British Library Crime Classics, Short Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Serpents in Eden edited by Martin Edwards

SerpentsinEdenLife commitments have caused me to need to find something I can dip in and out of at pretty short notice so I have been picking up more of these British Library Crime Classics anthologies.

Serpents in Eden is a collection of crimes set in the countryside though the setting is more critical in some stories than others where it is merely background. As always Martin Edwards has selected a diverse collection of stories on his theme and provides superb introductions, both to the collection as a whole and then to the authors who wrote the individual entries featured.

It is a pretty interesting collection though a little less well balanced than others published as part of this range. I particularly recommend the very short Clue in the Mustard which is quite amusing at points and Murder by Proxy which has a clever solution.

If this volume’s theme appeals to you then I’d suggest picking it up as though there are always a few misfires, most of the volume is pretty entertaining and does a good job of preventing variations on a theme.

On to the stories…

The Black Doctor by Arthur Conan Doyle

Or perhaps more accurately: the Doctor of Indeterminate Swarthy Ethnicity. This is the story of a country doctor who has established a successful practice in Lancashire. After many years of bachelorhood he finally proposes to a local woman but abruptly calls off the wedding. The narrative is structured around the trial of a man believed to have killed him.

There is no detective or sleuth to follow – this is more in the line of an unusual story being related but it is quite enjoyable, if a little slight.

Murder by Proxy by M. McDonnell Bodkin

An entertaining read, even if some aspects of the crime are easy to deduce. The story concerns a man who is found dead in his study having been shot in the back of the head. Paul Beck is called in to investigate the case by the man’s son who has become the principal suspect.

Forget about who did it – the killer’s identity is clear enough – as the focus here is really on how the deed was done. The solution is quite clever though Beck never really proved his case, rather the guilty party confesses. Still, it is fun and I’d be interested to see out some other Beck adventures.

The Fad of the Fisherman by G. K. Chesterton

This didn’t capture my imagination at all and so did not make for the best first impression for Chesterton’s work. A murder takes place on a remote island near the country home of Sir Hook. While the mystery didn’t grab me, this is one of the stronger entries in the collection for incorporating countryside elements.

The Genuine Tabard by E. C. Bentley

I quite enjoyed this story in which a pair of American tourists show our sleuth a historic tabard they purchased at a vicarage while driving through the country though it is a little slow in the telling. The scheme is worked out well but the explanation is a little too detailed.

The Gylston Slander by Herbert Jenkins

A solid if unremarkable story about a vicar receiving anonymous letters laced with innuendo about his daughter and the curate.

The Long Barrow by H. C. Bailey

A woman reports that she is being followed by someone everywhere she goes. At first Reggie Fortune seems disinterested but when she adds that someone is littering the path with dead animals he agrees it seems suspicious.

An interesting concept and approach but in my opinion the ideas are not well realized.

The Naturalist at Law by R. Austin Freeman

You would think that given my love of inverted mysteries I would have got around to trying an R. Austin Freeman already. Well, this isn’t an inverted mystery but it does whet my appetite for when I do so.

The story involves an apparent suicide of a man in a ditch. The inquest cannot reach a conclusion but Dr. Thorndyke is certain it is murder and conducts his own investigation. The question is why does Dr. Thorndyke think it is murder and how will he prove it. The answers are clever.

A Proper Mystery by Margery Allingham

This is a very short story set in a public house several weeks after a vegetable show was ruined when the produce is trampled by cattle. Tensions are still high in the village as some of the contenders suspect each other for orchestrating the disaster. The resolution of the story is quite charming, if expected.

Direct Evidence by Anthony Berkeley

A simple and dragged out case in which a man is accused of the murder of the woman he is having an affair with. The solution to why the suspect would have murdered her in plain sight of the village is obvious from the start and so the only question is what precise evidence will Sheringham be able to assemble to prove it. A disappointment.

Inquest by Lenora Wodehouse

A very different story that strikes a decidedly interesting and provocative note at its end. The narrator is travelling by train when he encounters a familiar face he is unable to place at first. It turns out that they recognize each other from an inquest into the death of a man who seems to have been murdered by his nephew.

The plot of the story is interesting enough to make this worth recommending but the tone of the ending is very different and there are some aspects of the solution that feel quite original. A highlight in the collection, though the countryside elements are minimal.

