The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

I’m taking part in Read Christie 2021 this year and the prompt for January is ‘a story set in a grand house’. Christie wrote lots of those and I’ve already read some of them, including The Hollow, which is the one the challenge hosts have chosen as the book of the month. Fortunately, they provided a list of alternative suggestions and I decided on the 1942 Miss Marple mystery, The Body in the Library, as my January book for the challenge.

The ‘grand house’ in this novel is Gossington Hall in St Mary Mead, home to Dolly Bantry and her husband, Colonel Arthur Bantry. When the Bantrys are woken by the maid early one morning to be told that a dead body has been found on their library floor – the body of a blonde young woman in a white satin evening dress and silver shoes – suspicion immediately falls on the Colonel. But the Colonel insists that he has never seen the woman before and there is no evidence to connect him with the murder, so attention then turns to other suspects.

Could the culprit be Basil Blake, a newcomer to the village who is involved in the film industry and whose lifestyle has made him the centre of village gossip? What about George Bartlett, a guest at the nearby Majestic Hotel where the murdered woman, Ruby Keene, had worked as a dancer? Or maybe it’s Conway Jefferson, who had been planning to adopt Ruby as his daughter after losing his wife and children in a plane crash several years earlier. As the police begin to investigate, Dolly Bantry enlists the help of her friend Miss Marple because she’s ‘very good at murders’. And Miss Marple once again proves just how good she is at murders by using her usual blend of observation and knowledge of human nature to piece together the clues and solve the crime.

The Body in the Library is a short, quick read and like most of Christie’s novels it is cleverly constructed so that most of the information you need to be able to solve the mystery is there from the beginning, but very easy to overlook. As Miss Marple says once or twice, most people are too trusting and too ready to believe everything they are told; even bearing that in mind, I still didn’t suspect the right person and the murderer had me completely fooled! The murderer also had the police fooled – although we don’t actually see very much of Miss Marple in this novel and the focus is more on the police investigation, she is the one who provides the necessary insights that lead to the identification of the killer.

In the foreword to the novel, Christie states that the ‘body in the library’ story is a cliché of detective fiction and that she wrote this book as a variation on that cliché: ‘The library in question must be a highly orthodox and conventional library. The body, on the other hand, must be a wildly improbable and highly sensational body.’ Well, the library at Gossington Hall certainly sounds conventional and the body caused plenty of sensation in St Mary Mead, so I think Christie achieved what she set out to do! This has not become a favourite Marple novel but I did enjoy it and am looking forward to reading February’s book for the challenge.

The Man in the Moonlight by Helen McCloy

I loved Dance of Death, the first book in Helen McCloy’s Dr Basil Willing mystery series which I read last month, so I was pleased to see that Agora Books have now reissued the second in the series, The Man in the Moonlight. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as the first, but it was still a good read and it was nice to meet Dr Willing and Assistant Chief Inspector Foyle again.

Helen McCloy (a pseudonym of Helen Clarkson) was an American crime author whose career spanned five decades and included several standalone books as well as the Basil Willing series. The Man in the Moonlight, first published in 1940, is set during World War II and the war has a part to play in the plot.

Inspector Foyle is visiting Yorkville University, where he is planning to send his son, when he finds a discarded piece of paper with the message: ‘I take pleasure in informing you that you have been chosen as murderer for Group No 1. Please follow these instructions with as great exactness as possible.’ At first Foyle doesn’t take this too seriously – he assumes it’s part of a game of some sort and doesn’t believe that real killers refer to each other as ‘murderers’ anyway – but he is forced to change his mind when Professor Konradi, an Austrian biochemist who escaped from a concentration camp, is found dead in his laboratory.

Konradi’s death appears to be suicide but Foyle isn’t convinced and enlists the help of Dr Basil Willing, psychiatric consultant to the New York District Attorney’s office. As Foyle and Willing begin to investigate, they uncover some intriguing and unexpected aspects of the case, ranging from a psychological experiment being carried out by another of the university professors to the potential involvement of a group of Nazi spies. As in Dance of Death, it’s Willing’s understanding of how the human mind works that leads to the eventual solution.

