Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard (aka Pamela Hansford Johnson and Gordon Neil Stewart)

First published in 1943, Murder’s a Swine (US title: The Grinning Pig) was the second of two mystery novels co-written by Pamela Hansford Johnson and her husband, Gordon Neil Stewart, under the pen name ‘Nap Lombard’. This very engaging mystery has recently been reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics series (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). As ever with the BLCCs, there is much to enjoy here, not least the dynamic between Agnes and Andrew Kinghof, the two amateur sleuths who play a crucial role in unmasking the identity of a ruthless killer – a man operating under the rather sinister guise of ‘The Pig-Sticker’. More on him a little later…

The novel opens on a bitterly cold evening in the middle of winter as a young Air Raid Precaution Warden, Clem Poplett, takes refuge from the miserable weather in one of the designated shelters near the Stewarts Court flats. It is here that Poplett and Agnes Kinghof (who also happens to be in the shelter) discover a dead body, partially concealed amongst a pile of sandbags that have started to smell. Agnes and her husband Andrew fancy themselves as amateur sleuths, having aided the police in Lombard’s previous crime novel, Tidy Death. As such, the couple are intrigued by the discovery of the body, all the more so when something rather strange happens at Stewarts Court later the same night…

Mrs Sibley – a somewhat frail, mature lady who lives in the flat directly above the Kinghofs’ – is horrified when a pig’s head appears out of nowhere outside her bedroom window. Once the incident comes to light, Mrs Rowse, the writer who shares the flat with Mrs Sibley, calls on the Kinghofs for assistance, relating the gruesome events that have frightened her friend.

“She says she was lying in bed, with the black-out curtains open—she always opens them before she goes to sleep as she must have fresh airwhen she heard a tap on the window. She looked up, and there it was grinning at her—a pig’s head, all shining and blue, with the snout pressed against the pane…” (p. 28)

Before long, a connection is uncovered between the dead man in the shelter and Mrs Sibley, thereby suggesting a potential link between the two events. The deceased – who appears to have been murdered – was Mrs Sibley’s estranged brother, Reg Coppenstall, last seen nearly thirty years ago. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a family inheritance was the cause of a longstanding rift between the siblings when Reg was largely excluded from his aunt’s will in favour of his sister. Now the past has returned to haunt Mrs Sibley, with Reg’s son, a chap named Maclagan Steer, being the main suspect of interest. The trouble is, no one knows what Maclagan looks like, making him a rather tricky individual to unmask.

Part of the joy of this mystery comes from the relationship between the two Kinghofs, who clearly love one another very much despite the occasional difference of opinion. There is a touch of the screwball comedy about their relationship, the sort of good-natured banter that makes this novel a delight to read, especially for those of us craving a little escapism after a dull and rainy May.   

“…Andrew, there’s one big question in all this. Have you guessed it?”

He took a long drink, stubbed out his cigarette and lit another before he answered her.

“Yes, I have… Agnes, I like you in that suit. Did I pay for it, or did you?”

“You did. The pockets are quite new, aren’t they? It’s a Chaumière model. It may be a mite cold for this sort of weather, but I can’t bear to squash it under a coat. Andy, don’t fool. What’s the question?”

He replied slowly, “Who is Maclagan Steer?” (p.51)

As the novel unfolds, there are more upsetting developments for Mrs Sibley. Threatening letters appear, mysteriously signed ‘The Pig-Sticker’. By now, Inspector Eggshell is on the case, as is Andrew’s cousin, Lord Whitestone, one of the higher-ups in Scotland Yard. Lord Whitestone – who is rather confusingly known as ‘Pig’, even though he has nothing to do with The Pig-Sticker – is not terribly fond of Andrew, though his relationship with Agnes is much more conciliatory. As such, he is not very keen on the Kinghofs’ involvement in the case, which he tries to discourage at every given opportunity.

Agnes, however, remains largely undeterred, relishing the excitement of trying to identify the killer. From an early stage in the mystery, it is pretty clear that the perpetrator is Mrs Sibley’s nephew, Maclagan Steer. However, since Steer is operating under an assumed name (in addition to ‘The Pig-Sticker’) he is effectively incognito.

Murder’s a Swine is a well-paced, highly enjoyable mystery with just enough ambiguity to keep the reader guessing. The authors do a nice job of shifting the suspicion from one potential suspect to another, particularly amongst the other residents of the Stewarts Court flats, all of whom have the necessary access to the block. In some respects, the identity of Maclagan’s alias doesn’t matter too much – it’s the sequence of events and interactions during the investigation that proves most satisfying.

