Saturday, December 31, 2022


What an up-and-down kind of reading year it has been (never mind the kind of year it's been in the news!), but ultimately what a productive and enjoyable one. At times this year, I was, I confess, lagging a bit, motivation-wise, but that all changed with our trip to England in October, and our time at the British Library and the Bodleian. You may have noticed my reinvigorated reading since then, and there's certainly more to come. I'm also well aware that we're overdue for an announcement of upcoming FM titles—our next batch has been delayed a bit, but our announcement should (finally!) be coming soon.

As always, I wanted to end the year by looking back at the highlights. My actual FM Dozen always (with one tiny cheat this year, but one which fits well thematically) focuses on my blog-specific reading for the year, but I like to mention a few highlights that were either non-blog-related or just didn't quite make the cut. This was, as always, a challenging year to narrow down to a dozen.

I had quite a splurge of mystery reading this year, after a long period of not reading them much. Particularly during our October trip itself, I read one after another. Since I don't regularly blog about mysteries, they're a restful retreat for me—no making notes, or thinking of clever things to say about them, just pure readerly pleasure. It was during our trip that I properly discovered EDMUND CRISPIN, with whom I have been passionately involved ever since. If you like a bit of intellectual zaniness in your mysteries, Crispin is your man (though I know many of you discovered him long ago). I also read a slew of GLADYS MITCHELL both before and during our trip, and she provided particular inspiration with her focus on stone circles in The Dancing Druids (1948) and The Whispering Knights (1980). And I very much enjoyed CAROL CARNAC's (i.e. EDITH CAROLINE RIVETT, who also wrote as E.C.R. LORAC) Crossed Skis (1952), which combines a murder plot with a group of cheerful folks on holiday in the Alps.

An embarrassing confession re my mystery reading: A few years ago, I wrote about reading Agatha Christie's Passenger to Frankfurt (spoiler alert: I didn't enjoy it), which I thought was the very last of Christie's novels that I hadn't read. Then, a few weeks ago, organizing my books and my database, I made the shocking discovery that there was another Christie I had missed. A few weeks passed, and as we've been relaxing over the holidays, I decided to treat myself to one last unread Christie. In due course, yesterday I finished Towards Zero (not her best, but not bad, and an interesting conceit), only to realize as I was nearly finished that it seemed a bit too familiar. I double-checked my database, and reader, I read the wrong book. In the ensuing weeks, I had got confused between two novels featuring Superintendant Battle. On the bright side, however, this means I still have my first read of The Secret of Chimneys to look forward to!

Further outside the realm of my blog, when Andy and I both got covid at the beginning of July, I found myself reading (and loving) LAURENCE STERNE's classic, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1767). Covid brain clearly did unusual things to me. I also discovered American MAX EWING's brilliantly campy Going Somewhere (1934), and was saddened to learn he committed suicide the same year. Finally, one of my few reads this year of a book actually published in 2022, SELBY WYNN SCHWARTZ's After Sappho (2022), about modernist lesbians (and surely, by today's definitions, at least a couple of trans men) and the worlds they created, was gorgeous and inspiring and added considerably to my TBR list.

But enough name-dropping of those who didn't make the Dozen…

12) AUSTIN LEE, Miss Hogg and the Dead Dean (1958)

First up, my slight cheat. Including a male author is breaking my own rules, but I recently read the last two Miss Hogg mysteries that I hadn't read before and enjoyed them so much I couldn't resist. All nine of them are delightful, silly fun, and the first three were reprinted by Greyladies (here's hoping for more?). Not for the humdrum mystery fan, as the puzzles are no great shakes, but I have a feeling some of you would enjoy them for the characters and silliness.

SYBIL BOLITHO (as SYBIL RYALL), A Fiddle for Eighteen Pence (1927)

Two young women on a road trip through France, with sightseeing, periodic car trouble, run-ins with local residents, and occasional personality conflicts—not to mention a young man who just keeps popping up. A fun bit of virtual travel from the early days of cross-country road trips.