The Scarecrow by Ethel Lina White

A young woman escapes assassination and her would-be killer is locked away. Several years later he emerges from prison, placing the woman in danger. How will she and her friends evade the killer’s notice.

While this is an interesting premise and I did like some of the turns of phrase and details in the novel, it didn’t resonate with me as I had hoped. That is a shame because there is some excellent writing here.

Clue in the Mustard by Leo Bruce

A short but amusing story that sees Sergeant Beef solve his first murder (though you wouldn’t really know that if it weren’t mentioned in the preface to the story). An elderly woman is found dead in her garden to some surprise as she had seemed in relatively good health. While it appears like natural causes were responsible, Beef is able to demonstrate it was murder and explain how it was managed.

The method used is quite ingenious (and I am pleased to say that I guessed most of it) but the best part is Beef’s unusual reasoning for how he works it all out.

Our Pageant by Gladys Mitchell

The final story is incredibly short but also one of my favorites in the collection. It involves a village performance of a morris dance which has created some tensions between several of the men of the village. When someone ends up dead we are left wondering who may have been responsible.

It’s a clever little tale with a great reveal that is all the more impressive for being told in just a few pages.

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British Library Crime Classics, Freeman Wills Crofts, Henry Wade, Short Stories

The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

LongArmI have mentioned before that I am a bit of an unbeliever when it comes to short stories. I understand and respect the craft and I know that it can actually be far harder to write a really effective short story than a novel. I just have not found many that I could get all that excited about.

The Long Arm of the Law is one of the more recent short story collections published as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. Once again Martin Edwards has curated the collection, writing a general introduction explaining the themes of the book and individual shorter introductions for each story.

I would say that on the whole this is an enjoyable read, though I think there are a number of stories here that feature policemen as a character rather than being about the police investigation. The good ones though are superb and well worth your time.

The Mystery of Chenholt by Alice and Claude Askew

A fairly straightforward story in which Inspector Vane is approached by a butler who is worried his master is secretly poisoning his wife. Expect to see the twist coming though it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The Silence of PC Hirley by Edgar Wallace

I couldn’t get into this somewhat open-ended story about a case of blackmail that escalates into murder. The most memorable thing about the story was one character referring to his wife as being ‘very seedy’ which apparently has a secondary meaning that I was unaware of.

The Mystery of a Midsummer Night by George R. Sims

A very thinly veiled fictionalized account of the Constance Kent case that you can find out more about in Kate Summerscale’s excellent The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. This is quite a readable story but given it draws such heavy inspiration from a real case, the revelation at the end makes little impact.

The Cleverest Clue by Laurence W. Meynell

Told in the form of a barroom reminiscence, this story involves an academic who is developing an anti-aircraft defense being caught up in some intrigue. I liked the background to this and thought the resolution was good, though I think it gets a little cute with the titular clue.

The Undoing of Mr Dawes by Gerald Verner

Cute and unlike the previous story the policeman plays an important part in this one. The story involves a jewelry heist and the policeman’s efforts to see the mastermind put away for the crime. The way it is managed is quite clever and it is a pleasure to read. I’d be interested in trying more Verner so if anyone has any recommendations, please share!

The Man Who Married Too Often by Roy Vickers

Given my love of inverted mysteries it will come as no surprise at all that Roy Vickers has been on my radar for a while. I have a volume of his Department of Dead Ends mysteries that has sat near the top of my To Read list since Christmas. If this tale is anything to go by I’ll have to push them higher.

The story concerns a woman working on the stage who contrives to marry a Marchioness through a Becky Sharp-style piece of manipulation. Later she gets a couple of cruel surprises that lead her to commit murder.

The development of her case features some entertaining twists and reveals while the resolution is superb. I might, if I were nitpicking, complain that I think the police get their solution without a strong base of evidence but I was entertained by the conclusion. One of the gems of this collection!

The Case of Jacob Heylyn by Leonard R. Gribble

The most noteworthy thing about this story for me was that one of its characters happens to rubbish a key element of the previous story. I was curious whether its respective placement was coincidence or intentional.

The mystery certainly isn’t bad but it lacks the distinctive characters or lively plotting of some of the other stories in this collection.

