Crime on the Coast & No Flowers by Request by Members of the Detection Club

NoFlowersThe 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.

Overall

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)

St. Peter’s Finger by Gladys Mitchell

StPetersFingerIt has been far harder than I expected to figure out how I would complete this last category in the 2018 Vintage Mysteries Challenge. I thought I had it all figured out last month when I read A Javelin for Jonah, another book by Gladys Mitchell, only to discover when I was quite a way into the book that it was written well after the 1960 cutoff date. Whoops.

I did contemplate picking a book set at a college like Death on the Cherwell or Gaudy Night but would they really constitute a school mystery? I was pretty sure that I would have said not back in January and if I am going to do a mysteries challenge then I was determined to do it right. After weeks of procrastination I decided yesterday afternoon that I would return to Gladys Mitchell, this time carefully checking the publication date before I commenced reading.

The novel I selected was St. Peter’s Finger, one of Mitchell’s earliest Mrs. Bradley mysteries. It begins with her responding to a request from one of her sons that she visit a convent school where a student had been found dead in mysterious circumstances.

The victim, thirteen year old Ursula Doyle, was an heiress who has two cousins also attending the school. She was found dead in a bathroom in the convent’s guest-house of carbon monoxide poisoning yet the bath had been stopped running, the windows were open, there were no signs of violence on the body and no faults could be found in the room’s gas line. The nuns dispute the coroner’s verdict of suicide and ask her to see if she can find evidence supporting the idea of an accidental death.

When Mrs. Bradley begins her investigation she soon discovers that there are problems with both of these explanations for the death. Before long she becomes convinced that the girl must have been murdered but the problem is working out who could have committed the crime and how they managed it. Soon she finds her own life may be in danger, not to mention the lives of the victim’s family.

One of the greatest strengths of St. Peter’s Finger is the way Mitchell is able to evoke the sense of belonging to a convent community. She introduces us to quite a wide selection of nuns, teachers and convent school students, each of whom has a different response and level of comfort with the environment. For some it is a place of comfort, friendship and support while others chafe at the restrictions and the rules. One thing that most of these characters have in common is their unwillingness to volunteer information to Mrs. Bradley which makes her investigation more challenging.

Mitchell does introduce us to quite a large group of characters and most feel pretty distinctive from each other there were some points where I was mixing up some of the minor characters and the relationships to each other. While this caused a little frustration for me early in the novel, I did appreciate that it does help give the sense of a real, bustling institution and all of the most critical characters were very well-defined and memorable.

In my review of A Javelin for Jonah I barely remarked on the character of our sleuth, Mrs. Bradley. Just about the only remark I made was noting how little time is spent establishing her character, speculating that was a reflection of it being a later installment in a long-running series. I did find that the character is not really given much more of an introduction here although we do learn a little about her family and household but she does at least feature from the start of the novel and the action centers on her investigation.

Mitchell does not feature passages of really detailed descriptions of her protagonist and yet I had far less difficulty imagining her than in that other story because aspects of her personality emerge in the course of the investigation. She is a little haughty in her manner at times yet she shows signs of genuine warmth and concern for others such as a girl from the orphanage who frequently finds herself in trouble. I wouldn’t say that she is an investigator I would want to know if they existed in person but then who would want to know Poirot or Miss Marple?

I can say that I enjoyed following her investigation which I was pleased to find turned out to be less straightforward than it initially appeared. In fact I spend a good chunk of the book worrying that I had worked out the solution far too early and I kept waiting for some twist or moment that would make me realize I was horribly off track. That moment never quite came in the way I expected and while there are a few loose ends in the story, I was largely satisfied with the solution to the case.

A bigger problem for me was the novel’s pacing which at times seemed ponderous. I was particularly conscious of this in the section of the book between a night-time attack and a character leaving. Not much new information or evidence is found in those chapters that moves on our understanding of the situation and while I appreciated the chance to explore some of the suspects’ psychologies, I felt that the book may have benefited from a little trimming to some elements that were not directly linked to the solution.

The positive side to the novel’s leisurely pacing is that it does allow for some moments of humor and wry observation about convent life that I would certainly miss if they were gone. It was those moments that I think helped make this a more entertaining read than Jonah and I can say that I consider it a much better puzzle in terms of its construction and the range of elements involved. While I don’t expect to make a quick return to Mitchell in the next few months I may be a little more optimistic the next time I reach for one from this series.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At a School (Where)

A Javelin for Jonah by Gladys Mitchell

JavelinA Javelin for Jonah is set at a private school that caters to the delinquent children of the well-to-do, encouraging them to turn their attention towards athletic pursuits. One of the faculty, David “Jonah” Jones, frustrates colleagues and students alike with his excessive drinking, poor work ethic and attempts to proposition the female students.