10) OONA H. BALL, Barbara Goes to Oxford (1907)

More charming virtual travel, and appropriate inspiration for our own stay in Oxford, this is the addictive fictional diary of a well-to-do Irishwoman's three weeks in the city with a friend, meeting extraordinarily friendly people who show them all the best spots. Largely a cheerful travelogue, there's also just a touch of romance…

9) ISOBEL STRACHEY, Suzanna (1956)

From very early in the year, this Strachey novel about a young woman trying to escape being defined by men is sometimes messy and uncomfortable, but has stayed with me throughout the year. It also reminds me that I must get back to reading more of her fascinating work.

8) KATHLEEN MACKENZIE, The Starke Sisters (1963)

Pure silliness about three sisters in the 1960s forced by their imperious great-grandmother to live according to Edwardian norms. This book and its two sequels were marketed as children's books, but both the humor and the descriptions of clothes seem more calculated to please adult readers.

7) ROSE ALLATINI (as EUNICE BUCKLEY), Family from Vienna (1941)

Any 1941 novel focused on a well-to-do Jewish family, some of British nationality, others refugees from Austria following the Anschluss, forcibly reunited in London, is bound to have some uncomfortable moments in view of the horrors that were to follow, but Allatini manages to produce a delightful family comedy, albeit with dark edges, from these materials. I'm ashamed to say that though I have managed to get hold of Allatini's two succeeding novels dealing with the same characters, I haven't yet got round to reading them.

6) JOYCE DENNYS, Economy Must Be Our Watchword (1932)

I've got a review coming up of this one, so for now I will just give a grateful thanks to Simon Thomas, who was willing to share his copy of this vanishingly rare title so I could read it. Stay tuned for more.

Thank you to my faithful Fairy Godmother
for this wonderful cover image!

ANN STAFFORD & JANE OLIVER, Cook Wanted (1933)

I discovered this sequel to Handheld Press's delightful reprint Business as Usual entirely by accident, but loved it all the more as a result. Following that novel's heroine into the complications of married life, it's just as much fun as its predecessor, and now my Fairy Godmother has provided a scan of the irresistible dustjacket!


It's hard to believe that it was only early in 2022 that I was reading some of Noel Streatfeild's frolicsome Susan Scarlett romances for the first time. This was one of the last I read, and if forced at gunpoint to choose my favorite of the twelve, I think this might just be the one.


One of two products of our England trip on this year's Dozen. I waited for years for someone to reprint this Murder by Death-like parody of Golden Age mysteries, and then decided to fetch it myself at the British Library. The parody versions of Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey are particularly chuckle-inducing, and it's all energetic fun, even if the solution won't light any fires for die-hard puzzlers.

2) DOROTHY LAMBERT, All I Desire (1936)

My favorite Dorothy Lambert so far, not even excluding Much Dithering, which is really saying something. An author of torrid romances retreats to a quiet English village, only to find that her the skeletons in her closet, in the form of not one but two figures from her scandalous past, are waiting there for her. It's pure delight, despite its hideously inappropriate title.

One of many illustrations not used in the books

1) JOYCE DENNYS, The Henrietta Letters (director's cut) (1939-1954)

I'm cheating here a bit too as far as my usual rules go. I generally only allow one book per author in my Dozen, but rules are made to be broken (and I could say that this is technically not "a book"). What could possibly have been more exciting this year than my discovery that the 1980s volumes of Henrietta letters, Henrietta's War and Henrietta Sees It Through, contained less than half of the existing letters Dennys wrote for The Sketch during (and after!) World War II. I'm planning to put together a proper post about this soon, but suffice it to say that most of the material left out of the books is just as funny and charming as what was included!

And that's that for another year! Stay tuned for more new reviews coming along soon—as well as that long-awaited announcement of new FM titles coming, we now think, in April of 2023.

Happy New Year to all of you!

Thursday, December 22, 2022

A miss is as good as—oh, whatever: Two disappointments

The search for treasure among "lost" authors is always a hit or miss process, even when you've coveted the books for a long time. You win some, you lose some, but I feel I should get better about documenting even the misses, in case someone somewhere someday is searching for information about them, so here, on a slightly downbeat note, are a couple of books from our recent library visits that, vanishingly rare as they surely are, were hardly worth unearthing.

On the other hand, ouch! This first one really hurts.

