The Origins of Science Fiction edited by Michael Newton

A stellar line-up…

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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the field of science fiction; and the all-important notes, which explain the many classical references and allusions, historical references and any terms that have fallen out of use.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.

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

Taking the low road…

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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!

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The Perfect Crime edited by Vaseem Khan and Maxim Jakubowski

The spice of life…

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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! Murder by the Book edited by Martin Edwards

Beware writers!

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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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Midsummer Mysteries by Agatha Christie

The Queen of Crime presents…

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

Back on form…

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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”

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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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Transwarp Tuesday! Spaceworlds edited by Mike Ashley

Into the void…

four and a half green

The latest of the themed anthologies in the British Library’s excellent Science Fiction Classics series, this one takes as its theme living in space, either on space stations or ships. As always there’s an informative introduction from the series editor, Mike Ashley, in which he gives a short history of the development of the ideas of how man might make the colossal journeys around the solar system and beyond. The nine stories in this collection date between 1940 to 1967, so late enough for the scientific difficulties of space travel to be well understood, but early enough for the full play of imagination still to have plenty of scope.

There are some well known names among the authors although, since I’m not very knowledgeable about science fiction, several of the authors are new to me, or only familiar from other stories having featured in some of the earlier anthologies in the series. Anne McCaffrey is here – often thought of as a fantasy author but her story here is undoubtedly science fiction. James White, a star of one of the earlier books for me, shows up with another story about his hospital in space, a place designed to deal with all kinds of alien lifeforms. John Brunner, whose stories about The Society of Time the BL recently reissued, finishes the collection with an excellent novelette-length story about a generational starship.

Because of the theme of this collection, only one of the stories involves aliens and the characters rarely land on a planet, but the authors show how varied stories can be even when they share similar settings. A couple of them depend too much on technical problems for my taste – as soon as widgets break down and need to be repaired by ingenious scientific methods my brain seizes up and my eyes glaze over, but that’s simply a subjective issue. The other seven stories are all about the side of science fiction that interests me much more – examining how humans react when placed in unique situations.

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

Spaceworlds

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

The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey (1961) – in this society, space ships are manned by a team of two. One is an ordinary human, the other is human too, but integrated entirely into the ships system so that she becomes its brain and controls everything that happens on board. Helva is our ‘shelled’ human here – a child born with such deformities that her only hope for life is to be merged into the technology that will allow her to live for several centuries and become a ship’s “brain”. But underneath it all she is still a female human, and her team-mate – the ship’s “brawn” – is a young and attractive man. Highly imaginative and with quite a bit of emotional depth, although some aspects of the treatment of children born with disabilities sit a little uncomfortably in today’s world.

O’Mara’s Orphan by James White (1960) – During the construction of what is to become a space hospital for all lifeforms, an accident happens that leaves a young alien orphaned. O’Mara, a human man, is suspected of being responsible for the accident, so while they wait for the investigators to arrive, he is told to look after the alien baby until more of its species can come to take it home. The baby is enormous and very little is known about its species, so O’Mara has to work out how to feed it and look after it. And then the baby gets sick. This has a couple of incidents in it that jarred me a little – again changing attitudes in changing times – but otherwise it’s great. These space hospital stories give White so much opportunity to develop imaginative life-forms and have fun with all the strange features he gives them and with the way his human characters have to deal with things they’ve never come across before.

The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox (1940) – A spaceship has been sent to colonise a far-away planet, but since the voyage will take 600 years, many generations will live and die before it gets there. So our narrator, Professor Grimshaw, has been sent along as the Tradition Man – he will spend most of the voyage in suspended animation, coming out once every hundred years to remind the voyagers of Earth’s traditions and values and the purpose and importance of their mission. Things don’t go to plan! This is great fun – every hundred years society has changed radically, from out-of-control over population, to civil wars, to dictatorships, to feuds between families that last for generations. Grimshaw has to come up with ways to get the mission back on track each time before he goes back into his freezer, and each time is harder than the last. And an amusing, if rather obvious, twist in the tail…

I rated four of the stories as five stars, with the others ranging between three and four, so another very good collection overall.

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

20 books 2019Book 1 of 20

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A Surprise for Christmas edited by Martin Edwards

Ho! Ho! Aargh!

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What better time to be thinking about murder than when getting together with your loved ones for some festive cheer! (Only 350 shopping days left – better hurry!) This is another collection of vintage crime stories from Martin Edwards and the British Library, each with a Christmas theme. There are twelve in the book, as always with a mix of very famous authors like Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and GK Chesterton, along with some that are less well known, to me at least.

