The Hatter’s Ghosts by Georges Simenon (tr. Howard Curtis)

This standalone novel by Belgian author Georges Simenon was originally published in 1949 as Les Fantômes du chapelier and is now available from Penguin Classics in an English translation by Howard Curtis. Although Simenon is better known for his series of Maigret detective novels, he also wrote many books like this one – short psychological thrillers, some of which he referred to as romans durs, or ‘hard novels’. I have read a few of them and my favourite so far has been The Venice Train; this one has some similar plot elements, but is a much darker story.

The novel is set in La Rochelle during a wet and miserable December. It has been raining for twenty days, ever since an old lady was found murdered near the canal. Since then, more bodies have been discovered, all of them elderly women and all of them strangled with a cello string. The newspapers are full of speculation over who the murderer might be, but the reader knows from the opening pages exactly who is responsible – and so does the tailor Kachoudas, who has seen something that has convinced him of the killer’s identity. As the rest of the story unfolds, we are kept wondering whether Kachoudas will go to the police or whether he’ll be the murderer’s next victim.

Although we know from the beginning who the culprit is, there’s still a sense of mystery because we have no idea why he has set out to kill so many women and how he has chosen his victims. The truth is eventually revealed and we discover exactly what is going on behind closed doors, but as this is just a short novel (as many of Simenon’s seem to be), I can’t really go into the plot in any more detail without spoiling it. Anyway, the mystery is only one aspect of the story; the real interest is in following the thought processes of the murderer as he tries to justify his actions to himself and deal with his conflicted thoughts and emotions. I was reminded very much of In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, another novel where we know the killer’s identity from the beginning and spend the rest of the book inside his mind, wondering whether he will give himself away.

The Hatter’s Ghosts is an atmospheric, unsettling novel and I loved the descriptions of the dark, rainy streets of La Rochelle. The Howard Curtis translation is clear and accessible and feels quite modern, while also preserving the tone of the 1940s. If you’re new to Simenon, or have only read his Maigret books, I can definitely recommend any or all of the romans durs I’ve read so far – as well as this one and The Venice Train, I have read The Man from London and The Strangers in the House and am looking forward to investigating some of his others.

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

Book #2 read for R.I.P. XVII

Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute is an author I’ve been intending to try for a long time. His 1942 novel, Pied Piper, is on my Classics Club list and I decided to also put it on my 20 Books of Summer list to give me some extra motivation to pick it up and read it sooner rather than later! I have no idea whether this was the best Shute novel to begin with – A Town Like Alice and On the Beach are probably better known; however, it turned out to be a good choice for me.

The ‘pied piper’ of the title is John Sidney Howard, an elderly Englishman who goes to France in the spring of 1940 to spend some time fishing, relaxing and trying to come to terms with the death of his son whose plane came down in the Battle of the Heligoland Bight. It may seem a strange time to be taking a holiday in Europe, but Howard believes the situation in France is stable and that he won’t be in any danger. However, when the Nazis begin to advance much more quickly than he expected, Howard decides to return home immediately. His departure is delayed when an English couple staying in the same hotel ask him to take their two young children with him to the safety of England, but soon Howard, accompanied by little Sheila and Ronnie, is boarding the train to Paris for the first stage of his journey.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan and Howard and the children find themselves facing one obstacle after another, including sickness, cancelled trains and German bombing raids. Along the way, Howard collects more lost or orphaned children and together they try to avoid the rapidly advancing German army and make their way to safety.

I usually enjoy novels with World War II settings, but I find it particularly interesting when they were actually written during the war itself. It makes a book feel very different when you know that at the time of writing, the author had no idea what would happen next or how the war would eventually end. It’s intriguing to think of how a 1942 reader may have viewed a book like this compared to those of us who are reading it today with the benefit of hindsight and a knowledge of history.

Another thing which makes Pied Piper different from a lot of other wartime novels is that Shute’s protagonist is so ordinary – not a soldier or a spy or a romantic young lover, but a quiet, unassuming old man who becomes a hero unintentionally through a mixture of circumstance and his own basic decency and humanity. The only link between Howard and the sinister ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin’ (apart from the obvious connection with children) comes when we see Howard making whistles from hazel twigs for his young companions to play with.

