Crossed Skis (1952) by Carol Carnac

Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“We all set out feeling supremely confident. Everybody liked everybody else. We didn’t all know one another, but everybody was vouched for by somebody. So and so’s friend, he’s O.K. Now we feel we’ve got a snake in the grass and we don’t know who the snake is.”

As assorted Londoners stumble through a dark and cloudy New Year’s Day, some of them have reason to be grateful they are about to depart on a ski holiday to Austria. Sunny skies and bright, clean snow await them. Others are not so fortunate. Inspector Rivers and Sergeant Lancing are stuck back in London, investigating a fatal house fire. The cheerful skiing party seems a thousand miles away from a murder in London, but as the investigation progresses, Rivers wonders just how far murder can reach.

Crossed Skis is an enjoyable light mystery that juggles two storylines with ease, though the reader may wish Carol Carnac had seen fit to bring them together a little sooner. Both storylines have their charms. Rivers comes up with some clever ways of tracing the crime back to its origin, while the ski story gives modern readers a glimpse of what international travel was like during the postwar years. Although it seems apparent that there must be some link between the crime and the skiers, lending an atmosphere of tension to an otherwise unremarkable holiday, it takes an awfully long time for the characters to connect the dots.

After spending the New Year with her sister, Mabel Stein arrives home to find her house in flames and one of her lodgers dead inside. Inspector Rivers is suspicious of the fire, especially with Mrs. Stein’s ne’er-do-well son Syd skulking about. (Mrs. Stein’s efforts to protect her erring boy are a reliable source of comic relief.) The more he pokes around the crime scene, the more he begins to question the identity of the dead man. Early on, Rivers and Lancing come to believe that the culprit in this case is the same suspect who committed another daring crime. They learn a great deal about this person, yet they still have no idea who the suspect really is.

Crossed Skis by Carol CarnacMeanwhile, a group of sixteen skiers, eight men and eight women, make their way across Europe. This is really too many. Only a few of these characters stand out at all, notably Kate, the oldest and most level-headed member of the company, and Bridget, who has the thankless task of organizing the whole trip. The practical details of their journey are fascinating from a distance of seventy years.

There are also plenty of clues amidst the chaos, even if the reader isn’t yet certain of what they should be watching for. It is pointed out more than once that most of the group are strangers to one another, as members of the original party dropped out and suggested others to take their place. Practical jokes, last-minute changes in sleeping arrangements, and unflattering passport photos are all normal aspects of travel. In this case, however, they take on a more sinister meaning. “Nobody fusses when it’s a party of English skiers,” one of the men notes. “They’re too used to us. Not one of us has even been asked to open a suitcase or rucksack and the passport examination is only perfunctory.” There could be no better cover for someone who wants to travel unnoticed.

World War II, only a few years in the past, also plays a role. At first, the English travelers are excited by the freedom of travel, leaving behind the rationing of home. Soon enough, however, they find themselves hemmed in by currency restrictions and border crossings: Austria was still, in the early 1950s, divided into zones administered by various Allied powers. Most of the group members are careful in their interactions, as “Austria is technically an ex-enemy country, and it’s up to us to be particularly scrupulous in our behavior to the Austrians.” Over the course of the trip, however, Kate has reason to recall that her traveling companions, who seem so young and carefree, are actually war veterans who have experienced things she cannot even imagine. Is it possible that one of them might have been warped by these traumas?

All of these concerns are forgotten when they arrive at the enchanting village of Lech am Arlberg.

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 powdery dryness of snow which had a totally different quality from the squalid soiled snow of the London streets. In the intense light, reflected back from white ground and roofs and slopes, everybody looked different: dark was darker, fair was fairer, color 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 which was as lovely as a fairy tale.

The attractiveness of the setting makes it easy to forget how deadly it can be, how easily snow can hide dangers. “There’s such a small margin between being safe and not being safe,” Kate worries, only for Bridget to point out, “That’s part of the attraction.” Still, Kate cannot help noticing the terror that lurks behind the mountain’s beauty:

It could submerge all of us in tons of purest snow, smooth as a cloud drift, and never show any humps where our bodies lie buried.

The skiers experience several close calls, one of them observing that there is something hypnotic about the snow that seems to prompt them to greater and greater recklessness. That is exactly what Rivers is hoping for as he closes in on the killer. After all, there is also a small margin between being bold and being careless. The atmosphere of a murder investigation can be as unforgiving as the harshest mountain range. All it takes is one slip.

