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Archive for November, 2021

Mystery Monday – Murder Being Once Done

Monday, November 22nd, 2021

Murder Being Once Done by Ruth Rendell

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


A cemetery caretaker finds the body of the young woman in a vault, lying slumped between two stone sarcophagi. The corpse of a strangled girl is a grisly discovery, even for a neglected graveyard in a part of London that has seen much better days.

Countryman Reg Wexford, also a police inspector, finds himself convalescing in London after a health scare. Back in 1972, it seems, there was not a lot specialists could do for a thrombosis (clot) in the eye beyond prescribing rest and a punishing regimen of lo-cal food and – horrors – no alcohol.

So Reg and his wife Dora are staying with Reg’s nephew Howard Fortune, a homicide detective assigned to investigate the killing of the young woman. The nephew is over-cautious about Reg’s rest and doesn’t mention the case while Reg is annoyed and insecure by the zealous caregiving and condescension with which he is treated due to his health. Anybody who has gone through a health crisis will be able to connect with the discouragement that Reg has to bring his powers of resilience to resist.

Rendell’s mysteries hold their attractions for their blend of the timeless and the nostalgic. We have the broken families and lost youth we expect to find in classics. But these elements are clothed in mod 1960s garb, with the older generation all in a twist over the muddled, footloose lives the younger generation lead.

Rendell is never cynical or callous but she has a candid realism about unchanging human nature. More than most mystery writers, she fleshes out the background and behavior of the victim in order to give a strong sense of why-dunnint. Her characters are excellently drawn. She examines the harmless obsession of the antiquary Dearborn and the cluelessness about the world of someone raised in a narrow milieu. And, bravely for 1972, she has the openly gay character Ivan Teal deploy unkind sarcasms against Reg the Cop over the treatment of gays at the hands of the Metro Police.

And what a strange, sinister affair the story turns out to be. Reg and his London colleagues find no way to get any information about the victim. To all appearances, she had no friends, no money, no family, living in a crummy apartment under an assumed name. Nothing tangible to start the investigation. As if the stranger from the vault was just a ghost.

Written in 1972, this was the seventh mystery starring Inspector Wexford. There were to be 16 more, all solid sellers and many adapted into TV episodes.





Mystery Monday Review – The Worm of Death

Monday, November 8th, 2021

The Worm of Death by Nicholas Blake

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


Cecil Day-Lewis, classics prof and poet laureate, didn’t take seriously the 20 or so detective novels he wrote as Nicholas Blake. This does not mean they deserve their neglected status nowadays. In fact, this novel is gloomy enough to appeal to post-modern readers who like dark mysteries.

This 1961 story, the 14th featuring series hero Nigel Strangeways, opens with PI Strangeways and his artist wife Clare Massinger having dinner with a troubled family. The head of the household Piers Louden, a doctor, is sarcastic and tyrannical. Daughter Rebecca longs to be free to marry her artist BF whom her father dislikes. Son James, also a doctor, fears making a misstep that will hurt his reputation. His other son Harold is a flash businessman and his trophy wife Sharon is as flirty as we’d expect. The favorite son, Graham, has the air of an ‘old lag’ (ex-con) in Strangeways’ canny eye.

The setting of docks, alleys, barges, and the Isle of Dogs in the East End of London is the main attraction here. Greenwich was a shabby part of London in the early Sixties. We readers walk in the February chill and fog along the banks of the River Thames. It’s the perfect backdrop for Father Piers to go missing and then turn up dead in Thames clad only in a tweed coat. Son James hires Strangeways to investigate which he does with the help of Inspector Wright. They narrow the circle of suspects down to members of the unhappy family.

Blake’s dark realism is decidedly not cozy. The reveal chills us readers with its plausibility. Blake makes the convincing claim that WWII claimed its victims even after the cessation of hostilities in 1945.




Mystery Monday Review – The Singing Sands

Monday, November 1st, 2021


The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Tey wrote atypical detective novels compared to most mysteries written during Golden Era of whodunnits from 1920 to 1950. Tey didn’t follow the usual rules and conventions of writers such as Agatha Christie. So the point of her stories is not necessarily unmasking the perpetrator as surprisingly or as uniquely as possible.

This mystery, released in 1952, is the last one starring the series hero Yard Inspector Alan Grant. Dogged with anxiety and depression, Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard goes on vacation to visit cousins in Scotland to recover himself. Understandably, he wants to get over the panic attacks that occur when he finds himself in an enclosed space like a bedroom, train compartment, or in the cabin of an auto. His superior is utterly unsympathetic, wondering why Grant can’t just shake it off, an attitude people with PTSD still must deal with today.

On the train to Scotland, he is a witness when the conductor discovers dead man, apparently the victim of a drunken fall. Tey’s focus is not on the departed one, but on Grant’s inner thought processes, his motivations and his fears. That makes him, compared to characters such as Poirot and other thinking machines, a character distinctive and human.

Thanks to that dead man in the train, he recovers from his strained state of mind by investigating the death, getting a clue in the poetry that the young victim wrote on the margin of a newspaper. With the aid of fishing excursions with a six-year-old cousin, a professional Scotch patriot, as well as a friend of the dead man, Grant manages to shed light on a murder that had been considered an accident.

This also belongs to the class of detective novels that doubles as a travel narrative; Patricia Moyes springs to mind, setting her stories in rural England, Amsterdam, and Geneva. Tey has Grant take a side-trip to the Hebrides archipelago, specifically Cladda, a fictional island with miles of deserted beaches with the Atlantic slamming into it. While there, Grant gets no further with his investigation but he relaxes enough to cure himself of his anxiety with long walks and philosophical ruminating. The atmosphere is rendered vividly, besides advocating the restorative powers of travel, especially to places where where’s nothing to do in the classic sense. Oddly, on the other hand, Tey looks down on Scottish identity and independence; though she was born Elizabeth MacKintosh in Inverness, she seems to have been a staunch Unionist.

Tey may have been dying when she was working on this novel. It was found in her papers after she passed away in 1952. So we don’t know if it was in its final form. Suffice to say, the ending breaks so many conventions that even mystery fans looking for something different will be dissatisfied with the ending. Still I recommend it to Tey fans, especially if they liked her unusual novels like immortal The Daughter of Time or Miss Pym Disposes or Brat Farrar.