Friday, June 8, 2018

Alas, a Poor Yorke! Grave Matters (1973), by Margaret Yorke

When I started reading PD James and Ruth Rendell back in the 1990s British crime writer Margaret Yorke (1924-2012) was a name I sometimes used to see elevated with their own, into a sort of triumvirate.  Subsequently Yorke has much faded compared to Rendell and James, which may be a bit unfair.  Before the current book under review, I had only ever read one book by Yorke, No Medals for the Major (1974)--a minor classic of the suspense genre, I think, one which lays bare the cruelties that can lie beneath those lovely little English villages about which we vintage mystery fans love to read.  It's a brave, unflinching book about mass hysteria and groupthink that holds up a dark mirror to cozies like those by MC Beaton, where the worst that ever can be said about the villagers is that they can get rather silly at times (but they always have Hamish Macbeth to straighten out their minor foibles and follies).

No Medals for the Major was the first of York's true mystery suspense novels, and it appeared in the middle of the author's short-lived Patrick Grant detective series, about the detective exploits of a handsome amateur sleuth, Oxford don Patrick Grant.  The Grant series, consisting of five books, ran between 1970 and 1976, when Yorke abandoned it. 

When I was in Boston last month I bought at a used bookstore there a pb copy of the middle book in the series, Grave Matters, and unfortunately was far less impressed than I was with Major.  It's a short book of about 55,000 words or less and it took me about a month of off-and-on reading to finish it, so you can guess I wasn't  exactly entranced.

Yorke's Patrick Grant certainly comes right out of the classic mystery character closet of Crime Queens Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, being a good-looking, charming, well-educated and eligible bachelor who likes to solve mysteries.  There's a younger woman romantic interest in the book, although Patrick's closest relationship, appealingly done (and not incestuous!), is with his married sister.  The problem for me with this book is that Grant simply isn't that good of a detective.

There are two human deaths in the novel for most of its length (and that of a dog), but since they are written off as accidents (both of them are old ladies who fell--or were pushed--down steps, one in Athens, Greece, one in the British Museum in London) the police don't come into the book for a long time.  Grant's desultory amateur detection mainly consists of sneaking into a house in the chraming village of Meldsmead on two separate occasions and stealing a blackberry pie and a photo album.  Most of the novel is devoted to his wooing of an attractive relation of the first murder victim, a retired headmistress of a girls school.

A lot of it reads like a suspense novel, as it looks like the object of Grant's romantic interest may be having an affair with a man who is trying to murder his wife, both of them recently having moved to Meldsmead.  The detection portion comes back near the end, in rather a huddle, when we have another murder, then two more attempted ones, and a fire and a fatal car crash!  The motivation for this murderous mayhem seems highly implausible, so we get characters suggesting that the murderer must have been mad, which feels rather a cop-out in a detective novel.

Another thing which bothered me was the title.  Why "Grave Matters"?  Yes the matters are grave, as in any murder story, but one expects something of a pun, like a burial plot or a cemetery having something to do with things, and nothing doing here!  It's a bland title for a bland mystery.  "Serious Business" would have worked just as well.

Yet Patrick Grant, along with his sister and brother-in-law, are appealing enough characters and I plan to read another in the series, to see whether the mystery and detection are better done.  Yorke seems quickly to have grown restive with the detective novel format, devoting herself in her writing between 1977 and 2001 entirely to suspense fiction, or crime novels (28 of them), for which she is far better known today--perhaps for good reason!

Friday, June 1, 2018

Platinum-Plated Certainty: The Case of the Platinum Blonde (1944), by Christopher Bush


“I suppose you haven’t heard our local sensation?” I said.

“No,” she said, and, “I didn’t know there could be a sensation in Cleavesham.  What was it?  An air raid?”

“Only a murder,” I told her.

                                                     --The Case of the Platinum Blonde (1944)

1st American edition, published in the
US in 1949, 5 years after the British
edition, 4 years after WW2 had ended
After having had his series detective, Ludovic “Ludo” Travers, become involved in a couple of investigations concerning highly nefarious activities in wartime London, The Case of the Magic Mirror (1943) and The Case of the Running Mouse (1944), Christopher Bush in The Case of the Platinum Blonde, which is to be reissued by Dean Street Press this month, sends Travers vainly for a break to the lovely and seemingly placid little village of Cleavesham, Sussex. 

There Ludo learns that there is something of the truth in Sherlock Holmes’s famous declaration (in the short story “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”) that “the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” 

Travers has come to Cleavesham to rest and to visit his charming younger sister, Helen Thornley, who for the duration of the war has let Pulvery, her and her husband Tom’s Sussex country house (familiar to devoted Bush readers), and with her “old maid” Annie taken Ringlands, “what she calls a cottage,” while Tom is in military service in the Middle East. 

Soon Ludo encounters in Cleavesham a number of inhabitants who will play parts in the upcoming murder drama that afflicts the village, including Major Chevalle, the chief constable; his wife, Thora, young daughter, Flora, and Thora’s poor relation, Mary; village warden Bernard Temple; Lieut.-Commander Santon, wounded in the knee at Crete and now retired, and Tom Dewball, his manservant; Herbert Maddon, “quite a superior old man,” and his daily, Mrs. Beaney;  and odd duck “Augustus Porle,” a devout believer in harnessing the power of the Great Pyramid. 


No blond he:Christopher Bush (1885-1973)
at the time of the Second World War
Like any amateur sleuth worth his salt, Travers has not been long in Cleavsham when he runs across a dead body, in this case that of the seemingly inoffensive Mr. Maddon, who has been shot to death at his cottage, Five Oaks.  Evidence points overwhelmingly to the suspicious presence that day at Five Oaks cottage of a headily-scented, chain-smoking platinum blonde—and the identity of this blonde proves problematic indeed for Ludo Travers and Superintendent George Wharton, whom Scotland Yard has sent to investigate the case at the behest of Major Chevalle. 

