The Long Arm of the Law – edited by Martin Edwards
Very few policemen make it into the golden pantheon of literary detection. Of the crème de la crème only Maigret, in my view, is comparable with Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey and Agatha Christie’s creations, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Where the local plod appear in the pages of Conan Doyle, Christie, Chesterton, Sayers et al, they are pedestrian, slow-witted, literary devices to illustrate the brilliance of the grey cells contained within the cranium of the amateur sleuth.
Of course, if we are looking for the antecedents of literary detection, we cannot ignore Dickens’ Inspector Bucket (Bleak House, 1853) and Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff (The Moonstone, 1868) but they are both preceded by Edgar Allan Poe’s amateur, Auguste Dupin, whose mastery of ratiocination was amply exemplified in The Murders of the Rue Morgue (1841). In an attempt to rescue the much maligned officer of the constabulary, the indefatigable Martin Edwards has put together an interesting collection of fifteen short stories showing the professional policeman at his best.
Anthologies are patchy in quality at best and I sensed at times that Edwards was scraping the barrel to provide enough examples from a varied array of writers to make his point. The other problem is that often the resolution of the problem is not the result of structured, forensic enquiry and investigation which, I assume, is the staple fare of police work but the inspired deduction of one of the officers. In other words, there is little difference in the way the culprit is unmasked it just happens that the grey cells belong to a police officer, not a leisured amateur.
The book’s opening story, The Mystery of Chenholt by Alice and Claude Askew, sets the collection off on the wrong foot. The detective, in order to discover what was going on in the house, has to put his fiancée, albeit an officer in another force but not a detective, into the place as an undercover agent. Her evidence results in the unmasking of the villain. Reggie, the detective, pulls it all together but it is not a shining example of straightforward police brilliance.
That said, there are some gems to be found within. Laurence Meynell, a writer I had never come across although, according to Edwards’ insightful and punchy introductions to each story, he had been writing for sixty years across a number of genres, produced my favourite, the Cleverest Clue. The eponymous clue was staring all of us in the face but it took a stroke of genius for it to be spotted and its importance to be recognised. A great story.
After The Event, by Christianna Brand, was another of my favourites, not least because its format was so different and seeing two detectives competing and pitting their wits against each other was fun. Michael Gilbert’s Old Mr Martin has an unexpected twist at the end that I didn’t see coming – one that might offend the sticklers for the rules and conventions of detective fiction but provides a satisfying ending to the spookiest and most atmospheric of the tales.
Choosing a title is one of the hardest tasks facing a writer and my enjoyment of the entertaining romp that is Roy Vickers’ The Man Who Married Too Often was marred somewhat by the fact that the title pretty much gave the game away. None of the other stories reach the heights of these but that is one of the joys and risks of reading an anthology.
An interesting collection but I’m not sure that the case is made for a reconsideration of the merits of police officer-led detective fiction.