Anyone who’s been reading my blog over this last year or two will be aware that I have developed something of an addiction for the themed anthologies being published under the British Library Crime Classics label. This one concentrates on “impossible” crimes – “locked room” mysteries and others of the kind where the emphasis is more on how it was done than on whodunit. As always, the stories have been selected by Martin Edwards who gives a brief introduction to each one telling a little about the author. They’re printed in rough chronological order, covering the period from the beginning of the 20th century (or just before) through to 1960.
There are lots of well-known names here – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, etc – as well as some more obscure authors, some of whom have appeared in the earlier anthologies and some who I think are making their first appearance. The crimes are a lot of fun, ranging from the fiendishly clever but quite possible to work out if you have that kind of mind, to ones that rely on something that couldn’t have been known – trick doors or things of that nature. I did guess a few, but was baffled by plenty, and even the easier to solve ones are still entertaining.
As with all anthologies, the quality is variable but I must say I think the average standard throughout this collection is actually higher than in some of the earlier collections. Perhaps this kind of puzzle just appeals more to me, but I don’t think that’s it, really – I think this is just a particularly good group of stories. There are sixteen of them in total, and I ranked ten of them as either 4 or 5 stars, with only one getting a rating lower than 3 (and that was the GK Chesterton story, which can be put down to my own prejudice – I simply don’t enjoy his style).
Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:
The Lost Special by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – a special train goes missing between two stations and, though the driver is later found dead by the side of the tracks, nothing is heard of the passengers or other crew for eight years…until a man waiting to be executed in France reveals how it was done. ACD is a master storyteller and builds up a nice air of almost supernatural mystery around the disappearance, though the answer is firmly of this world. And there’s a brief cameo appearance from an anonymous man who writes to a newspaper with a possible solution to the crime – a man who sounds very like a certain consulting detective we all know and love…
The Diary of Death by Marten Cumberland – when a woman dies in poverty, she leaves behind a diary blaming all her former friends for deserting her in her time of need. Now someone is bumping those friends off one by one. Loreto Santos, an amateur ‘tec from Spain, is on site when the third murder happens in a locked room during a house party. In truth, the method in this one is blindingly obvious, but the writing is very good, there’s some nice characterisation and the story is interesting, so that being able to work out how it was done didn’t spoil the entertainment.
The Music-Room by Sapper – Forty years earlier, a man was found killed in the middle of the locked music room. No-one ever worked out how it happened. Now, during a dinner party, the new owner of the house tells the old tale to his guests. Later that night, his nephew and business partner is killed in the same room, apparently accidentally. But amateur sleuth Ronald Standish is unconvinced. This is one of the ones where it wouldn’t really be possible to work out the how – though one can make a rough guess – and the who is relatively obvious. But the plotting is tight and the telling of the story is done very well.
I could just as easily have highlighted any of half a dozen others, and now feel quite qualified to bump off anyone who annoys me in ways that will baffle the greatest detective minds. So probably best if you were to send me some chocolate, just to be on the safe side…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned pen Press.
The latest addition to the British Library themed anthologies of classic crime, this one includes eleven stories all set around the festive season. A great time for people to get together in family gatherings or country house parties, and bump each other off. Who amongst us hasn’t thought that the one thing that would improve Christmas would be the quick dispatching of one of our nearest and dearest, or that the only way to pay for all those gifts would be to hasten the inheritance from one of our much loved rich relatives? Or is that just me? On the basis of the evidence in this book, I’m not alone in thinking Christmas is a particularly jolly time for a murder…
As with the earlier anthologies, this one is introduced and edited by Martin Edwards who also gives a short introduction to each story telling a little about the author. There’s the usual mix of well-known authors – Margery Allingham, Edgar Wallace – and forgotten ones, and as always the quality of the individual stories varies. However, overall I thought this was a more consistent collection than the last couple – none of the stories rate as less than three stars for me and there are plenty of fours and a sprinkling of fives. The lengths also vary from a few pages to a couple of the stories being what I’d think of as novelette length – taking an hour or so to read.
There’s a nice variety of whodunits and howdunits, some dark and serious, others lighter and more quirky, and a few with ghostly aspects to add to the winter chills. And there’s fog and feverish policemen, and wicked carol-singers, and isolated houses with all access cut off by snow… perfect accompaniment to a mug of hot chocolate and a seat near the fire!
Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most…
The Ghost’s Touch by Fergus Hume – when the narrator is invited to spend the festive season as a guest in a haunted country house, one feels he should have swiftly invented a prior engagement. However, clearly he doesn’t read crime novels, because off he goes, all cheerful and expecting to have a good time. Hah! After the fire, the ghost, and a meeting with the murderer at the dead of night, I suspect he changed his mind… The plot in this one is totally obvious, but nevertheless the author manages to get a nice atmosphere of tension going, and it’s very well written.
Death in December by Victor Gunn – a great cross between ghost and crime story, this one is probably going to appear on a future Tuesday Terror! post so I won’t go into detail. It’s one of the longer stories in the collection, giving time for a bit more characterisation than usual and both the detectives, grumpy Bill “Ironside” Cromwell and his sidekick, lovely Johnny Lister, are well drawn and fun. There are aspects of both who and how in this one, not to mention some genuinely scary bits, all topped off with a lot of humour. And a nice little bit of detection too…
Mr Cork’s Secret by Macdonald Hastings – When Montague Cork’s firm insures a valuable necklace, Montague begins to worry about its safety. So off he goes with his wife to a top London hotel where the owner of the necklace is expected to be staying. He’s lucky to get a room at such short notice, especially at Christmas time. Not so lucky for the person who vacated the room, though – since he was carried out feet first by the police, headed for the morgue. Could the murder have anything to do with the necklace? It’s up to Montague to find out… This has a nice twist in that when it was originally published the author held one fact back as part of a competition. Edwards has left it like that, but at the end of the book, gives the solution as provided by the author, along with the prize-winners’ suggestions.
Deep and Crisp and Even by Michael Gilbert – PC Petrella is covering for his boss over Christmas, and takes his duties seriously. So it’s unfortunate that he develops a feverish cold leaving him weak and a bit confused. But when he suspects a house in the neighbourhood has been burgled, he’s determined to track the perpetrator, even when he’s near collapse himself. Complete with carol-singing, dreadful weather and seasonal illness, this is a fun little story with a neat twist.
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So plenty of good stuff here, and a lot of the stories make excellent use of either weather or the holidays to add to the atmosphere and tension. I’m thoroughly enjoying these anthologies – even the less good stories are always fun for seeing the different attitudes and writing styles of the time, and the little author bios add a bit of context, putting each story into its appropriate place in the development of crime fiction. I also like the way they’re themed, and this theme in particular works well – I suppose that these would mostly have originally been published in Christmas editions of magazines, and perhaps that inspired the authors to show off their best. Next to the London-themed one, this is probably my favourite of the collections so far. I do hope there will be more…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
When the foundations are being dug for a new performing arts building at Tilton Univerity in Pennsylvania, the building crew are shocked when they discover a skeleton buried there. Forensic tests show that it belonged to a young man and dates from around forty years earlier. Back in the early ’70s, Bryan Roades was a student at the University. Inspired by the great Woodward and Bernstein investigation into the Watergate affair, Bryan hoped to emulate them by becoming a campaigning journalist. He was preparing a story on women’s issues for the University newspaper, focusing on the Women’s Lib movement and how some of the debates of the time were impacting on the female students. Some of the people he approached, though, didn’t want to see their stories in print, but Bryan was more interested in the greater good (and his own advancement, perhaps) than in individuals’ rights to privacy. When he disappeared, the police could find no trace and most people thought he’d simply done that fashionable thing for the time – gone off to ‘find himself’…
This is Margot Kinberg’s third Joel Williams book, but the first I’ve read. Regular visitors will be well aware that Margot and I are long-time blog buddies, so you will have to assume that there may be a level of bias in this review, but as always I shall try to be as honest as I can.
Joel Williams is an ex-police detective now working as a Professor in Criminal Justice in the fictional university town of Tilton, PA. He still has lots of contacts with his old colleagues in the police department and can’t resist using his inside knowledge of the University when a corpse turns up on campus. But he’s not one of these mavericks who works it all out on his own – we also see the police procedural side of the case through the two detectives who are investigating it, and Joel promptly hands over to them any information he finds. I like this way of handling the ‘amateur detective’ aspect – too often, the reasons for amateur involvement stretch credibility too far, and many authors fall into the cliché of having to make the police look stupid in order to make the amateur look good. But here Joel’s investigation enhances the police one rather than detracting from it.
As someone who is tired to death of the drunken, dysfunctional, angst-ridden detective of fiction, I also greatly appreciated Joel’s normality and stability. He has a job that he enjoys and is good at, he stays sober throughout and has a happy marriage. But he also has a curious mind, especially when it comes to crime, and an empathetic understanding of the people he comes across in the course of his investigation.
The small-town setting and the rather closed society of the University within it gives that feeling of everyone knowing everyone else’s business – a setting where privacy is harder to come by than in the anonymity of a big city, and is more treasured for that very reason. Kinberg uses this well to show how people feel threatened when it looks like things they’d rather stay secret might be about to come into the open. The time period adds to this too, and Kinberg makes excellent use of the changes we’ve seen in society over the intervening period – many of the things people were concerned about being revealed back in the ’70s don’t seem like such big scandals today, but could have destroyed careers and even lives back then. And as we learn more about the people Bryan was proposing to write about in his article, the pool of people who may have been willing to take drastic action to stop him grows…
In style, the book mirrors the Golden Age crime – a limited group of suspects, clues, red herrings, amateur detective, etc. And, of course, the second murder! But it also has strong elements of the police procedural, with the two detectives, Crandall and Zuniga, sharing almost equal billing with Joel. There’s a little too much grit in the story for it to fall into ‘cosy’ territory but, thankfully, it also steers clear of the gratuitously gruesome or graphic. I’m not sure how well it will work for people who enjoy the darker, more brutal side of crime fiction, but an intriguing and interesting story for those who prefer the traditional mystery novel. Just my kind of thing, in fact, and I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read. Recommended – and well done, Margot!
