Hercule Poirot is a passenger on board a flight from Paris to Croydon (which was the main London airport at that time). Sometime before landing, one of the passengers is found dead – it is Madame Giselle who is a wealthy French moneylender; initially the cause of death is said to be a reaction to a wasp sting but Poirot spots the true cause of death: a poison-tipped dart which has been apparently fired from a blowgun. The case then becomes one of murder.
It is a classic locked room mystery with a murder being committed in a space occupied by thirteen people with no-one witnessing the crime and all of them conceivably could have a motive for the death. The joy is in the puzzle and trying to solve it before Poirot the first time you read it and enjoying the journey thereafter.
This is another of my favourite Agatha Christie novels and edges out other Agatha Christie contenders Murder on the Orient Express and The Mystery of the Blue Train as my L6 entry (“Read One Book that involves a mode of transportation”) on the 2015 Vintage Mystery Bingo Golden Age Card because of the Tom Adams cover of the Fontana paperback version that I read when I was young (which is the image at the top of the page) – this is just a gorgeous piece of art; my absolute favourite Tom Adams cover is that for The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (below) which is inspired by John William Waterhouses 1894 painting The Lady of Shalott [looking at Lancelot from the Window] (further below).
2 good books on Tom Adams’ work in general (and the Agatha Christie covers he has painted in particular) are
“Tom Adams Uncovered: The Art of Agatha Christie and Beyond” by Tom Adams & John Curran, 2015
“Agatha Christie: The Art of Her Crimes” by Tom Adams & Julian Symons, 1981
This is the 7th Gervase Fen novel by Edmund Crispin.
A young actress, Gloria Scott , drowns after throwing herself off Waterloo Bridge. The news sends shock-waves around the film studio at Long Fulton where Gervase Fen, Oxford Don and amateur criminologist, happens to be working as a consultant on a bio-pic of the life of Alexander Pope the poet ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Pope ) . With help from his friend, Inspector Humbleby, this tragic loss of young life leads them to many more dark places – Ms. Scott’s room has been searched and all signs of her real identity have been removed. Mere minutes before Humbleby interrogates her co-workers, one of them, a lecherous cameraman, is poisoned and more deaths are to follow.
This novel is set in a world that Bruce Montgomery (the real person behind the nom de plume of Edmund Crispin) knew well as a professional composer most often of film music (see http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0599736/ for a full list of the 32 films he worked on from 1949 to 1966 – 1961s Raising the Wind, a broad comedy, is an especially interesting film for fans of his novels as he wrote both the screenplay and the score for this film from the Carry On directing/producing team with a cast of classic British film comedy stars)
This does seem to be the Fen that people seem to be most divided over with some disliking it intensely – the usual criticisms are (1) the absence of the killer for most of the novel – he/she appears in person or by letter only at the beginning and end, (2) that Fen tends to stay in the background for much of the book and (3) the comedy is too much in the foreground.
Personally this is one of my favourite Fens precisely because of there is a more sophisticated level of humour than with some of the other Fen books mostly throughout (the start is a bit iffy from a humour perspective) and the fact that Fen has to act as an observer here because this is a world that is quite distinct from his usual intellectual milieu so we see what he sees. There are crimes but I am not sure it can really be classed as a pure mystery.
This is almost the end of the run of Fen novels in the 1940s and 1950s, The Long Divorce followed in 1952 along with some short short stories collected in Beware of the Trains (1953) and Fen Country (1979). One more novel appeared in 1977 – The Glimpses of the Moon – but Crispin/Montgomery turned to reviewing, editing anthologies (mostly of SF but there are 2 good Crime/Mystery anthologies) and writing Film Music (at least until the mid-1960s) – see David Whittles Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books for more details of his life.
I aim to complete my reviews of the set of Fen novels and short stories at some point in the future.
 Presumably the stage name of the actress is an homage to “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
This is another of John Wainwrights excellent meticulous chronicles of every day life for police officers in a Northern town in England.
This focuses on a smaller timescale even than the earlier All on a Summers Day and covers the period from 10pm on Tuesday 1st May to 6am on Wednesday 2nd May for the officers at Radholme police station near the Yorkshire/Lancashire border.
During this time, the police find their normal night time routines on what should be a quiet mid-week night interrupted by a break-in at the local branch of a chemists chain and 2 tearaways in a stolen Jaguar, It is the first of those that has the repercussions that dominate the second half of the book and show just how well Wainwright knew police procedures and the changing world of policing.
If you do like realistic British police procedurals then I would look out for John Wainwrights books in a second hand shop or online (the image above is for the one I bought which is the last published edition)
John William Wainwright was born in Leeds in 1921. After military service, he joined the West Riding Constabulary as a Police Constable in 1947. After earning himself a law degree by distance learning in 1956, he tried writing a crime novel (Death in a Sleeping City) in 1965 which was published by Collins Crime Club. He left the police force either in 1966 (according to Wikpedia and his biography of his years in the police – Wainwright’s Beat), 1967 (according to the back cover of some of his books) or 1969 (according to The St James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers) and became a full-time novelist typically writing an average of three books a year until 1984 – 78 crime novels, a short-story collection and four non-fiction works in total.
