The Colour of Murder (1957): Julian Symons

★★★

My next book in the British Library Crime Classics series takes an unusual approach to narrative. The first half is a first-person account, presented as a psychologist’s record of sessions held with the speaker, a young man named John Wilkins. About halfway through the book, we find out that there has been a murder – but it would be a spoiler to say, right now, who’s been killed, or who is the suspect. During the second half, we follow the action in court, watching prosecution and defence in action, we try to understand exactly what happened on the beach at Brighton that dark summer night, and whether the accused truly is guilty. As a murder mystery it isn’t entirely satisfying – there’s very little sense of catharsis to be had – but it’s fascinating as a social history. Reading it so soon after The Fortnight in September, I found myself drawing lots of parallels between the modest lives of the Stevens family in the 1930s and that of John Wilkins in the 1950s: a world of humble jobs, social striving, and frustration, which hasn’t changed as much in twenty years as you might expect. However, while the Stevens family ultimately find joy and hope in their lives, Wilkins feels consistently hard-done-by: a man whose search for self-fulfilment leads to a tragic outcome.

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Castle Skull (1931): John Dickson Carr

★★★

Henri Bencolin: Book 2

The British Library Crime Classics series doesn’t just embrace British writers. Castle Skull is positively international: the work of the American crime novelist John Dickson Carr, set in Germany, with the Parisian detective Bencolin as its protagonist. It’s one of Carr’s earlier works, published in 1931, and he seems to have thrown everything at it in an excess of exuberance. A mystery, but also a macabre piece of Grand Guignol, this story takes us deep into the dark gorges of the Rhineland, and to the eponymous Castle Skull, former home of the magician Maleger. This extravagant folly was left jointly in his will to his friends Jerome d’Aunay, the Belgian financier, and Myron Alison, the British actor. But now d’Aunay has come to Paris in search of Bencolin’s brilliant mind, for there has been a horrific death, and the castle has seen blood spilled upon its walls: ‘Alison has been murdered. His blazing body was seen running about the battlements of Castle Skull.’ It’s definitely one of the more ‘what the…?!’ opening gambits in detective fiction. A blazing body; a castle shaped like a skull; a whole treasure trove of dark secrets… Bencolin can’t resist and, along with his friend (and the book’s narrator) Jeff Marle, he heads for the Rhineland to discover the full sinister history of Castle Skull.

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The Murder of My Aunt (1934): Richard Hull

★★★½

Edward Powell is miffed. He’s fed up of the tiny Welsh town of Lwll, on whose outskirts he lives (‘How can any reasonably minded person live in a place whose name no Christian person can pronounce?’) and he’s bored of the tedious local company. Most of all, he’s on the verge of being driven to distraction by his Aunt Mildred, with whom he lives, and who seems to exist for the sole purpose of spoiling his life. Now, if only he could find a suitably artistic way to get rid of her! In this playful instalment in the British Library Crime Classics series, the conventional structure of a murder mystery is turned on its head. As we watch the ghastly Edward bumble his way through a series of clumsy attempts at murder, the question is not ‘whodunnit?’ but ‘will-he-do-it?’ Blessed with one of the most ghastly protagonists I’ve ever encountered, and peppered with throwaway comments so pretentious they’d put Anthony Blanche to shame, Richard Hull’s 1934 novel is also one of the most entertaining Golden Age crime novels I’ve read so far.

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Thirteen Guests (1936): J. Jefferson Farjeon

★★★

John Foss, a young man in a state of distraction, gets his foot caught while leaving the train at the country station of Flensham. Badly injured, he providentially finds himself sharing a platform with the beautiful Mrs Leveridge, who is on her way to a house party at the nearby Bragley Court. She takes John along with her, so that he can receive the attention of a doctor and rest in comfort, correctly judging that their host Lord Aveling won’t mind stretching his hospitality to another guest. But, as John is warmly greeted and installed on a couch, he realises that his presence means there will be thirteen guests at this weekend’s party. And, as the other guests trickle in, John finds himself watching to see who will be the thirteenth to pass through the doorway. He swiftly sees that all is not well at Bragley. Secrets and dislike ripple beneath the polite surface and there are strange alliances and tensions between unexpected groups of guests. And he is right to be uneasy, for by the end of the weekend three people will be dead…

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Bats in the Belfry (1937): E.C.R. Lorac

★★★½

On a cold March evening, a group of friends amuse themselves with a morbid intellectual game. They compete to come up with the best way to dispose of an unwanted corpse. This all seems like a cheerfully shocking, daring kind of game in a chic drawing room near Regent’s Park, but within a few days it all starts to feel horribly prophetic. First, one of the party goes missing. Then a gruesome discovery raises the likelihood of murder, and the remaining members of the group find themselves under the unwelcome scrutiny of Inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard. Under the bright beam of his eye, fissures and rivalries emerge, and he swiftly realises that there’s more to this particular case than meets the eye. A classic old-school murder mystery, first published in 1937, this is jolly engaging stuff with a powerful sense of place. London, from Regent’s Park to Notting Hill and the Strand, is just as central a character as any of our suspects. But now to the key question. Is Bruce Attleton really dead? And, if so, who killed him? And why?

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Weekend at Thrackley (1934): Alan Melville

★★★½

This jolly novel is part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series, devoted to resurrecting overlooked treasures from the golden age of British mystery writing. While not an avid fan of crime novels, I have read one book from the series before – Death on the Cherwell – so it’s really the subject that appeals rather than the genre. In Weekend at Thrackley, first published in 1934, a rather feckless young man is surprised by an invitation to a country house weekend in Surrey. But further surprises are to come. Stuffed with dastardly villains, jewel thieves, mysterious pasts and a good dose of pluck, not to mention lashings of humour, this is just the ticket for cosy escapism.

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Death on the Cherwell (1935): Mavis Doriel Hay

★★★

Sally Watson, Daphne Loveridge, Gwyneth Pane and Nina Harson meet on the roof of their Oxford college boathouse to swear foundation oaths for a new society, the Lode League. Their purpose is to stand against the pernicious influence of Persephone College’s hated Bursar and to do everything in their power to repay her for some of the misery she inflicts on the poor students. But, as they share out wire rings to mark themselves as members of this noble enterprise, something happens that they could never have expected. Down the river in the twilight comes a canoe, nosing its way along the bank; and in the canoe lies the figure of the Bursar herself; and the Bursar, when the girls manage to hook in the canoe with a punting pole and paddles, is definitely and unequivocally dead.

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