Crossed Skis is an interesting twist on the whodunnit, as the reader must determine which member of the skiing party has something to hide. Rivers’ investigation provides a frisson of suspense to the ski plot, especially as the two stories begin to overlap more. While the mystery is not terribly complicated, the ski holiday setting is pleasant, Rivers is always a likable presence, and Carnac makes the most of the book’s unusual structure.

Second Opinions

The Bedford Bookshelf

This is one that, unless the reader is clever enough to pick up on some subtle clues, will keep most guessing. A solid mystery, a very entertaining storyline. I highly recommend this one—and here’s hoping to see more Carnac in the future.

Crossexamining Crime

When it comes to identifying the murderer I think the reader will be able to narrow it down and then select the right person. Some of Carnac’s clues make this quite an easy job to do, but I enjoyed having other clues brought to my attention at the end of the book which I had not picked up on. So all in all a good read.

Martin Edwards

This is an enjoyable book, even for someone like me, who would rather do almost anything than ski!

The Grandest Game in the World

It’s a model of police efficiency – but I don’t feel Lorac took full advantage of her setting.

Mysteries Ahoy!

While Crossed Skis did not cause me to significantly rethink my feelings about Lorac as a writer, I did find it to be an entertaining read. It boasts a solid, if relatively simple, mystery plot elevated by the unusual story structure and choice of setting.

Availability

Crossed Skis is available from British Library Crime Classics and from Poisoned Pen Press in the US.

Final Proof (1898) by Rodrigues Ottolengui

Final Proof by Rodrigues Ottolengui

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I am afraid this is a serious case. What has been done has been so thoroughly well accomplished that I believe we have no fool to deal with. His is a master hand.”

Final Proof is a group of linked novellas and short stories that seem to show the fair-play mystery developing before the reader’s eyes. These tales pit two detectives against one another in friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) rivalry. John Barnes is a professional private detective, while his friend Robert Leroy Mitchel is a gifted amateur with Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction. Mr. Mitchel will stop at absolutely nothing in pursuit of a case, and even tries to prevent crimes before they happen, often leaving Mr. Barnes gently bewildered in his wake. Continue reading “Final Proof (1898) by Rodrigues Ottolengui”

Quick Curtain (1934) by Alan Melville

(7/10 stars)

“I mean, if someone came up to you and arrested you for the murder of two human beings bang in the middle of an enjoyable musical comedy, it would be a bit of a shock to the system, wouldn’t it?”

For days, audiences have been lining up for the opening night of Blue Music, the latest musical extravaganza from Douglas B. Douglas. And the show more than lives up to expectations, especially the attempted murder scene in Act Two. The shooting of leading man Brandon Baker is no act, however.

The case seems open and shut; after all, thousands of witnesses watched Baker’s costar fire the fatal shot. Inspector Wilson isn’t so sure, however. Along with his journalist son, Derek, the Inspector must enter the bohemian milieu of the theater in search of a killer who craves the spotlight.

Continue reading “Quick Curtain (1934) by Alan Melville”

The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts (1934)

12_30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

How strange it was, Charles ruminated, that the useless and obstructive so often live on, while the valuable and progressive die early! Here was Andrew Crowther, a man whose existence was a misery to himself and a nuisance to all around him. Why should he be spared and others who perhaps were doing a great work in the world be cut off in their prime? It didn’t somehow seem right. For the sake of himself and everyone else it would be better if Andrew were to die.”

Even the irascible Andrew Crowther has to admit that flying is the only way to travel as he enjoys his first airplane ride. He’s in for some very unexpected turbulence, however. By the time the plane touches down in France, Andrew Crowther will be dead—not of the heart condition that’s troubled him for years, but of poison. How did a seemingly harmless elderly man meet his death 10,000 feet above the English Channel? His nephew Charles knows all about it. Now if only he can keep anyone else from finding out. Continue reading “The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts (1934)”

That Affair Next Door (1897) by Anna Katharine Green

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine Green

6 stars (7/10 stars)

“Though I have had no adventures, I feel capable of them, and as for any peculiar acumen he may have shown in his long and eventful career, why that is a quality which others may share with him, as I hope to be able to prove before finishing these pages.”

There are those who believe Amelia Butterworth is a meddlesome old maid. Among them are her neighbors, the Van Burnams. But it’s hardly Miss Butterworth’s fault that she happened to glance out her window one night just as a man and woman entered the Van Burnam house. Knowing the family is away in Europe, it would be irresponsible not to notify police the next morning. And when the supposedly empty house turns out to contain a dead body, it’s her clear duty to investigate.

