Saturday, June 24, 2017

Miles Burton, Death in the Tunnel

Miles Burton, Death In the Tunnel
British Library Crime Classics 2016
Reprint of 1936 Edition
© 2016 Estate of Cecil Street
ISBN 978-0-7123-5641-1

Miles Burton is one of the pseudonyms of Cecil John Charles Street; John Rhode is his other prominent authorial identity.  The books written as Miles Burton generally feature Inspector Henry Arnold and Desmond Merrion (an intelligence agent turned amateur sleuth).  In this book (the 12th of 14 books published as Burton between 1930 and 1936), Inspector Arnold is called  upon to investigate the death (suicide or murder) of a prominent, semi-retired financier, Sir Wilifred Saxonby.  He was shot on a train, in a fist-class compartment, as the train was passing through a 2-mile-long tunnel.

Among the oddities of the event:  Saxonby had paid a conductor to keep any other passengers ou of his compartment.  In addition, the train slowed almost to a stop (at the location of a ventilation shaft) because the engineer saw a flashing red light; before the train stopped, the light turned green…the oddity is that there were no workers, and no permanent signal light, in the tunnel. 

It seems a fairly straightforward case of suicide, but Arnold can find no reason why Saxonby would have killed himself.  As the investigation proceeds, he learns that the Saxonby had been the chairman of a private bank (now semi-retired), and that the other directors (his son, his daughter, and his former chief assistant, Mr. Torrance) were all out of London on the day of his death—at his urging.  And the former chief clerk of the bank appears to be acting strangely.  Arnold calls on his friend Merrion for advice and assistance.  And things become quite complicated.

I don’t think the book, in the end, works all that well.  It is murder, of course, but it such a complicated, contrived murder plot that any one of a dozen events could have kept the murder from being carried out.  For example, a tow-truck that features prominently, has apparently been driven by two of the conspirators, neither of whom seems to have a background that includes driving large, awkward trucks.  And this one is old—and not in great condition; they are lucky it didn’t break down.  Another example—the caretaker at Saxonby’s son’s estate receives a letter (apparently from Saxonby’s daughter) asking him to go to Norwich to buy some plants for the son’s estate—a trip that will keep him away for the entire day of the murder.  The letter arrives the day before the murder—what if it had been delayed?  Or what if the caretaker had been ill?

A third example…Saxonby has taken some actions that lead directly to the murder—but these actions would also have left him vulnerable to blackmail.  Fourth, the actions taken by Saxonby involve the opening of a bank account—at a different bank—in the amount of ₤50,000—about $2 million at today’s values—which is withdrawn through cashing 2 checks, each for ₤25,000.  First of all, it’s quite the bank that could cash two checks that large without notice (or question).  And that much cash would make a fairly large package (unless it was all in ₤100 notes—and then the bank would maintain a record of the serial numbers of the notes).

There are so many moving parts here that having everything go smoothly seems implausible, at least to me. 

I must also say that Arnold is not depicted as a particularly brilliant example of a Scotland Yard detective; all the clever bits are done by Merrion.

This is the third or fourth book by Street (Burton; Rhode) I’ve read, and it is by far the least successful.  According to the back cover copy on this edition, he wrote “approximately 140 detective novels” between 1925 and 1961—an average of 4 per year—and 44 in the 12 years from 1925 through 1936.  (As an contrast, Agatha Christie wrote 14—including collections of short stories—in her first 12 years as a published author—1920-1931).  He was clearly not putting a lot of thought into any individual book and, in this case, I think it shows.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

George Ballairs and Freeman Wills Crofts: Two "Golden Age" Mysteries

George Bellairs, The Dead Shall Be Raised
British Library Crime Classics 2016 reprint of 1942 Original
© 1942, 2016 George Bellairs
ISBN 978-0=7123-5652-7

Freeman Wills Crofts,
Mystery in the Channel
British Library Crime Classics 2016 reprint of 1931 Original
© Estate of Freeman Wills Crofts 2016
ISBN 978-0-7123-5651-0

I periodically buy a batch of British Library Crime Classics reprints of “golden age” British mystery writers, and these two are from the most recent batch.  In his introduction to The Dead Shall Be Raised, Martin Edwards refers to Bellairs’ “quiet wit” and to the “brisk pace” of the book.  This is the second mystery featuring Inspector Thomas Littlejohn, and Edwards comments on Bellairs’ overall approach to his task as author:

The murder mystery plots are competently put together, but Bellairs was not aiming to write complex puzzles of the kind so fashionable during “the Golden Age of Murder” between the two world wars.  At a time of national crisis, he concentrated on producing mysteries that would distract his readers from the horrors or war; his books are as notable for their humor and humanity as they are for their plots…his harshest words are reserved for people who exploit others.  His brisk characterisations suggest an acute observer of human nature.

