Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Candlestick

Some titles just jump out and hit you between the eyes. Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Candlestick is one of them. It’s so evocative, apart from anything else. Took me straight back to evenings playing Cluedo with the kids, and all the joys of that most random of games. Random for us especially because of the wide age range and abilities of the children. No names, no packdrill, but some of us were better than some others, and some didn’t get the hang of it at all.

So a game of Cluedo could be puzzling, exciting and funny in almost equal measure. With the bonus that it made you actually want to be a murderer, or maybe a detective (unlike the mega-boring Monopoly, which successfully put me off getting rich for life).

Whether this is where Dennis Hamley got his first idea from I have no idea, but the title story in this volume is steeped in all those fears and feelings. It tells the story of a group of school kids sent up to Cumbria on a geography field trip, to stay in a big old, cold old, spooky old house.

As the narrator, Laura Lomas, puts it, ‘lots of people love the Lake District. I don’t. I hate it: it’s a lot of wet and a lot of steep – things to fall in, and things to fall off. And, come to think of it, I hate geography too.’

Still, there’s always Cluedo. Except that every game they play (and that is many) ends up the same. Colonel Mustard, in the Library, etc… And to make it that much worse, the hated geography master running the field trip is called Mr Mustoe, who almost certainly got his training at Prison Warders’ School or the Army Corps of Screaming. Very quickly, Laura is, quite frankly, ‘ready to kill.

And also very quickly, Mr Mustoe dies. Face downward with his skull smashed in. In the library, with a candlestick. At least the police teams bring the kids some outside excitement, and there are clues and theories galore. Laura is a very unreliable witness indeed, and the whole thing flips from mystery to comedy to ghost story very satisfactorily. It’s nicely gruesome, too.

There are three more stories in the collection, ranging from fantasy to a very silly comedy about a referee (the worst in the world, probably) who sells his soul to the devil in return for some skills. He doesn’t ask for much, for Norbert Nosworthy is as modest as he is incompetent. And the deal is a good one, certainly. For twenty one years he is the best, the very, very, very best. He would, he tells the devil (whom he thinks is just a friendly fellow he has met) like to go on refereeing for ever. For ever. Oh dear, Norbert – do be careful what you wish for… Football’s not my normal bag, but I actually laughed out loud at this.

More straightforwardly ghostly is Hospital Trust, which is almost a cautionary tale. Morley Cartwright’s mother, by some unfortunate circumstance, can’t see her normal doctor, and gets a locum called Dr Grout – ‘incredibly tall, unnaturally thin, black-suited like a badly-dressed spider,’ who manages to very nearly kill her. Told by the authorities there is little they can do about it, they determinedly cause such a fuss that Dr Grout is struck off. They, and everybody else, are assured that he will never, ever practise again.

Five years later it is Morley himself who needs urgent treatment. On a foggy, foul, winter day he goes back to the surgery, registers – then takes his turn. He turns the handle and walks into the consulting room. To meet a man behind the desk ‘black-suited, yellow-toothed, bending over like a broken arch in a ruined castle.’ Dr Grout. From there, Morley’s fortunes go downhill…a very, very long way downhill.

The other story is a fantasy involving creatures etcetera from another world, which I’ve never been able to get along with much. Am I the only person in creation who thinks The Lord of the Rings is total tripe? Probably. So don’t take my uninterest in The Other Task as a worthwhile take on it – I just didn’t warm to it.

But three out of four is good enough for me. It’s a lovely little volume for children, and for me as well. And I’m a bit grown up. What’s more it only costs a quid.

Reviewed by Jan Needle

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about Dennis Hamley