Friday’s Forgotten Book: Henrietta Who? by Catherine Aird

Henrietta Who? by Catherine Aird (Macdonald, 1968) is the second book in the Calleshire Chronicles, featuring Inspector C.D. Sloan and his inept assistant DC Crosby. Calleshire is an imaginary county somewhere in England, quite large enough apparently to support two football teams, the East Calleshires and the West Calleshires.

Early one morning Mrs. Grace Jenkins is discovered dead in the road leading to her small house on the outskirts of the village of Larking. Her only known relative is her daughter Henrietta studying at a university an hour away. What was originally supposed to be a vehicular hit-and-run is exposed as deliberate murder by the post-mortem. This examination also revealed she had never had a child, throwing Henrietta into a state of utter confusion.

She subsequently finds that the lock to the desk where her mother kept her papers was broken, and her birth certificate and her mother’s wedding certificate are missing. Because the house was locked at the time, it is clear someone unknown has a key and can enter at will. Further investigation shows that the man she believed to be her father did not die during World War II, and the source of the pension her mother lived on is not a military widows’ fund.

In short, nothing Henrietta had been told about her life turns out to be real. Inspector Sloan thinks the reason for the murder is linked to Henrietta’s true identity and her upcoming 21st birthday. Nothing much is known about Grace Jenkins before she moved to Larking after the war, only that she was originally from East Calleshire. It was thought odd at the time that she would choose to live in West Calleshire but Mrs. Jenkins kept herself to herself and did not encourage questions. She had shown herself to be an exemplary mother to Henrietta, and after the passage of time the village accepted her as one of them.

In A Murder Is Announced (1950), Agatha Christie pointed out how easy it was after the war to move to any small town in England and provide a mendacious backstory that could not be verified easily, if at all. With so many records destroyed during the Blitz and families separated, creating a new identity was simple. The same scenario plays out here and Inspector Sloan has to pull every thread to get to the truth.

Catherine Aird’s Calleshire Chronicles never disappoint. These are fine tales of classic British detection. The New York Times called this title one of the best books of 1968. Cover photo is from the 2008 trade paperback reprint.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Death in the Quadrangle by Eilis Dillon

Eilis Dillon (1920-1994) was a productive Irish author whose primary target audience was the young adult reader. She wrote 38 YA books as well as two plays, an autobiographical history, eight novels, and three mysteries, two featuring retired Professor Daly, formerly of King’s University in Dublin and now of Galway, and Inspector Mike Kenny of the Civic Guards. A prize in her name is given annually as part of the Children’s Books Ireland (CBI) Book of the Year Awards.

Death in the Quadrangle (Faber, 1956) is the second collaboration between Professor Daly and Inspector Kenny. Professor Daly has been invited back to King’s University, where he taught for 30 years, to deliver a series of lectures. He arrives to find the academic and support staff in a permanent furor over the behavior of the college president. During his first meeting with President Bradley, Daly learns that Bradley has been receiving threatening letters and wants Daly to use his established contacts within the college to learn who is sending them. He declines, however, to let Daly see them or to call in the police. He is most anxious that nothing interfere with the very large donation that an Irish-American industrialist plans to give to the university, so negative publicity is verboten and inviting a police investigation is out of the question.

The morning after a miserable dinner party during which most of the senior academics displayed their enmity toward Bradley and paraded their own personal peculiarities, Bradley is found dead in his bed. There is no way the death can be considered natural or accidental, and Inspector Kenny is neck-deep in a murder investigation with any number of potential suspects.

It is really too bad that Ms. Dillon decided to focus her literary talents elsewhere, as her plotting is classic Golden Age in style. Her take-down of academic politics and the eccentricities of individual professors is delivered in savagely witty terms. An entertaining read for lovers of academic mysteries and Golden Age detective stories.

Cover photo is from the Kindle edition.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Body Scissors by Jerome Doolittle

Body Scissors by Jerome Doolittle (Pocket Books, 1990) is the first of six political thrillers released between 1990 and 1995 featuring Tom Bethany, a former member of the Olympic wrestling team and a Vietnam vet, who describes himself as a security consultant but operates more often as a private investigator. Bethany has a profound distrust of the Government and lives as much off the grid as anyone can do in the heart of Boston. His telephone is in someone else’s name, his landlord has never heard of Tom Bethany, he operates on a cash and money order basis, and he opens and closes bank accounts regularly in multiple names.

