The Corpse in the Snowman by Nicholas Blake

Nicholas Blake was a pseudonym of the Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis under which he wrote a series of mystery novels featuring the private investigator Nigel Strangeways. It seems there are twenty in the series, published between 1935 and 1968, which is good news for me as The Corpse in the Snowman is my first and I enjoyed it so much I will certainly be reading more of them!

This book is set in winter, as you will have guessed from the title – and yes, there is a snowman and yes, there’s a dead body hidden inside it. We know this from the very first chapter, but what we don’t know is whose body it is and how it has come to be in such a strange and macabre hiding place. To find out what is going on, we have to go back several weeks to the moment earlier in the winter when Nigel and Georgia Strangeways arrive at Easterham Manor in Essex, home of the Restorick family. They have been invited by Clarissa Cavendish, an elderly cousin of Georgia’s who lives on the estate and who has become convinced that there is something badly wrong at the Manor.

Clarissa’s fears are proved correct when, the day after the Strangeways’ arrival, the beautiful Elizabeth Restorick is found dead in her bedroom. It looks like a suicide, but Nigel is sure it is murder – and with a large party of guests gathered at Easterham for the festive season, there are plenty of suspects to choose from.

All the elements of a classic mystery novel are here – a country house cut off by snow; a locked room murder; an amateur detective working alongside the local police; family secrets, clues and red herrings – but a lot of attention is also given to themes such as drugs and drug addiction (with some interesting insights into the attitudes of the time). Published in 1941, the war is in the background but doesn’t really have any influence on the story; it’s set in those early days of the war when not much seemed to be happening and apart from a reference to blackout curtains and Nigel’s complaint at having to travel to Essex in wartime on an old woman’s whim, it is barely mentioned at all.

Although Nigel Strangeways is very ordinary as far as literary detectives go (there’s nothing to make him stand out amongst the Poirots, Campions and Wimseys of the genre), I did like him and will be happy to spend more time in his company. I was intrigued by mentions of his wife Georgia’s past career as an explorer; she doesn’t have a very big part to play in the novel, but I enjoyed what we do see of her. As for the other characters, there are a good variety of them within the Restorick household, ranging from an author who is in love with Elizabeth to a doctor whose speciality is ‘nervous disorders’ in women. I particularly loved Clarissa Cavendish, who is obsessed with the Georgian period and speaks of it as ‘in my day’ as if she had actually been alive at the time.

I am so pleased to have discovered Nicholas Blake and I’m sure I’ll be trying another of his books soon!

Note: This book has also been published as The Case of the Abominable Snowman.

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

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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.

Red Sky at Noon by Simon Sebag Montefiore

This is the third in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Moscow trilogy. I have read the second one, One Night in Winter, but not the first, Sashenka; the books are only loosely connected and it’s not essential to read all three in order. Montefiore is better known as a historian and writer of non-fiction, but these three books are fictional – although based on real events from Russian history.

Red Sky at Noon tells the story of Benya Golden, a Jewish writer and former teacher who, in 1940, is given the death sentence for “terrorism, conspiracy to murder Comrades Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich and Satinov, and membership of a counter-revolutionary Trotskyite group”. At the last minute Benya is given a reprieve and instead of being executed he is exiled to the Gulag of Kolyma and sentenced to ten years’ hard labour in the gold mines. Life in the camp is harsh and miserable, so when a chance comes two years later to join a penal battalion (a shtrafbat) formed to fight the Germans, Benya is quick to volunteer. The reward will be the opportunity to win redemption by the shedding of blood – either his own or the enemy’s.

The rest of the novel follows the adventures of Benya, his beloved horse Silver Socks and the assorted group of murderers, Cossack gangsters and fellow political prisoners who fight alongside him in the Soviet cavalry. Together they undertake dangerous missions behind enemy lines, facing death, capture or betrayal – or all three – and for Benya, there is also a romance when he meets a widowed Italian nurse, Fabiana. Of course, with Russia and Italy on opposite sides of the war, it’s clear from the beginning that their love affair is unlikely to run smoothly.

