Friday’s Forgotten Book: Minute for Murder by Nicholas Blake

First, I have to say this is not really a forgotten book. It’s been in print one way or another ever since it was published more than 70 years ago.

I read Minute for Murder by Nicholas Blake (Collins, 1947) over the weekend. It is the eighth Nigel Strangeways and the first one Blake released after a hiatus during World War II. In this particular book, which takes place in the last months of the war, Strangeways leads the editorial unit of the fictional Ministry of Morale, much like Blake himself did during the war. I have to wonder just how much of this story is true. He pokes great fun at the Permanent Civil Servants. The bureaucracy is no match for the creative minds assembled for the war effort. My favorites are the writer who dates all of his internal correspondence using the liturgical calendar of the Church of England. Thus, a memo is dated “Tuesday before the Feast Day of St. Petronella, Virgin and Martyr.” This failure to follow the standard caused no end of consternation among the long-term civil servants.

The other most wonderful temporary civil servant is the one who got tired of the false incoming bomb alarms, which sent the staff hurtling down the stairs into the basement every other hour, only to come back 15 minutes later when no bombing occurred. His solution was to climb through a window onto a two-foot ledge jutting out from the building several stories above the ground and sit with his binoculars watching for German air planes. When he shouted, staff knew the alert was valid. HR became most unhappy with his activities, pointed out that this self-appointed duty was not what he was hired for, and threatened to track the time spent in this unsanctioned task and dock his pay. He responded by calculating the time wasted by all staff in leaving their desks for false bombing alerts to trundle downstairs and back again, then demanding to be paid for the money the Government saved through his efforts. The resulting interoffice correspondence was a source of great frustration to the Permanent Civil Servants and makes for hilarious reading.

At some point of course Blake had to get down to business and create a mystery. Here he offers one in which the secretary to the division head is poisoned in front of about a dozen people. She had been more or less engaged to someone in the department before he left for the Front, where after a time he was declared missing, presumed dead. As the war wound down, he returned home, quite alive and in fine fettle. During his absence, she became involved with the married division head, who could not make up his mind to leave his wife for his secretary. The approaching dissolution of the ministry meant that nearly everyone would lose their jobs, and their present living arrangements would no longer be tenable, thereby forcing the division head to make a choice.

Suspects included the returning ex-fiance, who was assumed to be wildly jealous, and the division head’s wife, who also was assumed to be consumed with bitterness. Strangeways is reluctant to participate in an investigation of the people he had been working with for years, some of whom had become his friends. An involved, layered tale ensues, demonstrating Blake’s time away from mystery writing in no way impaired his story-telling ability.

In Neil Nyren’s essay for CrimeReads, he cites this book as one of Blake’s three best.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Laughing Dog by Francis Vivian

The Laughing Dog by Arthur Ernest Ashley writing as Francis Vivian (Hodder & Stoughton, 1949) is the fifth mystery from Ashley/Vivian that features Inspector Gordon Knollis of New Scotland Yard. Here is another series being rescued from undeserved oblivion by Dean Street Press, to whom the mystery-reading world owes a debt of thanks. This particular volume has a helpful introduction from crime historian Curtis Evans, who tells us that Knollis appears in 10 of the 18 mysteries written by Vivian.

The story opens with Dr. Hugh Challoner vacationing in Algiers and visiting a quick sketch caricaturist/artist named Aubrey Highton, who draws the doctor as a laughing fox terrier. The doctor did not care for the finished portrait but agreed to help Highton find work when he visits England later in the year. Only days after Highton arrives in Sturton Lacey, Dr. Challoner is found dead in his home, where he saw patients. The last patient of the day, Mrs. Madeleine Burke, insists that the doctor was perfectly healthy, if somewhat distracted, when she left the consulting room close to 7:30 P.M. Dr. Challoner’s daughter and her fiancé were in another part of the house and did not hear anything worrying, due to the soundproofing between the doctor’s surgery and his living quarters. Highton had left just before Mrs. Burke, locking the door to the doctor’s office on his way out.

Inspector Knollis and his sergeant George Ellis undertake a lengthy investigation, including repeated interviews of and research on the only possible suspects: Highton, Mrs. Burke, the daughter, and the fiancée.

The first detail I noticed in this locked room mystery is that it offers maps of Dr. Challoner’s house and of the relevant section of the town in which the house is situated. Locations and the distances from the house to other destinations in the town play a significant role in the solution, so I was happy to see them. I also love maps for themselves, as they add a careful touch of realism to a wholly fictional universe.

