Class Acts : Elizabeth George – “A Great Deliverance” and “Payment in Blood” (Linley and Havers #1, 2)

linley havers

Elizabeth George’s “A Great Deliverance” is 1st in the now classic Thomas Linley / Barbara Havers series. A Yorkshire farmhouse beheading unearths all those hideous secrets every small British town seems to have by the score. Re-reading this I got a sharper sense of stultifying Brit classism that went over my head when I first read this years ago becoming a fan. George’s writing is always literate and evocative, Linley and Havers’ partnership starts promisingly, but the mystery itself goes nowhere that isn’t obvious. (And George’s constant reminders of how Havers’ every girl plainness is supposed to contrast with Linley’s aristocratic studliness get annoying quick.)

In “Payment in Blood,” a thespian troupe gathers at a Scottish estate to go over a talented playwright’s latest- and last- work: she is stabbed to her mattress in the middle of a busy night, and nearly everyone in the cast looks suspicious, from rival actors to roaming lovers. DI Thomas Lynley and his “frumpy,” middle class sidekick Barbara Havers are at it again, bickering about class while unraveling a tangled web that echo back to the Profumo politician sex scandals of the 60s- which were brought to the stage not long ago by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Stephen Ward” musical. Elizabeth George is American but attuned to how class in the U. K. divides more than money, but Havers is relentlessly self-righteous, basically barking at the overly-perfect Linley every time he breathes.”Look at Your Lordship, so fancy, using your lungs left and right! Did they teach THAT at Eton, you privileged scum?!?” This is all supposed to be cover for how Havers’ detective notebook is full of “Barbie Hearts Tommy” doodles, but it comes across as obsessive unwarranted prejudice, and one ends up disliking Havers’ pettiness: “Maybe he IS too classy for you, ladette, go back to Dagenham!”


Grieving Ladies : James Hadley Chase – “Lady Here’s Your Wreath” and “Miss Callaghan Comes to Grief”

lady“Lady, Here’s Your Wreath”: After learning that a death row convict has been framed, tough guy reporter Nick Mason falls for a soft girl called Mardi; Mardi disappears, and Nick has to deal with Blondie, a dame that’s tougher than him. Then Mardi reappears, proving there’s no such thing as a soft girl in James Hadley Chase’s world. 




miss“Miss Callaghan Comes to Grief”: On a hot summer night, three men sneak into the well-refrigerated city morgue to escape the heat. There, the pervs ogle the corpse of the titular Miss… and hypothesize about the tragic story behind the demise. Another great, gross, lurid Chaser.


Dreadful!: James Malcolm Rymer – “Ada the Betrayed, or The Murder at the Old Smithy”


Like comic books in the ’50s, or video game arcades in the ’80s, the penny dreadfuls of Victorian England could boast of a popularity that was allied to disreputability. James Malcolm Rymer, one of the relative titans of the genre, at least made two historical marks: his “String of Pearls” introduced Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street; his endless “Varney the Vampire” popularized many fang tropes. More than one hundred other such transgressive reads followed. “Ada the Betrayed, or the Murder at the Old Smithy,” (my first official penny dreadful ever, I think). These thrillers are not too far from, say, Dickens or Eugene Sue, except that they are stripped of any perceivable literary value (except ENTERTAINMENT, which IS a value), and so carelessly conceived that “Ada” begins in 1795 and then jumps forward ten years… into 1742; so made-on-the-spot that a character is named Joseph Gray at first, and Jacob Gray soon after; a Frank is sometimes a Frederick and at other times a Francis. Every single night is dark and stormy. Rymer is a master at stretching a novella’s worth of actual plot into 100+ installments, like a student laboriously making their way to a high word count on an essay.  But for all his carelessness and prolixity, Rymer had a genuine ability to elicit horror in the reader.


