Murder in a Heatwave – short stories

Murder in a Heatwave is a compilation of ten vintage crime short stories. I was attracted by the bookcover which was on display in a charity shop, so art deco.

The authors are: Dorothy L. Sayers, Rex Stout, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carter Dickson, Baroness Orczy, Michael Innes, Julian Symons, Ethel Lina White, Margery Allingham and surprisngly Ian Rankin.

I had read all of the authors before, except Baroness Orczy and although I’m not a huge fan of short stories I enjoyed most of them. I wasn’t massively taken with the Rex Stout story which is I think the longest, and I have  a bit of a Conan Doyle phobia. I enjoyed The Mystery of the Russian Prince by Baroness Orczy, and I’ll definitely give one of her books a go.  A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin features the Edinburgh Festival and Rebus, it seems strange that he should count as classic crime, but that probably says more about me than anything else.

I think that the back cover is more art deco than the front.

After reading these stories all set in summer heat I’ll soon be going on to my Christmas/Winter themed books that I’ve been hoarding throughout the year. Fingers crossed they get me into the festive mood!

The Blind Side by Patricia Wentworth

 The Blind Side cover

The Blind Side by Patricia Wentworth was published in 1939 and was the first of three Inspector Lamb books that she wrote. The setting is London where Ross Craddock has inherited what had been the family mansion, but years ago it had been divided up into numerous flats, some of which his father had given to other relatives to live in. But Ross is a bit of a ‘bad hat’ and when his cousin Lucy has the temerity to speak to him about his behaviour he takes the first opportunity to put her out of her flat. The elderly spinster is shocked, as are other members of the family.

When Ross comes to grief there’s no shortage of culprits and some of those under suspicion aren’t at all sure of their own movements on the fatal night.

I really liked this one. There’s plenty of tension and suspense, some very good characters, some wonderfully awful characters and Inspector Lamb and his side-kick Abbott were a nice change from Miss Silver.

I read this book on my Kindle which I hadn’t used for ages and I have no idea how I got this book although I do know that I got it free from somewhere, but it has been reissued by Dean Street Press and has a very interesting introduction. I hadn’t realised until I read it that Wentworth was of Scottish extraction although that might not have been obvious to non-Scots, however there are lots of Scottish surnames in her background. I also noticed at least twice the use of the Scots word dreep.

One thing that annoyed me though was that she used the word waked a lot when woken would have been much more literate, waked is just wrong.

Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White

Some Must Watch was first published in 1933 and it was made into a film called The Spiral Staircase in 1946. Ethel Lina White had her first book published in 1931 and her last in 1944, the year of her death.

This one appealed to me as it’s that classic setting of a large old spooky rural house. Helen is a young red-headed woman with a passion for life and great optimism, it’s just as well because life hasn’t been easy for her and her one dread is unemployment, she knows what it is to go hungry. When she succeeds in getting the post of lady-help in an old house called the Summit, situated on the English/Welsh border and 22 miles from the nearest town she realises that it’s the house’s remoteness which has helped her secure the position, not many maids are interested in living in such an out of the way location.

The Summit is owned by the Warren family who consist of Professor Warren, his sister and their elderly step-mother Lady Warren. She’s a curmudgeonly invalid. The professor’s son and daughter-in-law, resident pupil and various servants complete the household. Helen is happy that she’ll be having her meals with the family as she sees them as being entertainment for her, she can’t afford a seat at the Pictures.

In fact she gets a bit too much in the way of excitement as it turns out that there’s a murderer on the loose in the neighbourhood and it’s young women about Helen’s age who are being targeted.

I found this one to be full of suspense of the don’t go down that dark corridor sort, but there’s also quite a lot of humour too. Helen is a very likeable character and Lady Warren is one of those indomitable old ladies, bedridden but still a force to be reckoned with.

You can read about the film here. It does seem to be a bit different from the book – as usual.

The Sea Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

This vintage Penguin was first published in 1928 and it’s an Inspector French mystery. It’s a quick read at just 206 pages long and I think that’s why I started reading it, I only bought it a couple of days ago from that madly exasperating Voltaire and Rousseau bookshop in Glasgow. If you want to see what that bookshop looks like, have a keek at a previous post here.

Don’t ask me why I didn’t read The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts first, I should have because it was first published in 1920 and on page 23 of The Sea Mystery the author explains the plot and the culprit of his previous book – honestly have you ever heard the like!! Now I’ll have to wait until I’ve forgotten it all before I read The Cask.

