The Mysterious Mr Badman by W.F. Harvey

The British Library are doing a great job of bringing the work of obscure or long-forgotten authors back into print with their Crime Classics series and William Fryer Harvey is another. Better known for his horror stories such as The Beast with Five Fingers and August Heat, he also wrote a crime novel, The Mysterious Mr Badman, which was originally published in 1934. I was immediately drawn to this book not just by the title, but also the subtitle, A Yorkshire Bibliomystery!

As Martin Edwards points out in the introduction, this must be the only crime novel with a blanket manufacturer as the protagonist. His name is Athelstan Digby and as the novel opens he is visiting his nephew in the Yorkshire village of Keldstone. One day he offers to take charge of the village bookshop so the bookseller and his wife can go to a funeral. Digby is expecting a quiet, uneventful afternoon so he is amazed when three men separately enter the shop within the space of a few hours, all asking for a copy of the same book: Bunyan’s Life and Death of Mr Badman. Digby is unable to find this book on the shelves, but when a boy arrives at the shop later that day with a pile of old books to sell – including Mr Badman – he becomes even more suspicious. What is going on – and why is that particular book so important?

This is a short novel, so I won’t go into the plot in much more detail…except to say that it’s great fun. There are murders, incriminating letters, political conspiracies, a touch of romance and a lot of humour! With character names like Athelstan Digby, Euphemia Upstart, Olaf Wake and Kitchener Lilywhite, you can see that it’s not a book to be taken entirely seriously, but at the same time it’s a clever, interesting and well written novel and one of the most enjoyable I’ve read from the British Library Crime Classics series for a while. Just be aware that it’s more of a thriller than a conventional detective novel; the mystery is actually solved quite early in the book and the significance of Mr Badman and the identity of the villain are revealed much sooner than you would expect. The fun is in watching Digby team up with his nephew Jim Pickering and Jim’s love interest Diana Conyers to try to decide what they should do with the information they’ve obtained.

As always when I read mysteries written in this period, I was struck by not only how much more difficult some aspects of crime-solving were in those days (no internet, no DNA testing) but also how much easier other aspects were. It was far simpler to trace a particular car when there were so few of them on the roads and everyone would notice an unfamiliar one driving through their village. I really enjoyed watching Digby, Jim and Diana investigate the mystery using the methods available to them in the 1930s, even if they occasionally walk straight into traps that are quite obvious to anyone who reads a lot of Golden Age crime fiction! I also loved the Yorkshire setting, although not all of the novel is set there.

Although, as I’ve said, Harvey is better known as a horror writer, it seems that the character of Digby previously appeared in a book of short stories, The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby. I hope that one will become available as a BLCC book soon too.

Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt is one of the best books I’ve read from the British Library Crime Classics series. I’ve since read some of his others, available from a different publisher (Agora Books) and apart from Left-Handed Death, which was quite entertaining, they were disappointing in comparison. I hoped for better things from Excellent Intentions, another BLCC book. If nothing else, it has a lovely autumnal cover!

First published in 1938, Excellent Intentions begins in the courtroom. We know that someone is on trial for murder – but who is it? We will have to wait until the end of the book to find out; it’s a clever and unusual structure, with the details of the crime unfolding through a series of flashbacks as the witnesses provide the evidence and the jurors listen to the cases put forward by prosecution and defence. This format works very well as it allows us to see the story from lots of different angles and look for clues that will help us to guess who it is that has been accused.

We do know that the victim is Henry Cargate, a rude and unpleasant man who has made himself very unpopular since moving into the ‘big house’ in the village of Scotney End. On the day of his death a problem with his car forces him to take a train into town and just as the train leaves the station he is seen by another passenger to take a large pinch of snuff. Seconds later he is dead. As Cargate was known to have a weak heart, it is at first assumed that he has died of natural causes – until his snuff is found to have been laced with potassium cyanide, bought by the victim himself to destroy a wasps’ nest.

