This is the 13th collection of short stories that the British Library Crime Classics series has published and contains a bumper crop of tales, 16 in total. All of the stories involve water one way or another, from swimming pools and ponds, to river, locks and oceans. Martin as always does a sterling job introducing the collection, providing a concise overview of this theme in mystery fiction, looking back to earlier writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Cyril Hare, Agatha Christie and Colin Dexter, to present day writers such as Ruth Ware, L. C. Tyler and Reginald Hill.
The Adventure of the ‘Gloria Scott’ (1893) by Arthur Conan Doyle
Doyle had experiences of his own on the high seas, something I was not aware of, having twice been a ship’s surgeon, including on a whaling ship. This story is a Sherlock Holmes mystery, though not one I remembered anything about. In keeping with A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear, this story is mostly comprised of a retrospective story told about a morally ambiguous victim, this time through a letter to his son. This was Holmes’ first ever case and involves him trying to find out why a man should die through heart failure, due to reading a bland note about pheasants. A past life and a dark tale from the ocean might be the answer…
The Eight-Mile Lock (1897) by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace
This story features Meade’s series character, John Bell, who is known for his ability to debunk supernatural goings on. The tale is set on the Thames and involves Bell having to trace a stolen diamond bracelet. Consonant with the literary time period the solution to this story involves an unusual piece of technology. Arguably this tale is more of a howdunnit.
The Gift of the Emperor (1898) by E. W. Hornung
Hornung’s tale features his occupational crook, Raffles and his friend and Watson, Bunny Manders. This story was the concluding tale of the short story collection, The Amateur Cracksman (1899). A European monarch, (which I think we are meant to read as German, due to later clues), presents a valuable pearl to the king of the cannibal islands, in recognition of his rudeness to Queen Victoria. Such a prize is sorely tempting for Raffles who decides to go after it, taking his friend with him on the ship it is travelling on. There is a bit of a jingoistic twang to this one, but bearing in mind this is a concluding story, its ending is interestingly reminiscent, but also interesting divergent from another famous author’s series sleuth’s (albeit temporary) ending.
Bullion! By William (1911) Hope Hodgson
Hodgson’s story provides us with an impossible crime and is told to us in the first person by a second mate on a ship travelling from Melbourne to London. Disturbing whisperings are keeping the captain awake in his cabin at night, but our narrator soon twigs that these whispering may be linked to the gold bullion stored in a room beneath the captain’s cabin. Despite increased surveillance of the storeroom when the ship docks the gold is gone, but can the narrator figure out how it disappeared?
The Echo of Mutiny by R. Austin Freeman
This is an inverted mystery, starring Dr Thorndyke; Freeman’s series sleuth. An elderly seafaring man sets off alone to a lighthouse to relieve a man on duty there. Yet unfortunately for both of those men they know each other from a disreputable past and one of them is not prepared to let the other give them away. Death is inevitable but can Thorndyke unmask a killer? The key clue I think is quite easy to anticipate but Thorndyke still does a good job at proving his case.
The Pool of Secrets (1935) by Gwyn Evans
This is a new author to me, and Evans was one of the many writers who crafted the Sexton Blake stories. The village of Lyvden is far from happy about the new squire at Cheriton Hall, who is busily making big changes to the property; turning it into an expensive country club. The locals say the ghost of the silver bride who haunts the lake there will not be happy about these changes, and this soon appears to be the case when not only is a dog supposedly witnessed to be killed by the ghost, but human life also seems to be taken as well. Thankfully wealthy and erudite Quentin Ellery Drex is on the scene and is able to prove a far more natural, though still ingenious answer to the case. Again, I would say this is story is more of a howdunnit rather than a whodunnit.
Four Friends and Death (1935) by Christopher St John Sprigg
Four friends decide to celebrate the end of yachting trip with a drink. Yet it is a drink which ends in death, with one of the friends dying of prussic acid poisoning. But which of the friends did the deed? I really enjoyed the working out of this mystery and the final solution was brilliant and very apt for the short story format.
The Turning of the Tide (1936) by C. S. Forester
Forester is better known for his Horatio Hornblower novels, but he did in fact write a trio of inverted mystery novels, which I have reviewed favourably on the blog. This short story is also of the inverted kind, in that we know who the guilty party is. A key theme of the story is being able to dispose of a body successfully, but has our murderer got the solution to the problem? The ending is deliciously dark and highly original.
The Swimming Pool (1936) by H. C. Bailey
Reggie Fortune and his policeman friend Lomas have their work cut out in this case which involves looking at a supposedly natural death from the past and a present-day case of a headless corpse. The solution to this one is actually quite surprising, taking turns you don’t expect.
A Question of Timing (1946) by Phyllis Bentley
Bentley was also a new author to me, though she is perhaps best known for her non-mystery novels, including Inheritance (1932). This story is told in the first person by a writer who manages to thwart a murder when he goes for a walk along the Thames, after he gets stuck in writing his latest novel.
The Thimble River Mystery by Josephine Bell
Dr David Wintringham has to come to the aid of his friend John Chudley, when he is implicated in the murder of a fellow yachtsman on the Thimble river. Timing is crucial to this case, as to when the murder could and couldn’t be committed.
Man Overboard (1954) by Edmund Crispin
This story takes the format of a chat between Gervase Fen and DI Humbleby at a club. They take an unusual stance on blackmailers, citing them as ‘generally rather nicer than any other kind of crook,’ with their misdeeds being ‘the least odious and most socially useful of crimes.’ Humbleby goes on to share a story of how the death of blackmailer, (having been run over by a bus), led to the proof needed to convict a man of murdering his brother, this latter death taking place on a sailing trip, (in case you were wondering where the water figured in this story.) Crispin tells this story very well and includes an interesting choice of clue.
The Queer Fish (1955) by Kem Bennett
Once more a new author to me and this story was adapted for film in 1956, released under the title of Doublecross. Albert Pascoe, who is not the world’s most law-abiding citizen, finds himself in a tight spot when some crooks force him at gun point to take them to France in his boat. The directions Bennett takes the story in are far from expected and are very much enjoyable.
The Man Who Was Drowned (1958) by James Pattinson
A man goes overboard on a ship at night, his descent seen by a woman. Yet Barton Rice, friend of the captain and a private helper of the police, is suspicious of this female witness. Catching her out in a mistruth, he decides to dig further… Interesting mystery, though I think it would have been better served in a full-length novel.
Seasprite (1963) by Andrew Garve
The title of the story is changed due to the original being too big a spoiler and is instead named after Guy Lunt’s boat. Lunt is a smuggler who is struggling to make ends meet and soon decides he needs to find a new conspirator to generate some funds. A crime on the waters is planned, but will it all go to plan? An ending with a definite sting in its tail.
Death by Water (1975) by Michael Innes
This is a Sir John Appleby mystery and Appleby is worried about his philosopher and academic friend Charles Vandervell. The worry of financial difficulties is mentioned, but are they real or imagined? I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, but Innes includes an aptly water-themed clue.
This collection certainly does well in providing variety, including a diverse number of ways water can be involved in a mystery story. My personal favourites were those written by Christopher St John Sprigg, C. S. Forester and Edmund Crispin.
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