Originally Published 2016
The English country house is an iconic setting for some of the greatest British crime fiction. This new collection gathers together stories written over a span of about 65 years, during which British society, and life in country houses, was transformed out of all recognition. It includes fascinating and unfamiliar twists on the classic ‘closed circle’ plot, in which the assorted guests at a country house party become suspects when a crime is committed. In the more sinister tales featured here, a gloomy mansion set in lonely grounds offers an eerie backdrop for dark deeds.
Though I have been something of a skeptic when it comes to short crime fiction in the past these British Library anthologies curated by Martin Edwards have helped turn me around on the possibilities of the form. Over the past year I bought most of these collections and have been slowly working through them.
Murder at the Manor takes the iconic country house setting as its focus, presenting us with sixteen tales from authors from a variety of backgrounds and styles. In some cases however the setting plays little role in the story itself and few convey any real sense of those impressive historic homes.
The result is a collection that can feel a little uneven compared to some of the others in the range. A few stories such as The Problem of Dead Wood Hall and The Long Shot left me quite unimpressed. There are some stories though that I can strongly recommend that make this worth dipping into.
Several of the most memorable tales are inverted crime stories such as W. W. Jacobs’ The Well which features some truly horrific moments and James Hilton’s The Perfect Plan which builds to a thrilling conclusion. Those who prefer lighter mysteries are likely to enjoy E. V. Knox’s very amusing story The Murder at the Towers which is consistently amusing, parodying the country house mystery very effectively.
The highlight of the collection is an incredibly tense thriller by Ethel Lina White, An Unlocked Window. In that tale a group of nurses have locked themselves in a house while the Doctor is away fetching supplies because there is a serial killer who has been targeting nurses as his victims. The moment in which the protagonist realizes that they have left a window unlocked is really chilling but it is topped by a superb reveal that pushes the story into a thrilling conclusion. While this is not normally my type of read, I think it is done really well and it is likely to stay with me for a while.
Though I do feel that the stories in this collection are less consistent than some of the other volumes the British Library have published, stories like these certainly make this worth dipping into. I would suggest though starting with Resorting to Murder or The Long Arm of the Law, both of which I rate highly, unless the subject matter of this volume particularly appeals.
The Copper Beeches by Arthur Conan Doyle
This short story is part of the first collection of Sherlock Holmes adventures, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which I have previously reviewed on this blog. As I noted in that review, it is hard for me to judge the effectiveness of this mystery because I find the solution to be particularly memorable. I do think it is an excellent short story and an appropriate selection from Conan Doyle’s oeuvre though being a Holmes story I suspect many who might pick up this collection will have already read it.
For those that haven’t this is one of the better Holmes stories boasting a clever, logical concept and some memorable characters.
The Problem of Dead Wood Hall by Dick Donovan
Two deaths occur at two different social gatherings more than two years apart. There are few obvious connections between the victims and in each case they died of a strange poison and in such a way as to rule out any British wildlife or widely occurring poisons. A detective, also called Dick Donovan (JEP Murdoch, like “Ellery Queen”, wrote under his sleuth’s name) is invited to investigate the two deaths.
The story falls very clearly into the adventure rather than puzzle style of detective story and treads some very familiar ground in terms of some of the explanations given. That some of the ideas are found in later works by other authors can hardly be held against the story but I feel on surer ground in saying that the style is somewhat dry and the ending, in trying to seem ambiguous, possesses all of the irritations of lacking resolution with little gained. A disappointment.
Gentlemen and Players by E. W. Hornung
Raffles and Bunny are staying at a country manor to play cricket, the latter somewhat unwillingly. Raffles has his eyes on some jewels but Bunny is alarmed to hear that a Scotland Yard detective is nearby and in search of two jewel thieves.
I haven’t read any Raffles before so I thoroughly enjoyed this taste of the character. I can’t say how typical of his other stories this is but I found it to be an entertaining adventure and particularly appreciated the story’s punchline ending.
The Well by W. W. Jacobs
In this story by the author of The Monkey’s Paw a man is blackmailed by his cousin over some indiscreet letters he had written. The story details how the threat is resolved and the consequences of their actions.
I thought that this story was very enjoyable, particularly in its very effective use of horrific elements. I felt that the story ended on a very haunting note and I can see this sticking with me for some time.
The White Pillars Mystery by G. K. Chesterton
In this story a pair of young out-of-work men are employed by a prominent detective. They are invited in to a meeting with a new client who, though initially reluctant to discuss his case in front of a group, tells them about the murder of his brother, a wealthy philanthropist, and describes some of the physical evidence left at the scene of the crime.
I enjoyed this story though initially I felt that there did not seem to be much to grab onto. Once I realized where the story was headed however I came to appreciate its careful construction. The solution is clever and, for me, unexpected.
The Secret of Dunstan’s Tower by Ernest Bramah
Max Carrados receives a letter from a friend telling him about a strange bloodstain that keeps appearing on a staircase in a manor house. Each night the bloodstain appears on a progressively higher step and, legend has it, when it reaches the top someone in the house will die. His friend is sure that this is not a supernatural occurrence but his attempts to catch the person responsible have failed.
