Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate

A woman is on trial for murder and a jury is being sworn in to decide her fate. A jury of twelve men and women selected at random from all walks of life, each of whom has an interesting story of his or her own. Verdict of Twelve (1940), one of the British Library Crime Classics series, is as much about the jury as it is about the crime, which makes it an unusual and fascinating novel.

The book is divided into three main sections. In the first, we are introduced to each member of the jury as they step forward one by one to take their oaths. With an academic, a religious fanatic, a servant, a Greek restaurant owner and an encyclopedia salesman among them, many areas of society are represented and these twelve very different people must find a way to work together to reach what they believe to be the correct verdict.

The second part of the novel (which begins about a third of the way into the book) describes the crime itself. We are given some background information on the accused woman and then an account of the events which led up to the murder. I don’t think I can go into any detail without spoiling things, so I will just say that it is an intriguing mystery, very dark at times but with some humour at others. Although there are only a few suspects it is difficult to decide from the available evidence (which is largely circumstantial) exactly what happened and whether the jurors’ verdict should be guilty or not guilty.

Next, we watch the trial take place, listen to the witnesses and then join the jurors as they discuss the case and try to reach agreement. Finally a short epilogue lets us know whether we – and the jury – came to the right conclusion. It’s an interesting structure and one which I thought worked very well. Knowing the personal background of each juror before the trial begins helps us to see how their individual prejudices and experiences affects their reasoning when it comes to considering the evidence and making a decision. Some find that they have sympathy for the accused and some for the victim; as the reader, I felt that I was almost in the position of a thirteenth juror – and as I disliked one of the characters so much I found that I was also reacting emotionally rather than objectively.

My only slight criticism is that the first section of the book, in which the jury is introduced, is quite uneven. A few of the characters, particularly Victoria Atkins and Arthur Popesgrove, are fully fleshed out in what are almost self-contained short stories, while some of the others have only one or two pages devoted to them. As each juror has one twelfth of the input into the final decision, I’m not sure why we needed to know so much more about some of their backgrounds than others. Apart from this, I really enjoyed Verdict of Twelve – highly recommended for all lovers of classic crime!

Thanks to Poisoned Pen Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book #6 for the R.I.P XII challenge.

Advertisements

Margery Allingham writing as Maxwell March: The Man of Dangerous Secrets

Margery Allingham is probably one of the best known of the Golden Age crime authors but I’d had no idea that she had also written several thrillers under the name of Maxwell March until I came across this one, recently reissued along with two others by Ipso Books. I didn’t know what to expect from it, but I’m pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it – and I’m sure Margery Allingham must have enjoyed writing it too!

Originally published in 1933 as Other Man’s Danger, the novel opens by introducing us to Robin Grey, the ‘man of dangerous secrets’, a detective who holds an unofficial position with the government. On a secret mission for the Foreign Office at Waterloo Station late one night, he witnesses a young man being pushed onto the tracks and manages to save him. The next day, he is visited by Jennifer Fern, the victim’s girlfriend, who begs him to look into the murder attempt as her previous two fiancés had died under suspicious circumstances and she’s sure it can’t possibly be a coincidence. Jennifer suggests that she and Robin pretend to be engaged and then wait for the unseen enemy to make the next move, but will Robin agree to this – and if so, what will happen?

The story then becomes more and more exciting and convoluted, so I’m not going to say anything else about the plot…except that it includes all of the following: murder, blackmail, kidnappings and car chases; hidden documents, clever disguises and secret conspiracies; a beautiful heiress, a sinister doctor and an escaped prisoner. I suppose you couldn’t describe it as great literature, but it’s certainly great fun to read, with a similar feel to Agatha Christie’s thriller They Came to Baghdad. It’s a real page-turner and I wished I hadn’t started reading it during a busy working week, as I think it would have been better read in one or two large chunks.

There’s not much in the way of character development, but I think that’s often the case with this sort of book. Robin is potentially an interesting character, but I couldn’t help thinking he was a bit careless for a man in a position of such responsibility. He’s too trusting, too quick to confide in people, gets himself into some dangerous situations which I felt could have been avoided and allows his judgement to be clouded by his feelings for a certain young woman…as his colleague Inspector Whybrow says, “I’ve never known a detective yet who could do his work when he was in love”.

As for the mystery itself, we are given enough hints to guess at least part of the solution, although the identity of the criminal mastermind is not as easy to work out. The final revelations are not very plausible and I couldn’t believe that the criminal could really have done what he/she is described as doing (sorry for being vague) but considering the tone of the rest of the novel I hadn’t really expected a realistic ending anyway!

