2019-02-13

The Long Arm of the Law (ed. Martin Edwards)

And here we have another anthology in the British Library Crime Classics series. As the title indicates, this is a collection of stories featuring the police in different roles.

Otherwise, this - as we should be used to by now - has the same structure as other BLCC anthologies: a mixture of stories from different genres and times. For once, the opening story is not by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though.

With this particular theme, you'd expect quite a lot of police procedurals in this collection, but to be honest, there was quite a lot of variation here as well. As my opinion of police procedurals isn't the highest, I approached this with some apprehension. Find out below what my experience was with the individual stories.


Alice and Claude Askew - The Mystery of Chenholt

Reggie Vane has been given charge of a local police station, and one day he is approached by a butler who reports that he is suspicious of his master, a Mr Darrell, whom he suspects of harbouring plans to poison his wife. As it is difficult to find hard evidence of the butler's suspicions, Vane tasks his fiancée Violet with joining the household to see what she can find out.

This was a bit ho-hum. It's hard to imagine how a police could get away with sending in a female non-police into a household where murder is suspected. It's all a bit improbable. The "surprise" ending didn't come as much of a surprise, either.

Edgar Wallace - The Silence of PC Hirley

PC Lee tells the story of his taciturn colleague Hirley and the case where they both were involved in the investigation of a murdered man. It's a crime where Lee had seen a young man enter a house, and because his suspicions were aroused Lee followed him a minute later, then hearing an awful yell from the second floor. After ascending, he finds the body of a man with a gunshot to the forehead.

This isn't quite an impossible crime - more an improbable one (how on earth could the murderer get away so quickly?) - but being so short, this tale gets the explanation in quickly, showing Hirley's superior reasoning skills over Lee's. An all right vignette, fairly entertaining.

George R. Sims - The Mystery of a Midsummer Night 

Inspector Chance investigates a kidnapping case where a four year old boy has been taken from his bedroom at night without anyone hearing anything. His body is later found in an outhouse on the premises.

This is a run of the mill police procedural story, though of the type that was common during the earliest few decades of the 1900s. There are not many surprises here, and even less so since the foreword tells us which famous real life case the story is based on. I don't mind having read this story, but I guess that's damning it with faint praise...

Laurence W. Meynell - The Cleverest Clue

In this story, a journalist is interviewing Inspector Morton and asks him about the cleverest clues he's come across during his career as a police officer. He recounts the tale of the kidnapping of a professor who's working on an invention that is set to revolutionise aerial warfare thoroughly.

This is rather amusingly told, but there's never any doubt about what's happening (or what's going to happen). Nevertheless, the titular clue is actually quite clever, though rather farfetched as well. I'm guessing most people would never get it - I take some comfort in being a foreigner, who will have a tougher time than most. Another story that was an okay read, not much more.

Gerald Verner - The Undoing of Mr. Dawes

The titular Mr. Dawes is a fence, who induces one of his thieving acquaintances to break into a jeweller's and steal some of their wares. But Superintendent Budd is on his trail...

Another fairly amusing but never mysterious story - there's no detection here either. I liked this a bit less because it's a story of entrapment, and thus would never be allowed in court today.

Roy Vickers - The Man Who Married Too Often

Molly Webster manages to marry a Marquis who's rather too stupid and naive, and then of course it turns out that the Marquis had been married before. And when the previous wife turns up in their neighbourhood, what's a Marchioness to do to protect her young son?

Another story about a crime, and an inverted one at that. And just like the previous story, this is a tale of entrapment and it also features a bit of a nasty sting towards the end. I didn't like this at all.

Leonard R. Gribble - The Case of Jacob Heylyn

An old man has been found dead from a gunshot wound, and everything points to it being suicide. But Inspector Slade has seen some things that don't quite add up.

Well, finally a story with detection and some fair play clues! This wasn't bad at all - it made me want to check out Gribble's "The Arsenal Stadium Mystery". The interplay between the policemen Slade and Jerrold gives this something a little bit extra, at least for this reader.

Freeman Wills Crofts - Fingerprints

Jim Crouch has decided to murder his uncle, being his only heir and needing the money because of a needy girlfriend, and sets things up as neatly as possible to escape suspicion.

That's sort of plot 101 of inverted mysteries, and there's absolutely no surprises here. Even the mistake that the culprit makes is probably among the top 5 mistakes that you've seen in mysteries like this one. So it's fortunate that it's so short, it certainly doesn't overstay it's welcome.

E. C. R. Lorac - Remember to Ring Twice

A police constable overhears a rather suspicious conversation at the pub one night, and commits this to memory. Some time later, he comes across one of the conversationalists in conjunction with a death that looks like an accident.

So, this was actually an impossible crime! Yay! I'd have liked it more if we weren't told from the outset who the culprit was, leaving only the murder method unexplained until the end, but this was still an enjoyable read. Admirably short as well, and manages to get everything done anyway.

Henry Wade - Cotton Wool and Cutlets

Constable Bragg and his new superior, Detective-Inspector Hurst, are investigating a case where a man was found dead with his head in the oven. At first, most things point towards suicide, but Bragg has his suspicions.

This was another story I liked quite a bit. There's never really any surprise in who's guilty, but Wade manages to still inject the story with some liveliness and interesting points, keeping my interest up throughout the whole thing.

