Black Plumes by Margery Allingham

black2bplumes

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…

Advertisements

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.

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.

Murder Offstage by LB Hathaway

Murderoffstage1

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.

A history of England and its periods

I used to confuse the order of Elizabethan, Edwardian, Victorian and other periods. Since the periods are obviously important in historical stories, it’s worth having a quick reference or researching this in more detail.

I researched this both online and through reading England and the English by Charles Duff, 1954.

General Overview of Time Periods in Britain

Celtic Invasion c. 2000 BC – About the original peoples we know nothing. The invading Celts were a nomadic people who are thought to be romantic, creative, and not aggressive until backed into a corner.

Roman Britain c. 43–410 – Julius Caesar conquered much of Britain. Warrior Queen Bodica attempted a failed uprising but eventually the Romans departed, having established roads, forts and cities such as Londinium (London).

Anglo-Saxon c. 500–1066 – Essentially defenseless after the Romans, the Britons fell to the organized and effective Vikings. King Arthur, although greatly romanticized, was a general or count who wanted to preserve the Britain he’d known. Battles and bloodshed continued until William the Conqueror.

Norman 1066–1154 – Celtic society had ceased to exist except in small pockets with the rest of Britain under William the Conqueror. His brutal conquest ended with him becoming a king and the beginning of the monarchy we know now.

Plantagenet 1154–1485 – A feudal system emerged with barons controlling lower classes and the Magna Carta was drawn to clarify the rights of barons and the Crown. King Henry II invaded Ireland. The Black Death and famine cut the population in half, then there was a labourer’s revolt of epic proportions.

Tudor 1485–1603 – The most notable Tudor is Henry VIII, whose goal was a strong England able to face any future. He was educated and far-sighted but also despotic and tough. He is most famous for cutting back the Catholic Church’s control of England and marrying 6 women but he made many contributions.

[Elizabethan 1558–1603] – England had an enormous merchant navy and a Royal Navy that defeated the Spanish Armada. Sea-dogs or pirates were often rewarded and approved by Elizabeth I. She was educated, cultured, flirtatious and she embodied the nation’s ideals. Literature and culture flourished under her reign.

Stuart 1603–1714

[Jacobean 1603–1625] – Most notable is the attempted destruction of the King and Parliament by Guy Fawkes, the creation of the King James Bible, and the foundation of the colonies in America. Some of Shakespeare’s significant and dark plays were written during this period.

[Caroline 1625–1649] – Less is readily available for this period, but the growing uneasiness between the King’s Royalists, and the Puritans, who sought to reform Church of England from any Catholic influence.

[(Interregnum) 1649–1660] – Puritan Oliver Cromwell’s military success enabled him to exile Charles I and become England’s Lord Protector. He pushed for the King’s execution to end civil war and he was vicious in both Ireland and Scotland.

[Restoration 1660–1688] – Charles II was restored as rightful king, Cromwell’s corpse dug up and beheaded for treason, and Royalists rewarded. This period ended with James II fleeing a revolution spearheaded by Dutch William of Orange and losing the throne, his daughter Mary crowned along with her husband William.

Georgian 1714–1837 – The four Hanoverian kings of England all named George (that’s not confusing). This was a period of massive growth for the empire, which meant a lot of wars, all won except for the American Revolution. The Regency era (1795-1830) is well described in Jane Austen’s novels. The Industrial Revolution beginning in 1760 also changed daily life dramatically with the new mechanized forms of making clothing and other textiles.

Victorian 1837–1901 – The Victorian era of peace, prosperity and scientific/medical/engineering accomplishments was underpinned by “appalling human misery” of working class and the bloodiness of colonialism.The Victorians are noted for the strait-laced, highly moral (to them) behaviors.

In England, the population doubled from 16 to 30 millions in just fifty years due to medical advances (vaccines) and the turnip that could be grown in winter to feed cattle. But in Ireland, the population fell dramatically after the Great Famine, which heightened hatred and tension with the English. Continued battles were fought in India until in 1876 Queen Victoria was granted the title Empress of India. Queen Victoria made the monarchy both beloved at home and known across the globe.

