Singing in the Shrouds – Ngaio Marsh (1958)

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , , , on July 25, 2021 by cshmurak

Ngaio Marsh spent much of her life on ships, travelling from New Zealand to England and back, so she knew a lot about long sea voyages. (Maybe she’s even showing off a little in this book when she talks about things like the “forrard well-deck” and “hatch combing?”)

Ten years after Singing in the Shrouds was published, Marsh sent Roderick Alleyn’s artist wife, Troy, on a river cruise with a murderer aboard (see my review of Clutch of Constables). But in 1958, it was Alleyn himself who boarded the Cape Farewell for an ocean voyage to South Africa in search of a serial killer suspected to be onboard. The so-called “Flower Murderer” is a strangler of women who sings as he kills and then leaves flowers on the body.
   On the ship with Alleyn are four women: the elegant, flirtatious, but much admired Mrs. Dillington-Blick, the young and attractive Brigid Carmichael, heart-broken after recently being left at the altar; Miss Abbott, an unhappy spinster who is an expert on Gregorian chants; and the querulous Mrs. Cuddy, who is traveling with her husband, a draper. Which one is the likely victim?
   There are plenty of male suspects: a TV celebrity, a pedantic schoolmaster, an Anglo-Catholic priest, a young psychiatrist, an elderly philatelist, members of the crew, and the Captain himself. Alleyn is traveling incognito as Allan Broderick, and he writes home to Troy frequently, sharing his thoughts. He seems to have a most likely candidate for murderer right from the start,  but Marsh doesn’t reveal exactly who that is till the end.
   The solution is a bit too “pop psychology” for me, but the book as a whole is a smooth, entertaining read. Not one of Marsh’s very best, but a good classic mystery.

Martha Grimes: An Addendum

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Contemporary Mysteries, Martha Grimes, Mysteries on March 31, 2021 by cshmurak

Sad to say: The Old Success was a failure as far as I’m concerned.

After her previous book, The Knowledge (2018), made my Top Ten list for 2019, I was eager to read the next installment. (See my review of The Knowledge here.) But The Old Success (2019) was awful – I think she phoned it in.  Characters from books written 10-30 years ago were mentioned without explanation; other ongoing characters, like Vivian Rivington and Diane DeMornay, were brought in for no apparent reason except perhaps to give them a curtain call. And towards the end, a new character was introduced whose existence seemed unnecessary unless he is to reappear as an important character in a forthcoming book. The plot was ho-hum and the solution not very satisfying.

I became very frustrated by the references to earlier books, which I couldn’t quite place. (I’ve read all of her Richard Jury books.) Finally, I tried Googling one of the characters whom I thought I was supposed to recognize, and I found this: “Lady Eleanor Summerston, a character longtime Grimes readers will remember from 1987’s The Five Bells and Bladestone.” Really? Is it reasonable to assume that even faithful readers will remember a character from 32 years earlier in a series?!
Grimes was born in 1931. Perhaps at 90, her talents are waning? I hope not – I’d like to see Richard Jury and Melrose Plant go out in a blaze of glory, as Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe did in Midnight Fugue (2009).
(See my review of Midnight Fugue within this article.)

Parnell Hall: An Appreciation

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Mysteries on December 17, 2020 by cshmurak

Parnell Hall (1944 – 2020) died this past week, and I’m so saddened by this. Parnell was an old friend from DorothyL and from so many mystery conferences like Bouchercon and Malice Domestic. He was also an occasional penpal, sending me hilarious answers to my (I thought) innocent questions.

But most of all, he was a fine mystery writer. Because his books were so funny, some people overlooked how cleverly plotted they were. I’m referring here to his 20 Stanley Hastings books, all of which I’ve read, and the 6 Steve Winslow books (written under the pseudonym of J.P. Hailey), of which I’ve read a few. (They’re hard to find, but maybe it’s time I tracked a few more down.) I could never get into his “Puzzle Lady” books; though I love puzzles myself, I never felt that his heart was in these. Stanley Hastings, on the other hand, was Parnell’s alter ego.

