Murders for the summer holidays
Jeremy Black recommends a menagerie of disturbing animal-themed stories to entertain throughout the summer
Four very different books, beginning with the latest from British Crime Classics, Guilty Creatures: A Menagerie of Murders edited by the very knowledgeable Martin Edwards (£9.99). A first-rate book that has a somewhat different feel to the previous collections, at least to the extent of being seductive. A very varied volume held together by the idea of animals and crime.
To be frank, the links are somewhat tenuous, indeed non-existent, but this is more than matched by a selection of very impressive stories, which are organised chronologically. Unlike many of the collections, there are some lengthy pieces, but the pace varies, as does the horror involved. H.C. Bailey’s “The Yellow Slugs” is the most horrific to me as it involves cruelty to children, which I loathe, but the story is really impressive, not least the combination of plot and an ability to get into the character’s heads. Christianna Brand’s “The Hornet’s Nest” is possibly the best of the stories, with a brilliant plot and a degree of wit. Penelope Wallace’s “The Man Who Loved Animals” has a savage wit in its unexpected conclusion. “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” is not the best Doyle choice — there is at least one better non-Holmes alternative, and the following “The Case of Janissary” by Arthur Morrison is too similar to a well-known Holmes story.
The cruelty in F. Tennyson Jesse’s “The Green Parakeet” makes the story distasteful, and it has similarities with “The Yellow Slugs”. Garnett Radcliffe’s “Pit of Screams”, a tale of empire to make a Said droll, is followed by Clifford Whitting’s “Hanging by a Hair”, a brilliant story in a conventional setting. Headon Hill’s “The Sapient Monkey” is so-so, as is Vincent Cornier’s “The Courtyard of the Fly”. G.K. Chesterton’s “The Oracle of the Dog” is impressive, Mary Fitt’s “The Man Who Shot Birds” winds its way well and has an arresting close, and Josephine Bell’s “Death in a Cage” is a disturbing instance of cruelty. An impressive collection as part of a very strong series.
Poison in Jest by John Dickson Carr (1932, Penguin 1959 reprint, kindly sent by Cleo Kellock), after a Vienna start, sends his early hero, Jeff, to rural Pennsylvania, with an apparently occult element in a really disturbed household: Adams Family plus Southern Gothic, Northern repression, and a cultural and family inheritance gone to seed in a house with “a stuffy smell of dust, and old wood … dingy gas-brackets”. And the cellar! With the fourth wall also rickety, there is reflection on detective stories, the county detective modelling himself on “the great detective … after the fashion of the magazines”. Or again, in criticism of present-day murders in comparison with Roman subtly; the former “dumps white arsenic (old when Olympiodorus used it) into his victim’s coffee, or else — scorning such effete methods — he goes about his business forthrightly with a machine-gun”.
There is speculation on the psychiatric context of murder, but also scepticism:
We are so enlightened and progressive that we cannot even have any superstitions unless they are scientific ones, so we have created a voodoo called Modern Psychology, and tremble before its divining-rods. This is, in short, the Self-Conscious Age, wherein mumbo-jumbo has acquired a dignity never possible to the earlier witchcraft.
The descriptions are good, for example that of Mrs Quayle, there is a range from overwriting to bathos, and some fine phrases:
Somehow you knew it was the voice of a beauty whose charms have long since ceased to be fully appreciated, and knows it. … Some dark foreboding told me that she was probably a member of a Literary Society… An old man, hesitant, groping after his family … tightening his pride like a belt across an empty stomach.
And a good resolve, both psychologically and in terms of the clues.
The Missing Link (1952, Penguin 1955, kindly sent by Cleo Kellock) was the third and last detective novel by Katharine Farrer, an Oxford figure, notably as the wife of the theologian Austin Farrer, a Fellow of Trinity who ended up as Warden of Keble. The novel, which has a link to one of the stories in the collection above, is mannered and contains a certain amount of Oxford introversion and snobbery, but is able to offer a variety of settings. Forgettable, but when reading you are taken along to enquire about the solution, and I read every page.
Box 88 (HarperCollins paperback, 2021, £8.99) by Charles Cumming is implausible, not least in the financing of the organisation, and somewhat unimaginative in its writing — “Some of them, with their signet rings and their Thomas Pink shirts, looked like dyed-in-the-wool Tory whack jobs pining for the halcyon days of Agincourt and Joan Hunter Dunn.” None of the sophisticated style and more careful writing of, say, Deighton. Nevertheless, although badly scripted, the structure, with its two narratives, is ably interwoven and the book moves you along.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe