The Horned God edited by Michael Wheatley

When the pipes play…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The last of the British Library Tales of the Weird anthologies that the porpy and I have read for this year’s spooky season, this one contains 11 stories and 6 short poems all on the theme of Pan. As I’ve said before, the poems in these anthologies never really interest me and I tend to skim over them, so to be fair I don’t include them when deciding how to rate the book. The eleven stories, though, are very good. I’ve always liked Pan from way back when first introduced to him in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and indeed the relevant chapter of that book, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, is included here and works very well as a standalone story, showing Pan in his demigod role as friend and protector of animals.

Most of the stories here, though, are more interested in Pan as everything from a champion of free sex, to a corrupter of the innocent, to a campaigner against the deadliness of some of the more joyless types of Christianity. Pan, when he’s being presented as a positive force, encourages people to find freedom from the strict conventionalities of Victorian/Edwardian society, that being the era of most of these stories. But just as often he’s presented as bad or, rather, amoral, corrupting people and destroying them either morally or physically or both. Seems to very much depend on the outlook of the author!

The blurb suggests the stories share a theme of “queer awakenings” which surprised me when I looked at the index and saw that Ratty and Mole were about to appear, along with Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan which I had also already read and loved, and which for me had themes of degeneracy and degradation rather than any kind of awakening, queer or otherwise! As I suspected, this claim is little more than a marketing ploy to tie in with the current obsession with all things queer in contemporary culture – while it could feasibly be claimed for a couple of the stories, most of the sex, actual or implied, in the stories is of the heterosexual kind (with occasional mild hints of bestiality!), and often not presented positively at all. Being of that earlier era, it is also never described graphically, though there are enough hints for the reader to be able to imagine what’s going on in those forest glades at midnight…

The Great God Pan
Illustration by
mgkellermeyer via DeviantArt.com.

This is another collection that got consistently high ratings from me, excluding the poems. Of the eleven stories, I gave seven the full five stars, and none of the stories rated as poor. Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Moon-Slave by Barry Pain – a story of a young girl who loves to dance! I highlighted this one in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

The Story of a Panic by EM Forster – Young Eustace, a “repellent” 14-year-old (is there any other kind?), is staying in an Italian hotel with two aunts and a group of dully conventional and mostly middle-aged English and American people. During a picnic, everyone suddenly feels a great fear and they all run off… except Eustace. Whatever happened to him on that hill, (and there’s a reason the word “panic” has Pan in it), Eustace is changed forever, and no matter how hard they try, the other guests are unable to “cure” him. This is one on which the “queer awakenings” claim is based, and it can certainly easily be read that way, though it can equally be read as simply a breaking away from society’s conventions. It’s very well told, with some humour but also with some depth.

The Devil’s Martyr by Signe Toksvig – (If you’re wondering, yes, she was the great-aunt of Sandi Toksvig.) An orphaned young boy has been left in the guardianship of a bishop, who has handed him over to monks to train him up for a life in the Church – a particularly harsh version of the Church, where all is sin and the monks enjoy nothing more than a good bit of self-flagellation of an evening. However, a friend of the boy’s father shows up and gets the bishop to agree to allow the boy to go away with him for a month. During that month, he introduces the boy to wine, women and song, and shows him there is another god to worship – Pan, who in this story is not unlike the Devil. This is a dark story which is certainly about sexual awakening, but also about the evils that can result when religion is taken to extremes.

Pan in The Wind in the Willows

The Golden Bough by David H Keller – Two newlyweds are honeymooning, when the rather fey young wife tells her husband that she has dreamt of a house and wants them to live in it. The husband, who is wealthy and loving to a fault, agrees to drive around till they find the house, which they eventually do. It turns out to be a castle, isolated from all other people, in the middle of a forest. The husband isn’t wildly keen but decides to stay there for a while in the hopes his young wife will tire of the loneliness. But there’s a mysterious man in the forest, who plays a mysterious pipe, and the wife becomes enthralled by him. Very dark, with elements of fairy stories and some great horror imagery at the end.

I seem to have picked out some of the darker stories, but there are lighter stories too. However, the overall lesson is that Pan is not a god to treat lightly! If you hear those pipes when you’re walking in the forest, run! An excellent collection that is interesting for showing the variety of ways in which Pan has been portrayed.

(The porpy admitted that he and his chums often sneak off
to worship their demigod Pan in the forest at midnight…)

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

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! The Moon-Slave by Barry Pain

That’s how you know…

This week’s story is taken from The Horned God, a British Library Tales of the Weird anthology focusing on stories starring the Great God Pan. They are a warning to us all to live in crowded cities, preferably with our doors and windows sealed to keep out the horrors and temptations of the natural world! Our little heroine in this story paid no heed to this advice, as she danced ‘neath the light of an enchanted moon…

The Moon-Slave
by Barry Pain

Barry Pain

The Princess Viola had, even in her childhood, an inevitable submission to the dance; a rhythmical madness in her blood answered hotly to the dance music, swaying her, as the wind sways trees, to movements of perfect sympathy and grace.

Like many of us girlies, she has found dancing with (most) men something of a disappointment…

‘They are all right,’ she said to herself as she thought of the men she had left, ‘but they cannot dance. Mechanically they are all right; they have learned it and don’t make childish mistakes; but they are only one-two-three machines. They haven’t the inspiration of dancing. It is so different when I dance alone.’

Even her Prince, the handsome Hugo, to whom she has become betrothed, doesn’t set her blood tingling when they dance…

With others the betrothal was merely a question of state. With her it was merely a question of obedience to the wishes of authority; it had been arranged; Hugo was comme ci, comme ça—no god in her eyes; it did not matter. But with Hugo it was quite different—he loved her.

Perhaps if she had loved him it would have been different – love is the secret ingredient that turns (most) men into good dancers, after all. The betrothal party is in full swing, but Viola, bored with the dance, slips off into the palace grounds and finds herself at the entrance to the old overgrown maze…

Many years ago the clue to the maze had been lost; it was but rarely now that anyone entered it. Its gravel paths were green with weeds, and in some places the hedges, spreading beyond their borders, had made the way almost impassable.

Viola enters the maze anyway with the idea of reaching the space at the centre, but gradually is lulled by the darkness…

She soon forgot her purpose, and wandered about quite aimlessly, sometimes forcing her way where the brambles had flung a laced barrier across her path, and a dragging mass of convolvulus struck wet and cool upon her cheek.

By chance… or is it?… she finds herself in the centre…

Here the ground was carpeted with sand, fine and, as it seemed, beaten hard. From the summer night sky immediately above, the moonlight, unobstructed here, streamed straight down upon the scene. Viola began to think about dancing.

And that’s when she makes her mistake…

‘Sweet moon,’ she said in a kind of mock prayer, ‘make your white light come down in music into my dancing-room here, and I will dance most deliciously for you to see.’ She flung her head backward and let her hands fall; her eyes were half closed, and her mouth was a kissing mouth. ‘Ah! sweet moon,’ she whispered, ‘do this for me, and I will be your slave; I will be what you will.’

Oh dear!

Quite suddenly the air was filled with the sound of a grand invisible orchestra. Viola did not stop to wonder. To the music of a slow saraband she swayed and postured. In the music there was the regular beat of small drums and a perpetual drone. The air seemed to be filled with the perfume of some bitter spice. Viola could fancy almost that she saw a smouldering camp-fire and heard far off the roar of some desolate wild beast. She let her long hair fall, raising the heavy strands of it in either hand as she moved slowly to the laden music. Slowly her body swayed with drowsy grace, slowly her satin shoes slid over the silver sand.

Le Faune by Carlos Schwabe.
Musées d’art et d’histoire in Geneva.

* * * * *

Things we have learned today:

1. Never wander off alone at night.

2. Never go into old forgotten mazes.

3. Never make pacts with powers you don’t understand!

4. If given a choice between a Prince and a desolate wild beast, pick the Prince!!

This is a short story, beautifully written and full of the kind of lush descriptions of the natural world that normally signal the arrival of Pan. It’s very clear where it’s heading but it’s done so well that it still manages to create an atmosphere of tension. In the style of those happy bygone days it’s packed full of sensuality and repressed desire without ever resorting to spelling everything out in graphic detail, and that subtlety and allusion works so much better than the hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-hammer approach of too much modern writing. The porpy and I both loved this one!

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link.

(The porpy apologises for the unseasonal story
and wishes you a Merry Christmas!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

Our Haunted Shores edited by Emily Alder, Jimmy Packham and Joan Passey

Get out of the water!

🙂 🙂 😐

Another anthology from the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, this one has twenty entries, all with settings around the shores of Britain. I say entries rather than stories because several of these are not stories, and often not at all what I would describe as horror or weird. There are poems, which I freely admit are not my thing and none of them made me want to change my mind. There are recountings of folk myths, which are interesting but not developed as stories. And there are pieces which recount natural disasters, such as drownings and tragedies at sea, which are done more as faux reportage than, again, being developed as horror stories. Of the twenty, I’d call fifteen of them stories, but there are only eleven that I’d classify as in any way weird, even by the most generous definition of that genre.

Unfortunately, even among those fifteen I found the quality of the selections pretty disappointing. While there are some stand-out stories, most are rather unimpressive and a few are frankly poor, feeling to me as if they’re included only because of their connection to the overarching theme rather than for any intrinsic quality in the stories. I said recently that these anthologies work best when the editor and the reader are in tune. While I don’t know Emily Alder or Jimmy Packham, I have found in the past that Joan Passey and I are not in tune – she is far more interested in the little poems and folk myths she includes than I am, and we clearly don’t share a definition of what ‘weird’ or even ‘horror’ means. So as always my reaction to the collection is subjective, and other readers may find themselves more in synch with the selections than I.

