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.

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Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes

My first experience of Michael Innes’ writing came earlier this year when I read one of his short stories in the British Library Crime Classics anthology, Miraculous Mysteries. I knew I wanted to read more of his work, so I was was delighted to have an opportunity to read Hamlet, Revenge! via NetGalley.

Published in 1937, this is the second in his series of detective novels featuring Inspector John Appleby. However, Appleby doesn’t appear until the second section of the novel – the first part is devoted to setting the scene and introducing the very large cast of characters. As with many Golden Age mysteries, the action takes place in an English country house – in this case, Scamnum Court, which has been home to the Dukes of Horton for centuries. The novel opens with friends and acquaintances of the family beginning to arrive at Scamnum to take part in an amateur production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When one of the guests is murdered during the performance, Appleby is called in to investigate.

This is a wonderfully complex mystery, even more so because Appleby doesn’t know exactly what type of crime has been committed. The murdered man was an important statesman whose death could have serious implications for the government, giving rise to fears that spies are operating at Scamnum Court. On the other hand, a series of revenge-themed messages received by the victim and several other guests indicate that this could be a crime of a more personal nature.

Mild curiosity ran round the table.

‘Yes. I had a telegram at the House just before coming down here. Just two words.’

This time Lord Auldearn spoke: ‘Two words?’

‘Hamlet, revenge!’

With a long list of potential suspects – we are told that there are more than thirty people involved in the play in some way – Appleby is kept busy trying to establish alibis and uncover motives, while avoiding the red herrings that are thrown in his way.

After a slightly overwhelming start (due to the number of characters and the detailed background information on Scamnum Court), once Appleby arrives on the scene and begins his inquiries the pace picks up and the story becomes quite gripping. It’s the sort of mystery I love: one with plenty of clues and several possible solutions – although of course only one is correct, and we have to wait until the end of the novel before everything is revealed. It’s also a very erudite and literary mystery; as well as lots of discussion and analysis of Hamlet, there are also a number of other literary allusions and references. If you know your Shakespeare you will probably get more out of the novel, but if not, don’t worry as it isn’t completely essential.

Although this is described as an Appleby novel, much of the story is actually written from the perspective of one of the other characters, Giles Gott, an academic who also writes crime novels under a pseudonym. As Michael Innes himself is a pseudonym (he also wrote using his real name of J.I.M. Stewart), I wondered whether Gott was a way for Innes to project some of his own personality into the story. There seems to be a previous friendship between the characters of Appleby and Gott, whom I have found out also appears in the first book in the series which I haven’t read yet; I don’t know whether he is in any of the others.

I really enjoyed Hamlet, Revenge! and am looking forward to reading more by Michael Innes.

This is book #1 for the R.I.P XII challenge.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This is the first of the five volumes which form The Cazalet Chronicles, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s series about an upper-middle class English family and how their lives are affected by World War II. Everyone seemed to be reading these books a year or two ago (if they hadn’t already read them at the time of publication), so I’m coming to them late as usual!

First published in 1990, The Light Years opens in the summer of 1937 with three generations of the Cazalet family gathering at Home Place, the Sussex home of ‘the Brig’, now an elderly man but still in charge of the family business, and his wife, affectionately known as ‘the Duchy’. The Brig and the Duchy have three sons; two of these, Hugh and Edward, work in the business and are able to provide comfortable lifestyles for their wives and children, but the third brother, Rupert, has chosen a different path in life – as an artist who is yet to find any success, he is struggling financially, much to the disappointment of his second wife, the beautiful and much younger Zoe. There is also a sister, Rachel, who is unmarried but, unknown to the rest of the family, in love with her friend, a woman called Sid.

After being introduced to each of the Cazalets, their spouses, children, servants and friends, we then jump forward a year to 1938 when the same people – and several more – are beginning to gather together again. On the surface it looks like being another idyllic summer of relaxing in the garden, playing tennis and board games and visiting the beach, but in reality, few if any of the characters are truly happy. There are cracks appearing in Rupert and Zoe’s marriage, and in Edward and Villy’s, Rachel dreads being separated from Sid, and the children face a series of dramas ranging from chickenpox and the loss of beloved pets to the fear of being sent away to school. Meanwhile, the approaching war casts a shadow over everything, as the possibility of conflict with Germany, which at first seemed so remote, begins to look more and more likely.

