Looking at the contents page of the latest Bodies from Library short story collection is like perusing a theatrical programme with a stellar cast. It features so many stars and leading lights from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, as well as some who were hitherto hiding in the wings. It is very much an annual treat.
Child’s Play by Edmund Crispin
It is always a delight to read a new Crispin story and this one has never been published before. The plot is centred on Judith Carnegie taking up a new position as a governess to Mrs Synder’s three children and niece, the latter having joined the household after the tragic death of her parents. Unsurprisingly, Mrs Synder’s own children are brats in a variety of ways and Pamela, their cousin, is the victim of their bullying. When the financial angle rears its ugly head, you know Pamela is not going to be long for this world, yet the solution to this dastardly crime is not straight forward.
We see events from the point of view of Judith, who whilst well intentioned, is not necessarily the sharpest or wisest of people and this is demonstrated strongly in the bleak open-ended denouement. The murder is a shocking one and I would be curious to know when this story was written. Was it written pre or post WW2? The death of a pleasant child is unusual in Golden Age Detective Fiction, as usually the children who bite the dust are obnoxious ones who know too much. Interestingly, Pamela is said to be wearing an identity disc, so I wondered if that indicated a WW2 or post WW2 setting. This tale is not breezy and comic like Crispin’s earlier novels, which do contain notes of darkness, but they are not the pervading tone.
Thieves Fall In (1962) by Anthony Gilbert
The story begins on a London bound coach, in which one woman, Elsie, notices that another passenger has lost her purse. Elsie has her eye on the younger man sitting next to that passenger, as being the person responsible for its disappearance. Once all three arrive at their destination their paths cross, with their interactions reversing the situation multiple times. This gives the story a whirlwind feeling, as you don’t know whether the current situation is a true depiction of what is really going on. I have read quite a few books by Gilbert, so I enjoyed reading more about her in the notes Tony Medawar provides after the story. For instance, Gilbert’s first novel The Man Who Was London (1925) was described by ‘one reviewer’ as having an ‘anti-big business theme’ which they thought meant ‘the novel would appeal to terrorists.’ I found this interesting as it is another instance where crime fiction at that time did not conform to the stereotype that mystery authors of the period were all strongly conservative.
Rigor Mortis by Leo Bruce
In this tale we find a policeman from Scotland Yard has come for Sergeant Beef’s advice on the murder of Old Herbertson. His body is found in his son in law’s coal shed. The only problem is that the body is beneath the coal and that this coal only went in that night and those who filled it up swear the shed was empty when they started. Alibis also make this a tricky case to solve, yet Sergeant Beef has it all done and dusted in a couple of pages. For Beef the important thing was finding out about all the people involved. Rigor mortis and time of death were of far less interest to him, he says. I enjoyed the premise of this story, and I could see it being made into a longer mystery.
The Only Husband (1941) by H. C. Bailey
This story was a radio play and I liked how the cast list has names which are followed by a description of their voice. There is discord in the house of Lord Avalon. He has married for a second time, whilst his rude son has brought his own wife home for a visit. During breakfast Lord Avalon becomes so alarmed that he calls for Reggie Fortune to visit him immediately, although he does not reveal why. The reader of course may have some ideas why, but it is not necessarily straight forward. Unfortunately, Fortune is too late as just when his plane arrives at Lord Avalon’s home, his friend is shot in the wood. Things do not look good for his son and daughter-in-law – motives, means and opportunity are all there, but did they do it?
I am not a big fan of Bailey’s work, but I thought this one had a good mystery in it, although I found Fortune’s manner of speaking a trifle annoying.
The Police are Baffled (1931) by Alec Waugh
This is a very short story, a matter of pages, but its use of a particular mystery trope intrigued me because it predates Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (1950) and a tale written by Leo Bruce which includes an interesting variation on the theme. Alec Waugh was brother to the more well-known Evelyn Waugh.
Shadowed Sunlight (1945) by Christianna Brand
This novella by Brand has a coastal setting and focuses on a country abode named Guardhouse at Daunton, which is the summer home of Mr Thoms. It is ‘Britain is Grateful Week’, which seeks to raise funds for returning war heroes. Mr Thoms is host to a motley of guests. There is the avaricious Geoffrey and Gloria Winson who eek out their meagre funds by sponging off Mr Thoms, along with their bumptious offspring Tiggy, and Gloria’s older daughter from her first husband, Jenny. She used to be engaged to Julian Messenger, but recently he broke off their engagement as he wants to marry his half cousin Truda instead. Truda is an heiress, and it is a matter of days before she will inherit on her 25th birthday. Yet they want to keep their engagement a secret as they fear Truda’s grandmother will be against the marriage and prevent Truda from inheriting.
These characters along with others attend a fundraiser ball hosted by Lady Templeton, which sees tempers fraying when Geoffrey Winson bullies his stepdaughter into agreeing to sue Julian for breach of promise. This element put me in mind of Victorian novels. The fundraiser concludes with the discovery that Lady Templeton’s emerald pendant has been stolen from around her neck.
