Friday’s Forgotten Book: Mrs. McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie

Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (Collins, 1952) is one of my favorite mysteries from Agatha Christie (1890-1976). Not forgotten exactly, more like overlooked in the prodigious output from this peerless author, it is the 28th volume in which Hercule Poirot, the retired Belgian policeman turned private investigator, appears. By this time Christie had grown quite tired of Poirot, about whom she’d been writing for 30 years, and she let her annoyance show clearly in the story, one of the reasons I love it so much.

Soon-to-retire Superintendent Spence, whose path had crossed Poirot’s in their long careers, approaches him with a request to investigate a crime that everyone thinks has been solved. Spence led the police work that resulted in a conviction for the murder of a charwoman in a village outside London. Despite the evidence Spence believes the accused did not commit the murder and does not want to retire with a wrongful execution on his conscience. Working against the clock Poirot takes up residence in the village and interviews everyone who knew Mrs. McGinty. He learns that just before she was killed Mrs. McGinty was excited about one of the more dramatic Sunday papers which featured women in famous murder cases. She was convinced one of the women described in the article was living in the village.

This discovery opened a completely new line of inquiry, and Spence and Poirot were busy for awhile tracking down the women in question. The war of course had destroyed records everywhere, something Christie used to good effect in her plots many times and used here. Again here, as Christie pointed out in A Murder Is Announced (1950), is the mention that anyone could show up in a village after the war and claim to be a war widow. It could be proven otherwise only through a good deal of official effort and maybe not even then. As usual, red herrings and misdirection are cleverly deployed to result in Poirot’s standard drawing room denouement.

One of the best parts of this book is the cast of characters, which are ingeniously conceived. The keeper of the village post office and general store who functions as gossip central is right on target. Maureen Summerhayes, the delightful but inept hostess of the house where Poirot is staying, crops up again peripherally in Cat Among the Pigeons (1959). The descriptions of household chaos, seen through the eyes of the precise and finicky Poirot, are hilarious.

Of course the star of the supporting cast is Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s apple-eating alter ego, who is in the village to collaborate with a local playwright on the dramatization of one of her books about Sven Hjerson, Oliver’s Finnish detective. These are fabulous scenes. Hjerson is clearly meant to be Poirot and Christie in the persona of Oliver goes on at great length about how much she dislikes her creation. Christie also takes the opportunity to stick a knife into filmmakers who insist on making her characters something completely different for the screen. It is not often an author inserts herself into her own story, much less complains about her own brainchild. Christie clearly felt secure enough to rant at length and she did.

I cannot believe that any fan of Christie’s work has not read this gem. However, it is a fine re-read, as I know from experience. Highly, highly recommended.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: To Wake the Dead by John Dickson Carr

John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) is one of the most well-known Golden Age mystery writers. He also wrote under the names Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson, and Roger Fairbairn. He is celebrated for his beautifully complicated plots, often considered locked room crimes or impossible crimes in which the crime appears to have been committed when no one was near. His two main series characters were Sir Henry Merivale and Dr. Gideon Fell, although he wrote a number of stand-alone novels. See a lengthy analysis of his work on the Golden Age Detection wiki: http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7930179/Carr%2C%20John%20Dickson

To Wake the Dead (Hamish Hamilton, 1938) is the eighth or ninth Dr. Gideon Fell, depending on the bibliography referenced. It begins with Christopher Kent longing for breakfast outside a London hotel and no money immediately available with which to buy it. Quite against his usual modus operandi, he enters the hotel and boldly orders breakfast and bills it to a room in the hotel. He assumes that by the time the hotel understands he is not the paying occupant of that room, he will be long gone. Instead, he is asked by the hotel manager to go to the room he is believed to occupy and retrieve a bracelet the previous tenant left behind. Upon entering the room, instead of a bracelet he finds the battered body of a woman.

Not wanting to be arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, he slipped out the other door to the opposite corridor and made a beeline for the residence of Dr. Gideon Fell. There he finds Superintendent Hadley of the Criminal Investigation Division, who is consulting Dr. Fell about the woman’s death, just reported to him, which is a duplicate of a murder committed two weeks earlier.

Kent can easily prove he was on a ship at the time of that first murder and nowhere near the hotel at the time of the second. That being the case, Hadley does not hesitate to share the details of the investigation with Kent. The country house party was made up of Kent’s friends and both murder victims were well known to him. Hadley wanted Kent’s impressions of them and his help in identifying possible motives.

Admirers of locked room puzzles will adore this book as it offers two separate murders that apparently were carried out invisibly. Fell and Hadley work through timetables and witnesses and alibis at the London hotel and the country house in Sussex and arrive at a completely unexpected conclusion. This is a fine story with an ingenious solution.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Mark of the Crescent by John Creasey

John Creasey MBE (1908–1973) was an English author of crime, romance, and western novels, who wrote more than six hundred novels using twenty-eight different pseudonyms. Mostly he’s known for his crime fiction, though, of which there are over 400 books. He was educated in London and from 1923 to 1935 he took various clerical jobs and sales jobs while trying to establish himself as a writer.  Creasey started his publishing career by winning a competition called The Cracksman Award, sponsored by Harrap in the UK and Lippincott in the US.

In 1953, John Creasey founded the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) in the UK. The CWA New Blood Dagger is awarded in his memory, for first books by previously unpublished writers. This award was known previously as the John Creasey Memorial Dagger. In 1962 Creasey won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for best novel for Gideon’s Fire, part of the Gideon series which he wrote under the pseudonym J J Marric.  In 1969 he received the MWA’s Grand Master Award.  The television series Gideon’s Way was based on his series, as well as the John Ford movie Gideon of Scotland Yard (1968), also known by its British title Gideon’s Day. The Baron was a 1960s TV series based on another series starring Steve Forrest.

Of the dozen or so series he developed, the Department Z series was one written under the name John Creasey, with about 30 stories of British counterespionage published between 1933 and 1957. Gordon Craigie, Chief of the British Counter Espionage, leads a group of skilled agents to protect the UK from the internal and external forces of evil.

The Mark of the Crescent (Melrose, 1935) is the fifth book in the series. It starts out at a country house cricket match, with lots of sports details that reminded me of the cricket match in Murder Must Advertise by Sayers. Craigie has sent Jim Kenyon to watch another agent suspected of double dealing. Department Z deliberately keeps the identities of the various agents secret, even from each other, so the others also set to watch are mostly unknown to him. While all are engrossed in the game, a murder is carried out under the noses of the crowd. Investigation of the murder leads to evidence of a wide-ranging drug ring and more mayhem.

I read all of the Gideon series and loved them, but I don’t remember reading the others by Creasey so I was happy to have the opportunity to look into Department Z. Typical of many thrillers written in the 1930s, this book has a master criminal with tentacles everywhere, even in law enforcement agencies. It’s a clear reaction to the general fear of Hitler’s growing power and his threat to European peace. There’s also a thread of xenophobia, which ages the story. The copyright information says it was revised in 1967 with no further details about the extent of the revision. Tightly plotted, well written, Creasey had found his stride by the time he wrote this one. Nicely done, if a little dated.

Biographical information from the John Creasey website and Wikipedia.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Harassed Hero by Ernest Dudley

Vivian Ernest Coltman-Allen (1908 – 2006), known as Ernest Dudley, was an author, a screenwriter, an actor, and a journalist. He created the popular BBC radio crime series Dr Morelle that ran from 1942 to 1948 and the television series The Armchair Detective that ran in 1949. He wrote society articles for The Daily Mail in the 1930s. The Harassed Hero (Hodder & Stoughton, 1951) seems to be his fourth novel, although the bibliographies for this versatile writer vary. I learned about this book from Ward Saylor, the guiding light of the Crime Thru Time online discussion, who recommended it.

Murray Selwyn is obsessed with his health. He is convinced the slightest strain will undermine irretrievably his already fragile constitution. All he wants is to get to the nursing home for a nice long rest, which his doctor agrees he needs. After leaving the doctor, who no doubt considers Murray a lucrative patient, he fills prescriptions and purchases lozenges, throat sprays, digestive tablets, and other necessities, then finds a taxi to take him home. His long-suffering valet Twigg brings in his packages while Murray recoups from the stress of the trip. Amongst the parcels is a briefcase neither of them recognizes. Twigg opens it and out falls a pile of five-pound notes.

