Case for Three Detectives – Leo Bruce

Leo Bruce was the crime writing pseudonym of amazingly prolific writer Rupert Croft-Cooke who wrote well over a hundred books under his own name from 1920 until 1975, along with over thirty crime novels as Leo Bruce and numerous short stories under both names. This is the first of his crime novels and along with it being a really fun parody of other writers it introduced his plain speaking Sergeant Beef who has no time for the amateur detective so beloved of so many other authors. Indeed the three detectives in this book are very thinly disguised famous other detectives Lord Simon Plimsoll is clearly Dorothy L Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey, Monsieur Amer Picon is Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Monsignor Smith is Father Brown by G K Chesterton, this will be the first, and presumably last, time all three will work on the same case but they do not work together.

The crime occurs in a large country house, home of Dr. Thurston and his wife Mary who are hosting a group of their friends for the weekend. After the evening meal, which had featured a discussion about murder mysteries, Mrs Thurston goes to bed at about eleven o’clock. Shortly afterwards there are some screams heard, the guests rush upstairs to the Thurston’s room and discovering it bolted break down the door and inside find Mrs Thurston lying on the bed with blood all over the pillow. A brief search is made but nothing relevant found so how was she killed inside a locked room? A car is sent for the local village police sergeant along with the Dr Tate the village’s general practitioner as the phone line to the house is cut, the doctor confirms that Mrs Thurston is definitely dead from a cut throat and Sergeant Beef checks the scene and states that he knows who did the murder but being just the local copper is completely ignored by everyone else. The book is written in the first person as though by one of the guests to the house party.

Quite early the next morning those indefatigably brilliant private investigators, who seem to be always handy when a murder has been committed, began to arrive. I had some knowledge of their habits and guessed at once what had happened to bring them here. One had probably been staying in the district, another was a friend of Dr Tate’s, while a third, perhaps, had already been asked to stay with the Thurstons. At any rate it was not long before the house seemed to be alive with them, crawling about on floors, applying lenses to the paint-work and asking the servants the most unexpected questions.

First paragraph of chapter five

The three detectives seem a little put out at first that all of them were there but agree to apply their own methods to solving the case, having a good look round not only the house and grounds but spreading their investigations to neighbouring villages as well. they convene that evening to question the guests and the servants at the end of which all three claim to be on their way having theories about solving the case and Sergeant Beef is getting more and more exasperated as he explains that the ain’t got a theory as he don’t need one as he knows who did it. Everyone continues to ignore and dismiss him as he is just a lowly village sergeant so what would he know?

On the second evening the group gather again to hear the three detectives explain how the murderer go in and out of a locked room and whom it was, why they did it and the name of their accomplice that was needed in order to effect an escape via ropes that were found secreted in the water tank in one of the top rooms of the house. Each solution is more and more ingenious and of course the three detectives give completely different solutions and alternative suspects, all of which fit the clues as we know them, whilst ruling out their compatriots reasoning. In the following confusion it is finally down to Sergeant Beef to explain what really happened.

The book is great fun especially if you are familiar with the three detectives being parodied here as their mannerisms and styles are so well sent up. I had no knowledge of Rupert Croft-Cooke aka Leo Bruce before reading the book and didn’t know I was in for a very funny parody when I got the volume off the shelf, it was a green (therefore crime) Penguin book and that was what I felt the need for at the time and expected a much more serious tale but I loved it.

The Albatross Press

I’ve been fascinated by The Albatross Press and their huge selection of books solely issued in the English language although printed and circulated only in continental Europe for well over twenty years, possibly thirty, from when I first became aware of their existence and the obvious influence the press had on Allen Lane when he came to found Penguin Books back in 1935. However until this book was published in 2017 information about Albatross was patchy at best and for my 250th blog I’ve decided to look again at my small Albatross collection along with reviewing Michele Troy’s excellent book. The Albatross Press books are difficult to find here in the UK as due to copyright restrictions they were not available in the UK, British Empire or the USA and indeed were seized by customs officials if anyone tried to bring them in, but they can be found occasionally and when I see one at a reasonable price I normally pick it up to add to my library. I’m going to split this blog into two sections, firstly a review of Michele Troy’s superb and phenomenally well researched book and then a piece about my collection which will give an idea as to the sort of titles published by Albatross from its foundation in 1932 until closing down soon after 1947. In fact it survived as an entity until 1955 but didn’t produce any new books in the 1950’s merely trying to sell its back stocks as it faced competition from a wave of American and British new paperback publishers all able to undercut Albatross prices.

