Tuesday 27 October 2020

Read in 2020 - 23: The Enemy in Our Midst

The Enemy in Our Midst: A Lord Charles Stewart Mystery

by  John E. Conley

Published in 2015 but having the look and feel of a "Golden Age" classic mystery with all the ingredients you would expect from such a book: 

A cast of characters ranging from Lord Charles Stewart and his faithful, super capable manservant to the men and women gathering at a Colonel's country house where aggressive undercurrents and surprising allegiances reveal themselves to the more observant of the group, to a beautiful young shop owner from the village with a secret past, and a clever school teacher. Add to that the setting in Yorkshire which I know rather well - seaside towns such as Scarborough and Whitby are as much part of the story as the aforementioned country house and the moors.

The story is set in 1928 when a Colonel invites a group of men for a reunion who were under his service during the war that ended 10 years earlier and left the world forever a changed place. Lord Charles is also invited, but the private conversation he was supposed to have with the Colonel one evening never comes about. Instead, he finds the man stabbed to death in the library - the knife clearly belonging to one of the guests.

Charles is sure all is not what it seems, and although at least one of the invited ex-soldiers would have a motive for killing the victim, he believes the murder has nothing to do with the war. But how to prove it, especially when the inspector in charge starts to see Charles himself as a suspect?

I much enjoyed this book, its setting, its characters and the rather well-plotted mystery. The author is American, which sometimes shows in the language; a good editor would maybe have meted out those small hiccups. One example is the "den" the characters often retreat to for a smoke and a drink or to interview a suspect or witness. A den is a typical US-American term; for an English country house, you would talk of a snug (if the room were relatively small) or a drawing room (if large). What I found a little irritating was the frequent "grinning" of people at each other or at something someone said, when smiling would have been the more appropriate term. But it is just me being picky and does not really take away from the overall pleasure of this book.

I found it for free at the Kindle store a few years ago and can imagine looking for more of this series. Amazon says about the author: "John E. Conley (1952- ) was born in Pittsburgh, PA. His major literary influences have been Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. His Lord Charles Stewart mysteries are set in the UK during the late 1920s and early 1930s."


  1. Sounds a good book, and i am feeling nostalgic for the setting. Thanks for the r review.

  2. A murder mystery set in Scarborough and Whitby in 1928: Hard to resist. The cover photo looks like a house modelled in the Italianate style; there are such houses in England. Comparisons are odious, but Lord Charles Stewart reminded me of Lord Peter Wimsy.

    As a boy who enjoyed Sherlock Holmes, I remember being fascinated by a Sherlock-clone called Sexton Blake whose stories I never managed to find. Last week I purchased a new paperback of original Blake stories, and was disappointed by their one dimensional nature. Sexton is cardboard. Sherlock had brooding Byronic genius.

    Waterstones in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, have a display of Crime Classics from *the Golden Age* republished in paperback by the British Library. The covers are taken from English tourist posters of the Twenties and Thirties.

    I purchased *The Hogg's Back Mystery* (see the cover online) by Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957), a Dublin-born railway engineer who wrote many successful murder mysteries.

    Then I went back and found *The Methods of Sergeant Cluff* and *Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm* by Gil North (1916-1988).
    Cluff is a detective who lives alone, except for his faithful dog, in a cottage in a bleak but landscaped Yorkshire town.
    In the 1960s the BBC dramatised Cluff (black and white) with Leslie Sands in the lead role.

    How about a private investigator who works in the Black Forest region of Germany? A woman with, erm, secrets.
    Many years ago P.D. James wrote a good book like that, *An Unsuitable Job for a Woman*. Unsuitable no longer. Times have changed.

    1. There are several similar set-ups in crime fiction, where a well-to-do amateur sleuth is assisted by their servant; I was reminded of a few other books as well. After all, the story is modelled on the classic Country House mystery.
      From when I was about 12, I read Sherlock Holmes mysteries, introduced to them by my Dad. On my Netflix viewing list, I have "Enola Holmes", a film about Sherlock's younger sister - could be interesting and fun to watch.

      I know about the Crime Classics republished by the British Library, and have in fact bought, read and reviewed one of them: The Case of the Missing Bronte. You can find my post from 2016 here.

      A private investigator in the Black Forest would certainly have plenty to investigate; rivaling wood cutters, rich hotel owners, unfortunate hikers come to mind. Last but not least, the area is brimming with legends and myths of ghosts and other supernatural appearances.

      I have deleted the nasty spam comment made by "Unknown"; your reply to him or her disappeared along with it - sorry.

    2. I am happy to have read your review of Robert Barnard's novel.
      *Nobody dies, although there is some bloodshed.* Nancy Mitford in a nutshell !
      I don't have Netflix or Sky but I shall purchase Enola Holmes in DVD.
      Sherlock had a brother Mycroft, I cannot think what became of him.
      I see that an English novelist has revived Professor Moriarty the arch-enemy of Holmes.