Fingerprints by Freeman Wills Crofts

Hooray! Just when I thought that I had exhausted all of Crofts’ inverted tales I stumble on this gem. It is an incredibly short tale that gives use the basic details of what leads Jim Crouch to give himself away when he murders his uncle. Inspector French turns up and in just a few paragraphs he is able to point out why this is not the suicide it appears to be. Clever and entertaining.

Remember to Ring Twice (1950) E. C. R. Lorac

One of the shorter tales in the collection, this concerns a policeman overhearing a conversation at the bar and then shortly afterwards being called to a crime scene that is linked to one of the participants in that conversation. I can’t say this gripped me but the mechanics of how the crime is committed and its inspiration are interesting enough.

Cotton Wool and Cutlets by Henry Wade

I have been on a bit of a Henry Wade kick lately and I must confess to having been drawn to read this by the inclusion of one of his short stories. Unsurprisingly I found this to be one of the stronger crime tales in the collection, both in terms of the depiction of the police and also in the case itself.

With regards the former, one of the things I think this gets right is it shows you some of the ego and competition involved in any workplace. In terms of the latter, the premise of the faked suicide is handled exceptionally well and is undone through some simple evidence. It is interesting to discover how the crime was worked and the motivation behind it.

After the Event by Christianna Brand

{Whoops – my comments on this story were missed when I first posted this review. Thanks to Kate for indirectly prompting me to realize this!}

This story made me realize how I hope that at some point there may be a theatrical mysteries collection. This story is recounted by the Great Detective many years after it took place and involves a strangling taking place after a performance of Othello.

It all hinges on a rather simple idea but it is brilliantly executed and I was caught completely by surprise. One of the highlights of the collection.

Sometimes the Blind by Nicholas Blake

This is one of the shortest stories in the collection but it packs a lot into just a few pages. The tale is recounted by a policeman who is using it to illustrate how there are many cases where the police know who was responsible for a crime but cannot prove it sufficiently for the criminal to ever be charged with it. The story explores the motivations of the killer convincingly and I thought the ending was superb.

And now I’m kicking myself for having yet to get around to reading any of the Blake novels I have on my Kindle…

The Chief Witness by John Creasey

A superb story that packs an emotional wallop and manages to pack a neat revelation in that genuinely caught me by surprise. The story concerns the death of Evelyn Pirro who is found strangled in her bed. The immediate assumption is that her husband, whom she had started arguing violently with, was responsible though no one can understand what caused a seemingly devoted and loving couple to turn on each other.

The story is exceptionally written and Creasey manages to create three dimensional characters in just a handful of pages. The use of the child is particularly effective, the character being written as innocent but still able to provide some important information.

Old Mr Martin by Michael Gilbert

A bit of an odd one, though I found it to be quite entertaining. The owner of a sweet shop is killed by a car in what seems to be a hit and run accident. The Police are called to look at his basement where they find something that shouldn’t be there and hints at a crime.

The story was highly unpredictable and handled very well. The ending is not unexpected but I think executed very effectively.

The Moorlanders by Gil North

I found the action in this story impossible to follow which surprised me as I had little problem following the Cluff novel I tried recently. It’s not a dialect thing or a lack of familiarity with the characters that’s to blame – it just doesn’t communicate its ideas. To illustrate: I had to reread the story to pick up that there had been a motorbike accident. Unfortunately it ends the collection on a somewhat disappointing note.

British Library Crime Classics

Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North

StandsFirmAmy Snowden married in her mid-forties to a much younger man who had been working in the Yorkshire town of Gunnarshaw. Their marriage however turned out to be far from a happy one and a short time later she was found dead in her home with the gas valve opened. There is a general presumption that she has committed suicide but Sergeant Cluff believes it was murder.

As Martin Edwards notes in his excellent introduction to the novel, Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm is not a mystery novel. Cluff almost instantly identifies the culprit, even if he is unable to prove their guilt. Nor is there much question about how or why Amy was killed so we can’t really call this an inverted story either (although several sections of it are told from the perspective of the chased person).

Instead the focus of the story is really more about the way a crime affects Cluff and causes him to undertake an obsessive cat and mouse chase across Yorkshire. PuzzleDoctor calls Cluff ‘Terminator-like’ which is a brilliant way to put it and sums up his approach pretty nicely (I wish I’d thought of describing it that way). He is essentially haunting the guilty party, refusing to allow them the comfort of thinking they are not suspected. It gets pretty dramatic too, reaching a high point with an act on page 74 that stands out as one of the most striking moments in the book.

