This has definitely been one of the books I have been most looking forward to this year, with its familiar names, but unfamiliar tales, as all of the short stories and plays in this collection have either only been published once before ‘in a newspaper, a rare magazine or an obscure collection – or have never been published until now.’ Exclusivity always adds a new dimension to a work, as does a good introduction and Tony Medawar doesn’t fail in this category either, providing an outline of the history of the genre as well the role newspapers had in printing mystery fiction.
Before Insulin by J. J. Connington
This story originally appeared in the London Evening Standard in 1936 and it concerns a suspicious claimant to a will. A young man diagnosed with diabetes has died, seemingly making it to his day of inheritance and makes a will of his own in favour of his nurse before conveniently dying. The trustee of the original inheritance is keen for Sir Clinton Driffield to look into the matter. Driffield’s solution to the case is intricate especially in regards to the postal system at the time. We do also get the odd phrase that the young man ‘took diabetes’ – which does make it sound like he has taken it as some kind of educational course.
Query: I thought this title sounded familiar and once I checked it with my post: You Called Your Book What?, it was a title I had come across before, sort of. On the gadetection website it lists the story as ‘Beyond Insulin’ and published in 1935. So my query is, was it a misprint on the website, were there two different stories or is it the same story but with two titles? Update: Answer resolved in comments below.
The Inverness Cape by Leo Bruce
I’m a big fan of Bruce’s Sergeant Beef stories, so it is good to encounter this matter of fact, though entertaining sleuth again. In this story, first published in The Sketch in 1952 and uncovered by Curtis Evans, Beef recounts the case which ‘shocked’ him the most, of an old lady being ‘clubbed to death in full view of her crippled sister.’ The less than golden nephew is the prime suspect, his outlandish inverness cape being used in evidence against him. Very short story and one I think readers will unravel by themselves, but it is very entertainingly written and it is unusual that it is Beef who narrates the story, as opposed to his usual biographer, Townsend.
Leo Bruce Fun Fact: Beef shares his talent for darts with his creator, who was also part of the Intelligence Corps during WW2, going to Madagascar and India. He also impressively wrote 30 volumes of autobiographical work!
Dark Waters by Freeman Wills Crofts
Another story which made its’ debut in the London Evening Standard, (in 1953) and it centres on a solicitor called Weller planning the perfect murder to bump off one of his clients who he has embezzled money from. He is confident he will get away with it, but of course he has not reckoned on Inspector French… Given the protracted lengths French usually goes to solve cases, this is probably his shortest and easiest case, making you wonder if it was a bit anticlimactic for him. Crofts fans will be excited to hear that ‘a celebratory collection is in preparation, bringing together previously uncollected short stories and some of his unpublished stage and radio plays.’
Freeman Wills Crofts Fun Fact: Crofts wrote a number of radio plays, some of which were collected as short stories in Murderers Make Mistakes (1947).
Linckes’ Great Case by Georgette Heyer
A young man, called Linckes, who is new to the sleuthing profession, is put on to a case to see if he can find any solution to the information leaks occurring from the Cabinet. The suspects are few but are all seemingly above reproach. The tale is more in the thriller/espionage vein and was first published in Detective magazine in 1923.
Calling James Braithwaite by Nicholas Blake
This story is in fact a radio play script, which was performed in 1940 as one half of a two-parter by the Detection Club. This is the first time the script has been published. Its’ nautical background will have worked well with the radio medium in terms of sound effects and in keeping with the period the plot is suitably melodramatic. Our cast are aboard a ship, which alarmingly may be hiding a runaway from the local asylum, yet this threat is the least of Sir James Braithwaite’s problems, as he has the unenviable role of body number 1. He might be the ship’s owner but he is far from popular, being unbearably cruel to his wife, putting him in poor stead with her lover and with her father. Thankfully Nigel Strangeways is also on board to set things straight.
Nicholas Blake Fun Fact: On publishing A Question of Proof he nearly lost his teaching job, as it was presumed that he had had an affair with the headmaster’s wife, like one of suspects in the book.
The Elusive Bullet by John Rhode
As with the Connington tale, this story was part of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Detective Cavalcade and also appeared in the London Evening Standard in 1936. This story features Rhode’s serial sleuth Dr Priestley and sees him solving the tricky murder of Farquharson, who is found dead in a train carriage, shot. Inspector Hanslet comes up with a plausible case against the nephew but of course we know he must be wrong, as we wait for Priestley to reveal the more bizarre truth.
The Euthanasia of Hilary’s Aunt by Cyril Hare
The dark humour of this story puts it within the same school of writing as Francis Iles and Richard Hull. Hilary Smyth has an ignominious youth and does not do much better when he comes into his inheritance. Squandering it all he goes to live with his aunt, who is terminally ill, but will she write her will in his favour? Smyth of course thinks he has it all sorted, but Hare’s brilliant ending shows otherwise. This was first published in 1950 in the London Evening Standard.
Cyril Hare Fun Fact: Tenant for death (1937), his first novel was based on a play he had written called Murder in Daylesford Gardens. Equally An English Murder also began life as a radio play called Murder at Warbeck Hall.
The Girdle of Dreams by Vincent Cornier
Cornier is a writer who is completely new to me and I like how Medawar says in his introduction to this story that Cornier’s work was ‘often implausible, sometimes preposterously so’ but ‘nevertheless always entertaining.’ Suffice to say that statement fully applies to this tale with its truly bizarre method for subduing a human being, in order to give a jewel thief the opportunity to get away with the loot. There is also another lovely twist in this story and the story sleuth has a Holmesian feel.
