Image by Colors Hunter - Chasseur de Couleurs
Artillery Row Books

Murders for the summer

A bounty of bloodshed

Dry Jobs are of course our preference — only the sadist or the pervert likes the gore of a Wet Job, and the paperwork is far more onerous for the latter. Cilla, the protagonist in this excellent debut novel, is a specialist in Dry Jobs. Such a novel is a really encouraging way to start the month’s novels; that is, Helen Erichsen’s Murder By Natural Causes (Muswell Press, 2023, £14.99). There was a silly moment at the start — “St James’s Park did not have a pond but it was next to the river Thames so there were ducks and moorhens in abundance” — but the book then rapidly picked up. It is a skilful ride linking Soviet rural poverty and brutal training to the profitable opportunities for the professional London killer. The psychology of Cilla is handled very well, as are her lifestyle and adventures. It is a woman-power novel that is far better conceived and written than most of the genre, with a satisfying close. Strongly recommended.

Murder By Natural Causes, Helen Erichsen(Muswell Press, £14.99)

A witty introduction as a light read is offered by Kate Jackson’s How to Survive a Classic Crime Novel (British Library, 2023, £12.99). Drawing on an excellent knowledge of the genre, this covers the findings of CCSRU, the Classic Crime Survival Research Unit, with excellent advice on how to survive all the possible risks of murder. Homes, travels, shops, ships, holidays, romance etc are included, with key skills brought to the fore. Very witty.

Doctors, Edinburgh, 1853. Murder is not just on the horizon, but in the air. Voices of the Dead (Canongate, 2023, £16.99) by “Ambrose Parry” [Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman] draws on the sense of flux and uncertainty surrounding the public interest in medicine, in its broadest sense, in Victorian society. Spiritualism, phrenology, mesmerism, chloroform, et al vie with medical feuds, body parts and personal relationships. Vivid and impressive. Well worth reading.

Miraculous Mysteries (British Library Crime Classics, 2017, £8.99) is another of Martin Edwards’s excellent collections of short-stories for the series. The subtitle is more specific: this is not the occult but rather locked-room murders and impossible crimes. The selection is very good, although (illustrating the difficulties of any collection) the first piece, Conan Doyle’s “The Lost Special”, may seem so familiar that a replacement might have been better. Many are classic locked-room mysteries, but others range more widely, as in Edmund Crispin’s “Beware of the Trains”. The tone in several is light, notably in Dorothy Sayers’ “The Hunted Policeman” and Michael Innes’ “The Sands of Thyme”. In R. Austin Freeman’s “The Aluminium Dagger”, “the custodian was not difficult to find, being, in fact, engaged at that moment in a survey of the premises through the slit of the letter-box”. However, in others there are darker themes of cruelty and insanity. William Hope Hodgson’s “The Thing Invisible” is a Gothic horror story: “there is no doubt at all but that what I might term the Hunting Essence which lived in the place, had become suddenly dangerous.” Sax Rohmer’s “The Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Rome” introduces Moris Klaw, the psychic detective who can understand:

the odic force, the either … which carries the wireless message, the lighting. It is a huge, subtitle, sensitive place. Inspiration, what you call bad luck and good luck — all are but reflections from it. The supreme thought preceding death is imprinted on the surrounding atmosphere like a photograph.

There is a conscious play with the genre in several, as in G.D.H. and Margaret Coles’ “Too Clever By Half”: “This is one of the detective dramas where the unities are strictly observed … Clever murderers are easy game.”

Crimes of Cymru: Classic Mystery Tales of Wales (British Library Crime Classics, £10.99)

At times, the defence of the established order against misfits can be a bit repetitive, as in Marten Cumberland’s “The Day of Death” and Christopher St John Sprigg’s “Death at 8.30” — in which even the Club turns up, with Sir Charles Martell, the garrulous Home Office pathologist, remarking, “Why only yesterday in the Athenaeum — ” only to be cut off by the detective. First-rate. Other stories include items by Chesterton, Sapper, Allingham, Grenville Robbins and E. Charles Vivian. Richly deserves purchase.

