Thursday, June 24, 2021

Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz


Harper Perennial, 2018
495 pp


I hadn't intended on reading this book just yet, but after my post about The Shooting Party  one of my goodreads friends commented on the fact that people were wowing the use of the book-within-a-book format  in this novel while technically, as he pointed out in his review of Magpie Murders,  it had already been done by Chekhov over a century earlier.  His remarks, along with all of the high ratings for this book, did the trick and my copy came off the shelf.  

The aforementioned book-within-a-book is called Magpie Murders,  the newest and final installment of  author's Alan Conway's mystery series featuring his German detective Atticus Pünd.  Editor Susan Ryeland begins her tale by giving her readers a warning: "This book changed my life."  The changes she notes are not minor ones -- she  loses her job, "a great many friends," and she no longer lives in her "quiet and comfortable" flat.  She also states that "it was all down to that bastard Alan Conway," whose books she had "always loved," but not the man himself.   But before she can explain the why behind that statement, we are immediately plunged into the small, quiet village of Saxby-on-Avon, 23 July 1955, where a funeral is being planned for Mary Blakiston, who had fallen down the stairs at Pye Hall where she had worked as a housekeeper.  

Two weeks later, a young woman by the name of Joy Sanderling has come to meet with the great detective himself, asking him to come to Saxby-on-Avon to help clear her fiancé's name.  Robert Blakiston, Mary's son, has been getting the evil eye from many of the villagers after his mother's death,  and she is convinced that "they all think he did it."  She would like Pünd to "look into it" and to reassure everyone that Mary's death was indeed an accident, and "that there was nothing sinister going on."  Pünd turns her down, but later changes his mind when he reads an article in The Times about the death of Sir Magnus Pye.  As he says, "Coincidences do occur," but it's not likely that there would be "two unexpected deaths in the same house," so it's off to the village he goes, where he joins the Detective Inspector to investigate both cases.    

I have to say right here that I was intensely following this case, and then just as Pünd says that he has "everything I need to know" about the case and I turned the page, the story comes to an abrupt end and we're back in the now with Susan Ryeland.  "Oh no!  "I yelled out loud at this juncture, when I realized, along with Susan, that the last chapter is missing.  I hadn't figured it out at all, and by golly, I wanted to know who killed Magnus Pye.  But then things changed, as Susan discovers that Alan Conway was dead and that it looks like he'd left a suicide note behind.  Her boss, Charles, tells Susan that his copy was incomplete as well, and that there were no missing pages to be found anywhere.  Susan needs to find those pages -- the publishing house had not been doing so well and they "needed" Conway's book to "make a hit."   As she begins searching for the ending of Magpie Murders, she also decides that it might be worthwhile to do a bit of sleuthing herself, to see if indeed Conway's death had been a suicide.

While I had some minor grumbles about the writing here, including some of Susan's detecting skills and choices that seemed rather hollow and Horowitz's ego writ large on the page (mentioning probably every TV show he's written the screenplays for) that caused more than a few eyerolls, I still couldn't put this book down. But then the author does something unforgivable that made me take issue:  while Susan says that as an editor she doesn't care for "coincidences in novels" (and quite frankly, neither do I as a reader), that is precisely where Horowitz goes with this book.  Honestly, it felt like he'd written himself into a corner and had to do something to get her on trajectory to finish this story. 

I know that this novel gets sterling reader reviews, so it's probably just me being picky again.  On the plus side, this book kept me entertained for hours, and  I loved the 1955 story.  It's the modern one with which I have issues:   it's not nearly as well done, and ultimately ended in a kind of letdown for me mainly because of the author's choice here to depend on coincidence.  Not a good move in my mind, and I felt cheated. I also have to say that once the reasoning behind Conway's death was revealed, it didn't seem at all like a big deal and certainly not murder-motive worthy.  I will still recommend it, but as Susan Ryeland says at the beginning of the book, "Unlike me, you have been warned."

Friday, June 11, 2021

There's Trouble Brewing, by Nicholas Blake


Ipso books, 2017
originally published 1937


The back-cover blurb is short but succinct, and reveals that a local brewery owner loses his dog in one of the brewery's vats.  It will also go on to reveal that said brewery owner will later be found in the same vat (more on that later).   I'm not kidding when I say that my mind immediately flashed to particular episodes of Midsomer Murders, Inspector Morse, New Tricks and even Brokenwood in a variation on the theme (a fermentation vat for wine instead of beer).  I'm sure there are more that I've missed, but it seems that death in a vat is quite a popular way to go.  Of course, all of the above came long after There's Trouble Brewing,  which made its appearance in 1937.   This is the second novel I've read by Nicholas Blake after The Beast Must Die, both read out of series order.  There's Trouble Brewing is number three  in the series featuring Blake's Nigel Strangeways, and I'll confess to enjoying his The Beast Must Die, number four, much much more than this one.  

