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

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat by Erle Stanley Gardner

Originally published in 1935
Perry Mason #7
Preceded by The Case of the Counterfeit Eye
Followed by The Case of the Sleepwalker’s Niece

WHEN THE CAT’S AWAY THE MURDERER WILL PLAY…. 

In his will, Peter Laxter guaranteed his faithful caretaker a job and a place to live… for life. But Laxter’s grandson Sam says the deal doesn’t include the caretaker’s cat—and he wants the feline off the premises by hook, crook… or poison.

When Perry Mason takes the case, he quickly finds there’s much more at stake than an old man’s cat—a million dollars or more to be exact…

Last week I found myself picking up my first Perry Mason novel in quite some time. The break was unplanned and reflects more on my desire to discover new authors and characters but every now and again it’s nice to pick up a book and be sure you are going to have a great time with it.

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat is fun from the very start. It opens with Perry agreeing to meet with an elderly man who has been sat waiting in his office on several occasions, insisting he needs to speak with Mason. He explains that his employer recently died and the terms of his will guaranteed the caretaker a job while he was able to work and a place to live once he retired. The employer’s grandson however has insisted that the provisions of the will did not extend to the caretaker’s cat and has vowed to kill it if he does not dispose of it.

Perry, sympathizing with the caretaker’s desire to be able to live with his feline companion, agrees to write a letter that he hopes will scare the grandson off. In it he brazenly suggests that any move against the cat would risk putting the man’s own inheritance in danger. He expects that to be an end to the matter and so he is surprised when the grandson and his lawyer turn up in his office in an argumentative mood. Before long Mason finds himself dug into his position and, ever keen to protect the interests of his client, he starts to dig into the circumstances of Peter Laxter’s death, soon turning up evidence of murder…

One of the most entertaining things about this book is the idea that a massive criminal case will emerge out of what is a pretty inconsequential dispute. While the nature of that dispute is, as is often the case with these stories, quirky and colorful, Gardner quickly and convincingly escalates that situation while never losing sight of the amusing idea that Perry has a cat for a client in this story.

This entry in the series also continues to explore the idea that Perry at this stage in his career is a scrapper by nature. When challenged as he is from an early point in this story, he chooses to act forcefully and often acts to provoke his opponents.

Perry could so easily be an obnoxious character. That confidence, so often manifesting itself in lengthy speeches to Della or Paul in which he talks passionately about what it means to be a lawyer, could read as smug and obnoxious were it not for the idea that he is championing the downtrodden and providing access to the protection offered by the law to all regardless of their wealth or station. That is shown here by his willingness to put himself to a great amount of inconvenience for what amounts to a $10 fee.

Gardner had packed his previous Mason novels with plenty of exciting and surprising developments but, compared to those, The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat seems all the more densely plotted. Each chapter seems to bring at least one new revelation or idea that changes your understanding of what has happened or what may happen in the future. Many of these are excellent and well-clued but there is a lot of detail about characters’ movements to absorb, some of which feels a little unnecessary.

Fortunately the concept of the crime is much more interesting and novel with the murderer employing a rather creative means to dispatch Peter Laxter. Readers should not expect Perry to deduce that method for himself – it is handed to him directly early in the book – but it is interesting to follow how he interprets and responds to that information. The alert reader may well detect other clues to what exactly is going on in interactions with those other suspects.

The issue is not the book’s ingenuity but rather that it can feel a little too clever and as if it is trying to do a little too much. Further murders follow but because they occur in such quick succession, not all of them left a big impact on me. In fact there was one point where I had to reread a section when I had forgotten that a character had died – it was not that the writing was unclear but simply that it was followed so quickly by another very dramatic moment.

Were this intended to be a fair play detection story, I might perhaps have felt frustrated by the complexity of the plotting. Read as a thriller however it makes for page-turning stuff. I loved the process of uncovering the truth behind the characters’ movements and the connections between the various elements of the plot. Yes, some parts of the plot are quite incredible but they are also highly entertaining.

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat is unlikely to be in contention for Perry’s greatest case but it may be one of the most entertaining. From its rather amusing concept of Perry representing an animal client to some of the unexpected developments that complicate the case, the book is enormously entertaining and has some wonderfully colorful moments.

The Verdict: Is this Perry’s quirkiest client? It certainly seems that way to me. Boasting a strong case with a clever resolution, this was a real page turner.

The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton

Originally published in 1911
Collects short stories published in 1910 and 1911
Father Brown #1
Followed by The Wisdom of Father Brown

[…]In thrilling tales such as “The Blue Cross,” “The Secret Garden,” and “The Hammer of God,” G. K. Chesterton’s immortal priest-detective applies his extraordinary intuition to the most intricate of mysteries. No corner of the human soul is too dark for Father Brown, no villain too ingenious. The Innocence of Father Brown is a testament to the power of faith and the pleasure of a story well told.

A few weeks ago I shared an outline of my challenge to myself to read a work by each member of the Detection Club. The reason for this challenge was that I realized when reading The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards’ excellent history of the Detection Club and the roles the members played in developing the detective fiction genre, that while I knew many of the names involved there were many whose work I had little to no knowledge of.

The most instrumental figures in the club’s founding seem to have been Berkeley and Sayers but being very familiar with their works already I thought it more fitting to start with the first President of the Detection Club, G. K. Chesterton. While I had read a couple of his short stories before they were in the context of a broader, thematic collection and so I felt like I had only a very basic impression of his work.

I asked followers on Twitter and readers of this blog for suggestions about what I should read and you returned a clear verdict that I ought to start with his Father Brown stories rather than his novels. Jonathan O had advised that the earlier volumes are stronger than some of the later ones so I opted to start at the very beginning with the first collection, The Innocence of Father Brown.

While there were Father Brown stories written during the Golden Age of Detection, the character was created several years before that era is commonly regarded as starting. While there are certainly detection elements to be found within a number of the stories in the collection, the style feels more reminiscent of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales in which the clues and deductions drawn from them are often delivered simultaneously. The reader is supposed to marvel at Father Brown’s unexpected ability to perceive the truth rather than beat him to it.

