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.

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.