Appleby’s Answer by Michael Innes – 20 Books of Summer 2021

Appleby's Answer cover

Appleby’s Answer by the Scottish author Michael Innes was published by Gollancz in 1973 so I suppose that means it’s vintage crime now although that seems a bit strange to me, however in some ways the book seems even older than that. It begins with Miss Pringle sharing a railway compartment with a strange man. Miss Pringle is a crime writer with a penchant for ecclesiastical settings and she’s travelling to London to attend a dinner with a group of fellow crime writers.

Captain Bulkington is the other traveller and strangely he’s reading a copy of one of her books, when he recognises her from the photo on the dust jacket the two get into conversation. Bulkington has a private school, a crammer which coaches young men to pass the entrance exam for top drawer universities. It’s a business that he has taken up since retiring from the army, but he has a proposition for Miss Pringle. He wants to collaborate with her in writing a book and invites her to stay at his establishment, but Miss Pringle has her suspicions about him and just agrees to correspond with him instead.

However she decides to travel to Bulkington’s village to do a bit of detective work and discovers that there are only two students enrolled in the crammer, and neither of them seem to be university material. It seems that Bulkington has some sort of hold over them.

Appleby and his wife have travelled to the same Wiltshire village to visit friends and so become embroiled in the affair.

This isn’t a murder mystery but is an entertaining read with quite a lot of humour thrown in. My copy of the book is an old Gollancz one and I couldn’t help thinking of Diana Athill who would have been working as an editor there when this one was published, I don’t think she mentions Michael Innes in any of her books though. This was one of my 20 Books of Summer.

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

The Thin Man cover

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett was first published in 1932.

Nick Charles had retired from the sleuthing business to concentrate on managing his finances which seem to have prospered since his marriage to the wealthy Nora, but he gets drawn back into the detection business when Julia Wolf is found shot dead. She had been the ‘confidential secretary’ to Clyde Miller Wynant, an inventor and one time husband of Mimi, who just happened to find Julia’s body. Mimi is well known to Nick, as are her children, Dorothy and Tristan.

There’s a lot of boozing going on in this book, so it all feels authentically like the America of Prohibition era. I enjoyed the relationship between Nick and Nora although it is a bit bizarre, Nora is too easy going in my opinion, but maybe she was Dashiell Hammett’s idea of the ideal wife!

There are several ghastly characters to really enjoy disliking, and there’s plenty of snappy dialogue. So there’s a lot to like about this book. It’s the first one by Dashiell Hammett that I’ve read and I believe he was the first writer to develop this style, but I have to say that I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Raymond Chandler’s writing, but that may just have been because I found it just a wee bit too convoluted with a lot of characters to keep track of. Maybe our unusually hot spell was affecting my brain!

Another Little Christmas Murder by Lorna Nicholl Morgan

Another Little Christmas Murder by Lorna Nicholl Morgan was first published in 1947 and then it was titled Another Little Murder. It’s a bit cheeky of the new publisher littlebrown to stick in the word ‘Christmas’ as the book has nothing to do with the Christmas season although it is set in a very snowy Swaledale, Yorkshire.

Dilys Hughes is an optimistic young woman, she would have to be given that she drives around in a very unreliable car. She’s a commercial traveller, dealing in ointments and rubbing oils to cure rheumatics and such. She also helps to develop the medicines.

On her journey through Yorkshire the wintry weather gets worse and worse and she ends up stuck in snow. Settling down to wait for a lift from a passing motorist, it isn’t long before one turns up. Inigo Brown is driving to visit his father after receiving a letter from him. His father had recently married Theresa, a much younger woman, and Inigo has yet to meet her.

Inigo invites Dilys to stay at his father’s large remote house, as her car is well and truly stuck in the snow. Almost as soon as they get there various other refugees from the weather turn up needing food and shelter, and Theresa seems happy to cater for them all, but strange things begin to happen and some of the other guests are very odd.

This was enjoyable although at times I had trouble keeping track of all the male characters as they arrived, that was probably my fault though.

I hadn’t heard of Lorna Nicholl Morgan before. Apparently she only wrote four books. She was born in England in 1913 but moved to America in 1954. All four of her books were published in the 1940s and she doesn’t seem to have published any more after emigrating, unless she used another name.

The Deadly Truth by Helen McCloy

The Deadly Truth

The Deadly Truth by Helen McCloy was originally published in 1941 but was re-printed by Agora Books last month. It’s a Dr Basil Willing mystery, he’s a psychiatrist who works in New York. Unusually for him he’s spending the summer on Long Island, renting a cottage on an estate which belongs to Claudia Bethune. She’s a wealthy socialite, three times married and she loves throwing parties. It seems that she gets most of her joy from being cruel and nasty to her guests though.

