Murders for late February
From countryside crimes to mysteries on the waves, Jeremy Black recommends further reading from the British Library Crime Classics collection
Murders set in the Riviera or on an aircraft en route to Paris may seem fantastical today. How, indeed, will we write our Murders for the Age of Incarceration? What will be the plot or the means? The killer of a neighbour who denounces those who have a lover to stay? The Deliveroo driver? “The Two Household Problem”? Smearing Covid on a door-handle? You are invited to produce the first book of short-stories accordingly.
But meanwhile, all detective stories are somewhat relics of an age when a dinner-party was not as verboten as smoking. So we might as well read the classics. Our helping today, to while away the many hours with the wiles of death, are three books of short stories and two full-lengths.
I purchased Bodies From the Library (Collins Crime Club, 2018, £8.99) because I hoped to read just that, a hope encouraged by the cover illustration, but I was misled. This is not for the budding killer of readers, librarians, and those who find themselves in such places for other reasons (how about a murder set in a library that is being used for the filming of a murder story?). Instead, it is simply an anthology of 16 eclectic stories from the Golden Age, selected and superficially introduced by Tony Medawar.
We have the greats, including Christie, Bruce, Crofts, Blake, Rhode, Hare, Berkeley and Bramah. We also have more unfamiliar works. Georgette Heyer’s only uncollected detective short story, “Linckes’ Great Case”, published originally in the magazine Detective in 1923, is a submarine plans story in the tradition of Doyle and Christie. Not brilliant and with such clincher lines as “Tony dabbed at her eyes, and gave a tiny sob,” Tony being a woman who is about to embrace Roger. The eclectic nature of the collection is such that we then move to a much more impressive piece, “Calling James Braithwaite” by Nicholas Blake, which was broadcast on the BBC in July 1940 as part of a series of two-part plays by members of the Detection Club and is published here for the first time. There is a less satisfactory Ernest Bramah/Max Carrados adventure script first performed on stage in April 1918 and never before published. Christianna Brand’s “The Rum Punch” is a more appealing first publication. This book is well worth purchase by collectors, but not if you are interested in libraries.
Serpents in Eden: Countryside Crimes and Deep Waters: Mysteries on the Waves, both edited by Martin Edwards, and each published for the British Library Crime Classics for £8.99, are more coherent, as well as having the fantastic series covers. Serpents in Eden begins with a Conan Doyle that does not feature Holmes, the impressive, Lancashire-set, “The Black Doctor”, and the writers include the well-known, notably Chesterton, Bentley, Bailey, Freeman, Allingham, Berkeley and Mitchell, the last, “Our Pageant”, a wonderful and succinct combination of village jollity and local rivalries. Ethel Lina White’s “The Scarecrow” is brilliantly disturbing. Poison pen letters are to the fore in Herbert Jenkins’s “The Gylston Slander”, while M. McDonnell Bodkin’s contribution is an effective absent murderer killing. A first-rate volume.
Deep Waters, a more substantial volume, is varied as far as the waters are concerned, with the action not always at sea. The 16 stories include Doyle, Hornung, Freeman, Forester, Bailey, Bell, Crispin and Innes. There are also authors new to me. Kem Bennett’s “The Queer Fish” is relaxed and humorous, while Barton Rice in James Pattinson’s “The Man Who Was Drowned” (1958), despite being “dried-up”, is a classic smoking and drinking, resourceful solver of mystery. William Hope Hodgson’s “Bullion!” is a good variant on the locked-room mystery, while L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace stick to the upriver Thames and a jewel theft in “The Eight-Mile Lock”. A satisfactorily-varied collection.
The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts (1934 orig.; 2016 British Library Crime Classics) is a masterpiece in which, after the initial chapter offering a child’s view of a flight, one that ends with the discovery that her grandfather is dead, we move for most of the book to the perspective of the murderer. The why is handled very well as the personable industrialist meets increasing problems. The bulk of the novel is devoted to his account, not least the lengthy, possibly overly-so, background, including the preparations, before we move to (very different) aftermaths, and an effectively realised courtroom battle. We then switch narrator to the ever-impressive Inspector French, thus providing another perspective. Not a quick read at all, but very satisfying and increasingly a page-turner.
That is not, unfortunately, the case with John Bude’s Death on the Riviera (1952 orig.; 2016, British Crime Classics). Having recently enjoyed his Cheltenham Square Murder, I found this disappointing, and, indeed, could scarcely engage with the characters. Sarah also found it boring. There is some amusement in the poseur-painter, while Bude is willing to engage with poverty on the Riviera, but the book did not work for me.
Jeremy Black is shortly to bring out England in the Age of Austen (Indiana University Press).
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