This was a quick, entertaining and highly enjoyable read. The Albert Campion mysteries must have been the books Allingham really wanted to write, but I’m still sorry that she only wrote three as Maxwell March. I will definitely be reading the other two, Rogues’ Holiday and The Devil and Her Son.

Thanks to Ipso Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book #4 for the R.I.P XII challenge.

Death in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

As some of you may know, I am currently working my way through all of the titles shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction since the prize began in 2010. Allan Massie’s End Games in Bordeaux appeared on the 2016 list, but on discovering that it was the final book in a series of four, I was faced with a dilemma: should I just read the book that I needed to read for the prize or should I do as I usually prefer to do and start from the beginning of the series? In the end I decided to at least try the first book, Death in Bordeaux, in the hope that I would enjoy it enough to want to read the other three anyway.

The novel opens in Bordeaux in March 1940, with Superintendent Jean Lannes investigating the death of an old friend, Gaston Chambolley, whose mutilated body has been found in a street near the railway station. Gaston was homosexual and Lannes’s superiors are happy to assume that this was some sort of sex crime, but Lannes himself is sure there must be another explanation. The dead man’s sister-in-law has gone missing after becoming caught up in the political intrigue surrounding the Spanish Civil War, but as soon as Lannes suggests that her disappearance could be linked in some way with Gaston’s murder, he is ordered to drop his investigations immediately. Lannes, however, knows that he won’t be able to rest until he finds out who killed his friend and why.

In a seemingly unrelated case, he is also called in to help the elderly Comte de Grimaud identify the sender of some threatening letters he has received. As he gets to know the various members of the Comte’s dysfunctional family, Lannes begins to uncover some links with the other case he is working on – and that is all I will say about the plot, as it quickly becomes quite complex and I couldn’t go any further without spoiling the story.

All of this unfolds during the early stages of World War II – a period in which, at first, very little seems to be happening despite France having declared war on Germany. Soon, though, France becomes occupied, refugees from Paris begin to arrive in Bordeaux, and Lannes and his wife become increasingly afraid for their eldest son, Dominique, who is at the Front. While the author does provide a lot of historical detail, describing the major events and political decisions, and setting the story in its context, the focus is always on how the war is affecting the lives of our main characters: Lannes’ wife, Marguerite, writes letters to Dominique which she knows she’ll never send; their younger children, Alain and Clothilde, try to decide how they feel about the occupation of their country; and Alain’s new Jewish friend, Léon, wonders for how much longer he will be safe in France.

By the end of the novel, the war is still in progress and the personal stories of the characters mentioned above (and many others) have not been resolved. I believe that in the next book in the series, Dark Summer in Bordeaux, we rejoin some of the characters introduced in this one, so for that reason I’m glad I decided to start at the beginning. I can’t say that I loved this book – I found it slow and a bit too drawn out in places and it didn’t really work for me as a murder mystery. As a portrayal of life in Occupied France, though, it is an interesting, quietly atmospheric read. I liked it enough to want to continue with the second novel – and hopefully then the third and the fourth.

This is Book #3 for the R.I.P. XII challenge.

By Gaslight by Steven Price

Well, this was a long book! Not only does it have over 700 pages, it’s also the sort of book that requires a lot of concentration, which makes it a very slow read. I’ve been reading it for the whole of August, which is one of the reasons why I’m not going to complete my 20 Books of Summer challenge by the deadline now. Was it worth so much time and effort? I’m actually not sure; it wasn’t a complete success with me – there were times when I found myself really enjoying it and others when I couldn’t wait to be finished – but on the whole I think I’m glad I read it.

This is the second novel by Canadian author and poet Steven Price. Set in the 19th century, it follows the stories of two men – William Pinkerton and Adam Foole – who are bound together by tales of a shadowy figure known, appropriately, as Edward Shade. Pinkerton is a famous American detective who is in London assisting Scotland Yard with an investigation into the death of a woman, possibly Charlotte Reckitt, whose severed head has been found in the Thames. He believes Charlotte has links with Edward Shade, an elusive criminal whom his father had devoted twenty years of his life to hunting down, without success. But who is Shade? A real person…a ghost…or just an obsession?

Adam Foole, a thief and swindler, has also recently returned to England with his two accomplices – the giant Japheth Fludd, and Molly, a young pickpocket. Foole has received a letter from a woman he once knew asking for help, but on his arrival in London he is unable to find her. Soon his path will cross with William Pinkerton’s; it seems that both of their fates are linked with Charlotte Reckitt and the mysterious Edward Shade.

By Gaslight takes us on a tour of the darker side of London as Foole and Pinkerton (separately or together) visit Millbank Prison, an opium den, a séance and the underground sewer system. However, there are long interludes set in South Africa and in America during the Civil War and these are essential to understanding the backgrounds to our characters and therefore to understanding the mysteries at the heart of the novel. These sections have quite a different tone from the London parts and, to me, they didn’t really feel as though they belonged in the same book; had the whole novel been devoted to the Civil War or had it been purely a Victorian murder mystery I think I would probably have been happier. This is just my opinion, though, and I’m sure other readers will love the variety of settings and changes in atmosphere.