Christianna Brand - After the Event

Inspector Cockrill and several other guests at a dinner are regaled with a tale from a Grand Old Man about a murder in a theatre. Of course, Cockrill sees through everything and manages to figure out who the culprit is only through the clues he hears about.

I had read this before, but it's still a great tale. I like the whole setting with Cockrill acting the armchair detective, and Brand manages to get quite a lot of humour from this. Lovely stuff.

Nicholas Blake - Sometimes the Blind...

A blind man is always helped by his cousin, led around everywhere, but one day, there is a terrible car accident where the blind man narrowly escapes but his cousin dies. But was it really an accident?

Blake does well in under five pages here. He manages to get in one important clue. The plot isn't all that difficult to see through, but at least it's still a fair play one.

John Creasey - The Chief Witness

Chief Inspector Roger West investigates what seems like a crime of domestic violence where the husband has killed his wife, leaving his young son to discover the corpse the next day.

A fairly good one, this one as well. This might be the most police procedural-ly of all the stories here. It's not particularly fair play, and I don't think it's all that hard to see where things are going, but still a good read.

Michael Gilbert - Old Mr Martin

An old sweet-seller has died, and when his charwoman is tidying up after him she finds the body of a dead woman in the cellar. Inspector Petrella starts investigating, and soon he finds signs that point toward a previous tenant, who lost his wife during a bombing in WWII.

The streak continues with another eminently readable story. Again, I managed to see through the "twist", but this time I'm actually proud of it, because I think it's better hidden than in the previous stories.

Gil North - The Moorlanders

A policeman has been found unconscious, knocked out next to his motorcycle. Now Sergeant Cluff and his colleagues must find out if it was an accident or something more sinister.

This is a poorly written story, where it's almost impossible to follow what happens. So much goes unsaid that I had to go back a couple of paragraphs every ten seconds, or at least so it felt. Hopelessly bad.

Conclusion

In all, I liked this quite a bit, though it had a bit of a rocky start. I think it's safe to say, from the reviews I've had of the BLCC anthologies so far, that I think they improve towards the end (though this particular one had a very bad ending story). I guess that's not too surprising, given my liking for GA mysteries and less-than-fondness for the writings of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the fact that these anthologies are ordered more or less chronologically.

By now, I think it's time for a ranking of the BLCC anthologies I've reviewed so far.

1. Miraculous Mysteries - no surprise there, this is an impossible crime anthology, so it has lots of things going for it that elevate it above all the other collections.
2. Silent Nights - very close in quality to TLAotL, but I think this one just pips it. A good variety of stories and a few really good ones.
3. The Long Arm of the Law - starts off spottily, but gets better and better, and even though it finishes with one of the worst stories I've ever read it's still distinctly above average.
4. Murder at the Manor - I was thoroughly disappointed that this didn't feature any true country house mysteries. I think there was one fair play mystery among the whole bunch of stories.

Kate was very impressed with this collection over at crossexaminingcrime. And Aidan had several good words for it over on Mysteries Ahoy.

2019-02-06

The Ginza Ghost - Keikichi Osaka

This collection of short stories, nearly all of the impossible crime variety, was published by Locked Room International in 2017, in translation by Ho-Ling Wong (of The Case Files of Ho-Ling fame). Osaka wrote these tales over a period of 15 years, during the 1930s and 1940s. Some feature a couple of different series detectives, while others are stand-alone stories.

I had mixed feelings about this collection. We'll come to my opinion on the specific stories below, but my main problem was with the writing. I don't know whether it is Osaka's writing style or the translation - though I've read other translations by the same translator where I didn't have the same problems, which points to the author in this case - but it was a tough slog to read. I had to put it down every few pages, which meant that I couldn't generally finish even one story in a sitting. However, it should be said that comparatively, LRI's publications have more words per page than most other books, so that's at least part of the explanation.

Still, there were definite qualities in the plotting and the explanations of the various impossibilities, so let's get down to specifics.


We begin with "The Hangman of the Department Store", the first story Osaka ever wrote. A man is found strangled to death and with several mysterious wounds on his body. It seems he was thrown to the ground from a department store roof. According to witnesses, there was no opportunity for anyone to enter the store, but at the same time it seems none of the people inside the building could have been responsible either.

It's a pretty fine problem Osaka has created here, and seeing that it's his first story I'm okay with the solution. There's some innovative enthusiasm here, though like some other stories here there's some coincidence required for the solution to work. But definitely a good start to this collection.

In "The Phantasm of the Stone Wall", a woman is murdered on a walkway in front of her home, and witnesses see two men flee from the scene along the road. However, a man walking in the opposite direction claims that he saw no one pass.

This is yet another great set-up, and I think Osaka found a good solution to the impossibility here.  Finding the culprit isn't all that hard, if you've read a couple of impossible crimes before, but the explanation to the disappearance is clever and innovative.

The third story is "The Mourning Locomotive", wherein we're told about a specific locomotive that regularly manages to run over pigs on its travels, always with the same drivers.

Here's where the wheels start to come off. This story is bonkers. Yeah, you might call it innovative, but to me it just doesn't work. People just don't behave this way - unless the differences between Japan and Sweden are bigger than I imagine. The preface says that this is Osaka's masterpiece, but I definitely disagree.

