Bit of a misnomer here, since this lovely little crime story doesn’t actually have a detective in it, but, since I can’t find an online copy, you’ll either have to get hold of the anthology it comes from, Bodies from the Library 3, or else you’ll have to detect the ending yourself! So don your deerstalker cap, light your pipe, and join me for this week’s…
The Hampstead Murder by Christopher Bush
A man in Scotland wrote a letter to The Times and, by chance, The Times found it interesting enough to print. Because of that letter, which had nothing whatever to do with murder, a woman was strangled in a London suburb.
This excursion into how badly the most innocent action can go wrong starts with the ending – a woman found dead with a noose around her neck…
Then there was the woman, in a charming afternoon frock, with a face like a surprised Madonna and hair like an aureola . . . There was no blood, no signs of a struggle. No vulgarity, but everything quiet and restrained, except for that deadly circle around her neck.
There is however someone else in the room – the murderer himself…
… a quiet man, writing peacefully at a Queen Anne bureau.
We are then taken back to the beginning of the story, where we meet a man with the delightful if unlikely name of Lutley Prentisse…
In front of his swivel chair were table and typewriter but he sat there with the tip of his fingers together and his brow wrinkled in thought. You would have needed no particular shrewdness to have guessed that he was a writer.
He is married to Dorothy, a glittering beauty keen on sports and with a competitive streak – an unlikely partner for the more intellectually-minded Lutley. He loves her even although her energy makes him feel tired, but her feelings are harder to read…
In public a softly murmured “Darling!” and a playful tap are no particular signs, especially when the other hand holds a liqueur glass drained for the eighth time.
Lutley has written three novels, with some critical and even commercial success. Now he has taken a flat to finish his new book while Dorothy is away looking after her seriously ill sister. Just as he is feeling quite happy with his work, he notices a letter in The Times which rather upsets him.
A policeman had written rather indignantly on the treatment of his profession by writers of detective novels, The police, he affirmed, were treated like buffoons and authors rarely troubled to make themselves familiar with the real workings of either Scotland Yard or the C.I.D. departments of provincial forces.
This bothers Lutley, because his new novel contains a section relating to a private detective agency, and he realises he has never in fact had any experience of a real one. So he decides to put this right by visiting an agency, pretending to be a client. Once in the detective’s office, he realises that of course he needs to give him something to investigate. On the spur of the moment he thinks of his friend Peter Claire and, smiling to himself at the thought of telling Peter all about it later, asks the detective to follow him…
“Just a report in confidence, by Monday, of what he does from now until then. You can manage that?”
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So now you should be able to guess who was murdered, who murdered her, and why…
This is a lot of fun – not too difficult to see what the outcome is, I think, but written with a lot of sly humour about the perils of being a novelist. Despite the corpse in the room, the ending made me laugh – a very neat little twist. The moral of the story, I suspect, is that too much research can be as problematic as too little, and I’m sure most of my writing pals would probably agree with that! Christopher Bush is one of the vintage authors who’s enjoying a revival at the moment, though I haven’t read any of his novels yet – I hope to rectify that soon. His story is one of the highlights from this anthology, which I’ll review in full at a later date.
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Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
(Poirot worked it out easily, of course – did you?)
Eli Marks is a stage magician with a penchant for getting mixed up in murder, often via his ex-wife, the delightfully named Assistant District Attorney Deirdre Sutton-Hutton and her new husband, Homicide Detective Fred Hutton. The books are full of humour and, though set in the present day, have plots that are reminiscent of Golden Age mysteries, with clues, suspects, red herrings, etc. Having loved each of the full-length Eli Marks novels, I couldn’t resist seeing if John Gaspard could work the same magic in a short story, so this Kindle short seemed like a perfect pick for this week’s…
The Invisible Assistant
by John Gaspard
Eli is performing at a corporate event and needs two members of the audience to come up on stage to help out with his next trick. To his less-than-thrilled surprise, one of the reluctant volunteers turns out to be none other than his ex-wife’s new husband, Detective Fred Hutton.
…I launched into my Cards Across routine, counting three cards into Melissa’s outstretched hand, and then seven cards into the hand that Homicide Detective Fred Hutton had reluctantly put forward. I caught his eye as I finished counting the seventh card, and the icy stare he gave me told me exactly how much he was enjoying his time onstage.
The trick involves Eli calling on his “invisible assistant” as the cards magically transfer themselves from one volunteer’s hand to the other’s.
(Eli’s trick is a little different to this one, but the basic idea is the same.)
After the performance, Eli’s ex-wife Deirdre explains that she and Fred were in the audience because she wants to ask his advice about an apparent murder/suicide case they’re working on. Two men were found dead in a house – one, Harley Keller, upstairs, shot through the chest, and the other, Josiah Manning, downstairs, shot in the head and with a gun lying at his feet. It seems obvious that Manning must have shot Keller first, then gone downstairs and shot himself. Fred’s happy with that theory, anyway, but Deirdre doesn’t buy it. Keller was a pro-suicide campaigner, believing people should be allowed to take their own life whenever they wanted. But Manning was passionately anti-suicide. The two men had clashed in public debates on the subject.
“So [said Eli], let me get this straight: The anti-suicide guy, who believed fervently in the sanctity of life, murdered the pro-suicide guy and then to top it all off, he killed himself?”
“That’s what the police believe,” Deirdre said, throwing a sidelong glance at her husband. He did not return it.
Now Deirdre wants Eli to see if he can come up with an alternative explanation…
“On occasion you’ve offered a unique perspective that I think could be useful in this instance.”
“I believe the phrase you used when we were married was, ‘You have a bizarre way of looking at things.’”
“Yes,” she said, leaving it at that.
So the bickering Deirdre and Fred take Eli along to the crime scene…
From my vantage point in the front seat of my car, I could see them talking in the front seat of theirs. And from where I sat, it did not look like a happy conversation…
…on the few occasions I had witnessed these arguments, I had to restrain myself from saying something along the lines of, “Jeez, you left me so you could argue with him? You could’ve skipped the divorce and continued arguing with me.” But I wisely never said that. At least, not so far.
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This is just as much fun as the books! The short format obviously doesn’t allow for the complexity of plotting of the novels, and regular readers already know these three characters and the dynamics amongst them, so there’s no need for much character development. But all the usual humour is there and, as usual, Eli’s knowledge of stage magic plays its part. I didn’t work it out, or even get close, but found it nicely satisfying when all was revealed. Gaspard is great at this kind of “impossible” crime, where the fun is in working out how it was done, and the method is always beautifully quirky. The books are usually whodunits too, but the length restrictions of this one means there are no suspects beyond the two victims themselves.
It works perfectly as a standalone, either as a little treat for existing fans impatiently waiting for the next book, or perhaps as an introduction to Gaspard’s style for newcomers. It is very definitely a short story, not a novella – I’d say it took me about twenty minutes or so to read. But I was smiling for longer than that…
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PS – After I’d posted this, the author John Gaspard kindly popped in to the comments to leave a link to where you can listen to this story for free. I’ve sampled it and love the narrator’s voice – just right for the story. Here it is… click on the red button to play…
When she read last week’s guest post from Martin Edwards on Ten Top Golden Age Detectives, regular commenter BigSister (who, by an amazing coincidence, is my big sister) mentioned one of her own favourite early mystery writers, R Austin Freeman, and specifically his “inverted mysteries”, a format he apparently pretty much invented. This is a story that starts by showing the crime, including allowing the reader to know the culprit, and then shows how the investigator attempts to solve it. So, since one must always listen to one’s big sister (well, except when she’s praising Vin Diesel films or banging on about fantasy novels), I promptly selected what I think is the first of these stories for this week’s…
The Case of Oscar Brodski
by R Austin Freeman
The first part of the story introduces us to Silas Hickler, a successful burglar with connections to the diamond industry, and a convenient conscience that allows him to commit his crimes without suffering too greatly from remorse.
No one, looking into his cheerful, round face, beaming with benevolence and wreathed in perpetual smiles, would have imagined him to be a criminal. Least of all, his worthy, high-church housekeeper, who was a witness to his unvarying amiability, who constantly heard him carolling light-heartedly about the house and noted his appreciative zest at meal-times.
One October evening, the aforesaid housekeeper is out and Silas himself is preparing to go on a journey to Amsterdam to sell some dodgy diamonds, when a man stops at his house to ask for directions to the train station. Silas recognises the man immediately as Oscar Brodski, a well-known and reputable diamond merchant. When Silas learns that Brodski is also headed for Amsterdam, he speculates that the merchant is likely to be carrying some valuable diamonds and immediately his greed begins to put ideas into his head. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time…
Crimes against the person he had always looked upon as sheer insanity. There was, it is true, that little affair of the Weybridge policeman, but that was unforeseen and unavoidable, and it was the constable’s doing after all. And there was the old housekeeper at Epsom, too, but, of course, if the old idiot would shriek in that insane fashion…
And so Mr Brodski’s fate is soon sealed…
So, for half-a-minute, he stood motionless, like a symbolical statue of Murder, glaring down with horrible, glittering eyes upon the unconscious diamond merchant, while his quick breath passed without a sound through his open mouth and his fingers writhed slowly like the tentacles of a giant hydra.
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Part 2 introduces Dr John Thorndyke and his sidekick, Christopher Jervis, who is our narrator for this section. Thorndyke is a scientific detective, who always carries a case filled with equipment, such as a miniature microscope. He happens to be on a train that is held up by the discovery of a body on the line, decapitated by a passing goods train but still recognisably poor old Brodski. Not convinced that Brodski’s death is accidental, he sets out to investigate…
“In a case of this kind,” he remarked, “we have to decide on one of three possible explanations: accident, suicide or homicide; and our decision will be determined by inferences from three sets of facts: first, the general facts of the case; second, the special data obtained by examination of the body, and, third, the special data obtained by examining the spot on which the body was found.”
With the help of Jervis and his trusty microscope, Thorndyke does exactly that, and, deciding that Brodski was the victim of murder, goes on to track down the perpetrator of the crime.