And, as always, the quality is somewhat mixed, although there are no real duds and a few standout stories among them. I gave six of them four stars, while three got the full five, so I’d say this was a pretty solid collection overall. The stories I ranked highest all came at the end, which left me feeling much more impressed than I was, perhaps, halfway through. I felt it was a bit of cheat to include a Julian Symons story that had turned up in the Christmas collection just a couple of years ago, though, giving it a different title this time. But that will only matter to geeks like me who read all of the crime anthologies the BL produces, and it is a good story!

As usual, here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I most enjoyed…

Dead Man’s Hand by ER Punshon. A servant and his wife plan to murder and rob their employer. This is a very short and quite slight story, but it uses the heavy snowfall in an intriguing way to provide cover for the murderer, and gives a nicely dark picture of evil and guilt.

On Christmas Day in the Morning by Margery Allingham. On Christmas morning, a postman is run down by a car and killed. The police think they know who the men were who were in the car, but it seems they couldn’t have done it since the postman was in a different place when they drove drunkenly through the village. It’s up to Campion to work out if they are the guilty ones, and if so, how it happened. This is quite an interesting take on breaking an unbreakable alibi, but what lifts it is the insightful and somewhat sad picture of how lonely Christmas can be for those without families around them.

Give me a Ring by Anthony Gilbert (aka Anne Meredith). On Christmas Eve, Gillian Hynde loses her way in a sudden London fog and steps into a shop to ask for directions. Unknowingly, she has walked into danger, and finds herself kidnapped and held captive. The story is mostly about her fiancé’s desperate attempts to find her, with the assistance of Arthur Crook, lawyer and scourge of the criminal classes – and apparently a successful series detective back in the day. This is a nearly novella-length thriller, very well written, fast-moving and high on suspense, especially since both Gillian and Richard, the fiancé, are likeable protagonists.

The Turn-Again Bell by Barry Perowne. An elderly rector is waiting for his son to come home on Christmas leave from the navy. The plan is that the son will marry his childhood sweetheart on Boxing Day, in the Rector’s ancient Norman church. But there is a legend that each Rector will at some time hear the church bell toll just once on Christmas Eve and this is a portent that he will not live to see the following Christmas. This is a beautifully written, perfect little story, admittedly with no actual crime in it but with all the right messages for Christmas, and it left me with a tear or two in my cynical eye, and a warm fuzzy feeling of goodwill to all mankind. Can’t be bad, eh?

So a good mix of style and tone, with everything from high octane thrills to more thoughtful festive fare. And proves it’s not always necessary to murder someone to enjoy yourself at Christmas…

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

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The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories edited by Martin Edwards

Yuletide villainy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Another themed collection of mystery shorts from the British Library Crime Classics series, edited and with a foreword by our usual excellent guide to all things vintage, Martin Edwards. This one contains eleven stories, all with a Christmas theme, often of family get-togethers for the holiday. Some of the British Library regulars are here – ECR Lorac, John Bude, Julian Symons, but there are also many who are new to me or whom I’ve only come across as contributors to other anthologies. I often find the stories from these lesser known ones are the best in the collections, and this is the case here. I wonder if this might be because they specialised in the short story form, whereas the bigger names are more comfortable with the full-length novel? But that’s merely speculation.

Here’s a brief idea of some of the stories I enjoyed most, which will give you some idea of the variety in the collection:

By the Sword by Selwyn Jepson – this is told from the murderer’s perspective and a nasty piece of work he is too! He is in lust with his cousin’s wife, plus his cousin, usually willing to help him out financially, has decided to draw the line and refuse him any more “loans” which never seem to get repaid. It’s a tradition in this military family that all the men die “by the sword” and our murderer is happy to go along with this. However, there’s more than one sting in the tail of this rather dark and well written story. And the author is particularly good at creating layers, so that we see through the murderer’s self-obsessed viewpoint but also can guess at things he misses.

Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech by Cyril Hare – a man is being blackmailed and is sure the blackmailer is one of his step-siblings. He’s already caused the death of the one he first suspected, but now he’s received another demand. So he sets out to kill the one he now suspects – sister Bessie. Naturally things don’t go according to plan… another one that’s very well told.

