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BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . . Trent’s Last Case

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A journalist and author best remembered for inventing a form of four-line droll poetic biography that bears his middle name is an unlikely author, you might think, of one of the classic crime novels in English literature. Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956) wrote Trent’s Last Case, which was first published in 1913. It has been filmed three times, first as a silent film in 1920, again (directed by Howard Hawks) with both a silent and talkie version in 1929, and – the version I will refer to – in 1952, directed by Michael Wilcox.

The book’s title is misleading, as it was actually the first time the character of Philip Trent had appeared. The novel is regarded as a classic, and was widely admired by such fellow writers as Dorothy L Sayers, but it seems odd that Trent only featured in two more books and then only after a gap of many years.

Trent's Last Case.2-1Philip Trent is a successful painter, journalist – and amateur detective. He is summoned by his sometime employer, newspaper boss  Sir James Molloy, to investigate the shooting of American businessman Sigsbee Manderson, at his country house in the south west of England. Manderson was a ruthless plutocrat who had made many enemies in his pursuit of riches, but even discounting those, the house itself offers a hatful of suspects, including the butler, Mabel (Manderson’s wife) and two male secretaries who dealt, respectively, with his social and business affairs.

Check the date of publication. 1913. I am not sure if The Moonstone (Wilkie Collins, 1868) is exactly a Country House Mystery, but I can’t think of anything else that comes before Trent’s Last Case that includes elements we have come to regard as staples of the genre – the grand house, the butler, the maids, the examination of movements and motives among the house residents. Remember that it was to be another seven years before Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the subsequent flowering of such companion talents as Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham. To put Bentley’s novel into sharper context, bear in mind that His Last Bow and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes were still be published, in 1917 and 1927 respectively.

OrsonSo, to the book, the film and how they relate to each other. Readers of the book may have to keep pinching themselves so that they remember this takes place in 1913. We are still, despite ‘Bertie’ dying three years earlier, in Edwardian England. The ravages of The Great War were still to come. The film sets the action pretty much contemporary with the production, that is to say, post-war England. In the novel, we only see Sigsbee Manderson through Trent’s examination of his personal possessions, and the testimonies of the other inhabitants of White Gables. The box office potential of having Orson Welles play the odious businessman, however, was obviously too much for the producers to resist, and the big man (right, complete with strange prosthetic nose) puts in a characteristically bravura performance in a flashback cameo towards the end of the film.

The film is workmanlike and sticks fairly closely to the narrative of the book, including the eventual solution to Manderson’s death. Although the film ends with Margaret Lockwood (Mabel Manderson) and Michael Wilding (Trent) having a fairly chaste snog, the screenplay doesn’t come close to the intensity of Trent’s infatuation – although he behaves like a perfect gentleman – with Mabel. The film Trent is matinee-idol suave – as indeed Wilding was at this stage of his career – but is much tougher than Bentley’s Trent. Not that the Trent in the book is flabby. In between the initial investigation and the denouement, Trent goes away and acts as a war correspondent in a blood-soaked civil war somewhere in Central Europe. It is more that the literary detective is much more loquacious and passionate, and is given to quoting Shelley and Swinburne.

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Again, I say remember the date. 1913. Some critics have even suggested that Bentley had his tongue discreetly in his cheek when he wrote the novel, but by the time the film was made, almost forty years and two world wars later, huge swathes of the novel would never have got into the script, and the social and emotional nuances would have bemused 1950s cinema audiences.

To sum up, Trent investigates, gets it almost right, falls in love with the widow, sets out his solution on paper and then, unwilling to disclose his solution for fear of the hurt it will cause, goes off to a frightful war to seek oblivion. When he returns, he presents his version of events, only to find he was correct in all but the crucial detail of whose finger was on the trigger when Manderson was shot. The book is spirited, and full of entertainment as Bentley harmlessly shows off how clever he is. The film does an adequate job and is worth watching, if only for Orson Welles hamming it up for dear life, and a brief appearance by Kenneth Williams (even then as camp as a row of tents) as the gardener (below) who discovers the body.

