I have two crackers for you today – not necessarily Christmas crackers, but well suited to the season nonetheless.
Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac (1952)
This delightful mystery, written by Edith Caroline Rivett – who also published books under the pen-name of E. C. R. Lorac – has to be one of the most enjoyable entrants in the British Library’s Crime Classics series so far. Set in the snowy Austrian resort of Lech am Arlberg and a foggy central London in the middle of winter, Crossed Skis weaves together two connected narratives to very compelling effect.
The novel opens with a party of sixteen holidaymakers – eight men and eight women – journeying from London’s Victoria Station to the Austrian Alps for a combination of skiing, mountain-walking and dancing. There’s a lovely ‘jolly-hockey-sticks’ boarding-school-style atmosphere within the group as the travellers bunk up alongside one another in their couchettes on the train. While some members of the group are known to one another, various last-minute dropouts and replacements have led to others being less familiar – typically friends of friends or fellow members of social clubs. Most of the party are relatively young, and everyone seems to be glad of the chance to swap the doom and gloom of Britain, with its food rations and damp weather, for some much-anticipated merriment in the Australian mountains. The extended journey, by train and sea, serves as a good ice-breaker, offering the participants the opportunity to get to know one another as the banter flows back and forth.
On their arrival in Lech am Arlberg, the holidaymakers settle into their rooms. The available accommodation is tight, leading to some scattering of the party amongst various chalets and hotels; however, all are within easy reach of one another. The skiing soon gets underway, with the crisp, wintry landscape providing the perfect backdrop to the group’s activities. All seems to be progressing well until some money goes missing from the suitcase of one of the travellers – the Irishman Robert O’Hara, one of the lesser-known members of the group. Inevitably suspicion falls on various other members of the party, particularly the last-minute replacements, including O’Hara himself – a doubt that only strengthens when a second theft is discovered.
Meanwhile, back in foggy London, the burnt body of an unidentified man is found in the remains of a boarding house gutted by fire. The circumstances surrounding the fire are distinctly suspicious, and when the police find what appears to be the imprint of a ski stick in the mud outside the house, a possible connection to skiing is mooted. As the case unfolds, some clever detecting and fingerprint analysis by Chief Inspector Rivers leads the police to the skiing party in Lech am Arlberg, where the two narrative threads ultimately combine.
This is a lovely enjoyable mystery with just the right amount of intrigue and atmosphere. As ever with this author, the settings are beautifully evoked, with the crisp brightness of the Austrian ski slopes contrasting nicely with the gloomy darkness of a British winter. Julian Rivers makes for an engaging detective, while Kate, an observant member of the skiing party, makes an amiable amateur sleuth. With its winter holiday setting – the skiing party depart on New Year’s Day – Crossed Skis is an ideal January read. Very highly recommended for fans of vintage mysteries.
Due to a Death by Mary Kelly (1962)
From the bright and frothy to the dark and brooding…I think this might be the bleakest book I’ve encountered in the BLCC series. Absolutely brilliant, but as dark as a desolate wasteland on a cold winter’s day.
The novel’s setting is Gunfleet, a fictional town inspired by Greenhithe in the marshlands area of Kent. It’s the perfect backdrop for Kelly’s story, a slow-burning tale of hidden affairs, family tensions and existential despair. Noir lovers will likely enjoy this one – it really is that bleak.
After a Hitchcockian opening, mysterious enough to grip the reader from the start, the story is told as a flashback, narrated by the central character, Agnes, who sometimes works as a teacher. Agnes, we soon learn, is a troubled, frustrated soul. Stuck in a marriage with Tom, a man she doesn’t love, she has always held a deep affection for her step-brother-in-law, Ian, who lives nearby. However, Ian’s parsimonious wife, Helen, openly dislikes Agnes, disapproving of the latter’s impulsive behaviour and ‘fast’ dresses, much to Agnes’s annoyance. Also friendly with the two couples are Tubby, a pathologist, and his easy-going wife, Carole. Personality-wise, they are much more relaxed than Helen, certainly as far as Agnes is concerned.
The other central character of note is Hedley, who has come to Gunfleet to retire early (he’s mid-forties) and learn Russian. At first, Hedley lodges in the local pub, but then moves into Tom and Agnes’s caravan as a more convenient arrangement – one that also suits Tom, who seems worried about money. As the summer unfolds, Agnes becomes increasingly close to Hedley while he teaches her how to drive – a doomed romance that seems made for the silver screen.
The novel’s mysteries revolve around the discovery of a body, an incident that happens near the beginning of the narrative. However, the book is more of a drama or psychological character study than a police procedural – readers looking for the latter may well need to try elsewhere. The dead body is Livia, a young Italian woman who worked at the local garage and was known to all three couples. While Agnes and Carole liked Livia, Helen disapproved of her, judging the young woman to be loose and of dubious morals.
As Agnes tries to make sense of the summer’s events, we learn more about how these three couples are bound together and the connection to Livia’s death. The central characters – Agnes, Tom and Hedley – are particularly finely drawn, each with their own personal hopes, troubles and disappointments that reveal themselves over time. Moreover, Kelly infuses the novel with a strong sense of despair, a tone she accentuates in her descriptions of Gunfleet, a place that time seems to have forgotten, as if it were trapped in an airlock of loneliness and pain.
At the end of the lay-by the thickets behind the barbed wire thinned to a curtain of creeper, then stopped, where the chalk was clawed to within yards of the trunk road. A hundred feet below was the roof of the cement works; one of the cement works, for there were many. The rain had pasted its dust to khaki mud, which in patches was dried by the sun. Beyond the works lay the marsh, and in the middle distance the river, a flat aluminium sheet: the brightest sky could never make it blue. (p. 13)
Alongside the desolate sense of place, Kelly also paints a realistic picture of life for many women in rural communities in the early 1960s, where fulfilling jobs are few and far between. Museum wives who work are frowned upon, so Agnes must content herself with marking school work at home rather than teaching in a classroom. Other social issues are also integral to the story, including extra-marital affairs, unwanted pregnancies, illegal abortions, stigmas surrounding orphans, broken homes and mental illness.
This is a beautifully written, intelligent drama featuring realistic, complex characters with secrets to conceal. In terms of style, the book reminded me of some of Margaret Millar’s fiction – maybe Patricia Highsmith’s too. Either way, this is an excellent book, shot through with a sense of bleakness that feels well suited to winter. (My thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.)