Death of an Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg

Death of an Airman cover

Death of an Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg was first published in 1934 but I read the British Library Crime Classics reprint. In fact due to circumstances beyond my control I read this book from cover to cover all in one sitting, it took me about five hours and it made my wait bearable, in fact I really enjoyed this one.

Edwin Marriott is an Australian bishop who is on holiday in England. As his diocese in Australia is massive he has decided that he’ll have to learn to fly so that he can visit his flock. He has chosen take lessons at Baston Aero Club which has quite a mixture of flying instructors including a World War 1 flying ace.

It’s evident from early on that there are tensions at the flying school and it’s not long before there’s a death. Is it just an accident, murder or suicide? The bishop helps to get to the bottom of it all aided by Inspector Bray of Scotland Yard.

I was kept guessing all along and had no idea what was going on, the plot is really convoluted and it’s just such a shame that the author had such a short career as his life was cut short when he was killed fighting in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. His real name was Christopher Caudwell.

A Scream in Soho by John G. Brandon

A Scream in Soho cover

A Scream in Soho by John G. Brandon was first published in 1940 but my copy is a British Library Crime Classics reprint. It’s the first book that I’ve read by this author.

I got the impression that this book was written with the author’s tongue very much in his cheek. At times it’s just a bit daft and unlikely, but still entertaining. Detective Inspector McCarthy is quite a departure from the norm as he’s a Soho lad and had a very rough upbringing, that stands him in good stead though as he knows the types of thugs that live in the area and the sorts of things that they get up to.

It’s London’s Soho in wartime, so it’s dark and grim and there are a lot of Italian gangsters about and supposed Austrian refugees aren’t at all what they seem. There’s a murder early on – plenty of evidence but no body!

That exclamation mark of mine (I’m quite partial to them at times) is used by me as usual in a cheery and light-hearted fashion. I had to laugh when I read a Goodreads ‘review’ of this book by someone who was outraged by it, mainly because one of the chapter titles has an exclamation mark and the book is apparently homophobic, transgenderist, ableist (what is that? Prejudice against disabilities?) and a whole lot of other ‘ists’ and ‘ics’. Yet again I’m left wondering why people bother to read older books which aren’t likely to be as politically correct as most books are today. I suspect they’re looking for something to be outraged about!

John G. Brandon might not be one of the big hitters of crime fiction, but he did have a good sense of humour, and that led to this being an entertaining read.

Crimson Snow edited by Martin Edwards

Crimson Snow cover

Crimson Snow winter mysteries is a collection of vintage crime short stories edited by Martin Edwards. Reading this book gave me an opportunity to read a lot of vintage crime authors that I hadn’t read before.

The contributors are: Fergus Hume, Edgar Wallace, Margery Allingham, S.C. Roberts, Victor Gunn, Christopher Bush, Ianthe Jerrold, Macdonald Hastings, Julian Symons, Michael Gilbert and Josephine Bell.

Most of the stories are fairly short but the one by Victor Gunn is about seventy pages long so it’s really a novella and I don’t know if it’s because that one is longer – but I think it’s my favourite story. I’ll definitely be looking for more books by Victor Gunn anyway. I’ve seen a lot of his books on my travels but had no idea what they would be like and didn’t give them a go. No doubt now I won’t see any of his books in shops for yonks. That’s what happened to me with Dornford Yates, he was all over the place until Valerie said some of his books were good – and now they’ve disappeared after me being just about haunted by them previously.

I enjoyed this collection of short stories which are all set around winter/Christmas celebrations although the stories that I liked least were the ones by authors that I’ve read most. Margery Allingham and Macdonald Hastings disappointed me, maybe I just expected too much of them.

Published by British Library Crime Classics of course and the cover is taken from a vintage St Moritz travel poster. There’s a wee biography of each writer on the page before their story begins, which was interesting but I would have liked it if they had also added the date the story was originally published and which magazine it first appeared in. That’s me nit-picking though. This was perfect Christmas bedtime reading, why is murder and Christmas such a good combination?!

The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

The Sussex Downs Murder

The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude was first published in 1936 but I read a British Library Crimes Classic reprint. I love its cover which was taken from a Southern Railway poster for Seaford. Another plus for me is – there’s a map!

The setting is Chalklands Farm, on the Sussex Downs. Two brothers live there, William and John Rother, the farm has been in the family for three generations and William’s wife also lives there. When John’s car is found abandoned down a remote lane a few miles from the farm it’s obvious from the start that something has happened. A door is open and on close investigation there’s blood inside the car and on the inside of a cap. It doesn’t look like an accident – so what has happened to John and where is he now?

Superintendent Meredith is called in to lead the investigation and he uncovers lots of clues which point to various culprits throughout the book. It’s very detail heavy, something that I associate with male writers of crime fiction and by the end of this one my head was fairly spinning! In fact I lost concentration for a minute and had to go back and read a couple of pages over again.

Bude’s real name was Ernest Elmore and he was a theatre producer and director.

