Every month on Past Offences we play Crimes of the Century, in which a rag-tag band of bloggers choose mystery books or films from a particular year. In April we were reading 1945 – the War didn’t seem to slow down the production of mysteries, but it certainly left its mark on most of the entries this month.
…even in New Zealand, situated as far from the theatres of war as possible. Moira at Clothes in Books continued her Ngaio Marsh reading with Died in the Wool, in which…
Inspector Alleyn is in New Zealand doing his war work, and is called to a remote sheep station: Flossie Rubrick has been murdered there – her body was packed into a bale of wool and sent off. That alone might not have brought Alleyn, but there is some hush-hush work being doing on the station, and a question of possible Nazi spies… The descriptions of the New Zealand landscape, the remoteness of the place, and the details of the lives of the sheepmen, were all vivid and memorable. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this book, but I enjoyed it enormously.
Bev at My Reader’s Block (who has a million books for every year we choose) started with George Harmon Coxe’s The Jade Venus, a book very much tied to the era in which it was written.
Our hero is a military man who has been using his photographer’s skills and knowledge of art to assist in the efforts of the Monuments Men to preserve and rescue pieces of European artwork. When he arrives home, he is greeted by the patriotic banners and posters. One of his fellow newspaper men has been sent home after capture and a stint in a concentration camp in Italy. The Professor’s brothers have been working feverishly back in war-torn Italy to hide artwork from the Nazis. Everywhere you look there are mentions of the war-time era.
Kate at crossexaminingcrime picked up The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart, another war-torn story:
Carol Spencer is emphasised at the outset as an ordinary woman whose romantic hopes have been dashed by the war and therefore as the only unmarried daughter she has taken on the role of looking after her invalided though not as feeble as she looks, mother. At her mother’s wish they are going to reopen their house, Crestview at Bayside in Maine, due to her brother Gregory coming back on leave to be decorated for his bravery in the air force.
Kate’s review is also worthwhile as an analysis of the book as part of the ‘Had I But Known’ school.
Brad’s ahsweetmystery blog took to the moors with Helen McCloy’s The One That Got Away.
Having lost both their sons in the war, the Stocktons have taken in two relatives, a lovely niece named Alice, and their troubled young nephew Johnny, whose entire family was recently wiped out in an air raid. The Stocktons have adopted Johnny in hopes of giving him a loving home and replacing the sons they’ve lost, but Johnny is having none of it. For some reason, he keeps trying to run away, and Peter Dunbar, investigating the situation, is certain that Johnny is afraid of something – or someone […] What about the nasty stranger living in the isolated cottage by the lake who turns out to be Hugo Blaine, a Nazi sympathizer?
Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise enjoyed her reading of Patricia Wentworth’s The Traveller Returns:
As far as Philip Jocelyn was concerned his wife Anne had been killed in France by a German bullet in 1940 and her body was buried in the local churchyard at Jocelyn’s Holt. So when a woman claiming to be Anne turns up at the house at Jocelyn’s Holt he can’t believe it is her. The rest of the family are taken in by her stunning resemblance to Anne and to her detailed knowledge of the family. But if this woman is impersonating his wife, why is she doing it?
Bev returned with Frances Crane’s The Indigo Necklace, a voodoo-tinged mystery set a long way from the War in New Orleans. Even so, the War looms large.
Abbott and Clary are both very involved with war work. Carol Graham, Clary’s love interest, has a “defense job” and also works as a nurse’s aide. And everything’s crowded and in short supply because of the war effort. As Pat Abbott notes, “You waited for anything and everything these days in crowded New Orleans, so it was perfectly logical to wait for a hospital room.”
Moving south, John at Pretty Sinister Books read Caribbean mystery This is the House by Shelley Smith, and loved it.
Smith shows off her obvious love of the genre and has created in this early work (her third crime novel) a hodgepodge of detective novel and adventure thriller. She manages to work into her engaging plot several familiar motifs of the traditional detective novel including a quasi locked room puzzle, alibi breaking, a whiff of supernatural in one character’s use of macabre voodoo spells, and an oddball romantic subplot. All the while the story is filled with intriguing incidents, eccentric characters, puzzling murders and one very well hidden murder method. Clues are so artfully placed that even the most assiduous reader will miss most of them resulting in some eyebrow raising surprises in the denouement.
This one sounds great. I’m looking out for Shelley Smith now.
The Puzzle Doctor found himself deeply underwhelmed with Miles Burton’s Early Morning Murder:
I can say with confidence, dear reader, that being the only book that you’ve found that fits the criteria for a book-reviewing meme is not only an excellent reason for reading Early Morning Murder, but it’s probably the only one. Because it’s not very good… It starts out promisingly enough – but as the death count rises and still nobody seems to actively investigate things, it starts to become a chore.