Although Howard and the children witness and experience some terrible things during their journey, they also encounter several people who offer kindness and generosity, so the novel shows us both the best and the worst of human nature. The book is structured using a framing narrative where Howard is relating the story of his adventures in France to a friend in a London club during an air raid several weeks into the future. This means we know almost from the first page that Howard has survived to tell the tale, yet there’s still plenty of suspense and I was genuinely afraid for him and for the children at various points throughout the novel!

Which of Nevil Shute’s books should I read next?

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This is book 7/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

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This is also book 29/50 from my second Classics Club list.

In Place of Fear by Catriona McPherson

Catriona McPherson is an author I’ve wanted to try for a while; I keep seeing her books on other blogs I follow and they always sound interesting. Her latest novel, In Place of Fear, turned out to be a good one for me to start with; it’s a fascinating historical mystery set in Edinburgh just after World War II.

It’s 1948 and Helen Crowther is about to start a new job as medical almoner for the newly formed National Health Service. Working alongside two doctors, Dr Deuchar and Dr Strasser, Helen will be making home visits to patients, giving them advice and ensuring that they get the help they need – a role similar to a modern-day social worker. She’s looking forward to the new job, but at the same time she knows there are going to be difficulties: first of all, she will have to convince the disbelieving public that healthcare under the new NHS really is free and they no longer need to worry about paying for their treatment; she also has to contend with the disapproval of her mother, who wishes she would get a job in a factory like other working class women. It comes as a relief when Dr Strasser offers Helen the upstairs flat in an empty building he owns, so that she and her husband, Sandy, can move out of her parents’ overcrowded house at last.

Helen’s marriage has not been a particularly happy one so far; Sandy has spent several years in a POW camp and since returning to Scotland has been struggling to cope with married life. Helen hopes the situation will improve now that they can be alone together, but just as she and Sandy are beginning to settle into their new home, she discovers the body of a young woman in the air raid shelter in the garden! The doctor is summoned and after examining the body he decides that it was suicide, but Helen is not convinced. Who is this young woman and how did she die? Helen is determined to find out, even though everyone else seems equally determined to cover up what has happened.

The mystery aspect of this novel takes a while to get started and never really becomes the main focus of the book until near the end when Helen begins to uncover some secrets that have remained hidden for several years. However, I thought it was a very intriguing mystery and although I had my suspicions as to who the culprit might be, I was unable to guess the other parts of the solution. Looking at other reviews of the book, it seems that a lot of readers were disappointed that the crime element wasn’t stronger but this didn’t really bother me as I was finding it so interesting to read about life in 1940s Edinburgh and the beginnings of the NHS. There’s also a heavy use of Scottish dialect which I suppose people will either like or they won’t, but I thought it added to the strong sense of time and place and I found it easy enough to follow what was being said.

A lot of time is spent on Helen’s visits to people in the community, particularly young mothers and those who are hoping to become mothers, so that she can advise them on diet and hygiene and make sure they are receiving the medical care they’re entitled to. I wasn’t familiar with the role of medical almoners before reading this book, so I found it fascinating to learn about what the job involved. Before 1948, the almoner would assess patients to decide how much they could afford to pay, but with the birth of a health service that was ‘free at the point of use’ this became unnecessary and the almoner could devote more time to actually helping the patients with their medical and welfare needs. However, Helen sometimes goes above and beyond what is required and sometimes she makes mistakes or is seen as interfering in things that are none of her business. It was watching her going about her daily work and trying to decide how to handle each difficult situation that I found particularly enjoyable, so it didn’t matter to me that the mystery was so slow to develop.

I would like to try more of Catriona McPherson’s books. If you’ve read any of them, please let me know which one I should read next!

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 24/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

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

Who’s Calling? by Helen McCloy

This is the fourth novel in American mystery writer Helen McCloy’s Dr Basil Willing series. I have read and enjoyed all of the previous three – Dance of Death, The Man in the Moonlight and The Deadly Truth – but it’s not necessary to read them in order as each mystery stands alone.

Who’s Calling? was first published in 1942 and begins with a young doctor, Archie Cranford, becoming engaged to Frieda Frey, a glamorous nightclub singer. Although he knows his mother won’t be happy to hear the news, Archie arranges to bring Frieda home to Willow Spring, near Washington, to meet his family and friends. Just before Frieda sets off from New York, she receives an anonymous phone call warning her not to go to Willow Spring. Deciding to ignore this threat, she goes ahead with the visit only to find herself the victim of more sinister calls, as well as other strange phenomena. Could this be the work of a poltergeist or is there a more rational reason for what is going on?

