Friday’s Forgotten Book: Game Without Rules by Michael Gilbert

Michael Francis Gilbert (1912 – 2006) was an English solicitor and well-known author of crime fiction. His work includes 30 novels and approximately 185 stories in 13 collections, as well as stage, radio, and television plays. He was made a Commander in the Order of the British Empire, won the Lifetime Achievement Anthony Award, and named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. He was a founding member of the Crime Writers Association, which later awarded him a Diamond Dagger.

Gilbert created a few series characters but was just as likely to produce a brand-new set for the work in progress. He wasn’t above having the various characters pop up in unexpected places; for instance, Patrick Petrella, a lead in one Gilbert series, appears in The Spoilers, a Behrens and Calder story. My favorite among his repeating characters are Mr. Behrens and Mr. Caldwell, who appear in 24 short stories that were mostly published first in the British magazine Argosy or the American Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and then collected in two anthologies, Game Without Rules (Harper & Row, 1967) and Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982).

Samuel Behrens lives with his aunt in Lamperdown, Kent, with his aunt and keeps bees. His good friend Daniel Calder lives in a house outside Lamperdown with a Persian deerhound named Rasselas. Both of them appear to be inoffensive retired men with quiet lives. They occasionally visit Mr. Fortescue, ostensibly their bank manager, in London. Mr. Fortescue is actually the “controller and paymaster of a bunch of middle-aged cutthroats known as the ‘E’ branch.” A Prime Minister explained to his successor that “if there’s a job which is so disreputable that none of the departments will handle it, we give it to the ‘E’ Branch.” (Quotes from The Spoilers.)

In Game Without Rules are a dozen short stories describing the post-war and Cold War exploits of this pair of unassuming but effective spies. Reminders of the geographical division between East and West are prominent, when travel between countries was restricted, as in one story Behrens and Calder are tasked to determine the path foreign agents are using to spirit defectors through Europe and out of the British government’s control. In another they are assigned to help see that a young prince of an unnamed Middle Eastern country avoids assassins to get home safely after his father has died so that he can assume the throne. In a third Behrens tries to convince a promising young engineer that his life will not be improved by defecting to the Communists, no matter what they are telling him. In a lively tale of crossed wires, an informer uses the cover of office Christmas parties to abstract an important piece of decoding equipment and take it to the British Embassy where a senior official had promised him asylum, only to be turned away by someone else absorbed by the holidays.

These stories are a reminder of a time when espionage and counterespionage were largely carried out by fallible people. Technology had not taken over the world, and the only way to obtain information and to act on it was through individual ingenuity and effort. Now, computers take care of it and the process is far more impersonal. The human element is front and center in these stories, and that is one reason I like them so much. Of course they are brilliantly written, nothing else could be expected of Michael Gilbert. Highly recommended.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: When I Grow Rich by Joan Fleming

Joan Margaret Fleming (1908–1980) was a British writer, turning out children’s stories first and then moving on to crime fiction, publishing about 30 books in that field. Her novel The Deeds of Dr Deadcert (Hutchinson, 1955) was made into the film Rx Murder (1958), and she won the Crime Writers’ Association Red Herring award for When I Grow Rich (Collins, 1962) and the Gold Dagger award for Young Man I Think You’re Dying (Collins, 1970). She seems to have rarely used the same characters from book to book, and they vary from thrillers to mysteries to gothics.

In When I Grow Rich, Fleming introduces a character that many of us would like to know. Nuri Bey lives alone in a ramshackle house and studies philosophy of all kinds. He loves his books so much that he sleeps with some of his favorites. His house is rundown and in need of considerable repair but he prefers to spend his small income on his books, many of which are quite rare. He has a large bag with the most valuable of his books that he keeps near his front door. In case of fire, which is all too likely in such an old house, he can grab it on his way out to safety.

