Halloween Bingo: Amateur Sleuth

I’ve completed my discussion of the first row, and have realized that I am going to run out of time before Bingo begins. No worries, though. I’ll just keep going until I lose interest!

This is a really easy square for me to fill – it’s mystery, first of all, which is my favorite, and most read, genre, and then it’s also a sub-genre that I read a lot of, in any case. I’m not actually a huge cozy mystery fan, which works well for “Amateur Sleuth,” but a lot of my favorite Golden Age series, and even some of my modern series, do have P.I. or other amateur protagonists.

Which brings me to the definition – I take a “broad” approach to amateur, allowing any sleuth who isn’t actively employed by a police department or other government sanctioned agency (FBI, sheriffs, prosecutors, etc). So, with my definition, P.I.’s and retired police officers fit, and even Sherlock Holmes is an “amateur sleuth,” notwithstanding the fact that he would be deeply, deeply offended by the characterization!

I’m not going to list all of the books I’ve read in past bingo games that would have fit this square because the list would be long, indeed. Looking back over past cards, I’m surprised to note that I have never actually played this specific square before. In any case, I’m just going to mention a few books/series that are on my radar for this HB season!

I will definitely be reading both of these books, as they are my Appointment With Agatha reads for September and October. They are also both Poirot books, and much to his irritation, he is also an “amateur sleuth” under this square’s definition.

If I decide to apply both of those books to alternative squares, however, I have some other ongoing vintage mystery series that I could dip into for this one: Brian Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst series, currently being republished by one of my favorite small, independent publishers, Dean Street Press, Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley series, most of which are available through the Kindle Unlimited Library, the Miss Silver series by Patricia Wentworth, which I mostly own for kindle, or Ellis Peter’s delightful Brother Cadfael books, which I have also collected over the years.

The choices are, truly endless.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Plot Summary: This swashbuckling epic of chivalry, honor, and derring-do, set in France during the 1620s, is richly populated with romantic heroes, unattainable heroines, kings, queens, cavaliers, and criminals in a whirl of adventure, espionage, conspiracy, murder, vengeance, love, scandal, and suspense. Dumas transforms minor historical figures into larger- than-life characters: the Comte d’Artagnan, an impetuous young man in pursuit of glory; the beguilingly evil seductress “Milady”; the powerful and devious Cardinal Richelieu; the weak King Louis XIII and his unhappy queen—and, of course, the three musketeers themselves, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, whose motto “all for one, one for all” has come to epitomize devoted friendship. With a plot that delivers stolen diamonds, masked balls, purloined letters, and, of course, great bouts of swordplay, The Three Musketeers is eternally entertaining. 

Published in 1844, this book has achieved that sort of cultural status in which pretty much everyone has at least heard of it, and most people have a familiarity with the plot and/or characters. Because of that, I’m not going to concern myself about spoilers. If you care about spoiling the plot of a book that was published 160 years ago, perhaps do not read on.

I had high expectations of this book – I love a good swashbuckling story and I expected to be charmed by our protagonists. 

There were parts of the book that I enjoyed. Overall, though, I think that the book suffered from two things: the overwhelming dickishness of the main characters and the fact that I am not a nine-year-old boy. 

I spent much of the book bemused about the fact that the characters (basically all men) kept pulling out their swords (that is NOT a double entendre – I mean pulling out their actual long, metal, pointy weapons) to hack at one another for the most trivial of insults. If duelling was as prevalent as this book made it seem during 17th century France, I cannot imagine how any of the local aristocrats were able to maintain a standing army. The soldiers kept murdering one another for the most ridiculous slights.

In addition, I was thoroughly annoyed by the bad behavior of the “Three Musketeers.” There was far too little swashbuckling and heroism and far too much stealing, gambling (things belonging to other people) and refusing to pay one’s bills. No wonder the French went about chopping off the heads of the aristocrats during the French revolution. Those people were such massive assholes – Porthos, for example, checks into a hotel and refuses to either pay or leave. 

I can certainly understand why the book appeals to people. I am, however, not one of those people. I wanted to slap the protagonists into the 21st century, where they would inevitably get #MeToo’d into oblivion. 

I know, I know, we can’t judge characters in a book written in 1844 by current cultural standards. Nonetheless, I certainly don’t have to like them. In terms of enjoyment, I’d rank this at middling enjoyable. Not bad, but not nearly as good as I had expected.

