Book Review

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Arrowood and the Meeting House Murders, by Mick Finlay

I don’t generally make a point of reading Victorian [or other historical eras, for that matter] detective stories in preference to contemporary ones, as they have stiff competition, even to this day, from Conan Doyle, but if one looks interesting, I am certainly willing to give it a try. This book appears to be the fourth in a series about these characters, private [note: not “consulting”] detectives, William Arrowood and his partner, Norman Barnett, and in a slightly cheeky, ‘wink-wink’, gesture, the irrevocably famous pinnacle of the detecting genre of this period is mentioned by name in the story by Arrowood himself, and described  in somewhat ungracious terms as a rather arrogant, self-satisfied and not necessarily a great deal more competent competitor; on the evidence of my first outing for this character, I’m not entirely convinced that this assessment is well-founded.

I hate to have to say it, but I found this a rather stodgy read, for a variety of reasons. The story is narrated by Barnett and, to emphasise that he is a member of the working class and not highly educated, his grammar is colloquial, to say the least—to quote Finlay himself, from the historical notes section & bibliography at the end of the book: “a white man born in the slums of Bermondsey. As such, the story is filtered through his perceptions and understandings.” As a narrative device, I don’t have any ideological objection to this, but I did find it somewhat wearing before the end of the book. Plus, several words are used by different characters which are not specifically anachronisms: just unfamiliar, and there is no glossary to enlighten the floundering reader. Finally, notwithstanding that it is one of my pet banes, I don’t know if “stomp” was in common parlance in late 19th century England. In his favour, it’s obvious that Finlay has done assiduous research on the period, and he does make his main character demonstrably fair-minded & accommodating in his dealings with refugees from Britain’s imperial ‘benevolence’, specifically in south Africa.

I can’t say a lot about the plot, because after the initial murders, at a Quaker meeting house, there are several developments which move the narrative along, albeit slowly, but to reveal any of them now would rather spoil the story. Arrowood is not brought in to assist the legitimate police, as is generally the case with private detectives: in fact, he & Barnett are only barely tolerated by Detective Inspector Napper of Scotland Yard, who is stereotypically plodding & prone to arriving at hasty solutions, but his rapport with Barnett does seem slightly more accommodating than that with Arrowood; also, of the two, Barnett is not the junior partner when it comes to detection, and his attitude toward his notional employer could occasionally be described as insubordinate, although, to be fair, Arrowood has his fair share of problems distracting him.

The drudgery & often visceral misery of life for London’s Victorian poor is well realised, so although this is clearly fiction, the reader can feel reasonably assured that this is Victorian life at its most authentically odoriferous, and the paperback version I read, published by HQ, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, London, in 2021, ISBN 978-0-00-832455-1, also has a very well known image on the front cover, in suitably dark monochromatic tones, that of a curving row of cramped back-to-back houses, with a narrow passage between the yards, leading to a viaduct over which a smoky locomotive is passing. The perpetrator is finally found, and Napper does at least have the good grace to concede that Arrowood & Barnett’s help was instrumental in this achievement.

Book Review

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The Mitford Trial, by Jessica Fellowes

When I saw the name Mitford in the title of this book, my mind immediately suggested a connection with Oswald Mosley, who was a very prominent personality in my book Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, the biography of my grand uncle Wilfred Risdon, who worked closely with OM from 1930 until just before the start of the second world war. This book being reviewed is actually one of a series by this author, featuring the Mitford family, but this particular one does have a tangential connection with Mosley, hence my interest was piqued. If the author’s family name is familiar, it is because she is the niece of the author Julian Fellowes, who created, according to Ms Fellowes’s website, the television series Downton Abbey, with which many people [not including me, however, for ideological reasons] will be familiar; although how many of these would be able to name the writer is another matter. Without wishing to cast any aspersions, the success of the television production was very useful for Ms Fellowes, as she has written five “official companion books”. The first book in the Mitford series, The Mitford Murders, was her tenth book, and the book under review here is her fifth Mitford book. From the information given on her website, it would appear that the lady is very much part of the upper classes so, presumably, she knows of what she writes.