P. Y. (Phyllis Yvonne) BETTS, French Polish (1933)

I struggled with this one for longer than I usually would, trying hard to like it, before giving up 70 or so pages in. This was genuinely my #1 "Most Wanted" book for our library visits, and I felt sure it would be a winner. The first reference to it I came across, quite a few years ago, described it as "a funny and sharply observed novel about a girls’ finishing school", which sounds like it was written specifically for me, and a 2005 article by Christopher Hawtrey in Slightly Foxed (see here, paywall), which I only discovered more recently, described the author's pleasure in reading the book in the British Library. Betts is also somewhat known for her only other published work, a memoir called People Who Say Goodbye (1989), published a remarkable 56 years after her debut.

All of which is to show how biased I was in the book's favor when I started reading, to give you an idea of my sorrow when it turned out that
French Polish and I are simply not a match, and to show clearly, as always, that different readers will have different reactions and I don't pretend that my view is any more legit than anyone else's. 

The novel, published when Betts was only 24 years old, is, as described, set in a Swiss finishing school (the title stemming from the fact that the girls are particularly at work polishing their knowledge of French). It is—seemingly irresistibly—populated by an array of young women who are, in turn, sarcastic, witty, brilliant, horny, battling pudginess, rebellious, and, in at least one case, offering up highly questionable Latin translations, as well as several mistresses with similarly varied personalities. The girls are primarily British, with a couple of virulently racist Americans, and the two described as "the Brazilians" are, it turns out, not from South America but merely, according to their classmates, living incarnations of Angela Brazil characters.

There are some brilliant descriptions, and some genuine chuckles:

Madame spoke with energy, and her cheeks shook a little as she talked. From time to time small drops of water shot out of her mouth, described shining parabolas under the lamplight, and lighted here and there upon the table. Penelope and her plate were beyond the range of this bombardment, which she enjoyed watching.

There's also quite a lot of discussion of race, some just genuine curiosity on the part of sheltered young women, some horrifyingly racist. It's clearly in part intended to be a wry examination of racial attitudes, and although there are some cringe inducing scenes, in all likelihood Betts meant to satirize the racist attitudes rather than propagate them. You have to give her credit for stampeding forward onto ground angels would have feared to tread. The arrival of the school's first African student, Linga Longa, and her interaction with a well-to-do guest is at times funny, though often merely flinch-inducing, and also too witty by half even for those who aren't put off by its racial parody. Publishing-wise, I have to be frank that I wouldn't touch this book with a ten foot pole in the climate of the 2020s, but as a reader that isn't even my main problem with it. 

It's all very, very clever. It seems to have been written by a clever adolescent girl with quite a lot of brilliant observational skill and wit. I think the trouble for me is that adolescent wit, however clever and even (occasionally) giggle inducing, tends to wear after a while. It's all clever. Every single line is clever. Relentlessly clever. Exhaustingly clever. Tediously clever. One wonders if Betts didn't write another book for more than half a century because she was simply worn out. It seems certain that she herself must have found these characters hilarious, and I have no doubt there would be a few appreciative readers for the book if it were more readily available, but alas—and certainly not from lack of trying—I'm not one of them.

A. R. [AGNES RUSSELL] & R. K. [ROSE KIRKPATRICK] WEEKES, Clairefontaine (1941)

I didn't have nearly as much emotional investment in this book as I did in French Polish, but I did hope it would turn out to be a jewel. I've had it on my "consider" list ever since coming across a snippet review calling it an "adventurous romance about girl secretary to rich divorced English bibliophile in Ruritania. Agreeably told with light holiday atmosphere." I was ambivalent about the Ruritania part, but I thought just perhaps—if approached in a sufficiently tongue-in-cheek way by the Weekes sisters—it might be up my alley. 

It started off rather promisingly. Hyacinth Carey (I couldn't read her name without a grimacing Patricia Routledge flashing into my head, but I tried to get past that) has lost her secretarial job due to her boss having poisoned his wife (!!), and is finding it hard to find new work due to her association with him. As the novel begins, she tells her mother about an unsuccessful job interview in which a German employer had tried to kiss her:

"I hope you cuffed him?"

"No-o-o. Just went away."

"Then I hope you went with dignity!"

"No-o-o. Not very. Fell over a broom on the stairs."

"Noodle!" said Mrs. Carey, "you would."

