This collection was originally published in 2015.
Capital Crimes is an eclectic collection of London-based crime stories, blending the familiar with the unexpected in a way that reflects the personality of the city. Alongside classics by Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley and Thomas Burke are excellent and unusual stories by authors who are far less well known. The stories give a flavour of how writers have tackled crime in London over the span of more than half a century. Their contributions range from an early serial-killer thriller set on the London Underground and horrific vignettes to cerebral whodunits. What they have in common is an atmospheric London setting, and enduring value as entertainment.
I was a late convert to the mystery short story. Read some of my earliest posts on this blog and you’ll see that I express a certain wariness about this form of mystery story, believing that the short length wouldn’t allow for the sort of complex case that would interest me.
The British Library mystery anthologies were a large part of the reason that my opinions on the form began to change. I started reading them just to experience a wide range of authors but was pleasantly surprised by how rich and interesting some of the tales were.
One of the things I like most about the range is the idea of grouping stories around a common theme. Other collections have been themed on topics like manor house murders, railway mysteries or science-driven cases. It can be interesting to see the different directions and approaches writers would take on a common theme or element, brilliantly illustrating their style and personality as a writer.
Capital Crimes is a collection that contains some very strong mystery stories, some from familiar names but several from writers who were new to me. I will share some thoughts on each story in a moment but talking about them as a group, I felt that the quality was pretty consistently high. Where I think the collection falls down is in its representation of its theme – while the stories here happen in London, I rarely felt that the stories delivered the sort of strong sense of place that I expected.
My expectations had been for something along the line of Akashic’s city-based Noir series (to be clear, this was an expectation for approach – not for tone). Stories you read and notice aspects of the city in with stories set in very distinctive places or communities. The difference, of course, is that those stories tend to be written specifically for that collection with that sense of place in mind – I imagine that finding suitable stories for this collection must have been much harder.
While the stories rarely give a sense of a specific place, they tend to be better at evoking a sense of a metropolis. Stories draw upon the anonymity of the city and the mass of people that live and work there. They frequently reflect the fears people must have felt about living in these relatively new urban spaces, particularly of being alone even when you are surrounded by millions of people.
The most effective stories in this collection for me were the ones that explored those ideas. Hugh Walpole’s The Silver Mask is fantastically sinister and unsettling and is brilliantly complemented by E. M. Delafield’s They Don’t Wear Labels. John Oxenham’s A Mystery of the Underground explores the widespread panic caused by a series of motiveless murders on mass transit while H. C. Bailey’s The Little House may not be a puzzle mystery, but it a very effective and unsettling piece of writing.
There are relatively few misses in the collection. J. S. Fletcher’s The Magician of Cannon Street felt too fantastical, as did Richard Marsh’s The Finchley Puzzle, while Conan Doyle’s The Case of Lady Sannox, though effective, reads like a horror story. Even these stories though are perfectly readable though it is a little unfortunate that they all fall near the start of the collection.
The stories offer a good mix of approaches and styles and while I think other volumes offered a clearer representation of their theme, I think most who pick up Capital Crimes will find plenty here to enjoy. Thoughts on the individual stories follow after the page break!
As with many of these volumes, the collection opens with an offering from Arthur Conan Doyle. This time it’s The Case of Lady Sannox which is a standalone effort. The story is not a mystery but rather the story of a horrific crime. While the imagery is, as the introduction notes, unforgettable I imagine most readers will anticipate the plot’s developments. It’s not ineffective but I suspect that if it was from a less famous writer it would not have made the cut here…
John Oxenham’s A Mystery of the Underground is one of the stories that best represents the collection’s theme. It concerns a series of murders that have taken place on the underground, causing widespread panic. Interestingly that was apparently mirrored in real life with the piece causing a sensation at the time of publication.
The version we get here has been edited for length and I suspect it is the more effective for that. The use of newspaper accounts to tell us about the various murders and the progress of the case is effective, though I found the passages written in the present tense to be a little clunky and awkward. Still, it is a fascinating read and worthy for inclusion here.
Richard Marsh’s The Finchley Puzzle is wild.
The protagonist in the story is Judith Lee, a woman who has become widely feared among London’s criminal elements for her abilities to lipread. Determined to rid themselves of her menace, they decide to make multiple, increasingly outlandish attempts on her life but foolishly each time have conversations about their plan in well-lit spaces near to her, allowing her to utilize her very specific ability to evade death.
How wild does this get? Well, let me say there are multiple snake-based assassinations attempted. It’s frankly ridiculous and while it entertains, I can’t really say it is for positive reasons. It does however contain one of the most wonderful understatements of all time when an expert suggests that the planting of a deadly snake suggests that someone may have intended her a mischief!
R. Austin Freeman was a master of highly-detailed, technical explanations and this is brilliantly demonstrated by The Magic Casket. The story starts with the theft of a bag which leads Thorndyke to learn about a previous theft that may be connected to it.
Freeman’s interest here is in the process of detection so readers should not expect to be able to play along, though there are educated guesses to be made about the significance of an object. While the discussion of some ideas gets quite technical, I found it all the more engaging for that.
Ernest Bramah’s The Holloway Flat Tragedy is one of the standout stories in the collection for me – perhaps because it is one of the few genuine puzzles where the reader can solve the case for themselves. It concerns a man who visits a detective to ask for help with his difficult domestic situation: he has had an affair but now things have become more serious and the girl wants marriage, he finds himself unwilling to destroy his own. Adding to his problems, the girl apparently has a jealous ex who has broken into his rooms to attempt to murder him.
