1936 was a great year for books. Here are three mysteries I read for the Club:
Death of Anton by Alan Melville
Joseph Carey’s Circus thrills the town. There is Anton cloistered in a cage with seven tigers; the clown Dodo who makes the audience scream with laughter; the daredevil trapeze act by couple, Loretta and Lorimer; Lars Peterson and his sea- lion…Everything is light, laughter, and life. But behind the screen lie mysterious night visits, whistling signals, marital discord and tension, rapacity and greed. And very soon there is murder. Scotland Yard detective Minto in town for attending the wedding of his sister is charmed by the acts and the performers and then discovers the darkness.
This is a very entertaining novel with some very funny descriptions of characters and scenes. I loved Minto’s head-strong sister, Claire and a very affectionate sea-lion by the name of Horace who has a wonderful scene with Minto’s elder brother the RC priest, Father Robert.
At the same time however, the writer, dexterously shows how it can all change in one split-second: a bad-tempered tiger; a step missed; a hand not reaching in time and amusement can turn into tragedy:
“You were late that time,” said Loretta. “I nearly didn’t get hold of you.”
“I know,” said Lorimer. “You see how easy it is, don’t you?
The only thing I didn’t like was how Minto drags a person (without so much as by-your-leave) into a fool-hardy act in order to trap the culprits and when the person is grievously injured because of that, doesn’t spend any thought on that person let alone feel guilty about it. This easy dismissal put me a little off the character and the novel which is otherwise a very fine read.
First Line: The Circus came to town.
First Published: 1936
Murder in Piccadilly by Charles Kingston
Mama’s boy, Bobbie Cheldon, hasn’t done an honest day’s work in his life. Why should he? Once his uncle, the bachelor, Massy Cheldon, passes away, he will become lord of the manor with a fortune to boot. Till then, of course, Bobbie and his mother Ruby, have to live in genteel poverty. However, Bobbie is now getting impatient. He has fallen in love with a night-club dancer by the name of Nancy and he knows that Nancy won’t marry him unless he offers her financial security. The thing is to please his uncle so that he not only accepts Nancy but also bestows some allowance on Bobbie. But the mean-minded Massy is a hard-nut to crack.
As Bobbie’s deperation grows and Nancy talks of leaving for a continental-tour with her partner Billy Bright, hope comes in the form of Nosey Ruslin, a producer of shows who gradually tells Bobbie how he can have the fortune and Nancy at one go. After all, there is just one man who stands between him and happiness, isn’t it? And no, Bobbie doesn’t have to get his hands dirty. Somebody else will do it but Bobbie will have to show some gratitude. So…
Through the Mephistophelian character of Nosey Ruslin as he plays with the emotions and greed of two young men, Kingston weaves an entertaining tale of avarice and cupidity. A brilliant touch is added with the victim-to-be also becoming aware of his precarious position and the terror that ensues. The problem that I had with the text was that all the characters were unlikeable. The only one to whom I warmed up a little was actually yellow-livered but I liked how he wouldn’t discard a partner who was more or less a dead-weight. That loyalty did interest me a little. Also while I liked the twist in the end and the justice that was served there-of, one character didn’t get his/ her comeuppance and left me feeling dissatisfied.
And if you have read the book, one question: Who was the woman who screamed?
First Line: “My dear Ruby,” said Massy Cheldon with a vinous good humour derived from a delectable lunch for which he had not paid, “falling in love is like falling downstairs—you don’t mean to do either.”
First Published: 1936
The Strange Case of Harriet Hall by Moray Dalton
Down to her last meagre savings, Amy Steer is desperately searching for a job when she chances upon an ad in a newspaper: Any relative of one Julius Horace is asked to contact an address immediately ‘for his/her own benefit’. Julius Horace was Amy’s father who had died when she was still a baby. Amy responds to the ad and soon meets a woman called Harriet Hall who claims to be her father’s sister. The woman, reeking of French perfume and Turkish cigarettes, asks Amy to leave her lodgings in London and come to the country side to stay with her. She also gives Amy money to buy herself a new wardrobe. The next week, Amy travels towards the countryside. On train, she strikes up an aquaintance with an amiable young man called Anthony Dene. They get on well together but the moment Amy mentions that she is the niece of Harriet Hall, the young man does a vanishing act. Hurt and bewildered, Amy reaches her destination only to find that though her aunt had assured her that she’d be picked up at the station, there’s nobody to meet her. Amy treks all the way to her aunt’s house which she finds empty though a room seems to have been prepared for her.
The next day, with no sign of her aunt, Amy decides to go to the village to make enquiries. She runs into Anthony once again. He explains to her that the Dene family lives close by. When she tells of her aunt being missing to Anthony, he walks back with her to her aunt’s home. Suddenly Binkie, his dog, starts barking frantically and races to the back-yard. There in a well, Amy and Anthony make a gruesome discovery. The discovery would play havoc all around notably with the Dene family with suspicion falling on Anthony’s mother who was friends to Harriet and in the cushioned comfortable life of Lavvy, Anthony’s elder sister who had just got engaged to Miles Lennor, the local noble of the village.
Any body wishing to write a treatise on the class system among the English would be well-advised to read this book by Dalton. The Lennors look down upon the Denes as Pretenders and not up to their standard. Mother Lennor is tight-lipped about her darling son Miles marrying into the Dene family and almost has an apoplexy when she hears of the scandal that might besmirch her family’s name with her association with the Denes. On their part, the young Denes look down upon Harriet whom they consider coarse and vulgar and cannot understand their mother’s friendship with her. Her overtures of friendship are rebuffed by them. By extension the same is applied to Amy. Anthony runs away the moment he hears that she is related to Harriet and his mother and sisters do not want to associate with her. At the bottom of the social chain, the servants even while serving the Denes consider them nouveau-riche and not really gentry.
A startling revelation is made in the middle of the book and the mystery takes on the element of a thriller in the last part but it was the characters and their equations that really held my interest. From a mother who plays favourites and demands compensation for her sacrifices; to a daughter who is perhaps the most selfish character I have ever come across in a book; to a man who is enchanted by beauty but cannot stand up to his mother [and leaves for India where I am sure he brutally lords over the Indians to restore his lost manhood and self-esteem]; to a daughter who knows she stands nowhere in the scheme of things; to a son who perhaps knows more about his mother than he is telling….they all presented a fascinating picture.
I liked the ending too with justice served in an unusual way though I am perplexed by editor Curt Evans’ Afterword with its reference to the person who committed the first murder. In my opinion, it was somebody else who did it. What do you think?
First Line: Stale, these phrases employers used, employers and their agents: stale as a worn gramophone record whirring under a blunted needle.
Other Opinions: Beneath the stains of Time; The Book Decoder; Classic Mysteries; Clothes in Books; Crossexamining Crime; Dead Yesterday; Do you write under your own name?; The Grandest Game in the World; Heavenali
It was the first time I was reading these authors and as I enjoyed all the books, I will be reading more of them. Have you read these books/ authors?