In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

This is the book that was chosen for me to read in the recent Classics Club Spin – a result I was very pleased with, having loved two other novels by Dorothy B. Hughes, The Expendable Man and Ride the Pink Horse (two of my books of the year in 2020 and 2021 respectively).

Originally published in 1947, In a Lonely Place is set in Los Angeles just after World War II. Dix Steele, who had served as a fighter pilot in the Air Force, is staying in an apartment belonging to an old acquaintance, Mel Terriss, who has gone to Rio for a while. Like many young men who have returned from the war, Dix has been left damaged by his experiences and is taking advantage of the peace and quiet to finish writing his new crime novel. At least, that’s what he tells people. It is quickly made obvious to the reader that the writing is a cover for something else and that Dix is actually spending his time doing something very different.

Deciding to contact a wartime friend, Brub Nicolai, who also lives in LA, Dix is surprised to learn that Brub is now working as a police detective. Brub is delighted to renew their friendship, introducing Dix to his wife, Sylvia, and telling him about the case he is investigating – a series of stranglings that have been taking place across the city. Dix is envious of Brub’s close relationship with Sylvia, which serves as a constant reminder of his own sense of loneliness and isolation. When he meets Laurel Gray, a beautiful young actress who lives in his apartment building, it seems that he has a chance to form a new relationship of his own…if Laurel can avoid becoming the strangler’s next victim.

I had high hopes for this novel and it certainly didn’t disappoint! I’ve actually found it quite a difficult book to write about because I’m not sure what would be considered a spoiler and what wouldn’t. Having said that, there’s not really a lot of mystery involved; we know from very early in the book who the murderer is – the suspense is in waiting to find out how, if and when they will get caught. However, there are still a few surprises and some revelations that don’t come until later in the story. All three of the books I’ve read by Hughes have been so much than just straightforward crime novels; she takes us right inside the minds of her characters and although they may be damaged, unhappy and not the most pleasant of people, she makes them feel believable and real, if not exactly sympathetic!

This book is wonderfully atmospheric – dark and tense and with the reader, like Dix, wondering who can be trusted and who knows more than they’re admitting to. It’s another great read and I’ll look forward to reading more by Dorothy B. Hughes.

This is book 28/50 read from my second Classics Club list

Scarweather by Anthony Rolls

I didn’t think I had anything suitable to read for Paula’s Reading Wales Month, then I discovered that Anthony Rolls (a pseudonym of Colwyn Edward Vulliamy) was a Welsh author born in Glasbury, Radnorshire in 1886. He wrote several crime novels under the Anthony Rolls name, two of which are available as British Library Crime Classics – and luckily I had one of them, Scarweather, on my TBR.

Originally published in 1934, Scarweather is narrated by John Farringdale, who is a young man of twenty-one when the story begins in 1913. Farringdale has always been close to his cousin Eric, so when Eric meets the famous archaeologist Professor Tolgen Reisby, he can’t wait to introduce Farringdale to him. Although Farringdale is proud to see his cousin on good terms with such a renowned and impressive man as the Professor, he feels uneasy about Eric’s obvious interest in Reisby’s young wife, Hilda. When an opportunity arises to visit the Reisbys himself at their home, Scarweather, in the north of England, he accepts the invitation and heads north, taking his friend, Frederick Ellingham, with him.

All appears to be well at Scarweather and Farringdale wonders whether he has been worrying unnecessarily, but Ellingham, being older and more perceptive than his friend, hints that the Professor may not be all he seems. And so when Eric disappears, believed to have been involved in a sailing accident, Ellingham decides to investigate. However, war soon breaks out in Europe, meaning that the investigation will take a lot longer than expected. We rejoin the characters fifteen years later, when it seems that the secrets of Scarweather are about to be revealed at last!

Scarweather is an unusual mystery novel, because there’s really no mystery at all. The solution is obvious to the reader from early on – in fact, Farringdale himself remarks once or twice that he supposes we’ve already guessed the truth. There are no clever twists, no real surprises and very little ‘detecting’. Ellingham and Farringdale are clearly a Holmes and Watson pairing, with Ellingham in the role of Holmes, but because we only see him through the eyes of Farringdale – who seems to be completely oblivious to everything that is going on – we don’t get a chance to watch any of his detective work or hear much about his theories until the very end of the book. And the ending, when it comes, seems very morally questionable.

Yet, despite all of this, I still think this book is worth reading, particularly if you’re more interested in archaeology than I am. Rolls’ writing really comes alive whenever he moves onto the subject of archaeologists and their work; this was obviously a passion of his and something he was very knowledgeable about. There’s also a strong sense of place: Scarweather is located in a remote coastal area and the harshness of the landscape and the sea makes the setting an atmospheric one. Even though knowing the solution to the mystery takes away all the suspense, there’s still a feeling of darkness and foreboding.

