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

Constable Guard Thyself! by Henry Wade

Originally published in 1935
Inspector Poole #5
Preceded by Mist on the Saltings
Followed by The High Sheriff

Two threats from a newly released convict – a poacher framed on a murder charge – put Captain Scole, Chief Constable of Brodshire, on his guard. Special men are assigned to protect him. But four days later, Captain Scole is found shot through the head at his desk in Police Headquarters.

A full week later, young Inspector Poole of Scotland Yard is called in to follow a cold trail in the face of open hostility from the local police. And the further he explores the murder, the more baffling it becomes.

Could Scole’s First World War past be catching up with him – or something much closer to home? 

Henry Wade is one of my favorite writers of the Golden Age so I cannot really explain why it has been well over a year since I last read one of his books. I had been intending to get back to him again for the past few months but got an extra little push when I noticed several of his books listed in Brian Skupin’s Locked Room Murders Supplement. After reading the descriptions of the impossibilities this seemed like the one that intrigued me most based on the apparent audacity of the crime committed.

That crime is the murder of a Chief Constable within his office in the police station. Junior officers are present in the corridor outside when they hear shots and dash inside. There they find Scole dead having been shot in the forehead, yet there is no sign of the murderer in the room. They could not have escaped through the only door without passing the officers, nor is it easy to see how they could have got in or out through the window given the office is on the first floor and there are no signs of anyone having touched the old drainpipe which seems to be the only thing an intruder could grip onto.

Suspicion quickly falls on Albert Hinde, a recently released prisoner who had made several threats of violence to Scole including once in person. Years earlier Scole had been responsible for sending Hinde to prison causing considerable resentment. What doesn’t make sense though is why Hinde waited to commit murder when he had already had the opportunity and how could he have got through the police station when officers had been placed on alert to look out for him.

Scole’s subordinates are keen to get to work and find his killer and initially resist calls to summon assistance from the Yard but when they are unable to track down Hinde and with their investigation stalled they reluctantly recognize that they need help. Inspector Poole is dispatched and decides to take the case back to the beginning to look at all their base assumptions, taking no fact for granted.

While this book does contain a solid impossible crime story, it is important to stress that it is first and foremost a police procedural. What this means is that we have lots of care taken to establish the critical points of the investigation, checking over important details, carefully comparing pieces of information to make sure that they fit together and ruling out other lines of inquiry. This type of storytelling will appeal to those who like to focus on the details of the investigation but may feel a little slow for those seeking action or big reveals. I enjoyed the story but I would accept that it is quite deliberate in its pacing, although I found the sensation of circling ever tighter around the killer to be quite compelling.

I have now read several stories featuring Inspector Poole and I am increasingly coming to appreciate him as a sleuth. He is a detective of the Inspector French school, albeit a little more fallible in his reasoning. At several points in this story we see him make well-reasoned but incorrect guesses about what might have happened, only to see his theories crumble around him. That fallibility only adds to the book’s strong sense of realism and makes me like him all the more.

Wade not only draws Poole well but also creates a convincing group of policemen to fill the station. While there is not a lot of diversity in the conceptions of those characters, I think each is portrayed quite thoughtfully and credibly. Their squabbles and resentments all feel well observed and I had little difficulty in believing that the reactions of those characters were realistic. Similarly those characters beyond the police station are also portrayed thoughtfully and manage to make significant impact, even when they only appear in a single sequence or phase of the novel.

I was also impressed by the rich themes Wade works into this book, some of which feel quite heavy. While I think this book works simply as a really engaging puzzle story, I think the author thoughtfully raises and tackles a number of challenging topics, some of which feel quite modern.

Reading this I was struck by the thought that this book must have been in the works at about the time a national debate was taking place around the future of policing. In 1932 Lord Trenchard, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, had presented his white paper with recommendations to reform policing and in the same year that this book was published the Police College at Hendon accepted its first cohort of trainees. There was some quite strong reaction to these reforms at the time however, prompting some heated debate about the future of policing.

Given the themes of this novel, which discusses issues concerning police recruitment and heirarchies, the tension between the civilian and military mindsets of policing and issues of malpractice, I do wonder if Wade was intending this work to be supportive of the need to professionalize and reform the police. It does seem clear that Wade places much of the blame for the events of this story on Scole and his uncompromising military mindset.

I do continue to find Wade’s discussion of social and political issues to be quite fascinating, in large part because they seem so at odds with the way I often see them described. Typically Wade is portrayed as a conservative, establishment figure which certainly matches his own social background and yet I continue to find his works to offer support for a more progressive view of justice. This book is certainly no exception, discussing the way excessive punishment and a lack of support can lead to greater odds of the individual returning to a life of crime or violence. Add in the discussion of police malpractice and this work does feel quite progressive for its era and at odds with the general picture so often painted of Wade (four years later he wrote an even more pointed work addressing the causes of recidivism, Released for Death, which I have previously reviewed on this blog).

Having discussed the book as a procedural, I do want to take a moment to address the impossible crime elements of the story. Those were after all the reason I was inspired to pick up this Wade.

While I stand by my earlier comment that this book is first and foremost a procedural, the impossible element of the story is quite pleasing and handled pretty well. The physical circumstances of the crime scene are explained well, as is the forensic evidence left at the scene. Though the investigation does hit several dead ends early on, I enjoyed following Poole as he tried to reason through the difference ways someone might have gained access, only to stumble when he realized why that plan did not work. We do drift away from the circumstances of the crime scene in the middle of the novel but I had confidence that there would be a thorough explanation of what happened later on and I was not disappointed.

That explanation may not be particularly dramatic or imaginative but I think it is detailed and convincing. Unfortunately I have to concur with Martin Edwards and J. F. Norris (see his review linked below) that Wade is a little heavy-handed in some of the clues he drops to the murderer’s identity at the start of the novel. I suspect he was assuming that readers would read this as an inverted-style story (or else ROT13: Abg pbafvqre n cbyvprzna orpnhfr bs n gehfg va nhgubevgl) and fail to register their significance. Unfortunately though it did stand out just a little too much for me. Still, even if you recognize the killer it is still satisfying to piece the other parts of this puzzle together.

Overall I was really pleased I made the choice to pick this book for my return to Wade. While its slow and methodical pacing will not suit every reader, the author crafted an interesting scenario with an equally interesting conclusion.

The Verdict: A thoroughly interesting (and thorough) procedural complete with a compelling impossible murder situation.

Second Opinions

J. F. Norris at Pretty Sinister Books also enjoyed this, finding it “fascinating on all levels”. He does raise a good point about the need for a character directory!

Martin Edwards at Do You Write Under Your Own Name describes it as ‘an interesting portrait of Police work’ though he notes that a couple of early clues give the murderer’s identity away too easily.

Nick at The Grandest Game in the World also praises the book, saying it has all of Wade’s merits.