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Golden Age

BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . .

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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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HALL OF MIRRORS . . . Between the covers

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HOMIf a more extraordinary duo of fictional detectives exists than Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May, then I have yet to discover them. The peculiar pair return in Hall of Mirrors for their fifteenth outing, and this time not only are they far from their beloved London, but we see a pair of much younger coppers on their beat in the 1960s. Fowler’s take on the period is typified by each of the fifty chapters of the novel bearing the title of a classic pop hit. We are also reminded of the strange fashions of the day.

“Two young men in Second World War army uniforms painted with ‘Ban The Bomb’ slogans were arguing with a pair of Chelsea Pensioners who clearly didn’t take kindly to military outfits being worn by trendy pacifists. They were briefly joined by a girl wearing a British sailor’s uniform with a giant iridescent fish on her head.”

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In attempt to keep them out of trouble, our heroes are given the task of being minders to an important witness in a fraud trial, but Monty Hatton-Jones is due at a country weekend party deep in rural Kent, and so John and Arthur must accompany him to Tavistock Hall. What follows is a delicious take on the Golden Age country house mystery, with improbable murders, secret passages, an escaped homicidal maniac and suspects galore. Things are complicated by nearby military manoeuvres involving the British army and their French counterparts. Fowler (above) reprises the great gag from Dr Strangelove – “Gentlemen – you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!” Captain Debney, the British Commanding Officer is having a bad day.

“The menu for tonight’s hands Across The Water dinner has already gone up the Swanee. We had terrible trouble getting hold of courgettes, and now I hear there’s no custard available. I don’t want anything else going wrong. These are international war games. We can’t afford to have anyone hurt.”

The urbane John May is quite at home in the faded grandeur of Tavistock Hall, but Arthur is like a fish out of water. He also has an aversion to the countryside.

“It appeared to be the perfect Kentish evening, pink with mist and fresh with the scent of the wet grass. Bryant looked at it with a jaundiced eye. There was mud everywhere, the cows stank, and were all those trees really necessary? As a child he had been terrified of the bare, sickly elm in his street with a branch that scarped at his bedroom window like a witch’s hand and sent him under the blankets.”

 As usual with the B & M books, the jokes come thick and fast, but we are reminded that Fowler is a perceptive and eloquent commentator on the human condition. Arthur investigates the local parish church as its rector, Revd Trevor Patethric is a house guest – and suspect.

“Bryant pushed open the church door and entered. He had never felt comfortable in the houses of God, associating them with gruelling rites of childhood: saying farewell to dead grandfathers, and the observance of distant, obscure ceremonies involving hushed prayers, peculiarly phrased bible passages, muffled tears and shamed repentance.”

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 Eventually, of course, the pair – mostly through Arthur’s twisted thought processes – solve the crimes. Prior to revealing his theories on the murder to the assembled guests, however, Bryant has a slight misfortune with a missing painting hidden in a very unswept chimney. Covered in soot, he somehow lacks the gravitas of a Poirot or a Marple.

“Bryant had made a desultory attempt to wipe his face, but the result was more monstrous than before. He rose before them now, a lunatic lecturer in the physics of murder.”

Reading a crime novel shouldn’t be about being educated, but Hall of Mirrors teaches us many things. Those who didn’t already know will learn that Christopher Fowler is a brilliant writer. He is, in my view, out on his own in the way he weaves a magic carpet from a dazzling array of different threads: there is uniquely English humour, the sheer joy of the eccentricities of our language and landscape, labyrinthine plotting, and an array of arcane cultural references which will surely have Betjeman beaming down from heaven. Those of us who, smugly perhaps, consider ourselves as old Bryant & May hands will also now know the origins of Arthur’s malodorous scarf and also his cranky, clanky Mini.

Amidst the gags, the fizzing dialogue and the audacious plot twists Fowler waves his magic wand, and with the lightest of light touches dusts a page near the very end with poignancy and great compassion. Look out for the section that ends:

“Bryant looked in his mirror to try and catch another glimpse of them, but they had disappeared, ghosts of a London yet to come.”