As I look at the list of books that have made by Top Ten each year, I see Stanley’s adventures appearing numerous times: Client (1990), Shot (1991), Actor (1993), Suspense (1998), Cozy (2001), Hitman (2007).  I’ve used Shot, Actor and Suspense with various book groups as well, and Stanley soon became a beloved character for many.  Since Parnell started his career as an actor, the books based on that experience (Movie and Actor) were particularly resonant. Some of his later books were meta-mysteries, in which he examined various genres of crime fiction like suspense novels, so-called “cozies”, and caper novels. In Suspense, for example, he dealt with the proposition that a good suspense novel could not be written in the first person. (And guess what? It could.)

In his last days, Parnell posted on Facebook from his hospital bed, asking his many Facebook friends tp buy his latest (and only standalone) mystery, Chasing Jack. I did. But I think it will be a while before I can bring myself to read it, knowing that it’s his last.

Meanwhile here’s a wonderful video of Parnell Hall at his best, singing of the plight of many a mystery author.

Links to books mentioned in this post:

Detective (1987) if you want to begin at the beginning (nominated for an Edgar and a Shamus award)

Client (1990)

Shot (1991)

Actor (1993)

Movie (1995)

Suspense (1998)

Cozy (2001)

Hitman (2007)

Chasing Jack (2020)

When in Rome (1970) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , , on September 26, 2020 by cshmurak

Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) began writing Golden Age mysteries in 1934 and continued writing them right up to her death. Some of the later ones are excellent (see my reviews of Clutch of Constables and Light Thickens) and some are disappointing (Photo Finish). I think this one belongs in the latter category.

In this book, Superintendent Roderick Alleyn is – no surprise here – in Rome. He’s on the case of some international drug dealers and, in that role, he has been given an introduction to Valdarno, the Questore of Rome. Alleyn joins a tour group of visitors from England and the Netherlands, which is led by one Sebastian Miller, a man of dubious reputation, and features guest lectures by the famous author, Barnaby Grant. On the first day of the tour, during a visit to the Basilica of San Tommaso in Pallaria, Miller disappears. Is he dead? Has he run off? [There is a  real San Tomasso in Parione located near the Piazza Navone, as the one in the book is, but actually Marsh has based her description of the basilica on the real Church of San Clemente al Laterano, a structure built of three levels: an 11th C basilica on top of a 4th C basilica on top of an underground 2nd C temple to the Etruscan god Mithras.]

Clearly Marsh had visited Rome, (she thanks the New Zealand Ambasssador to Rome and his wife, and their staff for their help), and was very impressed with the basilica; I’m sure it is amazing. But the book lingered there for much too long to keep my interest, even with Sebastian Miller going missing. The characters themselves were not very appealing: the writer Barnaby Grant and the young woman, Sophy Jason, who works for his publisher and is clearly destined to be a love interest, are the nicest of the group. The Baron and Baroness Van der Veghel, a Dutch couple who reside in Geneva, are sweet and a bit silly, and unfortunately say things like “my darlink.” And we are reminded too often that they resemble the Etruscan statues in the underground chambers. Major Sweet is a grumpy British stereotype, and Kenneth Dorne a dissolute drug addict. The cruelest descriptions are reserved for Dorne’s elderly aunt, Lady Braceley, who still fancies herself attractive to men: “More than the precariously maintained mask or the flabby underarm or the traitorous neck. It’s the legs…But the face was not too good either. Even if one discounted the ruches under the eyes and the eyes themselves, there was still that dreadfully slack mouth.” I noted in my review of Overture to Death that Marsh in her mid-40s was very harsh in her treatment of middle-aged spinsters; here she is at age 75 treating old women just as cruelly. The spinsters were sexually repressed and ‘holier-than-thou’; the elderly Lady Bracely is the opposite: “She has experienced everything, except poverty.”

Giving credit where it’s due, I have to say that Marsh did a fine job with the plot twist near the end and Alleyn’s final disposal of the case. And I liked Alleyn’s summation: “What was the position of a British investigator in Rome when a British subject of criminal propensities had almost certainly been murdered, possibly by another Briton, not impossibly by a Dutchman, not quite inconceivably by an Italian, on a property administered by an Irish order of Dominican monks?”

