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SNOW AND STEEL . . . Between the covers

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I thought it was high time I included some non-fiction reviews. I am a keen (amateur) military historian, so I am happy to start this little adventure into the unknown by reviewing a superb history, written by Peter Caddick-Adams, of one of the bloodiest battles of WW2. I was going to use the word ‘decisive’, but that would be inappropriate as it suggests that the outcome of the Battle of The Bulge, which began in December 1944. was a pivotal point in the war. It wasn’t. Hitler’s war was already lost, mainly thanks his disastrous attempt to invade Russia.

SAS coverBy the autumn of 1944, German forces had been pushed out of France and were being systematically overwhelmed by the Red Army in the east. The allies had control of the Channel coast, but the Germans had effectively wrecked the French ports. Antwerp, however, had been taken more or less intact, and when the Germans had been removed from their strong-points controlling the estuary of the River Scheldt, the Belgian port became a massive conduit for the arrival of men, machines and supplies for the Allies.

Hitler believed that if he could reach Antwerp and choke the Allies’ massive superiority in materiel, he could somehow wrench victory from the jaws of defeat. Caddick-Adams tells a tale as tense and addictive as any murder mystery. Let’s look at the three main ingredients of such tales:

Motive; in the east, the Russians were just too many, too implacable, and too powerful, so Hitler needed a win – somewhere, anywhere.

Opportunity; the largely American forces in the Ardennes area were a mixture of battle-hardened veterans who has stormed the Normandy beaches on 6th June, and more callow units. Some had been battered and bloodied by the savage fighting in the Hurtgen Forest earlier that year. For a first hand account of that battle seen through the eyes of JD Salinger, click this link. None of these American units were expecting anything other than a steady but remorseless slog eastwards until they crossed the Rhine, until they were able to beard the Fuhrer in his den.

Means? Aye, there’s the rub.  Caddick-Adams explains that the cream of the German army had already been wiped out on the undulating fields of Normandy and bleaker killing grounds of East Prussia. The Werhmacht – comprising its three branches of land, sea and air forces – was on its uppers. To boost the forces attempting to storm their way across Belgium and recapture Antwerp, navy men from the Kriegsmarine and ground-crew from the Luftwaffe were given a helmet and a gun, and pitched against American forces.

Screen Shot 2022-01-01 at 09.41.39It is one of the great paradoxes of WW2 that on the ground, at least, the Germans had the best guns, the best artillery and the best tanks. The problem was that although the formidable Panzers were easily able to overcome the relatively underpowered Sherman tanks used by the allies, the German vehicles were high maintenance and, some would say, over-engineered. The ubiquitous Shermans were rolling off the production lines in their thousands, while the formidable Tigers and Panthers – when they developed a fault – were fiendishly difficult to repair or cannibalise. Caddick-Adams (right) also reminds us how well-fed and supplied the American GIs were compared with their German foes. In one particularly eloquent passage, he tells us of the utter joy felt by a unit of Volksgrenadiers when they seized a supply of American rations. When their own kitchen unit eventually reached their position, the cooks and their containers of watery stew were given very short shrift.

Snow and Steel covers ground familiar to many amateur historians – the Malmedy Massacre, the heroic defence of Bastogne, and Hitler’s manic distrust of his generals, amplified by the Stauffenberg plot. The eventual outcome of this battle is a matter of history so, although his narrative is as good as any found in contemporary thrillers of mysteries, Caddick-Adams knows we expect no surprises. What he gives us, however, is what used to be called (in the age of vinyl) a double A-side. We have a brilliant, methodical and comprehensive account of a battle where we get to see both the strategic and tactical implications of a military campaign. Flip the metaphorical record over, and we have a vivid account of a battle as seen by men who were there, told in their own words, and thus made even more chilling through its immediacy. Snow and Steel is published by Arrow and is available here.

THE OXFORD STREET ATROCITY . . . Murder most foul in Leamington, 1907 (part two)

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SO FAR: On the night of Saturday 3rd March 1907, In a drink-fueled fit of rage, 33 year-old Edwin James Moore has set his mother on fire at their home, 13 Oxford Street. She is pronounced dead at the scene.