Strange Bird – Michele K. Troy

As implied by the subtitle of this impressive volume 1932 was not a good year to start a publishing venture in Germany as Hitler along with his followers burgeoning censorship of books, sometimes for little reason, made operating there extremely difficult from his rise to power in 1933. Alongside the issues of Nazi interference as to what may or may not be published there was a significant problem with the business model for The Albatross Press and that was that there was already a well established publishing company issuing English language books on the continent and the German firm Tauchnitz had been in that market for over ninety years. The Albatross Press was an extremely complicated company, initially printing books in Italy and then moving that part of the business to Germany to get round Nazi regulations. European distribution was also run from Germany but the editorial team were in Paris whilst the funding came from Britain via a holding company in Luxembourg. It’s founding partners were John Holroyd-Reece a German born naturalised Brit who was half Jewish and German Max Christian Wegner who had recently been fired as Managing Director of Tauchnitz. Running the distribution from his existing company was another German, Kurt Enoch, who was also Jewish. You can see the problems that will rapidly start to accumulate under the rise of the Nazis. Holroyd-Reece also started numerous other publishing companies some of which owned shares in the other ones and it is frankly amazing that not only does Michele Troy explain this dense web of businesses but does so in a highly readable way.

Part of the reason for the complexity was a desire to present the company as German to Germans, British to the British and sufficiently international to confuse everyone else but you may wonder why there was not only a market for English language books on the continent and how such a market got started. Troy does her best to cover this as well, initially created by Tauchnitz partly in order to allow British and later American authors to obtain copyright for their works in Europe decades before international copyright was available. Well educated Europeans could also normally read English perfectly and having books in the original language is always seen as preferable to translations. By the mid to late 1930’s though the main thing that was driving the existence of Albatross and Tauchnitz, which by then Albatross had succeeded in getting editorial control over, was the need for foreign currency by Hitler’s government. This is another complicating aspect ably covered by Michele Troy as she digs into Nazi files and reveals the various sides trying to decide if Albatross, as a British firm, should be trading in Germany at all, especially when it turned out that the main British backer was also a Jew. Amazingly even after war broke out Albatross continued to trade until 1944 although it was largely concerned in selling it’s stored books.

What starts off as the history of a now largely forgotten publishing house turns into almost a detective story as she pieces together the surviving documentation despite both Albatross and Tauchnitz archives being destroyed during the war. The notes and citations alone run to fifty seven pages and the selected bibliography a further twelve pages. This is a major academic research project from the professor of English at Hillyer College at the University of Hartford and is well worth a read even if you have never heard of Albatross because it is so well written the story draws you in.

My collection of Albatross Press books

As has become clear to anyone reading my blog for a while I collect Penguin Books and have over 3,500 of them so Albatross are a logical side collection. The inspiration for Penguin Books was partly due to the press being named after a bird but mainly for the cheap but smart editions which are colour coded by subject matter, something that Allan Lane immediately adopted for his new enterprise. The chart shown below is from the dust wrapper of Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man.

Troy explains the importance of Tauchnitz and if anything volumes from this publisher are even more difficult to find in the UK than Albatross, I just have four, three of which are from 1879 and 1880 and the final one, ‘Twelve Men’ is from 1930 so shows the plain typographical covers that the bright and colourful Albatross were going up against to attract customers.

I have managed to accumulate twenty three Albatross books, so roughly one a year since I started looking for them, and their immediate attraction is obvious even if the standardisation of colours is sometimes poor to say the least. Both ‘Journal’ and ‘The Arches of the Years’ are purple and ‘Journal’ isn’t faded as it is that shade on the spine and rear cover as well.

  • 16 – The Brothers printed in Italy in 193?
  • 19 – Ambrose Holt and Family printed in Germany in 1932
  • 31 – Apocalypse printed in Germany in 1932
  • 32 – The White Peacock printed in Germany in 1932
  • 52 – Journal printed in Germany in 1933
  • 203 – The Arches of the Years printed in Germany in 1934
  • 216 (Extra Volume) – All Men are Enemies printed in Germany in 1934
  • 236 – Pelican Walking printed in Germany in 1934
  • 240 – Unfinished Cathedral printed in Germany in 1934
  • 247 – Brief Candles printed in Germany in 1935
  • 260 – Music at Night printed in Germany in 1935
  • 310 – The Asiatics reprinted in Italy in 1947
  • 317 (Special Volume) – The Weather in the Streets reprinted in Italy in 1947
  • 326 (Extra Volume) – Aaron’s Rod printed in Germany in 1937
  • 359 – The Bridge printed by Collins in Scotland in 1938 as Les Editions Albatros, Paris
  • 377 – Juan in China printed in Germany in 1938
  • 390 (Extra Volume) – The Letters of D.H. Lawrence printed in Germany in 1938
  • 514 – Grandma Called it Carnal printed in Italy in 1947
  • 551 (Special Volume) – Operation Neptune printed in Holland in 1947
  • 556 (Special Volume) – English Saga printed in Holland in 1947
  • 558 – Siegfried’s Journey printed in Holland in 1947
  • 4802 – Lord Jim printed in Italy for Librairie Marcel Didier in 1947
  • 4975 – Memories of a Fox-Hunting Man printed in Italy for Librairie Marcel Didier in 1947

