Sunday, August 31, 2014

1st september: War and Crime

The second world war is generally said to have began on this date in 1939. This year I have been reading quite a few mysteries that have the war setting the context of the novel. Elizabeth Farrars' Murder Among Friends which is set in London during the time of Blitz has already been reviewed. Here are short reviews of four more:


This book which followed Ambler's 1939 masterpiece, A Coffin for Dimitrios, again puts an unsuspecting individual in the midst of international espionage moves and countermoves. Graham, an English engineer with an arms manufacturing company is in Turkey finalising a deal with the Turkish government. One night, he goes to a nightclub where a dancer warns him that there is a man following him. When he returns to his room, he is shot at. The Turkish Intelligence officer, Colonel Haki (certainly one of the greatest literary creations who appears in quite a few of Ambler's books) tells him that the Nazis want him dead. Graham is incredulous, all this appears so outlandish but the bullet did injure his hand and so he agrees to Haki's proposal of boarding a passenger ship from Istanbul to Genoa via Greece.

He felt only as if he had lost something valuable. In fact, he had lost nothing of any value but a sliver of skin and cartilage from the back of his right hand. All that had happened to him was that he had discovered the fear of death.

At sea, both literally and metaphorically, Graham encounters people of various nationalities: the Serbian dancer Josette and her husband Jose, a card-sharper; a mis-matched French couple; a grieving Italian widow with her son; a scholarly German professor with his sick wife; a Turk exporter, Mr. Kuvetti, and later on a Greek businessman. But who amongst them is the man who wants Graham dead?

I enjoy novels where the tension rises amongst an isolated community. And Ambler does it real well. However, the scene that really made an impression on me was when there is a botch up by the ship's personnel and Graham is asked whether he would mind sharing the table with the German, Dr. Fritz Haller. He acquiesces and Haller and he have a pleasant conversation (though there are whispers of 'traitor' floating around). Things do not always remain the same but that scene did suggest so many other possibilities that Europe could have taken.


Published in the same year as Journey into Fear, this book is vastly different in its tone and treatment. This book is the usual chest-thumping espionage story where the English men are valiant and people of other nationalities are devious. The handsome Errol cousins, Mike and Mark, and their senior colleagues Gordon Craigie, Bill Loftus, Edward Oundle are brave men trying to thwart a plan to take over the world (with the help of a new advanced product developed by scientific experiment) by certain dictators, vile Nazis, and some misguided idealistic Britishers.

I had heard about Department Z [ Craigie had started the ultra-secret branch of British Intelligence, which he ran independently of the more widespread Espionage Branch] but this was my first reading of a Creasey novel. It might remain the only one.


We encounter an isolated community again in Christianna Brand's Green for Danger. The war is now going ahead full throttle and the Germans are bombing England with unfailing regularity. People are dying all around and yet it is the death of one man on the operating table that disrupts the order of things.

Seven people - doctors, anaesthetists, nurses, VADs join the Heron's Park hospital as the war escalates. A postman, Joseph Higgins, delivers their applications to the hospital, little realising that he'd one day be murdered by one of them. But why would anybody want to kill a postman and how does it happen in full view of so many people? Inspector Cockrill is called to investigate but even before the investigations could begin in earnest, the murderer strikes again.

I did not like the first book of Brand's that I read: Heads You Lose but this book with its war-time setting and a delicious red herring that had me completely fooled is not only worth reading but has re invoked my interest in the writer. Brand has lately received quite a bit of attention on blogosphere. You can read about recent reviews of her other books over here, here, and here.


This is a little different from the preceding three. First of all, it was published after the war was over and secondly it is written by an American.

The novel deals not with espionage in high places but tension in the domestic sphere as the men go out to war and women are left to cope with the problems back home. Lucia Holley is a wife whose husband Tom is away fighting. Living with her father and her two children,  Lucia fells that she and her husband are becoming strangers to each other. The letters she writes to him do not detail the trouble she is facing coping with an increase in the cost of living, a scarcity of things, and two headstrong children who are becoming undisciplined. The novel also suggests that Tom does not write about the terrible time he is having of the war. She does not want to trouble him, he does not want to trouble her but for all their concern for each other, they have become distant.