When the news breaks that he was responsible for getting a young servant pregnant it is assumed that there will be some consequence but his sudden disappearance from campus is surprising. Several days later he turns up dead prompting Hamish Gavin, a teacher who has joined the school on a short-term contract, to contact his godmother Dame Beatrice for her assistance.

Prior to reading this my only experience of Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley novels had been that whenever the television adaptations came on my parents told me that I was too young to watch them and that I had to go to bed. Of course the advantage of having been deprived of watching the adaptations is that the stories are all new to me today when I’d likely appreciate them more.

A Javelin for Jonah is one of the later novels in Gladys Mitchell’s series so I guess the first question I should address is why did I start here? Honestly, I think it was little more than a whim. I rather enjoy stories set in schools and so the idea of Joynings, this school for delinquent children, is inherently mysterious. What did these teens and young adults do to end up there and why are some of these teachers working there rather than at a university or more traditional private school?

The strongest part of the story is Mitchell’s depiction of the classes and culture of the school which surprised me with how gritty it feels. It is the Byker Grove to They Do It With Mirrors’ Grange Hill. Students are profane, proposition the teachers and consume drugs, alcohol and cigarettes (although they are not supposed to have any spending money on campus). Similarly the teachers can be harsh and physical in their responses to the students’ behavior such as Hamish when he responds to a student smart-mouthing him by grabbing him, swinging him around and kicking him across the room.

What I think makes Mitchell’s portrayal work are not the depictions of dysfunction but those that create the sense that these students have formed a community and look out for each other. They all have their own issues that have caused them to be brought to the school but those moments and instincts help give a sense that these are troubled people rather than simple generic troublemaker characters and many of those moments feel well-observed.

Similarly I appreciated the breadth of character types we get among the faculty. Mitchell’s characters feel fleshed out and credible, each having their own reasons for choosing to work in such a challenging environment and their frustrations with each other and with the students all seemed well-observed. Between students and teachers Mitchell assembles a pretty convincing set of murder suspects.

The first thing to say about the case itself is how late in the novel the murder happens. We are nearly halfway through the book before the body shows up meaning that a lot of time is spent setting up the circumstances of the crime. I think this is not inherently a problem as the reader will be absorbing information, preparing for the investigation to begin, but it does mean that Dame Beatrice turns up very late in the story, compressing the investigation.

Given that Mitchell gives away her victim and murder method in the title, the reader will find few details of the crime scene surprising. In fact they will be given quite a bit of detail about who is responsible for the disappearance before the body ever appears. What this does however is establish some of the critical elements of the puzzle – that it will hinge upon the question of access both to the victim, some locked spaces and the weapon.

To be clear, there is no genius in the crime itself. This is a rather grubby, low-key murder that lacks any sparks of ingenuity or flair on the part of the killer. What makes solving this crime interesting is the challenge of piecing together events to make sense of how and why this crime could have happened. Solving the crime will require a logistical approach so it is a little odd that Mitchell continually reiterates that her sleuth is taking a psychological profiling approach to the case.

These interviews feel highly compressed and it is surprising just how quickly the plot moves after Dame Beatrice arrives and begins her investigation. While I often appreciate a direct approach in mystery stories, I think it can be a little jarring here as she seems to latch onto credible explanations in the story with surprising ease. She is in command from the moment she arrives and the case never seems to impact her or challenge her skills. In short, whatever other strengths this story has it is perhaps not the best introduction to this character.

Not that it’s really fair to blame Gladys Mitchell for that. I suppose when you reach the forty-seventh book in a series there is an expectation that the reader is likely already familiar with the character. Just be aware that if you don’t know the character prior to reading this you are unlikely to feel that you know her by the end.

Perhaps the most contentious aspect of the second half of the novel lies with the question of whether the mystery plays fair with the reader. I cannot describe that debate without spoiling the book but I can say that while I feel we are given enough information to identify the murderer, the moment of the reveal feels inherently disappointing and even if it didn’t cheat the reader, I think it may still feel as if it did.

Though I think that the ending feels a little underwhelming, I did quite enjoy A Javelin for Jonah. I found the setting to be compelling (and, at times, a little horrifying) and I think Mitchell’s characterizations are generally of a high standard. Though it is perhaps not the ideal introduction to her sleuth given her limited role in the story, parts of it are effective and interesting. Certainly I would be willing to give Mitchell another go at some point in the future…

Serpents in Eden edited by Martin Edwards

SerpentsinEdenLife commitments have caused me to need to find something I can dip in and out of at pretty short notice so I have been picking up more of these British Library Crime Classics anthologies.

Serpents in Eden is a collection of crimes set in the countryside though the setting is more critical in some stories than others where it is merely background. As always Martin Edwards has selected a diverse collection of stories on his theme and provides superb introductions, both to the collection as a whole and then to the authors who wrote the individual entries featured.

It is a pretty interesting collection though a little less well balanced than others published as part of this range. I particularly recommend the very short Clue in the Mustard which is quite amusing at points and Murder by Proxy which has a clever solution.