While the doctor, police, neighbours and the other members of the Moore family crowded into 13 Oxford Street, what had become of the central character in this drama, Edwin James Moore? With skin hanging from his hands and arms after trying – and failing – to extinguish the flames that killed his mother, he was taken by one of the neighbours to a nearby chemist to have his burns dressed, but it was clear the damage was severe, and he was taken to the Warneford Hospital, was treated further treated for his wounds and kept in overnight.

In the drama of the moment, the cries of young Bertie Moore (“Help! Murder!”) had been temporarily disregarded, and it was assumed that there had been a terrible accident, but when the proverbial dust settled and Police Sergeant Rainbow spoke to the distressed child, it was clear that Fanny Moore’s death was something other than a misfortune. On the Sunday morning, Rainbow visited Edwin Moore in hospital, and put it to him that he had killed his mother. Moore replied, indignantly:

“No, never. I tried to put out the fire and burnt my coat in doing it.”

Despite his denial, Moore was arrested and appeared before Leamington magistrates, where he continued to deny that he had caused his mother’s death. The magistrates were unconvinced, and sent him to be tried at the next Warwick Assizes on a charge of wilful murder. Meanwhile, the Moore family had a final melancholy duty to perform.

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The County Assizes were a major civic event. The Great and the Good put on their best finery to celebrate this most emphatic and visible reminder to the common folk that British justice was a solemn affair, and those who fell foul of it were in a very dark place indeed. The local paper reported:

WARWICKSHIRE WINTER ASSIZES. The Warwickshire Winter Assizes were opened at the Shire Hall, Warwick, Friday morning, before Mr. Justice Phillimore. His Lordship arrived in the town on Thursday afternoon, and was met by the High Sheriff (Sir William Jaffray) and the Sheriff’s Chaplain (the Rev. J. Thompson;. GRAND JURY: the following were sworn upon the Grand Jury : Lord Algernon Percy foreman), Mr. H. Lakin, Mr F. E. Muntz, Major F. Hood Gregory, Capt. F. Gerard, Mr. D. S. Greig, Mr. F. Stanger Leathes, Major H. Chesshyre Molyneus, Major Gibsone, Major Armstrong, Mr A. Kay,   Mr R. W. Lindsay, .Mr A. Sabin Smith, Mr. J. Booth, Mr. W. E. Everitt,  G Anson-Yeld, Mr. E. C. Gray-Hatherell, Mr. A. Batchelor, Mr. Savory, Mr. P. S. Danby, Mr. S. Flavel and Captain K. Oliver-Bellasis.” 

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Percy, Lakin, Flavel – just three names that still resonate locally today, and several others who, if you Google them, remain clearly at the heart of the British establishment more than a century after they convened to decide the fate of Edwin James Moore. It is pointless to speculate whether a rough former soldier was ever going to get the benefit of the doubt after being accused of murdering the woman who brought him into the world and watched over him during his childhood. The jury system in 1907 was what it was. The trial was very brief, and on Monday 11th March Mr Justice Phillimore had little hesitation when he instructed the jury, who found Moore guilty of murder. Phillimore (left) donned the symbolic black cap, and sent Edwin James Moore back to his gloomy cell in Warwick Prison on Cape Road (below) to await the visit of the hangman.
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In an age when the wheels of justice turned extremely slowly, the downfall of Edwin James Moore was extremely swift. By my reckoning, the interval between that fateful Saturday night and his death  on the morning of 6th April, at the hands of (below, with newspaper report) John Ellis – whose day job was a newsagent and hairdresser in Rochdale – was just thirty-three days. To borrow the obligatory final words of the sentencing judge, “May God have mercy on his soul.”

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THE OXFORD STREET ATROCITY . . . Murder most foul in Leamington, 1907 (part one)

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13 Oxford StreetNumber 13 Oxford Street is a narrow three-story terraced house used these days, I believe, for student accommodation. It was advertised recently as a six bedroom let, a snip (!) at £3,360 pcm. The Bank of England inflation calculator tells me that in 1891, Edward Moore and his family would have been paying just under £26 a month. He had a large family comprising his wife Fanny Adelaide (36) and children Edwin James Moore (16), Fanny A Moore (14), William A Moore (13), Joseph C Moore (11), Rose Hannah Moore (10), Percy E Moore (8), Leonard J Moore (7) and Ernest F Moore (4).