This is but the intriguing opening to one of the most ingenious mysteries Christopher Bush ever penned, one that in the final pages will leave the reader facing the same moral dilemma as Ludovic Travers (who finds himself increasingly playing his own hand in the series, in the independent manner of an American private eye): now that I know the truth, just what do I do about it

WHO??? is
the mystery
BLONDE???
Reviewing The Case of the Platinum Blonde in the Times Literary Supplement a reviewer commented on the “exasperating” tendency of amateur detectives in crime fiction to conceal “incriminating evidence from the police.” 

Yet the reviewer concluded that in this case Ludovic Travers so thoroughly justified his fancy for obstructive behavior “that in future amateur detectives will be able to continue the bad habit [of obstruction] without objection.  Readers who have asked ‘Why?’ impatiently at the beginning of this book will be twice shy.” 

Will modern readers react to the outcome of The Case of the Platinum Blonde as predicted in the TLS?  You will have to read the book for yourselves and see!

Note, this novel and nine others in Christoper Bush's Ludovic Travers mystery series, #'s 21-30 in the series, are being reissued this month by Dean Street Press.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Memorial: A Mystery Writer at War, Christopher Bush and His Ludovic Travers Military Mystery Trilogy

Christopher Bush in the Second World War
After the Francophile Christopher Bush completed series sleuth Ludovic “Ludo” Travers’ nostalgic little tour in France (soon to be overrun and scourged by Hitler’s legions) in the pair of detective novels The Case of the Flying Ass (1939) and The Case of the Climbing Rat (1940), Bush published a trilogy of Ludo Travers mysteries drawing directly on his own experiences in British military service: The Case of the Murdered Major (1941), The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel (1942) and The Case of the Fighting Soldier (1942). Together this accomplished trio of novels constitutes surely one of the most notable series of wartime detective fiction (as opposed to thrillers) published in Britain during the Second World War. 

There are, to be sure, other interesting examples of this conflict-focused crime writing by true detective novelists, such as Gladys Mitchell’s Brazen Tongue (1940, depicting the period of the so-called “Phoney War”), G. D. H. Cole’s Murder at the Munition Works (1940, primarily concerned with wartime labor-management relations), John Rhode’s They Watched by Night (1941), Night Exercise (1942) and The Fourth Bomb (1942), Miles Burton’s Up the Garden Path (1941), Dead Stop (1943), Murder, M. D. (1943) and Four-Ply Yarn (1944), John Dickson Carr's Murder in the Submarine Zone (1940) and She Died a Lady (1943), Belton Cobb’s Home Guard Mystery (1941), Margaret Cole’s Knife in the Dark (1941), Ngaio Marsh’s Colour Scheme (1943) and Died in the Wool (1945) (both set in wartime New Zealand), Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger (1944), Freeman Wills Crofts’s Enemy Unseen (1945) and Clifford Witting’s Subject: Murder(1945).  Yet Bush’s three books seem the most informed by actual  martial experience.

death in captivity--murder strikes at No. 54 POW Camp
Like his Detection Club colleague John Street (who wrote mysteries as John Rhode and Miles Burton), Christopher Bush was a decorated veteran of the First World War (though unlike Street his service seems to have been entirely in administration rather than fighting in the field) who returned to active service during the second “show” (as Bush termed it), albeit fairly briefly.

53 years old at the time of the German invasion of Poland and Britain’s resultant entry into hostilities, Bush helped administer prisoner of war and alien internment camps, initially, it appears, at Camp No 22 (Pennylands) in Ayrshire, Scotland and Camp No 9 at Southampton, at the latter location as Adjutant Quartermaster. 

In February 1940, Bush, promoted from 2nd Lieutenant to Captain, received his final commission: that of Adjutant Commandant at a prisoner-of-war and alien internment camp established in the second week of the war at the recently evacuated Taunton’s School in Highfield, a suburb of Southampton. 

Throughout the United Kingdom 27,000 refugees from Germany, Austria and Italy (after the latter country declared war on Britain in June 1940) were temporarily interned in camps like the one in Highfield, on the assumption that they might pose potential threats to British security.  Bush thus held a controversial wartime position, like John Street during the First World War, Street after the armistice having become involved in British "information" (i.e., propaganda) efforts in Ireland during the Black and Tan War.

Bournemouth refugee Fritz Engel--a Jewish Austrian dentist who in May 1940, after Winston Churchill became Prime Minister and inaugurated his sweeping “Collar the lot!” internment policy, was interned at the Highfield camp--recalled the brief time he spent there, before he was transferred to a larger camp on the Isle of Man, for possible shipment overseas.  “I was first taken into Southampton into a building belonging to Taunton’s School,” he wrote in an unpublished memoir, “already surrounded by electrically loaded barbed wire….” (See Tony Kushner and Katharine Knox, Refugees in an Age of Genocide: Global, National and Local Perspectives during the Twentieth Century, 1999.)

Similarly, Desider Furst, another refugee Austrian Jewish dentist wrote in his autobiography, Home is Somewhere Else: "[Our bus] stopped in front of a large building, a school, and the bus was surrounded by young soldiers with fixed bayonets.  We had become prisoners.  A large hall was turned into a dormitory, and we were each issued a blanket.  The room was already fairly crowded....We were fed irregularly with tea and sandwiches, and nobody bothered us.  We were not even counted.  I had the feeling that it was a dream or  bad joke that would end soon." He was wrong, however: "After two days we were each given a paper bag with some food and put onto a train [to Liverpool] under military escort.  The episode was turning serious; we were regarded as potential enemies."

Taunton's School, Highfield
today part of Southampton University
Soon finding its way in one of Bush’s detective novels was this highly topical setting, prudently shorn by the author of the problematic matter of alien refugee internees.  (Churchill’s policy became unpopular in the UK after the Arandora Star, an internee ship bound for Canada, was torpedoed by the Germans on July 2, 1940 leading to the deaths of nearly 1000 people on board, a tragic and needless event to which Margaret Cole darkly alludes in her pro-refugee wartime mystery Knife in the Dark.) 