The massive leap in the numbering scheme for the last two books should not be taken to show thousands of new titles suddenly being released. Rather I suspect that this is to keep the Librairie Marcel Didier volumes well out of the numbering scheme of the existing Albatross Press books. Penguin did something similar when launching Penguin Inc in America during the war and starting their book numbering at 500. Penguin Inc’s managing director was Kurt Enoch having escaped the Nazi’s so this was his second publishing venture. In 1948 following disagreements with Allen Lane back at Penguin headquarters in England Penguin Inc was dissolved and Enoch started again with his third publishing firm this time as Signet and Mentor. As for the Extra and Special Volumes these are normally significantly thicker than ‘normal’ volumes and presumably had a higher price although 558 Siegfried’s Journey is a normal size so maybe Special Volumes had a different rule.

But why Albatross? Holroyd-Reece had several explanations but the one I find most persuasive is because the word is similar in a lot of European languages: Albatros in Catalan, Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, German and Spanish amongst many others, Albatro in Italian, Albatrosz in Hungarian and surprisingly Albatross in Estonian and those last two languages I know from personal experience are normally miles away from English. I’m still on the lookout for more volumes from The Albatross Press and have even added a sideline of want to be Albatross books including the Italian Corvi press, which is undated but numbered 4 in the series and looks to be from the 1930’s. This is a true polyglot of a title as it is a biography of a British Prime Minister written by a French politician and translated into Italian. Alongside is a book I picked up earlier this year in Budapest which is much later, 1979, but is clearly inspired by Albatross design and in this case is written in Hungarian but published in Bucharest, Romania. Fabre was a French naturalist and this is a translation of one of his books about insects.

All in all The Albatross Press produced some very attractive books from a wide range of significant authors so are well worth looking for and are a pleasant surprise when you do find one on a shelf in a second hand bookshop. As Michelle Troy’s incredibly well researched book proves they also had a fascinating history behind them.

The Brontës Went to Woolworth’s – Rachel Ferguson

With a title like that how could I resist? For those of you unfamiliar with the Woolworth’s name it was a high street range of budget stores in various parts of the world starting in America and later arriving in the UK up until 2008 when the UK side of the business went into administration with over eight hundred shops closing just after Christmas that year. They sold everything from records to sweets, children’s clothing to household goods, toys to books, indeed Woolworth’s was the first big customer for the newly launched Penguin Books back in 1935. It is therefore inconceivable that the Brontë’s would have shopped there even if their timelines had crossed, but Charlotte, the last of the Brontë sisters, died fifty four years before American businessman Frank Woolworth opened his first store in the UK. So what is going on with the title?

OK, time for a confession, I wrote that opening paragraph back on the 24th May intending to read this relatively short book quickly, get this blog written and free up time around my birthday when I was going to meet a very good friend for the weekend whom I hadn’t seen for almost three years due to covid restrictions. As I write this paragraph it is the 25th June, my birthday is long gone, I am still only 84 pages into the full 182 and I hate the awful, shallow, self-centred characters that make up most of the story. The widowed Mrs Carne has brought up three daughters two of which are now adult, Deirdre is a journalist, Katrine starting on a career as an actress and Sheil, the youngest is only eleven. All four of them live fantasy lives still referring to talking dolls from the childhood of Deirdre and Katrine, writing letters from the dolls and sending them to themselves and making up stories about, and correspondence from, people they have met or simply read about as though they know them well. At this point in the book Deirdre has managed to insinuate herself into the home of Sir Herbert and Lady Toddington; a couple that all four of the dreadful Carne’s have obsessed about for three years ever since Mrs Carne did a week of jury service and Sir Herbert Toddington was the judge to the point at which Agatha Martin, Sheil’s governess, is convinced that they do actually know them.

Will I get any further into the book? It’s been haunting me for almost a month now since I put it down mid chapter totally frustrated by the characters and haven’t picked it back up apart from this morning to check the names for this entry.

Right it is now the 13th of July and I have finally completed the chapter where I gave up and the book is at last beginning to make a bit more sense, good job as I am now almost two thirds of the way through. The Brontë’s had even been discussed at the end of that chapter, if only rather disparagingly, with a comment by Sir Herbert that Anne Brontë never wrote anything quotable. So a quick reference to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (I have the 4th edition) to check this out only to find that none of the Brontë’s appear in this rather large volume, which as an English writing family probably makes them unique in that nothing any of them wrote is regarded as quotable. This book is a real struggle and if I wasn’t writing this blog then I would probably have given up long ago but it now feels like a challenge. This is also the first of these blogs to have become a sort of diary entry, I wonder when I will actually finish it?

