Title: Foreign Bodies
Editor: Martin Edwards
Today, translated crime fiction is in vogue – but this was not always the case. A century before Scandi noir, writers across Europe and beyond were publishing detective stories of high quality. Often these did not appear in English and they have been known only by a small number of experts. This is the first ever collection of classic crime in translation from the golden age of the genre in the 20th century. Many of these stories are exceptionally rare, and several have been translated for the first time to appear in this volume. Martin Edwards has selected gems of classic crime from Denmark to Japan and many points in between. Fascinating stories give an insight into the cosmopolitan cultures (and crime-writing traditions) of diverse places including Mexico, France, Russia, Germany and the Netherlands.
Anton Chekhov: The Swedish Match
A murder has happened. The victim was far from popular so there’s no shortage of suspect. Enter the eager detective who finds important clues (likes the eponymous Swedish match), makes lots of deduction (much to the chagrin of his colleagues) and just won’t stop investigating. His final conclusion shocks everybody…but is he right?
It actually reads more like an author had gone ‘I’m bloody sick of this Holmes and how every little scrap he finds tells him volumes. I’ll write a character using his methods and have him end up in a really awkward situation because of it’, only that The Swedish Match is from 1883, which is a bit early for a Holmes-parody, considering A Study in Scarlet wasn’t published till 1887
It’s not great: there are lots of coincidences, and suspects appear at the drop of a hat without having been mentioned before. No matter how many crime-novels you’ve read before you will not guess the resolution. It still is an amusing story and (as somebody who had to read Lady with Dog for university and went to see a questionable version of Uncle Wanja neither of which could awaken my admiration for Chekhov), it did make me curious about some of his other works, since the introduction mentioned he wrote quite a few detective stories.
Palle Rosenkrantz: A Sensible Course of Action
A Russian countess comes to Holt and claims her brother-in-law wants to kill her. However she doesn’t appear too trustworthy, while said brother-in-law is calm, collected, and has a perfectly reasonable explanation for the countess’ behavior.
In the end, the solution is more complicated than either of the parties stories. Or is it? And that’s the problem this story has: in one paragraph it implies that not everything is black and white and that stories have more than one side, only to describe a character as “one of the blackest villains upon whom the sun of Russia has ever shone.” It almost seems the author got afraid of his own courage to tell a more unconventional detective story. So one moment it’s all ‘there’s no real hero or innocent person in this story’ only to go ‘but don’t worry, the person punished at the end was still the true villain’ a moment later.
Balduin Groller: Strange Tracks
A man has been murdered. There are no footprints near his body even though it had been raining and there should be. There are, however, some very peculiar other tracks…
Reading older stories we inevitably come across parts with sexist, racist, ableist or other -ist elements. At the time of writing these things might have been considered perfectly fine because most people thought [group] is just like this. That doesn’t make it OK. But it also doesn’t make the authors who wrote these things 100% horrible people with no redeeming qualities.
In the end, everybody has to decide for themselves how much they can stomach and I’m not judging anybody who can put up with more than I do. But I expect from a modern anthology that the editor doesn’t pick one of the stories that dive head-first and with full force into offensiveness and problematic content. Which this story does. And that also means it’s not a particularly good story. There are no fiendish motives to discover. The bad guy is bad because he’s different…
Maurice Level: The Kennel
A man finds his dead friend in his wife’s bedroom…but is everything as it seems?
(No. It is not. I hope you don’t mind me spoiling that much). This is more a gothic story than a mystery of any kind and while it is certainly atmospheric (there is a properly described creepy thunderstorm because of course) it’s over before the atmosphere can take any effect and the final twist is rather cheap.
Maurice Leblanc: Footprints in the Snow
A beautiful woman who is unhappily married to a jealous man and a suitor who is hell-bent on saving her. I am sure this will end happily for everybody.
This story has ‘influenced by Sherlock Holmes’ written all over it. A crime that seems to not only have an obvious solution but one with circumstances that make any other solution impossible. A damsel in distress (who does very little apart from being in distress). A dastardly and evil villain, and of course a sleuth who can explain why everything isn’t like it seems. So if you enjoy Holmes you’ll enjoy this one as well. (You might also strain a muscle from rolling your eyes at the behaviour of the women in it but in that aspect, the story isn’t exactly unique for the time).
Ivans (Jakob van Schevichaven): The Return of Lord Kingwood
Lord Kingwood has not returned to his home estate in years. When he does return it doesn’t take long till a murder happens.
It is somewhat amusing to have a story in a foreign-language detective fiction anthology by a Dutch author that is set…in England. It’s also not a great story. Not bad, either but simply average. A motive that’s easy to guess (at least parts of it) and a sleuth that is not particularly memorable
Paul Rosenhayn: The Stage Box Murder
A theatre-director has been murdered. He has been seen quarreling with his son not long before. Surprising to crime-fiction readers everywhere, everything isn’t as it seems at first.
This story is told only through letters (and the occasional newspaper-clipping) which is nice. However, if you’ve ever been near a crime-story, you will be able to guess the killer about two lines after the murder is mentioned for the first time.
Koga Saburo: The Spider
A famous physics professor abandons his position at the university to study spiders. Less than a year later he is dead.
The story is memorable for the method of murder that makes The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Adventure of the Speckled Band look really dull and ordinary. It also lacks any actual sleuthing. The killer was considerate enough to write a diary in which he laid out his motive and the details of his plan. The narrator just stumbles over that diary.
Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay: The Venom of the Tarantula
A doctor despairs. His patient is addicted to a dangerous drug and refuses to give it up, despite the dangers to his health. The man’s family and the doctor do everything to stop him from getting fresh supplies but somehow he always manages.