All of Bush’s wartime Travers trilogy mysteries were favorably received in Britain (though they were not published in the U. S.), British crime fiction critics deeming their verisimilitude impressive indeed.  “Great is the gain to any tale when the author is able to provide a novel and interesting environment described with evident knowledge,” pronounced Bush’s Detection Club colleague E. R. Punshon in his review of one of these novels, The Case of the Murdered Major, in the Manchester Guardian.


Christopher Bush in the First World War
For his part Christopher Bush in August 1940 was granted, after his promotion to the rank of Major, indefinite release from service on medical grounds, giving him time to return full throttle to the writing of detective fiction.  Although only one Ludovic Travers mystery appeared in 1940, the year the author was enmeshed in administrative affairs at Highfield, Bush published seven more Travers mysteries between 1941 and 1945, as well as four war novels attributed to "Michael Home," the pseudonym under which he had written mainstream fiction back in the 1930s. Bush was back in the saddle--the mystery writer's saddle--again.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Up the River: Swing, Swing Together (1976), by Peter Lovesey


Jolly boating weather,
And a hay harvest-breeze;
Blade on the feather,
Shade off the trees,
Swing, swing together,
With your bodies between your knees,
Swing, swing together,
With your bodies between your knees.

--Eton Boating Song, by William Johnson Cory (epigraph to Swing, Swing Together, by Peter Lovesey)


In 1889 English author Jerome K. Jerome published Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), a frequently comical semi-fictionalized account of a two week boating holiday on the Thames taken by JKJ himself and two friends.  (The dog Montmorency, regrettably, is entirely fictional.)  Despite print criticism of the book's use of "vulgar" slang (or perhaps in part because of it), the book was a huge commercial success (it has never gone out of print) and it inspired jolly trios to get themselves into boats and follow the route laid out in JKL's book in their own river excursions.  In 2014 Robert McCrum in the Guardian ranked TMIAB #25 on his list of the 100 best novels.

The book was four times filmed in England, in 1920, 1933, 1956 (with Laurence Harvey) and for television in 1975, with Michael Palin and Tim Curry, two chaps who were having a great year in 1975, what with the release, additionally, of, respectively, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

author Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927)
Enter mystery master Peter Lovesey.  I didn't ask him about the timing when I got to talk to him at the Edgar Awards a few weeks ago, but as he was looking for background for his seventh Sergeant Cribb Victorian mystery--he had already done the athletic endurance competition known as a "wobble," bare knuckle boxing, the Fenian movement, spiritualism, bathing resorts and music halls--did Lovesey find the 1975 film a source of inspiration?

In any event, he produced one of the best mysteries in the Cribb series in 1976, with Swing, Swing Together, a murderous fantasia on Three Men in a Boat with, like its predecessor, great dollops of good humor amid the bloodletting.

The novel opens, unexpectedly, at Elfrida College for the Training of Female Elementary Teachers, where student Harriet Shaw, at the urging of two classmates (the kind you avoid in college if you are wise), is taking a moonlight dip in the Thames.  Yet more unexpectedly, the young women are overtaken by, yes, three men in a boat (to say nothing of a dog), resulting in in a flurried panic that leads to Harriet being carried rapidly downstream, where she is rescued, rather embarrassingly in the altogether, by a fortunately polite and quite personable young policeman by the name of Hardy.

Awkward as all this has been for Harriet (and she's naturally in rather a spot of trouble with the starched Head of the College, Miss Plummer), Constable Hardy is very personable indeed....Yet any thought of romance is set aside when Harriet finds she is now the leading witness in a murder investigation, the three men in the boat being the main suspects in the slaying of--oh my goodness dare I say it--a passing tramp. 

So many times is a passing tramp suspected of murder in classic British mystery (however unjustly); very few times indeed is the passing tramp the murder victim!  Why shoot a butler, Georgette Heyer once queried (you should have seen the sneer of the bookstore clerk who sold me a copy of that title)--one might also ask, why purge a passing tramp?

Constable Thackeray and Sergeant Cribb
(William Simmons and Alan Dobie)
in the Sergeant Cribb series adapatation
of Swing, Swing Together
Series sleuth Sergeant Cribb, like Sergeant Beef another candidate of mine for a Great Detective, takes Harriet under his wing while he conducts the murder investigation, which involves trailing the suspects up the Thames with Harrriet; redoubtable Constable Thackeray, the series's superb second banana; and, of course, Constable Hardy. (Will love bloom?)  Eventually the gang ends up in Oxford, and the novel becomes a college mystery of sorts, as there is a second murder, this time of a don fishing on the river.

Swing, Swing Together is simply a superb detective novel, arguably the best in the Cribb series.  There is so much to like: the clever homage to JKJ, the relationship of Cribb and Thackeray, Harriet and her classmates and her amusing romance (Lovesey handles women characters much better than your average male detective novelist, at least his spiritual forebears from the Golden Age of detection). 

And the plot is quite clever indeed.  There is excellent use of some classic gambits, and some brilliant feints and twists.  (At one point you will ask yourself, is he really going to go there?  I'll leave it to you to see whether he does.)  Lovesey fooled me once again, concerning the matter of culpritude, something I flatter myself that it is hard to do, but it's all done fairly.  Surely someone who quotes the Eton Boating Song would always play fair!

Peter Lovesey told me he thought the Cribb series was getting a little too lightly humorous with this novel, and he wrote the rather grim Waxwork, the last in the Cribb series, as something of a corrective to mirth.  Waxwork is a brilliantly done book, but I must admit I prefer Swing, Swing Together.  Lovesey's gift for this sort of ebullient manners mystery is immense, and it makes for a memorable and delightful crime novel.  They don't all have to be noir, folks!  As Robert McCrum has stated, "Humor in literature is often not taken as seriously as it deserves."  The same holds true of crime fiction, a branch of literature, whether in its lighter or darker forms.

Obligatory ancestor mention:  Some Passing Tramp readers have noticed that I tend to mention ancestral connections to books and authors on the blog.  Well, here we go again with another: my ancestor Richard Buffington, though whom I'm connected to Raymond Chandler, as well as singleton mystery writers Alfred Meyers and Ada Lingo, recently reissued by Coachwhip.

Richard Buffington, who came to American shores in 1677 as I recollect and died many decades later in Pennsylvania at the age of 94 (his 85th birthday was written up in Benjamin Franklin's Philadelphia Gazette), came from Marlow on the Thames (or Great Marlow as it was known in his day), a town which plays a significant role in both TMIAB and Swing, Swing Together

Buffingtons lived at Marlow (pictured upper right) for many generations, though I don't know whether they ever were involved in any murders!  In America the New England branch of the Buffingtons included witnesses at both the Salem Witch Trials and the Lizzie Borden Trial, so they did seem to have something of a flair for being on the scene, so to speak.  Suspicious, eh?

To say nothing of the dog!

And some very good news: Now nearing fifty years since its launching, the Cribb series, already available from Soho in the US, is being reissued this year in the UK by Sphere.  Get to reading, if you haven't already!  Swing, swing together, with your bodies between your knees!  Or, wait--that's rowing, not reading, right?

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Criminal Records: Crime Writers Christopher Bush and Rupert Croft-Cooke

By his own admission Christopher Bush as a young man (christened Charlie Christmas Bush, on account of his Christmas Day nativity) growing up in rural Norfolk participated in his tenant farming family's side business: poaching.  However, I had not realized until recently that CB had actually been arrested on account of this activity.  But arrested the future author was in January 1904, when he was 18 years old, along with his immediately elder brother, Ernest James Bush, 20, and Ernest Edward Hensley, 22, a woodman and neighbor who in 1917 would marry one of the Bush sisters, Hilda Elizabeth Bush.

Here are the shocking, dare I say hare-raising, details of the case:

Church of St. Andrew, Illington, Norfolk
EAST HARLING
PETTY SESSIONS

Before Major Keppel (chairman), Mr. ANC Hemsworth, Mr. B. Morris, and Lord Bury

Ernest James Bush, Hockham, was charged by Police-sergt. Potter with taking 12 pheasants, 2 hares, and 4 rabbits at Illington on December 28th.  Police-sergeant Potter said he was at Illington, where there was a shooting party.  He met the defendants driving a horse and cart.  He asked [Ernest] Bush what he had got in the cart, and he replied, "Nothing."  Witness said he must look, and upon searching the cart he found 18 head of game (produced).  There were several nets in the cart, and the game was covered with nets. 

Charles Christmas Bush and Ernest Edward Henley were charged with aiding and abetting.  Defendants pleaded guilty.  Ernest Bush was ordered to pay penalty and costs L3/4/6, in default 21 days hard labour;the other two defendants were fined L1/10, in default 14 days' hard labour.  


Now, crime writers have landed in greater spots of trouble and notoriety than this.  One popular modern crime writer infamously was involved in a shocking real life murder.  Agatha Christie "disappeared" for over a week, transfixing the nation with the mystery of the missing mystery writer.

1894 likeness of
Arnold Allan Cecil Keppel,
8th Earl of Ablemarle, Viscount Bury
Scourge of poachers? (1858-1942)
Rupert Croft-Cooke, along with his Indian companion-secretary, was arrested in 1953, during Britain's Pink Scare in the Furious Fifties, for committing sexual assault on two sailors who had spent the weekend at Croft-Cooke's house in Ticehurst.  The sailors, who had been arrested for physical assaults committed on others (an unfortunate altercation with a road mender and an intervening policeman) after they had left Croft-Cooke's house, were informed, after the local police learned where they had spent the weekend, that their assault sentences might be mitigated if they made assault complaints against Croft-Cooke, who was 50 at the time, and his secretary, who was all of 5'4". 

The desired statements having been obtained, Croft-Cooke and his secretary, Joseph, thereupon were charged with committing assault and acts of "gross indecency" upon the two sailors.

The sailors soon recanted their claims, but the presiding judge ruled their new retractions inadmissible.  Croft-Cooke was sentenced to a prison term of nine months and Joseph to a term of three months.  (The Army also tried to have Croft-Cooke's war medals taken away for good, or bad, measure.)  Upon his release in 1954, Croft-Cooke left England with Joseph and did not return for two decades.  Ironically, almost all of Croft-Cooke's very English Carolus Deene mystery novel series, which ran from 1955 to 1974, was written in foreign locales.

One of Croft-Cooke's two sailor "accusers" was a Harold Altoft, said to have been 20 years old at the time.  There was a Harold Altoft, born on September 24, 1932 and died in 2006, at the age of 73, who would have been 20 at the time of the Croft-Cooke affair.  This Harold Altoft came from Kingston, Yorkshire, where his parents were John Harold Altoft of Kingston, Yorkshire, an iron keg and drum maker, and Ida Reed, daughter of Walter Reed, a coal heaver.  He married in the Spring of 1954, about the time, I recollect, that Croft-Cooke was completing his prison sentence.  Was is it the same "Harry"?  At this time I have no idea.  If he was it would have been wonderful to get his side of the story before his death a dozen years ago.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Beefing Up: Case with Ropes and Rings, by Leo Bruce (1940)

A few weeks ago I urged that Leo Bruce's series sleuth Sergeant Beef be classed as one of the Great Detectives.  All eight of his cases--too few of them were written--have true detection, often ingenious twists and, of course, the paired delights of plainspoken commoner Sergeant Beef and his priggish public schooled Watson, Lionel Townsend.