I didn’t get off to a very good start with this book; it took me a while to get into it, but I think part of the problem was that with so many characters, and the perspective switching from one to the other every few pages, it made it difficult to find someone to identify with and focus on. Somewhere around the middle of the book, though, things changed. I felt that I was starting to get to know some of the characters at last, and to feel sympathy for the situations they were in. I went from wondering whether to continue reading to knowing that I would not only be finishing this book, but almost certainly reading the second one, Marking Time, as well!

I particularly enjoyed spending time with the younger generation of the family. The relationships, friendships and rivalries between three of the girls – Louise, Polly and Clary – and three of the boys – Teddy, Simon and Christopher – were very well written and I’m looking forward to seeing them continue to develop as they grow up. Sometimes when you read a novel with child characters, it feels as though the author has forgotten what it was like to be a child; that was not the case in this book – I felt that Elizabeth Jane Howard had remembered exactly how a child’s mind works and the things that are important to them.

I did end up feeling very positive about this book overall and can understand now why so many people love this series so much. The last thing I need at the moment is to be adding four more long novels to my TBR, but I think I’ll have to as I can’t imagine not finding out what happens next to the Cazalets!

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (re-read)

Sometimes re-reading a favourite book can be a disappointment; perhaps you’ve changed too much as a person since the last time you read it and the story and characters no longer have the appeal they used to have – or maybe it just loses some of its magic because you’ve read other books in the meantime that are similar and better. Luckily, I experienced none of that disappointment when I picked up Rebecca for a re-read recently. I fell in love with it all over again!

For those of you who have not yet read Rebecca, I’ll give a brief summary of the plot – and the first thing I should probably say is that we never actually meet Rebecca herself. She dies a year before the novel opens, although with her bright and vibrant personality she is a very strong presence throughout. Our narrator, in contrast, is a shy and awkward young woman who remains nameless from beginning to end; our only clue is that she has a ‘lovely and unusual’ name and one which is difficult to spell. It is while working as a companion to the overbearing Mrs Van Hopper in Monte Carlo that the narrator meets and falls in love with Rebecca’s widowed husband, Maxim de Winter, who is thought still to be grieving for his wife. The last thing she expects, then, is to receive a proposal of marriage from Maxim and to be whisked off back to England to his house in Cornwall.

Although the narrator is captivated by the magnificence of her new home, Manderley, and its beautiful surroundings, she also feels intimidated and out of place. She knows that Rebecca lived here with Maxim for years and that Rebecca was so much better at everything than she will ever be – something the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, won’t let her forget. It’s not long before the narrator begins to tell herself that her marriage is a mistake…she’s convinced that Maxim still loves Rebecca, but is there more to this situation than meets the eye?

I’m not sure whether this is the third or the fourth time I have read Rebecca, but I do know that it must be at least ten years since I read it last – long enough that I can remember the outline of the plot but not every little detail. Reading it again was a wonderful experience, right from the famous opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”. As I’ve said before, du Maurier is one of the most atmospheric writers I’ve ever come across; she makes it so easy to picture every scene in vivid detail. All of her novels are beautifully written, but this one particularly so.

I know a lot of readers find the second Mrs de Winter frustrating, but I have never had a problem with her, probably because when I first read this book as a teenager I was also a shy, sensitive person so I found it easy to understand and sympathise with her. It’s worth remembering that she is only twenty-one, completely alone in the world (to the point where, when she sits down at her new writing desk at Manderley, she can think of no one to write to but Mrs Van Hopper) and has never been taught to manage servants, host a party or do any of the other things that are suddenly required of her. Not everyone can be as confident as Rebecca, after all, and it is the narrator’s sense of inferiority whenever Rebecca is mentioned which drives the plot forward and adds to the feeling of tension and claustrophobia.

I didn’t care for Maxim this time round, though. I know his distant, brooding nature is as important to the plot as his wife’s uncertainty and paranoia – and if they had been different people the story would not have worked – but I thought he could have been much more supportive of her, particularly after (trying not to spoil too much here) the white dress scene. It’s sad that she seems so much more comfortable and at ease with Maxim’s friend, Frank Crawley, than she does with her own husband. On the other hand, I felt slightly more sympathetic towards Mrs Danvers this time; I can see that she’s much more complex than I’d thought on my earlier reads.

Finally, I want to say that this is one of the few cases where I think the film (the 1940 one with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier) is as good as the book. What do you think?

