Serpents in Eden

“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.

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories

Title: The Christmas Card Crime (and other stories)
Editor: Martin Edwards

A Christmas party is punctuated by a gunshot under a policeman’s watchful eye. A jewel heist is planned amidst the glitz and glamour of Oxford Street’s Christmas shopping. Lost in a snowstorm, a man finds a motive for murder. 

This collection of mysteries explores the darker side of the festive season – from unexplained disturbances in the fresh snow to the darkness that lurks beneath the sparkling decorations. 

With neglected stories by John Bude and E.C.R. Lorac, as well as tales by little-known writers of crime fiction, Martin Edwards blends the cosy atmosphere of the fireside story with a chill to match the temperature outside. This is a gripping seasonal collection sure to delight mystery fans.

We open with an old acquaintance for mystery readers: Baroness Orczy. A Christmas Tragedy features her Lady Molly of Scotland Yard and like in some previous Orczy-stories I read, I got the feeling that she didn’t have a high opinion of women (unless they were her precious main characters). They’re stupid, heartless, cruel or any combination of those characteristics (and they’re always out to ruin poor men’s lives). We get a similar moral from John Bingham’s Crime at Lark Cottage, only it manages to be even worse because it also tells us that a man won’t hit his wife unless she gives him a really good reason.

Other stories are more festive: The title-giving Christmas Card Crime by Donald Stewart has many of the typical Christmas-mystery setpieces: a group of strangers are stranded in the middle of nowhere and suddenly one of the group members is found murdered and another has disappeared. Stewart has a somewhat unfortunate love for epithets. The story is full of the Scotland Yard man, the dramatist, the little cockney or the landlord which is really grating but otherwise, the story is fun. The only other that fits in more classical Christmas crime story mould is E. C. R. Lorac’s A Bit of Wire Pulling. It also features a group that is stuck together over Christmas, murder and strange tracks in the snow. It’s also a story that is told by one of the witnesses long after the events have taken place and he does it in a way that I found somewhat hard to follow. Another story in which we are also told the events long afterwards is Ronald Knox’ The Motive and the less said about that one the better.

Apart from Orczy, there are also some other well-known names in this collection. There’s the master of the locked room mystery John Dickson Carr’s Blind Man’s Hood (written under his pseudonym, Carter Dickson) and while I understand that locked room mysteries are not the most realistic pieces of crime-fiction and often require an extremely special set of circumstances to work this was a bit too out there for me. Frances Durbridge also lets Paul Temple have his White Christmas in Switzerland but it reads more like a single chapter from a full-length novel than a proper short story. If you’re a fan of the British Crime Library Classic series you’ll probably also have heard of John Bude. I wasn’t too fond of his Pattern of Revenge because I’ve never been a fan of mysteries where nobody does any detecting and the bad guy just kindly confesses everything.

We also get some stories that were written from the POV of the bad guy. Cyril Hare’s Sister Bessie or your Old Leech is somewhat weak and has a twist you can see coming from a mile off but the other two almost make the otherwise underwhelming collection worth it. Selwyn Jepson’s By The Sword has a delightful twist and a killer so unlikeable that it is incredibly satisfying to see him getting arrested. In ‘Twixt The Cup And The Lip Julian Symons describes a jewellery robbery that is well planned but still goes incredibly wrong and it’s great fun to read just how wrong it goes.

Crimson Snow

Crimson Snow brings together a dozen vintage crime stories set in winter. Welcome to a world of Father Christmases behaving oddly, a famous fictional detective in a Yuletide drama, mysterious tracks in the snow—-, and some very unpleasant carol singers. The mysterious events chronicled by a distinguished array of contributors in this volume frequently take place at Christmas. There’s no denying that the supposed season of goodwill is a time of year that lends itself to detective fiction. On a cold night, it’s tempting to curl up by the fireside with a good mystery. And more than that, claustrophobic house parties, when people may be cooped up with long-estranged relatives, can provide plenty of motives for murder. Including forgotten stories by great writers such as Margery Allingham, as well as classic tales by less familiar crime novelists, each story in this selection is introduced by the great expert on classic crime, Martin Edwards. The resulting volume is an entertaining and atmospheric compendium of wintry delights.