Wartime British hardcover edition, amusingly noting
that Beef--Sergeant Beef--has not been rationed
Leo Bruce, aka mainstream author Rupert Croft-Cooke [RCC], was one of the early Golden Age iconoclasts, a man who very much cocked a snook at class conventions in classic British mystery, subverting its sometime condescension and snobbery while staunchly adhering to its puzzle traditions. 

Bruce's sleuth hero was not some sophisticated gentleman detective of polished manners and posh mien who captured the hearts of his women readers (and some of the men), but rather a darts-playing, brew-swilling cop--not even an inspector, mind you--with poor grammar and an undignified draggling, beer-soaked ginger mustache.

A gay man who grew up in all-too-briefly prosperous circumstances in Edwardian England, RCC developed an ingrained skepticism of England's public school system and its entrenched elites with their inherited class privileges.  When RCC has Lionel Townsend primly declare, "I have always considered the public school system to be an integral part of the great tradition of English superiority to every other race and regime in the entire world," you can be certain there is more than a measure of sarcasm here.

RCC became interested in a different sort of British milieu from that commonly associated with classic British mystery: working class life, with its barmaids and mechanics, denizens of pubs and circuses and gypsies and foreigners from central and southern Europe and parts yet farther from English shores. (Gasp!)  This attitude led to the creation of Sergeant Beef when RCC as Leo Bruce began to write detective fiction in 1936.

In a class by itself is the first Beef mystery, Case for Three Detectives, a genre classic which pits lowly Sergeant Beef, a village policeman, against splendidly acute parodies of Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and Father Brown, and sees Beef best all three.  And it's a locked room mystery too!

Case with Ropes and Rings (1940) is not in the same league, but it's an amusing story with a clever culmination to its murder plot.

In the novel Beef, having gone into business as a private detective, is called in to investigate the suspicious demise of a student in the gymnasium of Penshurst Boys School.  Young Lord Alan Foulkes, a senior at the school and the second son of the Marquess of Edenbridge, was found hanging from a beam in the gymnasium on the morning after he had won the school's heavyweight boxing championship. 

For Beef good cases like this one (as he deems it) have not been plentiful, to a great extent because "respectable" people, the type of people who rent detective fiction from lending libraries, don't want murders which personally impact them chronicled in a book (Yes, like all true Great Detectives, Sergeant Beef's "Watson" writes up Beef's investigations in novel form.)

As this Watson, Lionel Townsend, explains:

I had made several attempts to get [Beef] a job, but these had been frustrated by a number of circumstances.  In the first, a nice little murder up in Shropshire, the wife of the murdered man had explained tartly that even if she did employ an investigator, she would not have the killing of her husband with a meat chopper made the subject of a novel.  Another, a parson in Norfolk, who was having all sorts of trouble in his parish on account of a deluge of anonymous letters, had shaken his head sadly.  "The publicity, my dear Sir, the publicity!"

The perfect Watson?
E. M. Forster (with Bob Buckingham)
The Leo Bruce novels include a lot of this sort of meta-style japery.  An admirer tells Beef in Case with Ropes and Rings that what the sleuth really needs is a more literary chronicler than Townsend: has he thought about trying E. M. Forster or Aldous HuxleyA Passage to Murder, anyone?  How about Howard's End?  You wouldn't even have to change the title of that one to make it a mystery!

Townsend is doubtful about Beef's taking on this school case, given the tragic circumstances (the death by hanging, deemed by the police a suicide, of a teenage boy, and an aristocrat at that).  Beef naturally has little time for noble sentiment:

"Tragic circumstances...have never been sufficient to put off an investigator.  They love tragic circumstances, the whole lot of them.  Haven't you ever noticed in detective novels what a good time is had by everybody with a few tragic circumstances?"

Beef gives Townsend a right proper scare by suggesting, concerning the Beef mysteries Townsend has penned, that he, Beef, should have "a cut at the book rights," not to mention the "American rights, and the serial rights, if there are any, and the film rights, if your agents are ever clever enough to sell them."  The ex-cop suggests that actor Gordon Harker, then at the height of his Inspector Hornleigh radio and film fame, should play him on film. (In the films Hornleigh was a comical Cockney detective, so Beef--and his creator--may have been on to something here!)

Gordon Harker (right) as Insepctor Hornleigh
with his sidekick, played by Alastair Sim
The whole matter of money quite properly vexes and perplexes Sergeant Beef:

"I should very much like to know what the other investigators would advise...You never hardly find them discussing money.  How do you suppose Dr. Thorndyke and Amer Picon [Hercule Poirot] and them get on?  I know Lord Simon Plimsoll [Lord Peter Wimsey] has a private income.  Do you suppose the rest of them do it for love?"

Beef thinks this public school hanging case is a bit of all right, however:

"It's just what we need, lords and Old Schools and all that....People like to read about those with money and the goings on of the aristocracy."

Yet one of the schoolboys involved in the case is an Indian classmate of the dead boy Foulkes--though admittedly he is "the son of a fabulously rich merchant"--and for once in vintage British mystery a darker complected member of the Empire is presented without any trace of condescension from a native English author.  Indeed, the "extremely handsome young Indian," one Barricharan, happily fits right in with the native English crowd, and he is surprised at Beef's suggestion that it might be otherwise:

"Do you like being in the school?" asked Beef suddenly. 
"Very much."
"You never feel sort...out of place, in any way?"
"Out of place?" repeated Barricharhan, quite honestly perplexed.
"I mean, by being a different color, and that?"
"Good lord, no.  They're a good crowd here."

Just a few years later, incidentally, RCC, while serving in the Army in India, would meet a handsome young Indian who would become, for the next 35 years, his companion and secretary.  (By the end of RCC's life in 1979 this formerly young Indian, now 52, had become a confirmed cricket fan and Tory voter.)

