One of the many, many highlights of the 5th Bodies from the Library conference this year, was the chance to buy an early bird copy of this short story anthology. Having thoroughly enjoyed the first one, (thoughts on which you can read here), made me all the keener to get my mitts on the second collection. As with the first anthology, Tony Medawar has selected and introduced the stories.
No Face by Christianna Brand
The backdrop to this, never been published before, short story is a seemingly uncatchable serial killer, who mocks the police in phone calls, suggesting that since they have no face, they can never be caught. Superintendent Tomm is nowhere near to identifying the culprit, yet the story’s focus is on an undervalued and suspicious informant from the public, whose eye on the main chance may be the undoing of him. I’ve tried to not say too much about the plot, as I think it would ruin reader enjoyment. The informant element of the piece is especially well done, though I think readers may have an inkling of where the plot is going. I would also say there is something quite Carr-like in the opening and closing of this story as well.
Before and After (1953) by Peter Antony
Peter Antony is the penname for twins, Anthony and Peter Shaffer, and I have been wanting to read their mystery novels for a while. Unfortunately, copies of these books are rather thin on the ground and are fairly pricy to buy. So, I was really pleased this short story was included in the collection.
It begins with a nurse discovering their invalid employer, dead. Scotland Yard advise the local inspector to allow Mr Verity a hand in the case, given his proximity. Verity is of an irascible nature and he doesn’t have the most convivial of personalities. His conversation has to be borne with ‘fortitude.’ Verity has his work cut out though in this case, where there is a family full of suspects, though most of them have an alibi, which places them 12 miles away from the victim. Added to which the door to the victim’s bedroom was watched over by the night nurse.
This is an entertaining story from the Shaffer twins and the ending draws a smile. Also, this writing team have a flair for description, which means they pack a lot of meaning into few words:
‘Even in death Mrs Carmichael’s face still held the irritability of one forced to lean on others who were all too often engaged elsewhere.’
‘Mr Verity jumped out of the car with all the deftness of a rhinoceros in labour, and charged inside.’
Hotel Evidence (1934) by Helen Simpson
In the introduction to this collection, Tony Medawar mentions that some of the stories reside more on the fringes of the mystery genre and Simpson’s tale is the first of these. Murder is not our focus, but rather a married couple. It seems that Henry Brodribb’s wife wishes him to pretend to have an affair so evidence can be gained for her to divorce him and be with another man. Suffice to say Henry is no one’s lothario. Whilst this may seem like a very minimalist plot, the author does a great deal with it and her characters are crafted with a great deal of care. There are also a number of social and cultural elements which will be of interest for the reader. For instance, the female characters seem to do a good line in tacky gifts for poor Henry, such as a tiger skin hot water bottle and a monkey shaped pipe rack, (of which the monkey is wearing swimming trunks). Henry’s wife’s reasons for leaving him are also quite amusing, in particular why she feels her new man is so right for her, (bridge playing is a factor in this).
I have read, Enter Sir John (1929), which is a novel Simpson co-wrote with Clemence Dane, but I didn’t know a great deal about the author, so I found Tony’s bio to the piece especially interesting. She started out her life in Australia, then France and finally the UK. She worked as an interpreter and cipher clerk in WW1 for the Admiralty. The most bizarre thing I learnt about her was that she travelled to Hungary with her husband in the 1930s, ‘to research sightings of werewolves and vampires,’ as you do. I really would have loved to be a fly on the wall of that visa interview!
Exit Before Midnight (1937) by Q. Patrick
This is one of the longest pieces in the collection, feeling more like a novella, and it is also one of my favourites as well. The story takes place on New Year’s Eve. Leland and Rowling Process company are finalising a merger with the Pan-American Dye Combine, yet Carol Thorne, a secretary in the company finds a threatening letter on her typewriter. It warns that if the shareholders vote this deal through then the majority of them will be killed before midnight, when the merger would become valid, with the presumption that the heirs would have to have a re-vote. Of course, the vote goes through and just as they are pondering the letter, the lights go out and by matchlight the first victim is discovered. But worse is to come! The phone lines are cut, the lift won’t work and the fire escape is blocked. The group are trapped on the 40th floor and it is not long before someone twigs that the killer is no outsider… This is an interesting situation to solve and the writer is adept at keeping you guessing as to who is responsible, with character behaviour being used well to create various red herrings.