The opening story – Fergus Hume’s The Ghost’s Touch – features some well-known mystery setpieces: a Christmas party, two cousins – one of them inherited the family estate and the other the family fortune – and a haunted bedroom but doesn’t quite go where you expect. Sadly it’s a bit too short to make much of that fact. It’s over before you have time to be surprised. There was a similar problem with Julian Symons’ The Santa Claus Club. The setting is a Christmas charity dinner and one of the participants has been receiving threatening letters. The dinner happens. A murder happens. The murderer is caught. Symons only takes slightly longer than me to narrate these events.

Crimson Snow also gives us two stories some golden age connoisseurs will look down on because they’re -gasp– pulp. One of them, The Chopham Affair, is by one of the masters of pulp, Edgar Wallace. And no, he isn’t exactly known for writing deep psychological masterpieces that give insight into the human soul – or particularly clever ‘fair’ mysteries and this story about an unpleasant man who makes his money by seducing women and blackmailing them is neither. But it is great fun. The same is true for Victor Gunn’s Death in December. It again gives us the well-loved setting of a snowed-in Christmas party at a manor with a house ghost. It also features a villain whose plan is ridiculously complicated, even for the mystery world where people sometimes built elaborate contraptions to simulate the sound of a gunshot so that they have an alibi. The detective, meanwhile, solves this case because he has an exceptionally good sense of smell. Realism even in the broadest mystery sense? No. Fun? Hell yes.

Margery Allingham’s The Man With The Sack takes us back to the beloved setting of a Christmas party. The host’s daughter has a boyfriend her parents (especially her mother) disapprove of because he’s the son of a criminal. When some jewels go missing she has little doubt about who is responsible – unlike Campion. It’s not an extraordinary story – and the whodunit is not particularly surprising (the how is at least somewhat interesting) but it’s solid entertainment and that’s more than can be said about some of the other stories in this collection. There’s S. C. Roberts’ Holmes Pastiche Christmas Eve that features a criminal whose plan doesn’t make sense no matter which way I look at it and a Holmes that has been replaced by a very stupid doppelganger. Meanwhile, Christopher Bush’s Murder at Christmas tells us a lot about golf and possibly somewhere between all that also a bit about murder but I was too bored by all the golf talk to pay much attention.

Michael Gilbert’s Deep and Crisp and Even isn’t quite as bad. The main character showed some promise but the story didn’t. It’s hard to say much about it without spoiling the end so let’s just say this story is on the humorous side and involves a misunderstanding. And the author pokes some fun at the character misunderstanding things. Only, I could easily see why he would misunderstand things the way he did. Suggestings his actions were stupid – or at least very over-eager – felt weird.

While in most of the stories the setting over Christmas was at least in some way relevant to the story, in some the setting seems very coincidentally. Especially Off The Tiles by Ianthe Jerrold could have been set on any wet day. That doesn’t make it a bad story but it’s not one of the more overwhelming ones. In Macdonald Hastings’ Mr Cork’s Secret the feeling that it lacks the proper seasonal feeling can probably be attributed to the fact that the climax is set on a yacht somewhere on the French Riviera but it’s still an entertaining story with fun twists and turns.

Josephine Bell’s The Carol Singers which closes this collection is rather unusual for a golden age mystery in two ways. For one it’s quite dark and doesn’t act as if murder is just an intellectual challenge instead of a human tragedy. It also lacks the typical set-up with a victim and suspects which were all close to the victim. The death in this story is caused by a burglary gone wrong and as such the question, not just ‘whodunit’ but also ‘how do we find them in the first place?’ The whole story reminded me a bit of a police procedural episode: a cold opening that shows us the last moments of the victim and then some more or less realistic police investigation with questions that lead from one suspect to the next (and even some action and chase at the end). To come back to the hypothetical mystery connoisseurs who already really hated the stories by Wallace and Gunn: He will probably also dislike this one. For me, it was quite unexpected, and admittedly felt somewhat out of place in this collection where murder is otherwise treated less darkly but it was still a good story.