NB I won a signed copy of the book in Margot’s competition. Aren’t I lucky? 😀
Eli Marks is a stage magician with a penchant for getting mixed up in murder, often via his ex-wife, the delightfully named Assistant District Attorney Deirdre Sutton-Hutton and her new husband, Homicide Detective Fred Hutton. The books are full of humour and, though set in the present day, have plots that are reminiscent of Golden Age mysteries, with clues, suspects, red herrings, etc. Having loved each of the full-length Eli Marks novels, I couldn’t resist seeing if John Gaspard could work the same magic in a short story, so this Kindle short seemed like a perfect pick for this week’s…
The Invisible Assistant
by John Gaspard
Eli is performing at a corporate event and needs two members of the audience to come up on stage to help out with his next trick. To his less-than-thrilled surprise, one of the reluctant volunteers turns out to be none other than his ex-wife’s new husband, Detective Fred Hutton.
…I launched into my Cards Across routine, counting three cards into Melissa’s outstretched hand, and then seven cards into the hand that Homicide Detective Fred Hutton had reluctantly put forward. I caught his eye as I finished counting the seventh card, and the icy stare he gave me told me exactly how much he was enjoying his time onstage.
The trick involves Eli calling on his “invisible assistant” as the cards magically transfer themselves from one volunteer’s hand to the other’s.
(Eli’s trick is a little different to this one, but the basic idea is the same.)
After the performance, Eli’s ex-wife Deirdre explains that she and Fred were in the audience because she wants to ask his advice about an apparent murder/suicide case they’re working on. Two men were found dead in a house – one, Harley Keller, upstairs, shot through the chest, and the other, Josiah Manning, downstairs, shot in the head and with a gun lying at his feet. It seems obvious that Manning must have shot Keller first, then gone downstairs and shot himself. Fred’s happy with that theory, anyway, but Deirdre doesn’t buy it. Keller was a pro-suicide campaigner, believing people should be allowed to take their own life whenever they wanted. But Manning was passionately anti-suicide. The two men had clashed in public debates on the subject.
“So [said Eli], let me get this straight: The anti-suicide guy, who believed fervently in the sanctity of life, murdered the pro-suicide guy and then to top it all off, he killed himself?”
“That’s what the police believe,” Deirdre said, throwing a sidelong glance at her husband. He did not return it.
Now Deirdre wants Eli to see if he can come up with an alternative explanation…
“On occasion you’ve offered a unique perspective that I think could be useful in this instance.”
“I believe the phrase you used when we were married was, ‘You have a bizarre way of looking at things.’”
“Yes,” she said, leaving it at that.
So the bickering Deirdre and Fred take Eli along to the crime scene…
From my vantage point in the front seat of my car, I could see them talking in the front seat of theirs. And from where I sat, it did not look like a happy conversation…
…on the few occasions I had witnessed these arguments, I had to restrain myself from saying something along the lines of, “Jeez, you left me so you could argue with him? You could’ve skipped the divorce and continued arguing with me.” But I wisely never said that. At least, not so far.
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This is just as much fun as the books! The short format obviously doesn’t allow for the complexity of plotting of the novels, and regular readers already know these three characters and the dynamics amongst them, so there’s no need for much character development. But all the usual humour is there and, as usual, Eli’s knowledge of stage magic plays its part. I didn’t work it out, or even get close, but found it nicely satisfying when all was revealed. Gaspard is great at this kind of “impossible” crime, where the fun is in working out how it was done, and the method is always beautifully quirky. The books are usually whodunits too, but the length restrictions of this one means there are no suspects beyond the two victims themselves.
It works perfectly as a standalone, either as a little treat for existing fans impatiently waiting for the next book, or perhaps as an introduction to Gaspard’s style for newcomers. It is very definitely a short story, not a novella – I’d say it took me about twenty minutes or so to read. But I was smiling for longer than that…
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PS – After I’d posted this, the author John Gaspard kindly popped in to the comments to leave a link to where you can listen to this story for free. I’ve sampled it and love the narrator’s voice – just right for the story. Here it is… click on the red button to play…
When Elspeth McGillicuddy glances out of the window of her train carriage, she can see straight into another train that is running parallel to her own. As a blind flies up on the carriage opposite her, she is horrified to see a woman being strangled by a tall, dark man. Unable to do anything to prevent it, she reports it to the conductor. He suspects she’s just been napping and has dreamt the whole thing, but he’s a conscientious man so he reports the matter at the next station. However, no body is found on the train, and there the matter would probably have rested, but for the fact that Mrs McGillicuddy was on her way to St Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Jane Marple. Miss Marple knows Mrs McGillicuddy is a sensible woman with no imagination, so believes that she saw exactly what she claims. Feeling too old and unfit to snoop around herself, Miss Marple asks Lucy Eyelesbarrow to hunt for the body and so Lucy takes a job at Rutherford Hall…
This book gets a little criticism for not really having many clues or much actual detection element in it. It’s never quite clear how Miss Marple arrives at the solution, other than her extensive knowledge of human nature. That’s not to say that the solution is unclear; it isn’t – it makes perfect sense. But the route to it isn’t as well defined as Christie’s usual.
But regardless, this is still one of my favourite Christie books. I love Miss Marple as a character, even more than M Poirot and his little grey cells, and she’s on top form in this one. She gives us some nice village parallels to shed light on the characters of the suspects; she twinkles affectionately at both young Inspector Craddock and Lucy; she does a bit of gentle match-making; and she gives us some classic Delphic pronouncements that leave the reader as beautifully baffled as the other characters.
Miss Marple put down her knitting and picked up The Times with a half-done crossword puzzle. “I wish I had a dictionary here,” she murmured. “Tontine and Tokay – I always mix those two words up. One, I believe, is a Hungarian wine.” “That’s Tokay,” said Lucy, looking back from the door. “But one’s a five-letter word and one’s a seven. What’s the clue?” “Oh, it wasn’t in the crossword,” said Miss Marple vaguely. “It was in my head.”
For me, one of the major joys of Christie’s books is that they manage the difficult feat of being full of corpses and yet free of angst – a trick the Golden Age authors excelled in and modern authors seem to have forgotten. She ensures that the soon-to-be victims deserve all they get, being either wicked, nasty or occasionally just tiresome. The dearly-departed’s relatives always take a stoic attitude to the death of their parents/spouses/siblings/children which, while it might not be altogether realistic, is certainly considerably more enjoyable than two hundred pages of descriptions of grieving, sobbing, wailing and general tooth-gnashing. In Christie novels, the emphasis is on entertainment – a mystery and a puzzle to solve, rather than an attempt to harrow the soul.
Apart from Miss Marple herself, there are two things that make this one particularly entertaining. Lucy Eyelesbarrow is a great character – a strong, independent young woman, making a success of her life in this post-war world. With the difficulties of getting domestic servants, she has seen an opportunity for herself in being the ultimate housekeeper, and is hugely in demand by ladies everywhere who need help in running their homes. She can and does demand exorbitant wages and never stays anywhere for more than a few weeks, but during those weeks she makes life wonderfully carefree for her employers. So Emma Crackenthorpe of Rutherford Hall jumps at the chance to have her at a reduced rate for a while, to help out with her elderly old curmudgeon of a father and her assortment of brothers and brothers-in-law when they descend on the house en masse for a visit. And it’s not long before several of these men have recognised Lucy’s unique attractions…
Then there are the two boys, Alexander, the son of a deceased Crackenthorpe sister, and his friend Stodders, both visiting during the school holidays. These two remind me a little of Jennings and Derbyshire, (if you haven’t read the Jennings and Derbyshire books, you really must! Or listen to the audiobooks narrated by Stephen Fry – joyous stuff!), or perhaps like terribly polite and well brought up versions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. No counselling for these children! No, indeed! When a corpse is discovered, they don’t get traumatised, they get out there looking for clues! In which pursuit they are aided and abetted by a bunch of adults who seem to think it’s quite normal, healthy even, for boys their age to be fascinated by all things murderous. When did we become the wussy, wimpy society of today, molly-coddling our children and trying to keep all of the world’s nastiness away from them?
“Please, sir, can we see the body?” “No, you can’t,” said Inspector Bacon… “Have you ever seen a blonde woman wearing a light-coloured dyed squirrel coat anywhere about the place?” “Well, I can’t remember exactly,” said Alexander astutely. “If I were to have a look…” “Take ’em in, Sanders,” said Inspector Bacon to the constable who was standing by the barn door. “One’s only young once!” “Oh, sir, thank you, sir.” Both boys were vociferous. “It’s very kind of you, sir.”
Oh, I’m sorry… let me jump off my soapbox and get back to the book…
Wonderfully entertaining, full of humour, great plot even if the clues aren’t quite fairplay, and a little bit of possible romance to spice things up. (For people who’ve already read it – in fact, the romantic sub-plot is one of the things I like most about the book – I still haven’t decided. Have you? I know which I hope for though. Now, isn’t that almost Marple-ishly Delphic?)
I shall be reviewing the Film of the Book this Saturday as part of the Agatha Christie Blogathon being hosted by Christina Werner and Little Bits of Classics. I do hope you’ll pop back – the event should be loads of fun!
