Continental Crimes – edited by Martin Edwards
I am a sucker for these collections which offer the prospect of an entertaining light read with the opportunity to enjoy again some old familiar friends and to discover some long-forgotten writers. Just to prove that murder most foul is not peculiar to the English countryside and the dark alleys of the metropolis, Edwards has compiled a collection of fourteen stories where the action takes place sur le continent and, inevitably, on a train bound for Venice.
As with all anthologies the quality of the fare is variable. If I was being pedantic, heaven forfend, Jefferson Farjeon’s The Room in the Tower is more of an atmospheric ghost story than a tale of crime and The Secret of the Magnifique by E Phillips Oppenheimer is both overlong and ends with a bit of a damp squib. And for the modern audience the ending to Michael Gilbert’s Villa Almirante – “many a successful marriage has been founded on a good beating” – is a bit rich. Even I, who defend politically incorrect statements as a reflection of their time, think Edwards might have been better advised to omit this story which is of moderate quality at best.
One oddity is to be found in Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Popeau Intervenes. The ‘tec, one Hercules Popeau, has many of the characteristics found in one of Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth, Hercules Poirot. Lowndes’ creation predates Christie’s character and she was rightly pissed by how closely Poirot resembled her man and it is worth getting the book just to compare and contrast. You will not expend many little grey cells in the exercise.
I am a fan of Arnold Bennett and his A Bracelet at Bruges – more a case of how the crime was committed than by whom and with a dash of romance thrown in for good measure – doesn’t disappoint. Conan Doyle opens up proceedings with a superbly crafted non-Holmesian tale, The New Catacomb – not one for claustrophobes. G K Chesterton is represented with a Father Brown tale, The Secret Garden, in which the diffident cleric solves an impossible mystery involving a gruesome beheading. It is one of the best Father Brown stories, in my opinion.
Agatha Christie provides us with a tale of mystery and intrigue on a train en route to Venice. Have You Everything You Want? is a fairly lightweight affair and certainly not one of her best but introduces Parker Pyne to her readership. More to my taste was The Perfect Murder by Stacy Aumonier which featured a couple of impecunious brothers whose plight was not helped by relatives with deep pockets and short arms. I also enjoyed the slightly folksy and twee Petit-Jean by Ian Hay.
I was left thinking that many of these stories would have worked well in an English setting. For sure, the continental aspect added a bit of the exotic to proceedings but there was very little that was distinctively foreign about many of the tales, perhaps a reflection that most of the writers were Anglo-Saxons.
On the whole, I found that was less to admire in this collection than in others that Edwards has produced but there was enough to whet and sustain my appetite. There is nothing better than to dream of sunnier climes on a dank and dreary English evening.