Room to Let by (1947) Margery Allingham
This is a radio play Allingham did for the BBC. It is set at a dinner gathering of the November club, where famous detectives meet and discuss crimes. There is a rather difficult guest called J. J. Jones, who thinks he is the best detective, claiming that he is ‘the only detective alive never to have a failure.’ So, when Curly Minter, a retired policeman, gets up to talk about the Marlborough Road Murder, an unsolved case, Jones is confident he can deliver the solution at the end. But has he bitten off more than he can chew? For this is no ordinary case, involving no less a killer, than Jack the Ripper himself! This is a delightfully ghoulish tale, with a nice spot of melodrama. The solution is rather truncated, though understandable given the demands of doing a radio play.
A Joke’s a Joke (1938) by Jonathan Latimer
Latimer’s story concerns a man who is well-known for playing pranks on co-workers. Some of these pranks are harmless and some have far reaching consequences, but one day he goes too far when he decides to prank his co-worker Stewart… I think this type of plot has a lot of potential, but I don’t feel it is fully realised in this story, which has only a minor sting in its tale. Again, I would say this story could only be very loosely described as a mystery.
The Man Who Knew by Agatha Christie
Derek Lawson is convinced there is something wrong in his flat, that there is some danger lurking within. A fruitless search nearly eases his mind, when he sees on the theatre programme in his hand the words: ‘Don’t go home.’ Soon he begins to notice that things have been opened in his flat and he finds a revolver in his tie drawer; recently fired. He senses that he is being set up by someone and this notion is strengthened when he learns of the murder of his uncle, a man who he has recently had an argument with. Given the brevity of the story, the consequences of discovering the mess he has been landed in, are somewhat truncated. Though I would say the ending is still satisfying. According to the bio Tony writes for this story, it came ‘from an undated typescript written some time between 1918 and 1923. It was first published in Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making (2011) by John Curran.’
The Almost Perfect Murder Case (1929) by S. S. Van Dine
Philo Vance recalls a famous case of the past; the Wilhelm Beckert murder, which took place in 1909 in Chile. At the start of the story we are told that ‘the detection of [the killer] hinged on a mere misunderstood connotation of a simple Spanish word.’ I did anticipate the twist in this one, but I did enjoy the language-based clue. Tony’s bio on Dine himself was very interesting to read, as I didn’t know much about him, though it does sound like he was as annoying in person, as his amateur sleuth was!
The Hours of Darkness (1949) by Edmund Crispin
This novella has never been published before and as a keen fan of Crispin’s work, I really enjoyed it. It begins with a hide and seek game at a house party in the countryside, on Christmas Eve. Given the time of year Noel Carter is far from pleased by Janice Mond’s choice of hiding place, which is outside. We watch their love/hate relationship develop, whilst a late guest arrives; a mystery writer. Their arrival ends the game and we begin to hear references to a past criminal case, one of the guests is connected to, as well as a recent attack on another guest. Yet the tension rises sharply when it is discovered that one of the guests has been murdered in the long gallery, in a particularly violent fashion. But who could have done it? And is it connected to the previous case? Who was the man, who was seen in the gallery prior to the killing? And of course what did the victim’s last words mean?
But where is Fen you ask? Well he is trapped within that hellish place, known as a children’s party. Those who have read other Crispin novels will know that Fen is the last person to be left at such an event, only rising to the challenge slightly better than his colleague, Wilkes, whose attempt at making up a fairy tale is certainly interesting. The murder couldn’t have come any sooner for Fen, who happily dashes off to solve it, singing various carols during the interviewing of the suspects.
