Black Plumes by Margery Allingham

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An exquisitely constructed post-war mystery that keeps you guessing.

Another classic and delightful Allingham book. Instead of her usual detective it is narrated by the very charming young Frances. She’s desperately trying to tell her regal grandmother that the family gallery is going off the rails fast. The chapter culminates with a dramatic scene featuring a slashed painting and a seemingly simple argument that will descend into murder.

Why is Frances’ brother-in-law so furious when she turns down his friend, an unctuous and slimy little man? Why is her half-sister such a miserable, terrified wreck? When a murder occurs, they all know someone in the house is a killer. Despite the police presence no one feels safe, perhaps because the police are there as much to arrest as to protect.

There are a veritable feast of suspects and Frances is hard pressed to keep her cool. Could it be her own hysterical half-sister, the victim’s unhappy wife? Or perhaps Frances’ new fiancé, the artist whose painting was slashed and who wants to marry immediately so they can’t testify against each other? Even her beloved and regal grandmother, whose mind slides in and out of focus, could be using her age as a clever cover.

The book is seen through Frances’ uncertain and troubled eyes – Allingham uses this device brilliantly. We follow along with Frances, tortured by the conflict between her conscience and her sense of loyalty. The Scottish detective Birdie keeps his own counsel, so along with Frances we wait and listen to what clues drop, hoping to uncover the truth and protect the ones we love…

Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham

traitorA brilliant mystery – how does a man with amnesia unmask a national conspiracy?

I fell in love with Albert Campion on the TV series, but years ago I really disliked The Affair at Black Dudley (the first Campion). I don’t know if it was just bad book timing, but after reading Traitor’s Purse I feel I have been missing out!

This is one of her finest books according to many and I can see why. The book plunges straight into the plot – a man wakes up in a hospital, overhears that he’s killed a policeman and will hang for it. He makes a dash for it, physically and emotionally weak, all the while desperate to remember what conspiracy he was about to unmask. His only clue is the number 15.

And if that plot weren’t enough, the writing is beautiful. Campion struggles to fake his way through situations, wondering if each person he meets is the shadowy villain. We see his newly discovered love for a woman he’s already lost and his haunting terror that he will not be in time to prevent a national tragedy.

Swinging wildly between a creature of primitive emotions and an uppercrust man of intelligence and manners, we can’t help but wonder which is the real Campion? Will the two halves of his fractured mind meet in time to save England?

I was fortunate enough to get a version by The Folio Society, a London publisher who republishes old classics in utterly gorgeous bindings and with stunning illustrations. Anyone who loves books should own at least one folio edition.

Death Mask by Ellis Peters

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Amazing classic British mystery, elegant and well-written, engrossing characters. 

I opened this book yesterday afternoon intending to read a chapter but it was well past my bedtime when I put it down. The first sentence was a tad long but by the second paragraph I was hooked – the protagonist Evelyn has just run into Dorothy, a woman he hasn’t seen for sixteen years. Their last meeting was when she refused his marriage proposal.

But this is not a romantic story. It is a deeply intriguing look into the dark corners of a not fully formed human mind. What is driving Dorothy’s estranged son Crispin to get kicked out of every school and refuse every tutor? Is it something to do with the death of his father on a dig in Greece?

How Evelyn tries to win Crispin’s trust and figure that puzzle out both emotionally and logically makes for fascinating reading. But even more fascinating is how Ellis Peters captured the juxtaposition of little kid and remorseless adult in Crispin, who is spiraling ever closer to a very deadly climax…

30-day e-book loan courtesy of NetGalley.

The Tomb of the Honey Bee by L.B. Hathaway

honeybeeA feisty 1920s sleuth solving a crime through glamourous London, Sicily and Egypt.

Posie is a feisty private detective in 1920’s London. She plunges dangerously into situations without always thinking it through and they often go awry, but she makes it up in pluck.

In book #2, Posie is in the throws of heartache and finds herself helping a ravishing and broke peer, Violet, whose explorer brother has gone missing. And she’s being paid in extraordinarily expensive honey. Potential suspects include the other brother, a drinking wastrel of money, his wealthy and jealous wife, a highly suspicious valet and a unrequited-love-crazy mystery writer.

A great setup and the book’s highlight is Posie’s international jetsetting to interesting places. The killer here is a different kind of crazy ruthless and manages to do a fair amount of destruction for a comparative amateur.

An enjoyable series and I’m distinctly interested in the next books!

A Useful Woman by Darcie Wilde

darcie.jpgA compelling Regency heroine solves the murder of a young man.

This is a deeply immersive mystery set in Regency London. The intelligent heroine Rosalind is demure yet spirited, her life of privilege disrupted by her father’s financial crimes.

There’s a lot of mystery hinted at with her sister and father vanished, and her mother basically gone over the deep end. Her position is as a “useful” woman who understands and helps smooth over social functions with her knowledge of people and position, yet is too lowly to attend many functions.

