Edited by Martin Edwards, Capital Crimes: London Mysteries (British Crime Classics, 2015, £8.99), the sister volume of his excellent Serpents in Eden: Countryside Crimes, is a first-rate collection bound together by London. As with other Edwards’ volumes, it includes pieces by well-established authors as well as the lesser-known, and the organisation is essentially chronological. We begin with Doyle’s chillingly brilliant non-Holmes, “The Case of Lady Sannox”, with its portrayal of decadence, cruelty and mutilation. Martin Edwards usually provides good, or at least adequate, introductions to stories in these collections, but in this volume he is weak. A key element in this story is Doyle’s strong support for divorce; that should have been explained.
John Oxenham’s “A Mystery of the Underground” is an excellent account of a 1890s serial killer on the District Line, where I have only to think of delays. Some of the writing is arresting, for example the red stern light of a train disappearing “up the tunnel like a great clot of blood”. There is a successful use of the press for narrative and satirical purposes. Richard Marsh’s “The Finchley Puzzle” is slow, although interesting to note the pleasure of a maid not to have to share a bed with another. R. Austin Freeman’s “The Magic Casket” is only so-so, but Ernest Bramah’s “The Holloway Flat Tragedy” is a triumph of detection and surprise. J.S. Fletcher’s “The Magician of Cannon Street” is good on city crime, bringing in hypnotism, while Edgar Wallace’s “The Stealer of Marble” is impressive, and Robert Eustace and Edgar Jepson produce a brilliant solution to the impossible crime of “The Tea Leaf”. Thomas Burke’s “The Hands of Mr Ottermole” builds up atmosphere well, and captures the life and geography of the poor in his sequence of East End strangling murders — with a brilliant reveal and outcome.
H.C. Bailey’s “The Little House” is a reminder that modern writers scarcely have a monopoly on such grim topics as child abuse. The police emerge as foolish, and a lone figure understands the links with a drug-dealing network. Impressive. Hugh Walpole’s brilliantly sinister “The Silver Mask” shows the confident Sonia Herries, a wealthy middle-aged woman, taken over and destroyed by a plausible young man. Henry Wade’s “Wind in the East” is an excellent case of substitution, Anthony Berkeley’s “The Avenging Chance” the first version for what became his deservedly famous The Poisoned Chocolates Case; E.M. Delafield’s “They Don’t Wear Labels”, a sinister tale with an understated but deadly resolve, set in the world of boarding houses; while Margery Allingham’s “The Unseen Door” returns us to Berkeley’s clubland in an economical and effective solution to another impossible crime. The collection ends with two very different stories. Ethel Lina White’s “Cheese” deals with innocence under threat in a fairly clichéd account that captures an atmosphere of seediness, deviance and menace. There is some nice writing as in “all deeply dyed with the blue stain of dusk”, but we then move on to darkness as “a shield for crime”. Ouch. Anthony Gilbert’s “You Can’t Hang Twice” is more successful. The devious Mr Crook solves what becomes two murders in a fog-confined city where few are what they should be.
Like many detective novelists, Roy Fuller (1912-91) is known principally for other achievements, in his case the poetry, associated with the “Movement”, that led to his being Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1968 to 1973, and receiving a CBE in 1970. Fuller also produced novels, children’s verse, and autobiographical works, as well as a number of detective novels. The Second Curtain (Verschoyle, 1953; Penguin, 1962), draws on Fuller’s knowledge of the literary world, with some caustic remarks accordingly: “Reviewers become either liars or boors, and their work is valueless as well as being impermanent. Reviewing is a drug habit.” Or again: “Too much realism and it would cease to be the detective story.” The protagonist, Garner, a minor literary figure, who believes “that all good novels have to make us see beyond and beneath the ordinary events of life to make us see what forces people to behave as they do and to what their behaviour is leading”, finds himself in a murderous puzzle. It challenges the sense of order in human affairs, proclaims Professor Pedley, who dislikes Graham Greene because “Life simply isn’t like this”. Philip Clauson, a onetime poet of talent, whom Garner meets in his club, the dire Passengers, complains about “the stagnation of British life…. Every law that is passed is to stop you doing something: every novel, every poem that is published is more timorous, more expected, than the last”. The story takes its time to get going, but becomes truly menacing, as well as revealing a purpose that is both malign and potent. I was far more engaged by the end than earlier on.
David Walker (1907-68), was a journalist connected with British military intelligence. His books included Death at My Heels (1942) and Lunch with A Stranger (1957). Diamonds for Moscow (1953, Penguin 1956), published in America as Diamonds for Danger (1954), reflects his period in Lisbon, a major centre of wartime espionage, where Ian Fleming also spent time. Both Walker and Fleming wrote about illegal diamond movements, Walker addressing the smuggling of industrial diamonds to the Soviet Union as part of the Cold War. Rival networks of Communist smugglers play a role in a novel located throughout in Portugal and told from the perspective of a British diplomat. The tone is light and certainly not Le Carré or Deighton. Some of the writing is very good: “Although there were at least another three hours to darkness the horizon had begun to boast…. Fishermen were gathered in small and mainly silent groups, smoking at each other.” An interesting account of Portugal before modernisation, but not a story likely to grip most readers.
“I’ve been reading a grim murder story set in Tiverton. Paints an ugly picture of the town.”
“Well, the author must have lived there.”
“Her bio says Wales.”
“Well, she had the sense to leave.”
Exonians do not tend to applaud Tiverton, although it does not have the reputation for Scouser drug-dealing of Ilfracombe, or of grotty bed-and-breakfast dereliction of Paignton; only the tourists do not understand Devon. Tiverton also gets it in the neck in this novel: “…whatever the hell hick place he was in. With all the sheep and the sky, he found it hard to keep track.” At any rate, Snap by Belinda Bauer (Black Swan, 2018, £8.99), is certainly not rural-nostalgic, but very modern in its social settings and approach. It cannot be said that the novel is written with any pleasure of language. Indeed, Bauer does not appear to bother much with adjectives, adverbs or similes, and, at first, that really grated, as did an initial failure of the story to grip; but then the plot got going with great success, as possible links were sketched and probed. The protagonists are very well realised, and the novel ends as a compelling drama. A good plotsmith.
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