When she read last week’s guest post from Martin Edwards on Ten Top Golden Age Detectives, regular commenter BigSister (who, by an amazing coincidence, is my big sister) mentioned one of her own favourite early mystery writers, R Austin Freeman, and specifically his “inverted mysteries”, a format he apparently pretty much invented. This is a story that starts by showing the crime, including allowing the reader to know the culprit, and then shows how the investigator attempts to solve it. So, since one must always listen to one’s big sister (well, except when she’s praising Vin Diesel films or banging on about fantasy novels), I promptly selected what I think is the first of these stories for this week’s…
The Case of Oscar Brodski
by R Austin Freeman
The first part of the story introduces us to Silas Hickler, a successful burglar with connections to the diamond industry, and a convenient conscience that allows him to commit his crimes without suffering too greatly from remorse.
No one, looking into his cheerful, round face, beaming with benevolence and wreathed in perpetual smiles, would have imagined him to be a criminal. Least of all, his worthy, high-church housekeeper, who was a witness to his unvarying amiability, who constantly heard him carolling light-heartedly about the house and noted his appreciative zest at meal-times.
One October evening, the aforesaid housekeeper is out and Silas himself is preparing to go on a journey to Amsterdam to sell some dodgy diamonds, when a man stops at his house to ask for directions to the train station. Silas recognises the man immediately as Oscar Brodski, a well-known and reputable diamond merchant. When Silas learns that Brodski is also headed for Amsterdam, he speculates that the merchant is likely to be carrying some valuable diamonds and immediately his greed begins to put ideas into his head. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time…
Crimes against the person he had always looked upon as sheer insanity. There was, it is true, that little affair of the Weybridge policeman, but that was unforeseen and unavoidable, and it was the constable’s doing after all. And there was the old housekeeper at Epsom, too, but, of course, if the old idiot would shriek in that insane fashion…
And so Mr Brodski’s fate is soon sealed…
So, for half-a-minute, he stood motionless, like a symbolical statue of Murder, glaring down with horrible, glittering eyes upon the unconscious diamond merchant, while his quick breath passed without a sound through his open mouth and his fingers writhed slowly like the tentacles of a giant hydra.
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Part 2 introduces Dr John Thorndyke and his sidekick, Christopher Jervis, who is our narrator for this section. Thorndyke is a scientific detective, who always carries a case filled with equipment, such as a miniature microscope. He happens to be on a train that is held up by the discovery of a body on the line, decapitated by a passing goods train but still recognisably poor old Brodski. Not convinced that Brodski’s death is accidental, he sets out to investigate…
“In a case of this kind,” he remarked, “we have to decide on one of three possible explanations: accident, suicide or homicide; and our decision will be determined by inferences from three sets of facts: first, the general facts of the case; second, the special data obtained by examination of the body, and, third, the special data obtained by examining the spot on which the body was found.”
With the help of Jervis and his trusty microscope, Thorndyke does exactly that, and, deciding that Brodski was the victim of murder, goes on to track down the perpetrator of the crime.
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Well, I found this thoroughly entertaining! The first section takes us inside the mind of the murderer and has some great melodramatic writing that gives the whole thing an atmosphere of growing horror. By contrast, the second section is written very matter-of-factly, with Thorndyke relying almost entirely on forensic evidence to solve the crime. There are elements of Holmes in Thorndyke’s cerebral, scientific approach, but I would have missed the physical drama that usually livens up the Holmes’ stories, had it not been provided in the first section. Jervis is a much more perceptive sidekick than Watson, and the story hints that he is in fact being trained by Thorndyke to follow his methods rather than simply being a staunch friend. The police are, of course, pretty thick – initially dismissive of Thorndyke’s strange methods and then awestruck by his results.
I enjoyed Freeman’s writing style, especially in the first section, and the forensic stuff holds up well to age and is convincing, with only a couple of moments when Thorndyke seems to make spectacular assumptions based on very little evidence. First published in 1912, Thorndyke ends by suggesting there is an “urgent need of a trained scientist to aid the police” in such cases. From the number of forensic experts infesting modern crime fiction, it appears he got his wish. I look forward to reading more of the Thorndyke stories.
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I read the story in this Kindle collection, which I acquired for the vast sum of 49p. It doesn’t seem to be available in the US, but many other similarly priced collections are available. This particular story was originally published in the collection called The Singing Bone, or under the more prosaic US title of The Adventures of Dr Thorndyke.
I am delighted to welcome Martin Edwards to the blog! Any regular visitor will know I’ve been enjoying Martin’s classic crime anthologies over recent months, discovering some long-forgotten authors as well as re-visiting old favourites. So when I got the chance to ask for Martin’s recommendations of essential Golden Age detectives for beginners, you can well imagine I had to be restrained from biting his hand off! So here it is… a very special post for this week’s…
Ten Top Golden Age Detectives
Many thanks to FictionFan for inviting me to talk about ten terrific Golden Age detectives. Opinions vary about how to define “the Golden Age of detective fiction”, but it’s logical to see it as spanning the years between the end of the First World War, and the beginning of the Second. Yes, detective stories with “Golden Age” elements appeared before, and in particular after, that period, but those characteristics became clearly established in the Twenties and the Thirties. So all the detectives I’ve chosen first appeared during those two decades.
Poirot is an egocentric, and a bundle of mannerisms, but so much more memorable than so many of the gimmicky detectives dreamed up by authors striving to create a worthy successor to Sherlock Holmes. His partnership with the nice but dim Captain Hastings was modelled on the Holmes-Watson relationship, but as Agatha Christie’s confidence grew, she married Hastings off, and gave Poirot free rein to demonstrate his gifts in all-time classics of the genre such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express. Hastings returned in the posthumously published Curtain, one of the under-rated masterpieces of Golden Age fiction, in which Poirot actually…no, you’ll have to read it for yourself.
As down-to-earth as Poirot is eccentric, Miss Marple is a superb creation. Her USP is that, despite having spent her life in a small village, she has gained a deep understanding of human nature, which was shared by her creator, and helps to explain the astonishing and enduring success of Agatha Christie’s work. Miss Marple’s insight into the way that people – rich or poor, and from whatever background – behave enables her to identify whodunit when the police are baffled. She relies more on intuition than Poirot, the supreme logician, but her skill as a sleuth is matched by her decency and strength of character. Many talented actors have played Jane Marple, but few people, surely, would deny that Joan Hickson’s interpretation remains definitive.
Lord Peter Wimsey
Dorothy L. Sayers’ aristocratic sleuth started out as a sort of Bertie Wooster with a magnifying glass, but metamorphosed from an essentially comic, two-dimensional figure into a much more rounded character. The change reflects Sayers’ development (and increasingly lofty ambition) as a novelist, and took place at about the time that Wimsey fell in love with Harriet Vane, a detective novelist who in Strong Poison is on trial for the murder of her lover. Wimsey’s pursuit of Harriet reached a successful conclusion in Gaudy Night, set in academic Oxford, and Sayers’ attempt to transform the detective story into a “novel of manners”.
Margery Allingham was an accomplished yet idiosyncratic detective novelist, and it is somehow typical of her unorthodoxy that Campion, her Great Detective, plays a subsidiary role in his first appearance, and seems to be something of a rogue. Like Wimsey, he evolved, but in a different direction, moving to centre stage in stories such as Police at the Funeral and even narrating the story in The Case of the Late Pig. Allingham eventually suggested that he was a member of the Royal Family, thus neatly outdoing Sayers as regards her hero’s blue blood.
Gladys Mitchell’s first novel, Speedy Death, introduced one of the most remarkable of all Golden Age detectives, Mrs Bradley, who proceeded to appear in no fewer than 66 novels. There’s nothing meek or feminine about Mrs Bradley, who at one point herself commits murder. This reflects the underlying truth that Golden Age writers were fascinated by the concept of justice, and loved to explore scenarios in which the challenge was: how can one achieve a just outcome, when the established machinery of law and order is helpless? Mrs Bradley – sometimes known as “Mrs Crocodile” – is famously ugly, which makes it all the more baffling that when the books were televised in the late Nineties, she was played by Diana Rigg.
Anthony Berkeley was a cynic who loved to flavour his extremely clever whodunits with irony. His detective, the writer Roger Sheringham, is occasionally offensive, and quite frequently mistaken – he is the most fallible of Golden Age sleuths. It’s typical of Berkeley that, having allowed Roger to solve a very tricky puzzle in the short story “The Avenging Chance”, he expanded the plot into the novel The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and offered Roger’s theory about the crime as one of six different solutions – only for it to be proved mistaken. I’ve had the huge pleasure of devising a brand new explanation of the puzzle in a new edition of the book, to be published by the British Library in October. Suffice to say that, once again, Roger is confounded.
Ngaio Marsh’s Scotland Yard man, Roderick Alleyn, is one of the gentlemanly cops (Michael Innes’ John Appleby is another) favoured by Golden Age writers who worried about the plausibility of having an amateur detective involved in a long series of convoluted murder mysteries. Marsh’s love of the theatre, and of her native New Zealand, provide fascinating backgrounds for several of Alleyn’s cases, such as Vintage Murder, and the quality of her writing, as well as her pleasing storylines, has ensured their continuing popularity.
Dr Gideon Fell
It’s often forgotten that many American authors wrote Golden Age detective stories. Most were overshadowed by private eye stories from the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but John Dickson Carr’s books about Dr Gideon Fell stand out from the crowd. Carr, an Anglophile, set the Fell stories in Britain, and specialised in macabre and atmospheric stories about seemingly impossible crimes. Fell was modelled on G.K. Chesterton, creator of Father Brown, and gives a memorable “Locked Room Lecture”, discussing different ways of committing a murder in an apparently locked room, in The Hollow Man. Carr’s exceptionally ingenious stories fell out of fashion for a while, but the TV success of Jonathan Creek, and more recently Death in Paradise, shows that a huge audience remains for complex mysteries, solved thanks to mind-blowing ingenuity. When it comes to figuring out locked room mysteries, nobody does it better than Gideon Fell.
Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector Joseph French is the antithesis of the brilliant maverick detective. He’s a career policeman, not blessed with the aristocratic forebears of Roderick Alleyn, but gifted with a capacity for endless hard work, an eye for detail, and a relentless determination to see justice done. He’s especially adept at dismantling apparently unbreakable alibis. Occasionally, Crofts wrote “inverted mysteries”, in which we see the culprit commit murder so cleverly that he seems sure to get away with it. And then, in books like the intriguing and original zoo-based mystery Antidote to Venom, we watch French remorselessly pursue his prey until justice is done. French is a good man, but an implacable adversary for any criminal.
Georges Simenon is not generally associated with Golden Age detective fiction, because his literary concerns lay much more with people than plot. (His fellow Belgian, the regrettably forgotten S.A Steeman, was much closer in spirit to Agatha Christie). Yet Simenon read and absorbed Christie’s early novels, and several of his stories about the Parisian policeman Inspector Jules Maigret are very clever. Maigret is a splendidly rounded character, a reliable family man admired and respected by his close colleagues. His potential was recognised as early as 1932 by the legendary film-maker Jean Renoir, who cast his brother as Maigret in Night at the Crossroads, and he was brought to life once again on television this year by Rowan Atkinson. Maigret’s thoughtful methods influenced a generation of post-war detectives, including W.J. Burley’s Cornish cop Wycliffe, and Alan Hunter’s Inspector George Gently as well as Gil North’s Sergeant Caleb Cluff.
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The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards is published by HarperCollins. Martin Edwards has also written the introduction for Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North which is being republished by British Library Crime Classics on 12 July to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth.
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Many thanks, Martin, for a most enjoyable and informative post!
I’ll be seeking out the books Martin has mentioned over the next few months – some, like Inspector French and Gideon Fell, will be new to me while others are old acquaintances I’ve neglected for too long. And check back tomorrow for my review of Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm – spoiler alert! I thought it was…. nah! I’ll tell you tomorrow!
Michael 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.
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!
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.
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.
The only thing of Hammett’s that I’ve read is The Maltese Falcon, which I thoroughly enjoyed. But as well as Sam Spade, Hammett is famous for another detective – a nameless one, known only as the Continental Op (because he’s an operative of the Continental Detective Agency). This story is his first appearance, in 1923, so it seems like a good choice for this week’s…
by Dashiell Hammett
Jim Tarr picked up the cigar I rolled across his desk, looked at the band, bit off an end, and reached for a match.
“Three for a buck,” he said. “You must want me to break a couple of laws for you this time.”
An insurance company has hired the Continental Op to investigate a house fire, in which the owner, a man named Thornburgh, died. They suspect arson, and Sheriff Tar quickly confirms this – the house was soaked in gasoline before it went up. But so far the police have found no clues as to who might have set the fire. He agrees to have the officer who’s investigating the crime bring the C.O. up to speed…
Tarr leaned back in his chair and bellowed: “Hey, Mac!” The pearl push buttons on his desk are ornaments so far as he is concerned. Deputy sheriffs McHale, McClump, and Macklin came to the door together – MacNab apparently wasn’t within hearing. “What’s the idea?” the sheriff demanded of McClump. “Are you carrying a bodyguard around with you?” The two other deputies, thus informed as to whom “Mac” referred this time, went back to their cribbage game.
Sheriff Tarr then agrees that McClump should work with the C.O.
On the night of the fire, Thornburgh’s servants Mr and Mrs Coons woke in the night to find themselves suffocating in smoke. Mr Coons managed to drag himself and his wife out, but by then the blaze was so strong he couldn’t fight his way back in to help Thornburgh. A passing motorist, Henderson, stopped at the scene and together they watched helplessly as Thornburgh tried to escape from his upper floor window… alas, in vain!
Thornburgh had only recently arrived in town and kept himself to himself. The Coons had only been employed by him on his arrival and so didn’t know him terribly well either, but they said he would shut himself away for hours in his room, and they believed he was working on some invention. The only visitor he had was his niece, Mrs Evelyn Trowbridge, who was also the beneficiary of his will and various insurance policies he had recently taken out. But Mrs Trowbridge had a cast-iron alibi for the night in question.
Where the house had been was now a mound of blackened ruins. We poked around in the ashes for a few minutes – not that we expected to find anything, but because it’s the nature of man to poke around in ruins.
* * * * *
Although this is one of Hammett’s earliest stories, it already shows some of what made him such a successful and influential writer later in his career. The plot is nicely set up and rattles along at a good pace, although the detection element is pretty weak and crucial facts are withheld from the reader only to be presented after the C.O. has caught his culprit. But the writing is excellent, with a lot of wit, and the characterisation is strong throughout. We learn almost nothing about the C.O. himself in this one, except that he’s the kind of smart-talking, hardboiled character that Hammett and those influenced by him would develop over the next few decades. But through his narration, we get great snapshots of the other characters, often summed up in a few short lines that tell more than many authors can do in pages…
McClump and I had worked together on an express robbery several months before. He’s a rangy, towheaded youngster of twenty-five or -six, with all the nerve in the world – and most of the laziness.
The following paragraph is pretty spoilerish (and a bit of a mini-rant) so, if you want to read the story, you may want to skip it. I can’t find an online link, but the story is in…
Coincidentally, José Ignacio has also been reviewing a later Continental Op book this week, Red Harvest, over on A Crime is Afoot – a great blog for anyone interested in classic or contemporary crime fiction.
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The story ends with a crazy shoot-out of the kind that actually puts me off so much American detective fiction. I’m much more of a fan of the brilliant denouement type of story, followed by the culprit being huckled off in handcuffs. Partly this is just because I find shoot-outs immensely dull, especially since it’s always obviously the baddie who’s going to die. But partly, it’s because authors often use it lazily as a replacement for actually working out a clever way to trap the villain. That’s the case in this one – they all agree they don’t have much in the way of evidence that would stand up in court, so Hammett simply engineers a situation where it’s vaguely reasonable for them to gun their suspect down, and one is left to assume no questions will be asked afterwards. I think this is my favourite bit of dialogue in the story, AFTER the cop, McClump, has shot the suspect dead…
McClump spoke to me over the body. “I ain’t an inquisitive sort of fellow, but I hope you don’t mind telling me why I shot this [person].”
And I complain about today’s maverick policemen!
* * * * *
An enjoyable story in its own right, and one that makes for interesting reading in seeing the beginnings of what would develop into Hammett’s trademark hardboiled style.
I’ve never been a particular fan of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown, but I stumbled across this story in Michael Sim’s anthology of detective stories, The Dead Witness, (full review to follow), and felt that it was about time he made his first appearance in…
The Hammer of God
by GK Chesterton
The Rev. and Hon. Wilfred Bohun was very devout, and was making his way to some austere exercises of prayer or contemplation at dawn. Colonel the Hon. Norman Bohun, his elder brother, was by no means devout, and was sitting in evening dress on the bench outside ‘The Blue Boar,’ drinking what the philosophic observer was free to regard either as his last glass on Tuesday or his first on Wednesday. The colonel was not particular.
Wilfred notices that Norman seems to be watching the blacksmith’s shop. The blacksmith is a strong giant of a man, upright and Puritanical, but Wilfred has heard some scandalous reports about the behaviour of his beautiful wife. As they pass each other in the street, Norman calls out to his brother…
“Good morning, Wilfred,” he said. “Like a good landlord I am watching sleeplessly over my people. I am going to call on the blacksmith.”
Wilfred looked at the ground, and said: “The blacksmith is out. He is over at Greenford.”
“I know,” answered the other with silent laughter; “that is why I am calling on him.”
In despair at his brother’s shameful conduct, the devout Rev. Wilfred hurries on to his gothic-style church to pray. As he often does, rather than praying at the altar, he chooses another spot in the church for his private devotions – on this occasion, the gallery, where there is a rather beautiful stained glass window. He is still there sometime later when the village cobbler rushes in to inform him that a tragedy has occurred. Norman is dead, his head smashed by a single heavy blow…
He could only stammer out: “My brother is dead. What does it mean? What is this horrible mystery?” There was an unhappy silence; and then the cobbler, the most outspoken man present, answered: “Plenty of horror, sir,” he said; “but not much mystery.”
“What do you mean?” asked Wilfred, with a white face.
“It’s plain enough,” answered Gibbs. “There is only one man for forty miles round that could have struck such a blow as that, and he’s the man that had most reason to.”
But it turns out the blacksmith has an unshakeable alibi. There are plenty of other people who may have had reasons to kill the wicked Norman – the village idiot whom he taunted, other husbands, perhaps women he had toyed with. But who could have struck such a mighty blow – and with the fairly small hammer that is found to have been the weapon?
Fortunately, there is one man in the village who may be able to work it out – Father Brown. Using his commonsense and his knowledge of human sinfulness, it’s not long before he confronts the amazed villain…
“How do you know all this?” he cried. “Are you a devil?”
“I am a man,” answered Father Brown gravely; “and therefore have all devils in my heart.”
* * * * *
As always, there is a strong moral content to the story, and it’s this really that puts me off these stories. It’s not that I object to the battle between good and evil as a basis for a story – quite the reverse actually. It’s that I don’t enjoy the moralising tone that Chesterton employs through his priestly character. In this one (mini-spoiler alert) Father Brown plays on the conscience of the killer, preferring to give him the chance to do the right thing rather than handing him over to the police. All very well in fiction, but in reality I’d suggest the majority of murderers would take the opportunity to make good their escape and be on the next flight to Brazil or the Costa del Sol. So Father Brown’s uncanny ability to bring the bad guys back to the path of righteousness with just a few well-chosen words always leaves me unconvinced.
