So far, August 2020 is not sorting itself out to be the summer of anyone’s lifetime. In another galaxy, long ago and far, far away, I would be reveling in memories of a marvelous July trip to London and New York, meeting old friends and cramming in as many intense discussions of a GAD variety as possible, many of them at the sadly-cancelled Bodies From the Library conference, and attending theatre and sampling high teas and pub treats with my pals. Then I would be returning to plan the activities for my upcoming final year as a public school teacher.
Instead, I’m in lockdown, and the consequences have ranged from petty-but-expensive – first my laptop died and had to be replaced, and now the fan belt in my refrigerator has broken so that the machine fills my tiny home with a loud grinding noise, ten minutes on, ten minutes off – to life-changing: after months of following the crazy back-and-forth of the powers that be, I have deemed it in my best interest to retire RIGHT NOW!!!!!
It’s no wonder my powers of concentration are also on the fritz, making it increasingly hard to read novels of any kind. Plus I still owe my demanding public (both of you) a few concluding chapters of Murder at Dungarees. Forgive my delay; that minima opus will conclude in the near future. In the meantime, I have been searching for some reading material to suit this short-attention-span period, thanks to Tony Medawar, GAD expert and tracker down of rare material, I have found it!
My pal JJ recently scored a wonderful interview with Mr. M. (you can listen to it here), during which, among other delights, Tony discussed the third iteration of short stories, most of them previously unpublished, unavailable or all but forgotten, that he had put together under the auspices of the British Library. The contents range from short-shorts to novellas and, most wonderfully here, scripts from radio and television (the Golden Age of radio was especially fond of, and good to, the mystery genre) and include a panoply of authors, from those barely known to modern artists to genuine Queens of Crime! Here then are my thoughts on the feast therein.
We begin with an amuse bouche of two short tales, Lynn Brock’s “Some Little Things” and Anthony Berkeley’s “Hot Steel.” I’m not familiar with Brock’s work, although I seem to recall attempting the Detection Club reissue of his first crime novel, The Deductions of Colonel Gore (1924) and not being too thrilled by it. This tale of mysterious doings features the Colonel, and he is the best feature of what ultimately turns into a shaggy dog story.
Berkeley’s entry contains his most famous sleuth, Roger Sheringham, who is actually less snobby and more appealing than usual here. Unfortunately, he doesn’t do much sleuthing, as this wartime tale is less a detective story and more a bit of propaganda warning against “loose lips sinking ships,” especially when one works in a munitions factory.
The first course is meatier and more to my liking: Cyril Hare, known for his law-focused mysteries, based his arguably most popular novel, An English Murder, on his own 1948 radio play, “The Murder at Warbeck Hall.”(Mr. Medawar provides succinctly fascinating biographical notes on each author at the end of every story.) The plot is, of course, expanded in the novel, and the play is missing a key character; moreover, you couldn’t accuse Hare of providing an overabundance of clues or a sense of fair play. However, the characters and situation are charming, and I couldn’t help but think that this piece was made to order for a performance at a Bodies from the Library conference. Ah, well . . .
Next comes “The House of the Poplars,” a previously unpublished story by no less than Dorothy L. Sayers, one of two tales she wrote featuring “the removals firm of Smith and Smith.” What do they remove, you ask? What genres are you reading? The plot, centered on a beleaguered gentleman with a rich invalid wife and no end of financial problems, is rather slight and predictable. It’s also beautifully written and quite funny. I am admittedly not much of a fan of Lord Peter Wimsey, but I wonder if I would be more of a Sayers fan if a book full of stories about Messrs. Smith, Schmidt, Smyth and Smythe existed. If anyone can unearth such an artifact, it’s you, Mr. Medawar!
“The Hampstead Murder” also centers around a marriage, albeit one with a quite different dynamic, and the fact that it was written by Christopher Bush, prolific master of the unbreakable alibi and yet features neither a single alibi nor Bush’ series sleuth Ludovic Travers, serves to remind us that classic crime authors sometimes made use of the short form to veer into unusual territory (think of Christie and her hound of death!) As with the Sayers tale, the plot details of Bush’s story may not surprise, but in this case the unfolding of our protagonist’s tragedy is delicious to observe.
