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.
A disappointing collection that focuses on the whimsical at the expense of detection.
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.
Originally published in 2020 in two volumes. This review covers the works as a totality.
In 1930s England, the best mystery writers of the era come together to form the Detection Club. G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and others gather to eat, drink, and challenge one another. They are in for a bigger test, however, when eccentric billionaire Roderick Ghyll invites them all to his mansion on a private island off the coast of Cornwall, promising to enchant them with his latest creation: a robot that can predict the culprit in their novels. But when someone ends up murdered, who will lead the investigation?
A simple but colorful mystery comic with a memorable setup and entertaining characters.
Most of the time I find browsing my Amazon Kindle recommendations to be an exercise in futility. Having read several Gladys Mitchell books and a handful of Perry Masons, my recommendations are always pages of the same two or three authors.
Except this week. Suddenly The Detection Club Volume 2 turned up – the question of why not Volume 1 is a bit of a mystery in itself – and after a quick look at the sample pages I decided to give it a go.
As its title indicates, this tells a story involving members of the Detection Club, the famous society of mystery authors that included many of the leading figures of the Golden Age. The story takes place shortly after John Dickson Carr has been admitted to the group.
During a dinner a letter arrives inviting the members of the Detection Club to visit an island off the coast of Cornwall. The invitation comes from Roderick Ghyll, a billionaire who wants them to come and see Eric, a robot designed to predict the culprit in detective novels.
After giving the group a dinner, everyone heads to bed. During the night there are sounds of a struggle and cries for help from within Ghyll’s room. The door is locked but when it is broken down they find the window smashed and signs of a dressing gown submerged in the waters at the foot of the cliff. Realizing that they have a real mystery in front of them, the writers try to work out exactly what happened to Ghyll in their own distinctive fashions.
Perhaps the first thing I need to make clear is that Harambat is rather selective in the members he chooses to include. Unfortunately that means there is no Rhode, Berkeley or Crofts. Instead we are given Carr, Christie, Knox, Mason, Orczy, Sayers and, of course, G. K. Chesterton.
The decision to trim the numbers does make sense – a bigger group would have been unwieldy – though it would have been nice to take a moment to reflect its broader membership. Of those used, several are obvious selections and while Orczy and Mason will be less familiar names to some readers, they do represent different personality types ensuring that each member of the party feels quite distinct from everyone else.
Smartly Harambat chooses to give some additional focus to Christie and Chesterton, establishing them as a sort of double-act. The pair trade witticisms and tease each other, providing much of the book’s sense of warmth.
Of the other characters, Knox and Carr fare pretty well. While they are primarily treated comedically, they both show off their styles and sensibilities well and each has some entertaining comedic moments that plays off their respective styles and reputations. The remaining members are treated mostly as comic relief and they often seem least engaged with the broader plot.
This brings me to one of the principle problems that the two volumes face and struggle to resolve. Who is the intended audience for this – Golden Age mystery fans or comics readers with a casual interest in mystery fiction? The book tries to be accessible to those with no knowledge of the genre but the humor is so based in a knowledge of these personalities that I do not think it works without that.
On the other hand, I think more seasoned fans of the genre may well wish that the various characters demonstrated their own approaches and their personalities in further detail. Sayers fares particularly poorly, being reduced to a running gag where she fires a handgun into the air and the other members dismiss her work.
I also enjoyed some of the extra elements that get thrown into the mix. At one point I found myself researching Eric the Robot and was delighted to find that it was a real thing and that the look here is pretty much spot-on. The styling of the piece seemed successful and established Ghyll’s character and personality well.
The mystery itself is, happily, pretty well crafted although my enjoyment suffered a little from my thinking up a solution that I believe would have been more satisfying than the one given. The solution basically works though and while the case is not particularly complex, it fits the length of these two books pretty well.
This brings me to my other complaint – the decision to split this into two volumes. The reason for doing this obviously makes business sense, pitching this at a lower price point to grab shoppers’ attention but the delivery is unsatisfying. The second volume feels incredibly short in comparison to the first and some aspects of the solution feel rushed or insufficiently clued.