However, the story is very well written as Chesterton’s always are, with a good deal of strong characterisation considering its brevity. And the puzzle, while not too hard to work out, is intriguing. One that I’m sure would be enjoyed by existing Father Brown fans, and would be a good introduction to him for newcomers, who should not be put off by my personal lack of enthusiasm for the character.
It’s a foggy night in Milan when Inspector De Vincenzi is called out to a murder scene. A banker has been found shot dead in the flat of Gianetto Aurigi, who by coincidence is an old friend of the Inspector. Aurigi has been dabbling unsuccessfully on the stock market and becomes the obvious suspect. But De Vincenzi isn’t convinced – partly he feels there’s more to the whole thing than meets the eye, and partly his loyalty to his friend makes him determined to investigate every other avenue before condemning him…
The Murdered Banker
by Augusto De Angelis
Written in 1935, this novella length story is the first appearance of Inspector De Vincenzi in a series that was apparently hugely popular in Italy and gained De Angelis a reputation as father of the Italian mystery novel. De Vincenzi (who apparently has no first name) is a thoughtful detective with the soul of a poet, who is as interested in the motivations of the suspects as in the physical evidence. His style is to get at the truth by a combination of interviewing and of playing weirdly cruel tricks on people, such as sending them into the room where the corpse is lying without warning them. This has the effect of creating a good deal of melodramatic reactions, from screaming fits to people sinking into coma-like states of shock. It’s not Miss Marple, that’s for sure.
“Tell me, commendatore, what’s in there? What’s happened?” “There’s a dead body. What’s happened is that a man’s been killed.” A tremor convulsed the little man. He clutched at Maccari’s arm, his terror rendering him pitiful. “Oh my God! This house is cursed! Do they know that this house is cursed?”
Melodrama is something of a feature throughout. In fact, I kept expecting a heftily bosomed soprano to burst in singing an aria from Tosca. The stiff upper lip approach doesn’t seem to have figured heavily in Italian society at this time, if De Angelis’ portrayal is authentic. However in other ways the society is very similar to that in British crime fiction of the same period, full of class divisions and with an emphasis on money being, as usual, at the root of at least some of the evil. But we also have love – not reserved, quiet, British love, oh, no! Soaring, dramatic love – the kind where ecstasy is only ever an inch away from suicide! It must all have been quite exhausting…
I’ll be honest – I didn’t enjoy the writing style much, or perhaps it was the translation. It feels clunky and sometimes sentences need to be read more than once to glean the meaning. (I did have a lot of fun trying to see if I could get my “lips trembling with indignity” though.) Often dialogue isn’t clearly attributed to the speaker so that it isn’t immediately obvious who is expressing a particular opinion, which really breaks the reading flow. I also found the dialogue unconvincing – again it has a tendency to sound a bit like an opera script. And every time a climax is approaching, De Vincenzi stops the action and sends everyone away for a few hours, so he can think calmly.
“The atmosphere in this room has reached white heat – a bad temperature for keeping one’s brain working and a clear head. I myself fear that the very rhythm of your pulses is influencing my judgement. You’ll understand, therefore, if I ask you to leave me alone with my thoughts. I must organise them and master them. All right?”
Being a murder detective seems a strange choice of profession for someone who can’t take a bit of excitement, really.
But overall, it’s an enjoyable look at the mystery writing from another country to compare with our own Golden Age writers from the same period. I would be interested in reading more from later in the series to see if De Angelis maintains the high melodramatic style or if this is simply a feature of what is after all a debut novel.
There is also a short but interesting afterword, setting the book into the context of its time, in an Italy under the control of Mussolini’s Fascists. De Angelis eventually ran foul of the regime by writing a number of anti-Fascist articles; and, after having been arrested and then released, died as a result of being beaten up by a Fascist thug in 1944. So perhaps melodramatic tragedy was never far from real life in the Italy of that period after all.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.
Since it’s Reading Ireland Month, how about a detective who’s also a nun in 7th century Ireland? Strictly speaking, Peter Tremayne is an Englishman, but since he is a Celtic historian and was made a life member of the Irish Literary Society in 2002, I hereby declare him an honorary Irishman for the purposes of this post. There’s no doubt about Sister Fidelma’s nationality – she was born into the royal family of Munster, and is both a lawyer and a Celtic nun. The Sister Fidelma series appears to be on book 26 – however, it’s new to me. This short story was originally published in 2005, so let’s see if Fidelma merits the title of…
The Spiteful Shadow
by Peter Tremayne
Sister Fidelma has arrived at the Abbey of Durrow on a visit, only to be told by her old friend Abbot Laisran of a horrible murder that has taken place in the abbey. A young Sister is accused of killing one of the men in the community. But Abbot Laisran is worried…
“There are some things in life that appear so simple that you get a strange feeling about them. You question whether things can be so simple and, sure enough, you often find that they are so simple because they have been made to appear simple…”
Sister Scathach is a troubled young woman, who hears voices which she believes come from the Otherworld. These voices give her messages of doom – usually general ones about the destruction of the world and so on – and instruct her to give these messages out to the world. But one day, the message is more specific – that Brother Sioda is doomed to die by having his heart ripped out. And, just as she prophesied, the next day his bloody corpse is found spreadeagled on his bed. When the Abbot goes to Sister Scathach’s room, he finds a bloody robe and an even bloodier dagger, and the room is locked from the inside. So simple, indeed – and yet something doesn’t feel right. For a start, assuming the voices are not from the Otherworld, how could Sister Scathach have known about the girl Sioda had seduced some years ago? And what would be her motive for killing him? It’s up to Sister Fidelma to find the truth…
Sister Fidelma may be a nun, but she’s not about to be taken in by the whole hearing voices thing…
“I believe in the Otherworld and our transition from this one to that but… I think that those who repose in the Otherworld have more to do than to try to return to this one to murder people. I have investigated several similar matters…there is always a human agency at work.”
However, one can’t help but wonder if, just occasionally, Sister Fidelma also hears voices from the Otherworld – in this case, the bit of the Otherworld that is situated in 221b Baker Street…
“My theory is that when you subtract the impossible, you will find your answers in the possible.”
When Sister Fidelma visits Sister Scathach in her cell and hears her own story of the mysterious voices, she is even more convinced that this is a very human murder, and sets out to find the culprit and the motive…
* * * * *
Given the short length of this story, it’s interesting, though not really a solvable mystery for the reader. Basically each interview that Fidelma holds leads her one step further towards the solution until she reaches the culprit. However, it’s well written and the historical setting intrigued me a lot. Given Tremayne’s credentials as a historian, one assumes his depiction is reasonably accurate, and this early Christian society seems very different to the later monasteries and abbeys we might be more used to in historical fiction. For example, there is no rule to prevent marriage between the male and female members of the abbey, so they are not quite as we imagine nuns and monks, which throws open the whole question of possible motives.
There isn’t really enough room here to develop too much sense of place or characterisation, but it gives enough of a flavour of Fidelma and her way of life to make me interested enough to try out one of the full length novels. A decent introduction to what looks like it might be an enjoyable, fairly cosy series.
World War 2 is underway and a military hospital has been set up at Heron’s Park in Kent. As the book begins, the local postman is taking a bundle of letters to the hospital from seven people confirming acceptance of positions they’ve been offered there. There’s Gervase Eden, doctor to the hypochondriacal rich and fatally attractive to women, feeling he must do his bit for the war effort. Jane Woods has always been a bit of a party girl but in a fit of conscience has signed up for nursing duty and is now wondering if she’s done the right thing. Esther Sanson sees nursing as an opportunity to escape from being a permanent companion to her needy mother. Mr Moon, an elderly surgeon, is glad of the chance to get away from his home, empty since the deaths of his wife and young son. Dr Barnes is the subject of local gossip about a patient who died under his care as an anaesthetist, so is also glad to get away. Frederica Linley just wants to avoid her father’s awful new wife. And Sister Bates lives in hope that she might meet some nice officers…
These seven people will become the chief suspects when a patient at the hospital dies unexpectedly on the operating table. At first, it’s assumed the death was no more than an unusual reaction to the anaesthetic, but when Inspector Cockrill is called in to confirm this, he learns a couple of things that lead him to suspect the death may have been murder. But before he can find out who did it, he first has to work out how it was done…
This has everything you would hope for from a true Golden Age mystery, and is exceptionally well written to boot. Brand introduces the characters straight away, and sets up the plot so that only these seven people could have had the opportunity to commit the crime. Her initial sketches of them already suggest possible motives even before we know who the victim will be, and she develops them more deeply as the book progresses so that, in a Christie-esque way, we are led to care more about some of them than others, enabling her to build up a lot of tension as they come under suspicion or even into danger. Because of course there’s going to be a second murder! And when it comes it’s brilliantly written – goose-bump stuff!
The plot is beautifully complex, as is the murder method – both murder methods, in fact. It turns out that almost everyone could have had a motive for doing away with the first victim, Higgins, an air-raid warden who’s been hurt in a bombing. The motive for the second victim is clearer – if one decides to reveal to all and sundry that one knows who the murderer is and intends to tell the police, well, frankly, it’s almost one’s own fault when one is discovered in a deceased condition not long thereafter…
Life in this military hospital during the Blitz feels totally authentic, with that rather stiff upper lip attitude that I believe the Brits genuinely had back then. So despite the war and the constant danger from air-raids, life very much goes on, with people falling in and out of love, making friends and enemies, coping with rationing and shortages and, importantly, keeping a sense of humour, which helps to keep the novel entertaining while not avoiding darker subjects.