I was planning to put this in the 19th century classic category in my Back to the Classics challenge, but I have decided to move it to Classics in Translation, as that is typically a more difficult category for me to fill, and I play to read something by Mrs. Oliphant later this year.

First World Problems: Heyer style

And, this is the second review that has been sitting draft forever – it was originally published January 24, 2015.

Title: Death in the Stocks
Author: Georgette Heyer
Published in 1935

Summary from Goodreads: A Moonlit Night, a Sleeping Village, and an Unaccountable Murder…

In the dead of the night, a man in an evening dress is found murdered, locked in the stocks on the village green. Unfortunately for Superintendent Hannasyde, the deceased is Andrew Vereker, a man hated by nearly everyone, especially his odd and unhelpful family members. The Verekers are as eccentric as they are corrupt, and it will take all Hannasyde’s skill at detection to determine who’s telling the truth, and who is pointing him in the wrong direction. The question is: who in this family is clever enough to get away with murder?

“Miss Heyer’s characters act and speak with an ease and conviction that is refreshing as it is rare in the ordinary mystery novel.”–Times Literary Supplement

Heyer is better known for her romances than her mysteries, and for good reason, honestly. This was a reasonably entertaining mystery, but was really nothing special. It is very much a class-based mystery, as are many of the golden age mysteries.

The book begins with the grisly discovery of a body in the stocks in the village of Ashleigh Green – Arnold Vereker has been stabbed. Arnold is the wealthy eldest brother of the Vereker family, and the prime suspects are his two siblings: the smashing Antonia, who is engaged to Rudolph, and employee of Arnold’s and not a particularly suitable partner for Antonia, and Kenneth, the artistic freeloader who is engaged to the beautiful and expensive Violet. It’s obvious that Arnold has been murdered for his money. The question is which of the suspects, all of whom loathed Arnold, is the guilty party.

I get the sense that Heyer was a bit of a snob, mostly from reading biographical stuff about her, but also from her books. This mystery – along with the one other mystery I’ve read of hers – relies heavily on the “Bright Young Thing” trope that is common in golden age mysteries. The BYT is a young, generally extremely attractive, female character who is a bit bohemian, who always ends up marrying someone whom she will enliven, at the same time that he will steady her. She is sort of a precursor to the MPDG (manic pixie dream girl) character trope that we’ve seen more recently.

The BYT is always desirable, and is the “heroine” of the piece. She is usually attached to someone who is not good for her – as Tony was at the beginning of this story. Giles is the perfect foil for the BYT – he is steady, but not staid, and head-over-heels for the girl. He is a Mr. Knightley, as opposed to a Mr. Wickham or a Mr. Willoughby. Not interesting enough to carry the book on his own, he’s the classic nice guy who deserves to win the hand of the cool girl. As soon as Giles ends up in the same room with her, we KNOW that he is the guy for Tony.

Violet, on the other hand, is NOT a BYT. First of all, she’s not that bright. And she’s a gold-digger – she is not sufficiently light-hearted or bohemian. It isn’t Violet’s lower class roots, but her actual lack of class, that excludes her. Being a BYT wasn’t actually dependent on having money – it was all about attitude. One could sponge off others, but not be a gold-digger, as long as one was convincingly able to maintain the fiction that money was unimportant. I know this makes no sense, but this is the sense I make of the trope after reading tons of these books.

Ultimately, the relationship with money in books of this time period can be really conflicted (as it was for Heyer herself!). Having money is perceived as admirable, but making money is grubby and greedy. So, Tony & Kenneth could live off of Arnold’s labor, and still feel his superior because, you know, they didn’t care about money. Even though the money that allows them to eat comes directly from him. It’s schizophrenic at best, hypocritical at worst.

Unfortunately, this trope has not worn well in the modern era of rising inequality. I found Kenneth deplorable, and Tony annoying. I wanted them both to get off their underwhelming, overindulged asses and do something – anything – useful. Arnold was awful, but he was no more awful than the people around him. He might have even been less awful. At least he was capable of feeding himself.

Tying this back to Heyer, she was involved in a tremendous conflict with Inland Revenue during her lifetime. She wrote because it paid the bills, but was constantly fighting about taxes, and at one point set up a LLC to try to lessen her tax burden, then basically got caught treating the LLC like it was her bank account, and the tax authorities got pissed and told she owed a bunch of money. Which I believe she ultimately paid, but she was not happy about it. She, herself, was more like Arthur (probably) than like either Violet or Antonia/Kenneth, but I think that she clearly sympathized with “the gentry” and the “leisured class.”