Bellairs would produce 59 books, in which 54 of which Littlejohn is the main character, during a 39 year career (1941-1980) which Edwards characterizes as that of “a ‘mid-list’ writer of the mid-twentieth century, an author who was never a best-seller, but who for half a lifetime worked to entertain his reader.”

Freeman Wills Crofts, on the other hand, was very definitely a best-selling author (at least among writers of mystery fiction. Mystery in the Channel’s detective is Inspector Joseph French, who appears in 32 books between 1925 and 1957 (and Crofts also wrote 9 non-series books).  Mystery in the Channel is the 7th Inspector French book.  Of Crofts, Martin writes (in the introduction to this reprint)

Detective stories written during “the Golden Age of Murder” between the two world wars have long been stereotypes…as dry intellectual puzzles which paid little heed to the real world.  The truth is rather different, and is more complicated and interesting.  Crofts’ work is a case in point.  As a writer, he seldom indulged in literary flourishes, and this helps to explain why his books have often been dismissed as ‘humdrum’…his practical turn of mind proved invaluable when it came to creating ingenious murder mysteries—and describing how patient detective work could solve them.

It’s probably unfair to compare these two books, as they differ in setting, in the issues that arise in pursuit of a solution to the mysteries, and in the contemporary and retrospective standing of their authors.  But having read them back-to-back, I obviously did find myself making comparisons.

In The Dead Shall Be Raised, we begin with a startling discovery in 1941—a man’s body and a shotgun are uncovered by workmen.  The body is that of Enoch Sykes, who disappeared in 1917, at the time the dead body of his close friend (and rival for the affections of a young woman), Jerry Trickett was discovered on the moor.  The assumption was, obviously, that Sykes had shot Trickett in jealous rage (both men were shown at the inquest to have been drunk) and then fled the scene.  The likeliest outcome was believed to be that Sykes enlisted, and was subsequently killed, in the Great War.  Now, it’s obvious that there are problems with that scenario.

By happenstance, Scotland Yard’s Thomas Littlejohn has come for a weekend visit (in the west England town in which the story is set) with his wife, who has been evacuated from London for the time being.  He is quickly co-opted into the investigation.  There are obvious difficulties in re-opening an investigation nearly a quarter of a century later—people have died, or moved away; those still alive and on the scene may have forgotten much of what happened.  But Littlejohn and the local Superintendent (Haworth) plunge ahead.  Oddly, almost everyone is still alive and they all seem to have very clear memories of the events.

The investigation is well-handled, although some of the interviews seem to me to be perfunctory.  And, given the importance of both of the dead men’s employment (they were co-workers in what is described as a “foundry”), their workplaces are only sketchily (and inadequately) described—they are more pieces of background about which the author was not well-informed, and which he did not bother to inform himself about.  The solution to the mystery comes by way of two separate confessions, neither of which, to my mind, seem particularly plausible or in character.  Both of the people who make confessions conveniently die of heart attacks, sparing us of the need to have a trial.

So it was a good setup handled only adequately.  Added to that was what was (for me, and I think this would generally be true for readers today) way too much use of dialect (and variant phonetic spellings designed to mark people’s speech as dialect).  I could see this as a decent early work by an author who would need to make progress to be able to continue—but if this was the standard of his work, then his actual lengthy career would be, for me, a surprise.


Crofts’ tale is very different, and very differently handled.  A yacht is found adrift (by the crew of a passenger boat) between England and France (near Folkstone), with two bodies and an indication—from bloodstains—of a third person having been on board.  We rapidly discover that the two dead men are the lead partners in a London banking firm, and that the firm is facing insolvency (given that the story is set in 1930, this would strike readers of the book as all too plausible).  Apparently ₤1.5 million is missing (think of that as about $60 million today).   The local police turn the case over to Scotland Yard as quickly as possible, both because the bodies were found, and murders almost certainly occurred—outside the territory of the locals, and because the background to, and motive for, the murders is most likely to be found in London.

Crofts handles the financial aspects of the case fairly adroitly; he clearly took pains to understand how a privately owned (partnership) financial house would operate; how bank notes were circulated and handled [banks, for example, made a note of the serial numbers of “large” bills--₤5, ₤10, ₤20, ₤100 notes—the “equivalent values” of those today would have been $200 (for the ₤5 note) to $4,000 (for the ₤100 note), and both who “paid” those  bank notes into the bank and to whom they were “paid out.”]  Inspector French conducts thorough interrogations of all the parties involved, and his interactions with other officers at Scotland Yard, and with his superiors, are well handled.  And the investigation keeps running into what appear to be dead ends.  But French persists, and we are kept privy to almost all his thoughts.  The denouement seemed a bit forced—not the solution, but the events surrounding the arrest of the guilty party.

