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.
I don’t really do news, but am very excited to learn that one of the forthcoming titles the British Library will be including in its increasingly excellent Crime Classics collection is Anthony Wynne’s 1931 impossible crime novel Murder of a Lady (a.k.a. The Silver Scale Mystery). It’s a locked room of some repute, and has been preposterously hard to find for many a year now – I’ve not read it myself, and so am doubly excited that it’s being brought back. Everyone’s favourite rainforest-named internet retailer has the following synopsis:
Duchlan Castle is a gloomy, forbidding place in the Scottish Highlands. Late one night the body of Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan, is found in the castle. She has been stabbed to death in her bedroom – but the room is locked from within and the windows are barred. The only tiny clue to the culprit is a silver fish’s scale, left on the floor next to Mary’s body. Inspector Dundas is dispatched to Duchlan to investigate the case. The Gregor family and their servants are quick – perhaps too quick – to explain that Mary was a kind and charitable woman. Dundas uncovers a more complex truth, and the cruel character of the dead woman continues to pervade the house after her death. Soon further deaths, equally impossible, occur, and the atmosphere grows ever darker. Superstitious locals believe that fish creatures from the nearby waters are responsible; but luckily for Inspector Dundas, the gifted amateur sleuth Eustace Hailey is on the scene, and unravels a more logical solution to this most fiendish of plots.Anthony Wynne wrote some of the best locked-room mysteries from the golden age of British crime fiction.This cunningly plotted novel – one of Wynne’s finest – has never been reprinted since 1931, and is long overdue for rediscovery.
This is the first locked room/imposible crime that the British Library have republished, so here’s hoping it’s a sign of more to come as the series grows in popularity. Series editor and current Crime Writers’ Association president Martin Edwards will doubtless have more to say about this on his blog, so keep an eye on that for further information.
Publication is cited for January 2016…can’t come soon enough!