Capital Crimes (2015) ed. by Martin Edwards

It has been a while since I have read a short story collection from the British Library Crime Classics series, but last month’s book club choice gave me the perfect opportunity to do so. Pity I couldn’t make the book club meeting, but my review is better late than never, I guess!

The Case of Lady Sannox by Arthur Conan Doyle

This is a non-Sherlock Holmes tale and I think the reader will have a pretty shrewd idea of what is going on in story from the first two pages. A society lady and well known and successful surgeon are having an affair and none too discretely. Or rather they had been. Before going back in time, we are told that one of them has joined a convent and the other is still in a state of gibbering shock. What follows is a rather predictable tale of diabolical revenge. The surgeon is the character we see the most of and I can’t say he was a character I warmed to.

A Mystery of the Underground by John Oxenham

This next story, Martin Edwards informs us, is ‘an abridged version of a story originally serialised in To-Day, a weekly magazine edited by Jerome K. Jerome.’ Martin further adds that ‘the idea of a Tube-travelling serial killer caused such a sensation that passenger numbers slumped, and the Underground authorities wrote a letter of protest to Jerome.’

Oxenham does not dally, and a corpse arrives promptly at the start of the story. A serial killer seems to have a taste for shooting single passengers occupying a carriage to themselves. Naturally there is often also a lady to discover the body and cry hysterically. The recentness of the killings means the bodies have not been killed earlier and placed in the carriages, so the police are baffled as to how the crimes are being committed.

One aspect of the story that I enjoyed was the satirising of crime reporters. Throughout the story we read about the Link man, i.e., the man who writes up crimes for the publication Link. What adds a pleasing note of humour to this dark story is the way this reporter is always referred to in the third person as the ‘Link Man’. He is the first on the scene of the initial murder and we are told that ‘his first intention was to climb along the footboard till he arrived at the screams. But thoughts of Mrs Link-man and all the little Link men and women deterred him, and he decided not to risk his precious life, but to be first on the scene, all the same.’ Interspersed with gothic-hued lines such as this one: ‘the red stern light blinked ghoulishly back at the crowd, and tremulously disappeared up the tunnel like a great clot of blood,’ we also get more extended passages which give the narrative a note of identifiable humanity:

‘The station inspector came up, and was for ordering the Link man away, but, upon the latter disclosing his identity, became the courteous official the Link man has always found him, except upon that oner unfortunate occasion he (the inspector) found him (the Link man) riding first with a third-class ticket, and only let him off imprisonment for life with a reprimand, which still tingles in the Link man’s ears, on the Link man’s proving to him by ocular demonstration that every third-class carriage was carrying thirty per cent more humanity than it had any right to do.’

The story mimics the Jack the Ripper case, with the killer writing letters to the newspapers and speaking of newspapers, I mostly enjoyed how the whole short story is told through newspaper reports. What makes this an imperfect mystery is that the writer horribly truncates the final part of the narrative into three pages. This has a disastrous effect on the plot with the reader being rushed through boat-based showdowns amongst other things.

The Finchley Puzzle by Richard Marsh

If you hate stories which involve excessive coincidence then this is not the story for you, as the author relies a lot on such contrivances. It begins with Judith Lee, who can lipread, and whilst sheltering from the rain she so happens to hear two men discussing a suspicious package they dropped off at her house. Coincidence number one means that Judith avoids biting into chocolates which contain miniature bombs inside them. Pity really… Naturally she does not tell the police, well why would you? Further lipread messages spare her life, although not her poor dog and coincidences follow one after another. I think the most that can be said of Judith is that she is a foolish HIBK character who has a lot of luck on her side. Unsurprisingly, a highly dissatisfactory story.

The Magic Casket by R. Austin Freeman

There is more than a touch of Holmes and Watson in the opening passage of this story in which narrator Christopher Jervis introduces Dr Thorndyke:

‘It was in the near neighbourhood of King’s Road, Chelsea, that chance, aided by Thorndyke’s sharp and observant eyes, introduced us to the dramatic story of the Magic Casket. Not that there was anything strikingly dramatic in the opening phase of the affair, nor even in the story of the casket itself. It was Thorndyke who added the dramatic touch, and most of the magic, too; and I record the affair principally as an illustration of his extraordinary capacity for producing odd items of out-of-the-way knowledge and instantly applying them in the most unexpected manner.’

Makes Watson look half-hearted in his devotion!

This story also includes a female character incapable of making sensible decisions and centres on a set of expensive pearls which have been stolen. The initial theft leaves the woman’s father dead and with the criminal parties still on the hunt for the treasured item. I thought the story might raise doubts over whether the pearls ever existed, but that theory of mine did not go anywhere. This is a story which relies heavily on backstory. In fact, I would say this story might possibly contain the longest client’s backstory that I have ever read. Dr Thorndyke’s sleuthing is done off the page and I can’t say I saw the magic in him that his friend Jervis does. I found him rather dull and the story flat.