Okay, that's promising, right? Finally, an agency calls her with a job with one Frances Ashley Hope in the fictional (and utterly implausible) country of Neuberg. This turns out to have been a misunderstanding—agency assumed employer was a women, employer assumed it was clear he wanted a male secretary. Hyacinth discovers that Francis (not Frances) has been in the papers for having seduced a woman and refused to marry her, after which she committed suicide (women get quite a raw deal in the background of this novel). Both sides agree to make the best of things, with Hyacinth wearing her frumpiest clothes and geekiest glasses to prevent any attempted seduction—she utters to herself the puzzling line "I look as if I went every day to the B.M.", which lost me—anyone know what this means? [I can't believe that in a post in which I actually mention the British Library, I didn't put it together that this reference was to the British Museum (former home of the British Library)! Thank you to the commenters below who pointed it out and reminded me of the chilly temperatures of the reading rooms.]

The descriptions of Neuberg are ludicrous—"a little state which had remained a century behind the times, where the peasantry still wore the silver chains and velvet jackets of their ancestors, and where the Prince's rule was absolute and no one knew what was going to happen from one day to the next." And nestled right in the middle of a Europe already seething with Hitler and Mussolini? Right. But I was still willing to attempt to suspend disbelief, until the story shifted to a young Brit Hyacinth met at the border and his hopeless love affair and competition with another suitor who … and then I fell asleep. I'm sure it all comes together in the end, but after reading 60 pages, I gave up, bored to tears and ready to get back to Dorothy Lambert. 

I can't help wondering if any of the Weekes' other romantic adventures would work better for me (though the Ruritanian theme seems to recur in many of them, and I may simply be allergic to the pollen of Ruritania), but this one, at least, was another dud. Alas.

So there it is. All that glitters isn't gold, even at the British Library.

Friday, December 16, 2022

"Sheer waste of a fowl?": DOROTHY LAMBERT, Birds on the Wing (1943)

Thanks to Grant Hurlock for a cover image!

"It was so kind of you to ask me,
dear Mrs. Thurston," burbled Mrs. Beckett, "and it solved what was quite a problem, for I heard someone on the bus going into Easthaven the other day saying that Lord Haw-Haw had said that no one in the pretty little village of Swansford need trouble to prepare for Christmas fare this year because the Loofwoff was going to pay it a visit and wipe it out completely. 'Well,' I said to Herbert, 'what am I to do? Am I to take no notice and just carry on, or will it be sheer waste of a fowl? I'd simply hate to order a fowl at the price they are and have us all blitzed before we could eat it.'"

Although I have to admit that Birds on the Wing isn't, in my opinion, as good overall as Staying Put, I can't complain too much about getting a few more glimpses of the delightfully ditzy Mrs. Beckett, as well as other old friends from the earlier novel, which I recently reviewed here.

I'm going to be careful here to avoid any significant spoilers for the earlier book. The focus shifts, in part, from the village of Swansford to the more remote village of Ravensthorpe, where the unhappy, overworked wife and two daughters of the devil-may-care, philandering Admiral Ramsbottom, whom we met in Staying Put, are trying to maintain their sanity while maintaining a farm and caring for several children staying with them while their mothers perform war work. The Admiral's announcement that Maureen Driscoll from Swansford will be parked on them for a time until other arrangements can be made (intentional vagueness) creates unpredictable results for everyone involved, including the Ramsbottoms' son Roland, who is a chip off the old block and takes a predictable interest in shy, innocent Maureen.

Despite that shift in focus, however, we still get quite a lot of the high-spirited, entertaining Felicity Falcon, now excelling in her work in the W.A.A.F.s, her mother Lavinia, her terrible older sister Rowena, still seeking a well-to-do husband, Maureen's brother Michael, now a very handsome hero of the R.A.F., and other friends, enemies, and neighbors from the earlier book, including the irresistibly dim Mrs. Beckett, who is the butt of some teasing from Colonel Ramsbottom on their first meeting:

"Don't you find weddings make one want to tell even the completest stranger little gems of romantic interest?"

"Oh, well—" Mrs. Beckett felt she was blushing violently and did not know how to reply.

"For instance," went on the Admiral solemnly, "the colour of your first husband's pyjamas—or perhaps he wore a night-shirt."

"Oh, no, nothing like that," Mrs. Beckett assured him, purple with embarrassment and striving to change the subject to a less peculiar topic.

"God bless my soul!" exclaimed the Admiral with enormous interest. "What did he wear?"