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Well, I found this thoroughly entertaining! The first section takes us inside the mind of the murderer and has some great melodramatic writing that gives the whole thing an atmosphere of growing horror. By contrast, the second section is written very matter-of-factly, with Thorndyke relying almost entirely on forensic evidence to solve the crime. There are elements of Holmes in Thorndyke’s cerebral, scientific approach, but I would have missed the physical drama that usually livens up the Holmes’ stories, had it not been provided in the first section. Jervis is a much more perceptive sidekick than Watson, and the story hints that he is in fact being trained by Thorndyke to follow his methods rather than simply being a staunch friend. The police are, of course, pretty thick – initially dismissive of Thorndyke’s strange methods and then awestruck by his results.
I enjoyed Freeman’s writing style, especially in the first section, and the forensic stuff holds up well to age and is convincing, with only a couple of moments when Thorndyke seems to make spectacular assumptions based on very little evidence. First published in 1912, Thorndyke ends by suggesting there is an “urgent need of a trained scientist to aid the police” in such cases. From the number of forensic experts infesting modern crime fiction, it appears he got his wish. I look forward to reading more of the Thorndyke stories.
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I read the story in this Kindle collection, which I acquired for the vast sum of 49p. It doesn’t seem to be available in the US, but many other similarly priced collections are available. This particular story was originally published in the collection called The Singing Bone, or under the more prosaic US title of The Adventures of Dr Thorndyke.
I am delighted to welcome Martin Edwards to the blog! Any regular visitor will know I’ve been enjoying Martin’s classic crime anthologies over recent months, discovering some long-forgotten authors as well as re-visiting old favourites. So when I got the chance to ask for Martin’s recommendations of essential Golden Age detectives for beginners, you can well imagine I had to be restrained from biting his hand off! So here it is… a very special post for this week’s…
Ten Top Golden Age Detectives
Many thanks to FictionFan for inviting me to talk about ten terrific Golden Age detectives. Opinions vary about how to define “the Golden Age of detective fiction”, but it’s logical to see it as spanning the years between the end of the First World War, and the beginning of the Second. Yes, detective stories with “Golden Age” elements appeared before, and in particular after, that period, but those characteristics became clearly established in the Twenties and the Thirties. So all the detectives I’ve chosen first appeared during those two decades.
Poirot is an egocentric, and a bundle of mannerisms, but so much more memorable than so many of the gimmicky detectives dreamed up by authors striving to create a worthy successor to Sherlock Holmes. His partnership with the nice but dim Captain Hastings was modelled on the Holmes-Watson relationship, but as Agatha Christie’s confidence grew, she married Hastings off, and gave Poirot free rein to demonstrate his gifts in all-time classics of the genre such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express. Hastings returned in the posthumously published Curtain, one of the under-rated masterpieces of Golden Age fiction, in which Poirot actually…no, you’ll have to read it for yourself.
As down-to-earth as Poirot is eccentric, Miss Marple is a superb creation. Her USP is that, despite having spent her life in a small village, she has gained a deep understanding of human nature, which was shared by her creator, and helps to explain the astonishing and enduring success of Agatha Christie’s work. Miss Marple’s insight into the way that people – rich or poor, and from whatever background – behave enables her to identify whodunit when the police are baffled. She relies more on intuition than Poirot, the supreme logician, but her skill as a sleuth is matched by her decency and strength of character. Many talented actors have played Jane Marple, but few people, surely, would deny that Joan Hickson’s interpretation remains definitive.
Lord Peter Wimsey
Dorothy L. Sayers’ aristocratic sleuth started out as a sort of Bertie Wooster with a magnifying glass, but metamorphosed from an essentially comic, two-dimensional figure into a much more rounded character. The change reflects Sayers’ development (and increasingly lofty ambition) as a novelist, and took place at about the time that Wimsey fell in love with Harriet Vane, a detective novelist who in Strong Poison is on trial for the murder of her lover. Wimsey’s pursuit of Harriet reached a successful conclusion in Gaudy Night, set in academic Oxford, and Sayers’ attempt to transform the detective story into a “novel of manners”.
Margery Allingham was an accomplished yet idiosyncratic detective novelist, and it is somehow typical of her unorthodoxy that Campion, her Great Detective, plays a subsidiary role in his first appearance, and seems to be something of a rogue. Like Wimsey, he evolved, but in a different direction, moving to centre stage in stories such as Police at the Funeral and even narrating the story in The Case of the Late Pig. Allingham eventually suggested that he was a member of the Royal Family, thus neatly outdoing Sayers as regards her hero’s blue blood.
Gladys Mitchell’s first novel, Speedy Death, introduced one of the most remarkable of all Golden Age detectives, Mrs Bradley, who proceeded to appear in no fewer than 66 novels. There’s nothing meek or feminine about Mrs Bradley, who at one point herself commits murder. This reflects the underlying truth that Golden Age writers were fascinated by the concept of justice, and loved to explore scenarios in which the challenge was: how can one achieve a just outcome, when the established machinery of law and order is helpless? Mrs Bradley – sometimes known as “Mrs Crocodile” – is famously ugly, which makes it all the more baffling that when the books were televised in the late Nineties, she was played by Diana Rigg.
Anthony Berkeley was a cynic who loved to flavour his extremely clever whodunits with irony. His detective, the writer Roger Sheringham, is occasionally offensive, and quite frequently mistaken – he is the most fallible of Golden Age sleuths. It’s typical of Berkeley that, having allowed Roger to solve a very tricky puzzle in the short story “The Avenging Chance”, he expanded the plot into the novel The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and offered Roger’s theory about the crime as one of six different solutions – only for it to be proved mistaken. I’ve had the huge pleasure of devising a brand new explanation of the puzzle in a new edition of the book, to be published by the British Library in October. Suffice to say that, once again, Roger is confounded.
Ngaio Marsh’s Scotland Yard man, Roderick Alleyn, is one of the gentlemanly cops (Michael Innes’ John Appleby is another) favoured by Golden Age writers who worried about the plausibility of having an amateur detective involved in a long series of convoluted murder mysteries. Marsh’s love of the theatre, and of her native New Zealand, provide fascinating backgrounds for several of Alleyn’s cases, such as Vintage Murder, and the quality of her writing, as well as her pleasing storylines, has ensured their continuing popularity.
Dr Gideon Fell
It’s often forgotten that many American authors wrote Golden Age detective stories. Most were overshadowed by private eye stories from the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but John Dickson Carr’s books about Dr Gideon Fell stand out from the crowd. Carr, an Anglophile, set the Fell stories in Britain, and specialised in macabre and atmospheric stories about seemingly impossible crimes. Fell was modelled on G.K. Chesterton, creator of Father Brown, and gives a memorable “Locked Room Lecture”, discussing different ways of committing a murder in an apparently locked room, in The Hollow Man. Carr’s exceptionally ingenious stories fell out of fashion for a while, but the TV success of Jonathan Creek, and more recently Death in Paradise, shows that a huge audience remains for complex mysteries, solved thanks to mind-blowing ingenuity. When it comes to figuring out locked room mysteries, nobody does it better than Gideon Fell.
Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector Joseph French is the antithesis of the brilliant maverick detective. He’s a career policeman, not blessed with the aristocratic forebears of Roderick Alleyn, but gifted with a capacity for endless hard work, an eye for detail, and a relentless determination to see justice done. He’s especially adept at dismantling apparently unbreakable alibis. Occasionally, Crofts wrote “inverted mysteries”, in which we see the culprit commit murder so cleverly that he seems sure to get away with it. And then, in books like the intriguing and original zoo-based mystery Antidote to Venom, we watch French remorselessly pursue his prey until justice is done. French is a good man, but an implacable adversary for any criminal.
Georges Simenon is not generally associated with Golden Age detective fiction, because his literary concerns lay much more with people than plot. (His fellow Belgian, the regrettably forgotten S.A Steeman, was much closer in spirit to Agatha Christie). Yet Simenon read and absorbed Christie’s early novels, and several of his stories about the Parisian policeman Inspector Jules Maigret are very clever. Maigret is a splendidly rounded character, a reliable family man admired and respected by his close colleagues. His potential was recognised as early as 1932 by the legendary film-maker Jean Renoir, who cast his brother as Maigret in Night at the Crossroads, and he was brought to life once again on television this year by Rowan Atkinson. Maigret’s thoughtful methods influenced a generation of post-war detectives, including W.J. Burley’s Cornish cop Wycliffe, and Alan Hunter’s Inspector George Gently as well as Gil North’s Sergeant Caleb Cluff.
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The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards is published by HarperCollins. Martin Edwards has also written the introduction for Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North which is being republished by British Library Crime Classics on 12 July to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth.
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Many thanks, Martin, for a most enjoyable and informative post!
I’ll be seeking out the books Martin has mentioned over the next few months – some, like Inspector French and Gideon Fell, will be new to me while others are old acquaintances I’ve neglected for too long. And check back tomorrow for my review of Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm – spoiler alert! I thought it was…. nah! I’ll tell you tomorrow!
The only thing of Hammett’s that I’ve read is The Maltese Falcon, which I thoroughly enjoyed. But as well as Sam Spade, Hammett is famous for another detective – a nameless one, known only as the Continental Op (because he’s an operative of the Continental Detective Agency). This story is his first appearance, in 1923, so it seems like a good choice for this week’s…
by Dashiell Hammett
Jim Tarr picked up the cigar I rolled across his desk, looked at the band, bit off an end, and reached for a match.
“Three for a buck,” he said. “You must want me to break a couple of laws for you this time.”
An insurance company has hired the Continental Op to investigate a house fire, in which the owner, a man named Thornburgh, died. They suspect arson, and Sheriff Tar quickly confirms this – the house was soaked in gasoline before it went up. But so far the police have found no clues as to who might have set the fire. He agrees to have the officer who’s investigating the crime bring the C.O. up to speed…
Tarr leaned back in his chair and bellowed: “Hey, Mac!” The pearl push buttons on his desk are ornaments so far as he is concerned. Deputy sheriffs McHale, McClump, and Macklin came to the door together – MacNab apparently wasn’t within hearing. “What’s the idea?” the sheriff demanded of McClump. “Are you carrying a bodyguard around with you?” The two other deputies, thus informed as to whom “Mac” referred this time, went back to their cribbage game.
Sheriff Tarr then agrees that McClump should work with the C.O.