As with other authors in this collection I learnt lots of new nuggets of information in Tony’s bio section. From the fact that it only took Crispin 2 weeks to write The Case of the Gilded Fly, to this delightful anecdote about him as a child:
‘he was a nervous shy child and his parents would often recount how, on leaving a children’s party at the age of seven, he had thanked the hostess for inviting him and explained that, although he had not enjoyed himself, it was not her fault.’
A version of this novella, not featuring Gervase Fen, was performed on the BBC home service in 1949.
Chance is a Great Thing (1950) by E. C. R. Lorac
This short story revolves around an ageing aunt of Peggy Tiler’s. She has a heart condition and Peggy is not keen on leaving her alone in her home. But she also wants to continue her wedding plans, so she is thankful when Mrs and Mr Banks say they will keep an eye on her. Yet it is not long before Mr Banks mentions the aunt’s will… For me this tale starts well, creating a few red herrings, yet the ending is so brief that the story’s denouement is a bit of a flop.
The Mental Broadcast (1945) by Clayton Rawson
This is another tale in the collection which hangs on to the fringes of the mystery genre and it takes place at the Great Merlini’s magic shop. He is asked for an impromptu card trick for a book someone is collating, and the story then proceeds to describe the trick. Not particularly edge of your seat reading, but it may appeal more to readers with an interest in card tricks.
White Cap (1942) by Ethel Lina White
Tess Leigh’s life is in the balance, and all because after washing her hair she wore a cap to walk to work… Neither her love life, nor her work life are going well, as within the day both take a huge blow and mostly because of a superior who makes the lives of her subordinates, hell. Yet it soon transpires that Tess has even more things to worry about, when a fateful walk places her in a tricky situation… Given the constraints of the size of the story I think White did a good job at balancing the requirements of each stage of the tale and the ending has a very quirky feature.
Six Pennyworth by John Rhode
This is a play, which according to Tony may have been intended for an amateur dramatic performance. It is set in a pub during the blackout and it contains a wall with antique weapons on. It begins with two wives lamenting the absence of their husbands who have been called up and as a few new customers arrive, we see the new barman incompetently trying to fulfil their orders; an element which I think brought a lot of comedy to the piece. Yet it is the arrival of one new customer which sours the jovial atmosphere. So, when the lights fuse, it shouldn’t take you too many guesses to figure out who gets a knife in the back… Inspector Waghorn, another customer, solves the case in an interesting manner and the conclusion is a strong one; entertaining, but with an unexpected dark undercurrent.
The Adventure of the Dorset Squire (1937) by C. A. Alington
Alington is not an author I have heard of before, so I was intrigued to see what sort of mystery he wrote. This one has quite a Wodehouse feel to it, as Ivor talks about a house party in Dorset and what happened in the 10 minutes after the lights go out. Expect blood, a flood and plenty of thuds!
The Locked Room by Dorothy L Sayers
The final tale of this collection is another unpublished novella and it too features a country house party. Lord Peter Wimsey is down to give his opinion on some books, though he is far from enjoying himself, due to his hosts, the Deerhursts. Thankfully Betty Carlyle is there to keep him company and given the way he discusses first kisses with her, before moving on to a practical demonstration, I think we can assume he hasn’t met Harriet Vane yet. His hosts are financially in low water due to poor money control, though selling their library may help matters. So, no one believes him when Mr Deerhurst threatens to blow his brains, but the following morning it seems he has done just that. Gun in hand and a locked room situation seals the deal for the local police, but does Wimsey agree? The ending on this one also feels a bit short, though I think the reader is sufficiently prepared for the identity of the culprit.
I think this collection is rather like a box of chocolates. There will be those tales which are your go to favourites, whilst others might be like new flavours, which on reflection were rather good. There are of course those stories, which are like chocolates you try to palm off on relatives at Christmas, but the sheer variety of tales, (in terms of medium and theme), means there will be something for everyone.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): An Academic (The Hour of Darkness)
Calendar of Crime: October (2) Author’s Birth Month (Jonathan Latimer)