In some ways, it's perhaps appropriate that this is a less hilarious novel overall than Staying Put—we're later in the war, with the expected increase of stress and fatigue that we've seen in so many other late-war novels—and even understandable that it feels a bit more sloppily constructed (Lambert herself was perhaps feeling the strain) and the characters, though sometimes still very funny, a bit more jaded or downright unhappy. 

As in the first novel, here too there's far too much of Lavinia's ludicrous, bigoted hand wringing about the Driscolls and their influence on her family, to the extent that she very nearly became a negative character for me. But I will say that as I was reading these passages and feeling that Lavinia needed to be dropped head first into a giant snowdrift, I did recall Marghanita Laski's brilliant novel The Village, which focuses so much on class differences in wartime, and reminded myself that Lavinia's attitude would not have been at all unusual. Perhaps, even, in the more class-restricted society of the time, one could try to argue that romance across class lines would have been more difficult, less likely to succeed, and therefore something that a mother might legitimately fret about. This was my attempt to rationalize, at any rate, though I would still prefer not to invite Lavinia to tea (she probably would consider me beneath her anyway).

Similarly, the characters of Rowena and Roland are a bit of a drag on the book's spirits—rather toxic characters even. But there too, thinking about the historical moment in which Lambert was presenting them, I came to feel by the end of the novel that, though I certainly didn't like them, their behavior was rather comprehensible in light of the war and the sense of having to seize the day and enjoy life while one can. And, lightening the mood a bit, Rowena at least gets her comeuppance for bad behavior at the hands of the Admiral's recommendation of her for a job in "a disgustingly dull place in Wales".

So, fair warning that this is not one of Lambert's strongest efforts, but I did nevertheless find myself reading compulsively to the end, and I even rather wish there was a third book continuing with these characters (pretty certain that there isn't, but there are a couple of the later novels I haven't perused yet, so you can bet I'll let you know).

Though I have sworn to make my reviews shorter, I have to end with just one more snippet of Mrs. Beckett:

"[H]ow is your nephew? I mean the one who was so badly injured when his plane crashed?"

"Oh, wonderful—quite wonderful," replied Mrs. Beckett. "The doctors have patched him up in the most wonderful way, and now he's being sent to tour Canada and the United States for propagation purposes."

Mrs. Peverill opened her eyes very wide. "For—?"

Surely Mrs. Beckett deserves a novel of her very own?

Sunday, December 11, 2022

"We've actually been bombed, Mummy! Isn't it marvelous?": DOROTHY LAMBERT, Staying Put (1941)

The Vicar looked anxiously at Lavinia and noted that she was wearing her most determined "deeds, not words" expression. …
"What I mean is, quite briefly, we are on the brink of war, and we are not doing anything about it in this village."

Dorothy Lambert published three novels during the years of World War II and several more in the years immediately following, but this is the first of those that I've actually managed to read. As you all know already if you're as interested in home front fiction as I am, it's always exciting and fun to follow a much-loved author into the war years (remember reading Cheerfulness Breaks In or The Provincial Lady in Wartime or The Two Mrs Abbotts for the first time?), and fascinating to see how they'll translate their sense of humor and perspective on life into writing about the upsets of war. And if Staying Put is by no means a flawless performance, it's nevertheless classic Lambert and perhaps has the funniest scene in all of her body of work (I'll let you know for sure when I've finished reading everything she wrote, which at the rate I'm going won't be too long).

Staying Put is in that classic village-goes-to-war subgenre that I love so much, focused particular on the widowed Lavinia Falcon, who often has schemes for keeping the villagers occupied, though she doesn't always have the follow-through or authority to keep them going, and her 17-year-old daughter Felicity, who is just at the stage of transforming from girlhood into a vivacious and (for her mother) somewhat worrisome flirt ("The Chief gave me a perfectly enormous box of chocolates … and three policemen and two A.F.S men kissed me under the mistletoe.") Lavinia also has an older daughter, Rowena, who is priggish and prickly but mostly off doing war work and trying to snag a wealthy husband, and a son, Richard, 19, who joins the R.A.F. and is out of the picture for most of the novel.

