Friday's Forgotten Book: Unholy Writ by David Williams

Unholy Writ by David Williams (Williams Collins Sons, 1976) is the first of 17 mysteries published between 1976 and 1993 featuring Mark Treasure, Vice-Chairman of Grenwood Phipps & Co., merchant bankers of London, and his actress wife Molly. Treasure is clearly cousin to John Putnam Thatcher, Senior Vice-President of the Sloan Guaranty Trust bank in New York. Anyone who has read the Emma Lathen series will recognize many of the same themes transported across the Atlantic.

The book opens with a letter dated 19 October 1644 from a landed Royalist to his wife, explaining where he hid the family valuables as well as a manuscript by Will Shakespeare about Arden Forest. The letter adjures the wife to hasten with their son to a place of safety while the writer continues to fight for the King against the traitor Cromwell.

The timeframe moves to the present where Mark Treasure is looking forward to a weekend in the country near Northampton after bank meetings have been cancelled unexpectedly. Treasure is a cousin to Sir Arthur Moonlight, the former owner of Mitchell Hall, who has come to regret allowing George Scarbuck, leader of the right-wing Forward Britain Movement, to acquire the white elephant. Treasure is enlisted to arrange to buy the estate back, even though doing so will bankrupt Sir Arthur.

Quite a lot goes on in this compact story. The parish grave digger disappears just before a funeral and his body is found in a burning boat miles away, bringing in the local police. An explosion in the middle of the night causes even more havoc. Scarbuck’s method of circumventing the strict laws on foreign workers — bringing in Filipino natives “on holiday” while they actually do manual labor for pennies a day —  gets a lot of verbiage. One of them escapes on a motorcycle and leads Treasure and the police on a midnight chase through the country. An Oxford grad student working on her doctoral dissertation searches for evidence that Shakespeare’s play As You Like It was initially staged in the gardens at Mitchell Hall. The dry and understated narrative results in some amusing scenes throughout and a hilarious one on the golf course.

Architectural features abound. Every parapet, column, roof, balustrade, etc. is described in exhaustive and exhausting detail. Some of the plot hinges on the construction of specific buildings. I was convinced the author was an architect and was quite surprised to learn he was an advertising executive before he took up mystery writing. Simon Brett wrote an informative obituary about Williams, which can be found here: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/oct/02/guardianobituaries.advertising

Review and photo based on the 2002 reprint by Chivers Press. Originally published on Kevin’s Corner, https://kevintipplescorner.blogspot.com/, on 19 March 2018.

Friday's Forgotten Book: Murder Can't Wait by Richard Lockridge

Frances Davis Lockridge (1896-1963) and Richard Lockridge (1899-1982) were journalists known mostly for their Mr. and Mrs. North mysteries. About 70 books form the lavish Lockridge oeuvre, released between 1936 and 1980. In addition to the books about the Norths and Lt. Bill Weigand of the New York City police, the Lockridges also created stand-alone mysteries and mysteries with Nathan Shapiro, a police detective who worked for Bill Weigand; with Bernie Simmons, an assistant district attorney in New York City; with Paul Lane, a detective in the New York City 19th Precinct; and with Inspector Merton Heimrich of the New York State Police Bureau of Criminal Identification, stationed in upstate New York. Of them all, the books featuring Lt./Capt./Inspector Heimrich are my favorites.

Lt. Heimrich first appears in a North mystery, Death of a Tall Man (1946) and then features in his own book the following year. The Lockridges liked to work their characters hard: Paul Lane pops up in several of the Bernie Simmons books. Professor Emeritus Walter Brinkley shows up in multiple series. Nathan Shapiro appears in Murder Can’t Wait (Lippincott, 1964), billed as a Merton Heimrich story. Bill Weigand emerges briefly, as does Professor Brinkley and his servant Harry Washington.

In Murder Can’t Wait, Shapiro has been assigned to investigate allegations that a point-fixing scandal is brewing at Dyckman University. The police have been approached by Stuart Fleming of North Wellwood, Putnam County, with information. He regrets being unable to visit the police due to a broken leg and asks that they send a representative to receive details. Shapiro drives north from New York, bemoaning the unruly flora and fauna of the countryside. He is a city man through and through, and he doesn’t care for noisy birds and untrimmed grass and unclipped shrubbery. And the curving rural roads leave him in despair. He checks in with the local police to let them know he’s on their turf and to ask where Fleming lives. He’s promptly escorted into Heimrich’s office, where he learns that Fleming was killed earlier that day.

Shapiro’s news creates a larger pool of possible culprits. The local golf pro was upset about the attention he believed Fleming was giving to the golf pro’s pretty and much younger wife. He was known to drink too much and to be quarrelsome. The police were very much interested in his whereabouts at the time of Fleming’s death. However, if someone found Fleming’s plans to report the point-fixing scheme troublesome, as was likely, then that someone had to be identified, located, and interviewed.

