Murders for early November
As the days quicken and the shadows lengthen, our thoughts turn naturally to murder
With nights drawing in and the dark corners of our minds and houses growing deeper, the season provides both opportunity and reason to think of murder, and there is a fine crop of recent books to whet the appetite for puzzle or frisson.
Rupert Latimer’s Murder after Christmas (1944, British Crime Classics, 2021, £8.99) is a reminder of the variety of the genre at all times. The war brought both the bleakness captured by some writers already reviewed in this series, including E.C.R. Lorac’s discussion of corruption but also, as in this case, with a more whimsical tone. Set in Christmas 1940, but a 1940 in which the snow is a more serious issue than the bombers, this novel follows the trajectory of the pre-war country-house novel, as the detective recognises:
“It jarred on Culley that this case should have all the ingredients of a detective story. Beginning with the snowman, where the body should have been hidden but wasn’t. Going on to the long-lost heir, who wasn’t one. The sinister and scandalous autobiography, which was neither sinister nor scandalous, but just drivelling and incoherent, apparently. The footprints that had nothing to do with the murder. And all the poisoned food, which not only wasn’t poisoned but he hadn’t even eaten any of it.
“And now a missing will and a couple of murderers with motives after Christmas.”
A gentle read for a winter’s evening
In keeping with that tradition, there is an extended family, a complex inheritance, the timing of deaths and a cast that includes a bishop with a dubious past and a splenetic ex-military Chief Constable. A gentle read for a winter’s evening.
Murder by the Book: Mysteries for Bibliophiles (British Crime Classics, 2021, £9.99) has a somewhat disappointing introduction by Martin Edwards, which certainly does not capture its range, leaving out many, many important works including The Name of the Rose. Nevertheless, the short stories make for an arresting variety. The Coles’ “A Lesson in Crime” (1933) is not really a puzzle but reads well. E.C. Bentley’s “Trent and the Ministering Angel” (1938) is a good, short hidden will case. Nicholas Blake’s “A Slice of Bad Luck” (1939), is light but all right. S.C. Roberts’ “The Strange Case of the Megatherium Thefts” (1945) brings Sherlock Holmes to bear on thefts from the Athenaeum. Philip MacDonald’s “Malice Domestic” (1946) is an effective case of a murderer getting away with it in California. A.A. Milne’s “A Savage Game” (1950) looks back to the past, with Colonel Saxe, the Chief Constable, being asked “Can’t I have a plan of the room, with X marks the spot?”, but it works very well. And so on with eleven more, including Symons, Mitchell, Innes, Brand, Crispin and Marsh. I liked the stories, but it might have been better to focus the collection more, for example on libraries.
Tony Medawar’s Bodies from the Library III (Collins Crime Club, 2020, £14.99) follows the earlier volumes in this series in providing an excellent choice, although the selection has nothing to do with libraries and there is no common theme. The introduction is perfunctory in the extreme, but the collection includes uncollected stories by Ngaio Marsh and John Dickson Carr, the latter a Henri Bencolin novella first published in The Haverfordian and later used for It Walks by Night. The Marsh, “A Knotty Problem”, was a play first broadcast in 1967 as part of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation’s Television Workshop season; this is its first publication. Six of the selection were from the Sunday Dispatch in 1938, which required each of the writers to write a short story around the following plot: “One night a man picked up an orange in the street. This saved his life.” The results are arrestingly different.
His pornographic interests did not feature
Others in the collection include works by Christie, Sprigg and Bell. Joseph Commings had an interesting career as a crime writer as his oeuvre included other works such as Swinging Wives (1971). His pornographic interests did not feature in “The Scarecrow Murders” (1948), which is a very well-realised puzzle set in rural New York State, featuring a claustrophobic household assailed by a mysterious peril with the solution offered by a charismatic Senator. Very differently, Christopher Bush’s “The Hampstead Murder” (1955) offers claustrophobia of the mind. Dorothy Sayers’ “The House of the Poplars” is a previously unpublished manuscript about a wildly improbable murder arrangement that serves to get into the head of the protagonist. Cyril Hare’s “The Murder at Warbeck Hall”, a 1948 BBC radio play hitherto unpublished, was the basis of his An English Murder (1951); it is interesting to see the original. Anthony Berkeley’s “Hot Steel”, published in the Gloucester Citizen in 1943, was written to raise awareness of the danger of loose talk in wartime. Lynn Broch’s “Some Little Things” is a Colonel Gore story published in the Radio Times in 1928 and is an effective account of an improbable crime. Medawar has done a very good job of retrieving stories from obscure sources. Not all of them are in the first league, but all deserve attention.
The Dark Remains by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin (Canongate, 2021, £20) is the Rankin completion of a half-written manuscript by McIlvanney that covers the first case of his series protagonist, Jack Laidlaw. Glasgow, the setting, is the star of this novel, which conforms to the hard boiled riff of these two talented writers. Glasgow itself is changing but with few illusions:
“Wiping condensation from the bus window, he looked out at a sky belched from the chimneys of the crumbling tenements, the same smoke that clung to the various civic buildings, once grandly Victorian but now in danger of being swamped by modernity. Old habits were being demolished, shiny towering replacements planned, a motorway carving its way through the city. Forget the old certitudes; they would soon be crushed underfoot like a fag end beneath a platform-soled shoe… he’d be sure still to find poverty, loveless marriages, drunken aggression, sectarian bile, like angry tattoos hidden under a laundered shirt… Not so much a city as a hangover.”
Alongside police rivalries, there are the more exciting ones between criminal gangs, and the authors make a very good fist of outlining the context, mores, characters and events of such gangs. The book takes you in rapidly, as reasons for a murder surge, and its consequences do not so much ripple out as smash you in the face.
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