Take Two at Bedtime

The American version of this book seems to be Deadly Duo, why do they give books in the UK and the US different titles, I can’t help thinking that they hope we will end up buying the same book twice.

Anyway, the two taken at bedtime are novellas, or long short stories if you prefer. The first one is called – Wanted: Someone Innocent and this one was my favourite. It’s set in London where a young penniless woman, Gillian Brayton, who has no family is trying to earn her living making hats, but she has realised that she has no talent for the work.

Whilst at a school reunion she gets an offer of another job, as a sort of housekeeper/secretary for an old schoolfriend who seems to have married very well. And so the mystery begins!

Last Act, the second novella didn’t appeal to me so much, mainly because I disliked Madame Zoffany, who was a bit of a diva but apparently everyone ended up adoring her, no matter how bad her behaviour was. Well that everyone didn’t include me but apart from that I felt that there were just too many characters, but that might be because I haven’t been able to concentrate much on my reading recently. The blurb says that – this is a fascinating study of personalities, as well as an absorbing mystery.

Poison in the Pen by Patricia Wentworth

This is another gift from Peggy Ann who is a keen vintage crime fan, much like myself. I’m sure I read some books by Patricia Wentworth way back in the year dot but I’m fairly certain that they weren’t Miss Silver mysteries. This book was originally published in 1955.

Miss Silver is Wentworth’s equivalent to Miss Marple, a spinster who manages to knit as she solves crimes. The twist is that Miss Silver is valued by Detective Inspector Frank Abbott of Scotland Yard and in fact it is he who sends her to the small English village of Tilling Green where someone is sending poison pen letters to the inhabitants, leading to tragedy in at least one case.

Miss Silver is a retired governess and she finds it easy to pose as a lady on holiday in the village and quickly immerses herself in the social scene. She’s soon able to hear all the local gossip and realises that there has been a murder and that there is a vicious and demented killer at work.

It’s absolutely years since I read an Agatha Christie but I think that this book was every bit as good, if not better than a Christie. I didn’t guess who the culprit was, which is always a plus. Miss Silver managed to finish knitting a blue twinset and start a red cardigan whilst she solved the case – not bad going! I’ll be reading more of Wentworth’s books in the future.

The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr

I was thrilled when my blogpal Peggy Ann sent me this book all the way from the US, it was very naughty of her though and we have resolved not to be so mad in the future, the postal services of the US and UK have become so wildly expensive recently. Books and printed paper are supposed to be a cheaper rate too!

I hadn’t read anything by John Dickson Carr before, he was an American so I was more than a wee bit surprised to discover that this book is set mainly in Scotland. It begins at Euston station in London however, where Alan Campbell, a young professor of history, is catching the sleeper train to Glasgow, something I’ve done often myself. There has been a mix up with the booking and he ends up having to share with a young woman, Kathryn Campbell, and it transpires that they are both travelling to Castle Shira in the Western Highlands, having been invited there by yet another Campbell. Alan and Kathryn had met before, but only through a newspaper’s letters page where they had an acrimonious correspondence.

Angus Campbell, to whom they’re both distantly related, had fallen to his death a few weeks before and there is some doubt as to whether it was suicide or murder. It’s a ‘locked room’ mystery and I really enjoyed it. Dickson Carr wrote it with a good balance of mystery, romance and humour, so I’ll definitely be looking out for more of his books. He also managed to capture ‘Scotland’ which is a surprise really, apparently he was married to an English woman but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she had been Scottish, I’ve often seen that mistake, with Josephine Tey being described as English, she is probably ‘birling’ in her grave!

Anyway, he obviously knew Scotland well and managed to write in dialect which is something which isn’t easy to do. This book was first published in 1941. I’ll definitely be looking out for more of his books. Thanks again Peggy.

If you want to have a look at the part of Scotland the book is set in – have a look here, Argyle and Bute.

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.

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?

Lord Mullion’s Secret by Michael Innes

This one was published in 1981 and although it’s a fairly entertaining read I have to say that it’s completely different from the usual books published under the name of Michael Innes. There’s no murderer or real mystery to be detected.

It’s a Charles Honeybath mystery and Honeybath is a well-known portrait painter so when Lord Mullion invites Honeybath to his stately home so that he can paint Lady Mullion’s portrait we’re taken straight into that favourite environment of the mystery writer. It feels very like a vintage crime book for that reason and the only modern thing in the book is the television set which is carefully hidden behind panneling, away from the eyes of the paying public who tour Mullion Castle.

It’s more a romance than a mystery, although there is a wee bit of family mystery along the way. It’s very light-hearted and quite amusing at times, a comfort sort of read.

Charles Honeybath and Lord Mullion had been at boarding school together, in fact as Lord Mullion is younger he had been Honeybath’s ‘servant’. I suppose we all know that in those situations the younger lad is called a fag, but I hadn’t realised before that the older boy is called the fagmaster! Honestly, you have to laugh at the upper-class twittiness which probably still goes on at places like Eton. I wonder who was David Cameron’s fag!

Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham

This book was first published in 1931 and it’s another book featuring Albert Campion as the eccentric detective. He’s a sort of upper class silly-ass on the surface but underneath it all he’s in control and has lots of contacts with unlikely people.

Look to the Lady is set mainly in the village of Sanctuary in Suffolk but it begins in London where Percival St John Wykes Gyrth, the heir to a large house called The Tower in Sanctuary has been living rough on the streets since he has had a fall-out with his father. The Gyrth family have had a Chalice in their possession for hundreds of years, it’s about 1,000 years old and steeped in legends and unknown to them there’s an international ring of art thieves after it.

In London, whilst looking for a bench to sleep on, Val’s amazed to see an envelope with his name on it amongst the rubbish on the pavement. Let’s face it, it isn’t a common name, so it must have been meant for him but the address on the envelope is completely unknown to him and someone has already torn the envelope open and it’s empty!

Val decides that he has to make his way to the address to see what he can find out about the envelope and its missing contents. At his destination he finds Magersfontaine Lugg, ex-burglar but now man-servant to Albert Campion, and Lugg gives him Campion’s card.

Mr Albert Campion
At Home

Any evening after twelve.
Improving Conversation
Beer, Light Wines, and Little Pink Cakes.
Do come.
17, Bottle St,W1
(Entrance on left by Police Station).

On leaving Lugg, Val Gyrth takes a taxi to Campion’s address but soon realises that he’s being kidnapped. So begins a story of possible murder, kidnap, attempted murder and a wee bit of romance thrown in for good measure.

If you like vintage crime you’ll probably enjoy this one. It has a good atmosphere of the 1930s and I especially enjoyed it because some of the action takes place near where I used to live in Essex and so when the village of Coggeshall and town of Witham were mentioned it was a bit like seeing an old friend again.

I’m not very good on vintage cars so I looked up a few of the makes which were mentioned in the book Delage and Frazer Nash – very stylish.