Another story with very obvious Holmes-inspiration. Ajit, the narrator is not the investigator (that’s Byomkesh) but his close friend. They live together. Ajit publishes stories about Byomkesh’s cases that make him famous. And Byomkesh is such a genius that he doesn’t even need to visit the man’s home. What Ajit tells him about his own visit there is enough. Byomkesh even thinks that “if there was a logical inference that could be made, even if it appeared improbable, one had to take it to be the only possible solution.” I feel I’ve heard something like this somewhere before…
In the introduction to the story, Martin Edwards quotes another writer who explains that unlike Doyle and other Eurocentric writers, Bandyopadhyay doesn’t write about middle class and rich people but “ordinary Indians in and around the subaltern metropolis of colonial Kolkota”…but this story is as rich-people-problems as you can get. A horrible old man refuses to listen to his doctor and spends his day insulting him and his whole family. Part of me wonders if Holmes in this situation wouldn’t have just said ‘If he wants to poison himself, just let him.’
Jean-Toussaint Samat: Murder à la Carte
A well-traveled stranger has a story to tell.
Imagine Holmes hadn’t just claimed that he can tell apart 140 types of tobacco ash but had gone on and on about it, essentially just repeating the claim over and over again with different words. Imagine he would have just given very vague examples, without ever saying anything concrete. No explanation of how he is distinguishing them all. He would have dropped a few names of people involved in cases that were solved due to his knowledge of tobacco ash but he’d told none of them from start to finish. That’s what happens in this story. It’s as boring as it sounds.
Keikichi Osaka: The Cold Night’s Clearing
A murdered couple, a disappeared child and the only hint to what has happened are tracks in the snow…that lead nowhere. (Isn’t it convenient how many murders are committed after it has snowed? What would genius detectives do without all these mysterious tracks?)
This is an unusually dark story. Detective-stories are often more about the puzzles than about the people. Often enough the murder-victims were unlikeable anyway so that you don’t need to worry about them too much and can focus totally on the detective’s genius. This is not the case here, The Cold Night’s Clearing doesn’t spare the reader anything, which makes it really stand out.
Pierry Véry: The Mystery of the Green Room
A house has been burgled. Strangely the robber took only some of the less valuable items and left the owner’s precious jewelry (which wasn’t even locked up in a safe. She kept it in a drawer in the Green Room).
As you might guess from the title this is an homage to Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room, a book I haven’t read yet. Which is a shame because The Mystery of the Green Room has now spoiled its entirety for me. The detective who investigates the case is a big fan of the story and doesn’t get tired of pointing out how everything mirrors the events of Leroux’s tale. If you have read it, you might find this story much more entertaining than I did.
John Flanders: Kippers
Two sailors get stranded on an island. Two?
Repeat after me: just because someone gets murdered in a story, it doesn’t make it a detective story.
Havank (Hendrikus Frederikus van Kallen): The Lipstick and the Teacup
A murdered man. The only clues to the murdered are a cigarette with lipstick-traces and a teacup. Killers should probably stop smoking and wearing lipstick.
Another story that’s nothing special but still entertaining.
Maria Elvira Bermudez: The Puzzle of the Broken Watch
Armando Zozoya gets asked by his friend, the lawyer Miguel Prado, to help one of his clients who is accused of murder. Miguel is convinced he is innocent but all the evidence points towards him, including the watch of the murder-victim that broke at the time of death. (*ominous music* but did it really?)
Not the most original of plot-points for a mystery novel but here it is incorporated into an enjoyable plot. Also, compared to many of the other stories (especially those by the Dutch and French authors) it doesn’t feel like it could be set anywhere. I’m not saying that this story would only work in Mexico, but the location is still an important part of it. Which is nice, especially considering the topic of this anthology.
So in the end…this anthology could probably be described as ‘interesting’, rather than ‘good’. None of the stories made me jump up and search for the author to see if any of their works are available in a language I understand. But then neither did my first Holmes story. I just happened to have a collection, read on and enjoyed them more and more. Here, I definitely will keep the names Bermudez and Rosenkrantz in mind since their stories might not have been outstanding, their detectives were interesting enough. I might also search for more of Bandyopadhyay’s work, just to see if the story was unfortunately chosen or if the introduction was lying, and Keikichi Osaka’s work could also be worth checking out further.
Still, I don’t think this is a must-have, especially for casual golden age/detective stories readers. But if you’re really interested what Holmes’ foreign colleagues were up to, this anthology gives a nice overview. It’s still a rather Eurocentric one, but I understand that finding stories that fit the topic (and have easily obtainable rights) is probably not easy.
ARC received from NetGalley
As it happens Rosenkrantz’s Holst and Groller’s Dagobert are Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and the Holst-story in this collection in the same that was filmed for the series. So, of course, I watched it.
Is it good? That question is surprisingly hard to answer. First of all, it’s not that true to the source material. The exact same things might still happen but the characters of the Count and the Countess change a lot. That essentially results in a swap of the bad guy and the good guy (while the end stays the same).
And that means John Thaw, who plays Holst, really gets to shine in this story. Now I’m not slagging off the other actors who were playing detectives in the other episodes but they don’t get too much to work with. A crime happens. They solve it. The end. Holst, on the other hand, struggles hard to make the right decision and then fears he made the wrong one. John Thaw portrays that brilliantly. Spoilery gif-set alert.
But all of that means that the story ends up with a few plot-holes. Why was the Count following the Countess? Just because she was selling his property? How could he hope to stop her? And why did the ambassador needed to see the Count in prison? Wasn’t it enough that he knew where he was? But since all of that brought us Thaw’s brilliant performance I can’t complain too much.