When a second murder of a young boxer takes place, this time in seedier environs in London (prompting Townsend to wonder whether a serial killer of boxers is at work), a new set of characters is introduced: expatriate Spanish Republicans (the late Spanish Civil war having recently ended, to the dismay of much of the liberal world, in favor of the Nationalist faction led by Francisco Franco.) 

Although RCC, like George Orwell, became skeptical of both the Left and the Right in the war, he presents without caricature these people, who as leftists and "dagos" would have been mocked in much of British crime fiction of the day. In Case with Ropes and Rings RCC provides a topical, if all too brief, look at an important aspect of the international political scene, and he integrates it into the mystery plot as well.

But perhaps most mystery readers of the day simply weren't that interested in this sort of thing.  Case with Ropes and Rings was not published in the US, unlike the earlier Bruce books, and at several points in the novel RCC tellingly has Townsend grumble about his disappointing book sales with the Beef mysteries: "I approached to help [Beef], and as I did so he dropped [the mat] back into place, covering with dust the new blue serge suit which I had purchased out of the meagre proceeds of Case with Four Clowns."

Young Barricharan, we learn, is the only person to have borrowed Case with Four Clowns, the immediately previous Leo Bruce detective novel, from the school library.  For his part Sergeant Beef  deflatingly explains that he simply had assumed Townsend's books "don't sell enough to get down here."

Looking serious: Rupert Croft-Cooke
By 1940 RCC was well aware that is was the women known as the "Crime Queens" who were making the real killing out of British crime fiction, as we see in this passage where Townsend is mocked by an obnoxiously precocious schoolboy, obviously the model for Rupert Priggley in Bruce's later Carolus Deene mystery series.  (Carolus Deene was a gentleman amateur detective--if you can't beat 'em, join 'em!):

God, how that sort of thing bores me!  All these fearful women writers and people like you, working out dreary crimes for half-wits to read about.  Doesn't it strike you as degrading?


I decided to keep my temper.

"One can scarcely expect schoolboys to appreciate the subtlety and depths of modem detective fiction," I said.  "I have only to quote the name of Miss Sayers to remind you of what this genre has already produced."

It wasn't the first time--and it certainly would not be the last--that the weighty name of Dorothy L. Sayers was invoked to defend the intellectual and artistic credibility of the detective novel.  But in this case you may be justified in suspecting that the invocation was done with mock solemnity, and with laughing gas, not incense, wafting through the air.

RCC derides the love interest in the detective novel of manners associated with the Crime Queens Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham by having Townsend again amorously pursue a lovely young woman, again with utter futility.  "This isn't a love story," Beef chides the crestfallen Townsend, thwarted in love yet again.  "It's a detective novel.  I never like to see the two mixed up.  None of the best of 'em ever did it.  We'll stick to crime."

Yet although he's the clueless straight man in the Sergeant Beef mysteries, Townsend does get the funniest lines in the book (wittingly or not), particularly on the next to last page, where he concludes with the outraged exclamation, "The man must be an absolute cad!"  I wish I could quote the rest, but--spoiler, don't you know.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Shall We Join the Ladies? Death in Lord Byron's Room (1948), by Sally Wood

Ann and Nancy Thorne
look on Death's grim work
For the Angel of Death
spread his wings on the blast
And breathed in the face
of the foe as He passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers
waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved
and forever grew still!
from The Destruction of Sennacherib
by Lord Byron
...Ann unlocked her dressing case and drew out the pearl-handled revolver.
"You might slip this in."
Diana's eyes were like saucers.
"Oh, I say!"
"It's only a toy," said Nancy, putting it in her purse.  "I hope it doesn't drop out when I buy my ticket."
But she applied her lipstick with a new interest, wiping it all off twice.
Miss Ann was watching from the window.  The stout craft, with paddle wheels at the side like Mississippi steamboats, was warping into the dock.
"Ready, girls," she said.


Damn all female Americans!  Not women really at all, that one could mold, could teach, but wayward tomboys, not properly conscious of their sex, yes, even at fifty still eluding one, playing with danger, running headlong....

"If you were the kind of girl who screamed," her aunt said, "you wouldn't be in Switzerland." 

"These fascist parties that spring up in France, they have caches of the latest weapons, handsome uniforms, their own newspapers.  They are waiting till the Communist threat gets very bad....Then they will say democracy doesn't work.  They will seize control, join with the Nazis who are still strong in Germany and," he spread out his hands, "we will have a fascist Europe."

                                       
--From Death in Lord Byron's Room (1948), by Sally Wood

Lord Byron
Well, this prophecy did not prove correct in 1948, when Sally Wood published Death in Lord Byron's Room, but perhaps, after all, we just needed to give it 70 years or so.  In Europe and the United States.  It can't happen here?  Let's see about that!  Give the march of folly some time....

Like the fear of resurgent fascism, the theme of femme force, or less alliteratively female empowerment, in Sally Wood's novel also has resonance today.  In the novel it is around 1947 and Ann Thorne--socially-connected former ambassador's daughter and Connecticut "spinster" and clever amateur sleuth in Wood's prior mystery, Murder of a Novelist (1941)--and her sort of surrogate daughter/niece, beautiful and recently bereaved Nancy Thorne (she appeared in the prior novel too, at the age of 17), are sent to Switzerland on a secret mission to help ferret out a deadly fascist cabal that threatens the postwar security of Europe--and the world! 

Okay, this seems more believable when you read it in the book, I promise.

Once in delightfully scenic but surprisingly deadly Switzerland, Ann and Nancy encounter many mysterious and often handsome men--Swiss, American, English, French and German--and a gangling young Englishwoman named Diana who becomes a sort of satellite of Ann and Nancy.  But in this land of double identities and double crosses, where hearts have as many holes in them as, well, the cheese, which men can the women trust?

path of Lord Byron through Switzerland

I enjoyed this little novel quite a lot--in large measure, I think, because the lead characters are women, not professional spies but amateur ones.  Ann and Nancy are rather like Tuppence, doubled, of Tommy and Tuppence fame, yet they are more believable than that larking she-adventurer because they aren't relentlessly jolly and gung-ho.  Yet at the same time the book offers a charming break from the dour professional spy novels from the era.  (A more apt comparison might be with the work of Manning Coles.)

