Murders ranging widely
Jeremy Black recommends an array of crime fiction novels, both modern and classic, to keep you entertained in January
Death in Captivity and Eight Detectives are the best of this welcome bunch. Michael Gilbert was in part coining experience. He is close in character to “cuckoo” Goyles, a central character in this story set in 1943 in an Italian-run POW camp in Italy. Gilbert himself bravely escaped from such a camp in 1943 and made it back to the Allied lines (German troops shot dead four members of an Italian family that gave him shelter). Gilbert’s story is excellent. A first-rate plot, good characterisation, arresting twists, and a particular kind of closed-community setting, as well as the drama of the war. First rate.
Seven Dead has a very quick start and some of the writing is very arresting: “He was like a doctor, bringing a dying patient back to pain.” There is also the ironic commentary on the genre, Inspector Kendall remarking of himself: “When you don’t play the violin, or haven’t got a wooden leg, smartness is all you’ve got to fall back on,” and of Inspector Black “a good man. He doesn’t play the violin, either, or quote Shakespeare.” Kendall’s brusque intelligence and determined drive help make the section set in England go well. I was less impressed by that in Boulogne, where the love-story element is not handled well and the plot drags a bit. The broadening out into the oceanic back story and deserted island is arresting. Not to my mind as good as the previous Farjeon’s in the series, Mystery in White, Thirteen Guests, and, my favourite, The Z Murders, but impressive in many respects.
Laurence Meynell’s ‘The Cleverest Clue’ will delight old farts like me who notice split infinitives
The Long Arm of the Law is another effective Edwards collection of short stories. It is a mixture of well-known writers, including a superb Martin Gilbert, with a brilliant twist, both unexpected and plausible, and others by now-obscure writers. Many of the pieces are first rate, as in the brilliant misdirection in Christianna Brand’s ‘After the Event,’ which includes the acute observation “the guests pressed walnuts upon one another with abandon (hoarding the nut-crackers, however, to themselves)”. Some less so. Thus, Nicholas Blake’s ‘Sometimes the Blind’ is somewhat obvious. Laurence Meynell’s ‘The Cleverest Clue’ will delight old farts like me who notice split infinitives and it also reflects the pre-Second World War fear of air attack and the belief in a miracle weapon. In his well-explained ‘Cotton Wool and Cutlets,’ Henry Wade has a policeman complain, with regard to prints “That’s the worst of these detective stories; every criminal knows that trick.” The closing comment by Inspector Hurst includes “I may be no Sherlock Holmes, but you are certainly no dunderheaded Watson.”
There are many comments that reflect the period of writing as in Wade’s “… the heap of sewing caught his eye; it did not take long for a married man to identify it as a female garment in embryo” or John Creasey in ‘The Chief Witness’ (1957) observing that “Margate was the probable honeymoon destination.” An excellent collection.
Berthon’s A Time to Lie could do with rewriting/editing. Do we need a chapter to start “A twitch of the mouth,” continuing soon after “He stood stock still, his face a mask” or, later, “Those years after Communism collapsed were messy. And London was a honeypot … A place where unholy alliances were the order of the day.” The plot does not really match the delight in the aftershadow of Cold War conspiracies.
Eight Detectives is brilliant in both conception and execution, and a great read despite some forced comparisons that do not work, for example lounges connecting like the chambers of a digestive system. A series of stories ably articulated and qualified in a larger narrative and greater puzzle. Very good on the genre and types of detective fiction. The inner and outer stories consider the conventions, including the lack of evidence underpinning the big denouement. Captures the pathologies, mundaneness, illusions, ease and aftertaste of murder. Strongly recommended.
Seven Dead, J. Jefferson Farjeon, 1939; British Crime Classics, 2017, £8.99
Death in Captivity. A Second World War Mystery, Michael Gilbert, 1952; British Crime Classics, 2019, £8.99
The Long Arm of the Law. Classic Police Stories, edited by Martin Edwards, British Crime Classics, 2017, £8.99
A Time to Lie, Simon Berthon (2020), HarperCollins, £12.99
Eight Detectives, Alex Pavesi (2020), Michael Joseph/Penguin, £14.99.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe