Last month I was very excited to grab an early bird copy of Bodies from the Library (2018) at the annual Bodies from the Library conference. In case you’ve been in the Amazon rainforest or the middle of the Gobi desert and have not heard about this latest release, Bodies from the Library is a short story anthology of vintage crime fiction. But these stories are not just any one short stories, as the editor Tony Medawar has searched high and low all manner of literary and newspaper publications, to find some of the most obscure tales around, from the 1910s-1950s. The stories in this collection have never been published before or only once.
As the title of this post suggests though, this is not a further review, but an interview with Tony, so without a further ado let’s dive straight in with question number 1..
- How did the idea for the book come about? Was the title a starting point for this project or did it come at the end?
The concept – and title – for Bodies from the Library was the idea of the editor at HarperCollins, the indefatigable David Brawn, himself an expert on Golden Age crime fiction and editor of Little Grey Cells: The Quotable Poirot.
- What approach did you take for finding and selecting the stories?
I knew which writers I wanted above all to include in Bodies from the Library. Four were easy. Agatha Christie of course because she is beyond question the greatest writer in the genre and because I was aware of several uncollected items by her including the story I selected for the anthology, ‘The Wife of the Kenite’, which is very different from the pure detective stories for which she is best known. The second was Anthony Berkeley because of his massive contribution to the genre, and the third Cyril Hare whose few novels are excellent. The fourth ‘certainty’ was Christianna Brand, whose renown would be even greater had she not been forced to give up writing for twenty years. Radio and stage plays are a neglected feature of the genre and I knew of some really excellent scripts including the Nicholas Blake play, which was included principally because his detective, Nigel Strangeways, is a major figure in the genre. I discovered Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados stage play – a real curiosity that features ju jitsu – only days before we went to print. I also wanted to include in Bodies from the Library lesser known writers whom some still love: the king of the alibis, Freeman Wills Crofts; the amazingly ingenious John Rhode; Leo Bruce; JJ Connington; and the unique Vincent Cornier. I thought it would also be good to include writers who – in my humble opinion – are unfairly neglected today: H C Bailey; Roy Vickers; and Arthur Upfield. And I wanted to complete the volume with some famous writers whose contribution to the crime and mystery genre is considerably less well-known; A A Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh; and the popular romantic novelist Georgette Heyer. This is how the number of stories in Bodies from the Library grew from thirteen to sixteen!
- Which part of the process did you enjoy the most or find the hardest?
The hardest part in compiling any anthology is deciding what to include and what to put back in the filing cabinet. There are many factors to take into account: quality, obviously; length; where the lost story was most recently published, if at all; and whether any similarities between the lost story and other, better known ones by the same author.
- Are there any stories which didn’t make the cut, but which you really enjoyed?
Yes, several, but I am hoping to include them in the second volume of Bodies from the Library, due next year. With some writers, in particular Christianna Brand, I was simply spoiled for choice. My biggest frustration remains the stories that I know exist – and which in some cases were even published – but appear to be lost. Stories like Gladys Mitchell’s radio play ‘Full Fathom Five’, which features her detective Mrs Bradley, and Freeman Wills Crofts’ short story ‘Nemesis’.
- Which are your favourite stories from the collection?
I hope others enjoy Anthony Berkeley’s novella “The Man with the Twisted Thumb” as much as I did. It was discovered by my friend Arthur Robinson, who is the authority on Anthony Berkeley, and I think it is the most enjoyable story in Bodies from the Library. I also hope readers will enjoy the Christianna Brand story, ‘The Rum Punch’, an impossible crime story originally written for newspaper serialisation. I also really enjoyed the Agatha Christie story because of the links between it and one of Christie’s best known novels.
- How did you get into producing vintage mystery fiction short story anthologies?
Actually, Bodies from the Library is the first anthology I’ve edited as the other books are all single author collections. The first of these came about because of my friend Douglas Greene, the genius behind the American publisher Crippen & Landru. Doug generously invited me to write the introduction to the first volume in C&L’s “Lost Classic” series – John Dickson Carr’s radio serial ‘Speak of the Devil’, which features a truly ingenious solution to the riddle of life after death. I say “generously” because Doug Greene knows more about Carr than I or anyone else will ever know and could easily have written the introduction himself! That first collection was followed by the final collection of Agatha Christie stories, While the Light Lasts, which I compiled; this was the first time I worked with David Brawn at HarperCollins and twenty years later we are still working together! I have now edited seven collections and provided introductions for another half dozen or so books. There are two more single author collections in the pipeline and three multi-author anthologies, including a second volume of Bodies from the Library. I also continue to write about lost and little-known stories for Geoff Bradley’s CADS, the premier magazine for enthusiasts of crime and detective stories, where I have in the past revealed the existence of unknown material – and unknown pseudonyms – by Carr, Philip Macdonald, Allingham, Berkeley, Brand, John Rhode and, of course, Christie. Another ambition is to get everything I have discovered back into print!
- Is there anything you can tell us about the contents of the second volume that is due to appear next year?
It is difficult to be certain today, over a year before publication, because the final contents of the second volume of Bodies from the Library will be determined by many factors – what I like, what the editor likes and, where the material is still in copyright, what the budget allows us to publish. I do already have a longlist, which includes two totally unknown stories that feature three A List writers from the Golden Age and two of the most famous detectives in fiction. Several people have written to me with details of lost stories that I didn’t know about, and others have lobbied for the volume to include lost works by the likes of John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and S S Van Dine. We shall see!
Bodies from the Library is now on sale in the UK, in shops and online, so no one has any excuse for not buying this book immediately, without delay. Unless of course you’re flying a plane or fighting an angry bear – you should probably wait…