Continental Crimes edited by Martin Edwards

The Brits abroad…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

This is another in the British Library’s series of anthologies of vintage crime stories edited by Martin Edwards. This time, the focus is on Continental Europe as the authors take us to casinos in Monte Carlo, catacombs in Rome, castles on the Rhine, in search of the usual murder, mystery and mayhem. To be clear, this is British authors visiting the Continent – I believe there’s a new anthology coming along soon containing stories by non-Brits translated into English, some for the first time, which should be fun.

I found this collection quite variable in quality. Although there were certainly enough 4 and 5 star stories to keep me entertained, there were also several stories that didn’t quite cut it as far as I’m concerned. Partly this is to do with the settings – I freely admit I prefer the traditional English manor house or village, or the foggy streets of London, as the setting for my vintage crime fix. But also it’s because sometimes I felt the setting wasn’t really brought to life terribly well, or there was a touch too much of that British condescension towards all foreigners.

Oddly there were also a couple of stories where the attitude towards (lower-class) women goes well over the out-dated line towards outright misogyny – not a thing I’m normally aware of in vintage crime. Something about going abroad seems to bring out the worst in Brits, I think! I hasten to add that one of these stories was written by a woman, Josephine Bell, who clearly felt that her young female murder victim had brought her fate on herself by her unladylike behaviour in pursuing a man – it actually contains the line “She was asking for it!” The other one was by Michael Gilbert who rounds his story off with the equally astonishing line: “Many a successful marriage has been founded on a good beating.” Well, Mr Gilbert, should you ever propose to me, I’ll be sure to give you a sound thrashing before I reply…

There’s also plenty of good stuff, though. There’s the usual mix of well known and more obscure names among the authors, and a nice mix of crimes, from ‘impossible’ mysteries to revenge murders, blackmail, theft, greed and even the occasional haunting. Here’s a little selection of some of the ones I enjoyed most…

The New Catacomb by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I know I nearly always select the Conan Doyle story, but that’s because he’s such a great storyteller. This one is a lovely little revenge tale which climaxes in a catacomb in Rome. An interesting story well told, and with some effective touches of horror – make sure you don’t read it if there’s any danger of a power outage…

* * * * *

A Bracelet at Bruges by Arnold Bennett – While Kitty is showing her new expensive bracelet to another woman, it somehow gets dropped into a canal in Bruges and is lost. Or is it? This is more of a howdunit with a neat solution and has a rather charming little romance thrown in. But the reason I enjoyed it so much is that it reminded me of the sheer quality of Arnold Bennett’s writing – an author I loved when I was young, though for his fiction rather than crime, and had more or less completely forgotten. Must revisit him!

….‘What an exquisite bracelet! May I look at it?’
….It was these simple but ecstatic words, spoken with Madame Lawrence’s charming foreign accent, which had begun the tragedy. The three women had stopped to admire the always admirable view from the little quay, and they were leaning over the rails when Kitty unclasped the bracelet for the inspection of the widow. The next instant there was a plop, an affrighted exclamation from Madame Lawrence in her native tongue, and the bracelet was engulfed before the very eyes of all three.

* * * * *

The Room in the Tower by J Jefferson Farjeon – our narrator, a writer, goes to stay in a castle on the Rhine looking for inspiration and atmosphere for his book. Perhaps he gets more atmosphere than he anticipated though when he gets lost in the gloomy corridors and ends up in the haunted tower. The story in this one is a bit weird but Farjeon builds up the tension well and there are some genuinely spooky moments.

* * * * *

So even though this isn’t my favourite of these anthologies, there’s still plenty to enjoy. And I haven’t even mentioned the Agatha Christie story…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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49 thoughts on “Continental Crimes edited by Martin Edwards

  1. Gosh, I am a bit shocked at some of the ‘old-fashioned’ attitudes you mention! Even adjusting to the ‘vintage’ ways of the time, this seems excessive! One can always rely on ACD to provide a cracking tale for these anthologies. I loved the Miraculous Mysteries one (I think that was the title) but there were a couple of stories that certainly weren’t up to the standard of the others. Always a bit of a risk in an anthology, but I am very tempted by this nonetheless! 🙂