Over all, this is a reasonably enjoyable golden age mystery, although I never find Heyer’s mysteries as well-plotted as Christie’s or as enjoyable and quirky as Sayers. She’s definitely a second tier mystery novelist. And all of the characters could have used a swift kick in the ass.

The Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt

This is a very old review that was originally published on a different blog all the way back on October 26, 2014. It’s been sitting my draft reviews since I shut that blog down and copied it over. I decided that it was time to empty the draft folder of all of the really old stuff. There are only a couple that I decided to keep and publish here. This is one of them.

Title: The Mistress of Mellyn
Author: Victoria Holt
Published in 1960

Summary from Goodreads: Mount Mellyn stood as proud and magnificent as she had envisioned…But what bout its master–Connan TreMellyn? Was Martha Leigh’s new employer as romantic as his name sounded? As she approached the sprawling mansion towering above the cliffs of Cornwall, an odd chill of apprehension overcame her.

TreMellyn’s young daugher, Alvean, proved as spoiled and difficult as the three governesses before Martha had discovered. But it was the girl’s father whose cool, arrogant demeanor unleashed unfimiliar sensations and turmoil–even as whispers of past tragedy and present danger begin to insinuate themselves into Martha’s life.

Powerless against her growing desire for the enigmatic Connan, she is drawn deeper into family secrets–as passion overpowers reason, sending her head and heart spinning. But though evil lurks in the shadows, so does love–and the freedom to find a golden promise forever…

There is basically a straight line from Jane Eyre to Rebecca by du Maurier, to Victoria Holt.

When I was just a girl, it was the 1970’s, a time of great change. The first wave of feminism – concerned with legal/structural barriers to inequality like suffrage and property rights – had largely ended, at least in the Western world, and the second-wave had begun. The second wave of feminism broadened the debate to other barriers to gender equality: sexuality, family, reproductive rights, education and the workplace.

I bring this up for a reason. And that reason is that Victoria Holt’s gothic romances were huge in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the tropes which are present in those books are oddly anti-feminist. The Mistress of Mellyn, her first gothic romance, was published in 1960. In addition to the Mistress of Mellyn, I’ve also recently read The Bride of Pendorric (1963), The Shivering Sands (1969), and The Pride of the Peacock (1976). She published a total of 32 of these stand-alone gothics, with 18 of them being published in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Do I think that Eleanor Hibbert, who wrote under the name Victoria Holt, was anti-feminist? No, absolutely not. She was an incredibly prolific writer who wrote under 8 separate pen names, including her most well-known: Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr.

But with her Victoria Holt gothics, she tapped into something. She was not the only writer of gothic romance publishing during this time period. Other well-known writers include Phyllis Whitney, Dorothy Eden, Barbara Michaels, and Mary Stewart.

A few observations about gothic romance.

1. The covers were remarkably similar, typically featuring a castle or a manor of some sort, with a young woman running from it. Some examples:

2. The setting is of critical importance: it is typically a place that is both exotic but remains well-trod ground. Cornwall – the Cornwall of du Maurier and Rebecca – is a common setting, as are Yorkshire moors, which is familiar to readers through Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. The settings have a darkness to them. The setting is historical, and the story typically conforms to well-established gender norms of the historical time period.

3. The main character is always a young woman of small means and dependence, similar to the unnamed narrator in Rebecca. She is often a governess, or a companion to a much wealthier woman. Typically youthful, her most significant characteristic is her powerlessness. She is generally not particularly beautiful – beauty being a characteristic that affords a woman with power – nor wealthy. She can be a widow or a virgin, but she is never sexually autonomous, and she never has children.

4. The male lead is a man of stature. Sometimes he is a widower, the father of a child that she has been hired to educate. He is always a man of property and is always above her station. He is aspirational, but she does not aspire to him, always acknowledging to herself that, while she has fallen in love with him, she cannot have him.

5. And it is the property that is, generally, the key to the story, as evidenced by the covers and the titles. These books are an offshoot of the literature of the English Country House. As Jane Eyre was focused around Thornfield Hall and Rebecca had Manderley, a great manor house is the foundation upon which these books are built.

