Had you asserted back in 2014 that the republication of two forgotten crime novels would lay the foundation for one of the most celebrated series of GAD reissues in modern times, well, people would have laughed. And yet the British Library Crime Classics collection, under the stewardship of Martin Edwards and Rob Davies, is now over 50 books deep and gathering momentum for another exciting year. And it’s a sure sign of the hale condition of the series that, far from simply reissuing books, they’re now branching out into original translations with this collection of overseas tales. In the words of Ira Gershwin, who’s got the last laugh now?
It’s a shame, then, that ‘The Swedish Match’ (1883) by Anton Chekov gets this off to such a ponderous start. I appreciate the interest in the history of such stories, but really that’s all this has: slight historical curiosity for the mundane explanation for evidential oddities that would be later exploited by the likes of Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr. It’s that uneven balance of melodrama and famously rib-tickling Russian comedy that you’ve come to expect, with the added oddity of the moment it appears that one must “learn” to use the eponymous type of match — either a too literal translation, or something my mind can’t begin to fathom.
‘A Sensible Course of Action’ (1909) by Palle Rosenkrantz [trans. Michael Meyer] is much more like it, and would make a better starting point for the wary. There’s no detection as such, being rather more of a thriller with a tinge of international intrigue, but it is to be commended for the stark morality that reveals a bitter streak about five miles wide in the closing stages. From the historical perspective there is again some interest here, with a seemingly insoluble problem solved via unconventional action, but even that solution (scant such as it is) is questioned in those nihilistic final moments, revealing an awareness of rigour upon which the genre would later be founded.
‘Strange Tracks’ (1911) by Balduin Groller [trans. N.L. Lederer] is alas a step backwards: our detective Dagobert is roused at 6 a.m. with news of a murder, and immediately…
…leaped out of bed, and rushed into the bathroom … He took his usual cold shower, had his customary rub-down by his valet, and then went through the gymnastic exercises with which he always started his day.