Thus, Murray’s unsought acquaintance with a group of forgers begins. The one who lost the briefcase tracks it back to Murray and retrieves it from Murray and Twigg at gun point. His erstwhile colleagues take umbrage at his attempt to keep the money for himself and catch up with him outside Murray’s building, knock him out, and return his unconscious body to Murray’s front hall. Twigg is aghast at finding what seems to be a corpse but Murray is still enraged at having a gun waved in his face a short time previously and only calls Scotland Yard to take the body away.

By the time Scotland Yard arrives, the thug has regained consciousness and disappeared, which results in an unpleasant conversation between the police and Murray, who has no corpse to show them, despite protestations that one in fact existed. They leave and the nurse who is to escort Murray to the nursing home appears, expecting a frail invalid instead of a tall strapping hunk. But the forgers realize the plates to reproduce the fivers are gone, and they return to Murray to retrieve them, involving not only Murray but his nurse and the rest home in their machinations.

This book is almost straight slapstick with bodies and bank note printing plates appearing and disappearing. Outraged matrons and absent-minded doctors add to the hilarity, punctuated with Murray’s wails about his pulse, his temperature, and his nerves. The counterfeiters, some of the ugliest customers I’ve encountered recently in the pages of fiction, offset the lighthearted tone. Great break from noir. Recommended.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Away Went the Little Fish by Margot Bennett

Margot Bennett (1912-1980) worked as an advertising copywriter, as a nurse and translator during the Spanish Civil War, and as a television scriptwriter. She wrote literary fiction, crime fiction, and science fiction. Compared to her Golden Age contemporaries, her output was relatively small: only seven mysteries. The last two were nominated for awards and the last one received the Crossed Red Herrings award, now the Golden Dagger award, in 1958 for best mystery of the year from the Crime Writers’ Association. Her diminutive output nowise affected her popularity, which was considerable, as her books were translated into multiple languages. 

Away Went the Little Fish (Nichols, 1946) is her second mystery featuring Captain John Davies. Davies is still in the army more than year after the war ended, his demobilization papers having been misplaced. He’s assigned to a backwater post 40 miles away from London He dislikes the rooming house where he finds living quarters and he dislikes his new colleagues and he dislikes the town of Wetherfold.  A colleague Raphael Sands, who lives apart from his wife, also has a room in the same house but Davies rarely sees him, as Sands has a lucrative sideline in writing potboilers while he is supposed to be working for the British Civil Service.

England after the war was still suffering from severe shortages in food and basic necessities so an estate sale attracted far more attention in the town than it would have in more prosperous times. Even Davies showed up, more to have something to do than to buy anything. When a large chest at the sale was flung open for display, bystanders were horrified to see the body of Sands inside. Sands has unquestionably been murdered.

Davies decides to investigate, citing the success of his first case, described in Time to Change Hats (1945). The police decline his help, repeatedly, which does not impede him in the least. Davies begins interviewing everyone associated with Sands. When he meets Sands’ estranged wife, he immediately falls in love with her. From there the story begins to meander into multiple unrelated story threads. The actual mystery, essentially a locked room puzzle, could have been relayed in about half as many pages as the book occupies.

The characters are memorable. The owner of the house where Davies rents a room has a school-age daughter who is one of the most obnoxious children I’ve ever seen in the pages of fiction. She monitors the household’s use of electricity, she walks into Davies’s bedroom without asking, and she keeps minnows in the sink of the spare bathroom.  Her mother is consumed with anxiety about finding food amid the rampant shortages; it occupies almost all of her waking thoughts. Then there’s the resident mad scientist who is inventing something he doesn’t talk about. His neighbors reported him for collaboration during the war but the authorities could find no basis for arresting him. Eccentricity is, so far, not a crime.