Although I didn’t love this book, I would be happy to read more by Anthony Rolls. The other book of his published as a British Library Crime Classic, Family Matters, sounds better than this one.

Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate

I loved Raymond Postgate’s Verdict of Twelve, but it has taken me a few years to get around to reading his other novel available as a British Library Crime Classic, Somebody at the Door. I wish I’d found time to read it sooner, as it’s another one I really enjoyed – with one or two reservations.

One evening in the winter of 1942, Councillor Henry Grayling travels home from London by train, bringing with him a large sum of money – the wages for the workers of the Barrow and Furness Chemistry and Drugs Company, which he is planning to distribute the next day. By the time he reaches his own front door, he has become seriously ill and dies later that night from what appears to be mustard gas poisoning. The money has disappeared, but was that the motive for his murder or could there be another reason? Suspicion falls on the other passengers who had shared his train carriage that evening and it is up to Inspector Holly to decide which of them did it and why.

This novel has a very similar structure to Verdict of Twelve. In that book, Postgate tells the stories of the twelve people who are serving on the jury for a murder trial, showing the effects of their backgrounds, experiences and prejudices on their decision-making. In Somebody at the Door, he explores the stories of the people on the train and how their paths had crossed with Grayling’s, giving them the motive and the opportunity to commit the crime. The book feels more like a collection of short stories than a conventional crime novel – although we do return briefly to Holly’s investigations now and then, the focus is much more on getting to know the personal history of each suspect rather than on watching the detective solve the mystery.

Some of the stories are very compelling in their own right, even if most of what we are told has very little relevance to the overall plot. I particularly liked the first one, about a young man who works for the Barrow and Furness Company and gets himself involved with a blackmailer, and the third one, which follows an attempt to help a refugee escape from Nazi Germany. The final story, however, about two people having an affair, didn’t interest me much at all – and unfortunately, this was one of the longest stories. This did spoil the book for me slightly, but after this final tale comes to an end we return to the Grayling murder again and things are wrapped up nicely.

I think what I liked best about this novel was the setting. Postgate writes about life in wartime Britain as only someone can who is actually living through it themselves (the book was published in 1943). Some of the characters’ stories are related directly to the war, such as the one about the refugee and another about a Corporal in the Home Guard, and the war is a constant presence in the novel as a whole, with references to bombing raids and the blackout.

I preferred Verdict of Twelve and would recommend starting with that one if you’re new to Raymond Postgate, but both books are entertaining and interesting reads as long as you don’t go into them expecting a traditional detective novel.

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

A new year means a new Agatha Christie reading challenge! After participating in all twelve monthly reads for Read Christie 2021, I’m not planning to do the same again this year – I do love Christie, but there are so many other authors I want to read too. However, I will still be dipping into Read Christie 2022 throughout the year whenever I’m tempted by the monthly theme. The topic for January is ‘A story inspired by Agatha’s travels’ and the suggested book is The Man in the Brown Suit, one that I hadn’t read before and that sounded quite appealing to me.

Published in 1924, this book is not part of the Poirot or Marple series, although it does feature another of Christie’s recurring characters, Colonel Race. Like They Came to Baghdad or The Secret Adversary, it’s more thriller than mystery; a murder does take place near the beginning, but this is only a starting point and not the main focus of the novel.

Most of the novel is narrated by Anne Beddingfield, the recently orphaned daughter of a famous archaeologist. Finding herself alone in the world, with a small inheritance to spend, Anne longs for an adventure to come her way so she can imitate the heroines of her favourite books and films. This wish becomes reality when she witnesses an accident in a London tube station and picks up a piece of paper dropped by the doctor who examines the victim. On this scrap of paper are some numbers and the words ‘Kilmorden Castle’; Anne is sure that these are clues and that she has found the adventure she’s been waiting for. When a woman is found dead the next day in the home of Sir Eustace Pedler, Member of Parliament, a man in a brown suit is suspected of the crime. Convinced that the two incidents are related, Anne deciphers the clues on the paper and boards a ship sailing to Cape Town, hoping to track down the brown-suited man.

Anne is a wonderful narrator and her intelligence, courage and quick wits mean that she is often – although not always – one step ahead of the villains. However, there’s also a second narrator and that is Sir Eustace Pedler. Sir Eustace’s narrative is interspersed with Anne’s and takes the form of a diary in which, in contrast with Anne, he describes his dislike of adventure, as well as his frustration with his annoying secretary Mr Pagett. The diary entries add a lot of humour to the story and I enjoyed hearing Sir Eustace’s voice now and then as a change from Anne’s.