On the night of the fire, Thornburgh’s servants Mr and Mrs Coons woke in the night to find themselves suffocating in smoke. Mr Coons managed to drag himself and his wife out, but by then the blaze was so strong he couldn’t fight his way back in to help Thornburgh. A passing motorist, Henderson, stopped at the scene and together they watched helplessly as Thornburgh tried to escape from his upper floor window… alas, in vain!
Thornburgh had only recently arrived in town and kept himself to himself. The Coons had only been employed by him on his arrival and so didn’t know him terribly well either, but they said he would shut himself away for hours in his room, and they believed he was working on some invention. The only visitor he had was his niece, Mrs Evelyn Trowbridge, who was also the beneficiary of his will and various insurance policies he had recently taken out. But Mrs Trowbridge had a cast-iron alibi for the night in question.
Where the house had been was now a mound of blackened ruins. We poked around in the ashes for a few minutes – not that we expected to find anything, but because it’s the nature of man to poke around in ruins.
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Although this is one of Hammett’s earliest stories, it already shows some of what made him such a successful and influential writer later in his career. The plot is nicely set up and rattles along at a good pace, although the detection element is pretty weak and crucial facts are withheld from the reader only to be presented after the C.O. has caught his culprit. But the writing is excellent, with a lot of wit, and the characterisation is strong throughout. We learn almost nothing about the C.O. himself in this one, except that he’s the kind of smart-talking, hardboiled character that Hammett and those influenced by him would develop over the next few decades. But through his narration, we get great snapshots of the other characters, often summed up in a few short lines that tell more than many authors can do in pages…
McClump and I had worked together on an express robbery several months before. He’s a rangy, towheaded youngster of twenty-five or -six, with all the nerve in the world – and most of the laziness.
The following paragraph is pretty spoilerish (and a bit of a mini-rant) so, if you want to read the story, you may want to skip it. I can’t find an online link, but the story is in…
Coincidentally, José Ignacio has also been reviewing a later Continental Op book this week, Red Harvest, over on A Crime is Afoot – a great blog for anyone interested in classic or contemporary crime fiction.
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The story ends with a crazy shoot-out of the kind that actually puts me off so much American detective fiction. I’m much more of a fan of the brilliant denouement type of story, followed by the culprit being huckled off in handcuffs. Partly this is just because I find shoot-outs immensely dull, especially since it’s always obviously the baddie who’s going to die. But partly, it’s because authors often use it lazily as a replacement for actually working out a clever way to trap the villain. That’s the case in this one – they all agree they don’t have much in the way of evidence that would stand up in court, so Hammett simply engineers a situation where it’s vaguely reasonable for them to gun their suspect down, and one is left to assume no questions will be asked afterwards. I think this is my favourite bit of dialogue in the story, AFTER the cop, McClump, has shot the suspect dead…
McClump spoke to me over the body. “I ain’t an inquisitive sort of fellow, but I hope you don’t mind telling me why I shot this [person].”
And I complain about today’s maverick policemen!
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An enjoyable story in its own right, and one that makes for interesting reading in seeing the beginnings of what would develop into Hammett’s trademark hardboiled style.
I’ve never been a particular fan of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown, but I stumbled across this story in Michael Sim’s anthology of detective stories, The Dead Witness, (full review to follow), and felt that it was about time he made his first appearance in…
The Hammer of God
by GK Chesterton
The Rev. and Hon. Wilfred Bohun was very devout, and was making his way to some austere exercises of prayer or contemplation at dawn. Colonel the Hon. Norman Bohun, his elder brother, was by no means devout, and was sitting in evening dress on the bench outside ‘The Blue Boar,’ drinking what the philosophic observer was free to regard either as his last glass on Tuesday or his first on Wednesday. The colonel was not particular.
Wilfred notices that Norman seems to be watching the blacksmith’s shop. The blacksmith is a strong giant of a man, upright and Puritanical, but Wilfred has heard some scandalous reports about the behaviour of his beautiful wife. As they pass each other in the street, Norman calls out to his brother…
“Good morning, Wilfred,” he said. “Like a good landlord I am watching sleeplessly over my people. I am going to call on the blacksmith.”
Wilfred looked at the ground, and said: “The blacksmith is out. He is over at Greenford.”
“I know,” answered the other with silent laughter; “that is why I am calling on him.”
In despair at his brother’s shameful conduct, the devout Rev. Wilfred hurries on to his gothic-style church to pray. As he often does, rather than praying at the altar, he chooses another spot in the church for his private devotions – on this occasion, the gallery, where there is a rather beautiful stained glass window. He is still there sometime later when the village cobbler rushes in to inform him that a tragedy has occurred. Norman is dead, his head smashed by a single heavy blow…
He could only stammer out: “My brother is dead. What does it mean? What is this horrible mystery?” There was an unhappy silence; and then the cobbler, the most outspoken man present, answered: “Plenty of horror, sir,” he said; “but not much mystery.”
“What do you mean?” asked Wilfred, with a white face.
“It’s plain enough,” answered Gibbs. “There is only one man for forty miles round that could have struck such a blow as that, and he’s the man that had most reason to.”
But it turns out the blacksmith has an unshakeable alibi. There are plenty of other people who may have had reasons to kill the wicked Norman – the village idiot whom he taunted, other husbands, perhaps women he had toyed with. But who could have struck such a mighty blow – and with the fairly small hammer that is found to have been the weapon?
Fortunately, there is one man in the village who may be able to work it out – Father Brown. Using his commonsense and his knowledge of human sinfulness, it’s not long before he confronts the amazed villain…
“How do you know all this?” he cried. “Are you a devil?”
“I am a man,” answered Father Brown gravely; “and therefore have all devils in my heart.”
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As always, there is a strong moral content to the story, and it’s this really that puts me off these stories. It’s not that I object to the battle between good and evil as a basis for a story – quite the reverse actually. It’s that I don’t enjoy the moralising tone that Chesterton employs through his priestly character. In this one (mini-spoiler alert) Father Brown plays on the conscience of the killer, preferring to give him the chance to do the right thing rather than handing him over to the police. All very well in fiction, but in reality I’d suggest the majority of murderers would take the opportunity to make good their escape and be on the next flight to Brazil or the Costa del Sol. So Father Brown’s uncanny ability to bring the bad guys back to the path of righteousness with just a few well-chosen words always leaves me unconvinced.
However, the story is very well written as Chesterton’s always are, with a good deal of strong characterisation considering its brevity. And the puzzle, while not too hard to work out, is intriguing. One that I’m sure would be enjoyed by existing Father Brown fans, and would be a good introduction to him for newcomers, who should not be put off by my personal lack of enthusiasm for the character.
It’s a foggy night in Milan when Inspector De Vincenzi is called out to a murder scene. A banker has been found shot dead in the flat of Gianetto Aurigi, who by coincidence is an old friend of the Inspector. Aurigi has been dabbling unsuccessfully on the stock market and becomes the obvious suspect. But De Vincenzi isn’t convinced – partly he feels there’s more to the whole thing than meets the eye, and partly his loyalty to his friend makes him determined to investigate every other avenue before condemning him…
The Murdered Banker
by Augusto De Angelis
Written in 1935, this novella length story is the first appearance of Inspector De Vincenzi in a series that was apparently hugely popular in Italy and gained De Angelis a reputation as father of the Italian mystery novel. De Vincenzi (who apparently has no first name) is a thoughtful detective with the soul of a poet, who is as interested in the motivations of the suspects as in the physical evidence. His style is to get at the truth by a combination of interviewing and of playing weirdly cruel tricks on people, such as sending them into the room where the corpse is lying without warning them. This has the effect of creating a good deal of melodramatic reactions, from screaming fits to people sinking into coma-like states of shock. It’s not Miss Marple, that’s for sure.
“Tell me, commendatore, what’s in there? What’s happened?” “There’s a dead body. What’s happened is that a man’s been killed.” A tremor convulsed the little man. He clutched at Maccari’s arm, his terror rendering him pitiful. “Oh my God! This house is cursed! Do they know that this house is cursed?”
Melodrama is something of a feature throughout. In fact, I kept expecting a heftily bosomed soprano to burst in singing an aria from Tosca. The stiff upper lip approach doesn’t seem to have figured heavily in Italian society at this time, if De Angelis’ portrayal is authentic. However in other ways the society is very similar to that in British crime fiction of the same period, full of class divisions and with an emphasis on money being, as usual, at the root of at least some of the evil. But we also have love – not reserved, quiet, British love, oh, no! Soaring, dramatic love – the kind where ecstasy is only ever an inch away from suicide! It must all have been quite exhausting…
I’ll be honest – I didn’t enjoy the writing style much, or perhaps it was the translation. It feels clunky and sometimes sentences need to be read more than once to glean the meaning. (I did have a lot of fun trying to see if I could get my “lips trembling with indignity” though.) Often dialogue isn’t clearly attributed to the speaker so that it isn’t immediately obvious who is expressing a particular opinion, which really breaks the reading flow. I also found the dialogue unconvincing – again it has a tendency to sound a bit like an opera script. And every time a climax is approaching, De Vincenzi stops the action and sends everyone away for a few hours, so he can think calmly.
“The atmosphere in this room has reached white heat – a bad temperature for keeping one’s brain working and a clear head. I myself fear that the very rhythm of your pulses is influencing my judgement. You’ll understand, therefore, if I ask you to leave me alone with my thoughts. I must organise them and master them. All right?”
Being a murder detective seems a strange choice of profession for someone who can’t take a bit of excitement, really.
But overall, it’s an enjoyable look at the mystery writing from another country to compare with our own Golden Age writers from the same period. I would be interested in reading more from later in the series to see if De Angelis maintains the high melodramatic style or if this is simply a feature of what is after all a debut novel.
There is also a short but interesting afterword, setting the book into the context of its time, in an Italy under the control of Mussolini’s Fascists. De Angelis eventually ran foul of the regime by writing a number of anti-Fascist articles; and, after having been arrested and then released, died as a result of being beaten up by a Fascist thug in 1944. So perhaps melodramatic tragedy was never far from real life in the Italy of that period after all.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.
