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Murder Underground (British Library Crime Classics)
Murder Underground (British Library Crime Classics)
by Mavis Doriel Hay
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Mavis Should Have Stayed Underground With This One, 7 Oct. 2014
Here's how the publisher (British Library Crime Classics/University of Chicago Press Books) describes Murder Underground, republished for the first time after nearly eighty years.

"If you were suddenly found to be murdered, would your friends have theories about who had done the deed? Well, when the wealthy and unpleasant Miss Pongleton meets her end on the stairs of Belsize Park underground station in Murder Underground, her housemates--though not particularly grieved--have plenty of guesses at the identity of the killer. While they're airing theories, events arise that unexpectedly enable several of them, including Tuppy the terrier, to put them to the test.

This novel from the golden age of British crime fiction is sure to puzzle and charm fans of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey."

This blurb gives a few hints of what I didn't like about this novel. Most notably, the murder of Miss Pongleton--she is strangled with a dog leash--is treated in that flippant "Murder? What fun!" style that used to set Raymond Chandler's teeth on edge. Now, okay, you can say Chandler was an old sourpuss, if you want, but, actually, I did find the attitude in this book a bit unseemly, considering the sort of murder with which it deals.

The murder victim, along with her surely quite brutal murder and the surely quite unpleasant finding of her body, are described at second hand--decidedly anti-climactic--but Miss Pongleton doesn't even sound like she was all that objectionable. Artistically, it seems to me, if you are going to kill off an old lady via strangulation with a dog's leash and then adopt an "amusing" attitude about it, you should at least make the old lady really horrible.

This novel is almost entirely conversation, with very little descriptive or contemplative passages. Its main interest of the book lies in its portrayal of boarding house life. There are a couple landladies, rather good, and a whole parcel of "bright young things," quite tiresome.

Hay seems more interested in having people talk about the murder investigation than in actually depicting the murder investigation. For most of the book the police are referred to, but never seen. It felt like this was Hay's way of getting around not knowing how to portray a police investigation, which struck me as unsatisfactory. We don't even really get much in the way of amateur detection. There's a lot of blather about Miss Pongleton's poor artistic nephew, Basil, being suspected for the crime (he was her heir and had only a small allowance from his people so was hard-up), as well as hoo-hah about Miss Pongleton's missing pearl necklace; but for me it was tedium.

This is the kind of English mystery where a character you are meant to sympathize with says, when told Miss Pongleton might have been contemplating marrying a businessman named Slocomb (the bright young things call him "Slowgo"--they also call the landlady Miss Waddilove, "Waddletoes"), "Do you mean he thought she might marry him? I suppose it's possible. One hears of such things. He's not a gentleman, but old ladies do sometimes run off the rails."

Then there's Hay's portrayal of Mamie Hadden. a woman Basil "picked up" to attend a motion picture with him (really). We get a lot in her scene about her excessive makeup, questionable accent, painted fingernails and "artificial silk" clothes. Hay seems more outraged about the existence of people like Mamie Hadden wearing artificial silk than she does about, well, murder.

As one genteel character says of the murder, "Really dreadful! There's never been anything of the kind in the family before; it's so--so--demeaning!"

Of course the one servant in the book is always sniffling and snuffling and speaking in such heavy Cockney it's slow going (for an American, anyway) deciphering what's she's saying.

The murder in itself has no academic interest, despite the presence of two diagrams and a family tree (all unnecessary).

Will Murder Underground "puzzle and charm fans of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey" (why not, incidentally, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham while we're at it)? Maybe it will some, but it didn't me. Maybe Hay got better in her second and third books.

Adapted from my 17 November 2013 review at my blog, The Passing Tramp


Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story (British Library Crime Classics)
Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story (British Library Crime Classics)
by J. Jefferson Farjeon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Cosily Creepy Christmas Crime Confection For Our Delectation, 6 Oct. 2014
"It snowed all day and all night. On the 22nd it was still snowing. Snowballs flew, snowmen grew. Sceptical children regained their belief in fairyland, and sour adults felt like Santa Claus, buying more presents than they had ever intended. In the evening the voice of the announcer, traveling through endless white ether, informed the millions that more snow was coming....

More snow came. It floated down from its limitless source like a vast extinguisher. Sweepers, eager for their harvest, waited in vain for the snow to stop. People wondered whether it ever would stop."

--Jefferson Farjeon, Mystery in White (1937)

People stranded in a country house cut off from the outside world by snow, with murderous events afoot: It's a classic and beloved Golden Age murder mystery scenario and it's one Jefferson Farjeon used in his 1937 thriller Mystery in White. To top it all off, the tale takes place over Christmas eve and Christmas day.

