The Detection Club Project – Robert Eustace: The Documents in the Case

#10: Robert Eustace

Despite a career in crime fiction spanning more than forty years, Robert Eustace was the most mysterious member of the Detection Club. For decades after his death, students of the genre speculated about his identity, his date of birth, and even his sexual orientation.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

I think it is safe to say that back when I first conceived of my project of reading a work by every member of the Detection Club, I didn’t expect that I would be writing about Robert Eustace before Dorothy L. Sayers. As it happens though my book club is reading The Documents in the Case, his collaboration with her, this month. As it is a work he regarded with some enthusiasm, declaring it ‘the best idea of my life’, it seemed foolish to not select it for this series.

While details Eustace’s life may not have been quite as enigmatic as some suggest, he does not leap off the page as one of the more memorable figures in The Golden Age of Murder. In that book he is discussed principally in connection with his work on The Documents in the Case, though what information we do get about his personality paints a portrait of a rather eccentric individual. At the point at which he joined the Detection Club he had been an active figure in the genre for several decades and while his early stories featured crimes, they were often works of suspense – some suggesting supernatural elements.

Eustace’s primary profession was that of medical doctor but he pursued fiction as a way of supplementing his professional income. Almost all of his works were written in collaboration with others such as L. T. Meade and Edgar Jepson. It was a collaboration with the latter that produced one of his most memorable works, The Tea-Leaf – a short story which features in the British Library’s Capital Crimes anthology.

In that story a man is stabbed to death in the steam room of a Russian bathhouse but no weapon can be found. It is one of those stories that sadly suffers from its pretty inventive central concept being frequently appropriated by subsequent, often inferior works. While the work’s brevity works in its favor, if you happen to have read another book that utilizes the method developed for that story there will be no mystery in the solution at all.

The idea at the heart of The Documents in the Case would be far more complex and it has lost none of its novelty. That story was built around a scientific idea that Eustace had researched that would play a key part in developing its resolution and which also appealed to Sayers. His role in developing the work that would emerge was to further research and refine that idea, providing technical assistance to Sayers who would be responsible for developing the narrative around that.

It would prove to be a one-off experiment as Sayers was ultimately displeased with her efforts which she apparently felt did not do justice to Eustace’s idea. Still, it does illustrate Eustace’s enthusiasm for constructing a story around a novel technical solution…

The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace

Originally published in 1930

The bed was broken and tilted grotesquely sideways. Harrison was sprawled over in a huddle of soiled blankets. His mouth was twisted . . .

Harrison had been an expert on deadly mushrooms. How was it then that he had eaten a large quantity of death-dealing muscarine? Was it an accident? Suicide? Or murder?

The documents in the case seemed to be a simple collection of love notes and letters home. But they concealed a clue to the brilliant murderer who baffled the best minds in London.


The Documents in the Case is an example of a dossier crime novel in which the novel is comprised of a collection of documents and accounts from the characters involved in the story. While I can think of a few examples of this approach, the only other book in this style that I have written about so far on this blog is Andrew Garve’s excellent political thriller The File on Lester.

The choice to write crime fiction in a dossier presentation style is an intriguing one, particularly given it makes for quite a departure from Sayers’ usual approach which was a detective story with a clear sleuthing character. While the reader here can infer who is likely responsible for collating these documents reasonably early in the book, they cannot be certain why they are doing this until close to halfway into the story.

The advantage of this style is that it can allow for the development of strong and distinctive character voices, permitting us access to their internal thoughts and feelings. In particular we will read the thoughts of the victim and those we will come to suspect of killing them, getting a sense of their personalities and how their perspectives sometimes contradict those of the other narrators. There are some points where this can be quite effectively done, particularly as we get to learn about the state of Harrison’s marriage, but it can also lead to some rather ponderous storytelling as characters reflect, pontificate and opine about the same things we have already seen before.

One way that this might have been avoided is to have more variety in the type of documents found inside the book but here the reader is to be disappointed. Almost everything in the first part of the novel is a letter, often with multiple letters sent from the same writer to the same recipient presented in a row. This, to my mind, removes the principal benefit of the form – that of variety.

That being said, these early chapters do raise an interesting point regarding the reader’s sympathies in the conflict between the Harrisons. The viewpoints expressed about the same sets of events differ so wildly in interpretation that we might wonder where the truth lies as both characters are, of course, writing for their respective audiences. This raises the possibility of unreliability but this is an idea that never really gets taken up seriously as the accounts prove surprisingly straightforward.

That itself perhaps reflects that while the book does not directly explain what happened until close to its end, aspects of the solution will likely jump out at the reader early. The authors seem less interested in keeping the reader guessing who was responsible as how they will be caught. The effect is not dissimilar to that found in one of Sayers’ earlier works, Unnatural Death. The difference between the two works is largely, in my view, one of the accessibility of the solution.