I have somewhat mixed feelings about this as a story though I certainly think it is a strong selection for this collection as Bramah puts the house and the lore that builds up around old homes at the heart of his story. The adventure itself is low on incident however with much of the story taken up with accounts of what has already happened.
The Manor House Mystery by J. S. Fletcher
A detective is hired to investigate the death of a justice of the peace who died suddenly from veronal poisoning. The story takes place over a day as a series of discussions with different figures from the case who come to speak with him, each revealing a new fact that alters our understanding of what has happened.
This story is quite neatly constructed and told but readers hoping for a detective story may feel frustrated by the protagonist’s lack of involvement in the action. Throughout the story he just receives information and, at the end, is not responsible for the murderer being apprehended. I enjoyed discovering the answer to what had happened though and I think the reader can still solve the crime, even if the detective never does.
The Message on the Sun-Dial by J. J. Bell
This inverted crime story features two cousins who share a name. While one of the two men is thoroughly respectable, the other lives a dissolute life and has been using his cousin’s identity when meeting women and dealing with moneylenders. This leads to a falling out between the two men and a demand from the respectable cousin that his namesake leave the country. Instead the man decides to commit murder.
What makes this story fun is the hidden message component that Martin Edwards references in his short introduction. Bell’s use of the idea is quite clever and while it seems hard to see how the message will lead to the guilty man’s capture, the reasoning is simple and clear once shown.
The Horror at Staveley Grange by Sapper
An impossible crime story featuring Sapper’s sleuth Ronald Standish. An Australian family buys a manor house but within a few months of moving in first the father dies and then his eldest son, each in the master bedroom of apparent heart failure. Both men appeared to be in strong health, making it unlikely they would have died in such quick succession.
The story is quite atmospheric in places and reminded me a little of The Speckled Band, particularly once Standish decides to conduct a secret vigil over the bedroom. The method by which it is done is clever, if incredibly convoluted, but be prepared for the motive to underwhelm.
The Mystery of Horne’s Corpse by Anthony Berkeley
On several separate occasions over a number of months a magistrate discovers his cousin’s corpse while walking through a wood at night. Each time he goes to fetch help only to find that the body and all signs of its presence have disappeared. Slowly he starts to wonder if he is going mad but he feels sure that it really was his cousin each time, even though he is supposed to be travelling throughout Europe with his wife.
This story is one of the longest and most substantial in the collection so I am happy to say it is very entertaining. The scenario Berkeley creates is really intriguing and he does a good job of leaving you with cliffhangers at the end of each section to encourage you to keep reading.
The Perfect Plan by James Hilton
A very entertaining inverted crime story in which a prominent financier is murdered by his secretary. The story details the killer’s reasons for resenting his employer and how he plans and executes his perfect crime. The mystery, of course, is how he will be caught.
Hilton’s story is very neatly plotted and I found the resolution to be really quite clever. It all builds up to a striking conclusion. I enjoyed this enough that I immediately went and purchased a copy of his only mystery novel so expect to see a review of that here before the year is out!
The Same to Us by Margery Allingham
A celebrated but reclusive Chinese scientist is invited to spend a weekend as the guest of honor at a house party. This is such a short story I think it best not to give much more of the plot away but I found it to be a very slight tale. There is little mystery here and while I recognize the intention of the ending, I do think some aspects of the story have not aged particularly well.
The Murder at the Towers by E. V. Knox
The opening line to this is one to treasure: ‘Mr. Ponderby-Wilkins was a man so rich, so ugly, so cross and so old, that even the stupidest reader could not expect him to survive any longer than Chapter I’ (actually, that whole paragraph is rather wonderful). This starts the story off on a humorous note that Knox manages to sustain well throughout the whole store.
In this story the unpopular Mr. Ponderby-Wilkins is found hung on the grounds of a country house. Everyone in the party has an alibi so how was he killed? I have to agree with Puzzle Doctor that this story is ‘bonkers’ but it is one of the funniest crime stories I have read and manages to pull off a great ending.
An Unlocked Window by Ethel Lina White
In this chilling story, a group of three nurses are left to care for a patient in an isolated home when the doctor has to leave to fetch more medical supplies. Before he leaves he instructs them to bolt the doors and windows as a serial killer who is targeting nurses has been active in the area. As the title suggests however, the nurses were not quite diligent enough when locking up the building.
This is a really superb, tense read that I think does an amazing job of building and sustaining suspense. The moment when the protagonist realizes that a window had been unlocked and the implications of that are really quite powerful, building to a punchy, unforgettable moment where the serial killer is revealed.
The Long Shot by Nicholas Blake
A group congregates outside a manor to take turns firing arrows into the sky. Suddenly the host of the party appears to fall out of one of the trees, seeming as though he may have been struck by one of them, but close examination reveals he has been poisoned.
Although this is one of the shortest stories in the collection I struggled to find much to interest me in it. The explanation of how the murder was managed is clearly communicated, even if the motive is underdeveloped.
Weekend at Wapentake by Michael Gilbert
The final story of the collection concerns the case of an elderly woman who owns a mortgaged property in poor repair and few assets yet is murdered. We learn the who fairly early in the story so instead the focus is on motive.
I thought this story worked very well, featured some very solid reasoning from the sleuth character, the dead woman’s lawyer. The British Library are releasing three of Gilbert’s novels early next year so this definitely helps raise my excitement for those.