This British Library Crime Classics reissue goes to one of the most iconically brooding, romantic and mysterious staple settings of all: the Scottish highlands, in the castle of a laird. It’s a murder mystery, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s filled with some rather unpleasant people — and I don’t love that it leans rather on the themes of madness and manias leading to violence to untangle the whole plot. It’s one of those where you can’t really regret the murder victim, and though the psychology of it all is well-observed, the family struggles weren’t all that appealing to me.
Still, it does the mystery well and evokes a good sense of atmosphere, and it was a pretty entertaining read even if I didn’t exactly root for the characters — and I finished it in just about no time. No real complaints! I don’t know if I’d try another by the same author, but all the same, it filled the time pleasantly enough. Not a stand-out for good or ill, really.
This book is just… kind of gross. If there’s a woman on the page, North is bound to describe her breasts. If she’s anything less than a perfect housewife from the 1800s, she’s a whore and the narrative — and main character — treat her as such. Even the murder victim is described in somewhat less than sympathetic ways: that kind of desperate-for-a-man stereotype for a stalwart police officer to pity when she inevitably comes to grief.
I don’t understand Martin Edwards’ praise for this book in the introduction. The writing style is probably a matter of taste, but it felt clumsy to me, and way too reliant on staccato narration: “This happened. Then that happened. The man was afraid. The woman laughed.” That kind of style. It creates a certain kind of tension at times, but doing it that way for the whole book is just actually kind of boring.
Skip Gil North’s writing, even if you’re collecting the British Library Crime Classics. Ugh.
J. Jefferson Farjeon has a way with setting the atmosphere of a book that I can’t help but love. The first page of each of his books got me right away — and not in the same way, either. There’s something in the way he can describe a scene, and his mysteries quickly take over, clever and strange. The only thing I’d say I don’t fall in love with is the romance: you can see it coming a mile off, and it’s the obvious two people, and you know it’s going to end with marriage.
That aside, The Z Murders works really well at the suspense throughout. Sometimes the main character is just so stupid it makes me want to bash him over the head (sure, let’s not tell the police everything when there’s an indiscriminate killer on the loose!), but it kind of works, and the plot would be a bit stuck without it. This is, I believe, one of the earliest serial killer novels — although it’s not quite the stereotypical mentally ill killer who does it on a whim. The antagonist does have a reason and an end in mind… although that reason does still seem unhinged.
Overall, Farjeon’s books are a pleasure, and I’m sorry I’ve only got Mystery in White left to read of the British Library reissues. The Ben the Tramp books don’t seem quite my thing.
I didn’t like this as much as most of the other British Library Crime Classics, and I can’t put my finger on why, really. It wasn’t worse than them in any palpable well, and probably better than one or two, and I rather liked the Bishop as a character. Perhaps it was a certain feeling of inevitability — having read Kerry Greenwood’s (obviously more recent) Cocaine Blues and Dorothy L. Sayers contemporary Murder Must Advertise, certain things seemed immediately obvious.
Mind you, when I say I liked the Bishop… after the opening of the story, he wasn’t much of a character; none of them were, really. Maybe that was my problem: it felt more like a puzzle than anything at times, and the two Inspectors were pretty indistinguishable (actually, were they both Inspectors? the details are slipping away already).
It’s an interesting read as part of an overall revisit of the Golden Age, and it’s not bad, but this is not one of the more surprising and absorbing of the series of reissues. I’m not in a hurry to read anything else by Christopher St John Sprigg, even if they republish one of his other works.
As ever, a beloved reread. Okay, the cypher bits can be kind of annoying unless you’re really interested in figuring out, but this time I paid close attention so I could use the Playfair cypher to write a daft message to my wife, so there’s that. I love the care Peter takes to try and be fair to Harriet, not to push her, and to do his best by her. I do think sometimes he’s rather self-pitying, but mostly his sense of humour about it alleviates that.