6. Finally, these books often have a female villain, which is the entire point of this discussion.

The suspense in these books is built around the young woman coming to the manor house and falling in love with the eligible lord of the manor. Often there is a mystery associated with the man, or the house. A former wife who has disappeared, or a suggestion of murder, that places the heroine in physical danger. We are always meant to believe that it is the man who is the source of the danger.

However, that is typically not the case. There is confusion about the source of the danger, and the reason for that confusion is: the villain is a woman who is committing the villainy because of some ambitions either toward the master, or, more commonly, the house itself.

This is why I titled this post the corrosive effect of female ambition. Because in these books – at least the ones I have read recently – female ambition isn’t merely unwomanly, it is positively corruptive. It causes the woman who experiences it to devolve into a deranged murderess.

The Mistress of Mellyn is a case in point (and here, spoilers will abound). Our heroine is a Martha Leigh, a young woman who comes to Mount Mellyn as governess to Alvean TreMellyn, putative daughter of Connan TreMellyn (although we find out early on in the story that Alvean is actually the daughter of Alice’s lover, the neighbor). Connan himself is a widower, his deceased wife Alice having died in a railroad accident on the very night that she left him for his neighbor, her body so badly burned that it could only be identified by the locket she wore.

Drama ensues, and the reader begins to believe that there is something bizarre going on with the manor house. There are ghostly sightings, and a mute sprite of a child who seems to be terribly frightened for reasons which are unclear. The home itself is full of nooks and crannies and secret chambers, along with peeps that are cleverly hidden in murals so that the individuals in one room won’t know that they are being watched from another room.

As in many of these books, it turns out that the villainess is a woman: the sister of the neighboring man whom Alice was thought to have run away with and who died in the railroad accident. When Martha marries Connan, she becomes the target of the murderer, and is lured into a secret chamber, where she will be left to die, as was Alice so many years prior. The murderess is foiled by the child that Martha has befriended.

But, here is the thing. Celestine Nansellick isn’t actually interested in Connan TreMellyn. This isn’t a story of female rejection which ends with the rejected removing the victorious competition from the picture. This is all about the house – Celestine Nansellick covets Mount Mellyn, not Connan TreMellyn, and Martha gets in the way of those ambitions by marrying Connan and potentially producing legitimate heirs which will disinherit Alvean who is not Connan’s child. She wants the house, not the guy.

This is the same motive behind the murder attempt in Pride of the Peacock (deranged female housekeeper who wanted the aspirational hero to marry her daughter) and The Shivering Sands (deranged daughter of the housekeeper who believed herself to be the illegitimate child of the heir of the estate). In each of these books, the villain is a mirror image of the heroine, with one distortion – unlike the heroine, who is not ambitious and who accepts her place, the villain is prepared to dogfight her way out of subservience. She cannot marry her way out – unlike the heroine – but she can manipulate and maneuver and even murder her way out. And it is her very refusal to accept her place that marks her as unworthy of elevation.

This is completely retrograde, right? This book is published at the exact same time that women are becoming increasingly independent, able to control their own fertility, plan their families, get the same education as men, qualify for the same jobs, and yet we have a wildly popular type of book in which the heroines accept their lack of equality, and the villains reject it. And the women who reject this lack of independence and autonomy become criminals – murderesses.

Appointment with Agatha

October of 2020 was the 100 year anniversary of the publication of Agatha Christie’s first whodunit, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which featured her beloved Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who appeared in 33 full length mysteries, and several short story collections.

I had been planning to reread Agatha Christie’s full-length mysteries in publication order for a few years, after successfully concluding my first-time-through Agatha Christie read in February, 2019 with Why Didn’t They Ask Evans. This was mostly documented on my now defunct Booklikes blog. I had planned to immediately start over at the beginning, but got bogged down.

So, when the 100th anniversary rolled around, it seemed a propitious time to begin. I started looking for a Goodreads group to join, but soon realized, disappointingly, that all of the existing groups were well into their read-throughs.  No matter, I decided to start a new Goodreads group for my readthrough, to be scheduled at one per month beginning in October. We spent a couple of months reading short story collections, gathering members, until the full re-read began with The Mysterious Affair at Styles. We have now read the first eleven Christies (one per month), along with 11 vintage mystery side-reads. I haven’t written blog posts about any of them yet.