Anyway, this one begins with two anglers in a boat off the south coast of Wales ‘catching’ a wooden packing case. It contains a nasty surprise and the upshot is that Inspector French of New Scotland Yard is called in to investigate a murder.

Considering there seems to be virtually nothing in the way of clues it’s amazing how he gets to the bottom of it all, but he does and in the end I did enjoy it although I had a fair idea of what had happened before I got to the end.

For me, this one wasn’t quite as good as some of his other books but it was just what I was needing after reading so many Trollope books recently – a nice wee change.

I like Inspector French as a detective, he manages to manipulate all the various characters to get the best results for the investigation but he’s only human so things don’t always happen the way he would like them to.

Fer de Lance by Rex Stout

This is the first book in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series which was handy for me as I haven’t read any of his books before. Fer de Lance was first published in 1934 and is set in New York. Given the time and place I thought it would be all prohibition, gangsters and speak-easies, which would have suited me fine but it was nothing like I expected it to be.

Luckily I did still enjoy it, the book is narrated by Archie Goodwin who is the private detective Nero Wolfe’s right hand man. Archie is a likeable character, he does all the running around town because Nero Wolfe rarely leaves his home. His vast bulk stops him from getting around much and puzzling over a mystery often takes a back seat when his love of good food and beer takes precedence. Fritz the Swiss chef is a very important member of the staff. Wolfe is always trying to limit himself to five quarts of beer a day, with no success.

Although this is the first in the series, you wouldn’t guess it because Archie is always mentioning things which happened in the past, old cases and people they helped out of trouble so you get the feeling of a long standing relationship, there’s a shared history.

The amount of booze consumed was a surprise to me, I think prohibition must have just made people more determined to get a hold of it.

In this story a golfer falls down dead on the course, supposedly it was a heart attack but Nero Wolfe knows differently and proves it. That’s as much as I’m saying about that!

However – I haven’t seen any dramatisations of Nero Wolfe, I suppose some must exist but we’re steeped in Poirot and Marple here and I don’t remember anything American apart from Ellery Queen way back in the year dot. I did wonder though if the person who wrote the 1960s/70s Ironside with Raymond Burr had based the whole thing as an updated version of Nero Wolfe. There are lots of similarities I think. Ironside didn’t get about much because he was confined to a wheelchair and he relied on his staff to do the leg work for him. As I recall, Ironside was rather fond of his food too, I seem to remember they were often all gathered around a dining table. Ironside didn’t have a penchant for orchids though, which is Wolfe’s other passion apart from food and beer.

I haven’t read much in the way of vintage American mystery/crime. Does anyone have any suggestions as to who else I should give a go?

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

I’m trying to work my way through all of the Scottish writer Josephine Tey’s books and this is one which I’d been looking forward to getting a hold of as so many people seem to have enjoyed it. And I’m another one.

Detective Alan Grant is going mad with boredom, stuck in a hospital bed flat on his back with only the cracks in the ceiling to scrutinise. Embarrassingly, he had fallen through a trapdoor whilst chasing a criminal and had badly broken his leg.

When his actress friend Marta tries to think of ways which he can entertain himself she suggests that he could try to solve a historical mystery and she later brings him a sheaf of prints of historical portraits to whet his appetite. Grant thinks that he is good at ‘reading’ people’s personalities from their faces and it’s the portrait of Richard III which intrigues him. It doesn’t look like the face of a man who would have his small nephews murdered.

Grant decides that that is the mystery which he is going to look into and after he exhausts the text books which he is given it’s his young American visitor, a student called Brent Carradine who helps him to get further with his research.

As I said, I enjoyed this one which was quite different from her other books and considering that Grant is immobilised throughout the book he still manages to be an interesting character.

It is obvious to us all that history is written by the winners so any historical accounts have to be taken bearing that in mind. Tey gives quite a few examples of this and in particular she complains that the Scottish covenanters have been given a bit of a white-wash job over the years. She says that none of them were put to death despite the fact that everyone thinks that they were. She says that they were guilty of sedition as if that is something really heinous. But sedition is just talking against the government! Hands up anyone who has done that in the past – yes all of us, if we have half a brain!

Tey also glosses over the fact that being transported (sent to the penal colonies in Australia) was more or less a death sentence. Many of the prisoners died on the voyage and most of the others died of fevers shortly after getting to Australia.

One of my ancestors was transported to Australia for- yes you guessed it – sedition, and he only survived 7 months there. So it’s just as well that he and his wife exchanged mourning rings before he left. They knew that they would never see each other again.

