I’ve gotten caught up in the excitement and enthusiasm that’s been generated by Bodies from the Library, a recent conference held at the British Library.
British Library Crime Classics is a publishing initiative that in a short time has achieved remarkable popularity in Britain.
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Building on this success, the British Library decided to hold a conference on mystery fiction of the Golden Age; i.e., the period in the early twentieth century that fell between the two world wars.
(Lively on the spot coverage of this event may be found at Past Offences.)
Speakers included Simon Brett, Martin Edwards, Dr. John Curran, and Jake Kerridge. Kerridge writes wonderfully entertaining and insightful reviews of crime fiction titles. I especially appreciated his recent piece in the Telegraph on Ruth Rendell, entitled “The Most Astonishing Imagination in British Crime Fiction.”. In an article from 2008 with the rather piquant title of “Efficient Mystery with Light Emotional Wallowing,” Kerridge offers the following observation concerning Scandinavian crime fiction: “The closest most fictional Scandinavian detectives get to making a joke is to point out that man is born only to die….”
This past May saw the publication of The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards. Subtitled “The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story,” this engaging volume (which I’ve just begun reading) tells the story of The Detection Club and its founders – some famous, others not so much.
Edwards serves as consultant for the British Library Classic Crimes series. I’ve just read an entry in that series that I thoroughly enjoyed: J. Jefferson Farjeon, whose name was hitherto completely unknown to me, was an extraordinarily prolific writer. Of course, this does not mean that all his oeuvre is of the same high quality, but judging solely by Mystery in White, I know I’d like to read more.
By herself again, Jessie lay back on her pillow for awhile and stared at the canopy of faded pink above her. She had never lain in a four-poster bed before, and she found the sensation rather singular. At first it was pleasant. She felt herself sinking back into an easy, amiable past, where the fight for bread-and- butter— often so sordid a fight— did not exist. The snow dissolved with the years. Outside was sunny country; inside, slow movement, and ease. Then, gradually, the ease departed, and a strange fear began to invade her. She put it down to natural oppressions— her slightly aching foot, the strain she had been through, worry about her lost chance of an engagement and the difficulty of finding another, and the grunting and occasional coughing of the objectionable man in the adjoining room. None of these causes, however, seemed to fit her new mood. It was a fear to which she could not adjust any coherent cause. It grew until it gave her a definite pain in her stomach. She sat up suddenly, in the grip of a nameless, apprehensive terror. She felt as though the walls and the bed-posts were pressing upon her….
“What’s the matter with you?” she gasped, struggling to regain her normality. “Aren’t you a little idiot?”
Excerpt from Mystery in White
I’m currently reading a story collection (selected by Martin Edwards) entitled Resorting to Murder. I’m slightly more than half way through and having, as I anticipated, an excellent time. The book starts off with a Sherlock Holmes tale, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” which is set in Cornwall. It’s funny how, after an absence from the Holmes canon, you can return to the stories and once again be awash in admiration of Conan Doyle’s superb narrative skills, not to mention his graceful prose style:
On the land side our surroundings were as sombre as on the sea. It was a country of rolling moors, lonely and dun-coloured, with an occasional church tower to mark the site of some old-world village. In every direction upon these moors there were traces of some vanished race which had passed utterly away, and left as its sole record strange monuments of stone, irregular mounds which contained the burned ashes of the dead, and curious earthworks which hinted at prehistoric strife. The glamour and mystery of the place, with its sinister atmosphere of forgotten nations, appealed to the imagination of my friend, and he spent much of his time in long walks and solitary meditations upon the moor.
Excerpt from “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.”
From time to time, Carol of our Suspects discussion group forwards to us a grouping of four or five capsule reviews nicely observed and written by one who styles herself “LJ.” (I always think of her as ‘Ms Library Journal,’ having lived with those initials so regularly at the Central Branch.) LJ begins her reviews by quoting the first sentence of the work under consideration, then ends by giving the work a grade of sorts: Excellent, Very Good, etc. I’d like to borrow her method in rating the other stories I’ve read so far in Resorting to Murder, with the slight alteration of using the traditional academic grading system. (Needless to say but I’ll say it anyway: I’d give the Sherlock Holmes story an A plus.)
