Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle – 1

Last August I completed a reading challenge of all ten books in the first Penguin Books crime set from 1938. So this month I have decided to also attempt more than the expected four books by tackling the complete Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as 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. My copies are well read and the titles on the short stories are badly worn, although looking at other examples in various bookshops this does seem to be a common feature of this particular edition.

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Now although this looks like a logical reading order in fact Doyle wrote the first two novels “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Sign of Four” before he produced any short stories so in fact a better reading sequence is those books this week, followed by the short stories then finally the last two novels. Although novel number three “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is set during the time of the first two collections of short stories it didn’t actually come out until much later and it doesn’t affect time lines too much to leave the last two novels until the end as they both are looking back on past cases.

As last year I will be writing about each volume as I go along rather than waiting for completion so without further ado lets jump in with the first two novels

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A Study in Scarlet

This is the first appearance of Holmes and Watson and originally appeared in print in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual before being published in book form in July 1888.

“Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford, introducing us.

“How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

“How on earth did you know that?” I asked in astonishment.

“Never mind,” said he, chuckling to himself.

and so a partnership was born…

The book fairly rattles along, just ten pages in Holmes and Watson are ensconced in 221b Baker Street and Holmes has started his work much to the puzzlement of Watson. The two men are after all just sharing the property there is no indication that Watson would get involved in anything in fact he is specifically looking for a quiet life whilst recovering from his injuries from the war in Afghanistan. Watson however is intrigued as to what Holmes is up to and creates a list of attributes to try to work it out, these include him knowing nothing of literature, astronomy or philosophy, whilst other things such as botany (natural poisons anyway) or geology (soils and clays) were specialised in the extreme. Chemistry and sensational literature however he was a complete master of; none of these items seem to make any sense though.

Another few pages and Holmes again demonstrates his deductive reasoning and explains he is a consulting detective just as he gets a message from Sergeant Gregson of Scotland Yard asking him to come to Lauriston Gardens; Watson joins him and so starts his journals that the Holmes stories are supposedly taken from. The case, to Holmes anyway, is absurdly simple. In fact so simple that by the eightieth page he has apprehended the murderer with the help of his street urchin employees also known as The Baker Street Irregulars, and there is where the book starts to fall apart. For the next fifty two pages are back story. Doyle writes well with the dynamic of Holmes and Watson along with the bungling Gregson and Lestrade from Scotland Yard but over fifty pages without any of these characters whilst he ranges over the settlement of the Mormons in Salt Lake City and the inter-family rivalries just plods along especially after the pace of the first half of the book. It is not even written as though being told to our protagonists it is just an over long history.

We finally get back to Holmes, Watson, Gregson, Lestrade and their prisoner in 221b with just 22 pages left for Watson’s journal to wrap up and the murderer to explain how and why he did it. Very much a book of two halves but with enough promising material regarding the great detective to make a sequel inevitable.

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The Sign of Four

The second time out for Holmes was in the February 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine issued jointly in the UK and US, and by October of that year it had been published as a standalone book.

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

The opening paragraph of The Sign of Four shows Holmes the drug addict, in this case injecting a seven percent solution of cocaine much to the disgust of Dr. Watson. This was turned into a particularly powerful scene in “The Secret of Sherlock Holmes”, a play starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke that I saw in 1988 at Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End. These two actors, for me at least, are the definitive Holmes and Watson and to see Brett as Holmes in silhouette at the back of the stage injecting into his arm before the lights were cut at the end of the scene is a dramatic act that has stayed with me for over 30 years.

As for the book itself it is much better written than the first although there is again a large section of back story at the end. This time it is much shorter than in “A Study in Scarlet” and rather than being a standalone tale it is given as Jonathan Small telling his involvement in the crimes at 221b Baker Street with Holmes, Watson and in this case Athelney Jones of the Yard. This is a considerable improvement as the three can react to Jonathan Small’s story and there is no massive disjointed section. This is also the first appearance of probably the most famous Holmes quote

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

Still back to the beginning, Dr. Watson is trying to draw Holmes away from the cocaine over breakfast the next day when a young lady by the name of Miss Mary Morstan arrives and lays out a singular problem for the great man. Her father had returned to England eleven years ago and disappeared without trace however each year for the last six she has received a fine pearl from an anonymous benefactor and now she has had a letter from him desiring her to be at the Lyceum theatre and she can bring two companions. Naturally Holmes and Watson are willing to go but for very different reasons, Holmes to solve a puzzle but Watson has fallen for Miss Morstan almost immediately and in this state would do anything for her.