Well I can now answer the question at the end of the last paragraph with the 2nd September finally seeing the conclusion of the book, and I would never have done it if I hadn’t looked up other reviews and found others with the same problem but saying that it got better. And yes it did with the last sixty pages if not flying by at least manageable in one sitting. The governess, Miss Martin, finally had enough of the family and left during this section and I knew exactly how she felt, but not before meeting the ghosts of Charlotte and Emily Bell, as they introduced themselves although they are clearly two of the Brontë sisters, when they came to visit the Carne’s. This is where the book completely pivots so that the reader isn’t sure what has been going on in the previous 150 pages as it is explained that whilst in Yorkshire the Carne’s had been holding seances and had contacted the entire Brontë family before rapidly leaving to come back south and this was them returning the visit. Are the fantasies of the family more than that? I don’t know and frankly don’t care enough to try to work it out especially when the Toddington’s start to completely step into the fantasy lives created for them by the Carne’s and all pretence of reasonableness from them also slips away. When Lady Toddington says, at the end of the Christmas party which is where the book also finishes, that she saw the Brontë’s in Woolworth’s the other day buying notepads I was half relieved that I could finally answer the question posed at the beginning of this review and half just pleased that I was at the end of page 179 of 182 so the end was near.

Rachel Ferguson wrote at least eight other books, according to the back flap of the dust wrapper, but Penguin only ever published this one. As you can probably gather I don’t recommend reading this book and her entire oeuvre is probably worth avoiding.

The Greek Coffin Mystery – Ellery Queen

As a lover of mystery and crime novels it is perhaps surprising that this was my first time reading Ellery Queen and the fact that I have started at the fourth book is due entirely to this being the only Ellery Queen that I possess. Let’s get the somewhat complicated back story of the authorship out of the way first and then dive into this surprisingly long (363 pages) crime novel. Ellery Queen is given as the author as well as the name of the private detective featuring in the book, in fact it is the work of two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, who also individually wrote crime novels under those names. To add to the confusion both those names are also pseudonyms; Frederic Dannay’s real name was Daniel Nathan whilst his cousin Manfred Bennington Lee was really Emanuel Benjamin Lepofsky. Between them they wrote over thirty Ellery Queen novels and collections of short stories and there were also a few later books which were ghostwritten by various other authors and supervised by Lee.

What to make of this book though? It features Detective Inspector Richard Queen and his private detective son Ellery, who improbably gets to sit in on all meetings and interviews, along with visiting crime scenes just as if he was an actual member of the police force, he can even apparently make arrests. Indeed it took me some time to realise that Ellery Queen was, unlike his father, not actually an official part of the police. The story initially is simply the case of a missing will following the death of an elderly art dealer in New York. When it is worked out that the only place the will could have been put in the short time available from when it was last seen to when it was discovered to be missing is in Georg Khalkis’s coffin before the lid was screwed down an exhumation is ordered. The coffin being opened however is found to have two bodies in it, Khalkis and a mystery corpse and the case becomes murder and the problem is not just who killed the unknown victim but who are they… With thirty nine characters (including the police and Ellery) it can get complicated and I was glad of the list of people at the front of the book when trying to sort out the different relationships between them all.

The story is split up into two books, the first ending with the arrest of yet another incorrect suspect but with the police apparently satisfied that this time they have got their man. The second book details the collapse of the case against the arrested person and the slow discovery of the clues leading to the true murderer and thief. One thing I really liked was at the end of the thirtieth chapter where there is a break in the story for Ellery Queen to speak directly to the reader and make clear that at this point you have read all the clues needed to solve the case and that there is only one solution that fits everything you know. With almost sixty pages still to go it provided a break where I could go back in my mind over what has happened in the first three hundred pages and try to solve it. I have to admit that the actual solution was so surprising that I didn’t get it but yes everything fitted once you knew who did it.

This edition of The Greek Coffin Mystery was published as part of the Penguin Drop Caps series of twenty six books each with an author starting with a different letter and it is particularly appropriate for this to be Ellery Queen book chosen for Q as the chapters in this one are titled as an acrostic spelling out the titles and author. First published in 1932, the first Penguin Books edition came out in May 1957, this hardback was published in 2013 for the American and Canadian market only.

As I said at the start this was my first Ellery Queen mystery and whilst I enjoyed it I did find the character of Ellery Queen rather annoying. Reading about later books in the series he apparently does calm down a lot as the series progresses with far fewer irritating build ups to an incorrect accusation than occurs in this story. Maybe I ought to read one of the later books to see if I like him better.

A Shropshire Lad – A E Housman

I have lived in Shropshire for the past eleven years and have seen copies of A Shropshire Lad numerous times in various bookshops across the county but never bought it. I think mainly because I knew that Housman never visited Shropshire before writing this collection of poems celebrating the county and he only came here briefly after becoming permanently associated in the public’s mind with Shropshire so doubted that he would have much insight into this extremely beautiful part of England. Sure enough whilst reading it became clear that even geographic details, which he gleaned from a tourist guidebook whilst writing the poems in London, were incorrect but the poems are not really about Shropshire anyway but about war and the untimely death of youths both in conflict and otherwise, including suicide. It cannot be described as a cheery read.