This is quite a complex mystery novel and incorporates lots of interesting psychological and scientific ideas. The sort of methods Basil Willing uses to obtain the information he needs include lie detector tests and word association tests and I found it fascinating to see him explain his analysis of these tests to the other characters. The focus on the personalities of the suspects, their possible motives and their reasons for behaving the way they do, is much more appealing to me than reading long discussions of alibis and timelines which often dominate other mystery novels and this is one of the reasons why I’m enjoying Helen McCloy’s novels so much. Most of her books are still currently out of print but I’m hoping more of them will be made available by Agora Books soon.

The Two Hundred Ghost by Henrietta Hamilton

I read my first Henrietta Hamilton novel, Answer in the Negative, earlier this year and wasn’t particularly impressed by it; I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read any more of her books, but I believe in giving an author a second chance and The Two Hundred Ghost sounded very tempting. I’m glad I gave it a try as I enjoyed it much more than Answer in the Negative.

The Two Hundred Ghost was first published in 1956 and is the first book in Hamilton’s Johnny and Sally Heldar mystery series. The unusual title refers to 200 Charing Cross Road, the address of the antiquarian bookshop in London which is owned by Johnny Heldar’s family and said to be haunted by a ghost. Sally Merton is one of the booksellers in the shop; she is not yet married to Johnny when we first meet her and has been attracting some unwelcome attention from one of the male employees, Victor Butcher. Mr Butcher is an unpleasant bully, disliked by everybody who knows him, so when he is found dead in his office with a knife in his back, there are plenty of suspects…including the ghost, which is sighted in the building shortly before the murder takes place!

This is a very short novel and the plot moves along at a steady pace, making it a quick and easy read; although, as with the other Hamilton novel I read, I felt that there was a bit of repetition surrounding discussions of alibis, timing of events and layouts of rooms, this one has a better balance between these technical aspects of mystery-solving and the more ‘human’ aspects, such as motives and personalities. I didn’t guess who the murderer was, but I don’t think the author was unfairly holding back information from the reader and it may have been possible to solve the mystery if you were paying more attention than I was and didn’t miss any clues!

Henrietta Hamilton (a pseudonym of Hester Denne Shepherd) worked in a London bookshop in the years following World War II and had personal experience of selling antiquarian books, which gives the novel a feeling of authenticity. Bookselling is not just a background to the novel, but an important part of the plot, and the author’s knowledge and interest in ‘incunabula’ (early printed books) comes through very strongly.

I was pleased to find that Sally plays a bigger part in the investigations in this book than she did in Answer in the Negative and makes some important discoveries which prove to be turning points in the mystery – although, remembering that it was written in the 1950s, there’s always a sense that Johnny feels the need to protect her because she’s a woman. Still, both Johnny and Sally are characters who are easy to like and to care about; it was nice to get to know them before they were married and to see their relationship develop (although it does so quite subtly and their romance is only one small part of the story). Having enjoyed this book, I would like to meet the Heldars again – luckily, there are another two books in the series and I’m hoping they will be reissued soon too!

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

The Butcher of Berner Street by Alex Reeve

Along with Antonia Hodgson’s Thomas Hawkins books and Andrew Taylor’s Marwood and Lovett books, this is one of several new historical mystery series I have been enjoying over the last few years. It is set in Victorian London and follows the adventures of Leo Stanhope, an interesting, intelligent and likeable young man who has a secret he must keep hidden at all costs. This is the third book in the series and although you could certainly read it without having read the previous two (The House on Half Moon Street and The Anarchists’ Club), I do recommend getting to know Leo and his friends from the beginning if possible.

As The Butcher of Berner Street opens, we learn that Leo, formerly a coroner’s assistant, has a new job writing articles on science for the Daily Chronicle newspaper. He is enjoying the work and is grateful for the opportunity he has been given, but he longs for something more exciting to write about – something that will give him a front page headline. When he receives an anonymous note warning of a murder due to take place at a wrestling club in the East End of London that night, it seems Leo is about to get his wish. A murder does take place, although not quite in the way Leo had expected, and when suspicion falls on a Hungarian female wrestler, Irina Vostek, he must find a way to get the headlines he needs while making sure that Irina really is the killer.