This also begs another question—how close is her relationship with the Mitford family, because it might be considered incautious to write about the albeit avowedly fictional exploits of a real family, without some sort of dispensation, especially as a family such as this might tend toward the litigious if its reputation should be impugned, notwithstanding real & documented historical events. This closeness or otherwise is not stated, so can only be guessed at. In this story, former lady’s maid Louisa Cannon is asked to spy on Diana Mitford; who later went on to marry Oswald Mosley, despite his known philandering; and her younger sister Unity, a fervent supporter of Hitler from around the time of his accession to the post of Chancellor in Germany. This spying is to take place on a cruise to Italy, and Louisa is unenthusiastic about the idea, especially as the man who persuades her to do it, “Iain”, is not prepared to reveal for whom he is working [but it is probably fairly safe to assume that it must be MI5]; his only ammunition for expecting her to comply is to play on her patriotism, telling her bluntly that Germany is preparing for war, which must be prevented at all costs, and the Mitfords’ possible knowledge of, and connection with these preparations could be vital to the British government. Despite having only just married a detective sergeant with Scotland Yard, the excitement she feels at being asked to undertake this underhand mission overrules her misgivings, especially as she is exhorted to reveal nothing of her task to her new husband.

The narrative appears to be historically accurate; I would have been surprised if it had not been; there are precious few direct references to Mosley’s political activities, but one is right at the beginning of the book, on Louisa’s wedding day: a rally at Trafalgar Square on the 15th of October 1932, only a couple of weeks after the founding of the British Union of Fascists at the former New Party office in Great George Street, London. Apparently, “the crowds are bigger and more rowdy than expected…”, so all police leave is cancelled, and Guy, Louisa’s new husband, must accompany his superior, DCI Stiles, in a car to the meeting. Stiles seems biased against Mosley for no discernible reason, although perhaps this is just a reflection of his copper’s innate fears of public disorder, if the lower orders are given something to encourage them to be rebellious: “I don’t like the idea of that many people [at a London rally] thinking the BUF has got something to offer them.” This is endorsed by the reaction of a cockney beat copper, who happens to be in the car with them: “Sounds all right to me, if you ask, guv: [Ramsay] MacDonald’s a shower, isn’t he? A traitor to the Labour party. We need a real leader, someone who believes in the Brits and the working man.” I’m not sure about that term “Brits”, but I don’t have the time for the research to prove that an anachronism.

There is a murder on the cruise, and it just so happens that Guy is, fortuitously, also available to help unmask the perpetrator, because he joined the cruise in mid-stream [although not literally], as he couldn’t bear to be parted from his new wife for so long so, because the death occurred in international waters, he assumes control of the investigation. The relationships involved with the murder suspects are somewhat murky, and there is also a historical element to them, so they take quite some untangling, and the added complication is that Louisa is not able to reveal her reason for being less than forthcoming with information about the Mitfords. The murder, and the consequent trial, is based on a real murder which took place in 1935, but I will reveal no details of this, as it could easily prove to be a plot spoiler; the character of “Iain” is loosely based on Maxwell Knight, of MI5 and, according to Fellowes, the MI5 file on Mosley was opened in 1933, “with a report from Detective Constable Edward Pierpoint, who had been at a fascist public meeting in Manchester.” I would question if a public meeting can be described as “fascist”, but no matter; what I am reasonably sure of is that, as Mosley’s first Director of Propaganda, Wilfred Risdon would have been responsible for organising this meeting.

This is quite a decent ‘whodunnit’, aside from any observations on class in early 20th century British society; then again, it is almost impossible to escape those, especially if one includes the epitome of this genre, Agatha Christie, so they can be seen as background colour, which helps to shape the characters. This book was published in paperback by Sphere [Little, Brown Book Group] in 2021 [2020], ISBN 978-0-7515-7397-8.

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The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, by Sophie Hannah

This isn’t the first of Sophie Hannah’s homages to Agatha Christie’s Poirot canon [it is actually the fourth], with full permission & endorsement from the Christie estate, but it is the first I have reviewed. In view of that, it must be said that any of my comments about the similarity between Hannah’s & Christie’s writing & plotting styles, aside from the relative merits of this book’s plot, should be considered within the context of my knowledge of Christie’s writing in general, and the Poirot stories specifically, which isn’t encyclopaedic: I have read several of both, but by no means all. After reading the first few chapters of this one, I was initially minded to observe that the setup seemed rather laborious, but by the time I reached the end, it was obvious that the slow pace was essential to provide the details necessary to the complex plot: entirely appropriate for one of Christie’s characters, and I am happy to admit that Point is one of my favourites.