Let’s tackle a couple of the poems with more glaring geographic issues first just to get these out of the way, starting with one of the few poems to have a title rather than just a number, XXVIII The Welsh Marches which starts

          High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam
          Islanded in Severn stream;

Well Shrewsbury may be built in a loop of the river Severn but it certainly isn’t on an island, indeed Shrewsbury castle stands guard on the northern side of the river defending the land entrance to the town. The poem continues in it’s fourth verse with

          When Severn down to Buildwas ran
          Coloured with the death of man,

Buildwas is roughly seventeen miles (27½ km) from Shrewsbury and the river has a significant volume by then so there is no way that blood from a Saxon battle, which would have involved hundreds rather than tens of thousands of combatants at that period of history, would still be visible in the water by the time it got there. The most obvious error though is in poem LXI Hughley Steeple, I don’t even need to quote the poem as Hughley church has a timber framed belfry but it certainly doesn’t have a steeple. But that doesn’t stop Housman giving it one with a prominent weather vane on top, which it also doesn’t have.

Ludlow gets mentioned in five of the sixty three poems and Wenlock Edge, which is a nineteen mile (30 km) long escarpment appears twice. Although even in, probably the most famous poem from the set, known as ‘On Wenlock Edge’ although not actually titled, geography isn’t Housman’s strong point as it mentions the Roman city of Uriconium, the ruins of which are fifteen miles (24 km) from Wenlock Edge. But the poem is a really good example of the style of the collection and has been set numerous times to music, most notably by Ralph Vaughan Williams who included other poems from the set as well in his song cycle On Wenlock Edge.

          XXXI

          On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble;
           His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
          The gale, it plies the saplings double,
           And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

          'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
           When Uricon the city stood:
          'Tis the old wind in the old anger,
           But then it threshed another wood.

          Then, 'twas before my time, the Roman
           At yonder heaving hill would stare:
          The blood that warms an English yeoman,
           The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

          There, like the wind through woods in riot,
           Through him the gale of life blew high;
          The tree of man was never quiet:
           Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.

          The gale, it plies the saplings double,
           It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone:
          To-day the Roman and his trouble
           Are ashes under Uricon.

As said above most of the poems don’t concern Shropshire in particular but rather the perils of war and death. The collection was first published in 1896 but didn’t really start to sell in significant numbers until the start of the Second Boer War and massively rose again during the First World War when the death of young soldiers was so keenly felt across the country. The overall body count across the series of poems is surprisingly high and it is nearly always young men who are speaking from the grave (a common theme of the poems) to those yet to die. I don’t really know what I expected from the poems as I genuinely didn’t know anything about them apart from the title before I came to read the book but I can’t say they particularly appealed to me. There is however a brief glimpse or two of albeit grim humour amongst the largely unrelenting gloom.

          XXVII

          "Is my team ploughing,
           That I was used to drive
          And hear the harness jingle
           When I was man alive?"

          Ay, the horses trample,
           The harness jingles now;
          No change though you lie under
           The land you used to plough.

          "Is football playing
           Along the river shore,
          With lads to chase the leather,
           Now I stand up no more?"

          Ay, the ball is flying,
           The lads play heart and soul;
          The goal stands up, the keeper
           Stands up to keep the goal.

          "Is my girl happy,
           That I thought hard to leave,
          And has she tired of weeping
           As she lies down at eve?"

          Ay, she lies down lightly,
           She lies not down to weep:
          Your girl is well contented.
           Be still, my lad, and sleep.

          "Is my friend hearty,
           Now I am thin and pine,
          And has he found to sleep in
           A better bed than mine?"

          Yes, lad, I lie easy,
           I lie as lads would choose;
          I cheer a dead man's sweetheart,
           Never ask me whose.

My copy is from the 2009 series of twenty books by Penguin called ‘English Journeys’ and I do have the complete set, all of which have very attractive covers. If there is any of these that you would like me to cover in a future blog entry then please send me a comment.

The Yellow Wall-Paper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The story that provides the title of this collection of three short stories is easily Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s best known work, it is beautifully written and is also a very difficult read. It deals with the descent into madness of a woman who suffered from a severe bout of postpartum psychosis, a range of mental illnesses which occur soon after childbirth. Gilman was perfectly aware of how this could be as she suffered from very bad attack of some form of postpartum psychosis after the birth of her first child so the story can be seen as semi-autobiographical. Unfortunately for Gilman this collapse of her mental health wasn’t recognised by the medical profession back in 1885 when she had her daughter and she was largely seen as simply needing to pull herself together and rest and recuperate physically after the birth, but in fact she didn’t really start to recover her mental well being until 1888 by which time she had separated from her first husband and was resting in Rhode Island with a female friend.