    • That was what I felt too! I’m used to filtering out the racism, anti-Semitism and general sexism, but these two stories seemed to take it to new level. Still, there were plenty of good stories too. I love that nearly every one of these anthologies starts with an ACD story – it always starts them off with a bang. And there’s usually a Christie lurking in there too. Glad you enjoyed Miraculous Mysteries – I think my other favourite is Capital Crimes, where all the stories are based in London. Though every one has been more good than bad. I’ve just acquired their one based on police detectives, The Long Arm of the Law… 😀

      • Capital Crimes is definitely on my list, I just love a good London mystery! The Horowitz seems to be slipping further down my list – why is there never enough time to read all the books?! I keep meaning to take a week to just read but it never happens *sigh*

        • I heard the Horowitz is the first in a series – hmm! Not good news for me, but hopefully you’ll enjoy it more than I did. Yeah, I theoretically have loads of time to read, but somehow I still don’t manage to get through them all…

          • A series based on a partly fictional version of his own life? What sort of author would write books like that… 😉
            If I can find a way to do away with sleep, I reckon I will be able to read everything. But even then, no doubt something will crop up. Pah!

            • What?!!?? You mean… you’re… the Dean???

              Audiobooks are the answer, I’m certain – during housework, driving etc, etc. If only I could find a way to stop them sending me off into a nice little nap…

    • From Martin Edwards’ little intro, I get the feeling Bennett only wrote an occasional short story in crime, but apparenly he also reviewed crime novels sometimes, so was clearly a fan of the genre. I don’t know Eleanor Farjeon, but again Edwards informs me that they were siblings…

      • I enjoyed Cronin a lot in my yoof too — a childhood spent watching Dr Finlay’s Casebook sort of geared me up for the novels in my late teens and early twenties. Like you I keep meaning to go back and read/reread — not much difference, since I imagine now I’d not remember which I’ve read and which I haven’t!

        I’d like to revisit J.B. Priestley, too, although there I know I’ve read all the fiction (and most of the nonfiction, perhaps all the plays and essays . . .).

        • I loved Dr Finlay – in fact, I pride myself I can still say “Janet” in exactly Andrew Cruickshanks’s accent, not to mention doing a very fine impersonation of Janet herself saying “Doctor Finlay”. They’re my only truly successful impersonations. I briefly worked beside an actual Dr Finlay in later life, and had to struggle really hard not to do a Janet every time I had to mention his name…

          I think I read a couple of Priestleys back in the day, but don’t remember them at all – oh, dear, another one to add to the list…

  2. I must read more Bennett, for a start, his “These Twain” fills in a year on my Century of Reading but I have yet to read the book before it in the series. This is an interesting excursion for the crime series, isn’t it; maybe there just weren’t enough really good ones.

    • It’s so long ago that I can’t remember which of his books I read back in the day, nor anything much about them except that he was one of those authors I used to look out for in the library. I really must stick at least one of his books on the TBR. I always find the quality of these anthologies variable – I think Edwards likes to showcase some of the fogotten authors alongside the big names, which makes the books interesting but sometimes remind us why some writers get forgotten!

    • Hahaha! One feels he might not get along very well with the ‘modern woman’! 😉 I’m really enjoying getting better acquainted with vintage crime at the moment – some I remember from when I was young and others who are completely new to me.

  3. That’s the thing about anthologies, isn’t it, FictionFan? The stories in them can vary quite a lot. And, of course, Golden Age stories vary a lot, too, in quality, so I suppose that makes sense. It’s interesting, too, how you picked those patterns-across-stories of things that didn’t appeal to you. I’m sure there are some of those threads that go across the writing of that time, if I can put it that way. But, with Edwards at the helm, I’m not surprised that there were also plenty of good ‘uns in this collection, too.

    • Yes, the quality of the stories in almost any anthology varies, but so long as the overall balance is in favour of good ones, I don’t mind. Ha – I think this one suffered from the British attitude to foreigners as pretty much being inferior whatever their race – I’m sure even the hideously sexist comments were worse because the girls in question were lower-class foreigners – we can be snobbish, xenophobic and sexist at the same time! What fun! 😉

  4. Some of my favorite Agatha Christie mysteries (too often consumed in video format, I’ll confess!) are set in remote locales. Wonder which one this collection contains!