As usual, here’s a flavour of the ones I enjoyed most – a rather restricted list this time, since I gave only 4 of the entries five stars:

The Sea-Fit by Algernon Blackwood – a deliciously scary story of ancient sea gods and those who worship them. I highlighted this one in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

Crooken Sands by Bram Stoker – another that I’ve included as a Tuesday Terror! post, this is a surprisingly humorous tale of a visitor to Scotland who insists on wearing full Highland rig despite the warnings of the local seer.

On the Isle of Blue Men by Robert W Sneddon – A manuscript is found after the death of a madman who had appeared on the Portuguese shore one day and lived out his remaining life there. The manuscript tells of how the narrator and his wife, Alice, sailed out to an island inhabited only by three lighthouse keepers, all Highland men. One of them Jamieson, is reputed to be a seer. He is horrified that a woman is on the island, especially a red-haired one. He warns that it will bring on them the curse of the Blue Men! And indeed it does! An excellent story, based on a Scottish myth, with some terrifying octopus-like creatures that would certainly deter me from taking a job on a lonely island!

Image: Warriors of Myth via The Scotsman

A Ghost of the Sea by Francis Prevost – The narrator is on a walking holiday in Cornwall and Devon when he meets an old acquaintance who had withdrawn from the world some time back. He explains to the narrator that he behaved badly towards a woman who subsequently drowned, and now he sees her dead body in the sea. Bad enough, but now he has come to see other dead people in the sea too. The writing in this one is great with some powerful imagery, and there’s a real sense of unease. The narrator wishes to be a cynic, but he gradually becomes less certain. Quite an unsettling story that reminds us of the many lives lost around our shores and the many bodies never recovered.

So a few goodies, but one of the less successful of these anthologies overall.

(The porpy says he’ll stick to puddles for a while…)

Fretful Porpentine Rating: 😮 😮

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

Amazon UK Link

Dalziel and Pascoe Hunt the Christmas Killer by Reginald Hill

Christmas comes early…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of eleven short mysteries from the pen of the supremely talented Reginald Hill, none of which have ever appeared in a collection before. HarperCollins and the Reginald Hill Estate got together to produce it, and Tony Medawar did what he does so well in the Bodies from the Library series – tracked down stories that had appeared over the years in newspapers and magazines, and had then to all intents and purposes disappeared from print. The book is foreworded by Val McDermid who admits to her lifelong admiration for Reginald Hill, and to being inspired by him. She writes knowledgeably, warmly and affectionately, and summarises the book as “the best Christmas present any reader could ask for”. I heartily concur!

The book begins and ends with Christmas mysteries, each starring Dalziel and Pascoe and the team, and both are a festive delight. These most famous of Hill’s characters appear in another couple of stories too, while the rest of the stories are non-series tales, showing off Hill’s imagination, plotting skills and range. McDermid considers him a master of the short story form, a thing I’d never really considered before since I know him best for his two major series, Dalziel and Pascoe and the Joe Sixsmith series, and his standalone thrillers. But again, on the basis of the stories presented here, I fully agree. Every one of these stories is a delight, whether Hill is indulging his humorous side or showing the darker aspects of crime. I restricted myself to reading one an evening, and my excited anticipation each time was fully rewarded.

In such a box of delights, it’s hard to pick favourites, but here’s a flavour of a few that hopefully will give an idea of the variety in the collection:

Market Forces – George has murdered his wife by putting a hatchet through her head. Now he has to consider the task of disposing of the body. Rather unoriginally, he decides to bury her beneath the floor of the cellar. But when he digs down, his spade hits a slab which turn out to be, well, burial size. He exerts his strength and manages to lift it, inadvertently releasing the demon who had been trapped there for many years. The demon can’t be truly free though, until it has granted its saviour one wish. But demons are tricky things, and this one isn’t perhaps the most intelligent demon in the underworld… This is full of humour with an absolutely delicious twist that made me laugh out loud. Great fun!

The Thaw – Carpenter is in his cottage in the Yorkshire Dales, waiting for a thaw. Snow had fallen at Christmas and continued on through the winter so that the ground has remained covered for months. Now, in March, it looks as though finally the weather is getting milder. While he waits, we learn why he’s waiting, and the reason is grim. I don’t want to give spoilers so shall say no more, but this is a bleak story, full of human weakness, guilt and duplicity, and the harshness of the snowbound setting makes it darkly atmospheric.

Reginald Hill 1936-2012

Brass Monkey – A Christmas Dalziel and Pascoe story involving the theft of a Cellini monkey, this is light-hearted fun with a rather emotive edge, in that it reprises the story of the 1914 Christmas truce, when British and German soldiers briefly laid down their arms, sang carols together and played impromptu football matches. All the team is there for this one – Wieldy, Novello, even Hector, and Dalziel is on his best form!

Proxime Accessit – which roughly translated means “nearly made it”. Dennis Platt is a school teacher, greatly respected in his hometown of Dunchester. But Dennis feels he is living the wrong life. His childhood friend, Tom Trotter, always beat him at everything, and now Tom is a famous actor, married to a woman Dennis loved first. He feels Tom has stolen the life that should have been his. When the town council decide to present Dennis with an award, they ask Tom to do the presentation and he, being Dennis’ friend, readily agrees. But Dennis knows that this means all the attention will be on Tom, even on this day which should be Dennis’ day. And so he decides that Tom must be prevented from making the speech. Again this is very well done, and with some humour, but there’s a sad undertone to it in Dennis’ dissatisfaction with a life that, to outward appearances, seems to have been quite successful in its own right.

When the Snow Lay Dinted – another Christmas outing for Dalziel and Pascoe, this time very definitely played for laughs. Peter, Ellie and Rosie are going to a hotel for Christmas and in a moment of weakness, Peter invites Andy along. Partly because he’ll be alone otherwise, with no one to cook for him, and partly because he sees that wine and spirits are included in the price, Andy goes. There is a theft from the hotel and Andy sets out on the trail of footprints, while all the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even. Peter, of course, follows – in his master’s step he trod, where the snow lay dinted. Well, you get the picture! Lots of fun, and it ends with a lovely interchange between young Rosie and her Uncle Andy which sheds a sweet light on their friendship – sweet, but not saccharin!

Ever since Hill died, I’ve wished there could be just one more book, somehow, sometime. Not one “finished” by someone else, but one written entirely by the master. My wish has been granted! (And I didn’t even have to release a demon…) A wonderful collection!

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

Amazon UK Link

The Night Wire edited by Aaron Worth

Technological ghosties…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Another anthology from the great British Library Tales of the Weird series, the theme of this one is how horror writers played with all the new communications technology coming into use in the early part of the twentieth century, examining society’s anxieties about how these would change the world as they knew it. From photographs to movies, from telephones to the telegraph, from phonographs to radio to TV – all technologies we take for granted today but which were revolutionary when they were introduced. And the horror writers of the day used them with great imagination, showing how the ghosties and ghoulies of the time mastered these technologies as tools to boost their scariness to the poor victims of their hauntings!

There are seventeen stories in the book, and the mix of authors is interesting. There are perhaps fewer than usual of the biggest names, though Lovecraft is there; some that are better known, to me at least, in other genres, such as Bernard Capes and Rudyard Kipling; and lots I’ve never come across before. The more I read of these anthologies, the more I realise that their success or failure is largely dependent on the compatibility of the editor and the reader, and is therefore quite subjective. There are a few editors I look forward to eagerly, and Aaron Worth is high on that list. I find his choice of stories always works particularly well for me, and I always enjoy his informative introductions even in the shortened form the format of this series dictates. So, in short, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection! Only three of the stories didn’t work for me – the other fourteen all rated as good, very good or excellent, with eight of them getting the full five stars.

I’ve already highlighted a couple of the stories in previous Tuesday Terror! posts – The Statement of Randolph Carter by HP Lovecraft and They Found My Grave by Marjorie Bowen. Here’s a flavour of a few of the others I most enjoyed:

Poor Lucy Rivers by Bernard Capes – Our narrator is a doctor, One day he’s in a typewriter shop when a young woman comes in to request that the shop exchange a second-hand typewriter she’d bought there a week or so ago. She explains there’s nothing wrong with the machine but she simply wants a different one. The shop owner pretends to give her a different machine but in fact cheats her into taking the same one again. The doctor is intrigued, gets the woman’s name from the shop and learns she does typing jobs to earn just enough to keep body and soul together. So he decides to give her a job, as a means of prying into why she has an issue with that particular typewriter. It transpires the problem may be the person who owned the typewriter before – poor Lucy Rivers! Very effective, and it gives a good picture of how typing gave women a means to earn an independent living. Though thankfully not all typewriters are haunted!

Benlian by Oliver Onions – The narrator, Pudgie, makes his living painting miniatures, using photographs as his models. Across the yard from him is Benlian’s studio – he’s a sculptor, and Pudgie doesn’t know him. But one day, Benlian appears and asks Pudgie to photograph him. Pudgie obliges, but the photos turn out fogged and unclear. Pudgie puts this down to the materials he used in the processing and offers to take new photos, and so begins a routine of him photographing Benlian every few days. But over time the photos become odder, and Pudgie gradually learns just exactly what Benlian is trying to do with the sculpture he’s working on. This is an unnerving one, with a chilling ending that is left deliberately ambiguous as we begin to wonder how reliable Pudgie is as a narrator…

Uncle Phil on TV by JB Priestley – When Uncle Phil dies, the Fleming family inherit £150 insurance money. They decide to buy a TV – a new-fangled invention and horrendously expensive, and with only one channel broadcasting a few hours each evening. Mrs Fleming is the first to spot something rather odd – in the background of the programme she’s watching, she spots someone who looks just like Uncle Phil! Gradually the rest of the family admit that they too keep seeing Uncle Phil, and soon he’s not just in the background – he starts talking to them from the screen or talking to other on-screen characters about them. But why? This is great fun – a little bit of spookiness and lots of humour, and a kind of well-deserved ghostly revenge!