It was in 1890 that she wrote The Yellow Wall-Paper and the story is told first person from the point of view of the unnamed female narrator as she gradually becomes more and more obsessed with the wallpaper in the bedroom she is in. At first all seems well, her husband, who is also a doctor ‘treating’ her condition has taken a large house in the country for three months to see if the air would help her recover from the psychosis she is suffering from but slowly she reveals to the reader, if not herself, the true position she is in. The room that he puts her in is a large one in the attic that has a bed screwed to the floor and initially no other furniture so some random pieces are brought up from the rooms below. There is also a gate at the top of the stairs up to this room so initially she assumes that the room had been for the children of a previous resident but it gradually becomes clear to the reader that she is a prisoner in this room, with its terrible, faded and partly pulled off the walls wallpaper. Oh the wallpaper, the pattern is odd, not quite matching and making a satisfying design but maddeningly elusive and the missing pieces along with the faded patches make finding the pattern even more difficult. The colour is also coming away from the paper, brushing up against it leaves yellow stains on your clothing and that blurring makes it even more difficult to interpret.

The colour is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.

She is also told to rest after meals and not to do any work, even writing is forbidden so she hides her notes on the changes of the wallpaper that she perceives in different lighting conditions. This was also the fate of Gilman herself, a writer told not to write and this greatly prolonged her own mental collapse. Gradually, as the weeks progress, our narrator starts to see movement behind the wallpaper and is convinced that some malevolent creature is behind the paper, small at first but the creature grows as the nights pass until she sees a woman loping behind the paper and determines to release her. This has to be one of the most disturbing short stories I have ever read, you are drawn totally into this woman’s world and you can feel the paranoia rising. The Yellow Wall-Paper is rightly regarded as a classic of feminist literature and a few years later Gilman sent a copy to her own doctor to try to persuade him away from the stifling treatment she had received at his hands.

The other two stories in the book are also interesting, ‘The Rocking Chair’ is another beautifully written story where two friends take rooms in an old property having been drawn to it by the sight of a beautiful young woman rocking in a chair by the window, but all is not as it seems. The girl is almost never seen by either of the two men although one catches a glimpse of her one day but both of them are convinced that the other has been talking to her, indeed they have each seen the other standing by her at the window when approaching the house. Both are disturbed at night by the incessant rocking of the chair which is in one of their rooms but both deny having been in the chair at night. What is going on and what will be the ultimate result of their gradual loss of friendship for each other as they refuse to believe the others story of not seeing the girl?

The final story is for me the weakest of the three, ‘Old Water’ is another story of obsession this time of a young poet for the daughter of an acquaintance. The daughter is however not in the least interested in him as she likes sports and the outdoor life and his attempts to join in with her simply highlights his inadequacies in her eyes. You know it isn’t going to end well but the final twist is unexpected but strangely satisfying as a conclusion.

I hadn’t heard of Charlotte Perkins Gilman before but I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

The Midnight Folk – John Masefield

John Masefield was the UK Poet Laureate from 1930 to 1967 the second longest period of time of any of the holders of this office since its creation in 1668, he is only exceeded by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. However this book is not a collection of poems, but is instead a wonderfully imaginative work for children written in 1927 and still in print to this day. My copy was published in this Puffin edition in March 1963 and is beautifully illustrated by Rowland Hilder with not only large pictures but smaller images within the text. Masefield packs in the characters in this story from pirates, witches and wizards, talking animals, mermaids, King Arthur and his knights, moving and talking paintings, hidden treasure, a flying horse and even a crooked gamekeeper and his henchmen to name just a few. But so to our hero, nine year old Kay Harker who is trying to solve the mystery of the lost treasure with the help of some and the major hindrance of the others in this huge cast. He is apparently an orphan, no parents are mentioned except his mother in passing right at the end, and the large house he is living in is equally not very clear, did it belong to his parents or is it the property of his guardian who doesn’t live there? The only residents of the house other than Kay are the servants and his unpleasant governess, who turns out to be one of the coven of witches casting spells and causing mischief as they also search for the treasure.

The story positively races on as we alternate from Kay’s dreary schoolwork set by the governess and tedious meetings with her friends and his guardian to exciting overnight chases both on the ground and in the air on broomsticks or the flying horse which always find him fast asleep back in his bed just before the maid comes round to wake him up; but the mud on his slippers or other traces of the previous nights activities prove that this is not dreams. In many ways this reminded me of ‘The Cuckoo Clock’ which I included a few months ago as part of my look at the early days of Puffin Books, but the stories are far more fantastical than those by Mrs Moleworth in her Victorian adventure. The choice of words and the wide vocabulary used betray this book as the work of a significant poet who was to receive the highest honour for poetry in the country just three years later and the hunt for Kay’s great grandfather’s wrecked ship and the lost treasure he was trying to protect from a South American uprising is carried on in beautifully crafted adventure stories. Will Kay work out where it is before the wizard Abner Brown and the witches get to it and what will happen to the evil governess once Kay has worked out that she is one of the witches and therefore his enemy? Maybe a peek into the past will give the final clues.