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LOST . . . Between the covers

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Leona Deakin introduced to Dr Augusta Bloom, her psychologist-turned-PI in Gone, which came out in 2019. Click here to read the review of that and get something of the background to Lost, the second novel in the series.

Augusta and her professional partner Marcus Jameson have had a major professional and personal falling out after their involvement with a manipulative psychopath called Seraphine. Jameson is a former military intelligence analyst, and has a decent pension, so he hasn’t needed the work, but Bloom’s latest case is just too intriguing for him to turn down.

An apparent Islamic terrorist has bombed a social event at the Royal Navy base of Devonport. There have been a handful of fatalities, but one of the injured – a Navy officer called Harry Peterson – has disappeared. He was seemingly taken away by ambulance, but his girlfriend Karene – dazed but uninjured in the bomb blast – has been unable to locate him in any of the local hospitals.

Karene gets no joy from either the Navy or the police, and so she turns to her friend Dr Augusta Bloom for help. Peterson eventually turns up, smuggled into a hospital by person or persons unknown. He has head injuries which were not sustained in the Devonport bombing and, when he wakes, he has suffered a substantial loss of memory.

Someone, somewhere is desperate for Harry Peterson to have no memory of the previous four years. Unfortunately for, those four years saw Peterson’s wife begin an affair which led to the breakup of their marriage and, more crucially, the beginning of Peterson’s romance with Karene. Now, he has literally no idea who Karene is.

As Bloom and Jameson chip away at what seems to be a granite wall of military secrecy, Peterson’s cousin, living a blameless and apparently mundane life in rural France, is found tortured to death. Photographs found in his cottage hint at a link to the goings on in England.The re-appearance of the malevolent Seraphine does nothing to clear the miasma round who is cleverly messing around with Harry Peterson’s mind – and why?

In the last quarter of the book, the pace turns frenetic, the plot ever more knotted and the scenery – from a torture room in a Central African Republic military base to a bank safe deposit vault in Peterborough – diversifies. Leona Deakin has great fun mystifying not only Bloom and Jameson but us the readers. The relationship between the pair of investigators is tested to breaking point with Jameson increasingly believing that he is being played for a fool, and when the case splits wide open to reveal not only political chicanery but links to people trafficking, then all bets on a peaceful and tidy solution are definitely off.

Lost, published by Transworld Digital, first came out in Kindle in the summer of this year. It will be available as a paperback, under the imprint of Black Swan, at the end of October.

PEOPLE OF ABANDONED CHARACTER . . . Between the covers

There can be no historical event – save, perhaps, the assassination of John F Kennedy – which has attracted more theories, speculation and books, both fiction and non-fiction, as the killings attributed to Jack The Ripper in the autumn of 1888. My feature JACK THE RIPPER . . . In fiction, from the early days of this website, looks at just a few novels which have retold the tale.

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Now, debut novelist Clare Whitfield has her moment on the stage with People Of Abandoned Character. Susannah Chapman is a rather unusual woman, in her early thirties, who has known at first hand the dreadful deprivation of that part of the east End of London known as The Nichol. The contemporary map of the area (below) grades streets with colours according to the level of poverty, with red indicating relatively comfortable residents through blue to black – the depths of squalor.

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Susannah has no recollection of her father, and a memory of her mother so horrifying that she only turns to it in her nightmares. She is eventually rescued by her grandparents who take her to live with them in Reading. She chooses to become a nurse, and is accepted as a trainee at The London Hospital on Whitechapel Road, seen below in a 19thC photograph.

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When Susannah attracts the attention of a young doctor, Thomas Lancaster and, after a whirlwind romance, she leaves The London as Mrs Lancaster to become the mistress of a delightful riverside home in Chelsea. Mistress? Not quite. The first sign that all may not be well is that Thomas Lancaster has a housekeeper named Mrs Wiggs, and the lady is a graduate of the Mrs Danvers school of domestic management. Yes, I know that’s an anachronism, but fans of Judith Anderson and Rebecca will know what I mean.

