The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

This is one of two Miles Burton novels currently available as British Library Crime Classics (the other is Death in the Tunnel). The reviews of this one seemed to be very mixed so I wasn’t expecting too much from it – and although I did find it enjoyable enough, it hasn’t become a favourite from the BLCC range.

Published in 1930, The Secret of High Eldersham seems at first to be a typical Golden Age murder mystery and High Eldersham itself to be a typical English village. We soon discover that neither of those things are true. The novel opens with the murder of Samuel Whitehead, the landlord of the Rose and Crown – and a newcomer to the village. Whitehead has been stabbed to death inside the inn and in the absence of any clues as to the motive or suspect, the local police call in Detective Inspector Young of Scotland Yard.

As Young begins to investigate, he can’t help feeling that there’s something sinister about High Eldersham. Why has it acquired such a strange reputation? Why do outsiders ‘never prosper’ in this quiet little East Anglian village? When, in the course of his inquiries, he notices something that makes him question what is really going on in High Eldersham, he summons his friend Desmond Merrion to come and help him uncover the truth.

This is apparently the first in a whole series of novels featuring the character of Desmond Merrion, amateur detective and former military intelligence officer. I found him quite bland in comparison with other fictional detectives, but in some ways that was probably a good thing as there was nothing annoying about him either – he just quietly gets on with the job of detecting! He also has a very likeable valet, Newport, who is as much a friend as a servant and who goes off and does some investigating of his own. It’s a very male-dominated novel, but there is one female character, Mavis Owerton, who has an important part to play in the story – beyond just providing a convenient love interest for several of the male characters.

Despite the murder which is committed at the beginning of the novel, this is much more of a thriller than a murder mystery and Merrion and Young become more concerned with discovering what the people of High Eldersham are trying to hide rather than finding out who killed Samuel Whitehead. I didn’t really have a problem with this as I do like either sort of crime novel, but I was still disappointed that the other elements of the story started to dominate to the point where we lost sight of the murder almost completely.

I found it very easy to guess what sort of crime was taking place in the village, but maybe it would have been less obvious to 1930s readers. There’s also another subplot, which has a hint of a supernatural element. I understood the relevance of this to the story and it does contribute to the eerie atmosphere of High Eldersham, which was already a creepy place due to its isolation and hostility to strangers, but I thought it was just one layer too many. There was too much time spent racing around on yachts and speedboats for my liking as well, although that’s probably just me – I’ve written before about my aversion to books about sailing!

I did like Miles Burton’s writing and I would read more of his books, but The Secret of High Eldersham wasn’t really for me. Death in the Tunnel sounds more appealing so maybe I’ll try that one.

The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay

Mavis Doriel Hay wrote three mystery novels during the 1930s, all of which are now available as British Library Crime Classics. This one, The Santa Klaus Murder, sounded as though it would be perfect for the time of year, and of course it was. I enjoyed it, although I found it very similar to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca, and not as good as either of those books.

The Santa Klaus Murder is set in and around Flaxmere, a country estate belonging to Sir Osmond Melbury. The novel opens with several first-person accounts written by members of Sir Osmond’s family as they gather at the house to celebrate Christmas and in this way we get to know all of the main characters and learn a little bit about their backgrounds and the relationships between them.

It seems that for many years, Sir Osmond has been trying to control and manipulate the lives of his adult children. His son, George, has the security of knowing that, as the only male heir, his inheritance is safe, but for the four daughters things are much more uncertain. He has already tried to influence, with varying success, the marriages of the three eldest girls – Hilda, Edith and Eleanor – and is now trying to do the same with Jennifer, the youngest. Philip Cheriton, the man Jennifer loves, is attending the Christmas gathering, but Sir Osmond has also invited Oliver Witcombe, whom he would prefer to see as her husband. Jennifer is desperate to marry Philip but needs to find a way to do so without upsetting her father.

We do see a kinder side to Sir Osmond when, on Christmas Day, he asks Oliver to dress up in a Santa Klaus costume and distribute gifts to the family and servants. When the old man is discovered shot dead at his desk in the study that same afternoon, all the clues seem to point towards Santa…but why would Oliver want Sir Osmond dead? Colonel Halstock, the Chief Constable, is brought in to investigate and quickly discovers that almost everyone who spent Christmas at Flaxmere may have had a motive for murder. Could the killer be one of Sir Osmond’s children or one of their partners? What about his pretty young secretary, Grace Portisham, who may be expecting to receive something in his will? Or could it be Ashmore, the family’s old chauffeur, who lost his job at Flaxmere just before Christmas?

