Book list for a Friend, Part Three: Mysteries, first group: the classics

April 29, 2016 at 8:32 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

Lately, my reading in the mystery genre has been guided by these factors:

The appearance of British Library Crime Classics, which led to my reading of
Additional classics, several suggested by a Facebook group and several terrific bloggers;
Titles selected by the always discerning Usual Suspects Mystery Book Group;
Latest additions to beloved series;
Lucky strikes gleaned from perceptive reviews and recommendations.

9-FarjeonBook  I’ll start with the British Library’s hugely successful foray into the  world of classic crime fiction. The first volume in this series, Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J Jefferson Farjeon, was a surprise bestseller in 2014. It’s been followed by novels and short story collections along the same lines, by which I mean early twentieth century crime fiction by authors who are not currently as well known as their Golden Age counterparts; namely Sayers, Christie, Marsh, Allingham, and Tey.

“The Crime Classics stand out against the darker crop of contemporary crime fiction and offer something a bit different. A lot of modern stuff skews closer to thriller than mystery. It has been a treat to see mystery writers such as John Bude, Mavis Doriel Hay and J Jefferson Farjeon get their due. I think that’s a credit to the British Library, which has not only done the important work of archiving this material, but now brought it to a wider audience.”

Joseph Knobbs, crime fiction buyer  for Waterstones.

I enjoyed Mystery in White so much that I could hardly wait to read more from this series. The short  story collections are especially welcome, as they provide the reader with an introduction to several of these “hidden gem” authors in one volume. So far I’ve read two in this category:

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I enjoyed both so much that I selected Capital Crimes as my July discussion presentation for the Usual Suspects. It’s almost always the case with collections that some tales will stand out more than others. For me, three of the stories in the Capital Crimes anthology were especially impressive: “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole, and “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White. The Walpole story led me to anthology of his tales called The Silver Thorn – an inexpensive download. I’ve only just read the first story. It’s called “The Little Donkeys with The Crimson Saddles.” Not a crime story, but a sheer delight all the same.

I knew that Ethel Lina White wrote the book on which the Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes was based. The novel’s original title is The Wheel Spins. I decided it was time to read it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I read somewhere that White specialized in young heroines in danger who rise to the occasion and, with a combination of courage and perseverance, overcome the threat with which they’re confronted. Iris Carr’s story is illustrative of this scenario. I was rooting for her – sometimes anxiously –  throughout!

I’ll definitely be reading more by this author. In addition to The Wheel Spins, Some Must Watch (filmed as The Spiral Staircase) and The First Time He Died have also been recommended.

Back to the British Library series for a moment: In addition to Mystery in White, I’ve so far read these three novels: 51kue0qDPjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  51LeLfSJKoL._SX344_BO1,2203,200_ 61zfdsvK6PL._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_ . I enjoyed each of  them, but I’d award top marks to Murder of a Lady for its exceptionally cunning plot, which unfolds against the backdrop of a vivid Scottish setting.

In recent months, I’ve read quite  a few mysteries not included in the British Library series (or at least, not yet). I’ve already mentioned The Wheel Spins, and I’ve written  about Mist in the Saltings by Henry Wade and Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham in this post.

The Usual Suspects kicked off this year’s program of discussions with Margaret Millar’s Beast in View. Both creepy and compelling, and set against the Los Angeles backdrop used so effectively by Millar’s husband Ross MacDonald, Beast in View was the Edgar Award winner for Best Novel in 1956. Helen Clarvoe is a highly nervous young woman and a virtual recluse. She’s living alone in a hotel and feeling reasonably safe until she begins receiving a series of menacing phone calls. “And from there unspools one of the most terrifying stories you will ever read.” Thus saith Laura Lippman and forsooth,  she is right!

I always know that I’ve really loved a novel when I immediately want more from the same author. This was absolutely the case with The Emperor’s Snuff Box (1942) by John Dickson Carr. What a gem this is! From its atmospheric setting in rural France, its memorable cast of characters, exceptionally fine writing – well, and just about everything else you desire in quality crime fiction. Carr was well known and appreciated in his day, and in my view, it’s time for a revival of interest in his work.

