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Nautical mysteries and watery graves @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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Deep Waters: Mysteries on the Waves – Edited by Martin Edwards

My go-to books for stressy times have in recent years become the British Library Crime Classics; and so being back at work and being busy meant that I was naturally very keen to reach for one of these lovely volumes! I’ve read several rather wonderful anthologies of stories, edited by the redoubtable Martin Edwards, and the most recent one collects together a marvellous of array of short stories involving water. And bearing in mind that that can mean anything from an ornamental pond to the sea, there certainly is a lot of scope for murder, mayhem and mystery involving the wet stuff!

Another lovely British Library Crime Classic – isn’t the cover wonderful?

Edwards provides a useful introduction, looking back over watery crime writing over the years, as well as providing a short piece on the author of each story. The collection launches (ahem) with a Sherlock Holmes yarn, “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott“; this is a notable story in the Holmes canon, as it’s one in which the Great Detective reveals something of his past (as well as being very clever and entertaining). The final story is a Michael Innes ‘Appleby’ story first published in 1975. And in between there is an excellent selection of writers, from better known names like C.S. Forester, Edmund Crispin and E.W. Hornung, to more obscure authors like R. Austin Freeman and Josephine Bell, and relative unknowns such as Kem Bennett. I was particularly happy to see one of H.C. Bailey’s ‘Reggie Fortune’ stories included, as he’s a relatively recent discover for me and I absolutely love him. Both author and character are very individual and idiosyncratic, and I imagine Bailey’s writing is not necessarily to everyone’s taste. But I think his stories are clever and wonderfully written, and I do wish more were available.

Well – it’s hard with short story collections, because I can never decide to pick favourites or not. And this (like previous collections) is so good that there isn’t actually a dud in there. However, I’ll mention a few which really struck me. “The Echo of a Mutiny” by R. Austin Freeman was a longer entry in the book, and featured his regular detective Dr. Thorndyke, as well as an atmospheric lighthouse setting and a clever solution. Gwyn Evans’ “The Pool of Secrets” had some wonderfully outrΓ© elements and a fiendish plot. “The Turning of the Tide“, a mystery by C.S. Forester (better known perhaps for the Hornblower series), was short, sharp and shocking. And “The Swimming Pool“, the Reggie Fortune story, is really quite dark and remarkably ingenious.

H.C. Bailey, creator of Reggie Fortune – George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

But I could really pick out any of the stories to commend, as they’re each one of them an entertaining and enjoyable read, with clever detectives and perplexing puzzles. These are such wonderfully twisty tales where, as well as the sleuth’s usual brilliant methods of deduction, knowledge of such arcane subjects as the tides, marine life and types of tobacco can help solve the mystery. There really is such an appetite for Golden Age crime fiction nowadays; and I’m not sure whether it’s just that we’re looking for escapism from the madness of the modern day, or the reassurance of a world where things may get turned upside down but an all-seeing, all-knowing detective can put life back together again and normality will return. Whatever it is, for me the British Library Crime Classics are the perfect distraction from the craziness of daily life; and this particular collection is definitely an outstanding entry in their catalogue.

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

#1944club – The pure genius of Edmund Crispin

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The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin

Yes, I *do* possess three copies of this book…

That might seem like a hyperbolic heading, but I’ve read and returned to the work of Edmund Crispin many times over the years; each time I’ve become more convinced of that genius and it’s a statement by which I’m prepared to stand! πŸ™‚ I’ve written about his work on the Ramblings before – back in 2012 I revisited one of his novels, and more recently some of his shorter works earlier this year; however, the fact that his first novel “The Case of the Gilded Fly” was published in 1944 gave me the perfect excuse to pick up another Crispin and wallow in the glory of his writing…

‘I’m a very good detective myself… in fact I’m the only literary critic turned detective in the whole of fiction.’

Crispin’s real name was Bruce Montgomery (he adopted his pseudonym from a character in Michael Innes’s book Hamlet, Revenge!); and under that name he was a successful musician and composer, producing everything from choral works to themes and scores for the Carry On films amongst others. He also wrote many film screenplays; but to my mind his greatest achievement was the creation of his detective, Gervase Fen.

