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.

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

I read The Franchise Affair as part of the Flashback Challenge and the Thriller and Suspense Reading Challenge.

This book was first published in 1948 but I first read it in the early 1970s when I was a teenager. I borrowed it from the English department library at school. It was seen as being a vintage classic even then but I think they probably had it because Josephine Tey is a Scottish writer.

However, it is set in an English provincial town where Robert Blair is a lawyer dealing with wills and property conveyancing. When he gets a phone call from Marion Sharpe who is in need of a lawyer, he tries to pass her on to Ben Carley, the local criminal lawyer, but Marion perseveres and he ends up going to visit her.

Marion and her elderly mother have recently inherited a large, dilapidated house and the police have informed them of a complaint which has been made against them by a 15 year old girl, Betty Kane.

According to Betty Kane, the Sharpes had abducted her and kept her locked up, beating and witholding food from her until she agreed to do the housework for them. She says she was held prisoner for a month until a door was left unlocked and she was able to make her escape.

The police decide that there isn’t enough evidence to charge Marion and her mother, but the Ack Emma – a tabloid newspaper gets a hold of the story and the dregs of society decide that they are judge and jury, making life miserable for the Sharpes.

When the police decide to charge the Sharpes, Robert Blair despairs of being able to help them but he turns to sleuthing and with the help of others the full story begins to unfold.

I really enjoyed re-reading this book but I have a vague memory that I didn’t much like it the first time that I read it. Before then I had only read Agatha Christie mysteries and Tey is very different from her. In fact I think she is much better than Christie but I’ll have to read more of her books to be sure.

If you like vintage crime, this is one that you should definitely read.

In the Fifth at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

I thought it would be interesting to read an Enid Blyton book again after watching the BBC biopic about her which was screened fairly recently. So I decided to read this one as part of the Flashback Challenge.

In the Fifth at Malory Towers was first published in 1950 but I read the whole Malory Towers series in the summer of 1969 when I was 10 years old. I remember that I was completely engrossed in the whole thing, I absolutely loved it, it was my alternative life.

In the Fifth is all about the girls in the fifth form being given more responsibility as they grow older, and being expected to work hard on their own. The beginning is the usual catching up with friends and the introduction of a new girl. Each girl’s personality is spelled out for us, there seems to be one of every sort of person.

They are given the task of producing an entertainment for the whole school and their families at Christmas. After some thought, they decide to put on a pantomime. Darrell writes a version of Cinderella, which as you would expect goes down a storm. There isn’t very much of ‘cool and steady’ Sally in this one, who I seem to remember was my favourite character.

Blyton obviously saw herself as the Darrell character and she is always the heroine of the day. There is no doubting the fact that Blyton was a pretty nasty person herself in reality, completely delusional. Well there’s a lot of it about.

Anyway, people tend to be a bit sniffy about Blyton nowadays, but I don’t really think it is fair. After all they are meant for young children and I certainly loved Malory Towers and The Famous Five when I was even younger.

I think that her writing was probably a bit dated even in 1969 but that probably just added to the charm for me. I went straight from Blyton to Agatha Christie then to other vintage crime writers and on to the classics from about 11 or 12 years old and I haven’t stopped since. Anything that gets people reading can’t be bad.

I had always been a member of the local library. But when my parents took me to Morecambe in Lancashire for a fortnights holiday in 1969, and it seemed to rain for the whole two weeks, Malory Towers was a lifesaver to me.

I bought the full set of six at the Morecambe branch of Woolworths, which of course, is sadly no longer with us. Having visited Morecambe last year for a day, (it didn’t rain) we decided to take this photograph of the old Woolies store for posterity.

Old Woolworths Morecambe

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.
by J.M. Barrie.

I’m lucky enough to have my mother’s 1925 copy of this book, which has the lovely Arthur Rackham illustrations. Obviously this book comes under the category of a book from childhood but I’ve read it a few times since then and I always enjoy it. It is the very beginning of the Peter Pan story and is actually the middle section of The Little White Bird which was published before Peter Pan and Wendy.

The book starts with The Grand Tour of the Gardens, in which the gardens and some of the characters to be found there are described. Sexism is rife as you would expect from something written so long ago and by a Scottish man, but it is all quite tongue in cheek.

J.M. Barrie had a wonderful, fantastical imagination and a beautiful way with words.

Babies were birds before they were human and have to think hard to remember the time when they could fly.

Peter Pan escapes from being human by flying from the nursery window ledge when he is only 7 days old and flies to Kensington Gardens.