As always, Heimrich is thorough and his colleague Charlie Forniss knows people in just the right places to provide background information on some of the characters. Shapiro is diverted into supporting the murder investigation. The interaction between Professor Brinkley and his housekeeper is as always delightful. Highly recommended for lovers of police procedurals and character-driven stories.

Friday's Forgotten Book: The Shakespeare Murders by A.G. MacDonell

Archibald Gordon Macdonell (1895 – 1941) was a versatile writer. His most famous book was England, Their England (1933), for which he is remembered today. Its description of England between the wars, especially of a village cricket match, is considered a classic representation of English humor. He also wrote stage reviews, a historical study of Napoleon, comical plays, fiction, and six largely forgotten mysteries published under the name of Neil Gordon. See The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, volume 4, page 643, for a complete list of his works.

The Shakespeare Murders (Henry Holt, 1933) is one of the forgotten mysteries. It was popular enough at the time to be the basis of two movies, The Third Clue, released in 1934, and The Claydon Treasure Mystery, 1938. It’s very much a story of the 1930s. Peter Kerrigan is the leading sleuth. Kerrigan is a chatty gentleman adventurer with a fuzzy understanding of the boundary between what is legal and what is not, similar to a personable Simon Templar.

Kerrigan sees a pickpocket expertly extract a wallet from an abstracted gentleman walking down the street and on impulse steals the wallet back and follows the owner to return it. The owner is anxious about his brother, and Kerrigan has nothing better to do just then than to follow up on the missing brother. It turns out the brother has disappeared from his librarian job at Marsh Manor, cataloging the extensive collection for Lord Claydon, who lived quietly outside the rural town of Bicester. When Kerrigan arrives at Marsh Manor, he meets Inspector Fleming, whom he previously encountered in Murder in Earl’s Court (1931). Fleming is there to investigate the death of the librarian who replaced the vanished brother.

Kerrigan invites himself in to meet Lord Claydon, his daughter, her fiancé, his daughter’s friend, an art expert hired to appraise the paintings in the house, and a couple of gentlemen whom Kerrigan can’t quite figure out. He soon learns that a previous Lord Claydon was believed to have hidden a treasure of some kind in the house and the family is anxious to locate it. They believe the murdered librarian had found some clue to its whereabouts. Kerrigan’s elastic morality encourages him to look for it.

There follows a Keystone Kop sort of assault in the library late one night, which would have been amusing if it had not resulted in another murder. Inspector Fleming was on-site but unable to stop the second killing. Thugs from America who are associates of a known criminal show up, also expressing interest in the treasure. In the meantime, Lord Claydon’s aunt, an outspoken lady, arrives and she teams up with Kerrigan.

The story careens back and forth between frivolity and thuggery with a marginally reasonable solution.

Review based on the electronic version at www.fadedpage.com. Cover from the Fonthill Media 2015 reprint.

Friday's Forgotten Book: The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude

Ernest Carpenter Elmore (1901–1957) was an English theatre producer and director who wrote more than 35 novels, 30 of which were crime fiction published under the pseudonym John Bude. The rest were released under his name. Writing as John Bude, most of the mysteries were led by Inspector William Meredith. The first two Merediths appeared in 1935 and 1936, The Lake District Murder and The Sussex Downs Murder. They have been reprinted by the British Library. Two other crime novels featured Inspector Green and two more featured Inspector Sherwood. He also wrote some stand-alone mysteries, the first of which was The Cornish Coast Murder (Skeffington, 1935).

The Reverend Dodd, Vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Cliff, and Dr. Dodd, of the village Boscawen in Cornwall, meet every Monday for dinner and to divvy up the books received from the lending library at Greystoke. They each take three and then exchange them midweek, shipping them back over the next weekend and submitting a new list of requests. They were reviewing this week’s delivery–an Edgar Wallace, an Agatha Christie, a J.S. Fletcher, a Farjeon, a Freeman Wills-Croft, and a Dorothy L. Sayers—when the telephone urgently summons the doctor to the home of Julius Tregarthan, who his niece reports as having been murdered.

While Tregarthan was a Parish Councillor, a church-goer, president of local clubs, a justice of the peace on the Greystoke Bench, and a generous patron of local charities, he was also subject to frequent bouts of ill temper, and he was generally disliked by those who knew him. He and his niece were known to be at odds over her relationship with a man new to the village, who moved in a few years previously and who was engaged in writing a novel. Tregarthan was thought to deal with his tenants unfairly and had been harsh with those brought up before him on charges while he was acting as JP. In addition, his housekeeper had seen him arguing with someone she did not recognize in the garden before dinner. In short, there is any number of possible suspects for Inspector Bigswell’s consideration.

