Death of a Tin God by George Bellairs

This is the fourth book I’ve read from George Bellairs’ Inspector Littlejohn series and although I haven’t been reading them in order, it doesn’t seem to matter at all. Each novel works as a standalone mystery and there’s very little focus on Littlejohn’s personal life so you can easily jump around from an early book to a later one and back again without feeling that you’ve missed anything important.

Death of a Tin God was first published in 1961 and begins with Thomas Littlejohn (now a Superintendent rather than an Inspector) flying from Dublin to the Isle of Man to visit his friend, Caesar Kinrade, the Archdeacon of Man. Littlejohn is looking forward to a quiet break, but his arrival coincides with the death of Hal Vale, a Hollywood star who has been filming on the island. Hal is found electrocuted in the bath in his hotel room and the circumstances suggest that it was not an accident. Littlejohn finds himself assisting the local police with their investigations and as the mystery deepens, he travels to the South of France to look for the answers.

I enjoyed this book but found the solution a bit predictable as the murderer turned out to be the person I had suspected from the beginning. There were some clever twists and red herrings along the way that did put some doubt into my mind, but I still wasn’t at all surprised when the truth was revealed. However, I very rarely manage to solve a mystery before the detective does, so I don’t mind too much when it occasionally happens! And I do like spending time with Littlejohn and watching him carry out his investigations; he’s not the most memorable of fictional detectives, but that means the focus stays firmly on the plot without his own personality getting in the way. His usual sidekick Sergeant Cromwell is absent for most of the book, but instead he teams up with Inspector Knell of the Manx police and Inspector Dorange in Nice who I believe are also recurring characters in the series and have good working relationships with Littlejohn.

One of the things I’ve loved about the other Bellairs novels I’ve read is the way he creates such a strong cast of supporting characters and suspects. In Dead March for Penelope Blow and A Knife for Harry Dodd in particular, there are some very colourful, larger than life characters who could almost have jumped straight out of the pages of a Dickens novel. In this book, I found the characterisation more bland and less interesting, but maybe that was a reflection of the shallow, vapid celebrity world Bellairs has chosen as the setting for this particular novel. Littlejohn is described several times as feeling slightly out of his depth amongst this assortment of glamorous film stars, ruthless publicity agents and millionaire bankers with yachts, so perhaps the reader is intended to feel the same.

I liked the idea of the book being set on the Isle of Man, as it’s not a common setting for mystery novels (or fiction in general), but it turned out that half of the story actually took place in Aix-en-Provence in France – and neither setting was described as vividly as I would have liked. I know Bellairs set some of the other Littlejohn books on the Isle of Man too, so maybe some of those have more local colour than this one. Although this is not one of my favourite books in the series so far, I’m still looking forward to reading more of them.

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

Book 5 for R.I.P. XVI

Crooked House by Agatha Christie

September’s topic for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story featuring a school’. I’ve already read the obvious choice, Cat Among the Pigeons, so I was grateful to the challenge hosts for providing a list of alternative suggestions. Crooked House doesn’t involve an actual school, but it does fit the general theme as it features two children who are being home-schooled.

First published in 1949, this was apparently one of Christie’s own favourites; in the foreword, she says that ‘practically everybody has liked Crooked House, so I am justified in my own belief that it is one of my best’. Now that I’ve read it, I can say that although it’s not one of my absolute favourites, it would definitely be in my top ten so far. It’s one of her standalones – with no Poirot, Marple or other famous detective – and, like several of her other novels, has a title inspired by a children’s nursery rhyme:

There was a crooked man, and he went a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile;
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

The ‘crooked house’ of the title is a mansion in the quiet London suburb of Swinley Dean and the people who ‘all live together’ there are ten members of the Leonides family. When the family patriarch, old Aristide Leonides, a Greek businessman, is found poisoned by his own eye medicine, suspicion immediately falls on his second wife, the much younger Brenda. It would certainly be more convenient for the rest of the family if Brenda could be proved to be the murderer – none of them like her and believe her to have married Aristide for his money – but so far there is no real evidence against her. Aristide’s eldest granddaughter, Sophia, is desperate to know the truth as she feels it won’t be fair to marry her fiancé, Charles Hayward, while a scandal is hanging over her family. As it happens, Charles is the son of the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard so, joining forces with Chief Inspector Taverner, the detective assigned to the crime, he sets out to solve the mystery so that he and Sophia will be free to marry.

One of the things I loved about this book was that the murderer really could have been anybody. Brenda is initially the main suspect as there are hints that she has been having an affair with Laurence Brown, tutor to Sophia’s younger siblings Eustace and Josephine, and would therefore need Aristide out of the way. However, Aristide’s eldest son Roger also appears to have a clear motive involving money and the company business, while his younger son Philip could have committed the murder out of jealousy. Then there are the brothers’ two wives, Clemency and Magda, and a spinster aunt, Edith de Haviland. Any of these people could have had reasons for wanting the old man dead, as well as the knowledge and opportunity to carry out the crime. At no point does Christie become too concerned with the technical details of the murder or get bogged down with discussions of alibis and timings, concentrating instead on motives, personalities and relationships – my favourite kind of mystery novel!