 And do you want to know the best five words of the entire book? I’ll tell you:

Bryant and May Will Return

Hall of Mirrors is published by Quercus, and is available from 22nd March.

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A DEATH IN THE NIGHT … Between the covers

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GFSAfter I had read Death In Profile, and saw that it was billed as the first of an intended series, I did softly uttered something akin to “hmmmm…?”, quietly questioning if there was any room in the crowded contemporary crime fiction market for books which unashamedly borrowed tropes and mannerisms from books written seventy years ago. I have just finished A Death In The Night, the fourth in the series, and I am now a true believer, and devoted disciple. Guy Fraser-Sampson (left) has created a delightful repertory company of characters, and set them to work catching killers in the highly exclusive avenues and cul de sacs of London’s Hampstead.

Principally, we have a quartet of investigators. Chief Superintendent Simon Collison, Inspector Bob Metcalfe and Sergeant Karen Willis all work for the Metropolitan Police, while Dr Peter Collins is a psychologist and criminal profiler who acts as consultant to the Hampstead coppers. In the first three books, Metcalfe and Collins are jointly suitors of the radiant and ravishing Willis. This strange ménage à trois has now resolved itself, however; Collins has Willis to himself, and Metcalfe has a new object of his passion. (To read our review of an earlier book in the series, A Whiff of Cyanide, just click the link)

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 Naturally enough, this being a murder mystery, the examining pathologist discovers not only that Bowen was murdered by smothering, but she was also three months pregnant. Further investigations by Collison and colleagues uncover that Bowen was in a relationship – along with countless other bedazzled women – with a libidinous and charismatic QC, Simon Fuller. It seems that he and his wife have come to ‘an arrangement’. Mrs F has neither interest nor ability in the sexual side of marriage, so she is quite content to let Mr F seek his pleasures where he will, provided that he remains her husband, in a strictly social sense.

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 As Collison and Co. scrape away at the wall of lies and deflection which surrounds the truth about Bowen’s murder, they get the distinct feeling that as fast as they chip and chisel, someone else is busy repairing and replacing the brickwork. Of course, the killer is revealed in the end, but not before Fraser-Sampson puts his company through their paces. Collison is educated, urbane and thoroughly professional. Metcalfe is dogged, decent and determined. Willis belongs on the cover of Vogue, but is also blindingly intelligent, and a damn good copper. Collins? Well, he is an exercise in eccentricity. He is possessed of a mind which can think three or four steps ahead of less gifted people, but he does have his little moments. Such as when, in times of great stress, he imagines that he is Lord Peter Wimsey, and that Karen Willis is his Harriet Vane.

 To borrow and adapt from Matthew chapter 7, verse 20, “Therefore by their tea-times ye shall know them..”, we are not surprised that Peter Collins serves up Earl Grey to accompany anchovy toast: we would expect nothing less of him. Without extending the metaphor too much beyond its breaking point, I can say that Fraser-Sampson’s writing is – just like Dr Peter’s four o’clock fare – elegantly presented, fragrant, but with a salty piquancy to add balance. I have become a great admirer of the Hampstead Murders series. They may be making a reverential nod in the direction of Christie, Sayers and Allingham et al, but they are beautifully written, cleverly plotted and, above all, superbly entertaining. After all, isn’t that why we open crime fiction books in the first place?

You can buy A Death In The Night here, but if you fancy a freebie, simply click on the image below, and that will take you to our competition page.

