Serpents in Eden – edited by Martin Edwards
It seems to be an unfailing rule of thumb in British TV soaps – I’m thinking principally of Eastenders and Coronation Street – that when the characters go to the countryside, some disaster befalls them. The countryside is dangerous, after all. That never-ending series, Midsomer Murders, perpetuates the myth – the county of Midsomer has a murder rate that would make the Badlands of New York and London blanche. Murder most foul and the bucolic charms of the English countryside have gone hand in hand for a century or more and provide Martin Edwards with fertile ground to compile one of his best anthologies.
There are thirteen tales, unlucky for some, with the usual mix of well-known names and the more obscure. But even when he selects the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and G K Chesterton, Edwards eschews the obvious. So no Sherlock or Father Brown, then. The opener, Doyle’s curious The Black Doctor is a tad melodramatic for my taste and is resolved by means of a device which has become a bit clichéd by now. For me the more interesting points were that there was a doctor of colour practising in the English countryside at the time and that he was affianced to a local lass.
The Chesterton tale, The Fad of the Fisherman, featured Horne Fisher and was a fascinating tale but required careful reading or else the subtleties of the crime could easily pass you by. I always look forward to the Margery Allingham contribution but I was a tad disappointed by A Proper Mystery. It featured that seething cesspit of envy and malice that is the local gardening competition and the destruction of plots which contained potential prize winning entries. Much ado about nothing although the rustics take these things seriously.
When I first came across R Austin Freeman I found him a bit dated and slow going but I am beginning to warm to him in short story format. The Naturalist at Law is a case in point, an excellent tale in which Dr Thorndyke reveals the fate of a man found drowned. His attention to detail and forensic knowledge is second to none.
Attention to detail is the key to another fascinating tale, Leo Bruce’s Clue in the Mustard. The killer is easy to unmask but the way the murder was committed and the clue that unmasked the villain are ingenious. After reading Ethel Lina White’s chilling and creepy The Scarecrow, I will never look at one in the same way again. A great, atmospheric story.
There is even room in the collection for two of our more quaint rural pastimes. Gladys Mitchell’s Our Pageant features a troupe of Morris dancers, one of whom is murdered. The other is taking the piss out of gullible tourists and E C Bentley has constructed an amusing tale in The Genuine Tabard in which rich American tourists are satirised for their voracious but undiscerning appetite for souvenirs.
Some of the other stories show their age or seem a bit too clever for their own good but are entertaining enough in their own right. There is something for everyone here and I found this collection to be one of the better ones in the series. If you wanted to dip your toe in the blood stained brook that babbles through a chocolate-box village green, this is the book for you.