My Book Club is changing things up a little for May with a collection of short stories. Under the aegis of author and editor Martin Edwards, the British Library has published a number of these collections. Although they all tend to provide a mini-survey of mystery fiction, ranging from the pre-GAD era to the modern age, from classic whodunnits to tales of horror, each set of stories is bound together by a common theme – maybe it’s animals, or crimes on trains, or murders at Christmas – and our chosen book, Capital Crimes, is no exception. All the tales are set in The Big Smoke itself – London, England!
Since most of my fellow Book Club members are bloggers, you may very well come across a few reviews of this book over the next week. I figure each of us will take pleasure in a different array of stories, which will make for some interesting discussion at our meeting. And if some one of you wanted to tally up all our disparate opinions and determine what conclusions, if any, could be drawn – now that would be really interesting!
On to the stories . . .
In “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle, a dashing rake of a surgeon who is having an open affair with one of London’s most beautiful married ladies gets his comeuppance – and how! – when he delays their upcoming rendezvous in order to take on a potentially lucrative, if disturbing, new case.
Those whose experience reading Doyle has been limited to the Sherlock Holmes stories – a situation common enough to have inspired the author to toss his creation into a waterfall – may be surprised by the story that opens the collection. “Sannox” is a quick and nasty tale of revenge that is highly entertaining – but I wouldn’t call it a mystery so much as an exercise in horror. In fact, if I didn’t know better – and, in truth, I don’t – this could be the progenitor of similar tales that filled comic book classics like Tales from the Crypt. What makes it really zing is that Doyle goes to great lengths to point out the wronged husband’s gentility so that, with his final words, we get a double shot of creepiness.
The next selection is an abridgment of a story that was long enough to be serialized in a weekly magazine called Today. What we do get of “A Mystery of the Underground” by journalist William Arthur Dunkerley, writing under the pseudonym of John Oxenham, is wonderful. consisting mainly of newspaper reports that describe the rampage of a serial killer upon the District Railway line of the London Underground. Every Tuesday evening at 9:15, a male victim is found shot to death in a first-class carriage, but despite intense scrutiny by Scotland Yard and immense public interest, no sign has been made of the killer or his means of execution and escape.
The reportage of the crime is beautifully rendered, both as investigation and as commentary on the nature of tabloid journalism and the bloodthirsty demand for it by the public. In that sense, the story, which may have been published around 1894 (I wish dates of publication for all the stories had been provided), feels like a modern read.
Edwards then provides us with a brief synopsis of the huge chunk of story that is missing before taking us to the end of the tale and the explanation of who, why and how. For me, it’s a fair comedown from all that preceded it, and while it wraps up the mystery, I would love to see someone take this thrilling opener and give it a more deserving finish.
In his introduction to “The Finchley Puzzle,” Edwards writes, “Although (Richard) Marsh’s fiction requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, his ability to tell a good tale compensates for an occasional lack of credibility.” Ah, the ability of the English to understate the case! Born Richard Bernard Heldmann in 1957, Marsh created one of the earliest examples of a female detective. Here, we have Judith Lee, a teacher of the deaf, who also appears to be something of a super-hero! Her power is the reading of lips, and she uses it to expose bad guys, solve murders that have baffled the police, and detect danger before it occurs.
I had to laugh at how the criminal element in London is terrified of Judith and always seem to be talking about her – at the opera, on the docks, on street corners. Because of this, Judith’s life is always threatened, particularly in the mail. One time it’s a box of chocolates with a bomb in it, and in this particular case, it’s a deadly viper. Fortunately – and most preposterous of all! – is the fact that Judith always seems to be present to read the lips of her enemies, thus preparing herself to counter their threats.! The story admittedly moves along, as Judith goes to great lengths to avenge the death of her new puppy (oh, and a French couple as well). I don’t think I need to read any more about Judith Lee, but it was amusing to meet her.
Dr. Thorndyke, created in 1907 by R. Austin Freeman, was one of the first fictional forensic scientists to practice detection. His deductive methods emphasizing physical evidence over human motivation, plus his cozy friendship with Christopher Jervis who also narrates the stories, call Holmes and Watson to mind. (Be sure and check out The Invisible Event where JJ has begun a deep dive into Freeman’s work.)
“The Magic Casket,” included in Capital Crimes, is my first Dr. Thorndyke story. It involves stolen pearls and the assault long after the theft of the daughter of the pearls’ late owner. The criminals are Japanese, but to be fair, we get no whiff of “yellow peril” here; the question arises more than once whether the Asian characters lurking about are gangsters or law students. (No jokes here about which is worse!)
Julian Symons thought Freeman was something of a dud as a writer, while Raymond Chandler – who had famously excoriated Agatha Christie – heaped much praise on Freeman’s skill as writer and plotter. “The Magic Casket” is okay as a story, but it is the first in the collection to give a sense of the streets of London.