He is retained by a Massachusetts senator running for president to thoroughly check the background of the senator’s choice for Secretary of State. J. Alden Kellicott appears to be an impeccable choice for the job: he’s a Harvard professor with years of public service and he has a socially prominent wife. The only possible flaw is the death of a daughter that is still considered by the police to be an open homicide investigation.

Bethany is curious enough about the unsolved murder to dig a little deeper and soon after his initial inquiries is approached by a stranger with a knife intent on doing permanent damage to Bethany. His wrestling skills kick in and the attacker becomes the victim in short order, giving Bethany another mystery to investigate.

In view of the recent circus of confirmation hearings for multiple nominees to high Government positions, this book will read as if it is fresh off the pages of the Washington Post. Elements of the plot now seem predictable, I don’t remember reacting that way initially. I don’t know whether that’s attributable to my cynical old age or the changes in society in the 30 years since the book was released. The characters still ring authentic and fresh; I particularly like the owner of the Tasty, the hole-in-the-wall diner that Bethany treats as his office. Doolittle’s skepticism about various former political powerhouses is entertaining, and I can see that I need to read the remaining books in the series again.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: In the Shadow of King’s by Nora Kelly

In the Shadow of King’s by Nora Kelly (St. Martin’s Press, 1984) is the first of five mysteries featuring Vancouver academic Gillian Adams and her long-distance lover Edward Gisborne of Scotland Yard. In this debut Gillian returns to the University of Cambridge where she received her doctoral degree. She is elated to be back and is in awe of the timelessness of the place. Whole sections of description of the University are strongly reminiscent of Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen stories, although they took place at Oxford.

The university has invited her to present her latest scholarly article to the academic community. Alistair Greenwood, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge and a well-known authority, invites her to lunch the day before her presentation. Also invited are the friends Gillian is staying with, an applicant for a teaching position with Greenwood’s department, Greenwood’s cousin, and Greenwood’s brother, who arrives with an atrociously dressed and even worse behaved girlfriend.

Greenwood is notorious for his waspish comments and has each of his guests on edge before the meal is served. He suggests, for instance, that Gillian has chosen a research topic that is too much for her to fully grasp. While nearly everyone who encounters Greenwood despises him, everyone is equally shocked the next day when he is shot during Gillian’s talk at Kings College. Fortunately Edward Gisborne is present to lend moral support to Gillian and promptly takes over.

From there a classic police procedural unfolds. While this book was published far too late to be considered part of the Golden Age, its style and subject were plainly inspired by those classic detective novels. Well worth the time of any reader interested in traditional mysteries.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Red Castle Women by Margaret Widdemer

The Red Castle Women (Doubleday, 1968) is the last book written by prolific novelist, children’s author, and poet Margaret Widdemer (1884-1978), who shared the Pulitzer Prize for poetry with Carl Sandburg in 1919. This gothic romance is set along the Hudson River north of New York City about 1840, where a small girl and her unconscious mother were discovered by the river ferryman, who took them both in. The ferryman gave Perdita Van Dorn her name and raised her as his adopted daughter near the Red Castle, a huge mansion where the Somerwell family lived. The Somerwells were known for their wealth and family misfortunes. The parents of the current residents, two cousins named Eugenia and Isobel, were killed when their yacht capsized in a sudden storm years ago. Eugenia and Isobel were raised by a distant cousin, who remains with them as one of their few living relatives.

The present Miss Somerwells are also known for their raging bad tempers. In a dramatic fit of anger Eugenia breaks her engagement to her cousin Mark, accusing him of an improper relationship with Perdita. Because of Eugenia’s threats against Perdita, Mark promptly offers to marry Perdita and she accepts, going from nameless foundling to a member of a wealthy and socially prominent New York family in a matter of minutes. This is the basis of a convoluted but briskly executed plot with kidnapping, human trafficking, attempted murder, bigamy, and criminal insanity. In addition, plot threads with the Underground Railroad, a family curse from an Oneida maiden, and a ghost or two ensure this story has a little something for everyone in less than 300 pages.