    It is true that the prejudices rampant during the heyday of the British Empire strike a false note today. But we were not always a global society, with tolerance and understanding offered generously to all. This is a very modern attitude i think, only possible with the blurring of borders that modern technology provides, and no where near universally held, even now.

    I think part of the benefit of reading older works, beyond admiring the craftsmanship, is the insight you get into the attitudes of the day. The choices of the era, or of the individual characters , become more believable, and therefore more sympathetic, when we consider the context.

    Books are generally written for their own times, not ours, and judging them by todays standards can cause us to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    Sorry for the sermon. 😊

    • It’s a Parker Pyne story, which I admit were never really my favourites. But her stories are always worth reading.

      Yes, indeed – part of the joy of reading older books is in seeing how far we have, or haven’t, come! I can always overlook the general racism, sexism and anti-Semitism, unless it’s extreme, but I still think it has to be noted in a review since some people really find it off-putting, and ultimately reading is for pleasure. These two stories went beyond the norm even for the time, I felt, though – I can’t remember another early twentieth century author who advocated beating one’s new bride in order to ensure the success of one’s marriage… If he were alive today, he’d probably be a rapper! 😉

    • The selections in these are always a bit strange and I do think copyright probably has a lot to do with it. But I enjoy it because it means they’re not all stuffed with the usual suspects. And the authors quite often turn up later in the BL’s Crime Classics series, so I like having had a glimpse already to get some idea of whether I might like their style.

  5. Yikes! Some of those offensive phrases you quoted made me shudder! Thank god we’ve come so far.

    Anyway, I know what you mean about having a preferred setting for a mystery. I like anything isolated, because being alone is what gives me the creepS!

  6. I had no idea Arnold Bennett wrote any crime fiction. He’s a writer I’ve not yet experienced fully but I do have Clayhanger and Anna of the Five Towns on my shelves

    • I get the impression from Martin Edwards’ little intro that he only wrote a few short stories in the crime genre. It’s so long since I was reading him that I can’t remember which I’ve read – I just have a general memory of him being one I used to look out for in the library. But I did like that kind of social realism – must put one of his books on the TBR while he’s in my mind…

  7. The last photo of the foggy castle looks just like what we woke up to here this morning (minus the castle, of course!). Nothing like a good fog to heighten the scare-factor of a good mystery!!

    I’m a bit put off by the examples you’ve provided — the woman who “was asking for it” and the “marriage beating.” Yikes, to think that was the norm just a few hundred years ago! That story about the bracelet, though, sounds most interesting.

    • I love fog! Except when I have to drive through it. I used to have a long commute part of which was over a notoriously foggy moor – sometimes you just had to pull over and wait for it to lift… spooky! Ha – sometimes these old stories cheer me up by making me realise how far we’ve come since then. I doubt Mr Gilbert would find it easy to get a girlfriend these days… 😉

    • Ha! Yes, the Brits abroad did like to look down on all these silly foreigners who couldn’t speak English or even make a decent cup of tea! 😉 I’d have liked the opportunity to have a full and frank exchange of views with Mr Gilbert on the subject of wife-beating though… 😉

    • Ha – I know! I try to look on it as an indication that things are actually better now, but occasionally it’s so strong it makes me gasp. It’s so casual – I was reading a Maigret the other night where suddenly out of nowhere Maigret mentions that every race has its own unique smell… goodness! I hope I don’t smell of haggis…

  8. These anthologies can be a good way of trying out some ‘new’ authors alongside the more familiar ones. Nevertheless, as you say, they can be a bit uneven (I felt that way about Serpents in Eden, the countryside crimes ones). It’s a shame about the misogyny and condescending attitudes in some of these stories – I quite fancied the idea of the continental settings!

    • I missed Serpents in Eden when it came out, but must try to get to it sometime. I enjoyed this one overall despite the attitudes but I do think the authors on the whole don’t appear at their best when taken out of their comfortable English settings. I’m quite keen to see the one with translated stories in it to see what was going on elsewhere in crime fiction at the time. Apart from Maigret I don’t think I’ve sampled any ‘foreign’ crime from that era. I do find the standard varies though – I like meeting ‘new’ authors but it’s sometimes not hard to see why some of them have been forgotten…

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