Source: Review Copy (British Library)
This collection opens as usual with an insightful and informative introduction by Martin Edwards, who provides a whistle stop tour of police detectives in mystery fiction. No mean feat, but I liked how he pointed out that despite the Holmes stories starting a popularity for writing mysteries which emphasised the superiority of the amateur sleuth in contrast to the bumbling police, intelligent and competent police detective focused stories were still being written, as the earlier stories in this collection show. There is a good variety of authors in this collection, providing a mix of authors I had not heard of before, others I had heard of but not tried or tried very much, as well as some old favourites.
The Mystery of Chenholt (1908) by Alice and Claude Askew
This first story is by a writing team which are new to me. Married in 1900, they began writing collaboratively 4 years later and before their untimely death in 1917, (their boat being sunk by a German torpedo), they wrote over 90 books and serials. This story includes their series detective Inspector Reggie Vane. Whilst taking a quieter posting after a difficult and traumatic case, (tantalisingly referred to as ‘his terrible night in the “Mummy house”’), Vane ends up being visited by a butler, who fears his employer is poisoning his wife. Unsure how reliable this story is, Vane sends his fiancée into the house as a maid, who soon finds that not everything is what it seems… This tale has a pleasing twist at the end, even if it is quite deducible. More importantly for me though were the detecting characters who I would definitely like to encounter in further stories.
The Silence of PC Hirley (1909) by Edgar Wallace
Wallace had several serial police characters, but this story features PC Lee, whose cases have been dramatized on BBC Radio 4. In this tale of blackmail which turns to murder, we see the power silence can have on those with a guilty secret. This is a short and punchy story, with a great open ended denouement, which hints at what must have really happened.
The Mystery of a Midsummer Night (1911) by George R. Sims
Sims is an author slightly familiar to me, as I have read some of his Dorcas Dene stories. Though I did not know that he apparently invented a tonic designed to prevent baldness. I also didn’t know of his interest in real crimes, particularly the Ripper murders, but it is plain to see in this story which is pretty much a fictionalisation of the real life murder case at Road Hill House.
The Cleverest Clue by Laurence W. Meynell
Next up we have a reporter going to interview ex-Inspector Joseph Morton on clues. A monologue, which Meynell skilfully writes, ensues with Morton recalling a case concerning the kidnap of Professor Overbatch, who was working on an anti-aircraft device. This is a case with a good set of characters and has one of the most unusual clues I have come across. So all in all a good short read.
The Undoing of Mr Dawes (1935) by Gerald Verner
Verner was the penname for John Robert Stuart Pringle, who was a thriller writer enjoyed by the Duke Windsor. He also wrote Sexton Blake stories and in 1956 he adapted Christie’s Towards Zero for the stage. He even once got contracted by his publishers to write a book a month – a phenomena I don’t think would ever happen nowadays. Verner’s tale focuses on the exploits of a fence named Simon Dawes, who is keen to use newly released convict Harry Snell to do a burglary job for him. Unfortunately for him he is in the sights of Superintendent Budd and this story has a good sting in its tail.
The Man Who Married Too Often (1936) by Roy Vickers
This is an example of one of Vickers’ inverted mysteries, a style which was highly praised by Ellery Queen. When I first read some of Vicker’s stories a few years ago I wasn’t much of a fan, but this time around I enjoyed his style much more. In this story the Marchioness of Roucester and Jarrow gets convicted for murder and as events unfold we see not only how she gets her comeuppance, but we also get to see the influences and pressures which turned her to murder in the first place. The Marchioness makes for a great killer and it is interesting to see that there is a surprise for police as well as for her at the end of the tale.
The Case of Jacob Heylyn by Leonard R. Gribble
Gribble is another author new to me and he was a founder member of the CWA. For all you mystery fans who also like football he also did a number of football themed mysteries. This story though features Anthony Slade as his serial sleuth investigating a case which seems to be suicide, but soon proves to be otherwise. I think this is a rather clever story, which is well written, with neatly drawn characters and lots of tangible clues to consider.