Miraculous Mysteries

33845739

Locked-room mysteries and other impossible crime stories have been relished by puzzle-lovers ever since the invention of detective fiction. Fiendishly intricate cases were particularly well suited to the cerebral type of detective story that became so popular during the ‘golden age of murder’ between the two world wars. But the tradition goes back to the days of Wilkie Collins, and impossible crime stories have been written by such luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. This anthology celebrates their work, alongside long-hidden gems by less familiar writers. Together these stories demonstrate the range and high accomplishment of the classic British impossible crime story over more than half a century.

Rating: C+

Of course, impossible crimes immediately makes one think of the typical locked room mystery: a room, locked from the inside, with a dead body. Most of the stories are exactly that but a few also feature miraculously disappearing weapons, bodies, trains or whole houses.

The Lost Special – Arthur Conan Doyle 😐

How can a whole train disappear without a trace? The case is once again solved by…nobody really.

This story had some similarities to the Conan Doyle story in Blood on the Tracks and not only because both stories feature a seemingly impossible crime involving a train. Just like The Man with the Watches, this story has no detective, just somebody involved in the crime who explains it all, once it won’t have any consequences for him anymore. That’s…cheap. And while I fully understand Doyle’s reluctance to make up a detective, even just for a single story, this simply isn’t what I expect from a ‘proper’ mystery.

The Thing Invisible – William Hope Hodgson ☹

An invisible thing held the dagger that stabbed the butler in the chapel. That’s what everybody who was there when it happens claims. So was there really a ghost or is there another explanation? Carnacki the Ghostfinder investigates.

Carnacki is yet another ‘rival’ of Sherlock Holmes and the stories are set up in a similar way, with the narrator being a friend of Carnacki. But the difference is that the two don’t actually work together. In The Thing Invisible Carnacki comes to visit the narrator after he solved the case and tells him all about it which rather defeats the purpose in my opinion. Especially because a sizeable part of the narration is spent on Carnacki explaining how scared he was in the chapel, with frequent interjections a la ‘You must really understand how terrified I was at that point’ which rather killed the atmosphere instead adding to it. Which is a shame, because if you strip away all that, a clever impossible crime remains. But I almost didn’t notice because I got so bored while reading.

The Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Room – Sax Rohmer 😃

Two people end up dead in a museum room. Both times a Greek harp has been removed from its case but not stolen. It’s still in the room.

After the – for Martin Edwards – very lukewarm introduction to this story I didn’t expect much but this story is fun. It’s clearly pulp fiction with its high drama, impossible science, beautiful women and ridiculous coincidences. But it’s also fun.

The Aluminium Dagger – R. Austin Freeman 😃

An unlikeable man is stabbed in a locked room by a left-handed person. But was he really?

Thorndyke is…reliable. I never came across a Thorndyke-story I didn’t enjoy but I can also see how Freeman’s obsession with scientific details isn’t for everybody. Still, a very realistic locked-room mystery is a nice change

The Miracle of Moon Crescent – G.K. Chesterton ☹

Three Atheists stand in a room. Behind them a locked door. A priest walks in and wants to speak to the man behind the locked door.  The man is missing.

I swear the Father Brown stories I’ve read before weren’t that…preachy. Or perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me since I watched much more adaptations (which in some cases are only very loosely based on the stories) than read Chesterton. This story felt like a religious treatise with some murder in the background and that was rather…exhausting. And dull.

