Friday, February 17, 2017

Christopher Bush’s Dead Man Twice

Dead Man Twice, published in 1930, was one of the very earliest of Christopher Bush’s Ludovic Travers mysteries. Intriguingly in these early books Travers plays second fiddle to a detective named John Franklin.

This book appears to be a sporting mystery but don’t panic. You don’t have to like (or understand) boxing to enjoy this one.

Michael France is a young man generating a lot of excitement. He’s an Englishman who appears to have a real chance of winning the world heavyweight crown. France is a gentleman boxer - a real gentleman, Eton followed by Cambridge, an actual blue-blood. His two inseparable companions are his manager, Kenneth Hayles, and racing driver Peter Claire. The three were childhood friends. Actually the position of Hayles is a little ambiguous - France seems to pretty much manage his own career. Peter Claire has provided the money to finance France’s boxing career. Hayles and France were also co-authors of a book describing France’s career to date whole Hayles is also the writer of a couple of detective stories. These literary endeavours will play a major role in the ensuing mystery (the fact that Claire drives racing cars will also be important). There is also a fourth member of the circle, Claire’s beautiful but flirtatious wife Dorothy.

Everyone is thrilled not only by France’s exploits in the boxing ring but also by his charm and good looks and easy-going confidence. He is something of a national hero. 

John Franklin is employed as a detective by Durangos Limited. We never do find out exactly what the principal business of Durangos is, it just seems to be a large and terribly important company. Durangos also employs a certain Ludovic Travers as a financial advisor.

Franklin is exceptionally pleased when he is given the opportunity to meet Michael France, in fact is invited to dinner where he is mightily impressed by the atmosphere of wealth and good fellowship that seems to surround France. Franklin is therefore shocked when he calls at France’s house a few days later and discovers not one but two corpses!

The formidable Detective Superintendent Wharton of Scotland Yard is assigned to the case. As Franklin is an acquaintance, a detective, a former policeman and a vital witness Wharton is happy to have his help on this case. Wharton is not quite so sure about accepting assistance from Ludovic Travers. He knows and likes Travers but Travers has no experience as a detective.

The case itself is a double murder in two senses although to explain why might risk a spoiler. It is not an impossible crime. Anyone could have committed the murders. Anyone, this is, apart from the only people with any reason for wanting to commit them. Leaving aside the remote possibility of murder by a complete stranger there are a handful of suspects but they have alibis that are absolutely unbreakable.

There’s also a question about the murder method. So what we have are unbreakable alibis, ingenious murder methods, literary clues and also a neat trick with a suicide note - all the things that fans of golden age mysteries love. The plot is quite ambitious but it comes together neatly. I like the fact that there’s an ingenious murder method that actually sounds like it might have worked.

It’s John Franklin and Superintendent Wharton who take centre stage. Travers lurks in the background. At this stage he’s not even an amateur detective. He’s simply an intelligent man who has developed an interest in the subject of crime through is friendships with Franklin and Wharton. He is however a fast learner. A nice touch is that although Wharton doesn’t know it he and Travers are engaged in a race to find the solution - Travers is keen to demonstrate that he really does have the instincts of a detective and if he beats Wharton to the answer then Wharton will have to start thinking of him as a real detective.

Bush would eventually realise that three detectives was one too many and that Wharton and Travers were the characters with the most appeal. Franklin would drop out of the picture. Wharton and Travers were also the ideal team - totally mismatched but for that very reason they’re a formidable combination and their friendship is convincing.

All true golden age detection fans are delighted by mysteries with maps and floor plans. This one has two floor plans and two diagrams!

Even though one would have liked to see more of Ludovic Travers Dead Man Twice is a fine example of the art of the detective story. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Alexander Wilson’s The Mystery of Tunnel 51

The Mystery of Tunnel 51 was published in 1928. It was the first of Alexander Wilson’s spy thrillers featuring his hero Sir Leonard Wallace.

Wilson was a fascinating and enigmatic character in his own right. He was certainly a Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) officer during the early part of the Second World War. He may have had connections to the British intelligence community before that. Sir Leonard Wallace bears a certain resemblance to Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the first head (or ‘C’) of MI6. Wilson was dismissed from MI6 in 1942 but claimed that he was actually still working for them under deep cover. He may have been a genuine super-agent or most of his intelligence career may have been a fictionalised attempt to explain away his increasingly chaotic personal life.

Whether the truth about his later career there is no question that Wilson enjoyed a great deal of success as a writer of thrillers during the period from 1928 to 1940. His books then languished in obscurity until quite recently until several were reprinted, including The Mystery of Tunnel 51.

Wilson spent a good deal of time in India and it is India that provides the setting for The Mystery of Tunnel 51.

A British officer, a Major Elliott, has been carrying out a survey of the defences of British India. The plans he has made must be delivered, in absolute secrecy, to the Viceroy. Several attempts have already been made on Major Elliott’s life. Now he is on the final leg of his journey to Simla to see the Viceroy. He has a police escort and surely there is no way that anything can go wrong now. But Britain’s enemies are cunning and determine and will stop at nothing to get those plans!

Britain’s enemies are of course the Russians. Russophobia had been one of the defining characteristics of British foreign policy for well over a century (in fact it still is). The coming to power of the Bolsheviks adds an extra touch of paranoia to the plot but in fact the story is very much in the tradition of Great Game stories such as Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. The Great Game was a sort of Cold War between Britain and Russia, driven on both sides by paranoia about threats to their respective colonial empires, which lasted from the 1790s to the early 20th century. Even in the 1920s the British were haunted by the fear that someone would try to steal India from them.

