20 Books of Summer 2017 update

I’m doing quite well with my 20 Books of Summer 2017 list this year although I had meant to do a bit of a half-way roundup before now. I have veered slightly from the list for various reasons, but I’m still hopeful of finding my copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet before September. I did a fatal tidy up before some visitors arrived and now that book is lost in the stacks which is very annoying as before that I knew exactly where it was – on the floor!

1. London Match by Len Deighton
2. I Claudius by Robert Graves
3. Highland River by Neil M. Gunn
4. The Demon in the House by Angela Thirkell
5. The Dove of Venus by Olivia Manning
6. City of the Mind by Penelope Lively
7. The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons
8. Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts
9. This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart
10. Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham
11. Claudius the God by Robert Graves
12. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
13. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
14. Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson
15. The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith
16. A Memorial Service by J.I.M. Stewart
17. The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart
18. Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott
19. High Rising by Angela Thirkell
20. Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts

Antidote to Venom cover

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts was first published in 1938 but as you can see my copy is a British Library Classics one.

I quite enjoyed this one, but I felt that it dragged quite a bit in the middle, I seem to remember that I’ve felt the same about a few of his books.

George Surridge is the director of a zoo, it’s his dream job, and it comes with a comfortable house so he should be sitting pretty. Unfortunately he is married to a woman who is a social climber who had been spoiled by her parents and doesn’t seem to understand that George doesn’t have an endless supply of money for her to spend. The result is that George is always strapped for cash and is forever worried about it.

Clarissa’s attitude takes a toll on the marriage and when George meets a more sympathetic female he falls for her hard. This of course means that he gets into even deeper debt as he hires a flashy car to take her out and about – far away from his home. He dreams of getting free of his wife and so begins a convoluted murderous plan.

Unusually the author manages to make all of the main characters fairly likeable, so it’s quite a sad tale of broken lives due to bad decisions.

The covers of these British Library Crime Classics are usually quite stylish but I can’t say that I’m all that keen on this one.

Inspector French’s Greatest Case by Freeman Wills Crofts

Inspector French’s Greatest Case by Freeman Wills Crofts was first published in 1925. I’ve read a few books by the same author and I think this one is unfortunately titled as I found it to be really slow and tedious, and worst of all I sussed out exactly how it was going to take shape very early on.

It begins with a murder and diamond theft in London’s Hatton Garden. Inspector French of Scotland Yard is in charge of the case and for a long time he doesn’t really get anywhere close to solving it (not as close as I got anyway!!). French ends up trailing a suspect to France and Spain before ending up in Holland which is of course famous for its diamond industry and he eventually solves the case. It took 250 pages to get there which is quite long for a vintage crime book. In fairness it is one of Freeman Wills Crofts earlier books and I think he did improve a lot over the years, he published his last book in 1957. I was glad to get to the end of this one anyway and on to something better – which is The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim, and I’m happy to say that I’m really enjoying it although I haven’t got very far into it yet.

Silence for the Murderer by Freeman Wills Crofts

Silence for the Murderer was published in 1949 and amongst other things it shows how easily it can be for an honest person to be corrupted by someone that they are besotted with.

Dulcie Heath is a young woman who works as a doctor’s receptionist and the book begins with her rushing to meet Frank Roscoe with whom she has had an ‘understanding’ for years. For the past six years he has been in the army, fighting Hitler and he is now being demobbed.

There’s no doubt about it, Frank is a charmer but Dulcie knows that he isn’t exactly perfect, for one thing he isn’t dependable and he ‘didn’t distinguish sufficiently sharply between what belonged to himself and to others.’ That’s quite a character flaw, I would say.

Frank is completely dishonest and has a chip on his shoulder about not being able to afford to complete his medical studies before the war. When Dulcie manages to get Frank a job at the surgery where she works, it isn’t long before Frank has worked out a way to embezzle money from the wealthy patients.

Dulcie is at first appalled by the idea but the thought of having enough money to be able to get married to Frank and have a place of their own is too much for her, and it isn’t long before she is over-charging the patients who she thinks most likely won’t query the bill. She even listens in to the doctor/patient conversations using a listening system which Frank has managed to rig up for her.

When Frank moves off to take up a position of nurse to a very wealthy elderly man he successfully sweet talks his employer’s daughter. Obviously Frank wants to get his hands on what will be her money.

Meanwhile Dulcie figures out what’s happening and too late she realises that Frank has skedaddled leaving her in a hole. All the evidence of the embezzlement points to Dulcie as being the culprit and Frank has been careful that there is nothing against him at all.

This is a good murder mystery with a twist which I didn’t guess, another comfort read – for me anyway.

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.

The Pit Prop Syndicate by Freeman Wills Crofts

This is the only book by Freeman Wills Crofts which is on Project Gutenberg. Of course it’s one of his first crime novels, dating from 1922, his books were published from 1920 until his death in 1957. I think he did improve over the years.

Seymour Merriman is in the wine trade and part of his job entails travelling around France and visiting vineyards. On one of his travels his motorbike runs out of petrol in a rural district, stranding him in what he thinks is the middle of nowhere, but he discovers a tree felling business nearby and walks there, in the hope that they will be able to sell him some petrol.

On the road down to the offices Merriman meets a young woman and she arranges for him to get some petrol but Merriman’s suspicions are raised by the strange movements of one of the lorries which was being used at the tree felling business. He’s determined to find out what’s really going on.

Around about half way through this book I started to get the feeling that it was beginning to drag but almost as soon as I thought that the whole thing was enlivened by the appearance of Inspector Willis of Scotland Yard.