I read this book in high school and I was enthralled, both with the romance and the mystery. Apparently I looked for crime in my books even then. This one is undoubtedly a love story but has more violence and felonious activity than I remember in other gothic romances of the time. Re-reading it after so many years also gives me a completely different view of events and motives of the characters. For instance, when Mark offers to marry Perdita to protect her reputation, I originally thought it every woman’s dream come true. Who doesn’t want a Prince Charming to marry her in a whirlwind and then swoop her off to Tiffany’s to buy her diamonds? Now my more cynical reaction is that Mark jumped at the chance to avoid marrying an irascible virago and instead quickly married a more malleable girl barely out of her teens before the virago could change her mind. But that’s just me.

This story is a fine gothic romance, and it can easily pass for a cozy historical mystery that’s a little heavier on the love story than usual. A nice change from present-day thrillers and psychological suspense crime fiction.

 

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Foggy, Foggy Death by Richard and Frances Lockridge

Foggy, Foggy Death by Richard and Frances Lockridge (J. B. Lippincott, 1950) is the fourth book in the Inspector Heimrich police procedural series, which consists of 24 books released between 1947 and 1977. Heimrich is part of the New York State Police Criminal Investigation Division, and his bailiwick is Westchester County and its surroundings.

In this early entry some of the themes common to the series are evident. The Lockridges wrote about the friction between newcomers to the heretofore exclusive small towns and wealthy country enclaves outside New York City. The sweeping societal changes wrought by the nation’s participation in World War Two created opportunities for the middle class to buy property in areas previously inaccessible to them. The inevitable clashes of values and priorities, at least in the Lockridge books, often lead to murder.

In this particular title, instead of buying the house next door, the encroaching member of the middle class married into an established Westchester family, much to the dismay of the family matriarch. Scott Bromwell met Marta, a Nebraska native, while he was serving in the Army and married her on impulse. The entire family regrets his decision, as Marta has not adapted to the lifestyle or expectations of Scott’s imperious mother. The family is housebound in late January by a dense cold fog that has lasted for days and the unavoidable confinement exacerbates underlying tensions. Marta goes for a walk to escape and is found hours later facedown in a stream on the property.

This is a classic country house mystery with a limited set of suspects due to the weather conditions. Nearly all of the action takes place on the Bromwell estate and most of it within the house. While the homicide forensics team assesses the area around the stream as well as searches the house, Inspector Heimrich and Sgt. Forniss devote most of their time to interviewing the family, the staff, and some incidental visitors who turn out to have a greater involvement with the family than originally supposed. Because of this strict observance of the country house set-up, there is little action and a great deal of talk.

The books in this series seem generally timeless, probably because of the lack of references to technology or other elements that would place the book firmly in a chronological frame. It is one of the reasons this Lockridge series, rather than the Mr. and Mrs. North books, remains among my favorites.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Blackshirt Passes By by Roderic Jeffries

Blackshirt Passes By (Hutchinson, 1953) is the third Blackshirt adventure by Roderic Jeffries in the continuation of his father’s series. Blackshirt has had a long and unusually varied career. Graham Montague Jeffries (1900-1982) under the pen name Bruce Graeme created the character of Richard Verrell, a well-known author whose alter ego Blackshirt dresses completely in black and finds stealing exhilarating. This Blackshirt appeared in stories released between 1925 and 1947, mostly in the 1930s.

Using the name of David Graeme, supposedly Bruce Graeme’s cousin, Jeffries also wrote a series of books about Monsieur Blackshirt, Richard Verrell’s 17th-century French ancestor. They appeared in the 1930s, except for the last one which was released in 1963.

During World War II Jeffries wrote several short stories about the son of Richard Verrell, who used the name Lord Blackshirt. He imagined the son of Blackshirt living in a post-war England and carrying on the family legacy. These stories were also attributed to the authorship of Bruce Graeme.

Super Detective Library featured illustrated Blackshirt adventures during the 1950s.