I liked the main characters; the interplay between Knollis and Ellis is nicely done. The plot is carefully worked out, although I thought the story was protracted near the end for no useful purpose. The plot hinges on a point that another GA mystery I read recently used so perhaps I am a little biased because of it. At any rate, this book is a competent but not particularly exciting read. I like the characters enough to try another title in the series at some point.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Middle Temple Murder by J. S. Fletcher

Joseph Smith Fletcher (7 February 1863 – 30 January 1935) was an English journalist and author. He is known for his prodigious literary output. He wrote more than 230 books on a wide variety of subjects, both fiction and non-fiction (Source: Wikipedia). The Golden Age of Detection wiki credits him with 98 mysteries and 25 collections of short mystery fiction. The first was published in 1889 and the last was completed and released posthumously in 1937. The quality of his plots and his writing are not considered outstanding; I’ve seen the word “hack” used more than once when Fletcher is under discussion. For more on Fletcher, see Mike Grost’s thoughtful analysis on the GAD wiki page:

The Middle Temple Murder (Ward Lock, 1919) was Fletcher’s breakthrough novel; it is considered one of his best works. Grost states the plot expands on the one used in an earlier short story, which he believes was more successfully executed. The story opens with a young reporter named Spargo walking home from work and coming upon a police constable who’s just been advised of a murder in a nearby street in the Temple, the area of London largely given over to the practice of law. Spargo accompanies the police in hopes of a good story and he’s not disappointed. A man lies dead in front of one of the buildings; he has been stripped of all money, papers and identification. Spargo, with his newspaper’s blessing, involves himself with the police in first learning who the dead man is and then searching for his killer, all the while providing front-page stories for the paper.

The search takes him to a small market town a day’s train journey away from London, where he learns about an old trial for embezzlement and a couple of con artists who dealt in large-scale financial fraud. It proves to be the key to unraveling the true identity of the victim. Spargo returns to London to learn that someone else has been arrested for the murder, putting pressure on Spargo to save the defendant, whom he knows to be innocent.

I enjoyed this story. The plot is complicated enough to hold my attention, with plenty of twists and turns, perhaps more than one a little too coincidental. Mike Grost points out that Fletcher was fascinated by monetary chicanery and there’s a lot of it here. Much of it depended on the ability at the time to move two or three hundred miles away, change one’s name, and start over, which has been largely impossible for 40 or 50 years. No character development and no brilliant detective, instead a budding journalist who confers with the police and makes up his approach to investigation as he goes along. A nicely devious yarn firmly set in its time and place.

This review is based on a digitized version created from a physical book by a community of volunteers. The unusual cover is from another edition.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Case of Alan Copeland by Moray Dalton

Dean Street Press has decided beneficently to rescue Golden Age author Moray Dalton from undeserved obscurity and reprinted 10 of her books. We who are unfamiliar with this author have much to look forward to.

Katherine Mary Deville Dalton (1881-1963) fell into a life of crime, so to speak, after publishing women’s fiction. Her first mystery was released in 1924 and it was succeeded by 28 more, the last one in 1951. Most of them featured Scotland Yard Inspector Hugh Collier or private detective Hermann Glide.

The Case of Alan Copeland (Sampson Low, 1937; Dean Street Press, 2019) was one of her stand-alone stories, set in a village with all manner of sharply defined characters, many of them unlikeable. Alan Copeland is married to a woman some 15 years his senior, who bullies him relentlessly. The vicar’s niece Lydia comes to visit for a few days and the two fall hopelessly in love. They correspond after her return to London until Alan’s wife dies suddenly. They marry immediately and travel for months, then move back to the village. Anonymous letters to the police prompt an investigation that results in an exhumation order. An autopsy shows Alan’s wife died of arsenic poisoning, and some 18 months after her death, Alan is arrested for her murder. Both Alan’s solicitor and the private investigator the solicitor hired exert considerable effort on his behalf and uncover significant ammunition for his barrister, resulting in a lively courtroom drama.

The DSP reprint opens with an informative preface by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans, who compares Dalton, especially her later books, to Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham. The Case of Alan Copeland has long sections of text that I could easily have mistaken for bits from an Agatha Christie mystery. Of course the village settings are similar. Dalton’s characterization differs from Christie’s, though, in that unpleasantness in Christie’s characters is generally suggested or implied. There might be a raised eyebrow or a look askance among the village ladies when they want to convey disagreement or disapproval. Dalton’s characters, on the other hand, do not hesitate to let fly verbally as their inclinations take them. They are seriously nasty people and seem to take pride in their offensiveness.

The other difference, as Evans points out, is in Dalton’s willingness to incorporate relationships that fall outside societal norms into her tales. Both an extramarital affair and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy take place in this story. Neither generate the repercussions that might have been expected, as Evans observes. Christie dealt with these behavioral anomalies mostly by ignoring them. She might mention a servant “in trouble” but these things did not occur in the other classes. I can’t remember an instance of an extramarital fling in a Christie. Even the servants who went astray were single.

Evans mentions one of the reasons that Dalton fell into obscurity as possibly her failure to capture the U.S. readership. I am wondering if Dalton’s acknowledgement of atypical relationships may have contributed to that failure. The United States is the country of The Scarlet Letter and the Hays Code, after all, and the 1940s and 1950s were particularly strict about behavioral expectations. Individuals who conducted themselves outside established parameters were shunned or otherwise faced consequences that at least in this book did not occur. Fortunately in 2020 people are more tolerant.

I found this book well-written and soundly plotted with some nice surprises. The characters are clearly delineated and are entirely credible. I now understand the enthusiasm of Curtis Evans for this author and can only echo it in my recommendation of this author to readers of classic mysteries.