Bodies from the Library 2 edited by Tony Medawar

A case of the finest vintage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

I’ve read lots of collections of vintage short mystery stories over the last few years, as publishers have responded to what seems to be a growing appetite for the style of the Golden Age authors. I’m always struck by how many of the major novelists of the period excelled in this format too, while it would appear that there were many other authors who more or less specialised in short stories. This collection of fifteen stories includes some of the biggest names of all, like Sayers and Christie, some of the authors who are currently being resurrected for a modern audience, like ECR Lorac and John Rhode, and some whose names were unfamiliar to me, though they’re probably well known to real vintage crime aficionados, like Helen Simpson or C.A. Alington.

Described as ‘forgotten’, the stories are previously uncollected and in several cases unpublished, so even those who have read quite widely in this genre will find some real treats here. There are two novellas – a previously unpublished one from Edmund Crispin starring Gervase Fen, and one from a writing duo I hadn’t come across before, who styled themselves Q. Patrick. Dorothy L. Sayers fans will be thrilled by the inclusion of a never-before-published Lord Peter Wimsey story, and Margery Allingham fans will enjoy her script for a radio play. Tony Medawar provides brief but informative literary bios of each of the authors, which throw up some interesting factlets, such as that “Peter Antony” was actually an alias used by the famous play- and screen-writing brothers, Peter and Anthony Shaffer.

This is one of the best mixed anthologies I’ve come across. There is the usual variation in quality, of course, but I gave 11 of the stories either four or five stars and found only a couple of them disappointing. And the five which got the full five stars are all great – they alone make the book a real treat. Here’s a flavour of them:

No Face by Christianna Brand – A psychic claims to be receiving messages from a bloody serial killer, known only as No Face. Is the psychic a fake? But if so, how does he seem to know where the murderer will strike next? This is excellent – it has a real atmosphere of creepy dread that is as much horror as crime, The characterisation of the psychic is very well done and there’s a delicious twist in the tail.

Exit Before Midnight by Q. Patrick – A group of eight people are trapped on the fortieth floor of an office building on New Year’s Eve as a murderer picks them off one by one. Carol is the central character and to add to her woes two of the men are vying for her attention. But could one of them be the murderer? Oh, and did I forget to mention? The lights have fused and they only have a limited supply of matches…This is novella length, with great plotting and real tension, while Carol’s dilemma adds a light element of romance to lift the tone. Loved it, and will be hoping to find more from this duo.

Room to Let by Margery Allingham – This is a radio script, so is given to us purely as dialogue with a few stage directions. It’s a first-class mash-up of a The Lodger-type story and a locked room mystery. Following a fire at a private asylum, a mysterious stranger rents a room from Mrs Musgrave, a crippled lady in a wheelchair. The stranger gradually gains control over her, her daughter, Molly, and their faithful maid, Alice. But… could he possibly be Jack the Ripper?? It culminates with a corpse in a locked room. The framing device is of the story being told years later at a dinner of detectives, whose spirit of competitiveness to solve the mystery gives a humorous edge to the start and end. Well plotted and highly entertaining.

The Adventure of the Dorset Squire by C.A. Alington – This short short story is a sort of country house farce and very funny. There’s no real crime but lots of screaming and confusion – great fun!

The Locked Room by Dorothy L. Sayers – Previously unpublished, it dates to the period before Harriet Vane began to infest the Lord Peter Wimsey books, allowing Peter the freedom for a nice bit of flirtation with a fellow guest at a country house party, Betty Carlyle. When the host apparently kills himself, Betty is unconvinced – she suspects the host’s wife murdered him. This becomes a problem some months later, when the wife decides to marry Betty’s cousin. So she appeals to Lord Peter to uncover the truth. Well plotted, the writing is up to her usual high standard, and the flirtation gives it a lot of fun. Yes, even although I’m normally an un-fan of Sayers, this one got under my guard!

If you’re already a vintage crime fan, then this is one to grab; and if you’re new to the genre, then you’ll find this a very enjoyable way to introduce yourself to some of the greats. Highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Breton went steadily forward along the road. That was easy work, but when he turned off and began to thread his way up the fell-side by what was obviously no more than a sheep-track, Spargo’s troubles began. It seemed to him that he was walking as in a nightmare; all that he saw was magnified and heightened; the darkening sky above; the faint outlines of the towering hills; the gaunt spectres of fir and pine; the figure of Breton forging stolidly and surely ahead. Now the ground was soft and spongy under his feet; now it was stony and rugged; more than once he caught an ankle in the wire-like heather and tripped, bruising his knees. And in the end he resigned himself to keeping his eye on Breton, outlined against the sky, and following doggedly in his footsteps.