So lots of variety despite the single theme, and everything from light-hearted fun to dark, unsettling and sometimes sad. I also enjoyed the look at very early versions of the various technologies and how they changed the way people lived, creating new opportunities and new forms of entertainment but also adding to the speed and rush of life, and the anxieties that come with that. Another excellent anthology in what is turning out to be a bumper year!

(The porpy is sure if he watches long
enough he’ll see Uncle Phil…)

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮 😮 😮

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

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! Ghosts from the Library edited by Tony Medawar

Criminally spooky…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

There has always been a strong crossover between the genres of crime and horror, and many authors have tried their hand at both. This collection brings together ghostly offerings from fifteen authors better known as mystery writers, mostly from the Golden Age or shortly after. There’s an extra story from MR James, helpfully included because Dorothy L Sayers uses it as a jumping off point for her story. All the entries bar one are stories – GK Chesterton’s is a short essay in which he advises writers how to do ghosts in fiction (oddly, since that’s hardly what he’s known for, but it gives him an opportunity to sound supercilious towards writers whose reputations have long surpassed his own). And as with the Bodies from the Library series to which this is a companion, all the stories have never been collected before (except the MR James) and in one or two cases are being published here for the first time

The overall standard is very high, with only two of the stories getting low ratings from me. All the rest were fairly evenly divided between good, very good and excellent, so a very enjoyable collection in total. What I would say, though, is, that with a couple of notable exceptions, the writers have tended to write what felt to me like crime or mystery stories with a ghostly element rather than the more traditional spooky story of, say, MR James himself and his ilk. This worked great for me since I’m a fan of both genres and actually prefer even my ghost stories to have a proper plot. But I suspect it might mean they wouldn’t work quite so well for people looking for traditional ghost stories and spooky scares – this, I’m guessing, may be why it’s getting pretty mixed ratings on Goodreads so far.

There are loads of well-known names – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Josephine Tey, Daphne du Maurier, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, et al – and, because of the format, no well known stories, so even enthusiastic anthology readers like myself will find all these stories new to them. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Green Dress by Anthony Berkeley – a painter is helped by a ghostly model, but what does she want? I highlighted this one in a recent Tuesday Terror! post.

The Witch by Christianna Brand – A longer story this one, novelette length, it tells of a woman, Laura, alone in the world but with a small inheritance. She has a whirlwind romance with Gereth, and marries him despite barely knowing him. Then she finds a letter in his pocket from his first love, Dorion, talking about murder. Beautiful Dorion seems to have the ability to make men and animals bend to her will and is known locally as a witch. But is Gereth plotting with her to get Laura’s inheritance? A great story, full of suspense and Gothic horror. Is Dorion really a witch? I’ll leave you to find out for yourself!

The Red Balloon by Q. Patrick – This one is really more of a science fiction story, but with some great horror aspects. The narrator is a journalist, sent to report on a terrible incident when two children are killed when they run after a mysterious red balloon. The children’s bodies are kind of dried out, sort of mummified. The journalist’s uncle is a famous but eccentric scientist, and he has a theory that the red balloon comes from an invisible planet which approaches Earth every 28 years. As we will discover, the reason the balloon is red is quite gruesome! Despite the dead children motif, this story is humorous, and references HG Wells quite strongly and openly. Light-hearted, well written and shivery fun.

Run, Pooh! Run!!

Death in a Dream by Laurence Meynell – After being hit on the head during a bombing raid, our narrator begins having dreams in which he time-slips, sometimes to the past, sometimes the future – he doesn’t always know himself. One night he dreams of a nurse murdering her patient, a middle-aged woman. But has it already happened or is it still to come? Very short and more ironically humorous than scary, but very well done!

St Bartholomew’s Day by Edmund Crispin – A dilettante historical researcher is investigating Raoul de Savigny, a man who was killed in the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. He learns that de Savigny’s papers were buried with him, in his casket in the mausoleum in the grounds of his château. The historian breaks in, rather foolishly on St Bartholomew’s Day, and finds more in the mausoleum than he was expecting! This has a great mix of humour and horror and is very well told. Probably one of the most traditionally “ghost story” style tales in the collection.

So loads of variety – lots of great authors having some fun and inviting the reader along to share in it. And this reader certainly appreciated the invitation! I’d probably recommend it more to vintage mystery fans than horror fans – half the fun comes from seeing the authors try something a bit different to what we normally expect from them, most of them very successfully. Another one that would make a great Christmas stocking gift!

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

Amazon UK Link

Marple: Twelve New Stories

From treat to travesty…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

There are some great crime writers in this collection of twelve new Miss Marple stories, many of whom are clearly dedicated fans with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the originals. As expected, some catch the style and tone of the originals better than others, meaning that some of the stories are treats, while a couple are total travesties. For some of the authors, Miss Marple has stayed in her own time with her own attitudes, while some have decided to have her as “woke”, pontificating on anti-Semitism, racial injustice, etc. Needless to say the woke ones and the travesties have a considerable overlap! While the good ones are very good and gave me much pleasure, the bad ones left me in my usual state of wondering why on earth Christie’s estate keep allowing people to mess with her legacy in this way. They surely cannot need the money, and this kind of thing does nothing, I’m sure, to attract new readers to the originals.

The collection starts off with a bang, with several good stories one after the other. Lucy Foley gives us Evil in Small Places, where Miss Marple gets caught up in an investigation while staying with a friend. Foley gets the tone brilliantly – the village setting, plotting, murder method and denouement all feeling authentic. And she delightfully references many of Christie’s book titles along the way. Val McDermid’s The Second Murder at the Vicarage takes place in St Mary Mead, with many of the characters from the original book – the vicar, Griselda, the maid Mary, and so on – and she reprises all this entertainingly and well. The plotting is a little weak, but it’s still a fun story. Next up is a new-to-me author, Alyssa Cole. Like many of the authors, Cole has used the trope of Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond providing her with little holidays to vary the location – here Miss Marple Takes Manhattan. While the story is decidedly un-Marple-esque and involves her being terribly progressive about race and communism (the latter being even more unlikely than the former) there’s a lot of humour to keep it entertaining, and I enjoyed the way Cole played on references to Miss Marple’s stay At Bertram’s Hotel.

Natalie Haynes’ The Unravelling is well written and amusing, but the plotting is weak and for some reason she has Miss Marple living in a village that is not St Mary Mead. Did she move? Why? Still, I felt she handled the generic village setting well, and I enjoyed the story. Ruth Ware’s story, Miss Marple’s Christmas, is the star of the collection for me. A Christmas party at the Bantrys, a mysterious theft, and a very Marple-esque plot, Ware’s love for the character shines through. She also references Agatha Christie’s own description of her youthful family Christmases as given in the intro to one of her collections, I think The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, which is a lovely touch. We discover that Miss Marple likes to read detective fiction, and is fond of the work of Dorothy L Sayers who also gets more than a passing nod here. A great story, very authentic and made me smile.

It all begins to go downhill after that, sadly. In The Open Mind, Naomi Alderman fails to catch the style completely – wrong setting (an Oxford college), wrong type of crime, and Miss Marple is given a bunch of modern social attitudes she would not have had, including a relaxed attitude to drug abuse. Jean Kwok’s The Jade Empress sees Miss Marple on a boat to Hong Kong to visit Raymond, waltzing with Chinamen, in a plot all about racial injustice. It’s well enough written, but has little to do with the real Miss Marple. Dreda Say Mitchell achieved the distinction of the only one-star rating for her story A Deadly Wedding Day, where she gets out her usual axe of white colonial oppression and grinds it mercilessly. More about Mitchell’s Caribbean heritage and black victimhood (as usual – her sole subject) than about Miss Marple, and one wonders why she bothered.

Elly Griffiths lifts the quality again in Murder at the Villa Rose, though Miss Marple plays a distinctly secondary role here and the story is not Christie-esque. It is about a crime writer who is bored with his main character and is thinking of killing him off. I felt it may have given some insight into why Griffiths herself tends to start a new series with entirely new characters every few years! In The Murdering Sort, Karen McManus takes a very elderly Miss Marple to Cape Cod in the 1980s, where she is staying in a cottage provided by Raymond for the summer. Raymond’s teenage daughter, Nicola, appears in this one. It’s rather full of plot holes, but is quite fun. I enjoyed The Mystery of the Acid Soil by Kate Mosse, which has a plot that rests on Miss Marple’s knowledge of gardening. She doesn’t quite catch the tone, but she tries, and while I feel authors should be careful not to give away the major clue in the title(!), the story is enjoyable.

Lastly, Leigh Bardugo’s The Disappearance takes us back to St Mary Mead in a story involving Mrs Bantry. Bardugo does a good job with the tone, barring one or two Americanisms that the editor should have picked up. But the ending – which of course I won’t reveal – is a complete travesty, totally out of tune with the originals and leaving a rather bad taste. A terrible way to end the book, sadly.

So a very mixed bag, although overall I enjoyed the good stories enough to make it worthwhile and was glad that many of the authors at least tried to recapture the original Miss Marple, some of them quite successfully. But the travesties left me feeling as I usually do – that authors should stick to their own creations rather than messing with other people’s.

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

Amazon UK Link

Bodies from the Library 5 edited by Tony Medawar

The mystery of the missing stories…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

This series of “forgotten stories of mystery and suspense” has now become an annual event, and one I look forward to. The stories are all ones that haven’t been collected before, or occasionally have never been published. Every year I feel the well must run dry but each year Tony Medawar proves me wrong. He ranges widely to find his treasures – through old magazines and newspapers, into the BBC archives for radio scripts, digging out stories written originally to boost a charity or good cause, and so on. There are sixteen stories in this collection, ranging from a few pages up to novella-length, and lots of familiar names show up, some very well known – John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L Sayers, Ellis Peters, etc. – and others who are becoming well known to those of us who are reading a lot of the vintage crime currently being re-issued by various publishers – Michael Gilbert, Anthony Berkeley, John Bude, et al. The quality is more consistent than it sometimes is in anthologies – I gave most of the stories a solid four-star rating, with just a couple that didn’t work for me, and a sprinkling that gained themselves the full galaxy of five stars.