Cluff is an intriguing character, a little reminiscent of more recent characters like Frost and Morse. He is an isolated figure, a lifelong bachelor and relic of an earlier age of policing who has failed to get promoted as you might expect but has some value because of his knowledge of the community. He would feature in eleven novels and a television series and I am at least interested to see how North developed the character in his later books.

The novel does present a strong sense of place, with the author effectively conveying something of the character and landscape of Yorkshire in this period. It is a work that speaks to some of the isolation and difficulties that arise in isolated, rural communities and reminded me of Bellairs’ work, albeit from a much bleaker perspective.

The obligatory comment reviewers have to make is to compare the book to Simenon’s Maigret works but given I have only read Pietr the Latvian I can hardly claim any authority in saying so. Certainly I think there is a certain similarity in outlook and characterization between the two authors but I can’t speak to much beyond that. I will say that I think North writes in a relatively compelling style and the book’s brevity is largely a positive, reinforcing its protagonist’s obsessive approach to getting the person he believes is guilty to confess.

The reason it is only relatively compelling is that there are aspects of North’s style that flat-out irritated me. The presentation of the female characters, almost always introduced with some reference to the shape, cuppage and pertness of breast, feels seedy rather than characterful – particularly when a seventeen year old character is introduced that way as the comments are made in the third-person narration rather than from the perspective of a lecherous character. There is even an uncomfortable moment early in the book where Cluff just stares intensely at the naked victim when with the Police Surgeon that the latter makes comment on.

I also think that North writes himself into something of a corner at the end, creating the potential for a tense showdown. Unfortunately I think this falls a little flat in its execution, resolving far too quickly and neatly given the tone of the novel up until that point.

The result is a book that I think is more of interest than it is interesting. I admire aspects of the writing and the way North conveys Cluff’s obsession but I never really enjoyed reading it. Knowing I have access to some others in the series, I may opt to give North another shot at impressing me but I can’t imagine rushing to seek out others in this series.

British Library Crime Classics, Golden Age, J. Jefferson Farjeon

Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon

SevenDeadBack in the run up to Christmas I read and reviewed J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White – a novel that was reissued just at the perfect time to catch a growing interest in Golden Age crime fiction to become a surprise bestseller. While I liked some aspects of the setup though, I found I didn’t care for the book as a whole and was ultimately quite disappointed.

 

Happily I found Seven Dead to be a far more satisfying read as it not only had a strange and somewhat unsettling opening but managed to deliver a compelling resolution to those ideas.

The opening chapters of the book detail how a man breaks into a seemingly empty house intent on looting the place. He quickly amasses a good haul and is about to leave when he notices a door with the key in the lock. When he unlocks and opens it he flees in terror from the house, getting arrested in his desperation to get out of there.

This is a wonderful opening for the book and it builds up lots of anticipation about just what the burglar may have discovered inside. When we do get to learn about the crime scene it is quite wonderfully macabre. Seven bodies, six of them men and one a woman dressed in men’s clothing, in a sort of circle with lots of strange details scattered around the room. There is a note implying that they are members of a suicide club yet our detectives note that the room had been locked from the outside meaning that an eighth person must have been present.

The investigation that follows is conducted in two countries by two different people. One of them is a policeman, Inspector Kendall, the other is Thomas Hazeldean, a freelance journalist who is there when the crime scene is discovered. While the former is a competent and diligent detective who gets on with his job, the latter is the more interesting and characterful figure and thankfully it is he that is the focus for the lion’s share of the story.

Hazeldean is a very likeable figure, approaching his investigation with a disarming flippancy and charm that enable him to befriend and break down some stony resistance from the characters he encounters (and to get himself access to the investigation in the first place) yet clearly he also possesses observational and deductive skills. He’s your sort of perfect 1930s adventure thriller hero and I particularly enjoyed his lightly flirtatious interactions with a young woman he meets in Boulogne.

Farjeon’s story unfolds at a brisk pace, packing plenty of revelations and throwing several strange and unsettling supporting characters into the mix once the action shifts to the continent. This makes for quite an exciting and atmospheric tale and I genuinely had little idea where things were headed until shortly before the end of the novel.