The Invisible Weapon – Nicholas Oide 😃

The case seems clear-cut. A man is dead. Another man who had a motive to kill him stayed in the same house and he had the opportunity. But there’s a tiny detail: the murder weapon is nowhere to be found and the suspect wouldn’t have had the time to get rid of it. How can you batter someone to death with your bare hands?

Even though the question is not “Who killed the man behind closed doors?” but “Where did the weapon go?” this is one of the most typical locked room mysteries in this collection. The solution is brilliant but also plain and simple once explained (and relies on some very convenient coincidences)

The Diary of Death – Marten Cumberland 😐

A crazed serial killer has developed an obsession with a once-famous actress. She died impoverished but left a diary behind in which she accused her former friends of abandoning her. Somebody has gotten hold of that diary and is now out for revenge. One of the actress’s friends is convinced he is next so he takes precautions and locks himself up. But…

…you will be surprised by what happens next.

Gif: Shocked goofer

The focus of this story isn’t that much the impossible aspect (the solution to that is rather simple) but the story of the actress and who (and why) would be out to avenge her. As such it is…nice.

The Broadcast Murder – Grenville Robbins ☹

A radio announcer is murdered live on air. All the nation could listen to it. But when the police enter the radio-station there is no body to be found.

 The Music Room – Sapper ☹

The owner of a mansion entertains his guests with a story about a decades-old unsolved murder about an unknown man, found in a locked room, beaten to death. One day later there’s a very recent body in one of the rooms.

I’m putting these two together because I was bothered by very similar things in them. For me, a satisfying ending is important for a mystery.  That doesn’t mean that it has to turn out that the most unlikeable character has to turn out to be the killer and everybody else gets to live happily ever after. But some sort of feeling that in the end, people got what they deserved is nice. And that isn’t the case in either of those stories. In one case the guilty party even remains completely free (for reasons that make no sense at all), in the other, the author takes great pains to point out how unsatisfying and depressing the ending is.

Death at 8.30 – Christopher St. John Sprigg 😐

A blackmailer is on the loose. He demands money and threatens to kill when his demands aren’t met and he has done so already three times. When he finds another victim and promises death at 8.30 on a certain day, the police want to stop him and make sure the man is guarded well when that time comes.

Spoiler: it goes badly. But I called the ‘how’ very quickly, and the rest of the story was somewhat underwhelming.

Too Clever By Half – G.D.H. and Margaret Cole 😃

A man shots himself. His brother-in-law – who had reason to kill him – was downstairs with a group of people when the shot fired. So was it really suicide? Or is the brother-in-law perhaps…*drumroll*…to clever by half?

Another quite classical story told in a somewhat unusual manner but still fun.

Locked In – E. Charles Vivian 😐

Suicide seems to run in the family when a man shoots himself twenty-three years after his father. There seems to be no question that it was suicide since it happened behind closed doors. But is it really? (No it’s not)

Nothing special. And a solution that felt like cheating.

The Haunted Policeman – Dorothy L. Sayers ❤

While making his rounds a constable hears a blood-curdling scream. It comes from house number 13 and when he peeks through the letter-box he sees a dead body. But when he returns with a fellow officer there is no house number 13. And when they check all the houses on the street there is no body – and no interior that looks like the one the constable saw. Fortunately, the constable later bumps into Lord Peter (who needs fresh air after the stressful experience of watching his wife deliver their son) who can’t resist such a good mystery.

And it is a great one. It is again a very typical impossible mystery – with a solution that makes sense but is also quite insane – but Wimsey is a great character.
The final three stories The Sands of Thyme by Michael Innes, Beware of the Trains by Edmund Crispin and The Villa Marie Celeste by Margery Allingham are all fairly short and there is little to say about them. They’re all enjoyable but not particularly memorable.

All-in-all I did enjoy Miraculous Mysteries more than Blood on the Tracks but that has to do with the fact that I enjoy trying to figure the how of an impossible mystery more than reading about trains.