I thought the pairing of the sophisticated middle-aged Ann with the young, supposed ingenue Nancy works splendidly.  How nice it is to see a middle-aged women fully share the spotlight with the pretty young thing in a mystery novel!  Nor is the middle-aged "spinster" made into some matronly old maid figure of fun, as is so often the case in HIBK (Had I But Known) mystery. 

Here the middle-aged woman is not only tough but alluring in her own, more mature and seasoned way--and she most definitely attracts men of a certain age. (Her own!).  I just wish the stunning dust jacket brought out Ann's alluring aspect more--though it certainly catches her toughness and no-nonsense personality.  And Nancy--va-va-voom!  She is beautiful.  And pretty tough herself.

The setting in Switzerland, in the towns and cities along the shore of Lake Geneva that the doomed English poet Lord Byron once haunted, is very well done, with a dangerous ride by paddleboat making a particularly fascinating tableau.  (There's also a deadly Wagner recital: Tristan und Isolde, beware!) 

A Gathering of Evil
Martin Boorman and his master
The fear of a Nazi revival so soon after the war might seem overwrought today (or not), but interestingly the novel mentions as a possible ringleader Martin Bormann, Secretary to the Fuehrer (and a staunch advocate during his infamous tenure of mass deportations, murders of Jews, thefts of art treasures and implementation of forced labor programs).  Until 1973, when his remains were discovered in Berlin and he was officially declared dead, Bormann was thought to have left Hitler's Bunker and escaped somewhere abroad. (In fact he had been killed the very day of his bunker breakout.)

This monster in human form was sentenced to death in absentia at the Nuremberg Trials.  Britain's MI5 was particularly obsessed with tracking down the supposedly absconded Bormann and seeing that the Nuremberg sentence was carried out, prompting one skeptical and snarkish British official, when told in May 1947 that Bormann might be coming through Ceylon:

I think Perera might be commended for his enthusiasm, but it might also be broken to him gently that the late but peripatetic Herr Bormann is currently being seen in Switzerland (the most persistent locale), Bolivia, Italy, Norway and Brazil--in the last country sitting in state on a high mountain beside his pallid Fuehrer....The press is doubtless waiting to break the silly season scoop: that he has been been seen riding the Loch Ness monster. 

loathsome Bormann

The John Dickson Carr locked room crowd may be disappointed with Sally Wood's mystery, because with a title like this one people might be expecting a locked room detective novel.  Nothing of the sort!  There is much mystery and a Christie-like plot (not to mention three deaths in the novel and several attempted murders), but no locked rooms.  Yes, Lord Byron once stayed in the murder room, but his presence hovers but lightly over the novel, despite the novel's title.

lordly Byron

That point aside, it's a very good book, I think, and one I'm pleased to say is being reprinted this year. (Along, I think, with Murder of a Novelist, coming soon here in review).

World War One American nurse
The author Sally Calvin Wood (1897-1985) lived a life something like her charming and spirited creations Ann and Nancy Thorne.

From a socially prominent family in Rochester, New York (her father was a noted attorney and her grandfather, Horace McGuire, Deputy Attorney General of New York, once had been a typesetter on abolitionist Frederick Douglass's newspaper, where he witnessed a meeting between Douglass and antislavery militant John Brown), Sally graduated from Wellesley College in 1918 and patriotically enlisted upon graduation in the Army Nursing Corps.

Back at Rochester after the Armstice Sally completed her training and worked among the impoverished as a Public Health nurse. 

Sally's first husband was Stephen Raushenbush, a government investigator of labor conditions in coal mines.  After their marriage the couple settled in Greenwich Village in 1924, where Sally became close friends of Caroline Gordon, future novelist and then wife of noted Southern Agrarian poet and essayist Allen Tate. Sally's second husband was Lawrence Albert Kohn (1894-1977), a professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine.  The childless couple adopted the orphaned son of some colleagues who as Ted Kohn became a Rochester sculptor. 

As this short biography indicates, Sally Wood was a woman of progressive ideals who fervently believed in the credo "Never again."  Hers was a life well-lived, most-assuredly; but better yet, from the mystery fan's perspective, hers was a life which included the publication of some entertaining mystery novels!

BONUS: should Ann and Nancy worry about you, dear reader?  Take the F Scale and find out!

It's a Ruthless World: Cut Throat (1932), by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush detective novels 21-30 are being reissued by Dean Street Press next month.  In the meantime, I thought I would post here my own take on Bush mystery #7, Cut Throat, as it is found in the introduction to the DSP volume.  It provides some background to the novel.--TPT

During the fall and spring of 1930-31--when ideas likely were germinating in Christopher Bush’s crafty and fertile mind about Cut-Throat (1932), the seventh Ludovic Travers’ detective novel--the devastating impact in Great Britain of the global Great Depression was casting British politics ever further into disarray.

Beset by crisis upon crisis, the weak and unpopular Labour government of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald continued to flag, propped up only with Liberal and Conservative acquiescence.  Yet Stanley Baldwin, leader of the Tories since 1923, himself was under immense pressure, with powerful right-wing press lords--Max Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express and Evening Standard, and Harold Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror and younger brother of the late press titan Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe-- having united in an effort to oust him as party leader over the issue of free trade.