Fingerprints (1952) by Freeman Wills Crofts
This is a very short inverted mystery by Crofts, who most famously used this writing style in his novel Antidote to Venom (1938). I am not a huge fan of Inspector French, his series’ sleuth, usually because of the painstaking approach he takes to policing. However in this story French probably sets a personal record for criminal investigation, deftly solving matters in a couple of pages, with the narrative’s focus being on the crime and its preparation.
Remember to Ring Twice (1950) E. C. R. Lorac
Despite this tale making one think of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel, this story begins with PC Tom Brandon overhearing a conversation in a pub, a conversation which we see acted upon in a violent and ruthless manner. Like Crofts’ tale this is a very short story, but Lorac provides much to interest the reader in terms of plot devices and characters.
Cotton Wool and Cutlets (1940) by Henry Wade
This story gets the prize for weirdest title in the collection, referring to two very baffling clues in the case DC John Bragg is called to investigate. Again we have another case of supposed suicide which turns out to be murder. This is Bragg’s final appearance in fiction and it seems a shame he was not a long lived character, as his debut came in a short story collection of 1938. As Wade has shown in his novels, in this story he delivers a well put together plot and intriguing crime.
After the Event (1958) by Christianna Brand
Brand is an author I have read a few times this year and suffice to say this story was my favourite out of the entire collection. For this story alone the book is worth buying. The set up sees Inspector Cockrill at a gathering listening to someone known mysteriously as the Great Detective. Yet he is no doting Watson and whilst the Great Detective strives to amaze his audience with a past case, Cockrill consistently keeps on interrupting with comments and questions, taking the winds out of the Great Detective’s sails: ‘It had been the old man’s story – for years it had been his best story, the pet white rabbit out of the conjurer’s mystery hat; and now it was spoilt by the horrid little boy who knew how the tricks were done.’ The old case being discussed has a theatrical background, within which Brand plays a very clever trick on the reader. I’ll say no more, except read it!
Sometimes the Blind (1963) by Nicholas Blake
Blake’s tale involves a poisoned dog and a traffic fatality. He packs his short tale full of intrigue and interest, as well as with complex character psychology and an unsettling ending.
The Chief Witness (1957) by John Creasey
Creasey is not an author I have tried before, never having been drawn to the fictional milieus he creates. However I found this story very moving and engaging. It features his serial sleuth Roger West and opens from a child’s point of view, initially hearing his parents arguing and then failing to rouse his mother in the morning. There is an obvious theory for what has taken place, yet West is not so convinced and begins to probe more deeply, with the important evidence coming from the child themselves. The child’s role in the story is well-handled and in my opinion it is this character which gives this tale its’ impact.
Old Mr Martin (1960) by Michael Gilbert
Gilbert’s begins with a supposed hit and run accident of a sweet shop owner, which then takes a very surprising turn when the cellar beneath the shop is investigated. This is another enjoyable story which is full of twists and turns and it is hard to guess how things will end.
The Moorlanders (1966) by Gil North
This is the first time this story has been published in book form. Unfortunately this was my least favourite tale in the collection, though is a good reminder of why I haven’t tried any of North’s novels. The story involves a rural Yorkshire motorbike accident which might not have been accidental. That is all I can tell you really as I found the writing style very hard to understand, so wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. However this is another of the very short, short stories, so is easy to skip if it’s not your cup of tea.
Despite this last entry in the collection I would say this is my favourite short story collection from the British Library to date. The story lengths worked really well, meaning there were no stories which lacked pace or dragged on. Normally I am much more naturally drawn in by the enigmatic and unusual amateur sleuth, but I enjoyed how this collection showcased a range of policeman detectives, who are as engaging as their amateur counterpart. There were lots of really strong entries in this collection, with Brand’s story definitely stealing the limelight. So if you’re looking for your next short story collection I’d strongly recommend you give this a try.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Glove
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