Edward Moore was a cab-driver – horse drawn in those days, of course – and what became of seven of his eight children is a fascinating investigation for another day, but our story focuses on Edwin James Moore and, to a lesser extent, his youngest brother Ernest Moore, known as Bertie. Born in 1875, Edwin Moore appears to have become the black sheep of the family. Court records tell us that he had served time in prison for stealing potatoes, and between 1903 and 1906 had been convicted of minor offences such as drunkenness, using foul language and assault.

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It also seems he had found time to join the army, and had served in India, but in the spring of 1907, this prodigal son was back in Leamington. On the evening of Saturday 3nd March, at about 8.00p, Moore returned to the family home, the worse for drink. The only people in the house were his mother and brother Bertie, by then aged eleven. Mrs Moore has been cooking Edwin’s supper – herrings – in the oven, and she put the plate in front of him on the table. He was far from impressed. Complaining that the fish was “stinking the place out”, he first pushed the plate aside and then flung it to the floor, where it shattered. He kicked the broken pieces of pottery and the remains of his dinner across the kitchen, and in his rage, picked up a nearby oil lamp and hurled it at his mother. She fended off the lamp, and it broke against the wall, bursting into flames. Mrs Moore made to escape, but her son snatched a piece of newspaper from the table, twisted it into a spill, lit it from the burning oil lamp and having seized his mother by the arm thrust it like a sword at her body. Her flanelette blouse immediately caught fire, and she rushed into the scullery to try to put out the flames with tap water.

Young Bertie, understandably terrified by what he had seen, ran to the door and screamed “Help! Murder! He’s setting my mother on fire!” Neighbours Henry Beeby and a Mr Phillips rushed into the house, and saw Edwin Moore flapping at the flames that were devouring his mother’s upper body with his bare hands. Beeby managed to put out the flames and, having been cursed at and struck by Edwin Moore, later testified that the younger man ran from the house. Fanny Adelaide Moore was beyond help, however, and was pronounced dead when medical help arrived in the person of Dr Bernard Rice, who later carried out a post-mortem on the poor woman. His findings were reported in The Leamington Spa Courier.

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IN PART TWO – ARREST, TRIAL AND SWIFT RETRIBUTION

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN . . . An appreciation of Arthur Bryant & John May

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The origin of those six words is a biblical text, chapter 44 of Ecclesiasticus, a book of the bible which, for Protestants, was shunted off the mainline into the sidings of The Apocrypha. The first ten lines of the chapter are:

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Aficionados of Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May series, which ended on the final page of London Bridge is Falling Down will know that some of the lines written by the  biblical scholar  – a chap called Sira, apparently – are more applicable to Arthur and John than others. “Leaders of the people by their counsels..”? The pair, especially in the autumn of their careers certainly led the Peculiar Crimes Unit “by their counsels” in spite of the efforts of the nominal boss, the hapless Raymond Land and the myriad civil servants who sought to sink the unit and all who sailed in her.

I think we move on fairly quickly from “Such as found out musical tunes and recited verses in writing..” as neither was particularly musical, but Arthur did occasionally recite verses, usually in the form of riddles that baffled everyone else. “Rich men furnished with ability …“? John could always afford a decent suit, but what Arthur did with his salary is anyone’s guess. His disregard for sartorial elegance and the modest accommodation provided by his long-suffering Antiguan landlady, Alma Sorrowbridge suggested that he spent little on worldly concerns. As for “living peaceably“, John was always something of a conciliator, but Arthur had a savage tongue, particularly when faced with jobsworths or obstructive administrators. It has to be said, though, that his barbs were usually so shrouded in classical allusion that the victims were seldom bright enough to know they were being insulted.