As the splendid original English dust jacket art and the cover illustration of the new edition reveal, a train is involved in the tale, albeit briefly. Like Agatha Christie's Orient Express, this train gets stalled by snow. Five passengers--a mild clerk, a chorus girl, an elderly paranormal investigator and a genteel brother and sister--make their way off the train with their luggage to find a connection at a nearby station.

The wayfarers get lost in the snow, of course, but providentially they come upon a large country house, front door unlocked. No one seems to be in the house (though what was that noise in the attic?!), but fires are set and the table is properly laid for tea (though what's that bread knife doing on the floor?!).

In short, we, the readers, are encountering a favorite Jefferson Farjeon thriller scenario: stranded people discovering mystery and murder in an isolated building (this pattern goes all the way back to the author's 1920s mystery play No. 17, later filmed by Alfred Hitchcock; see also such novels as Sinister Inn and The Windmill Mystery). Queer noises occur, strangers--some perhaps malevolent--wander in and out, mysterious circumstances pile up like the snow drifts outside the house. By adding Christmas to the mix, Farjeon has made a cosily creepy Christmas crime confection for our delectation. Not over-taxing for the brain, but enjoyable nevertheless.

"Jefferson Farjeon is quite unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures," Dorothy L. Sayers once proclaimed of one of her favorite mystery writers, gifting Farjeon's publishers on both sides of the Atlantic with a pleasing blurb for years to come. Other critics who shared Sayers' esteem for Farjeon were the American author and playwright Paul Wilstach ("Jefferson Farjeon writes corkers....He inevitably gives delight") and the American critic and scholar William Lyon Phelps ("Jefferson Farjeon is one of my favorite providers of murder. He knows how to give distinction...by an excellent literary style").

English thriller tales from the 1920s and 1930s generally have a bad reputation today, frequently being condemned for their exhibitions of racism and xenophobia. Certainly this is true of much of the work of the egregious Sydney Horler, say, or the more talented but still sometimes admittedly quite objectionable H. C. McNeile ("Sapper").

Yet Jefferson Farjeon's thrillers tend to be more gentle and whimsical (even as the body count rises). Farjeon himself by all accounts was a mild, kindhearted man, a brother of children's author Eleanor Farjeon and a son of Benjamin Farjeon (1838-1903)--a popular Victorian author who venerated Charles Dickens--and a vegetarian and pacifist (his Cold War apocalyptic sci-fi novel, Death of a World, is a passionate protest against the post-WW2 arms race). Surely not unexpectedly, his thrillers reflect his family background and personality.

In Mystery in White, Farjeon presents his chorus girl and clerk with empathy (in one chapter a Walter Mitty-like fantasy sequence representing the fever-dream of the clerk is quite amusingly done), though in this one the genteel brother and sister play more active roles. Events get quite tangled, but all finally is revealed (though not really deduced). The dilatory police eventually do show up near the end of the novel, but in another resemblance to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None England's finest don't get things quite right.

In addition to And Then There Were None, Mystery in White also somewhat resembles the celebrated Christie play The Mousetrap, though it must be admitted that it's neither as clever nor as sinister. But Christie fans in particular and "cozy" English mystery fans in general should enjoy this representative Farjeon tale. It's not his best mystery story, but it makes a delightful holiday Golden Age mystery treat.

--Adapted from my 26 December 2011 review of Mystery in White at my blog, The Passing Tramp


The Monogram Murders (Hercule Poirot Mystery 1)
The Monogram Murders (Hercule Poirot Mystery 1)
by Sophie Hannah
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.80

26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Too Much Contortion And Too Much Catchpool, 19 Sept. 2014
Sophie Hannah's The Monogram Murders is a disappointing Hercule Poirot pastiche, with an oddly-behaving Poirot, an unlikable narrator in Edward Catchpole and a lumbering and ultimately nonsensical puzzle plot structure, lacking the grace and deceptive simplicity of Christie's narratives. Sophie Hannah has only made me appreciate the peerless talent of the true Queen of Crime even more.

The novel, which is set in 1929, opens with a chapter reminiscent of the late Christie novel Third Girl (1966). Poirot encounters a mystery woman named Jennie, who seems to be in fear for her life. Jennie makes intriguing cryptic comments about her plight before fleeing from Poirot into the night.

All well and good. Even here, however, what seem to me false notes concerning Poirot's character are struck. First, the encounter takes place in a "coffee house" that, though "in a part of London that was far from being the most salubrious, made the best coffee Poirot had tasted anywhere in the world."

