Aaaaand... I'm back! And to start things off, a look at yet another British Library Crime Classics anthology, this time one subtitled "Holiday mysteries". And it has to be said, the connection to this theme is quite tenuous in some of the stories featured here. In fact, once I had finished this collection, I had to check once again what the title was, because I couldn't really recall any unifying theme.
So, I guess that's not the best sign, but on the other hand, that won't matter much if the stories are good anyway. To me, it felt as though this collection was a bit more slanted towards the early 1900s than some of the other anthologies I've discussed, but I haven't done a scientific study - it may just be a feeling I have.
There are several famous faces here - Doyle, Berkeley, Freeman, Gilbert to name but a few - and also a smattering of less well-known writers. Let's get stuck in, shall we?
Arthur Conan Doyle - The Adventure of the Devil's Foot
Holmes and Watson are taking a restive break in Cornwall, but while there they are approached by two men. One of these two men has a family of two brothers and a sister, where the brothers have been killed and the sister rendered mad because of some kind of horrible crime or accident. Holmes decides to begin investigating to find out the cause of this misfortune.
The well-versed mystery reader will probably immediately send his suspicions in one direction. It's not the hardest Holmes tale to see through. Still, Doyle conjures up a thrilling atmosphere and it's still well worth a read.
E. W. Hornung - A Schoolmaster Abroad
Dr. Dollar has come to Switzerland for a winter holiday, but as soon as he arrives he is told of a mysterious change that has befallen one of the other visitors, who used to be a cheerful fellow previously but has showed himself to be more haughty during this visit. And to top it all off, he recently survived a poisoning - accidental or not!
This was a bit less successful. We're still in early 1900s melodrama territory and the author holds off from telling the reader several things that could be useful in trying to solve the mystery. Not a fair play story by any means. Hornung is not a bad writer, though, so it's still a brisk read.
Arnold Bennett - Murder!
The tale of two men, one with a history of maltreating his wife and the other with a healthy affection for said wife. When the former buys a gun, the latter somehow contrives to leave the gunsmith's shop with another one in his pocket.
I had some hope for this story, since I had rather enjoyed Bennett's offering in Continental Crimes, but this was a bit of a letdown. There's no mystery here, it's just the story of a crime. Meh. The more I think about it, the more annoyed I get.
M. McDonnell Bodkin - The Murder on the Golf Links
Mr Hawkins is killed on the golf links, murdered by the traditional "blunt weapon". As he had recently quarrelled with a rival in a romantic entanglement, suspicion naturally veers towards this rival. But Paul Beck, son of Paul Beck, steps in to investigate...
Okay, this is definitely a mystery, so steps in the right direction. Though not all the way, because this was very, very easily seen through. I think the best thing I can say about this tale is that I don't regret reading it.
G. K. Chesterton - The Finger of Stone
Three men discuss a recent event, where local celebrity Professor Boyg has disappeared and is believed dead, though no body has been found. It seems he just vanished from view when walking along a mountain path, while his assistant looked away for a moment.
So no Father Brown here. This is more a Chestertonian parable where he attempts to explain his worldview than a mystery story, to be honest. If you generally like Chesterton, you'll probably like this. If you think that Chesterton is generally too skimpy on the mystery aspect, then you'll agree with me instead.
Basil Thomson - The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser
A mother and daughter have arrived in Paris from Naples. They take a room at a hotel, but the mother falls ill and the daughter is sent away by the doctor to collect medicine. However, when she arrives at the address provided, there are no drugs to be found, and when she returns everyone denies having ever seen her or her mother before.
A fairly familiar plot, this one. I kind of liked this one, though mainly for the way it hinted at one character as the detective, just to flipflop everything. Otherwise, there's not too much in the way of fair play, so that bit was a letdown.
R. Austin Freeman - A Mystery of the Sand-Hills
While visiting friends, Dr. Thorndyke takes a walk along the beach, where first his party find a set of footprints leading from the sea, and then some distance away, a bunch of clothes with a set of footprints leading into the sea, though there are some indications that these footprints are not the same.
I'd read this one before, though it was a while ago. It's interesting to contrast the way Freeman handles Thorndyke's theorizing with how Doyle would do it in his Holmes stories. Both of them manage to draw very far-reaching conclusions from very little. Though Freeman has a reputation for writing about scientific detection, this is still quite rooted in early 1900s melodrama. It's not a great story, but still very readable.
H. C. Bailey - The Hazel Ice
Reggie Fortune is holidaying with his wife in Switzerland, along with his friend, Swiss police officer Herr Stein. They come across a mountaineer who has been in an accident while out walking along the mountain paths and lost his companion. Fortune takes an interest in the case, suspecting foul play.
Unlike many Bailey stories, this does not feature children in peril at all. But like many Bailey stories, it is very long. I think this would have benefitted from some judicious editing, because at the heart of it there's a pretty good story. It just feels quite padded when Bailey doesn't really bring any surprises or fireworks.