The early passion and harmony of the marriage soon dissipates, and Susannah begins to be disturbed both by her husband’s violent sexual demands and his frequent nocturnal absences, from which he returns feverish and dishevelled. Soon, the narrative of the novel begins to synchronise with what we know about the actual Ripper murders. Ripperologists can take the roll call of well-known characters safe in the knowledge that The Gang’s All Here. We meet the victims themselves, of course, but also the walk-on parts such as the actor Richard Mansfield, John Pizer, the Police Surgeon Dr Phillips and dear old Fred Abberline put in an appearance.

People Of Abandoned Character is a bravura piece of story-telling which gleefully rises above a tale of real-life horror which, by its very familiarity, has lost some of its sting. We eventually learn that Susannah is not quite the put-upon damsel in distress she might want us to believe in. The conclusion of the story is as astonishing and enterprising a solution to the eternal Ripper mystery as I have ever read, and fans of Gothick gore and melodrama will certainly not be disappointed. It is published by Head of Zeus and is out now.

THE DARKEST EVENING . . . Between the covers

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Confession time. Up until recently I may have been the only crime fiction reviewer who had never read a novel by Ann Cleeves (left), nor watched the long running TV adaptations of her Vera Stanhope novels. No particular reason why, except the purely practical one that no publicist had ever sent me an ARC, and possibly because, in my bigoted way, I thought that anything served up as Sunday evening TV must be impossibly cosy.  I was wrong. Mea Culpa. Hair shirt. Ten – no, make that twenty – Hail Marys. I have just finished The Darkest Evening and loved every word of it.

My take on Vera Stanhope first, uncoloured by the reportedly excellent TV personation by Brenda Blethyn. is that Vera is frumpish, rather alone in the world, wedded to her job as a Detective in North East England, totally without vanity and completely indifferent to the figure she cuts. Criminals underestimate her at their peril, however, as she has a sharp intelligence – both as a human being and as an investigating police officer.

TDE coverThe story begins in a blinding December snowstorm, as Vera takes a wrong turning on her way home, and unwittingly steps onto the stage of a murder mystery. For newbugs like myself, this gives Cleeves a chance to flesh out part of Vera’s back story. The early action in The Darkest Evening takes place near a crumbling stately home – Brockburn – to which Vera has familial connections via her father Hector who, we learn, was rather a bad lot. The current residents of Brockburn are Harriet, the widow of Crispin Stanhope, and her daughter Juliet and husband Mark. Mark has thrown a party for the local gentry in order to get them on board with his plan to turn the old house into a vibrant regional theatre. The evening takes a turn for the worse when the body of Lorna Falstone is found outside in the snow. She has been bludgeoned to death.

Lorna was the daughter of a local hard-scrabble farmer and his wife, and her short life has been framed by a near fatal eating disorder, and then a mysterious pregnancy, which has left her the lone parent of baby Thomas.

The novel is beautifully plotted and a classic whodunnit. It is more, though – much, much more. Vera Stanhope is a complex and subtle character despite her apparently ramshackle appearance and manner, and the sometimes bleak rural setting is magically described. Fans of the series will, no doubt, be shaking their heads and saying something like, “Tell us something we don’t know – what took you so long?” All I can reply is, “I know, I know – the fault is all mine.” The Darkest Evening is published by Macmillan and is available now in all formats.

A quick quiz question that any CriFi buff worth his or her salt should be able to answer. Which classic (and complex) crime fiction classic also begins in the snow, with the main character’s car in a ditch? DM me the answer on my Twitter feed – @MaliceAfore and I will send you a free novel. I’ll give you a choice of several, but UK postcode only, please.

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BAD TIMING . . . Between the covers

IMG_1893-2-2Nick Oldham (left) is a former copper from Lancashire,and his novels featuring Henry Christie have been delighting readers for many years. I believe that Bad Timing is the 27th in a series dating back to A Time For Justice, which came out in 1996.

Here’s a very quick Henry Christie CV ( or resumé for American readers). He worked his way up through the ranks of Lancashire Police, but never wanted the kind of seniority that meant braid on his ceremonial uniform or role where he spent most of his time behind a desk massaging crime figures for the Home Office or, even worse, managing the force’s diversity targets. He has been shot, beaten up, sacked and re-instated, and has seen the very worst of criminal lowlife in England’s north-west. He has now retired and is running a moorland pub, while still mourning the deaths and various departures of women in his life.