Blood on the tracks

cover136379-medium

“Never had I been given a tougher problem to solve, and never had I been so utterly at my wits’ end for a solution.”

A signalman is found dead by a railway tunnel. A man identifies his wife as a victim of murder on the underground. Two passengers mysteriously disappear between stations, leaving behind a dead body.

Trains have been a favourite setting of many crime writers, providing the mobile equivalent of the “locked-room” scenario. Their enclosed carriages with a limited number of suspects lend themselves to seemingly impossible crimes. In an era of cancellations and delays, alibis reliant upon a timely train service no longer ring true, yet the railway detective has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the twenty-first century.

Both train buffs and crime fans will delight in this selection of fifteen railway-themed mysteries, featuring some of the most popular authors of their day alongside less familiar names. This is a collection to beguile even the most wearisome commuter.

Rating: C+

I have to say I love the sentence “In an era of cancellations and delays, alibis reliant upon a timely train service no longer ring true”. Clearly, nobody has been hit harder by the decline of the railways than poor mystery writers who have lost such a great plot-device…

While one might think that ‘railway related mysteries’ limits the type of stories one can include in this book there is some variety. In many cases, they are simply a sub-set of locked-room mysteries: somebody (or something) disappeared from a moving train (but the how is different every time). Sometimes the train provides the murder-method (or the means of masking the murder) and sometimes the train is mere coincidence (The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face opens in a train but the actual crime had been committed somewhere else and was in no way connected to a train or the railway).

Of course, the stories also vary in quality. No matter how popular railway mysteries were, not every writer did his best work in (short) railway fiction. (Sayer’s story is nowhere near as brilliant as her long fiction). My personal preferences also play a role (I’m not a big fan of mysteries told from the POV of the killer. Or of occult detectives).

Continue reading “Blood on the tracks”

Keikichi Osaka: The Ginza Ghost

Cover Keikichi Osaka: The Ginza GhostTitel: The Ginza Ghost
Author: Keikichi Osaka

Although the Japanese form of Golden Age detective fiction was re-launched in the early 1980s as shin honkaku by Soji Shimada and Yukito Ajatsuji, the original honkaku dates from the 1930s and one of its pioneers was Keikichi Osaka. The Ginza Ghost is a collection of twelve of his best stories, almost all impossible crimes. Although the solutions are strictly fair-play, there is an unreal, almost hallucinatory quality to them.

Rating: C+

There were a few stories that stood out for me in Foreign Bodies and Keikichi Osaka’s did it for being much darker than the rest. It wasn’t my absolute favourite but it turned out to be the only one where it was easy to find more by the author in translation.

The stories in this collection are also all darker than what readers of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie might be used to. The author doesn’t shy away from detailed descriptions of how a body looks after a brutal murder. But it never feels like either goriness for the sake of it (as it often does in modern thrillers) or the slightly condescending Well, murder is brutal and gory and if you are reading about it for your entertainment you have to be able to deal with it-attitude that some crime novels have. It simply fits the overall tone of the story.

And while there still are stories where the motive is plain great or jealousy, there are also many where more complex emotions are behind the events of the story. Some of those make for an interesting change from the often puzzle-focussed (Western) detective fiction. Others veer more into the ridiculous melodrama territory. Part might be blamed on a geographical and temporal culture clash but some of the stories, especially the one the introduction promised to be an incredibly moving tragedy, had me feel nothing except the urge to roll my eyes.

The topic of this collection is impossible crimes so this isn’t a collection of all of Osaka’s stories featuring a certain character or from a certain period in his career. The common denominator of the stories is their apparent impossibility: a dead person commits a murder, someone disappears from an island from which there was no possible escape, a car disappears from a straight road that has no side-streets and other variations of locked room mysteries…

While I enjoy those kinds of mysteries, this collection doesn’t do itself any favours by limiting itself to this theme. There are twelve stories in total; three feature the same twist and three others very similar explanations for why something seemed very different from what it actually was.