The mystery plot is well done. Rosalind finds a man’s body in a privileged ballroom. She doesn’t start out as a sleuth, but when the man’s family asks for her help she ends up investigating. The characters are well-developed and Rosalind is torn by all sorts of loyalties and conflicts. She sometimes stumbles along the way, but always with increasing skill and urgency. The romantic angle is well-written but a little over the top at times.

An immersive book that fans of Jane Austen and cozy crime will appreciate!

30-day e-book loan courtesy of NetGalley.

The White Cottage Mystery by Margery Allingham

whiteAn old-fashioned and twisty British crime classic.

This is the first mystery novel (and second novel) for a brilliant mystery writer. It is surprisingly well put together for such an early effort. It doesn’t feature her charming Albert Campion, but instead an avuncular older detective W.T. and his Watson-like son Jerry. The story is more old-fashioned than her others, it reminds me rather of Agatha Christie’s shorter stories but it is novella length.

W.T. is called in on a case of murder – a neighbor has wandered into another man’s house and been shot. From the start it becomes clear that everyone absolutely hates the man and has a motive. The man is even crueler than the average unlikable victim, and a kind of blackmailer who enjoys torturing his victims rather than making money from it.

The suspects are all unique. In the house we find the brimstone and fervour of the servant Estah, the nervous and charming Mrs. Christensen with her little daughter, her feisty sister, and the handicapped war hero husband Mr. Christensen. In the dead man’s household we have the grimy, worm-like Lacy and the mysteriously vanished Mr. Cellini. All have excellent motives and in some cases quite good alibis.

Moving between England and France, the novel does a good job setting the scene without a lot of details. W.T. is very kindly and intelligent, he presses for the truth. His son Jerry is much more the muscle-bound Watson or Hastings, an invaluable help to W.T. but a victim of his own emotions. (Ah, always Hastings you fall for the auburn haired girls!)

The plot is a simple one but continues to open up confusing little twists and sends you scurrying from one suspect to another along with W.T.  I did not predict the ending but like any classic Golden Age novel, it provides an ah-ha moment.

30-day e-book loan courtesy of NetGalley.

The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester

cover87931-medium (1)A historically significant classic crime book featuring an early female sleuth. 

Published by the fabulous Poisoned Pen PressThe Female Detective is a great find for anyone interested in the history of crime fiction. Originally published in 1864, I’ve heard it claimed this is the first or one of the first female detective books.

The main protagonist is a sort of female Sherlock Holmes who is vastly independent and courageous for the era.

She holds to truth and justice at whatever the cost – even to an evil old man regaining his fortune from the kindest of people.

I had a hard time connecting to her emotionally but as a beginning for the long line of female detectives this is a classic work.

30-day e-book loan courtesy of NetGalley.

Murder Offstage by LB Hathaway

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An enjoyable and fun debut featuring a 1920s sleuth and a cursed jewel.

Posie is a feisty private detective in 1920’s London with a gorgeous male assistant who thankfully doesn’t do all the dirty work. She plunges dangerously into situations without always thinking it through and they often go awry, but she makes it up in pluck.

The characters all stand out, which is a feat when juggling so many. The friend and ditzy young heir who is accused of murder (think Freddie Threepwood from Wodehouse’s ‘Leave it to Psmith’) has in fact fallen prey to a stunning femme fatale (think ‘Maltese Falcon’). Inspector Lovelace is the smart, helpful one and Inspector Oates is the grumpy, don’t-tell-me-how-to-do-things one, recognizable from many a Marple. The mastermind behind it all comes across as very Moriarty.

The setting is reasonably developed, picturesque without being over the top and immerses you in London. Every once in a while it lacks detail that would plant me more firmly in the era but overall it did the job well.

There were plenty of twists and turns as to how Posie would navigate her way through, although seasoned readers may be able to guess some pieces earlier.

Mr. Bazalgette’s Agent by Leonard Merrick

L_ISBN_9780712357029A sparkling tale of the first lady detective in England, brought back to print by the British Library.

This amusing story was first published in 1888. Ms. Miriam Lea is an engaging and delightful narrator. She is surprisingly sassy given that she is a woman in the late 1800s. Despite being down on her luck, she manages to secure a position as a detective for an agency.

She is soon travelling through the continent and headed to the diamond mines of South Africa to pursue an embezzler. There are many twists and turns in the case but I found myself both amused and a little disappointed by the ending. I suppose it was 1888 after all.

The book is written in diary form, which I usually detest but in this case it worked out quite well and made for a very fast read.

Strangely, Leonard Merrick never wrote another detective novel and went on to buy and destroy all the copies he could find. “It’s a terrible book. It’s the worst thing I ever wrote. I bought them all up and destroyed them. You can’t find any.”

Thankfully he didn’t get quite all of them.