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The Return of Vintage Crime Shorts!

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Yes, I have got a little behind with my reading of the short pieces collected in “Dead Witness”, but they were the ideal thing recently when I was between books and unsure of what I was actually going to read next. And the four tales I read were really varied – quite fascinating how different the short story can be.

Though in truth, they’re not all short stories, as the first piece is an extract from novel – the one in which we meet arguably the most famous detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes!

The Science of Deduction by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle (an extract from A Study in Scarlet)

Reading Sherlock Holmes nowadays is never going to be the same experience as his first readers; so much of his image has permeated our culture that even if you’re not a fan, you know who Holmes is. And if I’m honest, Holmes didn’t really catch fire until the first short stories started appearing. Nevertheless, editor Michael Sims has decided to feature the initial meeting between Holmes and Watson, which sees them setting up in Baker Street and also Holmes establishing his character and early signs of his deductive powers, so from that point of view it’s a good choice.

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It’s quite obvious that we’re in the presence of a great storyteller and great character, even in this early work, and I must admit that reading this had the effect of making me want to pick up my Sherlock Holmes short story collections and get lost in the world of Victorian crime. Truly, Holmes is the definitive detective!

The Whitechapel Mystery by Anonymous

This section is a whole different kettle of fish, as they say. It consists of a selection of rather gruesome newspaper reports of the Ripper cases which were actually so graphic that I ended up skipping over some of the descriptions! It’s quite an eye-opener to see how the gutter press hasn’t changed that much, although this was probably one of my least favourite shorts in the book.

The Assassin’s Natal Autograph by Mark Twain

Mark Twain is of course best for writing about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but this extract comes from his work “Pudd’nhead Wilson”. The featured story concerns a court case and has a very early exposition of the science of fingerprinting which proves a clincher in case of proving guilt. Twain was ahead of his time as this was first published in 1894, well in advance of the first use of fingerprint evidence in 1902. The extract was excellent, but should have come with a spoiler alert if you were thinking of reading the book…

Murder at Troyte’s Hall by C.L. Pirkis

The final story of the batch was a much more substantial and satisfying tale, write by Catherine Pirkis who was the first woman writer to create a woman detective – Loveday Brooke. Employed by an agency who can see the sense in having one of their number who can easily infiltrate big houses and the like, Loveday is sent to Troyte’s Hall to investigate the murder of old Sandy, the Cravens’ family retainer who lives in the lodge. The family itself is an odd one, with a reclusive patriarchal figure who spends all his time working, a daughter who has conveniently gone off to stay with a friend and a suspicious son who could well be the guilty party. Needless to say, Loveday manages to unravel things before the local policemen, although putting herself in danger in the process. But this is great stuff with proper detecting and quite exciting though maybe a little predictable!

I’m now about two-thirds of the way through this book and it’s ideal for dipping into when you want a classic crime fix but haven’t got the time to invest in a novel – great stuff!!

Vintage Crime Shorts – Another Pair of Mysteries

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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.

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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!

Vintage Crime Shorts: Another Duo of Tales

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Time for a little more vintage crime – because I must confess that I have several book hangovers at the moment and can’t really settle to anything of substance! However, murder mysteries are always good as mental palate cleansers!! I’m gradually reading my way through the lovely “Dead Witness” collection and this time round there were two tales – Arrested on Suspicion by Andrew Forrester Jr. (1864), and the title story, The Dead Witness: or, The Bush Waterhole – W.W. (Mary Fortune) (1866).

These stories were very different from each other and of the two, I definitely preferred the second. Forrester’s tale is narrated by John Pendrath, who lives with his sister Annie. After a new lodger moves into their building, with a slightly dubious air about her, John and Annie notice she has a visitor (her daughter?) who might be mistaken for Annie. Then his sister is arrested for apparently being a thief and it is left to John to investigate. To be honest, I found the story somewhat plodding, with our very precise and pedantic detective constantly reminding us he was following in the footsteps of Poe. Much of the plot was taken up with him trying to recreate the methods employed in The Purloined Letter to find a missing communication and the rest was about decrypting cyphers, and honestly just a little dull. It was enjoyable but one of the weakest entries so far.

