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Murders for the onset of shorter days

Professor Jeremy Black on British Library Crime Classics and his favourite ‘whodunits’

As the series marches across a long shelf, two more British Library Crime Classics prove particularly welcome. Given the extent to which most reprints are “Golden Age” detective novels, it is especially interesting to see that both of these are later: E.C.R. Lorac’s Checkmate to Murder (1994), and Julian Symons’ The Progress of a Crime (1960), which appears with his short story “The Tigers of Subtopia” as a disturbing afterword.

This series has done a marvellous job in bringing Lorac, in practice Caroline Rivett (1894- 1958), back into the public eye. She was wide-ranging, beginning with The Murder on the Burrows (1931), and a skilled depicter of milieux. Her rural settings include Fire in the Thatch, Murder in the Mill-Race and Fell Murder, all in the British Library series, and she was skilful in presenting both Devon and Lancashire, in each of which she spent part of World War Two.

The series also includes her post-war Crossed Skis, largely set in Austria, which she wrote under the pseudonym Carol Carnac. Rivett however was a Londoner and, just as Crossed Skis is partly set in London, the capital is also the place for her Murder in St John’s Wood, Murder in Chelsea, Bats in the Belfry, and Murder by Matchlight, the last two of which have been published in the series.

World War Two is an important background to many of her stories, including Fell Murder and Murder by Matchlight, and so also with Checkmate to Murder, which is set within a troubled London. This is not the heroic account of retrospect, but one of food shortages, blackout, gloom, irritation, an officious and somewhat sinister Special Constable trying to buy up bomb-damaged property, and a young Canadian soldier en route to risk his life in combat.

Neither the theme of the book nor the misdirection, however, relates to the war, and Chief Inspector Macdonald continues to show his quiet pre-war competence and purposeful determination. The counterplay between the specifics of the plot, essentially played out across neighbouring properties, Macdonald’s remorseless search for clarity, and the wartime setting, provides a somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere similar to that of the serious plays of the period. For this reader, the start was somewhat slow, but Lorac’s skill rapidly kicked in and the book becomes an attention-grabber.

Covid-culture provides much more reading time

I have also recently read another of her London novels, Relative to Poison (1947), one very much set in the aftermath of the war, with the heroine just demobilised from the ATS. Macdonald, “an educated man who would speak her own language, and not some official jargon,” again is to the fore, while there is a claustrophobic atmosphere, albeit in a very different house, and with the two young women providing a livelier tone to the story. There is also some reference back to the rest of the literature, as in “the Edgar Wallace School.” I prefer her rural settings, but this is worth reading and would be a worthy addition to the British Library series.

Symons’ Progress of a Crime won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1961 and was the runner-up for the CWA Gold Dagger. Moving along rapidly, it offers a sudden murder, the worlds of the provincial and London press, a courtroom drama, and a background in a real life killing and case. The milieu includes gangs, police, and a traditional poor neighbourhood; the characters affluent lawyers, Brighton Rock style gangsters, the catarrhal Lord Brackman, the press lord – “Got a lot of stomach trouble, Edgar. Bowel trouble,” and Twicker, a detective who is a Macdonald figure but without success. Police brutality is regarded as commonplace. Not an encouraging read, but an impressive book, and one that holds the interest.

All those interested in detective fiction wish well to this excellent series; but, for lighter relief, can I recommend Lynn Truss’s A Shot in the Dark (2018), which combines a good puzzle set in Brighton in the aftermath of the fictional “Middle Street Massacre” of 1951 with some wonderful comic characterisation, notably of the complacent and idiotic Inspector Steine. Good on the world of variety. The villain is a real surprise.

I am far less convinced by Edward Marston’s Fugitive From the Grave (2018). Set in London and Bath in 1817, this involves grave-robbers, the theatre, and highway robbery, but I do not find the period-feel Marston more ably captures in his excellent, later-set, Railway Detective Series.

It is the very variety of this genre that offers so much

Another recent read, Simon Mawer’s Prague Spring (2018), a “what will happen?” rather than a “whodunit?,” is better at capturing atmosphere, notably, but not only, the Prague of 1968; and the characters are interesting. A central conceit, however, is far from new, and is better approached in The Dice Man (1971) by Luke Rhinehart (George Cockcroft). Nevertheless, Mawer offers a skilful interweaving of characters, and his conscience-romantic protagonist is an appealing character, and more convincing than some others given that persona.

With less wit than Truss, another feel-good detective story, Vaseem Khan’s The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra (2015), relies on a magical character to provide an acceptable resolution in a corruption-ridden India. The latter would make the more usual setting for an account of politics, police and criminality as intertwined, but the good humour of the author takes us through any irritation at his deux ex machina. An author worth returning to.

In Missing, Presumed (2016), Susie Steiner takes a grim plot into a page turner in which the multiple perspectives and protagonist both work extremely well. Not to be read by those who wish to think well of Huntingdon. A series of surprises toward the close ably sustains the interest.

Covid-culture provides much more reading time; as well as its writing counterpart. There is no one path to quality in the genre. Instead, it is its very variety that offers so much.

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