By Gaslight is the perfect title for this book – not only are gaslights mentioned frequently, the whole novel (or the London chapters, at least) feels misty and murky and everything seems to happen either at night or in the fog and rain. Although most of the action takes place in 1885 and any long flashbacks are usually given their own chapters, eventually the borders between past, present and future start to blur, all adding to the sense of mystery and of facts being hidden or obscured.

The author has also made the decision not to use correct punctuation – commas are used sporadically and quotation marks not at all. Again, whether or not you will feel comfortable with this is a matter of personal taste; you could see it as a clever way of trying to immerse the reader more fully in the fogs and mists of the story or, like me, you could just find it annoying and distracting. I should add, though, that at no point did I actually struggle with it; I could always tell how a sentence was intended to be read and who was speaking to whom.

On the whole, though, this is an atmospheric and unusual novel and, despite the length and my reservations about the writing style, I never thought about abandoning it. It’s unlike any other Victorian novel I’ve read and if anyone else has read it, I would be interested to hear what you thought of it.

Thanks to the publisher, Oneworld Publications, for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 14/20 of my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

Published in 1922, The Secret Adversary is the first of Agatha Christie’s five books to feature Tommy and Tuppence and also the first I have read from that series. I hadn’t been quite sure what to expect, but although it hasn’t become a favourite Christie novel, I found it very entertaining – more thriller than detective novel and written with a lighthearted humour that gives it a similar feel to the later standalone Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?

It begins with a short prologue set during the First World War in which we see a man aboard the sinking Lusitania secretly passing important documents to a young American woman, assuming that she is more likely to survive the disaster than he is. We then jump forward a few years; the war is now over and Tommy Beresford and Prudence Cowley (known as Tuppence), two young friends in their twenties, are looking for work. Desperate to make some money, they decide to advertise themselves as Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere.

To their surprise, they are offered an assignment almost immediately when a Mr Whittington hears them talking and approaches Tuppence. Reluctant to give her own name, Tuppence tells him she is Jane Finn, a name she remembered Tommy saying he’d overheard in the street earlier that day – but as soon as Mr Whittington hears that name, his manner changes. He sends her away and by the next day he has vanished without trace. Now Tommy and Tuppence are sure they have stumbled upon the adventure they’ve been hoping for and decide to track down the mysterious Jane Finn. They get more than they’d bargained for, however, when they find themselves involved in a case of international espionage.

The Secret Adversary is packed with non-stop action: there are secret societies, passwords and code names, locked rooms, stolen identities and at least one murder. As I’ve said, it’s much more of a thriller or spy novel than a mystery, but of course there are still some mystery elements – particularly surrounding the elusive Mr Brown, who appears to be the mastermind behind the entire plot. I think I suspected just about every character in the book of being Mr Brown at first, but after a while I decided that he had to be one of two people. I guessed correctly, but as usual Christie does a great job of trying to mislead the reader and make us doubt ourselves!

This is not a book to be taken too seriously – the plot relies heavily on coincidences, the dialogue is often very silly and some of the characters are stereotypes (particularly the American millionaire Julius P. Hersheimmer) – but sometimes I’m just in the mood for something that’s light and fun to read! I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Tommy and Tuppence’s adventures eventually, although I will probably continue to just dip into Christie’s books at random as that has been working for me so far. I’m aware that Tommy and Tuppence age throughout the series, however, so I’m pleased that I managed to start with the first book in which they appear.

Have you read this – or any of the other Tommy and Tuppence books?

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

I don’t read a lot of contemporary crime fiction, but I do love Sharon Bolton’s books! Her latest, Dead Woman Walking, is another great one featuring the usual combination of mystery, suspense, atmospheric settings, stunning plot twists and even humour that I have come to expect from her work.

It begins with a group of people enjoying an early morning flight over the Northumberland National Park in a hot air balloon. Among them are Jessica Lane and her sister Isabel. Now a nun known as Sister Maria Magdalena, Isabel is celebrating her fortieth birthday and Jessica has booked the trip as a special treat. As they drift across the peaceful countryside, Jessica spots a man on the ground below attacking a young woman. He looks up to see her watching him just as she picks up her phone to take a photograph. With all of the other passengers now aware of what is happening, the man is left with no choice other than to bring down the balloon and ensure that everyone in it dies.