Dr Roger Slater is a research scientist who is infatuated with Claudia, so when she visits him in his laboratory he can’t stop himself from boasting about a new truth serum that he has developed. But when Claudia leaves the lab he realises that she has stolen a small aluminium tube of the serum. He’s furious, he’ll get into a lot of trouble from his employers if they find out. It looks like Claudia intends to have fun with her guests by doctoring their drinks with the serum.

Things don’t go quite the way Claudia plans them to, she’s in for a very big surprise. Dr Basil Willing gets involved and his investigation uncovers blackmail and jewellery theft, it seems that just about everyone had something to hide.

I really enjoyed this one, not only for the mystery and investigation but I appreciated the author’s descriptive abilities. I like to know where I am when I’m taken into a room by an author and I think you can see from the description below that Helen McCloy was interested in painting the scene for the reader.

The curtains were satin brocade of buttercup yellow. The walls were washed a pale primrose, the ceiling a sour cream colour, and two mantelpieces of tawny ochre marble faced each other at opposite ends of the room. The parquet was blond, the woodwork ivory white, and the chairs were covered with petit point in the same faded buff and blue as the Chinese rug. There was a Chinese cabinet of brilliant black lacquer with a procession of mandarins eternally wending their diagonal way across its double doors picked out in tarnished gilt.

She has one character saying:
If I may be permitted to paraphrase Aaron Burr: Truth is whatever is boldly asserted and plausibly maintained.

The politicians of the moment seem to have adhered to that one well!

I was sent a digital copy of this book by Agora Books via NetGalley. Thank you.

Anna, Where Are You? by Patricia Wentworth

 Anna, Where Are You?  cover

Anna, Where Are You? by Patricia Wentworth was published in 1953 and it’s a Miss Silver mystery.

Unusually (I think) Miss Silver’s entrance in this book is on the very first page where she’s perusing the births, deaths and marriages columns of her copy of The Times, but it’s the Agony Column which really attracts her interest. Someone called Thomasina is looking for Anna – Please Write. That short message leads Miss Silver into a dangerous investigation.

Thomasina is looking for her old schoolfriend Anna who has left a suitcase with Thomasina to look after. It’s ages since Anna has been in touch though and Thomasina is worried about her. Thomasina’s fiance Peter Brandon can’t understand why she is worried as Anna isn’t a very nice person and not much of a friend, but Thomasina feels sorry for her.

Miss Silver’s investigation takes her to Deepe House which is a bit of a wreck as the middle of it had been bombed during the war. Peveril Craddock, the new owner, has re-named it Harmony House, he’s an obnoxious character who is supposed to be writing a great work but his wife Emily and step-children are obviously frightened of him, although he has a bevy of strange female admirers who live in ‘the colony’ – nearby cottages.

Anna had been at Deepe House, looking after the rather out of control children but she had left no clue as to where she was going. Inspector Frank Abbott gets involved when during his investigation into a nearby bank robbery and murder he has to question the people at the house and the colony. Miss Silver’s past experience as a governess comes in handy as the Craddocks are very happy to have her as part of the household where she solves the mystery and sorts out the children too.

This one was a bit of a slow burner for me but it ended up being really good as I had no idea what had been going on!

The Christmas Card Crime and other stories

 The Christmas Card Crime cover

The Christmas Card Crime and other stories is edited by Martin Edwards and is a British Library Crime Classic.

This compilation of eleven Christmas/winter themed vintage crime short stories is as you would expect a bit of a mixed bunch, but that means that there will surely be something to suit everyone. Each short story is preceded by a short biography of the author, which I found interesting.

For me it was the story from which the title of the book came which was most successful. The Christmas Card Crime was written by Donald Stuart. Some of the stories are sooo short, and I can’t help thinking that the author used up a good idea which could have been worked up into something a lot longer and for me more inetresting. I suppose that just means that I’m not a big fan of short stories, well not very short ones anyway.

The other authors featuring in this anthology are:

Baroness Orczy
Selwyn Jepson
Ronald Knox
Carter Dickson
Francis Durbridge
Cyril Hare
E.C.R. Lorac
John Bude
John Bingham
Julian Symons

The book cover is taken from a vintage travel poster.

Mont-Revard poster

The Case of William Smith by Patricia Wentworth

 The Case of William Smith cover

The Case of William Smith by Patricia Wentworth was first published in 1950 and it’s a Miss Silver mystery.

