Murders for January
Jeremy Black recommends the best murder mysteries to read in the New Year
Murders in the past are somehow less troubling: the brutality of killing, the cruelty, the selfishness, all distanced. And so for this collection, which can be divided into three types of detective novel.
The Worm of Death (1961) described the time, and was indeed largely set in the author’s Greenwich [UK not Connecticut] house. I read a 1980 paperback edition, and that might have struck those alive in 1961 as already pretty dated, notably with the lesser activity of the Port of London and Thameside industries, and the impact of Clean Air legislation. There is a sense of distance from conventional detection fiction, which is satirised in terms of a West End play in which a young man sets out to supplant an elderly husband in his wife’s affections: “A hand comes out from a secret panel while the husband’s back is turned, shakes a powder into the young man’s glass. He dies, down-stage right. The husband is suspected. But the poisoner turns out to be their faithful old housekeeper, whose daughter has been seduced by the young man”.
Indeed, but, ironically, Blake, the Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, himself employs the very hackneyed bad-blood/chip-on-shoulder theme beloved of Agatha Christie. One very unChristie like passage, however, relates to Nelly, the former prostitute who also takes in lodgers:
“…they’re nice boys, most of them – don’t give any trouble – particularly the spades.” “I’m glad you don’t have a colour-ban.”
“Not me.” She chuckled comfortably.
“Nelly the Ever-Open Door – that’s me. We’re all the same underneath the skin, I always say.”
Race plays a far more central role in Darktown (2016), Thomas Mullen’s well-written and gripping account of Atlanta in 1948. At one level, this novel is somewhat predictable: a vicious white policeman is a principal baddie while the first generation of black policemen are virtuous as well as very badly treated by a thoroughly unpleasant system. In other respects, it is an excellent combination, of social history and detective novel, that keeps the pages turning.
The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939) started badly for me because I am not interested in football, but a quick killing and we are into a fast-paced story with a setting a world away from country houses. There are pockets of poor writing and some clichés, as with “eyes a bit too close together”, and the bad background theme, but the idea, as part of a general “psychological” reasoning of proceeding through trying to alter the state of mind of the murderer is well-worked through. The “strange spiritual strength” of the detective comes into play. There is also a comment on mainstream writing: “Book-writers to the contrary, I don’t think there’s anything subtle in poisoning a man.” Leonard Gribble (1908-85) the author, a founder-member of the Crime Writers’ Association, is scarcely a household name, and the series is to be congratulated on bringing him forward.
So also with Mary Theresa Coolcan (1927-2017), who wrote as Mary Kelly, bringing out her last novel in 1974. She wrote two types of novels, a series featuring a detective, Brett Nightingale, which includes The Christmas Egg (1958), and then one-offs-stand-alone novels including The Spoilt Kill (1961). She wrote with clarity and offered effective novels with very different plots. The Christmas Egg reminds me of Ian Fleming’s Moonraker (1955), in also being fast-paced and moving between London and Kent with car chases being important. The world wars hang over the characters and cityscape of The Christmas Egg. The context plays a role in many respects, as in “Since the
N.H.S. started Ivan’s propped up the wall once a week without fail. Drops for his nose and flannels for his chest and a few gallons a year of coloured water.” The writing is generally good and can certainly grab: “One of the three was buying the round which had fallen due to him; a small man with a face like a battered nut, in which blue eyes glittered like chips of glass.”
Set in the Potteries, The Spoilt Kill provides lots of details on production and marketing, and also captures the changes arising from the shift from coal and the Industrial Revolution:
Town halls, valiant parks, grim black churches, isolated and rearing, heaps of eroded slag, micaceous rocks and new colleges, factories, offices, thrusting sheer above surrounding waves of low slate roofs that dipped and sagged with age. Progress and consciousness were gradually but ineluctably sponging down the past. An improvement, of course; but it was impossible not to murmur occasionally, from the deep forgetful rosy well of sentiment, a sad farewell to the old bottle ovens and the soot.
The writing is good and the characterisation impressive, not least the emotional and sexual tensions of the protagonists. There is an ability to write about men that reminds me of the Fleming counterpoint in the Spy Who Loved Me (1962).
The solution to the killing is not difficult to work out, as Kelly plays fair with the readers, but, at the end, it comes second to the denouement of the relationship, leaving both narrator and reader with a bleakness more profound than any crime. A superb novel that so happens also to be a murder story, one, moreover, with two peaks of suspense as the identity of the corpse is for long cleverly kept unknown by the working through of the story.
As ever with the Martin Edwards’ collections in the British Library Crime Classics, the short story collection, The Measure of Malice: Scientific Detection Stories, is first rate. It brings to the fore the role of science in both cause and solution of crime. Moreover, the range of those familiar at first hand emerges clearly. Of the 14 writers, five were doctors, two engineers, and J.J. Conington a professional author of Recent Advances in Inorganic Chemistry. The book begins with Doyle and includes such familiar heavyweights as R. Austin Freeman, Dorothy L. Sayers, John Rhode, Edmund Crispin and Freeman Wills Croft, but there are others who are less familiar.
“Why does fate play such tricks with poor helpless worms?” asks Holmes in ‘The Boscombe Valley Murder’ and much of the collection relates both to this and to those trying to change the playing field by crime. ‘The Horror of Studley Grange’ by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace is somewhat predictable, with an amusing aside about those who are scholars and of sedentary habits.
L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace’s ‘The Man Who Disappeared’ is clever on how to dispose of a body
C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne’s ‘The Tragedy of a Third Smoker’ offers a useful but unexpected warning for those prone to quarrel on tube trains. L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace’s ‘The Man Who Disappeared’ is clever on how to dispense with the body. Anthony Wynne’s ‘The Cyprian Bees’ is pleasantly successful in the assemblage of clues and the hardness of London lives. R. Austin Freeman’s ‘The Contents of a Mare’s Nest’ includes the phrase “a tobacco heart,” J.J. Connington’s ‘After Death the Doctor’ includes a cyanide trail, H.C. Bailey’s marvellous ‘The Broken Toad’ refers to the conversion of houses “by the forces of progress into modern ugliness as blocks of flats offering modern comfort to those who do without babies,” and Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘In the Teeth of the Evidence’ deploys knowledge of dental innovation. Ernest Dudley’s ‘The Case of the Chemist in the Cupboard’ is an unusual dud, while John Rhode’s ‘The Purple Line’ provides the evidence from a barograph.
Ironically, as Edwards will know, it can also be observed that in an age in which scientific change defined and redefined experience, it is the continuities not only of context and motive but also of method that is readily apparent. Nevertheless, the telephone, car and internet have all had major play in plotting. Yet again, Edwards and the Crime Classics deliver. One of the few salves of lockdowns has been having even more time to relax in their hands.
- The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, Leonard Gribble (1939). British Library Crime Classic (2018), £8.99.
- The Christmas Egg, Mary Kelly (1958). British Library Crime Classics (2019), £8.99.
- The Worm of Death, Nicholas Blake (1961). Hamlyn (1980)
- The Spoilt Kill. A Staffordshire Mystery, Mary Kelly (1961). British Library Crime Classics (2020), £8.99.
- Darktown, Thomas Mullen (2016). LittleBrown, £8.99.
- The Measure of Malice: Scientific Detection Stories, edited by Martin Edwards (2019). British Library Crime Classics, £8.99.
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