Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Jacob Street Mystery by R. Austin Freeman

Richard Austin Freeman (1862-1943) was an English doctor who created the fictional forensic scientist Dr John Thorndyke. Freeman was born in London and received a medical degree from Middlesex Hospital Medical College. He moved to the Gold Coast of Africa to work but returned to England after seven years. He began writing fiction in 1902. His work has been exhaustively analyzed. See for instance the Classic Mystery Blog: https://classicmystery.blog/ and the Golden Age Detection website: http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7930620/Freeman%2C%20R%20Austin. See also Mike Grost’s essay: http://mikegrost.com/freeman.htm.

His last full-length Thorndyke novel was The Jacob Street Mystery (Hodder & Stoughton, 1942), published in the U.S. as The Unconscious Witness (Dodd, Mead, 1942). Interestingly enough, Thorndyke does not make an appearance in this book until about two-thirds through. In its leisurely beginning landscape artist Tom Pedley is introduced. Living quietly in a small studio Pedley keeps largely to himself and focuses on his work. Almost immediately Thorndyke’s laboratory assistant Mr. Polton appears and through him Pedley gives a bit of information he didn’t realize he had about an unsolved murder.

Awhile later a Mrs. Schiller moves nearby and makes a determined assault on Pedley’s time and attention, then transfers her attention to one of Pedley’s customers, an African lawyer who is sitting for his portrait. They spend a good deal of time together. Mrs. Schiller goes to visit friends unexpectedly and is not heard of again. A few weeks later the body of an unknown woman is found in her deserted rooms. And here, after about a third of the book, is where the usual activities associated with a mystery begin.

Ordinarily I would have been muttering under my breath about the slowness of the pace, if I was even still reading, but the long lead-in is pleasant. The details about oil painting and Pedley’s solitary life are so authentic I suspect they come from first-hand experience. I had never heard of a haybox, from which Pedley extracts his meals, so that was cause for a bit of research.

Freeman’s representation of a man of color is intriguing, as the African is given a position of responsibility and is treated with great respect. The friendship and possible romance between the married Caucasian woman and African man is unusual for the time. Pedley is concerned about the outcome but no other character mentions it.

Despite its general readability, this last Thorndyke has some peculiarities that grated. For instance, some form of the word “crinkle” is used in association with Mr. Polton eight times. Yes, I counted. He crinkles shyly or knowingly or slyly or deferentially or cautiously. The investigation at times stretched credulity. A path covered with leaves that still shows footsteps clearly weeks afterward is hard to envision, yet much is made of it. Nonetheless, I rate this story highly, mostly because of the characters and creative plot. Readers who enjoy courtroom fireworks or criminal forensics will especially want to look it up.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Mrs. McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie

Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (Collins, 1952) is one of my favorite mysteries from Agatha Christie (1890-1976). Not forgotten exactly, more like overlooked in the prodigious output from this peerless author, it is the 28th volume in which Hercule Poirot, the retired Belgian policeman turned private investigator, appears. By this time Christie had grown quite tired of Poirot, about whom she’d been writing for 30 years, and she let her annoyance show clearly in the story, one of the reasons I love it so much.

Soon-to-retire Superintendent Spence, whose path had crossed Poirot’s in their long careers, approaches him with a request to investigate a crime that everyone thinks has been solved. Spence led the police work that resulted in a conviction for the murder of a charwoman in a village outside London. Despite the evidence Spence believes the accused did not commit the murder and does not want to retire with a wrongful execution on his conscience. Working against the clock Poirot takes up residence in the village and interviews everyone who knew Mrs. McGinty. He learns that just before she was killed Mrs. McGinty was excited about one of the more dramatic Sunday papers which featured women in famous murder cases. She was convinced one of the women described in the article was living in the village.

This discovery opened a completely new line of inquiry, and Spence and Poirot were busy for awhile tracking down the women in question. The war of course had destroyed records everywhere, something Christie used to good effect in her plots many times and used here. Again here, as Christie pointed out in A Murder Is Announced (1950), is the mention that anyone could show up in a village after the war and claim to be a war widow. It could be proven otherwise only through a good deal of official effort and maybe not even then. As usual, red herrings and misdirection are cleverly deployed to result in Poirot’s standard drawing room denouement.

One of the best parts of this book is the cast of characters, which are ingeniously conceived. The keeper of the village post office and general store who functions as gossip central is right on target. Maureen Summerhayes, the delightful but inept hostess of the house where Poirot is staying, crops up again peripherally in Cat Among the Pigeons (1959). The descriptions of household chaos, seen through the eyes of the precise and finicky Poirot, are hilarious.

Of course the star of the supporting cast is Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s apple-eating alter ego, who is in the village to collaborate with a local playwright on the dramatization of one of her books about Sven Hjerson, Oliver’s Finnish detective. These are fabulous scenes. Hjerson is clearly meant to be Poirot and Christie in the persona of Oliver goes on at great length about how much she dislikes her creation. Christie also takes the opportunity to stick a knife into filmmakers who insist on making her characters something completely different for the screen. It is not often an author inserts herself into her own story, much less complains about her own brainchild. Christie clearly felt secure enough to rant at length and she did.

