Friday, February 23, 2024

"I intend to count for quite a long time yet": MRS. PHILIP CHAMPION DE CRESPIGNY, The Missing Piece (1927)

I am still quite fairly active, and to climb in over a window-sill would have presented no difficulties. I had always been a great walker, and had even done a bit of climbing in Switzerland when I was a girl, and a man proposed to me once because he saw me take a five-barred gate with a jumping-pole. I never could quite understand why he should have regarded that particular feat as a promising basis for married felicity; I remember thinking at the time what a funny thing a man was when he fell in love, and pictured myself as time went on continuing to jump five-barred gates in a desperate effort to revive his waning affections. Anyway, I said no, and later on he married a girl who hung upside down from the roof in a music-hall in black satin tights, and dropped into a tank on the ground floor, so, according to his apparent standards of woman's true worth, he must have been much happier with her than he would have been with me.

This was another recent interlibrary loan that resulted from the research I've been doing to revamp and expand my woefully neglected Mystery List. De Crespigny was added to my author list at least as far back as 2017, but I'm afraid that nothing about her jumped out at me at the time as of particular interest—perhaps particularly because I noted that some of her later works, and her memoir, were increasingly influenced by her interest in Spiritualism. She seems to have been an artist herself, and to have begun her writing career with non-fiction, followed in the 1900s by several historical romances featuring feisty heroines, published several novels for Mills & Boon in the 1910s (including some with supernatural themes), and then turned to mysteries in the 1920s. Tangled Evidence (1924) was praised as "ingenious and thrilling" by none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, and A Case for the C.I.D. (1933) seems to have had an innovative twist in regard to its primary murder. But it was The Missing Piece (1927) which most leapt out at me (quite happily, since none of the others were available in U.S. libraries), which from contemporary reviews I established had humorous elements and featured a chatty spinster as amateur detective. Could anything be more up my alley?

Such discoveries, of course, very often don't pan out, and I've had more than my share of duds lately (part of the reason I haven't been reviewing so much, though I suppose I should do some short duds posts as a sort of "don't bother" to other readers). But the stars were aligned this time, and although The Missing Piece is surely no great shakes for fans of traditional, hardcore puzzlers, it was really great fun for me from a character and humor standpoint.

Celia Gaythorn is the spinster detective in question, a clear-headed if occasionally rambling, avid whodunnit fan, who provides a home for her young, ultra-modern niece Naomi. Naomi is forever organizing more or less ridiculous committees for progressive causes, and she finds her aunt old-fashioned (of course, or what would be the fun?) and has a recurring habit of leaving rooms before Celia has finishes her sometimes circuitous thoughts. Despite her love for mysteries, though, Celia finds it rather more stressful dealing with the real-life murder of a young friend of Naomi's, who has mysterious tropical origins and has been working as an artists' model. Even worse is that (quite unlikable) Inspector Codlington, who's handling the case, has settled on the village baker as prime suspect:

"I only hoped the inspector had not yet put his threat into effect and arrested the poor man—and if he had what on earth should we all do for bread in the morning?"

Along the way, we meet an array of villagers of all classes and types, and have quite a pleasant trip. The humor isn't overdone, but there are certainly some giggle- and grin-inducing moments. Sadly, there is also a single racist reference, though not one directed at any particular character.

But the greatest strength of the novel is Celia herself, who, we eventually learn, is not even going to remain a spinster for long:

…no doubt you have visualized an elderly, stout person wearing first clearers and already placed upon that undesirable shelf that is waiting for people who no longer count.

But I am not like that.

What I am exactly like I shall leave to your imagination, and I intend to count for quite a long time yet, certainly in my own house. It's true I have grey hair and am not what the new generation would call young—but then they call nothing young that is any older than themselves—and youth really is not just a question of years—and I am engaged to be married to the best and dearest man in the world. It may not have much to do with Everal Deeping's murder, but it was an old romance.

How could we resist such a character? (Though perhaps we might be taken aback when we learn, later on, that she's not yet forty, though as she says, "to nineteen forty is Methuselah.")

