Deep Waters edited by Martin Edwards

Not waving, but drowning…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This new collection of vintage crime shorts from the British Library contains sixteen stories, all connected in some way to water – rivers, lakes, swimming pools, oceans. Martin Edwards suggests in his usual informative introduction that perhaps Britain’s view of itself as a maritime nation makes us particularly drawn to watery fiction of all kinds, so it’s not surprising that mystery writers got in on the act.

These collections are always variable, both in quality and in the reader’s reaction to the theme being used. This reader found this one particularly variable, partly because I felt some of the stories only made the cut because of their connection to water, but partly because I’m not a sailor and some of the stories use a fair amount of sailing terminology which always makes me lose interest. Sailors will, I’m sure, feel differently about these. Only a couple of the solutions rely on sailing specifics, though – the majority give us the usual range of motives, clues and styles of detection. And, as always, the contributors range from the very well known writers, like Conan Doyle or Michael Innes, through newer favourites recently getting a revival via the BL and other publishers, like Edmund Crispin or Christopher St. John Sprigg, to writers new to me although they may be well known to vintage crime aficionados, such as James Pattinson and Andrew Garve.

In total, I gave eight of the stories either four or five stars, while the other eight ranged between 2½ and 3½. So no complete duds, but quite a few that were relatively weak, I felt. However, when they were good, they were very, very good, meaning that I found plenty to enjoy. Here are a few of the ones that stood out most for me, and you’ll see from these examples that this collection has a lot of stories that don’t stick rigidly to the traditional detective story format, which gives them a feeling of originality and allows for some great storytelling, including occasional touches of spookiness or horror…

The Echo of a Mutiny by R. Austin Freeman – An inverted mystery (one where we know who the murderer is before we see how the detective solves it) starring Freeman’s regular scientific detective, Dr Thorndyke, this is a longer story at 40 pages or so. A new lighthouse keeper is sent to a rock lighthouse in a rowing boat, but never arrives. The local authorities assume he simply had an accident and drowned, but since Thorndyke happens to be in the neighbourhood they ask him what he thinks, and he finds that murder has been done. The backstory of the murder is very well done, and the solution relies on a nice clue and a neat bit of detection.

Four Friends and Death by Christopher St. John Sprigg – Four men on a boat drink a toast in cognac, and one of them falls dead of cyanide poisoning. The boat is in a Spanish port and of course good Englishmen don’t trust foreign police forces, so the three survivors decide to solve the mystery themselves before reporting the death. Was it a dramatic suicide? Or is one of the three hiding a secret? This is well written, beautifully tense, and ingeniously plotted and revealed. A short one, but excellent.

The Turning of the Tide by CS Forester – in this one, we’re inside the murderer-to-be’s head as he bumps off a fellow solicitor who is about to reveal that the murderer has been defrauding his clients. The story revolves around the disposal of the body – the murderer knows that without a body the police’s chances of solving the crime are much lower, so he resolves to dump it in the sea. Needless to say, it doesn’t go quite as planned, and it turns into a superbly effective horror story, very well told. Spine-tingling!

A Question of Timing by Phyllis Bentley – this is a quirky and intriguing story of a detective writer who accidentally gets caught up in a crime while walking along the river thinking through his latest plot. It’s a story about how serendipity and chance mess with the best laid plans, and has a nice touch of romance in the background. Very well told again – an enjoyable lighter story.

The Queer Fish by Kem Bennett – Our unlikely hero is a poacher who, after an evening drinking in the pub, is stopped on his way home by two men who force him at gunpoint to take them in his boat to France. This is a kind of adventure story but with a mystery element – it’s only later we discover why the men are trying to escape. It has a couple of fun twists towards the end. Well written and highly entertaining!

So a mixed collection, but with plenty of good stuff in it that’s a little out of the ordinary run of mystery stories. I enjoyed the ones I enjoyed so much that they more than compensated for the ones I didn’t. I do love these anthologies…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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16 thoughts on “Deep Waters edited by Martin Edwards

  1. I have to say, FictionFan, that I’m not surprised you found a lot to like here, even if the collection was a bit uneven. And it is good to hear that there were some real gems among the stories (not that that surprises me, with Martin Edwards at the helm). You make an interesting point, too, about the whole sailor thing. I think there are some stories that are better enjoyed if one’s ‘one of the group,’ so to speak. Hmm…..definitely something to think about.