Still, while it may not have been everything I hoped for from a Detection Club comic, I did find it to be lively, colorful and enjoyable. The books are fast, entertaining reads and I was left with a deep interest to go off and find out more about Mason’s Inspector Hanaud – a character I haven’t read before. If nothing else, I chalk that up as a success.
Though never quick-witted, Agatha Dawson had an iron constitution and a will to fight that never abated in her old age. Even after three operations failed to rid her of her cancer, she refused to give in. But as her body began to weaken, she accused lawyers, nurses, and doctors of trying to kill her and snatch her fortune. The town physician, an expert in cancer, gives her six months to live. Only three days later, she is dead.
Though the autopsy reveals nothing surprising, the doctor suspects that Agatha’s niece had some hand in the old woman’s death. When Lord Peter Wimsey, the dashing gentleman detective, looks into the matter, he finds that death stalks all those who might testify. How can he continue his investigation when every question marks another innocent for murder?
A marked improvement on its two predecessors, this novel makes Lord Peter a more relatable and human figure and features an interesting case.
I read most of the Lord Peter Wimsey series during my teen years but until this past year I had not revisited them except to experience the televised adaptations. As a result those televised stories stand out quite vividly in my memory while the others, such as Unnatural Death, I seem to barely remember reading at all.
The curious thing is how quickly it all came flooding back. It has been at least eighteen years since I read this book but once the plot was outlined I had little difficulty remembering exactly how the crime was committed and why. Memory can be a funny thing!
The story begins with Lord Peter having a chat with a young doctor about the death of an elderly cancer patient in his care. He had examined her only a short time before and was certain that she should have lived at least another six months.
Dr. Carr suspected that the death was murder but the post-mortem showed no signs of trauma or poisoning. At this news the locals, already outraged at the idea that the investigation was only there to serve the young doctor’s ego, all shunned his practice forcing him to head to London to seek other employment.
Lord Peter listens to the story with interest and determines he and Inspector Parker should look into the case. Given that nearly a year has passed since then this involves speaking with the various members of the household, made possible by his careful placement of a spy in the village, and some creative thinking about just how a murder might have taken place and why.
Now one of the reasons this story should have stood out more for me is that it comes pretty close to being an inverted mystery in its style (Kate pointed this out in her review, linked below). From the start of the book Sayers is quite clear about who we ought to suspect – the problem is understanding the mechanics of the crime. This means that this was almost certainly the first inverted mystery I read – a pretty notable milestone!
I do think that the questions of how and why this crime was committed are each fascinating which is no doubt why the answers were so easy to recall! This is not in itself a problem but it does make it a little hard for me to gauge how well that solution is clued. My suspicion is that things do get a little technical but I felt it played fair and that the most important parts of the solution are clued, particularly with regard how the crime was done.
The question of why is a little more complex but I think it is also the more interesting and entertaining of the two puzzles. This is the first time we see Sayers play with the interesting idea that a death might need to occur at a particular time in order for someone to benefit – an idea that still feels relatively fresh ninety-two years later.
The explanation for this is pretty complicated but Sayers explains it well, using it to prompt broader discussions about the legal system as well as some other ideas that emerge from the specific situation Sayers sets up.
One of the most interesting of these is explored in a conversation between Wimsey and a priest as he reflects on the question of guilt and his own responsibility to the truth. In the previous two books I would suggest that Wimsey came off as largely flippant and irreverent in his attitudes towards his vocation but in this conversation he is shown to possess a more serious, reflective side which I think helps to make him feel like a more complete and interesting sleuth.
Another aspect of the book I really quite like is its use of the character of Miss Climpson, the middle-aged ‘surplus woman’ he engages to be his eyes and ears in the village. This is an aspect of the story that certainly went over my head at the time I first read it but I appreciated coming back to it a little better informed, thanks to a superb episode of the Shedunnit podcast.