Kingfisher Hill is a private estate, near Haslemere in Surrey, to which Poirot and his by-now [early 1931] regular Scotland Yard associate, Inspector Edward Catchpool [Chief Inspector Japp presumably having retired] have been invited; specifically to one of the substantial homes on the estate, Little Key, by one of the sons, Richard, of the owner, Sidney Devonport, to ascertain whether Richard’s fiancée, Helen Acton did, indeed, murder his brother, Frank, who also happened to be Helen’s fiancé at the time. The invitation is necessarily surreptitious, because the paterfamilias Sidney, who is notoriously brusque & controlling, and his wife, Lilian, both see no reason to disbelieve Helen’s admission of guilt, made immediately after Frank’s fatal fall from an upstairs landing, and are perfectly happy and, indeed, willing, to see Helen hanged in retribution for the crime. As the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that Helen doesn’t actually love Richard, despite claiming that she fell in love with him at first sight, while she was still affianced with Frank, whom she really did love.

On the way to the Devonports’ home, at which the two guests are invited to stay, on the pretext of being sufficiently interested in, enough to potentially facilitate an investment, a board game [claimed to be better than the recently extremely popular new game Monopoly, or The Landlord’s Game] called Peepers, developed by Sidney Devonport and his friend & business partner, the American Godfrey Laviolette, a very strange incident occurs. A female passenger on the motor coach, on which Poirot & Catchpool are scheduled to travel, makes a scene in which she claims that she has been told she will die if she sits in a certain seat on the coach; needless to say, by the time she boards the coach, the sole remaining seat is the doom-laden one; Poirot manages to persuade her that she will be safe, by the expedient of changing seats, so that he occupies the threatening one, and the woman travels adjacent Catchpool. This is the setup which, at first, I felt was unnecessarily long-winded, but as the narrative progresses, the connections to the main plot are revealed, which is why it had to be related so carefully.

Hannah has certainly captured Poirot’s character & mannerisms quite well: there is rather more to a good homage to a very well-known & -loved character in fiction than merely describing him as being self-satisfied, and possessing extravagant moustaches & an egg-shaped head. Notwithstanding the complexity of the plot, I was slightly concerned, at least two-thirds of the way into the narrative, when Poirot gives Catchpool a list of seven tasks which he should achieve to advance their investigation, when Poirot has previously declared on at least one occasion that he has virtually solved the case! Aside from that, the plot is very cleverly worked out, and the investigation exposes secrets, lies, deliberate misdirection & character flaws, which would distract and inhibit any other investigator of a lesser intellect from arriving at a motive and exposing the perpetrator. The book was first published by HarperCollinsPublishers, London, in 2020; the paperback version which I read was published in 2021 ISBN, 978-0-00-826455-0.

Book Review

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The Sentence is Death, by Anthony Horowitz

If you recognise this author’s name at all, it is probably from the credits of a television programme such as Foyle’s War, but he is also a respected published author, having written stories in the contemporary Sherlock Holmes canon, but also young adult spy stories featuring the Alex Rider character. This book, published in 2018 by Century, London, in hardback; ISBN 978-1-78089-709-7, is a bit of an oddity: it purports to be a true story, the second of a three-book deal undertaken apparently under some duress from his new publisher, detailing the work of an ex-Scotland Yard Detective Inspector, who is currently working as a technical consultant to film & television companies, after having been fired from the Police Service for assaulting a suspect in a child pornography case. The question that is uppermost in my mind when reading this story is: “how true can this actually be?” Horowitz does make it very clear in the acknowledgments at the back of the book that “some of [the people who actually appear in the book] made my life very difficult while others have demanded that I change their names or remove them altogether: one of them has even gone so far as to threaten me with lawyers, although I would say my depiction of her is entirely accurate.” For obvious reasons, he doesn’t specify which character this is.

