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.

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.

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 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.