Here’s a flavour of a few of my favourites:

The Ginger King by AEW Mason – Inspector Hanaud of the French police is in London, visiting his “Watson”, Ricardo. Because of his expertise, an insurance company asks him to look into a fire at a shop owned by a Syrian furrier. (Yes, there are some unfortunate out-dated racist attitudes – it’s a hazard of the era.) I particularly enjoyed this one because a cat plays a major role – the ginger king of the title. Happily the cat survives unscathed! Lots of humour in this one and a good, imaginative criminal method. Hanaud is more fun when he’s being a foreigner in England than when he’s in France, in my limited experience, especially since he mangles English idioms for our amusement.

Benefit of the Doubt by Anthony Berkeley – This is told as if it were a ‘true’ story, related by an elderly medical man about an incident that happened to him when he was a young, inexperienced doctor. One night he is called out by a worried young wife to see her older husband. However the man appears fine and jokingly assures the doctor his wife just likes to worry, so the doctor leaves it at that. But the next day the man is dead. The wife doesn’t blame the doctor, and since she doesn’t want an inquest and the doctor fears the possibility of being found to have been negligent, he signs the death certificate. That’s not the end of the story, though… A really good picture of a generally moral man doing the easy thing rather than the right thing, and how he himself perceives his own actions at the other end of his career.

The Magnifying Glass by Cyril Hare. A very short story, this one, and not a mystery. It involves two men fighting over some forged banknotes. One murders the other, and then tries to break into the murdered man’s safe. It’s a scorching hot day with a dazzling sun, and Hare uses the heat and the murderer’s awareness that someone may arrive at any time to build up a great atmosphere of tension. Can’t say more since it’s very short, but there’s a lovely twist in the tail.

The ‘What’s My Line’ Murder by Julian Symons. During a live recording, one of the panellists dies – poisoned – and another panellist, Gilbert Harding, investigates. Even my great age isn’t great enough to have a clear recollection of What’s My Line – a long-long-ago TV panel game, where the regular panellists had to guess the profession of mystery guests by asking them questions. However, the story stands even if you don’t remember the show. Symons includes some of the actual panellists – Gilbert Harding was one of them – and I did have a vague memory of one or two of them so that added to the fun, though I felt fairly confident that while he could make one of them be the detective he couldn’t make a real person be the murderer! A good mystery, entertainingly written.

So another great addition to this series – I hope Collins Crime Club continue to bring these out for several more years to come, so long as that well doesn’t dry up!

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

Amazon UK Link

The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Disappointing…

🙂 🙂 😐

Although this was apparently the last collection of short stories to be published in du Maurier’s lifetime, most of the fourteen stories in it date from her early twenties, with only a handful from later in her career. I feel that shows – these are not her best work, with some of them ranking as pretty poor, in my opinion. In general I found them rather unoriginal, often padded and repetitive to a length far longer than the story justified, with “twists” that were all too obvious. But what really put me off the collection was the almost complete lack of likeable characters. There is, I feel, a kind of cruelty towards the characters – they start out miserable, go through hell, and come out worse than they began; not in every case, but often enough for me to have remarked several times in my contemporaneous notes that she really doesn’t seem to like people, especially women. Her women are either weak and ripe to be victims, or they are manipulative, cruel and cold. There is rarely love in the pages though there’s plenty of lust, desire and rather sordid infidelity. The rare “good” character seldom achieves any kind of reward or happy ending, while many of the nasty ones do quite well for themselves. My misery meter swung towards high quite early on, and by the end it was hovering consistently in the danger zone – only copious supplies of medicinal chocolate got me through.

As you’d expect, they’re well enough written and some of the descriptive writing is very good. Occasional stories are lighter, with some humour, and those tended to work better for me. I listened to the audiobook version read by Edward de Souza, and to be honest I think it was only the excellence of his narration that kept me going to the end. Overall, then, of the fourteen stories, I rated only five as excellent or good, while five rated as poor and the remaining four were middling.

Book 16 of 20

Here’s a brief flavour of the three I rated most highly…

The Supreme Artist – an ageing actor is visited in his changing room after a performance one day by a woman who seems to remember him from a youthful romantic dalliance which he has completely forgotten. However, it would be rude to say so, and he’s an actor, so he throws himself into the part, playing a man who has spent his life hiding the broken heart she left him with. He may or may not convince the woman, but he gradually begins to convince himself! There’s a lot of humour in this and it’s a fun characterisation, done very well.

Leading Lady – an actress this time, not ageing, but no longer in the first blush of youth. She is about to star in a play being produced by a man she has never worked with before. He wants an up-and-coming young actor to play the male lead, but the actress has seen this young man act and fears he will outshine her, with both youth and novelty on his side. But the producer is the money man, of course, so she can’t simply refuse. So she sets out to manipulate the producer into deciding for himself that the young actor shouldn’t get the role. This is also well done, although it’s one of the many where the woman has nothing admirable about her. And frankly, it reads rather differently after the MeToo movement and the many recent scandals in the world of acting than it would have done before – the element that might have seemed humorous when it was written doesn’t seem quite so funny any more.

Escort – A merchant ship is sailing home to England during WW2, through seas dangerous with U-boats. The captain is taken ill so the First Officer, our narrator, finds himself in charge. A U-boat finds them but a sudden fog rolls up just in time to save them. When the fog recedes, an old sailing barque appears, and hails them to offer them a safe escort home. This has a spooky element to it, which is done well. As far as I can find out it must have been written during the war, and it has a definite patriotic message, one designed to draw on British pride in great naval victories of the past. To be truthful, it mirrors very closely a famous story written by Arthur Machen during WW1, The Bowmen, except that his is set on land and draws on a different but equally heroic British legend. Had du Maurier read it, or is it coincidence? I don’t know, but I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.

So a disappointing collection for me, and one more suitable for du Maurier completists than for newcomers wanting to sample her work.

Audible UK Link

Rain and Other Stories by W Somerset Maugham

A masterclass in character…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of short stories, many of them with a colonial setting in the South Seas, though a few are set in Britain. It’s billed as having eleven stories, but four of them are extremely short fragments of description or little anecdotes – well written and quite enjoyable, but more like linking passages than stories, and I decided not to rate them. The remaining seven are quite substantial in length, with a couple reaching novella length, and I found every one of them good, and several excellent. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated excellently by Steven Crossley who created perfectly appropriate voices for each of the myriad of characters who cross the pages.

In each case, while the settings and stories are interesting, the real strength is in the depth and variety of the characterisation. Maugham makes each character completely believable, however extreme or banal their actions may be, and in almost every case, with one notable exception, he makes the reader sympathise with even those whose attitudes and actions at first seem obnoxious. He penetrates below the outer shell, showing with a few deft and sometimes shocking revelations the complexity of each individual, and how they are the product of the attitudes of their society to class, gender, colonialism and religion. His narrators often learn this lesson along with his readers, so that they share the sometimes sudden insight that changes our view of a character we thought we understood.

Book 9 of 20

Of the seven stories to which I gave a rating, one earned 3 stars, two 4 stars, and four 5 stars, and a couple of the 5-stars rate among the best short stories I’ve ever read. I found myself completely absorbed, listening for long periods with no loss of concentration (which regular visitors will know is unusual for me with audiobooks). Here’s a brief flavour of the ones I enjoyed most:

Mackintosh – Mackintosh is sent to an island in the South Seas to be assistant to the Governor, Walker. Walker is a bullying, boastful old man who rules the island like an absolute monarch. In Mackintosh’s eyes, he behaves as a tyrant towards the natives, ready to humiliate them or worse if they refuse to obey his commands. But he treats Mackintosh as an underling too, rather than as any kind of equal, and though Mackintosh thinks his growing outrage and hatred for Walker is because of how he treats the natives, the reader wonders how much it is really to do with Walker’s treatment of himself. As the story progresses, I found my perceptions of both men changing, and the ending is shocking while still arising naturally and almost inevitably out of what has gone before. Brilliant characterisation and great storytelling – probably my favourite story in the collection.

Rain – A little group of people travelling to various destinations are held up when an outbreak of measles causes them to be quarantined in Pago Pago, and they lodge with a trader. Told in the third person, we see the other characters from the perspective of Dr McPhail. He and his wife are forced into a kind of intimacy with another couple – Davidson, a fanatical missionary who believes it is his mission to save souls, even when they’d much rather not be saved, and his wife, who believes as fanatically in her husband as he believes in God. The other person staying in the lodgings is a young woman called Sadie Thompson, who they soon realise is a whore. Davidson decides to save her soul. Another substantial story in length, and with a lot to say about religious fanaticism and colonialism, but also about the patriarchy in action. Davidson is the one character in the collection who I felt was given no redeeming features. I found the ending a little obvious, but still effective – another great story.

Jane – the story of two women as seen through the eyes of the male narrator. Both are widows – Mrs. Tower, an apparently happy society woman; and Jane, her sister-in-law, whom Mrs Tower sees as her “cross” – a rather annoying bore she tolerates only because of their family connection. But then Jane does something remarkable and quite out of character – she marries a man many years her junior, changes her look and becomes a society sensation. Again this story is mostly character studies of the two women, but this time with lots of humour and a touch of unexpected pathos. A sympathetic portrayal of both women, and very well done.

