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: http://mikegrost.com/ngmarsh.htm#Marsh. And Neil Nyren’s essay written for CrimeReads here: https://crimereads.com/ngaio-marsh-a-crime-readers-guide-to-the-classics/.

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: 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.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Death for Dear Clara by Q. Patrick

Q. Patrick was the pseudonym of Hugh Callingham Wheeler (1912-1987) and Richard Wilson Webb (1901-1966), who also published under the names Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge. Webb wrote with Martha Mott Kelly under the name Q. Patrick for a few years before Webb teamed up with Wheeler. Webb also worked with Mary Louise White Aswell on a couple of early novels. Wheeler and Webb are the authors of Death for Dear Clara (Simon and Schuster, 1937), which is the first appearance of Timothy Trant, a police lieutenant in New York City.

Clara Van Heuten was much admired for her initiative in setting herself up in business after she was widowed. She ran what she called a literary advice bureau, not an agent as such, but an editorial service that read manuscripts of all kinds and recommended improvements. From the lush furnishings in her office and her Park Avenue apartment, apparently it was quite successful.

On the afternoon that she died, a number of clients visited her in rapid succession. When her secretary entered her office with letters to be signed at the end of the day, she found Clara slumped across her desk with a knife in her back. After the police were called in, Detective Timothy Trant was assigned to the case, considering the victim’s place in society. A Princeton graduate, he was believed to have an understanding of the upper social circles that escaped lesser police officers and was deployed as a sort of supplemental secret weapon. His choice of clothing was unorthodox for a policeman. When he first comes in to the action, he is wearing a gray suit with a maroon shirt and a black tie. He tells someone he wears all colors except violet and pastels. (I don’t know what he has against pastels.)

Despite his sartorial peculiarities Trant is quite workmanlike in his investigation and the story that follows is classic Golden Age in style, down to the big reveal at the end in front of all of the suspects. A compelling case could be made against several of them, as Clara was not as nice as everyone thought she was.

The writing is gently sardonic throughout; one character’s wild youth is described as being “the New York débutante to end all débutantes. Her wild escapades had run neck and neck on the front pages with the downward careening of stock prices….But flaming youth had palled. … Patricia had abandoned her capitalistic pranks to become the democrat to end all democrats. She had deflected her money and her boundless energy into soup for soup kitchens and butter for breadlines. She had become at once the champion and the terror of Manhattan’s unemployed.”

Solid plot, smoothly paced story, proficient writing. A good read!

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Canary Murder Case by S. S. van Dine

S. S. Van Dine is the pseudonym used by Willard Huntington Wright (1888 – 1939) when he wrote detective fiction. Originally a literary and art critic, Wright read dozens of mysteries and crime novels during a lengthy illness, after which he wrote an essay on the history and conventions of detective novels that was published in 1926. He also wrote an article, Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, in 1928 that has been often reprinted and compared to Ronald Knox’s commandments. After his research into the origins of the detective story, he wrote a dozen contemporary mysteries featuring amateur detective Philo Vance, a well-to-do member of New York’s upper crust. He later developed the scenarios for a number of detective short films produced in Hollywood.

The Canary Murder Case (Macmillan, 1927) was the second adventure for Vance. In the introduction Van Dine describes himself as the personal attorney and close friend of Vance, who accompanied him on his investigations and became his eventual scribe. Vance was well-acquainted with the New York District Attorney John Markham who invited him to assist in the investigation of the murder of Margaret Odell, a Broadway singer and dancer known as the Canary after one of her most famous roles. Odell, notorious for her flamboyance and her love affairs, was found strangled in her apartment one morning by her maid. The apartment was ransacked and her jewelry was missing. Based on the evidence of the switchboard operators and the janitor, the building was secured such that no one could have entered her apartment near the time of the murder, thereby setting up a nice locked room puzzle.

Philo Vance is the classic gentleman detective, wealthy and well-educated with a strong interest in the arts. His foppish mannerisms conceal significant intelligence and creative problem-solving skills. Think Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion transported to Jazz Age New York City. The district attorney and police detectives who can’t keep up with Vance’s out-of-the-box approach to the investigation serve as his foils. The mystery offers an apartment that no one could have entered to commit the crime and suspects with apparently unassailable alibis. In addition, the setting, the social context surrounding the murder, and the dialog are very much of the time and place, making this an intriguing period piece of crime fiction.

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: The Harassed Hero by Ernest Dudley

Vivian Ernest Coltman-Allen (1908 – 2006), known as Ernest Dudley, was an author, a screenwriter, an actor, and a journalist. He created the popular BBC radio crime series Dr Morelle that ran from 1942 to 1948 and the television series The Armchair Detective that ran in 1949. He wrote society articles for The Daily Mail in the 1930s. The Harassed Hero (Hodder & Stoughton, 1951) seems to be his fourth novel, although the bibliographies for this versatile writer vary. I learned about this book from Ward Saylor, the guiding light of the Crime Thru Time online discussion, who recommended it.

Murray Selwyn is obsessed with his health. He is convinced the slightest strain will undermine irretrievably his already fragile constitution. All he wants is to get to the nursing home for a nice long rest, which his doctor agrees he needs. After leaving the doctor, who no doubt considers Murray a lucrative patient, he fills prescriptions and purchases lozenges, throat sprays, digestive tablets, and other necessities, then finds a taxi to take him home. His long-suffering valet Twigg brings in his packages while Murray recoups from the stress of the trip. Amongst the parcels is a briefcase neither of them recognizes. Twigg opens it and out falls a pile of five-pound notes.

Thus, Murray’s unsought acquaintance with a group of forgers begins. The one who lost the briefcase tracks it back to Murray and retrieves it from Murray and Twigg at gun point. His erstwhile colleagues take umbrage at his attempt to keep the money for himself and catch up with him outside Murray’s building, knock him out, and return his unconscious body to Murray’s front hall. Twigg is aghast at finding what seems to be a corpse but Murray is still enraged at having a gun waved in his face a short time previously and only calls Scotland Yard to take the body away.

By the time Scotland Yard arrives, the thug has regained consciousness and disappeared, which results in an unpleasant conversation between the police and Murray, who has no corpse to show them, despite protestations that one in fact existed. They leave and the nurse who is to escort Murray to the nursing home appears, expecting a frail invalid instead of a tall strapping hunk. But the forgers realize the plates to reproduce the fivers are gone, and they return to Murray to retrieve them, involving not only Murray but his nurse and the rest home in their machinations.

This book is almost straight slapstick with bodies and bank note printing plates appearing and disappearing. Outraged matrons and absent-minded doctors add to the hilarity, punctuated with Murray’s wails about his pulse, his temperature, and his nerves. The counterfeiters, some of the ugliest customers I’ve encountered recently in the pages of fiction, offset the lighthearted tone. Great break from noir. Recommended.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Away Went the Little Fish by Margot Bennett

Margot Bennett (1912-1980) worked as an advertising copywriter, as a nurse and translator during the Spanish Civil War, and as a television scriptwriter. She wrote literary fiction, crime fiction, and science fiction. Compared to her Golden Age contemporaries, her output was relatively small: only seven mysteries. The last two were nominated for awards and the last one received the Crossed Red Herrings award, now the Golden Dagger award, in 1958 for best mystery of the year from the Crime Writers’ Association. Her diminutive output nowise affected her popularity, which was considerable, as her books were translated into multiple languages. 

Away Went the Little Fish (Nichols, 1946) is her second mystery featuring Captain John Davies. Davies is still in the army more than year after the war ended, his demobilization papers having been misplaced. He’s assigned to a backwater post 40 miles away from London He dislikes the rooming house where he finds living quarters and he dislikes his new colleagues and he dislikes the town of Wetherfold.  A colleague Raphael Sands, who lives apart from his wife, also has a room in the same house but Davies rarely sees him, as Sands has a lucrative sideline in writing potboilers while he is supposed to be working for the British Civil Service.

