Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Emperor’s Snuffbox by John Dickson Carr

The Emperor’s Snuffbox by John Dickson Carr (Harper, 1942) is a dazzling display of plotting pyrotechnics. No locked room but a puzzle so tightly woven I had to read the explication twice before I fully understood all of the moving parts.

Eve Neill has finally convinced her cheating husband Ned Atwood to cooperate in a divorce. In conservative France where they are living in a resort area, there is every incentive for a woman to remain in a marriage but Eve has had it with Ned. She doesn’t even care about the potential for embarrassing publicity, she just wants him out of her life. Since they were married in France and the divorce action completed in France, there was little mention in the English papers to her great relief. After a few months Eve is bored and lonely and a little depressed when the stuffed shirt son Toby Lawes of the English expatriate family across the street begins to court her. His family kindly expresses happiness when she accepts his proposal of marriage, although her status as a divorcee shocks them a little.

The murder of the family patriarch, Sir Maurice Lawes, late one night, changes everything. Sitting up late admiring a new and expensive acquisition for his collection of tchotchkes, Sir Maurice is brutally and fatally attacked with a poker. The French police zero in on Eve, whose clothing has unexplained blood and who has no alibi. She also has no motive but that does not bother them. The French inspector calls in Dr. Dermot Kinross, an eminent English criminal psychologist who often works with the police, because he does not believe Eve is guilty. Dr. Kinross also decides Eve is not guilty and begins looking hard at the family of the victim, who after all were in the house at the time and had the easiest access. From that point on one startling plot twist after another unfolds.

All of the clues are available in this fair play mystery and I missed about half of them. Highly recommended for Golden Age fans.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: She Came Back by Patricia Wentworth

She Came Back by Patricia Wentworth (J.B. Lippincott, 1945) is the ninth mystery featuring Miss Silver, former governess and now modestly successful private investigator. The family of Lady Anne Jocelyn is stunned when Anne appears unexpectedly in her country home, more than three years after she was believed killed by Germans while she, her husband, a cousin, and others were making a desperate bid to escape France just after the invasion. Anne and the cousin had a strong family resemblance. Anne contends that the cousin was mistaken for her in the dark and now lies buried in the churchyard under Anne’s name.

Sir Philip Jocelyn was on the verge of marrying someone else and he is reluctant to welcome his wife home. He agrees to her request for six months to try to re-establish their marriage but he is not convinced that he should. Their relationship had been shaky before Anne’s supposed death and he does not expect their differences to be easily resolved. Complicating all of this is the fact the money in the marriage belongs to Anne, not Philip. Unless she remains dead, he is more or less her pensioner. Then a former nanny of the dead cousin turns up dead herself, on a road no one expected her to be on and Scotland Yard is called in. In no time at all Sergeant Frank Abbott is consulting Miss Silver.

This is the third Miss Silver mystery I’ve read in which someone who is thought to be dead appears again, very much alive. The other two are The Case of William Smith and Miss Silver Deals with Death. All three are set during the confusion and upheaval of World War II, when communications, such as they were, were disrupted and people could disappear easily if they wanted to, and sometimes even if they didn’t want to. It’s hard to imagine doing that now, with DNA kits being sold by mail and international databases of fingerprints easily accessible to any law enforcement representative. These books are especially intriguing to me, as they clearly delineate a very different time and place that actually wasn’t that long ago. For fans of traditional mysteries and of mysteries set during World War II.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Corpses in Enderby by George Bellairs

George Bellairs is a byword in the world of classic British crime fiction. The pseudonym of Harold Blundell (1902-1982), a Manchester bank manager as well as a freelance journalist, he published 57 popular classic police procedural mysteries featuring Inspector Thomas Littlejohn of Scotland Yard between 1941 and 1980. Corpses in Enderby (John Gifford, 1954) is 22nd in the series.

The small town of Enderby is stunned when Ned Bunn, a prosperous and unpleasant merchant, is shot in front of his store one night. He’d just thrown his assistant out for courting Bunn’s 40-year-old daughter, after gleefully announcing his intent to foreclose on the mortgage he held on the store next door. Since the assistant was the only one known to be nearby, the local police investigator rushes to pin the crime on him. His superior the Chief Constable of the county is not so sure and calls in Scotland Yard for a second look.