Brainwash (1977) is probably his most popular novel and was loosely filmed as Garde à vue (1981) and Under Suspicion (2000). Cul-de-sac (1984) was also well received and was endorsed by Georges Simenon who defined it “an unforgettable novel”.
Most of his novels are police procedurals but he also wrote suspense thrillers, spy novels and legal thrillers.
Wainwright died in 1995, a few months after the publication of his last novel, The Life and Times of Christmas Calvert… Assassin.
All of his output is currently out of print.
All on a Summer’s Day chronicles twenty-four hours in the life of a Police station in the north of England (somewhere in Yorkshire from various geographic distances given) and is quite similar in conception to Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novel Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here published a decade earlier in 1971.
It starts at midnight on Friday 26th June at Sopworth police station – it seems like a quiet night but before Saturday 27th June 2 police men will be maimed, 2 people will be murdered and there will be a small riot at a local public house.
This is very much a traditional police procedural but it is highly character driven, primarily by Detective Chief Superintendent Robert Blayde (who makes his first of 3 appearances in the foreground in novels by John Wainwright who moved characters on and off certain stage within a confined realistic world in many of his novels) who appears a quarter of the novel in. Blayde is a very old school copper (even for the time this was written) and is the leader of the ‘circus’ – the team of specialist policeman and civilian support who dealt with the more serious crime in the area.
Wainright introduces you to each of his main characters briefly but with sufficient depth that you get to know them and understand their motivation. The 3 main intertwining stories (the murders, the maimings and the inter-gang) rivalry are all well described and tied up by the end of the novel.
What makes Wainright different for me and why I think he is such a good read as that he knew this world as an ex-copper and understood the politics and interpersonal interactions within it only too well (read Wainwright’s Beat for a cynical view of the moral and social complications of policing in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s).
If I am not convincing you that this is worth a read, then note that this was one of HRF Keatings 100 Best Crime and Mystery Books as of 1987.
(First published in 1975; The 6th of 22 novels in the Wycliffe series)
About the author
William John Burley was born in Falmouth in 1914. Married with two sons, he worked as an engineer before a change of direction led him to study zoology as a mature student at Balliol College, Oxford. Afterwards, he taught biology at Newquay School.
WJ Burley began his professional writing career with books about an amateur detective (Henry Pym) before deciding to concentrate on the investigations of a professional policeman (Wycliffe). This series gradually trended away from being a pure police procedural to stories about a policeman with a more psychological approach.
In The St James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, Burley summed up his work thus:
‘Most of my books are set in the far southwest, and they are concerned with the tensions which arise within small groups of people who live or work together in close proximity – the family in a country house; the partners in a family business; the people living in a village street or town square. My criminals are never professionals but ordinary people who feel driven by repressed emotions of fear, hatred or jealousy to commit crimes which in other circumstances they would find unthinkable. In my more recent books I have used actual locations in Cornwall and Devon, confusing the topography slightly in order to avoid the risk of seeming to represent actual people.’
The quality of the books (along with the TV adaption with Jack Shepherd being of as good a quality although divergent from the books for practical reasons – the act of compressing a Burley novel done to 50 minutes proved almost impossible) have kept the Wycliffe books in print unlike the rest of Burleys work.
W J Burley died in 2002.
Cedric Tremain is charged with murdering his father by booby-trapping his fishing boat. However despite all the locals are agreed that he is an unlikely murderer, the case against him is strong as he has motive, opportunity and know-how as there is some hard circumstantial evidence against him. But Chief Superintendent Wycliffe has a strong sense that something about the case just doesn’t fit. As he quietly continues his investigations a confusing picture emerges. Twenty years ago Cedric’s cousin was convicted of strangling his girlfriend and served fourteen years of a commuted death sentence. While the wheels of justice grind on Wycliffe breaks his holiday to search for a link between past and present to solve more than one murder.
This is an interesting Wycliffe story for 2 reasons.
Firstly, the TV version almost entirely drops the B-plot – the problem of plot condensing is really apparent here and you can see why after this episode the production team opted entirely for original stories using the established characters from the start of series 2 onwards.
Secondly, I feel this is one of the first of the true Wycliffe books as Wycliffe acts slowly & deliberately teasing the case together and getting people to show their guilt themselves. He functions with very little support from a team here relying almost entirely on his knowledge of human nature to untangle the tensions and jealousies of a community to get at the truth.
This last reason combined with the ability that Burley demonstrated repeatedly to pin down an image in just a few words makes this an excellent read.