Lucia's real troubles start on that day when her daughter falls in love with a man whom she considers to be most inappropriate. Reasoning with her daughter Bee and appealing to the man, Ted Darby, produce no result. Things come to a head when she catches Bee going out for an assignation with Darby. Even as mother and daughter argue, old Mr. Harper, Lucia's father enters the room. On hearing that Darby is waiting for Bee in the boathouse, he decides to go there himself. On returning, he tells Lucia that Darby will not be troubling them anymore. Lucia is relieved but when she goes to the boathouse at early dawn, she finds Darby's body in the water, a spare anchor has pierced his throat. Convinced, that it was an accident caused by her father and desirous of saving him from the ensuing scandal, Lucia rows the body across to a small island.

But her troubles do not end because soon there are blackmailers crowding at her door. As she strives hard to save her family from ruin, she has nobody to turn to except for her Black American maid Sibyl. Even as the two women come close, Lucia also develops conflicting feelings about the man Donnelly who enters her life as a blackmailer but then surprisingly proves to be helpful. Can Lucia survive the war?


Of the four, the one that I liked the most was Ambler's In fact, writing about it has made me feel like picking up another book of his.


First Line: THE STEAMER, Sestri Levante, stood above the dock side , and the watery sleet carried on the wind blistering down from the Black Sea, had drenched even the small shelter deck.

Title: Journey Into Fear
Author: Eric Ambler
Publication Details: NY: Berkley, 1983
First Published: 1940
Pages: 260
Source: Open Library

Other books read of the same author: A Coffin for Dimitrios, Light of the Day, Dirty Story


First Line:

Title: Death by Night (Dept. Z # 14)
Author: John Creasey
Publication Details: London: Arrow, 1970
First published: 1940
Pages: 192
Source: H.M. Library

Other books read of the same author: None


First Line: Joseph Higgins, postman, pushed his battered red bicycle up the long ascent that leads to Heron's Park, three miles out of Heronsford, in Kent.

Title: Green for Danger
Author: Christianna Brand
Publication Details: San Diego: University of California, 1978 (Intro. by Otto Penzler)
First Published: 1944
Pages: 296
Source: Open Library

Other books read of the same author: Heads You Lose


First Line: LUCIA HOLLEY wrote every night to her husband who was somewhere in the Pacific.

Title: The Blank Wall
Author: Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Publication Details: NY: Detective Book Club, 1947
First Published: 1947
Pages: 160
Source: Open Library

Other books read of the same author: None


  1. Neer, I have not read any of these authors but all of them sound impressive. The war element is an added incentive for me.

    1. Prashant you must read Eric Ambler. I too discovered him after blogging and it has been quite a find.

  2. Neeru - I am so glad to hear that you enjoyed the Brand. I thought it was very well-done too, and she created such a wonderful claustrophobic feeling as the novel went on. The others look very good too.

    1. Margot, Green For Danger had me fooled completely. Now I really want to read Brand's Tour De Force.

  3. A wonderful post, Neer. I love books written around this time so right up my alley. I have not read Journey Into Fear but I recently read Epitaph for a Spy which I will be reviewing soon. I want to read more by Ambler also. I have read Green for Danger, liked it very much. There is movie adaptation of that book which is also very good.

    The Blank Wall sounds good. My mother was a teenager during the war, but I did know of women who became very independent during the war when husbands were away and had a hard time going back to old relationships when husbands returned.

    1. Thanks so much for liking the post Tracy. The Blank Wall wasn't too interesting mystery wise but as a social document of its age, it was pretty good. I can understand how tough it must have been for women to assume a submissive role after the was was over. The psychological changes that moments of crisis bring about are always interesting to read.