The vicar is delighted to have a real-life mystery to use his deductive skills on and he involves himself as much as the inspector allows. The identification of a culprit brings him to a halt, realizing that a fictional mystery is quite different from a real-life mystery in which he knows all of the players.

Bude’s writing style is pleasant but not dramatic, especially in its evocative description of Cornwall. The book is unhurried while its momentum does not flag in its execution of the plot. I will be reading more of his work.

This review is based on the ebook version available at http://www.fadedpage.com.

Friday's Forgotten Book: There Came Both Mist and Snow by Michael Innes

There Came Both Mist and Snow by Michael Innes (Victor Gollancz, 1940) is the sixth mystery with Inspector John Appleby, who doesn’t appear in this mannered story of an upper class family until almost midway. The tale is told from the perspective of Arthur Ferryman, a successful novelist, who loves Belrive Priory, the family estate in northern England, more than anyone else. 

Christmas is approaching and the family converges on Belrive, a gorgeous property with a mansion, large park, and medieval ruins. The rest of the visiting family is banker Wilfred, headmaster Cecil, father and son portrait painters Hubert and Geoffrey, mystery writer Lucy, and poetry reviewer Anne. The exquisite setting is marred, however, by a cotton mill on one side, a busy highway on another, and a brewery on another. The night view, which should be moonlit or nearly completely dark, is instead one of an enormous animated electrical sign that advertises the brewery’s wares.

In addition to these changes around the estate, Arthur is alarmed to find upon his arrival that his cousin Basil, the seventh Baronet of Belrive Priory, has built a shooting range on the grounds and that all of the family has armed themselves with pistols to try it out. Most of them have no experience with guns and little skill, resulting in shots that go wildly astray.

An even greater cause for dismay is learning that cousin Basil intends to sell the priory to the brewer in order to fund an expedition to the Antarctic. The gathering was largely to tell the family of his decision and to celebrate one last Christmas in the mansion. It also marked the event of Basil and his nephew Wilfrid speaking for the first time in more than 10 years. No one knows the cause of their original disagreement and no one seems likely to find out now.

The family is scattered throughout the house and grounds during the hour before dinner, i.e., no one has an alibi, when Wilfrid is shot in Basil’s study. The discovery is made just before Inspector Appleby presents himself as an invited dinner guest. The local police are delighted to hand the problem off to a representative of Scotland Yard, not wanting to arrest a member of the prominent family.

Appleby wonders if Wilfrid was mistakenly shot instead of Basil. The entire family treats each other with faint malice and a case can be made for the shooting of either Basil or Wilfrid by one family member or another. Appleby worries about Basil’s safety until a culprit can be identified.

A classic drawing room gathering of all the suspects takes place with the case against each of them outlined. The actual resolution however strains credulity. An interesting read but not one of Appleby’s strongest cases.

My Favorite Books of 2019

After some effort I managed to sort my reading in 2019 enough to identify 20 books that I really liked. Some of them reflect my renewed interest in Golden Age authors. In alphabetical order by the author’s last name, here they are.

The Shameless by Ace Atkins, 2019 – A cold case grabs Quinn Colson’s attention in Tibbelah County, Mississippi, where he continues to fight the local crime syndicate and resist the pressure of the backcountry politicians. The latest in an excellent series, part police procedural, part Southern noir.

Wolf Pack by C.J. Box, 2019 – The nineteenth book about Joe Pickett, game warden in Wyoming, where someone is herding wildlife with drones, causing stampedes and unnecessary injuries. He teams up with a female game warden, one of the few in the state, to track the malefactors down. Near the end the book gallops headlong into uncontrolled and unexpected violence. Publishers Weekly starred review.

Fogland Point by Doug Burgess, 2018 – An unusual story about a death that could be an accident or it might be a homicide, against a background of family and long-time loyalties in a small town. The whipped cream here is a poltergeist who does housework. This book should have received more attention from critics and readers. Starred review from Publishers Weekly.

The Emperor’s Snuffbox by John Dickson Carr, 1942 – None of the locked room puzzles for which Carr is justly famous but nonetheless a dazzling display of plotting expertise with the clues plainly visible for the reader, if the reader can find them. Possibly the tightest plot I can remember. A fine, fine mystery.

The Defense by Steve Cavanagh, 2016 – The first book about Eddie Flynn, former conman, former lawyer, and recovering alcoholic. To stave off a threat to his family, Eddie resurrects all of his rusty swindler’s tricks and calls on the people he knew in his other life for help, including his childhood friend, now the head of a Mafia crime family. An original and appealing character and an excellent plot. Publishers Weekly starred review.