It is interesting to consider the contrast between Chesterton’s hero and the likes of Holmes and Dupin. Where those two men were brilliant to the point of exuding arrogance, Father Brown does not set himself up as an investigator and his manner is mild and unassuming. Indeed when we first encounter him in The Blue Cross the reader would have little sense he was to be the protagonist in a series of short stories – that role appears to be destined for the brilliant French investigator, Valentin.

Valentin feels like an amalgam of those two great detectives, complete with the added authority that comes from his position as the head of the Paris police. In this story he is shown to be highly competent and interestingly rather than diminishing his abilities to make Father Brown seem more intelligent (as I might argue sometimes happens with Holmes in his interactions with the Scotland Yard men), we see him live up to his reputation. What we see is that Valentin is smart but Brown, perhaps unexpectedly, is smarter.

The story is a fun one involving the hunt for a thief who has made his way to England. During the pursuit he comes across Father Brown who is transporting a valuable jeweled cross. Valentin suspects that a tall priest keeping company with Brown may be the criminal in disguise and follows the pair across the city but he cannot understand some of the curious things the pair do on their travels.

It’s an entertaining introduction to the character of Father Brown. The reader should not expect to be dazzled by any brilliant deductions though it is fun to learn the explanations for some of the things that happen.

The second story, The Secret Garden, also involves Valentin as a decapitated body is found in his garden during a social gathering. This one is more of a detective story than its predecessor and it has some clever ideas but I was unhappy with some elements of the solution. In particular, I felt that the motive here was really unconvincing.

The next tale, The Queer Feet, was much more to my taste as Father Brown finds himself in a very exclusive restaurant at the same time that a society of twelve – The Twelve True Fishermen – have their annual dinner. He hears a commotion and intervenes to prevent a crime from taking place.

As with The Blue Cross, this is once again more adventure than detective story. Brown is not acting in response to the observation of a crime scene but rather acts instinctively, based on his reading of people and his knowledge of criminals. It does do a good job of demonstrating his quick wits and of playing with the notion that appearances can be deceptive. It also features the most convincing example of an idea that I have seen used in a number of detective stories, including several times by Agatha Christie.

Perhaps what I like best of all though is Chesterton’s writing which is often very witty. The descriptions of the exclusivity of the setting are very amusing but what I liked most of all was the final statement delivered by Father Brown.

The Flying Stars are a set of jewels that are stolen during a social gathering while the attendees are watching a clown act. There is a nice callback in this story to the first as the thief is, once again, Flambeau (this is not spoiling anything – the story begins with Flambeau reflecting on the incident) and I liked that once again this is a story that showcases the personality of Father Brown. In particular, I appreciate the way he advocates for one suspect and then chooses to resolve this problem.

It is a shame given how much I enjoy some aspects of the resolution to this story that it contains some elements that I would describe as outdated and offensive. Nothing here is exceptional to the period in which it was written but there were several things that just didn’t set well with me: not least the merriment of the party at the idea of a performer blackening their skin with soot and Father Brown’s own statement that he had done so to amuse a group of children in the past.

The Invisible Man concerns the problem of how a man is murdered when the entrances to his house are under observation by the police. The best part of the story is the background to it as we learn the tale of the young woman and the two suitors who wanted to win her hand and, rejected, went off to make their fortunes. I am a little less convinced by the solution to this one and I feel that it may have benefited from a greater gap from a previous story in this collection. Still, it’s quite readable and while I think that solution is found quite quickly, it is at least clued.

The Honour of Israel Gow sees Father Brown and Flambeau, now an amateur detective, head to Scotland to investigate the death of an aristocrat and the strange condition of his family home. It’s a strange story, in part because the crime here is less clearly defined than in the previous stories but the explanation is clever and demonstrates an interesting sort of logical reasoning.

The next story, The Wrong Shape, is an example of a dying message story in which a man is found dead having written a message that appears to contradict himself claiming that he has committed suicide but also that he was murdered. It’s a well-told story, albeit one with a very simple solution that I have seen replicated. Perhaps not the best challenge in the collection but a good read regardless.

The Sins of Prince Saradine (which very nearly became The Sins of Prince Sardine courtesy of autocorrect) is a very entertaining tale in which Flambeau receives an invitation to meet with a prince of poor repute who is keen to learn about his past criminal exploits only for things to take an unexpected turn. There are some very amusing moments of which my favorite is easily the list of the things Flambeau had packed for his journey, and I think that this is a very cleverly structured tale.

I had actually read The Hammer of God some time ago as part of an anthology I never got around to reviewing. I wasn’t expecting great things in revisiting it so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a much more interesting story than I remembered. It concerns the death of a man who had been struck on the head with incredible force using a hammer.

What I liked most about this story was the logical way Father Brown points out the contradictions in some elements of the crime and reaches his conclusions. This is one of the best examples of a logical puzzle in the collection and while I don’t feel that an aspect of the ending is entirely deserved, I liked it a lot overall.

The Eye of Apollo concerns the bizarre death of an heiress who seems to have been part-way through writing her will before leaping to her doom. As a puzzle this story is quite nicely constructed, hingeing on a simple but clever idea. That solution is clued very neatly, making this one of the more rewarding cases in the collection.

The next story, The Sign of the Broken Sword, marks quite a departure in style from the other stories in this collection. It begins with Father Brown taking Flambeau to see the tomb of a fallen military hero and after making some cryptic remarks he starts to explain the man’s history, particularly the circumstances of his death during a conflict with Brazil.

Structurally this story is unusual because Brown begins the story possessing all of the information about the scenario – it’s the reader who is left to learn exactly what the mystery is that we must unravel and what the implications of that are. It’s a really interesting story – one that shows great insight into human nature and warfare – and the way it concludes is, for me, the most interesting character moment Father Brown has in the entire collection.

The final story, The Three Tools of Death, is also preoccupied with matters of psychology but I felt that it was less successful – even though the solution is much more surprising. The story concerns the death of a philanthropist known for his jolly demeanor.

Suspicion immediately falls upon one figure but we soon learn that the situation is not so simple as it appears. The explanation Chesterton comes up with is certainly imaginative but I found it too far-fetched as a sequence of events to be entirely credible and I would be shocked if anyone reached the solution. Still, I did appreciate the explanations for the actions of the various suspects and I found it entertaining in its ambition.