William Smith can’t remember anything that happened to him before 1942. His first memory is of being in a German hospital, and from there he was transferred to a concentration camp. The identity disc around his neck says William Smith. In the camp he strikes up a friendship with a Czech prisoner who teaches him how to carve small wooden toys and when William eventually gets back to London after the war his talent is spotted by Mr Tattlecombe, a toy shop owner who takes William on as an employee. Mr Tattlecombe’s son had been in the concentration camp with William but he had died there and to Mr Tattlecombe William had begun to take the place of his dead son.

When Mr Tattlecombe is involved in an accident William takes over the running of the business and takes on a female sales assistant. There’s a bit of a mystery as to why she wants the job at all, but William seems keen on her and when ‘accidents’ continue to occur it’s Miss Silver with her gentle cough who comes to the rescue.

I liked this one a lot, it has likeable main characters, twists and turns and Miss Silver sorts it all out as she knits two pale blue coattees for a baby and then begins on a cherry-red cardigan for the mother. She’s some woman!

The Lost Gallows by John Dickson Carr

 The Lost Gallows cover

The Lost Gallows by John Dickson Carr has just been reprinted by the British Library but it was first published in 1931. In no way could this book be described as a cosy mystery, it’s the very opposite, so atmospheric and full of creepiness, verging on horror at times, but still a good read even if you lean towards comfy crime usually.

The setting is a very foggy autumnal London, beginning in the notorious Brimstone Club where M. Henri Bencolin and Sir John Landervorne are examining a miniature set of gallows. Sir John had been assistant commissioner of the metropopitan police and Bencolin is the head of the Paris police. The set of gallows had suddenly appeared on the desk of Mr El Moulk, another member of the club, and it has unnerved him more than just a wee bit. The rumour is that Jack Ketch, a famous London hangman of folklore is roaming around London with his gibbet, looking for people to hang.

There’s many a spooky incident, with a limousine apparently being driven by an obviously dead man. With Bencolin making frequent references to the Red Widow, in other words the guillotine, this is very far from the works of the likes of Agatha Christie who steers clear of anything as sordid as the death penalty. To be honest I’m happier with that style of writing. I’m going to be utterly sexist here and possibly entirely wrong but I think that John Dickson Carr’s style might be more popular with male readers. Having said that this is the seventh book by John Dickson Carr that I’ve read and I’ve liked them all, he’s just not a favourite. This is a good read though, especially if you lean towards horror.

I was sent a copy of this book by British Library for review, my thanks to them.

Murder By Matchlight by E.C.R. Lorac

 Murder By Matchlight   cover

Murder By Matchlight by E.C.R. Lorac was first published in 1945 but was reprinted by British Library in 2018.

It’s London 1945 and this story begins in a very dark Regent’s Park where 30 year old Bruce Mallaig is pleased to be, pre-war he wouldn’t have been able to visit the park after hours, but now there are no railings and locked gates to keep anyone out, the metal railings have been removed to be melted down to make aeroplanes (supposedly a morale/doing your bit thing but in reality they weren’t used for the war effort) but it seems that the park might be the venue for clandestine meetings. A sudden flare of light from a match shows Bruce that there are two men near him and in no time one of them has been murdered, knocked on the head. But Bruce hadn’t heard anything at all.

Chief Inspector MacDonald is heading the investigation and it turns out to be a difficult one as even the murder victim’s identity is a puzzle.

These British Library reprints can be a wee bit hit and miss but I really enjoyed this one with its very atmospheric wartime setting and unusual characters.

Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times – 18th of October

It’s that time again, how quickly Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times comes around. This meme was created by Judith at Reader in the Wilderness but I’m hosting it at the moment. Click on it to enlarge the photo.

More Books

This week the bookshelf is in a bookcase (Ikea Billy, so many of us seem to have at least one) which is in my reading/sewing/hobby/ironing room which is located in the smallest spare bedroom in our house. It’s very fair to say that it’s generally in a bit of a mess as I just have too much yarn, fabric and stuff in general.

It’s a shelf of vintage crime, it’s just a coincidence that the beginning of the shelf houses Elizabeth Ferrars books and the end of the shelf is home to Josephine Tey books, both Scottish writers who wrote murder mysteries. In between them is the very English Dorothy L. Sayers and the very American Rex Stout, I find his books are very thin on the ground in secondhand bookshops in Scotland, but I’ve really enjoyed the ones I’ve managed to get a hold of. Of those four authors Josephine Tey is my least favourite. Dorothy Sayers I love and I’ve really enjoyed the Elizabeth Ferrars books that I’ve read.

Are you Bookshelf Travelling this week? I’ll add any links below.

A Bluestocking Knits

A Son of the Rock

Staircase Wit