Jeffries’s son Roderic Jeffries revived the Richard Verrell/Blackshirt character under the name Roderic Graeme, releasing 20 novels about the gentleman burglar between 1952 and 1969. In this particular outing, ruthless thieves target a figurine in a museum display of artifacts on loan from the Middle East. The horse-shaped figurine is made of gold and has a huge ruby for a saddle. Its value is incalculable. The local thug talent drafted for the actual theft are assured that no violence will be involved and consequently are stunned when the ring leader offhandedly shoots the guards who try to stop them.

Richard Verrell, Blackshirt’s alter ego, is walking down the street across from the museum, intent on an innocuous errand, when he sees the gang driving frantically away in his own car, which he housed in a nearby garage. The police question him closely as a witness to the get-away. When an international incident over the theft threatens, the Inspector in charge of the case, desperate to save his career and who knows about Verrell’s hobby of burglary, blackmails him into finding the figurine and identifying the culprits.

The ensuing adventure, full of creative characters and narrow escapes, reminded me of The Saint’s exploits, except that this one is more violent.

The book Literary Afterlife: The Posthumous Continuations of 325 Fictional Characters by Bernard A. Drew (McFarland & Company, 2010) and the invaluable website Stop, You’re Killing Me! (http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/) served as my resources for this review.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Curiosity Killed a Cat by Anne Rowe

Curiosity Killed a Cat (Morrow, 1941) is the third book by Anne Rowe and the first with Inspector Josiah Pettengill in Maine. Kay Wentworth moves with her widowed engineer father to Cliffport, Maine, where he will consult with the Federal government on the upgrade and expansion of what sounds to me like the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard as World War II looms forebodingly on the horizon.

She had been keeping house for her father since her mother died and accompanying him was never in question but she had a particular interest in Cliffport. Five years earlier as an impulsive 18-year-old she secretly married Bruce Jollimar, whom she had just met and who abandoned her three weeks later. One of the few bits of information she had about her husband is that he was from Cliffport. Now in love with a more eligible man, she is anxious to find Bruce to end their marriage. She sees him on the street one evening and thinks he enters what is supposed to be an empty house. She later visits the house and finds the body of a visiting professor, bringing Inspector Josiah Pettengill into the story.

Steve Lewis reviewed Too Much Poison by Rowe for Friday’s Forgotten Books several years ago on his Mystery File blog. See his review here: http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=622. It also involves a secret marriage. Rowe must have had a particular unease about them, and the social mores from that time are absorbing. Kay was extremely concerned about the publicity surrounding a divorce, and solicited her aunt’s assistance in keeping the newspapers at bay while she plotted a quiet change to her marital status .

The mystery itself is well planned, I did not suspect the killer at all. What is more interesting is the social setting, with the inherited family servants who tell Kay and her father what they will and won’t do, and the society leader of the town, who never knocks on doors, she simply enters any house she pleases. The reclusive family member who turns out to be a world-famous designer of high-end clothing for women is particularly intriguing.

In his review Steve Lewis included this information about the author taken from Crime Fiction IV by Al Hubin:

ROWE, ANNE (Von Meibom) (1901?-1975?)

  • The Turn of a Wheel (n.) Macaulay 1930
  • Men Are Strange Lovers (n.) King 1935
  • Curiosity Killed a Cat (n.) Morrow 1941 [Insp. Josiah Pettengill; Maine]
  • The Little Dog Barked (n.) Morrow 1942 [Insp. Josiah Pettengill; Maine; Theatre]
  • Too Much Poison (n.) Mill 1944 [Insp. Barry; New York City, NY]
  • Fatal Purchase (n.) Mill 1945 [Maine]
  • The Painted Monster (n.) Gifford-UK 1945 [Insp. Josiah Pettengill]
  • Up to the Hilt (n.) Mill 1945 [Insp. Barry; Connecticut]
  • Deadly Intent (n.) Mill 1946 [Insp. Barry; New York City, NY]

When I included Anne Rowe’s original name in my search, I found entries in WorldCat, Alibris, and this entry in The General Fiction Magazine Index, http://www.philsp.com/homeville/GFI/z54.htm:

“Rowe, Anne (Von Meibom) (1882-1961)  Born in Germany; married Leon Randall Rowe; died in Alameda, California.”