At a dinner party held by the Cranfords’ friends, Senator Mark Lindsay and his wife Julia, a murder takes place which may or may not be connected with Frieda’s ghostly experiences. It’s time to call in psychiatric consultant Dr Basil Willing in the hope that he can solve the crime and identify the murderer.

This is another entertaining Basil Willing mystery – although Willing himself doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the book. The first half is devoted to setting the scene and introducing the characters, the most memorable being the Cranfords’ cousin, Chalkeley Winchester, an annoying, self-absorbed man described by the others as a ‘spoiled child grown up’ and a ‘male old maid’. I also found the relationship between the Lindsays interesting, as we soon discover that Senator Lindsay is bored and disillusioned with his work and that it’s actually his wife Julia who is the driving force behind his political career.

McCloy begins each of her books with a list of ‘Persons of Interest’, briefly describing the characters who will appear in the novel, and then a second list of ‘Objects of Interest’ – in other words, some of the clues or significant happenings you need to look out for. In this book the objects of interest are particularly intriguing and include ‘a loud KNOCK on the front door – and nothing more’, ‘a BEAD CURTAIN which rustles for a while after a murderer passes’ and ‘a KNITTING BAG that moves without being touched.’ Being given this information in advance doesn’t help at all with solving the mystery, though, and doesn’t really have much purpose other than to add a bit of fun to the book!

I quickly narrowed the suspects down to two, and then correctly guessed which one was the culprit, but I couldn’t work out exactly why they had done it. The solution relies on Basil Willing’s psychiatric knowledge and I don’t think it’s something that would occur to most readers, so I was left feeling that McCloy hadn’t been very fair to us this time. Still, I did enjoy this book and will look forward to reading more from the series.

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

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.

Black Plumes by Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham, one of the four Golden Age ‘Queens of Crime’, was best known for her Albert Campion detective series, but she also wrote several standalone crime novels. I have previously read and enjoyed The White Cottage Mystery, so had high hopes for this one, Black Plumes.

First published in 1940, Black Plumes is set almost entirely in the London home of the Ivory family and the art gallery they own in the building next door. The family matriarch is the elderly Mrs Gabrielle Ivory and the story is written from the perspective of her granddaughter, Frances. As the novel opens, Frances’ father, Meyrick, is on business abroad and has left his son-in-law Robert Madrigal (who is married to Frances’ half-sister Phillida) to run the gallery while he is away. In his absence, however, strange things have been happening: a broken vase, a slashed painting – and finally, an argument between Robert Madrigal and the artist David Field, after which Robert disappears.

A few weeks later, Robert’s dead body is discovered and suspicion quickly falls upon David – leaving Frances in a difficult situation, as David is the man she has just agreed to marry. She tells herself that he must be innocent, but how can she be sure?

As I’ve said, there is no Albert Campion to solve the mystery in this book, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on whether you’re a Campion fan. Instead, there’s Detective Inspector Bridie, an elderly Scotsman from Orkney who is brought in to investigate. However, we don’t really get to see any of his investigations and he doesn’t have a large part to play in the story. I didn’t solve the mystery myself – although I had narrowed it down to two suspects and one of them was correct – but since we see everything through Frances’ eyes rather than the detective’s, I think that made it more complicated.

There’s a touch of romance in the story too, particularly at the beginning where Frances and David agree to announce a fake engagement in order to prevent Frances having to marry someone else, but this storyline turned out not to be as much fun as it promised to be at first (Georgette Heyer does that sort of thing much better). It didn’t help that I found David so annoying; in fact, I didn’t like any of the characters much at all, although I enjoyed most of Gabrielle Ivory’s scenes and the contrast between her Victorian values and her granddaughter’s more modern ones.

After finishing this book, I looked at some other reviews and was confused when I saw everyone complaining about the use of a certain racist term to describe one of the suspects. It seems that this word has been edited out of the new edition I read and replaced with a less offensive term, which I think was a good idea in this case. The racist sentiment is still there, but it’s clear that it’s supposed to be the view of one of the characters rather than Allingham herself.

I think Black Plumes is worth reading if you like Allingham’s writing, but if it had been the first book I’d read by her, I’m not sure that I would have wanted to read more.