Tuesday ‘Tec! Bodies from the Library 4 edited by Tony Medawar

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.

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31 thoughts on “Tuesday ‘Tec! Bodies from the Library 4 edited by Tony Medawar

  1. The similarities between Alec Waugh and Patricia Highsmith’s stories is intriguing. I can imagine the plot working better as a short story.
    I didn’t know Evelyn Waugh had siblings who wrote either, so am very interested to learn that and will look up Alec Waugh’s work (there’s a lot I don’t know, and as I get older there seems to be more and more I don’t know).
    Glad you enjoyed this collection better.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haha, yes, my ignorance seems to be growing too! I get the impression Alec wasn’t nearly as successful as Evelyn and there doesn’t seem to be much of his stuff available. Pity, because I thought this one was really good. The similarities with Strangers on a Train are fascinating – I wonder if somehow she read it as a child and it stuck in her subconscious maybe. I guess we’ll never know!

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  2. Oh, this sounds like a great collection, FictionFan! Just out of curiousity, I’d want to read the Ethel Lina White; I thought The Lady Vanishes was such an interesting story, and I’d love to see what the original story is like. And the Brand really does look good. I’m glad to hear this collection is back on form!

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    • I liked the short story of The Lady Vanishes. It keeps the nucleus of the plot but strips out all the extras – I thought it worked very well. The Brand was a special treat – getting a short novel within the book was great, and the story is good (except for that revolting child… 😉 )

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  3. This does sound good. Sometimes a short story is all the time and attention I can muster, so a really good collection is a rare find. Thank you for introducing me to it. That story about the bullied child might be a tad more than I can abide though, ha!

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    • Yes, I find a short story is often perfect for bedtime reading – less temptation to go on reading after the lights should be out! The one about the children is very dark, and I think that’s another advantage of short stories – I don’t think I’d have wanted to read a novel with as much cruelty in it, but somehow having just a few pages of it is bearable…

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    • I loved The Police are Baffled – even though we think we know the story he actually has a different take on how it works out. And the Lorac was slight, but fun – needless to say, I didn’t work out the cipher at all! 😉

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  4. That sounds an interesting collection. Does the Crispin story feature Fen? I’ve been seeing some reviews of his short stories (included in collections like these) which have piqued my interest since I’ve only so far read his novels.

    I didnt know Waugh’s brother wrote either, and a predecessor of strangers on a train–even more interesting.

    And a Farjeon story in your top picks. The only one of his I’ve read so far was a tad disappointing so am glad to come across one that worked well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, the Crispin story doesn’t feature Fen, or indeed have a detective in it at all – it’s more like a psychological thriller in style, though short, obviously. I didn’t know about Alec Waugh either – apparently he had one or two successful books, but nothing in comparison to Evelyn’s success. And I was really please to enjoy the Farjeon story, given my recent criticism of him! Some of these writers definitely are better at short stories than novels – the tightness of the form prevents them from waffling! 😉

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    • I think the difference with this one was mainly that the novel-length story from Christianna Brand was good, and it was kind of the centrepiece of the whole anthology. But there were lots of intriguing little stories in there too… 😀

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  5. I’m glad this series has picked up for you, I remember you being a little disappointed in the last one and thinking the idea as a whole may have started to lose momentum. I didn’t realise Evelyn Waugh had a literary brother either, so I guess that’s my newly learned fact of the day. I recognised the similarities to Strangers on a Train immediately from your summary though, and I haven’t even read the original. It seems to be another one of these stories I was talking about the other week which have slipped into popular culture, though I think I may have seen the film, or at least bits of it. It does indeed sound as though this story would work better in a shortened format than a full length novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad too – I really thought he must have used up all the good stories, but clearly there are still some out there to be found! Apparently Alec Waugh had a couple of fairly successful books but nothing in comparison to his brother, and I couldn’t find much that’s still in print. Pity, because I thought this story was very well done, and much tighter than Highsmith’s novel which seemed to me to get really flabby in the middle. I love the film far more than I love the book. As always, Hitchcock has changed it just enough to make it much more thrilling!

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  6. That is so fascinating. Child’s Play sounds so disturbing. I am so interested in stories that are similar to each other and authors drawing inspiration from the work of others. Never imagined that Highsmith’s story may not be original. You say that it is maybe a coincidence, but you also say that the swapping of murders was to kill the rich uncle vs. to kill the wife. In the book, there was the father vs. the wife. Hmm, what are the odds of the intended victims in both stories also being the same/well, so similar, coupled with the plot outline, unless Highsmith read and was inspired by that story? Ten years old is just the age to start reading mysteries. I started with Christie around age eleven. I will definitely now read The Police are Baffled!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, the coincidences are so remarkable it is quite hard to believe it is simply coincidence. I wondered if somehow she’d read the magazine as a child and the idea stuck in her subconscious only to emerge later without her knowing that she’d read it somewhere. I suspect that probably happens more often than authors realise. I thought it worked much better as a short story, in fact – tighter, and to the point. I felt Highsmith’s novel got a bit flabby around the middle.

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    • There used to be loads of writing prompts around the blogosphere – don’t know if they’ve stopped or if I just don’t follow as many aspiring novelists as I used to! It was fun seeing how the different authors interpreted the pictures to suit their own style.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, I know – I was glad to be able to praise Farjeon after having been mean to him… 😉 Being short novel-length, the Brand really made this anthology special, especially since it was a good story. And the Crispin was very well done – I thought it worked really well as a short story, since I don’t think I’d have wanted to spend a novel’s worth of time with these cruel characters! Overall this series has been great, and because of the premise it’s not full of stories we’ve all read a hundred times before, as sometimes happens with anthologies.

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