Now he isn’t the first writer who recycles ideas (*cough* The Red-Headed League and The Stockbroker’s Clerk) and it is entirely possible that looking at his whole body of work there are only a couple of repetitions and the editor’s attempt to collect these ‘impossible crimes’ meant that he ended up with some similar twist. Since this is his only work that appeared in translation, I can’t tell.

But if I’m honest: even if there were more of his stories translated I wouldn’t rush to read them. Osaka has a rather exhausting writing-style. When e.g. in a Sherlock Holmes story somebody comes to Holmes and tells him about something that happened earlier, they will still sound like a narrator. In other words, Alice telling Holmes about her confrontation with Bob will read like this:

I rushed to his room and slammed the door behind me.
“You fiend!”, I cried, “You were behind it all along!”
He turned towards me and laughed, “Of course I was.”

Osaka lets people tell stories in a much more realistic fashion:

I rushed to his room and yelled at him that he had been behind it all along. He didn’t deny it and just laughed.

(With apologies to both Doyle and Osaka who are much better writers than I am but you should get the gist).

With three or four stories in The Ginza Ghost that have somebody tell the story long after it has happened, that’s a lot of recounting of events with indirect speech etc. And while that is the more realistic way to talk, it makes for more difficult reading. It’s hard to focus on long walls of text.

It was still an interesting experience to read these stories as someone whose idea of detective/mystery stories was formed by (Western)-European authors but I can’t quite sing the same praises for Osaka as the editor of this collection does in his introduction.


This was a read for the Kill you Darlings game: Suspect: Arthur Conan Doyle (Read a book that is a mystery or a collection of short stories)

Suspect: Arthur Conan Doyle

The Rivals: Tales of Sherlock Holmes’ Rival Detectives

The Rivals: Tales of Sherlock Holmes' Rival Detectives

Title: The Rivals: Tales of Sherlock Holmes’ Rival Detectives

Lucy Coleman is a journalist who is supposed to write an article about the great Sherlock Holmes. Hoping that somebody who worked together with him several times can share some insight she seeks out Inspector Lestrade. But Inspector Lestrade is sick of Sherlock Holmes (and not only because he is described as rat-faced in these stories). Why is everybody talking about him when there were so many other detectives who solved cases that were just as impressive or even more so than those of Holmes? It doesn’t take Lucy long to persuade Lestrade to tell her about these Rivals.

Rating: D+

The framing of these stories is a bit odd: Lestrade doesn’t only tell the stories, he was involved in some of them. Sometimes only as a bystander who happens to be near the plot and sometimes replacing the character who was the assistant in the original stories. The actual work is still done by Dupin, van Dusen & Co.

The Murders on the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe

A brutal double-murder in a locked room. How could it have happened? And who would have the motive to murder an unassuming mother and her daughter? Not that detective Dupin is looking for a motive…he has a very unique idea about who the killer might be…(oh come on. Is there anybody left who doesn’t know what’s going on?)

I am not 100% sure if I’ve read that story before. I think I did but my dislike for Poe might also stem from any of his other works I had to read at some point. I did know the twist but that might as well be because so many mysteries make references to it. In any case, listening to the story did not change my opinion on it. It’s stupid. I’ll take any of the weaker Holmes stories over The Murders on the Rue Morgue any day.

The Problem of Cell 13 by Jacques Futrelle

S. F. X. van Dusen makes a bet: in just one week he will escape from a prison cell that is considered inescapable. The director of the prison is, of course, convinced that this is impossible.

But surprisingly it is not! All van Dusen needs is a friend who is in on his plan and willing to help. Well, and he has to hope that the wardens agree to fulfill his strange requests. But then it’s easy…well as long as the cell has the right architectural features. Which honestly makes it a lot less impressive. It’s also all very theoretical: there is no actual crime, nothing is really at stake, it’s just a story to show off how clever van Dusen is.