I cannot believe that any fan of Christie’s work has not read this gem. However, it is a fine re-read, as I know from experience. Highly, highly recommended.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: To Wake the Dead by John Dickson Carr

John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) is one of the most well-known Golden Age mystery writers. He also wrote under the names Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson, and Roger Fairbairn. He is celebrated for his beautifully complicated plots, often considered locked room crimes or impossible crimes in which the crime appears to have been committed when no one was near. His two main series characters were Sir Henry Merivale and Dr. Gideon Fell, although he wrote a number of stand-alone novels. See a lengthy analysis of his work on the Golden Age Detection wiki: http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7930179/Carr%2C%20John%20Dickson

To Wake the Dead (Hamish Hamilton, 1938) is the eighth or ninth Dr. Gideon Fell, depending on the bibliography referenced. It begins with Christopher Kent longing for breakfast outside a London hotel and no money immediately available with which to buy it. Quite against his usual modus operandi, he enters the hotel and boldly orders breakfast and bills it to a room in the hotel. He assumes that by the time the hotel understands he is not the paying occupant of that room, he will be long gone. Instead, he is asked by the hotel manager to go to the room he is believed to occupy and retrieve a bracelet the previous tenant left behind. Upon entering the room, instead of a bracelet he finds the battered body of a woman.

Not wanting to be arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, he slipped out the other door to the opposite corridor and made a beeline for the residence of Dr. Gideon Fell. There he finds Superintendent Hadley of the Criminal Investigation Division, who is consulting Dr. Fell about the woman’s death, just reported to him, which is a duplicate of a murder committed two weeks earlier.

Kent can easily prove he was on a ship at the time of that first murder and nowhere near the hotel at the time of the second. That being the case, Hadley does not hesitate to share the details of the investigation with Kent. The country house party was made up of Kent’s friends and both murder victims were well known to him. Hadley wanted Kent’s impressions of them and his help in identifying possible motives.

Admirers of locked room puzzles will adore this book as it offers two separate murders that apparently were carried out invisibly. Fell and Hadley work through timetables and witnesses and alibis at the London hotel and the country house in Sussex and arrive at a completely unexpected conclusion. This is a fine story with an ingenious solution.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Mark of the Crescent by John Creasey

John Creasey MBE (1908–1973) was an English author of crime, romance, and western novels, who wrote more than six hundred novels using twenty-eight different pseudonyms. Mostly he’s known for his crime fiction, though, of which there are over 400 books. He was educated in London and from 1923 to 1935 he took various clerical jobs and sales jobs while trying to establish himself as a writer.  Creasey started his publishing career by winning a competition called The Cracksman Award, sponsored by Harrap in the UK and Lippincott in the US.

In 1953, John Creasey founded the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) in the UK. The CWA New Blood Dagger is awarded in his memory, for first books by previously unpublished writers. This award was known previously as the John Creasey Memorial Dagger. In 1962 Creasey won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for best novel for Gideon’s Fire, part of the Gideon series which he wrote under the pseudonym J J Marric.  In 1969 he received the MWA’s Grand Master Award.  The television series Gideon’s Way was based on his series, as well as the John Ford movie Gideon of Scotland Yard (1968), also known by its British title Gideon’s Day. The Baron was a 1960s TV series based on another series starring Steve Forrest.

Of the dozen or so series he developed, the Department Z series was one written under the name John Creasey, with about 30 stories of British counterespionage published between 1933 and 1957. Gordon Craigie, Chief of the British Counter Espionage, leads a group of skilled agents to protect the UK from the internal and external forces of evil.

The Mark of the Crescent (Melrose, 1935) is the fifth book in the series. It starts out at a country house cricket match, with lots of sports details that reminded me of the cricket match in Murder Must Advertise by Sayers. Craigie has sent Jim Kenyon to watch another agent suspected of double dealing. Department Z deliberately keeps the identities of the various agents secret, even from each other, so the others also set to watch are mostly unknown to him. While all are engrossed in the game, a murder is carried out under the noses of the crowd. Investigation of the murder leads to evidence of a wide-ranging drug ring and more mayhem.

I read all of the Gideon series and loved them, but I don’t remember reading the others by Creasey so I was happy to have the opportunity to look into Department Z. Typical of many thrillers written in the 1930s, this book has a master criminal with tentacles everywhere, even in law enforcement agencies. It’s a clear reaction to the general fear of Hitler’s growing power and his threat to European peace. There’s also a thread of xenophobia, which ages the story. The copyright information says it was revised in 1967 with no further details about the extent of the revision. Tightly plotted, well written, Creasey had found his stride by the time he wrote this one. Nicely done, if a little dated.

Biographical information from the John Creasey website and Wikipedia.