Are You Respectable? Reading Crime Classics

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to read more genre fiction. You are shocked, I know. (Well, you probably are not.) The best genre fiction is as good as or better than the more anemic of literary novels. And genre books have a certain aura in our bookish household: mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy are pretty much taboo, because my husband thinks they are a waste of time, except for Simenon.

Some love mysteries, all mysteries. I prefer cozies to police procedurals. It wasn’t until I discovered Dorthy Sayers in my twenties that I enjoyed mysteries at all. Then I got hooked on the Four Queens of Crime, Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham. And in recent years I have discovered other English mystery writers of the Golden Age.

Recently, I discovered two “crime classics” by Richard Hull and Michael Gilbert. Hull especially is an expert plotter and a smooth stylist

Hull’s Keep It Quiet (1935) is the most delightful of cozy classic crime. When a man drops dead after eating a soufflé at the Whitehall Club in London, was it murder, or a natural death?

The plot unfolds at lightning pace, and Hull’s inimitable humor is revealed in the opening paragraph.

In a way it was all Benson’s fault; or perhaps it was Mrs Benson’s. It might even have been possible for those who must strive to trace things back to their primary origins to have blamed Benson’s doctor for prescribing perchloride of mercury for a carbuncle –but that would be going too far.

The trouble starts when Mrs. Benson’s wife gives her husband an old vanilla bottle filled with perchloride of mercury to take to to the club where he is chef. He knows that perchloride of mercury is to be rubbed on his skin; if imbibed, it is lethal poison. After dinner, Morrison, a chronic complainer, drops dead in the club library. Did Benson put the WRONG vanilla in the soufflé?

I love the character Ford, the bumbling secretary of the club, who reads The Three Musketeers in his office and wonders how D’Artagnan would cope as manager of the club. Ford is a nervous wreck over Morrison’s death, and initiates a cover-up. Dr. Anstruther, a club member who happens to have been Morrison’s doctor, firmly says it is heart failure. The doctor swears the panicked Ford to secrecy, because Ford tends to blab and it probably WAS heart failure.

And then it begins: a blackmail campaign. Ford and Dr. Anstruther receive threatening notes. The novel becomes darker and more sinister, so I am not quite sure if this is 100% a cozy. Sometimes I suspected the culprit, but did not know for sure till nearly the end. I did admire and enjoy this tightly-woven mystery, and will seek more books by Hull.

Michael Gilbert’s Death Has Deep Roots (1951) is part courtroom drama, part action adventure. This is a cozy, fun, rollicking novel, but you read it for action and plot: the characters are so shallow it is hard to take seriously. Victoria Lamartine, a former member of the French Resistance, is accused of murdering Eric Thoseby at the English hotel where she works. She had written a letter asking him to help her find out what happened to her English lover, who disappeared when the Nazis swooped on the farmhouse where they were hidden. The team of solicitors has just a week to dig up evidence on Victoria’s behalf. And it is a wild ride, because many criminals are involved.

Honestly, I didn’t think this was terrific. But it was published in the British Library Classic Crime series, so I had to read it.

It is fun, but perhaps this isn’t Gilbert’s best.

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