Murder By Proxy by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

Jonathan’s uncle Tilley is hell-bent on stopping him from marrying Julia, the woman he loves. He can’t take away Jonathan’s inheritance since it’s entailed but he can refuse to support Jonathan as long as he lives.
When Tilley is murdered and Jonathan is the only one with an opportunity, h
is desperate brother calls on Paul Beck to save Jonathan from the gallows.

Unlike the previous stories, this is very much a classic mystery: an evil uncle, an upright young man who gets caught up in a horrible crime…and it needs a genius detective to discover the ingenious method the true killer used. It’s nothing new but Paul Beck (with his love for gardening) is a nice character. Though I might be slightly biased because in the audio play he is voiced by Anton Lesser, whom I love since Endeavour. A great show by the way and you should all watch it. There was a tiger, once.

tumblr_o19gm74Z2Z1txj6byo5_400

Mystery of Redstone Manor by Catherine Louisa Pirkis

Loveday Brooke only wanted to visit St. Paul’s cathedral before she returns home to America but when she finds a dying man there she is drawn into a web of secrets and spies. Fortunately, Loveday is no damsel in distress and knows exactly what to do (even if she has to make it up as she goes along).

On the one hand, it’s very cool to have a female main character who really does things instead of fainting at the first vague sign of danger. But on the other, she has more in common with someone like Richard Hannay than with Sherlock Holmes and I’m just not that much into spy-stories. So my only basis for comparison is the movie The 39 Steps and unlike that Mystery of Redstone Manor does not make me wonder if the writer has ever met a woman so that’s definitely a plus.

The Problem of the Superfluous Finger by Jacques Futrelle

A woman storms into a physician’s practice and demands he should amputate part of her perfectly healthy finger. When he refuses she takes drastic measures. Only a genius like van Dusen can discover the reasoning behind her actions.

Because everyone else is an idiot. Including the bad guys who could have easily gotten away with it if they had had more than one brain cell between them. But as it is van Dusen only appears clever because everyone else is an idiot.

The Clue of the Silver Spoons by Robert Barr

Sophia Gibb asks Eugène Valmont for help. She has hosted a number of dinner parties, always with the same guests. Every time an item from one of the guests was stolen: a watch, some letters or money. The thief could only have been one of the guests but she trusts all of them. So who committed these thefts? And why?

The mystery is nice and has everything I want from that kind of story but Valmont got on my nerves approximately two seconds after he appeared for the first time. I have occasionally complained that many of Holmes’ rivals are just devices who move the plot forward at the right time but have no characteristics of any kind.
Valmont has characteristics: he likes food. Like really. Not any food, good food. He will literally not shut up about food. We first meet him in a restaurant where he eats and talks about eating. When Sophia Gibb asks for his help he immediately mentions the cook she employs who is apparently pretty famous…that’s not really a good characterisation.

The Intangible Clue by Anna Katherine Green

Lady Violet investigates the brutal murder of an old woman. The woman lived alone, the houses beside her own are empty so no neighbor could have seen or heard anything. The murder left nothing behind. So how should she solve this case?

This is the first story where the whole set-up of the framing-device goes badly wrong. Because at the beginning of The Intangible Clue, Lestrade announces that Holmes could solve a case where the only clue where five orange pips but that he never solved a case where there were no clues at all.
The no clues Lady Violet has are: footprints in the dust, a teakettle and an eyewitness who conveniently turns up. The way she reads these clues is still clever and impressive but not cleverer than anything Holmes does.

Apart from that (spoiler. Highlight to show) there is a strange scene at the end where they imply that Violet murdered her own husband. I don’t think that it is part of the original stories (but I only glanced over them) and I don’t see the point of it.

The Game Played in the Dark by Ernest Bramah

Max Carrados works on a case involving missing compromising letters which could derail an upcoming royal wedding. But in the middle of that investigation, he is asked to investigate the theft of valuable coins, and events take a surprising turn.