Fen (who merits his own Wikipedia page) is an unlikely detective; an Oxford don, often described as lanky, cheerful and ruddy faced with some rather recalcitrant hair, he has a wife Dolly and son John, and when we make his first acquaintance in this book he’s already established as something of a sleuth. As Professor of English Language and Literature at the fictional St. Christopher’s College you would think he had enough to do; but his eternally restless mind seems unable to leave an unsolved mystery alone (he’s often lumbered with impossible or locked room crimes), and “Gilded Fly…” does seem essentially insoluble….

Although published in 1944, the book is set in 1940, and playwright Robert Warner has decided to launch his new work in repertory in Oxford rather than on the London stage. So he and an assorted cast of characters (both from his play and in the book!) decamp to the university city bringing with them all their dramas and issues. Central to the anguish is Yseut Haskell, a sulky, self-obsessed nasty piece of work attempting to make her way as an actress. Yseut causes havoc all around her, particularly involving a young organist who’s in love with her, the women in love with *him*, Warner himself who’d had a previous fling with Yseut, Warner’s mistress Rachel Ward – well, you get the picture. The situation is volatile, to say the least….

Needless to say, Yseut is murdered and in a fashion that makes it seem to be a real locked-room style mystery. No-one can have got into the room. No-one can have got close enough to have shot her without her knowing. There is no weapon. So who did it, how and why? (The latter may seem to be the simplest one to answer, but any number of the characters had a very good motive to put Yseut out of action, so the final solution is actually ingenious).

‘There are only a few relevant questions to be asked, and the whole thing’s over. Yet they have to be submerged in a mass of irrelevant – stuff.’ He pronounced the word with a disgust intensified by his inability to think of a better one. ‘That’s all very well in a detective novel,. where it has to be put in to camouflage the significant things…’

Fen, of course, works out how it was done and why whom quite early on, but has no real proof and so he therefore spends much of the book annoying the rest of the characters! There is also plenty of moral agitation about whether he should actually intervene when the police have decided it was suicide, since Yseut was nothing but bad. Complications abound in the form of a ghostly legend; Fen spars with the local Chief Superintendent, Sir Richard Freeman, who is as much inclined to be a literary critic as Fen is a detective; various characters fall in and out of love; an ancient and deaf don called Wilkes (who will turn up in later books) provides light relief; and the whole book is a glorious, funny, clever, scary and thought-provoking work. As you can tell, I loved it…!

The back of a couple of my old Penguins with Crispin pix and interesting facts

I could say so much about the skill of Crispin’s writing; the opening chapter alone offers a masterclass example of how to start a crime novel, with a sequence of paragraphs introducing each of the characters as they travel by train to Oxford. The setting is of course important, and brilliantly conjured; and the book is laced with humour, so much so that I was regularly laughing out loud because it was so very, very funny. There is a surprising frankness in the book (although not in the graphic sense) in the discussion of sex as a motivating factor and an honesty in dealing with love affairs, and this may be because the book was written and published during WW2 when peacetime morality and restrictions were known to have loosened. As a consequence, there’s a darkness in the story, from the events of the ghost story to the motivations and emotions of the various characters. There’s also the bizarre in a very funny, yet alarming cameo appearance of an enclosure of monkeys – about which I will say no more. You just have to read this!

The book bristles with literary allusions; and one of the things I love most about the Fen books is the way Crispin plays with the reader and the genre. He’s notorious for his in jokes and for regularly breaking the fourth wall; an early reference to a bored young pianist called Bruce in the orchestra pit of the theatre is surely a self-deprecating acknowledgement of Crispin’s other career; and Fen’s exclamation of “Heaven grant Gideon Fell never becomes privy to my lunacy; I should never hear the end of it” is a knowing nod to the king of locked room mysteries. I could of course pick out many more!