The Holloway Flat Tragedy by Ernest Bramah

This was not a story I was looking forward to, as in the past I have found this writer’s work to be boring. It sees Max Carrados and Louis Carlyle reunited, with the latter operating as a private detective. His latest client has been cheating on his wife, who suffers from nerves. His girlfriend however did not take kindly to the news that he is married and the client fears for his life when his girlfriend’s other gentleman friend starts brandishing a knife. Of course, he wants to avoid getting murdered, but could Louis manage to help without involving the police, creating a scandal or doing anything which will unsettle his wife? One is therefore not surprised when a report of his death comes in. I felt this story had a case which could go one of three ways and I was surprised that this story by Bramah was not as bad as I thought it was going to be.

The Magician of Canon Street by J. S. Fletcher

This story is very much written in the thriller mould when chance brings Paul Campenhaye back into contact with an old sleuthing partner. This old colleague is still on the hunt of a man they know committed a certain murder many years ago. A plan is devised to affect their capture. I wouldn’t say Paul is the sleuth of the story, despite that being his job. He seems to operate more as bait or as the unintentional dupe.

The Stealer of Marble by Edgar Wallace

This story is from The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder short story collection. This is an unusual story as the plot does not go in the directions you expect it to. A young female lead, with dashing swain in tow, open the story, yet this does not become a Victorian-esque romance mystery, despite the woman’s boss asking her to run away with him as his mistress. If anything the boss is shown to be the weakest and most vulnerable character among them all, rather than fulfilling the role of unpleasant lech. An embezzlement strand is added to the narrative, yet ultimately this is a story of murder. But how does a woman arrested for stealing marble chippings fit in to it all? The denouement could have been improved if it had been less rushed and had had included more dialogue, although the last line is hilarious. I felt this was one of the more satisfying stories of this collection so far, which surprised me as I am not a big Edgar Wallace fan.

The Tea Leaf by Robert Eustace and Edgar Jepson

This is one which I am sure I read pre-blog and involves a seemingly impossible murder within the hot room of a Turkish baths. I remembered the solution before the end of the story, and I think seasoned mystery fans will be able to guess it too. When reading the tale it came across as a story in which we are told quite doggedly what is happening and I found the narrator not very engaging.

The Hands of Mr Ottermole by Thomas Burke

This is a story within a story, as it opens with a man named Quong telling a friend his theory about who committed a string of murders the previous year. From here the chain of events involved in this serial killing case are related to us. Unsurprisingly, the Jack the Ripper atmosphere is tapped in to, yet I think Burke does more with this element than Oxenham did. Of the killings the first is focused upon the most, that of Mr Whybrow. Nevertheless, I think emphasis is given to the mindset of the killer, more than of the victim’s plight:

‘But Mr Whybrow wasn’t going to get any tea that evening – or any other evening. Mr Whybrow was going to die. Somewhere within a hundred yards of him, another man was walking: a man much like Mr Whybrow and much like any other man, but without the only quality that enables mankind to live peaceably together and not as madmen in a jungle. A man with a dead heart eating into itself and bringing forth the foul organisms that arise from death and corruption. And that thing in man’s shape, on a whim or settled idea – one cannot know – had said within himself that Mr Whybrow should never taste another herring.’

Interestingly the author undercuts the dark and sombre atmosphere with quite domestic details. The last line of the above quote exemplifies this, and the tea motif has a similar effect in this instance below:

‘He wasn’t, this man, a bad man. Indeed, he had many of the social and amiable qualities, and passed as a respectable man, as most successful criminals do. But the thought had come into his moldering mind that he would like to murder somebody, and as he held no fear of God or man, he was going to do it, and would then go home to his tea.’

Within this prioritising of the murderer, I found Burke’s response to the Jack the Ripper type killer interesting. It almost seems like he is idolising him at times:

‘Criminologists and detectives tell us every murderer, however intelligent or cunning, always makes one slip in his tactics – one little slip that brings the affair home to him. but that is only half-true. It is true only of the murderers who are caught. Scores of murderers are not caught: therefore, scores of murderers do not make any mistake at all. this man didn’t.’

Combined with this the narrator is rather scathing of the notion that prisoners are remorseful before hanging.

An emphasis is placed upon building up the sense of impending doom for Mr Whybrow, albeit with a cynical tone, and I think Burke uses this to great effect. The ending is perhaps anticipated a little more easily due to an allusion to G. K. Chesterton’s work. However, a bit like Oxenham’s story, the strength of the piece is lost in its ending.  I found the closing scene too long-winded, with the killer being given a little too much free rein to discuss his deeds philosophically. The last line is good, though the passages which precede it mean the story loses some of its dynamic edge. I was also at a loss as to why Quong and his friend are never mentioned after the opening sentences.