So, to begin:
“A Schoolmaster Abroad” by E.W. Hornung.
It is a small world that flocks to Switzerland for the Christmas holidays.
As Martin Edwards explains in his header notes, “Dollar sees himself as a crime doctor, someone whose mission is to prevent crime by treating prospective criminals by ‘saving ’em from themselves while they’re still worth saving’.”
I’d give this story a B: mildly entertaining without being especially enthralling. Interestingly, E.W. Hornung was Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law; he is best known for his stories featuring Raffles, the ‘amateur cracksman.”
“Murder!” by Arnold Bennett
Instead of just the first sentence, I’d like to quote the entire first paragraph:
Many great ones of the earth have justified murder as a social act, defensible and even laudable in certain instances. There is something to be said for murder, though perhaps not much. All of us, or nearly all of us, have at one time or another had the desire and the impulse to commit murder. At any rate, murder is not an uncommon affair. On an average, two people are murdered every week in England, and probably about two hundred every week in the United States. And forty per cent of the murderers are not brought to justice. These figures take no account of the undoubtedly numerous cases where murder has been done but never suspected. Murders and murderesses walk safely abroad among us, and it may happen to us to shake hands with them. A disturbing thought! But such is life, and such is homicide.
A tight, compelling little tale, driven by a urgent passion and exceptionally well written. I’d give it an A. I intend to seek out more works by this author. Martin Edwards tells us that although Arnold Bennett achieved distinction in his own time, his fame ebbed quickly after his death in 1931. This was possibly due in part to a ‘literary feud’ with Virginia Woolf. Based on this story, I’d say he is due for rediscovery. Time for a swing of the literary pendulum!
“The Murder on the Golf Links” by M. McDonnell Bodkin
‘Don’t go in, don’t! don’t! please don’t!’
The disobedient ball, regardless of her entreaties, crept slowly up the smooth green slope, paused irresolute on the ridge, and then trickled softly down into the hole; a wonderful ‘put.’
This opener typifies the irreverent tone of this thoroughly enjoyable story. Paul Beck is the detective protagonist, but for my money the lovely Mag Hazel, golfer extraordinaire, steals the show. And I love this eloquent statement regarding her father’s feelings for her:
Colonel Hazel’s sallow cheek flushed with delight, for he loved his daughter with a love that was the best part of his life.
“The Murder on the Golf Links” lacks the gravitas of the Arnold Bennett story, but I was delighted with it anyhow. I’m giving it an A minus.
“The Finger of Stone” G.K. Chesterton
Three young men on a walking-tour came to a halt outside the little town of Carillon, in the south of France; which is doubtless described in the guide books as famous for its fine old Byzantine monastery, now the seat of a university; and for having been the scene of the labours of Boyg.
I know that Chesterton is a revered figure in both literary and religious circles – goodness, his sanctification has recently been proposed! – but I’ve always found his prose rather rough going. This is a good story, though; long on atmosphere if a bit abstruse regarding plot – I had trouble getting a handle on who this Boyg person and what was the nature of his significance – beside his disappearance.
This is not a Father Brown story, though there is a tale from that body of work that I cherish. It’s called “The Oracle of the Dog.”
I’d give “The Finger of Stone” a B plus.
“The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser” by Basil Thomson
This is exactly the kind of story I love, where reality seems to bend into an entirely different shape before the very eyes of a completely rational actor. Sort of a locked room puzzle kicked up several notches. I loved it!
On a par with the Conan Doyle story; hence, it too gets an A plus.
