#337: Foreign Bodies [ss] (2017) ed. Martin Edwards

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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.

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‘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.

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‘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.

Then, berating the chauffeur-messenger that time is of the essence in these cases, they speed to the scene of the crime…where he sits down to breakfast and a long meeting.  It’s a clear case of still not quite grasping the form, since you are halfway through this 11-page story before you get to the crime, and even then nearly all the pertinent details are withheld.  But that makes no difference, since only really four characters feature: one is Dagobert, one is a friend of his, one is the corpse…guess the fourth.  There is an interesting, if brief, detour into scientific evidence,  but this is clearly a case of someone aping Sherlock Holmes without actually understanding what they were trying to ape.

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We take a hard left turn into very different territory with ‘The Kennel’ (1920) by Maurice Level [trans. Alys Eyre Macklin].  This nine-page story is a very different animal to the others contained herein, revelling in a much harsher setting and attitude.  Indeed, it’s almost Hammett-like in comparison to the Doyle-ish pretensions elsewhere, and as such will likely divide opinions starkly.  I’m not even going to divulge the content or direction of the tale, it’s a short, sharp slap that will linger long in the memory even while you’re not sure what to make of it.

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I remember struggling through, and consequently abandoning, the opening few stories of Maurice Leblanc‘s Eight Strokes of the Clock (1923), and as such did not make it to Footprints in the Snow’.  Which is to my detriment, since it’s a fun, canny story that benefits from the sort of clever reversal that the best Golden Age stories are built on.  A man’s footprints lead through virgin snow to his house, where evidence of his murder and the subsequent flight of the rapscallion who wished to steal his wife away lays scattered around in earnest.  I’m not sure about the whole “hammering down the door” aspect, but the remainder here is more enjoyable than I remember the earlier stories in this collection being.  Time to acquaint myself with the rest, methinks.

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Holmesian pastiche continues a-go-go with ‘The Return of Lord Kingwood’ (1926) by Ivans [trans. Josh Pachter]: a servant requests the presence of the police following the, er, return of Lord Kingwood after a 20-year absence, and upon arrival the following morning they find murder, theft, and flight colouring the mix.  It’s not hugely difficult to figure out, but then the brevity of most short stories from the 1920s and before ensure this is usually the case (I maintain the detective short story wasn’t really mastered as a form until the 1930s), and again its enjoyable and enjoyably written.  The only thing that gave me pause was the adjective used to describe local d’you-think-he-might-be-Irish policeman Patrick O’Leigh at the start of the fourth section…dunno why, but it made me smile.

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While narratively uncomplex, ‘The Stage Box Murder’ (1929) by Paul Rosenhayn [trans. June Head] gets by on charm and invention alone.  Told through a series of letters (we only see one side of the exchange, the replies not really mattering) and newspaper articles, it details a man’s starting up a newspaper in Berlin just as a sensational murder takes place during a performance of Romeo and Juliet.  The series of short, simple scenes help the story fly past, and while you’ll figure out what happened — the how seems to have an impossible element to it that is never really addressed (how did the killer get into that box with its trick lock?) — I defy you not to enjoy this.  And the closing lines are actually somewhat wonderful.

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Some Japanese honkaku next — yay! — with ‘The Spider’ (1930) by Koga Saburo [trans Ho-Ling Wong] offering the expected mix of grotesquery and innovation.  Saburo was a contemporary of Edogawa Rampo and shares many of Rampo’s characteristics, good and bad: the essential idea behind the death of a chemist who gives it up to start studying spiders is plainly ridiculous…but it also works.  It’s weirdness benefits from an unusual setting, a hallmark of much of the honkaku and shin honkaku I’ve been fortunate enough to read, and again this builds to a very effective closing few moments (albeit, a very different effect).  There’s a genius idea at the centre of this, and Saburo exploits it very well indeed.