Our only entry for the Queen of Crime this month was Brad on Sparkling Cyanide, which is interesting in narrative terms (but maybe less so for its plot):
Cyanide tells its story a different way, through alternating points of view of each suspect. There is a detective in the form of the inimitable Colonel Race, but he is almost a minor character and he is ably abetted by others who will have more to do than he with reaching the correct solution. No, we really find out about this case from the alternating viewpoints of the six people who dined at the Luxembourg one November evening to celebrate, five of whom had ample reason to kill Rosemary Barton.
Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery found Victor Bridges’ spy novel Trouble on the Thames was…
…set in the late 1930’s, in the lead up to World War II. Owen Bradwell loves his career as a naval officer but fears he will be stuck with a desk job because he has become color-blind. His former skipper has sent him to talk to Captain Greystoke about a possible assignment. Greystoke requests that he go undercover and watch a man who is suspected of being a Nazi agent. As luck would have it, he was already planning to vacation near the area he needs to surveil. He will borrow a friend’s punt to travel down the Thames.
That one is available from the British Library.
Three readings of Silence in Court, a Patricia Wentworth title recently reissued by Dean Street Press. The first at crossexaminingcrime:
Carey Silence (pun intended one assumes) entering the dock to be tried for the murder of her grandmother’s cousin Honoria Maquisten, who died of a sleeping draught overdose. The narrative then takes us back in time to when Carey first came to live at Honoria’s, following a stay in hospital after the train she was on was bombed. Small details suggest that the novel is set during the latter end of WW2 and in its own way has a subtle but crucial effect on the plot events.
The Puzzle Doctor also got hold of Silence in Court:
To be honest, the pre-murder section drags a bit – Wentworth takes time to flesh out some of the characters well, whereas some of the other felt under-developed to me – although there is one of the most bonkers proposal scenes in a Golden Age novel – even “better” than Carr’s finest – to enjoy and a great dated use of the phrase “make love to”. But stick with it until we return to the court-room as this section is much stronger.
And finally, you can read my thoughts here…
My other 1945 reading this month was Margery Allingham’s Coroner’s Pidgin (aka Pearls Before Swine)
The backdrop is of a society being rewritten in front of everyone’s eyes. Some are clinging on to the treasures of the past (which seem trivial to the younger generation), but most are moving on. His generation was the last hurrah of a way of life that will never be recaptured. Not only because the money has gone, but also because life is much harsher. He finds younger people far more practical and far less dilatory – married and widowed in a matter of weeks. The War has changed people and there is a rift opening up.
Jose Ignacio at A Crime is Afoot read Carter Dickson (John Dickson Carr)’s The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, a play on the mummy’s curse motif in which death is rumoured to be following some 1930s Egyptologists:
These rumours reached their peak after an incident in which Helen Loring was involved when returning to England with a bronze lamp that she had received as a present in recognition to her participation in the discovery. The incident, in the presence of Sir Henry Merrivale, was caused by one Alim Bey who accused her of desecrating the tomb. And, when Helen confronted him, Alim Bey assured her that before she could place the bronze lamp on the mantelpiece at her home in Severn Hall, she would become dust as though she never existed. A few days later, the curse is fulfilled.
A second review from John was Jonathan Stagge’s Death My Darling Daughters, a bit of a rarity which includes a fiendish poisoner in the wealthy Hilton household.
The method of introducing poison in this book is diabolical. No other way to describe it. Dr. Hilton’s murder comes at the most unexpected time in a manner that was gasp inducing for me. It certainly is a nasty and bizarre way to kill someone. I’ve read a lot of mystery novels and it takes a lot to shock me. This one worked.
Bernadette at Fair Dinkum Crime outraged her younger self by appreciating Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman:
One of the things that identifies DEATH OF A SWAGMAN as belonging at least to a different era if not the actual year 1945 is the amount of smoking that takes place. Eh gads it’s continuous!. But one thing I noticed by its absence was any discussion of the war. If there were any returned soldiers or war widows or elements of that nature mention must have been rapid because they entirely passed me by which does strike me as unusual for a book published in 1945. Or perhaps it is only distance that has assigned that period only one significant event?
Jose Ignacio at A Crime is Afoot went to the movies this month, starting with Fritz Lang’s noir Scarlet Street, starring Edward G. Robinson. Sounds like this one was widely banned in the US for its various transgressions against the Production Code – including violence and leaving serious crimes unpunished.
Finally, honourable mention of Brad’s production of And Then There Were None, including reference to the 1945 movie.
With my amended script in hand, I set about casting the show, and there I ran into the problem that any other high school drama teacher who happens to read this will sympathize with: where were the boys? I had seven male roles to cast, and after the dust settled on auditions, I had five males to choose from!
Phew! Thanks everyone for their reading this month. Usually apologies if I missed you out, but go ahead and post in the comments if I have.
On to 1957…