BarbaraNeely: A Tribute

Posted in History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , , on August 4, 2020 by cshmurak

BarbaraNeely (her legal name had no spaces) died in March, 2020. She had recently (December 2019) been named a “Grandmaster” by the Mystery Writers of America, an honor usually given to those who have written a long list of mystery novels, going back over many years. But Neely had written only four – all about Blanche White, a domestic worker. And yet that was enough for the Washington Post to refer to her as “a genre unto herself.”

Her Grandmaster award came with this tribute: “Neely is a groundbreaking author, and MWA is delighted to recognize her work, in which she tackles tough social issues with an unflinching eye and a wry sense of humor.” (Read more from MWA here.) Among the social issues that Neely dealt with were racism, classism (especially among the Black community), standards of female beauty, and violence against women. Yet she seldom seemed preachy.

Instead, her main character, Blanche White (the name being doubly ironic), speaks with strong, edgy wit as she tells her stories. Readers first met Blanche in the 1992 book, Blanche on the Lam, as she was forced to leave her hometown in North Carolina to avoid being jailed for writing bad checks. Hired by a wealthy family to work in their summer home, Blanche soon becomes embroiled in a murder case and almost immediately is deemed the prime suspect by local police. Using the invisibility of her position and the old girl network of domestic workers, Blanche soon solves the mystery.

In subsequent books, Blanche has moved to Massachusetts with her dead sister’s two children, Malik and Taifa, and works in the homes of wealthy Bostoners. In Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (1994), Neely examines class issues in the African-American community as Blanche vacations at Amber Cove, an exclusive Black resort in Maine. A suicide, a possible murder (or was it an accident?), and a budding romance occupy Blanche’s time and thoughts. Blanche Cleans Up (1998) finds her back in Boston, working in the home of a prominent Massachusetts politician, when family secrets and a subsequent murder threaten to upset the family’s future. The final book, Blanche Passes Go (2000), brings Blanche back home to North Carolina to confront the man who raped her eight years earlier.

Recurring characters include Blanche’s family (Malik and Taifa, Mama, Cousin Charlotte) and her best friend Ardell, often “appearing” only in phone conversations but serving the dual purpose of being a sounding board for Blanche and a source of humor. There are also several men who provide romance for the definitely interested Blanche.

BarbaraNeely had the pleasure of seeing her books translated into many languages, most recently into Czech by a university class in Prague. (Here is a rare video of her, in Prague.)

Blanche White is a most appealing feminist detective wih a strong narrative voice. Thank you, BarbaraNeely, for bringing her to life. 



The Real Cool Killers (1958) – Chester Himes

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , on January 16, 2020 by cshmurak

Chester Himes was an angry man – and his mysteries are full of rage. Expelled from Ohio State University as a sophomore in 1928 for a fraternity prank that ended in a bar brawl, and sentenced to 25 years of hard labor (of which he served seven years) for armed robbery, Himes began to write short stories based on his prison experiences. The stories were published in African-American newspapers and in Esquire magazine, where they were signed with his name and prison ID number. In the 1940s, Himes moved to Los Angeles to find work in wartime industry, and found the racism and hypocrisy of Los Angeles worse than the “Jim Crow” South.  He left the United States in the mid-1950s to join other African-American expatriates living in Paris. It was here that a French publisher offered him a large advance to write a crime novel set in Harlem; within three weeks Himes produced For Love of Imabelle (later known as A Rage in Harlem), which was a great success and won the Grand Prix Policier, France’s major award for crime fiction. His two Harlem police detectives, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, became the heroes (anti-heroes?) of a series of nine novels. The Real Cool Killers was the third in that series, and the easiest to obtain for my mystery group, as it was included in an anthology, American Noir of the 1950s (1997).

The Real Cool Killers is a whodunnit. A white man named Ulysses Galen is shot outside a bar in Harlem, and Grave Digger and Coffin Ed must find the murderer. But nothing is simple, no one knows who did it, and very few people care about the truth. Certainly not the police commissioner, who just wants to keep Harlem safe for the white people who visit there for entertainment and/or the exploitation of black women. In Himes’s Harlem, the police are as brutal as the criminals – and that’s just fine with the commissioner, as long as they keep things under control. Six people die in this short novel, some killed by the police, and in most cases, no one pays for their crimes. Yet there is a certain justice to the ending that’s satisfying. It’s easy to see the influence of Himes on later black detectives like Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins.

