Review: An English Murder

English Murder, AnCyril Hare, An English Murder

The setting of An English Murder seems, at first, to be a very conventional one. A group of family and friends come together for Christmas at a country house, Warbeck Hall. The house is owned by Lord Warbeck, a dying and impoverished peer who wants to be among loved ones for what he thinks will be his last Christmas. The holiday decorations are up and snow is falling fast outside. The guests range from the Lord’s difficult son to a visiting Czech historian. There is, of course, a faithful butler and his ambitious daughter. But when the murders begin, there is nothing at all conventional about them – or the manner of their detection. This ingenious detective story gleefully plays with all of our expectations about what an ‘English murder’ might be and offers enough twists and turns to keep us reading into the night. (Summary from

This was my first Cyril Hare mystery, but hopefully it won’t be my last! This is a quintessential English country house mystery, and I really enjoyed it. Most of the characters aren’t particularly likable, but the amateur sleuth, Dr. Wenceslaus Bottwink, makes up for all the others. Not only does he have a great name, but his somewhat detached “observer” status allows him to see the situation clearly and even find some humor in the various nasty interactions among other characters. The book is also interesting as a historical artifact: it was published just after World War II (1951, I believe) and contains characters whose views span the whole political spectrum, from socialism to fascism. The solution to the mystery, which also explains the book’s title, is one of the most delightful resolutions to a murder mystery that I’ve read in a while. Definitely recommended for vintage mystery lovers!

Review: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, TheDorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

On November 11, ninety-year-old General Fentiman is found dead in an armchair at the Bellona Club. No one knows exactly when his death occurred—information essential in determining the recipient of a substantial inheritance. But that is only one of the mysteries vexing Lord Peter Wimsey. The aristocratic sleuth needs every bit of his amazing skills to discover why the proud officer’s lapel was missing the requisite red poppy on Armistice Day, how the Bellona Club’s telephone was fixed without a repairman, and, most puzzling of all, why the great man’s knee swung freely when the rest of him was stiff with rigor mortis. (Summary from

I think this is my favorite Lord Peter Wimsey book so far. The mystery plot is ingenious and provides an intellectually satisfying solution. I also appreciate how character-driven Sayers’ mysteries are in comparison to, say, Agatha Christie’s. (Not to bash Dame Agatha, but I think her books are far more plot-driven, with the characters rarely being very three-dimensional.) I was especially fascinated by Ann Dorland, one of the potential heirs to the general’s fortune. Her behavior is suspicious throughout the novel, but is she guilty? And if not, why does she act the way she does? The one jarring note to this mystery is the ending, where Lord Peter unmasks the killer and essentially suggests that, instead of going through the humiliation of an arrest and trial, the person should just commit suicide. I guess this attitude makes sense for the time, when people set more store by their honor than they do today…and of course, a convicted murderer would face the death penalty anyway…but I was still taken aback by Lord Peter’s suggestion! Still, I enjoyed the book and look forward to continuing with the series.

Vintage Mystery Bingo Wrap-up

Vintage Challenge 2015Since 2015 is now behind us, it’s time to say goodbye to the 2015 Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge at My Reader’s Block. I completed my goal of one straight-line Bingo by filling in the L column with the following books:

  1. Book set in the entertainment world -> FREE SPACE -> Book set in England/U.S.: Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (set in London)
  2. Book made into a movie/TV show: John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps (most famously adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935)
  3. Book with an amateur detective: Dorothy L. Sayers, Unnatural Death (featuring aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey)
  4. Man in the title: E.C. Bentley, Trent’s Last Case (protagonist is Philip Trent)
  5. Academic mystery: T.H. White, Darkness at Pemberley (first section of the book involves a locked-room murder at Cambridge)
  6. Involves a mode of transportation: Mavis Doriel Hay, Murder Underground (victim is strangled in a London Underground station)

And for a little bonus, I also read Cyril Hare’s An English Murder, which fits nicely in the “country house mystery” square.

Vintage Golden Card 2015

As always, this was a really fun challenge for me. I think the Sayers books and Trent’s Last Case were my favorite reads, but I didn’t really have any clunkers. If you participated in this challenge, did you read any of the same books? What were your favorite reads of the challenge?