Chalice in Blunderland : Margery Allingham – “Look to the Lady” (Albert Campion #3)



“The Gyrth Chalice Mystery,” or “Look to the Lady,” as it was re-titled in its American edition, is number 3 in Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion mysteries, (after “Mystery Mile.”) There is very little “Cherchez La Femme” going on here, but the original British title is accurate: there is definitely a quest for some unholy Grail, as Campion blunders his way into the life of the Gyrth family, the proud possessors of a supposedly millennia-old Chalice. Some editor thought that fancy words like “Chalice” might put-off the unsophisticated American readers, who presumably might be more interested in “looking at ladies,” a wide-spread and appealing occupation. Kinda of how “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” got changed into “The Sorcerer’s Stone” on its way to ‘Murica, because everyone knows we don’t philosophe over here. (Ok, ok, Gyrth is an ugly word.)

Anyway, the Gyrth’s family cherished Medieval chalice disappears just before the Scion’s 25th Birthday, and a woman is found dead with her face frozen in horror. Gypsies and witches might be involved. In comes Albert Campion and his untrustworthy butler, Magersfontein Lugg, finally defined as characters. Because Allingham’s reputation ties her to Christie, and specially Sayers in the mystery pantheon, I keep on expecting Campion to be a proper detective, and these books are yet yo measure up. Here’s how he “arrives at deductions”:

“How on earth did you know?” she said.

Mr. Campion sighed with relief. “The process of elimination,” said he oracularly as he picked up the suitcase and trudged back to the car with it, “combined with a modicum of common sense, will always assist us to arrive at the correct conclusion with the maximum of possible accuracy and the minimum of hard labour. Which being translated means: I guessed it.”

I have to accept him as some sort of roguish, malapropism-happy adventurer. Campion’s disreputable butler, Lugg, is the actual outstanding hero of the series: closer to the tough, knuckle-bruised Alfred of the more recent Batman incarnations.

Independent Woman : R. Austin Freeman -“Helen Vardon’s Confession” (Dr. Thorndyke Series)

I know it’s been almost a century, but I still found it on the unclassy side when Dean Koontz casually spoiled the epochal twist in Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” in the first few pages of “Odd Thomas”. Fine, everyone knows what happens there. But do they know what happens in “Helen Vardon’s Confession”?


This addition to the Doctor Thorndyke series was published in 1922, four years before Christie’s more famous novel, and I can not help but think of it as a direct precursor, in that here we have the first-hand account of a crime (or a couple of crimes) from the perspective of a female narrator (unusual enough for the genre) who is not the investigator, or a Watson to the investigator, and who may even be a suspect.

Helen Vardon is a studious young woman who, while innocently questing for a particularly trenchant article from Addison and Steele’s “The Spectator” on the issue of Queen Anne, overhears that her father is on the border of economic scandal… And that the villainous blackmailer, a Mister Otway several decades her senior, will let it go if Helen agrees to marry. Her father refuses, but Helen bravely accepts the deal to save Dad from prison.

If this was a romance, she might grow to love the beastly blackmailer. Instead, Helen’s father dies right away under suspicious circumstances, making her sacrifice pointless, and the novel goes to some non-mystery places, as Helen separates from her new husband and learns to make a living for herself in a community of female artists. In fact, fans of Freeman’s previous whodunits were probably puzzled by the many pages devoted to Helen making new friends, learning a trade as a silversmith, developing an interest in the hypnosis fad of the time, and rekindling a relationship with a friend of her youth.  Only at the end does Thorndyke make much of a presence. This is Helen’s story; the story, to all extents and purposes, of a divorced woman standing on her own, and the bulk of the novel is constructed so that the reader of the 1920s can’t help but sympathize with what at the time was still shocking behavior.

As a mystery, the novel is much too long, and yes, Thorndyke is missed. Since Freeman tries to support the efforts of Helen to “self-actualize,” the forward-thinking thought in display is tampered by Helen’s perfect propriety.  The modern eye is upset by the idea that a century ago, people (men and women) could not get legally divorced without meeting any number of extreme legal requisites, whereas the one requisite needed is: “I no longer wish to be married to this person.” (We’re still working on this area.)

Also upsetting to the modern eye: Freeman’s many anti-Semitic barbs. Here, any number of Jewish characters conspire in greed, as though somehow the pure, civilized Anglican character is above the petty matter of money.