Among the sometimes zany supporting cast are stern Lady Bulstrode, who initially steals Lavinia's thunder in the war work arena; her well-liked but somewhat dominated son Ralph; the appropriately-named Miss Dampier, who occasionally has rather dampening visions of the future and is self-righteous enough to inspire loathing from most of the village; Admiral Ramsbottom, a frisky middle-aged Lothario; Mrs. Driscoll, an England-hating Irishwoman with a mysterious background who runs the village shop, and her children Michael and Maureen, who are only focused on escaping her; and, best of all, the gloriously dithering Mrs. Beckett, who rambles and gets confused and causes problems right up there with the best of her breed.

I felt the book dragged just a bit as the war gets started and everyone gets situated to undertake war work, but even in that initial section the discussions and ideas that get chewed over are interesting to read and seem plausibly to be drawn from Lambert's own experiences. And once things get properly under way, oh my, brace yourself, Edith! I can hardly choose just an example or two to mention from all the amusing scenes.

There's the scene in which Ralph goes missing for several days and is brought home, ragged and filthy, by Admiral Ramsbottom, to find Lady Bulstrode scornfully suspects him of having been on a bender, until the Admiral explains. (I won't give it away.) And there's Felicity's rather priceless reaction to bomb damage:

Felicity plunged in with a torch and looked round. "Heavens! What a mess! How absolutely thrilling! We've actually been bombed, Mummy! Isn't it marvelous? Absolutely!"

But the absolute masterpiece here, for my money, is the scene in which Felicity reports to her mother's sewing party that she has seen a strange man hiding in a tree on the hill. A spy?!?! And the party's most practical idea is to rapidly organize a picnic nearby where they'll be able to keep watch until help can arrive. I can't spoil it here, but it's the most deliriously funny set piece I've read in a good long time—several pages of sustained absurdity that had me giggling uncontrollably.

If Lavinia is not, for me, a completely satisfying heroine—more of a doormat than we are led to expect in the opening scenes, and with a strange but recurrent bias against the two young Driscolls based on class, which is irritating and inexplicable—it would be curmudgeonly to focus too much on those weaknesses when the book also contains such joyous mirth. 

And the best part of all is that, cued up next, I have Lambert's 1943 novel, Birds on the Wing, which is a sequel to Staying Put. Cancel my appointments and hold my calls, I'm going to be frightfully busy for the next couple of days…

Friday, December 2, 2022

"We will now knock our heads together": MARGARET RIVERS LARMINIE & JANE LANGSLOW, Gory Knight (1937)

M. Pommeau lifted a protesting hand. "Say no more, madame, I beg. It is that your hospitality would be ill-paid if Hippolyte Pommeau could sit warming the hands while a young female remains so curiously absent. And since your friend the Professor is so good as to offer his help also, we will now knock our heads together, as your English idiom goes, and see what happens."

Oh, what fun it is to write this post! If you're the type of reader, as I am, who happens across a random mention of a book, adds it to your immense TBR list, and then can't stop thinking about it until you manage to get your grubby hands on it, you will know that for every instance in which this sort of determination pays off, there are a fair number of times when the result is a mere "ho-hum" or even an unfortunate "ugh". So when it turns out to be an "by jove, yes!" instance, there is much to celebrate.

I don't have a record of when I first came across
Gory Knight, though I know I mentioned it in an update post as early as 2016. I found an early reference to it as a parody of the "round robin" mystery stories that were popular at the time (though in retrospect this seems inaccurate, according to my understanding of a "round robin" as one of those books—i.e. The Floating Admiral—in which well-known writers each contribute a chapter to a novel and hope for the best). It sounded mildly intriguing, as I do love a humorous mystery. But it wasn't until I came across an article by the estimable Martin Edwards—who in addition to numerous other achievements is also a consultant on the marvelous British Library Crime Classics series—describing his research into the authorship of Gory Knight with the assistance of acclaimed crime writer Margaret Yorke, herself a relation of one of the book's authors, Margaret Rivers Larminie, that I became truly fixated on it. His article (see here) is largely about their research into the identity of the second author, Jane Langslow, who might well, they conclude, have been novelist Maud Diver, a half-sister of Larminie's. But he does report on his and Yorke's conclusions about the book as highly entertaining, if imperfect, which was enough to fuel my fire.