Anyway, if you like vintage crime, you’ll probably enjoy The Daughter of Time which was first published in 1951.

Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest by Charles Osborne

This was one of the books which I bagged at the most recent library book sale and it wasn’t until I got home that I realised that it is an adaptation of a Christie play. So I was a bit wary and didn’t really know what to expect, but it turned out to be a really entertaining if super-fast read.

It’s set near the south Wales coast and begins with a motorist getting stuck in a ditch in a thick fog, he sets off to find help and reaches a large 18th century house. There is no answer to his knocks on the french windows but when he tries the handle he ends up falling into the dark room where there is a dead body sitting in a wheelchair! The motorist quickly realises that he isn’t the only living person in that room and from that point the book takes lots of different twists and turns.

It’s my favourite sort of crime book as it gets straight to the point with a bang, no footering about. It’s absolutely years since I read anything by Agatha Christie so I’m not really able to judge whether Charles Osborne’s writing style is very similar to hers but anyway it certainly works as a crime, mystery book.

The Unexpected Guest was first performed in London’s West End in August 1958 and it ran for 18 months, which was something of a relief to Christie as her previous play Verdict had closed after just one month, in fact it was booed off the stage! That must have been quite a shock for poor Agatha because in the April of that year The Mousetrap had reached its 2,239th performance at The Ambassadors Theatre which broke the record for the longest London run of a play.

Charles Osborne has adapted more Christie plays and I’ll be on the look out for them.

Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes

I decided to choose a Michael Innes book to review as he was Scottish, as I am, so it’s a bit of flag waving.

I read everything that he wrote, including those under the name of J.I.M. Stewart, when I first started working in my local library – a long time ago. So I’ve started again with the very first book which he had published in 1936.

We are introduced to his detective, Inspector John Appleby of Scotland Yard, who arrives in a splendid yellow Bentley, he has been called in to investigate the death of Dr. Josiah Umpleby, President of St. Anthony’s College which is part of a fictitious university along the lines of Oxford and Cambridge and 20 miles or so from London.

Inspector Dodd of the local constabulary gives Appleby the details of the case, describing the crime scene as a ‘submarine’ within a submarine as the whole area had been sealed off with only a few college lecturers holding keys to the area.

The staff all surreptiously begin pointing fingers at each other and Appleby discovers that Dr. Umpleby enjoyed stirring up trouble amongst the university fellows and had the nasty habit of stealing his colleagues’ research and claiming the kudos for himself. So everybody is a suspect.

I wouldn’t say that this is light reading because, compared with most vintage crime you really have to concentrate on it and can’t skim. The storyline is very convoluted.

I don’t think that this book was my favourite of his, I did enjoy it but I think Michael Innes improved along the years. He did have a long writing career. There are no female characters at all, just passing references to a wife, cook or cleaner. But to be fair that is exactly how an elite university in 1936 would have been peopled.

As Michael Innes was a university lecturer, I’ve been wondering how his writing was received by his colleagues. I found it particularly amusing that he had more or less written himself in as a character. There is a lecturer who is a well known writer of detective fiction and just to stir things up even more Innes gave him the name of Gott and described him as being:

Quite beautiful. When he moved, he was graceful, when he spoke, he was charming; when he spoke for long, he was interesting. Above all he was disarming. “Plainly, -he seemed to say- “I am a creature whose life is more fortunate, more elevated, more effortlessly athletic and accomplished than yours, but observe! – you are not in the least irritated as a result; in fact, you are quite delighted.”

I can just imagine Innes’s real colleagues spluttering over that one, that is if they could bring themselves to read his book.

Although I enjoyed this book, my favourite crime writer is still Dorothy L. Sayers – or Agatha Christie for lighter reading. You don’t really get the vintage atmosphere somehow from this Innes book. It might sound daft but I think this is because of the lack of trains. A steam train immediately gives you all that 1930s ambience – the noise, smell and the style, even in third class. I’m not quite old enough to remember the age of steam but I’ve been on a few tourist steam railways.

Then there is the lack of female characters. No women means no elegance, no posh frocks, jewels, amber beads, silk shawls, harlequin costumes and the like. I love all that detail.

Apart from the yellow Bentley, which I could imagine, the only other vehicle which I remember being mentioned was a De Dion car belonging to some undergraduates. That meant nothing to me but presumably to contemporary readers it did.

Anyway, I’m glad that I re-read this book and I think that anyone who likes vintage crime would enjoy it.

I also read this book as part of the Flashback Challenge.