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A WHIFF OF CYANIDE … Between the covers

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a-whiff-of-cyanideReaders of the two previous books in the Hampstead Murders series, Death In Profile and Miss Christie Regrets, will know what to expect, but for readers new to the novels here is a Bluffers’ Guide. The stories are set in modern day Hampstead, a very select and expensive district of London. The police officers involved are, principally, Detective Superintendent Simon Collison, a civilised and gentlemanly type who, despite his charm and urbanity, is reluctant to climb the promotion ladder which is presented to him. Detective Sergeant Karen Willis is, likewise, of finishing school material, but also a very good copper with – as we are often reminded – legs to die for. She is in love, but not exclusively, with Detective Inspector Bob Metcalfe, a decent sort with a heart of gold. If he were operating back in the Bulldog Drummond era he would certainly have a lantern jaw and blue eyes that could be steely, or twinkle with kindness as circumstances dictate.

Not a police officer as such, but frequently the giver of expert advice is Dr Peter Collins, who is le troisième in the ménage of which Karen Willis and Bob Metcalfe make up le premier and le deuxième. In another era, Collins would be described as ‘highly strung’. His sensitivities sometimes lead him to believe that he is Lord Peter Wimsey – and that Willis is Harriet Vane – but this eccentricity aside, he frequently has insights into murder cases which remain hidden to his more workaday colleagues.

The plot? With such delightful characters, it is almost a case of “who cares?”, but we do have an intriguing story. At a crime writers’ convention in a London hotel the Dowager Duchess of English crime novels, Ann Durham, is far from happy. For the first time in recent memory, her position as Chair of The Crime Writers’ Association is being challenged – disgracefully, she feels – by upstarts who have been churlish enough to ask for a democratic vote.

As the luminaries assemble for pre-dinner drinks, Durham takes an elegant sip of her gin and tonic, utters a dramatic shriek – and falls down dead. Peter Collins is a dinner guest, due to his authorship of a forthcoming book on The Golden Age of Crime Fiction. His partner for the evening is, naturally, Karen Willis, and with Ann Durham lying dead on the floor, her police training kicks in and she soon has the scene secured.

GFSCollison, Metcalfe, Willis and Collins have an ever lengthening list of questions to be answered. Why was Ann Durham brandishing a bottle of cyanide as she presided over one of the convention panels? Who actually wrote her most popular – and best selling – series of novels? Fraser-Sampson (right) spins a beautiful yarn here, with regular nods to The Golden Age during a convincing account of modern police procedure. Not only is the crime eventually solved, but he provides us with a delightful solution to the Willis – Metcalfe – Collins love triangle.

Not the least of the many delights to be found in this novel is the author’s sardonic wit. His take on the whole crime writers’ festival ambience will strike a chord with many who attend such events. He arranges several distinct characters on his canvas: busy PR types – perhaps upper class gels with a humanities degree – bob and weave among the notables, gushing about this and that; we have La Grande Dame, the celebrated author with millions in the bank who disdains to rub shoulders with the hoi poloi; she is drawn in stark contrast with writers who are hungry for success and are only too happy to meet and greet the punters if it will sell a few books. Fraser-Sampson fires one or two deadly accurate arrows, but my favourite was this barb from one of the characters:

“I expect half the writers of this Nordic Noir stuff actually have names like Smith or Higginbotham and live in ghastly places like Watford or Cleethorpes. Publishers are funny like that, you see ……. if you can tick the Nordic Noir box, they know exactly which neat little compartment to fit you into and in all their marketing blurb they can call you the next Jo Nesbo.”

Some people might view books like this as a guilty pleasure, but guess what? I loved every page of it, and I sleep soundly at night with not even a wisp of guilt to darken my contentment. A Whiff of Cyanide is published by Urbane Publications, and you can check purchase options here. While you are in the mood, why not read our review of an earlier novel in the series, Miss Christie Regrets

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MISS CHRISTIE REGRETS … Between the covers

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This is the second in a series by Guy Fraser-Sampson, set in the exclusive London borough of Hampstead.  As the police try to solve a not-quite-locked-room murder mystery in an elegant Queen Anne house, their task becomes doubly difficult when another body is found in a nearby block of flats, the Isokon Building. There is one crucial difference, however. The body in the upper room of Burgh House is that of Peter Howse a widely disliked researcher. The structure of his skull has been violently rearranged with a museum piece – an ancient police truncheon. The other deceased person? It’s fair to say that the first 48 hours of this particular investigation will not be so crucial, as the police pathologist states with some conviction that the bones have been in their bricked up cavity for at least half a century.