Inspector Littlejohn and Sergeant Cromwell arrive in Enderby as the large and decidedly peculiar Bunn family gathers to attend the funeral and more importantly to learn how the decedent’s considerable assets were to be distributed. As Littlejohn soon learns, a trust established by the previous generation was dissolved with Ned Bunn’s death, and as a result several individuals in the family will inherit thousands of pounds.

This strong motive for murder leads Littlejohn to look closely at the whereabouts of family members at the time of the shooting. Interviewing most of them is painful, as they are more than a little eccentric, and most of them cheerfully dissemble without a qualm. Bellairs created a set of comical characters in the Bunns who are entertaining in their horridness.

But the Bunns aren’t the only ones in the story who are so awful they are funny. The landlord of the inn where Littlejohn and Cromwell are staying and his wife treat the policemen to a long-running domestic drama that unexpectedly resolves itself just as Littlejohn hones in on the culprit and could do without the distraction.

The characters and their antics tend to usurp the investigation in this story and downplay the iniquity of the crimes. I plan to read a few more in this series to see if this is a pattern. Fortunately many of them have been released in ebook format and are more readily available than they would have been 10 years ago. For devotees of classic crime fiction.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Through the Wall by Patricia Wentworth

Through the Wall by Patricia Wentworth (Lippincott, 1950) is the 17th (according to www.stopyourekillingme.com and Wikipedia) or 19th (Amazon and GoodReads) mystery featuring Miss Maud Silver, former governess and current successful private investigator. While each book references her former profession, I have yet to find the book, if one exists, that explains exactly how she made that transition. It would be a story well worth reading.

In this outing Martin Brand takes his revenge on the relatives that have lived off his generosity for years by leaving his substantial estate to an unknown niece. Marion Brand has been working in a real estate office, quietly supporting herself and a sickly sister, along with the sister’s layabout husband, and had no notion that she had a wealthy relative until a solicitor contacts her.

She is stunned to learn about her inheritance. While she comes to terms with just how considerably her circumstances have changed, the layabout husband makes plans for the expenditure of the fortune she’s inherited, confident that Marion will divide the money with her sister. The enraged relatives are left without the proverbial shilling, including a home. Marion has also inherited Uncle Martin’s house near the sea, which is actually two homes with connecting doors. He advises her in his will to re-establish the division between the two houses, as evicting the relatives will cause more trouble than she is likely prepared for.

While living next door to antagonistic people will be awkward, Marion loses no time in packing up and moving into her half of the house, where she hopes her sister will grow stronger. One of the people in the other half of the house when she arrives is a visiting actress and singer who is being blackmailed. She consults Miss Silver but declines to take her advice to go to the police. When the actress is found murdered a few days later, wearing Marion’s coat, the police ask themselves if the actress was killed because of something in her life or if she was killed because her murderer thought she was Marion Brand?

Fortunately Miss Silver and her favorite Scotland Yard detectives are on the case. I usually have some idea of the culprit in these books but this story had several unpleasant people and I would have been happy to see any of them led away in handcuffs. This series is my current comfort read. I have read and re-read Agatha Christie’s novels so often that I can quote from my favorites, so there is little point in visiting them yet again. This title filled the need for an enjoyable way to spend a few hours. Recommended for fans of Golden Age detection.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Hunt with the Hounds by Mignon G. Eberhart

Mignon G. Eberhart, 1899-1996, was a prolific author of mysteries and romantic suspense. Her long career began in 1929 with a mystery featuring Sara/Sally Keate, a nurse in New York, who was Eberhart’s only series character. Keate featured in seven books. The rest of Eberhart’s prodigious output consisted of 53 stand-alone novels and several collections of short stories. She received the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America in 1971.

Hunt with the Hounds (Random House, 1950) was released about midway in Eberhart’s publishing career. This nice locked-room mystery is set in the small town of Bedford in central Virginia, in fox hunting country. It opens with the acquittal of Jed Bailey, who has been on trial for the murder of his wife Ernestine. The eyewitness testimony of Sue Poore, who said she saw Jed sitting in his car while she was at the front door of the house ringing the doorbell when the fatal shots were fired inside, was key to his exoneration. Jed had been openly pursuing Sue despite his married state, to the dismay of everyone around him including Sue. Since Sue and Jed were the only people known to be in the vicinity at the time Ernestine was killed, after the trial the police focus their attention on proving her to be the killer. Sue is utterly taken aback and her family and friends, including the local police chief who has known Sue all her life, do their best to show the state police captain he is mistaken.