The idea referenced here is that following World War I there was a significant imbalance in the numbers of men and women, resulting in a much larger portion of the female population of Britain being unmarried and living alone. This group were termed ‘surplus women’ and here Sayers is satirizing the idea that somehow these women had no function or use in society simply because they are unable to find partners.
Miss Climpson is not just a social or political point though – she is also an interesting and entertaining character in her own right. We mostly encounter her in the notes she sends to Wimsey to update him on the status of the case and to check about her expenses. She comes off as intelligent, opinionated and by the end of the book we see she possesses quite a lot of initiative too.
Unfortunately I do have to mention that these passages do include some racist words and sentiments (mostly the n-word) voiced by Miss Climpson, albeit they are usually employed while commenting negatively on the racism of other characters. The character of the West Indian priest might be viewed as an attempt to challenge the racist assumptions prevalent at the time and the language is hardly exceptional for the period but some of the comments are will be as problematic for today’s readers as the attitudes they are commenting on (as will that character’s seeming acceptance of that racism).
The book is also notable for its matter of fact presentation of sexuality. We hear about an older lesbian couple who had lived together for a number of years who are presented relatively positively and a younger couple who are treated a little more critically though the age difference between the pair and the fact that one is our murder suspect may be responsible for that. Both relationships though are treated in a practical, realistic way and, contrary to common perceptions of fiction from this era, are discussed pretty openly.
I found the plot to be well-paced and while I remembered enough of the plot to not be surprised by any of the developments, I still found this to be a very readable novel. Sayers includes several entertaining supporting characters – I particularly enjoyed the legal minds that Wimsey consults in a key sequence.
Aside from the issue of the racist language, the other problem with this novel is its villain. While the killer’s identity is never presented as a fact until late in the story, I think Sayers intends us to accept that they are responsible from the start. For that reason I would agree with those who would describe this as an inverted crime story.
Knowledge of the killer’s identity does not mean however that they are a compelling or particularly interesting figure. By the end of the novel we understand their motives and something of their thinking but I don’t feel that they ever really dominate the story or develop much of a rivalry or antagonism with Wimsey. This is understandable given how late in the story they meet but it is rare for this type of story to feel like you never really got to know the killer.
The final chapters of the book feature a shift in style away from the more conversational, detail-focused build-up to set up a more action-driven conclusion. For the most part I think this shift works and is welcome, though I happen to find the way the action is presented in sections from two different characters’ perspectives a little awkward. It does have the advantage though of allowing the action to move quickly before providing us with the necessary explanations so I think that on balance it works well enough.
So, where does that leave me on Unnatural Death? While I acknowledge the flaws in this book that can be barriers to its enjoyment, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was more to this book than I expected or remembered.
The (sort of) inverted and cold case presentation of the story allows this to be a different type of crime fiction while the presentation of Lord Peter shows him to be more complex and human than he ever had before and I loved the use of Miss Climson as a proxy investigator. Throw in a clever (if apparently somewhat dubious) explanation for the crime and you have a story that I think is much more accomplished and interesting than either of its predecessors.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Timing of the Crime is Crucial (When)
Let’s start with Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora who penned an excellent essay about this book as part of the Alphabet of Crime meme several years ago. He praises the plotting though points out that it reflects the prejudices of its time.
I have to thank Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime for enticing me to push this back up my TBR list after months of putting it off by suggesting that this could be seen as an inverted story.
DesperateReader’s post about this book draws particular attention to Sayers’ presentation of race and sexuality and I would certainly recommend taking a look at it. They also note that, aside from the problematic use of language, this is a really entertaining book to read – especially in comparison with some of the drier Wimsey stories.
The Detection Club produced several collaborative stories in which members contributed a section making up a part of a bigger mystery story. Perhaps the most famous of these is The Floating Admiral but there were several others including the two efforts contained in this volume.
This book is a very slim volume as each of the stories is only about seventy-five pages long. The list of collaborators is a little less star-studded than the one in The Floating Admiral with the first story featuring few familiar names other than Carr’s. No Flowers by Request boasts a more familiar lineup of some of the leading female crime writers of the decade who likely better known to modern readers.
