Though I have been something of a skeptic when it comes to short crime fiction in the past these British Library anthologies curated by Martin Edwards have helped turn me around on the possibilities of the form. Over the past year I bought most of these collections and have been slowly working through them.
Murder at the Manor takes the iconic country house setting as its focus, presenting us with sixteen tales from authors from a variety of backgrounds and styles. In some cases however the setting plays little role in the story itself and few convey any real sense of those impressive historic homes.
The result is a collection that can feel a little uneven compared to some of the others in the range. A few stories such as The Problem of Dead Wood Hall and The Long Shot left me quite unimpressed. There are some stories though that I can strongly recommend that make this worth dipping into.
Several of the most memorable tales are inverted crime stories such as W. W. Jacobs’ The Well which features some truly horrific moments and James Hilton’s The Perfect Plan which builds to a thrilling conclusion. Those who prefer lighter mysteries are likely to enjoy E. V. Knox’s very amusing story The Murder at the Towers which is consistently amusing, parodying the country house mystery very effectively.
The highlight of the collection is an incredibly tense thriller by Ethel Lina White, An Unlocked Window. In that tale a group of nurses have locked themselves in a house while the Doctor is away fetching supplies because there is a serial killer who has been targeting nurses as his victims. The moment in which the protagonist realizes that they have left a window unlocked is really chilling but it is topped by a superb reveal that pushes the story into a thrilling conclusion. While this is not normally my type of read, I think it is done really well and it is likely to stay with me for a while.
Though I do feel that the stories in this collection are less consistent than some of the other volumes the British Library have published, stories like these certainly make this worth dipping into. I would suggest though starting with Resorting to Murder or The Long Arm of the Law, both of which I rate highly, unless the subject matter of this volume particularly appeals.
Life 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.
Having mentioned last week that I can struggle to enjoy short mystery fiction, was I asking for trouble by picking up one of the British Library Crime Classics compilations? Perhaps, though given one of the most iconic Christmas mystery stories is barely twenty pages long I think this is exactly the sort of thing I need to be reading.
This collection is edited by Martin Edwards and comprises eleven stories. One of those stories, Mr. Cork’s Secret, is split within the book to mirror how it was originally published – with the mystery published inviting readers to send in solutions and the answer following some time later.
There is a short introductory essay and then each story is prefaced with a brief biographical note about the writer placing that work in context. This is not only useful background for the work, it also gave me a few suggestions for other books that may be of interest by some of the contributing authors.
Overall, I felt that the standard of story in this collection was very high and it begins on a high note with Fergus Hume’s The Ghost’s Touch. This is an entertaining story which is narrated by a Doctor who has been invited to a country home to stay for Christmas. The owner of the house has also invited his Australian cousin to visit and regales them with the story of how the Blue Room became haunted and how those who stay there and wake up marked with a red touch die shortly afterwards. The reader will naturally wonder if events will repeat themselves?
Admittedly the solution to Hume’s story will be fairly obvious but I felt that this was a great example of how a simple idea, told well can be very effective.
The second story, Edgar Wallace’s The Chopham Affair, was my least favorite of the collection. It involves a blackmailer being discovered dead in a car next to a car thief. Fortunately it is followed by Margery Allingham’s The Man with the Sack which sees Mr. Campion interrupting a rather unusual crime during a Christmas party. It all makes for a fun adventure.
S. C. Roberts’ Christmas Eve immediately stands out as it is formatted as a stage play. The piece is a rather fun Holmes pastiche in which a woman comes to see Holmes to assist in the recovery of her employer’s stolen necklace. While the crime is not the most ingenious, I enjoyed it and felt it was quite entertaining.
Victor Gunn’s Death in December was one of the two stories I enjoyed most in this collection. Once again we have a story that echoes the traditional Christmas ghost story when a young man locks himself in a supposedly haunted room and sees a dead body that vanishes when the other guests at the house come to see what has terrified him.
Gunn packs a lot of incident into his story, making this feel like one of the more substantial stories in the collection. Once again, the solution to what is going on may not surprise but I enjoyed the two investigators, particularly the gruff Chief Inspector Bill “Ironsides” Cromwell.
Christopher Bush’s Murder at Christmas investigates the murder of a financial swindler in a small village. The story doesn’t overstay its welcome which I appreciated but I wasn’t wowed by the solution. I might suggest though that this reflects that it simply isn’t as good as the stories around it, rather than actually being disappointing.
Off the Tiles by Ianthe Jerrold features a suspicious death when a woman falls while walking along the guttering between houses. We are told that this is perfectly safe in normal circumstances and the victim’s sister insists that this is no accident. I wasn’t enormously drawn in by the premise for this one but I liked its resolution quite a bit.
Mr. Cork’s Secret by MacDonald Hastings was my other favorite story in this collection. As I mentioned in the opening of this review, this story was intentionally split in two to accommodate a competition that its publisher ran with a cash prize being offered to a lucky reader who could guess the answer to a question at the end.
That answer is not all that difficult to come by as the reader can stay ahead of the character in the sleuth role. I felt the story was appealing though with some entertaining characters, particularly the hotel manager and Mr. Cork himself.
The Santa Claus Club by Julian Symons is a very short story featuring a murder taking place at a charity dinner party. The victim had been warned to expect an attack but initially it is far from clear how they could have been killed. While it embraces the Christmas theme more effectively than some of the other stories in the collection, the mystery is one of those ones where the reader has little they can deduce while the action isn’t exciting enough to make for an effective adventure.
Michael Gilbert’s Deep and Crisp and Even felt more successful although it arguably feels a little pointless. The story, which once again feels very short, involves a group of carollers arriving at a house and realizing after they left that there was something strange about their visit. That realization is really pretty good but the story doesn’t follow through at all, making you wonder why you bothered.
The final story in the collection, Josephine Bell’s The Carol Singers, is a very depressing and, for me, upsetting story about an elderly woman who is alone for the holidays being assaulted and killed in her home during Christmas. That sequence is all rather brutal but quite effective. The foray into social realism turns out to be quite brief however as an aspect of the solution to what took place, while logical, struck me as both ridiculous and out of keeping with what had come before it. Overall I’d file this one away as intriguing but flawed.
As a collection I felt this was really quite entertaining and I appreciated the good mix of stories. While not all of them could be called completely successful, almost all are at least interesting and I found a few authors whose work I am keen to explore further.