Cockrill is also an old-fashioned detective. There’s no overbearing boss, departmental politics or whining about paperwork – he concentrates on solving the crime and does so by skilful questioning and clue-gathering. He’s can be a bit rude and has no hesitation in playing on the nerves of his suspects to try to frighten the murderer into mistakes. He’s also a bit of a sexist piglet, but then that’s another Golden Age tradition. But he’s dedicated to getting at the truth and, though he might take the odd risk, he’s willing to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions.
All the clues are there, meaning the novel is “fair-play”, but for most of it I remained nicely baffled, only getting there towards the end, and even then there were enough red herrings floating around that I still wasn’t sure I’d got it right. If I had a complaint, it’s that there a bit of a hiatus towards the end, when Cockrill decides to do nothing for a bit to try to allow nerves to work on the murderer. While his plan works, it does mean that the story slows down a lot at this point. But it quickly builds up again towards a nicely dramatic and complex climax, with enough moral ambiguity to make it satisfying. And Brand doesn’t forget to clear up all the side plots she has used as distractions along the way, as well as letting us know how things work out for the remaining characters.
Not all Golden Age novels glitter, but this one does – highly recommended.
In the far distant future, Earth has become vastly overcrowded and the strain on resources has forced humanity into living cheek by jowl in massive closed in cities – the caves of steel of the title. They no longer ever venture into the outside world, having basic robots to do any outside work that’s needed. Living accommodation is small – meals are taken in huge communal kitchens and bathing and toileting facilities are all contained in the Personals, again communal and with strict social rules to preserve some semblance of privacy. The Outer Worlds are inhabited by Spacers, the descendants of people from Earth who colonised some of the planets thousands of years earlier. Spacer worlds are the opposite of Earth – underpopulated and disease free. Spacers no longer allow immigration from Earth, guarding the comparative luxury of their lives, along with their health. Naturally, they are resented by the people of Earth.
Spacers have developed much more advanced robots and, with the agreement of the government of Earth, are introducing them into Earth society. The robots are hated since people see them as a threat to their jobs, and loss of a job can mean loss of the few privileges that people can still have – their own washbasin, the right to an occasional meal in their own home. So when a Spacer robotocist is murdered, it seems obvious the culprit will be an Earth person. Elijah Bailey, C-Class Detective is called in to investigate and, to his horror, is partnered with a Spacer robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, so advanced that he can easily pass as human.
Now, for you non-sci-fi-fans out there – yes, it’s sci-fi… but it’s also a great murder mystery. Proper crime with all different kinds of motivations at work, clues, detection, departmental politics, the works! Asimov wrote it after someone challenged him by saying sci-fi and mystery were incompatible genres. Asimov’s own view was that sci-fi can incorporate any literary genre (I agree), and this is his proof. Lije Bailey and R. (for Robot) Daneel Olivaw are one of the great classic detective duos, and this is your opportunity to sample sci-fi without ever having to leave Earth!
Along with the mystery Asimov creates a fairly chilling view of a possible future if Earth’s population continues to increase. It’s fairly easy 60 years on to pick holes in some of the things he foresaw, and didn’t, and personally, doing that is one of the great pleasures for me. I love that he could create something as sophisticated as the positronic brain – still being used by sci-fi writers as the basis for robots and androids today – but didn’t think of the mobile phone, so that poor Lije has to go out to phone boxes in the middle of the night. I love that he claimed that women still stuck to traditional clasps on their purses rather than adopting new-style magnetic catches. (We finally made it, Mr Asimov! We advanced that far!) I love that he came up with a kind of method for information retrieval that sounds not unlike the old punch-card system, but couldn’t take the extra leap that would have led him to computers. I love that people happily use all kinds of nuclear devices, cheerfully spraying radiation around as they go. He almost comes up with an e-reader… but not quite…
But the basic idea of an over-populated world where every human activity is carefully regimented and controlled to make best use of dwindling resources is very well done, and the resentment of humans over machines taking over their jobs has proved to be pretty prophetic. The Medievalists who look nostalgically back to a time not unlike the 1950s have more than a little in common with our more fundamentalist back-to-the-earth green groups of today.
One of the other things I love about the Elijah Bailey books is that, although the world is thousands of years older, all the people are stuck in a ’50s time-warp. Gee, gosh, the language is simply tremendous! Lije’s favourite exclamation is “Jehoshaphat!” – I always find myself using it for weeks after I’ve read one of the books. The women stay at home, try to look pretty for their husbands, and bring up the children, which is all their limited brains and talents are really fit for, while the men go off and do manly things, like science and running about the streets with blasters and such like. So you not only get a look at how Asimov saw the possible future, but you get a real picture of ’50s American attitudes thrown in for free.
The plot is great and totally fair-play. Lije’s detection methods are a bit on the slapdash side, I admit – basically, he decides whodunit, accuses them, is proved wrong, and then decides it was actually someone else… and so on. But each accusation adds something, both to his future guesswork, and to the reader’s understanding of the society he’s operating in. And Jehoshaphat! When the solution finally comes, it’s a good one!
Golly gee, I hope you read this book. It may be a bit dated, but it’s still loads of fun and with plenty of interest to either sci-fi or mystery fans. Jeepers, you’ll be sorry if you don’t…
(Now, I know that Data was inspired by R Daneel Olivaw, but d’you think Neelix might have been inspired by Asimov’s sideburns…?)
Murderers, maniacs and things that go bump in the night…
😀 😀 😀 🙂
Another in the British Library Crime Classics series, this is the third anthology of short stories edited by Martin Edwards, following Capital Crimes, stories set in London, and Resorting to Murder, stories with a holiday theme. This one, as the title makes obvious, is full of stories set in the traditional country house, so beloved of murderers that one can’t help but wonder why all the owners didn’t sell up and move into a nice little cottage somewhere. Though no doubt the twisted crime writers of the time would have tracked them down even there…
As Edwards says in his introduction, the country house is an ideal setting for the ‘closed circle’ type of mystery, where the suspects are defined by their presence in the house. It’s from this that the old cliché of “the butler did it” arises, though in fact this rarely was the solution. (In one of these stories, though, the butler did indeed do it, but I’m not telling which one…)
Several of the stories come from the Golden Age between the two wars, but there are also earlier and later ones. Many of the authors who appeared in the previous collections turn up again here and, as usual, they range from household names to the pretty much forgotten. One thing I’ve found, as I’ve read more of these short stories and some of the novels the British Library has revived, is that there’s a good reason for why some authors have remained popular while others have faded from the public consciousness. While the anthologies are interesting for seeing how the genre developed over time, there’s no doubt that the quality of the stories is variable, and with a few exceptions the better ones are from the authors whose names are still more familiar.
Although all of the stories contain a crime, some of them are really more horror than detective and, in fact, I tended to enjoy these more. Overall, I found this collection a little less enjoyable than the other two, though whether that’s because the average quality is lower or just that I’ve surfeited on vintage crime for the moment, I’m not sure. However, as always, there are enough good stories to make the collection well worth reading. Here are some of the ones I liked best…
The Copper Beeches by Arthur Conan Doyle – the story of a young woman hired to look after a child, but with mysterious conditions attached. She must cut off her luxurious hair, wear a certain colour of dress and sit in the window for hours at a time. Then one day she finds a hank of hair in a drawer – hair that looks very like her own. And why is the door to one wing of the house always kept locked…?
The Mystery of Horne’s Copse by Anthony Berkeley – the more I read of Anthony Berkeley, the more I like him. This is a goodie that I used for a Tuesday ‘Tec post.
An Unlocked Window by Ethel White – again more of a horror story, about two nurses looking after a patient in an isolated house while a maniac murderer is on the loose. This one was adapted as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents… series. Check your windows before you go to bed…
The Horror at Staveley Grange by Sapper – a man dies inexplicably in his bedroom, and a few months later his son comes to the same fate in the same room. Now the remaining son is suspected of murder, but can amateur detective Ronald Standish discover the truth? There is proper detection in this but there are also some really quite shivery spooky bits…
The Well by WW Jacobs – a brilliant horror story from the man who gave the world nightmares with The Monkey’s Paw. I used this story for a Tuesday Terror! post.
Weekend at Wapentake by Michael Gilbert – the last story in the collection and a good one to end on. When an old woman dies, a lawyer’s clerk becomes suspicious. He suspects he knows who killed her but has to find out why. And puts his own life in danger in the attempt. A nice, thrilling ending to this one to round the book off.
* * * * *
So, murderers, maniacs and things that go bump in the night! Despite the inclusion of a few that I felt were really pretty poor, most are at least good and some are excellent. And, as always, they give a chance to sample some authors who really deserve wider recognition than they have. I’m not sure reading all of these anthologies so close together does them proper justice, but I do recommend them individually, depending on what setting you prefer to satisfy your murderous impulses…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
The last time I reviewed an Anthony Berkeley short story, I wasn’t overly impressed. So, since I loved the one Martin Edwards has included in the latest of the British Library classic crime collections, Murder at the Manor, it seems only fair to redress the balance. Edwards tells us that Berkeley was praised by Agatha Christie, amongst others, for the intricacy of his plotting, and this story is a great example of that. So here goes for this week’s…
The Mystery of Horne’s Copse
by Anthony Berkeley
It is over two years ago now and I can begin to look at it in its proper perspective; but even still my mind retains some echo of the incredulity, the horror, the dreadful doubts as to my own sanity and the sheer, cold-sweating terror which followed that ill-omened 29th of May.
Hugh Chappell , our narrator, has been visiting the family of his new fiancée, Sylvia Rigby. During the evening, they discuss Hugh’s cousin, Frank, currently on holiday in Europe with his wife. Frank and Hugh have had a difficult relationship – Frank is next in line to Hugh’s estate, should Hugh die childless, and he’s also a bit of a bad lot, though he seems to have settled down a little since he married.
