler hat regardless of the heat and so dramatically stands out where presumably in Paris he would be much like anyone else in the capital. William Brown has been murdered is another mantra he keeps repeating, but his first problem is who was William Brown? Because without understanding that there is no way to work out what had actually happened and why.

My first surprise was nothing to do with the plot but how much alcohol is consumed right from Maigret’s arrival and introduction to the local detective whom immediately suggests going to a bar. Every time we see Boutigues he is either drinking or about to open a bottle and Maigret gets through plenty in his own right especially when he finds Liberty Bar. The characters we are introduced to are wonderfully drawn by Simenon, the four women in particular, the mistress, her mother, the alcoholic bar owner and the prostitute and the time when they finally meet at the funeral, which is engineered by Maigret whist he claims to not know anything about it, is poignant but also funny as they manoeuvre for precedence.

Right up until almost the end I had no idea who had done it and you are cleverly pointed into various dead end possible solutions. My first Maigret story was an absolute delight.

The Madman of Bergerac (Le Fou de Bergerac)

To my surprise the next novel included in this book was written earlier, being number fifteen in the Maigret series, but just emphasised that you really can read any of the seventy five novels plus numerous short stories pretty well in any order. If anything it was also a better story with Maigret solving the murders and the mysterious past of some of the most important characters in Bergerac all from his bed after being shot. I’m not really giving anything away here as that happens very early on in the novel and provides a reason for the Inspector not being able to see for himself what is going on but having to piece everything together from conversations in his room at the hotel where he goes to convalesce.  This plot device is fascinating as Simenon tells the reader Maigret’s thought processes as he slowly unravels the tangled web of lies and half truths surrounding the people he suspects.

The novel starts with Maigret having to go to Bordeaux just to tidy up some loose ends on another case and he takes the overnight train. However the upper bunk of the couchette he ends up in is occupied by a restless man whom in the middle of the night sits up, nervously pulls his patent leather boots over knitted grey wool socks, climbs down the ladder, slips out of the compartment leaving the door open and after waiting for the train to slow down jumps from the carriage. This wait had alerted Maigret as he hadn’t closed the door behind him so he saw him about to jump and got up and followed him being shot by the stranger when he realised he was being pursued.

Who was the mysterious man in grey socks? Why did he jump from the train? And is he anything to do with the murders of women who are strangled and then a long needle inserted in their hearts that has so rattled the town of Bergerac? All this Maigret solves from his bed in one of the best murder mysteries I have read for a long time.

One thing is certain I need to read more Maigret.

Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle – 4

The final stage of my August reading marathon of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in an edition published by The Folio Society. The set consists of five volumes of short stories issued in 1993 and four volumes of novels which came out the following year. The series has a very attractive binding of an offset wrap around design on each book which makes the spines also display the image and appropriately the books are printed using the Baskerville font.

20190806 Sherlock Holmes 1

Two novels and fifty six short stories down, just two novels to go to complete the exercise

20190827 Sherlock Holmes 1

The Hound of the Baskervilles

As mentioned in last week’s blog “The Hound of the Baskervilles”  appeared in Strand magazine in August 1901 was serialised over the following eight months. Doyle did not intend this to be a reboot of the series and it is deliberately set before the ‘death’ of Holmes in “The Final Problem”. It appeared in book form in 1902 and the next year Doyle gave in to public pressure and ‘resurrected’ his most famous creation. The first two novels had disappointed me but this was an excellent adventure well told. In the many years, if not decades, since I last read it I had managed to completely forget the plot other than a vague memory of a luminous dog chasing people to their death so the solution was still a revelation to me.

It all starts with the arrival at Baker Street of Dr Mortimer, a country physician from Devon with the strange tale of a curse on the Baskerville family from the time of the English Civil War when Hugo Baskerville had kidnapped the beautiful daughter of a neighbour intending to force her to marry him. The maiden escapes and he sets off to hunt her across the moor having first offered his body and soul to the Devil if he could catch her. Catch her he did but with a tragic end as found by three of his friends who followed him.

The moon was shining bright upon the clearing, and there in the centre lay the unhappy maid where she had fallen, dead of fear and of fatigue. But it was not the sight of her body, nor yet was it that of the body of Hugo Baskerville lying near her, which raised the hair upon the heads of these three dare-devil roisterers, but it was that, standing over Hugo, and plucking at his throat, there stood a foul thing, a great, black beast, shaped like a hound, yet larger than any hound that ever mortal eye has rested upon. And even as they looked the thing tore the throat out of Hugo Baskerville, on which, as it turned its blazing eyes and dripping jaws upon them, the three shrieked with fear and rode for dear life, still screaming, across the moor. One, it is said, died that very night of what he had seen, and the other twain were but broken men for the rest of their days.
“Such is the tale, my sons, of the coming of the hound which is said to have plagued the family so sorely ever since.

Holmes is not interested in superstitious “fairy tales” and says so but Dr Mortimer does catch his attention when he says that the the most recent owner of Baskerville Hall had died of heart failure in the grounds and near the body was “the footprints of a gigantic hound!” There is but one remaining Baskerville to inherit the estate and he is to arrive in London from Canada that very day and Mortimer wants to know what to do. Hugo Baskerville duly arrives at Baker Street and the fact that he is clearly being followed by somebody and even more peculiarly has had two of his boots stolen on separate nights convinces Holmes that there is more to this case than superstition but apparently he is too busy in London to look into it in person so Watson will have to go.

All this happens in the first five chapters and for the next six (90 out of the 211 pages in my edition) the case is solely pursued by Watson and we get his reports back to Holmes along with extracts from his diary as the narrative. I really enjoyed the way Doyle wrote this, it was good to see Watson at work rather than just following Holmes and reporting on his actions. The addition of an escaped prisoner from the high security prison on the moor further complicates the tale and leads Watson down other tracks other than those immediately involved in the case in hand. The reappearance of Holmes in the story with just 59 pages to go is the signal for the various strands of the case that have been apparently heading off in various directions to be drawn together, even that of the convict is significant right until the end. It’s a great story, far better than the first two Holmes novels and makes me look forward all the more to the final book in this reading marathon.

20190827 Sherlock Holmes 2

The Valley of Fear

First serialised in The Strand Magazine between September 1914 and May 1915 “The Valley of Fear” was published in book form in February 1915 in America by George H Doran and in June that year the UK edition came out published by Smith, Elder and Co. this was the only time that the American edition preceded the UK one for any of the nine books.

OK at halfway through this book I felt a deep sense of disillusionment, here we are back to the worst aspects of the first two novels, lots of back story with no Holmes and Watson, in this case far worse than those books as over half the book is back story. But I persevered and I’m glad I did so because whilst it doesn’t involve our heroes it actually reads like a separate novella which includes a couple of the characters from the Sherlock novella making up the first half. The first part (99 pages in my edition) is an excellent Holmes and Watson tale which is complete in itself, there is no real need for the American adventure in part two other than to pad the story out to novel size. When read in the original serial I’m sure readers felt they were being short changed as the 107 pages (again my edition) that has no Holmes, but instead is a Pinkerton Detective Agency mystery, would have made up probably five months of the magazine.

The Holmes story is probably the closest Doyle gets to the classic ‘locked room mystery’ there is no obvious way for the culprit to escape as each possible solution is shot down by the ridiculousness of the events needed to affect such an escape. And there is also The Case of the Missing Dumbbell to solve! The mystery is maintained until the last few pages and it is an excellent place to finish my Holmes and Watson marathon; but it isn’t where it ends. There are still the 107 pages of Pinkerton and 3 pages of epilogue to go. Now I said at the start of this review that I wasn’t happy with the way the novel was split but unlike the first two novels, where it really did feel like padding, the non-Holmes story was actually very good and written (and consequently could be read) as a complete separate work. It also has to be said that I worked out who Jack McMurdo was, not just in his alias in this part of the book relating to the first, but also his real profession within a few pages so there was absolutely no surprise at the end. Neither was the epilogue unexpected as Professor Moriarty had been mentioned at the start so I was fully prepared for him to act at the end but I did really enjoy this story after I got past my initial disappointment.

This marathon reading of the Holmes and Watson books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been great fun, some I have read within the last few years, others (like the two here) it has been decades since I last tackled them but I’m very glad I gave them all a go this month and I recommend anyone to dip into the stories and enjoy the evolution of one of the greatest fictional detectives.