Osaka seems to have liked lighthouses, because "The Monster of the Lighthouse" is just the first story to feature such a structure. In this particular story, the top of the lighthouse is destroyed by a large rock and an octopus-like monster is seen diving into the sea. And at the same time, the lighthouse keeper disappears without a trace.

So, some obvious horror and/or supernatural elements in this story. I definitely felt this worked better than the previous story. It has to be said, though, that the specifics of the solution are a bit convoluted and require a bit of coincidence.

There's more supernaturalisms in "The Phantom Wife" where a servant tells the story of how his mistress took poison after having separated from her husband. The husband is haunted by this event, avoiding everything associated with the wife and looking more ill with each passing day. And then one day the servant finds him dead and the killer seems to have superhuman powers, as he wrenched the iron bars of the window out of their sockets.

We're back to stupid again here. This is not an impossible tale, and therefore there's not even the mitigating factor of a thoughtprovoking impossibility. The attempts at trying to apply supernatural explanations for the murder make me roll my eyes, and the final solution is so, so dumb.

"The Mesmerising Light" is by comparison a much more mundane tale, where a car disappears from a stretch of road between two toll stations. And then it turns out that a guest has been murdered in the home of the car's owner.

The solution to the impossibility of the vanishing car is good, perhaps even great. Osaka's explanation probably would have worked in the real world. But the rest... No, I'm not impressed. The motive is pretty hokey and the bit about the age of the culprit is both non-fair play (because of cultural differences) and super stupid.

In "The Cold Night's Clearing", a teacher is called to a colleague's house, because a young student has found a horrible crime scene there. The colleague's wife and her cousin are both found dead, murdered after a violent struggle. But not only that, the six-year-old son of the house is nowhere to be found, and outside the house is a single track from skis which just suddenly end in the middle of a field...

This is a lovely set-up, which is why it feels like a cheat when the explanation comes. It turns out that the whole thing is not an impossible situation at all, our narrator simply didn't tell us everything. It's a fairly powerful story nevertheless, with a sad and tragic ending. So much potential squandered here...

"The Three Madmen" are all inmates at an asylum, and one morning the staff wakes up and finds that they are all missing, as is the chief doctor. He is found some time later, horribly mutilated and with his brain missing.

Yeah, so that's a fairly grisly business. Still, that leads the reader's thoughts towards a certain conclusion... The main thing this story has going for itself is the way it's narrated, which creates an almost surreal atmosphere. If not for that, I think almost everyone would see through the misdirection here.

We return to the world of lighthouses with "The Guardian of the Lighthouse". In this story, there are two families sharing the task of lightkeeper on a remote island: a husband and wife, and a father and son. The husband has been taken to hospital, and his wife accompanies him. When he's recuperated, the father takes the boat to fetch them back to the lighthouse, but they are delayed over night because of a storm, and when they return the son has vanished. And yet the lighthouse has been functioning the whole time...

This wasn't too bad - a bit prosaic, but Osaka manages to squeeze out some thrills by the way he's describing events. The explanation to the disappearance is quite plausible, and also quite poignant.

"The Demon in the Mine" gives us a problem where a man is left behind during a fire in the mine, when the rest of the workers get to safety behind a fireproof door. When everyone returns, one after one are murdered, and it seems as though the man left behind is picking off those who were responsible for shutting him in the mine.

This was quite possible the cleverest story in the collection. There's some extra sense of danger in the story because of the terrible conditions down in the mine. And Osaka conjures up some fine misdirection before revealing who the killer is. I'm not going to say that it couldn't be deduced beforehand, but the whole thing's still quite impressive.

In "The Hungry Letter-Box", a man posts a letter in a letterbox, but then remembers he forgot to put on a stamp. The letterbox is locked, and cannot be opened until the next morning when the mailman comes - and yet the letter has disappeared when the box is opened!

This is a tale with a lighter touch, and it's all the better for it. The explanation to what's going on is quite workable. The motive for it all is more or less impossible to work out, on the other hand.

The final story here is the story that gave its name to the whole collection, "The Ginza Ghost". In it, two women are killed, with witnesses saying that one of them killed the other and then killed herself - however it turns out that the woman who the witnesses say died first survived the other by more than 30 minutes. But surely it couldn't be a ghost who killed?

Another pretty clever explanation here, and the misdirection Osaka employs works very well. A good finish to this collection.

Conclusion

There's some very bright spots here, but also quite a lot of messy stuff. There's some overreliance on superstition here, and I don't know, maybe it's a cultural thing, but I just don't see how so many people, particularly professional police officers, should be so gullible and believing in that stuff. In many of the cases here, the only reason that the truth isn't found is because everyone focuses so hard on the supernatural things.

One example is from the final story, "The Ginza Ghost" - I'm not sure that the whole thing would stand up to scrutiny. There's just one thing that makes the witnesses identify the killing woman, and seeing that it's all a big contradiction, surely the police should be able to reason out what actually happened? But perhaps I'm just a bit too annoyed with some of the trappings here.

My preference is for the stories that don't focus too hard on that stuff and rely more on "normal" mystery tropes with an investigation and deductions from the available facts. For a reader who enjoys stories with ambiance, this collection will surely be even more impressive.

But it should also be said that most of the stories here have parts that are very good, it's just that I find that Osaka seldom manages to get everything to work.