There’s an ironic tone to much of the writing, and some of the scenes are truly comic. (In two of the films made from Himes’s books, Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and Come Back Charleston Blue (1972), Grave Digger was played by comedic actor Godfrey Cambridge with great effectiveness.) The action is fast-paced, and at only 150 pages in length, this is a quick read that manages to leave a lasting impression. Himes said of this series: “The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real; I never called it real. I just wanted to take it away from the white man, if only in my books.”  Though he had originally written them just for the money, Himes came to see his detective novels as a way to explore and express the black experience in America. This book certainly does that.


The Knowledge (2018) – Martha Grimes

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Martha Grimes, Mysteries with tags , , , on January 5, 2020 by cshmurak

I’ve been reading Martha Grimes’s Richard Jury books since the 1980s. I remember, early on, loving her precocious child characters, like ten-year-old Lady Jessica of Help the Poor Struggler (1985). Since I started keeping “Top Ten” lists in 1999 in order to post them on the DorothyL mystery e-list, Grimes’s books have appeared several times: The Blue Last (2001), Winds of Change (2004), The Black Cat (2010). I’m fairly certain that The Knowledge (2018) will make my Top Ten for the coming year. So it was with great surprise that I found, upon looking up her books on the Stop You’re Killing Me website , that only one of her books, The Anodyne Necklace (1983) has ever won a major mystery award; in this case, the Nero Award. (Not even a finalist for the Agatha?! !) Yet, she has been named a Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America. So occasionally it happens that an author is recognized for a body of work, rather than for a single title, as was true also for Ralph McInerny and his Father Dowling mysteries.

All of the titles in Grimes’s Richard Jury series are taken from the names of British pubs. “The Knowledge” is a London pub, known only to the legendary cabbies who have memorized every street and landmark in the city of London; not on any map, it is the favorite hangout of that elite group of drivers. Not even Detective Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard can find it, nor can he persuade any cabbie to take him there.

When cab driver Robbie Parsons becomes involved in the murder of a young couple outside the famous casino known as the Artemis Club, he and his fellow cabbies help track the murderer to Waterloo Station and Heathrow Airport. From there, the killer is trailed – all the way to Kenya! – by a ten year old girl, Patty Haigh, member of a group of crime-solving street urchins, and another of Grimes’s delightful too-wise-for-her-years characters.  And speaking of characters, the longtime reader of the Jury books will not be disappointed: both Melrose Plant of Ardry’s End and Marshall Trueblood, antiques dealer and denizen of the Jack and Hammer pub, play major roles in the solution of the mystery, with brief appearances by Vivian Rivington and Diane Demorney. Melrose develops a quirky relationship with Patty Haigh, and even gets to be a hero in her eyes.

The Knowledge is an intriguing mystery with some nice red herrings, and a surprising, intricate solution. The central premise, of a pub that only cabbies can find, is great fun. I thought there was a bit too much time spent in Kenya, however, and I found myself looking forward to the chapters set in Scotland Yard. But that’s not surprising: for me, Richard Jury is always the heart of Grimes’s stories.

Crime Beneath the Midnight Sun: Scandinavian Mysteries – Addendum

Posted in History of Mystery, Mysteries, Scandinavian mysteries with tags , on December 14, 2019 by cshmurak

As promised, here are my final thoughts about Jo Nesbo’s Nemesis: Like most of the members of my book group, I found the storyline of this book too complicated to be truly satisfying. It certainly was an intriguing mystery with many plot twists; several times it became obvious that events I thought I understood were instead something else entirely, and just when things seemed to be sorted out, everything suddenly changed. Very, very clever – but maybe too much so?

A series of bank robberies occur in Oslo, and the press begin to talk about the perpetrator as ‘The Expeditor.’ Nesbo’s protagonist, Harry Hole (pronounced “Hool-eh”), still reeling from the death of his former police partner, Ellen, is working on the case. His current lover, Rakel, is in Russia fighting for custody rights to her son, and so he accepts a dinner invitation from a former lover, Anna. Soon after, Harry suffers from an alcoholic blackout and Anna’s body is found – an apparent suicide. Harry suspects it was really murder, and so he begins secretly working on that case as well. And of course the reader wonders if there is a link between the bank jobs and Anna’s death.