I enjoyed this one, I liked the relationship between Meredith and his son Tony, and I now know what a five valve super-het wireless was! My only slight disappointment was that it was set in a part of Sussex that I don’t know, it’s silly I know but I do like it when I can see the locations. This book has an introduction by Martin Edwards.

The Methods of Sergeant Cluff by Gil North

The Methods of Sergeant Cluff cover

The Methods of Sergeant Cluff by Gil North was first published in 1961 but my copy is a British Library Crime Classics re-print. It has an introduction by Martin Edwards. This is the first book I’ve read by Gil North, I can’t say I’m wild about it, I think I’ll probably give it a three on Goodreads. It has occurred to me though that quite possibly the author wrote this book as part of the successful anti death penalty campaign that was going on in the early 1960s. It was a time when there had been several miscarriages of justice and the British juries became disinclined to bring in a guilty verdict for murder, in case they got it wrong.

The setting is a small town on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, it’s a wet night and a young woman’s body is found face down on a cobbled street. Jane Trundle had been an assistant in a chemist’s shop.

There’s only one CID man in the division, Sergeant Cluff, a typical rough no nonsense North of England man, independent and stubborn. He’s a bit of a loner and his colleagues seem to resent his previous successes.

The whole town seems to think that the culprit is a young man who has held a torch for the victim for ages, his horror of the whole situation just makes matters worse, but Cluff is determined to investigate properly.

The trouble with this one is that Cluff seems like such a stereotype detective, along the lines of Morse and many other such mavericks, but maybe he didn’t seem such a cliche in the early 1960s.

I love the front cover though, it has been taken from a British Rail Yorkshire Dales travel poster. I love that style.

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude

 The Cheltenham Square Murder cover

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude was first published in 1937 but as you can see I read a British Library Crime Classics reprint. It has an introduction by Martin Edwards.

This is the second book by John Bude which I’ve read and I did enjoy it although it is a bit long-winded with all the possibilities gone into in depth. I’ve previously read his Cornish Coast Murder and you can read what I thought of that one here.

Cheltenham has a number of squares that are really cul-de-sacs with the houses only being on three sides and in Regency Square the inhabitants of the ten houses that it comprises are at loggerheads over whether a tree should be cut down or not. They are a disparate group of people ranging from well-heeled to just managing to scrape along financially. When one of the neighbours ends up being killed as he sat by a window Superintendent Meredith is asked to investigate. Was it an accident or murder?

I’ve found these British Library Crime Classic reprints to be a bit hit and miss, for me this one was a hit, although I still think that 1930s male crime writers in general concentrated too much on the minutiae of a mystery at the expense of the characters.

Murder in Piccadilly by Charles Kingston

 Murder in Piccadilly cover

Murder in Piccadilly by Charles Kingston was first published in 1936 but the one I read is one of those British Library Crime Classics which have atmospheric 1930s covers this one featuring Piccadilly Circus.

I really shouldn’t have enjoyed this book as much as I did because it’s one of those murder mysteries where the murder doesn’t occur until half way through the book. I really prefer it if the murder is discovered before page three and so you don’t really know anything much about the victim.

But there was enough going on in the first half to keep me interested and I really liked Kingston’s writing style, his dialogue is entertaining, witty and cutting at times.

The setting is mainly London although a country manor house does also feature. Ruby Cheldon is a World War 1 widow, her husband was blown up by a shell and she was left to bring up their son on her own. Bobbie is in his early 20s, but he has been so spoiled by his mother that despite having to live on her very small allowance he has no intention of getting a job.

The main reason for his lack of ambition is that he has been brought up with the knowledge that his father’s elder brother Massy Cheldon is very wealthy and as he has never married Bobbie will eventually inherit his money and property.

Uncle Massy is a miser and seems to enjoy maintaining his widowed sister-in-law and nephew in a life of penury, living in a poverty stricken part of London, while he lives the high life. Massy expects to live at least another twenty of thirty years more, but Bobbie has fallen for Nancy a beautiful young woman, a dancer in a nightclub. Nancy is only interested in Bobbie for his money though and it’s a shock for her to discover that the much talked of money and property is actually in the hands of Massy.

Bobbie is consumed by the unfairness of his life and feels that he is the rightful owner of the wealth and that Massy is simply keeping him from everything he should already have, including Nancy. Throw in a couple of dodgy characters from the seedier side of London in the shape of Nancy’s dancing partner and a failed boxer and it all adds up to a good vintage crime book with a nice twist near the end.

I will definitely be looking out for more books by Charles Kingston who was apparently a fairly prolific crime writer in his day but for some reason his books haven’t been reprinted over the years, until now.

There’s an introduction by Martin Edwards which of course should NOT be read before you read the book. It ends by him writing:This is not a cerebral country house whodunnit of the kind so often written during the Golden Age, but a good-natured old-fashioned thriller, that retains a warm period charm.

I agree.

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne was first published in 1931 and as you can see it’s subtitled A Scottish Mystery.