When the emergency services arrive on the scene, they begin the unpleasant task of locating and identifying the bodies. It’s not long before the pilot and eleven of his twelve passengers are accounted for, but one woman is missing. Has she managed to escape alive? If so, where is she? And who will find her first – the police or the killer?

This is a wonderful book – one of Sharon Bolton’s best, I think – but now that I’ve started to write about it, I’ve found that there is actually very little I can say that won’t be a spoiler! Part of the fun of reading this book (or anything else by this author) is in being surprised by the many clever plot twists which come one after another throughout the second half of the novel and I would hate to take away any of that enjoyment, even inadvertently, for anyone else. You could guess the twists anyway, of course – I think Sharon Bolton is very fair with her readers and the clues are there from the start, if you’re able to put them together – but I did not and as each one was revealed, I found myself turning back to reread earlier passages in the hope of spotting things that I’d missed the first time.

I mentioned the humour, and I’m aware that from what I’ve said so far this probably doesn’t sound like a very amusing story at all – but although some of the themes at the heart of the novel are undoubtedly very dark, there is also a lot of lightness mixed in with the darkness. Believe it or not, most of the touches of comedy are provided by the nuns of Wynding Priory who are following the balloon story with interest, keen to use some of the mystery-solving skills they’ve picked up from watching repeats of old crime dramas on the convent television.

I loved this book and am already looking forward to her next one, The Craftsman, which it seems we can expect in 2018. In the meantime, I still need to read Blood Harvest, the only one of Sharon Bolton’s novels I haven’t read yet.

This is book 10/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Prague Nights by Benjamin Black

I had never heard of Benjamin Black until I spotted his new novel available on NetGalley, but I quickly discovered that it is a pseudonym of the Irish author better known as John Banville. Not having read anything by Banville either, I had no idea what to expect from Prague Nights, but the title was enough to make me interested in reading it (note: the US title is Wolf on a String) – Prague is a beautiful city and one I would recommend visiting, if you haven’t already. To experience Prague as it is in this novel, however, you would need a time machine as the action takes place more than four hundred years ago, at the end of the sixteenth century.

It’s 1599 and Christian Stern, a young doctor from Regensburg, has just arrived in Prague. On his first night in the city he stumbles across the dead body of a young woman half buried in snow. He reports his discovery and expects that to be the end of the matter, so he is shocked when he is accused of killing the girl himself. Her identity is given as Magdalena Kroll, mistress of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and daughter of his ‘chief wizard’ Ulrich Kroll. Stern knows he is in serious trouble, but fortunately for him, the emperor – a superstitious man with a strong belief in the occult – believes him to be a messenger whose arrival in Prague had been predicted in a prophecy.

Freed of suspicion now, Stern is given the task of discovering who really did kill Magdalena Kroll. It is a mission which will bring him into conflict with some of the most powerful men in Prague, embroil him in a love affair with another of the emperor’s mistresses, Caterina Sardo, and send him to the town of Most in search of the English occultist Edward Kelley, who it is believed may hold the key to the mystery.

Prague Nights is one of those books that sounds as though it should be much better than it actually is. That’s not to say that I didn’t like it at all, because there were some aspects that I enjoyed, which I’ll return to shortly, but it definitely wasn’t the atmospheric, exciting historical mystery novel I had hoped it would be. I was disappointed that it wasn’t really much of a mystery; yes, there is a murder at the beginning and we find out who was responsible for it at the end, but in between, our narrator, Christian Stern, makes very little effort to actually investigate. Things happen around him but he takes no active part and by the time I reached the end of the book, I found that I no longer really cared how Magdalena Kroll had died and why.

The writing style is descriptive and detailed with a formal feel which suits the time period and the descriptions of Prague’s buildings, bridges and cobbled streets and squares are nicely done:

I had often tried to imagine Prague and its glories, but the reality of it was grander and more gracious than anything I could have dreamed of. Past the castle, we stopped on the height there to look out over the city. The sky was white and the air was draped with a freezing mist, pierced by many spires, all of them appearing black in that pervasive icy miasma. Despite the wintry murk, I could see the river and its bridges and, beyond, the clock tower in the Old Town Square.

This wasn’t enough to make me love the book, however. To be able to love a book I need to at least feel something for the characters and unfortunately I felt very little for Christian Stern or any of the other people who play a part in the novel. That’s particularly frustrating because, in real life, Rudolf II and the members of his court sound fascinating, especially his son, Don Julius Caesar. In his author’s note, Benjamin Black talks about the historical figures on which his characters are based, explaining where he sticks to factual information and where he uses his imagination. As I previously knew nothing about 16th century Prague or Rudolf’s court, it was good to have the opportunity to learn something new, even if the story itself didn’t really succeed in holding my attention.

Have you read anything by Benjamin Black/John Banville? And do you have any other books set in Prague to recommend?