The Black SpectaclesGenres: Crime
, Mystery Pages:
222 Series: British Library Crime Classics Rating:
A sinister case of deadly poisoned chocolates from Sodbury Cross’s high street shop haunts the group of friends and relatives assembled at Bellegarde, among the orchards of ‘peach-fancier’ Marcus Chesney. To prove a point about how the sweets could have been poisoned under the nose of the shopkeeper, Chesney stages an elaborate memory game to test whether any of his guests can see beyond their ‘black spectacles’; that is, to see the truth without any assumptions as witnesses.
During the test – which is also being filmed – Chesney is murdered by his supposed accomplice. The keen wits of Dr. Gideon Fell are called for to crack this brazen and bizarre murder committed in full view of an audience.
It’s still funny how I thought I really disliked John Dickson Carr’s writing, and now here I am inhaling his books in a day. The Black Spectacles has quite a bit going on, with the police detective getting deeply emotionally involved with the whole thing and Gideon Fell coming in all sympathy and understanding. He’s rather human for one of the Great Detective types, albeit you never learn much about his personal life or opinions outside of crime.
The crime isn’t the locked-room mystery that Carr specialised in, but it is an “impossible crime” — though I realised quickly what was up with that (a similar device used in a couple of other crime novels that I happen to like). It’s fun to work out what’s going on and why.
There is something rather dark about the motivations and the way a particular character is treated, that left me wanting a little more at the end of the novel — something to set the world properly to rights for her. Maybe an epilogue or something. But the mystery is resolved well.
Settling Scores: Sporting MysteriesGenres: Crime
, Short Stories Series: British Library Crime Classics Rating:
Talented sportsmen inexplicably go absent without leave, crafty gamblers conspire in the hope of making a killing, and personal rivalries and jealousies come to a head on fields of play The classic stories in this new British Library anthology show that crime is a game for all seasons.
I thought I’d read these sporting mysteries (in this collection curated by Martin Edwards) in honour of the Rugby World Cup, the only sport I have so far managed to care about or even half-understand. The majority of these stories need no sporting knowledge at all to understand and follow; the sporting environment is just the backdrop. Even where you do need to know something, it’s fairly minimal.
It’s not a bad spread of stories, though the tone varies a bit (some stories feel rather brutal, and one involves spies and espionage, etc). Not one of my favourite collections, perhaps, but the sporting types might appreciate it a bit more. I did appreciate that it wasn’t just football and cricket stories or something — there was an archery story included, for example.
As ever, the collection is greater than the sum of its parts: it’s nice to read across a spread of the classic crime/mystery writers, and not just the biggest names, though there is (inevitably) a story by Arthur Conan Doyle.
The Theft of the Iron DogsGenres: Crime
, Mystery Pages:
284 Series: British Library Crime Classics Rating:
While hot on the heels of serial coupon-racketeer Gordon Ginner, Chief Inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard receives word of an intriguing incident up in Lancashire – the summer cottage of local farmer Giles Hoggett has been broken into, with an assortment of seemingly random items missing which include a complete reel of salmon line, a large sack, and two iron dogs from his fireplace.
What first appears to Insp. MacDonald as a simple break-in quickly spirals into a mystery of contested land grabs for fishing between farmers, made all the more enticing to MacDonald when a body is then found in the river – the body of Gordon Ginner. It’s up to Insp. MacDonald, aided by the locals of Lunesdale, to determine who broke into Hoggett’s cottage, where his irons dogs have gone, and how Ginner met his watery end.
For my money, E.C.R. Lorac is one of the finest classic crime writers. She writes compelling mysteries with an amazing sense of place and setting, and characters who are enjoyable, if sometimes idealised. There’s a sense with her books that the mysteries arise out of place and personality, rather than coming up with a mystery and then inventing a setting to fit around it, which is probably true if Martin Edwards’ introductions about Lorac and her love for Lunesdale are true.
The Theft of the Iron Dogs returns to Lunesdale, in fact, and the mystery is only unravelled because the people of the area have habits, patterns and expectations which aren’t obvious to people from outside the area, meaning the cover-up of the crime isn’t as perfect as the perpetrator thinks. The story features Macdonald, of course, Lorac’s series detective, with his usual conscientiousness and care, and his sense of compassion for the people affected by his investigations.