As is often the case with individuals who spend more time with books than with people, Nuri Bey is naïve. He doesn’t realize that Madame Miasma, an elderly relic from the last Sultan’s harem, is using him as a drug courier when she asks him to take a package to the airport to hand off to a young man waiting for it there. Jenny Bolton, a young English woman, ends up with the package that Nuri Bey delivered, and he wants to know why she has it.

The two become caught in Madame Miasma’s desperate moves to retrieve the package, which Jenny threw into the Bosporus to avoid further trouble. Their movements to evade Madame Miasma, who is well named, take them around Istanbul, allowing Fleming to serve as tourist guide to the historic city. There is an intricate plot thread involving the substitution of bodies and woven throughout is a good deal about the people and culture.

Anthony Boucher, critic for the New York Times Book Review, loved Fleming’s books and called this one “My one single favorite book of the year.” I love it for the characters, who are so complete it is hard to think they are not real people. While Jenny and Nuri are an unlikely duo, they work well together in the end. The description of Istanbul is fascinating, although I could have done without the frequent references to starving kittens and the account of the public hanging. The dust jackets for various editions of this title are especially good. An unusual piece of crime fiction and one well worth reading.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Night at the Vulcan by Ngaio Marsh

Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) is called one of the Queens of Crime, along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham. She published 32 books featuring Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard. Marsh started out as an actor and was deeply involved in drama productions in her New Zealand home. Her interest in theatre had a way of slipping into her mysteries; her experience gives the parts of the stories set in playhouses unmistakable authenticity.

Much has been written about her work; for instance, see Mike Grost’s insightful essay here: And Neil Nyren’s essay written for CrimeReads here:

I discovered Marsh years ago after galloping through most of Christie. I read all of them, sometimes discovering I’d obtained the same book under two different titles in my attempt to read every single one. A few of them remain among my all-time favorites and are subject to periodic re-visiting. One of them is Night at the Vulcan, published in the U.S. by Little, Brown in 1951. It was published in the UK as Opening Night by Collins earlier in the same year. Not mentioned when her best mysteries are debated, it is nonetheless one of my suggestions when someone asks where to start reading Marsh.

Martyn Tarne, a budding actress newly arrived in London from New Zealand, stops at the recently renovated Vulcan Theatre in her quest for work. Two days before opening night, the leading lady’s dresser has been taken to hospital that afternoon and Martyn offers to take her place. She finds she’s wandered into a bit of a war zone. The leading lady’s husband, who also appears in the play, insisted on casting his niece in a key part, even though she is not at all suited to it. Everyone has taken sides and the wrangling never stops. Shortly before the play opens, the niece dissolves into hysterics and refuses to go on. A scene from every actor’s dream plays out: Martyn is pushed on stage in her place and performs brilliantly.

When the curtain falls, all the actors gather to take their final bow, except for the husband who has locked himself in his dressing room. After the door is broken down, he’s found dead next to a gushing gas tap. Enter Alleyn and his team. What appeared to be suicide is soon shown to be murder.

I really like this book but it isn’t for the mystery: The motive is unclear until the very end, although there are hints that perhaps all is not as it should be, and most of the potential suspects were in clear view of the audience at the time the murder was committed. It isn’t for the detailed police investigation; Alleyn appears for the first time more than halfway through the book. In a story that encompasses about three days, he is present only a short time. In contrast to the leisurely unfolding of the lead to the crime, Alleyn’s investigation is wrapped up in a few hours.

The characters, though, are wonderfully engaging. It’s impossible not to root for Martyn, who is something of a Cinderella in search of fame. The detail and the backstage action are portrayed so sharply and clearly that they pull the reader into another world. In addition to the theatre setting, there is also a minor plot thread dealing with genealogy and I love genealogy. In fact, it’s a good story well told. Recommended!

