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“I always like a dog, so long as he isn’t spelt backwards.” #guiltycreatures @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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I find myself still playing catch-up with reviews, and the book I want to focus on today is one I read earlier in the month during a really busy time at work. Needless to say, as it’s a lovely collection of Golden Age Crime short stories, it was the perfect read for a time of stress!! British Library Publishing have released a number of crime anthologies, all with a particular theme, and the latest is a fascinating collection called “Guilty Creatures“; subtitled “A Menagerie of Mysteries” it brings together a wonderful range of stories from over the decades, all with animals or birds involved in the action…

The most famous animal participant in classic crime is probably the titular Baskerville Hound in Conan Doyle’s famous story; and of course Holmes also took part in the notorious exchange about the incident of the dog in the night. So it’s no surprise that a Holmes story opens the collection, in the form of “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane“; this is a late outing in the detective’s career, and interestingly is narrated by the great man himself and not his normal chronicler, Dr. Watson. Needless to say, it’s excellent and the conclusion unexpected.

The choice of authors in “Guilty…” is interesting; there are better-known names like Chesterton, Edgar Wallace and Christianna Brand; however there are names which were new to me, such as Headon Hill, Vincent Cornier and Garnett Radcliffe. This made the collection a particularly enjoyable one to read, as I do love to encounter new authors!

The stories range far and wide with all kind of animal taking part, from F. Tennyson Jesse’s “The Green Parrakeet” in which the title bird is the key to uncovering a particularly devious crime. Then there’s Wallace’s “The Man Who Hated Earthworms“, which is a very entertaining tale of a mad scientist; Radcliffe’s “Pit of Screams“, a short, sharp story of a very clever crime; and Josephine Bell’s “Death in a Cage“, which I wouldn’t have worked out in a million years! Her writing is also particularly good, and she captures a sense of place here in much the same way as she did in “The Port of London Murders.” (This is a long quote, but I do find her prose very evocative.)

The fog that November night was thickest in Central and North London. Cars in the Mall, edging blindly about the wide roadway near Buckingham Palace, came to a standstill where the kerbs gave them no help. Queues of traffic formed behind drivers who, mistaking a gap in the pavement for Birdcage Walk, had jammed themselves against the railings. A slow procession moved around Hyde Park. In Knightsbridge the buses went to head to tail, scarcely moving. Further north the fog lay thickly upon Regent’s Park. The canal was invisible even from the bridges over it. No cars coming to the circles of this Park, because the street lamps there are set too far apart to be much use in fog. The unaccustomed absence of traffic joined with the blanket of fog to still all noise. Under the trees the gentle fall of drops from the branches above was startlingly loud.

Chesterton’s “The Oracle of the Dog” was a really interesting and quite dark read; I’ve always found the Father Brown stories a wee bit odd, and in this one the clerical detective managed to solve the puzzle without moving from his armchair; and he also had very strong views about the human tendency to attribute all sorts of powers and emotions to dogs! Brand’s “The Hornet’s Nest” was another treat; featuring her regular detective, Inspector Cockrill, it again flummoxed me till the end, and of the suspects available after the murder of the unpleasant Harold Caxton, I never would have picked the correct one!

Those who are quick in talking are not always quick in listening. Sometimes even their brilliancy produces a sort of stupidity. Father Brown’s friend and companion was a young man with a stream of ideas and stories, an enthusiastic young man named Fiennes, with eager blue eyes and blonde hair that seem to be brushed back, not merely with a hair-brush but with the wind of the world as he rushed through it. But he stopped in the torrent of his talk in a momentary bewilderment before he saw the priest’s very simple meeting.

Inevitably I come to the author I always hope to see in a BLCC anthology, and I wasn’t disappointed here either. H.C. Bailey’s marvellous Reggie Fortune is present in the story “The Yellow Slugs“, which is actually one I’ve read before; it features in a collection I have, assembled by Dorothy L. Sayers, and I wrote about it here. It’s a story in which a pair of youngsters appear to be guilty of heinous crimes, and it takes all Reggie’s skills to get to the truth of the matter which, as I said at the time, is clever, chilling and quite fiendish. Reading the story for a second time, I was impressed all over again; Reggie is a powerful creation, the story is really quite dark, and I know Bailey’s writing is considered an acquired taste, but I rate it very highly. He’s a compelling storyteller, and the Reggie stories I’ve read are some of my favourites.