For those of us used to Poirot delicately sipping tisane, chocolat, creme de menthe and sirop de cassis, the idea of this well-traveled Continental often dismissive of English gastronomy not only grabbing coffee at an insalubrious London coffee house--he eats beef chop and vermicelli souffle there too, incidentally--but actually finding it the best coffee he has had in all the world seems well-nigh inconceivable.

Then there's the fact that Poirot is staying at a lodging house just down from his own flat, for what he calls a "rest." This seems odd behavior for our Poirot, even if the lodging house is "impeccably clean."

Christie fans have pointed out elsewhere in The Monogram Murders things that have struck them as additional anomalies in Poirot's personality: he walks in the cold night, he rides a bus to ruminate, he draws with his finger in the mud. But with this novel I have what I deem more serious problems, having to do with narrative and plot structure and depictions of character (in addition to Poirot's) and setting.

After the first chapter, the narrative abruptly changes, from third to first person. Our new narrator is one Inspector Edward Catchpool, who rooms at the same lodging house as Poirot (so that's why Hannah plops Poirot down there!). We learn the novel is in fact a manuscript written by Catchpool, which explains the sudden point-of-view shifts that occur.
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Sometimes Catchpool is alone or with Poirot, describing things at first hand, while sometimes Poirot is on his own, with the narrative shifting to third person. I found this distracting--though I preferred the third person narrative to that told in Catchpool's own voice.

Catchpool is one dim and dismal fellow. Never have I so missed Poirot's perennial Golden Age "Watson," Captain Arthur Hastings. Hastings may not be the brightest bulb in the art deco chandelier, but he is of course merely an amateur assistant to Poirot and there is a great deal of charm and affection in the Poirot-Hastings relationship, as portrayed by Christie. I discerned neither charm nor affection in the Poirot-Catchpool relationship.

Throughout the book Catchpool struck me as a miserable and glum individual. This is not surprising, since Hannah has saddled him with a load of psychological baggage, arising out of childhood trauma. Apparently Catchpool is meant to be a fashionably tortured cop, but I just found him tiresome.

Catchpool does not seem, really, even to like Poirot, nor Poirot him. Catchpool also makes an absurd policeman. He has a morbid fear of dead bodies--the childhood trauma, you see--and runs away from the novel's crime scene. Why on earth did he become a cop? At least he didn't take up the mortician trade!

Catchpool lets Poirot completely take over his investigation, doing everything on direction of the Belgian sleuth, who seemingly has no qualms about acting as investigative head in all but name and who misses no chance to rather cruelly belittle his "Watson."

I know Golden Age detective novels often are castigated today for unrealistic depictions of police procedure, but Hannah's novel really outdid her purported models in this regard. I found it ridiculous.

But what crime scene is it that Catchpool flees from ("Fly, Catchpool, fly!"), you ask? Well, as you probably know by now, three dead bodies are found in three rooms on three floors of a fashionable London hotel, the Bloxham, each with a monogrammed cuff link placed in his/her mouth.

Based on the mysterious Jennie's earlier cryptic comments, Poirot concludes that she is connected to this conundrum. Identification of the dead persons, two women and a man, leads the investigation to events that took place long ago in an English village, Great Holling.

On orders from Poirot, Catchpool travels to the village and wanders rather aimlessly around the place, listening to anyone who will tell him anything about these past events. Meanwhile Poirot does some leg work of his own in London, the most significant being an interview with an artist, Nancy Ducane, who also has a connection to Great Holling.

Then it appears there been a fourth unnatural death at the Bloxham Hotel. At this point Hannah abruptly starts laying out the solution(s) to the mystery, and this leads to perhaps the gravest fault of the book in my estimation: a veritable water torture of a mercilessly drawn-out explanation that extends over eight of the novel's twenty-five chapters, about 36% of the book.

I found much of the explanation absurdly contorted and extremely implausible. This part of the book made extremely tedious reading. Reading an Hercule Poirot detective novel should be a delight, not a chore.

Sophie Hannah has said in interviews that she instinctively knows Christie's storytelling priorities, yet surely one of those priorities was narrating a mystery with clarity and cogency. On this count, The Monogram Murders is a failure.

To the extent the novel resembles a Poirot mystery in terms of narrative it is one from later in Christie's career, when the Queen of Crime was losing her extraordinary facility with narrative: Third Girl (1966), say, or Hallowe'en Party (1969). There are clues in those novels, yes, and involved plots, but the deft storytelling is gone. Yet even those books I would rank higher than The Monogram Murders.

If you really think The Monogram Murders captures the essence of Agatha Christie's Poirot mysteries from her best years, you should compare the elegant explanatory chapter in Murder on the Orient Express (1934)--7% of the novel--with the stodge offered by Hannah now, eighty years later. The difference illuminates why we call the Golden Age of detective fiction golden.