Without giving away the plot, the pearls are quickly revealed to be part of a large treasure and in searching for the remainder Holmes engages the use of a scent hound to follow a creosote trail left by one of the culprits from a house in Norwood after he stepped in some of this highly pungent liquid, and this provides one of the few bits of genuine humour in the books as the dog getting confused by crossing trails eventually comes to its mark…

On the dog raced through sawdust and shavings, down an alley, round a passage, between two wood-piles, and finally, with a triumphant yelp, sprang upon a large barrel which still stood upon the hand-trolley on which it had been brought. With lolling tongue and blinking eyes, Toby stood upon the cask, looking from one to the other of us for some sign of appreciation. The staves of the barrel and the wheels of the trolley were smeared with a dark liquid, and the whole air was heavy with the smell of creosote.

Sherlock Holmes and I looked blankly at each other, and then burst simultaneously into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.

Another funny passage occurs with Watson attempting to take Miss Morstan’s mind off the danger they may be in with some of his tales from Afghanistan.

To this day she declares that I told her one moving anecdote as to how a musket looked into my tent at the dead of night, and how I fired a double-barrelled tiger cub at it.

His tongue-tied behaviour is somewhat explained at the end of the book when less than a week after first meeting her he explains to Holmes that he will no longer be available to accompany him on adventures as

Miss Morstan has done me the honour to accept me as a husband in prospective.

Next week I start on the short stories first printed in The Strand Magazine between 1891 and 1893. Will Watson still be living with Holmes or are he and Mary setting up home together with him merely reporting from the sidelines?

The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde’s first novel also introduces his main protagonist, Thursday Next, an agent for LiteraTec Special Operations who has now appeared in seven books by Fforde. The books exists in an alternate history where, in the case of this book, the year is 1985 and the Crimean War is now into its 135th year, there are companies commercially genetically engineering extinct species so a popular pet is a dodo and Special Operations includes division 27 which looks after works of literature. In fact literature seems to dominate society with people changing their names to that of famous authors to such an extent that they are legally obliged to have a number tattooed on them to identify which John Milton you are talking to for example. There is also the Goliath Corporation a firm that has made billions in financing the Crimean War and seems to have various shadowy sidelines of it’s own which are strictly for the good of the corporation.

A running trope through this book is “Who wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare?” sometimes there are short discussions regarding Bacon or Marlowe and in one tedious section which ruins the flow of the plot a whole series of pages are dedicated to this discussion for no good reason whatsoever.

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The book after all is theoretically about Jane Eyre, although in fact for almost half the story it is about Martin Chuzzlewit. The basic conceit of the book is that there is a master criminal who obtains a machine invented by Thursday’s uncle Mycroft which allows people to travel in and out of works of literature. Archeron Hades steals the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ work, removes one of the minor characters and has him killed in the present day. This changes all copies of the book, even those already printed, and he threatens to do the same to Chuzzlewit himself unless a ransom is paid.

For various reasons the plot is foiled and the ransom not paid but Hades escapes to the fiercely independent Republic of Wales where he cannot be followed by English justice, only to try again by this time stealing the original manuscript of Jane Eyre and kidnapping Jane herself immediately before she rescues Mr Rochester from his flaming bed. All copies of the book are therefore much shorter and there is uproar. Thursday Next is sent to get Jane and the book back together.

As implied above there are numerous sub plots, in fact far too many sub plots, as the book is overly complicated by them. You get the feeling that Fford is trying to show off his literary erudition at the expense of just telling a good story and there is definitely a good story to be found in there if you work at it. I’m inclined to forgive him as this is his first published work and I will definitely read at least the next volume about Thursday Next entitled “Lost in a Good Book” which is set a few months after “The Eyre Affair”.

The book cover by the way is printed to look as though it is rather dog-eared, my copy is brand new.

Chapter 13

There is an ongoing joke in Fforde’s books regarding chapter thirteen or rather the lack of one. If there are numbered chapters then there is always one listed in the contents at the start but in fact chapter 14 always immediately follows chapter 12 and the page given for chapter 13 to start is either blank or part way through chapter 12. They do however have titles:

  • The Eyre Affair – The church at Capel-y-ffin
  • Lost in a Good Book – Mount Pleasant
  • The Well of Lost Plots – Reservoir near the church of St Stephen
  • Something Rotten – Milton
  • First Amongst Sequels – Cross Lewis’ number
  • One of Our Thursdays is Missing – 14th May 1931
  • The Woman Who Died a Lot – A Penguin
  • The Big Over Easy – First on the right
  • The Fourth Bear – 111110000

Note: assuming 111110000 is binary then the decimal equivalent is 496, it is anyone’s guess if this is significant or if there is any meaning to the choice of titles for the missing chapters; although the 14th May 1931 was a Thursday.