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

“Guilty Creatures” really hit the spot when I was in need of comfort reading, and crime short stories are often the best for this, as they’re bite sized pieces of soothing reading and wonderfully distracting when real life is too much. This particular collection was a really pleasing one, with an interesting array of authors, and some wonderfully twisty plots. It’s obvious that I’m a huge fan of British Library Crime Classics and I found this one to be a really excellent addition to their range – loved it! 😀

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

#1920Club – a great (and neglected!) detective makes his debut! #reggiefortune #hcbailey

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Call Mr. Fortune by H.C. Bailey

As I’ve mentioned before, whenever we have a reading club week I always check out what Golden Age crime is available to read; it’s a genre I’ve always loved, and I’m finding it the perfect kind of escapism for our current troubled times. And 1920 was obviously a good year for great detectives making their debut; on Monday I covered Hercule Poirot’s first case, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”; and today I want to talk about another sleuth making his first appearance, though one whose popularity has not endured as well as Christie’s – Dr. Reginald Fortune, created by H.C. Bailey.

I’ve waxed lyrical about Reggie before on the Ramblings ad nauseum, but I love his stories. A medical doctor, he’s drawn into crime investigation whilst minding his father’s practice; and he most definitely has a talent for sleuthing! This first collection sees a fledgling Reggie investigating a series of twisty cases, and from the start he has his regular sidekicks, Bell and Lomas, on hand. There are six stories in the collection:

The Archduke’s Tea
The Sleeping Companion
The Nice Girl
The Efficient Assassin
The Hottentot Venus
The Business Minister

Each is an entertaining and clever mystery, though it has to be said that Reggie as a character is still developing; Martin Edwards, editor of the British Library Crime Classics series often includes Reggie stories in his anthologies, and describes Bailey’s style as mannered. There’s certainly an element of Wimsey-esque silly-ass-ness, but already hints of the darker elements to come. Reggie may talks like an idiot at times, but he certainly isn’t one…

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them. That was Dr. Reginald Fortune’s trouble. He had become a specialist, and, as he told anybody who would listen, thought it an absurd thing to be. For he was interested in everything, but not in anything in particular. And it was just this various versatility of mind and taste which had condemned him to be a specialist. Obviously an absurd world.

On to the individual stories. “The Archduke’s Tea” is an entertaining tale about murder, nobles in exile and married love; here, Reggie’s sympathies are established early on as always being on the side of the victim. The second story “The Sleeping Companion” is ingenious, dealing as it does with a murder which seems sinister and clear-cut, but isn’t. In “The Nice Girl“, Reggie investigates on behalf of a nice nurse of his acquaintance whose paramour is accused of murder; but all is not as it seems.

“I’m not an advocate, Lomas. I’m always on the same side. I’m for justice. I’m for the man who’s been wronged.”

The Efficient Assassin” gives us a tantalising glimpse of Reggie’s college past as he investigates the murder of the estranged father of an old school friend. “The Hottentot Venus” is perhaps the weakest entry in the collection, dealing as it does with a disappearing school girl and some unlikely action aboard a yacht.

The last story in the collection (and possibly the longest – I’ll get on to why that’s hard to judge later…) is “The Business Minister“, and I felt it was definitely the best. In a snowy spring, Reggie investigates a damaging political leak and the murder of an unidentified man. Are the two connected? However could the leak have happened? And is everyone in the story exactly what the appear to be? It’s twisty and absorbing, reaching into the past, and also, incidentally, introducing the woman who will become Mrs. Fortune.

It was a clear cold morning of early spring, and Reggie shrank under his rugs. He had no love for east winds. He thought that there should be a close time for murders. He was elaborating a scheme by which the murder and the cricket seasons should be conterminous, when, at about twenty-five miles from London, they passed a horrible building. It was some distance from the high road, perched on the top of a small hill. It was of very red brick and very white stone, so arranged as to suggest the streaky bacon which might be made of a pig who had died in convulsions. It was ornate with the most improbable decorations, colonnades, battlements, a spire or so, oriel windows, a dome, Tudor chimneys, and some wedding-cake furbelows. Reggie writhed and called to his factotum, who was sitting beside the chauffeur. “Sam, who had that nightmare?” “That must be Colney Towers, sir. Mr. Victor Lunt’s place.”