Crime on the Coast
Authors: John Dickson Carr, Valerie White, Laurence Meynell, Joan Fleming, Michael Cronin, Elizabeth Ferrars
The first story in this double-header originally appeared as a serial in the News Chronicle in 1954. Each of the authors gets two consecutive short chapters, just eleven or twelve pages, to make their contribution to the story each picking up from the conclusion of the previous author.
The first two chapters are the work of John Dickson Carr who sets up an interesting adventure scenario in which a mystery author arrives at a seaside fun fair at the urging of his publisher. A ‘fat man’ urges him to take a ride on Ye Olde Haunted Mill which he declines on the grounds that it is a romantic ride for two and is surprised when a very attractive young woman he had never seen before calls him by name, urges him to take the ride with her telling him that it is a matter of life and death.
The first two chapters are quite amusing in spots and do set up an appropriately mysterious situation for the succeeding writers to work with. Characterization is slight but that seems appropriate for this sort of story where the writers are trying to change directions and introduce new elements and the action is pretty well paced, although I think things get a little tangled towards the end.
I am not familiar with the other contributors’ styles having only read Laurence Meynell’s work before (and I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t found I already had a tag for him on here) so it is hard to judge the success of the other collaborators. If our measure is whether the works feel consistent enough that a reader might be persuaded they were the work of a single writer then I think it succeeds but personally I think that misses the point of a collaborative story. For me these stories should be about celebrating the differences between the writers rather than an exercise in literary craftsmanship.
As such I feel ambivalent towards this story. It is competent if not particularly exciting work and will do little to make you seek out a story by, for instance, Joan Fleming or Michael Cronin if they are new to you.
No Flowers By Request
Authors: Dorothy L. Sayers, E. C. R. Lorac, Gladys Mitchell, Anthony Gilbert, Christianna Brand
The second story appeared in the Daily Sketch in 1953 and follows a similar format. Each author gets two chapters although there is a little more variation in the lengths – Sayers and Brand each get 18 pages whereas Lorac and Mitchell contribute just 12.
The story concerns a widow whose children have grown and decides that she will work as a housekeeper. She accepts a position working within a house in the country for a couple, an artist and his invalid wife, whose niece lives with them along with an injured airman and a nurse.
Sayers’ opening chapters set up the situation in which she and the niece are left alone in the home with the invalid wife and asked to check in on her. When they do they find her in a bad way and try to summon the doctor but are unable to get him to come out. She dies later that night, apparently of digitalis poisoning.
Unlike the previous story here each of the authors is able to put more of their storytelling style into their chapters. For example Mitchell gets to deal with some of the mutual suspicion that develops within the home. Their writing is still clearly a little constrained in scope and style to make sure it fits alongside the others’ work but I think it is easier to see that it is the work of multiple writers.
I feel that the story also benefits from the creation of a much stronger central character in the form of Mrs. Merton who is a rather formidable personality. She is not a particularly pleasant character but she is consistently portrayed across each of the chapters and it does feel like she plays a more active role in her story than Philip Courtney ever does in Crime on the Coast.
I found the solution to the puzzle to be more interesting and complex than I expected, holding together pretty well. Brand’s final chapter is, perhaps, a little confusing and I did have to reread the final few pages to be sure I understood an aspect of the ending but I think she does manage to pull the clues together to reach a convincing conclusion that fits the situation, clues and characters well.
I do think it is easily the more successful of the two stories here. It is not a perfect work and I can’t shake the feeling that any one of these authors given the premise to work with on their own (and an extra hundred pages) might have created something even more imaginative and satisfying but it is a pretty successful collaboration that does at least represent its authors.
When I bought this collected volume I spent no more than a dollar on it and I do not regret that purchase but I do not think I would feel the same if I had spent much more than that. It is an interesting curio and I do think the second tale is a pretty engaging short story. Do be aware that it is a very short volume however and that few of the authors are shown to their best advantage.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Written by more than one person (What)
There was a point about two-thirds of the way into Clouds of Witness where I wondered to myself why I hadn’t rated it more highly when I first read it. You see, while I have fond memories of the Lord Peter stories from my early forays into detective fiction I have very little memory of the first few stories.