I did previously review The Mysterious Affair at Styles way back in August, 2012,  when my first Christie read accidentally began (you can find that post on my old Classics Club blog here). My daughter had become a fan of Christie after reading And Then There Were None for a high school English class, and her love of Christie reminded me how much I had also enjoyed reading Christie over the years. I started collecting the Black Dog and Levanthal editions when I would visit my local Barnes & Noble, which was the start of my obsession with all things Christie.

I plan to catch up on all of the Christies that I have previously read, and then will try to stay current as the group reads move forward. The book for this month was The Sittaford Mystery, which is a stand-alone, and is a favorite of mine. So far, we have finished:

  • The Mysterious Affair at Styles
  • The Secret Adversary
  • Murder on the Links
  • The Man in the Brown Suit
  • The Secret of Chimneys
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  • The Big Four
  • The Mystery of the Blue Train
  • The Seven Dials Mystery
  • The Murder at the Vicarage
  • The Sittaford Mystery

Our September read is Peril at End House, which is also a personal favorite (I suspect that this will be a very overused phrase throughout these posts), and is vastly underrated, in my opinion. In addition, we are through the period in which Christie is alternating relatively weak mysteries with very weak thrillers (with the exception of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Murder at the Vicarage) and beginning the period where she is publishing some of her Best Work.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a remarkable debut mystery. It combines a lot of the elements that Christie will use again and again in her mysteries – the closed circle, the country house, her knowledge of poisons, the double bluff, the faked alibi. It ends up, in my opinion, being a middling Christie, and if it had happened in the middle of her career, it would be rather meh, I think. But because it’s the first, it’s noteworthy for that reason alone. The interactions between Poirot and Hastings are priceless.

My goal is not necessarily to write up traditional reviews for each Christie mystery, but rather to focus on the ways in which a specific book resonates with me this time around, since I have read all of Christie’s mysteries at least once, and in many cases, four or five times. I almost always remember the solutions, but can still admire her elegance, cleverness and wit all the better for knowing what’s coming. In addition, I have created a page to rank the Christies as I go along, from best to worst (in my estimation only), which can be found here.

Return to Pym-land: Less Than Angels

Title: Less Than Angels
Author: Barbara Pym
Published in 1955

Plot summary from Goodreads: This classic novel holds the mirror up to human nature and the battle between the sexes as it explores the love lives of a group of anthropologists

Catherine Oliphant writes for women’s magazines and lives comfortably with anthropologist Tom Mallow—although she’s starting to wonder if they’ll ever get married. Then Tom drops his bombshell: He’s leaving her for nineteen-year-old student Deirdre Swan. Though stunned by Tom’s betrayal, Catherine quickly becomes fascinated by another anthropologist, Alaric Lydgate, a reclusive eccentric recently returned from Africa. As Catherine starts to weigh her options she gradually realizes who she is and what she really wants.

With its lively cast of characters, Less Than Angels is an incisive social satire that opens a window onto the insular world of academia. It’s also a poignant and playful riff on the messy mating habits of humans and the traits that separate us from our anthropological forebears—far fewer than we may imagine.

It’s been a few months since I read this – I never got around to writing the post about it and now I’ve forgotten most of what I had to say! This is the third Pym that I’ve read – my first was Excellent Women, which I loved, and then second was A Quartet in Autumn, which was much darker in tone. I would put Less Than Angels in the middle, between them. I read it as a buddy read with some friends on Goodreads, and it generated some lively discussion.

The thing that I like about Pym, that this book does really well, is her somewhat rueful examination of a very specific type of British woman. Less Than Angels focuses on Catherine Oliphant, a young woman who is a writer, and who is in a relationship with an anthropologist named Tom, who has been away in the field. He is very scholarly and dismissive and of her accomplishments, and she accepts this attitude as well-warranted. She is waiting for him to propose. Instead of proposing, he takes up with a nineteen year old named Deirdre.

I’d like to say that Tom’s ridiculousness and Catherine’s acceptance of it are things of the past, but I was young in the 1980’s and many of these same attitudes of male entitlement prevailed at that time, as well. I can’t speak to what’s happening today, because I’ve been married to a wonderfully supportive man for two and a half decades, and I’ve raised a son who I believe I have imbued with a sense that his maleness doesn’t entitle him to anything. But, I digress a bit.

Pym’s books are wonderfully character driven, and she holds a microscope up to their behaviors.