That is not to say though that the killer is difficult to identify. I would argue that this is the most straightforward aspect of the plot – instead the reader’s task really is to explain how and why these strange events have occurred. I didn’t mind this at all and enjoyed the way the case comes into focus but the ending did leave me with some mixed feelings.

After some skillful and wonderfully paced investigating, I felt the resolution of the case was really quite abrupt. Certainly I liked some of the ideas involved in that ending but rather than teasing and reasoning out the solution we are just presented with an explanation. I felt it was a little anticlimactic and wished Farjeon had given that part of his story a little more room to breathe.

On the whole though I think this is a really quite thrilling and entertaining read. I would certainly suggest it above Mystery in White as a starting point with Farjeon and I’ll look forward to continuing to explore his works over the next few months.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Number in the Title (What)

British Library Crime Classics, Golden Age, John Bude

Death Makes A Prophet by John Bude

ProphetMy first experience of John Bude was The Cheltenham Square Murder (one of the earliest reviews on this blog) and while I found some aspects of the investigation interesting, I felt that it suffered from having to sustain its far-fetched premise. I did like the characterization and I appreciated the mechanics of Meredith’s investigation.

Death Makes A Prophet plays to some of the strengths I observed in that novel but, because its structure is quite different it avoids a few of the pitfalls. In fact as the crime only takes place between pages 148 and 149 around half of the book is setting the scene, establishing character relationships and some of the points of interest that will flummox Meredith later on.

The story concerns a religious cult, the Children of Osiris, that was established by Eustace Mildmann. After a few years of moderate success, Eustace suddenly found his order swelling when it received the patronage of a wealthy and eccentric aristocrat, Mrs Hagge-Smith. He soon found though that with the money came interference and increasing demands on his time. A deputy Prophet-in-Waiting, Mr. Penpeti, has been appointed and is gaining increasing influence within the order to the disgust of some Eustace-supporters. The tensions are palpable and will soon increase due to some external influences on the group and as a consequence of some decisions the characters will make.

In this climate a murder seems inevitable and yet throughout much of the first half of the novel it is not entirely clear who the victim will be as there clearly are schemes and counter-schemes taking place. Even once the crime does take place, for reasons I won’t spoil, it is not entirely clear who may have been murdered or whether a body was in fact murdered at all. Inspector Meredith has a tough case on his hands, working to disentangle the leads through diligent, thorough detection.

With the murder taking place at the midpoint of the novel, the investigation is somewhat compressed but that does not mean that the case or solutions to the smaller questions that occur along the way are simpler. In fact this case features a few particularly clever questions and puzzles for the reader and detective to consider. My favorite of these concerns some glassware found in a room and was brilliantly simple and logical but there are some other excellent candidates to pick from.

In addition to the murder mystery, the novel is laced with satirical and observational humor and some wonderfully rich characterization. Mixing comedy and murder is always risky business as personal tastes vary so much on the question of what is funny and jokes can sometimes undermine the development of a good mystery. Happily here that is not the case as the humor is in sympathy with rather than working against the development of the plot.

Much of the humor is derived from its character studies. Some, such as Mrs. Hagge-Smith, enjoy flexing their influence and using their money and power to remake the group in their image. Others, such as Eustace’s son, have been dragged into membership of the cult and take pleasure in secretly disobeying some of its tenets. These characters are well observed and will be recognizable to most readers as types, regardless of whether they have spent much time around small religious groups.

The only character who I felt was not particularly successful was Miss Minnybell, a character who we learn is instantly suspicious of Mr. Penpeti because she believe him to be the same Turkish servant who assaulted her in her youth. While she is quite a minor figure, the few appearances she does make seem to do little to advance the mystery. At the same time, she is not in the book often enough to be credible as a suspect in its second half.

This is a rare misstep though and it does at least help to flesh out the organization a little, creating a sense of life beyond the small circle of characters who will fall under suspicion. Other characters are richer, possessing secrets and while I quickly settled on the guilty party, I felt that there were some original ideas both in how the crime was committed and the circumstances that made for compelling reading even once you have worked out the solution.

