#BookReview: Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North

Cluff Stands Firm Book Review

‘He could feel it in the blackness, a difference in atmosphere, a sense of evil, of things hidden.’ Amy Snowden, in middle age, has long since settled into a lonely life in the Yorkshire town of Gunnarshaw, until – to her neighbours’ surprise – she suddenly marries a much younger man. Months later, Amy is found dead – apparently by her own hand – and her husband, Wright, has disappeared. Sergeant Caleb Cluff – silent, watchful, a man at home in the bleak moorland landscape of Gunnarshaw – must find the truth about the couple’s unlikely marriage, and solve the riddle of Amy’s death.

Published by the British Library in it’s Crime imprint, I actually received this from Poisoned Pen Press via Netgalley in exchange for a review.

When Sergeant Caleb Cluff is called out to the scene of a sudden death, it looks like a clear-cut case of suicide – Amy Wright is found lying on her bed, with the doors and windows shut and the gas turned on. She was 48 years old, having spent much of her life looking after her father (who left her well off in the money department) and then her mother. After the death of the mother Amy made a bad marriage to a man 20 years her junior who only married her for her money.  Although everyone holds Alf Wright morally responsible for her death, legally he seems to be in the clear. Cluff can’t accept the coroner’s verdict, however, partly out of guilt because he, like everyone else, knew that Wright was cruel to Amy but had done nothing to stop it. Since there’s to be no official police investigation, Cluff takes some time off and begins to pursue Wright himself.

This is a written in a very sparse style, where sentences are cut back to the bare minimum and with little in terms of exposition, back history etc. Cluff is not the easiest character to like – older and a confirmed bachelor, who is dogged in his approach and quick to anger.  He is a local man, who doesn’t seem the type to ever get above Sergeant, and there’s an implication that something happened to him during the war that has seen him back in his home village.

Beyond the first few chapters and the initial investigation of the death, little is said about Amy herself. The focus is on Wright, his behaviour after the funeral and the inquest, and his reaction to Cluff’s silent near harassment of him.  His departure after the inquest to a nearby farm he used as his alibi brings attention to the inhabitants of the farm, and the death of  farmer Cricklethwaite, who was much older than his young wife Jinny.  There’s an unhealthy relationship between Alf, Jinny and a second man called Ben, that results in highly wrought nerves and an unexpected turn of events.

Summary

This is a definite change in style and tone than previous books that I’ve read from the British Library. There is also a certain level of violence that pulls it away from the likes of the traditional “Golden Age” books, and pulls it certainly into the 1960s. I wonder when the change came about – it must have been before this book as it was the start of an 11 book run. I have the second of this series to read, and I’d like to see whether it is in the same vein or different.  My reaction to the second book will decide whether I’d take it further.

About this author

Gil North is the pseudonym of Geoffrey Horne, a British writer. He was born in Skipton Yorkshire and educates at Ermysted’s Grammar School and Christ’s College Cambridge. He married Betty Duthie in 1949. From 1938 to 1955 he was a civil servant in the African colonies. He has also written novels under his own name.

#BookReview: Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh

Enter a Murderer

The script of the Unicorn Theatre’s new play uncannily echoes a quarrel in the star’s dressing room. And the stage drama gets all too real when charming Felix Gardener shoots his blustering rival, Arthur Surbonardier, dead-with a gun Arthur himself loaded with blanks. Or did he? How the live bullets got there, and why, make for a convoluted case that pits Inspector Roderick Alleyn against someone who rates an Oscar for a murderously clever performance.

Paper version picked up from my bookgroup.  I originally listened to this back in 2011, but for some reason have never produced a review.  This is the second of the Alleyn stories (before he marries Troy or starts working deeper in the Government), and it starts with Nigel Bathgate inviting him to watch a play at the Unicorn. There are underlying tensions, however, mainly due to some of the actors being snubbed over certain roles, and it’s during the performance that Surbonardier is killed. The question is: who killed him? Everyone knows who fired the shot, but no one knows who loaded the gun with live ammo.

It’s a multi stream story, where Nigel gets to talk to “do the dirty” in interviewing some of the characters – a method employed in later books by using Troy instead of Nigel. Surbonardier is in love with Stephanie, who in turn is in love with Felix. Throw in Surbonardier’s uncle Jacob Saint, the theatre owner who has an apparent side line in strong narcotics, as well as some of the back stage staff and there’s no end of potential culprits.

Still unmarried at this point, Alleyn does have his head turned by Stephanie Vaughan, a rather good actress, even though he knows he’s being played. Bathgate is kept on side by getting access to the exclusive part of the story, but only be allowing Alleyn to have first sight of his copy.  There are a couple of red herrings – Saint for instance gets arrested – and for a while it looks like he’s going to be blamed for the murder, but in reality the police have enough evidence to pick him up for the supply of illicit drugs (including heroin).