Friday’s Forgotten Book: There’s a Reason for Everything by E. R. Punshon

Ernest Robertson Punshon (1872-1956) was a prolific Golden Age author. Writing as E. R. Punshon, he released 35 books between 1933 and 1956 featuring Bobby Owen, an Oxford-educated policeman. Dorothy L. Sayers regarded Punshon’s work highly, saying that “all his books have that elusive something which makes them count as literature, so that we do not gulp them furiously down to get to the murderer lurking at the bottom, but roll them slowly and deliciously upon the tongue like old wine.” I think Sayers was unduly enthusiastic about Punshon, although I am happy that Dean Street Press saw fit to reprint his books, making them accessible to a new generation of readers.

There’s a Reason for Everything (Gollancz, 1945) is the twenty-first book in the saga of police detective Bobby Owen. Owen started out as a police constable in London and made his way up the ladder of Scotland Yard and then left London for the Wychshire county police force. In this story he has been promoted to Deputy Chief Constable. He’s finding it difficult to sit behind his desk the way someone of his rank should but the shortage of personnel due to the war gives him an excuse to get back out on the street.

Initially the fact that members of a paranormal research group were investigating a haunted old mansion in his territory did not interest him. When one of the researchers, a Mr. Parkinson, reported finding a pool of fresh blood in the house, consistent with one of the family legends, Bobby was intrigued and accompanied Parkinson to the abandoned property. The pool of blood that was so vivid in Parkinson’s telling was nowhere to be seen; what they did find was the body of the leader of the research mission, Dr. Clem Jones, hidden behind statuary.

Beginning his investigation, Bobby began hearing about other visitors to the mansion and rumors of a lost Vermeer masterpiece somewhere on the property. Another body, a caretaker with a secret, art experts that want to claim the Vermeer that no one has seen, and a young man that keeps disappearing when Bobby wants to talk to him complicate the job.

Punshon’s ability to create atmosphere shines in this book. His description of each visit to the estate conveys clearly the unsettling nature of the place, with dark halls and empty rooms. The culprit is cleverly concealed among a cast of eccentric suspects, all of whom behave questionably in the opinion of a hard-working police officer. There’s an amusing scene that displays a couple of the characters’ ability to think on their feet and improvise convincing lies on the spot. Subplots involve the caretaker and a young woman living in the neighborhood near the mansion.

The Kindle version (Dean Street Press, 2016) has an introduction from Curtis Evans that describes an art scandal that broke around the time the book was written and which might have provided the background for the well-developed plot. I consider this book to be one of the best in the Bobby Owen series.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Left-Handed Death by Richard Hull

Richard Hull was the pseudonym of Richard Henry Sampson (1896-1973), a British accountant who became a crime novelist, publishing 16 books beginning in 1934. During World War II he revived his accounting skills and became an auditor for the Admiralty. It is hard not to think his experiences there informed the plot of his 10th book, Left-Handed Death (Collins Crime Club, 1946).

Written as World War II was ending, the story opens with the two directors of Shergold Engineering Company, Arthur Shergold and Guy Reeves, discussing the outcome of an ongoing examination of the firm’s books by a government auditor named Barry Foster. Foster found deficiencies in the accounting practices used and was insisting on a refund of payments made to the firm under multiple government contracts. Under Shergold’s questioning Reeves lays out the process by which he says he killed Foster that afternoon. Reeves is not especially convincing in his statements. Oddly enough, Shergold is not upset or taken aback by the news. Shergold and Reeves show themselves to be unlikeable during this lengthy and rambling dialogue, and I could well believe their accounting practices were dubious. Foster didn’t sound like much of a prize, either. The three deserved each other, as far as I can tell.

Reeves decides to go to Scotland Yard to report his crime. Why is not clear. Understandably enough the police are not accustomed to individuals who visit their offices to confess to murder, so Reeves is held there while someone checks on Foster, who is indeed found dead in his flat. Reeves is so obnoxious to Detective Inspector Hardwick that Hardwick is determined to find evidence to show Reeves is innocent, despite what seems to be Reeves’ best efforts to prove himself guilty. A full-on police investigation follows.