Later, when Hugh prepares to take his leave, he discovers his car has broken down so he decides to walk home, taking a shortcut through Horne’s Copse. It is a dark night but although Hugh can’t see the path, he knows the copse so well he has no fear of missing his way. But halfway through, his foot strikes against an obstacle lying across the path, causing him to stumble.
I struck a match and looked at it. I do not think I am a particularly nervous man, but I felt a creeping sensation in the back of my scalp as I stood staring down by the steady light of the match. The thing was a body – the body of a man; and it hardly took the ominous black hole in the centre of his forehead, its edges spangled with red dew, to tell me that he was very dead indeed.
Worse is to come! Peering closer, Hugh recognises the body as that of his cousin Frank. But that can’t be – Hugh received a postcard from him from Italy only that day. Rushing home, Hugh contacts the police and returns with them to the copse. But the body has gone along with all trace of it ever having existed! The police think Hugh’s hoaxing them, but Hugh’s doctor, who knows Hugh suffered from shell-shock during the war, fears he might have had a hallucination.
No more comes to light and gradually the matter fades into the background. Until some weeks later, Hugh’s car again has a problem, and he again walks through the copse at night. And again, at the very same place, he stumbles over a body – Frank! This time stabbed in the chest. Checking that he is definitely dead, Hugh rushes home, phones the police and his doctor, and then hurries back to the copse. But again, the corpse is gone!
By now, even Hugh is beginning to doubt his own sanity, so he and Sylvia take a long holiday. On their return, Hugh hopes his nerves will have stopped playing tricks on him. But the very next time he walks through the copse, he again comes across Frank’s dead body!
This time I stayed to make no examination. In utter panic I took to my heels and ran. Whither, or with what idea, I had no notion. My one feeling was to get away from the place and as soon and as quickly as possible.
Without really being aware of what he’s doing, Hugh gets on a train to London. When he gets there, the newsboys are calling out about a body found in the woods. This time, the corpse was found, and it is indeed Frank. The police suspect the whole thing is a ruse of Hugh’s to murder Frank and get off with a plea of insanity, while his doctor isn’t altogether convinced that he’s not insane. But fortunately, Hugh meets an old school-friend, amateur ‘tec Roger Sheringham, who is convinced that Hugh is the victim of a plot…
* * * * *
This is a great story. Originally published as a serial, it’s split into short chapters each with a cliffhanger ending, and is very well-written. The mysterious reappearance of the corpse gives the whole thing a rather creepy, chilling feel, especially when Hugh begins to doubt his own sanity. I did work out part of the plot, but it’s more complex than it looks at first sight, with a nice twist before the end. Reasonably fair play though, I feel. The characterisation of both Hugh and Sylvia is excellent, with Sylvia in particular a likeable and intelligent character, reminiscent in some ways of Agatha Christie’s Tuppence Beresford. Sheringham, whom I didn’t much like as a detective in the last story I read, is much less annoying in this one, and also takes a bit of a back seat, letting Hugh and Sylvia do the bulk of the legwork. It’s not simply about who murdered Frank – the real mystery is how and why the corpse kept reappearing…
Unfortunately, I can’t find an online version to link to, but Murder at the Manor is out now in paper format and for Kindle. I’ll be reviewing the full collection shortly, and this story will definitely be featuring as one of the highlights.
…and how better to be jolly than by spending time with some of our favourite ‘tecs? Not that you’d really expect grumpy old Morse to be the life and soul of the Christmas party, admittedly, but I wouldn’t mind “accidentally” bumping into Lewis under the mistletoe…
Morse’s Greatest Mystery by Colin Dexter
It’s Christmastime in Oxford and Morse intends to spend it decorating, not the tree, but his kitchen.
“You sound more like Scrooge every minute, sir.”
“And I shall read a Dickens novel. I always do over Christmas. Re-read, rather.”
(Suddenly I’m thinking maybe I should check for Morsy under that mistletoe too…)
But before they break for the holiday, the mismatched pair have one more case to solve. Luckily for Morse, the crime took place in a pub, and it just so happens that they’ll arrive there at opening time…
…and it was Lewis’s job that day to ferry the chief inspector around; doubtless, too (if things went to form), to treat him to the odd pint or two.
The day before, the pub landlady had gone to the bank to get £400 in nice crisp new notes – the sum the pub’s patrons had raised to give to Littlemore, a local children’s home. But when she got back to the pub, the phone was ringing. Leaving her bag on the bar, she rushed to answer it and on her return discovered the money had been taken.
At the time of theft, there had been about thirty people in the saloon bar, including the regular OAPs, the usual cohort of pool-playing unemployables, and a pre-Christmas party from a local firm. And – yes! – from the very beginning Lewis had known that the chances of recovering the money were virtually nil.
Oh Lewis! You should have more faith! With a bit of dexterous questioning (hope you enjoyed that pun), Morse learns all he needs to know…
1. The pub landlord was late in getting back from the Cash and Carry.
2. The temporary barman is reluctant to discuss the state of his bank balance.
He now asked – amazingly! – whether by any chance the good lady [the pub landlady] possessed a pair of bright green, high-heeled leather shoes; and when she replied that, yes, she did, Morse smiled serenely, as though he had solved the secret of the universe…
You now have all the information that Morse had – I hope you’ve solved the case!
To Lewis’s amazement, Morse summons together staff and regulars, announces that he knows whodunit and where the money is now. And astonishingly, he goes on to tell them…
The thief might well have been tempted to spend the money earlier – but not any more! And why not? Because at this Christmas time that person no longer had the power to resist his better self.
Morse tells them that he expects the money to be handed in to the police station marked for Lewis’s attention by the following morning.
And so it was… leaving Morse satisfied and Lewis baffled. Which are you?
* * * * * * *
This is a lovely little story, just right for the Christmas season. It’s only a few pages long, but plenty of time for some humour, a baffling mystery, a couple of nice red herrings, a bit of traditional Morse/Lewis repartee and a smile-inducing solution. Yes, I guessed it just before the end, but that didn’t spoil any of the fun. And any story that references Dickens and Scrooge gets my vote as being full of Christmas spirit!
And it seems that even Morse might have been infected by goodwill too…
And he smiled, for he knew that this would be a Christmas he might enjoy almost as much as the children up at Littlemore, perhaps. He had solved so many mysteries in his life. Was he now, he wondered, beginning to glimpse the solution to the greatest mystery of them all?
* * * * * * *
Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
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No link this week since it’s still in copyright, but I read it in this great (and currently ridiculously cheap on Kindle – it’s in the sale) collection of 60 Christmas crime stories by just about everyone you’ve ever heard of…
Although loads of classic out of copyright stories are available around the internet, I still struggle from time to time to find one for this little section, since general searches tend to bring up the best known stories again and again, leaving the more forgotten ones to remain in obscurity. So over the last few months I’ve found myself turning often to the Megapacks series published for Kindle by Wildlife Press. Each one costs pennies and contains a real mix of stories, and they do horror, crime and sci-fi packs.
Today’s story comes from The Detective Megapack, which has 30 stories, most of them old but with a few recent ones thrown in, including one that is original to this collection. Of course, the quality of the stories is always very mixed, with lots of them showing exactly why they’ve been forgotten, but there are always some goodies in them too. This one, which cost 59p ($0.89) has two Dashiell Hammett stories, Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, Sherlock Holmes in The Five Orange Pips, and a story from R Austin Freeman, to go along with the many other authors I’ve never heard of. The packs do tend to have some typos, but considering the cost I think they’re great value and a fun way to be guided towards some stories that are a bit off the beaten track.
So I’ve randomly picked one of the authors I haven’t come across before (though I feel I should have) for this week’s…
The Taggart Assignment by Vincent Starrett
Our narrator “Gilly” Gilruth has turned up at the rooms of his friend, private detective Jimmie Lavender, to discover a client there telling her tale of woe. A week before she is due to marry, Miss Dale Valentine’s betrothed has gone mysteriously missing. Rupert Parris had phoned Miss Valentine on the previous Sunday evening to say he would arrive at her house in an hour and that was the last that had been heard of him. The enterprising Miss Valentine had managed to trace the call…
“Admirable!” my friend exclaimed. “The most sensible thing you could have done. Where did it come from?”
“That is strange too, and I can’t quite believe it. Perhaps the operator made a mistake and traced the wrong call; but I was told that it had come from the office of the Morning Beacon!”
Sending the young lady off with a reassuring promise to keep the affair confidential, Lavender wonders aloud if the obvious answer can be the correct one…
“A fine girl,” said my friend at length. “If this Parris has jilted her and run away for any reason, I’ll – well, I’ll make him regret it, Gilly, if he’s living!”
Now stand by for a Big Coincidence, for at that very moment our narrator remembers a letter, addressed to Lavender, which the postman had handed him on his way in. And the letter is from the office of the Morning Beacon! It transpires that the proprietor of the paper wishes to consult Lavender about an employee of his, a Mr Moss Lennard, who has been missing since Sunday evening! Lavender (like the reader) is quickly convinced the two disappearances must be linked. Poor old Gilly is struggling to cope though…
Lavender looked questioningly at me, and I looked back at him without a glimmer of light in my brain.
“Muddle is right!”, I said at length. “You guessed it, Jimmie!”
The muddle becomes even muddlier when the drowned corpse of poor Moss Lennard is fished out of a lake the following day – dead since Sunday. There are no obvious signs of violence but Lavender is convinced that Lennard had been blackmailing Parris and Parris has done away with him. But is he right? And if he is, how will he prove it? And where is Parris now??