Seeing that this is a collection of impossible mysteries, I will use a couple of the better ones for my project: "The Phantasm of the Stone Wall", "The Demon of the Mine" and "The Ginza Ghost".

Out in the blogosphere, most of the words on this collection have been very kind:
TomCat praises it effusively on Beneath the Stains of Time, while J. J. is very complimentary in his review over on The Invisible Event.

Meanwhile, Aidan over on Mysteries Ahoy joins me in taking a more reserved stance, though we're not entirely in agreement on which stories deserve praise and which do not. It seems everyone except me likes "The Mourning Locomotive"...

2019-01-30

Small Crime: A Spoonful of Murder by Robin Stevens

In this sixth book in the young adult "Murder Most Unladylike" series, we're finally allowed to see Hazel Wong's home and family, as she and her best friend and fellow sleuth Daisy Wells travel to Hong Kong after Hazel's grandfather has passed away.

But the first thing that greets the girls upon their arrival is Hazel's newborn brother Teddy, and his arrival has turned everything in the family upside down. This affects Hazel's standing in the family, as previously she was the eldest child but now is "only" the eldest girl.

However, that's not the only thing upsetting the status quo - since Hazel's grandfather is now gone, her father is the new head of the family, and he has a much more modern outlook on things which annoys and/or upsets several people among the family's friends and acquaintances.

And then when Hazel's infant brother is due for a doctor's visit, he is kidnapped, the accompanying maid is murdered, and there seems to be no lack of suspects... one of whom is Hazel herself!


This is another enjoyable instalment in this rather excellent series. We've previously talked about Robin Stevens introducing different GA tropes in her books, and this could be called an example of the "mystery in an exotic setting". Purely plotwise, there's nothing here that's entirely new, unlike previous books, where we've had impossible murders, focus on reconstructions of the crime and elimination of suspects, and so on and so forth. This is more a distilment of the things we've already seen.

Instead, what's new here is the setting, which affects both our sleuths in different ways. Daisy has to adjust to the fact that Hazel is now the more important person of the two and that her title is fairly meaningless to the people in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Hazel is at the same time both more confident because she is at home in Hong Kong, and less confident because of the new arrival in the family and also because of the experiences she's had while living far away from home and their effect on her outlook at things.

This introduces a somewhat different dynamic to our pair of intrepid detectives. At the same time, Daisy is still the same person as always: blunt and courageous and clever and impetuous. May she never change!

I guess as a consequence of the Hong Kong setting, we have to make allowances for the Chinese Triads getting involved in the investigation. Fortunately, they're used in a fairly atypical way, which means that at least I wasn't too disappointed. But I suppose that's another mystery trope that's explored a bit here...

One thing that could have improved my reading experience was if the sequence where young Teddy is kidnapped and his maid is murdered had been retooled into an impossible crime situation. It wouldn't have taken much to create that appearance. On the other hand, I suppose that would have taken time from other aspects of the plot and the setting that Stevens wanted to explore here. It's not a big thing for me, just something that immediately struck me while I was reading.

As for the investigation and the denouement, I think this was one of the better books in the series. We're still following a similar structure to the previous novels where the young ladies eliminate one suspect after another. Some of the things that they use to eliminate suspects work better than others, but on the whole I think Wells & Wong (and Stevens, of course) do well here.

There's also a bit of a twist - for want of a better description - towards the end which I thought was handled well and elevated the story above the average of this series. Hazel and her father also reach a new understanding as the case wraps up, and it will be interesting how this plays out over the course of the rest of the series.

This is highly recommended, though I do think that this series should be read in order. There are no mystery spoilers between the different stories, but we get to follow the development of the main characters over several years here. And more importantly, all of the books are at least above average, so do read them all!

2019-01-23

Murder at the Manor (ed. Martin Edwards)

In my last post on a Martin Edwards edited anthology, there were a lot of country house murders. However, I can promise there will be even more of those in this one!

This is another anthology centred around a setting, rather than a plotting genre. Again, this will undoubtedly make the stories a varied bunch. Otherwise, Edwards uses the same set-up as always, some famous authors and some less well-known ones, ordered in a roughly chronological order.

So let's move along and see how this one compares with the previous anthology.


Arthur Conan Doyle - The Copper Beeches

Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from a young woman who's been employed as a governess, but her employers are giving her increasingly strange instructions on how to dress and look. She is feeling more and more uneasy, and Holmes agrees to investigate her case.

Like the previous collection, Edwards finds a great Doyle story to start this anthology off. It's one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes stories. It's hardly fair play, but as I've said before that hardly matters when Doyle is firing on all cylinders.

Dick Donovan - The Problem of Dead Wood Hall

At a dinner party at the Tranklers' manor, one of the guests walks out into the garden where he is later found dead through poisoning. A few years later, Trankler's son dies during a hunting party in the same gardens. And then the rumours start spreading...

This wasn't the best of stories, to be honest. It's a bit too reliant on shocks and thrills and is also very 1800s in its style. Again, not a fair play story, but unlike Doyle, Donovan doesn't have the panache to hold my interest.

E. W. Hornung - Gentlemen and Players

Gentleman thief Raffles and his friend and accomplice Bunny are invited down to Milchester Abbey to play cricket against some local teams, with the secret motive of stealing some jewels. However, it turns out that the police are on the trail after other prospective jewel thiefs, making Raffles' coup more dangerous.