In reading about Freeman, I learned that, up to the end of World War II, he was a massive anti-Semeticist, having written a whole book on the horrors of the race. This does not dispose me kindly towards him, and I will have to rely on suggestions from others of tales to read that avoid this particular brand of ugliness. Yes, I know: even my beloved Christie was guilty of this. Believe me, I know where those bones are buried.
Max Carrados, the blind detective brought to the public in 1914 by author Ernest Bramah, makes the acquaintance of yours truly with the story found in this collection, “The Holloway Flat Tragedy,” and I found it a far more fortuitous introduction. Once again, the similarities to the Holmes stories are evident, although Carrados’ “Watson,” private investigator Louis Carlyle, does not narrate.
Carlyle’s newest client, Mr. Poleash from Holloway, has quite a tale to tell. His once vibrant wife has become unbearably neurotic due to a long illness, and this drove Poleash into the arms of a young shopgirl. For him, this was merely a dalliance, and when he refuses to marry his bit on the side, things take an ugly turn very quickly. Mr. Poleash wants Carlyle to make his problem go away, but with all the subterfuge going on, that will be difficult.
Before Carlyle can put any plan into action, a murder occurs, and Carlyle turns to his friend Max Carrados for help. What follows is an exciting tale, and while long experience has made my senses prick up when a corpse’s face is smashed beyond recognition, don’t assume as I did that this is going to lead you where you think it does. I look forward to meeting up with Carrados again in the future.
The next story, “The Magician of Cannon Street,” probably first appeared around 1918. The author, J. S. Fletcher, was a prolific writer who composed poetry and managed to publish over a hundred mysteries before and during the Golden Age. Fletcher’s disinterest in the rules of fair play detective stories is on total display here, as the story resembles an adventure tale by the likes of Edgar Wallace or Sax Rohmer, with its super-villain and murky plot, than a puzzle mystery.
Detective Paul Campenhaye, the master of disguise who narrates this tale, felt more like the Watson figure to me, and this story felt like the sequel to another. Evidently, Paul, his secretary Killingley, and their friend Tregarthen, another master of disguise who might also be a detective or a spy or what have you, had tangled two years previously with the mysterious Mendoba, who is – brace yourselves – yet another master of disguise who, two years earlier, killed a guy named Paul Taplin and escaped. Now he seems to be connected to a financial scam run by the aforementioned Magician, and our heroic trio hatch a plan to take this villain down.
Campenhaye’s abilities as a sleuth do not serve him well here; his failure is actually almost amusing when described in the end by Killingley. This is a story with lots and lots of set-up followed by an anti-climax where most of the action occurs offstage. Not my cup of tea, I’m afraid.
Edgar Wallace was one of the most prolific writers of the early 20th century. Born into poverty, he raised himself to international acclaim by penning 170 novels, 18 plays, and nearly a thousand short stories. He even dabbled in the film industry and died while working on the first draft of the classic film King Kong. That was in 1933, so clearly Wallace was writing far into the Golden Age, but his work definitely hearkens back to the days of Doyle and Collins. And though he wrote a lot, he isn’t the go-to author today that Doyle is. Even Martin Edwards admits more isn’t always better, but he states: “The vivacity of his story-telling compensated, by and large, for his slapdash emphasis on quantity of writing rather than quality.”
Wallace is yet another classic author I’ve ignored, because his name always conjured stuck-in-their-time adventures. But he did write detective stories, too, particularly a collection published in 1925 under the title The Mind of Mr. J.G. Reeder, featuring a former policeman now working for the Director of Public Prosecutions. One of these stories, “The Stealer of Marble,” is included in our present collection. Mr. Reeder is called in on a case of embezzlement at a London brokerage and discovers to his delight that the boss’ secretary, Margaret Belman, is a neighbor of his whom he has much admired:
“He had, on occasions, walked behind her and before her, and had ridden on the same streetcar with her to Westminster Bridge. She invariably descended at the corner of the Embankment, and was as invariably met by a good-looking young man and walked away with him. The presence of that young man was a source of passive satisfaction to Mr. Reeder, for no particular reason, unless it was that he had a tidy mind, and preferred a rose when it had a background of fern and grew uneasy at the site of a saucerless cup.”
Mr. Reeder is a sweet character, even if his old-fashioned sexism tends toward mixed metaphors. He is soon distracted from this case by the more bizarre enigma of a woman who has been caught stealing bits of marble from a local mortuary, and when he discovers a major link between these two situations, it leads him into a deadly conspiracy. There’s not much in the way of detection here – Reeder operates on a wholly different fictional plain from Poirot – but the story is a lively romp. I’m not surprised to learn that the Reeder stories were dramatized on British TV in the 1960’s.
And then – just when I felt I could not read another pre-30’s pre-GAD pre-puzzle plot tale that dares to call itself a “mystery,” we get our first real puzzle! Robert Eustace, a doctor and author who was an actual founding member of The Detection Clube and might be best known for giving Dorothy L. Sayers the idea for her dossier/novel The Documents in the Case, teams up here with another founding member, Edgar Jepson, for the impossible crime story, “The Tea Leaf.”Martin Edwards calls it a classic. It certainly seems to be that story, the one that utilizes a certain trick for, perhaps, the first time.
Two London gentlemen, a scientist and an engineer, strike up a friendship that is destroyed when the engineer breaks off his engagement with the scientist’s daughter. On this fateful day, they meet and argue in the hottest room of a local Turkish bath. The engineer leaves, and when another patron enters the room, the scientist lies stabbed to death. There is no sign of a weapon anywhere in the room or about the engineer’s person. And yet nobody else went near the scientist, so the killer must be the engineer. But, if so, where is the weapon?
Where is the weapon indeed? I would imagine that any locked room fan can add up these items: a setting of the hottest room in a Turkish bath, a victim who’s a scientist, and a weapon, something sharp, that has disappeared from – have I mentioned it? the hottest room in a Turkish bath – and have the whole thing figured out without opening the book. (There are a couple more clues I won’t give away here, one of them concerned with the title, that pretty much clinch the deal.)
Easily one of the best stories in this collection is “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” by Thomas Burke. One of the great experts in the form, Ellery Queen, said of it: “No finer crime story has ever been written, period.” A serial killer is prowling the foggy streets of London’s East End – no, not that serial killer! – and Burke’s description of this foul creature is riveting:
“He wasn’t, this man, a bad man. Indeed, he had many of the social and amiable qualities, and past as a respectable man, as most successful criminals do. But the thought had come into his moldering mind that he would like to murder somebody, and has he held no fear of God or man, he was going to do it, and would then go home to his tea.”
H. C. Bailey had been writing for two decades when he switched to detective fiction and created the much-beloved Mr. Reggie Fortune, a surgeon turned detective. His adventures spanned the Golden Age and beyond, and from what I’ve read about him, they could get very dark. The 1926 story, “The Little House,” is included here, and it is very dark indeed. And very, very good.
A kindly old woman comes to see Mr. Fortune because her little granddaughter’s kitten seems to have been nabbed by another little girl who lives next door, “a nasty, dirty little girl.” The police have dismissed her complaint(“Mr. Fortune, he just smiled at me,”) and she sees Fortune as her last hope.
Despite his initial inclination to also send her on her way, Fortune looks into the matter and uncovers a case of such unrelenting cruelty that even the least sentimental reader will get a lump in their throat. The final moments also reveal a disturbing difference between the way the police and a private citizen like Mr. Fortune view the horrors of this troubled world.
Despite being a founding member of The Detection Club, Hugh Walpole was not considered a crime writer during his long, prolific career. He wrote the 1935 MGM adaptation of David Copperfield, a movie I have loved since childhood. (He even played the small role of a vicar in the film.)
Walpole’s fiction did sometimes veer towards the macabre and disturbing, and this is on sharp display in “The Silver Mask.” A well-off and kindly matron’s good turn to a fellow human being in distress hurtles her into an increasingly dangerous situation. The story reminded me of plays/films like Night Must Fall and Kind Lady, but in a mere fifteen pages, Walpole takes poor Miss Herries down a darker, nastier hole, with the mask of the title acting as a brilliant symbol of her tragic journey.
From 1929 to 1957, Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher wrote mysteries under the sobriquet of Henry Wade. After Julian Symons dismissed Wade as a “humdrum” mystery author, he was largely forgotten until our friend Curtis Evans included him in his Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, rekindling a keen interest in the author’s work.
Seven of Wade’s novels and seven short stories featured Inspector Poole of Scotland Yard. “Wind in the East,” first collected in 1933’s Policeman’s Lot, is pure procedural. The killer’s identity is never really in doubt; it’s up to Poole to prove it and to clarify the motive. This he does in a brisk and lively matter, which helpfully balanced my desire for a bit more mystery about the tale.
If there is any classic author who has jumped in my esteem this year, it’s Anthony Berkeley. Here’s an author who had no interest in finding his version of GAD formula and then turning out sixty novels, reaching his peak in the 30’s or 40’s and then turning out a Berkeley for Boxing Day each year of ever-diminishing quality. No, right from the start, he treated the genre with extreme playfulness, and if each and every one of them was not a perfect gem, almost all of the time they were brimming with genuine wit.