It’s a slow one, country-paced, in a way that feels right for the place and the story. I really enjoyed this one, and though the crime itself is not terribly “cosy” (is any crime?), the overall feel is a pretty cosy, lower-stakes kind of story.
Death of Mr DodsleyGenres: Crime
, Mystery Pages:
256 Series: British Library Crime Classics Rating:
Mr Richard Dodsley, owner of a fine second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road, has been found murdered in the cold hours of the morning. Shot in his own office, few clues remain besides three cigarette ends, two spent matches and a few books on the shelves which have been rearranged.
In an investigation spanning the second-hand bookshops of London and the Houses of Parliament (since an MP’s daughter's new crime novel Death at the Desk appears to have some bearing on the case), Ferguson’s series sleuth MacNab is at hand to assist Scotland Yard in this atmospheric and ingenious fair-play bibliomystery, first published in 1937.
I found that Death of Mr Dodsley was a bit too slow for my tastes — or at least, too slow in bringing together the strands of the plot and making it clear as to why the book opens in the Houses of Parliament! Much of the novel seems to have little to do with that, and though it’s obvious it will tie in somehow… it never quite did so properly, to be honest. The red herring is only very slightly tinged, and I never believed in it.
All in all, that made it a little frustrating, as the evidence-gathering is rather slow, and it also vacillates about which detective, precisely, it wants to follow (starting with the police and later moving on to MacNab).
It wasn’t a bad read by any measure, but not one of my favourites, despite being focused around a book written by one of the suspects, and set mostly in a bookshop, no less! But alas, that didn’t add enough charm to keep up sparkling.
Post After Post-MortemGenres: Crime
, Mystery Pages:
300 Series: British Library Crime Classics Rating:
The Surrays and their five children form a prolific writing machine, with scores of treatises, reviews and crime thrillers published under their family name. Following a rare convergence of the whole household at their Oxfordshire home, Ruth – middle sister who writes ‘books which are just books’ – decides to spend some weeks there recovering from the pressures of the writing life while the rest of the brood scatter to the winds again. Their next return is heralded by the tragic news that Ruth has taken her life after an evening at the Surrays’ hosting a set of publishers and writers, one of whom is named as Ruth’s literary executor in the will she left behind.
Despite some suspicions from the family, the verdict at the inquest is suicide – but when Ruth’s brother Richard receives a letter from the deceased which was delayed in the post, he enlists the help of CID Robert Macdonald to investigate what could only be an ingeniously planned murder.
I normally love E.C.R. Lorac’s books, and I think this was a very fine example of her work… without being one that I, strictly speaking, enjoyed. She has a way of describing characters and places that can make you love them and feel their goodness — and in this book, the nastiness of murder feels particularly prominent. It’s less “good people overcome” and more “good people are overcome”, and it just hit wrong for my current mood, despite being well handled.
Those who read it should be warned that the setup has the murder being taken to be suicide at first, and that the family react accordingly, with shock and horror and the sense that the world is upended. And that isn’t the end to their sorrows.
It’s a good thing that Lorac writes such a sensitive, humane detective in MacDonald, because his sympathy also helped to make this book as powerful as it is.
In the end, the solution was also a sad one, and the whole thing just left me with a sense of melancholy. Beautifully written, perhaps among Lorac’s best — but perhaps not one that I’ll visit again.
He Who WhispersGenres: Crime
, Mystery Pages:
270 Series: British Library Crime Classics Rating:
'It almost seemed that the murder, if it was a murder, must have been committed by someone who could rise up unsupported in the air…'
When Miles Hammond is invited to a meeting of the Murder Club in London, he is met instead with just two other guests and is treated to a strange tale of an impossible crime in France from years before; the murder of a man on a tower with only one staircase, under watch at the time at which the murder took place. With theories of levitating vampires abounding, the story comes home to Miles when he realises that the librarian he has just hired for his home is none other than Fay Seton, a woman whose name still echoes from the heart of this bizarre and unsolved murder of the past.
I don’t normally get along with John Dickson Carr’s work. In fact, I don’t even buy the British Library Crime Classic editions — it’s one of only three gaps in my collection (a few of the short story collections, which I’m slowly picking up, and the Sergeant Cluff books are the others), because I just haven’t got along with the others.