    • I do find with these collections that my reaction varies very much depending on my own attraction to the setting. I loved the London ones and the country house ones because they’re my favourite settings for mysteries, whereas the continental holiday one and now the sailing one didn’t work quite so well for me. But there are so many collections now that they really do have something to appeal to everyone! And even the ones I enjoy less always have some real gems in them… 😀

  2. You’ve certainly been reading a fair few short story anthologies recently, it’s more or less inevitable they will turn out something of a mixed bag. I’m not sure this particular collection would be my thing, as I’m not the world’s biggest fan of sea related stories, but I’m glad you found some to enjoy.

    • Yes, I’ve got more and more into short stories recently, though only in genre fiction – crime and horror. I’m still never very enthusiastic about literary shorts. I find most collections a mixed bag, but so long as there are some gems among them I’m usually quite happy. The BL has produced so many themed anthologies now that there are bound to be some settings that appeal more than others. That’s certainly what I’m finding anyway…

  3. I’m not much on sea-related tales (remember Moby Dick??), but this collection sounds like it shows promise. At least there’s the benefit of the stories being short, not a 1,000-page tome about a big whale, ha!

    • Ha! Yes, twenty pages would have been more than enough of that dratted whale for me! 😉 The BL has produced so many themed anthologies now that there are bound to be some settings that appeal more than others. This wasn’t my favourite setting but there are still some real gems in it… 😀

  4. I like the sound of Four Friends and Death. But still not convinced, short stories are my cup of tea. I just downloaded The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie (Daily Deal from well-known audio provider). So I’ll see, how I get on with that. I vaguely remember enjoying Christie’s Mr. Quin short stories as a youngster…

    Btw. this post didn’t show up in my wordpress reader, which was a bit strange. But as the loyal follower I am 😉 I browsed your blog and found it that way. Don’t know if this was a general problem for wordpress followers or just me.

    • I loved Four Friends and Death. I’ve only read one book and one short story from Sprigg but both have been great. What a shame he died so young (in the Spanish Civil War) – I suspect he’d be known as one of the greats otherwise. Funnily enough, I don’t get on with a lot of Christie’s short stories – I think she works much better in full-length novels. But even when she’s not at her best, she’s still better than nearly everyone else! Hope you enjoy them.

      Ah, thanks for letting me know! I thought something must be wrong because I got far fewer visitors than usual, so it’s good to know everyone hasn’t just dumped me! 😉 I seem to be having a lot of glitches at the moment – I’m not getting notifications of some comments either, which means I don’t reply and then look rude! Grrr! WordPress!!!

  5. I found Echo of a Mutiny and Turn of the Tide online and found them good reading. There is something about the isolation and unforgivingness of the marine environment that adds an edge to criminal and horrific endeavours.

    • They’re both good, aren’t they? Especially Turn of the Tide – I loved that ending! Yes, some of the sea descriptions in this are great, like the isolation of the lighthouse keepers and so on, so as long as they stayed away from talking about cleats and spinners and all sorts of other things that left me scratching my head they were fine! The BL has produced so many themed anthologies now that there are bound to be some settings that appeal more than others. That’s certainly what I’m finding anyway…

  6. I’m definitely a landlubber, but the stories you’ve shared here sound really good. You’ve inspired me to add more anthologies to my TBR pile lately.

    • Oh good! I must say I think this is a bit of a Golden Age for really well selected anthologies of vintage crime and horror. Both the BL and OWC are doing a great job of making them accessible and fun to get into to. I never used to read many anthologies myself, but now I’m hooked… 😀

  7. I am ESPECIALLY intrigued by the story Four Men and a Death-I don’t know why, but poisoning in particular interests me when it’s in the mystery format, it narrows down the possibilities so much more that the motive becomes the most important part!

    • Good choice! This one was fun because there were only three apparent suspects and yet it was still complicated. Plus seeing British attitudes to “foreigners” back then is always amusing… 😀

  8. A bit of a mixed bag but still plenty to enjoy so this is very tempting! I can see how a ship offers a variation on the contained country house type mystery, but it’s a shame it comes with so much sailing terminology in some instances…

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