Thursday, October 24, 2013

Forgotten Books: A Murder Staged: Anthony Gilbert's The Musical Comedy Crime

I experienced a sense of deja vu while reading Anthony Gilbert's The Musical Comedy Crime. A man is murdered and Inspector Field investigates. He zooms in on one suspect and despite misgivings arrests him. Then Scott Egerton, the Liberal politician- detective of Gilbert's early novels (before the advent of her most masterly creation, Arthur Crook) enters the scene. From then on the investigation focusses on another man and how to break his alibi. The structure of the story is similar to that of  The Body on the Beam, the last Egerton novel I read, and thus it was like walking on (unfortunately for a mystery) familiar ground.

Constance Fayle is a down-on-her-luck stage-actress. With the coming of cinema, people have lost interest in watching stage-performances and theatres are closing all over the country:

And in more than one district lately the news had filtered through, the little theatre was being abandoned, transformed into a picture house; that had happened at Ealing and at Notting hill, and probably it would soon happen in other places too. You couldn't compete with the pictures. They were cheap, comfortable, could be entered at any time, and didn't involve reserved seats. (29-30).

The only silver lining for Constance is that she still gets the lead role rather than being one of the chorus.

"Like a flock of birds, you ought to be," the producer had told them - "that's the reaction you should arouse in your audience - a flock of birds." Pretty birds, indeed, thought the exhausted, underpaid chorus, joining their hands above their heads, twirling on toes encased in shoes that wouldn't bear a very close inspection, noticing drearily how tarnished the other girls' spangles were and wondering if their own were as bad, how rents had been mended in the short pink frills that stood out - like a flower, of course, that was the producer again from their tired bodies. (7)

Then one day even as she performs in a play that hasn't evoked any interest in the public, she notices a red-haired man in the audience staring intently at her. Hoping that he is some money-bags producer, Constance tries to impress him and is most gratified when he comes to the green-room to meet her. However, her dreams come crashing down when the man (a Major Hillier as we come to know later) is rude and offensive to her; rather than a business proposal for her, he has a (threatening) message for her husband, the slightly shifty Harold Fraser. An embittered Constance conveys the message to her husband who goes white-as-a- sheet and bolts out of the house.

The next day, Major Hillier is found dead in his study by his servants and the police have no clue about who might have killed him. Further, Hillier himself seems to be a rather peculiar character:

Before the war he might have found it difficult to effect an entry into many of the houses where he was now a familiar figure. But no one troubled about parentage in the old formal way; a man was accepted for what he was, had or had accomplished, for himself in short, rather than for any virtue of his forbears; society had become very elastic during the past dozen years. (39)

The police arrest Parsons, Hillier's man-servant, but once Egerton enters the scene the focus shifts to the absconding Fraser. What follows is an elaborate cat-and-mouse game between the detective and the supposed murderer.

Mystery wise, the book is not great but what saves it are the last couple of pages. As (the now successful) Constance looks back at her life, especially the initial years of marriage when two shy, lonely people had sought comfort in each other, the novel becomes heart-wrenching.

The last few pages restored my faith in Anthony Gilbert. If there is one author whose books need to be widely-available, it is Gilbert.


First Line: For the last time that evening the weary chorus swooped on to the stage.

Title: The Musical Comedy Crime

Author: Anthony Gilbert

Publication Details: London: Collins, 1936 (The Crime Club)

First Published: 1933

Pages: 255

Trivia: This book seems to have been pretty popular. First published in September 1933, it had its second impression within a month. By 1936, it was in its fourth impression.

Other books read of the same authorThe Body on the BeamThe Clock in the Hat-Box Death Knocks Three Times; Lady Killer


The book might be available in second-hand book shops. I borrowed it from a library.


Submitted for various challenges.


Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books @ pattinase.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Forgotten Book: Black Plumes by Margery Allingham

British mystery writer, Margery Allingham, is known for her series featuring Scotland sleuth Albert Campion, but she also wrote a number of stand-alone novels. Black Plumes is one such.