“A Mystery of the Sand-Hills” by R. Austin Freeman
Doctor John Thorndyke is a fairly well known protagonist to Golden Age aficionados. Martin Edwards observes that Dr. Thorndyke resembles Sherlock Holmes in some particulars but is lacking in the latter’s charisma. I would agree with that assessment. Edwards adds this, however: “But what he lacked in literary flair, he made up for with meticulous craftsmanship, and his admirers included T. S. Eliot and Raymond Chandler.”
Here’s how the story opens:
I have occasionally wondered how often Mystery and Romance present themselves to us ordinary men of affairs only to be passed by without recognition. More often, I suspect, than most of us imagine. The uncanny tendency of my talented friend John Thorndyke to become involved in strange, mysterious and abnormal circumstances has almost become a joke against him. But yet, on reflection, I am disposed to think that his experiences have not differed essentially from those of other men, but that his extraordinary powers of observation and rapid inference have enabled him to detect abnormal elements in what, to ordinary men, appeared to be quite commonplace occurrences.
We’re at the port city of Sandwich, in Kent. A pile of clothing is found on the rocks at water’s edge. The identity of the owner of the abandoned habiliments is ascertained, yet he himself is nowhere to be found. It’s quite a good yarn, with a twist at the end that I didn’t anticipate. Still, I kept wishing I would encounter just a hint of that sly irony that makes the Conan Doyle stories such a pleasurable read.
You’ll note in the above quoted passage the phrase “my talented friend John Thorndyke.” Yes, here we encounter yet another ‘Watson,’ this one named Christopher Jervis. And like Watson, Jervis serves as narrator of the tale and assistant to his preternaturally gifted companion.
For me, this story lingers somewhere between a B plus and an A minus.
“The Hazel Ice” by H.C. Bailey
Set in the Alps, this is a somewhat convoluted tale of a two mountaineers caught in a rock slide. One of them, injured but still mobile, returns to their hotel; his companion, however, has disappeared. A multiplicity of characters becomes involved in the mystery.
Sprightly writing and a nicely conveyed sense of place made this one an enjoyable read. Grade: B plus.
“The Razor Edge” by Anthony Berkeley
Yet another situation involving mistaken and concealed identity, this is also a case in which the police benefit greatly from the acumen of amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham. Anthony Berkeley is best known as one of the founding members of The Detection Club.
This is an ingenious tale, well told and engrossing. A minus.
Well, as you can plainly see, I’m enjoying this anthology a great deal. I’ve four stories remaining; then it’s on to Capital Crimes, seventeen stories set in London and once again selected by Martin Edwards.
Biographical and literary information about the Golden Age writers can be found at gadetection.
Meanwhile, the Bodies from the Library conference has come out with a terrific list of Suggested Reading. This is both wonderful news and dismaying, because one realizes (deep sigh) how much great material is out there, begging to be read….still….
In his blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name, Martin Edwards has been steadily laboring in the cause of bringing Forgotten Books to the attention of crime fiction enthusiasts. To these efforts, he has now added his work with the British Library on their Crime Classics series and his newly published history of The Detection Club and its quirky, brilliant founders.
Add to all this his fine body of work as a writer of crime fiction. I’ve been enjoying The Lake District Series since The Coffin Trail, the debut volume, came out in 2004. (The Dungeon House, the eagerly awaited seventh series entry, is due out in September.)
In the course of my few brief encounters with the British community of crime writers, I’ve been deeply impressed by the kindness and generosity they display toward one another and toward their readers. In addition to his erudition and creativity, Martin Edwards likewise exemplifies these qualities. And so it is small wonder that he has been chosen to be the next president of The Detection Club. This honor places him in some distinctly select company:
G.K. Chesterton 1930-36
E. C. Bentley 1936-49
Dorothy L. Sayers 1949-57
Agatha Christie 1957-76
Lord Gorell 1957-63 (as co-President, because Christie disliked public speaking)
Julian Symons 1976-85
H.R.F. Keating 1985-2000
Simon Brett 2000 to date
Congratulations, Martin – well done!