A Bitter Feast by Deborah Crombie, 2019 – Book 18 about Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid, Scotland Yard detectives, who visit the Cotswolds for what was supposed to be a relaxing weekend in the gorgeous countryside. Instead, a car accident and two fatalities complicate their lives and the small village’s. A series this old could be expected to lapse a bit but each entry is as good as the previous ones. Booklist starred review.

Wyatt by Garry Disher, 2011 – Wyatt is Australia’s answer to Parker. Planning a jewelry heist with friends is something Wyatt doesn’t like to do but he needs a score. The job goes sideways and Wyatt is catapulted into escape mode while he works out what went wrong. Starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly.

A Murder Unmentioned by Sulari Gentill, 2019 – The sixth in the historical series about Rowland Sinclair, a 1930s Australian artist from a wealthy family. In this installment the background surrounding the tension between Rowland and his brother is resolved, as well as the mystery of their father’s death. As usual, the politics of the time are front and center.

Invisible by Andrew Grant, 2019 – Another anti-hero who goes after the rental building owners in New York for property repairs and tries to figure out why valid criminal cases keep getting thrown out for lack of evidence. The janitorial staff’s answer to child care is particularly appealing. Publishers Weekly starred review.

Nighttown by Tim Hallinan, 2018 – Junior Bender’s latest foray into burglary, this time to steal an old doll from a house due to be torn down. The payment is absurd for the job so he knows something is wrong but he needs the money, so…. As always, Junior is a delight. One of my favorite contemporary crime characters. Publishers Weekly and Booklist starred reviews.

Joe Country by Matt Herron, 2019 – The sixth book in the acclaimed Slough House series. where failed spies are sent to stay out of the way. The newest recruit is determined to find out who set him up, and the other residents are acting out their problems more than usual. Dark, witty, compulsive reading. Publishers Weekly starred review.

The Rule of Law by John Lescroart, 2019 – A positively delicious entry in one of the few series I still collect. After making fun for years of Phyllis, the assistant Dismas Hardy inherited when he took over the law firm, she suddenly becomes a real person with real problems and in urgent need of legal help.

The Verge Practice by Barry Maitland, 2003 – The seventh of the Inspector Brock/Sergeant Kolla Scotland Yard police procedurals involving the disappearance of an internationally famous architect. Australian Maitland was an architect himself, so the business parts of the book are well-informed. A complicated, layered plot with a surprise ending. These books continue to be hard to find in the U.S.

Renting Silence by Mary Miley, 2016 – The third of the Roaring Twenties mysteries set in Golden Age Hollywood. Script girl Jessie has a murky past so she welcomes the opportunity to blend in among the crowds necessary to keep the film industry moving. She rubs elbows with the famous and the soon-to-be famous, including Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who call on her amateur investigative skills to keep their studio out of the newspapers.

The Last Act by Brad Parks, 2019 – A stand-alone thriller with original characters and an innovative plot. Juvenile actor Tommy Jump has come to the end of his acting career and he’s looking for the next place to land when he is offered $75,000 to enter a minimum-security prison under an assumed name for a short time to retrieve evidence for the FBI. Of course it’s not quite that simple. Library Journal starred review.

Arrest the Bishop? by Winifred Peck, 1949 – An early historical mystery, written in the late 1940s but set in 1920, just after the end of the Great War. A classic Golden Age setting of country manor near Christmas with plenty of suspects and an obnoxious victim. Only one of three mysteries by Peck, whose brother was Ronald Knox, the famous Golden Age mystery author.

Light It Up by Nick Petrie, 2018 – The third outing of and my introduction to Peter Ash, a PTSD-ridden veteran. He agrees to provide security for a cannabis firm in Denver and in no time at all is fighting to elude trigger-happy robbers. The shootout with his escape down a mountain is one of the most memorable scenes of my 2019 reading. Kirkus starred review.

Paper Son by SJ Rozan, 2019 – A most welcome return of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. This time they leave their usual haunts in New York for the deep South where Lydia has family she didn’t know about. The history about Chinese immigrants serves as an unusual backdrop to their investigation. Starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly.

The Crime at the Noah’s Ark by Molly Thynne, 1931 – Only one of six mysteries by Thynne, set at Christmas at an isolated inn, where snowbound travelers have sought refuge. One of the more unpleasant members of the group is murdered while the fabulous jewels of another disappear. No one gets any sleep as they guard the many exits against possible intruders. A complicated plot with some great characters.

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson, 1932 – One of the reprints from the British Library Crime Classics series, this is the only mystery by Wilkinson, who was a Labour Member of Parliament much of her life, one of the first women to serve in that role. An intriguing view of women in politics during the time as well as a well-executed mystery story.