Christie’s novels are always entertaining, but this is one I found particularly fun to read. Stolen diamonds, a revolution, travel through South Africa, a criminal mastermind known only as the ‘Colonel’…there’s such a lot happening and so many things to enjoy. The one aspect of the novel that I didn’t like was the romance between Anne and another character; I thought it seemed to come very suddenly out of nowhere and I was disappointed that Anne, being such a strong person in other respects, had the view that a woman should admire a man’s strength and prepare to be submissive.

Going back to the theme for this month’s read, this novel was inspired by a round-the-world trip taken by Agatha and her first husband Archie Christie in 1922. You can see the full list of categories for Read Christie 2022 at the bottom of the challenge page on the Agatha Christie website.

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B Hughes

Ride the Pink Horse was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin and I have finished it just in time to write about it by the Spin deadline, which is this weekend. There were two reasons why I added this book to my Classics Club list in the first place. One was that I loved Dorothy B Hughes’ The Expendable Man and wanted to read more of her work; the other, I have to admit, was that I liked the title. Otherwise, I would probably never have picked this book up based on the description alone as it didn’t really sound like my usual sort of read. And that would have been a shame, as I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Ride the Pink Horse was published in 1946 and is set in Santa Fe during Fiesta, a festival commemorating the reconquest of New Mexico by the Spanish. The central character, known only as Sailor, was once ‘confidential secretary’ to Senator Willis Douglass (in reality, his job involved carrying out the corrupt senator’s dirty work for him) until the day the senator’s wife was murdered during what appeared to be an attempted robbery. Only Sailor and the Sen, as he calls him, know what really happened that day and Sailor is determined that if the Sen wants him to keep quiet then he will have to pay him for his silence. Sailor has followed the Sen to the Fiesta, planning to get as much money out of him as possible and then cross the border into Mexico to start a new life – but he hasn’t bargained for the appearance of McIntyre, a Chicago detective who is also on the senator’s trail in search of answers.

The first thing I should tell you about Ride the Pink Horse is that it’s not really a mystery, even though it’s currently being published as part of the Otto Penzler American Mystery Classics series. There’s a detective, but we don’t actually watch him doing any detecting because we see everything solely from Sailor’s perspective and Sailor already knows how the Sen’s wife was murdered. However, there’s still plenty of suspense as we are kept wondering whether Sailor will get what he wants from the Sen or whether he will drop his attempt at blackmail and tell McIntyre what he knows instead. The way in which the novel is written meant I honestly had no idea what would happen and which choices Sailor would make, so I found the ending both surprising and realistic.

The next thing I want to mention is the setting, which is wonderfully atmospheric. Santa Fe is not actually mentioned by name – Sailor, who is from Chicago, just refers to it as a ‘hick town’ – but it can be identified by the descriptions of the Fiesta and the festival traditions such as the burning of Zozobra, the wooden effigy of ‘Old Man Gloom’. Hughes creates an amazing sense of place and a feeling that, for Sailor, Fiesta is not a fun or exciting experience but a stifling, claustrophobic one – a trap from which there is no escape:

The whole town was a trap. He’d been trapped from the moment he stepped off the bus at the dirty station. Trapped by the unknown, by a foreign town and foreign tongues and the ways of alien men. Trapped by the evil these people had burned and the ash had entered into their flesh.

Sailor himself is not a very appealing or pleasant character, but as we learn more about his past – and his unhappy childhood, growing up in poverty with an alcoholic father – it becomes easier to have sympathy for him. One of his least attractive traits is his racism, so be warned that he uses offensive language to describe the Mexican and Native American people he meets during Fiesta. However, as he gradually befriends Pancho, a good-natured merry-go-round owner, and Pila, the young girl who rides the ‘pink horse’ of the title, there are signs that his attitude is beginning to change, as seen here in this conversation with McIntyre:

“…they don’t shove you around. They give you a smile. Even if you don’t talk their language they don’t shove you around. The way we shove them around when they come up to our town.”

“I know,” Mac said. “I’ve thought sort of along that line myself. We’re the strangers and they don’t treat us as strangers. They’re tolerant. Only they’re more than tolerant. Like you say, they’re friendly. They give you a smile not scorn.”

I loved this book and am so pleased it came up for me in the Classics Club Spin! I think The Expendable Man is still my favourite of the two, but I’m looking forward to reading more by Dorothy B Hughes; In a Lonely Place will probably be next.