Since it’s Reading Ireland Month, how about a detective who’s also a nun in 7th century Ireland? Strictly speaking, Peter Tremayne is an Englishman, but since he is a Celtic historian and was made a life member of the Irish Literary Society in 2002, I hereby declare him an honorary Irishman for the purposes of this post. There’s no doubt about Sister Fidelma’s nationality – she was born into the royal family of Munster, and is both a lawyer and a Celtic nun. The Sister Fidelma series appears to be on book 26 – however, it’s new to me. This short story was originally published in 2005, so let’s see if Fidelma merits the title of…
The Spiteful Shadow
by Peter Tremayne
Sister Fidelma has arrived at the Abbey of Durrow on a visit, only to be told by her old friend Abbot Laisran of a horrible murder that has taken place in the abbey. A young Sister is accused of killing one of the men in the community. But Abbot Laisran is worried…
“There are some things in life that appear so simple that you get a strange feeling about them. You question whether things can be so simple and, sure enough, you often find that they are so simple because they have been made to appear simple…”
Sister Scathach is a troubled young woman, who hears voices which she believes come from the Otherworld. These voices give her messages of doom – usually general ones about the destruction of the world and so on – and instruct her to give these messages out to the world. But one day, the message is more specific – that Brother Sioda is doomed to die by having his heart ripped out. And, just as she prophesied, the next day his bloody corpse is found spreadeagled on his bed. When the Abbot goes to Sister Scathach’s room, he finds a bloody robe and an even bloodier dagger, and the room is locked from the inside. So simple, indeed – and yet something doesn’t feel right. For a start, assuming the voices are not from the Otherworld, how could Sister Scathach have known about the girl Sioda had seduced some years ago? And what would be her motive for killing him? It’s up to Sister Fidelma to find the truth…
Sister Fidelma may be a nun, but she’s not about to be taken in by the whole hearing voices thing…
“I believe in the Otherworld and our transition from this one to that but… I think that those who repose in the Otherworld have more to do than to try to return to this one to murder people. I have investigated several similar matters…there is always a human agency at work.”
However, one can’t help but wonder if, just occasionally, Sister Fidelma also hears voices from the Otherworld – in this case, the bit of the Otherworld that is situated in 221b Baker Street…
“My theory is that when you subtract the impossible, you will find your answers in the possible.”
When Sister Fidelma visits Sister Scathach in her cell and hears her own story of the mysterious voices, she is even more convinced that this is a very human murder, and sets out to find the culprit and the motive…
* * * * *
Given the short length of this story, it’s interesting, though not really a solvable mystery for the reader. Basically each interview that Fidelma holds leads her one step further towards the solution until she reaches the culprit. However, it’s well written and the historical setting intrigued me a lot. Given Tremayne’s credentials as a historian, one assumes his depiction is reasonably accurate, and this early Christian society seems very different to the later monasteries and abbeys we might be more used to in historical fiction. For example, there is no rule to prevent marriage between the male and female members of the abbey, so they are not quite as we imagine nuns and monks, which throws open the whole question of possible motives.
There isn’t really enough room here to develop too much sense of place or characterisation, but it gives enough of a flavour of Fidelma and her way of life to make me interested enough to try out one of the full length novels. A decent introduction to what looks like it might be an enjoyable, fairly cosy series.
Murderers, maniacs and things that go bump in the night…
😀 😀 😀 🙂
Another in the British Library Crime Classics series, this is the third anthology of short stories edited by Martin Edwards, following Capital Crimes, stories set in London, and Resorting to Murder, stories with a holiday theme. This one, as the title makes obvious, is full of stories set in the traditional country house, so beloved of murderers that one can’t help but wonder why all the owners didn’t sell up and move into a nice little cottage somewhere. Though no doubt the twisted crime writers of the time would have tracked them down even there…
As Edwards says in his introduction, the country house is an ideal setting for the ‘closed circle’ type of mystery, where the suspects are defined by their presence in the house. It’s from this that the old cliché of “the butler did it” arises, though in fact this rarely was the solution. (In one of these stories, though, the butler did indeed do it, but I’m not telling which one…)
Several of the stories come from the Golden Age between the two wars, but there are also earlier and later ones. Many of the authors who appeared in the previous collections turn up again here and, as usual, they range from household names to the pretty much forgotten. One thing I’ve found, as I’ve read more of these short stories and some of the novels the British Library has revived, is that there’s a good reason for why some authors have remained popular while others have faded from the public consciousness. While the anthologies are interesting for seeing how the genre developed over time, there’s no doubt that the quality of the stories is variable, and with a few exceptions the better ones are from the authors whose names are still more familiar.
Although all of the stories contain a crime, some of them are really more horror than detective and, in fact, I tended to enjoy these more. Overall, I found this collection a little less enjoyable than the other two, though whether that’s because the average quality is lower or just that I’ve surfeited on vintage crime for the moment, I’m not sure. However, as always, there are enough good stories to make the collection well worth reading. Here are some of the ones I liked best…
The Copper Beeches by Arthur Conan Doyle – the story of a young woman hired to look after a child, but with mysterious conditions attached. She must cut off her luxurious hair, wear a certain colour of dress and sit in the window for hours at a time. Then one day she finds a hank of hair in a drawer – hair that looks very like her own. And why is the door to one wing of the house always kept locked…?
The Mystery of Horne’s Copse by Anthony Berkeley – the more I read of Anthony Berkeley, the more I like him. This is a goodie that I used for a Tuesday ‘Tec post.
An Unlocked Window by Ethel White – again more of a horror story, about two nurses looking after a patient in an isolated house while a maniac murderer is on the loose. This one was adapted as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents… series. Check your windows before you go to bed…
The Horror at Staveley Grange by Sapper – a man dies inexplicably in his bedroom, and a few months later his son comes to the same fate in the same room. Now the remaining son is suspected of murder, but can amateur detective Ronald Standish discover the truth? There is proper detection in this but there are also some really quite shivery spooky bits…
The Well by WW Jacobs – a brilliant horror story from the man who gave the world nightmares with The Monkey’s Paw. I used this story for a Tuesday Terror! post.
Weekend at Wapentake by Michael Gilbert – the last story in the collection and a good one to end on. When an old woman dies, a lawyer’s clerk becomes suspicious. He suspects he knows who killed her but has to find out why. And puts his own life in danger in the attempt. A nice, thrilling ending to this one to round the book off.
* * * * *
So, murderers, maniacs and things that go bump in the night! Despite the inclusion of a few that I felt were really pretty poor, most are at least good and some are excellent. And, as always, they give a chance to sample some authors who really deserve wider recognition than they have. I’m not sure reading all of these anthologies so close together does them proper justice, but I do recommend them individually, depending on what setting you prefer to satisfy your murderous impulses…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
The last time I reviewed an Anthony Berkeley short story, I wasn’t overly impressed. So, since I loved the one Martin Edwards has included in the latest of the British Library classic crime collections, Murder at the Manor, it seems only fair to redress the balance. Edwards tells us that Berkeley was praised by Agatha Christie, amongst others, for the intricacy of his plotting, and this story is a great example of that. So here goes for this week’s…
The Mystery of Horne’s Copse
by Anthony Berkeley
It is over two years ago now and I can begin to look at it in its proper perspective; but even still my mind retains some echo of the incredulity, the horror, the dreadful doubts as to my own sanity and the sheer, cold-sweating terror which followed that ill-omened 29th of May.
Hugh Chappell , our narrator, has been visiting the family of his new fiancée, Sylvia Rigby. During the evening, they discuss Hugh’s cousin, Frank, currently on holiday in Europe with his wife. Frank and Hugh have had a difficult relationship – Frank is next in line to Hugh’s estate, should Hugh die childless, and he’s also a bit of a bad lot, though he seems to have settled down a little since he married.
Later, when Hugh prepares to take his leave, he discovers his car has broken down so he decides to walk home, taking a shortcut through Horne’s Copse. It is a dark night but although Hugh can’t see the path, he knows the copse so well he has no fear of missing his way. But halfway through, his foot strikes against an obstacle lying across the path, causing him to stumble.
I struck a match and looked at it. I do not think I am a particularly nervous man, but I felt a creeping sensation in the back of my scalp as I stood staring down by the steady light of the match. The thing was a body – the body of a man; and it hardly took the ominous black hole in the centre of his forehead, its edges spangled with red dew, to tell me that he was very dead indeed.
Worse is to come! Peering closer, Hugh recognises the body as that of his cousin Frank. But that can’t be – Hugh received a postcard from him from Italy only that day. Rushing home, Hugh contacts the police and returns with them to the copse. But the body has gone along with all trace of it ever having existed! The police think Hugh’s hoaxing them, but Hugh’s doctor, who knows Hugh suffered from shell-shock during the war, fears he might have had a hallucination.
No more comes to light and gradually the matter fades into the background. Until some weeks later, Hugh’s car again has a problem, and he again walks through the copse at night. And again, at the very same place, he stumbles over a body – Frank! This time stabbed in the chest. Checking that he is definitely dead, Hugh rushes home, phones the police and his doctor, and then hurries back to the copse. But again, the corpse is gone!
By now, even Hugh is beginning to doubt his own sanity, so he and Sylvia take a long holiday. On their return, Hugh hopes his nerves will have stopped playing tricks on him. But the very next time he walks through the copse, he again comes across Frank’s dead body!
This time I stayed to make no examination. In utter panic I took to my heels and ran. Whither, or with what idea, I had no notion. My one feeling was to get away from the place and as soon and as quickly as possible.
Without really being aware of what he’s doing, Hugh gets on a train to London. When he gets there, the newsboys are calling out about a body found in the woods. This time, the corpse was found, and it is indeed Frank. The police suspect the whole thing is a ruse of Hugh’s to murder Frank and get off with a plea of insanity, while his doctor isn’t altogether convinced that he’s not insane. But fortunately, Hugh meets an old school-friend, amateur ‘tec Roger Sheringham, who is convinced that Hugh is the victim of a plot…
* * * * *
This is a great story. Originally published as a serial, it’s split into short chapters each with a cliffhanger ending, and is very well-written. The mysterious reappearance of the corpse gives the whole thing a rather creepy, chilling feel, especially when Hugh begins to doubt his own sanity. I did work out part of the plot, but it’s more complex than it looks at first sight, with a nice twist before the end. Reasonably fair play though, I feel. The characterisation of both Hugh and Sylvia is excellent, with Sylvia in particular a likeable and intelligent character, reminiscent in some ways of Agatha Christie’s Tuppence Beresford. Sheringham, whom I didn’t much like as a detective in the last story I read, is much less annoying in this one, and also takes a bit of a back seat, letting Hugh and Sylvia do the bulk of the legwork. It’s not simply about who murdered Frank – the real mystery is how and why the corpse kept reappearing…
Unfortunately, I can’t find an online version to link to, but Murder at the Manor is out now in paper format and for Kindle. I’ll be reviewing the full collection shortly, and this story will definitely be featuring as one of the highlights.