Finely plotted, well written with sardonic humor, but long and rambling.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Not All Tarts Are Apple by Pip Granger

A wonderful book told from the perspective of a child, Not All Tarts Are Apple by Pip Granger (Poisoned Pen Press, 2002) is set in London in 1953, which was awash with excitement over the approaching coronation of Queen Elizabeth. No one was more thrilled than 7-year-old Rosie, who lived in Soho with her Aunt Maggie and Uncle Bert. She did not remember a time when she did not live with them above the café they ran on a street with an Italian delicatessen, a fortune teller, a prostitute, and a gambling lawyer, all of whom were café regulars. Rosie, with her blonde curls and blue eyes, was considered a Princess Anne look-alike, which annoyed her as the princess was younger than Rosie was. She was doted on by all of the neighborhood residents and accustomed to a good bit of coddling.

Rosie came to realize, through the taunting of her classmates, that the heavy drinking lady with the fabulous perfume who visited occasionally was her mother. She didn’t want to live with her mother but appreciated her visits, especially when they went to the bookstores on Charing Cross Road, where Rosie learned to love to read. She also loved Maggie and Bert and the cast of vibrant characters who lived nearby and was happiest when she was with them.

A wrinkle in their uneventful lives was created by a stranger who began watching the café. Inquiry by one of the neighbors elicited the information he was waiting for the Perfumed Lady, Rosie’s mother. The whole street was made uneasy by the man’s more or less constant presence and his search for what seemed to be an ordinary sex worker with a drinking problem. When his attention shifted to Rosie herself, their disquiet escalated to alarm.

This is a satisfying happy story with a lively description of Soho and its colorful denizens in the 1950s, where people tired of rationing and restrictions were beginning to enjoy life again. Despite the light-heartedness, incest, assault, theft, blackmail, and kidnapping figure prominently in the plot. The naïve voice of the narrator Rosie provides much of the humor as a counterbalance to what could have been in other hands a rather grim tale. This is the first of four books about the East End of London in the 1950s based on the author’s childhood. It won the initial Harry Bowling Prize for Fiction in 2000.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Murder on the Bus by Cecil Freeman Gregg

Cecil Freeman Gregg (1898-1960) was a chartered secretary and accountant born in London. He published 42 mysteries between 1928 and 1960, with two main series characters, Inspector Cuthbert Higgins and Harry Prince. Harry Prince was a thief who was driven to a life of crime due to the death of his wife Ethel. Cuthbert Higgins is a versatile Scotland Yard detective who can engage in fisticuffs as well as unravel a complicated mystery. (From the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7930698/Gregg%2C%20Cecil%20Freeman.)

The Murder on the Bus (Hutchinson, 1930) is Gregg’s third mystery. Inspector Higgins starts his day with a letter purporting to be from a small-time criminal telling the police that he will have committed suicide by the time they receive his letter. Higgins sends a constable to investigate. Indeed the criminal lay dead in his room, apparently from gas. The inquest finds the cause of death to be suicide and the file is closed, only to be re-opened when a representative from the gas company remonstrates with the inspector days later. It seems there wasn’t enough money in the meter for gas to have been the cause of death. Yet that was the finding of the autopsy. So how did this man die?

While Higgins is dealing with this puzzle, he’s also looking into a second one. A man is found shot to death on the top of a city bus. He was sitting in the back row of the open bus, where no one could possibly sit behind him, yet he was shot in the back. Higgins decided the shot had to have come from one of the houses the bus passed on its route. Deciding on which houses to search out of the possible thousands was a nice exercise in logical deduction.

Searching for the identity of the shooting victim takes Higgins to a small village and a country manor which he discovers too late is inhabited by a gang of blackmailers with connections to both dead men. Getting away from them requires a good deal of ingenuity and even more physical exertion. Higgins seems to be unusually athletic for someone his age.

Considering the amount of action, the story unfolds slowly. It’s over 230 pages long and could have been edited to speed up the momentum which is leisurely. It’s not exactly a procedural and it’s not an amateur detective tale; I’m not sure how to categorize this book, other than Golden Age. Perhaps Gregg was still finding his way to his style; comparing this early work to a later Inspector Higgins might be instructive.