The Little House by H. C. Bailey

Reggie Fortune is called upon by Mrs Pemberton to find out what has happened to her granddaughter’s Persian cat. The cat was seen to have been taken by the girl next door, yet the neighbours deny all knowledge of the cat and of the girl. The police are not overly interested by this case, but Fortune is worried to death about the next-door cat thief. The child element is not unheard of for Bailey, but it is unusual within Golden Age Detective fiction, which didn’t tend to put children in jeopardy too often. This story is a more of a thriller than I was expecting, based on my previous reading of Reggie Fortune cases. This tale, like some of the other short stories in this collection, involves quite a bit of backstory.

The Silver Mask by Hugh Walpole

This story is definitely not cosy crime and instead provides a harrowing tale of the cuckoo in the nest, all played out beneath a surface of charm. It all begins when Sonia answers a handsome man’s request for help one night. She suggests he comes back to hers for a drink and matters soon spiral out of control from there. Sonia’s fate is a horrifying one, yet she is not depicted as a likeable victim. I found her actions hard to sympathise with, as she could have got rid of the annoying man multiple times and generally found her quite irritating. Nevertheless, the ending is quite heart wrenching.

Wind in the East by Henry Wade

I have previously reviewed this story in the short story collection Policeman’s Lot (1933).

The Avenging Chance by Anthony Berkeley

I have previously reviewed this story in the short story collection The Avenging Chance and Other Mysteries from Roger Sheringham’s Casebook (2004)

They Don’t Wear Labels by E. M. Delafield

This is a sinister story, in the vein of Francis Iles’ Before the Fact. Events are told from the perspective of a woman who takes in paying guests. The story concerns a married couple living with her, the Peverellis. The husband is the life and soul of the party, very popular, his wife not so much. She is an invalid, whom no one thinks is ill or that it is all in her head. You could argue this is a case of a chronic pain sufferer being gaslighted. The landlady is dubious of the woman’s claims that her husband is trying to kill her. I think this tale would have had more of a bang if it had ended less openly.

The Unseen Door by Margery Allingham

Allingham opens strongly: ‘It was London, it was hot and it was Sunday afternoon. The billiard room in Prinny’s Club, Pall Mall, which has often been likened to a mausoleum, had unexpectedly become one.’ A man is strangled, the prime suspect had escaped jail the day before, yet seemingly they did not enter the building. Pleasant enough story.

Cheese by Ethel Lina White

The cheese in this story is a woman, yet White plays around with exactly who is being trapped and why. I liked the way she opened her mystery:

‘This story begins with a murder. It ends with a mouse-trap. The murder can be disposed of in a paragraph. An attractive girl, carefully reared and educated for a future which held only a twisted throat. At the end of seven months, an unsolved mystery and a reward of £500.’

Job adverts are luring victims to their death and Jenny Morgan would have been the next if her friend did not make her go to the police. Jenny, like Judith Lee, has a lot of luck on her side in this respect as she had not thought it possible that despite meeting the victim criteria that her job offer could be fake. The policeman in charge of the case is perplexed:

“Well, didn’t you notice the fact that that poor girl – Emmeline Bell – a well-bred girl of about your own age, was lured to her death through answering a newspaper advertisement?”

“I – I suppose so. But those things don’t happen to oneself.”

“Why? What’s there to prevent your falling into a similar trap?”

“I can’t explain. But if there was something wrong, I should know it.”

“How? D’you expect a bell to ring or a red light to flash ‘Danger’?”

A Great Dane plays a small but pivotal role in the story. Even if I was not overly keen on Jenny, I very much enjoyed White’s writing style.

You Can’t Hang Twice by Anthony Gilbert

Fog is a motif which crops up a lot in Gilbert’s work such as her novel Don’t Open the Door (1945). Fog is a dangerous weather to be about in, according to Arthur Crook. Although he notes that: “still […] it all makes for employment. Fogs mean work for the doctor, for the ambulance driver, for the police and the mortician, for the daring thief and the born wrong ‘un.” A man who can clear another person currently on trial for the murder of Isobel Baldry rings Crook from a phone box. He is the antithesis of heroism and bravery, yet Crook has to persuade him to make his way through the fog to his office. An enjoyable tale to finish on.

Rating: 3.5/5

4 comments

  1. I appreciate the long detailed review. Thanks! I assume that the theme is that all the stories take place in London, is that correct? If so, how important was the setting to the stories? For the most part, it seems as though (from your descriptions of them) that many of the stories could taken place anywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes you make a good point, any city would have done for the majority of the stories, although they are all set in London. Oxenham’s takes place on the London Underground so it is better connected. Gilbert’s involves deadly deeds around the embankment during a heavy bout of fog too.

      Like

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