The action unfolds against the backdrop of fox hunting, which is taken very seriously by the area residents, who ride to hounds nearly every day during the season. A fair amount of detail about fox hunting is included but not as much as is found in the Sister Jane Arnold mysteries by Rita Mae Brown. Mostly what becomes apparent is the long-buried resentments and rivalries of people who grew up together in an area where social status is a major consideration, so people hold on to it by any means at all. Eberhart cleverly diverts suspicion in first one direction, then another, until the final revelation in the last chapter. Of interest to mystery readers who value careful plots and characterization and small town settings.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth

The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth (Viking, 1974) is the third of 18 thrillers from this reliable author of political intrigue and quite possibly my favorite. It is easy to forget about Forsyth’s earlier books because his stories are always set in the present or the immediate future. Re-visiting them after several years forces the reader to recall long-gone political crises, which have generally faded in the light of new calamities.

“Cat” Shannon was a mercenary fresh out of the Angolan war of independence. He was at loose ends in London when mining magnate Sir James Manson approached him and wanted to hire him to overthrow the government of a small African country. The task intrigued him, as well as the open-ended budget; just what Manson intended to do with the little third-world backwater also interested Shannon greatly, and Manson wasn’t saying.

While Shannon sent word to his friends that he had work for them and developed a comprehensive plan for a coup, he also did a little research on Sir James. He learned that Manson had a mining report from the small country of interest, showing significant deposits of valuable minerals. He also learned that the final report to the current ruler of the country had been altered to reduce the size of the deposits and increase the estimated difficulty of extraction. It was obvious Sir James intended to exploit the backwards nation for his own benefit. This plan didn’t sit right with Shannon, who, despite being a mercenary, had his own set of personal ethics. Thus one of the most satisfying stories of double-dealing I have ever seen begins.

While there are shootouts and bloodbaths aplenty, what entertained me the most in later re-readings of this book is the detailed planning of the takeover. I doubt that Cat Shannon or Frederick Forsyth are aware of the Project Management Institute or its purpose, but their plan could have come from a senior fellow of PMI. Cat identified the goal, the actions necessary to reach the goal, a timeline to complete them, the critical path, dependencies, risks with mitigations, and personnel assignments, in short, a classic project plan. It isn’t often that my world of mystery reading intersects with my world of program management, hence my fascination.

Forsyth, who received CWA’s Diamond Dagger Award in 2012, announced his retirement in 2016 and then released another thriller in 2018. It is not clear if another is in the works or if he really will stop writing fiction. In either case, his earlier books are imminently re-readable almost indefinitely.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Music Tells All by E. R. Punshon

One of my great finds last year was the prolific Golden Age author Ernest Robertson Punshon (1872-1956). Writing as E. R. Punshon, he released 35 books featuring Bobby Owen, an Oxford-educated policeman who worked his way up through the Scotland Yard ranks. He wrote another five featuring Sergeant Bell, a plodding, lugubrious London detective who nevertheless always managed to resolve his cases. Still another 20 books were stand-alone mysteries.  Dorothy L. Sayers regarded Punshon’s work highly, saying that “all his books have that elusive something which makes them count as literature, so that we do not gulp them furiously down to get to the murderer lurking at the bottom, but roll them slowly and deliciously upon the tongue like old wine.” While I don’t like them quite that much, I enjoy reading Punshon, sometimes more for his portrayal of England during the first half of the 20th century than for his plots, which are not always as solid as one could hope, although some reviewers compare him to John Dickson Carr.

In Music Tells All, published by Victor Gollancz in 1948, Bobby Owen in his 24th outing and Sergeant Bell, promoted now to Inspector, team up on a case that moves back and forth between a rural village and London. The story starts with Bobby and his wife Olive searching for a place to live. She responds to an advertisement for a home at a comfortable distance from his job at Scotland Yard. Expecting a crowd of competing seekers, they rush out only to find a quiet village with a house that seems perfect. The landlord names a rental fee far less than they expected in this time of extreme scarcity and they jump to sign the lease. They soon learn that an odd neighbor is given to playing her piano tempestuously at all hours. Everyone in the village gives Miss Bellamy a wide berth, except for their landlord who seems to be simultaneously fascinated and repulsed.