Reflecting on the collection overall, I was impressed by the diversity of story types on offer. Some are quirky or feature lower stakes, such as the theft of some jewel, while others feature much grander and more serious crimes. This keeps the collection from feeling repetitive and while I think Chesterton sometimes struggles to come up with a convincing rationale for his priest-sleuth to be involved (I am thinking most of The Queer Feet), the character’s actions and behavior often helps smooth over those doubts.

One of the preconceptions I had of Chesterton’s work based on my few previous experiences was that they were quite serious stories, in part because of the heavy moral and philosophical themes he includes. Instead I was surprised to find that he could be quite a light and witty writer and while those elements never dominate the stories, they often provide some relief to the often quite serious stories.

The other thing that surprised me was that in several of these stories Father Brown makes a very late appearance in the proceedings. This does tie in quite nicely to the book’s broader themes though and his interjections are typically interesting.

Finally, another request for your assistance with my project: while I have titles for the next few authors picked out I will need to plan ahead for some. Does anyone have any suggestions for what I should try to seek out by Lord Gorell? Money is very much an object so preferably something I have a hope of tracking down for a reasonable price (ie. less than $40).

The Verdict: An interesting, if uneven, collection of stories.

Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie

Originally published in 1937.
Collects four short works published between 1932 and 1937.
An edition was published in the US as Dead Man’s Mirror though that edition excludes The Incredible Theft.

Hercule Poirot #16
Preceded by Cards on the Table
Followed by Dumb Witness

How did a woman holding a pistol in her right hand manage to shoot herself in the left temple? What was the link between a ghost sighting and the disappearance of top secret military plans? How did the bullet that killed Sir Gervase shatter a mirror in another part of the room? And should the beautiful Valentine Chantry flee for her life from the holiday island of Rhodes?

Hercule Poirot is faced with four mystifying cases—each a miniature classic of characterization, incident, and suspense.

When I posted my review of Dumb Witness a little over a month ago I noted that I had goofed in my efforts to reread the Poirot stories in order as I had managed to overlook this short story collection. Well, such a mistake could not be left uncorrected – particularly given how much I want to get on and reread Death on the Nile – so let’s crack on and discuss the four stories that comprise Murder on the Mews.

The opening adventure lends its title to the collection and concerns a death that occurs during the height of the fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night. When Barbara Allen does not respond to knocks at her locked door, her housemate sends for the police. When the door is opened they find her lying dead of a bullet wound to the side of her head, a gun loosely in her hand. At first glance it seems like a case of suicide and yet there are some inconsistencies in the scene. How, for instance, could she hold the gun in her right hand but shoot herself in the left side of her head?

This is the first of three stories in the collection that style themselves as impossible situations and of those three, I think it is possibly the most successful of them. Though the length of the story necessitates some simplicity and the mechanics are pretty straightforward, Christie does give some thought to why this would be a locked room problem in the first place, devising a pretty convincing reason for that by the end.

There are, of course, flaws. I doubt that I will court much outrage by asserting that I think Christie was far more suited to the novel than the short story. One of the reasons for that is her writing style will often become overly economical such as in an early exchange where the flatmate casually drops into conversation, in argument against the idea of suicide by gunshot, that they had a lengthy discussion about possible methods of suicide which that she had been quite emphatic that she couldn’t shoot herself. While I understand the need for that part of the story, I do think that the writing feels very functional.

I should probably acknowledge that there is an argument concerning whether the absence of the key to her bedroom does perhaps undermine the impassability of that entrance. Still, why it may not be the purest example of the form, I do think that the story does do something interesting with it. Though I am not wholly convicted that the scheme makes sense, I do admire the story for trying something a little different and I appreciate the interesting framing Poirot puts on what the mastermind of it all was attempting to do.

I would characterize the second story, The Incredible Theft, as a pastiche or homage to the Sherlock Holmes stories (specifically The Adventures of the Naval Treaty) that we know had played an important role in inspiring Christie to write and enjoy mystery fiction. The action is centered upon the theft of some secret plans from a senior government minister’s home. The problem is that the plans had been out from the safe for just a few moments and no one was in the room at the time while each of the entrances were monitored at the time the crime must have taken place.

This is another story that seems to be an impossible crime, albeit one that is presented as an espionage story. In this case we have a room whose entrances are under observation by two different parties. In spite of that impossible setup however, I would suggest that the case underwhelms when read as an impossible crime – particularly in light of its solution.

It was this story that prompted me to muse on the difficulty of assessing the quality of a solution when reviewing a story you have previously read. It has been probably twenty years since I last read this short story and I didn’t recall much about it (unlike the other three stories which I remembered pretty well) but much of the solution occurred to me immediately. Was that because I remembered the problem, even if I didn’t recall any of the other details? I can’t rule it out. I can say though that the solution here strikes me as unimaginative and disappointing.

Dead Man’s Mirror on the other hand is a much more entertaining example of a locked room problem. In this story Poirot receives a summons from the highly eccentric Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore. Poirot journeys to his home where he meets the members of his household who, strangely, do not seem to be expecting him. When the obsessively-punctual Sir Gervase does not arrive when the dinner gong is sounded the group break into his locked study to find him dead and the word sorry scrawled on a sheet of paper. The key to the door is in Sir Gervase’s pocket and the only other entrance to the room is also locked and bolted so is this suicide or was it murder?

Of the stories in this collection, this felt the most substantial to me offering a much more developed cast of characters and a more complex solution than any of the others possess. That is reflected in some of the complexities of the various characters’ relationships, as we are prompted not only to consider the suspects’ relationships with the deceased but with one another. I enjoyed getting to know this cast of characters, several of whom felt quite boldly drawn. For instance, I would suggest that even though Sir Gervase never appears to the reader, he is far more of a personality and presence than anyone who appears in the previous story.

The solution is similarly pleasingly complex with Poirot presented with multiple clues and several aspects of the crime scene requiring explanation. While I think that there are some aspects of the crime that were not entirely convincing (the reason for the telegram being sent is particularly poor in my opinion) and the explanation of the motive felt initially quite shaky until it was given more detail at the end of the story, I appreciate that this feels a much more substantial effort than any of the other stories in the collection.