Needless to say, it was a real joy reading these early Reggie Fortune stories and fascinating to see his first appearances, as the stories in the BLCC anthologies have tended to be later ones. The tales have aged remarkable well, although unfortunately in a couple of places there was the use of racial terminology which is of course unacceptable and a great shame. This might have something to do with the fact that it seems almost impossible to get hold of Bailey’s books…

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

Because uncharacteristically for me, I had to resort to reading this as an ebook, a format I really don’t like (and which is why I find it hard to judge the length of stories in relation to each other). I had a quick look at Bailey’s Wikipedia page while I was writing this post and was astonished to see how prolific he was. Not only did he write a mass of crime stories (including many Reggies as well as other sleuths), but he also produced historical/romance fiction and masses of journalism – impressive!

I’ve had this ebook lurking for quite some time now, but I hate the format so much I hadn’t actually read it despite it being Reggie. As far as I’m aware, the only stories currently in print are the ones in the BLCC collections, so it seems if I want to read any more of the adventures of the wonderful Reggie Fortune I shall have to reconcile myself to e-reading. Time to go searching online to see what’s available from Mr. Bailey and Mr. Fortune! 😀

Scientifically dabbling detection! @BL_publishing @medwardsbooks #BLCC

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The Measure of Malice: Scientific Detection Stories
Edited by Martin Edwards

You may have picked up a couple of things on the Ramblings i.e. that I’m very behind with my reviewing and that I got a bit bogged down in November with “Berlin Alexanderplatz”…. The first couple of sections of that were so downbeat that I ended up interspersing them with some Golden Age crime, and my! was it a joy in comparison!!

The book in question is the latest collection of short stories in the British Library Crime Classics series, and it’s a wonderful gathering of works called “The Measure of Malice”; the subtitle “Scientific Detection Stories” makes it clear that we’re to be treated to a varied and marvellous selection of tales where the detecting heroes employ all manner of scientific methods; some of which to have a sounder basis than others… ;D

“Measure…” has been expertly compiled by Martin Edwards (the man really *does* deserve an award for services to detective fiction!) and opens neatly with a classic mystery featuring Holmes and Watson, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”. This is quintessential Conan Doyle with a race to save a wrongly accused man, crimes that stretch into the past and overseas, the introduction of Inspector Lestrade and Holmes at his best; it is the latter’s scientific study of footprints that proves so crucial in this case. Most satisfying!

The book is stuffed with other familiar names; Dorothy L. Sayers‘ short tale, “In The Teeth of the Evidence” has poor Wimsey suffering the dentist and solving a devious crime. Edmund Crispin‘s “Blood Sport” is even shorter, and unusually doesn’t feature his regular detective Fen; instead, Inspector Humbleby traps the killer with a particular kind of specialist knowledge. Some of the sciences are very outre, like the belief that the last thing a person sees as they die is imprinted on their retina; others are ahead of their time; and some of the techniques are a really chilling, such as the method employed in “The Man Who Disappeared”.

I particularly liked the fact that this collection drew on a good number of less well-known authors, and the stories by C. E. Bechhofer Roberts and J.J. Connington were very clever and entertaining. L.T. Meade shares credit for two of her stories with other authors, Robert Eustace and Clifford Halifax; both are clever and atmospheric, and she’s obviously a woman whose work needs tracking down and rediscovering. I was less taken with Ernest Dudley‘s “The Case of the Chemist in the Cupboard”; the story itself was clever and devious, but his detective Doctor Morelle has an insufferably patronising attitude towards his female assistant Miss Frayle (who is obviously quite smart) and I ended up wanting to slap him!

Langdon is one of the outlying suburbs of London, but most of it was built last century. Then it attracted men who are making comfortable, third-class fortunes. The result is that it consists chiefly of genteel villas, each in its own piece of ground, which have tried hard to be unlike one another with contortions of inconvenience. Some of these are still inhabited by the survivors or descendants of those who put them up. Others have been converted by the forces of progress into modern ugliness as blocks of flats offering modern comfort to those who do without babies.

Breakfastless and pallid, Reggie came to the hospital built in the lowest, dampest situation which the hills of Langdon provide.