With so much happening and with such an action-packed plot and interesting historical setting, this could have been a wonderful novel, filled with drama, romance and excitement. However, I think Montefiore is probably a better historian than he is a novelist; although I have no doubts that he knows his Russian history, he never quite managed to bring the characters and events in this novel to life. The dialogue didn’t feel entirely convincing and there were only a few moments in the whole book when I felt any real emotional connection to Benya or the other characters, despite the horrors of war that were being described. I remember having similar thoughts about One Night in Winter, which was a more enjoyable novel in my opinion, but another one which made little emotional impact.

I haven’t mentioned yet that there is another thread to the novel, involving Svetlana Stalina. As Stalin’s daughter, sixteen-year-old Svetlana is a lonely and isolated figure, who has experienced little in the way of love and friendship as people are afraid to get too close because of who her father is. Svetlana’s story doesn’t really have anything to do with Benya’s, but it offers insights into life in the Stalin household and does add another layer to the novel.

I’m not sure if I would want to read more of Montefiore’s fiction – although Sashenka does still sound tempting – but I’m curious to know what his non-fiction is like. Has anyone read any of it?

Vittoria Cottage by D E Stevenson

This is only the third book I’ve read by D E Stevenson, but I’m finding that her novels are perfect when I’m in the mood for something gentle and undemanding, but still with convincing characters, some insights into human nature and just enough plot to keep me interested from beginning to end. Having read what other people have to say about her books it seems that they vary in quality, but I think I’ve been lucky with the three I’ve chosen to read so far (Miss Buncle’s Book, Amberwell and now this one).

Vittoria Cottage is the first in a trilogy. The ‘cottage’ of the title is located in the quiet English village of Ashbridge and is home to the Dering family. Arnold Dering died before the novel opens, leaving behind his widow Caroline and their two daughters (there’s also a son who is with the army in Malaya). The younger daughter, Bobbie, doesn’t give Caroline any problems – at least not during the course of this first novel – but the same can’t be said about pretty, selfish Leda. Her engagement to law student Derek causes concern for both families, who can see that the young couple will have no money and are perhaps not very well suited anyway. However, Caroline and Derek’s father resist the temptation to interfere too much and leave Derek and Leda to learn this the hard way.

Meanwhile, Caroline has a romantic interest of her own, although she tries to deny even to herself that she is falling in love. He is a newcomer to the village – Robert Shepperton, a man with a mysterious past. What did he do during the war? What happened to his family? And why has he come to Ashbridge? When Caroline’s sister Harriet, a London actress, arrives for a long stay at Vittoria Cottage, she also finds herself drawn to Robert. But which sister, if either, is Robert interested in?

The main characters in the novel are well drawn and engaging (apart from one or two, such as Bobbie, who remain a bit shadowy) and I liked Caroline immediately. As an older, more mature heroine, she is sensible and practical and if she can sometimes be frustratingly naive and lacking in self-confidence, it only makes her all the more human. I enjoyed watching her relationship with Robert Shepperton slowly develop – a relationship built around friendship and trust. I also liked Caroline’s maid, Comfort Podbury, a young woman who has gained a lot of weight due to a medical condition and is devoted to Caroline because she is one of the few people in Ashbridge who doesn’t judge her by her size.

Vittoria Cottage was published in 1949 and the effects of the war on Caroline and her friends are clear – rationing is still in place, the Derings wonder where Mr Shepperton gets enough coupons to buy so many new clothes, and Caroline is surprised when she finds herself in trouble for attempting to send eggs to Harriet in London. If I’m going to be critical, I could say that this book doesn’t feel very original and I can think of quite a few other novels I’ve read by similar authors which have similar settings and similar types of characters. I don’t think that matters too much, though, because DE Stevenson is very good at writing novels like this and, as I said at the start of this post, sometimes they are just what I’m in the right mood for.

I didn’t enjoy Vittoria Cottage as much as the last Stevenson book I read, Amberwell, but I did like it. The ending seems very abrupt and, without saying too much about it, it’s satisfying in some ways but in others not very satisfying at all! If I want to know what happens next to the Dering family, I’ll have to read the other two in the trilogy, Music in the Hills and Shoulder the Sky.

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

the-moving-toyshop I can’t remember where or when I first heard about this book, but I’ve been interested in reading it for a long time and was pleased to see that it had been made available through NetGalley. It was worth the wait because it was every bit as much fun to read as I had thought and hoped it would be.

