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Classic Crime – my second nominaton for Reprint of the Year!

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Following on from last week’s post, where I nominated my first choice for the classic crime Reprint of the Year Award run by the Cross Examining Crime blog, today I’ll feature my second choice – and it’s another British Library Crime Classic! I know that many, many other publishers are doing sterling work reissuing lost classics, but the BL books are the ones I read regularly and love, and so my second nomination inevitably came from that imprint! It was a real favourite, and it’s the anthology “Guilty Creatures”!

Now, I’m a huge admirer of the BL anthologies, which are always so expertly collected by Martin Edwards, so let me explain why this particular one stood out for me. Subtitled “A Menagerie of Mysteries”, the book collects together a wide range of stories and authors and the choice is interesting; there are better-known names like Conan Doyle, 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! Bell’s writing is also particularly good, and she captures vivdly a sense of place.

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.

And here we get to the clincher for me – there is an author I always hope to see in a BLCC anthology, and I wasn’t disappointed here. H.C. Bailey’s marvellous Reggie Fortune is present in “The Yellow Slugs“, a story in which a pair of youngsters appear to be guilty of heinous crimes. It takes all Reggie’s skills to get to the truth of the matter which is clever, chilling and quite fiendish. 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.

“Guilty Creatures” really hits the spot; I find the British Library Crime Classics anthologies to be a particular success, and this collection was a really appealing one, with an interesting array of authors, and some wonderfully twisty plots. This was a collection I couldn’t fault, and the breadth of stories represented here made it a real stand-out in a year with a *lot* of classic crime re-issues. I’m happy to nominate this collection for the award and can’t recommend it highly enough!

Exploring Classic Crime for the Reprint of the Year Award!

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It’s probably pretty obvious to anyone who casts an eye over the Ramblings that I’m inordinately fond of classic crime fiction. As well as the lovely British Library Crime Classic reissues, authors like Edmund Crispin and Agatha Christie turn up on a regular basis. So when I was approached by Kate from the Cross Examining Crime blog to see if was interested in taking part in her Reprint of the Year Award event, I jumped at the chance!

As well as Cross Examining Crime, Kate is also the author of two Golden Age Crime quizbooks as well as purveyor of marvellous Coffee and Crime boxes (I reviewed one here). You can check out her introductory post about the Award here, and basically a lot of bloggers will be nominating their faves, as will commenters on Kate’s blog. I have settled for a couple of books which were real treats for me this year, and today’s nomination is for “The Corpse in the Waxworks” by John Dickson Carr, which I read back in March of this year.

Carr is the king of the locked room mystery, and his usual detective is Dr. Gideon Fell, However, the BL reprints have focused on his Inspector Bencolin stories and these have been a real treat to read! “Corpse…” is the fourth of the five Bencolin novels; subtitled “A Paris Mystery”, it was first published in 1932 and has also been published as “The Waxworks Murder

As with many of Carr’s stories, this one takes place in slightly macabre, melodramatic locked-room mystery territory! The action is centred around the Musee Augustin Waxworks in Paris, and as the story opens Mlle Duchene, a young society woman, has been found dead in the Seine. She was last seen the night before, heading into the Gallery of Horrors at the waxworks; and shortly afterwards another young woman, a friend of Odette Duchene, is found brutally murdered in the waxworks itself. Odette’s fiance is distraught; her friend Claudine Martel’s parents likewise; and Bencolin begins to investigate. He’s joined by his usual sidekick, the young American Jeff Marle, who is also our narrator; and soon the men begin to suspect there is much more to this affair than simple nasty murder.

As in previous books, Bencolin is pitted against an old adversary; in this case, one Etienne Galant, a grotesque and arrogant man who owes part of his unpleasant appearance to a previous run-in with Bencolin. Galant declares he has no connection with any murders, and indeed has a perfect alibi for the time concerned (part of which includes being seen by Bencolin and Marle in a club!) However, behind the seemingly civilised surface of Paris there is the presence of Club of Coloured Masks where the demi-monde spend much of their time, and innocents can easily be lured to depravity. Does Galant have any connection with the club (which, conveniently, is right next to the waxworks)? How did the girls die, and why? Does their other female friend, Gina Prevost, have anything to do with the mystery? And is Mlle Augustin, daughter of the waxworks’ owner, as innocent as she seems? It will take all of Bencolin’s intelligence and Marle’s reckless courage to find out the solution!

British Library Crime Classics are the perfect escapist reading, and the Bencolin mysteries are particularly satisfying. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Carr’s prose and storytelling is wonderfully over-the-top, and he always manages to mix in so many spooky elements that I sometimes get a bit twitchy reading his books at night! There are plenty of creepy bits in this one, and the gruesome waxworks, with their rumours of moving figures in the dark, add to that aspect of the story. There are plenty of impossible crime elements, with locked doors, no exits and obscure motives. There’s also often a sense of real peril; Carr is very good at creating threatening villains and dangerous situations where we really fear for our protagonists’ safety. Jeff Marle, in particular, often seems to be setting himself up for a fall, and has many a narrow escape by the skin of his teeth. As for the mystery and its solution, well that again was very satisfying but not easily solvable, at least for me!

It was very hot in here, though electric fans tore blotches and rifts in the smoke. A blue spotlight played over the tangled shadows of dancers in darkness; it made ghastly a rouged face which appeared, dipped, an then was swallowed by the heaving mass. Moving in rhythm with a long-drawn bray and thud, the orchestra pounded slowly through a tango – that music which rips the bowels from a concertina and then sinks to whisper of brass. Another brassy cry of horns, another rise, stamp, and fall, and the murmuring dancers swished in time, the shadows reeling on the blue-lit walls.

So why have I picked this as my first nomination? Well, I’ve found the Bencolin stories to be a real discovery, as I’d only ever read Carr’s Gideon Fell mysteries. The melodrama, the slightly creepy feelings, the purple prose and the sinister villains are wonderfully distracting. But one of the things I particularly love about JDC’s Bencolin books are the strong sense of place you get. Here, Paris comes alive most vividly, with its grand boulevards and seedy backstreets. In a way reading these books is a form of travel in time *and* place, with the descriptive passages particularly evocative, and this was the perfect distraction and escapism during another difficult pandemic year. Vintage crime is a wonderful coping mechanism at the best of times, and it’s come into its own this year.

As a bonus, the book contains a short story featuring Bencolin, one of four Carr produced. “The Murder in Number Four”, is set aboard a train travelling to Paris, and involves smugglers, murder and Sir John Landervorne, Bencolin’s old friend and colleague. This is a very ingenious locked-room mystery, with an unexpected solution – one which is perhaps slightly unfair, as I don’t think the reader could be expected to get it! Enjoyable, nevertheless, and a welcome addition to the volume.

So I nominate and highly recommend “The Corpse in the Waxworks” for Reprint of the Year; it’s dark, atmospheric, dramatic, clever and wonderfully vivid and would be ideal reading for this time of year too! Check out Kate’s blog for updates re other suggested books and watch this space for my next nomination!

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