I’ve left the best for last. Any anthology which features Reggie Fortune, surgeon and Home Office Consultant, is a winner in my mind, and this one contains a wonderful story entitled “The Broken Toad”. I’ve sung the praises of H.C. Bailey and his marvellous detecting creation before on the Ramblings; I love Bailey’s writing, Fortune’s idiosyncratic character and his fierce determination to protect the innocent (particularly children). “Toad” is a pure delight, featuring Reggie’s tolerant wife Joan and his regular sidekick, Lomas of the CID. The mystery itself is quite brilliant; the sudden death of a policeman by poison in the middle of the night is unfathomable, and it takes all of Reggie’s ingenuity and deductive skills to get to the bottom of matters. In doing so, he uncovers a real nest of iniquity and the story is utterly gripping. Really, what’s needed is a concerted campaign to get Reggie republished! 😀

“The Measure of Malice” is a lovely chunky anthology of nearly 350 pages; and yet it took me less time to read than a small section of “Berlin Alexanderplatz”… This is another wonderful collection of Golden Age crime from the British Library, and the books are a real treat for the connoisseur of detective stories (or indeed just the casual reader!) Perfect reading for dark evenings when you’re snuggled up in front of the fire (or in whatever cosy corner you might have) – definitely a book for your Christmas list! 😀

Dipping into Detection

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Yes, I’m afraid there’s been *more* dipping going on at the Ramblings! I think it must be a necessary counterpoint to all the Big Review Books I’m reading at the moment; I’ve obviously felt the need to also read something I can actually *finish* fairly quickly…

“Great Tales of Detection”, an unassuming looking collection (the cover is a bit dull, isn’t it?) from 1936, which was reprinted in 1976, came from a charity shop trawl recently; and I picked it up a) because it was edited by Dorothy L. Sayers and b) because the contents were by lots of lovely favourite crime authors and I think several are stories by them I haven’t read! So it was definitely one to come home with me. From the Oxfam if I recall correctly, and not too pricey (they seem to have had a bit of an overhaul since and the cost of some of their books seems to have suddenly spiked – which is a bit daft, because this has made me put several back on the shelves…)

Anyway, I have dipped, reading a short extract entitled “Was it Murder?” by Robert Louis Stevenson with a very entertaining take on how you actually define murder if the murderer wasn’t present and nothing can be proved! But the other story I found myself glued to was “The Yellow Slugs” a very dark little tale by H.C. Bailey, whom I’ve read before. Bailey’s detective was Reggie Fortune, a doctor with a strong hatred of cruelty, and I first made his acquaintance in the wonderful British Library Crime Classics collection “Capital Crimes” back in 2015. The stories there impressed me, and I did say how keen I was to read more about Reggie. Now, I know there is an e-book lurking somewhere on my tablet, but I always forget about those, so this was the first story I turned to in this anthology.

“The Yellow Slugs” opens with a tragic-sounding case; a teenage boy apparently going off the rails and accused of trying to drown his younger sister. Is the boy insane or just a nasty piece of work? Reggie is called into the case in his role as a doctor, but he soon sees there is more to things than meets the eye and of course starts to investigate.

It’s not a straightforward crime; all the evidence supports the boy being a bad lot, and the pious and upset parents, as well as their genteel lodger, seem blameless. However, an actual murder is discovered and it takes all Reggie’s persistence and ingenuity to get to the truth of the matter – which is clever, chilling and quite fiendish.

I was just as impressed with Bailey’s storytelling as when I first read his Reggie Fortune stories and I really *can’t* understand why his work is out of fashion. The plotting and characterisation are excellent, the scenario dark and compelling and it’s edge of the seat stuff while you desperately will Reggie on to sort things out. Bring back Reggie Fortune stories, I say!

The rest of the book looks to have plenty of treasures too: there are a number of authors here who have been picked up and celebrated by the British Library Crime Classics imprint, including John Rhode, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts and R. Austin Freeman. A number of other familiar names are here, too, from my readings of Detection Club composite works, such as Father Ronald Knox and Milward Kennedy. And of course, there are Agatha and Dorothy…

So a positive cornucopia of delights into which to dip as an alternative to Big and Intense Books: you can look forward to hearing more about the stories in this volume when I need a quick crime break! 🙂

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