Because Cargate is such a horrible man – a man who ‘wanted to do nobody any good’ – there are plenty of people who could have had a reason for wanting him dead. However, there are only four who could have had access to the snuffbox and the poison, both of which were kept in Cargate’s own study. There’s Mr Yockleton, the vicar, whom Cargate had accused of stealing an emerald the day before the murder; Raikes the butler and Miss Knox Forster, the secretary, both members of Cargate’s household; and finally, Andrew Macpherson, a dealer in stamps. Cargate is a keen stamp collector and he and Macpherson had recently had a disagreement over whether some of the stamps in his collection were fakes. I should warn you here that we learn a huge amount about different types of stamps and their colours, markings and perforations, which you may or may not find interesting!

Any of these four people could have committed the murder, but only one has been accused and it’s up to the jury to decide whether this person really is the culprit. As the trial continues, we hear how Inspector Fenby, the detective investigating the crime, has decided who he thinks was responsible – and this is where I started to lose interest a little bit. There’s a lot of focus on alibis, timings, the positions of the snuffbox and the poison on Cargate’s desk, and who could have been in certain rooms during certain periods without being seen. This is never my favourite kind of mystery as I find it difficult to keep all of these things straight in my mind; I tend to prefer books that concentrate more on the motives of the characters and less on the technicalities of the crime.

I loved the ending, though. Even after we find out who it is that’s on trial, there’s another twist to come! This was an entertaining read overall and I would still like to read Keep It Quiet and Murder Isn’t Easy, the only other two Hull novels currently in print that I haven’t read yet.

This is book 16/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse

I first came across a mention of the 1922 Thompson–Bywaters case when I read The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters several years ago and discovered that it was part of the inspiration for the novel. F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow was listed in the acknowledgments and I immediately wanted to read it. However, that was 2014 and it has taken me until 2022 to actually do it! The good thing about waiting this long is that the book has recently been reissued by the British Library as part of their Women Writers series and that’s the edition I read, complete with a very insightful new afterword by Simon Thomas of Stuck in a Book.

A Pin to See the Peepshow was first published in 1934 and begins just before the First World War. Julia Almond is sixteen years old and a typical schoolgirl, infatuated with one of her teachers, fiercely protective of her beloved dog, Bobby, and longing for some excitement to brighten up her humdrum existence. Starting work in a fashionable dress shop after leaving school gives her a glimpse of the sort of world she would like to inhabit, but it also makes her situation at home, where she is forced to share a bedroom with a much younger cousin, seem even more unbearable. Rushing into marriage with her parents’ friend, Herbert Starling, in the hope of finding the freedom she craves, Julia quickly discovers that she has made a terrible mistake. She doesn’t love Herbert and knows she never will, but divorce seems to be out of the question and she can see no other way of escape.

Several years into her marriage, Julia meets the much younger Leonard Carr and at last experiences the passion and romance she has always dreamed of. The two begin an affair and soon Leonard – or Leo, as Julia prefers to call him – is putting pressure on her to prove that she loves him and leave her husband. Julia knows that Herbert will never let her go and that she can’t afford to lose the security her marriage provides, but Leo won’t accept this and eventually decides to take matters into his own hands…

I loved this book, although I had expected the crime element to play a bigger part; the section of the novel based on the events of the Thompson-Bywaters case only takes up around 100 pages out of 464. The rest of the book is really a character study of Julia Almond and an exploration of the world in which she lives. Jesse spends a lot of time building this up, but I never felt that a word was wasted – every detail seemed necessary in order for us to understand the circumstances that led to the actions of the characters later in the book. Julia herself is not a particularly likeable character, but it would be difficult not to have at least some sympathy for her as her only ‘crime’ is to be constantly striving towards a happier life for herself and dreaming of things that are always just out of reach. This is illustrated by the metaphor of the toy peepshow she stares into as a schoolgirl and finds herself glimpsing a fantasy land:

The walls and lid of the box gave to it the sense of distance that a frame gives to a picture, sending it backwards into another space. Julia stared into the peepshow, and it was as though she gazed into the depths of a complete and self-contained world, where she would go clad in snow-shoes and furs, and be able to tame savage huskies and shoot bears; a world of chill pallor, of an illimitable white sky, both only saved from a cruel rigour by the rosy all-pervading light.