Masefield wrote a sequel to this book in 1935 entitled ‘The Box of Delights’ which if anything is better known than this original story and has been adapted for radio, television, theatre and even as an opera by Robert Steadman with a libretto by Masefield. It was also available in Puffin Books in the 1960’s so I may see if I can track down a copy to match this edition, it’s been a really fun read.

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.

Puffin Story Books – the beginning

I somehow missed the eightieth anniversary of the start of Puffin Books last month as they launched in December 1941 but let’s somewhat belatedly look at how this massively important children’s imprint from Penguin Books started with five books, Worzel Gummidge, Cornish Adventure, The Cuckoo Clock, Garram the Hunter and Smoky and I have to say that the only one of these to have stood the test of time is Worzel Gummidge by Barbara Euphan Todd. I do have first editions of the Puffin books for all five so let’s take them in turn, starting each description with a quote from the title page where there is a brief introduction to the book.

Worzel Gummidge – Barbara Euphan Todd

This clever, fantastic story of the mysterious scarecrow who – when the mood took him – came to life and engaged in the funniest, and most alarming adventures, has become universally popular since the B.B.C. gave it to a wide and enthusiastic public.

The reference to the B.B.C. adaptation was a serialisation of the radio during Children’s Hour before the start of WWII and this was to just be the first of many adaptations that the book and its sequels have had over the years. I clearly remember the television version from 1979 to 1981 starring Jon Pertwee on ITV and there is a new TV adaptation running on the B.B.C. which started in 2019 starring Mackenzie Crook, which although I haven’t seen is introducing the character to a whole new generation. In the book two children, John and Susan, come to stay at the farm where Worzel is one of the scarecrows and start getting into all sorts of trouble as they are the only ones who see him move around and do things so they keep getting blamed for what he does. It’s a good story and you can see why Barbara Euphan Todd wrote nine sequels as Worzel Gummidge grew into a much loved character.

The book was first printed in 1936 and the Puffin edition is the first paperback, it is illustrated by Elizabeth Alldridge

Cornish Adventure – Derek McCulloch (Uncle Mac)

The setting, of small village, rocky cove and smuggler’s cave, is ideal for the plot that develops. The mystery breaks into the peaceful picture as the boy sails home on August morning with his fisherman friends

Derek McCulloch was best known as Uncle Mac on BBC radio where he presented Children’s Hour for seventeen years from 1933 but was also head of children’s broadcasting for the corporation throughout that time so would have been extremely familiar to his readers. It’s a classic children’s adventure yarn along the lines of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven or Famous Five stories although these appeared much later than Cornish Adventure. ‘The boy’ referred to in the introduction is Clem and he is fifteen and has been coming to Cornwall through the summer holidays for the last five years and has got to know the local people over that time. He was out with a couple of fishermen collecting the crab pots when he spotted a dinghy going into a cave in the cliffs where they had never seen anyone before, what were the people doing there? Clem is determined to find out especially after swimming into the cave and finding it went back quite a way in the dark but he didn’t see the dinghy or the men.

The book is illustrated with drawings based on McCulloch’s own photographs but the artist who turned them into simple line drawings is not identified, it was first published in 1937.

The Cuckoo Clock – Mrs Molesworth

Griselda was only a little girl when her mother died, and she went to live in a big house with two great-aunts… She might have been lonely but for the cuckoo in the clock.

First published in 1877 and to my surprise still in print although no longer with Puffin, this book is definitely aimed at the younger reader; Griselda’s age isn’t given in the book but I’d guess at six or seven and Phil, the boy she meets near the end, is even younger and it is reasonable to assume that the target audience is around the same age as the protagonist in this case. Despite that it was a fun read with Griselda making friends with the cuckoo in the clock in scenes that could be interpreted as dreams except for the small invasions into real life afterwards such as finding the shoe from the land of the nodding mandarins in her bed (a large oriental cabinet in the room by the cuckoo clock turns out to be a gateway to where the carved figure live) or getting a message to Phil that she won’t be able to meet him the next day. The book is illustrated with several charming drawings by C E Brock.

Garram the Hunter – Herbert Best

Garram the boy is a fine vigorous character, cool-headed, bold and resolute, a skilful hunter, calculating his chances well and leaping swiftly into action. His adventures are lively and sometimes terrifying.