He knows that it must be past lock-out time as the place is full of fairies who are too busy to notice him. When he meets with Solomon Caw after flying to the island in the middle of The Serpentine he realises that he has lost faith in his ability to fly and so is stuck on the island. Solomon declares him to be a Betwixt-and-Between.

Although he is happy on the island for a while, he misses being able to play the way children do and begins to plan how he can escape from the island. Eventually he pays the thrushes to build him a nest big enough for him to fit into and he sails over to the gardens again, but he can only leave the island at night after the park is closed.

The girl in this book is called Maimie and when she is locked in the gardens overnight, the fairies build a little house around her so that she doesn’t die of the cold.

If you have read Peter Pan you might find it interesting to read the book which it developed from.

When Barrie was just 7 years old his 14 year old brother died in an ice skating accident and it is thought that this tragedy was what prompted Barrie to write about a boy who didn’t grow up.

J.M. Barrie is one of the few authors who made up a name for a character which became popular with parents. He came up with it because a wee girl of his acquaintance who couldn’t pronounce the letter ‘r’, described herself as his little ‘fwendy’.

You can visit the Barrie family home in Kirriemuir and the original Wendy house, which is the old wash house in the back garden. Kirriemuir is about 40 miles from where I live. It is quite a pretty small town which differs from most Scottish towns in that it was built from red sandstone instead of the usual grey.

When J.M. Barrie died in 1937, he chose to be buried in Kirriemuir with his family instead of in Poets Corner in London.

I reviewed this book as part of the Flashback Challenge.

Here is a video from 1937 showing some places of interest around Kirriemuir.

2010 Flashback Challenge: January

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers.

It must be about 30 years since I first read this book and although it isn’t my favourite Sayers read, I think this is a good one to start with. It was written in 1930 and was her sixth murder mystery to be published.

It introduces us to the character of Harriet Vane. At the beginning of the book she is on trial for the murder of her ex-lover, who has been poisoned. Lord Peter Wimsey sees her in court and becomes interested in the case as he can’t believe that she is a murderer, although all the evidence points to her.

He takes on her case and during the course of his investigations he falls in love with Harriet making it all the more important that he can save her from the gallows.

Lord Peter owns a detective agency which is disguised as a typing bureau which is staffed by women who can infiltrate offices and companies which need to be investigated. The nickname for the bureau is ‘The Cattery’ and half in jest – half in earnest Lord Peter has compiled a list of rules for his employees. Rule 7 is:
Always distrust the man who looks you straight in the eyes. He wants to prevent you from seeing something. Look for it.

A very good maxim – I think.

The story line is autobiographical, telling of a disastrous previous relationship and although Dorothy’s lover wasn’t poisoned, she probably wished that he had been. She didn’t seem to have much luck with men and seems to have written the character of Lord Peter Wimsey to suit her perfect idea of a man. The character of Harriet Vane is very much based on Dorothy herself.

I enjoyed re-reading this book, but then I’m keen on things which are set in the 1920/30s. I started reading Dorothy Sayers books in the 1970s and in 1978, completely by coincidence we moved to Essex and the office window of my new workplace looked into what had been Dorothy Sayers back garden in Witham. She was long gone by then as she died in 1957.

I’ve also enjoyed viewing the various adaptations of her books over the years on the television.

Edward Petherbridge was perfect as the aristocratic detective and Harriet Walter seemed made for the part of Harriet Vane.

If you enjoy vintage murder mysteries you will probably enjoy this book.

Flashback Challenge

I’ve been reading about all these book challenges that are going on and thought that it was about time that I signed up for one myself. The Flashback Challenge seems like a great excuse to re-read ‘old friends’ and I’m really enthusiastic about it, so I’m planning to read 12 books again, one for each month of the year – and here they are.

Flashback Challenge books

As I’ve never participated in a book challenge before, I’m just presuming that the idea is you write a review in your blog. Anyway, that’s what I’ll be doing with these books, although not particularly in this order.

1. The Enchanted April – by Elizabeth von Arnim.
2. Lark Rise – Flora Thompson.
3. And Quiet Flows the Don- Mikhail Sholokhov.
4. The Fortunes of War – Olivia Manning.
5. Strong Poison – Dorothy L. Sayers.
6. The Railway Children – E. Nesbit.
7. The Golden Age – Gore Vidal
8. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee.
9. Scenes of Clerical Life – George Eliot
10. Peter Pan – J.M. Barrie.
11. Kidnapped – R.L. Stevenson.
12. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier.

I’m looking forward to it.