JOSEPHINE PULLEIN-THOMPSON, Gin and Murder (1959)
I always pay close attention to the "Coming Soon" page on the Greyladies website, and I'm usually at least intrigued by all the books they reprint. When I saw that they were starting to reprint the three murder mysteries written by children's author Josephine Pullein-Thompson, however, I wasn't sure they would be my cup of tea. Pullein-Thompson, along with her sisters Diana and Christine, is best known for her pony books (their mother, Joanna Cannan, whose mystery Death at the Dog I reviewed here a while back, is in fact generally credited with creating the genre), and her mysteries, published between 1959 and 1963, are set among the horse-and-hound set which typically don't interest me a great deal.
But when I saw a used copy of Gin and Murder listed online for dirt cheap, I put my trust in the good judgment of Shirley at Greyladies and snatched it up. The result being one of the most enjoyable and entertaining mysteries I've read in quite a while. In fact, I've already ordered a copy of her second mystery, They Died in the Spring, which hasn't yet been reprinted by Greyladies, as well as her third, Murder Strikes Pink, a beautiful new copy of which has just arrived direct from Greyladies. (For whatever reason, Greyladies has published the third book before the second, so I've had to make do with a used large print edition of They Died, which will undoubtedly be replaced by a Greyladies copy if and when they reprint that one as well.)
In some ways, Gin and Murder is a surprisingly gritty mystery, not quite as "cosy" as one might expect from an author known for her children's fiction. The plot turns around a man who is poisoned in the middle of a cocktail party, at which those who had a motive for killing him didn't go near him all night, and those who went near him had no reason for wanting him dead. The cast of suspects contains nary a one that a reader is likely to feel affection for, but in this case I didn't mind at all. I even found that I rather liked Elizabeth Chadwick, despite her rather dim-witted insistence that the victim must have been poisoned by his own ceiling (something that apparently very nearly happened in real life to playwright and editor Clare Boothe Luce, author of the play version of The Women):
Elizabeth Chadwick, used to fighting the domestic battles of the world from a column in one of the glossier magazines for women, was not to be intimidated by a policeman of Hollis's calibre. Under his handling she soon became contentious. No, she hadn't been watching her guests with lynx-like eyes. She had no more expected them to murder each other than she had expected them to steal the silver. She had watched for the empty hand in order to offer it an eatable, but hadn't registered to whom the hand belonged. She had watched for signs of boredom and for people with no one to talk to, but they had been few, for everyone had known everyone else.
Later on, Elizabeth also comments a bit dramatically, "One can't help remembering that Guy stood there, that someone was watching him, contemplating murder. One waits for Banquo."
|Greyladies back cover blurb for Gin and Murder|
But if most of the suspects are a bit chilly and unlikeable, it's hard not to like D.C.I. James Flecker from Scotland Yard, who is called in to investigate. Typically, I feel just the reverse when reading mysteries—I like the characters and find the detectives rather dull—at least when they're real detectives and not just charming amateurs. But Flecker is a thoughtful man as well as a clever one, and Pullein-Thompson allows us to see a bit of his humanity and his worries:
He felt depressed as he climbed the steep oak stairs, hideously carpeted in red and green, and his depression increased as he surveyed the little beamed bedroom with its alien suite in imitation walnut, linoleum-covered floor and lace-muffled casement. He switched on the electric fire and scuffled in his suitcase for a writing-pad and pen. Now he must try to make something of what he had learned that afternoon. And then, as he sat before the fire, he realized that it wasn't the cold and the corned beef, the pickles or the soapy cheese that had depressed him. It was the cheerless muddle of the world, 'the still sad music of humanity'; the situations which drove people to murder.
PATRICIA MOYES, Many Deadly Returns (1970, aka Who Saw Her Die?)
I wrote a bit last year about my discovery of Patricia Moyes. I had stumbled across her second mystery, Down Among the Dead Men (1960), at a library book sale, and been completely seduced by it. I promptly backtracked to read her debut, Dead Men Don't Ski (1959), which I also enjoyed but felt was perhaps not quite so well plotted (certainly a forgivable offense in a first novel).
I never got round to noting here that a few months ago I read a much later Moyes novel, A Six-Letter Word for Death (1983) (the fourth from last of her nineteen mysteries, and also a book sale find), which I absolutely loved, with its highly entertaining crossword puzzle clues and charming characterization. But I realized at that point that I was destined to wend my way (in my usual sluggish style) through all of Moyes' novels.
It took me a few more months, but I finally got around to sampling another of her works, from around the middle of her career, and now I have a new favorite. Although, as Moyes carefully notes in the book's closing pages, the bizarre and brilliant method of murder described in Many Deadly Returns was not created entirely from Moyes' own imagination (it's based on a near-death experience reported in the news), it is no less brilliant for all that.
In brief, Detective Inspector Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy (surely one of the most charming and realistically loving couples in all of mysterydom) are sent to stay at the country estate of Lady Crystal Balaclava, an elderly eccentric with a scandalous past, who believes—from what her Ouija board has told her—that she is about to be murdered. Because she has so many important contacts, her fears are taken seriously enough for Henry and Emmy to have to make the best of a weekend among strangers for Lady Crystal's annual birthday celebration. The eccentric lady even insists that Henry sample all food and drink before she herself does. Despite this, however, and with Henry and her other guests looking on, she promptly keels over in the middle of her celebration—apparently from poisoning.
The case is just one big charming rollick from there on, and although Moyes shows enough of her hand to get the reader thinking along the right lines, the final solution is surprising and effective. Perfect marks for cleverness here, and for readability as well, since the characters—including Lady Crystal's three grown daughters and their husbands, as well as her long-time female companion—are always entertaining, if not always likeable.