      Readers enjoy fiction in which geography and people interact dramatically as it would in the Black Forest.
      Nicholas Freeling did this in his novels about the Dutch detective Van der Valk; and after Van Der Valk was killed, he wrote about a French detective. Like Simenon's Maigret, Freeling's men were happily married to women who could provide delicious meals. There is a novel about Van der Valk's widow.

      Freeling was an accomplished chef who spent most of his adult life in Holland and France. His books are not plot-driven, his sentences can be cryptic, but they appealed to those of us who hungered for life in Continental Europe. He wrote a non-fiction work, The Kitchen Book, as good as M.F.K. Fisher.

      One of the joys of living in Glasgow today is that it's so polyglot.
      I spoke to a young woman in my local Waterstones and she is from Bulgaria; I thought she might be Italian. I am sorry to hear some Polish people are returning home, but we have quite a lot of Russians as well as Chinese and I hear French spoken.

    3. Your remark about fiction in which geography and people interact dramatically somehow - although not really related - reminded me of Mark Twain's "The American Claimant", which is a book with "no weather". If you like, I have posted the review for that book here.

      In my part of Germany, the largest group of immigrants are from Turkey, followed by - in no particular order - Syria, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Croatia, Serbia, and many more. In my semi and the one sharing the middle wall, there are seven flats with a total of 15 or 17 inhabitants (I am never quite sure about the adjacent house). Out of these, exactly two are German; myself and a woman on the ground floor. There are one Syrian and one Italian; everybody else is Turkish.
      In spite of that, I do not understand any more of their language than maybe five words in total.

    4. Thanks for letting me read your droll review of The American Claimant.
      A novel without weather? As unthinkable as spaghetti without wine or Bratwurst without Lowenbrau. Mark Twain feared bathos in thunderbolts and cliches in snowfalls, especially in a sugary Xmas Eve story. Scott Fitzgerald added sweeteners for his Saturday Evening Post Stories, and wasted much good material. Poor man, he died with his novel The Last Tycoon unfinished.

      I feel sorry for our own Syrians, Greeks, Romanians, Serbians enduring our raw winters. We have days when morning looks like night; as a child I used to wonder if the world was going to end on these day, but I loved the bright lights of cafes. Once I was in Edinburgh on January 2 and a gust of fierce wind blew off of Arthur's Seat. The waitress in the cafe laughed and said, *Ah hope that's no ma hoose fallin' doon!* Mark Twain would have laughed.

  3. Anachronisms like "den" annoy me quite unreasonably, I feel. I have decided it is because they break the spell and force me to stop suspending my disbelief. Big houses often had a smoking room, didn't they?Although I think they had to be VERY big for that. Of course people didn't just smoke in them,men socialised together too.... really how I imagine a man's "den" in America, only perhaps with stags heads on the walls instead of baseball caps or something :D

    1. You are right, such slip-ups break the spell and the reader is instantly reminded of the fact that the book was not written at the time and place in which it is set.
      Other rooms in the house are described as sitting rooms, and then there is a study and of course the library, where the murder happens. That "den" could have also been called a smoking room, I agree. And definitely no baseball caps there :-)

  4. I love the setting and the time period of this book. Your description makes it sound like a book I might enjoy. I am not familiar with the author but I think I will check him out. Thanks for the review!

    1. You are welcome, Bonnie, and I imagine this kind of book can provide you with just the right amount of escapism - certainly not a bad thing these days!

  5. Question: Have you read any of Elizabeth George's books with her wonderful Inspector Lynley? I find them exceptional.

    1. I have, Jill, and I was very keen on reading every book in the series. However, the last or next-to-last (sorry, can not remember) I found so hard-going, way too lengthy in many parts, that I must admit I gave up.
      How do you like the TV adaptations? Havers is my favourite character in those; I also like her in the books. I never quite warmed to Helen, though.

    2. This is remarkable. I, too, found the next to last (or last, I can't remember either) way too long and too convoluted to hold my interest. I like the Haver character best also. Seems we have similar tastes and I count that as a good thing.

  6. I think the "small hiccups" would probably have disturbed me too, even if probably sometimes mix British and American expressions myself. (Reading and hearing a lot of both from both TV-series and books - and blogs...)

    1. Same here, Monica, but British English is what I use mostly, of course due to my links with family and friends in Yorkshire (and elsewhere in the UK).
      At school, we started learning British English, then there were two or three years where the focus was on American English, only to switch back to British again. The American English was actually the more natural choice - after all, our entire area was full of US military and their families. You could pay with dollars in almost all the larger shops in Ludwigsburg at that time. It all ended in the early 1990s, when the American settlement next to Ludwigsburg was given up and the troops stationed in our area where withdrawn back to the US after the Gulf War.