I didn’t guess who did it, of course. The correct solution did cross my mind once or twice, but I dismissed it as unlikely because I was so convinced that it was somebody else. I’m annoyed with myself for not working it out as I can see now that the clues were all there in plain sight!

Next month’s Read Christie theme, if anyone wants to join in, is ‘a story set on a mode of transport’. I’m probably going to read Death on the Nile, but there are plenty of others you could choose, including Murder on the Orient Express, Death in the Clouds or The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Book 3 read for R.I.P. XVI

The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters

It’s been years since I last read an Amelia Peabody mystery and when I picked up The Mummy Case, the third in the series, I was concerned that I had left too big a gap between books. Luckily, this seems to be a series you can easily return to after a long absence as each book, at least so far, has worked as a standalone mystery.

The Mummy Case is set in 1894 and opens with married Egyptologists Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson at home in England planning their next trip to Egypt. Amelia dreams of exploring the pyramids of Dahshoor on this visit, but her hopes are shattered with the discovery that her husband has left it too late to submit their application and permission has already been granted to another archaeologist. Amelia and Emerson are offered Mazghunah instead – a barren and uninspiring site believed to be of little historical significance – and they reluctantly accept.

Despite their lack of enthusiasm, the expedition proves to be much more exciting than either of them had expected. Before they even reach their destination, they become caught up in the murder of an antiquities dealer in Cairo who is found dead in his own shop – and when they eventually arrive at Mazghunah, Amelia becomes convinced that somebody connected with the murder has followed them there. When a scrap of papyrus is stolen from their camp and an entire mummy case belonging to a visiting tourist also disappears, even Emerson has to agree that they have stumbled onto the trail of a clever and ruthless Master Criminal!

Unlike their first two mysteries (described in Crocodile on the Sandbank and The Curse of the Pharaohs), Amelia and Emerson have help in solving this one. For the first time, their young son Ramses has accompanied them on a dig and while he often proves to be more of a hindrance, getting into trouble at every opportunity, he also manages to appear at several crucial moments to save the day. Described as ‘catastrophically precocious’ by Amelia, he sounds more like a seventy-year-old professor with a speech impediment than a seven-year-old child and although I’ve been told that he improves as a character later in the series, in this book I found him extremely irritating. However, he’s clearly not meant to be taken too seriously – and to be fair, Amelia finds him irritating too:

The old woman’s cacodemonic laughter broke out again…”The wisdom of the Prophet is yours, great lady. Accept an old woman’s blessing. May you have many sons – many, many sons…”

The idea was so appalling I think I turned pale.

I enjoyed this book, despite Ramses, but I don’t think it was as strong as the previous two in the series. The plot seemed to meander all over the place and it was easy to lose sight of what the central mystery was that the characters were trying to solve. I do still love Amelia and Emerson, though – their good-natured bickering is always entertaining! It was also interesting to learn a little bit about Mazghunah and its disappointingly incomplete ‘pyramids’ and to meet the real-life archaeologist Jacques de Morgan – although seeing him only through Amelia’s eyes gives us a slightly biased impression as he is their rival and the man who is excavating the much more attractive site of Dahshoor!

I am looking forward to continuing with the fourth book in the series, Lion in the Valley.

Book 43/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 2 read 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.

The Man Who Wasn’t There by Henrietta Hamilton

Henrietta Hamilton is an author I discovered recently through Agora Books’ Uncrowned Queens of Crime series. Hamilton (a pseudonym of Hester Denne Shepherd) had four novels published between 1956 and 1959, all featuring the crime-solving husband and wife team of Johnny and Sally Heldar. I have read two of them – Answer in the Negative, which I didn’t particularly enjoy, and The Two Hundred Ghost, which I did. When I was given the opportunity to read The Man Who Wasn’t There, I assumed it was another of the four books, but I quickly discovered that the circumstances behind the publication of this novel are more intriguing.

After Hamilton’s death in 1995, her nephews found some typed manuscripts of thirteen books that had never been published in her lifetime – including several more Sally and Johnny mysteries. This is one of them, made available at last by Agora Books. As one of the author’s nephews suggests in the introduction, it may have been changing tastes in literature that led to his aunt’s books no longer being published; by the late 1950s the Golden Age of detective fiction was largely over and The Man Who Wasn’t There does feel like a book written a decade or two earlier.

Johnny and Sally Heldar are a young married couple who run an antiquarian bookshop and are gaining a reputation for themselves as amateur detectives. Therefore, when Johnny’s cousin Tim discovers that his fiancée, Prue, is involved in a murder case, he turns to Johnny and Sally for help. Prue had been working as secretary to the murdered man, Mr Frodsham, who has been found shot dead in his study and Prue herself has become one of the suspects. Tim is hoping the Heldars can prove her innocent – and it certainly seems that there are plenty of other people with motives, including Frodsham’s mistress and her husband, another woman he was blackmailing, and some old enemies from his days in the French Resistance.

