This book has spent quite a while on my TBR pile, since I bought it from Barter Book last year, but at long last it made it to the top and I’m rather glad it did. Like Auden I find something very irresistible with a mystery set in the countryside. And what better to read than a short story collection which is a celebration of the rural mystery.
The Black Doctor (1898) by Arthur Conan Doyle
As with Continental Crimes (2017), this collection is opened with a non-Holmes story by Doyle. The tale centres on the murder of Aloysius Lana, a black doctor, who works in Bishop’s Crossing. Like many other stories in this collection there is the obvious suspect, Arthur Morton, the very angry and annoyed brother of Frances Morton, who Lana was engaged to before he broke it off with her, for unknown reasons, originating from a letter he received from South America. This was quite a light and frothy tale from Doyle, with a feel good factor at the end, though not before a number of surprises have occurred. However, despite being frothy, I think this story is important for how it depicts race relations, as given the time period, it is a narrative with quite a modern attitude towards multiracial marriages.
Murder by Proxy by M. McDonnell Bodkin
Murder at the manor is the focus of our next story, which features Bodkin’s serial sleuth Paul Beck. Once more we have the obvious suspect, a disgruntled son, who happened to be found beside his uncle’s body before anyone else got there. This looks bad for him as due to various witness testimonies there seems to be no other way a different murderer could have escaped, having fired the shot. The murder method in this tale is rather clever, though thankfully not overly complicated. Though I do wonder whether contemporary readers may have understood some of the clues more easily than modern ones. I think this is more of a howdunnit mystery as the culprit is quite easy to pick out.
The Fad of the Fisherman by G. K. Chesterton
This story was a re-read for me, involving the murder of Sir Hook, on a remote island within a river near his country seat. Lots of reasons for people to bump him off and the culprit once revealed is a shocking one. However what lets this story down is how the amateur sleuth knows a bit too much, yet has no obvious way of knowing what he does know. Therefore the solution lacks impact.
The Genuine Tabard by E. C. Bentley
This is a short story featuring Bentley’s famous sleuth Philip Trent and unlike in Trent’s Last Case (1913), Trent is no fool and soon gets to the bottom of a forgery scam. Bentley
playing around with village stereotypes is quite pleasing in this story, though I think due to the shortness of the story more is told to the reader rather than shown. I would also say some of humour is a little dated.
The Gylston Slander by Herbert Jenkins
The next story in the collection, featuring Jenkins’ sleuth Malcolm Sage, is a poison pen mystery and the bit of advice we are given at the start of the story is to avoid the obvious solution. Though deciding which obvious solution to avoid, is definitely the question. I enjoyed how Jenkins built up the mystery and the case Sage investigates, as the various stages didn’t feel too rushed. The writing style was also very engaging. I think my only qualm concerns the notions of female hysteria the story espouses in a rather blasé manner.
The Long Barrow by H. C. Bailey
I wouldn’t say I am a huge Reggie Fortune fan, but I really enjoyed the humanity of this story, finding the narrative to focus more on characters than on obscure technical information. The case Fortune begins with seems a rather vague one: an archaeologist and his secretary are being menacingly followed and they believe someone is trying to scare them away from excavating the long barrow. This part of the story is somewhat easy to solve and not really worth reading about. However it is in the process of solving this case that Fortune notices something far more disturbing going on…
The Naturalist at Law by R. Austin Freeman
Again I would say this Dr Thorndyke story was a much better read than I was expecting, not having been much of a fan of his novel-length cases. Thorndyke is asked to investigate the death of Cyrus Pedley, who is found drowned in a ditch. It is given an open verdict at the inquest, but Thorndyke is sure murder has occurred. This is a story concerned with proving murder has happened, rather than figuring out the whos and the whys – which are tagged on at the end. Thorndyke’s approach to evidence in its collection and interpretation was quite modern and interesting to follow.
A Proper Mystery (1942) by Margery Allingham
This story probably wins the prize for most unusual crime when the local flower show becomes a disaster after a herd of cattle get into the show ground and eat up many of the vegetable entries. It is through pub talk ragging and fisticuffs that the surprise ending is delightfully revealed, in an open ended manner.
Direct Evidence by Anthony Berkeley
This is a rare story which until this reprint had only been available in Ayresome Johns’ The Roger Sheringham Case-Book, of which there were only 95 copies. The story opens with Sheringham, who argues that circumstantial evidence is more important and accurate than direct evidence. A case soon follows for him to put his theory to the test when Claire Meadows asks him to prove the innocence of her brother who has been arrested for the murder of a married woman he was having an affair with. The only problem is that there are a large number of witnesses who swear positively that he shot her from his car. As with the Bodkin story the who element of the case is quite obvious, but it was interesting to see how Sheringham goes about dismantling the overwhelming direct evidence against Meadows’ brother.
Inquest (1932) by Lenora Wodehouse
Lenore was the step-daughter of P. G. Wodehouse and this story was originally published under the bizarre penname Loel Yeo. The story is narrated by a country doctor, who on a train journey encounters a familiar face from an inquest he attended several years ago. The case the inquest was trying is unfolded to the readers, with a nephew taking the role of the obvious suspect in the death of his uncle. Yet Wodehouse has quite the surprise for the reader at the end of the story and the brilliant writing style made this one of my favourite stories of the collection.
The Scarecrow by Ethel Lina White
The prize for best opening line would have to go to White in this story. After all it certainly grabs your attention: ‘THIS is death!” thought Kay.’ Yet death is avoided for Kay by the timely intervention of a waiter and her would be killer is hospitalised. Kay moves on with her life, even getting engaged and everything she fine until the day her would be assassin escapes. The remainder of the story charts the actions she and her loved ones take to protect themselves. With a title such as the scarecrow and the location of a farm we all know how this is going to end, though for all that you’re thrilled nonetheless when reading it. In a way I think it would have made for a good novella.
Clue in the Mustard by Leo Bruce
In the introduction to this story I was wryly interested to note that Bruce wrote 27 volumes of biography! Did he really do that much interesting stuff? That aside this is a Sergeant Beef story, which was also published under the title, ‘Death in the Garden’ and it looks at Beef’s first important case – the murder of Miss Crackliss. We have another obvious suspect in the nephew and this is another tale to be read for the howdunnit element, as the murder method used is rather a neat one. Due to the brevity of the tale, a matter of pages, we don’t get the usual Bruce humour though between Beef and Townsend.
Our Pageant by Gladys Mitchell
The collection ends with murder at the village pageant, centring round rivalry in the Morris jig group. This story has an unusual setup, which I enjoyed, though because this tale is only three pages long, I would say this is a story to be read for its sudden and sharp reveal of the solution.
So overall I would say this is a strong collection of stories and I was really impressed by the variety of crimes and locations, avoiding the tales coming across as too similar to one another. My favourite stories in the collection would be: Berkeley’s ‘Direct Evidence,’ Wodehouse’s ‘Inquest’ and White’s ‘Scarecrow.’ Though I must say I had a much improved reading experience with the Reggie Fortune and Dr Thorndyke stories, as normally I don’t like the style of their cases.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Carriage/Wagon