This re-read means that I’m coming to the end of a little project I have been working on over the last few years. In 2009, having previously only read Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, I decided I wanted to read the rest of du Maurier’s novels and I have now read all of them, with the exception of Castle Dor which I’m hoping to read soon (after I’ve read that one I’ll do a round-up post and pick out some of my favourites). I do still have some of her short story collections and most of her non-fiction books to look forward to, though!

This is book 8/20 of my 20 Books of Summer – and also book 99/100 from my Classics Club list.

Lost Horizon by James Hilton

lost-horizon I’m very happy with the way my reading is going so far this year. I’ve read some great books already and this is another one. Published in 1933, Lost Horizon is the novel which introduced into popular culture the idea of Shangri-La as a sort of earthly paradise. It’s a fascinating story and very absorbing – I started it on a Saturday and was finished by Sunday; at just over 200 pages it’s a quick read but also the sort of book that leaves the reader with a lot to think about after the final page is turned.

We begin with a prologue in which the narrator is having dinner with a novelist friend, Rutherford. The two find themselves discussing a mutual acquaintance, Hugh Conway, who had disappeared under unusual circumstances only to be discovered by Rutherford several months later in a hospital in China. Conway has been suffering from amnesia but as his memories start to return, he tells Rutherford a long and remarkable story.

During a revolution in Baskul, Conway, who was the British consul at the time, was evacuated by plane along with three other people. The plane was supposedly heading for Peshawar, but it never arrived and its four passengers were believed to be dead. What Conway tells Rutherfurd, however, is that the plane was hijacked and flown in a different direction, stopping once to refuel and finally crashing to the ground in a mountain valley somewhere in Tibet. The pilot was killed but the passengers survived. Seeking shelter at the nearby lamasery (a monastery for lamas) known as Shangri-La, the group asked for help to continue their journey to Peshawar, but as the days and weeks went by and no help arrived, Conway began to wonder whether their presence at the lamasery was really an accident – and whether they would ever be able to leave.

Shangri-La is a mysterious place; beautiful, but slightly eerie too, I thought. How was such a beautiful building constructed in such a remote location? Who installed the modern western plumbing and who brought the grand piano, the harpsichord and the books for the library, considering that the only way to reach the lamasery (unless you happen to make a crash-landing there) is on foot through the dangerous mountain passes? What is the secret of the lamas, who look so much more youthful than they really are? And where is Shangri-La, exactly? All Conway can deduce is that they have flown “far beyond the western range of the Himalayas towards the less known heights of the Kuen-Lun” and into the shadow of the mountain Karakal, or ‘Blue Moon’.

I found it interesting that Conway’s three companions have such different reactions to their enforced imprisonment in Shangri-La. Mallinson, Conway’s young vice-consul, reacts with anger and frustration, and with every day that passes he becomes more and more desperate to escape; the American businessman, Barnard, is hiding secrets of his own and is content to enjoy the hospitality of the lamasery while looking for money-making opportunities in the valley; and Miss Brinklow, the British missionary, wonders if this is a challenge sent by God and if she has been brought here to carry out His work. The characters (apart from Conway) are thinly drawn, but they serve their purpose in the story – and it could be said that Shangri-La is actually the most important character in the novel anyway.

Conway himself is in no hurry to go anywhere; he is intrigued by the lifestyle of the lamas and the atmosphere of serenity and peace. With his curious, contemplative nature, the philosophy behind the lamasery appeals to him and he becomes captivated by this mystical place where time seems almost to stand still and the pressures of everyday life can be left behind. It is obvious from the framing story set up in the prologue that Conway does, for one reason or another, leave Shangri-La, but it is not at all clear how or why that will happen and this kept me in suspense and kept me turning the pages.

Lost Horizon was another read from my Classics Club list. I am coming to the end of my list now and will soon be putting another one together; I’ll have to think about including one or two more books by James Hilton – probably Random Harvest or Goodbye, Mr Chips. Has anyone read them?

Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham

mystery-mile I often seem to be in the mood for reading mysteries at this time of year and as this one had been on my TBR for months, I found myself reaching for it the week before Christmas. I had read Margery Allingham before – one of her standalones, The White Cottage Mystery, which I enjoyed – and was curious to make the acquaintance of her most famous character, Albert Campion. Mystery Mile is the second in the Campion series, but I had been assured that it wouldn’t matter too much if I didn’t read the books in order.