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….Next, there is the image of a garden: not the Bibighar garden but the garden of the MacGregor House: intense sunlight, deep and complex shadows. The range of green is extraordinary, palest lime, bitter emerald, mid-tones, neutral tints. The textures of the leaves are many and varied, they communicate themselves through sight to imaginary touch, exciting the finger-tips: leaves coming into the tenderest flesh, superbly in their prime, crisping to an old age; all this at the same season because here there is no autumn. In the shadows there are dark blue veils, the indigo dreams of plants fallen asleep, and odours of sweet and necessary decay, numerous places layered with the cast-off fruit of other years softened into compost, feeding the living roots that lie under the garden massively, in hungry immobility.
….From the house there is the sound of a young girl singing. She sings a raga, the song of the young bride saying goodbye to her parents, before setting out on the journey to her new home far away.

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….“Well, gentlemen, everybody in the world now knows what I found that night. The man who called himself Doctor Charles – we never found another name for him – was lying on his face on the floor. He had been shot clean between the eyes. The door was locked on the inside and the key was on the mat. There was also a bolt on the door which was thrust firmly home. On a table near the body were two roughly drawn maps, without lettering, and I remember getting a thick ear from my superior when I suggested that one of them traced exactly the itinerary of the Ripper murders of eighty-eight. But the most extraordinary thing was that there was no revolver either in the room or anywhere in the house. There was a thorough police search – and I need not tell you what that means. To all intents and purposes the man died in a box sealed from the inside, and the gun he was shot with might well have been a phantom. There was never a trace of it found anywhere.”

From Room to Let by Margery Allingham

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….Seated at a small table surrounded by graven idols, the windows closed to the boiling air, he drank sassafras beer and agreed with his host about the weather and dismissed his apologies for making him endure it to come all this way. That said, D’Ortega swiftly got to business. Disaster had struck. Jacob had heard about it, but listened politely with a touch of compassion to the version this here client/debtor recounted. D’Ortega’s ship had been anchored a nautical mile from shore for a month waiting for a vessel, due any day, to replenish what he had lost. A third of his cargo had died of ship fever. Fined five thousand pounds of tobacco by the Lord Proprietarys’ magistrate for throwing their bodies too close to the bay; forced to scoop up the corpses – those they could find (they used pikes and nets, D’Ortega said, a purchase which itself cost two pounds, six) – and ordered to burn or bury them. He’d had to pile them in two drays (six shillings), cart them out to low land where saltweed and alligators would finish the work.

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….“How do I know?” said Mrs. Oliver crossly. “How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all the idiotic mannerisms he’s got? These things just happen. You try something – and people seem to like it – and then you go on – and before you know where you are, you’ve got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson tied to you for life. And people even write and say how fond you must be of him. Fond of him? If I met that bony gangling vegetable eating Finn in real life, I’d do a better murder than any I’ve ever invented.”

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So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 207…

Episode 207

I’ve been reading up a storm this last week, but the books have continued to arrive in droves meaning that the TBR has only gone down by 1 – to 226. Still, at least that means I’m going in the right direction, eh?

Here are a few more I should be reading soon. In fact, I’ve started a couple of them. Well, in actual fact, I’ve also finished one of them – Sanditon. Must try to synch these posts better…

Fiction

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Next up for my 5 x 5 Challenge, to read 5 books from 5 selected authors. I’m ambivalent about Steinbeck – I think he writes like a dream but I find him emotionally manipulative and with a tendency to cross the line between pathos and bathos. I gave 5 stars to The Grapes of Wrath and abandoned Cannery Row. So this one could go either way…

The Blurb says: Like his father and grandfather before him, Kino is a poor diver, gathering pearls from the gulf beds that once brought great wealth to the Kings of Spain and now provide Kino, Juana, and their infant son with meager subsistence. Then, on a day like any other, Kino emerges from the sea with a pearl as large as a sea gull’s egg, as “perfect as the moon.” With the pearl comes hope, the promise of comfort and of security….