Robert Eustace’s great idea that so intrigued Sayers is undoubtedly a really clever one but it has a problem that plagues so many detective stories predicated on a highly technical explanation – to feel involved in the deductive process, the reader will have to possess the information needed to decode it prior to the story’s denouement. Unlike Unnatural Death which hinges on a single, simple idea, the concept at the heart of The Documents in the Case requires considerable explanation to be properly appreciated.

It is a shame that one of the documents included wasn’t a diagram or illustration to show more practically the idea that ends up being discussed at length as it might have helped compact the explanation (or at least given me something interesting to look at as my eyes glazed over). Instead however it ends up being trailed in a dense and rather dry passage of the type that will delight those who appreciate inventive scientific thinking while boring those less scientifically-minded, keeping it from achieving its full effect – at least upon this reader.

If that seems overly negative, I should say that there were aspects of the book I enjoyed such as the characterization of Munting, the writer, whose letters often contain mildly acidic observations of the other figures involved in the drama and betray a deep desire to be left out of the whole affair. There is some interesting musing about art, the natural world, and publishing too, and I appreciated that the victim is built up to be a properly dimensional character and I appreciate that the book explores some of his ambiguities.

The problem is that the things that interest me here are simply not the ones that most interest Sayers and Eustace. Their focus is on the method of detection and as much as I recognize and admire the cleverness of the concept, I find it all a bit dry for my taste and though interesting in places, it entertained less than I should have liked.

The Verdict: Eustace was right to think his idea brilliant but it is also rather dry. Given that there is no body until over halfway into the book and little suspense about who the victim and killer will be, too much hinges on how the thing was done and the case proven.


Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This book appears to not currently be in print in the United States but there is a British edition published by Hodder Paperbacks (ISBN: 978-1473621343) that can be imported from booksellers who ship internationally. It is however available as an eBook (which is how I read it) – albeit one that has more typos than I would like and which, annoyingly, has no table of contents.

Capital Crimes, edited by Martin Edwards

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!

INDIVIDUAL STORY REVIEWS

Blood on the Tracks edited by Martin Edwards

bloodonthetracks
Blood on the Tracks
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2018

The latest British Library Crime Classics anthology is a collection of railway mysteries from the Golden Age of crime fiction. As always editor Martin Edwards has managed to find a mix of different styles and approaches from adventure-type stories to inverted crimes.

Most of the stories in the collection feel like good matches for the railway theme though the links in a couple of cases are somewhat tenuous. For instance The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man With No Face is one of the strongest stories in the collection based purely on entertainment value but probably does the least with the train theme.

Among the highlights of the collection for me were The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L. Whitechurch and The Case of Oscar Brodski by R. Austin Freeman. The other stories are generally of a high standard and most are paced pretty well with just a few falling short of the mark.

The Man with the Watches by Arthur Conan Doyle

A curious tale that features a seemingly impossible crime where the body of a passenger who hadn’t been seen on the train turns up in a compartment while the train is in motion while passengers who were there seemed to have vanished. I didn’t find it the most engagingly written story I have ever read by Doyle though it does have an interesting premise and I appreciated the construction of its solution.

The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace

In this story the detective is being consulted about a seemingly inexplicable death that has taken place in the early hours of the morning at a section of railway. The night watchman is found dead near the tracks with a severe blow to the back of his head. Suspicion has fallen on a young man with whom he was feuding yet the man recounting the tale does not believe he would be responsible though he cannot think of another explanation.

Arguably the story could have been a little more concisely told but the concept is quite clever and logical.

How He Cut His Stick by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

This Dora Myrl adventure sees her consulted about the matter of a theft of several hundred pounds that was being transported from one bank office to another. The clerk responsible was supposedly travelling in the compartment alone but we are let in on the secret of how the robbery was managed. What remains a mystery however is how the thief managed to get off the moving train.

It’s quite an entertaining read and I did find Dora quite a likeable, lively heroine so I would be interested in reading some of her other adventures. The story though is not really fair play in that some of the details necessary are not fully described while the surprise identity of the villain will shock absolutely no one.

The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway by Baroness Orczy

The Old Man in the Corner tells Miss Polly Burton about a murder that had been committed on the Underground some time before where the Police were certain that they had identified the killer yet were unable to prove their case. He explains how the murder was actually carried out and why the Police came to their incorrect conclusion about the guilty party.

As with each of the previous stories in this collection, this is a tale recounted but the difference is that all of the action has taken part in the past, meaning that there is no movement or action in the story. To me that led to it dragging a little which is a shame as I thought the way the crime was executed was quite smart.

