It’s funny how I reach for these lovely short crime tales when I’ve finished a looooong and involving book! But I’ve finally finished the second book of Proust, and while I’m still musing on this and what I want to say about it, I’ve been dipping back into “The Dead Witness” for some light relief!

The Mysterious Human Leg – James McGovan

This was a short and simple police procedural tale set in Edinburgh. McGovan was the pseudonym of a violinist, William Honeyman, and the story was ok, though nothing to set the world alight. A severed human leg is found, and our detective tracks down the erstwhile owner of the leg and the severer (if there is such a word!) The tale is quite atmospheric, capturing the feel of old Edinburgh and its less salubrious surroundings. Enjoyable, but not necessarily a standout.

Gaboriau

Gaboriau

The Little Old Man of Batignolles – Gaboriau

It’s clear from the start that we’re on a different level here with this long short story from an acknowledged master of the genre, Emile Gaboriau. Wikipedia says of him: Émile Gaboriau (November 9, 1832 – September 28, 1873), was a French writer, novelist, and journalist, and a pioneer of detective fiction – and he’s probably best known for his brilliant detective M. Lecoq, who featured in several novels. His works were very popular, and apparently influenced the creation of Sherlock Holmes!

Initially, I was a little surprised that Michael Sims hadn’t chosen one of the Gaboriau stories to feature here, instead providing this story which puts in the spotlight the detective Mechinet and his curious neighbour M. Godeuil, a health officer. The pair serve as a proto Holmes and Watson, investigating the mysterious death of the little old man of the title. Found dead in his lodging, he has apparently written out part of the murderer’s name in his own blood and the case seems open and shut. But neither one of the detecting duo is satisfied, and they begin to investigate.

This story was definitely a cut above the rest – excellent plotting and characterisation, some satisfying twists and turns, plenty of detecting procedure and lots of atmosphere. There is an interesting additional element in the form of the detective’s wife, a strong character in her own right and given an important role in the story.

It’s a long while since I read any Gaboriau crime (I think I had several volumes in the 1980s!) but I’m reminded why I regarded him so highly. This is classic crime writing – clever, interesting and absorbing – and it’s one of the best of the collection so far!