The latest short story collection, from the British Library Crime Classics series, is centred on stories which, as Martin puts it, ‘illustrate ways in which a host of writers […] made use of scientific and technical know-how (often fresh and exciting at the time the stories were written, even if now seemingly quaint or obvious) in weaving their puzzles.’ In some of these stories, science enables a killer to be caught, whilst in others it is used by the killers themselves. The introduction to this collection is especially interesting as it comments on how science, crime detection and crime fiction developed and connected with one another.
The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1891) by Arthur Conan Doyle
This story is probably the most well-known one in the collection, though I never knew it was the first Holmes short story to feature murder. Events take place in Herefordshire where a man has been arrested for the murder of his father. He was seen arguing with his father moments before death occurred and other circumstantial evidence further blackens his name. Yet Holmes soon becomes convinced that the obvious answer is not the correct one and his knowledge of footprints and cigarette ash aid his theory. Holmes is in fine fettle here and it’s interesting to see in this early story many of tropes and themes Doyle would continue to work with in later cases.
The Horror of Studley Grange (1894) by L. T. Meade and Clifford Halifax
Lady Lucilla Studley is keen for Doctor Halifax, (who is narrating the story), to go to her home in Wiltshire to attend to her husband, Sir Henry. Her husband apparently hates doctors and is evidently ill, but there are no obvious physical causes for his malady. Lucilla wonders if it is something to do with his mind. Yet when Halifax arrives it seems that Henry thinks his wife needs the doctor’s attentions more than him. So, what is going on exactly? The motivation behind the strange goings on is unusual, though I think the culprit is perhaps a little obvious. This story is also one which puts medical equipment to a novel use.
The Tragedy of a Third Smoker (1898) by C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne
Hyne shows in his opening line the early roots of the self-referential nature of detective fiction: ‘I abominate detective stories […] You see, when a man makes a detective story to write down on paper, he begins at the butt-end and works backwards. He notes his points and manufactures his clues to suit ‘em, so it’s all bound to work out right. In real life it’s very different…’ The story which follows is told by QC Grayson, who is telling a friend about a difficult case he had to unravel when he was called to defend a man accused of murder. The accused and the victim were the only two people in a train carriage. Several stops in and the accused leaves the carriage in a distracted state, whilst the victim is found dead; a pickaxe left at the scene. As with the Holmes story there is an obvious solution, but again it is shown that not everything is as it seems.
The Man Who Disappeared (1901) by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace
Charles Pleydell, a successful lawyer, is the author of this next tale when he relates an unusual experience he had. It all started when he is asked to help a Brazilian woman, her stepdaughter and her brother find a home to rent. They have many particular requests, such as being near London and a common or moor, as well as having extensive basements for laboratory work. However, the youngest of the trio soon reveals that her family are dangerous and dangerous to one man in particular, Oscar Digby; an explorer and friend of Charles. But what are their designs on him? Can Charles save him? The science in this case brings up an interesting point of law.
The Cyprian Bees (1924) by Anthony Wynne
This is a story of odd beginnings. A policeman near Piccadilly Circus finds a box in a gutter with some bees in. Why is this significant? Well as Inspector Biles points out to Dr Eustace Hailey, (Wynne’s serial amateur sleuth), a woman in the area was found dead at the wheel of her car. She had been stung prior to death. All of the bees involved are of the Cyprian variety, an aggressive breed. But is there a case here? Could you really murder someone that way? Hailey operates in the Holmesian manner, though with the killer bee angle I think there are a number of scenes in this story that Hitchcock could have done a lot with.
The English Filter (1926) by C. E. Bechhofer Roberts
A. B. C. Hawkes, Roberts scientist sleuth, is in Rome with his friend and our narrator Johnstone, whose an archaeologist. They are wishing to visit Professor Ribotta who has recently published some extraordinary work, though it seems that he is in fact taking the credit for a subordinate’s talent. However, we are soon plunged into a locked room mystery, with a poisoned water filter system and a laboratory whose sole entrance was under observation. There appears to be only one possible suspect, but Hawkes is not quite so sure. The science used to detect the culprit in this one would nowadays be highly disputed, that of optography, (retrieving images from somebody’s retina). It was interesting to note in Martin’s introduction to this story that in one murder of the 1920s the victim was shot in both eyes by the killer who was anxious that his image may be recorded on their retinae.