Crofts is not s flashy writer—no bursts of eloquence or insight into human nature (as one might get from Hammett or Chandler); no action-filled scenes or chases—but he does what he does quite well—he tells the story of a professional police detective methodically investigating a very tangled set of events.  And, for my tastes, there’s more subtle humor in Crofts’ writing than in Bellairs’.  It is, in the end, fairly clear to me why one of these authors is still regarded as a major figure in the genre, and the other one is, well, not.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Bill Crider, Eight Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Bill Crider, Eight Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
A Gordian Knot Production/Crossroads Press
(c) 2017 Bill Crider

Bill Crider is probably best known for his Sheriff Dan Rhodes series, 25 or so books about a contemporary law officer in a small Texas town, a series which I recommend without reservation.  But beyond that he is a versatile author of mystery (a PI series, among other books; 2 series of "academic" mysteries), western, and horror novels.  He has also written numerous short stories, also in several genres.   This book consists of 8 Sherlock Holmes mysteries, published between 1987 and 2009 and offered here as a collection for the first time.  It takes considerable nerve to write a "traditional" Holmes story, with the setting at 221B Baker Street, narrated by Watson, and involving a Victorian world that Conan Doyle presented with extraordinary panache.  What we have here are 8 stories that succeed in taking us into that world almost seamlessly.  Crider has nailed Watson's narrative voice (as many have failed to do) and the setting extraordinarily well.  While several of the stories have aspects of the supernatural, rest assured that this is Holmes at work, and he deftly brings us back to reality.  I have read a lot of attempts at Holmes stories, and these come as close as it is possible to come to the originals, in tone and in execution.  I'm not going to discuss the individual stories, but will note that in four we have appearances by real people used for fictional purposes and that one is an off-shoot of a famous tale  by Dickens.  If you are a fan of Holmes and Watson, you should take this opportunity to re-visit their world.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Photo 2

And this is Loryne in front of the Sherlock Holmes Museum in 2007.


This is a little dated (2002), but I still mostly look like myself.


Saturday, May 27, 2017

How much is that?

One of the things I tend to do is to adjust mentally any prices or incomes in a mystery to the "present-equivalent." And I just read (oddly enough for the first time) Agatha Christie's Death in the Clouds (also published as Death in the Air), which was published in 1938 (and presumably written in 1937). As a part of the story, Poirot discusses making a 500 pound contribution to an expedition being planned by a father-and-son team of archeologists.

So how much is that?

Well,... for starters, that would have been about $2,500 in 1937 at the exchange rate between the dollar and the pound in 1937, or about twice the average income for a male worker employed full-time, full year. So we can adjust that wo ways.

First, according to the CPI, prices are about 17 (16.67) times as high today as in 1937. Su a simple inflation adjustment says that's about $45,000.

Or, we could ask, what's the average annual income for an adult male worker in the US who's employed full-time, full-year now? The answer is about $900 a week, or nearly $47,000. But Poirot was talking about a contribution equal to TWICE the average annual income in 1937, or $94,000.
So either way, Hercule must have had a healthy bank balance to casually consider offering that sore of a contribution. Healthier than mine, for sure.

(Incidentally, he did make the contribution.)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

E.J. Copperman, Edited Out

E.J. Copperman, Edited Out
Crooked Lane © 2017 E.J. Copperman
ISBN 978-1-68331-130-0

In the second outing of the Mysterious Detective series, Rachel Goldman (mid-list author of mystery novels) has found herself stuck on her latest book.  Her series features Duffy Madison, a free-lance consultant to police departments in missing persons cases, and recently (see Written Off) a real, live Duffy Madison has shown up, claiming that he has no recollection of anything before about 5 years earlier (when her series debuted).  Her problem is that the living Duffy seems to be disrupting her thinking about the fictional one.

And when she calls Duffy (to try to clear her mind, he immediately asks to help him try to track something down (in Poughkeepsie) which might yield a clue to who he really is.  Or was.  The something involves the disappearance of one Damien Moseley, who would be about the same age as Duffy, and whom Duffy believes might be who he was before.  Complications immediately ensue.  And whom Duffy believes is dead, based on his discovery of a 5-year-old cold case death investigation.

Duffy uncovers information that leads him to believe that Damien is dead, probably murdered…five years ago.  There is (it happens) a Duffy Madison who was apparently in the same high school graduating class as Damien.  THAT Duffy was apparently a member of the Classics Club, but his picture is not in the yearbook.  And that’s just the beginning.  Rachel, of course, puts aside her writing (which was not going well, although throughout the investigation she continues to try to hammer out her 1,000 words a day) and accompanies Duffy (or is it Damien?) from the wilds of New Jersey to New York. 

Along the way, they discover that Damien had married, had apparently lived (if only briefly with a woman (also in the same high school class who has (also) disappeared) in a condo owned by Damien’s mother. 

The pace of the book accelerates considerably as their investigation proceeds, and the conclusion is neatly handled. 

This is a book that should probably be read only after you read Written Off, although there’s enough background provided that it’s not necessary.  And I think you should read Edited Out.