Al Hubin’s list contains one more title than WorldCat does. The WorldCat entries for each title show few holdings, which suggests these books are hard to find.

The local library unearthed a contemporary review of this book. Here is the citation:

“CURIOSITY KILLED A CAT. By Anne Rowe. 282 pp. New York: William Harrow & Co. $2. New York Times (1923-Current file); Jun 1, 1941; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times pg. BR13”

The reviewer states this is Rowe’s first mystery and hopes it is not her last.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Good Night, Sweet Prince by Carole Berry

Good Night, Sweet Prince (St. Martins, 1990) is the third amateur detective mystery by Carole Berry featuring Bonnie Jean Indermill, an office temporary worker in New York City. Eight titles were released in this series between 1987 and 1999. Like the John Putnam Thatcher mysteries by Emma Lathen before these books and the Dead End Job cozy mysteries by Elaine Viets after them, each story is set in a different industry. Part of the backstory, which stimulated my interest in them, gives insight into the industry’s day-to-day operations and the lives of the people who work in it.

Bonnie is as usual desperate for employment but not so desperate she agrees to work in an accounting firm, where everyone she saw was gray: their clothes, their faces, their personalities. So when the chance to support the fund-raising department of the Gotham Ballet came along, she jumps at it. She knows nothing about fund-raising but she can do data entry and that’s all that’s asked of her, initially. Working late one night, she is the only staff member in the office when Nikolai Koslov, a Russian ballet star who visited the corps of dancers earlier in the day, comes out of his hiding place and tells her he wants to defect. The ensuing uproar puts Bonnie in a spotlight she doesn’t want.

At first Nikolai’s presence in the ballet company delights the management and staff but he soon annoys and offends nearly everyone. When equipment mysteriously fails during a performance, fatally injuring him, there is no shortage of suspects, even though the police believe the KGB is responsible.

The employee infighting, one-upmanship, and backstabbing give the story an all-too-realistic aura of office life as I know it. After one particularly vicious battle Bonnie’s boss quits in a huff, leaving Bonnie responsible for a major donors’ banquet; the ensuing series of catastrophes is a high point of the book.

As usual in amateur detective stories, Bonnie counts a member of the local police force among her suitors. Tony LaMarca urges her to leave the investigation to professionals, and of course she ignores him. However, this particular romance has a twist not generally seen in cozy mysteries.

The additional subplots of cocaine use among the younger dancers and a stage mother who believes in her daughter’s career more than the daughter does lend a gritty sense of veracity. An engaging read.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson (Poisoned Pen Press, 2018) is the latest release in the British Library Crime Classics series. Originally published in 1932, this is the only mystery by the author, who was a Labour Member of Parliament much of her life, one of the first women to serve in that role. I am sure she was an effective representative for her constituents but her efforts could have as easily been directed into a string of well-done mysteries, had she chosen.

Post-war England desperately needs a loan and Georges Oissel, a reclusive multi-millionaire representing a consortium, has agreed in principle to extend the requested money but is making the details awkward. His long-ago friend from Canada, now the Home Secretary, is having dinner with him in one of the private dining rooms of the House of Commons to smooth over arrangements. The Secretary leaves his guest alone for a few minutes to attend the final vote on a matter of importance. Thus, when the Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary Robert West and a friend hear a gunshot from within the dining room at the same time that the division bell rings and Big Ben strikes the hour of nine, West, his friend, and a waiter rush in to the room to find the crumpled body of Oissel on the floor and no one else. Windows were locked and suicide appeared to be the only answer. Except the forensic evidence doesn’t add up, setting Scotland Yard a pretty locked room puzzle.

West serves as amateur investigator, helping Inspector Blackitt of the CID and protecting his Secretary, not known for his brains or his ability, from political fallout. Along the way he provides unconscious insight to the political milieu of the time. The financier’s charismatic granddaughter, a political news reporter, and other MPs are all noteworthy characters who contribute to the unfolding of the plot as well as to the sense of time and place.

The introduction by Rachel Reeves MP helped me understand much of the context around this period story, when women in politics were still rare. The author spells out working conditions for women in the House of Common, where female MPs were allowed and where they weren’t. This fascinating commentary makes the book worthwhile reading on its own, with a well-executed mystery on the side.