I am not sure what to think of this book. It has an interesting structure but it isn’t particularly cohesive and the ending is anti-climactic. What seems to be an inverted mystery at first turns out not to be that at all. I began to suspect what actually happened about halfway through. My overall impression is that this was an experiment by Hull in organization or characterization or both that didn’t quite succeed. Worth reading for the references to daily life during the end of the war, if nothing else.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Skeleton Key by Lenore Glen Offord

Skeleton Key by Lenore Glen Offord (1905-1991) was first published in 1943 by Duell, Sloan & Pearce. Felony & Mayhem re-issued the book in print and digital editions in 2015. The latter has an informative introduction by journalist and crime historian Sarah Weinman, who outlines Offord’s life and career. She wrote nine crime novels and other books, short stories, and poems. She was also the full-time mystery critic for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1950 to 1982, a job she shared for a time during World War II with Anthony Boucher until he moved east to the New York Times. She won an Edgar in 1952 for her work as a critic. Most notably, Offord was the first woman to be inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars. Her activity in the group was limited, as she lived on the West Coast, but she was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan.

Skeleton Key introduced Georgine Wyeth and Todd MacKinnon, who became partners in sleuthing in three more books. Georgine is a widow with a child to support and she needs any respectable job that will pay her. She stumbles into a job typing a manuscript for a retired scientist, who insists that she work in his home to protect the confidentiality of the material. His house is in a small neighborhood peopled with clearly sketched characters, including MacKinnon and the air raid warden, whose bossiness has made him roundly despised. The blackout requirements along the West Coast were stricter than in other parts of the country, and the descriptions help set the time and the place of the story.

The warden ends up dead in what appears at first to be an accident during a blackout. Since Georgine was the first on the scene, the police had a lot of questions for her and she continued to offer them information as she undertook her own unofficial investigation, trying to understand what she heard that night. Multiple mysteries unfold, the death of the warden, the identity of neighborhood residents, and the contents of what appears to be a grave near the scientist’s house, among them.

This is another piece of crime fiction that does not fall into a clear category. It is not a police procedural, although a lot of the police investigation is described, and not really an amateur sleuth mystery, as the police arrive at the identity of the culprit. Weinman calls it domestic suspense but I think the police are too deeply involved to meet that admittedly amorphous category.

Whatever it is, this is a smoothly paced story with original characters and an unusual setting. The mystery itself is not the strongest I’ve ever seen but that should not deter students of mid-20th century crime fiction from looking into this author.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Murder in Melbourne by Dulcie Gray

Dulcie Winifred Catherine Bailey Denison, known as Dulcie Gray, (1915 – 2011) was a Renaissance woman: She was a British singer and actress on stage, film, and television; she wrote 18 mysteries between 1957 and 1979; and she studied butterflies. She was vice-president of the British Butterfly Conservation Society and in 1978 she published Butterflies on My Mind, a work on the conservation and life of butterflies in Great Britain. She also wrote a short biography of J.B. Priestly, the English novelist and playwright.

Her second mystery was a stand-alone called Murder in Melbourne (Arthur Barker, 1958), which was adapted both for BBC radio and television broadcast. The book jacket blurb says she wrote the first part while she was performing in a play in Melbourne.

Richard Quayle is flying into Melbourne to ask his long-term girlfriend Anna Matheson to marry him. They had parted on less than amicable terms four months earlier, as Anna wanted to be married and Richard was happy with their relationship as it was. He is a little unsure of his reception, apprehensive that Anna had decided she could live without him during their hiatus.

Anna doesn’t answer the telephone and Richard goes to her hotel room to find the door unlocked and Anna on the bed, dead for some hours. The police find that she’d been spending a lot of time with Jack Leonard who’d left Melbourne earlier that day and that she’d attended a party given by Felix Milton the day before. Milton was known for his frequent and elaborate parties. It was there that the police believe the fatal dose of poison was given to Anna in a drink.

