Book Corner – November 2018 (3)

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.

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Book Corner – July 2018 (2)

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.

Book Corner – December 2017 (2)

Murder at the Manor – Martin Edwards

This is another one of those wonderful collections of stories put together by the inestimable Martin Edwards, displaying his encyclopaedic knowledge of crime fiction. A staple of the genre, the country house is the scene of many a murder most foul, not all of them committed by the butler. There is one crime in the collection where it was the butler whatdunit. So dangerous was staying at a residence in the country in the period between the two World Wars, at least in the fevered minds of the crime writer, that it is a wonder anyone took the chance. The game, Cluedo, cashed in on the popularity and prurient interest of murder amongst the gentry.

Of course it is all a bit clichéd now and perhaps was so even in its heyday, if the funniest and most curious story in the collection, E V Knox’s The Murder at the Towers, is anything to go by. It starts off with a wonderful opening line; “Mr. Ponderby-Wilkins was a man so rich, so ugly, so cross, and so old, that even the stupidest reader could not expect him to survive any longer than Chapter 1.” Of course, he doesn’t; he doesn’t even survive the end of the second paragraph. He is found hanging from a tree, suspended by a muffler. The remaining house guests decide to continue “playing tennis as reverently as possible” until the detective, the ludicrously named Bletherby Marge who is said to often be mistaken for a baboon, arrives. It is a marvellous piece of whimsy.

Humour percolates through Anthony Berkeley’s psychological tale, the Mystery of Horne’s Copse, which pivots on an attempt to question the protagonist’s sanity. Sherlock Holmes makes an appearance in the book’s opener, The Copper Beeches, with which many will be familiar with but it is still worthy of a reprise. Only Holmes can work out why a servant girl has been hired to wear a certain blue dress at certain times and have her long tresses shorn off. I had never read anything by Ethel Lina White but her An Unlocked Window sustains and cranks up the suspense and ends with a rather clever twist.

The combination of cricket and a crime is never likely to disappoint me and E V Hornung’s Gentlemen and Players, featuring the gentleman thief, Raffles, hits all the spots for me. The contribution of H C McNeile aka Sapper is an intriguing and somewhat far-fetched and ultimately horrific tale, The Horror at Staveley Grange, in which two apparently healthy men die of heart failure.  The obligatory Chesterton story is not from the Father Brown canon. In The White Pillars Mystery the two trainee detectives are taught the difference between listening and hearing.

In short, there is something for everyone. There are some stories which are not quite as good as the others and you can see why some of the writers languish in obscurity while others are read and enjoyed avidly to this day. But it does you good to extend your reach beyond the safe and tried and tested and the good thing about an anthology like this is even if an author strains your feelings of bonhomie, you can move on to the next one and vow never to let your eye pass over another word they wrote.

Book Corner – November 2017 (3)

Miraculous Mysteries – edited by Martin Edwards

You must have read or seen something like this. A crime, invariably a murder most foul, is committed in circumstances which at first blush, and many subsequent ones, seems either impossible to have been committed or for the perpetrator to have got in and/or out. In the world of detective fiction these stories are known as locked-room mysteries – the classic scenario is when the victim is found knifed in the back or shot through the head in a room where all the doors and windows are locked from the inside (natch). The earliest example of the genre was Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Drawing upon his encyclopaedic knowledge of detective fiction, Martin Edwards has produced an entertaining collection of sixteen stories that push the rather limited limits of the genre to the edge. Unusually in a collection like this, I hadn’t read any of the stories before, an added bonus to be sure. Some of the authors are familiar to the modern reader – there are stories by Conan Doyle and Dorothy L Sayers – but many are by writers I have come across for the first time. Some are superb whilst others, whilst retaining some interest, are more pedestrian, show their age or telegraph the denouement. The pleasure for the reader is doubled because it is not just a question of whodunit but working out how the dastardly deed was committed. I won’t spoil your enjoyment in this review.

To commit a locked-room crime requires ingenuity and resourcefulness on the part of the felon. But as Dr Tancred says in Too Clever By Half by G D H and Margaret Coles, if you do intend to murder, don’t make the mistake of trying to be too clever. There is always something you overlook, some little trace that ultimately gives you away.

The collection opens with a Conan Doyle story, always a smart move I think. The Lost Special isn’t a Sherlock Holmes story and it concerns itself with a train which disappears somewhere between Liverpool and London. The final story, The Villa Marie Celeste by Margery Allingham was published in 1960 and is the most recent story. It concerns the disappearance of a married couple who depart with just a pair of linen sheets. Although it is relatively modern, its central premise is how a win on the football pools can change people’s behaviour.

A personal favourite of mine is Christopher St John Sprigg’s Death at 8:30, a kind of rerun of Edgar Wallace’s Four Just Men. This time it is the Home Secretary who is threatened with death at a very specific time unless a ransom is paid. The unmasking of the felon, X K, involves some rather unsporting behaviour by the old bill which would certainly have involved a full and comprehensive enquiry by the authorities these days.

Harking back to the days when the cat’s whiskers were a novelty, Grenville Roberts’ The Broadcast Murder features a murder which is broadcast live on the radio, to the consternation of the listeners. I suppose it is something that could go wrong with a live broadcast and might pep up our rather lame programming if it made a reappearance every now and again, just to keep us on our toes. There is a Father Brown story, set in America, The Miracle of Moon Crescent, in which the cleric investigates a death seemingly caused by a curse and in Marten Cumberland’s The Diary of Death, Lilian Hope’s diary lists all the victims, people she hated, who are to meet their maker.

If you like detective fiction and want to spend a couple of evenings by the fire, puzzling over how the corpse met its fate, you cannot go wrong here.