The plot itself was nicely complicated with a twist at the end I didn’t see coming. I doubt that I will search for more of Gregg’s work but I will likely read another one if it comes my way. A note from the publisher of the ebook I read stated it was based on the version published by The Dial Company in New York. All English spellings were Americanized and “some additional notes and clarifications have been added for the modern reader’s benefit”. I am wondering just how extensive this edit was and if it contributed to my lack of enthusiasm for the book.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Knife Slipped by Erle Stanley Gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970) was an attorney who wanted to earn enough money writing pulp fiction so that he could quit the practice of law. The general public knows him best as the creator of Perry Mason courtroom dramas but under the name of A. A. Fair he also wrote a series about Donald Lam, a private investigator who worked for Bertha Cool. Later in the series Lam became a partner in the agency, but in the beginning (The Bigger They Come, 1939) she owned the agency and he was her employee, an oddity for the time.

According to the afterword by Russell Atwood, The Knife Slipped (Hard Case Crime, 2016) was written in 1939 and was supposed to be the second book in the series, but Gardner’s publisher objected to Bertha Cool’s tendency to “talk tough, swear, smoke cigarettes, and try to gyp people.” It was found some 75 years later in Gardner’s papers.

A mousy woman and her abrasive mother hire Bertha’s agency to follow the younger woman’s husband, whom they believe is playing around. What Donald discovers instead is that the husband has a second apartment, where he is selling the answers from civil service exams to local police and firefighters. The discovery leads Bertha and Donald to look for the source of the information in the city bureaucracy. True to form, Donald falls madly in love with the switchboard operator at the apartment and that blurs his judgment beyond understanding when the husband is found shot to death.

Unusually for this series, Bertha steps in and does a fair amount of investigation herself, both to earn the agency’s fee and, as she says, to cut herself a piece of the pie, that is, pull some money out of the exam corruption scheme.

I can understand the publisher’s reaction to Bertha. She is much brassier here than in subsequent books and Donald is wimpier, although strong resemblances to their later versions are apparent. Bertha has her eye on the financial bottom line and Donald falls for every female who looks in his direction. Bertha also has an annoying habit of referring to herself in the third person that I don’t remember in later titles.

I am sorry to report that Bertha indulges in the earliest instance of fat-shaming I can remember seeing in print. When the mother and daughter duo first appear in the agency’s office, Bertha reminds the daughter that if she unloads the current husband, she will have to find a second one and asks her how much weight she’s gained during the marriage. She points out the daughter had better lose weight before rocking her current marital boat if she expects to find a second husband. It was probably all true for the time and the place but distasteful in the here and now. It reminded me of the Perry Mason novel The Case of the Blonde Bonanza (1962) in which Perry watched a young woman wolf down huge meals every day. Perry made it his business to follow her and document what she was eating. He inquired and learned she was being paid to gain weight to model a new line of large size clothing for women. When he looked at the contract, he of course discovered gaping holes and advised her to start losing weight. Gardner clearly had an attitude about overweight women.

The Knife Slipped is like one of those prehistoric insects caught in amber. A lot of the pulp fiction of the 1930s and 1940s is gone as is antediluvian animalia, but this gives contemporary readers a solid idea of what we’ve lost.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: To Kill a Cat by W. J. Burley

The works of W. J. Burley have been on my TBR list for years. I was given the opportunity to acquire a few of them recently and was able to rectify my oversight. William John Burley (1914-2002) began writing after completing a mid-career degree at Oxford and taking up teaching. His initial foray into crime fiction was with Henry Pym, a thinly disguised version of Burley himself, who like Pym was a biology teacher in a grammar school. There were only two books with zoologist Pym, though, in 1966 and 1969. Between 1968 and 2000 he turned out 22 novels featuring Detective Chief Superintendent Charles Wycliffe in Cornwall, Burley’s home. This series served as the basis for the British television series Wycliffe which ran on ITV from July 1994 through July 1998 after a pilot in 1993.