It is clear that each of the major characters all have reasons to kill Surbonardier, and what frustrates Alleyn and his team is that he has too many motives, rather than not enough.

All the main players are followed, and when one of the policemen gets given the slip, he unfortunately makes what turns out to be a fatal mistake, but which gives Alleyn the chance to catch the killer during the standard denouement at the end where Alleyn brings everyone together in the theatre to recreate the scene in the play where Surbonardier is killed.

So overall, it’s early days still, and I dont think that this is the best in the series as the characters are still being developed. I must admit that it took me a while to finish the last 50 pages or so (bad, considering that the books is under 200 pages), so I seemed to have lost some impetus somewhere.

 

Book Review: A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

a #murder is announced #christie #marpleVillagers expect a fun game after a Gazette announcement of murder, but when lights flash off, shots ring out, and a masked burglar falls dead, the Inspector and vicar’s wife Bunch call in expert Miss Jane Marple. Was Swiss hotel clerk Rudi framed? Miss Letitia Blackstone houses scatty Dora, cousins Julia and Patrick, gardener widow Phillipa, and paranoid cook Mitzi.

This is set just after WWII, when rationing is still in place, village life is changing – where people no longer know who their neighbours are – and where there is still a mistrust in “foreigners” such as the poor Mitzi, who has (or has not) been through so much in Germany during the war, depending on how much of her wailing you actually believe.

It starts out with an entry in the local newspaper, announcing a murder at 6:30 that evening at Little Paddocks. Naturally, people are curious, so there’s plenty of witnesses that evening as the lights go out, shots are fired and a young man is found dead in the hall moments later. Of course, Bunch knows Miss Marple, and combined with Inspector Craddock who knows her reputation, she is called down to help out. People are more likely to say things to the dotty old woman knitting in the corner than the police after all…..

There’s a veritable cast here, some of whom have very similar names, and the matter of the inheritance of millions of pounds, people pretending to be other people, and it all boils down to “do you really know your neighbour?”.

As usual, a tight little story, where most of the clues are there if you are paying attention (though most people dont), an like the TV adaptations, a great way to spend an afternoon

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, by Agatha Christie

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

The 8:55 to Baghdad by Andrew Eames

Tango in Maderia by Jim Williams

 

Book Review: To Love and be Wise by Josephine Tey

love and be wise #mysteryWhen a strikingly handsome young photographer mysteriously disappears, it’s up to Inspector Alan Grant to discover whether he accidentally drowned, committed suicide, or met his death at the hands of one of his many female admirers

Not an author I’ve come across before (it’s a pseudonym of Elizabeth Mackintosh – no, havent heard of her either) and it was passed on from a friend. As Tey, Mackintosh wrote six mystery novels including Scotland Yard’s Inspector Alan Grant during the 1920s and 1930s, which would place her with Allingham, Christie and Marsh, if only less prolific. This is book number 4 in the series and the first I read.

Since it’s already 2/3rds of the way through the series, Grant is relatively well established as a character. He has his favourite right hand (police) man to bounce ideas off – similar to Alleyn’s Brer Fox – but Williams is missing for most of the book on another case. Grant therefore comes to rely on the famous actress Marta, who he finds to be insightful and intelligent in her own way and a good foil (and a good cook!).

American photographer Leslie Searle, he of the unusual and stunning good looks, suddenly arrives in Town, quickly becomes part of the lives of an extended family, and just as suddenly disappears, leaving everyone bewildered and at a loss.  Grant, who has met Searle once, previously, is confronted with the disappearance of Searle whilst out on a camping research trip in Oxford. His companion, Walter Whitmore, is engaged to Liz, and there seems to be a rapid connection between Liz and Leslie that makes Walter jealous. Leslie’s disappearance makes Walter the Prime Suspect, but there’s one major problem: there’s no body and no real sign that Leslie simply hasn’t walked off into the night of his own accord. So has there really been a crime?

The ending is a novel take on a standard disappearance mystery, and I wont go further for spoilers. Most of the secondary characters are reasonably fleshed out for such a short book (sub 300 pages).

If I’m honest, this didnt grab me in the same way that my first Ngaio Marsh book did – another series that I started part way through the series. Allingham’s stories about Albert Campion run a quick second after Rodney Alleyn books. Whilst a decent, tight story, there’s nothing (on this book alone) to make Tey join the list. I have a few other books in the series that might (or might not) help.

Book Review: Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham

Death of a GhostThe first killing took place at a crowded art show, in full view of the cream of London society. For the second killing, only the victim and the murderer were present. Now the scene was set for the third–a lavish dinner party with vintage wines, and with Albert Campion’s death as the main course.

