I may have mentioned this before but I am terrible when it comes to adhering to schedules. For this reason my week of Christmassy reads is beginning with less than a week to go.
The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories is the latest British Library Crime Classics anthology of seasonal short stories. Last year I reviewed Crimson Snow which I found to be an entertaining and varied collection of stories, albeit one that was a little inconsistent in terms of quality. I am happy to report that I found this to be an even more satisfying collection.
There were a lot of things for me to love about this collection, not least that it features so many authors that are new to me and who write in a variety of styles. There are several inverted stories, a heist tale, an impossible crime or two as well as some more traditional detective stories. It is a good mix of stories!
Some of my favorites from the collection include Selwyn Jepson’s By The Sword which is a clever, dark story with a fun kick and Cyril Hare’s Sister Bessie which manages to go even darker. I also really enjoyed the title story for the collection The Christmas Card Crime which packs a considerable amount of incident into a small number of pages.
The disappointments here are few. Usually if a story doesn’t work for me it is because of their length – there are several which are just a few pages long. The only two that I think failed were Lorac’s A Bit of Wire Pulling and Carr’s Blind Man’s Hood which I just couldn’t get into. In the case of the latter there is an argument to be made that my expectations may simply have been too high.
Overall I considered this collection to be a delight and had a wonderful time reading it. The book feels really well balanced and there are several stories in the collection that I can imagine returning to when the season rolls around again. I consider this to be one of the best anthologies the British Library have published to date and highly recommend it.
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.
Back in March I wrote about the first crime novel by Ronald Knox, The Viaduct Murder, which I found quite entertaining though I felt its final third was quite disappointing. The Three Taps was Knox’s second novel and the first to feature his series sleuth, Miles Bredon.
The novel opens with a length and very amusing description of the Indescribable Company, an insurance agency with considerable resources. We are following one of their clients, Mr. Mottram, who holds an Euthanasia Policy with them.
According to the terms of that policy, if he dies before his sixty-fifth birthday his beneficiaries would receive half a million pounds. Should he survive beyond that age then he is entitled to an annuity. Should he commit suicide however he would not be entitled to a penny.
The reason for his visit to the company is that he is looking to cash out of his policy early, against the terms and company practice. He explains that he has recently received a diagnosis that he will die within the next two years but rather than his heirs receiving a half million pounds upon his death, he is proposing that they terminate the policy and refund half of his premium payments instead so he can enjoy his final few months. This offer is politely refused and, after he has gone, the Company sends Miles to look into matters. Miles and his wife follow him to a hotel in the country where they discover he has died as a result of poisoning by gas in circumstances that are far from clear.
The problem is that there are features of the crime scene that are suggestive of both suicide and murder. For one thing the body is found in a room that has been locked from the inside. However it is noted that the gas taps are actually switched off in the room and the window is open while some of his actions the evening before do not seem to tally with those of a man who expects to kill himself. It’s an intriguing scenario that only becomes more confusing as we learn more about the circumstances of the death.
Knox’s sleuth, Miles Bredon, makes his first appearance here and it is clear that he is cut from a rather different mold than many of his contemporaries. While he is smart and perceptive, his attention will drift and he is described as being somewhat lethargic. This case does catch his interest however, in part because he lays a small (but soon to increase) bet on the outcome with the police officer investigating the death. The two of them will investigate this case together, sharing their findings while Miles’ wife also plays an important role in conducting some of the interviews and making suggestions.
I really enjoyed the interactions between Miles and Angela which are breezy and comedic in tone. Angela plays a significant part in this investigation and shows some strong detective skills of her own, working to extract information from sources, and keeps her husband on task. It’s a fun relationship and I think Knox uses them superbly, balancing the comedic interactions with serious, thoughtful detection.
Returning to the case itself, one of the most striking aspects of the book for me was that the author does not follow the usual template for novels that feature a death which looks like suicide. Typically in such stories the author takes pains to get past any such uncertainty and quickly establish that it is a case of murder before presenting us with a gallery of suspects.