I never lost interest and devoured this book in a single session. There are some very clever and entertaining ideas at play here and while not perfect, I found this to be a very satisfying read. Like Puzzle Doctor, I felt that this is manages to be funny and mysterious at the same time and I would also highly recommend it as another highlight in the British Library Crime Classics range.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Pseudonymous Author (What)

British Library Crime Classics, Golden Age, J. Jefferson Farjeon

Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon

MysteryinWhiteI thought that I would draw my week of Christmassy reads to a close today with a look at one of the most popular reissued Golden Age works in recent years, Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon. While I own several Farjeon books, they just sat in my to read pile so this was not only my first experience of reading this book but also with this author.

The story begins with a train stuck on the line during a thick snow storm. One of the passengers runs off the train with a shout, another makes the decision to leave and then a short while later the rest of the group go in search of that passenger. They end up getting disoriented during the storm and, when one of their number gets injured and passes out, they decide to take shelter in a seemingly abandoned house.

While it seems to be deserted, there is tea boiling on the stove and provisions laid out. And when they explore the house they find a locked upstairs room where they seem to hear someone yet when they return a short while later the door is open and the room is empty. And then there is the matter of the knife left on the floor…

The chapters in which we first encounter and explore the house were by far the most successful ones for me. While the house seems quite normal, lacking blood on the walls or the sounds of screams coming from some secret chamber, it is nonetheless a little unsettling because Farjeon establishes the oddness of this setting so well. We know that there has been a thick snow storm making it unlikely that whoever prepared the tea might choose to leave and yet they are not there.

The matter of the locked room is similarly extremely effective and mysterious, only adding to the house’s intrigue. I wondered what may have been behind that door and who could have opened it when the key was on the inside and no one was seen inside the house. When we did receive an explanation I thought it was clever, simple and highly effective and only added to the story’s intrigue.

And yet…

I had loved the opening and found it to be mysterious and intriguing yet I found myself disengaging from the text in the material that followed the feverish dream sequence. I tried taking a break from the book, returning to it later and I still couldn’t really get into it although I did summon enough energy and enthusiasm to finish it.

I think there are a few reasons that I struggled with the book beyond the most obvious one that any book that my expectations may have been too high coming into it. The first thing that struck me is that Farjeon makes heavy use of dialogue here, often having group conversations take place with multiple participants. He does not always attribute speech clearly and seems to be assuming that his characters are sufficiently well-defined to make it easy for the reader to follow. Sadly, I did not find that to be the case and at times I felt it pulled me out of the story.

The second is that I didn’t care much for the character of Mr. Maltby who falls into the role of the sleuth by the end of the story. He got off to a bad start with me when he stated that he could commune with spirits but whatever goodwill I had towards him evaporated with his early displays of pedantic thoroughness in his interactions with the other passengers. I was also a little frustrated that it seems he solves this case more through intuition, instantly recognizing the importance of a seemingly mundane item.

Finally, I felt that it was hard to invest in the idea of solving the murders that take place when we really have so little sense of who these victims are for much of the book. This didn’t bother me for the first half of the story because there Farjeon devotes his energies to establishing the strange, Marie Celeste-like qualities of the house but once we are trying to understand murder I think the novel needed to become more focused.

In spite of those complaints, there were some parts of the novel that I did respond to. Of all of the books I have read this week I felt that this made the most use of the season both in terms of the hostile weather conditions and also in its awareness of the holidays. I also found the setting to be very effective and while I may not have liked Maltby much, I did appreciate that Farjeon has the other passengers (except Smith) engage in the investigation.

While I was disappointed with Mystery in White, I did wonder if I just picked up this book at the wrong moment. Certainly some people whose views I often agree with have read and enjoyed this which is enough to give me pause and make me feel like the odd one out. Perhaps some day I will revisit this to see if I like it more on a second try but, for now, I cannot personally recommend this and would steer people looking for an entertaining Golden Age mystery set at Christmas to gift to friends, family or just themselves to look at either Portrait of a Murderer or The Crime at the Noah’s Ark instead. Do be sure to get a second opinion of this one before you pass on it though because I believe I am out of step with the general consensus on this story.

British Library Crime Classics, Golden Age, Short Stories

Crimson Snow, ed. Martin Edwards

CrimsonHaving mentioned last week that I can struggle to enjoy short mystery fiction, was I asking for trouble by picking up one of the British Library Crime Classics compilations? Perhaps, though given one of the most iconic Christmas mystery stories is barely twenty pages long I think this is exactly the sort of thing I need to be reading.