So, why don’t I find it as impressive a locked room as Murder in the Mews? I think it boils down to a matter of originality. That story, while far less complex than this, is using the locked room in an unusual way. This story does something far more familiar with it and so while the execution is fine enough, it felt significantly less ambitious and interesting to me.

This brings me to the final story in the collection, Triangle at Rhodes. This concerns two couples who Poirot gets to know while on holiday. He witnesses the couples’ interactions and anticipates what is likely to occur based on those observations. When the inevitable occurs, Poirot then explains what happened and ensures justice is done.

While each of the three previous stories could be described as a novella, this is definitely a short story. While its is the narrowest of the four stories however, I find it to be one of the more successful. That is partly because it recognizes the limitations of its page count, narrowing the focus to a matter of character and psychology. I also think it is one of the better examples of Christie anticipating the reader and engaging in a game with them.

The flaw in the story for me is a rather unexpected one: I don’t think Poirot reads like himself. There is a speech he gives where he compares what he is witnessing to other crimes he has encountered that struck me as far more the sort of thing that Miss Marple or Ariadne Oliver might say. I also think it a little unsatisfactory that Poirot abdicates himself of responsibility once he has issued a warning of sorts – while I understand why that happens to serve the plot, I think he could and should have done more to block the crime from happening. (ROT13: Uvf nethzrag gung ur unf vffhrq n jneavat naq gur pevzr vf varivgnoyr vf abg fb zhpu gur ceboyrz – engure V srry gung ur jneaf gur jebat crefba, pubbfvat gb fcrnx gb gur nppbzcyvpr vafgrnq bs gur ivpgvz.)

Still, in spite of those gripes I think the story is told at a near-perfect pace and does a wonderful job of capturing the building sense that a crime is inevitable and I do recall being quite shocked when I read this the first time around. While I think that this collection is unfortunately a little uneven, this does it end on something of a high note and it is the story that has stayed with me most strongly in the years since I last read it.

The Verdict: A rather uneven collection of stories. Those who feel that Christie works best as a novelist will find little here to challenge their belief.

The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder by Patricia Highsmith

Originally published in 1975.

Nowhere is Patricia Highsmith’s affinity for animals more apparent than in The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, for here she transfers the murderous thoughts and rages most associated with humans onto the animals themselves.

You will meet, for example, in “In the Dead of Truffle Season,” a truffle-hunting pig who tries to whet his own appetite for a while; or Jumbo in “Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance,” a lonely, old circus elephant who decides she’s had enough of show business and cruel trainers for one lifetime. In this satirical reprise of Kafka, cats, dogs, and breeding rodents are no longer ordinary beings in the happy home, but actually have the power to destroy the world in which we live.

The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder has been on my radar for some months as one of the more unusual applications of the inverted mystery form. It is a collection of short stories by Patricia Highsmith each told about a different animal (or sometimes set of animals) that will be responsible for hurting or killing humans. I describe it that was because while the book title contains the word murder, many of the stories might well be considered Beastly Manslaughter.

It is an interesting concept and, as you might expect, the results are a rich source of trigger warnings – particularly for those who have a strong sensitivity to animal cruelty. This is a common theme running throughout the stories and means that the stories can sometimes make for pretty uncomfortable reading. Which is, of course, Highsmith’s intention.

What Highsmith is essentially doing is trying to place the reader into the mind of an animal and to encourage them to experience things from their perspective. Sometimes that means inhabiting the mind of a dog or a cat, other times more exotic perspectives like a rat or cockroach. It is surprising how effectively she is able to do this though there are a couple of stories in the collection that feel far more focused on the humans than their animals such as The Bravest Rat in Venice and Hamsters vs. Websters. Unsurprisingly these were the stories I found to be least interesting.

My favorites, though I feel a bit silly employing that word, were those that I felt either stuck very strongly to the murderous brief – such as There I Was, Stuck With Busby and Ming’s Biggest Prey – or that most successfully captured the perspective of an animal such as Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance.

Unfortunately I do have to reiterate though that while I think Highsmith was successful in what she was trying to do, I cannot say I particularly enjoyed the experience of reading it. The collection is an interesting and often quite provocative one, making for an interesting literary experiment but I cannot imagine myself returning to it.

Story-by-Story Thoughts

Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance

This is the story of an elephant that was taken from the wild in Africa to be part of a zoo. Highsmith describes a sense of loss about the freedom that the elephant had enjoyed, though also describes some new joys. The issue is that the elephant’s happiness is dependent on the way they are treated and when her kind zookeeper companion retires she finds that his replacement is not as understanding.

Though this is a really short story, I think it is very effective. Highsmith avoids sentimentality and so rather than piling misfortunes upon the elephant, instead encourages us to empathize with it by making the things it feels entirely relatable. Just like Chorus Girl, most of us long for freedom, friendship and to be treated with respect. Her response when she doesn’t get those things is completely understandable. The results are inevitably tragic and upsetting but also very effective.

My only complaint would be that while this story is excellent, it perhaps is an odd choice to start this collection with as it doesn’t really match premise of the collection’s title.

Djemal’s Revenge

Djemal is a camel who for the past year has lived with his selfish and lazy master Mahmet, giving rides to tourists. Mahmet dreams of owning his own little house and hopes to be able to do this by winning a seven-day camel race across the desert. In the process however he pushes Djemal to breaking point…

This story was closer to my expectations of what this collection would offer, not only presenting us with human cruelty but giving it deadly consequences. The moment of revenge itself is described pretty well emotionally, helping us understand what Djemal is feeling, but not particularly detailed in terms of what is actually taking place. Still, I appreciate the choice of animal and think Highsmith did a good job of describing its thoughts and experiences of the race.

There I Was, Stuck With Busby

The Baron is an aging dog – perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old – who is left living with a man named Busby after the death of his master. He has been trying to appeal to a woman named Marion who he likes much more in the hopes that she will take him to live in her apartment above a butcher’s shop. It is not just that she gives him cubes of raw steak when he visits, it reflects that she is kinder and sweeter with him, making him feel loved.

