Back on form…
😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂
The theme of this series of anthologies of vintage mystery stories is that they are all, or mostly, ones that have never before been collected in book form since their first appearance in magazines or occasionally as scripts for radio plays. I was a little disappointed in the last collection, and speculated that there must be a limited number of good uncollected stories still to be found. I’m delighted to say that this fourth anthology has proved me wrong – I happily eat my words! There are seventeen stories in this one, ranging from some that are only a few pages long right up to a short novel-length one from Christianna Brand, which frankly is worth the entrance price alone. There are some big names – Brand, of course, Ngaio Marsh, ECR Lorac, Edmund Crispin, et al – and, as usual, a few that were new to me. The last six stories form a little series, when well-known writers of the day were challenged by a newspaper to write a story based on a picture each of them were given. These are fun, showing how the authors used the pictures as inspiration to come up with some intriguing little stories. They reminded me of the “writing prompts” that are common around the book blogosphere.
Of course the quality varies, and there were several of the stories that got fairly low individual ratings from me (some of which are from the bigger names too). But they were mostly the shorter, less substantial stories, and were well outweighed by the many excellent ones. Overall, my individual ratings work out at around 4 stars as an average for the full seventeen stories, but I feel I enjoyed the collection more than a 4-star rating suggests, so 4½ stars it is (rounded up). Before I list my four favourites, I’d like to give honourable mentions to ECR Lorac, whose very short Two White Mice Under a Riding Whip is a clever cipher story; Passengers by Ethel Lina White, which is the original short story that she later expanded to become The Wheel Spins (The Lady Vanishes) – I think I actually enjoyed it even more in this short version; and The Post-Chaise Murder by Richard Keverne, a historical mystery set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, and very well done. As you can see, I was spoiled for choice when it came to picking favourites, but here are the chosen ones!
Shadowed Sunlight by Christianna Brand – as I said, this one is the length of a short novel with all the benefits that has in terms of room for character development and a more complex plot. A group of people are on a yacht when one of them is killed by cyanide poisoning. All the people aboard may have had a motive and it’s up to DI Dickinson from Scotland Yard to find the solution, which he eventually does by having a tension-filled reconstruction of the crime. The characters are very well drawn, although not very likeable, and there is a revolting “adorable child” whom surprisingly no one shoves overboard – a sad mistake, in my opinion. Dickinson is well portrayed as a detective tackling his first solo case and fearing he might fail.
Child’s Play by Edmund Crispin – Judith is the new governess to four children, three the children of her employers and the fourth a young girl, Pamela, whom they took in when family friends died in an accident, leaving her an orphan. Pamela is unhappy, partly through grief for her parents and homesickness, and partly because the other children bully her. And then she is murdered. Gosh, this is a dark one! There is so much psychological cruelty in it – not just the children’s bullying but also the mother turning a blind eye to what’s going on, and Judith’s angry reaction. It’s very well done, and remarkably disturbing for such a short tale.
The Police are Baffled by Alec Waugh – the plot of this will sound very familiar, so a reminder that it was first published in 1931. Two men fall into conversation in a pub, chatting about how hard it is for the police to find a murderer when there’s no apparent motive or the person who will gain most has an unshakeable alibi. One suggests to the other that they should swap murders – he will kill the other man’s wife, if the other man will kill his rich uncle. It’s short, very well written, and in my opinion much more effective than Strangers on a Train (1950). Since Highsmith would only have been ten and in America when this story made its appearance in a British magazine, I assume the similarities are simply coincidental, but they’re still remarkable. Alec Waugh, incidentally, was Evelyn’s older brother.
Riddle of an Umbrella by J Jefferson Farjeon – this is one of the six stories based on a picture, in this case a picture of an umbrella leaning against a railway signal post. The narrator is walking by the railway one night when he sees first the abandoned umbrella, then a cap on the railway line. Puzzled, he walks further along the line and discovers a body, and also that the line has been sabotaged. And then he spots that the signal has turned to green – a train is on the way! The resulting story is a mixture of thriller and mystery as he tries to avert an accident and work out why the man is dead. Short but excellent, a good plot with touches of both humour and horror.
So overall, a very enjoyable collection and I’m now waiting to see if Medawar can find even more great uncollected stories for another volume!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.