The next tale provides a change in palate as it provides us with the first American author in this collection. I had not heard of Joseph Commings or his sleuth, Senator Brooks Urban Banning, whose corpulent bombast bears no small resemblance to Dr. Gideon Fell, not least for the way he is drawn to impossible crimes and weird settings. “The Scarecrow Murders” finds Banning intruding on a killing in the small upstate New York town of Cow Crossing. The number of mysterious deaths quickly doubles, and the most intriguing aspect of the case is the set of footprints leading away from the victim straight to a scarecrow standing in the field – a scarecrow that has seemingly transplanted itself from its real home . . . with the first victim!
It’s a delightful whodunit with a fine solution, and it makes me hungry for more tales featuring the intrepid senator. Crippen & Landru, that great arbiter of short crime fiction, published a collection of 14 Banning tales that is sadly out of print, but Tony informs us a second collection is forthcoming, and it’s my hope that this will spur C&L to reissue the first.
Agatha Christie’s “The Incident of the Dog’s Ball” here makes its second appearance in print, having been unearthed and published by John Curran in his brilliant 2009 Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. I returned to that must-have volume to read Curran’s take on this story, including his masterful detective work on when it was written and why it was never published. The seeds of her 1937 novel Dumb Witness are all here, although there are enough significant differences that one familiar with that longer work can rejoice in finding a completely new Christie work here.
Given the great opening hook (a strength of Christie’s) and the assortment of incidents and characters, more crowded than usual in one of her short stories, it makes total sense that she would wish to expand this into a novel. I have to say that even though Witness is one of my least favorite Poirot novels – the clueing in that one is unusually weak for Christie, and this animal lover surprisingly found the central terrier rather annoying – reading the story this time around made me more appreciative of the delineation of character, the expanded backstory of the victim, and the better choice of murderer.
In May, 2016, Lume Books republished a 1934 mystery called Death of an Airman by C. St. John Sprigg, the pseudonym for Christopher Caudwell, who packed quite a life into twenty-nine years before his death while manning a machine gun post during the Spanish Civil War. Like any good classic mystery fan, I immediately downloaded the book onto my iPad . . . and promptly forgot it.
The Sprigg story included here, “The Case of the Unlucky Airman,” doesn’t necessarily prompt me to rush to the longer work. Its sleuth, ace reporter Charles Venables (Caudwell worked for a time as a journalist) happens to be on hand when the flier of the title lands his plane after an unfortunate attempt to break the solo flight record from Capetown to Croydon, taxies his plane into the hangar – and is immediately found shot to death in the cockpit. Venables works out who was responsible and how it was done, but the only memorable thing for me is that I happened to read the Puzzle Doctor’s recent review of a John Rhode mystery on the day I started this piece, and I can only wonder how many other people have had to deal twice in one day with mention of a saccharine smuggling ring. That was really a thing?!?
I have always been fond of Stuart Palmer’s acerbic spinster schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers, probably because I put a touch of the acerbic spinster into my own teaching style. I’ve only read one novel, The Riddle of the Happy Hooligan, and I own a collection of the six low budget films that were made featuring Withers and her reluctant partner in sleuthing, Police Inspector Oscar Piper. My impression from these full-length tales is that the characters, plus Palmer’s inimitable style, are the real stars of the show, while the mysteries themselves are just okay.
“The Riddle of the Black Spade,” (1934), which Medawar informs us was “the earliest of around a dozen uncollected Miss Withers stories” makes a case for Palmer’s strength in the short form. Honestly, I hate golf, but this was a delightful romp set on a golf course where a businessman seems to have been beaned on the head by an erratic ball. Miss Withers knows it’s murder, however, because . . . well, she just does. Maybe, in fact, Palmer relies a little too much on the lady’s intuition, but who’s going to argue with Miss Withers? Palmer packs a lot of action into a dozen pages, and the final capture of the killer is pure delight.