It is surely appropriate that anthropologists, who spend their time studying life and behavior in various societies, should be studied in their turn,” says Barbara Pym.

There is a gentle sort of mockery in Pym’s attitudes towards her characters. I get the sense that she both likes them, but also that she sees their foibles and occasionally inexplicable behaviors. It reminds me of the attitude that many families have towards their own parents/siblings – proprietary, but still clear-eyed about their failings.

I have a few more Pyms in my possession – Jane and Prudence and Some Tame Gazelle, that I plan to read next year.

There Came Both Mist And Snow by Michael Innes

Title: There Came Both Mist And Snow
Author: Michael Innes
Published in 1940

Goodreads Summary: It’s coming on Christmas, and Arthur Ferryman is headed to his ancestral home, Belrive Priory. Looking forward to a peaceful holiday, Arthur’s serenity is quickly interrupted by a horde of his cousins brandishing revolvers. Shooting, it seems, is their hobby du jour.

This ancient estate has remained unchanged for centuries. As the area is invaded by neon signs, textile factories, and smells from the brewery, Belrive Priory has timelessly stood its ground. But when the family learns that their cousin Basil intends to sell the estate, fault lines begin to appear.

Furtive glances, cryptic rumours, and clandestine meetings abound. A secret family quarrel and anticipation of the mysterious Mr X’s arrival keep everyone on their toes, and it seems none of the trigger-happy relations can be trusted when one of the party is found shot.

With Arthur harbouring secrets and a few grudges of his own, will Inspector Appleby be able to crack this case before any further ‘accidents’ transpire or will the shooter finally hit his mark?

Every year after Thanksgiving, I engage in a little festive cheer by reading a golden age Christmas mystery or two. Sometimes they are rereads – for example, I nearly always reread Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and I often reread Envious Casca (republished as A Christmas Party) by Georgette Heyer. Both of them will be getting rereads this year.

However, in this glorious time of ebooks, when small publishers everywhere deliver previously out-of-print mysteries to readers, I can always find a few that are new to me. I’ve been meaning to read this one for a few years now – it’s technically book 6 in the Sir John Appleby series. I feel no need to read golden age mystery series in order, however, so this was the first that I have read.

And, hoooboy, was this one a disappointment. To start with, there is precious little Christmas happening here. Yes, the book ostensibly takes place in the context of a Christmas house party, but it could honestly have been set any time. It just wasn’t Christmassy.

Then we move onto the characters, who were pretty universally unlikeable, the narrator most of all. A major mystery – to me at least – was why hadn’t anyone murdered him?

And then, the solution. It felt like the author painted himself into a corner, had to get himself out of it, so he came up with the most cockamamie, silly, and frankly incredible explanation he could come up with to explain what happened. Erm. Nope.

So, bottom line, this one was a total bust for me. Not sure if I will give Innes another chance to impress, or just cut my losses and move on to – hopefully – better books.

Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

Title: Crossed Skis
Author: Carol Carnac
Published in 1952

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Crossed skis means danger ahead


In London’s Bloomsbury, Inspector Julian Rivers of Scotland Yard looks down at a dismal scene. Here is the victim, burnt to a crisp. Here are the clues – clues which point to a good climber and expert skier, and which lead Rivers to the piercing sunshine and sparkling snow of the Austrian Alps.

This was a recent purchase for me – I have been collecting mysteries from the British Library Crime Classics as they capture my fancy. Because I am shallow, a not-inconsequential element of their appeal is the beautiful covers and this was no exception. Both the title and the cover really appealed to me.

I grew up skiing during my childhood and youth, so a mystery with a winter sports element, especially one set in the Alps, really captured my interest. I was obsessed with the Alps and the alpine countries as a young woman – if I had been able to choose anywhere in the world to live, Switzerland and Austria definitely would have been at the top of my list.

So, I was primed to enjoy this book. And I really did enjoy it.

Martin Edwards provided the introduction to my edition. Carol Carnac is another pen name of ECR Lorac, whose Fire in the Thatch I read a few years ago. That was a three star read for me – I liked Crossed Skis quite a bit better, landing on four stars as my rating. I liked it enough that I will be buying the other Lorac reissues.