Nesbo introduces some wonderful characters in this book. Beate Lonn, a new policewoman with an amazing innate ability to recognize and remember faces, is a great asset to Harry and to the book. Raskol, the gypsy mastermind who (perhaps) helps Harry identify the Expeditor, is another fascinating character. But while I’m on the subject of characters, was it really necessary to have characters named “Arne,” “Aune,” and “Anna?” Or “Raskol” and “Rakel?” Following the plot was made even more difficult by having to stop each time and think, “Oh yes, ‘Aune’ is Stanle Aune, the psychologist, not Arne Albu, the businessman.” And I’m not alone in this: almost everyone in the group had the same problem. Would it have been easier if we were Norwegian? I’m not sure.

The ending is satisfying – almost. That is, the reader does get some closure about Anna’s death and the identity of the Expeditor. Beate is much happier at the end, and even Harry is having a nice holiday. But a final very short chapter that refers back to an earlier book and that seems to lead into the next book leaves the reader up in the air once again.

Crime Beneath the Midnight Sun: Scandinavian Mysteries

Posted in History of Mystery, Mysteries, Scandinavian mysteries with tags , on September 30, 2019 by cshmurak

Way back in the late 1960’s-early 1970’s, I was an ardent fan of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo and their ten Martin Beck mysteries – the first Scandinavian mystery authors to be popular in the United States. Their book The Laughing Policeman (1970), set in Stockholm, was made into an American film by the same name (1973), but moved to San Francisco. In it, Walter Matthau nicely captured both the dourness and the humor of Beck, though he was renamed ‘Jake Martin.’ Sadly, having just completed the tenth mystery – and it was always planned to be only ten – Per Wahloo died in 1975, though Maj Sjowall still works as a writer and translator. There is an excellent article about them, written in 2009, here.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow, set in Copenhagen and Greenland, by Danish author Peter Hoeg was widely acclaimed in 1992, and filmed with an international cast in 1997.  About the same time, Henning Mankell’s books about Swedish detective Kurt Wallander made their first appearance in English translation.  The TV series, Wallander, both the Swedish version and the British version with Kenneth Branaugh, were quite popular on American TV. I read a few of the books and watched both series for a while, but I found the relentless gloom too dispiriting to continue.

It was the amazing success of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008) that led to the great demand for Scandinavian mysteries in English translation.  I read the first book in that series and saw both the Swedish and American film versions, but I wasn’t as enamored of the Larsson books as many people were. And since then, I’ve avoided Scandinavian mysteries, despite a delightful trip to Copenhagen and Stockholm in 2015.

So it was with some trepidation that I scheduled a series of book groups entitled “Crime Beneath the Midnight Sun” at one of my local libraries this fall. I was sure that by late fall, we would all be hopelessly depressed.

We began with Henning Mankell’s Sidetracked (1999), winner of the 2001 Gold Dagger Award – and indeed it was gloomy. But it was also a well-plotted police procedural about a serial killer who is an axe murderer. The reader knows more about the identity of the killer than the police do for much of the novel; the connection between the victims, however, is not readily apparent, so it becomes more a whydunit than a whodunit.  Wallander seems to spend a lot of time trying to remember things that are just out of his memory’s reach, a rather tedious way of providing clues, and at times the detailed description is a bit too much. In the end, some of Wallander’s messy personal life takes a turn for the better though. Nonetheless, I didn’t feel much like reading any more of Mankell’s books.

So it was with a loud groan that I opened the next book – Borkmann’s Point (2006) by Hakan Nesser – to find it was about a serial killer called “The Axman.” How had I chosen two books about axe murderers??!! But this book was quite different in tone from the Mankell book: for one thing, there were multiple points of view, a lighter tone, and a sense of humor.  Though Nesser is Swedish and wrote the book in that language, it is set in a country that might be Sweden, but is never actually identified as such. The names of the characters are mostly Dutch. The main character is DCI Van Veeteren (no first name is given), and he has a lively assistant named Inspector Munster, whose wife and children appear briefly but happily in the story. (Van Veeteren himself is divorced and has an incarcerated son named Erich.) This is definitely a whodunit, with clues and red herrings (I confess to being misled by one of them), and a few interesting plot twists. My only complaint: too many similar names in the female characters – Beate, Beatrice, Bitte, Brigitte! Though “Borkmann’s Point” sounds like a place, it’s actually an interesting concept: the moment in the investigation when enough evidence has been gathered to solve the case. (This reminded me of the old Ellery Queen mysteries, which frequently reached a point when the author challenged the reader to add up all the clues and find the solution.) Unlike my slog through the Mankell book, Borkmann’s Point went quickly and was thoroughly enjoyable.