Audiobook narrated by Frances Matthews who I’m beginning to enjoy, in the way I prefer James Saxon reading Ngaio Marsh books.

Through knowing Belle, the widow, Campion is invited to the latest unveiling of one of John Lafacdio’s works – which are released at the rate of one a year after his death. The great and the good are at the unveiling, as well as some of the not so great, and during the party the lights go out (someone had failed to feed the meter put in place during the war). When the lights come back on,  Tommy Dacre, Lafcardio’s grand-daughter’s fiance, is found stabbed to death with a pair of ornate scissors. Campion soon finds himself investigating not only Dacre’s murder, the systematic loss of Dacre’s work, another death and, ultimately, finds himself almost losing his own life after making a fool of himself in drink.

Belle’s house is a rather Bohemian 1930s set up – the housekeeper is one of Lafcardio’s Italian models (now well in her 60s), another inhabitant is another ageing ex-model now fascinated with auras and the such like. A married couple of artists, of varying talents, live in a studio in the garden, whilst Lafardio’s paint mixer lives elsewhere on the estate. The granddaughter is an early candidate as the one time fiancée, and who had been ditched for another Italian model called RosaRosa.

This book isnt really a “whodunnit” as Campion, the police and the reader know who the killer is fairly early on.  All attempts to unmask the killer in such a way as to bring along a conviction fail at every turn. The denouement at the end means that Campion is going to be the final victim and it’s luck and the police who prevent this from happening, rather that any major interaction from Campion.

Once the second murder has happened and the investigation dropped off, many of the secondary characters disappear, with focus being made purely on trying to prove that the murderer did it, and why. The story is spread over several months, with large gaps in between and everything appears to be a watching and waiting game. Campion has been asked to act as Belle’s proxy with regards to the paintings and in this way he manages to put himself in danger, going out to dinner on the fateful night with the murderer and being manipulated into life threatening situations.  The description of Campion being drunk and going around town, making a fool of himself, is a rather decent set of telling.

Not perhaps my favourite Campion, but still has some interesting set pieces in it to change things around a bit

Book Review: Died in the Wool by Ngaio Marsh

diedinthewoolWorld War II rages on, and Inspector Alleyn continues as the Special Branch’s eyes and ears in New Zealand. While his primary brief is spy-catching, he’s also happy to help with old-fashioned policing. Flossie Rubrick, an influential Member of Parliament and the wife of a sheep farmer, is murdered. Had she made political enemies? Had a mysterious legacy prompted her death? Or could the shadowy world of international espionage have intruded on this quiet farm?

I listened to this as an audiobook in 2012, one of the few not narrated by James Saxon. I recently found a paper copy, slim enough to fit the handbag, so read again before letting it go.

This story was originally published in 1945,at the tail end of WWII.

On loan to New Zealand, investigating potential anti-war sympathies and trade secrets, Alleyn is called onto a sheep farm. The farm owner’s wife – a local MP – died in suspicious circumstances 16 months before (she ended up in a wool bale). The couple are childless, and Flossie has spent her younger years collecting waifs and strays who still reside in the house – some of them people continue designing items for the war effort. It has been rumoured that some of those designs had been leaked (turns out to be true), which gives Alleyn the cover to go in and investigate.

The first third of the book has a lot of talking to set up the story and collect the deposition of those who remain on site who remember the incident. Lots of twists and turns, some suspects spotted earlier than others. Lots of talking in the first half, but that’s one of the ways to get the info to the reader and a lot less dry than other routes.

Spread over a couple of days on a working farm in the middle of nowhere, Alleyn needs to find out not only who killed Flossie, but what he can about the stolen plans. Many of the group are hiding something from him, either to protect themselves or each other, even the dead.

It’s always difficult to review books like this without giving away some of the plot so: sub 300 pages, with a large if rather restrained cast and the threat of WWII still hanging over people, and it’s a decently plotted book, even if some of the events are sign posted a large distance away

Book Review: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

stylesThe Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The famous case that launched the career of Hercule Poirot. When a wealthy heiress is murdered, Poirot steps out of retirement to find the killer. As the master detective makes his way through the list of suspects, he finds the solution in an elaborately planned scheme almost impossible to believe.

Read on my e-reader, which is fine and dandy, except there are illustrations that dont necessarily make it into the ebook itself – either the proofreaders dont translate the images over, or they dont render in the reader.

This is the first time we meet Poirot who has retired from the Belgian police force, and is living in the UK during WWI. His age isnt given, but he seems to be older than the 30 year old “Mr” Hastings, who has been returned home from the front on sick leave.