When it becomes clear that the secret plans might yet fall into the hands of Bolshevik agents the local authorities in India decide to call in Sir Leonard Wallace, the legendary head of the Secret Intelligence Service. Wallace’s investigations uncover a vast conspiracy with hundreds of Bolshevik spies throughout the length and breath of India.

While this is very much a spy adventure tale the book also includes an impossible murder which requires Sir Leonard Wallace to do some real detective work.

Eventually the plot becomes a series of chases and a race against time to stop the Russian super-spy before he can get the secret plans over the frontier.

One of the things that delights me about the thrillers of the interwar years is the sublime self-confidence and optimism of the heroes. No matter how vast or diabolical the conspiracies that they encounter might be men like Bulldog Drummond, Richard Hannay and Simon Templar are never disheartened. They simply do not admit the possibility of defeat. The post-WW2 spy thriller would be increasingly populated by anti-heroes and flawed heroes, and by cynics like Len Deighton’s unnamed spy and pessimists like George Smiley. Even James Bond is, to a degree, a flawed hero - he makes mistakes, sometimes very bad ones, and he finds that being a secret agent has a price. There’s nothing wrong with the cynical pessimist school of spy fiction but it can be a bit much after a while and sometimes it’s refreshing to turn to the interwar thrillers with their cheerful, extroverted, dauntless and large-than-life heroes. 

Sir Leonard Wallace is such a hero. Of course he has a sidekick, Major Brien, an old pal who lacks Wallace’s brilliance but makes up for it in grit and pluck.

Wilson’s spy fiction is very much in the old-fashioned heroic mould, though with a definite tinge of paranoia. There’s plenty of action with quite a bit of gunplay. There are car chases and aeroplane chases. Both the heroes and the villains are masters of disguise. There are secret passages and the spies know every cunning trick in the book. There are hair’s-breadth escapes from danger and there’s an abundance of breathless excitement.

The chief bad guys are evil super-villains and their henchmen are either mindless killing machines or cringing cowards. There’s no need to worry about shades of grey - the British are the good guys and the Russkies are the bad guys. That’s all you need to know. If an Englishman turns out to be a bad guy it will also turn out that he’s not a real Englishman.

While it has some of the atmosphere of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim it naturally does not have the psychological subtlety and the philosophical depth of Kipling’s masterwork. Kipling’s view of imperialism was complex and nuanced. Wilson takes it for granted that the Raj is a good thing for Britain and a good thing for India and that any Indians who oppose British rule can only be doing so because they are in the pay of the Bolsheviks. It’s only fair to point out that Kipling was one of the greats of English literature. Wilson’s aims are of course much less ambitious. He is merely trying to write a fine old-fashioned potboiler. In this lesser aim he succeeds extremely well.

The Mystery of Tunnel 51 is an action-packed yarn that delivers the goods. Highly recommended.

The second of the Sir Leonard Wallace spy novels, The Devil’s Cocktail, is just as much fun.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Carter Dickson's Skeleton in the Clock

Skeleton in the Clock was one of the crime novels written by John Dickson Carr under the name Carter Dickson. Carr’s specialty was of course the locked room mystery, and while this one doesn’t quite have a locked room, it does have an apparently impossible murder with most of the features of a classic locked room mystery.

Skeleton in the Clock features the formidable blustering and at times frankly terrifying Sir Henry Merrivale (known as H.M.), distinguished barrister and amateur detective.

The book opens with a strange mixture of the gothic and the farcical, with ghost-hunting and with H.M. pursuing Lady Brayle (a formidable figure in her own right) with a 17th century halberd.

Carr loved introducing gothic elements into his mysteries and he had the knack of doing so without the spooky stuff being a mere distraction. Ghosts are the subject of conversation between young Captain Martin Drake, his friend Ruth and middle-aged barrister John Stannard. Stannard makes a suggestion. If ghosts are earthbound spirits and if they’re earthbound because of some traumatic event surrounding their death then there’s one place where you’d be just about certain to find ghosts - the execution shed of a prison. And as luck would have it there’s an old abandoned prison not very far away, and it just so happens that Stannard has obtained the key. He suggests that he and Drake should spend the night there.

Martin Drake accepts the suggestion but he has other things on his mind. Or rather he has one thing on his mind - Jenny. He met Jenny briefly during the war, they fell in love and then he lost her. Literally lost her - they became separated on a railway platform and he has spent three years searching for her.

There’s a third plot element - the mysterious death twenty years earlier of Sir George Fleet. His death could only have been an accident. No other explanation is possible. Murder is certainly an absolute impossibility. Nonetheless H.M. is quite certain it was murder.

With the aid of a few coincidences these three plot strands all come together very satisfactorily.

You expect incredibly complicated plotting and an ingenious but outlandish solution to the crime from this author, and that’s what you get. The plot includes a murder twenty years in the past, another murder twenty years in the past that may or may not be connected with the first, a wartime love affair that ends with the lovers separated on a crowded train station and thinking they’ll never meet again, a strange romantic triangle, a mirror maze, a possibly haunted prison, fencing, 17th century poets, and an actual clock containing an actual skeleton. 

The impossible crime itself does not disappoint. Sir George Fleet fell off the roof of Fleet House. The flat roof was often used for various leisure activities and was supplied with deck chairs and other amenities. As luck would have it at the time of the accident the entire roof was under observation, the observers being perched on the roof of the nearby pub, and all agreed that Sir George was completely alone. Nobody could have pushed him off the roof.

It’s also a book that combines a good deal of humour with the usual crime stuff, and while Carr’s humour isn’t to everyone’s tastes I enjoyed it. Sir Henry Merrivale is definitely one of the more outrageously over-the-top of fictional detectives, and one of the more entertaining. 

First published in 1949, very much in the Golden Age style of detective thrillers, and great fun. Highly recommended.