I probably enjoyed this book the most of the five I have read this week so it’s a disappointment to find that unlike the others it is long out of print with the Puffin version being the last I can find. Garram is the son of the chief of his tribe and is falsely accused of stealing and selling goats from one of the village elders by a rival for his fathers position. He manages to prove that the goats were in fact taken by a huge leopard but although this saves him at the time his enemy Sura continues to plot against both his father and him. Ultimately he is persuaded by The Rainmaker of the tribe to leave in order to protect his father as Sura would then fear his return as an adult to avenge any attack and so begins his adventures in lands beyond his tribes domain heading for the famous walled town of Yelwa, which is a real place, and where Garram would make his career before returning to his tribe and defeating his fathers rivals years later.

Despite being an American Herbert Best worked as an administrative officer for the British Civil Service in Nigeria and published several children’s books. First published in 1930, Garram the Hunter was shortlisted for the Newbery prize in 1931, the Puffin edition is illustrated with lino-cuts by Erick Berry which were ‘made on the spot’ so presumably in Nigeria and are the same as those in the hardback first edition rather than new illustrations for the Puffin book.

Smoky – Will James

Smoky is the story of a wild horse, told with exceptional vividness. It is also a real hot cowboy yarn, a grand adventure story told by a man who had lived in the saddle almost since infancy.

Well with an introduction like that who could fail to be intrigued? It is at many times a sad and yet ultimately fulfilling tale as Clint, who first trains Smoky after capturing him as a wild horse loses him to a horse thief. Smoky however, whilst perfectly obedient to Clint, will not allow the thief to ride him and is beaten repeatedly until eventually he lashes out and kills the thief. So begins his next life as an un-rideable bronco horse under the name of Cougar which eventually leads to career ending injuries. Sold off, this time as Cloudy he end up with yet another abusive owner who neglects and starves him before being spotted and recognised by Clint who eventually gets him back and nurses him back to health and a quiet retirement. Yeesh it was a hard read for a lot of the time.

Smoky is illustrated by the author although he isn’t credited in the book and it is easily the longest of the books in this set of five at 192 pages. Smoky won the Newbery medal for American children’s literature in 1927, a year after the book was first published, much to the surprise of Will James who considered it a book for adults, probably assuming the hard life Smoky has to be too upsetting for a younger readership.

Eleanor Graham was the series editor for Puffin Books from 1941, when they started, through to 1961 when she retired and was replaced by Kaye Webb. She did a remarkable job, especially dealing with paper rationing during the war and then building the imprint once paper started to become more available in the early 1950’s and adding titles such as Heidi, The Borrowers stories by Mary Norton and the first Moomin book. Webb inherited a series which by then ran to 150 titles which she was to vastly expand during her time in control including creating the Puffin Club and its associated annuals.

Village Christmas – Miss Read

By profession Dora Saint was a school teacher but is best known for her portrayals of English village life under the pen name of Miss Read and the work on her numerous novels and short stories largely took over her working life after WWII. Miss Read is not only the author of the books but in a lot of them she is also a character as a schoolmistress in the fictional village of Fairacre. Although this story is set in Fairacre Miss Read herself does not actually appear instead we are concerned with the ageing spinster sisters Margaret and Mary Waters and the family that had moved in over the road a few months earlier in September.

Initially the Waters sisters were somewhat wary of the new family as they lived a very quiet life and suddenly having three small children and a mother clearly pregnant with a fourth moving in so close was disconcerting. Mrs Emery’s personality was a bit too outgoing for their taste but also to the sisters eyes she was also rather badly dressed so they were unsure what to make of her, the children however were unfailingly polite so there was clearly something being done right in the new household. The story leaps on over the three months to Christmas morning when the sisters are interrupted at breakfast by one of the Emery girls coming for help as their mother is having the baby early and their father had been called away as a relative had had a stroke. Now two spinsters are not ideal midwives and the nurse or doctor couldn’t be contacted so we are taken through their rising panic as they realise that very little preparation had been done as Mrs Emery had clearly not expected to give birth on Christmas day.

One goes over to help Mrs Emery, who is easily the least concerned of everyone, whilst the other sister takes the children back over to her house to keep them entertained and fed and most importantly out of the way whilst trying to contact the nurse and also Mr Emery to let him know what is happening and get him back to Fairacre. It’s a delightful story of how the Waters sisters had a very different Christmas to the one they expected and this was the first time I had read any of Miss Read’s works. I think I’ll definitely tackle another somewhat longer book for my next go at her books, after all there are a lot to have a go at with twenty books set in Fairacre, thirteen novels set in the nearby village of Thrush Green, ten children’s books and a few other titles not set in the two main villages or of a factual nature rather than fiction.

Village Christmas was first published in 1966 although my copy of the book was published in 1995 as part of the Penguin Books 60th anniversary celebrations and it is also available with the two other Christmas tales Miss Read wrote as a single volume, these being Christmas Mouse (1973) and No Holly for Miss Quinn (1976). Confusingly this combination book appears to also be called Village Christmas.