Richard is dissatisfied with the slow progress of the official investigation and decides to conduct one of his own. Oddly enough, the police don’t seem to object to Richard’s efforts and in fact welcome the additional information he can offer. He attends one of Milton’s parties, where he meets most of Anna’s social circle. Everyone has a secret or two, and they aren’t especially happy that Richard suspects them. One of the group is being blackmailed and is distraught at the idea that her well-hidden past might not be as shrouded as she had supposed.

All of the plot threads are sorted out during another of Milton’s parties in a classic denouement, where the police inspector masquerades as one of the guests. Overall, an interesting read but something was off about the structure or the pacing, I haven’t decided exactly what it was. The epilogue seemed to be pointless and I’m not sure what purpose it was supposed to serve. Fans of fair-play mysteries will find this story problematic because clues were sadly lacking. The portrayal of Melbourne as young but growing city was intriguing. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book and will read another by the author if the opportunity arises, although her works are not especially common.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Clock Strikes Twelve by Patricia Wentworth

Mysteries set on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day are not as common as those set around Christmas, which seems to be a particularly lethal time of year. However, The Clock Strikes Twelve by Patricia Wentworth (Hodder & Stoughton, 1945) fits the current need admirably, especially because the setting is in a country house, a time-honored place for murder.

Patricia Wentworth was the pen name of Dora Amy Elles (1877-1961). She is most known for her traditional mysteries featuring Miss Silver, a former governess, now private investigator. Just how Miss Silver managed this transition is not spelled out in the books but it’s something I would like to know more about. However, by the time the series opens, she has established her practice and has something of a reputation among the police and the upper echelons of English society.

In the seventh outing of her career Miss Silver is called in to help the Paradine family. It’s the end of 1941 and England is focused on the war with Germany. The head of the family James Paradine announced at the family gathering on New Year’s Eve that someone had betrayed him and he would be waiting in his study until midnight for that person to confess. Early the next morning his body is found on the grounds below the balcony outside his study. The evidence suggests that he was pushed.

The family members each have a favorite suspect–the relative they like the least–and few have a solid alibi, despite the murder clearly being committed in the middle of the night. Despite the cold more than one of them was wandering around outside. Fortunately one of them encounters Miss Silver in the nearest town, where Miss Silver is buying wool to knit another garment for her niece’s children. Miss Silver is a prolific knitter of children’s apparel; in each book she completes at least one sweater or pair of socks. Miss Silver agrees to assist the family in sorting through the evidence and wonky alibis.

By this title Wentworth had settled into a groove for these books: a victim more vulnerable than he or she supposes, a romance gone awry because of or at least affected by the murder, well developed characters with plenty to hide. The books written in the 1940s had the additional backdrop of World War II and England’s deep national commitment to the war effort.

Favorite Books of 2020

As of today I read 162 books during 2020, the large number partly because of the enforced seclusion brought on by the pandemic. A few were re-reads but most crossed my path for the first time. Following are the titles of the books I initially read during 2020 and liked the most. Each of them was the subject of a review written by me and published either on Kevin’s Corner, a blog published by Kevin Tipple, or on my own blog. Links to the reviews are provided for more in-depth consideration.

Death at the Medical Board by Josephine Bell (Longmans, Green & Co, 1944)

An elaborately constructed plot set in wartime England.

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton (Minotaur, 2017)

A wonderful spin on the unexpected witness to a murder trope.

To Wake the Dead by John Dickson Carr (Hamish Hamilton, 1938)

Carr is considered the king of the locked room mystery and this book shows why.

The Boy from the Woods by Harlan Coben (Grand Central Publishing, 2020)

Lots of subplots and surprises in this book; the final one is completely out of left field.

The Shadow Broker by Trace Conger (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2014)

Good thriller, excellent demonstration in how to trace someone who doesn’t want to be found.

The Harassed Hero by Ernest Dudley (Hodder & Stoughton, 1951)

Entertaining story about a hypochondriac who encounters a counterfeiter.