Knox does not follow that game plan here at all, keeping the questions about the nature of the death open until very close to the end. That he manages to do so while keeping his plot fair play is laudable and he manages to do this by focusing less on the question of whodunit than pondering howdunit and whydunit.
The genius of the circumstances Knox outlines are that there is a tension within the evidence that seems impossible to resolve. If you accept that it was a case of suicide then how do you explain the evidence that suggests someone had been in the room after his death. If it is murder then why did someone go to the trouble of making it look like a suicide when that would remove the financial incentive for murder in the first place?
The solution that Knox gives us is really quite clever, both in terms of the mechanical way it was worked but also in its psychological aspects. I didn’t come close to figuring it out myself and while I think the technical explanation does become a little dry in those parts, I thought it presented some novel features that make it quite distinct.
As enjoyable as the book is however, it is not without a few problems. One of these relates to the ending where though I feel that while a piece of information is fairly clued, I am not sure that it was as well conveyed in the setup as it is in the final explanation. I somewhat suspect that this is one of those cases where contemporary audiences may have reacted differently to that piece of information.
The other is harder to explain without getting into spoilery territory which I’d like to avoid as much as possible. What I will say is that I think some aspects of the ending may run contrary to the reader’s expectations of what this sort of book is supposed to do. Those who like to focus on spotting the suspects may feel a little disappointed at how few options Knox gives us. That is not to say that those elements aren’t there, just that they are not as prominent as usual.
Overall I was far more impressed with The Three Taps than I had been with my previous foray into Knox’s work. There are some really solid ideas here and I thought the crime scene was enjoyably devious. Perhaps more importantly, I really liked Miles and Angela and will hope to be able to get back to them again soon.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Means of Murder in the Title (What)
The Viaduct Murder is my first foray into the works of Ronald Knox, one of the founder members of the Detection Club who is perhaps best remembered for his Decalogue – ten commandments for writers of mystery fiction to follow. This was his first novel and the only one he wrote that does not feature his series sleuth Miles Bredon.
During a round of golf, four men discover a corpse lying in the long grass near a viaduct. They move the body and send for the Police. As they wait they start to investigate the body, finding some evidence they keep back for themselves.
There are some curious details about the manner of death that stand out to our would-be sleuths. One of them notices a golf ball lying on the viaduct while others are struck by his having two watches set to different times and a daily train ticket when, as a regular rider, he ought to have held a season pass. When the coroner returns a verdict of suicide, the group feel certain that the coroner is wrong and decide to investigate for themselves.
I initially found this novel to be quite hard going, in part because he is quite a verbose writer but also because Knox is prone to injecting casual commentary into his narration that can slow things down. Fortunately I did acclimatize myself to that style after some time and by the end I had come to appreciate some of the asides that he makes.
Knox’s four amateur detectives are a pleasingly varied bunch from different backgrounds. Among their number are a priest, an academic and a man who had served in intelligence during the War and they each adopt their own approach to solving the mystery.
That mystery is quite a neat little puzzle however that I think rewards the reader’s patience if they stick with it. There are some aspects of the case that are quite technical and will involve thinking about railway timetables and characters’ movements while other developments are more in the adventure style such as traps being set. Knox stitches these elements together well to tell his story and I appreciated that the clues keep coming right up to the final few chapters of the book, making the excitement build towards its conclusion.
One of my favorite moments in the book is also among its strangest as one of our heroes presents us with a use for chewing gum that I had never encountered before and which would be quite clever if Knox could convince me it was plausible. As it is, I think of it as one of the book’s many little quirks and appreciated its novelty.
I was a little less impressed with Knox’s ultimate choice of murderer and I did feel that the book suffers from not establishing enough credible, developed characters with motives to kill. This gave the moment of the reveal a somewhat anticlimactic feel but while the killer’s identity may not be a big surprise, I enjoyed the final chapter in which it is revealed precisely how they committed the crime.
While I was not blown away by The Viaduct Murder, I did find it an interesting introduction to Knox’s work and I would say that it is an entertaining read. I won’t be rushing out to read the rest of Knox’s work immediately but having read more positive comments about the Miles Bredon novels I will no doubt eventually give one of those a go.