Our detective vows to give the matter consideration. Before anything can be done however the client is found murdered early the next week and our detective feels it is his duty to share what he knows with the police. Meanwhile blind sleuth Max Carrados, who briefly encountered the client as he left, has his own thoughts on the matter and also gets involved.
It is a very cleverly plotted story with some good deductive reasoning. While some aspects of the case will be familiar to frequent readers of Golden Age crime, those ideas are often employed in new and creative ways. It is, in short, one of the best offerings in the collection and easily the best Max Carrados story I have read to date.
Unfortunately the next story, J. S. Fletcher’s The Magician of Cannon Street is for me the least successful piece in the whole collection. It involves the hunt for a Moriarty-style king of crime responsible for a murder some time before (which is repeatedly referenced in the same awkward phrasing).
There’s no detection here to speak of and the plot is rather fantastical. The most interesting aspect of the story, a man’s ability to prophesize future business events, never gets an explanation or really any focus in the tale. Disappointing.
Edgar Wallace’s The Stealer of Marble is an odd story that is perhaps more adventure than detective story. It concerns a woman who has been discovered carrying a heavy suitcase stuffed with stolen marble chips. I thought that the explanation for this odd behavior was inventive and while the story starts slowly, it is quite readable overall.
The Tea Leaf by Robert Eustace and Edgar Jepson is an interesting inclusion. It concerns the stabbing of a man within a Russian bath but there is no murder weapon to be found.
The issue with this story is that its ingenious solution has been much repeated over the years meaning that it is likely to immediately occur to anyone with an interest in impossible crime fiction. Obviously subsequent emulation is hardly the fault of the original work however and I think the crime is smart and explained with an admirable amount of clarity. The only issue I have with it is that the detection occurs ‘off screen’ with a third party who reveals the evidence and the solution once they have assembled it completely.
Thomas Burke’s The Hands of Mr. Ottermole concerns a series of motiveless stranglings across the city of London. As with A Mystery of the Underground, one of the ideas here is that public hysteria grows quickly in urban environments where people don’t really know their neighbors.
The most effective part of the story is its conception of criminality as a compulsion. The idea that some commit crimes because they can, not because they have anything material to gain. It also does a great job of helping the reader feel that sense of dread build with each new murder.
I will say that I guessed at its key idea early, not because it was particularly well clued but because subsequent works have utilized variations on it. At times it can be a little overwritten but regardless I think it is one of the more interesting pieces in the collection and one of the best representations of its theme.
H. C. Bailey’s The Little House is a disturbing tale about a little girl who was seen chasing a kitten into a house but could not be traced beyond that point. When sleuth Reggie Fortune asks at the home, its owners claim they do not know either the girl or the cat.
Its a very effective piece though there isnt a puzzle here to solve. Rather it is a solid work, executed well. The London link though is not particularly strong beyond a general idea that people in cities don’t know their neighbors well.
The next story, Hugh Walpole’s The Silver Mask, was the pick of the collection for me. It’s a crime story in which a middle-aged woman repeatedly encounters a young, impoverished man and begins to come under his influence.
There’s no detection here and readers will expect him to be a villain from the start but it makes for compulsive reading in part because it is so unsettling and feels so well-observed. The conclusion is incredibly striking and struck me as supremely satisfying.
Henry Wade is one of my favorite writers so I was excited to see his work represented here with Wind in the East. As with the preceding story the reader will have a good idea of the villain’s identity – the question will be proving it and working out their motive.
Like much of Wade’s work, it is procedural with our focus falling on observing Poole’s detective process rather than trying to solve the puzzle for ourselves. I must note that there is also an element of luck to the story’s conclusion with the resolution being possible because of a chance encounter. Regardlress it is an engaging read.
Anthony Berkeley’s The Avenging Chance sees Roger Sheringham solving a mystery in which confectionary is used as a vessel for poison.
The solution is simple but logical. It was hard to judge this one as I had read it quite recently and so immediately recalled who did it and their motive. It’s certainly quite readable though and I must note that I find Sheringham far easier to take in small doses than in novels.
E. M Delafield’s They Don’t Wear Labels is a great companion piece to an earlier story in this volume. It is an effective story that concerns a woman who believes that her life is in danger. There is little doubt of what is going on, even if the narrator proves oblivious to it, but it is interesting on a character and situational level regardless.
Margery Allingham’s The Unseen Door is one of the shortest and simplest tales in the collection. It concerns the murder of a man whose testimony had put a financier in prison. Unfortunately for our victim that man has escaped and, we presume, has somehow managed to get into the gentlemen’s club where the victim was found murdered. The problem is that the doorman is adamant that there was only one other visitor in the club at that time…
There is an argument that The Unseen Door constitutes an impossible crime but I would suggest it is best not to read it as such. The solution here is simple and suited to a work of this length but even without Campion’s involvement, it’s hard to imagine that this would have puzzled the police for too long…
Ethel Lina White’s Cheese has a young woman recruited by the police to carry out a meeting with a man believed to be a murderer in the hope of drawing him out. It’s a great exercise in tension-building and a pretty entertaining read but a shift in tone at the end of the story struck me as awkward and unconvincing rather than satisfying.
The collection concludes with Anthony Gilbert’s You Can’t Hang Twice which is about a man caught up in a murder case as a suspect who has sought Arthur Crook’s help. I felt it was a pretty atmospheric read, even if it’s not the type of case the reader can be expected to solve. It also is one of the most effective examples of a story where the London setting really comes through, and it concludes the collection on a rather high note.