Bobby is distracted by a jewelry heist in London which involves a wild car chase through the city streets. One of the rings from the robbery is found in the village where Bobby just moved and the body of a stranger shows up in a nearby dismantled bomb shelter, bringing in Inspector Bell. The obvious suspect is a chauffeur who disappeared about the same time but several of the neighbors warrant closer inspection. Bobby doesn’t understand how his new village is tied to the robbery but can see that it is. Poor Olive is constantly searching for food for the two of them.

There aren’t enough clues to suggest the actual culprit and the motivation behind the crimes so the ending requires too much explanation, but all in all this is a good story, describing as it does life in post-war England and the citizenry determined to make do and get by.

An earlier version of this review appeared on Kevin’s Corner, https://kevintipplescorner.blogspot.com/2017/08/aubrey-hamilton-reviews-music-tells-all.html, on 21 August 2017.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Suddenly While Gardening by Elizabeth Lemarchand

Suddenly While Gardening (Walker, 1978) by Elizabeth Lemarchand (1906-2000) is the 10th mystery featuring  Detective-Chief Superintendent Tom Pollard of New Scotland Yard and his partner Detective Inspector Toye. On a well-deserved vacation to a rural village where his aunt lives, Pollard is happily soaking in local color in the form of a restored path used for religious pilgrimages centuries ago. He happens upon a walking group who have found a newish skeleton on the path. He has no choice but to take charge until the local authorities arrive. When they throw up their hands and call in Scotland Yard, of course Pollard is selected to investigate since he already knows the area and its people and was first on the crime scene.

One of the village residents objected strenuously to the re-establishment of the path, as it runs near his property. He is eccentric and offensive enough to draw attention to himself as a likely perpetrator until his absence from the area during the critical timeframe was firmly determined. Then an anonymous caller reports the car of a well-known young architect was seen near the site. Pollard patiently sifts through reports and interviews and about two-thirds through the story links the death he’s investigating to an earlier death that was believed to be accidental, which rearranges the supposed motive for the killing and the list of suspects entirely.

This is a pleasant classic police procedural set in an historically interesting area of England. What I was beginning to consider an unremarkable tale turned grim late in the book and I was riveted for the remainder of the story.

Elizabeth Lemarchand released 17 Pollard and Toye police procedurals between 1967 and 1988. These books are recommended for lovers of Catherine Aird’s Calleshire Chronicles and Dorothy Simpson’s Inspector Luke Thanet mysteries.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: So Pretty a Problem by Francis Duncan

So Pretty a Problem by Francis Duncan (John Long, 1947) is one of the Mordecai Tremaine mysteries, either the third (Amazon) or the fifth (Stop, You’re Killing Me). Tremaine is a retired tobacconist whose choice of leisure reading is romance stories and whose hobby is criminology. He’s on vacation in Cornwall with his friend Chief Inspector Jonathan Boyce of Scotland Yard, where he encounters the famous and controversial artist Adrian Carthallow with his wife Helen. Tremaine had met the pair briefly earlier and slipped into a chatty renewed acquaintance with them and their circle easily enough.

The Carthallows live in a fantastic home built on a piece of land that broke away from the rest of Cornwall years ago. On the ocean-facing side is a steep cliff and on the land side is a bridge that’s highly visible. So when Adrian Carthallow turns up dead of a gunshot wound and Helen insists first it was an accident and then self-defense, the local inspector is at a loss to do anything but arrest her, as neither of her stories is consistent with the physical evidence, and no one else was seen to enter the house. Yet he does not think she is guilty of murder, so Tremaine undertakes his own investigation.

The book is set up in three chronological parts: the first is the time immediately before and after the death, the second describes the relationships of the main characters and the events of the several weeks before the shooting, and the third the detailed investigation and identification of the culprit. I found the second section a bit of a slog. I read Murder for Christmas about 18 months ago and don’t remember being bored with it but I was definitely bored with parts of this book. It could easily have been reduced by 50 pages without affecting the story line or characterization or backstory.

While the plot was clever, the setting exquisite, and the characters fresh, I find I am not quite as enthusiastic about tackling a third one in the series as I was when I started this volume. Cover art from 2018 Sourcebooks reprint.

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.