The events that unfold towards the end of the book are tragic for everyone involved, but are particularly unfair for Julia, who is judged by the standards of the time. Her position in society places her at a disadvantage and as Jesse points out, if Julia had only belonged to either a higher class or a lower one, her situation could have been very different. This is a fascinating novel and now I’ll have to read E.M. Delafield’s Messalina of the Suburbs, which is based on the same case!

This is book 10/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is also book 30/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Death and the Conjuror by Tom Mead

Death and the Conjuror is a homage to the great locked room mysteries of the Golden Age and a clever and entertaining novel in its own right. I’m hoping it’s the first in a series as I would love to see more books like this from Tom Mead.

The novel is set in London in the 1930s where the renowned psychiatrist Anselm Rees has been found dead in his study. The door is locked, there’s no sign of a murder weapon and there’s no way for the killer to have escaped without being seen. Inspector Flint of Scotland Yard is baffled by this seemingly impossible murder and calls on retired magician Joseph Spector in the hope that he can use his knowledge of illusions and deceptions to help solve the mystery.

As the detective and the magician begin their investigations, they uncover another intriguing crime – an equally impossible theft – which seems to have links to Dr Rees’ death. Could one of the psychiatrist’s patients be responsible for one or both of these crimes? And can Flint and Spector catch the culprit before another murder takes place?

As with any good mystery novel, there are plenty of suspects, an assortment of clues and lots of red herrings! Suspicion falls not only on the doctor’s own household – including his daughter and her fiancé – but also on three of his patients, celebrities who are referred to as Patients A, B and C, to protect their identities. Each patient has been seeing Dr Rees for help with a specific problem, which we learn more about as the story unfolds. The psychiatric element of the plot is fascinating and reminded me very much of Helen McCloy’s Dr Basil Willing mysteries. It came as no surprise to me, then, to learn that McCloy is one of many classic crime novelists Tom Mead has named as an influence on his writing – along with John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, Nicholas Blake and others.

I loved the idea of a magician working alongside the police; Spector has lots of specialist knowledge when it comes to the sort of tricks a murderer or a thief might use to create confusion and cover their tracks. As a locked room mystery it was very satisfying and although I didn’t manage to solve it myself, I enjoyed following the progress of the investigations and was happy for Spector to explain it all for me at the end. As a tribute to the Golden Age mystery I thought it was equally successful. I could almost have believed I really was reading a book from the 1930s, as the author seemed to have made an effort to avoid inappropriately modern language and modern sensibilities. The characters in the book even discuss and reference some of the detective novels of the time, but in such a way that the plots of those books aren’t spoiled for those of us who haven’t read them yet.

This was a great read and I will be hoping for another mystery for Joseph Spector to solve soon.

Thanks to Penzler Publishers, Mysterious Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 34/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

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.

The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

The final monthly theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story set during bad weather’. I have chosen to read The Sittaford Mystery, a standalone novel first published in 1931 – and what a great choice it was both as a Christmas read and as the book to bring this year’s challenge to an end! The bad weather is there from the very first page when Major Burnaby opens the door of his cottage in the village of Sittaford and looks out:

The scene that met his eyes was typical of the English countryside as depicted on Xmas cards and in old-fashioned melodramas. Everywhere was snow, deep drifts of it – no mere powdering an inch or two thick. Snow had fallen all over England for the last four days, and up here on the fringe of Dartmoor it had attained a depth of several feet.

On this snowy day, with the village cut off from the outside world, Major Burnaby and the other residents of Sittaford decide to entertain themselves by holding a séance. It seems like harmless fun, until a spirit suddenly announces that Burnaby’s friend, Captain Trevelyan, has just been murdered. Despite the heavy snow, Burnaby insists on walking the six miles to Exhampton, where Trevelyan lives – and on arriving there more than two hours later, he discovers his friend’s dead body on the floor of his study.

With several family members named in Trevelyan’s will, there are plenty of suspects, but when it emerges that one of them, the dead man’s nephew James Pearson, was in Exhampton that day, he is arrested on suspicion of murder. Pearson’s fiancée, Emily Trefusis, is determined to clear his name and travels to Sittaford to look for clues. She is assisted by Charles Enderby, a journalist from the Daily Wire, who happened to arrive in Exhampton the day after the murder and is staying on the scene in the hope of getting an exclusive story for his newspaper. But will Emily and Charles manage to solve the mystery before Inspector Narracott, the police detective carrying out the official investigations?