Every time I return to the Gervase Fen stories I realise why I was so bowled over when I first read them; and I think that I really should sit down and read them all again. It’s hard to believe “Gilded Fly…” was the first, as Fen springs onto the page so fully formed you have to remind yourself he’s only making his debut. I’m so glad the #1944Club sent me back to Crispin’s work; and as this book is the first in the series, I’m awfully tempted to make a winter project of re-reading all of his books in order…. πŸ˜‰

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As an aside, when digging in the stacks to find my Crispins, I realised that I actually possess three copies of “Gilded Fly…” (as you can see in the photo at the top of this post). The old Penguin I’ve had for decades (like all of my old Crispin Penguins). And it’s an intriguing edition as it claims to have been published in 1937 not 1944 as the other versions do – which is patently impossible as there wasn’t a war yet in 1937….

Anyway, as you can see from my pile of Crispins I have all of his works, and the two modern “Gilded Fly…” editions may have to go (one came from ex library stock and one was gifted by BFF J. at some point). I may give these away if anyone is interested enough – give me a shout! πŸ™‚

But anyway – I have no excuse not to re-read, now do I???

Cryptic challenges

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Beware of the Trains by Edmund Crispin

After wearing myself out with the #1977club, I was sorely in need of something a bit relaxing and comforting; and my go-to type of book in situations like that is always Golden Age crime. It’s not as if I don’t have plenty to choose from at the moment, but I was nudged in the direction of this collection of short stories by the excellent post at The Reader is Warned Blog.

I thought I had an interesting hardback version – alas, I have an old paperback with crispy pages…..

Edmund Crispin has been a long-time favourite of mine, and I’ve written about him on the Ramblings before. His detective stories, featuring the Oxford Don Gervase Fen as the sleuth, are gems: funny, entertaining, clever and readable, they often push the boundaries and break the fourth wall, which I love – early meta-detective fiction maybe! πŸ™‚ I own, and have read, all of his books but it must be decades since I read this collection; and it seemed like the perfect thing to pick up at the moment.

And this is a particularly interesting collection, because the premise with all of these stories is that they are playing fair; i.e. in theory, the reader has all the information the detective has and should be able to solve the puzzle by him or herself! I must admit that I don’t mind being bamboozled – I quite enjoy the author pulling the wool over my eyes – but conversely I *do* quite like the odd occasion I work the plot out.

Anyway, as with most collections of short stories, it’s hard to know quite how much detail to go into; I think I’ll just mention a few of my favourites! The title story is a particularly striking one, which I believe has been anthologised, and the puzzle is the murder of a train driver with the culprit seemingly vanishing into thin air. A Pot of Paint seems breathtakingly simple when the solution to who murdered a householder painting his fence is revealed; but I challenge most readers to come up with the solution! The Name on the Window is a kind of locked room mystery concerning a body found in a summer house with only one way in or out and a single set of footprints which could not have been tampered with in any way. And in The Golden Mean, a short, sharp tale of a very nasty family member, Fen is rattled by meeting with a character who embodies pure evil.

Thinking about it, these tales (often quite brief) are all what you might call impossible crimes and the puzzle element is strong. However, Crispin’s writing is such a joy; I love the humour he laces his stories with, and he’s brilliant at conjuring atmosphere and character efficiently in works that are in many ways minimalist. Fen is often accompanied by Inspector Humbleby, who’s as much of a maverick in the police force as is Fen in the University establishment, and they make a perfect Holmes and Watson team with some wonderful repartee.

Intriguingly, the last two stories in the collection are ones which *don’t* feature Fen, and the final one, Deadlock, is a particularly dark and memorable tale. Despite Crispin’s surface levity with Fen and his various sidekicks, he’s not averse to tackling more downbeat settings or situations, and this tale, set on a remote kind of estuary, was very affecting. Unusually, the story is narrated from the viewpoint of a character who was a teenager at the time of the events; and it’s a little different in feel from Crispin’s more familiar Fen stories.

…the second porter, who was very old indeed … appeared to be temperamentally subject to that vehement, unfocussed rage which one associates with men who are trying to give up smoking.

One of the joys of reading Edmund Crispin, though, is the humour and the in-jokes, and there are plenty of these. The above description of a character from the title story is a perfect example of the kind of thing you get when reading a Fen story, and in another story Crispin manages to drop in reference to a fellow practitioner:

Gideon Fell once gave a very brilliant lecture on The Locked-Room Problem in connection with that business of the Hollow Man….

However, he’s also wonderful at capturing atmosphere and I make no apologies for quoting at length this paragraph that vividly brings to life post-Festival of Britain London:

The gathering darkness was accentuated by a fog which had appeared dispiritedly at about tea-time. Looking across the river, you could no longer make out the half-demolished Festival buildings on the far side; and although October was still young, the sooty trees on the Embankment had already surrendered their stoic green to the first spears of the cold, and there were few homekeeping folk hardy enough to resist the temptation of a fire. Presently, to a servile nation-wide juggling with clocks, Summer Time would officially end. In the meanwhile, it seemed that Nature’s edict had anticipated Parliament’s by a matter of several days; so that more than one belated office-worker, scurrying to catch his bus in Whitehall or the Strand, shivered a little and hunched his shoulders, as he met the cold vapour creeping into London from the Thames…

I’m so glad I chose to pick up this collection at this moment and refresh my love of Crispin and Fen. If I was recommending a book of theirs to start with, I would probably suggest “The Moving Toyshop”, which I think seems to be generally regarded as his masterpiece. However, if you want some short, fiendish and funny puzzles this is a great place to go. I have to agree with Dan at The Reader is Warned that Crispin is vastly underrated as a crime writer; if you have any interest in Golden Age crime (or indeed just good writing generally) you really should read him! πŸ™‚

…in which the Birthday Fairy and Santa deliver – big time…

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Well, I did promise book pictures, didn’t I? And so here they come… I happen to be blessed (or cursed) with having a birthday quite close to Christmas so the gifts double up at this time of year, and despite everyone’s best intentions, there are always books!

First off, some modest arrivals for my birthday:

These lovelies came from OH and my BFF J. (amazingly, the Offspring managed to avoid books altogether for the birthday!)

The Peirene title is from J. and she very cleverly managed to pick the one I probably most want to read from their list! OH was also very clever in that he managed to find a BLCC I haven’t got or read, and also a book (the Godwin) which ties in with my current interest in things with a sort of link to the French Revolution (plus it has a *wonderful* David self-portrait on the cover). The crossword book? I love a crossword – I kid myself it keeps my brain alert…

As for Christmas… well, here are the bookish arrivals…!

First up, I always take part in the LibraryThing Virago Group Secret Santa and this year my books came courtesy of the lovely Simon at Stuck in a Book and these are they:

Simon knows that we share a love of a certain kind of writing and so picked some wonderful books I don’t have by A.A. Milne, Stephen Leacock and Saki – I’ve already been dipping and giggling… And it wouldn’t be a gift from Simon if there wasn’t a title in there by his beloved Ivy Compton-Burnett! I confess to owning several titles but not having plucked up the courage to read one yet – and fortunately I didn’t have this one, which is a beautiful edition, so maybe this should be where I start with Ivy… πŸ˜‰

Next up a few treats from J. She reminded me when we met up recently that it was actually 35 years since we first met (gulp!) and she knows me and my obsessions and my reading habits well. These were wonderful bookish choices – an Edmund Crispin classic crime novel (can’t go wrong with Gervase Fen), a Sacheverell Sitwell set in Russia, and a marvellous sounding book of pastiches which has already had me giggling – these humorous books are obviously putting the merry in Christmas this year!

The Offspring decided Christmas was the time for books for me (as well as some other lovely gifts) and the above was the result – “The Futurist Cookbook” was from Youngest, the Plath letters (squeeeee!) from Middle and “The Story of Art” plus the Mieville from Eldest. Very excited about these and wanting to read them all at once…. πŸ™‚

Finally, not to be left out, OH produced these treats! Yes, *another* BLCC I don’t have, a fascinating sounding book on Chekhov and a really lovely book on Surrealist art. The latter is particularly striking and has a plate of the most marvellous Magritte painting which I hadn’t seen before and I can’t stop looking at:

It’s called “The Empire of Lights” and it’s stunning and this doesn’t do it justice…

So, I have been very blessed this Christmas – thank you all my lovely gift-giving friends and family! And once I shake off this head cold I’ve also been blessed with, I really need to get reading… πŸ™‚

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