Edwardian 1901–1914 – The pre-war England is well described by British author Samuel Hynes as a “leisurely time when women wore picture hats and did not vote, when the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously, and the sun really never set on the British flag.” The class system was at its strongest and each class knew its position quite well.

But for women, illegal abortion (often local women with crochet hooks, yikes!) was the most common means of birth control, contraceptives were expensive and often failed. Unmarried or widowed mothers suffered most, they were sent to the workhouse and even if they found work elsewhere, their wages were lower than men’s. Suffragettes were causing a stir as they fought for women’s rights.

Meanwhile the shadow known as “The German Menace” was known although many didn’t believe it would come to war. In these wars, Germany and Britain seemed locked in a race as Germany tried to overtake Britain in manufacturing and military.

First World War (the Great War) 1914–1918 – Duff writes “It is difficult for those who were not adults at the time to realize how innocent, simple-minded and gallant that generation of young men was.” They were not given any conditioning for war and they went ignorant into the four-year drawn out trenches of war.

70 million military men across the world were mobilized between the Allies (UK, US, France and Russia) and the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy). In England, women now worked beside men to meet the manufacturing demand, while large portions of the country were serving as hospitals full of convalescing soldiers in their light blue uniform.

The Armistice was signed and on July 19, 1919 a column of nearly 20,000 allied troops marched through London representing the 14 nations who had won the war. But the England of 1918 was exhausted, had spent countless dollars and broken many of the class lines.

Interwar 1918–1939 – Thousands of soldiers were demobbed and women were forced to give up their jobs to them. Shell shock was not well understood and soldiers suffering from it were often treated with cruelty – why couldn’t they just ‘man up’?

The Labour Party, relatively socialist and in favour of the labourers, came into power in 1921 to the horror of the Conservatives. Legislation benefiting education, welfare and unemployment were passed in this time.

Despite appalling losses, the English wanted to “draw a blind on the whole filthy business” and begin anew. There was a slogan of “Brighter London” and there was an effort to create a spirit of gaiety. Victorian morals received a bit of shock at women’s attire (the rising of hemlines and the absence of corsets).

After the slump of Wall Street in 1929, England felt a share by the decrease in wholesale prices and an unemployment crisis. The government used drastic measures that were felt by everyone and was able to avoid borrowing, while the pound steadied even if it did not improve. There was a feeling of depression over much of the country, though the rise of Hitler was not believed by many to be serious. It was the Spanish War of 1936-1938 with Hitler and Mussolini helping the Nationalists that gave an inkling of the shadow to come.

Second World War 1939–1945

Postwar 1945–present


Photo courtesy English Heritage.

England in the 1920s, mysteries and more

As an avid mystery reader, I’m a huge fan of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and many other excellent 1920s mysteries. The “Golden Age” of mysteries is my favorite era. They combine plot driven books that are suspenseful without being terrifying with an intellectual puzzle to be solved and character driven stories that focus on people.

Writing a book in this era requires a great deal of research if you want to create an immersive world. The 1920s is nearly a hundred years ago now. You need to preserve historical accuracy like names, landscape, clothing, social norms, technology, economy, vocabulary and even how they thought based on their age and experience. But while you want your protagonist to be utterly of their time, you also need to balance this with changing world views and norms.

England is difficult when you consider social classes, World War I (the Great War) and colonialism. There were many things changing in a good way like women’s right to vote and worker protection laws from the new Labour Party, but it was also a dark time with another war looming and many still living in abject poverty. Another challenge is that the immediate past of the protagonist (such as their parents’ upbringing or the era they lived in) also plays a part in their beliefs, so I found myself digging into the late 1800’s as well.

While I appreciate the Golden Age novels giving us a stimulating puzzle to enjoy and often a privileged world, they only sometimes explore social injustices. I’ll give examples where I feel they do call for change more than we might realize. But I still feel we owe a debt to those who suffered not to gloss over their pain even as we stay optimistic in a changing world.

I decided to share the research I’ve been doing, which books have been invaluable and thoughts about murder mystery books set in this era. Hopefully this will help anyone interested in the 1920’s in England, writing or reading mysteries, or just general interest in that period.