I think The Butcher of Berner Street is my favourite of the three books in this series. The plot is well constructed and although I did guess who the murderer was, there were several possible suspects and enough twists and turns to give me a few doubts. More than the plot, though, I loved the setting, the atmosphere and the insights into various aspects of Victorian life: the class differences and the fate of those living in poverty, the early days of the women’s suffrage movement and attitudes towards the Catholic church.

Leo himself is a very compelling character; it’s no spoiler to tell you that although he has chosen to live as a man, he was born and raised as a girl before leaving home as a teenager and taking on a new identity, knowing that he could never be happy unless he had the freedom to be true to himself. Only one or two trusted friends know Leo’s secret and he lives in fear of anyone else finding out; life as a transgender man in the 19th century is not easy and he has heard stories of others who have been arrested and forced to undergo horrific ‘cures’. Although this book is first and foremost a mystery novel and not specifically a book about the experience of being trans, it does have an impact on the way Leo approaches solving the mystery, as he needs to avoid drawing too much attention to himself and risking being blackmailed or exposed. As well as Leo, there are lots of other recurring characters in the series and I enjoyed meeting them all again, particularly the pie maker Rosie Flowers and Alfie the pharmacist and his young daughter, Constance.

I don’t know whether there will be a fourth book in this series. This one has a proper ending, tying up some loose ends and not leaving too much unresolved, but I still hope to see Leo and his friends again soon!

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

Dance of Death by Helen McCloy

This is the latest addition to Agora Books’ Uncrowned Queens of Crime series, making long-forgotten crime novels by female authors available again to modern readers. I think it’s probably my favourite so far. Originally published in 1938, it’s the first of several books written by American author Helen McCloy which feature the psychiatrist Dr Basil Willing.

The novel begins with the discovery of the body of a young woman, buried under a heap of snow in a New York street. Bizarrely, the cause of death appears to be heatstroke and the girl’s face is stained bright yellow. The police think they have identified her as Kitty Jocelyn, a beautiful debutante who has become famous as the face of an advertising campaign, but things take an even more confusing turn when they speak to her cousin, Ann Claude, who closely resembles the dead girl and who claims that she had been persuaded to impersonate Kitty at her recent coming out party.

Inspector Foyle begins to investigate this intriguing mystery, assisted by Basil Willing, an expert in Freudian psychoanalysis who provides a very different and, for the time, probably quite modern approach to crime-solving. While Foyle looks for tangible evidence and clues that will point to the culprit, Willing is more interested in the ‘blunders’ people make: a slip of the tongue, a lost item, a forgotten name. “Every criminal leaves psychic fingerprints,” he says, “And he can’t wear gloves to hide them.” I found Willing’s methods of solving the mystery fascinating, whether it was suggesting psychological reasons for the blunders, conducting word association tests or using his knowledge of the human mind to find out the motivation behind the crime.

Apart from Basil Willing, whom I liked and will look forward to meeting again, the other characters in the book are well drawn and believable too, which is important as the psychological angle of the story wouldn’t have worked if the characters had been nothing more than stereotypes. I didn’t manage to solve the mystery myself; although I suspected the right person, their motive came as a complete surprise to me, so I was content to let Willing do the investigating and explain the solution to me at the end. There are other aspects of the novel which I found nearly as interesting as the mystery, though, such as the ethics of advertising, attitudes towards money in 1930s society and the responsibilities of being a public figure. I thoroughly enjoyed Dance of Death and I’m sure I’ll be looking for more by Helen McCloy.

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

Dead March for Penelope Blow by George Bellairs – #RIPXV

This is the third of George Bellairs’ Inspector Littlejohn mysteries I’ve read. I enjoyed the other two (A Knife for Harry Dodd and Death in Room Five), but I think this one is the best so far.

First published in 1951, Dead March for Penelope Blow is set in the small English town of Nesbury, home to the Blow family who live in the big house adjoining the bank which used to be the family business. The novel opens with Penelope Blow, one of the two surviving daughters of old William Blow, the banker, calling at Scotland Yard in the hope of seeing Inspector Littlejohn. Littlejohn, however, is away attending a murder trial and Penelope is forced to return to Nesbury, leaving a message for the Inspector to call her as soon as possible. Unfortunately, before Littlejohn has time to contact her and find out what she had been so desperate to tell him, Penelope falls to her death from a window while leaning out to water flowers in a window box.