Sadly, except by Janice, Colin, Meera and the rest of the PCU, Arthur and John were far from “honoured in their generations..” let alone becoming “the glory of their times.” In terms of the miserable bureaucrats who hated the very thought of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, then Arthur and John are almost certainly “perished as though they had never been..“, but for the of thousands of grateful readers, people who loved the sounds and smells of hidden London, appreciated the jokes, saw the torch of such great writers as the Grossmiths, Betjeman and PM Hubbard being carried brightly forward, chuckled quietly at the nostalgic product placing contained in the depths of Arthur’s coat pockets, and shared the poignancy of those moments when the two old gentlemen gazed down at the river from their special place, Waterloo Bridge – the final eleven words of the biblical quote will resonate as long as there are books to be read, jokes to be shared and dreams to be dreamed.

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MURDER COMES TO LADBROKE (2) . . . True crime from 1926

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CecilSO FAR – On January 13th 1926, Milly Crabtree, 25 year-old wife of Cecl Crabtree, is found battered to death at their home, Manor Farm in Ladbroke. 19 year-old George Sharpes is arrested for her murder. As is the way with these, things, the wheels of justice turn very slowly, and it was February before Sharpes came to face magistrates in Southam. The courtroom, normally used as a cinema (pictured above), was packed, and the onlookers were spellbound as a confession from George Sharpes was read to the court.

I, George Sharpes, here wish to state how and why I murdered the deceased Mrs. Crabtree. On Wednesday morning, January 13th, the day I committed the crime, I went to work in the house about 9 a.m. The job I was doing was scraping paint off a skirting board. While I was sitting doing work, a thought entered my head to kill the deceased. Several ways entered my head, how to kill her, but in my mind I did not think these ways would have been successful So I let this thought keep on worrying me until dinner-time. When I went home it seemed to out of my mind all together.

When I came back in the afternoon the same thought came to me. This time I was working with a hammer, drawing nails out of the window. Then I came to a big nail just above the window and near to the door, the one which is opposite the front room door. Meanwhile the deceased had been past me on two occasions. The third time as she was coming past me I struck her on the side of the head and she fell down in the passage. Here I struck her again, and then I dragged her into the front room. When I came out I saw some blood on the floor, I took off my cap, cleaned up the mess, and threw my cap in the fire grate in the dining room. Then I went into the front room, and struck her again.

I seized pair of pyjamas and wrapped them round her head to stop her noise. The next thought that came to me was to do away with myself, so I went to look for a knife or a razor. As I was going through, the dining room, I passed the cowman’s daughter and she noticed that there was blood on hands. Then I went to Mr. Crabtree’s bench and there I found a knife. I then went upstairs and cut my throat. Even this did not kill me, so I tried again. Seeing this did not do it, I looked everywhere for a razor, but it was of no avail. As I was walking round I noticed a bottle labelled Camphorated Oil, Poison. I drank some of this, thinking it would bring me to a quick end. This made me feel faint, so I went back into Mr Crabtree’s bedroom. I knew that someone would find me, so I lay there.

This bizarre statement continued with what appeared to be a motive for the attack:

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MotherThe magistrates wasted little time in stating that George Sharpes had a serious case to answer, and the case was moved on to be examined at the March Assizes in Warwick. The case was presided over by Mr Justice Shearman. The only possible line for the defence to take was that Sharpes was insane at the time at the time he committed the murder, and Sharpes’s mother was produced to state that her son had suffered an unfortunate childhood. Her pleas fell on deaf ears, however. Rejecting the claims that George Sharpes was insane, the judge donned the black cap and sentenced him to death. The execution was fixed for April and, as was almost always the case, a petition was set up to ask for clemency. The case was taken to appeal, in front of Lord Chief Justice Avory, who was perhaps not the most welcome choice for Sharpes’s defence team. Avory, a notorious “hanging judge”, had been memorably described:
“Thin-lipped, cold, utterly unemotional, silent, and humourless, and relentless towards lying witnesses and brutal criminals”.