This collection is edited by Martin Edwards and comprises eleven stories. One of those stories, Mr. Cork’s Secret, is split within the book to mirror how it was originally published – with the mystery published inviting readers to send in solutions and the answer following some time later.

There is a short introductory essay and then each story is prefaced with a brief biographical note about the writer placing that work in context. This is not only useful background for the work, it also gave me a few suggestions for other books that may be of interest by some of the contributing authors.

Overall, I felt that the standard of story in this collection was very high and it begins on a high note with Fergus Hume’s The Ghost’s Touch. This is an entertaining story which is narrated by a Doctor who has been invited to a country home to stay for Christmas. The owner of the house has also invited his Australian cousin to visit and regales them with the story of how the Blue Room became haunted and how those who stay there and wake up marked with a red touch die shortly afterwards. The reader will naturally wonder if events will repeat themselves?

Admittedly the solution to Hume’s story will be fairly obvious but I felt that this was a great example of how a simple idea, told well can be very effective.

The second story, Edgar Wallace’s The Chopham Affair, was my least favorite of the collection. It involves a blackmailer being discovered dead in a car next to a car thief. Fortunately it is followed by Margery Allingham’s The Man with the Sack which sees Mr. Campion interrupting a rather unusual crime during a Christmas party. It all makes for a fun adventure.

S. C. Roberts’ Christmas Eve immediately stands out as it is formatted as a stage play. The piece is a rather fun Holmes pastiche in which a woman comes to see Holmes to assist in the recovery of her employer’s stolen necklace. While the crime is not the most ingenious, I enjoyed it and felt it was quite entertaining.

Victor Gunn’s Death in December was one of the two stories I enjoyed most in this collection. Once again we have a story that echoes the traditional Christmas ghost story when a young man locks himself in a supposedly haunted room and sees a dead body that vanishes when the other guests at the house come to see what has terrified him.

Gunn packs a lot of incident into his story, making this feel like one of the more substantial stories in the collection. Once again, the solution to what is going on may not surprise but I enjoyed the two investigators, particularly the gruff Chief Inspector Bill “Ironsides” Cromwell.

Christopher Bush’s Murder at Christmas investigates the murder of a financial swindler in a small village. The story doesn’t overstay its welcome which I appreciated but I wasn’t wowed by the solution. I might suggest though that this reflects that it simply isn’t as good as the stories around it, rather than actually being disappointing.

Off the Tiles by Ianthe Jerrold features a suspicious death when a woman falls while walking along the guttering between houses. We are told that this is perfectly safe in normal circumstances and the victim’s sister insists that this is no accident. I wasn’t enormously drawn in by the premise for this one but I liked its resolution quite a bit.

Mr. Cork’s Secret by MacDonald Hastings was my other favorite story in this collection. As I mentioned in the opening of this review, this story was intentionally split in two to accommodate a competition that its publisher ran with a cash prize being offered to a lucky reader who could guess the answer to a question at the end.

That answer is not all that difficult to come by as the reader can stay ahead of the character in the sleuth role. I felt the story was appealing though with some entertaining characters, particularly the hotel manager and Mr. Cork himself.

The Santa Claus Club is a very short story featuring a murder taking place at a charity dinner party. The victim had been warned to expect an attack but initially it is far from clear how they could have been killed. While it embraces the Christmas theme more effectively than some of the other stories in the collection, the mystery is one of those ones where the reader has little they can deduce while the action isn’t exciting enough to make for an effective adventure.

Michael Gilbert’s Deep and Crisp and Even felt more successful although it arguably feels a little pointless. The story, which once again feels very short, involves a group of carollers arriving at a house and realizing after they left that there was something strange about their visit. That realization is really pretty good but the story doesn’t follow through at all, making you wonder why you bothered.

The final story in the collection, The Carol Singers, is a very depressing and, for me, upsetting story about an elderly woman who is alone for the holidays being assaulted and killed in her home during Christmas. That sequence is all rather brutal but quite effective. The foray into social realism turns out to be quite brief however as an aspect of the solution to what took place, while logical, struck me as both ridiculous and out of keeping with what had come before it. Overall I’d file this one away as intriguing but flawed.

As a collection I felt this was really quite entertaining and I appreciated the good mix of stories. While not all of them could be called completely successful, almost all are at least interesting and I found a few authors whose work I am keen to explore further.