Martin Edwards more recently has edited Crimes of Cymru. Classic Mystery Tales of Wales (British Library Crime Classics, 2023, £10.99), a sister volume to his The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime. There is a perceptive introduction that draws attention to the distinction between the particular strength of macabre fiction in Welsh writing over the years; and the paucity, until recently, of Welsh authors tackling conventionally detective writing or indeed crime stories set there. There is an amusing summary of some of the latter, including The Great Orme Terror, Death in the Dusk and Shock!, although I am more positive than Edwards about The Death of the King’s Canary by Dylan Thomas and John Davenport.

As to the short stories Edwards has selected, Arthur Machen’s “Change” (1936) is horror rather than crime fiction, and I dislike both involving child victims (or indeed culprits). Ethel Lina White’s “Water Running Out” (1927) is a far wittier murder directed at a miserable aunt, “a fester of malice” and “a fungoid growth”. In contrast to this get-away-with-it tale, there is the unpleasant malice in Francis Brett Young’s “A Busman’s Holiday” (1930), in which the medical narrator outfoxes his opponent with well-chosen phrases. Frank Howel Evans’ “The Murder in Judd Lane” (1909) is very much a London murder with disguised identity and a Poirot precursor to the fore. Carter Dickson’s “Error At Daybreak” (1938) is an impressive impossible crime set on the Welsh coast with Colonel Marsh as the fine mind who solves the puzzle. G.D.H. and M. Coles’ “Murder in Church” (1940) is an efficient story, with strongly-drawn characters that captures the interplay of religious and social politics. Ianthe Jerrold’s “Brother in the Barrow” (1951) adds in archaeology, whilst Roald Dahl’s “The Way up to Heaven” (1954) switches to New York and takes spousal irritations to a grisly revenge by the oppressed. Berkeley Mather’s “Lucky Escape” (1956) brings to the fore another aspect of murder as family outcome, and Cledwyn Hughes’ “The Strong Room” (1959) involves a stylish female bank robber. Jack Griffith’s “Mamba” (1962) sees a brilliantly murderous wife, Phys Davies’ “The Chosen One” (1962) is excellent on the psychological aspects, whilst Christiana Brand’s “No More A-Maying” (1974) shows the culpability of children. Lastly, Michael Gilbert’s “Y Mynydeloed Sanctiaidd” (date uncertain) offers a short close that vindicates the author’s reputation.

Fearless, M.W. Craven, (Constable, £16.00)

Venice is known by anglophone readers for the Commissario Brunetti novels of Donna Leon which began with Death at La Fenice (1992). They sell well, but I find them somewhat formulaic and Brunetti’s family life unconvincing. For those who still like a Venetian setting, might I mention the series by Philip Gwynne Jones. The latest, The Venetian Candidate (Constable, 2023, £20.00), is an impressive, tersely-written account linking old crimes to the political contention in the country at present. The interplay works well and the pace is kept up by the device of many short chapters. Recommended.

Author of the successful Cumbrian-set Washington Poe series, as well as the two Avison Fluke series, M.W. Craven designs Fearless (2023, Constable, £16.00) to be the first of a Ben Koenig series. It centres on a well-motivated good guy and killer who used to head the US Marshals’ Special Operations Group. Unable to feel fear, Koenig deals with deadly drug smugglers in the American South-West. There is lots of killing and discussion of guns. The characters are caricatures — “Andrews the giant … like a human pit bull” — and the writing is crude: “I was about to show him what being proactive really looked like.” Not recommended for plot, characterisation or writing.

After the Lights Go Out by John Vercher (Pushkin Vertigo, 2023, £9.99) has been described as a “slice of American noir”, but this is not noir in terms of the hardboiled thrillers of mid-century. Instead, there is crime in the sense of the pressures to throw boxing matches, but also much about race, vulnerability, ageing and the inroads of the past. Works more as a novel than a thriller.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover