So I picked up three of his books almost at random, all first published in the UK in 1935. He was such a prolific writer! Most impressive to have produced three solid books like this. Two of them feature the same protagonist.
The first was one I hadn’t read before (and there aren’t many such left... ): The Unicorn Murders. It was thriller-esque – a lot of people racing round the French countryside before ending up in a sinister chateau. Among them is a famous detective and a famous criminal, probably, both in disguise.
I did not take to this one, found it quite tedious, couldn’t summon up much interest in the murder, and realized that multiple disguises and impersonations do not work for me.
So then I picked up The White Priory Murders, which – I remembered – has an absolutely brilliant solution, but a long haul to get there. The explanation for the impossible crime is wonderful, perfectly worked out, and with one of my favourite elements – a realization of a superb piece of logic which explains someone’s location. If only the phrase ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night time’ wasn’t already taken, and by now something of a cliché!
BUT, there are really no spooky or supernatural elements to the book.
Like Goldilocks (Ghostilocks), I turned to my third book: The Plague Court Murders.
NOW you’re talking.
It has never been a favourite JDC, but you cannot fault it for scarey sinister spooky supernatural happenings, historic connections, ghosts and seances. The full bingo card.
‘At Joseph’s first séance there was mention of the uneasy ghost at Plague Court, and the spiritual agonies of James Halliday’
I mean, there is a character in the book called Louis Playge, a 16th century hangman’s assistant who had a special knife for… don’t even think about it. There is an ancient document, text reported in full (I never want to read these, but I appreciate the added atmosphere). We are good to go....
There are moments like this one:
Inside, somebody screamed.
‘It was the handle of a knife,’ she said, ‘touching the back of my neck.’
It’s quite a grim book, not much in the way of light relief. There is a middle section of interviews with the key people – this was quite Ngaio Marsh-like, but interestingly I did NOT (as I do with Marsh) find this dull and time-wasting: I found it very helpful as a round up as to where everybody had been at the key times. It didn’t help me solve the crime, mind – I got one set of clues and id’ed someone who turned out to be an accomplice, but was way behind JDC about everything else.
There is a nasty piece of work called Lady Benning – I particularly like JDC when he is not being over-respectful to the upper classes. This one was snobbish and horrible and genuinely weird.
So – a big Fright Night success. Enough to give you bad dreams…
The picture of a séance is by Vaino Kunnas, is in an art gallery in Finland, and is part of the Google Art Project.
The photograph I have also used before, and as I said then, it is from an alarmingly spooky collection of spirit and séance pictures held at the UK’s National Media Museum.