So, yet another story that is not really a mystery, just an adventure. It's fairly amusing and zips along quite nicely, though.

W. W. Jacobs - The Well

A young man is threatened and blackmailed for a large sum of money, but resorts to murder to escape his tormentor.

This is even less of a mystery, simply a kind of psychological thriller with some horror elements. Not my type of story at all.

G. K. Chesterton - The White Pillars Murder

Two clever young men join the celebrated Dr. Adrian Hyde in investigating a murder where a man has been bludgeoned to death and then ended up floating in a lake. They are both sent down to White Pillars, while Dr. Hyde acts as an armchair investigator.

Well, this is a bit more like it. The ending is quite good, though I must admit I was always suspicious of the person who turned out to be the culprit.

Ernest Bramah - The Secret of Dunstan's Tower

Bramah's blind investigator, Max Carrados, is asked to come down to Dunstan's Tower by Dr. Tulloch, an old friend of his. It appears that there is a haunting attached to the Aynosforde family, and Dr. Tulloch held a nightly vigil by the haunted staircase yet did not notice how a pool of blood could appear there.

Bramah can generally be relied upon to provide proper mysteries, but this is not much more than a Gothic horror story. At least Carrados works out part of the solution from clues provided. The best thing about it I can say is that it's not the worst story so far in the collection, but it is quite possibly the biggest disappointment.

J. S. Fletcher - The Manor House Mystery

An elderly gentleman has been killed in the titular Manor House. The detective on the case gets visits from several of the people involved in the case, each of them proceeding to tell their part of the story.

A somewhat differently structured story from one of the biggest names in the field before Christie and Sayers started writing. I can't say that I found the structure all that successful. The reader can hardly be expected to solve it from the clues provided. Interesting, but flawed.

J. J. Bell - The Message on the Sun-Dial

A ne'er-do-well has been misusing his cousin's name and forged his checks and is therefore prompted to leave the country by that gentleman. Instead, he decides to kill him, and does so in the cousin's garden. Unfortunately, there's a dying message left by the unlucky man...

Well, this has a couple of things against it already from the start: it's got a very similar plot to a previous story (though it flips who is the culprit and who is the victim), and it's also an inverted mystery story. The dying message itself is fairly easy to see through - in fact, so easy that the author only allows the characters to read it out aloud to begin with. It's not a bad story, but I'm not particularly happy with the anthology this far.

Sapper - The Horror at Staveley Grange

Several male members of a family have died suspicious deaths, while sleeping in the same room, and Ronald Standish is asked by a friend of the wife of the next in line to take a look at the case.

So, written by a fairly hokey writer, with a hokey title and, as you see, a hokey plot. And yet... it's not all that bad, to be honest. It's rather too similar to a couple of Sherlock Holmes stories, though, but it's an okay impossible crime by an author who you'd never expect to write something of that ilk.

Anthony Berkeley - The Mystery of Horne's Copse

A young man sees his cousin lying dead on the road while walking home at night, but it turns out that the cousin is alive and well in Italy. But then he sees the cousin dead again... and again. All signs point to him being afflicted by some mental disorder, but his wife believes in him and asks for Roger Sheringham's advice.

This is by far the longest story in this anthology, close to novella length, but it's also a very good one. Yes, the plot is not that hard to see through, but Berkeley still manages to keep the reader guessing about several plot points. Finally a really strong story. The only drawback was that I had read it before...

James Hilton - The Perfect Plan

Sir George Winthrop-Dunster attracts the ire of his secretary, and the latter crafts a perfect plan to murder him.

Another non-mystery, this is one of those Francis Iles "anatomy of murder" things. Well-written, but again, not my cup of tea at all.

Margery Allingham - The Same to Us

There's a weekend party at Molesworth House, with the guests invited by the lady of the house. Unfortunately, during that weekend her jewels are all stolen.

This is not much more than a humorous vignette, probably all written to be able to use that final line... One has to wonder what happened to poor young Petterboy. A fairly amusing tale, but this anthology is truly scarce on meatier material.

E. V. Knox - The Murder at the Towers

Mr Ponderby-Wilkins is found dead, hanging from a tree at his enormous estate, and inspector Blowhard is brought in to investigate the case.

Now, this may just be my favourite tale in this anthology. It's an out and out parody of real country house mysteries, but since there is such a paucity of such stories here, this gets even better. And the best thing is, the reader only needs to read the first two paragraphs to see whether this is something for them.

Ethel Lina White - An Unlocked Window

Two nurses are in a remote house, taking care of an old professor who is suffering from gas-poisoning. Unfortunately, there's been reports of several nurses being killed in the county...

White is a good writer, but a good writer of stories I don't care for. It doesn't help that I immediately saw through what was going to happen - it felt much too obvious.

Nicholas Blake - The Long Shot

Nigel Strangeways is a guest at Gervase Musbury's place, and while there some of the guests watch as others shoot arrows towards the sky while the sun is sinking. But when the final arrow is fired off and falls down towards the earth again, it strikes a tree and Gervase falls down from it - dead from poisoning!

This is a fine little tale, not too long but does exactly what it sets out to do. Finally a fair play plot for the reader to try to play along with.

