Source: Review Copy (British Library)
This is the latest short story collection issued by the British Library and should be available in June. All of the stories unsurprisingly are connected by the common dominator of being set on the Continent. The collection opens with a story from Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The New Catacomb’ (1898). Something that surprised me, was that it was originally appeared in a Year-Book produced by a soap manufacturing company and was also originally titled, ‘Burger’s Secret.’ The story takes place in Rome one sinister night, focusing on two ambitious archaeologists. Yet it soon becomes apparent that more is going on beneath the surface than a guarded discussion over the discovery of a new catacomb. Whilst this story is perhaps not hugely mysterious, it is wonderfully atmospheric and Doyle is adept at quickly giving you a grasp of what someone is like.
The second story in the collection takes us to Belgium in Arnold Bennett’s ‘A Bracelet at Bruges’ (1905) and this story even made it into Ellery Queen’s Queen’s Quorum. The story commences with the seemingly accidental loss of Kitty Sartorius’ expensive bracelet into the canal. But for readers the circumstances are immediately suspicious, as they are for the multimillionaire Cecil Thorold. The characterisation is delicate and effective, but unfortunately the mystery is given away a little too easily. My favourite two characters were Thorold and Kitty’s friend, Eve Fincastle, and in some ways they feel like a foreshadowing of mysteries of the 1920s and 30s where romance and amateur sleuthing merge together through two protagonists.
It is back to France for an impossible crime in G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Secret Garden’ (1910), when a decapitated corpse is found within the Chief of Police’s back garden. Of course amongst the Chief of Police’s dinner guests there is Father Brown who soon has the perplexing mystery solved. Although this is a story I have read before it is always a pleasure to return to Chesterton’s delicious prose style and turn of phrase: ‘the moon with her scimitar had now ripped up and rolled away all the storm-wrack’ and ‘the blue-and-silver garden, like a scene in a theatre, seemed to taunt him with all that tyrannic tenderness against which his worldly authority was at war,’ being but two examples of the way Chesterton’s descriptions make you stop and think. I do also love the moments where a phrase by Father Brown punctuates the tension: ‘I mean that cigar Mr Brayne is finishing. It seems nearly as long as a walking-stick.’ In a novel format I think this story could have been even better, but even in its short story format it is hard not to like.
The fourth story is by E. Phillips Oppenheim, an author I have meant to try for some time. His story, ‘The Secret of the Magnifique (1912), also takes place in France, beginning in the Gare de Lyons with a group of mysterious nefarious personages contemplating their next enterprise. Various events lead them and several others to a hotel on the outskirts of the Riviera. However, events do not transpire in the way you imagine when they all get there, with theft, intrigue, espionage and romance all rolling into one fairly entertaining yarn. It is quite a dense story given the page span and could have been lengthened, but on the whole it was enjoyable, with a number of the characters being ones you would want to encounter again in another story. Equally it is hard for any book worm to not sympathise with the character who gets interrupted whilst reading: ‘Mr John T. Laxworthy closed his book with a little sigh of regret, and placed a marker within it.’
Our next tale takes place in Belgian and is of a very different milieu, set within WW1. ‘Petit-Jean,’ although published in 1931 under the penname of Ian Hay, was written by Major General John Hay Beith during the war itself, making it quite an unusual story. The action takes place in and around a farm occupied by the British Army, named Cow Corpse farm by the British Army Ordnance department. Given the slaughter occurring at the time it is not surprising that the mystery element in this story concerns the disappearance of a number of provision parcels and espionage. Death aside from the cow, is kept to the background. Nonetheless this was an enjoyable piece, with an effective use of setting and a strong ending to boot.
The sixth story in the collection is by F. Tennyson Jesse, who was a reporter in Belgian during WW1. However her story, ‘The Lover of St Lys’ (1919) is set in the South of France, following the consequences of a complex and deceptive love triangle. There are amateur sleuths of sorts in this story, who although recognise something is up, don’t really do a whole lot. Criminal psychology in this story is very interesting though and I did find the behaviour of one of the amateur sleuth type figures intriguing for its moral ambiguity.
Having enjoyed The Lodger (1913) by Marie Belloc Lowndes I was intrigued to read the next story in this collection, ‘Popeau Intervenes.’ I was also interested to read that Lowndes was not impressed with the similarities between her character Hercules Popeau and Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Marital infidelity, a Russian Countess (who even Popeau can’t help but admire) and a valuable jewel all feature in this story set in Paris.
The next story in this collection is written by Stacy Aumonier, an author I had not heard of before and his story is entitled ‘The Perfect Murder’ (1926). Though as we all know perfect murders don’t always go to plan, which is the case in this story involving two financially struggling brothers in Paris. I can see why Aumonier’s work was admired by both Hitchcock and Julian Symons, as his writing style is engaging, combining pace and character details well, making you wonder how it will all turn out right until the end.
J. Jefferson Farjeon is an author I have read a few times now so the evocative gothic atmosphere in ‘The Room in the Tower,’ felt quite expected. After all what do you expect when a writer rents out a German castle for his holidays? Though I feel Air B & B guests would be far from happy if they had the same experiences he does. At times I did feel the sinister atmosphere did obscure what was going on a bit and the ending was a bit clunky in my opinion, given the amount of information Farjeon needed to give the reader to wrap things up.
H. de Vere Stacpoole’s story, ‘The Ten-Franc Counter’ (1926) follows next and Stacpoole is another new author to me and his tale whisks us off to Monte Carlo where M. Henri of the Paris Sûreté has to solve the murder of an invalid. Interesting setup but I don’t think we get to grips with the key figures, being kept at arm’s length until the solution is revealed. Though I think a seasoned mystery reader will probably be able to pick out the culprit early on.
The 11th tale in the collection is by Agatha Christie and is one of her Parker Pyne stories; ‘Have you got everything you want?’ (1933). For an Agatha Christie blogathon last September I reviewed all her Parker Pyne stories, so you can read my thoughts on this story here.
The next story is by another familiar author to me, H. C. Bailey and ‘The Long Dinner’ (1935) features his serial sleuth Reggie Fortune. Never been a huge fan of Bailey’s work and I am not sure this story did much to change my mind. The story concerns the disappearance of a mildly criminal and dissolute artist and involves investigative work on both sides of the Channel. This is probably one of the longest stories in this collection and I didn’t really get along with Fortune’s bizarre and outlandish deductions. For a scientific detective some of his deductions are fairly fantastical, as is the solution and the reader is left wondering how on earth the story ended up where it did.
The penultimate story in this collection is Josephine Bell’s ‘The Packet Boat Murder’ (1951) and Superintendent Mitchell fears that the wrong man was executed for the murder of a French girl on the boat home from a holiday in France. The person who was condemned did have an affair with her which got out of hand, but was murder his solution to the problem? This is a very short and snappy story with a twist, though I’m not sure I am wholly satisfied with the ending.
The final story is by Michael Gilbert, whose novel, The Danger Within (1952), I really enjoyed reading earlier this year. His story in this book is the ‘Villa Almirante’ (1959) and is set in Italy. Lieutenant Lucifero has to solve the death of an English tourist, who has been staying at a local villa, along with two other guests and it soon seems apparent that they are not all what they seem. Having said that I don’t feel we get a chance to sufficiently explore these characters, meaning the solution is rather thrown at us at the end of the story, along with an unsettling feeling. I did enjoy in particular though the way the case is unfolded by degrees, surprising both the suspects and the reader.
Overall this was an enjoyable mixture of stories, with a variety of crimes and story structures, though it did occur to me that a significant amount of these stories did take place in France. Not saying this is a bad thing but it does make you wonder why authors have preferred to choose this country in preference to other countries on the Continent. My two favourite stories were ‘Petit-Jean’ and ‘The Perfect Murder’ and it is great how these collections by the British Library introduce you to new authors.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Green Object