The setting is Castle Duchlan, a remote and grim Highland pile. The laird of Duchlan is a very weak sort of man, dominated completely by his sister who has never married, but has lived her life as head of the household, even when Duchlan married, his sister Mary Gregor was still the boss. I say ‘Duchlan’ because of course in Scotland the laird often goes by the name of the place rather than his family name.

Duchlan’s son is now in the army and is married with a son of his own called Eoghan and Mary Gregor was determined to take over as the boy’s mother. She’s one of those dreadful women who are so jealous that they can’t bear any males in the family to have anything to do with any other women. It’s a difficult situation for all concerned, especially for the young mother.

When Mary Gregor is found dead in her bedroom after having been stabbed it’s a real puzzle as there appears to be no way it could have been done. Her door is locked and the only real clue is a fish scale which is found in the wound. The superstitious Highlanders believe in fishy creatures which come from nearby water and the scale seems to prove their theory to them anyway.

But Inspector Dundas is brought up from Glasgow to crack the case, he’s helped by the local doctor – Eustace Hailey who is an amateur sleuth.

This is a good mystery which has plenty of twists and turns. I did guess the culprit but by then I wasn’t too far from the end.

Anthony Wynne was the nom de plume of Robert McNair Wilson who was a Glaswegian cardiologist. He was one of those people who had lots of interests and you can’t help but wonder how he managed to have a very successful medical career as well as writing mysteries, histories, biographies and was also interested in politics and economics, also writing books on those subjects. He stood for parliament twice, standing as a Liberal but he was not voted in, which is a plus as far as I’m concerned. He was also the medical correspondent for The Times for over 30 years and wrote for The Pictorial magazine.

I think maybe he had an identical twin brother!

I note that the link above to Fantastic Fiction states that Wynne was an English physician when he was in fact Scottish.

If you are thinking of buying this book you should check your local charity shops as I have come across four copies of it in various shops within a few days.

Christmas Books

Christmas books

Above is a photograph of the books that I was lucky enough to get at Christmas.

Glasgow Interiors by Helen Kendrick is a book which I had actually just borrowed from the library and I had been thinking how nice it would be to actually own a copy of it, so I was thrilled when I got it as a present.

The Fringes of Edinburgh by John Geddie is an old travel guide from 1941, it has lots of drawings and painted illustrations in it. I suppose we are living on the fringes of Edinburgh but this book mentions lots of places I have never been to, I hope to go and visit some of them.

The Water Babies has 24 plates in colour by Harry G Theaker. I have a thing for lovely childrens books and illustrations so when I saw this in a secondhand bookshop not long before Christmas I asked Jack to get it for me and give it to me on the big day. I do believe in getting what you want and not leaving it up to luck! If you’re interested you can see some of the illustrations here. I think it was published around 1930.

Lost Empires by J.B. Priestley. I like Priestley’s writing but I haven’t read anything of his for ages, this one was first published in 1965.

The last two are from the British Library Crime Classics series – Quick Curtain by Alan Melville and Resorting to Murder which is a collection of short stories. I’ve already read Quick Curtain and enjoyed it, but I bought another couple of books in this series at the weekend – no, there’s no chance of me ever catching up with my TBR pile!

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay is the second book which I’ve read by the author. I wasn’t too keen on the previous one but I found this one to be much better. It was first published in 1935 but my copy is one of those British Library Crime Classics re-prints.

The setting is a female college in Oxford. That happens to be a favourite setting for me and when I think about it I can trace my love of females in an educational establishment right back to the good old Enid Blyton Malory Towers series.

Four of Persephone College’s undergraduates are intent on forming a Lode League, a sort of secret society, apparently they are popular amongst the students. Their meeting place is on the corrugated iron roof of the college boathouse which is on the River Cherwell.

When they see a canoe coming along the river they’re worried that it might be the Bursar, a woman that they have a very low opinion of. At first they think the canoe is empty but as it floats closer they realise that someone is inside it. That someone turns out to be none other than the hated bursar. Is it foul play, did she commit suicide or was it simply an undergraduate prank which got out of hand? – as the police think.

Mavis Doriel Hay only wrote three books, this one being the second. I found the first one Murder Underground to be less than enthralling but this one which was published just one year later is such an improvement on the first one. Perhaps it was just that the setting was such a familiar one to her and the characters seem more realistic and natural with authentic banter amongst each other.

Coincidentally Death on the Cherwell was published in the same year as Dorothy L. Sayers very much more famous Gaudy Night. The settings are the same, only the actual colleges being different. There were only two women’s colleges in Oxford at that time apparently and it seems that Sayers and Hay used their own alma maters as settings, obviously just changing the names.

Hay only wrote one more crime fiction book but she did write a lot of books about rural crafts, which she was very keen on. She was instrumental in the resurgence of quilting in Wales.

She had three brothers, one was killed in 1916 at the Battle of Jutland, her youngest brother was killed when his Tiger Moth crashed in the Malayan jungle in 1939, in 1940 a third brother who had been captured by the Japanese died on the Thailand-Burma railway and as if that wasn’t bad enough – her Canadian husband who had joined the RAF was killed in a flying accident in 1943. It’s a wonder she stayed sane.