This is book 25/50 read from my second Classics Club list

Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass

The final decade of the 18th century is a time of revolution and political upheaval; in 1794, the year in which Black Drop is set, Britain is both at war with France – a country still in the grip of the Reign of Terror – and trying to negotiate a treaty with the recently independent America. Our narrator, Laurence Jago, is a London clerk working in the Foreign Office and facing the difficult task of trying to advance in his career while also hiding a secret that, if discovered, would lead to accusations of treason.

When details of Britain’s military plans are leaked to the press, suspicion falls at first on Jago – but then the blame shifts to another clerk, Will Bates, who is found to have hanged himself in his room. Was Will really the traitor or is he being used as a convenient scapegoat? Jago is sure he was innocent and that his death was actually murder rather than suicide so, with the help of his friend, the journalist William Philpott, he sets out to discover the truth.

I enjoyed this book, although it was more political thriller than murder mystery and I occasionally felt that the plot was becoming more complicated than it really needed to be; I struggled to keep track of all the characters, their roles within the government and which of them may or may not be a spy. Overall, though, it was a fascinating period to read about, with so much going on in the world at that time – not only the French Revolutionary Wars and American treaty mentioned above, but also the fight for political reform led by the British shoemaker Thomas Hardy (not to be confused with the author of the same name!) and the growing debate over slavery and abolition.

Laurence Jago is a great character and the sort of flawed hero I love. The ‘Black Drop’ of the title refers to the laudanum Jago depends upon to get through the day and to ease the fear of his secrets being discovered. As his addiction worsens, it begins to affect the way he judges people and situations and leads the reader to question whether or not everything he is telling us is completely reliable. Despite this, I liked him very much and connected with his narrative style immediately. Jago is one of several fictional characters in the novel whom we see interacting with real historical figures such as Thomas Hardy, Lord Grenville, the Foreign Secretary, and John Jay, the American envoy. I knew nothing about any of these people before reading this book; it’s always good to learn something new!

Black Drop is Leonora Nattrass’ first novel. The way this one ended made me think there could be a sequel, but if not I will be happy to read whatever she writes next.

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

Book 46/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 7 for R.I.P. XVI

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

August’s theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story set by the seaside’, which seemed the perfect opportunity to pick up an unread Poirot novel, Evil Under the Sun. It’s set on an island off the coast of Devon, where Hercule Poirot is on holiday at the exclusive Jolly Roger Hotel.

Christie begins by introducing us to all of the people staying at the hotel, including Arlena Stuart, a beautiful former actress. Arlena is described by one of the other characters as ‘the personification of evil’ – and she certainly seems to be causing plenty of trouble. Fellow guest Patrick Redfern can’t take his eyes off her and Arlena appears to be encouraging his attentions, regardless of how hurtful this is to Patrick’s young wife, Christine. Arlena’s own husband, Captain Marshall, claims he hasn’t noticed her behaviour, but is he telling the truth? Meanwhile, Marshall’s teenage daughter from a previous marriage hates her stepmother and resents the way she has come into the family home, bringing scandal and unhappiness with her.

When Arlena’s dead body is found at Pixy Cove, a secluded part of the island, almost everyone becomes a suspect. It’s fortunate that Poirot is already on the scene and can begin investigating immediately! In fact, as he later tells his friend, Captain Hastings, he had begun even before the murder took place…

Hastings said, staring: “But the murder hadn’t happened, then.”

Hercule Poirot sighed. He said: “But already, mon cher, it was very clearly indicated.”

“Then why didn’t you stop it?”

And Hercule Poirot, with a sigh, said as he had said once before in Egypt, that if a person is determined to commit murder it is not easy to prevent them. He does not blame himself for what happened. It was, according to him, inevitable.

Having just read three Miss Marple novels in a row for Read Christie, it made a nice change to get back to Poirot for this month’s read. I usually prefer the Poirots to the Marples and Evil Under the Sun – first published in 1941 – is another good one. Setting the story on a private island, for the use of the hotel guests only, is not just an atmospheric setting but also a clever one as it immediately limits the suspects to those already on the island at the beginning of the book. With his understanding of the kind of person Arlena was, Poirot is quickly able to pick out one suspect as the most likely culprit, but due to timings and alibis it seems impossible that this person could have committed the crime. As the novel progresses, more clues emerge, along with the usual red herrings and misdirections Christie likes to throw in our way!

I didn’t manage to solve the mystery, but once the solution was revealed I could see how perfectly all of the clues fitted together – like a jigsaw puzzle, as Poirot describes it. It did seem that the way in which the crime was carried out depended on a lot of good luck and on people behaving in a certain manner, but I still think Christie was fair with the reader and I have no complaints. I’m now looking forward to September’s book, which will be Crooked House.