The first chapter was all the more enjoyable for me for several reasons; I have enjoyed watching Foyle’s War, not least for its period setting, and the vicissitudes of location film & television work are quite well known to me from another life; but also because the director of the episode, The Eternity Ring, which is featured in the story, albeit in parallel with the main plot, was Stuart Orme, with whom I have worked on two occasions, the more memorable of which was Ghostboat in 2005, and I have many happy memories of location work in Rome (at Cinecittá studios) and Malta, all expenses paid, which for a lowly supporting artist (and credit to Horowitz for using that term, rather than ‘extra’, which I dislike), albeit a featured one, which I was in that production, was very possibly a once-in-a-lifetime gig. The story is something of a cross between a biography and a diary, and the entrance of its subject is right at the end of the first chapter, when he blithely blunders onto the set in a real, modern taxi, thereby ruining the take in progress, which certainly stretched my credibility: Horowitz does write “It was impossible of course. The police should have blocked off the traffic. We had our own people at the end of the street, keeping back pedestrians. There was no way any vehicle could have come through.” It obviously did, though, so the only conclusion we can draw, if the event did actually happen, is that Daniel Hawthorne, the interloper, had sweet-talked both the actual policemen (as opposed to the background artists in period uniform) and the crew who had been charged with preventing interruptions to the shoot, to allow him to cause mayhem with his inconsiderate arrival: I would say that the evidently lax crew runners or third ADs would have been lucky to escape summary dismissal for such a transgression, given that Stuart Orme, “usually a pleasant, easy-going man” (which I can endorse), but who had been under tremendous pressure to finish this shoot successfully, displayed a face that “was thunderous as he looked up from his monitor to see what had happened”, and he was not amused when Hawthorne picked out Horowitz as his intended contact.

However, after that fraught beginning, the story proper can commence when Hawthorne, who is occasionally also called in by the police to assist with cases referred to as a ‘sticker’: “that is, a case which presented obvious difficulties from the start.” comes to Horowitz, albeit with blithe disregard for the mayhem he has caused, with a real murder which could be the subject-matter of their next shared book. Again, I have to say that this stretches my credibility, given that it has echoes of the “consulting detective”; the best-known of whom are Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot; but, having said that, I am not very familiar with real-life police procedures, so I suppose I have to accept that it must be possible. The officers with whom Hawthorne & Horowitz have to liaise on this case are eminently dislikable, and if detectives such as Inspector Cara Grunshaw (surely a pseudonym) really exist, it would be very difficult to have much faith in the integrity of the current London police. She makes it her business to make life near impossible for the author, even going so far as to physically assault him to frighten him into informing her of Hawthorne’s progress, to ensure she ‘cracks’ the case before he does: she is mostly successful with this intimidation, although Horowitz does rebel occasionally, even if only in his own mind; Hawthorne seems to maintain swan-like serenity through all this intimidation. The murder of a high-profile divorce lawyer, known professionally as “the blunt razor”, because of his scrupulous integrity, has taken place in Hampstead, and initially the police are baffled, hence Hawthorne’s importation. Initially, there is one obvious suspect, but surely the reason for this is so obvious that she wouldn’t be so stupid? Especially giver her reputation for erudition; also, she has an alibi for the time of the murder.

After this, more potential suspects can be considered after being interviewed by the detective & the author; I must also confess to being somewhat dubious that potential suspects would consent to an author being present at their interviews, although only one suspect objects to this, and potentially violently; also, the author’s identity & occupation is not always revealed to the interviewee, if at all. Throughout the investigation, Hawthorne is fairly unforthcoming to Horowitz with his theories, and he discourages the author from asking his own questions in interviews, for fear that his inexperience in these matters might prejudice the investigation. Nevertheless, Horowitz tries his best to arrive at a sensible solution to the conundrum, partly to spite Hawthorne for not trusting him further, although his theories change quite frequently as new information becomes available; he also has to contend with the ongoing tribulations of the Foyle’s War shoot, not least because his (presumably real) wife, Jill Green, was the producer of the series. The reader is kept guessing until very late in the book as to who the murderer was and, as is often the case, historical events prove to be crucial in unravelling why this murder occurred. Overall, and notwithstanding my scepticism about the veracity of the facts of the case as presented, I found this an enjoyable book, and can happily recommend it, especially if insights into the real world of television are enticing to the unconnected reader, and I would happily read the other two in the series, albeit with the first book I read being out of sequence, but that is a minor reservation.