Of all the Christie novels I’ve read for Read Christie this year, The Sittaford Mystery is one that I’ve particularly enjoyed. Much as I like Poirot, Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence, I do often find that I prefer her standalone mysteries. In this one, I loved the partnership of Emily Trefusis and Charles Enderby; Emily is a wonderful character – intelligent, courageous and with a knack of knowing how to manipulate people in order to get exactly what she wants (and yet, despite this last character trait she’s very likeable). There’s also a strong supporting cast of characters, including the sharp tongued Miss Percehouse and her nephew Ronnie; Mrs and Miss Willett, the new tenants of Sittaford House who have just arrived from South Africa; and the mysterious Mr Duke, of whom nobody in the village seems to know anything at all.

The plot is up to Christie’s usual high standards, with lots of red herrings and misdirections, so that the reader ends up suspecting almost everybody! I didn’t come close to guessing the culprit – in fact, the murderer was someone I had considered and then dismissed very early in the book – but although there is an important clue concealed from us until near the end, I think it would probably still be possible to work out the solution if you were paying enough attention. My favourite thing about this book, though, was the setting; many of Christie’s mysteries are set in small villages, but the wintry weather gave this one a special atmosphere. I loved it and am glad the Read Christie challenge prompted me to pick it up this December!

An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov – Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

When An Evening with Claire was originally published in 1930, Russian author Gaito Gazdanov was living in Paris and hadn’t seen his home country for nearly a decade. This, his first novel, was a success for Gazdanov, bringing him to the attention of other émigré writers, and now that I’ve read it I can understand why. It’s not my usual sort of book but I was drawn to it because I’ve enjoyed other books which have been reissued by Pushkin Press recently and because, apart from Mikhail Bulgakov and Boris Pasternak, I can’t think of any other 20th century Russian authors that I’ve read. This new edition has an introduction by Bryan Karetnyk, who is also responsible for the excellent English translation, which I found very readable.

The novel opens with our narrator, Kolya, in Paris spending an evening with Claire while her husband is away from home. Although we know very little about Kolya’s relationship with Claire at this stage, we do learn that he first met her ten years ago and has been in love with her ever since. However, they have spent most of that time apart and have only now been reunited. Later that evening, while Claire is asleep, Kolya remembers their first meeting, along with many of the other significant moments in his past. As he continues to remember and reminisce, the story of his life begins to take shape: his childhood, his schooldays, his relationships with family members and his experiences during the Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed.

We actually see very little of Claire herself and I never really felt that I knew her or understood the sort of person she was, but that didn’t matter too much because the main part of the novel concentrates on Kolya’s own history as it unfolds through a chain of memories. His love for the absent Claire is always there and can be seen as a symbol of hope as he dreams of meeting her again one day. I enjoyed the first half of the novel, which includes anecdotes from Kolya’s childhood and his education at a strict military school and gymnasium, but the second half is more interesting as he begins to remember his time serving with the White Army in the Russian Civil War. It all feels very autobiographical and although I don’t know much about Gaito Gazdanov, I’m sure he must have been drawing on some of his own personal experiences and feelings in the writing of this novel.

At just over 200 pages in this edition, An Evening with Claire is a very short novel, but I thought it was the right length for the story being told. In general, I prefer books with more plot and this one has very little, but while this might have been a problem for me in a longer novel, there was just enough here to interest me and hold my attention throughout those 200 pages. This may sound like a strange comparison, but I was reminded of one of my other recent reads, Goodbye Mr Chips, another short book published in the same decade in which a man is looking back on episodes from earlier in his life. They share a focus on the power of memory, recollections of better days and regret for a disappearing world – which are also the reasons why I think An Evening with Claire would have resonated so much with other Russian émigrés of the 1930s. I would be happy to read more by Gazdanov and I see there are four of his other books available in English from the same publisher.

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