The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton

This 1908 novel from the author of the Father Brown mystery series is subtitled A Nightmare and it certainly does have a dreamlike feel. I picked it up expecting a vintage detective novel and emerged at the other end wondering what on earth I had just been reading and what it meant.

The novel opens with a conversation between two men who meet for the first time one evening in Saffron Park in London. One, Lucian Gregory, is an anarchist poet; the other, Gabriel Syme, is a member of the secret anti-anarchist police. They spend the whole of the first chapter debating the meanings of anarchy and of law and order, using arguments like this:

Gregory struck out with his stick at the lamp-post, and then at the tree. “About this and this,” he cried; “about order and anarchy. There is your precious order, that lean, iron lamp, ugly and barren; and there is anarchy, rich, living, reproducing itself—there is anarchy, splendid in green and gold.”

“All the same,” replied Syme patiently, “just at present you only see the tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when you would ever see the lamp by the light of the tree.”

And this:

“An artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway.”

“So it is,” said Mr. Syme.

“Nonsense!” said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox.

It seems they will never agree, but to at least prove that he is serious about his cause, Gregory invites Syme to accompany him to an underground meeting of anarchists. Gregory gets more than he bargained for, however, when Syme puts himself forward for a position in which he himself had been interested: one of seven coveted seats on the Council of the Seven Days, the central council of the European anarchists.

Elected to the council and given the code name Thursday, Syme is introduced to his fellow days of the week, but will he be able to prevent them from guessing that he is an undercover policeman? And who is Sunday, their mysterious and sinister leader who is so big, so powerful and so much larger than life?

I don’t think there is much more I can say about the plot without spoiling the story. I can’t discuss the themes of the novel either, or the symbolism it contains, because those things are also spoilers. It’s such a strange and unusual book that I really think it’s best not to know too much about it before you begin. Just be aware that it’s not a conventional mystery or detective novel (or a conventional anything). There are parts that I loved, such as a scene where Syme is followed through the streets of London in the snow; there are funny moments too, some witty and amusing dialogue, and lots of thought-provoking philosophical ideas. At other times it becomes a little bit too bizarre, particularly after the action moves to France halfway through the book.

There are plot twists throughout the novel, some of which are quite predictable – but the revelations near the end of the book were not what I had been expecting at all. Looking back, there were plenty of hints and clues, but I didn’t pick up on them. I’m sure I didn’t fully grasp what Chesterton was trying to say, but I think there are probably different ways to interpret this book anyway. It certainly left me with a lot to think about and I love it when that happens – when you continue to engage with a story even after you’ve turned the final page.

I don’t have any more of Chesterton’s books, but I see there are some I could read for free at Project Gutenberg. I have previously read two of his Father Brown short stories (included in Miraculous Mysteries and Murder Under the Christmas Tree); should I read more of those or is there another of his books that you would recommend?

In the Shadow of Agatha Christie, edited by Leslie S. Klinger

Agatha Christie is an author most people have heard of, whether or not they’ve ever read any of her books. Ask someone to think of a female crime writer and she is probably the first name that will come to mind. Christie’s first novel, though, wasn’t published until 1920 – and she was by no means the first woman to write in the crime genre. This new collection of short stories, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, features some of the lesser known women crime writers who came before Agatha and could even have inspired her work.

The book is subtitled Classic Crime Fiction by Forgotten Female Writers: 1850-1917 and although I wouldn’t personally describe all of these authors as ‘forgotten’, there were certainly quite a few whose names were new to me. Of the sixteen stories included in the book, I had already read one of them – A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell (1917), which shows the different ways in which men and women evaluate the same situation and the different clues they pick up on – but it’s such a good story I was happy to read it again. Other names who may be familiar to many readers are Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell and Scarlet Pimpernel author Baroness Orczy, although the stories included here – The Squire’s Story (1853) and The Regent’s Park Murder (1901) – didn’t particularly stand out to me.

As a fan of Victorian sensation novels, I was intrigued to come across stories by Ellen Wood and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, two authors whose work I’ve loved in the past. The Braddon one, The Winning Sequence (1896), is more of a ghost story than a mystery and I found it disappointingly weak, but Wood’s story, Mrs. Todhetley’s Earrings (1873), was very enjoyable. It is narrated by her young hero, Johnny Ludlow, who is apparently the subject of a whole series of short story collections, although I had never heard of him until now.