Anthony Berkeley - Razor Edge
Roger Sheringham is staying in Cornwall with his friend, the chief constable, when they come across a case where a woman has reported her husband and a common friend missing. When a body is found drowned, the wife identifies it as her husband. While the police are willing to write it off as an accident, Sheringham has his own suspicions.
Yeah, if you haven't already guessed what's going to happen here, then I daresay you'll be surprised when the sun rises tomorrow again. This story wasn't published during Berkeley's lifetime, only seeing publication several decades after. And I think it's easy to see why, it's really not his finest hour. It's a good read, don't get me wrong, but if you're looking at least for a tiny bit of surprising happenstances in a mystery, then you'd do better to look elsewhere.
Leo Bruce - Holiday Task
Sergeant Beef is in Normandy with his biographer Lionel Townsend, having a bit of a rest. While there, he hears of a case where a sadistic prison warden has disappeared from his job at the prison and somehow turned up dead in his car, having gone over a cliff's edge - without anyone seeing how he and the car managed to leave the prison!
This is, as you can see, an impossible mystery. And it's by far the best thing in this anthology - it's so far ahead of everything else that it's really sad. It is a very, very fine mystery with a great explanation for the impossibility, and I think that this story is really worth the whole price of admission.
Helen Simpson - A Posteriori
Miss Charters is holidaying in Paris, where rumours of spies are flying about, and when at night someone tosses a suspicious package through her hotel window, she decides not to report a thing, instead deciding to leave as quickly as she can.
Yeah, the best thing about this story is the title, the whole point of which I only got after checking back after I'd read the story. Otherwise, it really is a slight thing indeed.
Phyllis Bentley - Where is Mr. Manetot?
Mr. Manetot has written a letter to his friend, describing a number of suspicious events that he ran into while on his way to Lancashire where he was supposed to hold a speech. Since we've been told in the very beginning of this tale that Mr. Manetot has disappeared, these descriptions take on a more sinister meaning...
To a large extent, this is an epistolary story. I thought this one of the better efforts of this anthology, though mainly because of the discovery at a very late stage of the story. Where it suffers is in its explanations, because there are lots of things that go unexplained.
Gerald Findler - The House of Screams
Previously discussed in this post.
Michael Gilbert - Cousin Once Removed
Arthur Alworthy has managed to convince his cousin Kenneth to take a holiday near Howorth Farm, a perfect place for fishing and spelunking, with another advantage that there are deep holes in the ground where you can get rid of cousins that stand between you and a fortune...
So, inverted mystery plot #1A, with twist #1B. A disappointing ending to this collection, particularly so since Gilbert usually ends the BLCC anthologies on a good note.
As you've probably managed to glean from my descriptions there really is very little to the theme of this anthology. Another thing you've probably managed to glean is that this was a disappointing read. There's one colossal highlight that almost mitigates that fact (Leo Bruce, I salute you), and there's a bunch of generally readable stories, but also a whole lot of lackluster, unimaginative stuff. It's easy to see why some of these names managed to fall into obscurity. On the other hand, that might be something to count in this collections favour - it features a lot of stories you probably won't have read before, not just the usual suspects.
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
- the quality of the collections here in the middle of the list is
fairly uniform, but I think this one just manages to go to the top. A
good variety of stories and a few really good ones.
3. Blood on the Tracks - a collection with few standouts and some truly bewildering inclusions, but on the whole it was still a worthwhile read.
4. 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
5. Crimson Snow - a rough start and ending to this anthology belies
the fact that it collects a solid bunch of stories, perhaps only marred
by the fact that there is no true highlight here.
6. Continental Crimes - a disappointing read on the whole where the great stories are few and far between.
7. Resorting to Murder - there's a bunch of easily forgotten stuff here. But also one awesome story that means that it manages to avoid being placed last.
8. 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.
TomCat was much kinder to this anthology when he reviewed it over at Beneath the Stains of Time. Mysteries Ahoy's Adrian ended up somewhere between us in his opinions. But I think we all agree on the Bruce story, at least!
Wow, calling Bruce's 'Holiday Task' "by far the best thing in this anthology" is a burn so severe that I think all paper copies of this collection just went up in smoke. I'll trust your judgement and perhaps edge quietly around this collection...ReplyDelete
Weeell, I did like that story a whole bunch. It's not like I was lukewarm towards it or anything like that.Delete
But when not even Berkeley or Gilbert rise to the occasion - they can generally be relied upon to lift any anthology from mediocrity - then there is a bit of an uphill struggle for this collection.
It's by no means a complete washout, and it comes with the general caveat that I get quite annoyed by a mystery anthology that doesn't really feature mysteries but a whole bunch of other crime related genres. I like variation, but I'd like that variation to be within the field of mystery, not within the entire field of crime writing. I mean, after all it is subtitled "Holiday MYSTERIES". Cf. an upcoming review of another BLCC anthology. :)