Mystery Mile opens with an American judge, Crowdy Lobbett, sailing across the Atlantic with his son and daughter, having narrowly escaped several recent attempts on his life. When a further attempt takes place aboard the ship – and is thwarted thanks to a young man with a pet mouse – it is obvious that the gang who want Judge Lobbett dead are still on his trail. On arriving in England, the judge accepts the help of Albert Campion, who brings him to stay with his friends, Biddy and Giles Paget, at their home in Mystery Mile, a small, remote village on the Suffolk coast.

Campion hopes that Judge Lobbett and his children – Marlowe and Isopel – will be safe in the Paget’s house, but when a fortune teller pays a visit and shortly afterwards the village rector is found dead, it becomes clear that they are still not out of danger. Campion and his friends must try to interpret a range of intriguing clues including a red knight from a chess set and a suitcase full of children’s books if they are to solve the mystery and deal with the threat to the judge.

I had mixed feelings about my first Albert Campion novel. I loved the beginning, with the opening scenes on the ship – I thought the way in which Allingham introduced Campion into the story was excellent – and I enjoyed watching the story develop as the group arrived in Mystery Mile and one strange occurrence followed another. The setting is perfect: a mist-shrouded village surrounded by dangerous soft mud which acts like quicksand and a lonely manor house with a garden maze in which it appears that people can disappear without trace. Later, though, when the action moves to London for a while and we meet an assortment of criminals and gang members, the novel loses the quirky country-mystery feel it has at the beginning and I found that the second half of the novel has a very different tone from the first.

As for the character of Albert Campion himself, I couldn’t decide what to think of him! I liked the fact that there is clearly a lot more to him than meets the eye – his relationship with the police is never quite explained, and there are even hints that Albert Campion is not his real name. Although there was something about his constant quips and silly behaviour that I found slightly irritating, I was intrigued because it was obvious that his foolish, flippant public persona is designed to hide his true thoughts and his true intelligence. I can see why he is sometimes compared with Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, but based on what I’ve read of both so far, I prefer Sayers and Wimsey. Still, I’m looking forward to reading more books in this series and to meeting Albert Campion again!

A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey

A Shilling for Candles My first read for this year’s RIP event is this 1936 mystery from Josephine Tey. It’s only the second book I’ve read by Tey – the other was The Daughter of Time, in which Inspector Alan Grant attempts to solve the mystery of Richard III and the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower from his hospital bed. A Shilling for Candles also features Alan Grant but this time he is investigating the murder of Christine Clay, an actress whose body is found washed up on the beach on the south coast of England.

At first it seems that the cause of Christine’s death is either suicide or a tragic accident, but when a coat button is found tangled in her hair it becomes obvious that someone else must have been involved. Suspicion immediately falls upon Robin Tisdall, a young man who has been staying with Christine in her cottage near the beach, but Grant soon has a whole list of other suspects. Could it have been Christine’s rich, aristocratic husband? The American songwriter with whom she is thought to be having an affair? What about her fellow actresses, who could be jealous of Christine’s success, or Lydia Keats, the eccentric astrologer who casts celebrity horoscopes? And then, of course, there’s Christine’s estranged brother, Herbert, who has been left “a shilling for candles” in her will.

I was intrigued by the mystery and enjoyed getting to know the characters; my favourite was Erica Burgoyne, the Chief Constable’s teenage daughter who has an encounter with one of the suspects in the middle of the novel and is inspired to do some investigating of her own. I also liked Tey’s portrayal of life as a celebrity – particularly her descriptions of the negative side of fame and the difficulties famous people can experience in trying to keep their private lives private.

However, I have to confess that I found this book disappointing overall. There just seemed to be too much going on: too many red herrings and too much time spent developing storylines that didn’t really go anywhere. I thought the plot lacked structure and the final solution of the mystery seemed to come out of nowhere – unless I missed an important clue, which is entirely possible! I’m wondering whether the problems I had with this novel could be due to the fact that it’s one of Tey’s earliest; I thought The Daughter of Time (1951) was much better than this one, so maybe her writing improved over the years. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books at some point, so I’ll be able to find out.

If you’ve read anything by Josephine Tey, I’d love to know which of her other books you would recommend. Also, has anyone seen Young and Innocent, the Alfred Hitchcock film based on this book?