Mr. Gryce of the police department is happy to indulge a lady’s fancies. What harm will it do to let Miss Butterworth believe they are rival investigators? Little does he realize how formidable a lady detective can be. “This aged detective is used to women, I have no doubt,” Miss Butterworth gloats, “but he is not used to me.”

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine GreenThat Affair Next Door is a fitting debut for the Library of Congress Crime Classics series, as it is likely the first American novel to feature a female detective. In fact, Anna Katharine Green is known as the mother of detective fiction. Her earlier works featured male sleuths, including Ebenezar Gryce, who also plays a significant role in That Affair Next Door. But it’s Miss Amelia Butterworth who steals the show here—not only the first, but one of the best spinster detectives. Though this is a tight story by nineteenth-century standards, modern readers may find it wordy and melodramatic. Whenever Miss Butterworth takes center stage, however, the narrative lives and breathes.

The young woman who lies dead in the Van Burnam house has seemingly met her death by misadventure after knocking a china cabinet down upon herself, smashing her face beyond recognition. Yet it is clear to both Gryce and Butterworth that there is more to the case. The two adult sons of the house, Howard and Franklin Van Burnam, were both in New York at the time of the murder, neither of them able to explain their strange activities. They staunchly insist they have no idea who the dead woman is. Even the finest families have their secrets, however, and no one is better placed to discover them than Amelia Butterworth. She coolly assures Gryce:

“You need not trouble yourself to show me too much politeness. If I meddle in this matter at all it will not be as your coadjutor, but as your rival.”

“My rival?”

“Yes, your rival; and rivals are never good friends until one of them is hopelessly defeated.”

As they struggle to identify the dead woman and her killer, the two detectives embark upon a competition that is light-hearted on Gryce’s side, but deadly serious for Miss Butterworth. Though she declares, “I am clever and am not ashamed to own it,” she can also be opinionated and interfering, which has not won her many friends. She has been bored for most of her life. To succeed in the investigation, Miss Butterworth must learn how to moderate her worst impulses while retaining her own capable nature. In the process, she discovers her life’s work.

I had not known up to this very hour that I had any special gifts. My father, who was a shrewd man of the old New England type, said more times than I am years old (which was not saying it as often as some may think) that Araminta (the name I was christened by, and the name you will find in the Bible record, though I sign myself Amelia, and insist upon being addressed as Amelia, being, as I hope, a sensible woman and not the piece of antiquated sentimentality suggested by the former cognomen)—that Araminta would live to make her mark; though in what capacity he never informed me, being, as I have observed, a shrewd man, and thus not likely to thoughtlessly commit himself.

The investigation is steeped in fascinating details of life in gilded-age Manhattan, as the indomitable Miss Butterworth charges through genteel parlors, grubby curio shops, and Chinese laundries in search of clues. Everyone she meets is subject to her withering judgment.

Much depends upon subtle details of dress that are less obvious to a male detective; even the unfashionable Miss Butterworth knows that the dead woman, soberly dressed in ready-made clothing, could not be the same woman who owned the expensive and flamboyant couture hat found in the closet. If that is the case, however, what happened to the victim’s own hat? (The idea that she might not have worn one is too horrifying to contemplate. Even the landlady of a boarding house insists, “if she had had no hat on, she wouldn’t have got as far as my parlor mat.”)

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine GreenThe smallest nuances of costume, manner, and appearance are dissected in light of nineteenth-century customs, most of them explained well enough to be understood even by those who may not remember the 1890s too well. Inevitably, some references will be lost on the modern reader, but it’s usually easy enough to get the idea. Miss Butterworth insists that her “puff” hairstyle is both stylish and becoming, for instance, but the dubious way everyone else refers to the puffs suggests that they are a long way from the height of fashion.

Since this is a high-society murder, issues of social class are front and center, sometimes presented in a way that seems shockingly blunt. One reason the fashion clues are so important is that they are assumed to reveal the social position of the wearer. The investigators are examining the quality and prices of the garments, but there is a difference between having money and being a lady. That hat in the closet is costly and beautifully made, but no lady would wear such a garish item. The victim’s clothing comes from an upscale department store, but no lady would wear a ready-made dress. Though Miss Butterworth is more of an all-purpose cynic than a snob in the traditional sense, she is finely attuned to what is done and what is not done in old New York families. The Van Burnam case seems strange to her from the start because so much of it does not align with what she would expect from such a family. Is this a clue in itself, or simply a sign that old money can behave just as badly as anyone else?