The Colonel’s Lady – Colonel George Peregrine is a typical bluff ex-soldier, in a seemingly contented but childless and passionless marriage to Evie. One day he learns his wife has had a book of poems published, and although poetry really isn’t his thing he skims a couple and tells her the book is “jolly good”. However, to his astonishment the book becomes a bestseller and soon everyone seems to be talking about it, and he feels his friends and acquaintances are giving him sly or sympathetic glances. Eventually he decides he’d better read it properly, and learns he doesn’t know Evie nearly as well as he thought! Another one with a lot of humour, and a great character study of George. But it also has quite a lot to say about the relative and changing positions of men and women in this society.

W Somerset Maugham

The cumulative effect of a lot of these stories left me with the feeling that Maugham was something of a feminist, so I was astonished on googling to find that he has been accused of misogyny! My extremely limited reading so far has turned up no evidence of this – quite the reverse, in fact, with all the women shown sympathetically and due attention given to the unequal expectations of them within a patriarchal system. So I suppose I’ll just have to read the rest of his books to find out what he did to earn this reputation. Given the quality of the little I’ve read so far, that will certainly be no hardship!

Audible UK Link

The Origins of Science Fiction edited by Michael Newton

A stellar line-up…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the latest in the Oxford World’s Classics hardback collection, several of which recently have been anthologies or collections of weird and Gothic horror. This one is a slight departure into science fiction but, as the editor Michael Newton suggests in his introduction, early science fiction has its roots in the Gothic tradition; and certainly many of the stories in the collection would sit just as neatly in a horror collection. There are seventeen stories in it, most of them quite substantial and with one or two reaching novella-length. It’s in the usual OWC format: an informative and interesting introduction, scholarly in content, but written in an accessible non-academic style; the stories, each preceded by a short biography of the author, including their contributions to the field of science fiction; and the all-important notes, which explain the many classical references and allusions, historical references and any terms that have fallen out of use. I found the notes in this one particularly good – well-written and done on a kind of “need to know” basis; that is, not overloaded with too much detail and digression.

In his introduction, Newton discusses how the concerns of the time are woven into the stories – the gathering pace of scientific and technological development, the impact of colonialism, anxiety about man’s future ability to communicate with the ‘other’, whether that other may be alien, evolved humanity, or machine. It’s interesting that all of those concerns are still subjects of contemporary science fiction, suggesting we haven’t yet solved the questions these early science fiction authors posed. He also talks about how many authors at that time who were known primarily for other styles of writing ventured into science fiction, sometimes to the displeasure of their publishers and perhaps to the bafflement of their readers. Certainly some of the names that turn up here surprised me – George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. Others are much better known as stalwarts, even progenitors, of the genre: HG Wells, of course, and Edgar Allan Poe, among others. It’s truly a stellar line-up and they have produced some stellar stories – I gave them a veritable galaxy of stars. These are the included stories:

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley – The Mortal Immortal
Edgar Allan Poe – The Conversation of Eiros and Charmian
Nathaniel Hawthorne – Rappaccini’s Daughter
Edgar Allan Poe – The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
Fitz-James O’Brien – The Diamond Lens
George Eliot – The Lifted Veil
Grant Allan – Pausodyne
Frank R Stockton – The Water-Devil: A Marine Tale
HG Wells – The Crystal Egg
Rudyard Kipling – Wireless
Mary E Wilkins Freeman – The Hall Bedroom
HG Wells – The Country of the Blind
EM Forster – The Machine Stops
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Terror of Blue John Gap
Jack London – The Red One
Gertrude Barrows Bennett – Friend Island
WEB du Bois – The Comet

With ten out of the seventeen receiving five stars apiece, and nearly all of the others receiving four or four and a half, it’s an almost impossible task to pick favourites, so the ones I’ve chosen to highlight are a fairly random bunch:

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot – The narrator is an introverted, artistic type who, following an illness, develops a kind of second sight which allows him to understand the inner thoughts of those around him, and occasionally to have previsions of the future. Despite a prevision showing him that marriage to the woman he loves is likely to be disastrous, he goes ahead and marries her anyway! After years of misery, a medical friend of his visits and they carry out a scientific experiment which leads to a shocking ending. This wasn’t my favourite story in the collection, although I enjoyed it and felt it was very well written. But I was so taken with the idea of George Eliot writing science fiction that I just had to include it!

The Water-Devil: A Marine Tale by Frank R Stockton – A stranger comes to stay at a village blacksmith’s where the locals gather of an evening to smoke and tell stories. On learning he’s a sea-soldier (marine), they beg him for a tale. He tells them of the time the ship he was on was becalmed in Bengal Bay, despite good winds blowing. One of the crew told them of the Water-Devil – a creature lurking at the bottom of the sea that can trap a ship with its one incredibly long arm, and then pull it down to eat all aboard! Lots of humour in this, beautifully told in the style of old fishermen’s tall tales. The ending clarifies why it counts as science fiction, but obviously I can’t tell you! I’ve only read two tales from Frank R Stockton and loved them both – must seek out more!

The Red One by Jack London – Guadalcanal. A man, a scientist, is ashore from a ship when he hears a strange booming noise. Intrigued, he sets off to investigate, but gets attacked by bushmen and can’t get back to the ship before it sails. He is taken in by some villagers who worship the Red One – the source of the mysterious noise. Although it is forbidden, he persuades one of the village women to take him to see the Red One and he’s astonished by what he finds… This is my first ever Jack London story, and I thought it was brilliantly told, with humour, peril and horror all intermingled. Lots of outdated language about the natives, of course, as is the norm for colonial tales, but in this case I felt it may have been deliberate – i.e., part of the character of the scientist, rather than representative of the views of the author – though I may be wrong. Still a great story, anyway!

The Comet by W.E.B. Du Bois – Jim, a “Negro”, works as a messenger in a bank. Everyone is excited because a comet is just about to make a near pass of the Earth. Jim is sent down to the vault to look for something and when he comes back up, everyone is dead, apparently as a result of the comet. He wanders the city (New York) and eventually finds one living person – a rich, white woman. Du Bois was a writer of the Harlem Renaissance and, while this story is undoubtedly science fiction, it’s also one of the most powerful stories I’ve read from this era (1920) about race. Excellently written, it is raw, full of anger and yet with a tone of despair, and it left me sobbing and furious at the end. I knew his name but haven’t read anything by him before – I’ll certainly be seeking out more.

So some science fiction stalwarts, some old names in a new genre and some new (to me) names who thrilled me. A truly great collection – my highest recommendation!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link

The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime edited by Martin Edwards

Taking the low road…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Another anthology of vintage crime from the British Library, this one has the theme of Scottish stories – either stories written by Scots, or written by people from elsewhere (generally England) but set in Scotland. There are seventeen stories in total, though a handful of them are very short and quite slight. There’s the usual mix of weel-kent names, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson; some regulars of these anthologies, such as Michael Innes and GK Chesterton; and several that I’ve never come across before. Some of my favourite stories were from these never previously encountered writers, of whom several were Scottish, so that pleased my patriotic little soul and has given me a few names to investigate further – always one of the pleasures of these anthologies. The geographical spread is good too – a few of the stories are set in the big cities, but the writers have taken full advantage of the less populated areas of the Highlands and the Borders too.

In terms of quality, there was only one outright dud and that was the Chesterton story. However, regular readers of my reviews might remember that I can’t stand Chesterton’s silly religiosity, and he compounded his usual faults in this one by throwing in just about every negative Scottish stereotype you can think of, so I suspect my rating is quite subjective! Of the rest, I rated ten as either good, very good or excellent, which makes this one of the stronger of these collections. I really liked the variety – everything from humour, both dark and light, to veering towards the noir end of crime fiction, and Edwards has picked a lot of stories that show different aspects of Scottish life, from urban to rural to wilderness, from the mean streets of Glasgow to the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ Lairds of the Highlands. The vast majority of the stories are about the middle or upper classes but that’s standard for British vintage crime generally.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

A Medical Crime by J Storer Clouston – Carrington, a sort of consulting detective, tells of a case in Kinbuckie, a smallish town where a series of burglaries have taken place. The local provost has asked Carrington to investigate, since the police seem baffled. The local Superintendent tells Carrington that there are signs that lead him to believe one of the six local doctors must be involved, and Carrington has to work out which. He uses some clever trickery to do just that. An excellent story, well-written and clever enough to be enjoyable though I did have my suspicions which proved to be right for once. But what lifts it is the gentle humour that Clouston pokes at small-town Scottish prejudices. Lots of fun!

Footsteps by Anthony Wynne – Starring Dr Hailey, who was Wynne’s regular detective. Here he is invited to visit a friend who is staying in an old Scottish castle, where a few years earlier the Laird’s wife had died and the Laird had killed himself. Now ghostly footsteps sound along the corridors and Hailey’s friend’s nerves are frayed to breaking point. Hailey is a strictly rational man, so sets out to discover the truth of the footsteps and in so doing uncovers a dark story of jealousy and murder. A delightfully creepy start to this one and it gradually becomes very dark towards the end. Wynne uses the Gothic setting to create a deliciously sinister and spooky atmosphere.

The Body of Sir Henry by Augustus Muir. MacIver, now a bigwig in the police, tells a tale of when he was a young beat policeman in the Borders. One rainy night a car stops and the driver asks him for directions to a nearby village where there is only one big house (the obvious inference being that anyone who could afford a car back then must be gentry). As the car drives away, it is suddenly lit up by the reflection of its headlights in a shop window, and MacIver sees that the back seat is occupied by a beautiful woman… and what looks to him like a dead man! He decides to follow them on his bicycle to the big house to investigate. The mystery element of this is very slight but the story-telling is great, with a touch of creepiness, some humour and a healthy dash of danger.

The Running of the Deer by PM Hubbard. Our narrator, himself a member of the gentry, has been asked by a friend to supervise the culling of the deer hinds on the friend’s estate. The other two men who are helping with the culling seem to be a little at odds with each other. During the hunt, something spooks the deer and they begin to run towards the stalkers. In the ensuing chaos, one of the two men dies. Accident? Or murder? A very well-written story, full of great descriptions of the hills in winter and of the traditions and rules surrounding deer-stalking, and the behaviour patterns of deer. The strength of the central story is all in the ambiguity of it. My favourite story of the collection!