A quick word about Hampstead for those unfamiliar with London. Wikipedia tells us that Hampstead is:

“ …known for its intellectual, liberal, artistic, musical and literary associations and for Hampstead Heath, a large, hilly expanse of parkland. It has some of the most expensive housing in the London area. The village of Hampstead has more millionaires within its boundaries than any other area of the United Kingdom.”

mcr-coverBeing as this book is, in one sense, a police procedural, an introduction to the investigating officers is essential. Detective Sergeant Karen Willis is an elegant and well educated woman, whose personal life is complex. She is courted by two suitors; the first, Dr Peter Collins, is a consultant psychologist who, although undeniably clever, may not be entirely of sound mind himself, as he is prone to nervous attacks. When with Karen, he also tends to drop into a Lord Peter Wimsey persona and, yes, he does insist on calling Karen “Harriet”. The other claimant to the hand of Willis is Detective Inspector Bob Metcalfe, a much more grounded fellow who certainly does not mimic characters from Golden Age fiction. In fact, he could be said to be very worthy, but rather dull. Overseeing the investigations is Detective Superintendent Simon Collison, an urbane and civilised man who is regarded with a certain suspicion by more belt-and-braces officers such as Chief Inspector Tom Allen. One stock police character who is very much noticeable by his absence is a badly dressed, misanthropic and foul mouthed Detective Inspector type, much loved of many crime authors. If any such person did operate out of Hampstead nick, he must long ago have been transferred elsewhere.

As the police try to discover if there could conceivably be any connection between the suspicious deaths, decades apart, they discover that a fellow tenant of the apartment building to our skeletal friend was none other than Lady Mallowan – better known as Agatha Christie. Instead of the threads of the investigation becoming separated and more discernible one from the other, the tangle tightens when Collison and Metcalfe are informed by Special Branch that several of the Isokon Building residents during and immediately after WW2 were suspected of spying for Russia.

The author’s stated intent is to take the modes, manners and milieu of the Golden Age crime novel, and blend them into a modern setting. He succeeds, due in no small way to his sense of style and his lightness of touch. If the characters are not always totally plausible, then it matters not one jot. This book, like its predecessor Death In Profile, is an entertainment, pure and simple. There are 360 pages of sheer enjoyment, with the bonus of one or two rather good jokes along the way.

“Does anyone have a different view?” Collison asked quietly, looking around the room. “If so, please don’t hesitate to express it just because the DI and I are ad idem.”
Unsurprisingly, there was no answer. Firstly, because nobody was about to disagree with two senior officers. Second, because nobody wanted to participate in a renewed bout of house to house enquiries. Third, because nobody else, apart from Karen Willis, knew what ad idem meant.

It should be said that both Burgh House and the Isokon Building are real places, as are the pubs where Metcalfe and colleagues grab their lunch. This detailed local knowledge is used with subtlety and discretion throughout the narrative. There are other crime writers who, over the years have claimed particular areas of London as their own. We must allow Christopher Fowler to have his run of the lurid joys of King’s Cross and countless quirky abandoned theatres and lost railway stations. While the bleak and bloody suburban streets of places like Willesden and Kilburn, as well as the neon pallor of Soho clubs belong to the great Derek Raymond, we must grant Guy Fraser-Sampson ownership of the health-giving literary high ground of Hampstead.

Miss Christie Regrets is a beautifully written and cleverly plotted book which should be enjoyed by anyone who is a fan of The Golden Age, but also likes fare with a touch of spice added. It is available now, and published by Urbane Publications in paperback and Kindle.

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