Others that I think deserve a special mention include The Statement of Jared Johnson (1899) by Geraldine Bonner, a murder mystery with a twist I’ve come across several times in crime stories recently but which I always find clever, The Ghost of Fountain Lane (1893) by C.L. Pirkis, in which a link emerges between two seemingly unconnected mysteries, and The Case of the Registered Letter by the Austrian author Augusta Groner. There’s also A Point in Morals (1899) by Ellen Glasgow, an unusual story which considers whether murder is always morally wrong, The Blood-Red Cross (1902) by L.T. Meade which features a sinister villain called Madame Sara, and Anna Katherine Green’s Missing: Page Thirteen (1915), an eerie tale of a house with a secret room.

The other authors represented in the book, whose work made less impression on me, are Catherine Crow, Mary Fortune, Harriet Prescott Spofford, Elizabeth Corbett and Carolyn Wells – whose The Adventure of the Clothes-Line (1915) is a parody of a Sherlock Holmes story which I think a lot of readers would enjoy even though I didn’t.

There’s nothing here, in my opinion, which resembles an Agatha Christie story in any way, so the title of this book could be slightly misleading if someone picked it up expecting a selection of Christie-style mysteries. I didn’t find any new authors here that I liked enough to want to explore further, but it was still interesting to read this collection and see how crime fiction has developed over the years.

Thanks to Pegasus Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Murder Under the Christmas Tree, edited by Cecily Gayford

Murder Under the Christmas Tree contains ten stories by a variety of crime authors, all with a Christmas theme or set during the festive period. I don’t often choose to read short story collections (although I seem to have read more of them this year than ever before, so maybe that is beginning to change) but I picked this one up in the library a few weeks ago because I was intrigued by the mixture of authors – some modern, some classic, some that I was familiar with and some that I wasn’t.

I’m never sure of the best way to write about books like this, but as there are only ten stories I think I should be able to give all of them a brief mention. The book opens with The Necklace of Pearls, a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the five authors in the collection I had read before. The story involves a search for a valuable pearl necklace which goes missing as a party of guests gather to celebrate Christmas. I always like Sayers’ writing, but this particular story is not very strong and not a great start to the book, in my opinion. It is followed by The Name on the Window by Edmund Crispin, a locked room mystery set in winter and featuring his detective Gervase Fen. Crispin is another author I have previously read – I highly recommend The Moving Toyshop if you haven’t read it yet – and again, this story is not the best example of his work but it’s still enjoyable and I didn’t guess the solution.

Now we come to one of the authors who were new to me: Val McDermid. Yes, there are some huge gaps in my reading when it comes to more recent crime fiction! A Traditional Christmas is a short and simple murder mystery with a nice twist at the end. I really liked this one, although it felt odd coming straight after Sayers and Crispin – especially as the next story is an even older one: The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle. This is a classic Sherlock Holmes mystery involving a Christmas goose and a precious jewel. I feel sure I must have read it before, but I couldn’t remember it at all!

The Invisible Man is next: a Father Brown mystery by GK Chesterton. I first encountered Father Brown in a British Library Crime Classics anthology I read earlier this year (Miraculous Mysteries), but I enjoyed this story much more than that one. It made me think about the things we never notice and the things that we do! This is followed by another modern story, Cinders by Ian Rankin. During rehearsals for a performance of Cinderella, the Fairy Godmother is found dead and Rankin’s detective Rebus is called in to investigate. I have never read anything by Ian Rankin before and although there was nothing wrong with this story, I don’t think he’s an author for me.

The next two stories are my favourites. The first, Death on the Air by Ngaio Marsh, is a fascinating story set during the early days of radio. On Christmas morning, ‘Septimus Tonks was found dead beside his wireless set’, presumably having been electrocuted – but was it an accident or was it murder? This is my first introduction to Marsh’s work, but I would love to read more. The next story, Persons or Things Unknown, is by Carter Dickson, a pseudonym of John Dickson Carr. A host entertains his house guests with an atmospheric tale of murder set in the 17th century. I loved it – and again, I will be looking for more by this author.