So loads of variety and lots of writers who deserve to be much better known than they are. I’m off now to see if any of their books are in print!

Amazon UK Link

The Perfect Crime edited by Vaseem Khan and Maxim Jakubowski

The spice of life…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

The blurb for this anthology claims that it includes stories from “twenty-two best selling crime writers from diverse cultures coming together from across the world”. I’ll start by saying that I don’t think this is an accurate description. All bar one of the authors lives in Britain, US, or one of the old Dominions. The exception is that there’s one author from Nigeria. So while it is true that all the authors bar one are from what we consider in our majority white countries to be ethnic minorities, I would find it hard to say that they represent “the world” unless we consider the English-speaking nations to constitute the world.

So, putting the fashionable diversity selling-point to one side (which is where I wish publishers would put it permanently), how does it work as an anthology of crime stories? As with most anthologies, I found it something of a mixed bag. It divided for me more or less half and half between stories in the poor-to-OK range and stories in the good-to-great range. Some of this is due to my subjective taste – any story, for instance, with excessive swearing or violence is always going to get a low rating from me, but these are such commonplaces in contemporary crime fiction that presumably plenty of people find them enjoyable. A couple of others played the anti-white racism game too unsubtly for my taste. Happily, though, despite that virtue-signalling blurb, most of the authors have steered clear of “diversity” as a subject and have concentrated on writing interesting and entertaining stories.

Overall, the good stories more than made up for the less good ones. I have added several authors to my list to read some of their novels in the future, which is always a sign of success in an anthology. There are noir stories, bleak stories, funny stories, tense stories, and stories that veer very close to horror, sometimes of the camp variety. Lots of originality and variety on display. I’m a bit out of touch with contemporary crime these days, but several of the names were familiar to me – Abir Mukherjee, Sulari Gentill, Ausma Zehanat Khan, etc., while many more were new to me which again is always part of the fun of anthologies.

Here’s a brief flavour of some of the ones I enjoyed most:

Jumping Ship by Oyinkan Braithwaite – Ida’s lover asks her to take some photographs of his new-born baby. She’s reluctant, but agrees. When she gets to his house, he is not there but his wife Mina and the baby are. Then Mina disappears – and later the body of Ida’s lover is discovered. This is very good, quite creepy and tense and very well written. I haven’t read any of Braithwaite’s work before, but when I looked her up I realised that she was the author of the recent very successful My Sister, the Serial Killer, which I’ve now added to my wishlist.

The Beautiful Game by Sanjida Kay – While on a night out with her sisters, Selene meets top footballer Luke Allard. He invites Selene to his house, and they become lovers. Next morning his mum Colette takes Selene under her wing, explaining how she has to behave now she’s Luke’s girlfriend. Selene’s family are thrilled that she has caught the eye of this rich and famous young man, and tell her she has to get a ring on her finger. But there’s a room in Luke’s house… a room that Selene is told she must never enter… 😱
This is excellent – both tense and fun! It’s so far over the top as to be almost camp horror, and it’s very well written. Kay has also written several successful novels, though she’s new to me.

Chinook by Thomas King – A small town in the Rockies. A man is found dead outside the saloon. The police chief, Duke, brings in his pal, Thumps Dreadfulwater, on the investigation. The victim was a bad man so plenty of people might have wanted him dead, and Thumps and Duke work together to find out what happened. The investigation in this one is nearly non-existent but the story and storytelling are great fun. Thumps and Duke are a great pairing, and the small town setting is done very well. While I haven’t read anything by Thomas King before, I was aware of him because of the enthusiasm for his books of Anne at ivereadthis.com. His Thumps Dreadfulwater books are not easily available over here, but I have my fingers crossed that the publisher might put them out on Kindle at some point in the future.

Buttons by Imran Mahmood – Our narrator is Daniel, a narcissist, possibly autistic, with a fetish for buttons. Is he a serial killer? The question becomes important when he goes on a date – will he kill her? This is very well done, ambiguous and scary, and feels fresh and original. Again Mahmood has had a couple of successful novels, although to be honest neither of them appeals to me terribly much. I will look out for his name in the future though.

So, as I said, lots of introductions for me to new authors who have sparked my interest to investigate further. And because of the variety and range, I’m fairly sure every crime fiction fan will find some new authors and some stories to enjoy in this anthology.

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

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Tuesday ‘Tec! The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

One for the Christmas stocking…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Unlike a lot of collections put together by editors, Agatha Christie herself originally selected the stories for inclusion in this one, now reprinted by HarperCollins in a gorgeous special edition hardback complete with shiny foil highlights on the cover and delightfully Christmassy endpapers. In her original introduction, also included in the book, Christie tells us:

This book of Christmas fare may be described as ‘The Chef’s Selection. I am the Chef!

There are two main courses: ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ and ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest; a selection of Entrées: ‘Greenshaw’s Folly’, ‘The Dream’ and ‘The Under Dog’, and a Sorbet: ‘Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds’.

Just six then, but most of them are longer and more substantial than a typical short story, allowing room for full mysteries complete with multiple suspects, plenty of motives and clues galore. I find this longer length works better in the mystery genre – sometimes when a story is very short, it’s also fairly obvious, with no room to hide those essential red herrings. The title story is the only one with a specifically festive setting, and Christie tells us that the Christmas house party in it is based on her own childhood experiences of Christmases spent with relatives in Abney Hall in the north of England.

I loved this collection. I’d read it before long ago and have read a couple of the stories more recently in other anthologies, but the rest had faded into the vast echoing recesses of my dodgy memory banks so that it felt as if I was reading them for the first time. I rated every story as either 4½ or 5 stars, and the fun of the stories was enhanced by the pleasure of reading it in such a well produced edition. Since I’d find it hard to choose favourites, here’s a very brief flavour of each story:

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding – When a young Middle-Eastern prince has a precious ruby stolen, he persuades Poirot to spend Christmas at a house party in King’s Lacey, where the thief is also a guest, in hopes of retrieving the stone without scandal. It’s a fun story with lots of humour, a kindly hostess and some delightful children who decide to give Poirot a murder for Christmas!

The Mystery of the Spanish Chest – On the morning after a party, a body is found in a Spanish chest in the room where the party had been held. A man is quickly arrested, but the wife of the murder victim is convinced he didn’t do it, and asks Poirot for help. Not sure that this one is fair play, but it has a good “impossible crime” element to the solution and some enjoyable characterisation, with a very Christie-esque version of a femme fatale.

The Under Dog – When bad-tempered old Sir Reuben is murdered, it appears only his nephew had the opportunity, and he is arrested. But Sir Reuben’s widow is sure that Sir Reuben’s secretary is the guilty man and calls on Poirot to prove it. Poirot makes it clear that he will consider all the suspects equally though. And first, he has to discover if the nephew is really innocent. Nice twist in the howdunit aspect of this, and it turns out that many people may have had motives. I was satisfyingly surprised when the identity of the murderer was revealed.

Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds – Poirot and a friend are dining out when the friend points out an old man who eats regularly in the restaurant, always ordering the same dishes. However, the waitress tells them that the week before he had suddenly ordered a meal full of dishes he normally avoided. When Poirot later hears that the old man has died after an accidental fall downstairs, he is suspicious and sets out to investigate. The solution here may be a bit obvious, but it’s interestingly told, turning on how we all tend to be creatures of habit.

The Dream – Rich old Benedict Farley summons Poirot, He has been having a recurring dream in which he ends up shooting himself, and wants to know if Poirot thinks someone could be hypnotising him to kill himself. Poirot says no and is dismissed. But a few days later, Farley dies, apparently in exactly the manner of his dream. Finding Poirot’s name in the old man’s diary, the police call him in. This is very well done, and I enjoyed it even though I had a distinct memory of whodunit.

Greenshaw’s Folly – Greenshaw’s Folly is a house built by a rich man, long dead. His elderly granddaughter now owns the place, and she has been dropping hints to various people that she intends to leave them the house in her will. A niece of Miss Marple’s nephew is working for the old lady, going through old Greenshaw’s diairies, so when the old lady is murdered, Miss Marple becomes involved. An excellent story, and a special treat to have a Miss Marple story to round off the collection.

Great stories and a lovely book – perfect gift material for the vintage mystery fan in your life, or better yet, for yourself! Ho! Ho! Ho!

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

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Tuesday ‘Tec! Murder by the Book edited by Martin Edwards

Beware writers!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Whenever one of these British Library anthologies, be it crime, science fiction or horror, pops through my door, I rub my hands in glee, knowing that at least some of the stories will be great and I’ll be treated to a raft of authors, both old favourites and new acquaintances. This one contains sixteen stories, all connected in some way to books, book collectors or authors. I came to the conclusion, in fact, that being a writer is a very dangerous thing – so many of them seem to become either murderers or murder victims! Plenty of big names here – Ngaio Marsh, Julian Symons, Christianna Brand, etc. – and a few less well known ones, though through reading so many of these anthologies I’m beginning to recognise and look forward to some of the names which turn up regularly even if I’ve not yet read any of their novels. All those who, like me, loved The Red House Mystery and felt it was such a pity AA Milne only wrote one mystery novel will be delighted to know there’s a short story from him in this collection, and a fine one it is too!

The overall quality of the stories is unusually high. The lowest rating I gave was three stars (meaning OK), but by far the majority were either good or excellent. Eight out of the sixteen earned the full five stars. The variation in styles is also wide, from traditional “closed circle” and “impossible crime” mysteries, to humorous and self-mocking takes on the life of the poor downtrodden mystery writer, all the way to full-on thriller-style stories.