Josephine Bell is another author I have heard of and never read, whose medical mysteries reflected her own career in the profession. The story included here, “The Torch at the Window,” is set amid the hustle of a country hospital that is visited one night by a Peeping Tom. This spins out to a more complex case, full of surprises, that I enjoyed very much. Evidently, some of Bell’s novels suffered from the casual racism of their day, according to Medawar. I always appreciate that warning, as much as I would love to hear suggestions from fans of Bell of what novels to read that are clever without being excessively offensive.
The next two entries to this collection are the true pieces de resistance of this collection. Folks may flock to this collection for the flashier of the two: “Grand Guignol,” a novella by John Dickson Carr, has not seen the light of day since its publication in the spring of 1929. According to Doug Greene, the great expert on the author, the novella’s reception immediately prompted Carr to expand it into his debut novel, It Walks by Night, featuring the saturnine prefect of police, Henri Bencolin.
It has been almost exactly four years since I read the novel and engaged in a delightful conversation about it here with JJ. We both agreed with Greene that the longer work is overwritten. So does that make “Grand Guignol,” at one third its length, the better work? I don’t think so. It’s great fun to read, but it feels like a sketch of a grander work. And I missed the bizarrely nymphomaniacal Sharon Grey. Everyone will have to decide for themselves which version they prefer, but isn’t it great that we now have easy access to both versions to compare them.
Frankly I was more excited to read the next piece. Ngaio Marsh may have written over thirty novels (and a scattering of shorter works) featuring her stolidly pleasant detective Roderick Alleyn, but her first love was the theatre. Here we have a teleplay she wrote for New Zealand television in 1967. “A Knotty Problem” takes place in the art world, another favorite milieu that Marsh visited several times in her mysteries. Alleyn is on vacation in Auckland, of all places, where he is the dinner guest of Lady Ruby Kerr-Bates, a lover of art, and especially young artists. She has pushed her crabby businessman lover to open an art gallery and debut the work of her beleaguered protégé. The conflicts between art and commerce are as dramatic here as the romantic tensions, and the characters gathered together at the opening swirl about tensely until the inevitable murder.
Fortunately, Alleyn is on the scene to lead the local police to a solution. Even better, the quick pace and time limits of television prevent the author from her usual draggy middle section of interview upon interview. If the drama overcomes the clueing, that’s okay by me, as the whole affair was delightful. I’ve read it: now I wish I could watch it!
After such a rich and varied meal, I always prefer my desserts on the light side. Generally speaking, a piece of fruit is good; more specifically, a nice juicy orange.
How thoughtful of Tony to provide a half dozen in the form of “The Orange Plot Mysteries,” one of two mystery series created by members of the Collins Crime Club in 1938 and serialized weekly in the Sunday Dispatch under the auspices of William Collins himself. Six writers were challenged to create a short story with the same plot line: “One night a man picked up an orange in the street. This saved his life.”
The authors here include Peter Cheyney, Nicholas Blake (Nigel Strangeways puts in an appearance) and no less a personage than publisher William Collins himself, in what appears to be the only mystery story he ever wrote. The various tales, featuring mobsters, milquetoasts and nabobs, all of whom pick up that citrus-y spheroid with literally life-changing consequences, are light as a soufflé and share a surprising amount of elements. Some of them were highly predictable, at least to me: for example, as soon as John Rhode’s hero drunkenly brought his orange aboard his yacht, I knew what would happen.
If I had to pick a favorite, it would be “And the Answer Was . . . “ by Ethel Lina White, who packs a whole thriller’s worth of plot into an eight-page-long story of a brave little tailor trying to save his secret love from a serial killer.
And there you have it – a delightful jewel box of heretofore unknown or forgotten GAD gems. Perfect reading for a COVID summer . . . or any other time. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try meditation. I need to shake off these doldrums and get back to my ginormous TBR pile. I can hear it whimpering.