Additionally, I was underwhelmed with Hannah's depiction of character and setting. There's a waitress introduced in the first chapter who has some of the qualities of a memorable Christie person, but otherwise I found Hannah's characters a forgettable, charmless lot. The three most potentially interesting characters in the novel are all dead when we encounter them; and we only ever learn anything about them from the exceedingly long-winded individuals who have long hated them. Christie gave much more dramatic force to her celebrated retrospective death Poirot mystery, Five Little Pigs (1942).

As for setting, Hannah's (deliberately) dreary village of Great Holling is most disappointing, essentially false and absolutely nothing like Christie in my view; but the Bloxham Hotel never really comes alive either.

The great Golden Age detective novels are not just about complexity, but complexity clarified. This is especially true of Agatha Christie's miraculous Golden Age mysteries, which have plots that are tricky yet comprehensible. Deft misdirection, not lumbering obfuscation, characterizes Christie's narratives.

One can explain the brilliant solutions to novels like Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) in single sentences. I would not even care to try to explain the solution to The Monogram Murders.

There are clues of a kind in this new Poirot mystery that often seem clearly inspired by Christie, but they are not carried off with the peerless panache of a Christie, let alone the fleet skill of, say, a Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr, Ruth Rendell or Peter Lovesey, to name some additional immortals of English-style mystery.

In her review of The Monogram Murders Christie biographer Laura Thompson contends that Hannah's mystery "actually bears very little resemblance to [an Agatha Christie novel]." Notes Thompson: "What is not there, crucially, is [Christie's] sublime simplicity."

Truer words have never been spoken.

Curtis Evans
Adapted from my review of The Monogram Murders at the blog The Passing Tramp


The Rottweiler
The Rottweiler
by Ruth Rendell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Mild Social Satire Disguised as a "Psychological Thriller", 31 May 2010
This review is from: The Rottweiler (Paperback)
Traditional Ruth Rendell fans expecting a taut suspense novel will be disappointed indeed. The serial killer plot is the weakest aspect of the tale. The overall tone throughout is humorous, and the identity of the serial killer is revealed a third of the way through the book. From that point onward, the only mystery remaining is the killer's motivation and the solution to this mystery is astoundingly obvious and trite, when one considers it is coming from the hand of one the mystery genre's great modern authors.

All I can conclude is that Rendell wanted to write a sort of social comedy, but felt she had to throw in a murder plot, weak as it is. Unfortunately, the social comedy is not that interesting either. Zeinab and her matrimonial machinations are mildly amusing and the antique shop setting was potentially interesting, but that's about it. It seems to me that Rendell should have gone all out for a "straight" novel here and dispensed with the serial murder plot, which she clearly was not too interested in anyway. Maybe if she had concentrated more on the mainstream elements, she might have had something closer to, say, Muriel Spark. Instead, what we get in the Rottweiler is mostly wet biscuit.

For me, the most surreal thing in the book is Rendell's description of a fictitious American film starring Russell Crowe and Sandra Bullock. From the daft description she gives of it, I was wondering when was the last time Rendell has seen a film?


Talking About Detective Fiction
Talking About Detective Fiction
by P.d James
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable little meditation by a genre master, 8 Nov. 2009
P. D. James is an acknowledged giant of the detective fiction genre. Nearly ninety years of age, she now looks back over the genre she has been a part of herself for forty-five years.

"Talking about Detective Fiction" is a small, attractive volume of 160 pages (rather large print and copious white space make it even shorter than it first appears) that can be pleasurably read in an evening. James is an elegant writer and masterful essayist and people will enjoy reading her thoughts on the genre.

Those familiar with James' earlier critical writings will recognize some of the same material here, but it is pleasing to see all her thoughts gathered in one place, along with her latest ideas. James writes mostly about the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction (emphasizing the contribution of the Crime Queens Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh, who get their own chapter), but she also has general chapters on the craft of detective fiction, the reasons for its appeal and its prospects for the future.

Modern and American writers get short shrift, barring the great hardboiled triumverate of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, limiting the book's utility as a general survey. James also emphasizes her belief that "realism" is the superior mode for detective fiction. Like Dorothy L. Sayers, she celebrates as a model for detective fiction the nineteenth-century novel of manners. Indeed, Sayers is clearly a huge influence on James' own critical thinking (James mentions reading Gaudy Night a year after it was published and explains the great impact it had on her). Another great influence is the late crime novelist and critic Julian Symons and his landmark 1972 study, "Bloody Murder." In other words, James does not break new critical ground, but she nevertheless produces some fragrant blooms from the old soil. Fans of Golden Age detective fiction and of P. D. James should enjoy the scent.


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