As his sleuth, Berkeley created the insouciant Roger Sheringham, who nailed the adroitness of solution-making every time . . . even if his degree of correctness was about half that. The most meta-fictional and/or satirical of Sheringham’s exploits is The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929), in which Roger and five friends each take the facts of the same murder case and whip out six completely different solutions (Roger’s turns out to be wrong). The novel was expanded from one of Berkeley’s short stories, “The Avenging Chance,” and that story is included here for all to enjoy. It is a highlight of the collection, displays all of Berkeley’s delightful humor, and the cherry on top is that you can read it and then turn to the novel, which opts for a completely different ending.
We’ve been coasting along on stories by men, and now, for some reason, the women are jammed at the end, four in a row. E. M. Delafield is not a name much associated with crime fiction; however, she enjoyed a close friendship with Anthony Berkeley, and the book includes a story that could have been inspired by – or inspired – his Francis Iles novel Before the Fact. “They Don’t Wear Labels” is an entertaining creepfest about a respectable London landlady who takes in a new pair of boarders, a married couple. Mr. Peverelli is as charming a tenant as you could want and soon gets on with everyone. Unfortunately, he is saddled with a neurotic invalid of a wife, who frets and worries and keeps her husband hopping with requests for special cups of tea and healthy meals. Yes, the poor woman tells the landlady a wholly different story – something about her husband wearing a mask around others and being a far different person with her, how he makes them move from place to place so that she can’t get to know people well enough to confide in someone that her husband intends to poison her. Of course, given the choice between the two, who is a poor landlady going to believe? Who, indeed!
“It was London, it was hot, and it was Sunday afternoon.”
That is how you start a story, gentlemen. Stuff the ladies in the back, indeed! Here’s the second sentence:
“The billiard room in Prinny’s Club, Pall Mall, which has often been likened to a mausoleum, had unexpectedly become one.”
The author is Margery Allingham, not my favorite Queen of Crime, but she knows how to write a story. “The Unseen Door” is an impossible crime mystery and the shortest piece in the book. How could a man have entered the club when the door was guarded, murder his detested enemy in the billiard room, and then get out of a room with no exits? And why does the billiard marker, too old and feeble to have committed the crime himself, claim he never arrived at the club when the door guard insists he did?
The answer is both clever and poignant, and while the clue that gives it away is anything but fair play, it does allow Allingham’s famed sleuth, Albert Campion, to deliver a lovely punchline in the end.
In my ignorance, I thought that Ethel Lina White wrote her tales of women in jeopardy before the Golden Age; actually, her first crime novel was published in 1931. In her lifetime, she was evidently as popular a writer as Christie or Sayers, although she never made it on the list of Queens of Crime. My friend Kate Jackson has spent some time exploring the author, and her enthusiasm for at least some of White’s work (Fear Stalks the Village, The First Time He Died and others) makes her hard for me to dismiss. So does the fact that her novels The Wheel Spins and Some Must Watch were adapted respectively into the films The Lady Vanishes and The Spiral Staircase; the latter is a particular favorite of mine.
Certain passages in “Cheese,” the story by White included here, incline me more toward dismissal:
“Hitherto he had thought of women merely as ‘skirts’. He had regarded a saucepan with an angry woman at the business end of it, merely as a weapon. For the first time he had a domestic vision of a country girl – creamy and fragrant as meadowsweet – in a nice womanly setting of sauce pans.”
These thoughts come from the policeman hero of the tale, who reluctantly offers his aid to a damsel in distress because he believes she might lead him to a long-sought-after murderer. The damsel herself is one of the most dangerously naïve creatures I’ve ever come across. You just want to shake her and scream: “Don’t get in the car!” “Don’t go in the house!!” She goes anyway, and what follows, where all that seems right is wrong, and vice versa, is rendered in a lively, highly readable manner. And when the meaning of the title shifts at the end, you realize that some tales aren’t meant to be taken too seriously – you enjoy them a lot more that way.
The final story, Anthony Gilbert’s “You Can’t Hang Twice,” features her series amateur detective, solicitor Arthur Crook. Folks seem divided on Gilbert’s work: I myself have had a lovely collection of Crook tales published by Crippen & Landru on my bookshelf for years, not only unread but unwrapped! After reading this tale, I think the wrapping will finally have to come off.
The Gilbert story is one of the few in this collection that really gives you a sense of London. The element of fog finally plays a starring role in a story here, making for what Arthur Crook calls “an ugly night . . . Still, it all makes for employment. Fogs mean work for the doctor, for the ambulance driver, for the police and the mortician, for the daring thief and the born wrong ‘un.”.
Before this night is out, Crook will lure a reluctant witness out in the open (rather cold-bloodedly, since it leads to the witness’ death), come face to face with a murderer, set a trap for said culprit, and save his latest client from the gallows. In between, there is a lot of running around dark, foggy streets, a fair amount of suspense, and humor to boot. In his introduction, Martin Edwards advises us that “Crook’s blend of roguishness and remorselessness is to the fore” here. He nails that description in a most entertaining finale to a generally fine collection of tales.