It’s hard to say why this was an exception. I think in part it’s that it’s a fair-play mystery. Though there is a Great Detective (Gideon Fell), the POV character isn’t treated too much as his side-kick, and there’s some interesting attempts at psychological realism (even if it’s unfortunately in part about a “nymphomaniac” girl). I was able to form theories about it, and feel like I had the clues that fell into place at the right moments, and I didn’t universally hate the characters. There’s nothing so straightforward as some of Carr’s other female characters and snap romances.
It’s enough to give me hope for some of the Carr books I haven’t picked up yet: maybe some of those will equally have some joys for me. I was glad I gave this a shot thanks to my British Library Crime Classics subscription!
Death in Captivity, Michael Gilbert
Oof, I find talking about this one… complicated. Michael Gilbert was a prisoner of war during World War II, so in this story set in a prison camp in Italy, he knows exactly what he’s writing about. And that shows. It’s not like some war stories written nowadays where the gritty detail is intended to evoke a sense of hopelessness and despair: instead, it’s his matter-of-factness about the details and the shape of daily life that makes me feel a little crushed, reading it. Things often don’t seem so bad, kind of normal, and then atrocities casually happen.
As a result, it was a reading experience that I more appreciated than enjoyed, if that makes sense. It’s an inspired setting for a murder mystery, and Gilbert’s writing is… perhaps not the most descriptive, picture-painting stuff, but it makes things very clear, and for all that it’s matter of fact, the sense of life in the PoW camp really did come through.
As for the mystery… well. I don’t want to say too much, but I was disappointed by the solution — not because it didn’t make sense or anything, but just because it was more of that awful war-time mood. Not unexpected, not a bad twist to the story, nothing like that. Just… very WWII.
The Wheel Spins, Ethel Lina White
Reading Ethel Lina White’s short stories, they seemed very sensational. From what Edwards writes in his introductions, the “woman in danger” story like this seemed to be her forté, but the short stories didn’t quite work for me, so I wasn’t sure whether this would be enjoyable. I was pleasantly surprised: I did find it a bit challenging in a way to read a book where a woman’s reality gets so constantly questioned, but it’s not that the situation was uninteresting in any way.
In the end, it’s a pretty simple trick (which I won’t ruin by discussing it at length), and we have all the clues for a long time. What matters is the suspense, and Iris’ understanding of the situation — and her fear and discomfort as it proves impossible to convince other people of what she knows to be true.
All of that feels especially poignant set against the asides, with Miss Froy’s family awaiting her safe return. The detail there is loving and tender, and that little family feels very real despite appearing only in a couple of chapters.
The main sour note for me is that a certain character reaps his rewards despite working against Iris and treating her as a helpless, hysterical woman. Get a better man, Iris!
The Measure of Malice, ed. Martin Edwards
As ever, this collection from the British Library Crime Classic series is, to me, more than the sum of its parts. The Measure of Malice collects stories that in some way lean more into the science of detection: nothing here is terribly complex (and some of it is bunk, like the idea that the human retina will hold an image of the last thing that person saw), but it’s all beginning to explore the idea that figuring out a criminal isn’t just a cerebral exercise, but one which involves practical, physical evidence that may not always be readily apparent.
I didn’t love all the stories for themselves, but I enjoyed the assembled selection and what it adds to my knowledge of the genre in that period. The obligatory Arthur Conan Doyle story is here, of course, but also a slightly more unexpected Dorothy L. Sayers story (though one I already knew from Wimsey collections).
The Long Arm of the Law, ed. Martin Edwards
Okay, okay, all cops are bastards, but in crime fiction they don’t have to be. Of course these stories are mostly in the idealised mode where police just want to help and a lone girl can pop into the police station for protection — the world I thought I was growing up in, in fact.
It’s not a stand-out for me in terms of the stories or the quality thereof, but I was pretty entertained by Christianna Brand’s story with the Great Detective, and with Inspector Cockrill butting in and dismantling the whole story.
As ever, an interesting survey of the genre on this particular topic. And it includes a short story from E.C.R. Lorac, a rarity (though that one didn’t especially stand out to me).