I also think this story gives Moira at Clothes in Books her greatest challenge for finding a picture based on the clothing mentioned: ‘She wore a gabardine and a sealskin tippet. A turmoil of saffron velvet […] and she had a veil; a lugubrious downfall of maroon netting spotted with grey chenille.’
This story appeared in the Sheffield Daily Independent’s Christmas Budget 1933.
The Fool and the Perfect Murder by Arthur Upfield
This inverted mystery has an unusual publishing history. It was written in 1948 for an Ellery Queen magazine short story competition, yet due to getting lost, it did not appear in print until 1978, under the new title, ‘Wisp of Wool and Disk of Silver.’ The story takes place on a remote outstation in the Australia when an unplanned visitor unwittingly reveals a method for committing a perfect murder, a plot line which mirrors Upfield’s own life as whilst working out the plot for The Sands of Windee (1931), he mentioned the seemingly perfect murder method, which another labourer heard and used to kill three others.
Bread Upon the Waters by A. A. Milne
Another story in the Hull/Iles manner in which Coleby tells a group of listeners a murder story about Julian Crayne, prefacing his tale with the sentiment that: ‘Kindness doesn’t always pay.’ Once more we have a dissatisfied nephew who is keen to receive his inheritance sooner than intended, yet his approach to murder is wonderfully novel, so much so that I don’t want to spoil it for you by telling you anything about it. This is the kind of short story which has you trying to figure out what will happen next, using all the information and hints you’ve been given. Yet of course Milne had me fooled and the ending is delightfully unexpected.
The Man with the Twisted Thumb by Anthony Berkeley
Having read quite a few novels by Berkeley last year, I found this short story to diverge from what I thought was the Berkeley “norm”. The story involves recently fired nursery governess, Veronica Steyning and out of work Geoffrey Grant making acquaintanceship in Monte Carlo. Given what I know of Berkeley’s other plots I had a strong feeling where the story might go next, but I was completely wrong as he introduces the mistaken handbag! Again I will say no more… Whilst the more thriller style and conventional romance seemed out of keeping with my own Berkeley reading experiences, Medawar notes in his introduction to the piece that it is more reminiscent of his earlier work. This story first appeared in the Women’s Institute Journal, Home and Country in 1933.
The Rum Punch by Christianna Brand
This is the first time this story has been published and what a story! Sergeant Troot is planning for his family holiday and decides to give some parking assistance up at the hall in order to get some extra cash. Yet of course all this does is put his own holiday plans into jeopardy as whilst on duty there a murder occurs. The comedy of the piece comes from this issue as Troot is desperate for the case to be solved quickly so he can have his holiday, yet of course he is lumbered with a slow moving superior. A brilliant twisty ending invariably follows. Brand fans such as myself will also be excited that 2020 will see a second posthumous collection of short stories by Brand being released.
Blind Man’s Bluff by Ernest Bramah
In a play format, written in 1917 and performed in 1918, though not previously published, we see Max Carrados, Bramah’s blind detective at work. I have to admit to not being much of a fan of Bramah, given my lukewarm experience of Max Carrados (1914), so I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed this one. The story focuses on a trio of criminals attempting to remove some important papers from an American attaché, yet what makes the story is how Carrados goes about reversing all of their plans.
Victoria Pumphrey by H C Bailey
As the title suggests the story focuses on the exploits of Victoria Pumphrey, who although of aristocratic descent is forced to take on the job of solicitor’s typist, due to poor family finances. However an old family butler asks her to take some time off to look into an inheritance issue, with the expected new claimant from Australia. She unravels matters in a very thriller-ish, yet Sherlockian way. I found this quite unusual for Bailey, as my other experiences of his work show him to be more interested in using science to prove criminal wrongdoing. Yet on the other hand this probably made the story much more readable and enjoyable for me, as I found more attention was given to the characters and dialogue. This story first appeared in 1939 in Holly Leaves, the Illustrated News’ Christmas issue.
The Starting-Handle Murder by Roy Vickers
This is one of Vickers’ Department of Dead Ends stories, though the department only makes the most minimal of appearances and concerns another railway murder. This is an inverted mystery so we know who bumps off the hapless and irresponsible Lionel Hartways, but we are unsure of how things will end. This story was published in Pearson’s Magazine 1934.
The Wife of the Kenite by Agatha Christie
I think this story can only be loosely defined as a mystery tale, concentrating on a German paid agitator in South Africa, who is on the run. He thinks he has found a safe retreat in the farmstead of Mr Henshel, but his troubles are only beginning… It is believed that Christie wrote this story in South Africa in 1922, whilst on the British Empire Exhibition promotion tour with Archie. It appeared in Home Magazine in Australia.
So all in all this was an interesting and varied collection of short stories. It is impossible to select just one favourite but my top 5 are: ‘The Inverness Cape’ by Leo Bruce, ‘The Euthanasia of Hilary’s Aunt’ by Cyril Hare, ‘Bread Upon the Waters’ by A. A. Milne, ‘The Man with the Twisted Thumb’ by Anthony Berkeley and ‘The Rum Punch’ by Christianna Brand. It was also great to enjoy stories by writers I had not previously liked, so I am definitely looking forward to volume two next year!
It is also great to be able to say that later in July an interview with Tony Medawar will be appearing on the blog in conjunction with the release of the book on the 26th. So stay tuned!
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Timing of crime is crucial (Blake radio play).