The Man Who Read Mysteries - William Brittain

Another collection from specialist publisher Crippen & Landru, this one collecting all the "Man Who Read" stories by William Brittain, and also featuring a selection of stories from the same author's Mr. Strang series.

It's a bit unfortunate that we only get a sample from the latter series, but as editor Josh Pachter tells us in his informative introduction, otherwise we would have had a collection with forty-three tales, which is a bit unwieldy. But I certainly hope that sales of this volume were promising and that we'll see a second collection with the rest of the Mr. Strang stories.

From that you'll probably infer that I liked this collection, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. As always, we'll take a look at the individual stories first and then return to my overall assessment.

The first half of the book is dedicated to Brittain's "The Man Who Read" stories - a bit of a misnomer since it's not just men reading... Anyway, first out is "The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr". This is the story of a young man who wants to get rid of his uncle, and because he idolises all our favourite impossible crime writer, he decides to commit the murder in a completely locked room.

So what we get is an inverted tale with a funny ending. Not generally my thing, as you all know, but at least it's quite amusing and it's also interesting to follow the protagonist as he plans his impossible crime.

Things pick up a lot with the second instalment of the series, "The Man Who Read Ellery Queen". Unlike the first story, which was sort of a parody, this is much more of a regular mystery story, written as an homage to the great cousins. In it, a man who's recently been admitted to a house for the elderly gets a case to investigate when a neighbour has a valuable coin stolen.

This is a fine mystery with good clueing, but to be honest, I don't feel it has a whole lot of Ellery Queen about it. There's no challenge to the reader - though Brittain makes a nod to this staple of EQ's early novels - nor is there any dying message or a collection of items where one thing happens to be different in some way. It's just simply a fine mystery, well worth reading, like most Ellery Queen tales.

Next comes "The Man Who Didn't Read", and what he didn't read was Edgar Allan Poe. Here we have two men, one of whom has killed the other's wife in a car accident. And then the former agrees to help the latter with building a new room in his house...

Yeah, you all know where this is heading. This isn't really a mystery, it's a suspense story building to a climax. And when the climax is obvious, it does take away most of my enjoyment.

"The Woman Who Read Rex Stout" is an interesting inversion of genders - both in title and content - where a circus lady investigates who killed her protegé/surrogate daughter.

This story does in fact have a dying message of sorts, so at least finally we got one here. I think Brittain does a bit better in his evocation of an author here, and this is really a fine mystery. A good surprise ending to boot.

It's interesting that it's only with story no. 5 in this series that we arrive at Agatha Christie - in "The Boy Who Read Agatha Christie". This is another winner of the series, where several high school boys go into different shops in a small town and do more or less crazy things, and a young exchange student from Belgium manages to deduce the reason for this behaviour.

I think this has some Chestertonian traits as well - "where is it best to hide a tree? In a forest" - but Christie did the same thing here and there, and as a story the whole thing works pretty well. I'm not sure it's wholly fairly clued, but a good read nonetheless.

And the other household name of the genre gets his pastiche in "The Man Who Read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle". A man in a small town receives a letter from an old acquaintance which obliquely refers to the great detective, and then suddenly he is approached by people from an intelligence agency who want to find the hidden message in the letter.

To be honest, this isn't much like anything Doyle wrote. It's really just an amusing story with some Holmesian references and some code cracking that seems rather far-fetched. Not a total loss, but it's not a particular highlight either.

I mentioned Chesterton before, and of course Brittain writes his own Chesterton take-off. "The Man Who Read G. K. Chesterton" is a Roman Catholic pastor named Charles Kenney, and when one of his flock is found dead from a presumed suicide, he is not so sure and manages to get his superior to agree to an investigation of the case.

This was another fine story with a simple but easily acceptable solution to how the murder could be jigged into looking like a suicide. Isn't Father Kenney's last remark a bit un-Christian?

"The Man Who Read Dashiell Hammett" should move us into more hard-boiled territory, but instead we get a story with an old librarian who is asked by his superior and a prospective financial backer to use his mystery reading skills to find a valuable first edition volume that the latter has hidden somewhere in the library.

So what we get is actually a pure fair play mystery with our protagonist applying his reasoning to clues supplied by the financial backer. It's another good story, where the clues are perhaps just a tad too far-fetched for the reader to solve them, but nevertheless a good read.

Two delivery men have come with a load of valuable art pieces to a rich man's house in "The Man Who Read Georges Simenon". But as they unload the paintings they become somewhat suspicious of the man who met them claiming to be the security guard.

Now, I haven't read much Simenon, but I didn't really get a "Maigret feeling" from this one. Others who are more well-versed in Simenon's oeuvre may disagree, but to me this was a fairly slight tale with not too much happening in the way of plot. A bit of a disappointment, to be honest.