The penultimate story in the book is Margery Allingham’s The Case is Altered. It’s an Albert Campion mystery and while I had hoped it would be one of the highlights of the book, I found it quite forgettable. The last story, The Price of Light by Ellis Peters, was good but felt out of place in this collection, being a Brother Cadfael mystery set in 1135. I’ve never read anything by Peters before and I liked this enough to want to try one of her full-length Cadfael novels.

This is an uneven collection, then, and I don’t think the mixture of Golden Age, historical and contemporary mysteries really worked. I’m pleased I read it, though, if only because it has given me my first taste of Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr and Ellis Peters. Another book in this series, Murder on Christmas Eve, also edited by Cecily Gayford, has just been published and seems to include many of the same authors.

Lament for a Maker by Michael Innes

After reading Hamlet, Revenge! recently, I have been wanting to read more by Michael Innes, so I was pleased to find his next Inspector Appleby mystery, Lament for a Maker, available through NetGalley. Having read the previous book in the series I thought I knew what to expect from this one, but I was wrong – this book has a very different feel and structure and despite being published in 1938, it’s not a typical Golden Age mystery novel at all.

The title is taken from a 16th century Scottish poem by William Dunbar (the word maker, also spelled makar, means a poet or court poet). The Latin refrain Timor mortis conturbat me – fear of death disturbs me – is repeated throughout the poem and sets the tone for Innes’ novel.

This is such a complex, convoluted mystery it’s difficult to know where to begin, but the best place to start is probably with the crime itself – assuming that a crime has actually been committed, of course! Ranald Guthrie, the miserly laird of Erchany Castle has been killed falling from the ramparts of his own tower on a cold winter night, but was he pushed, was it an accident or could it have been a suicide attempt? If it was murder, then the culprit seems obvious: Neil Lindsay, the young man who wants to marry Ranald’s niece and whose family have been feuding with the Guthries for generations. There is much more to the situation than meets the eye, however, and as the story unfolds more suspects and possible scenarios begin to emerge.

The novel is written from the perspectives of five different characters who each take it in turns to narrate their part of the story. My favourite was the first, Ewan Bell, a shoemaker who lives in Kinkeig in Scotland. It is Ewan who sets the scene, introduces us to the other main characters in the novel and describes the events leading up to Guthrie’s death – all in his own distinctive voice, complete with plenty of Scots dialect!

“If an unco silence had fallen upon nature with the snow those weeks there were plenty of human tongues in Kinkeig to make good the deficiency. The less work always the more gossip, and there must have been even more claiking than usual about the meikle house.”

The second narrator is Noel Gylby, a young Englishman who appeared in Hamlet, Revenge! He is visiting Erchany Castle with his American girlfriend and immediately his narration (which takes the form of letters) has a very different feel from Ewan Bell’s:

“Diana darling: Leaves – as Queen Victoria said – from the Journal of my Life in the Highlands. Or possibly of my Death in the Lowlands. For I don’t at all know if I’m going to survive and I don’t know – I’m kind of guessing, as my girl-friend here says – where I am.”

And there are several more! Lots of authors have written books with multiple narrators but I haven’t come across many (apart from Wilkie Collins) who actually succeed in giving each narrator a unique voice of their own. This is one of the best attempts I’ve read for a while. It’s not just the style and structure which make this such an enjoyable novel, though; the mystery itself is also a good one, with twist following upon twist as the end of the book approaches.

As for Inspector Appleby himself, he doesn’t appear until two thirds of the way through the book when the mystery is already half solved and theories have been suggested. Although the novel is clearly set in the 1930s, there are times when both the story and the book itself feel as though they belong to a much earlier period (it reminded me very strongly of The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson and it seems I’m not the only one to make that connection). This makes me wonder whether Innes may really have wanted to write a historical mystery but couldn’t as he needed to make it part of the Appleby series. That would explain why Appleby makes such a late appearance, almost as an afterthought.

Anyway, I loved this one. Thanks to Ipso Books for the review copy.

Rum Affair by Dorothy Dunnett – #1968Club

I am, after all, the only really photogenic coloratura soprano alive. My only problem, just about then, was in staying alive.