The mystery itself is a fun one to break: if you figure out the key to it too soon, the back and forth as Harriet, Peter and the police try to break the wrong alibis can be a bit infuriating, but it’s also pretty clever. If you don’t love Peter and Harriet (and mostly their banter), I can’t imagine it being a favourite, but for me… yeah. <3
The narrator of most of this book is, by design, pretty repugnant — and honestly, I find the other characters so too, even when we get a little glimpse of the other side of the story. The satisfaction here is in seeing their plans come to grief, and waiting for everyone to get their comeuppance. There’s something satisfying in Hull’s skill about putting together these characters, but at the same time it feels like it would’ve worked better as a short story. Enough time to get the gist, without enough to start getting truly frustrated by the general horribleness (and stupidity, too).
It’s an entertaining enough read, but I was glad when it was over, too!
Like Seven Dead, this actually includes a love story as well, although of a rather different stripe (and maybe a bit less of the focus, since neither party is seriously suspected of the murders). It’s less prominent than the love story in Seven Dead, and thankfully less creepy as well, with some rather good scenes between the two of them negotiating their relationship. At the same time, there’s a convoluted mystery going on with several deaths, complex interrelationships and, well, the usual stock in trade of Golden Age crime fiction, really. It’s a country house mystery, too, just to hit all those traditional notes.
I found it solidly entertaining, and though it’s a bit less weird/creepy than Seven Dead, I think it was probably stronger for it. There’s something about Farjeon’s writing that I find rather more-ish, and I’d gladly pick up a bunch more of his novels. Sadly, I only seem to have The Z Murders left… though I should check for something by other publishers or maybe as an ebook.
The main point of interest in this classic is the fact that it was a first. The introduction is more interesting than the book in many ways, putting it in its context and explaining why it was significant. The introduction is short, don’t get me wrong, but the story itself is a fairly typical one in many ways. You can guess at the motives, and the mysteriousness is not at all mysterious to someone used to the genre. Not that it’s bad, just that it’s not particularly unique or surprising in any way. The writing is workmanlike, and in some places dips into being almost incomprehensible (but then, I find Dickens like that at his worst, and some people think he writes amazing prose, so take me with a pinch of salt). The plot probably was rather shocking at the time, but leaves me going, so? And of course, the poisoning by proxy is rather… impossible.
In any case, I had fun reading it in terms of connecting the dots with other classics of crime fiction, and it wasn’t a bad way to pass the time, but it’s not something I’m wildly enthusiastic about or would particularly recommend.
There is something really sinister and dark about this book. It’s one of those where drug-taking/mental illness really pushes the plot, and it leads to some really gruesome moments. That atmosphere is the best thing about the book, I think: that sense that you don’t quite know what’s going to happen next, because it seems like it could be anything. It’s not very subtle, but it works pretty well.
Of course, I don’t love mysteries which rely on mental illness for their sense of danger and their motives, because the facts are that mentally ill people are more likely to be attacked than to be the attackers, by quite a margin. But it’s a classic trope and this is a classic book, from a less aware time, so while I wouldn’t recommend it if that kind of thing really gets to you, I don’t hold it against it too much in how I enjoyed it.
Mind you, considering I didn’t like the detective that much and found the Watson rather boring, I’m not sure how to rate it. The sense of atmosphere is definitely worth something, though, and it’s not as though I found it a hard read. Until I sat down to think about it, I’d have gone with three stars easily.
The other Miles Burton book I’ve read was fun, but the plot was kind of out there. Death in the Tunnel is a little more down to earth, and I ended up devouring it. Burton’s writing is crisp and sure, and while the story has its twists and turns, it all makes perfect sense. Never are you left feeling that the detective has made a sudden leap and left you behind — you have the clues you need, provided you can make something of them.
I can’t really put my finger on why it worked so well for me: it’s just well-structured, with enough to keep one interested and some odd puzzles along the way. It’s also a glimpse at some interesting characters — the murder victim, for example, is fascinatingly self-righteous and determined he’s doing the right thing, while somehow managing to justify fraud. And it all makes sense, too; you can see the character and what drives him.
The fact that the detective (not the police officer, but the independent guy the policeman consults for some reason) is the same guy from The Secret of High Eldersham is kind of irrelevant: he remains a bit of a non-entity, just distinguished by being clever. The point of the book is more the mystery-solving through the understanding of the characters and clues presented. I enjoyed it, but if you were looking for a good series detective, Desmond Merrion isn’t the one.