The novel opens with poet Richard Cadogan on his way to Oxford, where he hopes to find some literary inspiration. Arriving in the city just before midnight, he is surprised to find a shop with the door unlocked and goes inside to investigate. Inside he finds nothing but toys – ‘Meccano sets, engines, dolls and dolls’ houses, painted bricks, and lead soldiers’ – but venturing up the stairs at the back of the shop, he stumbles across the dead body of an elderly woman on the floor.

Before Cadogan can react, someone hits him on the head and he wakes up to find himself locked in a tiny room used for storing cleaning products. He manages to escape through a window and wastes no time in informing the police – but when they accompany him to the street the next morning, the toyshop is gone and in its place is a grocer’s which looks as though it has been there all the time. How could a shop possibly disappear overnight? Feeling that the police aren’t taking him seriously, Cadogan calls on his friend, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, Gervase Fen. Fen has some experience of solving mysteries (there are two previous novels in this series, which I haven’t read – The Case of the Gilded Fly and Holy Disorders) and he agrees to help Cadogan investigate.

With the main characters being a poet and an English professor, the dialogue between them is clever and witty, filled with literary allusions and wordplay. When they need a break from crime solving, they amuse themselves by playing games with titles such as Detestable Characters in Fiction. I’m sure we can all think of plenty of those!

“Got you!” said Fen triumphantly. “You miss your turn. Those vulgar little man-hunting minxes in Pride and Prejudice.”

At this exultant shout the muffled, rabbity man at the nearby table frowned, got unsteadily to his feet, and came over to them.

“Sir,” he said, interrupting Cadogan’s offering of Richard Feverel, “surely I did not hear you speaking disrespectfully of the immortal Jane?”

But the literary references are not always just for fun…they form an important part of the plot too. As a mystery involving wills, inheritances, unscrupulous lawyers and small spotted dogs begins to unfold, Fen and Cadogan discover that a knowledge of Edward Lear’s limericks will be useful in deciphering some of the clues. I loved this aspect of the novel; it was so imaginative and made up for the fact that the mystery itself is not a particularly strong one. The plot relies heavily on coincidences, improbabilities and things which are so far-fetched as to be ridiculous – but none of that really mattered to me. I was left with the impression that the author had as much fun writing this book as I had reading it.

Published in 1946, The Moving Toyshop is the third of Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen novels but it stands alone perfectly and I didn’t feel that I was at any disadvantage because of not having read the first two books. I’m sure I’ll be tempted to pick up one of the other books in the series soon!

The 1947 Club: The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie

1947-club-pink This week, Karen (of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Simon (of Stuck in a Book) are hosting a 1947 Club. The idea is that we all read and review books which were published in 1947, forming an overview of the literary world in that particular year. Having enjoyed the books I read for the first two clubs – 1924 and 1938 – I’ve been looking forward to taking part in this one.

First, here are some reviews of 1947 novels previously posted on my blog:

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger

I can highly recommend all three of those – and I also enjoyed the book I chose to read for the club: Agatha Christie’s The Labours of Hercules. I love Christie and as it’s been a while since I read one of her books, I was pleased to find that she’d had one published in 1947!

the-labours-of-hercules The Labours of Hercules begins with a foreword in which we learn that Hercule Poirot is planning to retire from crime-solving and devote himself to the growing of marrows. Before giving up detective work for good, he decides to take on twelve more cases, each inspired by one of the twelve Labours of Hercules from Greek mythology. This is in response to a friend who has pointed out that although Poirot may be Herculean by name, he is hardly Herculean by nature!

The foreword is followed by twelve stories, each one a complete mystery in itself. If you’re familiar with the original Labours of Hercules (Poirot himself admits to having no knowledge of the Classics and has to do some research before beginning his mission), you will know that the first one involves the slaying of the Nemean Lion. The ‘lion’ of Poirot’s first Labour is slightly less terrifying – a Pekinese dog stolen during a walk in the park – but it forms the basis of a case which is much more intriguing than it initially appears. The other stories in the book are also loosely related to the Labours but instead of tackling monsters and wild beasts, Poirot finds himself facing an assortment of thieves, drug dealers, kidnappers and murderers.