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Avory dismissed the appeal, and George Sharpes, just turned 20 years od age, was hanged in Winson Green prison on 13th April 1926. The hangman was William Willis, assisted by Robert Baxter. As was customary, Sharpes was interred in the graveyard inside Winson Green prison. His burial plot was unmarked, but the location was recorded in prison records. As for his victim, she lies, one hopes at peace,  in a quiet corner of Ladbroke churchyard. Thanks to Maggy Smith for the photos.

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MURDER COMES TO LADBROKE (1) . . . true crime from 1926

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Screen Shot 2021-12-12 at 18.11.45Manor Farm in Ladbroke dates back, according to the data on British Listed Buildings, to the mid 18th century. For architectural historians, it adds:

Squared coursed lias with quoins and coped gables. Slate roof with brick end stacks. L-shaped plan. 2 storeys plus attic; 3-window range of C20 three-light casements in original openings with stone flat arches to ground floor. C20 door with stone flat arch. 2 gabled dormers. C20 one-storey lean-to to left. Interior: noted as having stop-chamfered spine beams and large open fireplace, refaced C19. C18 central staircase with turned balusters.

In September 1925, the farm had been bought by Cecil Crabtree and his wife, Milly Illngworth Crabtree, (neé Fawcett). The couple had married in 1923 in Halifax, and had a son, Brian, aged eighteen months and a daughter, Betty, just six months old.

Crabtree was clearly a man with ambitions, and also had farming interests at Burton Farm, Neston, Cheshire. When the family moved down to Ladbroke, a young man called George Sharpes accompanied them as stockman. It appears that Cecil Crabtree had taken on Sharpes in a spirit of benevolence, as the the young man had, for four years, been an inmate of the Farm Training Colony, a reformatory for boys at Newton-le-Willows, and was considered to be “a wrong ‘un”. Sharpes’s parents lived in Crewe, where his father was a railway worker.

A young girl called Kathleen Coleman, aged 10, lived in one of the farm cottages with her mother and father – who worked for Mr Crabtree. Kathleen often helped out in the house, and on the afternoon of 13th January 1926, she made a chilling discovery. She went upstairs to Mrs Crabtree’s room, as one of the babies was crying. She told the inquest:

” I saw George lying on the bed with his throat all bleeding, and he told me to tell daddy to come. I ran and told father, who was in the cowshed.”

Her father, Sibert Pearson Coleman ran to the house, and saw George Sharpes, but was about to make another much more terrible discovery:

“His (George’s) throat was bleeding. I asked him what was the matter, and he said —’ Never mind me; go down to the missus. I have killed her.’ I ran down to the sitting-room, and found Mrs Crabtree lying dead in a pool of blood. She was bleeding from wounds in the face and the back of the head. I saw that she was past aid. One of the children was on the settee crying.”

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Inspector Cresswell, of Southam, was called to Manor Farm (above, as it was at the time) and when he arrived he found Mrs Crabtree lying on the floor of the sitting room, face downwards. There was a large quantity of blood near the head, and marks of blood on bureau, and also on the wall about five feet up. He found a hammer lying on the sofa, with blood and hair adhering to it. Seeing there was nothing he could do for Mrs Crabtree, the inspector returned to Sharpes, who was lying on the bed in Mrs Crabtree’s bedroom with a wound in his throat. There was a bloodstained shoemaker’s knife on the bed beside him. The wound was slight. There was towel and a suit of pyjamas wound round his head.

On seeing the Inspector, Sharpes muttered,“Let me die! Leave me alone, and let me die!”

The inspector called for a car and Sharpes was removed to the hospital in Leamington Spa, where he was detained. Cresswell said later that it seemed Mrs Crabtree’s skull was crushed in on the left side above and below the left ear.and probably done with one blow.

Cecil Crabtree was contacted and returned as fast as he could, in a state of understandable shock. There was little doubt who was responsible for his wife’s murder, and once the inquest had been comcluded, she was buried in Ladbroke churchyard on a snowy winter afternoon. The report in The Rugby Advertiser of Friday 22nd January was heartfelt:

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Milly

IN PART TWO – Trial, motive – and justice

THE VISITORS . . . Between the covers

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VisitorsEngland, 1923. Like thousands upon thousands of other young women, Esme Nicholls is a widow. Husband Alec lies in a functional grave in a military cemetery in Flanders. His face remains in a few photographs, and in her memories. Left penniless, she ekes out a living by writing a nature-notes feature for a northern provincial newspaper, and serving as a personal assistant to an older widow, Mrs Pickering. Mrs P has the advantage of being able to visit her husband’s grave whenever she wants, as he was not a victim of the war.

