Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne – a British Library Crime Classic

So, another British Library Crime Classic, which has not yet been released according to at least one well known website, but which has been available in a chain of real bookshops for weeks. It pays to go to bookshops, people!

While I’m on the subject, I am really impressed that so many bookshops in this country are having a “Civilised Saturday” as an antidote to “Black Friday”. Going into a real bookshop for a good browse is always fun, but is so much better than the hunt for elusive ‘bargains’.

Anyway, back to the book. This Scottish Mystery as it is subtitled is not the most gripping in the series, but has a truly clever finale. A woman is murdered in a locked room. Some people have seen her as a saint, others know that she can be cruel and manipulating.  Either way, her murder must be solved, and Inspector Dundas duly arrives, full of ambition and drive. One of the suspects rejoices in the name Duchlan, and I was beginning to get confused. The Highland setting and theme makes this book even more challenging, though no less enjoyable. Thank goodness for the amateur sleuth, Dr Hailey, who perseveres in the face of opposition to find the truth  and save the day (and several characters!).

This book is a worthy addition to the British Library Crime Classics series. The plot is undoubtedly more clever and dense than some of the series, and is not as approachable as Quick Curtain for example. It is a difficult, complex plot, but the cast of potential suspects is kept rigorously small and the setting is deftly described. The characters are well drawn, and their motivations (not only to murder!) worked out realistically in the context of the novel. If I was given the option of reading another Anthony Wynne novel, I would definitely do so, so I was pleased to see that the good Doctor Hailey appeared in another twenty six novels…

This book is ideal for those collecting the series, and of interest to those who like locked door and mysteries set in the 1930s. The Scottish setting is well developed and integral to the story both in terms of the locality and the customs observed by the people. The female characters do play vital parts, unlike some of these novels, and I felt consequently that this book achieves a better balance than some. Whenever you do get your hands on a copy, I think that you will enjoy it!

Trouble on the Thames – Victor Bridges – British Library Classic Thrillers

While waiting for the British Library to sort out when they are really releasing new Crime Classics (it depends where you buy books ….) I found this book lurking in my favourite independent bookshop (Cogito, in Hexham, Northumberland) . There is another one, called The Traitor  by Sydney Horler, which I am looking forward to starting.

Trouble on the Thames , being a thriller, wouldn’t naturally attract me, but I found the description very tempting. Owen is a navel officer who dramatically becomes colour blind and therefore unfit for active service in the 1930s. This is a tense time in politics and international business, as potential German spies lurk and perhaps blackmail and threaten the vulnerable into betraying military secrets.

Owen is therefore asked to investigate a shady character in the guise of a fishing weekend, and that iswhere the trouble begins. Into danger steps Sally, whose bravery and commitment to the bewildered hero threatens both her and  her business partner.

I cannot really go into much detail as revealing the plot and progress of our hero would rather spoil the book. It does bowl along easily, with death and danger lurking. The background of a pre war London is well evoked, and I would willingly employ Watkins, the butler, cook and generally handy to have around indoors. I thought that the atmosphere was well evoked, and the characters reasonably well developed despite the immediate evident baddies and goodies. I was keen to know what would happen next and it was an easy read which flowed well, even though I am no great thriller fan. It is of its time, with a bit of a tendency to allow the women to be easily captured, but Sally is still a real character. I am still a classic crime fan primarily, but this is an interesting diversion and I would happily read more thrillers of this time. ( Husband, aka Northernvicar, was quite a John Buchan fan at one point. He did wince at some of the writing, though. We found the Buchan museum in Peebles  fascinating….). So, British Library Publishing, are there more to come?

The King’s Curse – Philippa Gregory

Just to prove I’m not obsessed with historical crime – well, only a little- here is prove that I do still read historical fiction. Eventually.

As a book obsessed child, I would read anything, or at least most things. I especially loved the Jean Plaidy books. The young Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, Henry’s wives; I read and re read. When I got to A level history, I read my way through her version of the Norman conquest and firmly fixed the events in my head. I still have a large number of her books on my shelves, as she wrote prodigious amounts under each name she chose there is plenty of scope (ninety odd books ?!?).

So when I discovered Philippa Gregory I realised that this was a contemporary author also tackling the Tudors in a very personal way, after her books of other periods (Restoration, 18th century slave trade etc). I loved books like The Constant Princess about Katherine of Aragon, and The Queen’s Fool. The White Queen saga had some books that were better than others, but was overall an interesting look at the Cousin’s War.

So The King’ Curse looked interesting. Back to the Tudors. albeit at the slightly less well known viewpoint of Margaret Pole, near to the throne but never a serious contender in her own lifetime. There was to be a lot about Henry VIII, and seemed to link in with that interesting character, Elizabeth of York. History nerds seemed well catered for!