Blind Men’s Hood by Carter Dickson – one of the things I enjoy about these collection is that they often include stories that crossover into mild horror. This is a great little ghost story, brilliantly atmospheric. Our protagonists, a young man and his girlfriend, turn up at a friend’s country house for a Christmas gathering. The house is empty – all the inhabitants have gone off to a church service but for one young woman, who tells them the story of a long-ago murder. It’s beautifully done, with some lovely spooky touches.

‘Twixt the Cup and the Lip by Julian Symons – Symons is rapidly becoming one of my favourites of the authors the BL is reviving, and this rather longer story shows his style well. Our protagonist is a bookseller as far as the world knows, but in secret he is also something of a criminal mastermind. He is putting together a little team to rob a local store of a jewellery collection that forms the centrepiece of its Christmas display. Despite his meticulous planning, things don’t quite work out as he intended. There’s a lovely mixture of light and dark in this story, and the Christmas theme is enhanced by men running about in Santa costumes.

Overall, eight of the eleven stories got either 4 or 5 stars from me and none got less than 3, which makes this one of the strongest of the collections so far. Unfortunately I didn’t get around to reviewing it in time for Christmas just past, but it’s one I highly recommend for the nights leading up to next Christmas, or for the rebellious non-traditionalists among you, it would even be possible to read and enjoy it now…

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

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Tuesday Terror! Horror Stories edited by Darryl Jones

Something for everyone…

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This anthology consists of twenty-nine horror stories from the long 19th century: that is, roughly, up to the beginning of WW1. It comes with an interesting and informative introduction written by the editor, Darryl Jones, Professor of English Literature and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. I recently read and reviewed Jones’ own history of horror, Sleeping with the Lights On, and while obviously that book goes into considerably more detail, this introduction covers similar territory, discussing the various sub-genres, and how horror reflects and to some extent addresses the anxieties of its times. The stories in the collection are selected to give a feel for the broad range of horror writing in the Victorian era, so there’s everything here from mild and humorous to too strong for my moderate tastes, from a few pages to near novella length, from household names to people of whom I’d never heard. Jones also discusses the importance of periodicals in that era, and tells us that around two-thirds of these stories first appeared in those.

There are plenty of lesser known stories in here to make it an enjoyable read even for people who’ve read a fair amount of Victorian horror already, but I felt that, because it also includes several major classics, it would be an ideal collection for someone relatively new to the genre who wanted to get a feel for the style of some of the better known authors too. Robert Louis Stevenson is here, with The Body-Snatcher; Dickens’ The Signal-Man; Kipling’s The Mark of the Beast; Gilman’s The Yellow Wall Paper; Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw; and Blackwood’s The Wendigo. There are also examples of horror writing from authors who are probably better known (to me, at least) for their other works: Balzac, Melville, Zola. And a couple of my newer favourites, found since I started this little detour into the delights of terror, appear too: Arthur Machen and Robert W Chambers. There are ghosties and ghoulies and lang-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, and mad scientists, of course, and family curses, and vampires, and insane narrators, and Gothic houses galore.

Since I’ve featured several of the more familiar stories already in Tuesday Terror!, here are a few of the rest that I most enjoyed. I hadn’t heard of these ones before, but they may be well-known to better-read horror fans…

Chickamauga by Ambrose Bierce – a little boy is fighting imaginary battles with his toy sword and strays so far that he becomes lost in the woods. He falls asleep, and when he awakes the ground is covered in dreadful crawling things. I don’t want to say much more because the impact of the story is in discovering what it is the boy sees and what has happened. But it’s a commentary on how we pass the drive to war down from generation to generation – powerful and horrifying.

August Heat by WF Harvey – Our protagonist draws a picture of a man standing in the dock after being condemned to death. It’s come entirely from his imagination, so imagine his surprise when he meets that very man later that day. Turns out the man is a stone-mason and is busy carving a name on a gravestone… this is a deliciously spine-tingling little horror story, with a delightfully scary ending. Camp-fire material!

The Derelict by William Hope Hodgson – To demonstrate his theory that, given the right conditions, life will come into being spontaneously, an old doctor tells the tale of when he was once on a ship blown off course by a storm. When the storm abated, they discovered they were next to another ship, long abandoned. They went to investigate… (For goodness sake, never investigate abandoned anythings! It never turns out well…) There’s some brilliant horror imagery in this and heart-pounding peril! Great!

The Adventure of Lady Wishaw’s Hand by Richard Marsh – Our narrator, Pugh, is sent a strange and unexpected legacy on the death of his acquaintance, Colin Wishaw – a woman’s hand! It looks remarkably alive, and it’s not long before we become aware that it can move on its own. A delightful tale of a family curse – light horror, lots of humour (that hand can be very naughty!) and a narrator who deserves all he gets. Lovely stuff!