Mrs P decides she would like to visit her brother in Cornwall. and sends Esme on ahead. Gilbert Stanedge, funded by his sister, presides over a community of damaged young men he once commanded during the war. They live in a rambling old house they have renamed Espérance. Each man has been scarred – physically and mentally – by the horrors they faced in the trenches. Sebastian, Hal, Clarence and Rory contribute as best they can – paintings, pottery, husbandry – to the upkeep of the house.

Esme’s initial reluctance to go to Cornwall is tempered by the fact that it was where Alec grew up. Could a visit to the street where he lived, or a stroll along the beaches he played on as a child keep the flame of remembrance burning a little brighter, for a little longer?

caroline-scott-155428586Caroline Scott (right) treats us to a high summer in Cornwall, where every flower, rustle of leaves in the breeze and flit of insect is described with almost intoxicating detail. Readers who remember her previous novel When I Come Home Again will be unsurprised by this detail. In the novel, she references that greatest of all poet of England’s nature, John Clare, but I also sense something of Matthew Arnold’s poems The Scholar Gypsy and Thyrsis, so memorably set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Another clever plot device brings us face to face with the horrors that the men faced in the trenches of Flanders. Rory has written a book detailing what happened. It is still unpublished but, as Esme grows closer to him, he lets her read it. She is still, of course searching for something – anything – of Alec.

Half way through the novel, Caroline Scott employs a vertiginous plot twist. Readers must decide for themselves if it is plausible. Further detail from me would be a spoiler, but yes, after a few raised eyebrows it did work.  The Visitors is an astonishing tale of love, betrayal, heartache and  – finally –  redemption. With its two predecessors (click on the images below for more information) it makes a remarkable trilogy of novels about the men and women who survived the carnage of 1914 – 1918, but came away with scars and damage that sometimes never healed. Published by Simon & Schuster, The Visitors is out now.

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When I Come

THE RETURN OF HESTER LYNTON . . . Between the covers

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The publisher’s website tells us:
“Tony Evans has been a full-time writer since 2008. He has written several novels of historical mystery, Gothic fiction and suspense, including the popular Jonathan Harker mystery series and the Hester Lynton detective novels, as well as study guides and novel adaptations. Tony lives in the Yorkshire Dales with his wife, and enjoys walking and the outdoors.”

So, what do we have in this second volume of short stories, the follow up to The Early Hester Lynton Mysteries (2013) ? A female detective, obviously – and her companion Ivy Jessop – and the familiar backdrop of Victorian London and crimes carried out – for the most part – by the gentry, or sometimes by the impoverished middle classes. There are ten stories.

The Case of the Fanshaw Inheritance

HesterA rich widower, a self made industrialist, dies and leaves his fortune to be divided between his two nephews. One is a down-at-heel schoolmaster, the other a disreputable roué. The lucky man has to solve a cypher set by their late uncle. The good guy brings the  cypher to Hester and Ivy. They solve the conundrum with by way of a knowledge of 18th century first editions, a journey to explore an ancient English church, and  by breaking in to a family mausoleum.

The Case of the Stolen Leonardo

When a small, but obviously valuable painting by the great artist disappears from the Ronsard gallery, Hester’s cousin, Inspector Albert Brasher of the Metropolitan Police – who has been given the task of investigating the theft – is at his wits’ end, and turns to his relative for help. She solves the case, with the inadvertent help of an aristocratic dealer in stolen artwork.  The culprit – who is also a very clever forger – is found, but his motive for the crime triggers Hester’s compassion, and she arranges a very equitable solution to the case.

