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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! 🙂

Golden Age High-Jinks from Masters (and Mistresses!) of the Genre

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Ask a Policeman by members of The Detection Club

Many moons ago, back in my teenage years, I discovered Agatha Christie; in those days pre-Young Adult books, she was an ideal author when making the transition to adult books. I gradually collected all of her works over the years – from jumble sales (happy memories), charity shops and second-hand bookshops. It was lovely to get a complete set, but even more exciting was the appearance in the early 1980s of “The Scoop” and “Behind the Screen” – two short stories written by members of the famous Detection Club, including Christie, Sayers and many others. I still have my trusty paperback (and I did have another of their works, “The Floating Admiral”, which I’m sure should be somewhere on the shelves…)

ask a policeman

However, a recent hunt in one of the local charity shops revealed this volume – “Ask A Policemen”, another group effort, by John Rhode, Helen Simpson, Gladys Mitchell, Anthony Berkeley. Dorothy L. Sayers and Milward Kennedy. As a bonus, the book features a rare essay by Agatha Christie where she discusses her fellow writers and an excellent introduction by the doyen of vintage crime (and current chair of the Detection Club) Martin Edwards.

The plot of “Ask A Policeman” is a dramatic one: unpleasant newspaper tycoon Lord Comstock has many enemies, owing to his papers’ constant attacks on religion and the police force. He’s found murdered in his country home and surprisingly enough has just been visited by a government Chief Whip, an Archbishop and the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard! All have motives and all are therefore suspects, as is Comstock’s slightly dodgy secretary, Mills. Then there is the gardener, the manservant and a mysterious woman seen on the lawn…

A 1932 Dinner of the Detection Club -  from http://margaretperry.org/

A 1932 Dinner of the Detection Club – from http://margaretperry.org/

Because of the suspicions around Scotland Yard, the Home Secretary takes the unusual step of asking four amateurs to investigate: Mrs Adela Bradley, Sir John Saumarez, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Mr Roger Sheringham – of course nobody dares to ask a policeman! All have a wonderful pedigree as detectives, but the storytelling waters become somewhat muddy, as the Detection Club members swap sleuths! Thus Helen Simpson tells her tale through Mrs. Bradley, Gladys Mitchell tackles Sir John Saumarez, Dorothy L. Sayers writes of Roger Sheringham and Anthony Berkeley provides Lord Peter Wimsey’s investigations. Milward Kennedy and John Rhode set the scene and round up the story at the end, while the poor addled reader tries to work out whodunnit!

AAP is a wonderfully enjoyable read; cleverly conceived and written, full of red herrings, with plenty of humour and sly little digs at the various detectives and their foibles. The four central writers have great fun playing with each others’ characters and I felt that they brilliantly caught the voice of the original authors (although I can’t tell about Sir John as I haven’t read any of Helen Simpson’s work). The sleuths all have their usual milieu and sidekicks (barrister son Ferdinand for Mrs. Bradley; Inspector Parker and Bunter for Wimsey) and all their little quirks are present, but perhaps exaggerated a little. The mystery was complex and each detective came up with a different and entirely credible solution! Milward Kennedy revealed the real answer to the puzzle, and admitted that he really didn’t play fair with the reader!

As for Christie’s essay, it’s quite a revealing piece of work. Initially written to be translated into Russian to introduce British crime writers to that country, the fact that it was never likely to be read by any of the other writers allowed Christie to be unguarded in her comments about her peers. It’s nice to know she rates Sayers so highly!

All in all, AAP was an excellent read, and I’m starting to think that Martin Edwards deserves a knighthood for services rendered to Golden Age crime, what with his British Library Crime Classics involvement and this. And I believe there is another volume, “Six Against The Yard”, lurking out there somewhere – I really *must* track down a copy…. 🙂

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