It’s been a while since I read my first of Dorothy Dunnett’s Johnson Johnson mysteries and this week’s 1968 Club (hosted by Simon and Karen) seemed the perfect opportunity to read another one. Rum Affair – originally titled Dolly and the Singing Bird and then The Photogenic Soprano – was the first in the series to be published (in 1968 obviously), although Tropical Issue, the other one I’ve read, was the first chronologically.

Dunnett is better known for her historical novels, some of which have recently been reissued, but the seven books in her mystery series have contemporary settings. They are each narrated by a different young woman and all feature the portrait painter Johnson Johnson and his yacht Dolly.

Rum Affair opens with Tina Rossi, a Polish-Italian opera singer, arriving in Scotland where she is due to give two performances at the Edinburgh Festival. During a break in her schedule, she has arranged to meet her lover, Kenneth Holmes, at his friend’s Rose Street flat. However, there’s no sign of Kenneth – just a card with the three handwritten words, “Darling, I’m sorry”. Searching for clues to explain his absence, Tina opens a wardrobe door to reveal the body of a man, a stranger, who has been shot in the chest. When the police unexpectedly arrive, making enquiries about a robbery in the neighbourhood, she quickly makes the decision to conceal what has happened – to try to save her own reputation, she tells us, and Kenneth’s.

Instinct is a marvellous thing, I dare say; but I prefer to use my good sense. You, perhaps, with a strange man lying dead at your feet would have welcomed the police with an exhibition of nervous relief. I, on the other hand, kept my head.

On the same night, Tina’s path crosses for the first time with that of Johnson, who is staying nearby. Tina is immediately intrigued by Johnson, a mysterious man who wears bifocals and introduces himself as “thirty-eight. Painter. London. On holiday.” When Johnson invites her to join him on a yacht race to the Isle of Rum, she is quick to accept. Rum is where Kenneth is currently based, working on a highly sensitive project for his employers, although she doesn’t admit this to Johnson. However, it seems that Johnson has a reason of his own for wanting Tina to sail with him on board Dolly – and it’s not just so that he can paint her portrait!

I won’t go into any more detail regarding the plot because I wouldn’t like to inadvertently give too much away and spoil the mystery – and I don’t want to say much more about Tina Rossi either as I’m finding that part of the fun of reading the Johnson novels is in getting to know the woman who is narrating the story. What I will say is that Tina is very different from Rita Geddes of Tropical Issue and that their narrative voices reflect their different personalities and backgrounds (while I liked Rita immediately, I never connected with Tina at all, but I suppose you can’t like every character in every book). As for Johnson himself, even though I have now read two books in this series, he is still very much an enigma to me. Of course, we only see him through the eyes of the narrators so we only know what they choose to tell us and are reliant on their observations and interpretations of his character, which may not always be correct or true.

I also found the setting interesting; the race in which Johnson and Tina are participating takes them around the west coast of Scotland, visiting several islands of the Inner Hebrides, of which Rum is one.

In the summer night, the Inner Hebrides lay all about us, black on the indigo sea. Above us, the uninterrupted sky stretched, a light, dense ultramarine, its ghostly clouds and small, sharp white stars suspended over the bright winking lights, near and far, of a constellation of lighthouses, and the grey, dimly voyaging waves here below.

I particularly enjoyed the scenes set at Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa!

Although I don’t think these books come close to the brilliance of Dunnett’s Lymond or Niccolò series, or King Hereafter, they are still quite enjoyable in a different way. I am looking forward to reading the rest and meeting the other five narrators.

Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate

A woman is on trial for murder and a jury is being sworn in to decide her fate. A jury of twelve men and women selected at random from all walks of life, each of whom has an interesting story of his or her own. Verdict of Twelve (1940), one of the British Library Crime Classics series, is as much about the jury as it is about the crime, which makes it an unusual and fascinating novel.

The book is divided into three main sections. In the first, we are introduced to each member of the jury as they step forward one by one to take their oaths. With an academic, a religious fanatic, a servant, a Greek restaurant owner and an encyclopedia salesman among them, many areas of society are represented and these twelve very different people must find a way to work together to reach what they believe to be the correct verdict.