Michael Gilbert - Weekend at Wapentake

While handling a case of a husband and wife who have died, lawyer Henry Bohun is intrigued by some old notes of a previous death in their family. He contacts the old man who had written those notes and gets to hear a tale of murder.

Not a bad story at all, there's both a fair play plot and a bit of a sting at the end. Gilbert can generally be relied on for good story-tellling, and this is certainly no exception.

Conclusion

Well, this wasn't the best anthology for me, I'm afraid. There's way too few fair play stories, and too many stories that belong to other crime genres. The few real mysteries there are, are generally good. And most of the good stuff comes towards the end, which makes me remember the book a bit more fondly than I'd otherwise do, so I guess that's something in its favour.

But on the whole, I just thought there were too few "true" country house murders here.

On In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel The Puzzle Doctor liked this a bit more than I did, though he had some reservations.

Aidan's review over on Mysteries Ahoy is very thorough, and we seem to have similar reservations, though we aren't always in complete agreement on which stories are the better ones.

2019-01-16

Silent Nights (ed. Martin Edwards)

"Silent Nights" is the first of - so far - three Christmas/winter mystery anthologies by Martin Edwards in the British Library Crime Classics series. In general, all of the anthologies in the BLCC series have a very similar structure. Almost entirely by British authors, ordered more or less chronologically, some big names mixed with some more unknown quantities. In this particular volume, the former are represented by such authors as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers, while people like Ralph Plummer, Marjorie Bowen and Joseph Shearing were less known to me beforehand.

As most will agree, anthologies are almost by design a mixed blessing. How much the reader will enjoy depends on what direction the editor has chosen when selecting the stories. My own opinion is that I like anthologies to be assembled around a plotting theme (impossible crimes, cozies, fair play mysteries, spy thrillers, adventures, etc.), because then you will have a certain inkling what the stories will contain. And also be able to give a pass to those collections that feature genres of less interest...

I get more wary when the anthologies are not, because then anything can be featured. I mean, just the presence of snow in a story is no indication that I will enjoy reading it (lex "The Mystery in White"). This wariness is somewhat mitigated when I know that the editor is a seasoned one and can be relied upon to bring in at least a couple of really good stories, no matter what. And as this is the case with Martin Edwards' work, I go into the reading of these anthologies with a certain optimistic mindset. Was that justified in this case? Well, read on...


Arthur Conan Doyle - The Blue Carbuncle

This is probably as safe a start to a Christmas mystery anthology as you can get. It is one of Doyle's more famous Sherlock Holmes stories wherein he is investigating how a valuable gem ended up inside a goose that was left behind in the street after an altercation.

My own opinion is that the Holmes stories aren't generally the best mysteries, but they are great stories. This is a wonderful read and does at least feature some investigation, though it all whizzes by a bit too quickly for the reader to be allowed to sleuth along.

Ralph Plummer - Parlour Tricks

This is a tale where several people are forced to spend Christmas indoors at an inn because there has been a robbery and no one is allowed out, and they amuse themselves with conjuring tricks and so on.

The most obscure tale in this collection, it's also quite fun. I must say, however, that there are indications that show why it seems the author never continued his writing career, because there are several things that are never told in the story, but later turn out to have a large importance to the final revelations. For example, we never actually get to know why everyone is forced to stay inside the whole time until our detective tells us who the criminal is. And also, during the first trick where one of the guests is blindfolded and led around the room until he finds a hidden object, we are never actually told what he is supposed to be looking for... But still, a fun read, and with some editing this could have been a good impossible crime story.

Raymund Allen - A Happy Solution

Kenneth Dale has come to visit Lord Churt at the latter's country house, where his fiancée Norah has been staying. He has brought along a letter from Norah, and when he opens it a thousand pound note falls out of the envelope. Everyone assumes Norah stole it, but Kenneth with some logical reasoning finds the true culprit.

A good knowledge of chess will help the reader who wants to solve the mystery, but this is a clever tale and one of the highlights of the collection. My main complaint is that it was very hard to divine the relation of Dale's fiancée Norah to the owners of the country house.

G. K. Chesterton - The Flying Stars

Flambeau tells us the tale of his final crime, wherein he managed to steal the "Flying Stars", a set of three diamonds, during a matinée performed at a country house.

There are just a bit too many things that go unexplained until the final Father Brown explanation of the whole thing, but otherwise, this is one of Chesterton's better stories. It's just not a perfect mystery.

Edgar Wallace - Stuffing

A bit of a trifle where several criminals are all out to steal money from Lord Carfane.

To call this a mystery is a misnomer. However, it's still a fun story to read, as all the coincidences pile up and everything - well, almost - turns out all right in the end.

H. C. Bailey - The Unknown Murderer

Bailey's detective Reggie Fortune often handles cases involving children, and this is yet another one of them. A female doctor is found with her throat cut and later on the suspicion falls on a Captain Warnham, who was a guest in the house at the time, and who has a step-son who falls very ill...

Bailey's stories involving children are often quite powerful, and this is not bad at all. The villain of the story is quite diabolical. I do think it's fairly obvious to spot the baddie, but Fortune is a nice acquaintance in the short story format, though his mannerisms make him less tolerable in larger measures.

J. Jefferson Farjeon - The Absconding Treasurer

As the title intimates, the treasurer of the Slate Club has vanished, and with him a large sum of money. But when detective Crook begins investigating, he finds that there may be more to the story than appears...