But of course, since then, the book has had to languish on my Hopeless Wish List. As of this writing, two copies of the book are actually available on Abe Books, the cheapest (??) at the bargain price of just under $500, and it's in exactly one North American library, non-circulating, and as I haven't made it to Tucson recently it might as well have been Timbuktu. It was a lost cause.

Until, of course, our recent excursion to the paradise of the British Library and the Bodleian… Thank heavens I remembered to add it to my list of requests!

And how delightful it is to report that once I started reading it, a stampeding herd of buffalo couldn't have got it away from me. It's ludicrous and over the top, and as a mystery per se it's undoubtedly no great shakes, but what it is is wonderfully entertaining and giggle-inducing.

Margaret Rivers Larminie in 1923

I wouldn't call the book a "round robin", as I mentioned above, though of course it does have two authors. Rather, it's the tale of the unlikely congregation of parody versions of four of the world's most famous detectives (cameo by a fifth near the end) at a classic country house weekend. As such, it's reminiscent of (or, more accurately, anticipates) Neil Simon's gloriously silly, star-studded 1976 film Murder by Death, an old favorite of mine, however silly it may be (and despite some glaring racial insensitivity in the fictional version of Charlie Chan).

It comes about like this: During a discussion on detection, poor Miss Pyke, a classic elderly spinster, carelessly asserts to her gathered nieces and nephews how wonderful it would be to meet and pick the brain of a great detective. Later that evening, she is sworn to secrecy, in turn, by no fewer than three of said family members, each determined to surprise the rest by bringing just such a detective for a weekend visit the following week. After which, Miss Pyke herself, worried that her remaining nephew will be the only guest without a detective to show off, suggests that he invite one too. Of course, as we all do, they already have the world's great detectives in their contacts list, and all are successful in snagging their detective for the following weekend. (Improbable, yes, but to be fair, how could a meeting of these masterminds come about in a probable way, and if they didn't get together what fun we would miss!)

Naturally, the night of the detectives' arrival just happens to be the night when Miss Pyke's cook, the eponymous Miss Knight, disappears from the kitchen just when her services are most crucial, and the ongoing lack of any trace of her begins to seem ominous. The rather pompous French detective Hippolute Pomeau, the elite Lord Robert Mooney and his formidable manservant Bunyan, the strictly fact-based Dr. Vicary, and the comically sluggish Archie Hazard must, obviously, offer their services. (Pomeau and Mooney are instantly recognizable, of course, as thinly-veiled versions of Poirot and Peter Wimsey. Depending on your knowledge of classic mysteries, you may—or may not, as I did not—recognize John Rhode's Dr. Priestly and E. C. Bentley's Reggie Fortune in the other two sleuths. And if you're a Freeman Wills Croft fan, the arrival, just at the end of the novel, of Inspector Quench will be an added pleasure.)

I can't say very much about the plot without risk of spoilers, but I can give a couple of examples of the dialogue, exaggerated but hilarious as it is. Certainly, I found Pomeau and Mooney the most entertaining, perhaps because I'm familiar enough with the characters to get the jokes, but the others have their moments as well. On the detectives working together, the unforgettable Poirot, er, I mean Pommeau:

"It is not that I must deprive my English colleagues of the spectacle of Hippolyte Pommeau in the midst of his element. Indeed, it is conceivable that one of them shall discern some little discrepancy of evidence that I overlook." He glanced about with a smile which betrayed his incredulity of such an occurrence.

And second, a highly giggle-inducing quip from Lord Robert about their efforts to uncover information about the missing cook:

At which point Dr. Vicary modestly implied that if he himself had had the private and uninterrupted handling of the said witnesses, the withheld portion would long ago have come to light.

"Too many cooks, in fact," said Lord Robert lightly. "Net result—by an amazin' paradox—one cook too few."

It's almost unfathomable that this book remains out of print after all the flurry of rediscoveries of worthy Golden Age mysteries in the past few years. It has its flaws, to be sure, and hardcore puzzlers will find the solution here tame at best. But with the massive followings that Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, in particular, have, and the popularity of humorous crime stories, surely lots of readers would enjoy these daft caricatures of favorite characters. I wonder if the lingering uncertainty about the identity of Langslow is the culprit, or if something else is to blame, but if someone doesn't get it in print soon, the British Library (and perhaps Tucson, Arizona) is likely to be overrun with eager readers.

Perhaps we should look into it more closely…

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