Most of the remaining chapters in the book, with one or two exceptions, are narrated by Col. Halstock as he tries to identify the culprit. There’s a lot of discussion of alibis, people’s movements, and the layout of the rooms, so if you enjoy trying to solve those sorts of puzzles – where somebody was at a certain time and what they were doing, or how somebody could have moved from one room to another without being seen – then this is probably the book for you. I didn’t work out who the murderer was, although I had my suspicions, but I did find other parts of the plot easy to predict. As a traditional country house mystery, there wasn’t much that made this book stand out from other books of its genre and era, but as an entertaining and undemanding Christmas read I found it satisfying enough.

Mavis Doriel Hay’s other novels are Murder Underground and Death on the Cherwell, both of which I’m now interested in reading.

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

I haven’t read as many of the British Library Crime Classics as a lot of the other bloggers I follow, but of the few that I have read this one is the best so far. It’s not really a whodunnit so there’s no puzzle to solve or clues to decipher, but that doesn’t matter at all – the fun is in wondering whether the crime described in the novel will succeed and, if so, whether the culprit will be caught.

Our narrator, Edward Powell, is a self-obsessed, miserable and bitter young man who lives with his Aunt Mildred in a small Welsh village with a name (Llwll) he finds impossible to pronounce. With his little Pekingese dog and love of French novels, Edward feels out of place in Llwll and longs to move to somewhere more lively and fashionable. Unfortunately, being financially dependent on his aunt, it seems that he will have to stay where he is for now…unless he can think of another solution.

Given the title of the book, I’m sure you will have guessed what Edward’s solution is! Now, under normal circumstances I would be horrified at the thought of somebody plotting to murder his aunt, but I did have some sympathy for Edward as Aunt Mildred is portrayed as such a thoroughly unpleasant woman. She constantly criticises him, complains about everything he says or does, and goes to great lengths to make him look stupid in front of the entire village. Had Edward been a nicer person I could almost have given him my support, but he is no more likeable than she is – he’s lazy, selfish, and believes he is much cleverer than he actually is. Needless to say, the murder of his aunt proves to be more difficult than he expected!

Will Edward’s plans succeed? Obviously, I’m not going to tell you and will leave you to enjoy the story for yourself, but what I will say is that things don’t go smoothly and there are plenty of twists and turns before we reach the end. But the plot is only part of what makes this book so enjoyable; Edward’s narrative voice is wonderful too and transforms what could have been a very dark novel into a very funny one. From the beginning, when he spends the whole of the first page trying to explain how to pronounce Llwll, there is a strong thread of humour running throughout the entire story which is why, despite Edward and his aunt being such unlikeable people, their battle of wits is so entertaining to read.

As well as being funny, there’s also a sense that Edward’s narration could be unreliable. Is he correctly interpreting people and situations? Is Aunt Mildred really as horrible as he thinks she is or is his own negative view of the world distorting the way he sees her? Although this isn’t a mystery in the conventional sense, there’s still plenty of suspense as we wonder whether our questions will be answered, and when – and how – the murder of Edward’s aunt will take place.

The Murder of My Aunt was Richard Hull’s first novel, published in 1934. Having enjoyed it so much, I am looking forward to reading more of his books. Excellent Intentions is also a British Library Crime Classic, while a few others have been reissued by Agora Books. Have you read any of them?

Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate

A woman is on trial for murder and a jury is being sworn in to decide her fate. A jury of twelve men and women selected at random from all walks of life, each of whom has an interesting story of his or her own. Verdict of Twelve (1940), one of the British Library Crime Classics series, is as much about the jury as it is about the crime, which makes it an unusual and fascinating novel.

The book is divided into three main sections. In the first, we are introduced to each member of the jury as they step forward one by one to take their oaths. With an academic, a religious fanatic, a servant, a Greek restaurant owner and an encyclopedia salesman among them, many areas of society are represented and these twelve very different people must find a way to work together to reach what they believe to be the correct verdict.

The second part of the novel (which begins about a third of the way into the book) describes the crime itself. We are given some background information on the accused woman and then an account of the events which led up to the murder. I don’t think I can go into any detail without spoiling things, so I will just say that it is an intriguing mystery, very dark at times but with some humour at others. Although there are only a few suspects it is difficult to decide from the available evidence (which is largely circumstantial) exactly what happened and whether the jurors’ verdict should be guilty or not guilty.