Brother Cadfael – Ellis Peters

Finding myself abroad last week, but having fallen and badly sprained my ankle so forced into inactivity, I picked up a copy of the Brother Cadfael Omnibus volume two which my host owned. I chose this because I have the Cadfael stories in their individual volumes at home so if I didn’t finish a book then I could do so on my return. Omnibus volume two consists of books four to six of the series i.e. Saint Peters Fair, The Leper of Saint Giles and The Virgin in the Ice and I finished the first two and got most of the way through The Virgin in the Ice which I have now completed. I have read all twenty one of the books in the series several times so knew I was in for a fun time even though I could remember most of the plots.

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For those people unfamiliar with the stories Brother Cadfael (the name is Welsh and pronounced Kad-vile) is a monk at the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury, Shropshire and the books are almost all set from 1137 to 1145 during the civil war between King Stephen and his cousin Empress Maud for control of the English crown. The one exception is A Rare Benedictine which is actually a collection of three short stories exploring Cadfael’s life before the first book going back as far as 1120 when he was a crusader. This book is also not included in the standard numbering of the series, it should be number sixteen but is skipped in the sequence by most publishers and when the omnibus editions were put together it was assigned the final place in volume seven further emphasising that it is not really part of the story arc. Apart from that the books follow on from each other so this is one series where it really does pay to read them in order. The character is a herbalist within the monastery and is seen by his superiors as a useful link to the secular powers such as the sheriff and especially his deputy Hugh Beringer due to the long time he spent in the world before withdrawing to the monastic life. His knowledge of herbs and remedies is also very useful both within the abbey and to the town and the surrounding area and this leads him to be involved in poisonings and murders as the basis of a lot of the plots.

I would be very surprised if the Estonian medieval detective tales of Apothecary Melchior tales by Indrek Hargla  were not heavily influenced by the Cadfael stories as although they are set a couple of hundred years later the two characters are very similar in skills and ways of approaching crime.

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Ellis Peters was one of the pseudonyms used by Edith Pargeter for her in excess of seventy five books along with dozens of short stories written between 1936 and her death in 1995. She lived almost her entire life within 5 miles of where I now reside being born in the small village of Horsehay and dying just 3½ miles from there in the town of Madeley at the age of eighty two, so she was very much a local celebrity round here. There is even a window dedicated to her memory in Shrewsbury abbey (about fifteen miles from here) and the Cadfael trails around Shrewsbury are still a popular tourist draw to the town. As well as a novelist she was a historian and translator and it is her historical interests that adds so much character to the books. Numerous real people are mentioned including the two abbots and the prior of the abbey who were indeed there when she says they were

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The covers I have included are from my own copies, there are numerous sets of covers that you can get the books in, I particularly like this version although it is mildly annoying as you cannot get all the books in exactly the same format as the publishers (Futura) decided to change it to include the book number on the cover near the end of the series which messed up the design. However the ‘parchment’ background with decorated lettering I think is very satisfying for books set in a medieval monastery. The books have fallen out of popularity since Pargeter’s death and the TV series which ran in the late 1990’s but they are well worth a read and you will also learn quite a but about ‘The Anarchy’, a period of English history that also doesn’t seem to be known about in modern times.

Enter The Saint – Leslie Charteris

Just before Christmas I purchased a collection of ‘Saint’ books partly as a nostalgia feast. I had grown up a small boy watching Roger Moore as Simon Templar aka The Saint on television; a series that eventually had almost 120 episodes and ran from 1962 to 1969, so I only saw the later ones unless earlier episodes were repeated. It was through playing The Saint that Moore was offered the role of James Bond, a similar action hero, although the Saint ran his own ‘organisation’ and was more of a Robin Hood character being happy to use criminal means to get the results he wants. The Saint also pre-dates Bond by twenty five years with his first appearance in ‘The Saint Meets the Tiger’ dating from 1928 whilst ‘Casino Royale’ which marks Bond’s debut was published in 1953.

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The collection I bought was a bit of a bargain at £20 plus postage for thirty books, half of which were hardbacks (only two with dust wrappers) and most printed in the 1950’s. In later years Charteris was dismissive about Meets the Tiger and regarded Enter The Saint as the first ‘proper’ Saint book; an attitude that was followed in the most recent reprint of the titles in 2013/4 by Mulholland which left out Meets the Tiger completely so that is why I am starting my reading of the books with this one. My copy is the 1957 hardback from Charteris’s long time British publisher Hodder and Stoughton, it’s missing its wrapper and has clearly been well read in the sixty years since it was printed so looks nothing like the edition I have used to illustrate this article as it has plain blue board covers (not very photogenic). The picture is actually a beautiful first edition copy currently for sale by Lucius Books in York for £2940, so not a copy I’ll be purchasing any time soon but lovely to see. Below is the title page from my copy featuring the calling card of the Saint.

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In total there were fifty Saint books printed in the UK during Charteris’s lifetime although only the first thirty six were written by him, after that numerous other authors (including science fiction writer Harry Harrison) actually wrote the books, with Charteris mainly reducing his role to editor although his name continued to be the main (and sometimes only) one on the cover. All but five of the ones I got last year are from the first thirty six. Most of the books are collections of novellas or short stories and Enter the Saint is a good example consisting of three novellas.

I – The Man who Was Clever – 67 pages

MR “SNAKE” GANNING was neither a great criminal nor a pleasant character, but he is interesting because he was the first victim of the organisation led by the man known as the Saint, which was destined in the course of a few months to spread terror through the underworld of London – that ruthless association of reckless young men, brilliantly led, who worked on the side of the law and who were yet outside the law.

So begins the first tale in this book and quite an introduction it is and within three pages Snake had duly become that first victim. This however was just a minor diversion for the Saint from the main events of this story. He is working to disrupt a cocaine smuggling business run by a crooked gambling club owner and whilst at it help out a young man who had become a victim of their illegal casino to the tune of thousands of pounds.  This he duly achieves with a mixture of guile and outright violence whichever is appropriate at the time. The Saint is a highly accomplished and powerful fighter but not above throwing a chair to improve the odds when throwing a punch is out of range.

II – The Policeman with Wings – 57 pages

The second story provides more of a leading role for one of Templar’s ‘associates’, Roger Conway, part time manager of the Golden Eagle Hotel in St. Marychurch near Torquay in Devon. That he is also a part time member of the Saint’s organisation is not so well known. Roger had met a young lady in Torquay who told him an odd tale about her uncle. He had recently been offered a lot of money for his house and when he turned it down a shot had been fired at him in the garden and the brakes of his car tampered with. He had been driven off by a policeman a few days ago, ostensibly to give a statement, but policeman, car and uncle had vanished and the police had confirmed that none of their officers had visited him to do any such thing. Why does somebody want the house so much and is the young lady safe now that she is the only person living there? Cue dramatic car chases, kidnapping, diamonds and the appearance of a very nasty piece of work known as Spider, for such a short novella it certainly packs a lot in.

III – The Lawless Lady – 59 pages

This story features another of the Saint’s lieutenants, in this case Dicky Tremayne, and also gives some idea as to the long term planning that the Saint was willing to use to put a criminal out of business whilst at the same time obtaining a significant sum for charity less his 10% for ‘professional fees’. This operation is something that Dicky has been working on for a year and we join the action just a few days before the main crime is to be committed. The plot that Tremayne and Templar are to counter is quite ingenious; the gang led by Audrey Perowne has set up a fake private cruise for a group of wealthy businessmen, Dicky has been working for the gang across Europe gathering potential victims. Their plan is to take the men and their wives, who would of course all be looking to outdo one another with the level of jewellery on display whilst the men are ready to spend big in Marseilles and Monte Carlo part way through the trip and then rob and dump them somewhere remote. Back in 1930 this may well have been a valid option but nowadays with modern communication methods this really has dated badly. Nevertheless can Dicky maintain his cover within the gang and how will the Saint turn the tables? It’s all very exciting…

Charteris himself was an interesting character, born Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin in 1907 in Singapore (then a British colony) he was educated at a private school in the north of England and went to Kings College Cambridge but left after a year when he started to get published. In 1926 he changed his surname by deed-poll to Charteris. and in 1932 he moved to America, or at least tried to, but being half Chinese he was blocked from residency by the Oriental Exclusion Act so had to keep leaving when his six month visa expired all this whilst working on films and radio series about The Saint. At the end of 1942 a law was passed in the US specifically so that Charteris and his daughter Patricia could live in America and in 1946 he became an American citizen. Near the end of his life he moved back to England with his fourth wife and died aged 85 in 1993.

I’m going to continue working my way through the other books I bought at the same time as the year goes on although unless one strikes me as particularly interesting I expect this will be the only time I write about The Saint on this blog. Seek him out if you like uncomplicated thrillers now that he is available again in quantity for the first time since the mid 1980’s although do bear in mind that the early books are very much of their time and feel rather dated now. Charteris was himself well aware of this and kept intending to do rewrites but in the end decided to leave them as period pieces.

First Penguin crime set – part 3

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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:-

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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Dovetail – Bernard Pearson

He’s a craftsman, not just good with his hands, an artist, an artisan, the man you go to when you need something a bit special. Years of making wonderful objects have given him an eye for beauty and the skill to create it and if he can’t do it then he knows a man who can. But now he’s older and no longer hale and hearty and the body won’t let his hands do what they could do before. The old comfortable clothes and wreathes of pipe smoke still mark out the well known local character but a new chapter is beginning.

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I could be writing about Bill Sawyer, the main character in Bernard Pearson’s first novel but in reality that was a shorthand portrait of Bernard himself. I’ve known him for over 20 years now and have handed over more money for things he’s made than I care to think about, beautiful finely detailed sculptures, unusual candles and interesting pottery figurines by him decorate my home and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Unfortunately he can’t sculpt any more, he can’t hold the tools long enough and steady enough for the work, but he can tell stories and what wonderful tales he tells, and has told over many years and many, many more pints of strong Somerset cider and so the new chapter begins…

Dovetail isn’t Bernard’s first foray into print, fourteen years ago he collaborated with Terry Pratchett to produce The Discworld Almanak, the first book to exist in our world that was specifically mentioned as an existing publication in Terry’s Discworld series of novels. Since then, with his wife Isobel, and the team at The Discworld Emporium in Wincanton there has been several other books and diaries set within Terry’s fantastical imaginary world. Towards the end of his life Terry told Bernard to try writing something of his own and this first novel is the result. It’s not high literature, it’ll never make the Man Booker short list, or even the long list for that matter but that isn’t what Bernard or indeed his readers are aiming for. What he has produced is a cracking good read with the eye to detail that distinguished his sculptures now turned to give depth to the characters and draw you along through the book as you get to know them and the twists and turns of the dodgy antique furniture trade.

As stated above, Bill Sawyer is a craftsman, one of the best, a man who can repair something old so that an expert wouldn’t know he had touched it or, if the need arises, can make something centuries old that didn’t exist last month. Known throughout the trade in the UK his fame, and skill, is about to get him into a lot of trouble and he wants to retire. He’s ill, just how ill is revealed as you read through the book, and it’s going to affect not only his work on this last unwanted project but his ability to protect those he cares for and he so desperately needs to be able to do that.

The book starts with a fire, one of many on the 5th of November, which is bonfire night here in the UK, a date redolent of history and violence, then jumps back three months as the remaining 345 pages tell the story of how and why the conflagration came about and you very quickly want to know the how, why and especially the who of that particular inferno. It’s a genuine page turner, I found it difficult to put down even when sleep was the obvious thing to do at that time of night.

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Bernard used to be a policeman as a young man and knows about evidence and how untrustworthy it can be and how experts can be fooled especially when they don’t want to be (oh the stories). Actually he probably knows more about how to do all sorts of things you are not supposed to do at a police house without senior officers finding out than just about anyone alive but that really is another story. He’s a teller of tall tales, always has been, always will be and because they always contain a solid foundation of truth they are all the better for it. God knows what nugget from his memory was the foundation for this story, maybe I’ll find out one day over some cider, maybe I won’t, but I don’t mind as long as he writes some more.

The book is self published and available from No 41 Publishers which is presumably Bernard himself (or more likely Isobel as easily the most organised of the two) as 41 High Street is the address of the Emporium. My copy is dedicated and numbered although this isn’t really a limited edition book. All my limited edition sculptures by Bernard (and there are quite a lot) are number 128 of however many were produced even when there was less than 128 made…

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The photograph of Bernard is by Len Brook, another artist of my acquaintance and a photographer of considerable skill who also has a few tales he can tell.

Apothecary Melchior

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The Apothecary Melchior series by Indrek Hargla is pretty well unknown in the UK but very popular in his native Estonia. He is probably best known there for his fantasy and ‘alternative history’ stories but Melchior is Hargla’s foray into medieval crime making him the closest Estonian equivalent of Ellis Peters here in the UK with her Brother Cadfael tales. The Melchior novels are set in the capital, Tallinn, in the early 1400’s as the city was going through a massive building programme, with the city walls mostly constructed along with some of the significant buildings but others parts are clearly still being worked on including the main square.

