After the mammoth tome which is the doorstep that is “The Idiot”, I confess I felt rather in need of something a little shorter and punchier. Re-enter “The Dead Witness” with its collection of classic crime shorts – just right to clear the book hangover! I found myself nipping through three stories one after the other, which quite surprised me – so I thought I’d round them up here.

Edgar Allan Poe – The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841)

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“Morgue” is of course considered the first ‘proper’ detective story, and despite its being preceded by “The Secret Cell”, I do agree with Michael Sims, the editor of this anthology, that Poe still deserves the title. “Cell” had none of the characteristics that Poe laid down and everyone else copied: a unique detective, with unusual characteristics, and a way of deducing facts no-one else could’ an apparently insoluble murder; the first locked room mystery; the baffled and amazed sidekick; bumbling policemen who couldn’t solve the crime. C. August Dupin is the detective, sharing rooms with a friend and exercising his brain cells (are they little and grey?) to such an extent that he can even break into his friend’s train of thought and predict exactly what he is going to say. When a mother and daughter are found brutally slain, in unusual circumstances, in the Rue Morgue it takes Dupin to solve the mystery. I shall say *nothing* about the crime or the solution, because the only downside with re-reading this story is that once you know the solution you won’t forget it, and in many ways it’s difficult to re-read! However, if you do plan to read it, please be careful of the edition you choose – I’ve seen several with cover pictures that totally give the game away…. That’s by the by, anyway. All that needs to be said is that Poe was a bit of a genius and we crime story fanciers have a lot to thank him for!

Charles Dickens – On Duty with Inspector Field (1851)

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This, I confess, I found to be a bit of an oddity. More essay than story, “Field” tells an impressionistic tale of Dickens’ trip out into the worst areas of London with the real Inspector Field, seeing how the underbelly of the city’s occupants had to live. Mixing with all kinds of criminals, accompanied at all times by police officers, Dickens shows us the downside of Victorian society – poverty, starvation, crime and prostitution. It’s a beautifully written piece, full of atmosphere and poignant observation. But I couldn’t quite work out why it was here; to be honest, I would have preferred an extract from “Bleak House” showing Inspector Bucket in action! (I believe the latter was actually based on Field). Ah well – on to the next story.

Wilkie Collins – The Diary of Anne Rodway (1856)

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Collins is of course another important progenitor of the detective story, in particular with “The Moonstone”, considered the first detective novel in the English language and featuring Sergeant Cuff. So it’s not unusual to find him also working in this vein in short stories, and “Rodway” is an early example of telling a story in the diary form and also a female doing the investigation. Anne Rodway is poor; living in cheap lodgings, she ekes out a living sewing whilst waiting for her fiance to return from abroad where he is attempting to earn enough for them to marry. Her best friend Mary is also poor, but beautiful, and the two girls are like sisters. So when Mary is attacked and dies, it is almost more than Anne can bear. The police are convinced she simply fell and banged her head, but Anne is not so sure and when she finds a ‘clew’ (I *love* that spelling!) in form the form of the torn off end of a cravat, gripped in dead Mary’s hand, she determines to find out the truth. The story of her investigations, against the background of poverty in the city, is poignant and moving – Collins really can tell a wonderful tale, and in some ways is more readable than Dickens, who does tend to lapse into extravagances of language at times! I’ve only read “The Moonstone” and “The Woman in White” of Collins’ work, and I really think I need to read more!

So that’s another three tales from “The Dead Witness” – my only quibble with the book so far would be the minor one that the compiler hasn’t put the publication date next to the title of each story. That would have been useful, in my view!

 

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