Next, we watch the trial take place, listen to the witnesses and then join the jurors as they discuss the case and try to reach agreement. Finally a short epilogue lets us know whether we – and the jury – came to the right conclusion. It’s an interesting structure and one which I thought worked very well. Knowing the personal background of each juror before the trial begins helps us to see how their individual prejudices and experiences affects their reasoning when it comes to considering the evidence and making a decision. Some find that they have sympathy for the accused and some for the victim; as the reader, I felt that I was almost in the position of a thirteenth juror – and as I disliked one of the characters so much I found that I was also reacting emotionally rather than objectively.

My only slight criticism is that the first section of the book, in which the jury is introduced, is quite uneven. A few of the characters, particularly Victoria Atkins and Arthur Popesgrove, are fully fleshed out in what are almost self-contained short stories, while some of the others have only one or two pages devoted to them. As each juror has one twelfth of the input into the final decision, I’m not sure why we needed to know so much more about some of their backgrounds than others. Apart from this, I really enjoyed Verdict of Twelve – highly recommended for all lovers of classic crime!

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

This is book #6 for the R.I.P XII challenge.

Miraculous Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

A train that disappears without trace. A haunted chapel containing a dagger with a mind of its own. An entire crime scene which vanishes overnight. A series of unexplained deaths in a museum. A house suddenly abandoned like the Mary Celeste. These are just a few of the puzzles to be solved in Miraculous Mysteries, the latest of the British Library Crime Classics anthologies edited by Martin Edwards.

There are sixteen stories in the collection and they each deal with a different locked room murder or ‘impossible crime’. These are often my favourite types of mysteries – crimes which at first appear to have no rational explanation but with solutions which are either completely ingenious or so simple the reader is left wondering how they could possibly have been fooled! For that reason, I’m not going to discuss the individual stories in any detail but will just give each one a brief mention.

Many of the authors whose stories are featured in Miraculous Mysteries were new to me (although some of them may already be familiar to those of you who have read other books from the Crime Classics series) and I appreciated the biographical information Martin Edwards provides before every story. I was particularly impressed by Christopher St John Sprigg’s Death at 8:30 in which the exact time of a man’s death is predicted, and Nicholas Olde’s The Invisible Weapon, a short but perfectly paced mystery which I felt that I should have been able to solve, but didn’t quite manage it!

Although many of the stories in the book feature a crime committed in an actual locked room (Too Clever by Half by husband and wife team G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, Locked In by E. Charles Vivian and The Aluminium Dagger by R. Austin Freeman are three examples), there are others which don’t. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost Special is the disappearing train story I mentioned in my opening paragraph – it’s not a Sherlock Holmes mystery, but it does include a letter written by an anonymous person I would like to think might be Holmes! The Sands of Thyme by Michael Innes – the first time I’ve had the pleasure of reading Innes – is set outside in the open air but the principles are the same as in a locked room mystery, with the crime taking place in a seemingly impossible location.

The Music Room by Sapper (better known for his series of Bulldog Drummond crime thrillers) is another good one. By the time I came to this story I was halfway through the book and took a moment to reflect on how rarely, when it comes to stories like these, we are given access to the detective’s own thought processes. The authors included in this collection find a variety of different approaches to take – the detective entertaining a friend with an account of an old case; a passive narrator observing the actions of his detective companion; anything to make the mystery more difficult to solve and to keep ‘obvious’ clues obscured from the reader until the end of the story.

What else is there? Well, there’s The Thing Invisible, a gothic, ghostly mystery by William Hope Hodgson, The Diary of Death by Marten Cumberland, about a killer who appears to be using a diary for inspiration, and The Broadcast Murder by Grenville Robbins, which is set in a radio studio. We also meet detectives ranging from the obscure – such as Sax Rohmer’s Moris Klaw, who investigates The Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Room – to the better known, such as G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, who appears in The Miracle of Moon Crescent. And it was good to be reacquainted with Gervase Fen, Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature, in Beware of the Trains by Edmund Crispin. I was hoping for something more fun and quirky from Crispin (remembering The Moving Toyshop, which I read last year), but still, this was quite an enjoyable story about a missing train driver.

Two of my favourite stories, though, were The Haunted Policeman by Dorothy L. Sayers, a Lord Peter Wimsey story which offers an intriguing twist on the locked room mystery, and The Villa Marie Celeste by Margery Allingham, in which a family disappear from their home – but have they been murdered or is something else going on? This last story is an Albert Campion mystery and I think I actually enjoyed it more than the full-length Campion novel I read last year!

Although the quality varied from story to story, none of them disappointed me, and on the whole I thought this book was a great read. I’ll definitely consider reading more of Martin Edwards’ British Library Crime Classics anthologies.

I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley.