The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

‘Allo! ‘Allo! ‘Allo! Wot’s going on ‘ere, then?

😀 😀 😀

Another of the British Library’s collection of vintage detective stories, this one takes us away from the amateur detective beloved of Golden Age authors and gives the downtrodden policeman* his place in the spotlight.

(*Yup, no female police officers, of course, in these older stories, so I’m not going to attempt to be pointlessly politically correct with lots of he/she-ing, etc.)

The book is informatively introduced by Martin Edwards as usual, plus he gives a little introduction to each story telling the reader a little about the author. He points out that although policemen were somewhat overshadowed by their amateur rivals, they were still there throughout the period, and not always as the simple stooge or sidekick.

The stories in these collections always tend to be variable in quality, and that’s the case in this one too, with several of the fifteen stories getting an individual rating of three stars (OK) or below from me. However, I also gave three stories four stars (liked it) while another four achieved the full five stars (loved it). Overall, that makes this one of the weaker collections for me, and I found I was having to plough through quite a lot of mediocre stuff to find the gems. Perhaps I’ve just read too many of these collections too close together, but my enthusiasm certainly wore a little thin halfway through this one.

There are fewer of the usual suspects among the authors, presumably because most of the well known ones who’ve shown up in previous collections concentrated on their gifted amateur ‘tecs. But Edgar Wallace is there, along with Freeman Wills Croft, Nicholas Blake and Christianna Brand, among others. There are several I haven’t come across before and one or two who I felt didn’t succeed quite as well in short form as in their novels (always bearing in mind I’m no expert and am comparing tiny sample sizes – often one story versus one novel) – ECR Lorac, for example, or Gil North.

Here’s a flavour of the stories I liked best:

The Man Who Married Too Often by Roy Vickers – an excellent “inverted” mystery where we know whodunit and the story revolves around how the police prove it. A fortune-hunting woman tricks a man into marriage only to discover he’s a bigamist when his wife shows up. Murder ensues. It turns neatly on a fair-play clue and a quirk of the law, and it’s perfectly possible for the reader to get the solution before it’s revealed. But I didn’t.

The Chief Witness by John Creasey – a story of secrets within families and their sometimes tragic consequences. A child lies in bed listening to his mother and father argue. Murder ensues. The motivation is a bit weak in this one, but the writing is good and it’s very well told, especially the opening with the child discovering his mother’s body. Plus I liked the policeman in this one – he’s one of those ones who cares about the people as much as the puzzle.

Old Mr Martin by Michael Gilbert – Old Mr Martin is a sweet-shop owner, much loved by generations of children to whom he often gives free sweeties. (No, no, it’s not what you’re thinking, I promise!) But even so, murder ensues. When he dies and his premises are sold, a body is found buried in the cellar. The police assume it must have been a previous tenant, because it couldn’t have been nice old Mr Martin. Could it? Again I liked the writing, and this one had an intriguing plot point based on how people sometimes disappeared without trace in the chaos of the wartime bombing of London.

Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill in the film version of Green for Danger

After the Event by Christianna Brand – easily the highlight of the collection for me, starring Inspector Cockrill whom I’d met before in Green for Danger. In this story, an old detective is recounting one of his past cases to a group of admiring listeners, but Inspector Cockrill keeps chipping in and stealing his thunder. During rehearsals for a stage production of Othello, murder ensues. Othello’s wife is strangled – that is to say, the wife of the actor playing Othello. The old detective charged someone for the crime but the accused got off. Cockrill then takes over to show where the old detective went wrong and to reveal who actually dunit. Lots of humour in this one, a nice plot with some good clues, and very well told.

So plenty here to interest vintage crime enthusiasts even if it wouldn’t be the first of these collections I would recommend to newcomers. (Capital Crimes, since you ask, or Miraculous Mysteries.)

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

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16 thoughts on “The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

    • There are always enough goodies to make these enjoyable overall, but I feel I’m going to have a little break from the anthologies for a bit. Though there’s a new one coming out about murders on the railways… 😉

  1. Too many, too close together? Well, maybe, but a lot of these early crime writers wrote plenty of pot-boilers along with their “classics” and I think that shows up in anthologies. I’ll still probably read this though!

    • Yes, and quite often they’re in these collections to show the development of the genre rather than purely for their quality. But I don’t know – this one felt like harder work than usual for me. Hope you enjoy it more – and there are certainly some goodies in it!

  2. I know just what you mean about the variability of stories in any collection like that, FictionFan. But there are some great authors in this one (Brand, Creasy, Gilbert…). And of course, with Edwards’ introduction and real knowledge, the book’s got some ‘meat’ to it, too. Glad you found plenty to enjoy.

    • It was worth it for the Brand story alone! I felt it was me this time – too much of a good thing, maybe. I shall attempt to resist the anthologies for a few months. Though there’s a new one coming out about murders on the railways… 😉

    • Yes, I think it was probably me as much as the book – I need a break from these anthologies for a bit, maybe. But there were certainly enough goodies to make it enjoyable overall… 🙂

  3. Gee, I’m sorry this one as a whole fell a tad flat; still, there were some good stories included so your week doesn’t have to end on a down note! Interesting that we don’t even think twice now about females in professions that used to be off-limits to them!

    • Yes, indeed, that is interesting. And though I’m not as old as these stories(!), even in my own time there were loads of jobs that were exclusively male, and a few that were exclusively female too – like nursing. Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how far we’ve come over the last few decades. 🙂

  4. Hmmm, I think you’re right that reading too many ‘collections’ at once can hamper your enjoyment of them. I read on someone else’s book blog that they take a few weeks, even a month to read a short story collection, and this helps with their enjoyment of it, so I’ve started doing that as well. I always have a full-length book on the go, and then I sit down and read one story from a collection maybe once a week or so. This has made a big difference!

    • It’s the usual problem with review copies – I always feel obliged to try to meet deadlines, so I tend to end up reading collections in one gulp. But I think you’re totally right – spreading them out works much better, especially if it’s not a collection of linked stories. I’m going to try to resist more of these anthologies for a bit, till my enthusiasm returns… 🙂

  5. Capital Crimes is still on my TBR and I really must find time to read it. A shame that you found this to be one of the weaker collections but I do like the sound of the Christiana Brand story and Old Mr Martin.

    • Somehow I always find short stories hard to fit in – it really ought to be the other way round to. I think you’ll enjoy Capital Crimes when you do get to it. The Christianna Brand story was great – and I loved her Green for Danger too, which I think is one of the 100 novels, if memory serves me right… 😀

  6. I’m surprised someone hasn’t simply made the biggest, best-of collection of of detective fiction. I have an anthology of fantasy and science fiction from collect that’s about 1200 pages long!

    In your description of the man who dies and property is sold, I misread it to say the man died and his body was sold. Maybe he full of perfectly good organs; I don’t know!

    • Oh, I’m sure there’s loads of mega-collections, but I always find the size of them off-putting. I really prefer a themed anthology like these ones, even although this particular them didn’t work too well for me.

      Haha – the plot for a crime novel right there! 😉

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