Because of the wide range of content and styles, unsurprisingly my reactions to them varied wildly too. Seventeen got either four or five stars, which is a pretty high proportion of the total. But several got two stars and one, a hideous story from Bram Stoker that starts with the killing of a kitten, was abandoned before I finished the first page! However, different readers will bring their own tastes to the stories and may well find that they enjoy the ones I disliked – I knew as I was rating them that often my reaction was based on how the stories made me feel rather than their intrinsic quality. The same may apply to my five stars, of course – stories moderate enough for me may be too mild for those who prefer harder hitting stuff. In short, there will be something here for everyone and inevitably everyone will be less keen on some too. That’s why I think it’s such a good sampler, which I happily recommend to the seasoned reader or the horror newbie alike.

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

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The Dead Witness edited by Michael Sims

A mixed bag…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

the dead witnessMichael Sims begins his anthology of Victorian detective stories with an interesting introduction where he gives a potted history of the detective in literature, going back as far as Daniel in the Bible! Much of this is ground that has been covered many times, of course, but Sims doesn’t only stick to British detectives, as many of these anthologies tend to, so some of the information about early writings from America was unfamiliar to me. And he ranges more widely than usual in his selection of stories too, taking us to Australia, Canada, and even the American wilderness.

Sims brings in several writers I haven’t come across before, and in particular some of the early women writers of detective fiction. The stories are presented in chronological order and, before each one, he gives a little introduction – a mini-biography of the author, putting them into the context of the history of the development of the genre.

Overall, I found this collection more interesting than enjoyable. Unfortunately, my recent forays into classic crime have left me feeling that there’s a good reason many of these forgotten authors and stories are forgotten. Often the stories simply aren’t very good, and I’m afraid that’s what I felt about many of the early stories in this anthology. The later ones I tended to find more enjoyable, partly, I think, because the detective story had developed its own form by then which most authors rather stuck to.

Missing! Inspector Bucket as portrayed by the wonderful Alun Armstrong in the BBC adaptation...
Missing!
Inspector Bucket as portrayed by the wonderful Alun Armstrong in the BBC adaptation…

The book is clearly trying not to regurgitate the same old stories that show up in nearly every collection and that is to be applauded. However, some of the selections didn’t work for me, and I felt on occasion that the choices were perhaps being driven too much by a desire to include something different. For example, there are a couple of selections that can’t count as detective fiction at all – a newspaper report from the time of the Ripper killings, and an exceedingly dull extract of Dickens writing about his experiences of accompanying the police on a night shift, with Dickens at his most cloyingly arch. How I longed for Sims to have chosen an extract from Bleak House instead, to show one of the formative fictional detectives in action, Inspector Bucket.

It also seemed very disappointing to me that Sims should have chosen to use a short extract from A Study in Scarlet as his only Holmes selection. As a master of the short story form and major influence on detective fiction, I felt Conan Doyle should have had a complete entry to himself, and there are plenty of stories to choose from. We do get a complete Holmes pastiche in Bret Harte’s The Stolen Cigar-Case, which is quite fun, and a good Ernest Bramah story, whose Max Carrados clearly derives from Holmes. But no actual Holmes story!

Stephen Fry has recently narrated some of the Max Carrados stories - available as a download from Audible or Amazon
Stephen Fry has recently narrated some of the Max Carrados stories – available as a download from Audible or Amazon

There is also an extract from Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, which kindly gives away the ending of the book, thus spoiling it completely for anyone who hasn’t read it. And an utterly tedious extract from one of Dumas’ Musketeer books, for which my note says simply ‘short, but not short enough’.

However, there are several good stories in the collection too, many of which I hadn’t read before. The Murders in the Rue Morgue puts in its obligatory appearance (and yet no Holmes story! You can tell I’m bitter…). There’s an interesting story from William Wilkie Collins, The Diary of Anne Rodway, where the detection element might be a bit flimsy and dependent on coincidence, but it’s well written, with a strong sense of justice and a sympathetic view of the poorer members of society. GK Chesterton’s The Hammer of God, which I recently included as a Tuesday ‘Tec! review, also came from this collection.