Frances Ivory is a troubled young lady. Her father, Meyrick Ivory, the owner of a prestigious art gallery is touring the world and in his absence the gallery is being managed by Frances' brother-in-law, Robert Madrigal, the husband of her half-sister, Phillida. The problem is that things are not being managed properly. Paintings are being slashed, priceless artifacts being broken, important programmes being burnt. And if that is not enough, Robert wants her to marry his assistant, Henry Lucar. Not only is the man downright creepy, he is the very man, Frances suspects, of being behind the vandalism. Knowing that she can get no help from the neurotic Phillida, Frances appeals to her grandmother, the formidable Gabrielle Ivory. However, the old lady can think of no solution and in desperation, Frances turns to the painter David Field, the artist whose painting had been destroyed. In order to help her, David pretends to be engaged to her. This stops Lucar's overtures (though he goes into a maddening rage) but complicates things for Frances as she has always been in love with David but who oblivious to her feelings is still in love with Phillida.

Things come to a head after a stormy meeting between David, Lucar, and Robert. The next day, Robert is nowhere to be found. Everybody is much too relieved to be too disturbed. But things take a nasty turn when his body is found stuffed into a closet. Lucar is missing so suspicion naturally falls on him. It'd be so convenient if he'd turn out to be the murderer. But Frances had seen Lucar leave on that fateful day of the fight before David did and that time Robert was very much alive. In fact, Frances had also witnessed David behaving in a suspicious manner. But should she reveal this to the police? And if things were not bad enough, intrepid explorer Dolly Godolphin, presumed to be dead these many years, turns up and claims to be the husband of Phillida. She had this habit, David tells Frances, of chalking up numbers...

Though far better than the last two Allingham that I read, this novel wasn't too interesting. I could guess the identity of the murderer (though only through the fact of the murder weapon). What irked me no end was the character of the grandmother and her devoted servant. The iron-blooded matriarch and her devoted for life-and-beyond servant might be a favourite of English writers in general and Allingham in particular but these old ladies with all the flag-waving running through their veins merely put my teeth on edge.

First Line: The October wind, which had promised rain all day, hesitated in its reckless flight down the moist pavements to hurl a handful of fine drops at the windows of the drawing-room in the big Hampstead house.

Title: Black Plumes

Author: Margery Allingham

Publication Details: Middlesex: London, 1972

First Published : 1940

Pages: 238

Other Books Read of the same author: (Among others) Tiger in the Smoke, Police at the Funeral, The Crime at Black Dudley, More Work for the Undertaker


The book might be available in libraries. I borrowed it from H.M Library at Fountain.


Submitted for various challenges.


Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books @ Pattinase. Do check the other entries.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

German Literature Month 2013

One of my favourite blogging events of the year is about to begin. As in the last two years, Caroline @ Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzie @ Lizzy's Literary Life are co-hosting The German Literature Month this November too.

I have had a lot of fun participating in the event: have discovered some wonderful authors and books and have read some great posts on German texts.

Here are the books that I have read for the event in the previous editions:

Amerika by Franz Kafka

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller

The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck

This year I plan to read (amongst others) In Matto's Realm by Freiedrich Glauser; Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig; and finish Lenz by Peter Schneider. I'd also love to read a text by a female author as this time Caroline and Lizzy are focussing on German women writers (though going by the books read, I have, in fact, read more female authors than male).

Details of the event can be found over here:

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Mount TBR 2013: Checkpoint # 3

It's time for the third quarterly check-in for the Mount TBR challenge hosted by Bev @ My Reader's Block. While the last time round I was pretty satisfied by my performance having almost climbed half the mountain in half the year, this time round I am pretty short of miles. I have just added one more book to my pile, so in all I have read six books which means I have to finish six more in the remaining weeks, to successfully scale the mountain. The only silver lining is that I have reviewed the one read in this quarter: Prime Directive by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. My first Star Trek novel, it had been gathering dust on the shelves since 2002, in effect becoming the book, that (till date) had been sitting on my shelves the longest.

Bev has also asked us to answer a few questions.

Who has been your favorite character so far? And tell us why, if you like.

My favourite character so far has been Dr. Leonard McCoy of the Star ship Enterprise whom I encountered in Prime Directive, the latest read for the challenge. Bones has been my favourite since the time  I first saw Star Trek back in the Eighties  He is quite simply the heart of the Enterprise, and over the years I have come to admire his humour and humanism more and more.