Review: Unnatural Death

Unnatural DeathDorothy L. Sayers, Unnatural Death

While dining out one day, Lord Peter Wimsey and his friend Inspector Parker are discussing so-called accidental deaths that might actually be murders. A young doctor overhears them and joins their conversation. He shares the story of a former patient, an elderly woman with cancer who died rather suddenly. She was terminally ill, and no signs of foul play were found on the body, so everyone believed her death was natural; but the doctor was nevertheless suspicious because she had seemed to be improving lately. The woman’s great-niece and presumed heiress was living with her at the time, so she had opportunity, but her motive was questionable because the old lady would die soon enough from natural causes. Lord Peter is intrigued by the case and decides to investigate. He employs Miss Climpson, a chatty but intelligent spinster, to temporarily relocate to the dead woman’s village and do some discreet investigating. Meanwhile, he and Parker search for other suspects, motives, and possible methods of the murder.

After rediscovering Dorothy Sayers earlier this year, I’ve embarked on a project to read all her Lord Peter Wimsey books in publication order. This is book #3 in the series, but if I recall correctly, it can be read as a standalone. I enjoyed this book a lot, but I feel like it’s a very unusual detective story. Despite a high body count, it doesn’t feel very action-packed or plot-driven. The main mystery is not whodunnit, but why and how. One of the biggest clues to the motive is a tiny change in an obscure property statute. Nevertheless, I found the mystery compelling and was eager to solve the complete puzzle of how and why the murder took place. Also, Miss Climpson is delightful; this is her first appearance in the series, but I believe she’ll be a recurring character in future books. She reminds me somewhat of a Jane Austen character — one of the good-hearted chatterboxes, like a more intelligent Miss Bates. I wasn’t completely on board with the characterization of the villain, whose psychology didn’t ring true for me. I doubt this will be my favorite Sayers mystery, but I did enjoy it and look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

39 Steps, TheJohn Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps

Richard Hannay is fed up. He has just returned to London after several years in South Africa, where he’s led an adventurous life and made a modest fortune. His current life of leisure in England seems incredibly dull by comparison — that is, until his neighbor knocks on his door one day with an amazing story about international conspiracies, assassination plots, and his own very important mission. Hannay isn’t sure what to make of the story at first but agrees to keep his neighbor’s secret. When the man is murdered shortly thereafter, Hannay concludes that his farfetched story must actually be true, and he decides to take over the dead man’s mission to deliver some secret documents to a highly important member of the British government. He immediately finds himself on the run, as the people who murdered his neighbor are now on his trail. Hannay encounters a variety of people on his journey, both friend and foe, and he relies on his instincts to tell him whom he can trust with his story. In some cases these instincts are right, while in others, they are very, very wrong. But somehow, he always manages to stay one step ahead of his pursuers as he searches for the mysterious location with the 39 steps, where the evildoers can all be captured in one fell swoop.

This is one of those books that’s fun to read as a historical artifact, but I feel like it would never be published today. Spy thrillers are so popular in book, TV, and movie formats that audiences have become very sophisticated. The plot of this book may have been cutting-edge when it was published in 1915, but for a modern reader, it’s pretty predictable and really strains credulity at times. Hannay’s actual mission isn’t important; the dramatic tension in the book comes from the fact that he’s being followed, as well as the fact that some pursuers are actually lying in wait for him. There is one pretty suspenseful scene near the end where Hannay is in a room with the suspected evildoers, and he’s suddenly struck with self-doubt: are these people actually the bad guys, or has he been imagining the whole thing? But I did mentally roll my eyes at Hannay several times, as he basically blurts out the entire story to everyone he meets without once stopping to wonder, “Should I actually trust this person?” Still, despite its flaws, I did find the book entertaining and would consider reading more of Hannay’s adventures. I also need to check out the Hitchcock movie now!

Review: Murder Underground

Murder UndergroundMavis Doriel Hay, Murder Underground

Miss Euphemia Pongleton is an unpleasant old woman living in a dreary but respectable London boardinghouse. When she is strangled on the steps of the Belsize Park underground station, her fellow boardinghouse residents are surprised rather than saddened; but they soon move past their shock to speculate on who might have done the deed. The police have arrested one suspect, the boyfriend of a maid in the boardinghouse who had been involved with some petty thievery. But the maid is convinced her man is innocent, and the boarders entertain themselves by coming up with alternate theories of the murder. Naturally, Miss Pongleton’s nephew Basil, who always seems to need money and who depends on inheriting his aunt’s fortune, is a prime suspect. But Basil, despite some highly suspicious behavior on the day of the murder, insists that he is innocent. Are his protests a clever ruse, or could someone else in the boardinghouse have wanted Miss Pongleton dead?