Compared with Farjeon's novel "The Mystery in White", this is more of a regular mystery. It's pleasant enough, but I think most seasoned mystery readers will see through the plot fairly quickly.

Dorothy L. Sayers - The Necklace of Pearls

Lord Peter Wimsey is guesting at Sir Septimus Shale's Christmas celebrations, and while they are enjoying the regular parlour games, the latter's daughter notices her pearl necklace missing. Lord Peter is asked to investigate so police won't have to be invited and cause a scandal.

Interestingly, this is in fact an impossible crime, though no one seems to have noted it as such. And it's quite a pleasant one to boot. I won't say that it'll cause any great "aha" moments, but Sayers weaves a robust plot around the disappearance, and it's certainly one of the better tales of this collection. I will probably include this in my own collection of impossible crime stories.

Margery Allingham - The Case is Altered

Another country house mystery, this time it's Albert Campion who is invited to spend the Christmas holidays Sir Philip Cookham's place. There are some shenanigans with government papers that go missing and several young foolish people doing their young foolish things.

That description may look a bit condescending (well, a lot condescending), but I actually enjoyed this story a whole deal. It's not much of a mystery, and if there had only been one or two more pratfalls this wouldn't have been out of place in a P. G. Wodehouse collection. But I enjoy Wodehouse, and as long as the reader doesn't go into this story with high expectations I'm sure they will enjoy it.

Ethel Lina White - Waxworks

A young female journalist has decided to take it upon herself to sit in a waxworks over the night because lately two people have died there while spending the night.

This story belongs to the suspense genre, which is one of my least favourite mystery sub-genres. It's effectively written and a reader who enjoys this type of tale will almost certainly find it a highlight, but I was quite bored with the whole thing.

Marjorie Bowen - Cambric Tea

A doctor is called to a bedridden old man who tells him he is certain that his wife is trying to poison him. Things get more complicated when it turns out that the doctor and the wife were well acquainted in younger years...

Another story that is hardly a mystery. It's quite reminiscent of some of Agatha Christie's early romantic short stories. And not particularly interesting to me.

Joseph Shearing - The Chinese Apple

A middle-aged woman has returned to London from Italy to take custody of her niece, since her sister recently died. They meet in a house where it's reputed that strange things have been happening.

Shearing was another penname for the author of the previous story, Marjorie Bowen, which makes the placement of this story a bit bewildering. It also doesn't help that again it's hardly a mystery at all, which is further compounded by it being dull as dishwater, making it three stories in a row that bring the momentum of the anthology to a screeching halt.

Nicholas Blake - A Problem in White

A train has got stuck in the snow and the people of one compartment start discussing among themselves how to best bring about a train robbery, as you do. One of them feels insulted and decides to move to a different compartment. And some time later he turns up dead...

Well, after those three duds, it's rather wonderful to arrive at this story, which is a definite highlight of this anthology. This is a proper mystery, fairly clued and all, and ends on a challenge to the reader. Top stuff from Blake.

Edmund Crispin - The Name on the Window

Previously discussed in this post.

Leo Bruce - Beef for Christmas

Beef and his narrator Lionel Townsend are invited to a - you guessed it - country house, where an old man has been receiving anonymous letters. Since he is known for spending his money lavishly, something his heirs resent, there is some cause for alarm. And then death strikes among the guests...

I really should start reading more from Bruce. This is a very good little mystery, almost an impossible crime in its simplicity. There's just one misdirection here, and if the reader sees through that, they should spot the culprit fairly easily, though. Still, a very good read, ending this collection on three high notes in a row.

Conclusion

This anthology confirms what I said above in the introduction - if it isn't curated around a specific plotting genre, it tends to be very uneven in what it offers. The main problem comes by placing the White, Bowen, Shearing stories next to each other, because they are quite similar and belong to the same sub-genre. By breaking them up, people who like me who are thoroughly bored by these kinds of stories wouldn't lose steam so completely in the third quarter of the book.

But on the whole this must be called a good anthology, because apart from those three stories I had some good fun here. And there are definitely quite a few great tales here. And the best ones are placed at the very end, which leaves an extra good impression on this reader.

If you're looking for other opinions on this anthology, Kate was very complimentary on her blog crossexamingcrime. Read more here.

Meanwhile, over on In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, the Puzzle Doctor had some reservations but still recommended it.

And on A Perfect Locked Room the Dark One was quite impressed with the whole thing.

2019-01-09

Small Crime: Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens

I'm going to be branching out ever so slightly by discussing young adult mystery novels here on the blog. They may not be short, but they are quite sweet!

This is a genre that is fairly overlooked in the blogosphere with mainly my good friend J. J. over on The Invisible Event returning to his wonderful Minor Felonies posts with some irregularity. (To be honest, TomCat has also been discussing this genre - mainly in the form of the classic Three Investigators series).

It may not be the most attention-drawing type of literature, and like comics, there is probably a mental block in many adults who dismiss this as "something for the kids". Which of course in a way it is. But there is lots of good work being done in the genre, and it's always a pleasure when you can point out gems, no matter what genre you've found that diamond in.

For my first post on this subject, I am going to write about the fifth novel in the ongoing A Murder Most Unladylike series, written by Robin Stevens, which is called "Mistletoe and Murder".