…and how better to be jolly than by spending time with some of our favourite ‘tecs? Not that you’d really expect grumpy old Morse to be the life and soul of the Christmas party, admittedly, but I wouldn’t mind “accidentally” bumping into Lewis under the mistletoe…
Morse’s Greatest Mystery by Colin Dexter
It’s Christmastime in Oxford and Morse intends to spend it decorating, not the tree, but his kitchen.
“You sound more like Scrooge every minute, sir.”
“And I shall read a Dickens novel. I always do over Christmas. Re-read, rather.”
(Suddenly I’m thinking maybe I should check for Morsy under that mistletoe too…)
But before they break for the holiday, the mismatched pair have one more case to solve. Luckily for Morse, the crime took place in a pub, and it just so happens that they’ll arrive there at opening time…
…and it was Lewis’s job that day to ferry the chief inspector around; doubtless, too (if things went to form), to treat him to the odd pint or two.
The day before, the pub landlady had gone to the bank to get £400 in nice crisp new notes – the sum the pub’s patrons had raised to give to Littlemore, a local children’s home. But when she got back to the pub, the phone was ringing. Leaving her bag on the bar, she rushed to answer it and on her return discovered the money had been taken.
At the time of theft, there had been about thirty people in the saloon bar, including the regular OAPs, the usual cohort of pool-playing unemployables, and a pre-Christmas party from a local firm. And – yes! – from the very beginning Lewis had known that the chances of recovering the money were virtually nil.
Oh Lewis! You should have more faith! With a bit of dexterous questioning (hope you enjoyed that pun), Morse learns all he needs to know…
1. The pub landlord was late in getting back from the Cash and Carry.
2. The temporary barman is reluctant to discuss the state of his bank balance.
He now asked – amazingly! – whether by any chance the good lady [the pub landlady] possessed a pair of bright green, high-heeled leather shoes; and when she replied that, yes, she did, Morse smiled serenely, as though he had solved the secret of the universe…
You now have all the information that Morse had – I hope you’ve solved the case!
To Lewis’s amazement, Morse summons together staff and regulars, announces that he knows whodunit and where the money is now. And astonishingly, he goes on to tell them…
The thief might well have been tempted to spend the money earlier – but not any more! And why not? Because at this Christmas time that person no longer had the power to resist his better self.
Morse tells them that he expects the money to be handed in to the police station marked for Lewis’s attention by the following morning.
And so it was… leaving Morse satisfied and Lewis baffled. Which are you?
* * * * * * *
This is a lovely little story, just right for the Christmas season. It’s only a few pages long, but plenty of time for some humour, a baffling mystery, a couple of nice red herrings, a bit of traditional Morse/Lewis repartee and a smile-inducing solution. Yes, I guessed it just before the end, but that didn’t spoil any of the fun. And any story that references Dickens and Scrooge gets my vote as being full of Christmas spirit!
And it seems that even Morse might have been infected by goodwill too…
And he smiled, for he knew that this would be a Christmas he might enjoy almost as much as the children up at Littlemore, perhaps. He had solved so many mysteries in his life. Was he now, he wondered, beginning to glimpse the solution to the greatest mystery of them all?
* * * * * * *
Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
* * * * * * *
No link this week since it’s still in copyright, but I read it in this great (and currently ridiculously cheap on Kindle – it’s in the sale) collection of 60 Christmas crime stories by just about everyone you’ve ever heard of…
Although loads of classic out of copyright stories are available around the internet, I still struggle from time to time to find one for this little section, since general searches tend to bring up the best known stories again and again, leaving the more forgotten ones to remain in obscurity. So over the last few months I’ve found myself turning often to the Megapacks series published for Kindle by Wildlife Press. Each one costs pennies and contains a real mix of stories, and they do horror, crime and sci-fi packs.
Today’s story comes from The Detective Megapack, which has 30 stories, most of them old but with a few recent ones thrown in, including one that is original to this collection. Of course, the quality of the stories is always very mixed, with lots of them showing exactly why they’ve been forgotten, but there are always some goodies in them too. This one, which cost 59p ($0.89) has two Dashiell Hammett stories, Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, Sherlock Holmes in The Five Orange Pips, and a story from R Austin Freeman, to go along with the many other authors I’ve never heard of. The packs do tend to have some typos, but considering the cost I think they’re great value and a fun way to be guided towards some stories that are a bit off the beaten track.
So I’ve randomly picked one of the authors I haven’t come across before (though I feel I should have) for this week’s…
The Taggart Assignment by Vincent Starrett
Our narrator “Gilly” Gilruth has turned up at the rooms of his friend, private detective Jimmie Lavender, to discover a client there telling her tale of woe. A week before she is due to marry, Miss Dale Valentine’s betrothed has gone mysteriously missing. Rupert Parris had phoned Miss Valentine on the previous Sunday evening to say he would arrive at her house in an hour and that was the last that had been heard of him. The enterprising Miss Valentine had managed to trace the call…
“Admirable!” my friend exclaimed. “The most sensible thing you could have done. Where did it come from?”
“That is strange too, and I can’t quite believe it. Perhaps the operator made a mistake and traced the wrong call; but I was told that it had come from the office of the Morning Beacon!”
Sending the young lady off with a reassuring promise to keep the affair confidential, Lavender wonders aloud if the obvious answer can be the correct one…
“A fine girl,” said my friend at length. “If this Parris has jilted her and run away for any reason, I’ll – well, I’ll make him regret it, Gilly, if he’s living!”
Now stand by for a Big Coincidence, for at that very moment our narrator remembers a letter, addressed to Lavender, which the postman had handed him on his way in. And the letter is from the office of the Morning Beacon! It transpires that the proprietor of the paper wishes to consult Lavender about an employee of his, a Mr Moss Lennard, who has been missing since Sunday evening! Lavender (like the reader) is quickly convinced the two disappearances must be linked. Poor old Gilly is struggling to cope though…
Lavender looked questioningly at me, and I looked back at him without a glimmer of light in my brain.
“Muddle is right!”, I said at length. “You guessed it, Jimmie!”
The muddle becomes even muddlier when the drowned corpse of poor Moss Lennard is fished out of a lake the following day – dead since Sunday. There are no obvious signs of violence but Lavender is convinced that Lennard had been blackmailing Parris and Parris has done away with him. But is he right? And if he is, how will he prove it? And where is Parris now??
“221b” by Vincent Starrett
* * * * *
This is quite a fun little mystery, owing a huge debt to the Holmes and Watson stories. In fact, Vincent Starrett was apparently well known as a Sherlockian and writer of Holmes pastiches in his day, and apart from name changes and the fact that this is set in America, this could easily be another. I’m not convinced it’s fair-play since the final clue comes from the discovery of a book called The Montreville Mystery, of which I can find no trace. If it existed and was well-known at the time this story was written (1922) then yes, anyone who had read it could probably have solved the mystery. But if, as I suspect, it is a made up title then I fear the greatest brain would be baffled. Except Lavender’s of course. Or anyone’s who had read the particular Holmes story which I suspect is the actual source for the plot – I won’t name the story since that would give the game away to all Holmes’ fans immediately.
However despite the familiarity of aspects of the plot and the mild feeling of cheating in the solution, this is well-written and enjoyable – light, very readable and held my attention throughout. I’d cheerfully read more of Lavender and Gilly’s adventures, and do recommend these Megapacks as a great starting point for finding introduction to “new” old authors.
The first story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published, A Study in Scarlet introduces us to his two most famous creations, Sherlock Holmes and Dr John H Watson. So it’s a must for this week’s…
A Study in Scarlet
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Returning to London after being wounded in the war in Afghanistan, Watson soon finds that living in hotels is stretching his army pension to breaking point, so when he hears through a friend of a man who is looking for someone to share a set of rooms, he jumps at the chance. Holmes has some rather strange habits, like beating corpses with sticks to see if they bruise, for example, but otherwise he seems like a decent enough fellow. Watson notices that he has a steady stream of rather odd callers – everyone from police inspectors to pedlars. Out of politeness, Watson doesn’t ask what his new friend’s line of business is, though he wonders. One day, Watson reads an article that Holmes has marked in the newspaper – an article on the Science of Deduction and Analysis in which the writer claims that it is possible to tell a man’s profession from observation alone…
By a man’s finger nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt cuffs – by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent enquirer in any case is almost inconceivable.
Watson scoffs at the article, with one of those turns of phrase that delight all of us who love him – “What ineffable twaddle!” he cries, only to be stunned when Holmes reveals himself as the author. But he’s even more stunned when a few minutes later Holmes proves that he can indeed tell the occupation of a man who arrives to deliver a message, from Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard. Now Watson learns that Holmes works as a “consulting detective” and Gregson wants his help with a strange and brutal case of murder. A man has been found dead in an empty house, in a blood-bespattered room, although there is no wound on his body. Holmes and Watson arrive at the scene, and Watson is shocked by what he sees…
On his rigid face there stood an expression of horror, and as it seemed to me, of hatred, such as I have never seen upon human features… I have seen death in many forms, but never has it appeared to me in a more fearsome aspect than in that dark, grimy apartment, which looked out upon one of the main arteries of suburban London.
And so, the game’s afoot…
* * * * * * *
Like all of the long stories other than The Hound of the Baskervilles, this one is divided into two parts – Holmes’ investigation of the crime narrated by Watson, and a section giving the background to the crime, told in this case in the third-person. The motive for this crime originated in the newly-founded Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City in the 1850s, and the Mormons are portrayed in a distinctly unattractive light, especially on the questions of polygamy and violent coercion of anyone who strayed from the rules of the religion; so over the years the book has apparently been considered offensive in some quarters. The history of the Mormons is a subject about which I know nothing, so can’t make any judgements on the accuracy or otherwise of Conan Doyle’s depiction of them (though wikipedia tells me Conan Doyle himself admitted to a degree of exaggeration). But I can make judgements on the book’s enjoyability as a rollicking good story, and it passes with flying colours! Love, cruelty, murder and revenge – perfect!