A Murder of Crows by Margaret Duffy (St. Martins Press, 1988; Lume Books, 2015)

Espionage, romance, and mystery, this first book of a long-running series is hard to categorize.

Lesser Evils by Joe Flanagan (Europa Editions, 2016)

Dark and often depressing, this story has intriguing characters and possibly the most unexpected resolution to a subplot I’ve ever seen.

Death of an American Beauty by Mariah Fredericks (Minotaur, 2020)

Wonderful historical mystery, Fredericks has captured the feel of early 1900s New York perfectly.

Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored by Philippe Georget (Europa Editions, 2013)

A highly competent police procedural and the best title of the year.

The Country House Burglar by Michael Gilbert (Harper, 1955)

A fine traditional English village mystery.

The Reckless Oath We Made by Bryn Greenwood (Putnam, 2019)

Part romance, part thriller, I love the characters.

The Man in the White Linen Suit by David Handler (Morrow, 2019)

The latest from Hoagy and Lulu, a celebrity ghostwriter and his basset hound sidekick.

Dead Man’s Mistress by David Housewright (Minotaur, 2019)

Last year’s title from one of my all-time favorite crime fiction writers.

The Elephant of Surprise by Joe Lansdale (Mulholland, 2019)

Hap and Leonard’s latest adventure as private investigators in east Texas.

The Blues Don’t Care by Paul Marks (Down & Out Books, 2020)

A wonderful historical set in Los Angeles during the era of big bands.

The Last House Guest by Megan Miranda (Simon & Schuster, 2019)

A mystery that builds suspense gradually with a zinger in the last two pages.

The Right Sort of Man by Allison Montclair (Minotaur, 2019)

First title in what looks to be an excellent historical series set in post-war London.

Crush by Phoef Sutton (Prospect Park Books, 2015)

A hard-charging thriller about the son of a Russian Mafia boss who shuns his father’s career choices.

The Ringmaster by Vanda Symon (Penguin, 2008; Orenda, 2019)

Second book in an award-nominated police procedural series set in New Zealand.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Redemption by Jill McGown

Jill McGown (1947-2007) is most remembered for her tightly plotted and nuanced books about Chief Inspector Lloyd, whose first name is a running gag throughout the series, and Detective Sergeant Judy Hill, co-workers and lovers in East Anglia. In addition to the complexities of their relationship, McGown invariably delivers a layered mystery full of misdirection, credible characters, and realistic motives. Redemption is the second in the series of 13 books about the pair. It was published by Macmillan in London in 1988. St. Martin’s Press published it in the United States under the name Murder at the Old Vicarage in 1989.

Christmas Eve starts normally enough in the village where George Wheeler is vicar. Snow is falling, complicating residents’ efforts to run errands for Christmas and Boxing Day. His wife Marian is preparing for the series of services that will begin that afternoon while he is supposed to be finishing his sermons. Their daughter Joanna, home after a stay in hospital, is part of the shopping crowd. By the end of the day, when everyone’s thoughts should be turned toward Christmas carols and gifts, Joanna’s estranged husband lies in one of the upstairs bedrooms in the vicarage, bludgeoned to death by a poker, and the entire family is under suspicion.

Judy Hill is relieved to be called away from home to the murder site. She has nothing in common with her husband’s visiting parents, and her mother-in-law is hinting a little too broadly about grandchildren. Lloyd is wanting more of her time than she feels she can give without jeopardizing her marriage, and their relationship seems to be at a crossroads.

She and Lloyd view the Wheelers’ insistence on a wandering tramp with skepticism. Once they learn that Joanna was in hospital because of a beating administered by the victim, they are sure they have the answers in front of them. It’s just a question of which Wheeler got tired of the husband/son-in-law first. Unfortunately, all three of them have alibis.

The story flips back and forth between the domestic crisis in the Wheeler household and the crisis in the Lloyd/Hill relationship. Both get sorted, more or less, by the end. An homage to Agatha Christie and the first appearance of Miss Marple, this story is one of the best in a very good series.