This is the latest anthology in the Bodies from the Library series. For the third year running it has been an annual treat. It is almost like the summer version of a Christie for Christmas and beady eyes will have already noticed that a fourth collection is in the pipeline for next year. It is less a case of elves making presents and more like elves delving into murky and mysterious archives to recover these overlooked tales.
The collection opens with Lynn Brock’s ‘Some Little Things’ (1928), which sees a policeman the victim of a vicious revenge plot, orchestrated by a socialite who did not appreciate having her personal life probed into. It is unusual to see the police in a more vulnerable role, though the ending is suitably open that you cannot determine what will be the fate of the socialite in question.
The second story comes from Anthony Berkeley with his careless talk costs lives tale, ‘Hot Steel’ (1943). I wouldn’t say it is a proper mystery, but it has historical interest and is an example of crime writers moving into public propaganda and advice writing during WW2. John Rhode and Dorothy L. Sayers, I think may have made similar forays.
Next up is a radio play by Cyril Hare called ‘The Murder at Warbeck Hall’ (1948). Those who have read some of his work may find the name familiar and it turns out that An English Murder (1951) is an expanded novelisation of the play. Naturally the play has a smaller cast and is much more focused on the central murder with fewer motives. I think the novel version gives the reader a much more mystifying puzzle to solve. However, in the play itself Hare shows he has a good ear for dialogue.
Following on from that we have ‘The House of Poplars’ by Dorothy L. Sayers, which was written in the 20s, though has never been published before. According to Tony Medawar who edits these collections, the tale ‘was the first of two stories written by Sayers in the 1920s featuring the removals firm of Smith and Smith.’ The second of these stories can be found In the Teeth of Evidence (1939). ‘The House of Poplars’ is something of an inverted mystery with a debt-ridden man, married to an older and richer woman, being the offered the chance to get rid of her. The removals firm is not in the nature of removing furniture after all… Whilst I think the story could have had a stronger sting in its tale, I think it is an interesting one as it seems to predate the 1930s inverted mysteries of Berkeley and Hull. It is a shame Sayers did not persevere with the series.
One of my favourite stories from this collection is the 5th story, ‘The Hampstead Murder’ (1955) by Christopher Bush. Again, this is something of an inverted mystery, as we know who did the murder. Yet it is one which goes back in time, rather than forwards from the killing, as we get to see the events which lead to the crime. The events are somewhat unusual as the first page tells us that: ‘A man in Scotland wrote a letter to The Timers and, by chance, The Times found it interesting enough to print. Because of that letter, which had nothing whatever to do with the murder, a woman was strangled in a London suburb.’ I think the reader can join up all the dots before the denouement, but nevertheless it remains an entertaining story in which a joke decidedly backfires.
After that story we get Joseph Cummings’ ‘The Scarecrow Murders’ (1948), which features his series sleuth Senator Brooks U. Banner. I have never read anything by this author before, but I have heard of him from other blogs such as The Reader is Warned. Banner is an incorrigible amateur detective who can’t stop himself from travelling to places where murder has struck. In this story he goes to Cow Crossing where a woman has been found dead in a creek, her head shot off. The case focuses on her remaining relatives, yet it seems like the killer has not quite finished and even more alarming is the fact it appears to be a scarecrow who is doing the crimes… This story poses an interesting locked room mystery with a set of impossible footprints and I think fans of that subgenre will enjoy this tale.
The next tale was a re-read for me, being Agatha Christie’s ‘The Incident of the Dog’s Ball,’ as it has been previously published in John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks (2009). As many of you might know or have guessed this was the short story upon which Dumb Witness was based and expanded on.
The following author was also a familiar face, with Christopher St John Sprigg’s ‘The Case of the Unlucky Airman’ (1935). The story begins with an airman having attempted to break the solo flight record from Cape Town to Croydon. He fails, yet worse is in store for him when he gets to Croydon, as when he taxis his plane into the hangar, a shot is heard, and he is found dead with a bullet in his head. No one was in the hangar so an inquest deems it suicide, yet Charles Venables, crime reporter for the Mercury, thinks differently… This is not the first time Sprigg has written an aeronautical mystery as he also wrote Death of an Airman (1935).
