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From Sherlock Holmes to Lacey Flint, many of the detectives I have loved over the years have been based in London. And why not? One of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world with a history stretching back for over a millennium, it has always been a contrast of bright lights and dark alleyways, extreme wealth and desperate poverty, and every one of its ancient streets is drenched in the blood of the victims of its horrid past. Visitors love nothing more than to shiver in the London Dungeon, to thrill to the stories of ancient beheadings in the Tower, to make a pilgrimage to those famous rooms in Baker Street. What river has been the escape route for more criminals and the final resting place for more victims than the Thames? Who can think of Whitechapel without their thoughts turning to the eviscerated victims of Jack the Ripper?
So what better venue for a collection of classic crime stories? In this book, Martin Edwards has selected 17 stories from the Golden Age of crime writing, some from names we are still familiar with – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Margery Allingham, Edgar Wallace – but many from authors who have since faded into obscurity. He has arranged them into rough chronological order, allowing us to see the gradual transition from the heyday of the amateur detective to the beginnings of the police procedural with which we’re more familiar today. The overall standard of the stories is variable, as in any collection, but I found most of them good or excellent, with only a couple that I felt really hadn’t stood the test of time. But even these added something to the collection in showing how trends were just as strong in early crime-writing as they are now. For example, I was underwhelmed by Richard Marsh’s The Finchley Puzzle, starring deaf, lip-reading amateur detective Judith Lee, but was intrigued to note that there seemed to be a fashion around that time for detectives with a physical quirk, since a couple of stories later we meet Ernest Bramah’s blind detective Max Carradine – not unlike our current obsession with autistic detectives, but happily without the angst (or drunkenness).
The influence of Holmes and Watson is clear in some of the partnerships between brilliant detectives and admiring narrators, (though I suppose I should grudgingly give the credit to Poe’s Dupin and his unnamed narrator really). R Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke in particular struck me as very Sherlockian, as did the aforementioned Max Carradine.
Many of the stories rely on intricate plots – ‘locked room’ mysteries, innovative murder methods, unbreakable alibis, etc. But others veer more strongly towards the psychological, using atmosphere to great effect to build suspense, and a couple of them could easily be classed as horror as much as crime. I’ve already highlighted a couple of the stories as part of my Tuesday ‘Tec! slot – Edgar Wallace’s The Stealer of Marble and John Oxenham’s A Mystery of the Underground – but to give you a fuller flavour of the collection, here are a few more that stood out for me…
The Case of Lady Sannox by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – this revenge story is definitely more horror than detection, telling the tale of a husband avenging himself against the man who is having an affair with his wife. A truly horrifying ending! And a great way to kick off the collection.
The Tea Leaf by Robert Eustace and Edgar Jepson – two men enter a room in a Turkish Bath, argue loudly, and only one leaves alive. But no murder weapon is found on the survivor or in the room. How was the murder done, and who is the killer? A fine example of a ‘locked room’ mystery with a unique method of killing.
The Little House by HC Bailey – amateur detective Reggie Fortune is asked to look into the case of a missing kitten, but this soon becomes an extremely chilling look at a case of child cruelty. The writing style is a bit staccato but the story is powerful with a strong sense of anger and justice.
The Silver Mask by Hugh Walpole – the story of the collection for me, and I will definitely be looking for more of Walpole’s work. This tells of a middle-aged lady whose loneliness and maternal feelings are played on by an unscrupulous young man. The way Walpole describes the woman’s character is very true and touching, and I found the portrayal of the unintended carelessness of her friends and family quite moving. This is another with an atmosphere of terror which mounts all the way through to an ending that is full of dread. Brilliant stuff!
They Don’t Wear Labels by EM Delafield – an intriguing story told from the perspective of the landlady of a married couple living in her lodging house. The woman is suffering from ‘nerves’ and on one evening tells the landlady her husband is trying to murder her. But the husband is so nice to everyone, and seems so kind to his impossible wife – he couldn’t possibly be a murderer…could he? Another psychological study this, of how one can never tell by appearances.
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All round, an excellent collection that I highly recommend to all crime aficionados, and I’m looking forward to reading Edward’s selection in the companion volume, Resorting to Murder.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, who publish the Kindle version. The paper version is part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series.