The mystery is wonderfully complicated. After a certain point in the story, it’s easy to identify the culprit, but harder to guess exactly what happened. There are a lot of small moving parts, each of which fits into its proper place by the end. Interestingly, Mr. Gryce and Miss Butterworth are both shown going about their rounds and, though they are moving in different directions, their solutions seem equally plausible. Neither comes off as buffoonish—they are both doing serious and credible work. Since for Gryce the work is what really matters, he’s able to put his ego aside when he makes a mistake, delighted by all the new possibilities Miss Butterworth is presenting.

Beautiful! I don’t know of anything more interesting! We have not seen the like in years! I can almost congratulate myself upon my mistakes, the features of the case they have brought out are so fine!

For Miss Butterworth, the stakes of their competition are much higher. She relishes the thrill of the chase without ever forgetting that she must show Gryce what female detectives—and Miss Amelia Butterworth in particular—can achieve.

“I never enjoyed myself so much in my whole life,” says Miss Butterworth after delivering her solution. While I wouldn’t go that far myself, That Affair Next Door is a well-crafted gaslight detective story that paints a striking portrait of turn-of-the-century New York City. Amelia Butterworth is the real treasure, though, a heroine who is almost too modern for the book she finds herself in.

Second Opinion

bookwormchatterbox

Some would say that Green purposefully bases her novel upon the actions of a spinster in order to subvert society’s expectations of her; ironically, the woman who is isolated in Victorian society and is effectively good for nothing is the one who solves the case. This in turn reveals to the reader the poor treatment of the spinster in that time period, and instead points the finger of ridicule at the community who takes her for granted. The stereotypical opinion of the ‘old maid’ is dismissed within this novel and I feel this is what makes it so compelling. Granted, a re-reading of this story will not evoke surprise at the outcome, but I believe that it is worth re-visiting Miss Butterworth again in order to observe her development as a strong-willed character in literature; she is a woman who will not accept defeat. Many people see Amelia as a joke, but she is the main character of her own novel and inevitably has the last laugh – a satisfying conclusion where the little old lady outsmarts all of the professional men. 

Availability

That Affair Next Door has just been reissued by the Library of Congress Crime Classics through Poisoned Pen Press. It is also in print from Duke University Press as part of a double volume with Amelia Butterworth’s second adventure, Lost Man’s Lane. This title is also in the public domain.

The Secret of High Eldersham (1930) by Miles Burton

The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“What on earth or in hell are we up against?”

High Eldersham looks like an ordinary English village. The only unusual thing about it is the townspeople’s hostility to strangers, which Samuel Whitehead experiences firsthand when he takes over management of the Rose and Crown pub.

To everyone’s surprise, the retired policeman wins over his new neighbors…at least, until he’s stabbed to death in his own pub. Something devilish is going on in this seemingly tranquil village, and some residents of High Eldersham would do anything to keep their secret. Continue reading “The Secret of High Eldersham (1930) by Miles Burton”

Somebody at the Door (1943) by Raymond Postgate

Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate 1943 book cover

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“We mustn’t,” said the Superintendent, “forget there are other people who would bear looking into. The trouble, in fact, seems to be that there may be too many.”

There are 125 good reasons to kill Henry Grayling. 124 of them are the pound notes in his briefcase, tomorrow’s payroll for the chemical works. The other is his own repellent personality.

During a treacherous winter train commute, Grayling spends his last conscious hour surrounded by people he hates, only to collapse on his own doorstep. His death is a strange one, even for this unhealthy time of year. Still, no one is prepared to learn that Grayling was poisoned with mustard gas in the middle of a crowded train compartment. As Inspector Holly tracks down the other passengers, he learns that each has a story to tell. But will it be enough to capture a killer? Continue reading “Somebody at the Door (1943) by Raymond Postgate”

Weekend at Thrackley (1934) by Alan Melville

Book cover of Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville (1934)

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I’ve a sickening sensation that this is going to be one of the world’s worst weekends.”

Aspiring writer Jim Henderson can’t afford to turn down a free meal, let alone an entire weekend at the stately home of Thrackley. Admittedly, he can’t remember ever meeting his host Edwin Carson, who claims to have known his late father in South Africa. Still, once he manages to scrounge a set of evening clothes, Jim anticipates a pleasant house party.

It soon becomes clear that something very strange is going on at Thrackley. For one thing, none of the wealthy and prominent guests seem to know their host. And why is Carson’s daughter Mary so afraid of him? Wisecracking Jim and his slightly dim pal Freddie Usher are woefully unprepared for the conspiracy they’ve stumbled into.

Continue reading “Weekend at Thrackley (1934) by Alan Melville”