This was a very enjoyable Golden Age mystery, although there’s really nothing that makes it stand out from the genre as a whole. But sometimes formulaic plots are comforting, and that’s why I usually enjoy mysteries from this era. There’s the unpleasant murder victim whom we don’t need to mourn; a variety of suspects with a variety of motives, secrets, and questionable alibis; the secondary love story; and the amateur detectives who solve the crime without the involvement or assistance of the police. The mystery is well plotted, and I didn’t guess who the murderer was (although I suspected almost every character at one point or other). There are also some lovely bits of humor, such as when the boardinghouse residents fight tenaciously — but silently — over who gets to sit in Miss Pongleton’s chair. All in all, I’d recommend this to fans of Golden Age mysteries, but it’s definitely not a stellar example of the genre.

Review: Darkness at Pemberley

Darkness at PemberleyT.H. White, Darkness at Pemberley

This mystery novel begins at Cambridge, where a history don and an undergraduate are nearly simultaneously found shot in their rooms. The local police are called, and Inspector Buller is assigned to investigate. At first it appears that the don murdered the student and then killed himself, but Buller notices a few oddities in the don’s rooms that contradict this murder-suicide theory. He subsequently uncovers a drug scandal in the college and eventually discovers the real murderer’s identity. Unfortunately, the murderer has a cast-iron alibi, so Buller is forced to let the man go free. Buller then goes to visit his friend Charles Darcy at Pemberley and tells him about the murders. Charles, enraged by this injustice, goes to Cambridge to threaten the murderer. When Buller discovers this, he is terrified, knowing that the murderer will now come after Charles in retaliation. Almost immediately, strange things begin to happen at Pemberley, and Buller is convinced that the murderer is hiding somewhere in the house or grounds. Can he catch the murderer before his friend becomes the next victim?

Obviously, I was drawn to this book because of the title; any Austen fan will immediately recognize Pemberley as the name of Mr. Darcy’s grand estate in Pride and Prejudice. Sadly, from my point of view, there’s very little connection to Austen’s novel in this book, except that the current inhabitants of the house are still called Darcy. But this is still a very interesting and suspenseful book, despite the fact that it’s a bit schizophrenic. The first part of the book seems like a traditional locked-room mystery, and the solution is both complicated and ingenious. But as I mentioned, the murderer’s identity is discovered fairly early in the book. The novel then shifts to more of a suspense/thriller, as the inhabitants of Pemberley wait for the murderer to make his move so that they can catch him. The novel genuinely creeped me out in places; the idea of being trapped in a maze of a house, with someone pursuing you whom you can’t see, is absolutely claustrophobic and terrifying to me! So if you enjoy that kind of thing, I definitely recommend this book!

Review: Trent’s Last Case

Trent's Last CaseE.C. Bentley, Trent’s Last Case

When internationally renowned financier Sigsbee Manderson is found dead on the grounds outside his home, the news sends shock waves throughout English society. Hoping to learn more about the circumstances of Manderson’s death, a notable newspaper magnate calls upon Philip Trent, journalist and amateur detective, to go into Manderson’s neighborhood and investigate the case. Trent soon discovers that Manderson was almost universally disliked, so there is no shortage of suspects, from either of Manderson’s two secretaries to his estranged wife. The more Trent learns about the case, the more he suspects Mrs. Manderson of being involved in her husband’s death. All too soon, Trent arrives at a theory of the case that heavily implicates Mrs. Manderson — which is unfortunate, because he has fallen head over heels in love with her. Will he do the law-abiding thing and disclose his solution to the police, or will he protect the woman he loves?

Contrary to what the title suggests, this is actually the first book featuring Philip Trent; after a 20-year gap, Bentley eventually wrote two more Trent books. Anyway, I knew I would enjoy this book from the moment I saw the dedication to G.K. Chesterton, whom I love. And indeed, there is a sort of Chestertonian twist to the mystery about halfway through, which I don’t want to spoil but which I really, really enjoyed! The writing style is a bit ponderous and old-fashioned, as you’d expect from a book originally published in 1913, but I soon got used to it. I liked Philip Trent as a character; unlike some of literature’s more famous detectives (ahem, Holmes and Poirot), he’s a fairly normal human being without dramatic idiosyncrasies. The romance is very sweet, and the solution to the mystery is both ingenious and unexpected — or at least it was to me! I would definitely recommend this book to fans of vintage mysteries, especially those who are interested in the history of the detective novel.