As one might expect of this type of fiction, the social attitudes expressed within the novel are very much a reflection of the time – particularly the descriptions of Agnes’ legs, which are lusted over on several occasions. Lurid glances aside, this is a very entertaining mystery with just the right amount of wartime atmosphere to make it feel authentic.

This night in question, a January night, was bitterly cold, after a long spell of muggy weather, and the streets glistened beneath a coating of that delicate, almost invisible rain that soaks you through to your vest within three minutes. It was half-past eight, and Clem was not expected back to the comfort of the Post, to the fire and the dartboard, the cups of orange-coloured, stewed tea, the cards and the wireless, until nine. (p. 17)

Recommended for lovers of Golden-Age fiction with an escapist edge.

24 thoughts on “Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard (aka Pamela Hansford Johnson and Gordon Neil Stewart)

  1. gertloveday

    Another wonderful writer I’d forgotten about. I loved her Dorothy Merlin trilogy The Unspeakable Skipton, Night and Silence Who is Here, and Cork Street next to the Hatters. I didn’t know about these. And what a great cover British Crime Library Classics have given this one. Sounds like great fun, ‘Inspector Eggshell’!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! It’s a terrific name, the sort of thing one might find in a Barbara Pym novel. Funnily enough, I’d been keen to read PHJ for a while, so I was delighted when a review copy of this book arrived from the publisher. Definitely a writer for me to explore further, so thank you for the tip – I shall have to take a look at that trilogy you’ve mentioned above.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard (aka Pamela Hansford Johnson and Gordon Neil Stewart) – Love & Love Alone

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is! I often worry that the BL might run out of high-quality mysteries to republish at some point, but there’s no sign of that happening yet.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. It’s a great bit of escapism. Nothing too horrific or grisly, unlike many of the psychological thrillers that seem popular these days.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I enjoyed this one hugely too, and I think the screwball comedy element was one of the things which really hooked me. It was so entertaining and yet quite dark too – a perfect Golden Age mystery book! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, totally. I couldn’t help but imagine it as a screwball comedy playing out in my head, maybe with the British equivalents of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant as the enthusiastic Kinghofs. Jessica Raine would make a great Agnes if we were casting it today.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    Glad you enjoyed this one, I thought it was really entertaining and very atmospheric. I also enjoyed the relationship between the Kingofs. Such a shame that PHJ and GNS only produced the two mysteries. However, I really enjoyed the more literary offerings from PHJ too, which she may not have produced had she continued with mysteries.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’m quite keen to read the other one now. Maybe the British Library will republish it as some point given the responses to this one? Where would you suggest I go next with PHJ. She’s a writer I’d been thinking of trying for a while, so it was a nice surprise to discover this mystery via the BLCCs.

      Reply
  5. Julé Cunningham

    This one will be published here in December and from all the wonderful posts I’ve seen, it’s a BLCC I’m very much looking forward to. Especially the Andrew/Agnes partnership with its Nick/Nora vibe.

    Johnson’s other work sounds like an interesting avenue to explore too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great combination, a little Cary Grant – Katherine Hepburn-ish in style (or the British equivalent of that dynamic, at least). I’ll be interested to see what you think of it should you decide to pick it up!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’m sure they had a lot of fun with this one. It’s a shame they didn’t write a few more, especially given the dynamic between the Kinghofs.

      Reply
  6. madamebibilophile

    Another blogger (I can’t remember who – apologies!) compared the relationship between the Kinghofs as being like the Thin Man films, which I adore. The dialogue you quoted does sound really reminiscent of Nick & Nora in those films, so this is especially tempting – although the BLCCs always are!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It was Kaggsy, I think. She definitely mentions The Thin Man films in her piece, with a reference to Martin Edwards’ introduction as I think he made the same link. It’s a lot of fun, definitely one of the most entertaining BLCCs in what is fast becoming a ridiculously strong field!

      Reply
  7. Jane

    I like the screwball comedy element, Jessica Raine but who would be Andrew? I’ll have to read it, it does sound a fun, and at least there’s the possibility that she paid for her own suit!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, maybe someone like Andrew Scott? I thought of Jessica Raine because she played Prudence (Tuppence) Beresford in the TV adaptation of those Agatha Christie novels featuring Tommy and Tuppence. David Walliams was Tommy in that series, but he doesn’t feel right for Andrew Kinghof. Andrew Scott could be a much better fit – he’s already got the right name for starters!

      Reply
  8. buriedinprint

    Oh, dear, I’m fond of pigs, so even the title of this one makes me anxious for the crime novel therein. Heheh Fortunately, there are plenty of other volumes in this series to tempt me. :D

    Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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