When Strangeways accepts an invitation to speak to a local literary society in Maiden Astbury (Dorset),  he has no idea that his stay there will last a bit longer than he'd intended. During dinner with his hosts, Herbert and Sophie Cammison,  which includes a bottle of beer from Bunnett's Brewery,  the conversation turns to the brewery's owner, Eustace Bunnett, or at least to his dog Truffles, who had been found dead in one of the vats at Bunnett's Brewery.  Later, after Nigel gives his talk on Caroline Poets,  Bennett approaches him and tells him that he is positive that Truffles had been murdered and that he is "exceedingly anxious to find out who did it."   He then makes a request than Nigel finds "bizarre," asking him to find out who sent Truffles to his untimely death.  Nigel doesn't want to do it, but having been warned earlier not to "sauce" Eustace Bennett and after one of the members of the society urges him to do it, as "none of us will get a moment's peace" until the matter is "cleared up,"  he agrees.   

At the brewery next day to begin his investigation,  he is shown around while waiting for Bennett, but everything comes to a halt when a body is discovered in a "pressure copper."  Well, not quite a body, but a "half-disjointed skeleton" wearing the "soaked and tattered remnants of a dinner-jacket and boiled shirt."  When certain other articles are discovered, rumor starts that the remains belong to "the guv'nor" himself.  While the police are brought in, Nigel stays on to help and soon discovers that there are any number of people who wouldn't have minded seeing Eustace Bennett dead for many reasons.  He was, apparently,  the most odious person in the small community, and it seems that nobody is sad that he's gone.   As Nigel himself says, "Eustace was a crook, a menace, and a stunger." 

probably my favorite cover image of this novel, from Coverbrowser

I very much enjoyed the writing here, and only after two books now I have become a fan of  Nigel Strangeways.  I like his wife Georgia who sadly makes only a brief appearance here -- they are perfect for each other.  And who doesn't love a story  in which  a character is so particularly  loathsome that no one's going to be shedding a tear when he or she is dead?   With the number of possible suspects and possible motivations that Strangeways uncovers here, it should have been a great read.   The thing is though that Blake gives away the show much too early here with a particular remark that I took notice of  that colored my thinking,  so that by the time Strangeways cottons on to the solution, I'd already been there and was just waiting for our erstwhile detective to catch up.  At  chapter thirteen where Strangeways is going over the timetable of the case and makes an important discovery, I was just about ready to skip  and get to the ending I knew was coming.  It's a shame when that happens, really, because this could have been a most intriguing mystery novel otherwise.   

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Catching up in double time: The Shooting Party by Anton Chekhov and Mr. Digweed and Mr. Lumb, by Eden Philpotts

Since I was last here there's been more calamity here at casa mia,  but things are starting to look up and life is moving on in a more positive direction.  Unfortunately, the setbacks mean I'm behind in my crime/mystery reading so today it's a double feature: The Shooting Party, by Anton Chekhov from 1885 and a more obscure title from 1933, Eden Phillpotts' Mr. Digweed and Mr. Lumb. Both of these books offer an interesting puzzle worthy of armchair detecting, making for hours of reading pleasure; as posted at,  what ties these two books together and what appealed to Borges and Bioy Casares in putting together their list of novels in the Séptimo Círculo collection are the "mysteries, puzzles, tales of logic and clues" that are  "hidden behind surfaces of respectability."  That is certainly the case here.  

Penguin, 2004
originally published 1885
translated by Ronald Wilks
199 pp


As John Sutherland says in his introduction to this edition of The Shooting Party,  while readers are used to a "dash of internationalism" in the twenty-first century, excluding Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment,  the Russian novel has not been a "strong presence" in the realm of  detective fiction.  Like many fine mystery stories of yesteryear, The Shooting Party started out as a feuilleton in serial form, and given the fame of Anton Chekhov and his later dramatic works, has remained "unjustly ignored."  A shame, really, because the mystery itself is quite good, and as Sutherland also notes, the book is "an accomplished crime novel in its own right."  I tend to agree with him when he says that "few who start reading the work will be tempted to lay it down," because that's precisely what happened with me.  