The Contents of a Mare’s Nest (1927) by R. Austin Freeman
Mr Stalker from the Griffin Life Insurance Company is very unhappy about paying out on a claim. A man has died of heart failure, which is a bit unexpected, but initially everything seems above board. But then there are two women claiming to be the man’s wife. One even goes as far as accusing the other of being a murderer as well as a bigamist. It is at this juncture that Dr Thorndyke begins to look into the case and soon finds someone has been forging burial certificates and documents. This is an intriguing case as it is not clear if a crime has taken place and if so what kind and proving things is another tricky problem. I’m not the biggest Freeman fan but found I enjoyed this story quite a lot and found the unfolding of the investigation more interesting than I normally do.
After Death the Doctor (1934) by J. J. Connington
It is Sergeant Longridge’s first murder case when he is called to the home of Barnaby Leadburn, who has been found with his throat cut in his office. The victim was not a nice man and he was at odds with his staff and relations. The means by which an impossible alibi is broken are unusual, though perhaps a little fortuitous.
The Broken Toad (1934) by H. C. Bailey
Reggie Fortune is called into figure out how a policeman was poisoned whilst walking his beat. From the smallest of clues Fortune develops a lead, though it seems the death of a policeman is only the beginning of a chain of further deaths. The criminal psychology in this case is quite unusual and as with the Freeman tale I found myself enjoying this story far more than I usually do, as again Fortune is not usually quite my cup of tea.
In the Teeth of Evidence (1939) by Dorothy L. Sayers
Lord Peter Wimsey goes to the dentist at the start of this story, though his attention soon wanders to crime when it turns out that his dentist is going to have to help the police in an investigation. A man has been found dead in garage fire and they need his dental records in order to confirm his identity. Lord Peter is unsurprisingly keen to tag along. This is perhaps not the most surprising of mysteries, but the steps taken to unveil the solution are engaging to follow.
The Case of the Chemist in the Cupboard (1943) by Ernest Dudley
Doctor Morelle was Dudley’s ‘scientific and medical expert with a fondness for criminology.’ He began life on the radio, (I think), and soon became a popular character. He has an assistant named Miss Frayle, who does seem fairly devoted to him, which helps given how disinterested and gruff he is, as well as holding a pretty dim view of her capabilities. This is certainly the state of affairs when the story opens as Miss Frayle drops a container of acid which was required for an experiment. So off she goes to the chemist to buy some more, yet she cannot find anyone inside when she gets there. Whilst telephoning for further instructions from her employer, she screams, and the line goes dead. Assuming she has fainted from seeing a mouse, Morelle grudgingly goes around to see if she is okay. But given the title of the story I think we all know what fell out of the cupboard… This story has a very good setup, though its resolution is somewhat hurriedly put together. I wonder whether this would have done better for a novella.
The Purple Lane (1950) by John Rhode
Inspector Purley gets an incoherent phone call from a man about his wife and when he gets to the property, he finds the man’s wife headfirst in a water butt. This story, like the Connington one, is another alibi breaking story and Rhode finds an out of the ordinary way of doing so.
Blood Sport (1954) by Edmund Crispin
DI Humbleby is the focus of the story, rather than Gervase Fen. Humbleby’s superior is reading one of his reports whilst he recollects the events that led to it. A cleaning girl is shot with a rifle whilst waiting at a bus stop, so it should not be surprising that ballistics play an important part in this case. This is rather a short story and it ends fairly abruptly. The solution would have been more satisfying if it had been worked up to more effectively. I don’t think this story is as successful as some of the other Crispin stories in the BL series, which is a shame as usually the Crispin stories are my favourites.
The New Cement (1955) by Freeman Wills Crofts
Superintendent French is on a walking holiday and decides to call in on his friend Mark Rudd. Rudd is just about to try out a new cement preparation that he was sent in the post. However, with his greater chemical knowledge, French stops him in time and prevents Mark from causing a massive explosion, which would have surely killed him. This setup is a wonderful variation on the chocolates sent in the post trope, though given the small nature of the cast of characters, the culprit is fairly easy to deduce.
So looking back on this collection it seems it was quite a surprising one. Who would have guessed that I would have enjoyed the Freeman and Bailey stories more than the Crispin story? A number of the authors were new to me, or were ones I had not experienced much of, so it was great to be able to encounter their stories here. I’m not particularly tech savvy, nor particularly scientifically minded, but neither of these things affected my ability to enjoy the stories in this collection, so no one needs to worry about prior knowledge.
And sport fans have much to look forward to in 2020 as the next short story collection is to be themed around sports.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Set in Victorian Era (The Boscombe Valley Mystery)
Calendar of Crime: February (5) Other February Holiday – February 13th Feast day for Saint Polyeuctus (The Purple Lane)