This reprinted 1958 novel, the seasonal offering from the excellent British Library Crime Classics series, makes only glancing mentions to Christmas so can be enjoyed at any time. While not the most complex or clever plot, this book abounds in atmosphere, characterisation and a sense of place that transforms it into a crime novel for most engaging reading. The main character, the extremely well drawn Chief Inspector Brett Nightingale is a forerunner of Dexter’s Morse; with an impressive knowledge of the classics and music, he appears as a receptive and perceptive man as he absorbs information about the Russian element of this novel. He too has an active and sometimes hapless helper in the form of Sergeant Beddoes, who has to throw himself into various challenges throughout the book. This is a most satisfactory novel that works on several levels, as the descriptions of objects, place and the realities of a criminal pursuit are set up. The sound knowledge of the streets of London in a particular area is very satisfying, as well as the dreariness of certain lives lived there. Nightingale’s leaps of deduction deserve special mention, as well as his very human qualms about his own behaviour. As always, Martin Edward’s Introduction forms a fascinating introduction to this little known but extremely able writer, and entices the reader to investigate not only this reprint but others on her list. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.
The book opens with a dead body. Princess Olga Karukhin, despite her royal birth and upbringing in Tsarist Russia lies on an ancient metal bed, under an assortment of tatty blankets, in a mean and shabby boarding house. It appears she has not really left the room for decades, and it would be a sad but not unexpected death except for an empty wooden trunk. Exactly what was in the recently disturbed trunk only emerges when the landlady reveals two objects of enormous value which she had been given by the seemingly destitute old lady. When Nightingale and Beddoes come upon the scene it is only after the local police have established some of the facts. A grandson, Ivan, is missing, and when Nightingale does some research he finds that the old lady was a refugee from the Revolution, who brought the younger man over with her. Beddoes is dispatched to various public houses known to be frequented by Ivan, and he finds this an ultimately challenging task. Meanwhile Nightingale investigates the Russian connection, and finds himself interested in a young woman called Stephanie as her boss seems to be thoroughly involved in the contents of the trunk.
This is a mature and sophisticated novel which is packed with references to Russian objects d’arte and classical tales. Snow and challenging weather play their part in journeys and other excitements. I enjoyed reading about Nightingale’s deliberations, especially in the context of his very human and realistic concerns about his wife, musical performance and general expectations. I recommend this to any fans of classic detective novels, especially those who appreciate character led stories. Another excellent choice by the British Library, especially for this time of year.
As I indicated a few posts ago I will not be posting a round up of the year or top ten books – I have reviewed about two hundred books this year and life is too complicated to plough through them all! I will be looking to review at least two more British Library books over the next few days, Christmas lunches permitting!