April, 1880.  A man walks into a newspaper office, hoping for an appointment with "the Editor."  After identifying himself as Ivan Petrovich Kamyshev, former investigating magistrate, he asks the Editor to read his manuscript, and if possible, to publish it. The subject, Kamyshev says, is "love, murder," and he calls it From the Memoirs of an Investigating Magistrate,  swearing that the story "happened before his eyes," -- in fact he was both "eyewitness and even an active participant." The Editor isn't quick to bite, citing the readers who have "for far too long now... have had their teeth set on edge by Gaboriau and Shklyarevsky" and are 
"sick and tired of all these mysterious murders, these detectives' artful ruses, the phenomenal quick-wittedness of investigating magistrates."

The particular story under consideration is called The Shooting Party, and eventually the Editor agrees to read it, telling Kamyshev to come back in three months' time during which  he'll make his decision.  What follows is the story-within-the-story, as the Editor offers Kamyshev's story for the reader's "perusal" after reading it,  assuring that it is "a page-turner."   That it is, and it begins as the local magistrate, here named Sergey Petrovich Zinovyev, goes to visit his old friend Count Alexei Karneyev at his country estate that has for some time been in a state of decline.  Karneyev's world is largely defined by debauchery, and Zinovyev is quickly sucked in to that space of drinking and partying, where an orgy is not an unusual event.   But the estate is also where Sergey Petrovich meets the beautiful Olenka, daughter of the forester Skvortsov, now living in a state of madness from perpetual drinking,  and is immediately drawn to this "girl in red."   The problem is that the same is true of  Urbenin, a widower with two children serving as Karneyev's estate manager, and the Count himself.  Olenka, who has "aristocratic pretensions," surprises everyone with the news that she has agreed to marry Urbenin, setting off a chain of events that will end in murder one fine day during a shooting party on the estate. Motives are plenty, as are suspects, but the question of the actual murderer has to wait until the very end.   

That is all I will reveal about plot; anyone who prefers the element of surprise and reads anything about this book that takes plot and the possible identity of the who any further will end up kicking himself or herself in the long run.  And while it may not be one of the best crime novels I've read, it is certainly very much worth the read -- this may have been one of Chekhov's earliest works, but he is a master of characterization here which is much more important than the crime or its solution.   He wrote this in the 1880s, while Russia was still under Czarist rule, but he seems to have keen, almost uncanny insight into the future of class and social structure (including the roles and expectations of women)  in an empire that in just a short while will be completely transformed.   Definitely recommended.  

My copy of  Mr. Digweed and Mr. Lumb, complete with chipped corner on the dustjacket where it looks like someone took a bite out of the skull, is the first American edition, published by Macmillan in 1934.  The first British edition was published by Hutchinson in 1933, but I can't seem to find a cover image anywhere.  

Two men of completely opposite temperament and circumstances live in separate houses on Heathfield Chine, west of Wellbrook-on-Sea in Hampshire.  Mr. Benjamin Digweed of The Anchorage, a "man of very modest means" with a love of gardening, tends to keep to himself enjoying the company of others only occasionally with his neighbor Mr. Martin Lumb of The Haven, and Lumb's factotum Higgs.  Mr. Lumb, who travels to London now and again, has no money worries, is an avid collector of  and an expert on Aviation Issue stamps.  The two dwelt in "perfect amity" so when Mr. Digweed disappears, Mr. Lumb is shaken and calls in the local police.  Two days had gone by with absolutely no word, and the clincher comes when the housekeeper arrives and finds the door of the Anchorage locked, leaves, returns the next day and there's still no one home.  The policeman (and narrator of this story) is Sergeant William Cartright, who catches the case since his superior is away temporarily; on hearing Lumb's story Cartright makes his way to The Anchorage where he finds a note indicating that a desperate Digweed has fallen on hard times, with no money left to live on and no means of supporting himself, and has thus decided to end it all.   The police accept the obvious, but a bit later Mr. Lumb "smelled a mystery" when he discovered that every bit of Mr. Digweed's clothing remained in his house and when the boat he was going to use in his suicide was discovered in an unexpected place.  While the police begin to look into Mr. Lumb's worries there's another death, but this time it's Cartright's bride-to-be and her father who take charge. 

Again, not the greatest example of a 1930s mystery ever, but there's just something about Phillpotts' ability to put together a good yarn and to provide a challenge that appeals.  Eden Phillpotts may not be a household name in the realm of mystery reading, but I've now read two of his books (this one and The Red Redmaynes) that were both engaging and fun, definitely requiring concentration because the solutions don't lend themselves easily.  I will say that at some point while reading this one, I wrote a note with my theory and stuck it on a certain page where the light bulb started to blink on over my head, only to discover later that I was partly right but mostly wrong.  While there is definitely police presence in this novel, it is not what I'd consider an early procedural, since the crime is actually solved by someone else using intuition and logic;  while they do work on the case, the policemen become somewhat of a captive audience as the solution is revealed to them.    Recommended.