Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville – An amusing British Library Crime Classic

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This 1934 novel, recently reissued in the popular British Library Crime Classic series, is written with the “light touch” that the debut author was aiming for, and is consequently a funny, clever and perhaps fanciful mystery. Murder is not the first problem, but jewellery, its theft and collection, becomes very much a theme of this book. Violence is done, and not all the characters survive the weekend in the country.  This is a collection of characters typical of many a Golden Age detection novel, but the execution of the plot is far from straightforward in any sense. Engaging characters, a far from sensible hero, and this almost farcical novel is entertaining and satisfying in many ways. I was very pleased to receive a review copy of this book, and enjoyed it immensely.

Jim Henderson is a survivor of the First World War, left intact physically and mentally, but living in reduced circumstances despite his gentlemanly upbringing. His landlady, Mrs. Bertram, is always full of the latest news and gossip, but is touchingly surprised when he is whisked off in a shiny big car by his friend Freddie Usher for a weekend in the country. A mysterious Mr. Carson has invited both young men, together with four other people, for fishing, shooting and most appealing, free food. The newly refurbished house is set in an island of pine trees, but despite its isolation it is not long before Jim and Freddie make the acquaintance of Mary, a young woman with her own reasons for pursing investigations. Soon suspicious discoveries, the disturbance of a female guest, and nocturnal activities of an unknown quantity lead to the growing realisation that Mr Carson and his butler maybe motivated by more than just hospitality. Even a local cat is far from safe. The whole tale rattles along in a most satisfactory way, and the eventual ending sees justice for all.

This book is accomplished for a debut novel, and some of the elements recall Wodehouse as the hapless hero and his companions try to sort out the situation. There is even one character who would qualify as an honorary “Aunt”. It is also good to see a female character filling a larger role than just the victim or witness, as at least two women have their own plans to remedy the situation. Like the other two Melville books republished by British Library Crime Classics, “Open Curtain” and “Death of Anton”, this novel is quick moving and funny. If this novel is over dependent on coincidence, such is the wit and confidence of the writing that it is forgiven. If you like your crime fiction classic, yet far from serious and graphic, this is an excellent choice. I really enjoyed the unlikely scenario, the sly digs at the classic country house mystery, and the character of Jim, who finds out what he is really capable of when in an incredible situation.

There are so many excellent Crime Classics being republished over the next few months that it will be a full time job to keep up with them!




Death of Anton – Alan Melville – Another British Library Crime Classic

There has been a gap in posts caused by a line breakage – our somewhat overgrown area of garden through which the phone line stretches had to be investigated. The rest of the garden looks wonderful thanks to the efforts of Northernvicar, but perfection is difficult to achieve!

This is another keenly awaited edition from the British Library Crime Classic series. I actually went into the bookshop at the British Library the other day, only to discover I had the full set so far! It has not quite filled a shelf, yet…

I had high hopes of this book having enjoyed the comedy of Quick Curtain so much recently. This novel from Alan Melville also features Detective – Inspector Minto of Scotland Yard, and while he sits light to police procedure and back up once more, I did not find it as funny as the previous murder mystery. Quite possibly this is due to the absence of his son, with whom he enjoys all the fun and games in Quick Curtain, but he does have family represented here; his brother who is a Catholic priest ( important to the story) and Claire, his younger sister whose wedding he is due to organise/attend/go in fear of throughout.

The main action takes place in a circus, where Anton is the short lived tiger tamer and many nefarious activities are taking place. There is murder, mayhem and mauling, as Minto tries to sort out what is going on, and his list of suspects gets shorter. Minto has to get out of some narrow scrapes, and not all relate to writing a speech for the wedding. He has to become acquainted with a dubious pawn shop as well as the inhabitants of the circus. The setting of a circus is soon evidently well chosen, as the dangers of live acts involving animals and heights add to the danger to the hapless detective. When he actually sits to watch the performance he discovers the danger of sitting in the cheap seats as he leans back too far and has to be rescued.

This is a good read, as are most of this series, as the plot becomes increasingly convoluted and coincidental. It is not a high literary effort, and I daresay the plot does not bear too much examination. It is funny, and absorbing, the sort of book to be kept on one side for a free day as you will undoubtedly want to read on. The death of characters is a little too easily dismissed, which gives Melville ample opportunity to make ironic comments at audiences disappointed by the absence of serious injury in any particular performance. I get the impression that this book was as enjoyable to write as read, as the author has fun getting his character covered in mud, dismissing non Scottish porridge, as well as discoursing on the personalities of performing animals. Such circuses are a thing of the past, with their bad treatment of animals and performers, but this book is a very enjoyable historical murder mystery, and well worth seeking out for the character of Minto alone.

Quick Curtain by Alan Melville – A British Library Crime Classic

This is an extremely fast review. This book was only available last Wednesday or Thursday. Of course, it was originally published in 1934, so there are apparently some very old copies around. Either way, this is an enjoyable addition to the British Library Crime Classics collection.

As it was written in the 1930s, it is obviously a dated book, a crime novel written in that Golden Age period so well documented by Martin Edwards. He writes the introduction to this edition, quoting no less a person than Dorothy L.Sayers. She recognises that this is “Light entertainment”, calling the main character “This happy policeman”. She is a little disapproving of the absolute lack of procedure in this book, but Edwards points out how difficult it is to write a “witty whodunit” and sustain the joke. This something that I think the book just about manages, and is basically a funny , if slightly cynical book.

The book opens on an opening night, as the London show “Blue Music” starts its run. There is much here about the rather dubious encouragement of fans who camp out for seats and spend a fortune to see the not so talented but well promoted stars. Before long someone gets killed, and the attention of Mr Wilson, a senior policemen at Scotland Yard is caught. With only his journalist son to help him (he never goes into the office), Mr Wilson tracks down actors, stage hands and sundry wives in a story that not only takes in London but also a lovely little village, in which yet more characters behave to type. The story twists and turns, but is always funny. The relationship between Mr Wilson senior and junior is very funny, and the series of telegrams from the undercover son keeping his father get more and more surreal. I enjoyed reading the exchanges, especially when the disappearing cook/maid is seen. While some things are obvious, the plot twists are often unforeseen. Even the smallest character, such as the postmistress, feels real in a very amusing way. This is in no way great literature, and arguably not a serious murder mystery. It is possibly one of the funniest mysteries I have read. I would recommend it as a good, light murder mystery if there is such a thing, and I would be keen to read anything else written by this author. It is especially good for all those interested in the theatre of the early twentieth century in a light, cynical vein.