As you may recall, the estimable J. J. and I discussed the previous novel in the series ("Jolly Foul Play") on his site just the other month. If not, click here to read up on that discussion. There, we theorised that Stevens is approaching each instalment in the ongoing series as a way to implement and feature a particular trope of Golden Age Mystery fiction. I'm glad to say that this theory holds water with this fifth novel.

Because, as you can probably infer from the title, this is a Christmas mystery. But not only that - it is also a university/college mystery, set as it is in Cambridge in the mid 1930s. Hazel Wong, our narrator, and her best friend Daisy Wells (also the president of the Detective Society) have been invited to celebrate Christmas with Daisy's brother Bertie, who is studying in Cambridge.

Stevens gets a lot of mileage out of this setting - most of the action takes place in the fictional Maudlin college where Bertie lives, along with several mates. There's the twin brothers Donald and Chummy Melling, their on and off friend Alfred Cheng, and also their history don, Michael Butler.

We're also allowed to mingle with various other Cambridge residents, for example Daisy's great-aunt Eustacia Mountfichet and female student Amanda Price. But most of all, Daisy and Hazel get a chance to finally meet - and match wits with - their rival detective society The Junior Pinkertons, George Mukherjee and Alexander Arcady.

In fact, when Daisy and Hazel first come to Cambridge, we find out that Donald - who in just a few days will inherit a large fortune - has been very accident prone. It is generally assumed that most of these accidents are just that, accidents. Even though his brother Chummy - who is one of those awful people that for some reason authors try to convince their readership that the other characters enjoy the company of - is known for being a prankster.

However, both the Detective Society and the Junior Pinkertons smell something fishy, and they decide to enter a wager to see who can get to the bottom of the whole thing first. Unfortunately, the very next night Chummy is found dead, having fallen down a flight of stairs because he tripped over a fishing line that had been set at the top of the stairs.

So now instead our rivalling detectives have a real crime to investigate! Which just a day later becomes two crimes...


I'm happy to report that this is a clear improvement on the previous book in the series, which was a breezy read but had some serious problems in its handling of the mystery, where the final culprit seemed to be rather pulled out of a hat. We have a tiny whiff of that here as well, but in this case Stevens manages to eliminate suspects one by one by having her detectives investigate clues and talk to the persons involved. The main problem here is that the suspects that are eliminated are the bit players, and we're left with just the two main suspects.

And since everyone except Hazel suspect one of those suspects over the other, this kinda means that all us savvy readers will know that it's person no. 2 who is the bad guy. But at least Stevens then provides a couple of clues that point definitely to the killer.

The denouement is handled fairly well - there's some real excitement in the final action sequence. We get explanations for why other characters acted suspiciously, and they also fit with the overall story. So, all in all, this was a very pleasant read, and I'd probably rank this as no. 2 or 3 in the series. (Best is "First Class Murder", and this one is tied with "Arsenic for Tea".)

As this is written in the 2010s, there's quite a lot of pages devoted to things that matter to a modern audience. Hazel's point of view is quite interesting, seeing that she is an outsider in the English society - both because she's female and because she's from Hong Kong. In this novel she also gets to appreciate that other people have the same outsider position - Bertie's fellow student Alfred Cheng, for example, who like Hazel is from Hong Kong, not to mention George Mukherjee and his Indian heritage. Some of Hazel's and George's conversations (and perhaps even more what is NOT being said!) are quite poignant, and as a non-Englishman myself (though still a "Westerner") who is rather nonplussed by some of the quintessentially English behavioural traits I find a lot of things to agree with.

You may also recall from the discussion of the previous novel on The Invisible Event that I argued that Daisy Wells might well be on the autistic spectrum. I feel quite vindicated in that belief by her characterisation here. It's quite clear that she operates on a different level than most other people - though she is quite delighted (and challenged!) by meeting George Mukherjee, a young man with fairly similar characteristics.

If you're looking for a modern mystery with clear GA influences and are willing to dip your toe in the Young Adult genre, I don't think you can find many better books to read than these ones. I recommend it wholeheartedly. There is certainly some continuity between the novels in the series, and none of them are bad reads, so if you can see yourself commit to the series, then by all means read them in order. But otherwise, this works perfectly fine as a standalone novel.

And by the way, my copy contains a short story featuring two of Hazel's and Daisy's classmates on their own Christmas adventure. But this story is also included in the collection "Cream Buns and Crime", so it's a bit superfluous here...

2018-12-11

Minor Felonies on The Invisible Event

Things have been quiet here lately, but I'm happy to announce that over on the blog The Invisible Event, blogger extraordinaire J.J.and me have a discussion on the young adult mystery novel, "Jolly Foul Play" by Robin Stevens. If you haven't already seen this post, please head over there now and read our thoughts - they should be of interest even if you are not a reader of young adult mysteries. Click here to get to the blog post in question.




As I said, things have been quiet here for some time, because I've been quite busy in my life away from mysteries - so busy that I've had no time for writing up reviews of new short story collections that I've read; in fact so busy that I've read fewer such collections than I'd like!

Anyway, I hope that I'll have more time on my hands as the new year rolls along, because I do have a couple of collections and anthologies that I'd like to discuss here. Fingers crossed that those distractions, called Real Life, will have less of an impact in the coming weeks and months!