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However, the title story was much, much better and had a fascinating background. Mary Fortune was the first woman to write detective stories, and her is set in the Australian outback. A young photographer has gone missing and the narrator, a detective called Brooke, goes off to the bush to investigate. Here he runs across traces of foul play and sets about tracking down the murderer and his prey. The story was quite innovative, with excellent scene-setting and good descriptions. Fortune captured the strangeness of the outback well, and the story is atmospheric and quite shocking at some points. Fortune by all accounts had quite a lively life, ending up in jail for vagrancy and alcoholism – but she certainly made a large contribution to the detective genre!

I’m enjoying reading my way through these early tales of crime and investigation – highly recommended for any classic crime fan!

Vintage Crime Shorts: “You are not human, Monsieur D’Artagnan” by Dumas

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These lovely short pieces are proving just right to pop into when I need a quick crime fix! The latest is an another slight oddity, in the form of an extract from “The Vicomte de Bragelonne” by Alexandre Dumas – one of his series of books about the adventures of the Musketeers, featuring that most famous of them all, D’Artagnan.

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It’s an engaging little piece, in which the King is puzzled by the traces of an apparent duel, plus a dead horse – when duelling is forbidden. He commands D’Artagnan to go the site and bring back his findings, which the museketeer does. The ensuing dialogue, whereby the intrepid investigator reconstructs the events that have taken place, giving proofs and evidence, is worthy of anything Holmes or Poirot ever produced! It’s a short extract, but certainly a valid one, and it proves how the basic tenets of detection were in place so early on. D’Artagnan is confident and knowledgeable, the Kind is suitably impressed and the template for all future detectives showing off their skills is beautifully displayed! A fun addition to the genre (and it’s put me in the mood for reading some Dumas!)

Vintage Crime Shorts – The Secret Cell by William E. Burton

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And here goes with my first excursion into the “Dead Witness” anthology! The stories are chronological and this, the first to be featured, dates from 1837 – which puts it well ahead of Poe’s ground-breaking “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”! According to editor Sims, this is definitely the first proper detective story, and fascinatingly enough Burton published a journal called “The Gentleman’s Magazine” for which Poe wrote. “The Secret Cell” hasn’t been republished since 1837, so kudos to Sims for digging it out and getting it back to readers!

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TSC is a classic in many ways – it features a missing heiress, the early police force, fake asylums, criminal gangs, and an unnamed but intelligent police detective. There’s dry wit from our narrator, coach chases, fights, secret hiding places – the works, basically. And what’s fascinating is that so many of these elements appeared in much more well-known works by authors like Poe, Collins, Dickens et al, but this predated them considerably.

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It’s an exciting, gripping tale with all you could want from a vintage crime story. Sims’ introduction puts the story in context and gives it the credit it’s due – although I agree with his assessment that although it’s an earlier story than Poe’s, it doesn’t have quite the greatness of that tale. Additionally, the detective is not really the dominant, main character in the story – it would take the arrival of C. Auguste Dupin to start the trend for the unusual, individual detective who was the centre of the action. And that’s where I’ll be going with the second story in the anthology…

Nevertheless, this was a great read and I think I’ll enjoy interspersing my heavier books (Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” at the moment) with some wonderful classic crime!

A Diversion into some classic crime!

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As I mentioned in my review of “The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont”, I recently rambled through the Ellery Queen list of recommended crime stories, and while searching online to see what was available, I came across an intriguing looking anthology: “The Dead Witness”, edited by Michael Sims. Needless to say, a very reasonably priced copy was soon winging its way towards me, and it turns out to be such fun!

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The book collects together stories and extracts from the earliest days of crime stories right up to 1915. Fascinatingly enough, the first tale, from 1837, is regarded as the first ‘proper’ detective story, and hasn’t been reprinted until now.

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I have to confess I was a little unsure about committing to 500 pages of vintage crime, as there are so many books I want to read just now. So I shall break my current rule of only reading one book at a time, and I’ll dip into this volume as an aside when I feel in the mood. Watch this space for reviews of classic detection!!

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