The reasons for bumping off Geoffrey only increase and so when the tense group boards Mr Thoms yacht for a sailing race, we all know who is going to be eliminated at lunch. Events up to this point are like a line of gunpowder being formed – the likely victim, the possible suspects, the anticipated murder method, (hello there’s an explorer who still has a poison pill in his wallet!), and the likely time it will occur. There is a definite sense of their being a zero hour.
Mr Dickinson is the Scotland Yard detective, who is called upon to investigate the murder, whilst local police are dealing with the theft. I found Dickinson’s introduction into the narrative amusing as Brand writes that the Chief Constable had ’hoped the visitor would not be one of them university pups, all polish and no experience…’ Sentences later we discover that ‘Mr Dickinson was a university pup with very little experience indeed; but at least with no polish.’ Dickinson is not an arrogant know-it-all and does reveal his perceived limitations in a self-deprecating manner. For instance, he says to Inspector Trickett:
‘I think I shall go up to the house this evening and invite myself in for a drink and a chat with the assembled family – you know, wheedle my way into their confidences, intercept veiled glances and things, and let the little grey cells get cracking…’ He looked at the stolid inspector rather wistfully. ‘Though it never really seems to work for me,’ he confessed and drank down a cup of tea.’
Unsurprisingly, where Brand really excels in this novella is in her characterisation. There are so many wonderful touches. For example, we have Lady Templeton and at one point it is said that ‘she swept forward in her ugly unbecoming green velvet dress to welcome eighteen guineas’ worth of savings (dear George had given her an emerald pendant for so splendidly doing her ‘bit’ – its values represented nearly half the collected total of the whole week, and she had added the cost of a new dress to go with it, but neither of them were conscious of the slightest inconsistency.’ This one passage sums up this person so beautifully. It is a good demonstration of how incisive Brand can be with her characters.
I think Brand is adept at creating unpleasant women and more importantly she writes about them in such an engaging way. Gloria Winson is one of these women. In a passage following the demise of her second husband it is written that:
‘Gloria, in her room, was surreptitiously reading a novel, but even her face was lined with worry. She had paid her tribute to Geoffrey in that outburst of tears that had followed his death; but it was impossible to cry for more than an hour or two. She stuffed the novel hastily under her pillow as Evan knocked at the door…’
Again, this is a brilliant depiction of her personality, in particular the self-centred strain and her stunted emotional maturity.
Regular readers of Brand’s work will know of her strength in delivering endings with a clout and this novella is no different. She certainly provides a finale with impact, and I think fans of her books will find lots to enjoy in this mystery. Whilst I am not sure how easy it is to figure out how the poison is administered to Geoffrey, I did enjoy the novel and unusual hiding place of the emerald. A definite first for me!
N. B. Just a heads up to let you know there is a rather unfortunate typo on page 236 of the story where the letter ‘i’ is used where a ‘e’ should have been. It is all the more unfortunate
amusing due to the surrounding sentence the typo is in.
The Case of Bella Garsington (1944) by Gladys Mitchell
This is a short radio play divided into two sections or rather episodes: Problem and Solution. The first episode was broadcast on the 10th February 1944 ‘on the BBC’s General forces Programme as one of a series of mystery plays entitled ‘A Corner in Crime,’ a feature in the long-running feature Here’s Wishing You Well Again. The solution was broadcast on 23 March.’ The idea of splitting the mystery in two was to allow listeners to write in their solutions and one person did manage to get this one correct.
The problem episode entails someone named Cararet doing a Q&A with a woman named Bella Garsington who is suspected of murdering her father-in-law. Within her answers the listener or in this case reader is meant to spot the detail which gives her guilt away.
I found it a bit too short to get into, but I like the structure of the production.
The Post-Chaise Murder (1940) by Richard Keverne
A busy Sir Christopher Hazzard decides he can no longer postpone meeting the country attorney who deals with his Hampshire estate and takes the Portsmouth Post Telegraph coach to do this. On arrival he overhears tantalising bits of conversation about a man who has been shot dead. The man was killed in another chaise coach and the murderer was supposedly caught red handed.
From the clues in the story I would guess this mystery was set during the early 19th century when highway robbers were still prevalent and the conflict between Britain and Napoleonic France was at its height.
Whilst everyone assumes the case is a cut and dry affair, Hazzard is not convinced and decides to investigate. The narrative tells us that:
‘To Kit Hazzard all crime was interesting. He had made it his study for many years and his own curious methods of detection had met with amazing success. It was his sport, as he often said, to hunt the criminal as others hunted the fox. He pitted his own brains and observation against the cunning of the malefactor and beat him more often than not.’
It was interesting to see how Keverne would make a thorough detective investigation plausible within the time period, but I think he does a pretty good job.
Boots by Ngaio Marsh
This is a short story in which a husband explains to Chief Inspector Alleyn, his brother and supposed friend, why he knifed his wife in bed. Due to the brevity of the narrative the twist or reversal of events is very much thrust upon the reader, rather than something they can work out, although they may well have a hunch. Tony Medawar writes that ‘this is the first publication of ‘Boots’, written in the 1940s. The title was Marsh’s second choice, the first being ‘The Tramping Club Hut.’