In the 1929 general election, Lord Beaverbrook had launched the Empire Free Trade Crusade, a political movement designed to promote free trade among member states in the British Commonwealth while erecting tariff walls, including a so-called “tax on food,” against the rest of the world; and in 1930 he joined Lord Rothermere in forming the United Empire Party, a dagger aimed at Baldwin’s political heart.  The shadow conflict between Baldwin and the press lords came to a head in a hotly-contested and much-publicized March 1931 by-election contest in an affluent constituency in London’s West End.  There Beaverbrook and Rothermere’s man, Sir Ernest Petter, ran an Independent Conservative campaign on behalf of “Empire Free Trade” against rising Tory star Alfred Duff Cooper, a Baldwin supporter.


Just two days before the by-election, in what historian William D. Rubinstein calls “one of the most famous political speeches of the twentieth century” (see Rubinstein’s Twentieth-Century Britain: A Political History), Baldwin dramatically denounced the newspapers of the press lords as “engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes…of two men” and the two men themselves as power-hungry prostitutes: “What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, but power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.  After Baldwin’s so-called “harlot speech,” Duff Cooper won the election handily, effectively saving the career of the opposition leader, who went on with Ramsay MacDonald in August to form a National Government, which won a remarkable landslide victory in the October 1931 general election. 


In addition to being a corker of a detective novel, Christopher Bush’s Cut-Throat, which saw publication in the spring immediately following the 1931 general election, is reflective of early Depression-era domestic politics in the United Kingdom, particularly in its highlighting of the political ascendance in between-the-wars Britain of the press lords.  Much of Cut-Throat concerns two fictional newspaper tycoons, elderly Sir William Griffiths, who recently divested himself of the Mercury (“so Cobdenian that it creaked,” fatalistically comments Ludovic Travers of the newspaper, referencing Richard Cobden, the mid-Victorian Liberal thinker and free trade ideologist), and punningly-named Lord Zyon, owner of the Evening Record, with which the now defunct Mercury has been amalgamated. 

Drawing on the Record’s slogan, “Free Trade with a Difference,” the enterprising Lord Zyon has created the protectionist “Work-for-All Crusade,” which he plans to formally launch, against an “enormous background of Union Jacks,” at a grand rally at the Albert Hall.  On account of his extensive economic expertise, Ludovic Travers—author, as any Bush mystery fan by this time surely knew, of The Economics of a Spendthrift and other highly brainy yet charmingly written treatises--has been personally invited by Lord Zyon to attend the rally, though he believes that “in the panacea which his lordship was prescribing for the nation’s ills there should be far less syrup and more Epsom salts. 


Travers arrives at the Albert Hall, where he learns from Lord Zyon that Sir William Griffiths has sent him a note informing his lordship of his unexpected conversion to the “Work-for-All” cause.  In the note Sir William has promised Lord Zyon not only that he “will most certainly be on the platform to-night,” but that he has sent to the Hall a hamper filled with evidence of illicit dumping, personally secured by himself.  (The economic term “dumping” refers to predatory pricing of exports in international trade.)  Sir William’s hamper duly arrives at the Hall and inside it there indeed is evidence of dumping--but not quite the sort of evidence that people were expecting.  Upon opening the hamper Lord Zyon discovers, amid a scattering of cabbage leaves, Sir Williams’s corpse, his throat cut from ear to ear.

Could the murder of Sir William Griffiths in such a brutal and demonstrative fashion have been some form of domestic terrorism?  A burnt offering!  Mightn’t there have been a fanatic so frantic in his devotion as to have presented that sacrifice?” asks Travers in a flight of fancy.  The slain body of a man who more than any other stood for reaction: the old, obstinate creeds of Free Trade and the weary shibboleths of a dead political age?

To this theory Superintendent George Wharton of the Yard, who has been called into the case, scoffs.  However, he allows Travers--or more accurately Travers’s man, Palmer--to drive him down to Sir William’s Devonshire country house for further investigation.  There the pair interviews Sir William’s nephew and heir, the intrepid—or so publicity has it--world explorer Tim Griffiths, only recently returned from outer Mongolia; Sir William’s uxorious financial secretary, Bland; Bland’s distressingly vulgar wife (“What on earth had she been before Bland married her,” a bemused Travers wonders. “Barmaid?  Chorus girl?  Third-rate schoolmarm?”); Bland’s chess-playing pal, local vicar Reverend Cross; Sir Williams’s housekeeper, Mrs. Rigg; and Sir William’s “soft-footed” and “slimy” (Travers’s words again) butler, Daniels.  Also participating in the investigation is Chief-Inspector Norris, Wharton’s right-hand man, of whom we shall more in future novels, and an intrusive crime reporter named Sanders, who always seems somehow to wheedle his way into a crime scene. 

When required at one point in the novel to dally with Mrs. Bland (for the good of the investigation, of course), Travers may come off to readers as a tad priggish, though he gives lovers of manners mystery glimmers of hope that there might be some form of a romantic fling in his future.  (“Given the right woman—and every other propitious circumstance—all sorts of things might happen,” reflects Travers after his ordeal by flirtation with Mrs. Bland.  But this was appalling!”)   

Additionally, in Cut-Throat Bush again gives scope to his extensive familiarity with classical music, as he had in his previous detective novel, Dead Man’s Music (1931), with mention being made of Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“Wonderful!  So utterly expressive of the play!”) and Ravel’s then cutting edge composition Bolero, first performed only four years prior to the publication of the novel (“All drum taps and things,” remarks Travers.  Works up to a tremendous climax.”; “Gets on your nerves a bit,” responds Wharton.) 

Overall Cut-Throat is a beautifully-constructed and hugely-entertaining detective novel, with some unexpected moments of melancholy concerning the troubled social condition of Great Britain in the early Thirties.  All this case seems nothing but times!” wails one fretted investigator late in the novel, but the alibi problem Bush presents his readers is one of the finest such from the Golden Age, which is saying something, given the high standards of detection in those years.  As the crime fiction blogger Nick Fuller once aptly observed, Christopher Bushwas to the unbreakable alibi what [John Dickson] Carr was to the impossible crime.