Hastings spends his sick leave with old friends, only to find the stepmother remarried to a man no one likes, and subsequently dying from apparent poisoning, several days after Hasting’s arrival. Poirot is living nearby and is soon investigating. Lots of twists and turns, the usual “calling everyone together” at the end, and Poirot thinking he’s giving us all the clues to work it out for ourselves

Book Review: Clutch of Constables by Ngaio Marsh

clutchFive Days Out of Time

… that was how the ad had described the Zodiac cruise on the “weirdly misted” English river. The passengers were the usual, unusual lot: a couple of unpleasantly hygienic Americans, an aloof Ethiopian doctor, a snooping cleric with a wall-eye, an artist running away from her success…

But they were not all what they seemed.

For Inspector Alleyn knew that one of them was the faceless “Jampot”—the ruthless killer who could take on any personality, whose thumb was a deadly weapon. The problem was, which one?

Rory Alleyn, giving a lecture, recounts a particularly interesting case involving his wife, art fraud, and a criminal team upon a boat.

Alleyn’s wife Troy, having just had an exhibit installed, is about to return to London when she sees a last minute cancellation on a 5 day boat trip around “Constable Country”. Knowing that her husband is in America on a lecture tour, and that she would be returning to an empty flat after an exhausting time preparing for the show, she takes the trip on the spur of the moment.

There she meets people of several different nationalities, including the English born doctor (of an Ethiopian father), an Australian priest, a rather annoying and intense English woman and an American brother and sister.

Troy finds out that her cabin was to be taken by a Greek man who has subsequently found dead in London.

Troy writes several letters to her husband, giving her impressions of not only the passengers but some of the peculiar events that happen to her in the first few days. Alleyn is back on the plane home by the time the first body is found.

Troy is (conveniently) shipped off to a local hotel as the book’s focus shifts to her husband and his investigation of racism, art forgery, murder and crime syndicates.

This was an audiobook from Audible. and read by James Saxon (who has read other books, including others by Marsh). He is very capable in doing multiple accents and this certainly aids the “listening experience”. A brief look implies that he died in 2003.

The multiple timelines was a little difficult to settle to (Alleyn giving a talk about a time he was in America giving a talk whilst his wife was getting involved in an art crime), but on the whole, it was a diverting and pleasant time spent.

Book Review: Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

destinationunknownThomas Charles Betterton, a famous scientist, has vanished. Conflicting reports of sightings of the missing man have come in from all over Europe. Then, his wife of six months decides to take a holiday to Morocco for a rest. That’s when a strange and surprising series of events begins to unfold.

I purchased from Audible, and when I started to listen to it, I realised that I had read this a long time ago.

Olive’s husband disappears from Paris, and as a scientist just after the war, his disappearance makes people nervous. Olive travels to Morocco to escape things, but ends up fatally injured in a plane crash.

Meanwhile, Hilary Cravern sits in a hotel room planning her suicide after her daughter has died and her husband has left her. As she has a passing resemblance to Olive (Same height and age, red coloured hair) she is persuaded to embark on a probable suicide mission to find out where all these scientists have disappeared to.

Much of the book is spent then in covering Hilary’s journey and the corresponding search for her in the wide expanse of North Africa

Audible version read by Emilia Fox, who performed a satisfactory role, though her American was a little less jarring than her European accents

Book Review: The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

the murder of roger ackroyd #christieVillage rumour hints that Mrs. Ferrars poisoned her husband, but no one is sure. Then there’s another victim in a chain of death. Unfortunately for the killer, master sleuth Hercule Poirot takes over the investigation.

Sent to me as a twitter prize by the lovely people at Harper Collins to mark a republish (different cover to one shown, but I cant find the latest image).

This is number 4 in the Hercule Poirot series, and it finds him retired in the countryside and keeping a low profile – so low, he doesnt appear for the first few chapters. The story is narrated by the local doctor and starts with the apparent suicide of Mrs Ferrars believed to have poisoned her husband the year before. Then Mr Ackroyd is found murdered in his study just a few days later. There are plenty of suspects – everyone is hiding a secret from Poirot and it takes him some time to work out just who did it.

If you’ve ever watched the TV adaptations, or read this before, the killer of Ackroyd is well known. However it’s Christie’s presentation of the narrative (as written in chapters by the doctor who has an eye on writing a book in the future a la John Watson about Sherlock Holmes) that keeps it all going. One advantage of Poirot books is that they are rarely (I dont think *ever*) written from the perspective of Poirot himself, and therefore we are safe in the knowledge that we are given the same information as Poirot, and it’s just that everyone has their own interpretation on the information.

So: lovely edition of a book I havent read for a long time, and enjoyable to see how it completes, even if you do think you know who did it!