Crossed Skis takes place in two different locales – a ski village in Austria and London. The premise revolves around a party of 16 young Londoners who have all arranged to go on skiing holiday together – 8 men and 8 women. They are all connected to one another in various ways – friends of friends, etc – but they don’t all know each other. Simultaneously with the sixteen of them boarding the train and leaving London, a fire at a boarding house occurs and the body of a man is found inside. Leading up to the front door of the boarding house, Inspector Rivers notices an impression of a ski pole basket (or ski stick, as they apparently call them in England) in the mud. From that tiny clue, the investigation springs.

The two primary investigators, Chief Inspector Rivers and his subordinate Lancing are well drawn and engaging. As described within the pages of the book:

I asked Hammond what those two officers were like, the ones who went to the club. She said they were both ‘perfect gentlemen’ – she would. One was a big fair fellow with a quiet voice, and the other was much younger, a dark boy with lively eyes, very coming on.

I liked the descriptions of the holiday party as well. According to the introduction, the author was a huge fan of skiing and that came through in her descriptions of the wintry fun. When the Londoners arrive on the station platform, after making their by now bedraggled way across Europe, she describes it thus:

It was lovely: even on the railway track and on the long low platform they were conscious of the snow peaks rising gloriously into the soft blue of the afternoon sky, of the crisp powdery dryness of snow which had a totally different quality from the squalid soiled snow of London streets. In the intense light, reflected back from white ground and roofs and slopes, everybody look different: dark was darker, fair was fairer, colour was brighter. Clearly defined, sharp cut, brilliantly lit, everything had a quality of vividness and vitality which was exciting, so that fatigue was forgotten and laughter bubbled up in a world that was as lovely as a fairytale.

A few pictures of the setting:

And at night!

As the mystery unfolds, we get to know several of the holiday makers, although some of them remain inscrutable. Among the girls, the organizer Bridget and the sensible Kate are highlights, and the medical man, Frank Harris, are highlights. There are shenanigans around the theft of some money within the party, so some of the members of the London party begin engaging in some amateur investigation of one another. There is dancing and a bit of flirtation and lots of ski-related fun.

The two mysteries, of course, converge and then culminate in a hair-raising mountain run

Lancing knew that he would never forget that ski-run. The conditions were as foul as they could be so far as the atmosphere was concerned: snow and wind together were like raging furies”

after a murderer.

During the Christmas season, I enjoy reading golden age Christmas mysteries. This one isn’t really a Christmas themed mystery, but it is definitely Christmas-adjacent with its focus on winter sports. It was a perfect mystery to start off the holiday reading season for me!

Mr. and Mrs. North and their glam and fab murder life

A few years ago, I read The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett. I had never seen the movie with Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nick and Nora Charles, but I had a mental picture that led me to believe that I would love this book. It would be fabulously glamorous, with sparkle – both in the champagne and the banter – to spare, and a side serving of crime detection.

Unfortunately, that’s not really what I experienced when I actually read the book – although that may well be the aesthetic of the movie.

And then I met Jerry and Pamela North.

First published in 1940, this is the book that I thought I would be reading when I read The Thin Man. Jerry and Pamela are a young couple who live in a Greenwich Village apartment. Jerry ostensibly works, and Pamela ostensibly does not. They don’t yet have children, although there is a cat who figures in the book. Being young, fabulous, moderately financially secure, and otherwise ordinary young people living in 1940’s New York, they like a good cocktail party. Pamela decides that the empty upstairs apartment provides a perfect location for a soiree, and when they jaunt upstairs to check it out, they find a dead body in the tub.

Jerry is fine, but Pamela is a delight – a total firecracker. The Norths meet Detective William Weigand, who inexplicably goes by Loot, and they make friends and commence investigating. I really enjoyed this book.

According to Wikipedia, Charles Silet, in his article Married Sleuths, states as follows:

“The Mr. and Mrs. North novels contain carefully crafted puzzles and the Lockridges usually play fair with their readers. The series also features Pam and Jerry’s warmly humorous domestic environment and the couple’s witty exchanges with the duller members of the police force. Although the Norths remain the focus of the series, the books contain a good deal of political and social commentary, a richly detailed look at the changing life in New York City, as well as glimpses of the outlying suburban counties. Also, the North’s stable marriage relationship presents a marked contrast—and a welcome one—to the traditions of the lone detective characteristic of much other American mystery fiction. Even though the Mr. and Mrs. North novels now may appear overly deliberate in their pacing, they still prove wonderful reading as mysteries, and the glimpses they provide of our past social history give them a nostalgic and authentic period flavor. Aficionados of classic crime fiction have always appreciated this long-running series, and new readers should be encouraged to discover this witty and charming couple.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Following up on The Norths Meet Murder, I checked out the second book in the series, Murder Out Of Turn, which takes place at a summer hideaway in upstate New York, where Jerry and Pamela vacation at a rustic cabin with their friends. We are reintroduced to many of the characters from the first book. The Norths have become quite good friends with Detective Weigand, so they invite him to join them for part of their summer holiday. Naturally, murder ensues, when a friends ends up with knife in the back.