Bad TimingBad Timing is a kind of sequel, or perhaps the final chapter of a story which began in the previous novel, Wildfire. If you click the link you can get the background story. In short, a married couple who made a tidy living out of creative accounting – laundering money for some seriously bad gangsters have been murdered in their luxurious converted farmhouse. The problem is that huge sums of money have gone missing, probably sucked into a Bermuda Triangle of dodgy companies, offshore investments and Swiss bank accounts. And now, the bad guys want the money back.

A word to the wise. Don’t be misled into thinking that the partly rural setting of these novels mean that it you will be reading a cosy Heartbeat-style tale of lovable rogues and amiable coppers on push-bikes. Oldham tells it how it actually is, and Christie’s world is one of ruthless criminal families, vicious thugs, appalling council estates with endemic crime, and toxic traveller sites populated with opportunists who are as violent as they are anti-social.

When the body of the daughter of the murdered accountants is found in a remote lake, the police realise that the case is far from closed and there is still a killer out there. Henry Christie is brought back as a consultant, and although he is ‘chaperoned’ by Detective Diane Daniels, it is his nose for danger that pitches them into a head-on collision with a gangland killer who is as black of heart as anyone Christie has encountered in his long career.

Christie is, to put it mildly, getting on a bit. His body is just about up for the demands of pulling pints, concocting exotic designer coffees and serving full English breakfasts at his pub, The Tawny Owl, but now he is out there challenging a man half his age and twice as malevolent.

Bad Timing is as brutal and unflinching a thriller as you will read all year. It is published by Severn House and is out on 30th September.

SONGS AND DREAMS . . . Henry

Sometimes, in the world of popular music, there are people of genius who make a huge contribution to a particular sound or style, but stay out of the limelight. One such was the great guitarist Steve Cropper, whose riffs and sound made the recordings of so many Stax artists come to life. He did, at least, get a part in The Blue Brothers (playing himself) but how many can put their hand up and say they have heard of Martin Quittenton?

Think of that glorious series of hits that Rod Stewart had – Maggie May, You Wear It Well, Farewell – and you are hearing Martin Quittenton. That mix of twelve-string guitar, violin and mandolin was of his creation. Stewart wanted him to join The Faces, but their back-stage antics held no joy for Quittenton, and he eventually faded from the scene and lived as a recluse on Anglesey. Of the thousands of radio plays Maggie May gets every year, I’ll wager that not one in a hundred features the original introduction – an Elizabethan style guitar piece, played by MQ and named, for some reason, Henry. Here’s the original, and then below that is my notation.It’s not identical to Quittenton’s but, as they used to say, it’s close enough for jazz.

THE MEON HILL MURDER . . . Part three

The Spring of 1945 turned into summer in Lower Quinton. The barren hedges that Charles Walton had tended bore green buds. The war in Europe finally ended, and the wives, daughters, mothers and sisters who had not lost their men in the struggle against Hitler began to dream of the day when “We’ll Meet Again” would be a joyful reality rather than a sentimental song. More mundanely, the Warwickshire police were none the wiser as to who had hacked an old man to death on that fateful St Valentine’s Day. Robert Fabian had returned to London, and Alec Spooner had other cases to solve (although the Walton murder remained an obsession with him).

Just as the identity of Jack the Ripper will never be known, we will never know who killed Charles Walton, or why. As recently as 2014, the local BBC team for Coventry and Warwickshire examined the case, and sent some unfortunate trainee out there to quiz the locals. As you will see from the feature (click here) no-one was very keen to talk, any more than they were in the weeks and months after the murder.