Book Corner – October 2017 (3)

The Golden Age of Murder – Martin Edwards

Imagine the scene. There is a gathering of local worthies in a country house. There is a scream and one of the servants rushes in to the assembled company to announce that Colonel Blimp has been found dead in the library. Who could have committed the foul dead? Fortunately, amongst the guests is an amateur sleuth, much brighter than the local constabulary, who unmasks the culprit.

Murders and detectives are such staple fare of the written page and on our television screens, that it all seems a bit hackneyed now and, sad to say, all a bit too cosy. To make matters worse, many of the novels of the so-called Golden Age of detective writing – the period between the two World Wars – are imbued with social attitudes that many in today’s more politically correct environment find unpalatable. From today’s perspective it is hard to credit how innovative many of the stories were, as writers strove to push out the boundaries and tease the little grey cells of their avid reading public. And avid the readers were, seeking an escape from the economic and political uncertainties of the thirties but in a way that avoided the horrors many had to endure in the First World War.

Edwards writes an impassioned plea in defence of the genre and so convincing is his thesis that on hearing it a jury would dismiss all charges against detective stories out of hand. As a self-confessed detective fiction nut, I enjoyed this romp and have made many a note in the margins of its pages of books that I want to explore. Beware, this book could cost you serious money!

In essence, Edwards tells the story of the Detection Club, established in 1930 and meeting occasionally in London to provide a social network for crime writers. To be admitted to the club writers had to have produced work of “admitted merit” and there was an elaborate, slightly gothic and certainly bizarre initiation ceremony to be undergone. Principal luminaries of the club were Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, G K Chesterton and Anthony Berkeley and these take centre stage in Edwards’ narrative. Each in their own way had troubled personal lives and sought solace in writing. All the other 35 members in the inter-war period feature in the book and it is from their pen pictures that I have built up my reading list for the future.

There are some fascinating insights. I didn’t know, for example, during the Second World War Christie came under suspicion of being a German spy because she called a character Bletchley – the code-cracking centre was hush-hush at the time – in her novel N or M? and because she was living in a block of flats known to be frequented by spies. In a period of economic turmoil, bankers and inheritors of fortunes found themselves victims of murder plots and heinous murders of spouses sometimes reflected the desires and tortured love lives of their authors.

As the world moved inexorably towards a second major conflict, the genre explored the question of whether it was possible to commit a good murder, whether eliminating a Nazi or a prominent fascist was really a crime, a theme initially explored by Edgar Wallace in Four Just Men. Interestingly, neither Sayers – she had found religion – nor Berkeley – he had gone into deep depression – wrote detective fiction after the outbreak of the war and by the time peace had broken out, the emphasis was more on the psychological thriller.

If you are interested in the genre, this is a book you shouldn’t miss.

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Forty

The Detection Club

I have made no secret of my love of detective fiction. Many observers regard the period between the two World Wars as the hey-day of this particular genre. In 1928 a group of the finest exponents of the art form, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Anthony Berkeley established a club, the Detection Club, although formal records were only established in 1930. Anthony Berkeley was the prime moving force behind the initiative and the early dinners were held at his house. G K Chesterton, of Father Brown fame, was its first president.

Although it was a wonderful excuse for a splendid repast every now and again, it had some more serious aims. It allowed writers to swap tips and help each other overcome the dreaded block or to develop even more ingenious and innovative twists and turns to keep the ever eager readership on the edge of their seats. Their latest works were critiqued – that must have been a nerve-wracking ordeal for even the most self-assured and oft-published author. Rather like any other pukka club, members were elected by secret ballot, giving the established members the opportunity to vet and, if necessary, black ball a potential recruit. Recruits were supposed to have published two detective novels of merit.

Once their membership had been approved, the neophyte underwent a rather bizarre initiation ceremony which involved black candles, a voluminous red robe, originally designed for the portly Chesterton and a skull named Eric, although later forensic examination showed it was that of a female – Erica perhaps. In addition the new entrant was required to swear an oath, possibly written by Sayers. The oath required a response to this rather ponderous question, “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?” A simple assent would ensure entry into the hallowed ranks.

The Club, which acquired premises in London’s Gresham Street, sought to establish some rules of engagement to ensure that the reader was treated fairly, developing ten commandments which, on pain of expulsion, members were required to follow in their novels. These included mentioning the culprit in the early part of the story, precluding all supernatural and preternatural agencies and restricting the use of secret passages or rooms to one per story. The use of hitherto undiscovered poisons was verboten as was any appliance requiring a long and elaborate explanation. Cliché devices were to be avoided and the detective couldn’t commit the crime themselves.

The detective wasn’t allowed to be the beneficiary of any accident nor should they have some unaccountable insight which proves to be correct. Neither could they use clues which have not been brought to the reader’s attention when they are discovered. The detective’s accomplice cannot conceal any thoughts and should be of a lower intelligence than the reader. And twins or doubles can only be deployed if the reader had been carefully prepared to anticipate them.

As well as establishing this template, the Club members collaborated on a number of projects. The Floating Admiral, published in 1931, was a collaborative game of consequences with each of the twelve chapters written by a different member of the club. Each writer was required to write their portion with a definite solution to the crime in mind and couldn’t introduce new complications just to increase the complexity. To add to the fun, G K Chesterton wrote the prologue, Anthony Berkeley pulled the pieces together and each author was required to pen their solution to the mystery, each of which was published.

Ask a Policeman (1933) and Verdict of a Policeman followed a similar pattern and in 1930 radio audiences were entertained by The Scoop and Behind The Screen, which were collaborative detective serials.

The club is still in existence and continues to, sort of, police the genre.