The second part of the novel (which begins about a third of the way into the book) describes the crime itself. We are given some background information on the accused woman and then an account of the events which led up to the murder. I don’t think I can go into any detail without spoiling things, so I will just say that it is an intriguing mystery, very dark at times but with some humour at others. Although there are only a few suspects it is difficult to decide from the available evidence (which is largely circumstantial) exactly what happened and whether the jurors’ verdict should be guilty or not guilty.

Next, we watch the trial take place, listen to the witnesses and then join the jurors as they discuss the case and try to reach agreement. Finally a short epilogue lets us know whether we – and the jury – came to the right conclusion. It’s an interesting structure and one which I thought worked very well. Knowing the personal background of each juror before the trial begins helps us to see how their individual prejudices and experiences affects their reasoning when it comes to considering the evidence and making a decision. Some find that they have sympathy for the accused and some for the victim; as the reader, I felt that I was almost in the position of a thirteenth juror – and as I disliked one of the characters so much I found that I was also reacting emotionally rather than objectively.

My only slight criticism is that the first section of the book, in which the jury is introduced, is quite uneven. A few of the characters, particularly Victoria Atkins and Arthur Popesgrove, are fully fleshed out in what are almost self-contained short stories, while some of the others have only one or two pages devoted to them. As each juror has one twelfth of the input into the final decision, I’m not sure why we needed to know so much more about some of their backgrounds than others. Apart from this, I really enjoyed Verdict of Twelve – highly recommended for all lovers of classic crime!

Thanks to Poisoned Pen Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book #6 for the R.I.P XII challenge.

Margery Allingham writing as Maxwell March: The Man of Dangerous Secrets

Margery Allingham is probably one of the best known of the Golden Age crime authors but I’d had no idea that she had also written several thrillers under the name of Maxwell March until I came across this one, recently reissued along with two others by Ipso Books. I didn’t know what to expect from it, but I’m pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it – and I’m sure Margery Allingham must have enjoyed writing it too!

Originally published in 1933 as Other Man’s Danger, the novel opens by introducing us to Robin Grey, the ‘man of dangerous secrets’, a detective who holds an unofficial position with the government. On a secret mission for the Foreign Office at Waterloo Station late one night, he witnesses a young man being pushed onto the tracks and manages to save him. The next day, he is visited by Jennifer Fern, the victim’s girlfriend, who begs him to look into the murder attempt as her previous two fiancés had died under suspicious circumstances and she’s sure it can’t possibly be a coincidence. Jennifer suggests that she and Robin pretend to be engaged and then wait for the unseen enemy to make the next move, but will Robin agree to this – and if so, what will happen?

The story then becomes more and more exciting and convoluted, so I’m not going to say anything else about the plot…except that it includes all of the following: murder, blackmail, kidnappings and car chases; hidden documents, clever disguises and secret conspiracies; a beautiful heiress, a sinister doctor and an escaped prisoner. I suppose you couldn’t describe it as great literature, but it’s certainly great fun to read, with a similar feel to Agatha Christie’s thriller They Came to Baghdad. It’s a real page-turner and I wished I hadn’t started reading it during a busy working week, as I think it would have been better read in one or two large chunks.

There’s not much in the way of character development, but I think that’s often the case with this sort of book. Robin is potentially an interesting character, but I couldn’t help thinking he was a bit careless for a man in a position of such responsibility. He’s too trusting, too quick to confide in people, gets himself into some dangerous situations which I felt could have been avoided and allows his judgement to be clouded by his feelings for a certain young woman…as his colleague Inspector Whybrow says, “I’ve never known a detective yet who could do his work when he was in love”.

As for the mystery itself, we are given enough hints to guess at least part of the solution, although the identity of the criminal mastermind is not as easy to work out. The final revelations are not very plausible and I couldn’t believe that the criminal could really have done what he/she is described as doing (sorry for being vague) but considering the tone of the rest of the novel I hadn’t really expected a realistic ending anyway!

This was a quick, entertaining and highly enjoyable read. The Albert Campion mysteries must have been the books Allingham really wanted to write, but I’m still sorry that she only wrote three as Maxwell March. I will definitely be reading the other two, Rogues’ Holiday and The Devil and Her Son.

Thanks to Ipso Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book #4 for the R.I.P XII challenge.