There’s something about Conan Doyle’s writing that makes it perfect for the adventure yarn and if I could describe it accurately then everyone would be able to do it (and there wouldn’t be so many bad Holmes’ pastiches in the world). His language isn’t particularly poetic, but there’s an elegance in it and a strength, a lovely use of vocabulary, and a naturalness – it gives a sense of someone telling a story aloud around a fire on a dark night, as of course his stories often would have been. He has the ability to bring any scene to vivid life, whether it’s a blood-soaked room of horror, or the arid desert landscape crossed by the Mormons on the way to their new home…
Looking down from the Sierra Blanco, one sees a pathway traced out across the desert, which winds away and is lost in the extreme distance. It is rutted with wheels and trodden down by the feet of many adventurers. Here and there are scattered white objects that glisten in the sun, and stand out against the dull deposit of alkali. Approach, and examine them! They are bones: some large and coarse, others smaller and more delicate. The former have belonged to oxen, and the latter to men.
In this first Holmes story Conan Doyle establishes his two characters, and it’s surprising how little they change really over time. Watson’s character as the loyal friend and brave lieutenant to his brilliant colleague is exactly as he remains throughout the series. There are some things that don’t quite gel with the later Holmes – the idea that he reads detective fiction, for example, and his own description of himself as lazy, with almost Mycroftian tendencies to let the investigation come to him. But these are minor, and the passage about detective fiction is there to allow Conan Doyle to tip his hat to Poe’s Dupin – though with his usual modesty Holmes doesn’t think much of his predecessor…
“Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial.”
Ah, my dear Holmes! Those of us who have read all your adventures avidly again and again can’t help remembering that this is a trick you will play on poor Watson yourself in the future… but much more entertainingly than Dupin ever did!
A great story from a master storyteller, with added interest in seeing how the Holmes phenomenon began. One to read again and again and…
Another in the British Library Crime Classics series, this works well as a companion piece to Martin Edward’s other recent anthology, Capital Crimes: London Mysteries. As the title suggests, Resorting to Murder is a collection of classic crime stories set in holiday destinations. While a lot of them are set in and around Britain, several others take us abroad, mainly to Europe with the Swiss mountains featuring more than once (well, a good place to make a murder look like an accident, eh?). In his introduction, Edwards suggests that holiday settings were popular with authors since the novelty of the location allowed them to concentrate a bit less on creating strong plots. The stories are in rough chronological order, as in Capital Crimes, again allowing us to see the progression of the mystery story.
There are a few well known names in here – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot is the first story (a favourite story of mine which I recently mentioned in a review of a different anthology) and GK Chesterton appears with a non-Father Brown story. But there also many whom I didn’t recognise at all or only knew because they had also appeared in Capital Crimes.
Here are a few of the stories that stood out for me…
The Finger of Stone by GK Chesterton – I admit that the Father Brown stories have never appealed much to me, so it was refreshing to read something different from Chesterton. This one centres on the creation versus evolution debate when a scientist who has ‘proved’ that the Biblical timetable can’t be correct disappears. It’s a bit silly, especially the twist ending, but fun and well written.
Holiday Task by Leo Bruce – this is a great example of a howdunit. A newly appointed prison governor is killed when he apparently drives his car off a cliff. But was it murder? And if it was, how was it done? The solution is clever and I kicked myself for not being able to work it out. As Holmes often remarked, it’s all so easy once you know how…
The Hazel Ice by HC Bailey – I enjoyed Bailey’s contribution in Classic Crimes and liked this one just as much. Reggie Fisher is again the amateur detective, this time in a story involving a man who is missing after an accident in the mountains. Edwards puts Bailey’s decline from the public eye down to his quirky writing style, but I find it entertaining. It’s terribly upper-class 1920/30s style – Fisher doesn’t wear a monocle but one feels he should. A cross between Lord Peter Wimsey and PG Wodehouse, though admittedly not quite as well written as either. But fun.
A Posteriori by Helen Simpson – A short and strictly humorous story centring on the dangers of ladies travelling alone and being forced to make use of… ahem… public conveniences. Made me chuckle.
The House of Screams by Gerald Findler – a great little horror/crime story about a man renting a haunted house. Are the screams that he hears in the middle of the night the ghost of a previous tenant? I’d have loved to read more of Findler’s work, but Edwards tells us that he only published one other story.
* * * * *
In truth, I thought this collection was quite a bit weaker than the London stories. Perhaps it’s the locations – London has always been such a great setting for crime fiction – or perhaps Edwards’ point about plotting is at the root of it, but on the whole I found many of these stories pretty obvious and not overly original or atmospheric, and often without much sense of place despite the interesting locations. There is some crossover of authors between the two collections, but there are also several in this who don’t appear in the other volume, and I felt one or two had been included for their curiosity value more than for the intrinsic quality of the stories. As usual in any collection, though, the quality is variable and there are enough good stories to outweigh the weaker ones overall, meaning this is still an enjoyable read.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, who publish the Kindle version. The paper version is part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series.
I don’t do fan mail but one of my bookish regrets is that I never made the effort to tell Reginald Hill how much pleasure he gave me over so many years. With current favourite authors, I think of my reviews as a form of fan mail, but Hill published what turned out to be his final book before I began reviewing. I joined the Dalziel and Pascoe series at probably around the eighth book, immediately read his entire back catalogue and from then on he was a ‘must read on publication day’ author – the first author who made it onto that exalted list. I enjoyed his standalones and am extremely fond of his Joe Sixsmith series, but it’s the Dalziel and Pascoe books I love most. So, time for him to make his overdue blog debut on this week’s…
The Last National Service Man
by Reginald Hill
Dalziel and Pascoe made their first appearance in 1970 in A Clubbable Woman, as a wonderfully mismatched pair of detectives working in the Mid-Yorkshire CID. Andy Dalziel is an old-school copper, a larger-than-life, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Yorkshireman, but with an implaccable drive for justice that he will take into his own hands if the system fails to punish the guilty. Peter Pascoe is a graduate entry officer, complete with classical education and left-liberal ideology. On the surface, Dalziel is a bully and Pascoe a softie but, underneath, each has a core of steel and a loyalty to each other that builds and deepens as the series goes on. Neither compromises, exactly, but they learn to respect each other and value their different strengths.
In 1996, Hill produced a collection of 4 novella-length stories, Asking for the Moon, one of which, The Last National Service Man, is the story of Dalziel and Pascoe’s first meeting. After nearly thirty years, the series’ fan-base was as well-established as the duo themselves, so Hill has a lot of fun taking us back to those early days but with the added twist that we know how the two develop in their future. I think this could be read and enjoyed by someone coming to it without having read any of the books, but it’s filled with lots of ‘in’ jokes and references which make it a special joy for fans, to whom Hill dedicated the book with his usual wit.
Dalziel has been away on a job in Wales and comes back to discover that a rookie graduate has been allocated to his team in his absence. He’s back to give evidence in court and coincidentally Pascoe is also at court to attend a different trial. Wieldy, the third member of the team and a major character in his own right in the later books, is there to pass a message to Dalziel. But first Dalziel and Pascoe, unbeknownst to the other, watch each other’s performance in court, and each is horrified by what he sees. Dalziel is up against a man being tried for rape of a prostitute…
“Nay, sir!” said Dalziel in all injured innocence. “Tha knows I’d never mention a man’s record in court, no matter how rotten it were. All I was going to say was, I said to myself, spotty little scrote like that, I bet he’d have to use force to get his own mother to kiss him goodnight!”
Appalled, young Pascoe hurries off to give his own evidence in the trial of two men charged with stealing a litter of piglets. The watching Dalziel is not a little stunned by the following exchange…
“As things stand” [said the lawyer] “it seems to me what we have here is a serious allegation of crime unsupported by any corpus delicti whatever.”
“Perhaps, Mr Harris,” said the magistrate who aspired to judicial wit, “we should say corpi as their were six or seven, or even eight, of them.”
“Indeed, sir. Corpi. Very good.”
“Corpora,” said Pascoe.
“I’m sorry?” said Harris, histrionically puzzled.
“The plural of corpus is corpora,” explained Pascoe.
With these two little sketches, Hill gives a beautifully witty summary of the differences between the two characters. And that’s the joy of his writing. I don’t think he ever tells us anything – he lets the characters tell us themselves. The story turns into a hostage situation when Dalziel and Pascoe are taken prisoner by a man with a grudge, but really it’s a device to put the two in a room together and let us see them getting to know each other. And, as they do, we see the wary beginnings of the respect that we know will eventually turn into an unlikely friendship over the years.
The quality of Hill’s writing is first-class – many of the later books read as much like literary fiction as crime. I hold him in part responsible for my pickiness about the standards of writing in crime fiction – he proved again and again that ‘genre’ fiction never needs to compromise on quality. Throughout his career he refused to jump on the book-a-year treadmill, which meant impatient waiting for his fans, but also ensured that his standards never dropped. I don’t ever remember reading one of his books and feeling let down by it – a remarkable achievement in such a long-running series. He loved to play games with words and structure, and with referencing some of the literary greats in his novels, but he could get away with it because he was skilled enough to play them well. And even at his most playful, he never forgot the need for great plots and consistent believable characterisation. He did darkness just as well as light, and some of his books are deeply emotionally harrowing. On Beulah Height is the book I always name when asked for my favourite crime novel, but actually I could pick several of the later books – he continued to develop and improve throughout his long career, never taking his fans for granted.
From Sherlock Holmes to Lacey Flint, many of the detectives I have loved over the years have been based in London. And why not? One of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world with a history stretching back for over a millennium, it has always been a contrast of bright lights and dark alleyways, extreme wealth and desperate poverty, and every one of its ancient streets is drenched in the blood of the victims of its horrid past. Visitors love nothing more than to shiver in the London Dungeon, to thrill to the stories of ancient beheadings in the Tower, to make a pilgrimage to those famous rooms in Baker Street. What river has been the escape route for more criminals and the final resting place for more victims than the Thames? Who can think of Whitechapel without their thoughts turning to the eviscerated victims of Jack the Ripper?