Until now, I have only read full-length Poirot novels and have avoided the short story collections as I often find short stories disappointing, lacking the depth and complexity I prefer in longer books. However, this particular collection is surprisingly satisfying; fun to read, nicely varied and with at least one clever twist in each story. I’m not going to discuss all of them here, but a few of my favourites were The Stymphalean Birds, in which Poirot attempts to rescue a British politician from the clutches of a pair of blackmailers, and The Cretan Bull, where a young woman seeks Poirot’s help after her fiancé ends their engagement because he fears he’s going insane. I also enjoyed The Erymanthian Boar, set in a hotel on top of a mountain in Switzerland to which Poirot has travelled in the hope of disturbing a rendezvous arranged by a dangerous Parisian gangster.

Poirot is very much alone throughout most of his adventures in this book. We don’t see anything of Captain Hastings, but other recurring characters from the series do make an appearance in some of the stories, including Chief Inspector Japp, Poirot’s valet, Georges, and his secretary, Miss Lemon (I loved her brief but hilarious role in the final story, The Capture of Cerberus, when Poirot asks her what she would do if a friend wanted to meet her in Hell).

Apart from one or two stories towards the end which I found slightly weaker than the others, I really enjoyed reading this collection. I’m sorry that I’m not going to have time to read anything else this week for the 1947 Club, but I’m pleased that the one book I have read proved to be such a good choice!

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

Cluny Brown After reading The Nutmeg Tree a few months ago, I was desperate to read more books by Margery Sharp, so the news that several of her novels were being reissued by Open Road Media came just at the right time for me. I have been lucky enough to receive a copy of Cluny Brown for review via NetGalley, but official release day is Tuesday 12th April so not long to wait!

What I remember most from The Nutmeg Tree is its heroine, the wonderful Julia Packett. Cluny Brown is another memorable character – an intelligent, free-spirited young woman who refuses to ‘know her place’. To the dismay of Uncle Arn, who has brought up the orphaned Cluny, she’s the sort of girl who goes for tea at the Ritz on her own just to see what it’s like and who spends a whole day in bed eating oranges because she’s read in a magazine that it provides revitalisation. Uncle Arn is a plumber, a hard-working man leading a conventional life, and he’s unsure of the best way to deal with Cluny.

It is eventually decided that what Cluny needs is a job – and so she finds herself taking up a position as parlourmaid at Friars Carmel, a country house in Devon which is home to Sir Henry and Lady Carmel and their son, Andrew. With her ‘height, plainness and perfectly blank expression’, Cluny makes a perfect Tall Parlourmaid and soon settles into her new life, taking the neighbour’s dog for walks on her day off and forming a friendship with Mr Wilson, the local pharmacist.

But Cluny is not the only new arrival at Friars Carmel. The Polish academic Adam Belinski has been invited to Devon by Andrew, who is afraid for his friend’s safety. It’s 1938 and with the situation in Europe growing increasingly unsettled, Belinski (who becomes known to the family as The Professor) needs refuge from the Nazis. Andrew himself is still a bachelor but contemplating marriage with the beautiful Betty Cream….and it’s not long before Betty also decides to visit. Life at Friars Carmel is about to become much more complicated!

I loved Cluny Brown as a character. Like Julia in The Nutmeg Tree, she’s a real individual and doesn’t conform to the expectations of others, but at the same time she’s friendly, warm-hearted and always has the best of intentions. Her story is played out during a time of social change and unrest with Britain on the brink of war – and as the novel itself was published in 1944, this adds an interesting angle.

The conclusion to Cluny’s story surprised me, all the more so because what eventually happened was what I had initially expected to happen before Margery Sharp began to lead things in a different direction. I was quite happy with the ending, but I’m not sure whether Cluny would be happy with it once a few years had gone by; it would have been nice if Sharp had written a sequel, both for the pleasure of meeting this set of characters again and also so we could see whether everything did work out for Cluny.

I think I enjoyed The Nutmeg Tree slightly more than this one, but I have been impressed by both of the Margery Sharp books I’ve read so far and am looking forward to reading more of them. I just need to decide which to read next, now that so many tempting titles are being made available to us again.