I like Sally and Johnny and it was nice to spend some more time in their company (although I do wish Johnny would let his wife take a more active part in the investigations), but I found the plot of this particular novel a bit too complicated and detailed for such a short book. I struggled to keep track of all the characters, what time they arrived at or left the victim’s house, what they were all doing during the war, even the number of different guns involved. Most of this information is delivered in the form of long conversations as Johnny and Sally ‘think out loud’ to each other or interview suspects, so you also need to remember who said what and to whom. Still, I think Hamilton was fair to the reader and gave us all the clues we needed to be able to solve the mystery.

I probably won’t read any more books in this series as I’ve tried three now and only really enjoyed one of them, but I can see from looking at other reviews that lots of people love her books so I hope the rest of the unpublished manuscripts find their way into print very soon.

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

The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

I am now halfway through my 20 Books of Summer list and obviously not going to finish all of the remaining books by the end of the month, but I’m pleased that I’ve managed to read this one, The Sussex Downs Murder, as I’ve had it on my shelf for a few years now and could never seem to find the right time to read it. It turns out that summer was the perfect time, as the story takes place in July…

The novel opens on a Saturday evening with John Rother saying goodbye to his brother and sister-in-law and leaving their Sussex farm, Chalklands, to drive to Harlech in Wales for a holiday. He doesn’t get very far, however, and his car is found abandoned the next morning just a few miles away from the farm. John has disappeared, but there are bloodstains inside the car and signs of a violent struggle. Has he been killed? Kidnapped? Superintendent William Meredith is called in and when human bones are found in a delivery of lime from the Chalklands lime-kilns a few days later, it seems that he is dealing with a murder case.

In his careful, methodical way Meredith begins to investigate, examining every clue and interviewing every possible witness. He forms a theory almost immediately, but when a second crime occurs and proves him wrong, he is forced to think again, and slowly – too slowly for his Chief Constable who threatens to bring in Scotland Yard – starts to piece together what has happened.

John Bude, whose real name was Ernest Elmore, is a popular author within the British Library Crime Classics series, but this is the first of his books that I’ve read. Originally published in 1936, it’s the second Superintendent Meredith novel and I enjoyed it enough to want to read more of them. I liked Meredith, although we don’t get to know very much about his background or personal life – apart from some great scenes with his son, Tony – and I appreciated the way his thoughts are shared with the reader, so that we can follow each step of his investigations and see in which direction the clues are leading him. I also liked the Sussex setting; it’s not an area that I know, but there’s a map at the beginning and all of the towns and villages, chalk hills and rings of trees – are real places and geographical features.

My only problem with this book was that the solution to the mystery was far too easy to guess; I had my suspicions from very early in the story and was proved right. I don’t usually manage to solve the crime before the detective does, so I wonder if other readers found this one particularly obvious too.

This is book 10/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for Read Christie 2021 is ‘a story starring a vicar’ and the chosen title is an obvious one – The Murder at the Vicarage, which was first published in 1930 and is the first book in the Miss Marple series. I have read most of the later Marple novels, but never this one and I thought it would be interesting to go back to the beginning and read the book that introduced Miss Marple to the world of crime fiction.

The novel is set, like many of the other Marple novels, in the village of St Mary Mead, a place where everyone knows everyone else and nobody’s behaviour goes unnoticed! When Colonel Protheroe is found dead in the study at the vicarage, shot while waiting for the vicar to return home, Miss Marple and the other villagers immediately begin to gossip and to speculate on who the murderer could be. At first suspicion falls upon Anne Protheroe, the Colonel’s unhappy wife, and Lawrence Redding, the man with whom she has been having an affair. However, Colonel Protheroe was not a popular man and there is no shortage of other suspects – Miss Marple herself insists that she can think of at least seven.

The story is narrated by the vicar, Leonard Clement, who is drawn into the mystery not only due to the murder victim being found in his study, but also because the people of St Mary Mead see him as a trusted friend in whom they can confide and share pieces of information they prefer not to give to the police. The vicar’s narrative is both intelligent and amusing, as he reflects on his household, his domestic arrangements and his relationship with his younger wife, Griselda, as well as carrying out his own investigations into the murder case.

Someone else who is investigating the murder for herself is Miss Marple – and of course she finds her way to the solution before the police do, using her knowledge of human nature and her powers of observation. Miss Marple as she appears in this first novel is slightly different from the woman we meet in the later books in the series and is not particularly well liked by her neighbours, who see her as someone who goes around poking her nose into everyone else’s business. Unlike in some of the other books, where she seems to have been added to the story almost as an afterthought and the plot would have worked just as well without her, in this one she is there from beginning to end – often just in the background, but everything she says and does and every suggestion she makes turns out to be vital to the solving of the mystery!

Although I did enjoy this book, particularly as I found it such a difficult one to solve – I think I suspected almost everyone and allowed myself to get distracted by all the red herrings Christie throws into the plot – it took me a while to get into it. There were so many characters to keep track of and apart from the vicar and his wife and Miss Marple I didn’t really engage with any of them. I found the second half of the book much more compelling, though, as the plot became more and more complex and clever. I have read three Miss Marple mysteries in a row now for the Read Christie challenge, so I’m in the mood for something different next month. The August theme is ‘a story set by the seaside’ and I’m thinking about the Poirot novel Evil Under the Sun.