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Herewith, some general observations regarding the classics. I’d like to deal first with the most troubling factor; namely, the degree to which racial and ethnic slurs appear in the stories and novels of early to mid-twentieth century. (And let us acknowledge that this problem is not exclusive to crime fiction.) You can read any number of mysteries without coming across this sort of thing and then bang, there it is, jarring to say the least, especially if you’re a member of the ethnic, racial, or even gender group that’s being disparaged. In The Emperor’s Snuff Box, for instance, Carr tosses off several statements along the lines of “You know what women are.” I just sighed deeply and read on.

The worst examples that I’ve yet encountered in a crime classic occur in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. (I’m talking about the original, not the “cleaned up” version that was published in this country after the Second World War.) I know that for many Christie fans, this book is her crowning achievement. For me, it took a while after I read it to recapture my old affection for this writer. (The Miss Marple short stories were a big help there.) I’ve written in more detail on this subject in this post.

One of the reasons that the British Library’s Crime Classics initiative is so welcome is that some of the lesser known classics are now hard to obtain. Many are out of print. If you’re lucky,  you’ll find an e-book download for only a few dollars. Mist on the Saltings was neither in print nor available in e-book format. I ended up getting a rather worse for wear paperback from Amazon. (It was more than worth it.) There are some small publishers who for several years now have been doing excellent work in keeping the classics in print. I’m thinking in particular of Felony and Mayhem Press  and their editions of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion novels.

Police-at-the-Funeral Dancers-in-Mourning

Not only are some of these older volumes a challenge to find, they’re also a  challenge to identify correctly. This is also true of their authors. John Dickson Carr’s life and work nicely exemplify the occurrence of these conundrums. In addition to using his real name, Carr also wrote under the pseudonyms Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson, and Roger Fairbairn. The Hollow Man is often considered to be his finest work – but you’d best also search for it by its American title, The Three Coffins. An Amazon search by the latter title disclosed no e-book edition and edition currently in print. (A number of used copies are on offer, though, ranging in price from $3.61 to $80.02 – take your pick!)

So: back to The Hollow Man. Yes! there’s a Kindle download, and at a nice price, too. Alas, when you click on it, you get this message: “This title is not currently available for purchase.” There are third party sellers on hand with both hard copies and paperbacks, but by then, I’d decided to place an interlibrary loan request. It arrived in record time, though I haven’t yet had a chance to get to the library to pick  it up. (Interlibrary loan is definitely an option you want to keep in mind.)

In the course of researching this and other mystery related posts, I’ve come across some truly excellent blogs. In the past, I’ve referred to Martin Edwards’s Do You Write Under Your Own Name. His recurring feature on “Forgotten Books” offers a wealth of information and recommendations. Martin Edwards‘s steady advocacy of classic crime novels and stories has lately received well-deserved recognition. Since 1914, he’s been consultant to the British Library for their Crime Classics series. In addition, he’s the current President of the prestigious Detection Club. He’s the author of The Golden Age of Murder, a history of that organization that sheds light on its distinguished, fascinating, and sometimes elusive members. Finally, he’s the author of several fictional series and stand-alones. (I’ve particularly enjoyed the Lake District series  featuring DCI Hannah Scarlett and historian Daniel Kind.)

Other blogs I’d like to recommend are as follows:

At the Villa Rose: Random Thoughts of Xavier Lechard

Past Offences: Classic Crime Fiction Reviews and News

The Passing Tramp: Wandering Through the Mystery Genre, Book by Book

Tipping My Fedora


In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

Other blog recommendations would be gratefully received by me – also more recommendations of classic mysteries! (What more proof is needed that I can never get enough?)






1 Comment

  1. Martin Edwards said,

    Needless to say, I enjoyed this post, and thanks also for your kind words.

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