My one gripe is the romantic element, I’m really happier to have my vintage crime sans romance, but a lot of people must see it as a plus, publishers included. Just think of all the episodes of Morse which involve Morse and love interest, I could just do without it. Maybe it’s my age! No – scrub that – it’s just that I’m not much into romantic fiction, unless it comes with a big dose of humour.

As I said though, The Pit Prop Syndicate was Wills Crofts’s first foray into fiction and it’ll be interesting to see how his writing improves over the years, and of course, as I downloaded this onto my Kindle for free, everything’s hunky dory, especially as I don’t have to find shelf space for another book.

If you’re interested you can download it here.

The Groote Park Murder by Freeman Wills Crofts

This is just the second book by Freeman Wills Crofts which I’ve read and although I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as The 12.30 From Croydon it’s still well worth reading if you’re into vintage crime.

The first half of this one is set in South Africa, when a man’s body is found beside a railway line on the edge of Groote Park. It’s assumed at first that there has been a horrific accident, but things don’t add up and Inspector Vandam begins to suspect foul play.

In the second half of the book the action moves to Scotland and I must admit that I preferred that part of the story. How parochial am I? (Don’t answer that!)

Anyway, it so happend that all of the Scottish locations are well known to me and it’s nice when you know exactly what it looks like when Princes Street or Queen Street is mentioned, even if you still have to imagine what it looked like in 1923, which is when the book was first published. It was enjoyable to be in Glasgow’s streets and then to travel north to Alexandria, Loch Lomond and Crianlarich – in an attempt to unravel the mystery.

I’m hoping to be able to read Inspector French’s Greatest Case soon, which is the book in which Crofts introduces us to the character who was described by someone in the Guardian’s Notes and Queries recently as the greatest fictional detective ever.

Which one would you plump for? I’m not sure, I still have a soft spot for Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey and Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion sort of grew on me, although to begin with he was just too much of a silly-ass upper class Englishman for me. There’s a trend forming here – I must be into posh chaps!

Going off at a bit of a tangent – I was doing the dishes tonight and listening to BBC Radio 4 Extra – or whatever they’re calling it this week, and they were broadcasting an episode of Dalziel and Pascoe, which was written by Reginald Hill. I’ve watched the TV dramatisations but not read the books but I think I’ll have to give them a go. I really liked the character Andy Dalziel (pronounced Dee-ell) although he could in no way be described as posh and the actor playing him on TV best resembles a bulldog chewing a wasp. Has anyone read anything by Reginald Hill?

The 12:30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts

The 12.30 From Croydon

I had completely forgotten about Freeman Wills Crofts until I saw this book in my library. I had never read any before although I’d handled the books often enough in the past, I always got his name mixed up with that shoe shop chain – Freeman Hardy Willis, do they still exist? So I was quite surprised to find out that he is regarded as one of the ‘Big Four’ of the Golden Age of Crime Fiction.

First published in 1934, The 12:30 from Croydon is crime fiction with a difference because you know who the murderer is and how he has talked himself into committing murder. The mystery is – will he get off with it and if not how did he slip up?

I ended up thoroughly enjoying this one and I’m looking forward to reading more of his books which have been reprinted by House of Stratus. At first I was not at all sure I would like it because it begins with Rose Morley, her father and grandfather taking a flight to Paris. The whole experience is described in detail as obviously in 1934 very few of the readers would have been on an aeroplane and this would have been seen as an exciting start to the book. Nowadays it just isn’t and what was cutting edge when the book was first published is now charmingly old-fashioned. Apparently there was an air-station at Victoria,London which I’m presuming was just a part of the bus station where you boarded a bus for the airport.

Luckily Freeman Wills Crofts wrote quite a lot of books, so I’ll be tracking them down soon, hopefully via the library although I believe Peggy Ann has managed to get one from Project Gutenberg.

Olivia in India by O. Douglas

This is the first book which O.Douglas, sometimes known as Anna Buchan, had published (in 1912). It’s very autobiographical and it’s written in the form of a series of letters, the first of which is written from a ship in Liverpool which is ready to set off on the long voyage to India. Olivia is going to India to spend time with her bother, affectionately nicknamed Boggley. He is in India doing some sort of Empire related job.

We only read the letters which Olivia is writing and it’s very near the end before we learn who she’s actually writing them to. There are never any replies, although she sometimes alludes to something which has been mentioned in a letter to her. Obviously the early letters are all about the voyage and the other passengers but when Olivia reaches India she’s all over the place, experiencing as much of the life there as she can, taking trains across the country, visiting the Taj Mahal and meeting all sorts of people, good and bad.

So it’s all very different from her other books which are set in Scotland but she does write about home and reminisces about the past. She even mentions that she’s writing a book, encouraged by her brother John’s books’ good reviews.

So I started wondering how much of this book was fiction and I had a look at the index of O.Douglas’ biography “Unforgettable, Unforgotten” and sure enough she did go to India to visit one of her brothers. I’ll have to get around to reading that one soon.

I enjoyed Olivia in India and I think it is probably a realistic account of life in India for Anglo-Indians, the fear of mutinies and disease and the odd bomb or two being thrown as Indians became more and more dissatisfied with their position as part of the British Empire.

I borrowed “Olivia in India” from the library but I’ve promised myself that I’m not going to look at books when I return the ones I have out. Last week I went to two libraries in two different towns and apart from this book I also borrowed:

Symposium by Muriel Spark
The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
Augustus Carp Esq. by Himself
The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe

The Poe book is one of those ones that I feel I should have read years ago and for some reason or other I haven’t.

So, with an eye on the due back dates I’m neglecting my own books and Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree in particular has been glowering at me from the top of a pile of books which are balanced on a cantilevered sewing box near my bedside. I’m banning myself from the library!