 I must add though that my fascination for McCoy stems in large part from the fact that he was played by the constantly underrated and criminally underappreciated DeForest Kelley. Kelley brought forth all the compassion that lay beneath the cranky, crusty exterior of an old country doctor. It's sad that he never quite got his due.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Friday Forgotten Book: Star Trek: Prime Directive

According  to Wikipedia,  in the universe of Star Trek, the Prime Directive, Starfleet's General Order number 1, is the most prominent guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets. The Prime Directive dictates that there can be no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations.

However, what happens when Star Fleet's most celebrated captain is charged with the breaking of this most important of the laws of the United Federation of Planets? Well, the powers-that-be use the man as an example to teach to others the fate that might befall them if they were foolhardy or arrogant enough to mess with the order.

During the final year of the Enterprise's original five year mission, the Enterprise is asked to the pre-contact world of Talin IV. The situation on that planet is similar to that of 20th century Earth with the two reigning powers: The Greens and The Browns having developed nuclear arsenal which can wipe-out the entire planet in the case of a war. And things are extremely volatile indeed. Many amongst the crew of the Enterprise do want  to make a contact with the Talins so as to prevent a nuclear holocaust. However, Captain Kirk is determined to uphold the sanctity of the Prime Directive. At the same time, it starts emerging that the Talins have an inkling that they are being observed by alien intelligence. Since the Talins are themselves not scientifically advanced to have gathered this, is it somebody from the First Contact Office (established on the Talin moon) who is responsible for making a contact with the Talins?  Kirk trying to unravel this knot, beams down to the planet, narrowly escaping detection. Before they can breathe easy however an accidental nuclear detonation threatens to turn into a full-scale war. By jamming all communication and other signals Kirk is able to prevent the catastrophe but then all the nuclear war-heads are fired at once and  a missile even cripples the Enterprise. Kirk and the other senior-officers, barring Scotty who was not on the bridge, are held guilty and stripped-off their duties, ranks, and privileges.

Kirk, having nowhere to go, works as labourer and cargo-worker under assumed names; McCoy, in a fit of anger tries to punch an Admiral, then resigns and moves to the country-side; Spock is demoted to the rank of an ensign; Uhura fights her case, loses, and is dishonourably discharged; Sulu and Chekov find work in a pirate ship. Only Scotty remains on his beloved Enterprise trying to put it back together even as he chafes under the irritating Lt. Styles. However, all of them work towards the mystery of that fateful day on Talin IV and finally coming together once more are able to clear the matter.

The premise of the novel is interesting. However, the execution of the plot is just not up to the mark. And there were points when the novel simply dragged. Also with the crew scattered, their interaction - which to me has always been the high-point of Star Trek - was severely limited and thus I didn't enjoy the novel much. If only there had been more passages like this:

"Don't you think you should do something for him?" The woman asked Black Ire.

Chekov's mouth fell open. He knew that voice.

"I don't see why, " Black Ire said as he reached up to unhook his translator mask and goggles. "I'm a pirate, not a doctor."

"Dr. McCoy?" Chekov stammered.

"Uhura?" Sulu gasped.

Uhura tossed her contact lenses aside and pulled off her veil. McCoy yanked his battle helmet off and left his hair in wild disarray.

"I hope you two know how to fly this blasted thing, " McCoy said. "Because this big oaf just blew up my retirement savings."

"You paid for that hulk?" Sulu asked in disbelief.

"Do you have any idea how much it cost to but a used spaceship and send out hours of subspace messages to build the legend of Black Ire?"

Chekov and Uhura caught each other's eye and began to snicker as Sulu and McCoy traded complaints.

"What's so damn funny , Ensign?"

"Why, nothing, Dr. McCoy," Chekov said. "I was just thinking how very glad I was to see you too."

For once, the bridge of the Queen Mary rang with the sound of human laughter. (295-296).


First Line: According to the records as they existed at that time, of the original twelve Constitution-class starships that had embarked on Starfleet's visionary program of five-year missions, five had already been lost in the service of the United Federation of Planets: the USS Constellation as the last causality of an ancient war, the Intrepid in the Gamma 7A system, the Excalibur in war-game maneuvers, the Defiant in the Tholian Annex, and the Enterprise during the incident at Talin IV.

Title: Star Trek: Prime Directive

Author(s): Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Publication Details: NY; Pocket Books, 1990.

First Published: 1990.

Pages: 406

Other Books read by the same author(s): None


New and old copies of the book can be purchased on the Net. I bought it at Delhi Book Fair in 2002.


Submitted for various challenges.


Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books @ Pattinase.