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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.