Although there are now six novels in the series only two have so far been translated into English and are published by Peter Owen however as can be seen from the covers these don’t look like part of a series. It seems an odd choice by the publisher to make them look so unlike and they are also translated by different people.

  • … and the Mystery of St. Olaf’s Church – Original title Apteeker Melchior ja Oleviste mõistatus published 2010 – translated in 2015 by Adam Cullen
  • … and the Ghost of Rataskaevu Street – Original title Apteeker Melchior ja Rataskaevu viirastus published 2010 – translated in 2016 by Christopher Moseley

I was first introduced to the books by my Estonian friend who gave me the second book for my birthday last year, it had to be book two as she couldn’t find a translation of the first one in Estonia. One of the problems I have found with translations from Estonian is their variable quality; so whilst I enjoy the books I have read in translation, quite often I find myself having to reread sections to be sure I have understood what is being said. This was not a problem with The Ghost of Rataskaevu Street, I sat and read it quite quickly, especially on the one day when out in the Estonian countryside there was just torrential rain so getting out and enjoying the area was not possible. Unfortunately the translation of The Mystery of St. Olaf’s Church is not as good so this may explain the change of translator for the second novel. The book is still perfectly readable but the flow of the narrative seems forced at times and I’m inclined to blame the translator rather than the author here as Hargla had been writing for many years before these books and they both came out in the same year so it’s not a case of the original authorship style changing.  My friend also loves the series and I doubt she would have if she had started with this one.

Melchior is in the classic tradition of the amateur sleuth who finds himself drawn into mysteries and providing assistance to the city authorities and through him we learn about the power conflicts in the city as the Teutonic knights in their castle are slowly losing control to the expanding city council along with the rivalries between the various religious bodies that still held enormous influence at the time. Whilst reading it, the first book appears to be misnamed for a long time, as very little appears to happen at St Olaf’s and it is only at the conclusion that the church’s role in the story is explained. At the start the book seems like a simple mystery as to who murdered one of the knights in the castle itself. Melchior gets involved due to his specialist knowledge as an apothecary making him one of the few scientifically trained people in the city and he sees it initially as a way of currying favour with the city fathers who need the murder solving quickly to keep the knights happy. In turn he looks for their assistance in opening the main city pharmacy which would catapult him up the social standings in Tallinn. The book is set in 1409, thirteen years before such a pharmacy was actually opened in the city so we know he isn’t going to get anywhere with that plan soon. Without giving any of the plot away, the story moves around the city introducing each of the power brokers in the place and ultimately reaches a denouement at St Olaf’s at the other end of Pikk, one of the longest streets in Tallinn.

The Ghost of Rataskaevu Street starts out much closer to home for Melchoir as this is where his home and small shop are situated. The tale is darker than the first book with rivalries between senior families leading to some pretty horrific situations for some of the protagonists, it is also more character driven than the first. We see a greater strata of the city’s population from the highest nobles of the Merchant Guilds to shop and bar keepers, sailors, servants and serfs. The Guilds are now getting more powerful, as would be the case all over Europe at this time but especially in the Hanseatic League which included Estonia and whose merchants controlled large parts of international trade in Northern Europe. By 1419 which is when this book is set they had recently built a guild house in the centre of the city and this alongside the City Hall was where power was slowly drifting away from the knights in their castle on Toompea Hill. The families involved in the story are senior guild members and this makes solving the crimes more difficult as Melchior must be very careful not to annoy the very people he is investigating.

One of the joys of reading the books after visiting Tallinn is that most of the places mentioned are still standing and the city looks much as it did 700 years ago, except obviously a lot cleaner that it would have been at the time.

A general view of the city from the castle on Toompea

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The Long Leg gateway, entrance to the castle seen from the end of Rataskaevu Street

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St Olaf’s church on Pikk

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The Guild Hall

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and finally the Apothecary in the main square that Melchior so wants to found. As said above this opened in 1422 and it is now the oldest still working pharmacy in the world.

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Seek out the Melchior stories, I hope that Peter Owen will get round to the others soon.

According to a chart in the i newspaper last week Estonian’s spend more time on average reading books than any other nation in Europe and Estonian authors certainly produce a wide range of work which I will be dipping into again in future blogs.