This story is one of the most successful in the collection, both as a tale and in terms of fitting the collection’s overall brief. Where Djemal arguably commits manslaughter in the previous tale, The Baron will resort to murder in the hope of achieving its aim. Highsmith remarkably makes this feel quite credible, utilizing a method that a dog really might conceivably employ. The reader will have little difficulty in spotting how this may be managed but I give Highsmith a great deal of credit for being able to setup up that situation in the first place and the sequence in which it takes place is written very effectively.

Ming’s Biggest Prey

Ming, a cat, encounters his mistress’ new romantic partner during an outing and the pair take an instant dislike to each other. As with the last story we are in more familiar animal territory and Highsmith does a fine job imagining the personality of a cat. One aspect I like about this story is that while we experience the cat’s perspectives of the events and learn what he thinks, we can also observe and reflect on things that the cat is not aware of using the information it observes.

It’s a solid story and, once again, Highsmith does a good job of imagining how a cat might feasibly commit a murder. I did like the way Highsmith concludes the story.

In the Dead of Truffle Season

In this story Samson, an enormous white pig, is taken on a truffle hunt by his owner and becomes increasingly resentful of the way he is treated. In particular, his realization that while he finds delicious truffles for his owner he never gets to taste them – instead he is given a bit of cheese, a trade that Samson feels is quite unfair.

The story maintains the higher standard of the last few and I found its presentation of the thoughts of a pig to be really interesting. Samson is probably the least sympathetic animal we have seen up until this point, though the sources of his resentment (the truffles and some recent operations that have been performed on him) are understandable enough. That makes some aspects of the ending a little unsatisfying but overall I still felt it was very solid reading.

The Bravest Rat in Venice

This story tracks a rat’s interactions with the two boys who will be responsible for it sustaining some heavy and pretty horrific injuries. Highsmith captures the casual cruelty of children quite well here but eventually these will be returned to their family in one of the most horrific ways imaginable.

Twisted and truly hard to stomach in places, I struggle with any story that sees a character take their revenge against a third party that is innocent of the original crime. As effective as the story can be in places, this is hard to read…

Engine Horse

A young couple decide that they will try and commit murder by staging an accident involving an animal. What they fail to recognize is that the animal will have a mind of its own.

I liked this story quite a bit, in part because we are in the more conventional waters of murderous humans. The issue from the point of view of this collection though is that this story, like its predecessor, spends much more time with those humans than it does with the animal who is meant to be the protagonist. The story is clever though and has a strong resolution but animal lovers may find the fate of an animal third party upsetting.

The Day of Reckoning

This thoroughly human story concerns the automation of a battery chicken farm and the relationships between a group of humans connected with it. The animals in this story have no agency at all and while the story presents some discussion of battery farming as a whole, their voices and experiences are completely absent making this feel a little out of place in the context of the collection.

The story is really dark and decidedly twisted and upsetting in spots. While undoubtedly effective, it was perhaps too much for this reader.

Notes from a Respectable Cockroach

This story presents a cockroach’s view of the activities of humans staying in a hotel. It’s incredibly short, not at all criminous and while effective at what it tries to do, offers little to discuss.

Eddie and the Monkey Robberies

Eddie is a young Capuchin who has been taught how to open doors by a group of thieves. This story concerns the way he is treated by a member of the group and how he comes to be involved in the death of that person. Once again this story feels tilted towards the human characters rather than the animal and while effective enough, didn’t engage me as much as some of the earliest stories in the collection.

Hamsters vs. Websters

Of all of the stories in the collection, Hamsters vs. Websters is possibly the oddest. This concerns some hamsters who are living outside in a garden and whose habitat is disturbed by some bulldozing and construction. Once again this story suffers a little from not feeling like it really fulfilled the brief of the collection as they, like the chickens a few stories ago, have little agency in the story and act out of instinct.

Harry: A Ferret

Harry is a ferret who has developed a taste for blood who is bought by Roland, a fifteen year old boy who is delighted by this. He is even more excited when the ferret bites old Antoine, even though it means he is forced to keep it outside. This story follows what happens after this incident and the relationship between the boy and his savage pet.

A solid story, even though it is once more entirely from the human’s perspective. I did appreciate though the somewhat different view it presents by looking at the relationship not of an animal and a human antagonist but rather a human admirer.

Goat Ride

This final story concerns a goat who is kept tethered at an amusement park. This is one of the shorter stories in the collection but it does return us to an animal’s perspective of events which is welcome. Highsmith does a good job of communicating the goat’s thoughts and feelings and while slight in comparison to some of the meatier stories early in the collection, it does end things on a relative strong note.

The Verdict: This collection of short stories is certainly original and provocative but often makes for difficult reading with triggers abounding. Definitely not for everyone!

Old Crimes, New Scenes edited by Michael Tangeman and Charles Exley

Collection published in 2018.

By the late nineteenth century, Japanese readers had access to translations of many of Europe and America’s best mystery writers. The popularity of the genre led to Japanese writers earnestly translating their stories into Japanese, often modifying stories according to the Japanese author’s taste. The popularity of mysteries was ensured in Japan, and the enduring century-plus has seen remarkable examples of Japanese literary innovation.

This volume highlights the longevity and variety of Japan’s creative responses to the mystery genre. Some of the works are innovative because they were written by authors (or, in one case, a poet) who did not normally write mysteries. Others are innovative for their variations on standard elements of detective fiction, or for using mystery tropes to interrogate social norms or gender roles in an effort to explain the meaning of the text in its time. Several works play on technological innovations as keys to the mystery. Some of the works are meta-fictive explorations of the mystery, using detective fiction to investigate detective fiction.

Scholars, students and mystery readers alike will find this volume full of surprises.

When I was looking around for books to write about for the Japanese Literature Challenge I found inspiration in a few places. I obviously had some works that have been sat in my TBR pile for a while that benefitted from getting a little push up towards the top but I also found myself seeking out some fresh titles too. Yes, unsurprisingly this project which I undertook to reduce that backlog of books only ended up increasing it. Who could have guessed?