With such a cornucopia of goodies, it’s extremely hard to pick just a few to highlight, but here goes – three picked fairly randomly from my favourites to give a flavour of the variety…

A Question of Character by Victor Canning – Geoffrey Gilroy is a moderately successful thriller writer, but his wife, who had never written before their marriage, has now become a publishing sensation. When he finds himself being referred to as “Martha Gilroy’s husband”, he decides she’s got to go – a nice little murder will salve his vanity, plus it will allow him to marry his mistress, a woman who happily shows no inclination to write books of any kind. He plans the murder meticulously, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans! This is great – it becomes a fast-paced thriller half-way through and builds up some real page-turning tension.

Book of Honour by John Creasey – Malcolm Graham, our narrator, is a book distributor in colonial-era India. One day he gives a little money to a poor man, Baburao, who is trying to sell cheap postcards to eke out a living. Baburao uses the money to set up a rickety shelf from which he sells books. He approaches Malcolm, who again helps him, this time by allowing him to select some of his company’s books to sell, on credit. Baburao uses this favour wisely again, until eventually he has set up a thriving business as a bookseller, with his own shops. But Baburao never forgets his poor origins, and spends his time and money helping those in the famine camps. There is a crime in this one, and it’s rather a heart-breaker, but the overall story is of these two good men, Malcolm and Baburao, and their mutual respect and growing friendship. I thought it was excellent, full of humanity and warmth.

You’re Busy Writing by Edmund Crispin – Ted Bradley is a thriller writer who longs for peace to write. He sets himself a target of 2,000 words a day, but between his cleaning lady and her laundry worries, the telephone and random visitors at his cottage, he finds he’s constantly losing his flow just at the point when he’s come up with a killer metaphor or thrilling clue! On this day he’s already been interrupted countless times when a couple he barely knows turn up at his door, invite themselves in and make it clear they intend to spend the whole day and evening there, drinking his booze and keeping him from his work, until it’s dark enough for them to elope together, deserting their respective spouses. Let’s just say Ted finds a drastic way to solve his problem. Very funny, laugh out loud at some points, and one can’t help feeling it’s written from Crispin’s own experience, although hopefully he found other ways to rid himself of unwanted interruptions!

One final thought – the last four stories in the book are four of the very best. I’ve said it before, but anthologists should always aim to start with a great story or two to get the busy reader’s attention and goodwill, and then keep the rest of the best to end with, and that way the reader will promptly forget if any of the ones in the middle were a bit disappointing. This anthology starts with the weakest story of all in my opinion, but, dear reader, it’s worth rushing past that one because goodies await you in abundance! Highly recommended.

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

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Pūrākau edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka

Subtitle: Māori Myths Retold by Māori Writers

Wrong reader, wrong book…

🙂 🙂 😐

This is a collection of short stories and a few poems based on Māori mythology, as the subtitle suggests. Since I know nothing about Māori mythology, I thought this might be an interesting way to fill the gap, but sadly I had to conclude that I was wrong. In retrospect this book would work much better for someone who is already familiar with the mythology and, more importantly, knows a fair amount of the Māori language. The editors have chosen not to include footnotes or even a glossary to explain the many Māori words and expressions used throughout the stories. I get that – why should they? It is not their function to mollycoddle my ignorance. I would not expect someone writing in German to footnote every word for my benefit. Rather, I would choose not to read the book unless and until it was translated into English. With this one, I started out willing to google the translations of the Māori words, but in the end there were so many of them, and some of the stories depended so totally on understanding words or myths unfamiliar to me, that I found I was spending more time reading Google than the book. Eventually I found myself abandoning stories as it began to feel as if I were doing a translation exercise in school rather than reading for pleasure. So, not the book’s fault – it is clearly aimed at a demographic of which I am not part. Wrong reader, wrong book.

In light of that, I’m not sure that anything I have to say about the stories I did make it through would be particularly insightful. I enjoyed some of them, both the retellings of original myths or the stories that took those myths and used them in a modern context. However, I felt the quality varied wildly from excellent to pretty poor. I learned a little about the mythology, though not as much as I had hoped. And I learned something about modern Māori culture, or at least about the authors’ chosen perspectives on Māori culture: the deprivation, the prevalence of substance abuse and incest, and their bitterness against the colonisers and current white population whom they see as the cause of their social problems. The stories set in modern times eliminated my cosy existing belief that somehow New Zealand was doing better on issues of racial harmony than the rest of us. But most of the stories left me feeling that I hadn’t understood them: literally, because I didn’t understand the many Māori words, or figuratively, because I didn’t understand the mythology and culture underpinning them. A fairly generous 2½ stars for me then.

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Midsummer Mysteries by Agatha Christie

The Queen of Crime presents…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

HarperCollins seem to be doing a series of special edition hardback collections of some of Agatha Christie’s short stories, and this is one of them. First off, the books themselves are lovely, much nicer even than the cover images make them appear. They have touches of foil to make them appealingly shiny, the spines are as nicely designed as the fronts, and they all have endpaper patterns suited to the theme of the collection. I’ve been lucky enough to receive a few of them and they look great on the shelf.

This one has a seasonal theme – all the mysteries are set in the types of places we all long to visit for some summer sun. Sadly, I am of course reviewing it in entirely the wrong season, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that in book-blog world it is always summer for somebody, somewhere!

There are twelve stories, plus a short extract from Christie’s autobiography about a rather unpleasant incident in her childhood (which, to be honest, I felt jarred a little with the overall fun tone of the collection even if it did fit the summer vacation theme). The stories have been culled from various other collections, so that all of her recurring detectives are represented. Poirot and Miss Marple appear, of course, as do Tommy and Tuppence, Mr Satterthwaite and Harley Quinn, and Parker Pyne, plus there are a couple of stories which don’t feature a ‘tec at all. As always the standard is variable to an extent, or at least my enjoyment is – I’ve never been a fan of either Parker Pyne or Harley Quinn, but I know a lot of people appreciate them far more than I do. In total, I gave five of the stories the full 5 stars, and the rest ranged between 3½ and 4½, so no duds and a very high standard overall.

Agatha Christie

I’ve highlighted a couple of the five-star stories previously on the blog – The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim and The Idol House of Astarte – so here’s a brief flavour of my other favourites from the collection:

The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman – A doctor friend is visiting Poirot when he receives a message from one of his patients, Count Foscatini, who says he has been attacked and is dying. Sure enough, when Poirot and the doctor get to his house, the Count is dead. Suspicion falls on two Italian men who were apparently the Count’s dinner guests that evening, but Poirot is not convinced! This is quite a slight story, but well done – a proper mystery complete with clues, etc., and rather Holmesian in style as the title would suggest.

The Rajah’s Emerald – James Bond (Ha! Not that one!) is in Kimpton-on-Sea and feeling left out. His girlfriend is staying at the posh Esplanade Hotel while he’s stuck in a cheap boarding house, and she seems more interested in her well-off pals than him. They decide to go for a bathe – the hotel crowd have private changing huts, but James must use the public huts which he discovers are queued out. So he nips into a private bathing hut that has been left open and quickly changes. However, after the swim, he inadvertently pulls on the wrong trousers – a pair that had been left in the hut by its owner. And then he finds something unexpected in the pocket… (see title for clue). This is great fun! A likeable lead character, lots of humour and a good little story – and yes, our James gets his own back on his snobby girlfriend in the end – hurrah!

Jane in Search of a Job – Jane is desperately seeking paid employment, so answers an advertisement in the paper. She finds that the job is to act as a double for a foreign princess, who fears an attempt is to be made on her life. Jane happily takes the job since not only is the pay generous, but she will get to wear some fabulous frocks as she pretends to be the princess. But all is not as it seems, and Jane will soon be in peril! What luck that she should meet a charming and heroic young man at just this time… Another one where the reader is completely on the side of the lovely lead character, and the story has just the right amount of danger, some humour and a smidgen of romance. What more could you want? This is another one that plainly shows the Holmesian influence on Christie’s early stories, but as always she takes an idea and makes it her own.

So a thoroughly enjoyable collection of stories in an attractively designed hardback. Perfect gift material, I’d say, for either existing fan or newcomer. Or for yourself, of course…

(Ooh, and as I went to get links, I’ve just discovered they’ve issued an Audible version too with Hugh Fraser, David Suchet and Joan Hickson narrating the various stories! Sounds fab!)

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

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Tuesday Terror! Randalls Round: Nine Nightmares by Eleanor Scott

Bedtime reading…

😀 😀 😀 😀

First published in 1929, this was Eleanor Scott’s only collection of weird stories although she wrote several books in other genres. This edition includes all nine of the stories in the original collection, plus two written by “N. Dennett”, now believed to have been a pseudonym of Eleanor Scott, which was itself a pseudonym, the author’s real name being Helen Leys. The introduction is by Aaron Worth, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Boston University, who has appeared on the blog twice before as editor of two excellent collections, Green Tea and Other Weird Stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, and The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen. In fact, Worth takes a large part of the credit for inspiring my interest in weird fiction, so I’m always pleased to see his name pop up.

In his introduction, Worth tells us that the collection didn’t sell well on its original publication, which he suggests was more to do with poor marketing than the quality of the work. While he points out that many of the stories and the general style are rather derivative of other writers of the period, especially MR James, he suggests that Scott took the weird genre in her own direction towards what would later, quite recently in fact, come to be called “folk horror”. He also says that despite the somewhat derivative quality of some of the stories she makes them her own, and describes them as “intrinsically excellent”.

Even with my limited knowledge of weird and horror fiction, I did indeed find that many of the stories felt quite derivative, not just of James but especially of Machen, and being forced into this comparison didn’t work to Scott’s benefit, since I feel Machen is significantly better at “folk horror”, even if it didn’t exist as a genre when he was writing. On reading over my notes on each story, it appears I also had some issues with her endings, being annoyed sometimes by them being left too ambiguous to be satisfying, and then with other stories lamenting that the ending was too obvious, or too neat, or too well explained. Maybe I was just in a picky, Goldilocks kind of mood! There was only one story where I felt the ending had been exactly the bowl of porridge I’d been looking for.