Max Carrados is a blind detective. And having a disabled main character in a story from that era does make for interesting reading. But it feels like Carrados has to ‘make up’ for his blindness by being even more of a genius than all the other genius Victorian detectives. Not only can he distinguish smells and sounds in an instant, he also makes his deductions in record-speed, and never worries about anything.
Many of Holmes’s contemporaries are dull because they have no character. Carrados is boring because he’s an absolute superhuman.

The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem by Ernest Bramah

A train-crash leaves more than 30 people dead. The cause seems to be a human error: the train-driver swears the signal light was green, the signalman swears it was red. While trying to figure out who is lying Carrados soon discovers that much more sinister forces are at play.

In my review for Foreign Bodies I mentioned that I know I have to expect problematic content in old stories but that I also wonder why modern editors can’t take some care when selecting stories for new anthologies. And this is again the case here. The bad guy in this story objects to the actions of the British Empire in India…but since we can’t have a criminal with actually reasonable motives he’s actually just in it for the money because really all these Indians shouldn’t complain…or something.

And because that isn’t enough the audio play adds some Fenians that weren’t even part of the original story. The only reason for this is too add some more problematic elements to the story…tumblr_nb05e9Wl3H1tiqwkoo1_500

A Snapshot by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

When old Carmondy is murdered the culprit seems to be clear. After all, he has done everything to stop his niece Margaret from marrying Gore even though he and Margaret love each other. Carmondy even threatens to expose a dark secret from Gore’s past. But as it turns out he wasn’t the only one with a motive.

Once again, I want to question the choices of the person who put together this anthology. Though this time it’s not because of any offensive contents but rather because the basic premise ‘evil uncle keeping young lovers apart and then gets murdered’ is exactly the same as the other Bodkin-story. (Or was he simply not a very original writer?)
Beck remains a character who walks the line between ‘dull plot-device’ and ‘quirky for the sake of quirkiness’ and behind the somewhat unoriginal plot, the story gets much darker than one would expect. There’s an allusion to sexual abuse (which might not have been in the original) and a proper look at the darker parts of the British Empire (looking at the author, this could well have been in the original but since the Beck stories aren’t available online I can’t confirm that). Overall, I enjoyed this one as well, even though this time Beck wasn’t played by Anton Lesser.

Seven-Seven-Seven City by Julius Chambers

Thanks to faulty telephone-wiring Edith overhears a couple planning to murder the woman’s husband. She has to stop them. But how, when she doesn’t know their names or where and when they are planning to strike?

Well, as it turns out there are convenient trains and church bells in the background that help Edith with locating the place the call came from (she won’t be the last detective that is helped by such coincidences but – considering the story was originally published in 1903 – she might well have been the first). Apart from the novelty of a phone-based mystery the story also offers also a surprising twist and a nice Miss Marple-like sleuth. Nothing outstanding but interesting.

The Moabite Cypher by R Austen Freeman

Lestrade is supposed to protect Pastor Wayne Kaplan, an American preacher who claims to have healing powers and who has received death-threats. Things take a surprising turn when he runs into Dr. Thorndyke – and then both of them into a dying thief who has a mysterious letter in his possession.

Well…despite the addition of the pastor this is still the same story about which I already talked and about which my thoughts haven’t changed.

 

In the end, I wasn’t too fond of this collection. For once because of the choice of stories: it turns out I’m not overwhelmed by either van Dusen or Max Carrados and they featured in two stories each. But I also think ‘bitter Lestrade screaming about detectives that were so much better than Holmes’ doesn’t work too well. It starts out OK, with him only pointing out that others also did great work but that everybody only talks about Holmes. But with time it turns into ‘actually Holmes sucked, he is only famous because of Watson, all other detectives were better and also Holmes and Watson were always mean to me’.

I don’t think that’s a particularly clever marketing strategy for a collection that has Sherlock Holmes in quite huge letters on the cover and which is probably aimed at people like me – people who like Holmes but are also curious about the other detectives of that time.