“The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside… Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.” – Sherlock Holmes
Many of the greatest British crime writers have explored the possibilities of crime in the countryside in lively and ingenious short stories. Serpents in Eden celebrates the rural British mystery by bringing together an eclectic mix of crime stories written over half a century. From a tale of poison-pen letters tearing apart a village community to a macabre mystery by Arthur Conan Doyle, the stories collected here reveal the dark truths hidden in an assortment of rural paradises. Among the writers included here are such major figures as G. K. Chesterton and Margery Allingham, along with a host of lesser-known discoveries whose best stories are among the unsung riches of the golden age of British crime fiction between the two world wars.
I have to say that this book felt much more true to its title than some of the other BCL-collections. There are the Christmas crime collections that often feature stories, where the winter-setting is only mentioned in passing and e.g. Blood on the Tracks, contains stories where parts take place on a train but they could have easily been set somewhere else. But in Serpents in Eden the countryside-setting was an important part of the stories and/or the plots wouldn’t have worked at all or at least very differently in a city-setting.
This collection again features many well-known names and also open with one of them: Conan Doyle. Though The Black Doctor is another non-Holmes story follows the same pattern as his others: a curious case baffles everybody and is solved by nobody. Here we get a murdered country doctor and while it does seem an open and shut case at first, the inquest puts everything on his head. At least until a kind person appears who knows exactly what happens and is friendly enough to explain everything. No sleuthing by anyone required. Like Doyle, Chesterton doesn’t send out his most famous detective in this collection. In The Fad of the Fisherman Horne Fisher solves a case. Sort of. One got the impression that the author rather wanted to talk about politics and also took great care never to use one word when he could express the same thing with five or six.
For golden age lovers, the name Anthony Berkley will also be well-known. His story Direct Evidence is what you’d call solid. There’s a murder, a very obvious suspect, several witnesses who swear they saw him shoot the man and a sleuth for whom this is all a bit too obvious. I’m still not overwhelmed by his hero Roger Sheringham but he has some charm and is beginning to grow on me.
The name McDonnel Bodkin is not quite as well known, which is a shame because I’ve liked all his stories I’ve come across so far. Murder by Proxy, in which Paul Beck has to solve the murder of a highly unlikeable man is no exception. On the other hand, I wasn’t quite as happy with R. Austin Freeman’s The Naturalist at Law even though I’m usually a fan of Thorndyke. And it’s not that it’s a badly plotted story or fails at the scientific aspect. It just rather clearly shows Freeman’s prejudices. And if all you can say is “Well at least the bad guy was just a scary foreign communist and not a scary foreign Jewish communist” it’s not the most complimentary thing.
We also get a story by Leonora Wodehouse, stepdaughter of. But she certainly didn’t need his name to get by because her story Inquest about -duh – a murder-inquest with a surprising twist is brilliant and my favourite story in this collection.
The Genuine Tabard about some thieves who come up with an ingenious idea and fall over a completely unexpected detail was my first story by E.C. Bentley and it was neither overwhelming nor horrible. Similarly, Herbert Jenkin’ The Gylston Slander about a poison pen letter writer in a village was nice but nothing that will make me remember the name of the author. The same can be said about H. C. Bailey’s The Long Barrow in which two private detectives are approached independently by a man and his secretary, both worried about strange things that happen in their vicinity. I must also say that I found the writing style a bit too wordy for my taste.
In the introduction to Leo Bruse’s Clue in the Mustard Edwards talks about how the first novel that features Seargent Beef, who also solves this case, have him outdo caricatures of Wimsey, Poirot and Brown and Clue in the Mustard also has a touch of “See my sleuth? He’s not like the other sleuths! He isn’t posh and he mispronounces foreign words! Look at him being different!” And while I’m always there for non-posh sleuths just “being not posh” isn’t actually a character-trait and so this is just another decent but unmemorable mystery
Two of the stories take a more humorous approach: Margery Allingham’s A Proper Mystery, which doesn’t even feature a murder, just some strange happenings during a farming competition and Gladys Mitchell’s Our Pageant about a murdered morris dancer – because we can’t have a book countryside murders and not have at least one story on morris dancing. Both were very much not my thing. I don’t mind some humour but all these stories had quirky characters for the sake of having quirky characters do and say quirky things.
The story that stands out somehow is Ethel Lina White’s The Scarecrow which is neither a whodunit nor a howdunit nor really about any other question. It’s about a woman who has been attacked by a man before and the man was arrested for it but now has escaped. Now she’s alone with her frail mother on a farm, far away from other people and we have a perfect set-up for a thriller. I’m not a big fan of thrillers but have to admit that parts were quite gripping. At the same time, White’s background in scriptwriting showed quite clearly and I think the plot would have worked better on TV or radio with some appropriately eery music and other creepy noises.