It is understandable that we, as readers, hope for everything we read to be good. However, it is also unlikely that this will be the case, and so sometimes we have to make do with what a book actually offers us. It may not be good, so is it interesting? Does it tell us something new about the era in which it is set or was written? Failing that, is it at least enjoyable? Murder in the Museum (1938), the first of two John Rowland books published as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, is not especially good, but it is a lot of fun. And I’ll take fun. Fun is underrated. I could broadside this for its many flaws and failings, but the truth is I ripped through it, didn’t take it too seriously, and had a great time.
I recently read, with no large amount of pleasure, Evidence in Blue (1938) by E. Charles Vivian. However, I’m not a man to write someone off after one bad book. So the presence of a locked room story by Vivian in the Martin Edwards-edited collection of such impossibilities Miraculous Mysteries (2017) from the British Library Crime Classics series was a chance to give him another go.
While we can be thankful for real-life developments in forensic science that enable the speedier detection of criminals, there can be little argument that it was the death-knell of good detective fiction. Dull Inspector Arnold and his genius amateur sidekick Desmond Merrion spend so much time combing through the minutiae of the physical and mental aspect of the crime in Death in the Tunnel, and come up with such entertaining possibilities while doing so, that a crime scene tech in one of those all-over white body suits could never be a fifth as much fun. It makes me all the more appreciative of this kind of classic approach, knowing that this sort of book has seen its heyday pass.
An experienced pilot crashes his plane and dies, and at the inquest the jury returns a verdict of ‘death by misadventure’. They’re correct, and there’s nothing else to investigate. Nah, I’m kidding, of course — we’re deep in the Golden Age here, so it has to be more complicated than that, and before you know it there are amateur sleuths, mistaken identities, re-examination of bodies, codes, intrigue, and the threat of more murder zipping around like so many flies at a picnic. As an exemplar of what the Golden Age did so well, Death of an Airman joins Death of Anton as a virtual textbook for the beginner, and as such marks another superb entry in the British Library Crime Classics series.
The reputation for being something of an interminable bore that still dogs Freeman Wills Crofts some 60 years after his death wants for evidence in Antidote to Venom. We’re about halfway through when the murder occurs, by which point you’ve had not only a highly sympathetic portrait of the central man in the affair, but also the convincing use of minor characters to create the situation in a way that relies on coincidence without feeling forced, an allusion to the Sherlock Holmes canon, and two — count ’em — legitimate jokes. It is spry, focussed, beautifully rich in intrigue and heartbreak, and balances its inverted and traditional elements perfectly. And when the investigation starts…oh, boy, are you in for a treat.
If you’ve never read a classic-era novel of crime and detection, what are you waiting for? There’s that Agatha Christine lady who wrote those David Suchet books, and the British Library has been putting out affordable classics for a little while now — go ahead and dig in. Sure, some of them are better than others, but if you want a good introduction to this type of thing then Alan Melville’s circus-set Death of Anton might just be the perfect place to start: it’s very witty, written with the lightest of touches, and wastes no time in maundering on in a wannabe hard-boiled fashion while dealing with the seeming imprecations of a circus where death keeps raising its head…
The setup of The Poisoned Chocolates Case is rightly very famous: a lady is killed when a box of chocolates given to her husband by another member of his gentlemen’s club — who himself received them unsolicited through the mail — turns out to have been laced with poison. The police, with no culprit in sight, allow six amateurs with a fascination for real life crimes to theorise and present their own solutions, each one appearing watertight until someone finds a flaw that brings the edifice down. For this conceit alone, and the genius way Berkeley uses his different sleuths to unpick the sparse and simple known facts, this book has passed into near-legend in detective fiction circles.
If you’re anything like me, well, firstly my condolences, but also you have a list of books not printed any time in the last few decades that you spend hours scouring secondhand bookshops, book fairs, online auction sites, and other people’s houses in the hope of finding. A lot of them – in my case, say, The Stingaree Murders by W. Shepard Pleasants – are rather obscure and so their lack of availability is understandable, but in other cases it just seems…baffling.
You’ll be aware by now, I hope, that I’m quite the fan of a locked room murder. That quantal aspect of something that can’t have happened but nevertheless did tickles me greater the more I read, and so the republication of anything from the classic era is always a cause for celebration. The British Library continue their excellent Crime Classics series with this, their first impossible crime, in which elderly spinster Mary Gregor is found dead in her locked and bolted bedroom (a nice touch with the door lock forestalls the prospect of jiggery, and indeed pokery, there) with no sign of a weapon and the blow that killed her containing the scale from a herring and so stirring up superstitious rumours of merman-like ‘swimmers’ finding their way in to dispatch her.
On the spot is Dr. Eustace Hailey, who by his reputation appears to be Wynne’s incumbent amateur sleuth, and so he is pulled into a Highland mystery at a gloomy old ancestral home that ends up the scene of plenty of mysterious comings and goings, clandestine meetings, false leads, and several further seemingly-impossible deaths. Obviously we know he’ll solve it in time, but who will be left to act as a suspect as the dramatis personae gets whittled down and down?
There is a branch of Mathematics known as combinatorics which studies the interactions of countably finite discrete sets. Or, in English, it’s the formal study of combining things in all the possible ways they can be combined. It’s a little bit like doing a jigsaw by picking up one piece and then going through the box to try every other piece to find one that fits with that piece, and then going through again to find another piece that fits with those two…and so on until you’ve finished the picture. Approximately a third of the thesis I wrote in my final year of university was based in a combinatorial approach to solving a particular problem (I shall spare you the details), and the formalisation of what sounds like an exceptionally dull way to go about something took on for me a particular beauty in the context of all the mathematics I has studied to that point.