A story of classic simplicity, based on a Mexican folk tale, The Pearl explores the secrets of man’s nature, the darkest depths of evil, and the luminous possibilities of love.

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Classics

Sanditon by Jane Austen

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Despite my love affair with Jane Austen, I’ve never read her unfinished novel, Sanditon, so when I saw OWC were publishing a new edition I couldn’t resist. Apparently there’s going to be a new TV adaptation next year, and I always prefer to have read the book first…

The Blurb says: In Sanditon, Jane Austen writes what may well be the first seaside novel: a novel, that is, that explores the mysterious and startling transformations that a stay by the sea can work on individuals and relationships. Sanditon is a fictitious place on England’s south coast and the obsession of local landowner Mr Thomas Parker. He means to transform this humble fishing village into a fashionable health resort to rival its famous neighbours of Brighton and Eastbourne.

The seaside holiday was invented in the eighteenth century, with resorts springing up along England’s extensive coastline to take advantage of the craze for salt-water bathing. For Jane Austen, a keen bather, the seaside was a place where the female body might enjoy unusual permitted freedom. In Persuasion, the novel she finished only months before she began Sanditon, the sea and coast elicit rare moments of sensuous delight. In this her final, unfinished work, the dying writer sets aside her familiar subject matter, the country village with its settled community, for the transient and eccentric assortment of people who drift to the new resort, the town built upon sand. If the ground beneath her characters’ feet appears less secure, Austen’s own vision is opening out. Light and funny, Sanditon is her most experimental and poignant work.

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Vintage Crime Shorts

Bodies from the Library 2 edited by Tony Medawar

Courtesy of HarperCollins. This one popped unexpectedly through my letterbox a couple of weeks ago. It sounds great, and so me, with lots of my favourite Golden Age authors included and loads more for me to meet for the first time…

The Blurb says: This second volume is a showcase for popular figures of the Golden Age, in stories that even their most ardent fans will not be aware of. It includes uncollected and unpublished stories by acclaimed queens and kings of crime fiction, from Helen Simpson, Ethel Lina White, E.C.R. Lorac, Christianna Brand, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, to S.S. Van Dine, Jonathan Latimer, Clayton Rawson, Cyril Alington and Antony and Peter Shaffer (writing as Peter Antony).

This book also features two highly readable radio scripts by Margery Allingham (involving Jack the Ripper) and John Rhode, plus two full-length novellas – one from a rare magazine by Q Patrick, the other an unpublished Gervase Fen mystery by Edmund Crispin, written at the height of his career. It concludes with another remarkable discovery: ‘The Locked Room’ by Dorothy L. Sayers, a never-before-published case for Lord Peter Wimsey!

Selected and introduced by Tony Medawar, who also provides fascinating pen portraits of each author, Bodies in the Library 2 is an indispensable collection for any bookshelf.

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New Fiction

Night for Day by Patrick Flanery

Courtesy of Atlantic Books. Patrick Flanery is right at the top of my list of favourite contemporary authors, writing fiction with strong political themes mixed with a deep understanding of humanity. He’s won my Book of the Year Award twice, for Absolution and Fallen Land, (which I think is a Great American Novel). So this has to be in the running for my most anticipated read of the year…

The Blurb says: Los Angeles, 1950. Over the course of a single day, two friends grapple with the moral and professional uncertainties of the escalating Communist witch-hunt in Hollywood. Director John Marsh races to convince his actress wife not to turn informant for the House Committee on Un-American Activities, while leftist screenwriter Desmond Frank confronts the possibility of exile to live and work without fear of being blacklisted. As Marsh and Frank struggle to complete shooting on their film She Turned Away, which updates the myth of Orpheus to the gritty noir underworld of post-war Los Angeles, the chaos of their private lives pushes them towards a climactic confrontation with complicity, jealousy, and fear.

Night for Day conjures a feverish vision of one of the country’s most notorious periods of national crisis, illuminating the eternal dilemma of both art and politics: how to make the world anew. At once a definitively American novel, echoing Philip Roth and Raymond Chandler, it also nods to the mythic landscapes of Dante and the iconoclastic playfulness of James Joyce. With as much to say about the early years of the Cold War as about the political and social divisions that continue to divide the country today, Night for Day is expansive in scope and yet tenderly intimate, exploring the subtleties of belonging and the enormity of exile—not only from one’s country but also from one’s self.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?