Spoiler Alert! The Murders in the Rue Morgue Illustration by Harry Clarke
Spoiler Alert! The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Illustration by Harry Clarke

The title story, The Dead Witness by WW (the pen-name of Mary Fortune), is apparently the first known detective story written by a woman. The plot is a little weak, but she builds up a good atmosphere and there’s a lovely bit of horror at the end which works very well. I particularly enjoyed Robert Barr’s The Absent-Minded Coterie, which has a nicely original bit of plotting, is well written and has a good deal of humour. Sims suggests Barr’s detective, Mr Eugene Valmont, was the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Hmm… on the basis of this story, I remain unconvinced.

So a bit of a mixed bag for me, really. I admire the intention more than the result overall, though the stronger stories towards the end lifted my opinion of it. One that I’m sure will appeal to anyone with an existing interest in Victorian detective fiction, but wouldn’t necessarily be the first anthology I’d recommend to newcomers wanting to sample some of the best the period has to offer.

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Ah, Holmes, old man - there you are!
Ah, Holmes, old man – there you are!

Pleasures of the Table: A Literary Anthology selected by Christina Hardyment

Pleasures of the TableFood, glorious food…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Another beautifully illustrated book published by the British Library, this makes a fine companion piece to London: A Literary Anthology, which I reviewed a few months back. This time the focus is on food, with extracts from many familiar and not-so-familiar authors. There is a mix of both poetry and prose, grouped together under headings such as: The Art of Hospitality, Love Bites, Childish Things, etc. In each section, the extracts go roughly from older to newer – for example, Dazzling All Beholders runs from Robert May writing in the 17th century to F Scott Fitzgerald in the 20th. As well as giant literary figures – Dickens, Flaubert, Proust and his famous madeleines (which frankly left me thinking ‘Meh! Is that what all the fuss is about really?), DH Lawrence, et al – there are food writers, such as Brillat-Savarin and Hannah Glasse.

“Weal pie,” said Mr Weller, soliloquising, as he arranged the eatables on the grass. “Wery good thing is weal pie, when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain’t kittens; and arter all though, where’s the odds, when they’re so like weal the wery piemen themselves don’t know the difference?”

Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers

Pickwick

Most of the extracts are fairly short – no more than a couple of pages, and to be honest I didn’t find them quite as mouth-watering on the whole as I was expecting. Often the pieces are more about things associated with food, rather than food itself – restaurants, dining rooms, dinner companions. The balance is very heavily weighted towards older writers, with very few, if any, contemporary writers making an appearance. I think the most recent extract is from about the 1930s. This may be for copyright reasons, at a guess, but it means that none of the exciting food writers of the last few decades are included, nor any modern literary writers.

“That is indeed an excellent suggestion,” said the Water Rat, and hurried off home. There he got out the luncheon basket, and packed a simple meal, in which, remembering the stranger’s origin and preferences, he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which laid down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask wherein lay bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Childish Things

Without a doubt my favourite section was Childish Things, taking me back to many books I loved. Ratty’s picnic from The Wind in the Willows, the Turkish Delight from Narnia, lashings of ginger beer courtesy of Enid Blyton, and Heidi’s first taste of toasted cheese – all great scenes that really have lived in my memory since childhood. There’s a section on fabulous feasting, with lists of enough dead animals to make a vegetarian faint, and I was glad to get from there to Simple Pleasures, on such delights as tea and hot, buttered toast. And Distant Times and Places brings us travellers’ tales, from Gulliver to Captain Scott.

Afterwards the tables were covered with meats, antelopes with their horns, peacocks with their feathers, whole sheep cooked in sweet wine, haunches of she-camels and buffaloes, hedgehogs with garum, fried grasshoppers, and preserved dormice. Large pieces of fat floated in the midst of saffron in bowls of Tamrapanni wood. Everything was running over with wine, truffles, and asafoetida. Pyramids of fruit were crumbling upon honeycombs, and they had not forgotten a few of those plump little dogs with pink silky hair and fattened on olive lees…

Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô

Heidi

The book is beautifully illustrated, if not quite so lavishly as the London anthology. Most of the illustrations come from the British Library’s own collection, and they are often the specific original illustrations that match the text. Each extract is headed with a short introduction giving the date of writing, which I appreciated, having remarked on the lack of this information in the London book. The list of illustrations is at the back of the book, so requires flicking backwards and forwards if the reader wants to know more about them. The physical quality of the book is wonderful. The cover is gorgeous and pleasingly tactile, the pages are printed on high quality paper and the font and layout are clean and clear. A book that would make a great gift for any food-lover, the more adventurous of whom might want to try out some of the recipes in the final section. I’m not sure I want to eat Alexandre Dumas’ Arab Omelette (made from ostrich and flamenco eggs) but Emily Dickinson’s Gingerbread would go nicely with George Orwell’s Nice Cup of Tea…

Herring à la Rob Roy

Well wash and clean a red herring, wipe it dry and place it in a pie dish, having cut off the head, and split it in two up the back, put a gill or two of whisky over the herring, according to size, hold it on one side of the dish, so that it is covered with the spirit, set it alight, and when the flame goes out the fish is done.