The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L. Whitechurch

A clever little tale that unfolds at a good clip. Mr. Hazell is approached by a school master who had been tasked with escorting a student by train after he was summoned by telegram. During the journey the student steps into the corridor and disappears. The master investigates and conducts a thorough search of the train but the child has vanished in spite of the train not having slowed down or stopped at all since the disappearance.

Whitechurch lays out the information very clearly and it is a pleasure to piece together what has happened. The explanation is quite simple and I appreciated the tightness of the resolution.

The Case of Oscar Brodski by R. Austin Freeman

Arguably the first inverted mystery written in English, The Case of Oscar Brodski is a story told in two parts of unequal length. The short opening identifies the murderer and explains the choices that he makes that lead to him taking a life and we see him staging the scene to try to mask his guilt. At the end of this section we are, in effect, challenged to imagine how he might possibly get caught.

The second part reveals that Dr. Thorndyke happened to be travelling on the railway line on the evening of the murder and became aware of the investigation into the death. While he does not have his full laboratory with him, he does have a small green case packed with smaller versions of many of his instruments and his systematically analyses the evidence to build up a picture of just what happened.

The investigation is compelling because the evidence is convincing and easy to follow. Thorndyke may not be the most dynamic investigator but it is interesting to see just how he works and his acknowledgement that his success was down in part to fortunate timing as had he been later on the scene much of the evidence would have not been there.

The Eighth Lamp by Roy Vickers

In this story a signalman agrees to take on the duties of performing final clean up on the platform of a circle line station at the end of each evening. As he extinguishes the last light however he sees a train running through the station without any lights and slowly a dread grows within him about fulfilling those duties.

The story feels tightly written, building a very effective sense of tension and drama. The reader may well guess where the story is headed but I think it is very well paced and packs a strong conclusion.

The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem by Ernest Bramah

A Max Carrados story in which the detective is consulted by his friend Mr. Carlyle about a case he is working on to try to determine who was responsible for a catastrophic train collision. The driver swears that he was following a signal while the signalman says that the driver ignored him.

Aspects of the solution are rather clever and the concept and themes of the story feels far more modern than you might expect given it was written in 1914. That being said, I did find the way the story was told a little dry.

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face by Dorothy L Sayers

Lord Peter is travelling on a train when he hears about a strange case of a man found strangled on an isolated beach wearing just his bathing costume with nothing to identify him. There are just one set of footprints leading to the body though lest you think this an impossible crime story, Lord Peter solves that within a few paragraphs (it’s a good explanation too).

The story is quite cleverly constructed and has a fairly unconventional ending. Based on entertainment value it is one of the strongest stories in the collection though I might grumble and point out that the train setting is quite incidental and used in just a fraction of the story.

The Railway Carriage by F. Tennyson Jesse

Jesse’s final story to feature occult sleuth Solange Fontaine is really more of a rumination on themes of crime, redemption and capital punishment than it is a traditional detective story. I am not particularly fond of supernatural elements in my crime fiction so this one was perhaps not for me though I think the revelation at the end is quite chilling.

Mystery of the Slip-Coach by Sapper

A story in which a gambler and moneylender is found shot dead within a train carriage with a broken egg near them. This story can boast a devilishly clever solution but you may well wonder whether it could actually work in practice and why on earth anyone would conceive of such a ludicrous way of killing someone.

The Level Crossing by Freeman Wills Crofts

Having believed myself done with Freeman Wills Crofts’ inverted stories, I continue to be delighted by finding new short stories in these collections. This one is a good one, focusing on an accountancy clerk who is intending to kill a man on the railroad tracks.

The Adventure of the First-Class Carriage by Ronald Knox

A very acceptable Sherlockian pastiche which sees the detective consulted by the servant who voices her concerns that her master intends to commit suicide. Holmes travels down by train only to find that during the journey he disappears. What I do think it captures well is Doyle’s ability to set up a seemingly complicated scenario and then to have Holmes reduce it to something quite simple and understandable but while it entertains, there is nothing special to set it apart from the countless other Holmes pastiches.

Murder on the 7.16 by Michael Innes

Forget trying to solve this one yourself – its brevity means it is a little lacking in clues – but the story is a clever one, even if Appleby could never prove it with his evidence. The director of a film is found dead inside a reproduction train cabin on set.

The Coulman Handicap by Michael Gilbert

Detectives attempt to track a woman who they believe is involved in fencing stolen goods but manage to keep losing her. Unfortunately I found the premise less than thrilling and it struck me as one of the weaker entries in the collection.

Review copy provided through NetGalley. Blood on the Tracks is already available in the UK and will be published in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press on July 3, 2018.