Alfred Potter died in 1961, and whatever secrets he had went into the grave with him. The Firs farm was later demolished and was replaced by an expensive housing development. Talking of graves, the researcher will look in vain for the last resting place of Charles Walton, in St Swithin’s churchyard. It has been said that the headstone was removed to deter ghoulish sightseers, but like so much of this story, there is no hard evidence that this is the case. Walton’s meagre cottage has now been knocked through with two other adjoining properties to make a rural residence which, no doubt, is worth an eye-watering amount (below)

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My view? The only thing that stands out like the proverbial sore thumb is the total collective silence – both contemporary and future – of the villagers of Lower Quinton. 1945 was not a time of continual distraction from electronic or digital media. Lower Quinton was not a bustling place, a transport hub, or somewhere used to endless strangers coming and going. Someone – and then by definition others in their circle – knew something, and the resultant omertà is almost as chilling as the murder itself. Thirty years later, Walton’s death was still providing copy for regional journalists and, although I have no evidence that Ron Harding – who penned this piece – was in any way involved with the murder, it still sounds as certain people – or their sons and daughters – at the heart of whatever made Lower Quinton tick, were still anxious for the world to move on and leave them to their secrets.

SONGS and DREAMS . . . Dear Someone

I have been tinkering with a new website for posting songs and guitar pieces for my pupils, but it is proving more trouble than it’s worth, so I might as well just shoe-horn the occasional post in here. The great Woody Guthrie once said (allegedly) that he never used more than two chords, but that he might use three sometimes if he was trying to impress a girl. I guess that was just Woody being cute, but he has a point. Sure, there are some epic songs with more chords than you can shake a stick at, but simple is often the best. Here’s a gem from Gillian Welch. OK, she slips in a little surprise with that Fm chord, but otherwise it’s just a slow and dreamy waltz tune, with some spine-tingling harmonies. Here’s the original, with my transcription below. She uses a capo on the third fret, making the song in Eb, but pitch it wherever suits your voice.

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Green Hands is the tale of a young woman – Barbara Whitton – who signs up with a chum, Anne, to work with the Women’s Land Army, replacing male farm hands of fighting age who have been called up into the forces. The action sees them first on a bleak and windswept Scottish farm in the hardest of winters, where they do daily battle trying to make mangold wurzels part company with the frozen soil. The accommodation is Spartan, the rations are meagre, and the social life is non-existent. It is all too much for Anne, however, and she departs for the softer life in The Home Counties.

Anne is replaced by Pauline, who Barbara knew – and hated – at school, but Pauline’s eccentric ways and appealing naivity about the world bring a touch of humour to the narrative. Thankfully for their childblains and frozen limbs, Bee (Barbara) and Pauline are transferred to the slightly less brutal world of a farm in Northumberland.

Readers looking for wartime tragedy, sudden death or other moments of high drama will find nothing here to their taste. Instead, there is the steady rhythm of rural life across the changing seasons, and in describing this visceral connection of the the farming people to the land they live and work on, Barbara Whitton echoes such writers as Thomas Hardy, Flora Thompson and Laurie Lee.

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Green Hands was first published in 1943 and so, unlike most of the other reprints in this IWM series which were published after the war, there was still a war going on, and public morale to be taken into consideration. This accounts for the largely upbeat and positive tone of the story, but should not be taken as a negative criticism.had the book been filmed, it would have been in black and white, but it is to Barbara Whitton’s credit that her landscape is full of colour and nuance.

Barbara Whitton (real name Margaret Watson) was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1921. Due to study Art in Paris, her training was curtailed by the outbreak of the Second World War. Having volunteered for the Women’s Land Army (WLA) in 1939, she worked as a Land Girl for around a year before moving to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and later joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) as a driver, where she remained for the duration of the war. During her time with the ATS she met her husband Pat Chitty and they were married in 1941. After the war, she wrote a number of accounts of her wartime experience and retained an interest in art, literature and horticulture throughout her life. She died in 2016. I found this curiosity on the internet.

Most of the IWM Classics have been stories of men at arms. Plenty Under The Counter by Kathleen Hewitt (click for review) took a quizzical look at some of the less salubrious aspects of life on The Home Front, but Green Hands delivers a tale of hardship, humour and – above all – the humanity of those who kept the country going during the dark years of wartime. It is published by The Imperial War Museums and is out now.

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