I'll certainly check out other works by de Crespigny as the opportunity arises.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Detective on holiday: E. H. CLEMENTS, Bright Intervals (1940)

Bright Intervals was Eileen Helen Clements' second novel. Her first, Let Him Die, had appeared the year before, her first mystery and the introduction to her series detective Alister Woodhead, who would subsequently appear in twelve more mystery/thrillers. Clements also later wrote a number of stand-alone crime-themed novels that didn't feature Woodhead. Bright Intervals, however, is a more or less one-of-a-kind (so far as I know) experiment, in that it features Woodhead and the Chattans, the charming, slightly eccentric family with whom he had solved a murder in Let Him Die, marrying into the family in the process, but this time simply on holiday in Devon, with no detecting in sight. Rather like if Christie had written a novel about the domestic turmoil Poirot and Hastings encounter in a ramshackle holiday hotel, or about Miss Marple and her nephew Raymond venturing on a murder-free cruise and helping the ship's chef reunite with his lost love. (Now that I think of it, I really wish she had written those…) Certainly, some mystery novels become as much about other things as about crime—examples like The Nine Tailors or Surfeit of Lampreys could arguably leave out the murders altogether and still be delightful novels—but I can't think of another example where a detective is used without a trace of a mystery element. Can you?

It's an interesting and charming experiment, and certainly makes me want to read other Woodhead titles. I wrote here (almost a decade ago, no less) about Cherry Harvest (1943), and noted that though Woodhead does put in an appearance (his first after Bright Intervals), it's a brief one. Perhaps that was why I seem to have been a bit lukewarm on it. He seems to play a bigger role in Clements' subsequent book, Berry Green (1945). Alister is a charming, odd character—kind and loving, but fiercely anti-social with most people, and with a gruff sense of humor that can take one aback. When the family's legal guardian, whom all adore, falls ill:

"I'm going to see Graham—to cheer him up."


"I'm going to show him my stamp collection.''

"God help him," said Alister wearily. "I give you up. I give you all up. If he's sickening for scarlet fever, may you all catch it and die miserably."

Or, his method of "comforting" one of the youngsters during a storm:

"I say, Alister, that was a good one, wasn't it? Was it a thunderbolt, do you think?"

"I expect so. You go to sleep."

"Have you ever known anyone that was struck by lightning?"

"No. But I know several who ought to be. Shut up and turn over."

But it's a sense of humor I relate to, and children often do seem to be delighted by light-hearted verbal abuse, so I soon got rather attached to Alister.

The plot, of course, is rather beside the point. Family holiday in Devon, oldest son slightly troubled and younger than his age, mixup with tawdry well-to-do folks, tensions around Graham's guardianship and around his surprise engagement to a fiancee who is none too sure about having her beau so deeply enmeshed in a whole family's problems and affections. Mostly played for laughs, and mostly effective laughs at that. Predictable, of course, and not an absolute favorite, but a very charming, entertaining read. I am now requesting Let Him Die from interlibrary loan so I can see how all the characters were introduced, and how they worked together in solving a murder. I would think it won't be long till we see Clements back in print from one of the several excellent publishers now focused on Golden Age mysteries, but whenever that happens, I do hope they include this one in their batch and don't shunt it aside because no one gets murdered.

I was inspired to read this one—and at least one other book I'll mention soon—because I've been hard at work on both a new batch of authors to add to my main list and, perhaps of more interest overall, a thorough revamping and expansion of my long out-of-date Mystery List (of which you can see the woefully inadequate and outdated current version here). I've not only more than doubled the number of authors on the list, thanks both to having added many, many new authors to the main list since 2016 when I last updated the Mystery List, but also thanks to more in-depth research and the book reviews to be found on the British Newspaper Archive. As I look up lots of titles in order to make the info on the new Mystery List as thorough and complete as possible, I've come to a number of books I just couldn't resist getting my hands on. Bright Intervals being one, and a quite enjoyable one at that.

My obsessive research both on new authors and on mystery writers in particular is thus one reason I haven't got round to reviewing as much as I would like. But rest assured, I am diligently working away behind the scenes, and the payoff will be the much bigger Mystery List, coming "soon". You know how fluid that word often is with me, but I really do plan to finish in the next couple of months…

NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at I do want to hear from you!