These criticisms notwithstanding, I enjoyed the collection overall, and there were a few stories that I thought were excellent. Scott was very good at creating an atmosphere of unease and some parts of the stories are genuinely scary, with a nightmarish quality to them. In fact, Scott claimed the stories were based on her own nightmares (although Worth amused me by commenting that “one wonders how much these were influenced by her bedtime reading”). I gave three of the stories 5 stars, one 3 stars, and all the rest either 4 or 4½, so a consistently high standard throughout with no real failures. As usual, here’s a flavour of a few of my favourites:

Celui-Lá – On the advice of his doctor, Maddox goes for a break to a small village in Breton, where he stays with the local priest. Maddox is walking on the beach when he sees a strange figure, digging in the sand. The figure sees Maddox and runs off, so Maddox goes to where it was digging and finds an ancient parchment. The priest believes the words on the parchment are an incantation – but too late! Maddox has already read them aloud! This one felt particularly derivative, but it’s well written and quite effective in creating a nightmarish atmosphere, and this was the one where I felt the ending achieved the perfect balance of being ambiguous but satisfying.

The Tree – Two young artists, a couple, take a studio, outside which grows a giant ash tree. Ralph hates it and wants to chop it down, and Nan reluctantly agrees. But then Ralph has a dream in which every axe stroke against the tree seems also to be cutting into him, so they decide to keep the tree. But somehow it has worked its way into Ralph’s mind, and now everything he paints has the tree in it, spoiling his work. Nan decides to take drastic action… Again derivative – Worth mentions Walter de la Mare’s The Tree, which overall I feel is a better story – but it’s again very effective at creating an atmosphere of impending dread.

The Old Lady – Our narrator, Honor, is a student at Oxford. She bets a friend that she can get on with anyone, and her friend chooses Adela, another student, a shrinking, silent girl. Honor duly befriends Adela, and is able to wangle an invite to her home in the holidays, where Adela lives with her guardian – a creepy, ancient old woman. Honor is invited back for the midsummer break, but Adela warns her that mysterious deaths tend to happen around midsummer. This is a spooky one, but Honor is delightfully feisty and doesn’t plan on being anybody’s victim! A very enjoyable story even though the ending is a bit too abrupt.

So a good collection rather than a great one for me, but an interesting addition to the BL’s always intriguing Tales of the Weird series.

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

* * * * *

Later…

*Gulps* I forgot to put the porpy’s bit in and now he’s furious! So here he is…

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮 😮

(I’m off to hide now… see ya later!)

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

Back on form…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The theme of this series of anthologies of vintage mystery stories is that they are all, or mostly, ones that have never before been collected in book form since their first appearance in magazines or occasionally as scripts for radio plays. I was a little disappointed in the last collection, and speculated that there must be a limited number of good uncollected stories still to be found. I’m delighted to say that this fourth anthology has proved me wrong – I happily eat my words! There are seventeen stories in this one, ranging from some that are only a few pages long right up to a short novel-length one from Christianna Brand, which frankly is worth the entrance price alone. There are some big names – Brand, of course, Ngaio Marsh, ECR Lorac, Edmund Crispin, et al – and, as usual, a few that were new to me. The last six stories form a little series, when well-known writers of the day were challenged by a newspaper to write a story based on a picture each of them were given. These are fun, showing how the authors used the pictures as inspiration to come up with some intriguing little stories. They reminded me of the “writing prompts” that are common around the book blogosphere.

Of course the quality varies, and there were several of the stories that got fairly low individual ratings from me (some of which are from the bigger names too). But they were mostly the shorter, less substantial stories, and were well outweighed by the many excellent ones. Overall, my individual ratings work out at around 4 stars as an average for the full seventeen stories, but I feel I enjoyed the collection more than a 4-star rating suggests, so 4½ stars it is (rounded up). Before I list my four favourites, I’d like to give honourable mentions to ECR Lorac, whose very short Two White Mice Under a Riding Whip is a clever cipher story; Passengers by Ethel Lina White, which is the original short story that she later expanded to become The Wheel Spins (The Lady Vanishes) – I think I actually enjoyed it even more in this short version; and The Post-Chaise Murder by Richard Keverne, a historical mystery set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, and very well done. As you can see, I was spoiled for choice when it came to picking favourites, but here are the chosen ones!

Shadowed Sunlight by Christianna Brand – as I said, this one is the length of a short novel with all the benefits that has in terms of room for character development and a more complex plot. A group of people are on a yacht when one of them is killed by cyanide poisoning. All the people aboard may have had a motive and it’s up to DI Dickinson from Scotland Yard to find the solution, which he eventually does by having a tension-filled reconstruction of the crime. The characters are very well drawn, although not very likeable, and there is a revolting “adorable child” whom surprisingly no one shoves overboard – a sad mistake, in my opinion. Dickinson is well portrayed as a detective tackling his first solo case and fearing he might fail.

Child’s Play by Edmund Crispin – Judith is the new governess to four children, three the children of her employers and the fourth a young girl, Pamela, whom they took in when family friends died in an accident, leaving her an orphan. Pamela is unhappy, partly through grief for her parents and homesickness, and partly because the other children bully her. And then she is murdered. Gosh, this is a dark one! There is so much psychological cruelty in it – not just the children’s bullying but also the mother turning a blind eye to what’s going on, and Judith’s angry reaction. It’s very well done, and remarkably disturbing for such a short tale.

The Police are Baffled by Alec Waugh – the plot of this will sound very familiar, so a reminder that it was first published in 1931. Two men fall into conversation in a pub, chatting about how hard it is for the police to find a murderer when there’s no apparent motive or the person who will gain most has an unshakeable alibi. One suggests to the other that they should swap murders – he will kill the other man’s wife, if the other man will kill his rich uncle. It’s short, very well written, and in my opinion much more effective than Strangers on a Train (1950). Since Highsmith would only have been ten and in America when this story made its appearance in a British magazine, I assume the similarities are simply coincidental, but they’re still remarkable. Alec Waugh, incidentally, was Evelyn’s older brother.

Riddle of an Umbrella by J Jefferson Farjeon – this is one of the six stories based on a picture, in this case a picture of an umbrella leaning against a railway signal post. The narrator is walking by the railway one night when he sees first the abandoned umbrella, then a cap on the railway line. Puzzled, he walks further along the line and discovers a body, and also that the line has been sabotaged. And then he spots that the signal has turned to green – a train is on the way! The resulting story is a mixture of thriller and mystery as he tries to avert an accident and work out why the man is dead. Short but excellent, a good plot with touches of both humour and horror.

So overall, a very enjoyable collection and I’m now waiting to see if Medawar can find even more great uncollected stories for another volume!

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

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Guilty Creatures edited by Martin Edwards

“…and only man is vile”

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Another anthology of vintage mystery stories from the British Library and Martin Edwards, this time themed around animals, birds and insects but happily they are all in the nature of clues rather than victims! There are fourteen stories in total, as usual including some very well known authors, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, GK Chesterton and Edgar Wallace, some that were new to me, such as Garnett Radcliffe and Clifford Witting, and some that have become stalwarts of this series, such as HC Bailey and F Tennyson Jesse.

This was an even more mixed bag than usual for me. Although there were several excellent stories, there were an equal number that I felt were quite poor. Overall my individual ratings for each story averaged out to just over 3½ for the fourteen, so that’s the rating I’m giving the book (rounded up). However, the better stories are very enjoyable, so if you don’t mind varying quality there’s still plenty in here to make reading it time well spent.

Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – This is an unusual one in that it’s told by Holmes himself, and Watson isn’t in it. Holmes has retired to the Sussex coast and is present when a teacher from the local school staggers up the beach, mutters something that sounds like “the lion’s mane” and promptly dies. His back is covered in weals as if from a scourge. Suspicion falls on another teacher, but Holmes has his own theory. I can’t tell you what creature is involved in this one since it would be a major spoiler!

Pit of Screams by Garnett Radcliffe – a colonial tale. A Rajah keeps a pit of vipers where he sentences criminals to die. There is a pole in the pit where the condemned person can hang above the vipers until their strength gives way and they fall to their doom. It’s a spectator sport! Our narrator tells of one man, unfairly sentenced, and builds some great tension as the man hangs over the pit. The story is complete tosh and has some unfortunate outdated racial stuff, but it’s well written and very entertaining and has a delicious sting in the tail which genuinely took me by surprise.

The Yellow Slugs by HC Bailey – a Reggie Fortune story. He is called in by Superintendent Bell to a troubling case. A small boy was seen trying to drown his little sister. Both survived and are in hospital. There seems little doubt that the boy meant to kill her, but Reggie wants to know why. He believes that there must have been a very strong reason for a child of that age to act that way, especially since the boy seems to love his sister. This is a chilling and disturbing story. I’ve read a couple of Fortune stories where children have been involved and they seem to bring out his strong sense of justice and an underlying anger, presumably the author’s, at some of the social concerns of the day. The title tells you which creature is involved, but you’ll need to read it if you want to know how!

The Man Who Shot Birds by Mary Fitt – A student is in lodgings when he is visited by a friendly but thieving jackdaw, who makes off with anything shiny he can find. But there’s a man going around the neighbourhood shooting birds, and he seems to be unable to tell the difference between jackdaws and crows (which everyone seems to think it’s OK to shoot).The student is scared for the jackdaw’s safety so decides to try to save it. This is very well done and all the stuff about the jackdaw’s behaviour is lovely. The mystery is weaker, but the entertainment of the story is all in the telling. No major plot spoilers, but for the worried I can confirm the jackdaw isn’t harmed.

So some excellent and varied stories and, as always, despite the varying quality in these anthologies, they are a great way of being introduced to new authors to look out for.

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

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