One of the books I stumbled onto when I was searching Amazon was this title which is a collection of Japanese short mystery stories. From the blurb I knew that the editors had picked a wide selection of authors, several of whom were not typically considered mystery writers, to show the history and diversity of the genre but to my immense frustration I couldn’t find a single review or even a simple listing of the contents. As interested as I was, I simply couldn’t justify the money at the time.

Obviously I have a copy now so what changed? Well, I happened to discover a podcast interview with the editors (linked below) in which they gave more information about the collection. This didn’t stretch to a listing of its contents but they did describe several stories in enough detail that I could be confident that there would at least be some material there that would interest me. As it happened that day was also my birthday and in a particular piece of serendipitous timing, a couple of minutes after I was done listening a gift card showed up. The next day, so did this book…

On the next page of this review I will not only provide a listing of all of the stories and a brief description of each, I will also offer some specific thoughts on them. Before I do that though let me share some thoughts about this as a collection as a whole.

The story quality is generally excellent, including several different styles of mystery fiction which brings a pleasing sense of variety. Readers should be aware though that some varities of mystery are not represented – perhaps most notably impossible crime stories – but I think given the limitations of 360 pages the editors did a fine job selecting works that show some of the breadth of the genre within Japan.

Particular highlights for me included On the Street, a clever story that I compared to an episode of Columbo in my notes and Yokomizo’s A Detective Story which is a very clever and playful work exploring the idea of a story within a story. Only a couple of stories disappointed – Stakeout, not because it is bad but because I enjoyed other stories I have read by Matsumoto far more and so this fell a little short of expectations. Also I struggled to get into Pitfall which is a script. I think here it is just a question of format – I struggled to imagine the action and suspect if I saw it performed I might well have enjoyed it more.

Each story is given a very short introduction in which the editors provide some information about the author and explain the reasons for their selection. This was useful background and helped give a strong sense of what the editors were looking to do with this project.

Overall then I have to declare that this was a very happy find and one I couldn’t wait to share with you all (particularly given it comes from a small academic press). I really appreciate the opportunity to try out so many different authors for the first time and the only negative here is that in a several cases there are no other works available yet in English translation. Let’s hope that changes as collections like this show that we have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of what is available in translation.

The Verdict: An excellent collection of works written over a span of more than a hundred years. I appreciated the editors’ focus on expanding the scope of the genre by finding authors who haven’t been widely translated before and nearly all of the stories have a strong point of interest.

Highly recommended.

Please click below for comments on the individual stories.

CLICK HERE FOR COMMENTS ON EACH STORY

Sherlock Holmes and Chinese Junk Affair by Roy Templeman

Originally published in 1998

In Sherlock Holmes and The Chinese Junk Affair, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are called upon once again to save Queen and Country. 

Upon receiving a card from Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, the duo are debriefed by the Prime Minister on an astounding fact: a man named Rodger Hardy claims to be able to transport matter from one place to another through electricity, in what he calls transposition.

As the threat of Hardy selling his discovery to other countries weighs on the Prime Minister, he enlists Holmes to find out whether such a feat is possible, and whether or not Britain has anything to worry about.

Can Sherlock solve what seems to be an unsolvable mystery in time, and help Britain?

This book also contains Sherlock Holmes and the Tick Tock Man and Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room.

I had not expected to be writing about any of the many, many Holmes pastiches until I had completed rereading the original canon but a recent review of this title by Tomcat on Beneath the Stains of Time caught my eye. In that review Tomcat praised some of the ideas in the stories but suggests that the Holmesian elements hold those stories back.

As you will see in the thoughts that follow I have a lot of sympathy with that view. Indeed I think it is telling that the story I enjoyed most, Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room, is the one that reads least like Doyle in terms of the narration yet because of its question of motive and resolution it manages to feel closest in spirit. Each of the other two stories would have benefitted from being shorter and more tightly focused on finding the solution to their central problems.

Thoughts on the three stories contained follow:

Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Junk Affair

A British government minister visits a friend from university who shows him that he is having a full-sized ocean-going wooden junk constructed in his home’s underground ballroom. The ship is much larger than any of the exits making it impossible to move the vessel once it is finished so the minister is puzzled why he is undertaking this strange project. He agrees to come back regularly to check on the progress.

On the day that the junk is completed, the minister visits to check its progress, dines with his friend and then they return to the ballroom only to find it has vanished. A short while later it is seen nearby on the river. The friend tells him that he has a method for transmitting matter that could revolutionize warfare. He is willing to sell it to Britain for a fee though he will keep the method secret until war comes, fearing that the technology could devastate a peacetime economy.

The minister is sent by the British government to consult with Sherlock Holmes to seek his opinion on whether the technology is real or if it represents some sort of trick.

One way that any pastiche will differ from the original works is that almost all are presented as historical pieces. While there are certainly some that incorporate elements of the supernatural or crossover with other literary universes, many works attempt to fit into our understanding of our own history. That means that when someone claims to have made a device that can transport a sailing vessel miles in a matter of seconds, we can dismiss the possibility that it really works. In other words, we can approach this story with certainty that the friend is performing some sort of confidence trick. The question is how the trick is worked.

The most impressive part of the story is the clarity of its central idea and of the circumstances in which the trick is worked. The image of the junk in the ballroom is a really striking one. Similarly, the passages in which the minister explains the situation are really very effective and do a good job of reassuring the reader that we are not looking at a secret door, false floor or removable ceiling.

Holmes’ explanation is clever and credible and the sequence in which he demonstrates how the trick was worked has a similar visual appeal. I was also struck by how satisfying the ending is in terms of its resolution. In other words, the basic structure of the plot is really quite solid.

So, why am I not in love with it? I think the problems begin with the lengthy investigation, most of which takes place in Watson’s absence. While that is practical in terms of streamlining the account, it leads to the investigation feeling strikingly sedentary. Holmes, it seems, does not really work out how it was done so much as figure out who he should ask to explain it. This is rather disappointing as it seems to diminish rather than reinforce his genius as a detective.

I was also rather disappointed in the presentation of its Chinese characters given at a few points in the story where Watson describes them as sounding like young children and moving like monkeys. While I recognize that these are intended to pastiche the attitudes found in Doyle’s own work, they are completely unnecessary to the story and so feel more like incidental affectation than an attempt to provide serious commentary or criticism of those attitudes.