The Case of the Missing Professor

When Professor Ambrose Dixon goes missing, Hester is summoned to the Directorate of Military Intelligence. Dixon – a distinguished chemist – has been working for the War Office on a revolutionary new explosive, the formula for which – if it fell into the wrong hands – could destabilise the delicate military and political balance of Western Europe. Hester discovers the whereabouts of the professor, a dangerous impostor at the heart of the country’s intelligence service, and – perhaps – the code which can unlock  the formula to Dixon’s secret.

The Mystery of the Locked Room

The cases thus far have been relatively restrained affairs, but when Hester and Ivy are called in to investigate an apparent suicide in a genteel house just outside Maidstone, there is blood aplenty. We all know that suicides in crime novels are usually cleverly disguised murders, and this is no exception. Locked room mysteries usually involve mechanical ingenuity, and this case Hester is too clever for the would-be engineer, who also falls foul of Ivy’s skill with a pearl-handled revolver.

The Adventure of the Diamond Necklace

We are now in full melodrama mood, with swarthy “furriners” (in this case a particularly oily Italian), a criminal mastermind, young ladies being kidnapped by cosh wielding London low lifes, and the priceless piece of jewellery of the title. One of Hester’s many  talents is to effortlessiy forge handwriting after the briefest glimpse at an example of the original, and she uses this skill to hoodwink a prestigious private bank into revealing the contents of a safe deposit box.

The Case of the Kidnapped Schoolboy

When a nine year-old lad disappears from his bedroom in a genteel Putney villa, Hester and Ivy play two of the oldest detective games in the book – cherchez la femme and follow the money. With the help of a couple of burly railway policemen the villains are unmasked on the Dover platform of Charing Cross Station.

The Puzzle of the Whitby Housemaid

EvansHere, Tony Evans (right) indulges in the first of two shameless  – but entertaining – instances of name-dropping. Our two sleuths, weary after a succession of difficult investigations, are enjoying some well-earned R & R in the resort of Whitby. So who do they meet? Think Irish writer and man of the theatre, blood, fangs …..? Gotcha! They are engaged by a fellow holidaymaker, a certain Mr B. Stoker to investigate the disappearance of a housemaid. She has been induced to leave her present employment to go and work for a rather dodgy doctor. Much skullduggery ensues, the housemaid is saved, and Mr Stoker says, “Hmm – this gives me an idea for a story.”

The Case of the Russian Icon

Not so much blood and gore in this tale but more a case of a victimless crime. A widow is duped into selling what turns out to be a valuable religious artifact for a pittance, only to find it on sale in a smart London gallery for many times more than the unscrupulous dealer paid for it. No crime has been committed, but Hester Lynton takes it upon herself to exact some natural justice, and she does so by employing the craftsmanship of the forger who we met in The Case of the Stolen Leonardo.

The Case of the Naked Clergyman

My first image of this involved the legendary Parson’s Pleasure on the Oxford Cherwell, where naked vicars – and other chaps – were allowed to bathe, but this story is rather more sinister. An elderly  widower cleric has been behaving strangely, and his exploits have included dancing around in the buff, bathed in moonlight. Hester and Ivy soon discover that a hefty inheritance and an access to mind-altering pharmaceuticals are the cause of the problem.

The Problem of Oscar Wilde

Another hefty name-drop concludes this selection of tales, and the Irish man of letters turns up on Hester’s doorstep and asks for help. The problem is letters, and these are missives sent by Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills to someone he admires (a ‘gentleman’, of course). A sum of £200 is demanded for the return of the billets-doux. Hester and Ivy manage to derail this particular attempt to ‘out’ the great writer but, sadly, we all know his reprieve was to be only temporary.

This is a very agreeable and diverting read. Of course, we all know of another consulting detective in Victorian London, and one who also has a companion who writes up the cases, and often dashes about the Home Counties by train after consulting  Bradshaw’s Handbook. Additionally, this fellow (with his astonishing powers of observation) and his friend also had a housekeeper who usually showed clients up to their rooms – but no matter. Hester Lynton may be a Holmes pastiche in skirts, but as long as these books are well written, then I – and thousands of others, I hope – will continue to enjoy them. The Return of Hester Lynton is published by Lume Books and is out now.

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