So what better venue for a collection of classic crime stories? In this book, Martin Edwards has selected 17 stories from the Golden Age of crime writing, some from names we are still familiar with – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Margery Allingham, Edgar Wallace – but many from authors who have since faded into obscurity. He has arranged them into rough chronological order, allowing us to see the gradual transition from the heyday of the amateur detective to the beginnings of the police procedural with which we’re more familiar today. The overall standard of the stories is variable, as in any collection, but I found most of them good or excellent, with only a couple that I felt really hadn’t stood the test of time. But even these added something to the collection in showing how trends were just as strong in early crime-writing as they are now. For example, I was underwhelmed by Richard Marsh’s The Finchley Puzzle, starring deaf, lip-reading amateur detective Judith Lee, but was intrigued to note that there seemed to be a fashion around that time for detectives with a physical quirk, since a couple of stories later we meet Ernest Bramah’s blind detective Max Carradine – not unlike our current obsession with autistic detectives, but happily without the angst (or drunkenness).
The influence of Holmes and Watson is clear in some of the partnerships between brilliant detectives and admiring narrators, (though I suppose I should grudgingly give the credit to Poe’s Dupin and his unnamed narrator really). R Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke in particular struck me as very Sherlockian, as did the aforementioned Max Carradine.
Many of the stories rely on intricate plots – ‘locked room’ mysteries, innovative murder methods, unbreakable alibis, etc. But others veer more strongly towards the psychological, using atmosphere to great effect to build suspense, and a couple of them could easily be classed as horror as much as crime. I’ve already highlighted a couple of the stories as part of my Tuesday ‘Tec! slot – Edgar Wallace’s The Stealer of Marble and John Oxenham’s A Mystery of the Underground – but to give you a fuller flavour of the collection, here are a few more that stood out for me…
The Case of Lady Sannox by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – this revenge story is definitely more horror than detection, telling the tale of a husband avenging himself against the man who is having an affair with his wife. A truly horrifying ending! And a great way to kick off the collection.
The Tea Leaf by Robert Eustace and Edgar Jepson – two men enter a room in a Turkish Bath, argue loudly, and only one leaves alive. But no murder weapon is found on the survivor or in the room. How was the murder done, and who is the killer? A fine example of a ‘locked room’ mystery with a unique method of killing.
The Little House by HC Bailey – amateur detective Reggie Fortune is asked to look into the case of a missing kitten, but this soon becomes an extremely chilling look at a case of child cruelty. The writing style is a bit staccato but the story is powerful with a strong sense of anger and justice.
The Silver Mask by Hugh Walpole – the story of the collection for me, and I will definitely be looking for more of Walpole’s work. This tells of a middle-aged lady whose loneliness and maternal feelings are played on by an unscrupulous young man. The way Walpole describes the woman’s character is very true and touching, and I found the portrayal of the unintended carelessness of her friends and family quite moving. This is another with an atmosphere of terror which mounts all the way through to an ending that is full of dread. Brilliant stuff!
They Don’t Wear Labels by EM Delafield – an intriguing story told from the perspective of the landlady of a married couple living in her lodging house. The woman is suffering from ‘nerves’ and on one evening tells the landlady her husband is trying to murder her. But the husband is so nice to everyone, and seems so kind to his impossible wife – he couldn’t possibly be a murderer…could he? Another psychological study this, of how one can never tell by appearances.
* * * * *
All round, an excellent collection that I highly recommend to all crime aficionados, and I’m looking forward to reading Edward’s selection in the companion volume, Resorting to Murder.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, who publish the Kindle version. The paper version is part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series.
Anyone who is the housemate of cats will know they don’t like to feel they’re in second place. So when my cats saw that I had featured Miss Marple on a recent Tuesday ’Tec post, they were most displeased. Frankly, my life has been a misery ever since, so to try to get back into their good books, I am today featuring their namesakes – the original Tommy and Tuppence – on this week’s…
A Fairy in the Flat
by Agatha Christie
Tommy and Tuppence Beresford haven’t really become part of the public consciousness in the way that Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot have, but I think that’s an injustice. They are different from Agatha Christie’s other detectives in that, not only are they a married couple, but they age in real time. There are only four Tommy and Tuppence novels and a collection of short stories, Partners in Crime, from which these two stories are the opening chapters. The first novel, The Secret Adversary, takes place immediately after the First World War and involves a secret treaty and a missing woman. During it, Tommy is recruited to work for the Secret Service and Tommy and Tuppence fall in love. Partners in Crime is their next appearance – it’s six years later, Tommy is doing a desk job for the Secret Service and Tuppence, now his wife, is bored…
“I wish,” she said, “something would happen.”
When she goes on to explain that being fairly well off and married to Tommy isn’t quite as exciting as she anticipated, the rather offended Tommy offers to help…
“Shall I neglect you a little?” suggested Tommy. “Take other women about to night clubs. That sort of thing.”
“Useless,” said Tuppence. “You would only meet me there with other men. And I should know perfectly well that you didn’t care for the other women, whereas you would never be quite sure that I didn’t care for the other men, Women are so much more thorough.”
“It’s only in modesty that men score top marks,” murmured her husband.
Fortunately for the sake of their marriage, at this point Mr Carter shows up. He’s Tommy’s boss in Intelligence and has a proposition to put to them. A detective agency run by the dodgy Mr Theodore Blunt needs a manager, Mr Blunt himself being under arrest. It’s important that the agency remains open because mysterious blue letters with a Russian stamp get addressed there, and the Secret Service are keen to intercept them. So Mr Carter suggests that Tommy should take the place of Mr Blunt and, knowing Tuppence from their previous adventures, he tells them…
“You can run the Agency as you please. I fancied” – his eyes twinkled a little – “that it might amuse Mrs Tommy to try her hand at detective work.”
* * * * *
A Pot of Tea
And indeed it does! An avid reader of detective fiction, Tuppence fancies herself an expert and is keen to try out the techniques of some of her favourite fictional sleuths, and so Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives! is born. The rest of the book is made up of short stories in each of which Tommy and Tuppence take on an investigation, while the Russian letter storyline runs in the background. A Pot of Tea is the first story.
At first business is slow. Tuppence objects to doing divorce work and oddly enough murderers and embezzlers seem a bit thin on the ground. Things begin to look up when a young man turns up looking for help to find the girl he loves, who has mysteriously disappeared. The young man looks like a toff (and behaves not unlike Bertie Wooster) and Tuppence is convinced that if they solve this case, it’ll be great publicity for the Agency. But getting a description of the missing girl from the lovestruck Lawrence St Vincent is not altogether straightforward…
“She’s got the most marvellous hair – sort of golden but very deep, like a jolly old sunset – that’s it, a jolly old sunset. You know, I never noticed things like sunsets until lately. Poetry too, there’s a lot more in poetry than I ever thought.”
“Red hair,” said Tuppence unemotionally, writing it down.
Will Tuppence find the girl? Will Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives! be a huge success? Will Tommy and Tuppence live happily ever after? You’ll have to read it to find out…
* * * * *
Although the later novels take on a more serious tone (and in the case of By the Pricking of My Thumbs a distinctly creepy and sinister one), the Tommy and Tuppence stories are where Christie uses humour to best effect, in my opinion, especially in these early ones. The banter between the two is great fun, and Tuppence herself is a joy to spend time with. Impulsive, unpredictable and warm-hearted, she is always leading the rather more staid Tommy into tricky situations, but he adores her and, although he grumbles, he’s happy to follow. His skills as an ex-soldier and current member of the Secret Service mean he’s no slouch himself, especially when it comes to the action parts. They truly are a partnership, ably assisted by Albert, a young man they take under their wing, who acts at various times as their office boy, butler, confidant and friend.
Great fun – and the more of you who read them, the more likely my own little T&T are to forgive me…
* * * * *
Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
No online version again this week – sorry! But these two introductory stories are available as a Kindle single…
We tend to think of the serial killer story as a fairly modern invention but this one was originally published in serial form (no pun intended!) in 1897 in Today, a weekly magazine edited by Jerome K Jerome. I came across it in Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards, and since the murders all happen on Tuesdays, it seems like a perfect entry for this week’s…
A Mystery of the Underground
by John Oxenham
As an underground train pulls into Charing Cross station one Tuesday evening, a woman is screaming wildly and trying desperately to get out of a first-class carriage. When the station inspector investigates, he discovers the body of a dead man slumped in the corner of the carriage, shot through the heart…
…they stopped and lifted him out of the carriage. The head fell back as they carried him awkwardly across the platform, and the crowd shrank away, silent and scared, at sight of the ghastly limpness and the stains of blood.
This is just the first. From then on, each Tuesday night a new murder is committed, always in the first-class, and with no indication of how the murderer is managing to shoot someone in a moving train, in a sealed compartment with no linking corridor. Our intrepid detective is Charles Lester, reporter on the Link, who chances to be in a neighbouring compartment when the second murder takes place…
The screams had ceased. The silence seemed even more pregnant. While the screams continued something was happening. With their cessation, it – whatever it was – had happened.
First on the scene, Lester meets the police officer in charge of the case, Detective-Sergeant Doane, and forms an informal partnership with him. More murders follow, with the same pattern to each, told to the reader as a series of extracts from Lester’s articles in the Link and extracts from other newspapers. As panic grows, people start to avoid the District Line on Tuesday evenings, though the stations along the line are filled with sensation seekers…
Throngs of people, waiting silently, in a damp fog, peering into carriage after carriage as the almost empty trains rolled slowly, like processions of funeral cars, in and out of the stations.
But, despite policemen being posted on the footplates and railway workers with torches lining the route, still the murders continue, as some brave or foolhardy souls continue to sit in solitary splendour in the first-class carriages rather than mix with the hoi-polloi in the crowded third-class ones.
The matter is really too gruesome for a jest, but Punch certainly hit the case off admirably in Bernard Partridge’s clever sketch of the young City man attracting all the attentions of all the beauties in the drawing-room by the simple assertion that he had travelled from town by the District Railway, in a first-class carriage, all by himself, while the season’s lions scowl at him from a distance, and twirl their moustaches, and growl in their neglected corners.