The previous stories have all referenced pretty big names in the mystery field, but for a reader today the subject matter of "The Girl Who Read John Creasey" feels rather more obscure. In this tale, a police officer tells his family about a case where a man was killed in a hotel room, just managing to breathe out a few words before passing away.

So, this is another dying message story. The culprit felt rather obvious to me, but the clues are pretty good and I thought the story fairly amusing on the whole. I did get annoyed with the mother's constant admonitions of her husband. "Not at the table, dear..." Bah.

The final story in this set is "The Men Who Read Isaac Asimov", a pastiche of the great doctor's Black Widowers stories. At a dinner party, a journalist tells a story of an entrepreneur who's created a grand competition for his customers to try to find out the combination to a safe where he has put a thousand-dollar bill.

This might be the one story in this series that best evokes its subject matter, because this is pretty much a Black Widowers story in everything but some of the window dressing. There are clues based on words and numbers, the characters are pretty much non-entities and everything is just really lovely. It's not a story where I'd manage to find the solution in a million years, but I really liked this one.

Moving on to the Mr. Strang half of the book, which begins with "Mr. Strang Gives a Lecture". Our protagonist is a high school teacher who solves crimes of different varieties. In this case one of Mr. Strang's pupils is accused of having committed a robbery, using Mr. Strang's car. Still, the teacher is not convinced that his adept was the true culprit.

A fairly good introduction to a new series. I'd have to say that the policeman in charge is a bit obtuse in his observation of the car's odometer. But it's a fun little story with some good conclusions drawn by Mr. Strang before we reach the end.

"Mr. Strang Performs an Experiment" is fairly topical with a female pupil accusing one of Mr. Strang's colleagues of improper advances, and so Mr. Strang designs an experiment to find out whether she is telling the truth or not.

A story that fits perfectly in our modern world. There's not much of a mystery in this one, it's simply a story of Mr. Strang's experiment where he attempts to catch the accuser out in a lie. Clever, but not the strongest story here.

"Mr. Strang Takes a Field Trip" was previously discussed in this post. It's a great little impossible crime tale.

Our next story sees Mr. Strang take on the drug trade in "Mr. Strang Versus the Snowman". One of Mr. Strang's pupils is living with his uncle, and the latter is suspected of being one of the key people in the drug trade. So Mr. Strang manages to get himself invited into their home...

A nice, fairly clued story with some fine misdirection by Brittain, though the main clue only arises due to a mistake by the bad guy.

In "Mr. Strang, Armchair Detective", our protagonist is challenged by a big city cop that he won't be able to solve a case that the latter is in the middle of right now, simply by sitting back in his restaurant chair and draw conclusions.

So, another fine story with Mr. Strang reasoning himself to a probable solution by picking up on clues in the cop's story. To be honest, this should have been the "The Man Who Read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle" story instead.

Mr. Strang visits an old teacher friend in "Mr. Strang Interprets a Picture", and notices a drawing made by a young boy whose later been hospitalized. And when he manages to connect the drawing with a bank robbery, surely the villains cannot hope to get away?

This is perhaps just a bit too far-fetched to be entirely successful. I guess it could work like that, but the conclusions drawn by Mr. Strang stretch incredulity just a bit. An enjoyable read, nonetheless.

The final story in this series is "Mr. Strang Takes a Tour", where the elderly teacher is on a bus trip from the US to Canada and then back again. When a wooden cross is stolen from a fellow passenger, Mr. Strang gets suspicious.

And manages to build a chain of deductions that leads to the arrest of a fugitive. A fun story, and perhaps especially interesting as a study of American tourists going to a foreign country...


This was a rather wonderful collection. There are a couple of misfires - two of the stories in the "The Man Who Read" series are only so-so - but the average quality of the tales in this volume is very high indeed. This is particularly recommended for folks who like Edward D. Hoch's stories - the Mr. Strang series is very Hoch-ian, both because of Brittain's writing style and because of their content.

It's worth noting that the stories in the "The Man Who Read" series aren't particularly uniform. A couple of them are parodies while others are homages. And the Asimov one could almost have been a pastiche, had Brittain just changed the names a bit.

Being the impossible crime nerd that I am, that's really the only complaint I can come up with - too few impossible crimes! Though the one that is in this collection is really very good. It's just that it's been featured elsewhere and so wasn't new to me.

As I said above, I really hope that C&L can find a way to get the rest of the Mr. Strang stories published, they are very good indeed.

1 comment:

  1. Very excited to read this -- given that I'll have to order it from the US I was waiting to get the new Crofts collection at the same time. Alas, I learned at the weekend that that will be delayed until 2020 for the centenary of The Cask, so a bit more of a wait, er, awaits...