This is a sad, grumpy, discontented book. Margaret Pole saw her brother executed, lost at least one son to the executioner’s axe, and was consistently challenged by the outcome of Henry’s whim regarding his first wife and daughter, later Mary I. On the other hand, she did have four children who survived into adulthood and prospered for most of their lives. She was close to the court, was incredibly wealthy in her own right, and survived until she met her death on the block at sixty seven. While at times in danger because of her Plantagenet name. and widowed relatively young, spending sometime in a convent when thoroughly out of favour, overall there must have been times of joy, positive pride in her possessions, satisfaction that she was surviving and her children were not starving. Times when she looked around her lands, savoured her influence with the highest families, and enjoyed herself. Not according to this book.

One of the criticisms of Hilary Mantel’s book is that she has Cromwell lamenting his lost family throughout. Not surprising given the suddenness of their deaths, perhaps. I found the first two books of that trilogy fascinating for so much else, however. His kindness to others. His shrewd operations, his disposal of Anne Boleyn, or at least his involvement in his downfall. I have no doubt that Margaret, as a woman subject to the whims of Henry, had some extremely bad times. She had been on the side of a Queen who lost everything, including many babies, but had also had been the friend of royalty, had amazing wealth in her own right, and seen her sons rise to power and influence.  Gregory never gives the woman a break. Gloom, sadness, grief, constant fear and expectation of downfall. No great evenings of feasting, contentment in her extended family, appreciation that for some time at least, she was alive and enjoying life.

Opening the book at random, there are sentences such as “And you are right. What you fear is a terrible curse.” This is a well written book. It seems correct in historical detail, and there is every reason to suspect that Henry was a quixotic individual who was easy to displease. There is no positive in this book. No golden court of his early reign. No day to day enjoyment on Katherine’s part of his early devotion to her. Just gloom, fear and grief. I know that we are dealing with women who had sad ends, and we can easily discover how and when they died. One of the problems of historical fiction is that they all die in the end. This novel gives little sense of the good times they enjoyed before they did. Medieval life may have been nasty, brutish and short, but there must have been some good times, some enjoyment of what was going on. Some satisfaction in faith, wealth or love. Gregory gives little sense of this in this novel, yet I have read her books where there is optimism, affection and even joy, perhaps short lived. So, this is a worthwhile book. It gives a female perspective on life in the Tudor court, or at least on the edge of it. It is not an enjoyable read, but a worthy one.

The Z Murders – J. Jefferson Farjeon British Library Crime Classics

Another Book, another British Library crime classic? I read this one a couple of weeks ago and have only just got round to writing about it.  I’m still baffled at the system for releasing these reprints; I bought Murder of a Lady in October in Lincoln, even though it is not due to be released until January….Ho hum.

Anyway, back to this book. I wrote about The Thirteen Guests recently, the book also by this author set in the 1930s.  Whereas that book tended towards the country house mystery, this book starts with a journey, and by the end much of the country has been traversed. This book is probably the better for it; there is a genuine murder mystery here, with car and train journeys which make everyone a potential danger. The hero, Richard Temperley, has good reason to be suspicious, as his early morning arrival at Euston station is transformed by a seemingly inexplicable murder.  The police become friends and foes alternatively, as a woman is in the case. As you may expect from a book written in 1932, the lady  in question is not given the most proactive role, but her journeys are literally drive the action. There is one of the most sinister characters I have ever read about in a crime classic, as well as some really interesting taxi drivers.

I really enjoyed this book. Both the main characters and later subsidiary drivers come over as people with some ‘backstory’, not just functionaries to help the plot along. The atmosphere (with appropriate fog) is really tense as the pursued become the pursuers and the police provide a vital role in chasing and finding out at the same time as the reader what is (probably, possibly) going on and why. The letter Z is a returning theme as a linking factor in seemingly unrelated crimes and pulls much of the action together. This is a very visual read, and I can quite see it as a black and white film with old cars and a daring hero. I would also point out that for anyone who cannot visualise a map of Britain  may well need to consult a map by the end of the book, as it describes the English countryside and some of the plot in some geographical detail. I enjoyed its pace and tension. The body count is a bit high, and there is an impressive amount of fear and confusion. Overall, definitely one of the fastest moving novels in this series, though not the most humorous by any stretch of the imagination.

I am really enjoying this series of crime classics, and am more or less keeping up with each book released. The three collections of short mystery stories, including the new Silent Nights, Christmas Mysteries take a lot more reading. Overall, I think I prefer the full novels, but I notice many more anthologies of short stories are being released, including the desirable Penguin British Short stories which looks very interesting, if only for its historical volume. Something to look forward to if I can only save my pennies….?!?