England after the war was still suffering from severe shortages in food and basic necessities so an estate sale attracted far more attention in the town than it would have in more prosperous times. Even Davies showed up, more to have something to do than to buy anything. When a large chest at the sale was flung open for display, bystanders were horrified to see the body of Sands inside. Sands has unquestionably been murdered.

Davies decides to investigate, citing the success of his first case, described in Time to Change Hats (1945). The police decline his help, repeatedly, which does not impede him in the least. Davies begins interviewing everyone associated with Sands. When he meets Sands’ estranged wife, he immediately falls in love with her. From there the story begins to meander into multiple unrelated story threads. The actual mystery, essentially a locked room puzzle, could have been relayed in about half as many pages as the book occupies.

The characters are memorable. The owner of the house where Davies rents a room has a school-age daughter who is one of the most obnoxious children I’ve ever seen in the pages of fiction. She monitors the household’s use of electricity, she walks into Davies’s bedroom without asking, and she keeps minnows in the sink of the spare bathroom.  Her mother is consumed with anxiety about finding food amid the rampant shortages; it occupies almost all of her waking thoughts. Then there’s the resident mad scientist who is inventing something he doesn’t talk about. His neighbors reported him for collaboration during the war but the authorities could find no basis for arresting him. Eccentricity is, so far, not a crime.

Finely plotted, well written with sardonic humor, but long and rambling.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Murder on the Bus by Cecil Freeman Gregg

Cecil Freeman Gregg (1898-1960) was a chartered secretary and accountant born in London. He published 42 mysteries between 1928 and 1960, with two main series characters, Inspector Cuthbert Higgins and Harry Prince. Harry Prince was a thief who was driven to a life of crime due to the death of his wife Ethel. Cuthbert Higgins is a versatile Scotland Yard detective who can engage in fisticuffs as well as unravel a complicated mystery. (From the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7930698/Gregg%2C%20Cecil%20Freeman.)

The Murder on the Bus (Hutchinson, 1930) is Gregg’s third mystery. Inspector Higgins starts his day with a letter purporting to be from a small-time criminal telling the police that he will have committed suicide by the time they receive his letter. Higgins sends a constable to investigate. Indeed the criminal lay dead in his room, apparently from gas. The inquest finds the cause of death to be suicide and the file is closed, only to be re-opened when a representative from the gas company remonstrates with the inspector days later. It seems there wasn’t enough money in the meter for gas to have been the cause of death. Yet that was the finding of the autopsy. So how did this man die?

While Higgins is dealing with this puzzle, he’s also looking into a second one. A man is found shot to death on the top of a city bus. He was sitting in the back row of the open bus, where no one could possibly sit behind him, yet he was shot in the back. Higgins decided the shot had to have come from one of the houses the bus passed on its route. Deciding on which houses to search out of the possible thousands was a nice exercise in logical deduction.

Searching for the identity of the shooting victim takes Higgins to a small village and a country manor which he discovers too late is inhabited by a gang of blackmailers with connections to both dead men. Getting away from them requires a good deal of ingenuity and even more physical exertion. Higgins seems to be unusually athletic for someone his age.

Considering the amount of action, the story unfolds slowly. It’s over 230 pages long and could have been edited to speed up the momentum which is leisurely. It’s not exactly a procedural and it’s not an amateur detective tale; I’m not sure how to categorize this book, other than Golden Age. Perhaps Gregg was still finding his way to his style; comparing this early work to a later Inspector Higgins might be instructive.

The plot itself was nicely complicated with a twist at the end I didn’t see coming. I doubt that I will search for more of Gregg’s work but I will likely read another one if it comes my way. A note from the publisher of the ebook I read stated it was based on the version published by The Dial Company in New York. All English spellings were Americanized and “some additional notes and clarifications have been added for the modern reader’s benefit”. I am wondering just how extensive this edit was and if it contributed to my lack of enthusiasm for the book.