If this volume’s theme appeals to you then I’d suggest picking it up as though there are always a few misfires, most of the volume is pretty entertaining and does a good job of preventing variations on a theme.

On to the stories…

The Black Doctor by Arthur Conan Doyle

Or perhaps more accurately: the Doctor of Indeterminate Swarthy Ethnicity. This is the story of a country doctor who has established a successful practice in Lancashire. After many years of bachelorhood he finally proposes to a local woman but abruptly calls off the wedding. The narrative is structured around the trial of a man believed to have killed him.

There is no detective or sleuth to follow – this is more in the line of an unusual story being related but it is quite enjoyable, if a little slight.

Murder by Proxy by M. McDonnell Bodkin

An entertaining read, even if some aspects of the crime are easy to deduce. The story concerns a man who is found dead in his study having been shot in the back of the head. Paul Beck is called in to investigate the case by the man’s son who has become the principal suspect.

Forget about who did it – the killer’s identity is clear enough – as the focus here is really on how the deed was done. The solution is quite clever though Beck never really proved his case, rather the guilty party confesses. Still, it is fun and I’d be interested to see out some other Beck adventures.

The Fad of the Fisherman by G. K. Chesterton

This didn’t capture my imagination at all and so did not make for the best first impression for Chesterton’s work. A murder takes place on a remote island near the country home of Sir Hook. While the mystery didn’t grab me, this is one of the stronger entries in the collection for incorporating countryside elements.

The Genuine Tabard by E. C. Bentley

I quite enjoyed this story in which a pair of American tourists show our sleuth a historic tabard they purchased at a vicarage while driving through the country though it is a little slow in the telling. The scheme is worked out well but the explanation is a little too detailed.

The Gylston Slander by Herbert Jenkins

A solid if unremarkable story about a vicar receiving anonymous letters laced with innuendo about his daughter and the curate.

The Long Barrow by H. C. Bailey

A woman reports that she is being followed by someone everywhere she goes. At first Reggie Fortune seems disinterested but when she adds that someone is littering the path with dead animals he agrees it seems suspicious.

An interesting concept and approach but in my opinion the ideas are not well realized.

The Naturalist at Law by R. Austin Freeman

You would think that given my love of inverted mysteries I would have got around to trying an R. Austin Freeman already. Well, this isn’t an inverted mystery but it does whet my appetite for when I do so.

The story involves an apparent suicide of a man in a ditch. The inquest cannot reach a conclusion but Dr. Thorndyke is certain it is murder and conducts his own investigation. The question is why does Dr. Thorndyke think it is murder and how will he prove it. The answers are clever.

A Proper Mystery by Margery Allingham

This is a very short story set in a public house several weeks after a vegetable show was ruined when the produce is trampled by cattle. Tensions are still high in the village as some of the contenders suspect each other for orchestrating the disaster. The resolution of the story is quite charming, if expected.

Direct Evidence by Anthony Berkeley

A simple and dragged out case in which a man is accused of the murder of the woman he is having an affair with. The solution to why the suspect would have murdered her in plain sight of the village is obvious from the start and so the only question is what precise evidence will Sheringham be able to assemble to prove it. A disappointment.

Inquest by Lenora Wodehouse

A very different story that strikes a decidedly interesting and provocative note at its end. The narrator is travelling by train when he encounters a familiar face he is unable to place at first. It turns out that they recognize each other from an inquest into the death of a man who seems to have been murdered by his nephew.

The plot of the story is interesting enough to make this worth recommending but the tone of the ending is very different and there are some aspects of the solution that feel quite original. A highlight in the collection, though the countryside elements are minimal.

The Scarecrow by Ethel Lina White

A young woman escapes assassination and her would-be killer is locked away. Several years later he emerges from prison, placing the woman in danger. How will she and her friends evade the killer’s notice.

While this is an interesting premise and I did like some of the turns of phrase and details in the novel, it didn’t resonate with me as I had hoped. That is a shame because there is some excellent writing here.

Clue in the Mustard by Leo Bruce

A short but amusing story that sees Sergeant Beef solve his first murder (though you wouldn’t really know that if it weren’t mentioned in the preface to the story). An elderly woman is found dead in her garden to some surprise as she had seemed in relatively good health. While it appears like natural causes were responsible, Beef is able to demonstrate it was murder and explain how it was managed.

The method used is quite ingenious (and I am pleased to say that I guessed most of it) but the best part is Beef’s unusual reasoning for how he works it all out.

Our Pageant by Gladys Mitchell

The final story is incredibly short but also one of my favorites in the collection. It involves a village performance of a morris dance which has created some tensions between several of the men of the village. When someone ends up dead we are left wondering who may have been responsible.

It’s a clever little tale with a great reveal that is all the more impressive for being told in just a few pages.