Next up was Karin Fossum’s The Indian Bride (2007), set in a small village in Norway. Her detectives are Inspector Konrad Sejer, a 50ish widower, and his younger (and handsome) assistant, Jacob Skarre.  Sejer has a live-in partner Sara, who is a psychiatrist, and an aging dog named Kohlberg, so he is less of a loner than either Wallander or Van Veeteren. Though Sejer is clearly in charge, the two men share equally in the attempt to solve the case. But what sets this book apart is the nature of the crime and the reader’s involvement in the characters. For this is no serial killer mercilessly disposing of mostly reprehensible men. The victim is Poona Bai, an innocent Indian woman who has come to Norway to live with the Norwegian man, Gunder Jomann, whom she has recently met and married in Mumbai. We follow Gunder from the start: his decision to go to India to find a wife, his courtship of Poona, his plans for their life together. And then we watch as his whole world falls to pieces, so the emotional investment in the solving of the crime is so much stronger than in the other books. Despite the somewhat ambiguous ending, I thought this was a masterful piece of writing.

I have one more to go: Nemesis (2008) by Jo Nesbo. I hope it’s as good as these last two. (I’ll write an addendum to this post when I finish it.) Meanwhile, I’ve found two more authors whose books I hope to continue.






Gaudy Night (1935) – Dorothy L. Sayers

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Dorothy L. Sayers, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , , , on February 28, 2019 by cshmurak

In 2000, Anthony Award voters selected the best mysteries of the 20th Century; the 5 finalists were The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Rebecca, and Gaudy Night, with Rebecca taking the top prize. I have to wonder how Gaudy Night made that list. Not that it’s not a good mystery, but it’s a difficult read compared to the others. Filled with long speeches, hundreds of quotations, and untranslated Latin phrases (plus one in untranslated Greek!), Gaudy Night is certainly not a page-turner.

It is, however, a fascinating look at women’s roles in the 1930s. Set at the fictitious Shrewsbury College of Oxford University (modelled on Somerville College, the women’s college that Sayers herself attended), Gaudy Night examines the life choices made by the dons and the students who reside there. Oxford University first began giving degrees to women in 1920, and it’s clear that the women of Shrewsbury are still insecure about the status of women’s education fifteen years later. When a series of poison pen letters and vicious attacks on manuscripts occur, the Dean and the “Warden” (the president of the college) don’t want to bring in the police because they fear the effects of a public scandal on the standing of the college. Instead, they ask Shrewsbury alumna Harriet Vane, renowned mystery novelist, to investigate. Harriet has recently attended a “gaudy” (a celebration much like a college reunion) there, and is persuaded to come for an extended visit.

Harriet is no stranger to scandal, having been tried for the murder of her ex-lover five years earlier (in Strong Poison) and she has successfully investigated one other mystery (Have His Carcase), which brought her further public attention. She is also the object of affection of the famous detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. Lord Peter had been responsible for her acquittal at the murder trial and has been asking her to marry him ever since.  And Harriet has been refusing – owing him her life, she cannot marry on such unequal terms.

Harriet spends much of the book thinking about women who marry and those who choose a career instead. She sees examples among her own former classmates of those who have lost themselves in service to their husbands and those who managed to maintain careers in partnership with their husbands. She also sees the havoc that romance wreaks in the lives of the young Shrewsbury students. (It’s not just the female students at Oxford whose love lives are problematic; there are some very funny encounters with male undergraduates.)  And of course she sees the dons, many of whom she greatly admires, who have chosen scholarly careers over marriage.  So it’s with great reluctance that she asks Lord Peter to, once again, help her solve the mystery.

Sayers made it no secret that she created the character of Harriet Vane in order to marry Lord Peter off and thus end the mystery series she had started twelve years earlier. How she moves their courtship along in this book is as interesting as the solution to the mystery.