To Kill a Cat (Victor Gollanz, 1970), renamed Wycliffe and How to Kill a Cat, is the second book in the series. Superintendent Wycliffe is on vacation in a resort area of Cornwall. He drops into the local police headquarters to greet a colleague and is just in time to overhear the desk sergeant take the report of a murder in a seedy hotel. Wycliffe decides to see for himself and finds a young woman strangled and battered. She was not at all the usual kind of client the hotel attracted, which puzzled the police as well as the owner. A search of her room reveals a thousand pounds in notes, about £15,500 in present-day currency, so robbery was clearly not the motive. Wycliffe learns that she grew up in the area, married, and then left for London to find a more exciting life. Why she returned no one knows. Wycliffe, who relies a good deal on impressions and nuances, receives the impression that the people who knew the victim had more to tell than they were saying. She knew some odd people and some shady characters, giving Wycliffe several investigative threads to follow.

A classic British police procedural, Burley seems to have fallen into his stride early in the series with plotting and pacing, easily balancing action against talking. Wycliffe is more interested in watching and thinking, so readers should not expect car chases and shoot-outs, only considered and logical police process. Certainly everyone should read a few Wycliffe titles just to be familiar with an iconic series.

These books have been reprinted often, so I was spoiled for choice when it came to selecting covers. I felt I had to include the one from the original UK release. The others are my favorites from the reissues.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Crooked Lane by Frances Noyes Hart

Frances Newbold Noyes Hart (1890-1943) mostly wrote short stories for Scribner’s magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, and the Ladies’ Home Journal, although sometimes she branched out into longer fiction. The Bellamy Trial (1927) was so popular that Howard Haycraft selected it as part of his original definitive list of mystery fiction, later expanded by Ellery Queen. http://www.classiccrimefiction.com/haycraftqueen.htm

The plot of her last crime fiction novel The Crooked Lane (Doubleday, 1934) is straightforward enough on the surface: Karl Sheridan, trained by the Viennese police in the latest forensic techniques, returns to Washington, DC, to join what sounds like the Federal Bureau of Investigation. His family’s history with the diplomatic community ensures his immediate entrée into the choicest of social circles. He meets Tess Stuart in the opening pages of the book and his attraction to her obscures his objectivity when she pulls him in to investigate the apparent suicide of her sister.

His investigation largely takes place at one party after another, in which the various suspects reveal more than they intend to in a series of witty exchanges. The New York Times review of this book (August 19, 1934) says the conversation is too sparkling for anything but a novel. I found it makes amusing reading. Away from the parties, Sheridan employs the latest forensic techniques from Vienna, Austria, to examine clues but he is befuddled by his interest in Tess and fails to inform the local police as much as would be expected of a career law enforcement agent.

Kirkus Reviews (June 15, 1934) says this is a good story, not considering the mystery, and I agree. I actually found the mystery to be unsatisfying, as the identification of the culprit created a second question Hart left unanswered. On the other hand, the description of the Washington social whirl was fascinating, as well as the personalities and their interactions as well as Sheridan’s reactions.

What was especially intriguing is the way this story is written. Hart’s style is ornate and melodramatic, perhaps because of her experience writing for women’s magazines. The paragraphs drip with baroque imagery. Tess’s eyes are described thus: “a pair of immense eyes of the purest, the clearest silver gray—still and shining as the sky just before dawn, as young rain falling through a spring twilight, as moonlight on quiet waters.” The fountain in front of the White House: “the fountain, performing its exquisite and eternal pantomime of tossing showers of diamonds against a background of emeralds”. Coming home, Tess tosses her wrap on the sofa: “dropping the silver cloak over the end of the green-glazed sofa, so that it flowed down like a little river hurrying to the green sea of the carpet”. And Hart did not believe in standard sentence structure. Long strings of undiagrammable text are punctuated with a comma here and a dash there and wrap up with a period after six lines or so. The book is full of it. Even a mediocre editor could have reduced its length by 50 pages.

After a few chapters I found that I focused more on the writing than the story or the mystery. It is very different from the crisp, compact style of contemporary mysteries and thrillers. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t following the story line. The ending came as something of a shock, and I found myself wishing for a sequel just to find out what came next.