The point of the “Blast from the Past” category is to bring together my reviews of books that aren’t new but are still good – usually very good.
They may be out of print completely and only available second hand or they may have been reissued via eBook format (whole series I feared lost to new readers have come back that way, noticeably the Bognor stories of Tim Heald recently).
Either way they are books that I think deserve to be brought back into the light and re-assessed for a modern audience.
Fran Varady appears in 7 novels by Ann Granger published from 1997 to 2007.
Asking for Trouble (Fran Varady #1, 1997)
Fran Varady is insolvent, unemployed and – though for the moment she’s got a leaky roof over her head – about to be homeless. Her dreams of becoming an actress, nurtured when her father and grandmother were still alive, seem a long way off. But the quietly resolute Fran is a survivor. Which her former housemate Terry, found hanging from the ceiling rose of her room, clearly is not. Terry was far from popular with the rest of the residents, but her death shakes everyone. And the more Fran discovers about her death, the more she sees it was not what it first seemed ..
Keeping Bad Company (Fran Varady #2, 1997)
In Fran Varaday’s second investigation, she is drawn into the life of an alcoholic who claims to be the only witness to the violent abduction of a young girl. But when the alcoholic is found dead, Fran must fight to separate the truth from the lies as the answers begin to slip through her fingers.
Running Scared (Fran Varady #3. 1998)
Fran Varady, aspiring actress and private investigator, feared the worst when her friend Ganesh decided to use their less-than-reliable builder acquaintance to update the toilet at his Uncle Hari’s newsagent’s shop. But even she couldn’t guess at the trouble that follows when a man bursts in and asks to use the washroom and then is found stabbed to death. Before he died he left a note asking Fran to meet him and a roll of film hidden behind the washroom’s old pipes. As she tries to work out what the photos represent, Fran finds her difficulties have barely started..
Risking It All (Fran Varady #4, 2001)
When Fran Varady, aspiring actress and part-time sleuth, is approached by Private Investigator Clarence Duke, she mistrusts him on instinct. However, she can’t ignore what he has to tell her. Her mother, Eva, who walked out on Fran when she was only seven, has hired Clarence to find her daughter. For Eva is dying. But the biggest bombshell of all is that Eva has another child – a daughter she gave up soon after her birth – and she wants Fran to find her. It’s not an easy task, but it’s when Clarence Duke is found dead in his car outside Fran’s home that the trouble really begins…
Watching Out (Fran Varady #5, 2003)
Fran Varady fell into private detective work by accident. Now, she’s got a “real” job at a trendy pizzeria, she’s back on track with her acting ambitions, and she’s even found somewhere nice to live. However, there’s something rather sinister about the way the pizzeria is run and the play rehearsals aren’t going well. On top of all this Fran has rashly undertaken to help a young boy, illegally in the country, find an elusive people-trafficker called Max. But when the trail Fran is following is interrupted by a horrifying death, she finds herself up against dangerous men and a ruthless organization.
Mixing with Murder (Fran Varady #6, 2005)
Fran Varady isn’t keen to help seedy club owner Mickey Allerton track down Lisa, a dancer who’s done a bunk. But since Mickey’s holding Fran’s dog Bonnie hostage till the job’s done, she doesn’t have much choice. She quickly locates Lisa and they arrange to meet – but when Fran gets there early, the first thing she sees is a body floating in the river. It’s Ivo, one of Mickey’s nastier bouncers. If Lisa wasn’t terrified already, she is when she gets this news, and Fran finds herself torn between helping the frightened girl and doing Mickey’s bidding. And it’s all about to get a lot more complicated…
Rattling the Bones (Fran Varady #7, 2007)
Edna, the dotty bag lady who Fran Varady used to see living in a churchyard with only feral cats for company, has crossed her path again. Now Edna is staying in a hostel, spending her days roaming as before. But Fran begins to see a method to her madness and, even though no one will believe her, she is certain Edna is being followed. Who could be interested in a harmless old lady? Determined to protect her from this hidden danger, Fran finds herself digging into Edna’s previous life and an old love affair and family quarrel come to light. But by rattling the bones of the past, Fran has uncovered more than she bargained for..
The Fran Varady series is as well written as the rest of Ann Grangers work (the Mitchell & Markby, Lizzie Martin and Campbell & Carter series) but is much darker in tone albeit not as dark as Mo Hayder et al.
Fran is a very likeable character who has been on the edges of society and is gradually moving in. Her friend, Ganesh, is a combination of Doctor Watson and comic relief – the latter augmented by his Uncle Hari in later books.
“Fran Varady, too, after seven books needed to be ‘rested’. It is more difficult for me, as a writer, to take her forward, because the essence of her situation is that she is down on her luck. Slowly, book by book, her situation has slightly improved. But if it improves too much, she is not the same person.”