As Littlejohn, with the help of his assistant Cromwell, begins to investigate the circumstances of Penelope Blow’s death, an intricate mystery unfolds involving family secrets, wills and inheritances, forgeries and thefts, and a suspected case of poisoning. The novel is carefully plotted, with some clever red herrings, and various revelations coming at just the right points in the story. It’s not really a very original mystery, but I still found it intriguing and although I correctly guessed who did it, I didn’t manage to work everything out before Littlejohn and Cromwell did.

What makes this a particularly enjoyable novel, though, is the strong, almost Dickensian, characterisation (in fact, when Cromwell is listening to the housekeeper, Mrs Buckley, talking about her ‘umble home, he thinks of Uriah Heep from David Copperfield). From Mr Jelley, the frail, elderly butler, and John Slype, the cheerful little window cleaner, to the fierce and beautiful Lenore Blow and her father Captain Broome, whom Littlejohn describes as ‘like a character out of Kipling’, they are all very strongly drawn and each of them, however minor, adds something special to the story. In contrast, Littlejohn and Cromwell are quite ordinary, but I do like them both!

Another interesting thing about this book is that, although it’s set in the post-war period and there are a few references to this (we are reminded that food rationing is still in place, for example), the story feels as though it could have been taking place in a much earlier period. The Blow family almost seem to be frozen in time, with relationships between the male and female members of the household and between servants and employers as rigidly structured as they would have been in Victorian times. The social history aspect of the novel is almost as fascinating as the mystery.

Having enjoyed this one so much, I’m looking forward to reading more from the Littlejohn series!

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

This is my third and final book read for this year’s RIP Challenge.

The Ghost It Was by Richard Hull – #RIPXV

I’ve enjoyed several of Richard Hull’s novels over the last few years – particularly The Murder of My Aunt and Left-Handed Death – and with Halloween quickly approaching, The Ghost It Was (first published in 1936) sounded like a good one to read next.

The novel begins with aspiring journalist Gregory Spring-Benson trying to get a job as a newspaper reporter. Having failed to impress the editor, Gregory is given new hope when he comes across a badly written article about James Warrenton’s purchase of the supposedly haunted Amberhurst Place. James Warrenton happens to be his uncle – his very rich uncle – and perhaps if Gregory goes to visit him in his new home he will be able to gather material for a much more interesting article that will help to launch his career in journalism. If he can also persuade Uncle James to leave him as much money as possible in his will, even better!

On his arrival, however, Gregory finds that he is not the only one hoping to secure his inheritance; three other nephews and a niece have also descended upon the house in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with their uncle. But while the cousins are busy plotting and scheming against each other, the ghost of Amberhurst Place makes an appearance at the top of a tower. Deaths soon follow, but is the ghost responsible or is there a human culprit?

Although all of the books I’ve read by Richard Hull so far have been very different, unlikeable characters seem to be the one thing they have in common! This worked very well in The Murder of My Aunt, where the characters were so horrible they were funny, but in this book they are just thoroughly unpleasant and not much fun to spend time with at all. I could easily have believed that almost any of them was the murderer and didn’t really care which of them was. It didn’t help that after a strong opening, introducing us to Gregory Spring-Benson and describing his ordeals at the newspaper office, the narrative then jumps around between the other cousins, the butler, a clergyman and some Scotland Yard investigators. We barely see Gregory after this and I felt that the novel lost focus through trying to involve too many different characters at once.

The ghost story aspect of the novel is well done – not at all scary, but it adds some atmosphere and makes it more difficult to work out exactly how the murders are being carried out. Despite the unpleasant characters and the lack of focus I’ve mentioned, it’s quite an enjoyable mystery to try to solve and the denouement, when it comes, is unusual and unexpected. Instead of tying everything up for the reader, Hull leaves us to make up our own minds and to decide whether we’ve correctly interpreted what we have been told. Not a favourite Hull novel, then, but still worth reading and I will continue to explore his other books.

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

This is my second book read for this year’s R.I.P. Challenge.