After that we have ‘The Riddle of the Black Spade’ (1934) by Stuart Palmer which stars his school teaching amateur sleuth Hildegarde Withers and her policeman friend, Inspector Oscar Piper. A former state senator dies on a golf course after seemingly being struck by a golf ball and initially the police suspect his adopted son did the deed. Yet Withers is adamant he did not. Perhaps the problem with this story is that Withers’ intuition must be working overtime for her to solve the case the way she does. Nevertheless, the ending is suitably dramatic, and I particularly enjoyed Tony’s introduction for Palmer which gives a greater overview of his writing career.
Our next story is ‘A Torch at the Window’ (1960) by Josephine Bell, which makes use of Bell’s medical experience, being set at a hospital. There seems to be a night-time prowler peering into some of the wards at St Stephen’s Hospital and steps are taken to ensure the safety of staff and patients. Yet weeks later these measures are relaxed, and a nurse is killed. Was it the prowler? Or is there someone else at work? I would categorise this story as a police procedural, in which the reader will avoid some of the more obvious red herrings but may not be able to deduce all of the solution.
The 11th story in the collection is in fact a novella by John Dickson Carr entitled Grand Guignol (1929), which was later expanded into the novel, It Walks by Night (1930). Having read the longer version, it was interesting to see the original tale it was based on and how it added to the mystery. In particular the endings are radically different, (if my memory serves me correctly), and in the shorter version we have an intriguing psychological laboratory in which Henri Bencolin breaks down the guilty party, recreating the scene of the crime with appropriate actors, noises and images. I’m sure this idea has been mooted before, but I wonder if Agatha Christie was inspired by the story for her later novel Murder in Mesopotamia (1936).
Following on from this we have Ngaio Marsh’s TV play, A Knotty Problem (1967), which is also known as, Slipknot. The play is located in New Zealand and is focused on the opening of an art gallery at which not only is a portrait switched with an unflattering cartoon, but the driving force behind the gallery being opened, is poisoned. Inspector Alleyn is in the area on holiday, naturally. I am not much of an Alleyn fan, so this play was less enjoyable, as I find Alleyn’s approach to investigating neither illuminating nor interesting. However, Marsh fans will enjoy having one more case of his to read.
The final stories in this collection are grouped together as: The Orange Plot Mysteries. In 1938 the Sunday Dispatch invited Collins Crime Club writers to contribute a short story for an upcoming serial. In the end there were 12 stories, printed in series of 6. Each writer, as Tony informs us, was ‘challenged to write a short story around the following plot: “One night a man picked up an orange in the street. This saved his life.”’
I am not going to review these stories individually as they are rather short, so it is best to go in knowing as little as possible. However, here is a list of the 6 stories included:
- The Orange Kid by Peter Cheyney
- And the Answer Was… by Ethel Lina White
- He Stooped to Live by David Hume
- Mr Prendergast and the Orange by Nicholas Blake
- The Yellow Sphere by John Rhode
- The ’Eat More Fruit’ Murder by William A. R. Collins
The last writer is an intriguing inclusion as Collins was in fact one of the Collins’ family who owned and ran the publishing company. This particular Collins would go on to become the Chairman and Managing Director of Collins in 1945. On the whole I would say the orange in each story is used in an interesting and at times unusual fashion. At times the orange is able to establish an alibi, whilst on many occasions it manages to be the undoing of the criminal at work. Oranges as murder weapons and even as ways of saving potential victims also crop up. Unsurprisingly quite a few are set at Christmas and quite a few writers adopted an inverted mystery style. Meanwhile some delve into the world of organised crime, whilst others have a more domestic setting. I am intrigued as to whether the other 6 “orange” stories will see the light the day in a later collection. One of the features of the Bodies from the Library series I have continued to enjoy is the variety in text types included and this final series of stories was also an interesting find.
Roll on Bodies from the Library 4!