The idea of the detective on holiday is a rather wonderful one and, as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, has been a rich source of inspiration for mystery novels. This collection is concerned however with much shorter works and features a variety of stories in which the detective or victim is travelling away from home.
In some cases the travel is incidental to the story, used to place the mystery against an exotic backdrop whereas in others the idea of being in an unfamiliar environment is critical to the story’s themes and plot. The stories that Edwards selects draw on a variety of styles and approaches and demonstrate how a basic concept can be taken in many different directions and used for inspiration in many different ways.
There are, of course, some stories from writers who are widely known and remembered such as Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton but there are also a number of stories from lesser-known figures. Of those I particularly enjoyed the contributions from E. W. Hornung, Phyllis Bentley and Gerald Findler while there are some excellent stories from the better-known Michael Gilbert and Leo Bruce here too.
As with any anthology, there are a handful of disappointments in the collection but in most cases those stories fit and illustrate the theme well and their inclusion makes sense. I would certainly say that this is one of the strongest British Library Crime Classics anthologies that I have read and would put this up with The Long Arm of the Law in terms of the general quality of the stories collected.
The Adventures of the Devil’s Foot by Arthur Conan Doyle
Given his stature within the genre, I do sometimes feel a little disappointed to see a short story by Doyle within these collections – particularly as I’ve already read all of the Holmes ones. Still, this is a cracker and fits the theme very well.
Watson accompanies Holmes to Cornwall where he has been sent by his Doctor for the sake of his health. They are approached by a vicar on behalf of a man who has been involved in a strange incident. The man had played whist with his sister and two brothers the previous night and left them but the following morning his sister is dead, apparently scared to death, while the two brothers appear to be insane.
This is a very effective adventure with a slightly unusual structure and resolution. It is also quite an atmospheric tale. The puzzle itself is interesting and while parts of what happened are quite guessable, the way those elements piece together is quite fascinating.
A Schoolmaster Abroad by E W. Hornung
Dr. John Dollar is in Switzerland where he encounters a schoolmaster and his young charge. A doctor friend in whom he had the upmost confidence has been accused of mistakenly overprescribing strychnine to the boy and Dollar is asked to investigate.
Given my admiration for the inverted mystery it is probably little surprise that this story appealed to me as while the would-be killer is not explicitly named before the conclusion, their identity is clear enough from the outset. There are some very clever points within this story, not least the explanation of how Dollar can tell a document has been forged, and it strikes a satisfying note at the end.
Murder! by Arnold Bennett
A pair of men meet in a billiards room in a seaside hotel to discuss a letter one of them has received from their wife. By the end of the conversation one of the two men is dead and the other seeks to cover up his crime.
I was clearly delighted to find another inverted-style story in this collection. The story is not exactly a mystery though it does a good job of parodying the genius amateur sleuth in its conclusion.
The Murder on the Golf Links by M. McDonnell Bodkin
A young woman approaches Beck to tell him about a problem she has found herself in. At her father’s request she became engaged to a rich man who she didn’t care for but shortly afterwards she found herself attracted to another. She wanted to break the first engagement but found that she could not. Adding to her problems, her fiance is found dead on the golf course some time later and the young man she is interested in is suspected of the murder.
This story is definitely more in the line of adventure than mystery and there is little that the reader could solve for themselves as much of Beck’s investigation occurs without our knowledge. The good news is that the ending is a lot of fun and so even if the case feels a little dull, it ends on an entertaining note.
The Finger of Stone by G. K. Chesterton
Three men go on a walking holiday in France but one of the number is appalled when he learns that the Norwegian professor who invited him to visit is believed dead and his body cannot be found.
I found this to be heavy going with plenty of doctrinal and philosophical discussion and not particularly enjoyable although I do commend the imagination that sets up a rather gruesome revelation towards the end.
The Vanishing of Mrs Fraser by Basil Thomson
A woman and her daughter arrive in Paris where they secure rooms at a hotel. The mother feels ill and a doctor is sent for who sends the daughter away on an errand. When she returns her mother is not there, the staff at the hotel claim that they were never there and there is no trace of the doctor who treated her.
This is a rather slight story but I think it fits the theme of the collection pretty well with the two women being strangers to Paris. The solution is simple but clued effectively and I quite like the tone of the ending.
A Mystery of the Sand-Hills by R. Austin Freeman
Dr. Thorndyke is staying near the beach when he is alerted to a strange incident of a bather who apparently disappeared without his clothing.
A neat little story that I think works quite nicely. Thorndyke is able to extract quite a lot of information from some clues that, on the face of it, appear to offer little in the way of concrete evidence and locate a body. The reasoning all seems quite logical and there is a certain wow factor in seeing Thorndyke pull the case together so quickly.
The Hazel Ice by H. C. Bailey
Reggie Fortune and his wife are having an alpine holiday but it is interrupted by a man’s claims that a fellow traveller had been killed in a landslide. A search begins for the missing man but no body can be found at first.
I previously encountered a Reggie Fortune story in the Serpents in Eden collection which left me a little cold. I am happier to say that this alpine adventure is a far more entertaining read. I think the situation created is particularly successful and while there is not much of a puzzle here for the reader to solve, understanding the relationships between the suspects is interesting.
Razor Edge by Anthony Berkeley
Roger Sheringham is disappointed that the place he is holidaying in has experienced no murders but soon enough a crime turns up for him to investigate. Two men went out swimming but one of them drowned and their body turns up in a rock pool, badly scratched across the back.
This is quite a simple story and perhaps not the most original construction of a crime but I enjoyed Berkeley’s way of telling it. Solid but unspectacular.
Holiday Task by Leo Bruce
A newly appointed prison governor is found dead at the bottom of a cliff in a car. It looks like suicide but the lack of motive raises suspicions.
An excellent Sergeant Beef short story that is outrageously inventive in its solution. Very cleverly plotted and quite satisfying!
A Posteriori by Helen Simpson
An English tourist in France who bemoans never having interesting stories to tell at parties becomes involved in a spy hunt.
This story is cute enough though some may feel exasperated at how often characters speak French. Certainly I felt that I missed a few details that way as the remarks are left untranslated although the tourist’s inability to follow a few of the things that are said to her is important.
Simpson has a nice turn of phrase though and I was particularly fond of a description of a character as having a ‘gibbon-like agility’.
Where is Mr. Manetot? by Phyllis Bentley
After accidentally arriving a day early for a lecture he was going to give, Mr. Manetot decides to travel to a nearby town for a day’s holiday and enjoy the sea. The next day he vanishes, leaving a letter behind that suggests he may have have information about a murder that has taken place.
I enjoyed this story which is almost entirely told in the form of that letter from Mr. Manetot. It plays cleverly with the question of whether someone has witnessed what they think they have witnessed and provides some resolution in a brief coda.
The House of Screams by Gerald Findler
A writer rents a house in the Lake District to work on a book but he finds his sleep disturbed by a woman’s screaming and goes to investigate.
That’s a pretty vague description but I want you to experience this rather wonderful short story for yourself. It is told as a mixture of ghost story and detective fiction but it is strictly in the realm of the rational. One of the best stories in the collection.
Cousin Once Removed by Michael Gilbert
A man plots to kill his cousin while they are on holiday in the hopes of gaining an inheritance.
This is a very short story so it gets a very short summary to match. It is an excellent inverted tale though that packs a lot into just a handful of pages, building to a very memorable ending. It also makes for a fantastic ending to this collection, fitting the theme very well.