Still, the case is the most intriguing of the three and a pretty solid example of an impossibility.

Sherlock Holmes and the Tick Tock Man

In which Holmes and Watson take a walking holiday, attend a church service and hear the story of the village’s German watchmaker who was found dead with a head wound. The old man supposedly was going to leave a small fortune to establish almshouses but when his home was searched no money could be found leading some to suspect that the watchmaker was robbed. That the watchmaker’s pet raven had escaped the home and would not return, repeatedly screaming a German word seems to confirm that idea for many of the village’s inhabitants.

This story is decidedly in the adventure mode, offering surprisingly little for Holmes to actually do. There is really just one clue that stands out and that can really only be interpreted in one way. We are left to follow Holmes as he connects those dots but given how elementary those connections are, I don’t think readers will feel particularly impressed.

Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room

The final story is also its shortest. Holmes receives a visit from a Viscount who recently returned from India with trophies including a collection of Japanese armor. He decides to house his collection in a building on his estate but is dismayed to find that a piece is stolen. This prompts him to establish an elaborate series of defences around the building including trip-wire activated shotguns, man traps and a flock of geese. Having once owned geese myself I can confirm that they are pretty loud and aggressive, making for excellent watchdogs. In spite of these precautions two further pieces are stolen raising the question of how this was done.

As setups go this is really rather interesting, particularly when the reader considers that the value of the armor is a fraction of that of pieces found within the main home itself. So far, so good.

Unlike the other two cases, here we get a small selection of suspects to consider. Holmes sets out to figure out how the trick was worked and why – two questions that are really equally important.

Unfortunately they are not equally interesting. The solution to why the crime was done is really rather good, being both clued pretty effectively and resolved in a way that feels authentic to many of the resolutions in other Holmes stories. The question of how it was managed however is rather underwhelming though it is explained quite logically.

Earlier I described the first case as the most intriguing of the three and I would obviously stand by that assessment but I will say that in spite of that I probably found this the most enjoyable of the three as a story. Its brevity is a big plus with little space feeling wasted and while its solution is a little too simple, I appreciated the question of the thief’s motives.

The Verdict: A mediocre collection of stories featuring Holmes but little of his genius. The idea behind The Chinese Junk Affair, the most original of the three plots, is clever but it unfolds much too slowly.

Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy L. Sayers

Originally Published in 1928
Lord Peter Wimsey #4
Preceded by Unnatural Death
Followed by The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

Some aristocrats spend their lives shooting, but Lord Peter Wimsey is a hunter of a different kind: a bloodhound with a nose for murder. Before he became Britain’s most famous detective, Lord Peter contented himself with solving the crimes he came across by chance. In this volume of short stories, he confronts a stolen stomach, a man with copper fingers, and a deadly adventure at Ali Baba’s cave, among other conundrums. These mysteries tax not just his intellect, but his humor, knowledge of metallurgy, and taste for fine wines. It’s not easy being a gentleman sleuth, but Lord Peter is the man for the job.

The short story is a decidedly different beast from the novel and requires a different set of writing skills. While there are some writers who seem equally capable at both, some clearly are more suited to one form than the other. To give some examples I have mentioned on this blog before, I think Conan Doyle wrote the short story much better than the novel while Agatha Christie was much more accomplished with long form work.

While I have been well acquainted with the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, I have had much less experience with her short stories. With the exception of one or two stories that have been reprinted in British Library Crime Classics anthologies, one of which comes from this collection, I had not really come across her short stories until now. Based on that small sample I was hopeful about this collection but I am disappointed to report that I found this made for uninspiring reading.

My first observation is that this collection is misnamed. While there are a couple of deaths in the stories here, most of tales focus on some sort of treasure hunt and feel more like adventure stories than detective fiction. That focus on less violent crimes is not uncommon for short stories given the limitations of the page count but few show Lord Peter’s intellect and deductive skills to their fullest extent.

The focus in many of these stories is on the bizarre and often the grotesque with stories like The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers and The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag offering memorable ways to discover a body. While both cases have memorable images, neither have particularly interesting investigations.

Some stories focus more on the whimsical and comedic such as The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will, The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question and The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach. Those comedic elements tended to miss for me, perhaps because so many of them come out of Lord Peter’s own flippant attitude (and conservatism), but some will no doubt delight others.

Only a couple of stories really hit the mark for me. The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention makes use of the idea of a Phantom Carriage that portends one’s doom, using it quite cleverly. This is one of the longest stories in the collection but I appreciated its atmosphere and was intrigued to find out the explanation for the carriage that characters, including Lord Peter, see.

I also really enjoyed The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face, the story I had read previously. It concerns an unidentified man who is found dead on a beach wearing his bathing suit. I enjoyed the mystery of who the man was (cuts to his face disguise his identity) and felt it stood up to a second reading – something I find hard to imagine of many of the stories here.

One story here is utterly bizarre however – the final one, The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba. This tale is yet another variation on the secret criminal organization trope but it manages to make Agatha Christie’s The Big Four look grittily realistic and credible. Something which I feel is quite an achievement. The plot is absolute nonsense.

So, overall not a great collection. Based on this sample I am inclined to think that the short story was a form that really didn’t play to Sayers’ strengths – Lord Peter as a character probably needs more space to breathe and show off his personality. The one story that is noticeably longer is also, perhaps not coincidentally, a much richer reading experience.

On the positive side, now I have this one out of the way the next book is one I remember as one of my favorites. Expect thoughts on The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club soon! In the meantime, click below to see my thoughts on each individual story in this collection.

The Verdict: A disappointing collection that focuses on the whimsical at the expense of detection.

Continue reading “Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy L. Sayers”

The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe

Originally published 1844
This story is one of those contained within the collection Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

Auguste Dupin #3
Preceded by The Mystery of Marie Rogêt

The past few weeks have been enormously busy and so I have found it quite tricky to find the time to read anything. When I do, I find I cannot hold my concentration for more than a few dozen pages. Fortunately I remembered that I had something in my TBR pile that was that sort of length – the last of Edgar Allan Poe’s three Auguste Dupin short stories.