“221b” by Vincent Starrett
* * * * *
This is quite a fun little mystery, owing a huge debt to the Holmes and Watson stories. In fact, Vincent Starrett was apparently well known as a Sherlockian and writer of Holmes pastiches in his day, and apart from name changes and the fact that this is set in America, this could easily be another. I’m not convinced it’s fair-play since the final clue comes from the discovery of a book called The Montreville Mystery, of which I can find no trace. If it existed and was well-known at the time this story was written (1922) then yes, anyone who had read it could probably have solved the mystery. But if, as I suspect, it is a made up title then I fear the greatest brain would be baffled. Except Lavender’s of course. Or anyone’s who had read the particular Holmes story which I suspect is the actual source for the plot – I won’t name the story since that would give the game away to all Holmes’ fans immediately.
However despite the familiarity of aspects of the plot and the mild feeling of cheating in the solution, this is well-written and enjoyable – light, very readable and held my attention throughout. I’d cheerfully read more of Lavender and Gilly’s adventures, and do recommend these Megapacks as a great starting point for finding introduction to “new” old authors.
The first story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published, A Study in Scarlet introduces us to his two most famous creations, Sherlock Holmes and Dr John H Watson. So it’s a must for this week’s…
A Study in Scarlet
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Returning to London after being wounded in the war in Afghanistan, Watson soon finds that living in hotels is stretching his army pension to breaking point, so when he hears through a friend of a man who is looking for someone to share a set of rooms, he jumps at the chance. Holmes has some rather strange habits, like beating corpses with sticks to see if they bruise, for example, but otherwise he seems like a decent enough fellow. Watson notices that he has a steady stream of rather odd callers – everyone from police inspectors to pedlars. Out of politeness, Watson doesn’t ask what his new friend’s line of business is, though he wonders. One day, Watson reads an article that Holmes has marked in the newspaper – an article on the Science of Deduction and Analysis in which the writer claims that it is possible to tell a man’s profession from observation alone…
By a man’s finger nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt cuffs – by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent enquirer in any case is almost inconceivable.
Watson scoffs at the article, with one of those turns of phrase that delight all of us who love him – “What ineffable twaddle!” he cries, only to be stunned when Holmes reveals himself as the author. But he’s even more stunned when a few minutes later Holmes proves that he can indeed tell the occupation of a man who arrives to deliver a message, from Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard. Now Watson learns that Holmes works as a “consulting detective” and Gregson wants his help with a strange and brutal case of murder. A man has been found dead in an empty house, in a blood-bespattered room, although there is no wound on his body. Holmes and Watson arrive at the scene, and Watson is shocked by what he sees…
On his rigid face there stood an expression of horror, and as it seemed to me, of hatred, such as I have never seen upon human features… I have seen death in many forms, but never has it appeared to me in a more fearsome aspect than in that dark, grimy apartment, which looked out upon one of the main arteries of suburban London.
And so, the game’s afoot…
* * * * * * *
Like all of the long stories other than The Hound of the Baskervilles, this one is divided into two parts – Holmes’ investigation of the crime narrated by Watson, and a section giving the background to the crime, told in this case in the third-person. The motive for this crime originated in the newly-founded Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City in the 1850s, and the Mormons are portrayed in a distinctly unattractive light, especially on the questions of polygamy and violent coercion of anyone who strayed from the rules of the religion; so over the years the book has apparently been considered offensive in some quarters. The history of the Mormons is a subject about which I know nothing, so can’t make any judgements on the accuracy or otherwise of Conan Doyle’s depiction of them (though wikipedia tells me Conan Doyle himself admitted to a degree of exaggeration). But I can make judgements on the book’s enjoyability as a rollicking good story, and it passes with flying colours! Love, cruelty, murder and revenge – perfect!
There’s something about Conan Doyle’s writing that makes it perfect for the adventure yarn and if I could describe it accurately then everyone would be able to do it (and there wouldn’t be so many bad Holmes’ pastiches in the world). His language isn’t particularly poetic, but there’s an elegance in it and a strength, a lovely use of vocabulary, and a naturalness – it gives a sense of someone telling a story aloud around a fire on a dark night, as of course his stories often would have been. He has the ability to bring any scene to vivid life, whether it’s a blood-soaked room of horror, or the arid desert landscape crossed by the Mormons on the way to their new home…
Looking down from the Sierra Blanco, one sees a pathway traced out across the desert, which winds away and is lost in the extreme distance. It is rutted with wheels and trodden down by the feet of many adventurers. Here and there are scattered white objects that glisten in the sun, and stand out against the dull deposit of alkali. Approach, and examine them! They are bones: some large and coarse, others smaller and more delicate. The former have belonged to oxen, and the latter to men.
In this first Holmes story Conan Doyle establishes his two characters, and it’s surprising how little they change really over time. Watson’s character as the loyal friend and brave lieutenant to his brilliant colleague is exactly as he remains throughout the series. There are some things that don’t quite gel with the later Holmes – the idea that he reads detective fiction, for example, and his own description of himself as lazy, with almost Mycroftian tendencies to let the investigation come to him. But these are minor, and the passage about detective fiction is there to allow Conan Doyle to tip his hat to Poe’s Dupin – though with his usual modesty Holmes doesn’t think much of his predecessor…
“Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial.”
Ah, my dear Holmes! Those of us who have read all your adventures avidly again and again can’t help remembering that this is a trick you will play on poor Watson yourself in the future… but much more entertainingly than Dupin ever did!
A great story from a master storyteller, with added interest in seeing how the Holmes phenomenon began. One to read again and again and…
I don’t do fan mail but one of my bookish regrets is that I never made the effort to tell Reginald Hill how much pleasure he gave me over so many years. With current favourite authors, I think of my reviews as a form of fan mail, but Hill published what turned out to be his final book before I began reviewing. I joined the Dalziel and Pascoe series at probably around the eighth book, immediately read his entire back catalogue and from then on he was a ‘must read on publication day’ author – the first author who made it onto that exalted list. I enjoyed his standalones and am extremely fond of his Joe Sixsmith series, but it’s the Dalziel and Pascoe books I love most. So, time for him to make his overdue blog debut on this week’s…
The Last National Service Man
by Reginald Hill
Dalziel and Pascoe made their first appearance in 1970 in A Clubbable Woman, as a wonderfully mismatched pair of detectives working in the Mid-Yorkshire CID. Andy Dalziel is an old-school copper, a larger-than-life, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Yorkshireman, but with an implaccable drive for justice that he will take into his own hands if the system fails to punish the guilty. Peter Pascoe is a graduate entry officer, complete with classical education and left-liberal ideology. On the surface, Dalziel is a bully and Pascoe a softie but, underneath, each has a core of steel and a loyalty to each other that builds and deepens as the series goes on. Neither compromises, exactly, but they learn to respect each other and value their different strengths.
In 1996, Hill produced a collection of 4 novella-length stories, Asking for the Moon, one of which, The Last National Service Man, is the story of Dalziel and Pascoe’s first meeting. After nearly thirty years, the series’ fan-base was as well-established as the duo themselves, so Hill has a lot of fun taking us back to those early days but with the added twist that we know how the two develop in their future. I think this could be read and enjoyed by someone coming to it without having read any of the books, but it’s filled with lots of ‘in’ jokes and references which make it a special joy for fans, to whom Hill dedicated the book with his usual wit.
Dalziel has been away on a job in Wales and comes back to discover that a rookie graduate has been allocated to his team in his absence. He’s back to give evidence in court and coincidentally Pascoe is also at court to attend a different trial. Wieldy, the third member of the team and a major character in his own right in the later books, is there to pass a message to Dalziel. But first Dalziel and Pascoe, unbeknownst to the other, watch each other’s performance in court, and each is horrified by what he sees. Dalziel is up against a man being tried for rape of a prostitute…
“Nay, sir!” said Dalziel in all injured innocence. “Tha knows I’d never mention a man’s record in court, no matter how rotten it were. All I was going to say was, I said to myself, spotty little scrote like that, I bet he’d have to use force to get his own mother to kiss him goodnight!”
Appalled, young Pascoe hurries off to give his own evidence in the trial of two men charged with stealing a litter of piglets. The watching Dalziel is not a little stunned by the following exchange…
“As things stand” [said the lawyer] “it seems to me what we have here is a serious allegation of crime unsupported by any corpus delicti whatever.”
“Perhaps, Mr Harris,” said the magistrate who aspired to judicial wit, “we should say corpi as their were six or seven, or even eight, of them.”
“Indeed, sir. Corpi. Very good.”
“Corpora,” said Pascoe.
“I’m sorry?” said Harris, histrionically puzzled.
“The plural of corpus is corpora,” explained Pascoe.
With these two little sketches, Hill gives a beautifully witty summary of the differences between the two characters. And that’s the joy of his writing. I don’t think he ever tells us anything – he lets the characters tell us themselves. The story turns into a hostage situation when Dalziel and Pascoe are taken prisoner by a man with a grudge, but really it’s a device to put the two in a room together and let us see them getting to know each other. And, as they do, we see the wary beginnings of the respect that we know will eventually turn into an unlikely friendship over the years.
The quality of Hill’s writing is first-class – many of the later books read as much like literary fiction as crime. I hold him in part responsible for my pickiness about the standards of writing in crime fiction – he proved again and again that ‘genre’ fiction never needs to compromise on quality. Throughout his career he refused to jump on the book-a-year treadmill, which meant impatient waiting for his fans, but also ensured that his standards never dropped. I don’t ever remember reading one of his books and feeling let down by it – a remarkable achievement in such a long-running series. He loved to play games with words and structure, and with referencing some of the literary greats in his novels, but he could get away with it because he was skilled enough to play them well. And even at his most playful, he never forgot the need for great plots and consistent believable characterisation. He did darkness just as well as light, and some of his books are deeply emotionally harrowing. On Beulah Height is the book I always name when asked for my favourite crime novel, but actually I could pick several of the later books – he continued to develop and improve throughout his long career, never taking his fans for granted.