The setup is rather promising as Lord Peter, upon returning from a trip to Sicily, learns that his brother has been arrested and is set to be tried for the murder of his sister’s fiancé. After quickly gathering some details from a newspaper account, he returns to the family home to poke around with the help of his detective friend Inspector Parker.
Lord Peter’s brother claims that he had confronted Cathcart earlier in the evening about an accusation of cheating at cards. He expects Cathcart to defend himself but instead he walks out saying that he was calling the engagement off anyway. After a restless evening he took a walk and on returning to the house stumbled over the body. He refuses to give any kind of alibi while the sister has locked herself away in her room. Lord Peter will have to save a man who is doing nothing to save himself with little help from his family.
The early part of the story showcase Peter’s methodical approach as they track footprints, follow trails and identify clues around the household. This process is not flashy and there are few surprises with much of their work simply confirming observations already made but I do think Sayers effectively communicates the pressure of needing to find something to clear the brother’s name.
These chapters also provide some much-needed context for Lord Peter, giving the reader a greater sense of who he is and what forces have molded him. I commented in my review of the first novel that the character struck me as flippant and frustrating and while those attributes still exist in this second outing, the character seems softened by comparison with his brother Gerald and their mother not to mention some of the others from their social set.
Sayers also makes some interesting choices in some of the settings she chooses to place him into in the course of this adventure, using the contrast or absurdity of a situation to draw out different parts of his character. A trip to a socialist club for instance not only gives a glimpse into some of Peter’s social and political views, it also fleshes out his relationship with another character and provides some interesting plot developments. He can certainly still be annoying, evasive and appear snobbish but there were more moments in this story where I actually liked him which feels like a step in the right direction.
I mentioned that I felt that the mystery had a promising beginning and I do think that the story touches on some interesting ideas about honor and social values that make it a surprisingly rich read. The problem is that it never takes the material in an unexpected direction.
An example of the sort of thing I am talking about relates to the question of Gerald’s lack of an alibi. There is an obvious explanation that the reader is likely to immediately think of and, what’s more, that Lord Peter considers for a moment in an abstract sense but he never tries applying that idea to the situation. He ought to at least suspect what that explanation may be and yet he seems utterly surprised when the idea suddenly occurs later in the story. There are plenty of other examples.
There is a frustrating disconnect between Lord Peter’s imagination on small details such as the possible meanings of fragments of a letter and his ability to see the bigger picture. If this were rooted in a character issue like his closeness to the investigation then that may have been more understandable but instead it feels like a convenient way to try to slow a story down.
The eventual explanation for what happened on the night of Cathcart’s death is completely underwhelming after chapters of careful investigation and speculation. Too much of the resolution is delivered to Lord Peter rather than proved by his stitching together clues to form a convincing narrative, feeling like a missed opportunity. While there are some very exciting and dramatic moments around the case, those hoping for a solid puzzle to unravel may feel underwhelmed by how little there is ultimately to discover.
There is no denying however that the ending is delivered with some style and while I could get frustrated at pages of solid French writing (translated shortly afterwards into English), I think the effect works nicely to give the sense of a much wider world beyond the events shown here. There is a rather charming and unexpected coda which not only places a fun cap on this story but also goes some way towards showing us Lord Peter and Parkers’ respective personalities.
There are some entertaining adventure sequences throughout the novel with a highlight involving a careless fall that puts Lord Peter’s life in jeopardy. I thought Sayers’ writing clear and easy to follow while the tension of the situation is brilliantly conveyed. I similarly appreciated a very brave action that Lord Peter takes towards the end of the novel which speaks to the character’s sense of dedication and commitment to grow.
For all of its faults, Clouds of Witness is a more entertaining and interesting work than its predecessor. Sayers’ mystery lacks a punchy or unexpected resolution but there are some entertaining action sequences built around it and some nice character moments for Lord Peter. I look forward to reading the next story, Unnatural Death, which is another one I barely remember but which I hope will prove a more complete and challenging work.
Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries hold a special place in my heart. My father was a huge fan and introduced the stories to me through the Carmichael and Petherbridge television adaptations in my early teens. They were probably the first GAD novels I read and while I didn’t appreciate that at the time, I do give them credit for inspiring me to try more.
At the point I am writing this however it has been well over a decade since I last read any of the novels. Given how much more widely read I have become in the detective genre since then I have been curious to see whether the series would still hold up and what I would make of them in the context of the other Golden Age fiction I have read.
The decision to kick things off with Whose Body? was an easy one, and not just because it is the very first of the Wimsey novels to be published. The real reason I started with this one is that it’s the only one that I had no memory of at all. I knew I had read it but I could only remember the question over the identity of the body and even then that was only in the loosest of details.
Of course once I began to read some of the details came back to me although, it must be said, I was surprised how few of the moments that felt familiar are plot points. Instead it was the little moments and asides in the novel that fleshed out the characters or struck me as amusing such as Bunter’s apologetic note to Lord Peter as he recounted how he served his brandy and cigars to a servant he was looking to get information from or the very affecting sequence in which we see Lord Peter experience flashbacks to his wartime experience.
Perhaps that reflects that the novel finds more interest in its character relationships and moments of levity than from its plotting which is relatively pedestrian. I can say that this is only the second best-plotted mysterious body left in someone else’s room story I have read in the past month (for a slightly more interesting use of this starting point see John Rhode’s The Paddington Mystery which was published two years later).
The plot is as follows: Lord Peter goes to inspect a body that has been found in a bathtub. The occupants of the home claim that the man’s identity is unknown to them and cannot account for his presence there. There is some suspicion that the body may belong to a prominent financier who went missing at about the same time the body showed up but when the man’s wife comes to identify the body she is sure it is not her husband.
Lord Peter becomes sure that the disappearance of the financier and the appearance of this corpse must be linked but the challenge for him, and the reader, is to figure out what was done and how. This is initially quite an intriguing question but I felt that mechanically the crime was quite simple while the cast of characters was small enough that, once you are sure there was some foul play, there were limited choices in who to suspect. In short, the crime itself is a bit of a flop and held limited interest for me.
Let’s turn instead then to the central, recurring characters and the obvious place to start is Lord Peter. Rereading this I was surprised by just how flippant and frustrating he can be and while I cannot be sure, I suspect that had I started by reading this book with no knowledge of the character or later adventures that I would never have finished this one, let alone gone on to read the series.
In later books it becomes clear that some of the personality he shows here is affectation, designed to throw people off and lead them to not view him as a threat. He is able to use this at times to get suspects to become overconfident, sometimes accidentally betraying themselves. It is a shtick and we certainly see him using his status and flighty persona to help him gain access in a difficult situation. For the most part though it feels much more a part of his personality as he shifts focus between discussing the case and the rare books he wants to buy and so it’s hard not to be frustrated with a character who seems to be treating murder as a game.
There are some moments here where I think we see the character emerge as interesting in his own right, not merely as an investigator, and I particularly appreciate his relationship with his manservant and old army batman Bunter. This, for me, is the heart of the early Wimsey novels and the standout sequence is that flashback to his time in the trenches, worrying that he is hearing the sounds of German tunneling beneath them.
That sequence really tells us so much about this pair and, when we learn that the stress of investigation may be in part responsible for it happening, we get a sense that Lord Peter is not just playing amateur sleuth for kicks but that he is willing to discomfort himself to pursue truth and justice. And in that moment Bunter becomes more than a stock servant with a skill at photography, he becomes a loyal carer and companion.
Sadly a lovely, rich character beat cannot overcome what feels like a very slight and rather routine mystery. Happily Lord Peter would have more interesting cases to come so if you’re new to the character I would suggest jumping in later in his adventures and returning to this at a later point.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An artist/photographer (Who) – Bunter has another professional occupation but he plays a significant role in this investigation.
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.