The Purloined Letter sees G-, the prefect of the Paris police, approach Dupin for advice on the matter of a stolen letter written by the queen’s lover. That letter is being used by the thief to blackmail her and gain influence.

The prefect is certain of the culprit’s identity and has executed a thorough search of his property but cannot find any sign of that letter. This puzzles him as he is sure that the thief must have the letter somewhere close at hand to keep it safe and enable him to produce it if necessary. The prefect asks for Dupin’s help and gives him a description of the letter.

We then jump forward a month as G- returns to speak with Dupin. The search has been fruitless and he tells Dupin he will pay 50,000 francs to anyone who can find the letter. Dupin tells him that he should write him a check as he knows where the letter is and proceeds to explain how he found it.

If that brief synopsis of the plot sounds familiar, it is because this story shares a lot of common elements with Doyle’s later Sherlock Holmes adventure, A Scandal in Bohemia. In both cases we know the thief’s identity from close to the start of the story and each features a document related to an affair with a royal that could destroy a monarchy. On top of that, there are also a few story beats that the two short stories seem to have in common.

Obviously we cannot suggest that Poe’s work, as the older, is in any way to blame for those similarities. The problem is that it is impossible not to be aware of them as the later story, as one of Doyle’s most celebrated, will likely be one that readers have already encountered. That is unfortunate as I think that may serve to blunt the impact of one of the story’s most satisfying ideas.

I should probably also take a moment to say that while I think there is a lot of shared intellectual ground between the two stories, they differ in enough elements and themes to feel quite distinctive from each other. Several of the tweaks Doyle makes serve to make those themes feel all the stronger.

Getting back to the basic scenario, I think this story does a fine job of establishing the facts of the case in a consice manner. We understand the stakes and the circumstances surrounding the crime, the question is how they managed to execute that plan.

Structurally I feel that this story also represents a pretty significant improvement over its two predecessors. Where the relating of the facts in those stories seemed a little awkward, the more conversational approach used here not only helps break up the material into smaller, more manageable chunks, it also helped me engage more with the information being provided.

I also appreciated that Dupin feels more engaged in the action here than in his other two adventures. He even plays an active role in the case, travelling to a crime scene rather than remaining as a purely armchair detective. This more active approach works pretty well and makes this my favorite story in the trio.

The Verdict: A really clever mystery with an unconventional plot and my favorite of the three Dupin stories.

The Singing Bone by R. Austin Freeman

Originally published 1912.
This volume collected stories originally published from 1909 to 1911.
Dr. Thorndyke #5
Preceded by The Mystery of 31 New Inn
Followed by A Silent Witness

Silas has diamonds in the heel of his shoe. He is a thief, but until the night he meets Oscar Brodski on the footpath near his house, he has never considered murder. A diamond dealer, Brodski’s pockets bulge with more precious stones than Silas has ever dreamed of, and they will be his with one swift, violent act. Silas does the deed and arranges the diamond dealer’s body to make the death look accidental. He has provided for every contingency—except for the arrival of a doctor named Thorndyke.

In this collection of stories, the reader knows the killer’s identity long before the ingenious medical detective enters the scene. These are brilliant early examples of open mysteries, in which the question is not whodunit—but how will he get caught?

In the introduction to The Singing Bone, R. Austin Freeman takes the credit for inventing what he terms the inverted mystery novel when he wrote his short story The Case of Oscar Brodski. He suggests that this was something of a experiment – an attempt to refocus the reader’s attention from whodunnit to the question of how they would be caught.

Freeman’s reason for experimenting with the form was to reject the artificiality of the detective story with its focus on who did the crime and instead create something more realistic. The suspense would not come in waiting for the reveal but rather in smaller, incremental moments in which we see the killer’s deceptions coming undone.

Freeman wrote of his project:

Would it be possible to write a detective story in which from the outset the reader was taken entirely into the author’s confidence, was made an actual witness of the crime and furnished with every fact that could possibly be used in its detection? Would there be any story left when the reader had all the facts? I believed that there would; and as an experiment to test the justice of my belief, I wrote “The Case of Oscar Brodski.” Here the usual conditions are reversed; the reader knows everything, the detective knows nothing, and the interest focuses on the unexpected significance of trivial circumstances.

R. Austin Freeman – Preface to The Singing Bone

While Freeman did not invent the idea of following a criminal as they conduct a crime, he does create a format that retained the structure of a detective story that would prove to be a model for later authors. Crofts, for example, follows the structure of splitting some of his inverted stories in half such as in Antidote to Venom, beginning by following the criminal and then switching to the investigator.

I have previously read and reviewed the earliest of the inverted stories, The Case of Oscar Brodski, on this blog but I wanted to go back and read the rest of the collection. This week I was given a little push towards doing that when I agreed to prepare for about inverted crime novels (more on that at a future time). It seemed to me that I couldn’t approach that without a fuller experience of Freeman so this jumped up to the top of my TBR pile.

Dr. Thorndyke is not the most animated sleuth around but Freeman’s stories are far from dull. The cases themselves and the process of deductive reasoning built on forensic evidence he uses can be really novel and entertaining. In a few cases, such as The Echo of a Mutiny, complex ideas are communicated and used very effectively.

I also appreciate that while Thorndyke is always successful at discovering everything the physical evidence has to offer there is no guarantee that the criminal will be held accountable. This not only adds an additional layer of interest to each story, it is also an acknowledgement that forensic scientists do not solve crimes themselves and also that sometimes you can find the killer but be unable to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

I found points of interest in each story in the collection but some particularly appealed. A Case of Premeditation engaged me with its challenges to the reader – something I had never encountered in an inverted story – and while I think Thorndyke guesses at some aspects of the case, it is very entertaining.

I also loved A Wastrel’s Romance which I think has an entertaining scenario and some charming character choices. Finally, I recommend The Case of Oscar Brodski for its importance to the development of the form.

On the whole I think that this is a very effective collection that left me keen to read more Freeman. Sure, the sleuth himself is a little dry but the situations Freeman creates are both colorful and interesting.

I offer more detailed thoughts on each of the individual stories on the second page of this review.

The Verdict: A key text in the development of the inverted mystery which includes several entertaining short stories.

Continue reading “The Singing Bone by R. Austin Freeman”