Figures Don’t Die by T. S. Stribling
Dr Poggioli investigates the shooting of an accountant, who was shot through his kitchen window very late one night. His widow wants to know if she in danger too. Poggioli and the narrator, who seems to act like a Watson figure, usually pick crimes out the newspaper to solve with ‘joint researches.’ Whilst the clues are a little thin on the ground, I thought Stribling gives the tale a sharp sting in its tail. Stribling is an author I have heard of before, but not one I knew much about, so I found Tony’s notes on him very interesting. One nugget of information was: ‘Tom Stribling’s birth name was in fact Thomas Hughes Stribling, the name taken from one of his father’s friends, a local dignitary, with whose daughter Tom would later ‘walk out’. However, after an incident in which Tom threw rocks at her parents’ home, Miss Hughes abandoned Tom, who chose in retaliation to adopt a new middle name, Sigismund, and consequently new initials.’ I was also interested to learn that several of his works were criticised for their negative depiction of racial prejudice in the South, with one newspaper doctoring his author photograph ‘to give him the appearance of African heritage.’
Passengers (1933) by Ethel Lina White
This is a short story version of The Wheels Spin (1936) a.k.a. The Lady Vanishes. There are not many differences, except name changes and I think the reason for Winifred Bird being abducted comes from her own mouth, whereas in the novel this information is more held back. I think the novel is better than the short story.
Six Mysteries in Search of Six Authors
In 1938 the Sunday Dispatch commissioned a second series of 6 stories by writers from the Collins Crime Club. Each author had to write a ‘short story around one of six drawings’ and these pictures are included with the stories in this collection. I think the premise for these stories an interesting one, although I am not convinced of the quality of these pieces. They’re okay, but nothing which bowled me over.
After You, Lady by Peter Cheyney
Image: Goblet like wine glass on top of an anvil.
The narrator tells us about a very wealthy Italian man named Rudolfo Antonio Scancinella, who is a criminal. Yet his crimes do not prevent the narrator from holding the man in high esteem. It transpires that a man is being released from prison who may be intent on killing Rudolfo. Yet Rudulfo’s plans to turn the tables on the man go decidedly pear shaped. The ending is one you can probably anticipate. Yet I felt there was an interesting use of the cup in the plot.
Too Easy by Herbert Adams
Image: Ash tray, with spoon and matchstick in.
Inspector Goff is questioning a difficult witness, called Miss Yates, who was a secretary to a John Howard, who has been found dead, poisoned in his flat. She used to be in a relationship with him, after his wife left. She broke things off 4 months ago and is engaged to another. Again the ending is not hard to anticipate due to the limited number of suspects.
Riddle of an Umbrella by J. Jefferson Farjeon
Image: A ladder and an umbrella leaning up against a signal change next to a railway line.
The story commences with a direct first-person address: ‘This story may take you ten minutes to read, but it happened in five. In five of the most unpleasant minutes it has ever been my lot to endure.’ The narrator had missed the last train to the village where he lived, and he is walking back as a consequence. When he reaches a level crossing, he sees the umbrella and decide to take it. But soon he changes his mind and upon returning it he finds a cap and then a body on the tracks. Throw in the fact that the signals have changed to green, and a train is imminent, Farjeon delivers a tension fuelled thriller-ish tale.
Two White Mice Under a Riding Whip by E. C. R. Lorac
Image: A riding whip and two mice.
Jonathan Latham, a psychologist, has been given a picture of a riding whip and two mice by a new patient of his, a wealthy American woman who has been deemed mentally unstable after the kidnap of her son on a train when she arrived in the UK at Southampton. He asks his barrister friend Basil Remaine, who is good at cyphers and cryptograms, to help him figure out what the woman is trying to tell him. The mystery is rather short, and I felt Remaine’s lightening speed solving of the picture a bit of a stretch. It is very much a story where you are told rather than shown.
Signals by Alice Campbell
Image: A pub sign with a woman’s stocking hanging over it.
Campbell is an author who I have read twice and whilst I really liked one, Travelling Butcher (1944), I was less impressed with Spider Web (1938). They are quite different mysteries, so I didn’t have a strong sense going in of what to expect from a Campbell mystery and in some ways, I think this short story only increases the complexity of the task. A barrister enters a rural pub one evening to find a semi-clad woman being accused of murdering another guest at the pub. The barrister is keen to see she gets a fair hearing and endeavours to gain her version of events. I would say the tale is pleasant if not remarkable, until the ending which is quite surprising.
A Present from the Empire by G. D. H. and Margaret Cole
Image: Gloves, watch and a handkerchief.
Lady Bowland is annoyed at being dragged to the ‘annual dinner of Malarian Empire-Builders.’ Not only are the other diners deadly dull but the country of Malaria reminds her of her less-than-ideal past. However, she discovers an old acquaintance dining on her right-hand side, but what will the outcome be of their reunion? Whilst the particulars might not be guessable, I think the reader can see the ending the story is heading towards.