Capital Crimes: London Mysteries

Title: Capital Crimes – London Mysteries

With its fascinating mix of people – rich and poor, British and foreign, worthy and suspicious – London is a city where anything can happen. The possibilities for criminals and for the crime writer are endless. London has been home to many of fiction’s finest detectives, and the setting for mystery novels and short stories of the highest quality.

Capital Crimes is an eclectic collection of London-based crime stories, blending the familiar with the unexpected in a way that reflects the personality of the city. Alongside classics by Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley and Thomas Burke are excellent and unusual stories by authors who are far less well known. The stories give a flavour of how writers have tackled crime in London over the span of more than half a century. Their contributions range from an early serial-killer thriller set on the London Underground and horrific vignettes to cerebral whodunits. What they have in common is an atmospheric London setting, and enduring value as entertainment.

This collection wasn’t very capital if you excuse the very stupid joke. What choice do you have anyway? First of all, I didn’t feel that many of the stories “reflect the personality of the city” as promised. I understand that not every story can be one where London feels like it’s an additional main character, as it does in some Holmes stories (or as Oxford does in the Morse novels) but most feel like…they didn’t even try. For me only one story (Anthony Gilbert’s/Anne Meredith’s You Can’t Hang Twice) had a real London feel (admittedly mostly thanks to the old reliable London Fog but hey…it worked). A few more referenced enough places in London to also evoke some feeling of the place (Freeman’s The Magic Casket, Oxenham’s The Mystery of the Underground) and a couple were (partly) set in Gentlemen’s Clubs which I guess aren’t technically a purely London phenomenon but certainly feel like it if you’ve read enough mysteries (Berkeley’s The Avenging Chance and Allingham’s The Unseen Door). But the majority of the story have a sentence that informs you that this all happens in London but it never comes up again and you can’t help but think that this story could as well have taken place in Liverpool, Midsummer, Paris or Cleveland. I know it’s not the first time I’ve complained about the BCLC collections not quite living up to the title but e.g. Blood on the Tracks only had some stories that were set on a train but could easily have taken place somewhere else while Capital Crimes only has a few stories that could have only taken place in London.

The other reason it’s not very capital is…that most of the stories aren’t that great. I did enjoy You can’t Hang Twice a lot and not only because it was the only story that felt truly London. It was simply a good mystery with a criminal who in the end falls over his own attempts to construct an alibi.
J.S. Fletcher’s The Magician of Cannon Street is a story that’s more pulp than classic mystery (hypnotising villains that make even Moriarty look harmless) and I do enjoy some pulp but it wasn’t as completely bonkers as some other pulp stories and really: if you do pulp got all-out (the same goes for Edgar Wallace’s The Stealer of Marble: a very pulpy murder method but otherwise somewhat tame). Non-pulpy but still enjoyable is Berkeley’s The Avenging Chance, the basis for his later novel Poisoned Chocolate Case and yes, I do think the short story is better than the novel.

A mystery to me is what was done to The Mystery of the Underground no I wasn’t finished with bad jokes. It’s actually a novella that is printed in an abridged version and I don’t understand why it was abridged the way it was. We get a lot of (very dull) newspaper articles and then a paragraph that sums up how the sleuth figures out who did it, how the villain fled on a ship but was followed by the sleuth, how there was a confrontation on the high seas…and then the last page of the story. This didn’t exactly endear me to it even though it’s an early story that features a serial killer which I always find interesting. (Unless it’s The Hands of Mr. Ottermole by Thomas Burke, which is also in this collection and which according to the introduction was described as “The Best Crime Story” by Ellery Queen, a sentiment I can’t share. *sobs* Serial killers don’t work that way).

A few stories were…nice but nothing more. The Magic Casket is another Thorndyke story and even though I usually like him, this story lost itself too much in scientific details and explanations to be really enjoyable. The Holloway Flat Tragedy was at least a pleasant surprise because I’m usually not a fan of Ernest Bramah but this one had none of the things that bothered me about the other stories I know by him (namely extreme racism and Max Carrados making Daredevil’s talents look unimpressive) but this was just a neat (if slightly predictable) mystery (just like The Tea Leaf by Euston and Epson).

Finally, what bothered me that quite a lot of stories in this collection have the bad guy win. And it’s really in the sense of “the villain gets away with it” and not “we’re presented with a person who has completely understandable reasons for murder and doesn’t get caught”. I know that’s much more frequent in short stories than it is in full length crime novels but it’s not something I ever enjoyed.

All in all this made for a rather disappointing collection.