Alexis Soyer in tribute to Sir Walter Scott

Feast

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

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London: A Literary Anthology selected by Richard Fairman

“There’s nowhere like London really you know.”

😀 😀 😀 😀

london a literary anthologyThis is a beautifully produced book published by the British Library, combining words from many of the greatest writers in English with illustrations culled from the British Library’s own collection. The mix includes both poetry and prose, which have been grouped together under sections highlighting one aspect of the city’s life or history – The City at Dawn, The High Life, The Low Life, Survival Through Plague and Fire, etc. The greats are here, of course – Dickens, with extracts from Oliver Twist, Bleak House and Dombey & Son, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Wordsworth et al. There are also entries from some of the newer well-known names – Benjamin Zephania, Zadie Smith, Angela Carter etc.

As the cab drew up before the address indicated, the fog lifted a little and showed him a dingy street, a gin palace, a low French eating-house, a shop for the retail of penny numbers and twopenny salads, many ragged children huddled in the doorways, and many women of different nationalities passing out, key in hand, to have a morning glass; and the next moment the fog settled down again upon that part, as brown as umber, and cut him off from his blackguardly surroundings.

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

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The extracts vary in length from fairly short to several pages. They are well-chosen to sit within their sections and overall there’s a kind of progression in the book from London’s early history to the present-day, although it’s not quite as clear cut as I might be making it sound. For example, the second last section, Ever-Changing London, goes from Tobias Smollett all the way to Angela Carter, via Dickens, Galsworthy and Walpole. The illustrations match the text well and are beautifully reproduced, in many cases reaching across the two-page spread. The cover itself is lovely, the paper is high quality and, together with a decent font-size, these combine to make the book a physical pleasure to read.

Gilmour said, “This is a pretty low joint, anyhow. You chaps come round to my place and have a drink.”
So they went to Gilmour’s place.
Gilmour’s place was a bed-sitting room in Ryder Street.
So they sat on the bed in Gilmour’s place and drank whisky while Gilmour was sick next door.
And Ginger said, “There’s nowhere like London really you know.”

Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies

The book is primarily designed to dip in and out of, I should imagine – however, I read it straight through and enjoyed the experience of making comparisons between the authors from different time periods. I was a little disappointed that it was so weighted towards earlier writers – the few modern authors felt a little swamped by the recognised classics, and I would have welcomed the opportunity to be introduced to some lesser known writers. But that’s a matter of personal taste rather than a criticism of the book, and there were a few extracts that will certainly inspire me to look for the books. The list of illustrations is at the back, which works in the sense of keeping the pages looking clear and uncluttered but which I found a bit irritating as I flicked back and forwards. And again each extract is titled only with the work it’s taken from and the author’s name – personally, I’d have really appreciated the date of writing being included too, although there’s no doubt that the omission of a lot of detail adds to the clean look of the pages.

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Between his two conductors, Mr Snagsby passes along the middle of a villainous street, undrained, unventilated, deep in black mud and corrupt water – though the roads are dry elsewhere – and reeking with such smells and sights that he, who has lived in London all his life, can scarce believe his senses. Branching from this street and its heaps of ruins are other streets and courts so infamous that Mr Snagsby sickens in body and mind, and feels as if he were going every moment deeper down, into the infernal gulf.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House

The physical quality of the book and the inclusion of so many great writers would make this a welcome gift to any lover of London or of great writing, I would think. As I was reading, I was thinking it might be particularly interesting for someone just beginning to read or study English literature, since it gives a real flavour of the style of so many authors and might inspire many excursions towards the full-length works. But even for an old hand like me, it reminded me of many books I’ve loved and several that I’ve missed…

It’s so cool when the heat is on
And when it’s cool it’s so wicked
We just keep melting into one
Just like the tribes before us did,
I love dis concrete jungle still
With all its sirens and its speed
The people here united will
Create a kind of London breed.

Benjamin Zephaniah, The London Breed

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

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