Eventually Lester suggests to Doane that he, Lester, should put himself forward as bait. Wearing a protective steel breast-plate, he will travel the line, with a policeman hidden on the seat opposite and two more lying on the roof of the carriage. As Doane later remarks somewhat laconically…
Journeying on one’s stomach, stern foremost, on top of the Underground train, is not a mode of locomotion that I can recommend.
Will the plan work? Or will Lester die a heroic but futile death? Will they ever know the reasons behind the crime? You’ll have to read it to find out…
* * * * *
I loved this story. It’s true sensation writing and Edwards tells us in the introduction that it led to a slump in passenger numbers in real life and protests from the Underground authorities. But there’s a lovely vein of humour running through it, and some nice social observations about the avid crowds hoping to see something horrible – a reaction to tragedy and horror that we’re still familiar with today. Oxenham also has a few digs at the class system – at people determined to be ‘first’-class even if it puts their lives at risk. He also speculates on the possible motive, and again there’s an eerie presentiment of present day concerns…
Is it against the Underground railway itself, as a system or a corporation, that this foul fiend is fighting? Or is it some lunatic registering in this gruesome fashion his protest against the influx of foreigners into English business life? – for it is a noticeable fact that three out of the four victims have been foreigners.
Unfortunately, the version in Capital Crimes has been abridged, presumably for space reasons, but the whole section on how Lester finds the killer is simply cut – replaced by a summary paragraph – and then we’re given the final part of the story revealing the motivation. I thought the abridgement was clumsily done, and it took away some of my enjoyment of the story. I can’t find an online version, but it is available as a Kindle book on Amazon – at an exorbitant price though, for a 46-page story. So I do highly recommend it if you can get hold of it, but not so much in the abridged form in this book. I will be adding Oxenham to my list of writers to explore…
* * * * *
Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ (but it’s really not trying to be a mystery)
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 (quite possibly five, had it been unabridged)
Goodness! I realised that the surely undisputed Queen of Golden Age Crime hadn’t made an appearance in this little classic detective series yet – what an omission! So here we go with a Miss Marple special for this week’s…
The Affair at the Bungalow by Agatha Christie
“I’ve thought of something,” said Jane Helier.
Her beautiful face was lit up with the confident smile of a child expecting approbation. It was a smile such as moved audiences nightly in London, and which had made the fortune of photographers.
This story comes from the collection The Thirteen Problems. The format of each of the stories is that a group of friends meet for dinner, and that each of them takes a turn at telling of some mystery they have come across in real life and challenging the others to solve it. On the evening that this story is told, the dinner is being hosted by Mrs Bantry. Amongst the guests is Jane Helier, a beautiful but somewhat dim-witted actress, and she tells the assembled company of a strange thing that once happened to her ‘friend’…
Everyone made encouraging but slightly hypocritical noises. Colonel Bantry, Mrs Bantry, Sir Henry Clithering, Dr Lloyd and old Miss Marple were one and all convinced that Jane’s ‘friend’ was Jane herself. She would have been quite incapable of remembering or taking an interest in anything affecting anyone else.
Jane tells of a time when she was appearing in theatre in a riverside town. One night, the local police ask her to come to the police station to identify a young man whom they are holding. Leslie Faulkener is an aspiring playwright and had been thrilled to receive a letter, purporting to be from Jane, inviting him to come and discuss a play he had sent to her. On turning up at the address specified – a bungalow in the same riverside town – the parlour-maid took him through to the drawing-room where a spurious ‘Jane Helier’ offered him a cocktail and began to talk about his play. The real Jane is somewhat huffed that he didn’t immediately see through the deception, but she comforts herself modestly with the reflection that…
Anyway, he described this woman as tall and fair with big blue eyes and very good-looking, so I suppose it must have been near enough.
Poor Leslie drank the cocktail and remembered nothing more until he woke up dazed and confused, lying in the road beside a hedge. Next thing he knows, he has been picked up by the police who tell him that he is suspected of burglary. It appears that the bungalow is the secret love-nest of a big city financier and a well-known actress, to whom Jane gives the pseudonym of Miss Mary Kerr, and that some priceless jewels have been stolen. The police had received a phone call, apparently from the mistress of the house, saying that Leslie had been seen leaving the bungalow via a window. However Miss Kerr later denies making the call and, when he sees the real Jane Helier, Leslie admits that she was not the woman he met in the house. The question is – who stole the jewels and why did they go to the trouble of creating this elaborate deception?
The various guests consider the case and come up with several suggestions, but none that fully explain all of the facts. Eventually they turn to Miss Marple, but even she confesses herself at a loss. Until, that is, a comment from Dr Lloyd puts her in mind of Mrs Pebmarsh, one of her famous village parallels…
“Mrs Pebmarsh? Who is Mrs Pebmarsh?”
“Well -” Miss Marple hesitated. “I don’t know that she really comes in. She’s a laundress. And she stole an opal pin that was pinned into a blouse and put it in another woman’s house.”
There! That makes it all perfectly clear, doesn’t it? No, the other guests didn’t think so either, but Miss Marple merely remarks cryptically that women must stick together, whispers a comment for Jane’s ear only, and takes her leave. When Jane tells Mrs Bantry the rest of the story later, it’s no surprise to learn that Miss Marple has worked the whole thing out. Which is more than I did!
* * * * *
This is a lovely little story, only about 20 or so pages but beautifully complicated and told with all of Christie’s usual skill. There’s lots of humour in it, mainly at the expense of the egotistical Jane Helier, but it’s affectionate humour. And for fans, an appearance by Mrs Bantry is always a special treat – she’s one of my favourite recurring characters in the Miss Marple stories, and in this one she’s on top form, coming up with at least half a dozen possible solutions, each one more far-fetched than the last. I’m not convinced it’s totally fair-play – the reader is given one fairly crucial piece of information only as the solution is revealed, but it would be possible to work out the who and how, if not the why. It doesn’t matter though – it’s light and fun and a pleasure to read, proving again that Agatha Christie was a mistress of the short story format just as much as the full-length novel.
* * * * *
Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
(No online link this week, I’m afraid – I couldn’t find a legal one. But the story is available as a Kindle single or as part of The Thirteen Problems collection.)
I am about to commit bookish blasphemy, so sensitive crime fiction lovers may wish to look away now. I’ve never liked Lord Peter Wimsey. There! I’ve said it! But how could I possibly have a series on great ‘tecs and not include him? So, like the martyr I am, I have cautiously approached one of Ms Sayers’ short stories, and I freely admit to being much taken by the title. Will she win me over? All will be revealed in this week’s…
The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag
by Dorothy L Sayers
The Great North Road wound away like a flat, steel-grey ribbon. Up it, with the sun and wind behind them, two black specks moved swiftly. To the yokel in charge of the hay-wagon they were only two of “they dratted motor-cyclists”, as they barked and zoomed past him in rapid succession.
The two motor-cyclists continue to chase each other at ridiculous speeds up the Great North Road until eventually they are stopped by an officious policeman who takes their details and informs them they’ll be summonsed for speeding. Aggrieved, the first motor-cyclist, Walters, explains that he was merely trying to catch the other man, Simpkins, to return a bag that had fallen off his bike thirty miles back at Hatfield. Simpkins vehemently denies all knowledge of the bag. Our policeman isn’t terribly interested in this disagreement… until a passing A.A. man notices that the bag seems to be wet and horribly sticky in one corner…
The constable proved the split seam in silence, and then turned hurriedly round to wave away a couple of young women who had stopped to stare. The A.A. man peered curiously, and then started back with a sensation of sickness. “Ow, Gawd!” he gasped. “It’s curly—it’s a woman’s.”
Suddenly the ownership of the bag takes on a new importance. So it’s unfortunate for Lord Peter Wimsey that it’s just at this moment he chooses to appear on the scene…
“Hullo, officer!” said a voice behind them. “What’s all the excitement? You haven’t seen a motor-cyclist go by with a little bag on his carrier, I suppose?”
On learning about the horror in the bag, Lord Peter hastily explains that it’s not his, though it looks like the one he has been pursuing. He explains that a similar bag, containing some jewellery, had been stolen from his car the day before…
I made enquiries through Scotland Yard, and was informed to-day that a bag of precisely similar appearance had been cloak-roomed yesterday afternoon at Paddington, main line. I hurried round there, and was told by the clerk that just before the police warning came through the bag had been claimed by a man in motor-cycling kit. A porter said he saw the man leave the station, and a loiterer observed him riding off on a motor-bicycle.
And so Lord Peter had joined the chase up the Great North Road. It’s now up to the police to decide which of the three men is telling the truth. Of course, they quickly eliminate Lord Peter from all suspicion, because… well, because he’s a Lord and speaks with a posh accent, primarily, but also because he has helped the police in the past. And he helps them again now by making a brilliant suggestion well beyond the intellectual capacities of the force’s finest…
“Well, look here,” said the man addressed as “my lord”, “I’ve got an idea for what it’s worth. Suppose, superintendent, you turn out as many of your men as you think adequate to keep an eye on three desperate criminals, and we all tool down to Hatfield together. I can take two in my ‘bus at a pinch, and no doubt you have a police car. If this thing did fall off the carrier, somebody beside Mr. Walters may have seen it fall.”
But even once it’s discovered which of the men took the bag from the cloakroom, there’s still another twist to come…
* * * * *
OK, I hate the snobbery in the Wimsey stories, however much disguised by humour. I hate the grovelling forelock-tugging attitude of all and sundry to the foppish Lord Peter. And I hate the portrayal of working-class people as loutish, mentally-challenged bumpkins, and their silly dialects. Oh, and I really hate Lord Peter’s mocking condescension to his social ‘inferiors’.
That said, I admit the story is well-written and full of humour. While it’s not a ‘fair play’ story since there’s no way to work out the solution before it’s given, the plot is clever and fun with a nice little twist in the tail. Lord Peter goes beyond deduction towards brilliant intuition at a couple of points, and the police are left trailing in his wake, but that’s fairly standard for detective stories of this era. There’s not much in the way of characterisation – the police are stereotypes, and it’s clearly aimed at readers of the novels who will already be familiar with Lord Peter’s history. But that doesn’t matter, since it’s not aiming to be more than a light entertainment, and it succeeds well on that level. I did enjoy it in the end, but not enough to want to subject myself to re-reading the novels, I fear. Apologies to all passionate Wimsey fans everywhere!