Bodies from the Library 2 edited by Tony Medawar

A case of the finest vintage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

I’ve read lots of collections of vintage short mystery stories over the last few years, as publishers have responded to what seems to be a growing appetite for the style of the Golden Age authors. I’m always struck by how many of the major novelists of the period excelled in this format too, while it would appear that there were many other authors who more or less specialised in short stories. This collection of fifteen stories includes some of the biggest names of all, like Sayers and Christie, some of the authors who are currently being resurrected for a modern audience, like ECR Lorac and John Rhode, and some whose names were unfamiliar to me, though they’re probably well known to real vintage crime aficionados, like Helen Simpson or C.A. Alington.

Described as ‘forgotten’, the stories are previously uncollected and in several cases unpublished, so even those who have read quite widely in this genre will find some real treats here. There are two novellas – a previously unpublished one from Edmund Crispin starring Gervase Fen, and one from a writing duo I hadn’t come across before, who styled themselves Q. Patrick. Dorothy L. Sayers fans will be thrilled by the inclusion of a never-before-published Lord Peter Wimsey story, and Margery Allingham fans will enjoy her script for a radio play. Tony Medawar provides brief but informative literary bios of each of the authors, which throw up some interesting factlets, such as that “Peter Antony” was actually an alias used by the famous play- and screen-writing brothers, Peter and Anthony Shaffer.

This is one of the best mixed anthologies I’ve come across. There is the usual variation in quality, of course, but I gave 11 of the stories either four or five stars and found only a couple of them disappointing. And the five which got the full five stars are all great – they alone make the book a real treat. Here’s a flavour of them:

No Face by Christianna Brand – A psychic claims to be receiving messages from a bloody serial killer, known only as No Face. Is the psychic a fake? But if so, how does he seem to know where the murderer will strike next? This is excellent – it has a real atmosphere of creepy dread that is as much horror as crime, The characterisation of the psychic is very well done and there’s a delicious twist in the tail.

Exit Before Midnight by Q. Patrick – A group of eight people are trapped on the fortieth floor of an office building on New Year’s Eve as a murderer picks them off one by one. Carol is the central character and to add to her woes two of the men are vying for her attention. But could one of them be the murderer? Oh, and did I forget to mention? The lights have fused and they only have a limited supply of matches…This is novella length, with great plotting and real tension, while Carol’s dilemma adds a light element of romance to lift the tone. Loved it, and will be hoping to find more from this duo.

Room to Let by Margery Allingham – This is a radio script, so is given to us purely as dialogue with a few stage directions. It’s a first-class mash-up of a The Lodger-type story and a locked room mystery. Following a fire at a private asylum, a mysterious stranger rents a room from Mrs Musgrave, a crippled lady in a wheelchair. The stranger gradually gains control over her, her daughter, Molly, and their faithful maid, Alice. But… could he possibly be Jack the Ripper?? It culminates with a corpse in a locked room. The framing device is of the story being told years later at a dinner of detectives, whose spirit of competitiveness to solve the mystery gives a humorous edge to the start and end. Well plotted and highly entertaining.

The Adventure of the Dorset Squire by C.A. Alington – This short short story is a sort of country house farce and very funny. There’s no real crime but lots of screaming and confusion – great fun!

The Locked Room by Dorothy L. Sayers – Previously unpublished, it dates to the period before Harriet Vane began to infest the Lord Peter Wimsey books, allowing Peter the freedom for a nice bit of flirtation with a fellow guest at a country house party, Betty Carlyle. When the host apparently kills himself, Betty is unconvinced – she suspects the host’s wife murdered him. This becomes a problem some months later, when the wife decides to marry Betty’s cousin. So she appeals to Lord Peter to uncover the truth. Well plotted, the writing is up to her usual high standard, and the flirtation gives it a lot of fun. Yes, even although I’m normally an un-fan of Sayers, this one got under my guard!

If you’re already a vintage crime fan, then this is one to grab; and if you’re new to the genre, then you’ll find this a very enjoyable way to introduce yourself to some of the greats. Highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

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30 thoughts on “Bodies from the Library 2 edited by Tony Medawar

  1. This does sound like a winner, FictionFan! What I really like about this is the mix of ‘big’ names with authors who are less well known these days. I think that gives one a better sense of the writing of the day. And it’s very good to hear you liked the stories as well as you did. Sometimes those collections can be quite uneven, but it sounds as though this one is consistently good, sometimes great. What’s not to like about that?

    • Yes, I also think the big names will attract people in who might not normally read short stories, and then they might find new authors to enjoy. I was quite surprised – I thought because a lot of the stories were previously unpublished or uncollected they might not be very high quality, but some of them are great! And I loved the inclusion of a couple of novellas – I think I prefer that length to the very short stories for the most part.

  2. Well deserved of the 5 star rating by the sound of it. That’s interesting you managed to find a Lord Peter story which you quite liked. Maybe he is best in small doses.

    • Ha! I know why I enjoyed it, but decided not to have my usual anti-Sayers moan in my review. It’s because every character is upper class, so there was no-one for her to be horribly snobbish about! It’s as soon as she starts on about yokels, or Cockneys, or Scots, that she gets right up my nose! She always makes me want to grab a placard and start a revolution… 😉

  3. This is definitely going on my wish list! I don’t always think of crime/mystery in a short story format, but it sounds like it really works here.

    • I’ve got more and more into the short story format for mysteries over the last few years because of all the great anthologies that have been coming out. I wish contemporary crime writers would do more of it, but I suppose there are fewer magazines and newspapers to print short stories now. I hope you enjoy this one if you manage to get hold of it sometime! 😀

    • Should be out over your side of the pond soon, I think, if it’s not already! I love these collections, but I did think this one was particularly full of goodies – and having a couple of novella-length ones was an added bonus… 😀

  4. Weird to see Christianna Brand’s name here having just read one of her children’s books, but from your descriptions I’m really tempted, despite not particularly being a crime fiction fan.

    • She also wrote quite a famous crime novel, Green for Danger, which I enjoyed a lot. It was made into a film starring the wonderful Alastair Sim, and it’s great fun too. I’d like to read more of her crime fiction sometime…

  5. Now I REALLY like the sound of this one, mainly because some of the stories you listed have a bit of a lighter tone, but still a mystery to be solved with some dead bodies thrown in. Is there anything better? Muahahah

  6. Your individual story examples are very tempting. I see Book 1 is in the library and I’ve just requested them to purchase Book 2. Isn’t it nice to know you are indirectly influencing library purchases in Christchurch NZ? I’ve had quite a good hit rate with my requests, probably because of the quality of my sources 😉

    • Haha – yes, my plan for world domination is going well! 😉 There’s such a good selection in this one, and some of the greats mixed with people I didn’t know, which is always fun. I’m going to have to track down book 1, though as always I’m awash with anthologies again this winter. For someone who claims not to be a huge fan of short stories, I seem to end up reading an awful lot of them… 😀

  7. This sounds an excellent anthology. It’s interesting about the increased popularity of GA mysteries – I definitely find them something of a haven in these troubled times. They’re just escapist enough… and everything being tied up neatly is a joy!

    • It’s the escapism that appeals to me. I turn to lit-fic or factual when I want something to make me think or to harrow me. Crime has always been a relaxation, but contemporary crime seems to set out to upset. Fine, if that’s what people want from crime fiction, but not me. Give me Poirot and a “decent” murder, done for greed or some other non-harrowing motive!

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