There is a lot of tennis playing, canoeing and other recreation going on in this book, as well as quite a bit of back and forth between the city. Detective Weigand meets Dorian Hunt, who catches his attention and, possibly, also his heart. It was still delightful, although not so delightful as the first book.

The third book in the series steps outside of the North’s close circle of friends – which is good, because otherwise they probably wouldn’t have any friends left. Detective Weigand is trying to figure out if Dorian Hunt, whom he met in the last book, is as interested in him as he is in her, and, simultaneously, gets pulled into the poisoning murder of a socialite that happened on the ever so glamorous rooftop bar of the Ritz Carlton. Pamela, once again, proves that she is as quick-witted (more quick-witted) than any of the men in the story by working out the motive and the murderer before anyone else has it completely solved.

I’ve heard that the fourth book, Death on the Aisle is a terrific mystery. I have it checked out, so I’ll be finding out as soon as I finish up a book or two, so I can continue my acquaintance with the Norths and their very murderous life.

The Secret of Greylands by Annie Haynes

Title: The Secret of Greylands
Author: Annie Haynes
First published in 1924

Plot Summary from Goodreads: “There’s no dirty trick he wouldn’t play—it’s my belief that he wouldn’t even stop at murder!”

Her husband unmasked as a scoundrel, Lady Cynthia Letchingham seeks refuge at her cousin Hannah’s north-country home Greylands. But on Cynthia’s arrival, she finds Hannah an invalid, having recently suffered a mysterious paralysis; the house is devoid of servants, and Hannah’s husband, charming and sinister by turns, keeps watch over everything and everyone. Only the presence of charming Sybil Hammond and a darkly handsome neighbour relieve the atmosphere for Cynthia – but then a dark red stain appears mysteriously on the sleeve of her coat…

This was the first golden age side read for an Agatha Christie group that I started on GR, where we will be reading all 66 of Christie’s full length mysteries in publication order, starting in October in honor the Christie centenary. Prior to nominating Annie Haynes for our first side read, I had never heard of her – I happened upon her when I was googling for information about Christie’s first publisher, Bodley Head, and then I saw that Haynes had been picked up by Dean Street Press, one of my favorite small presses that is reissuing golden age mystery fiction. A little bit more research, and I was in.

If you are in the US, and are so inclined, you could purchase all 12 of her mysteries for your kindle for under $12.00, as they are all priced at .99. I’m not saying that I’ve done that, just that a person could do that. If they wanted to. OK, I confess. I did. I bought them all.

Which is why it’s excellent that I really enjoyed this book – because now I have 11 more to read! It had a wonderful gothic flavor and was just pure entertainment. Set on the well-trod ground of the English moors, it owed a lot of its sensibility to the Bronte sisters, with the mysterious manor house, the creepy husband and the inexplicably ill relative.

The main character is one of those swooning-and-blushing ingenues that we see a lot in early golden age fiction – so desperately dim that she can’t see what’s right in front of her face. She’s the 1920’s version of the cheerleader in the horror flick, who, instead of running away, hides in the shed behind the chainsaws, as Geico so hilariously points out in this commercial.

Drive away in the running car? Terrible idea! Let’s hide behind the chainsaws in the creepy barn!

Anyway, Cynthia’s dim-bulbery notwithstanding, this book is a whole lot of fun. It’s unlikely to fool very many modern readers for even one minute, but the setting and tone are fantastic and it’s a very fast read. I was strongly reminded of some of Patricia Wentworth’s mysteries, which also frequently seem to feature this same sort of young woman with no instinct for self-preservation, particularly The Case is Closed and The Black Cabinet. It felt like a precursor to the gothic romances of the 1960’s and 1970’s written by authors like Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney.

What else can you buy for .99 that will provide 3 or so hours of enjoyment? Nothing. That’s what.