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One of two stories in this collection crossing over from Locked Room International, ‘The Venom of the Tarantula’ (1933) by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay [trans. Sreejata Guha] is taken from The Realm of the Impossible.  It’s the first impossibility in the collection (Rosenhayn’s unacknowledged one notwithstanding) and my opinion of it remains as at that link above: it’s well-written, but I’m never a fan of “Well, we’ve looked everywhere!!” stories because there’s always one glaring oversight.  Poe perfected this story with ‘The Purloined Letter’ and while I’m sure there have been one or two interesting variations on the theme, most attempts to reinvent it just end up doing the same thing again.  And again.  And again.

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‘Murder à la Carte’ (1931) by Jean-Toussaint Samat is steeped in the sort of creeping menace that was such a speciality of Stanley Ellin’s.  I’m a huge fan of Ellin’s stories and so should love this but, rather like the Level story above, this is a very different tonal piece to the rest of the collection and its deliberate air of irresolution feels more like suspense than the GAD-adjacent pickings on show elsewhere.

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The second impossibility, second example of honkaku, and second crossover story from Locked Room International comes from Keikichi Osaka and ‘The Cold Night’s Clearing’ (1936) [trans Ho-Ling Wong], which is wonderful.  As with Leblanc’s story above, we have tracks in the snow telling a clear story — in this case of a man floating up into the sky in the middle of a snowy field, his tracks becoming fainter and fainter — only for something else to have actually been going on.  This is dark and chilly and bleak, but also all manner of superb, and you’ll get no more out of me because you really should read this without knowing much at all about it.

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Good heavens, do not read ‘The Mystery of the Green Room’ (1936) from Pierre Véry [trans. John Pugmire] without having first read Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) — not only does this story deliberately parallel that one it also spoils it quite roundly.  This is absolutely a story you should read — it’s a joy from start to end: sharply funny, swift, suitably obscure in its theft problem (an unlocked room mystery, if you will), and full of plenty of clever reasoning — but clearly the Leroux was such a totemic work that it’s simply assumed knowledge.  I’d offer up the pun that this is Very good, but it’s better than that: it’s probably my favourite story in here, an absolute coup.  If there’s no more Rintaro Norizuki forthcoming, can we have some Véry instead?

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From such heights the only way is down, and the drop represented by ‘Kippers’ (19??) from the pen of John Flanders [trans. Josh Pachter] is precipitous.  I’m not even sure it really qualifies as a crime story at all, falling to my mind rather more in the Adventure genre, and is simple, uninteresting, and thankfully brief.

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‘The Lipstick and the Teacup’ (1957) by Havank [trans. Josh Pachter] is another case of someone aping Doyle without really getting what they’re trying to ape.  Our detective jumps to a conclusion based on evidence withheld from the reader, and then when the thinking involved is declared it doesn’t hold up: that “obviously” on the penultimate page is decidedly specious, and it’s difficult to know what the guilty party thought they were going to achieve.  It’s an easy enough read, but more because there’s very little of any consequence rather than on account of any stylist of structural brilliance.

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We finish with ‘The Puzzle of the Broken Watch’ (1960) by Maria Elvira Bermudez [trans. Donald A. Yates], which is another competent is undistinguished entry in the annals of the fictional amateur sleuth.  The more of this sort of thing I read, the more I appreciate the keenness of the best Holmes stories, or the cleverest of Christie: it’s easy to simply be paying lip service to their talents simply because that’s what one does when talking about this genre in the relevant era, but they’re actually superb writers when on their game.  I doubt I’ll remember this one in a month or so, but it’s diverting enough for a few pages.  And surely no-one was buying the old “broken watch shows the time of the crime” gag in 1960, were they?  Were they?

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A bit of a mix here, then, as all multi-author collections tend to be.  It definitely has in its favour a commitment to a range of styles and approaches, which means a great many people will find a great many different things to love (and possibly hate) about it.  For me, too many of these drop off where key aspects are required, but I’ll sign up for anything that gives an insight into areas of detective fiction not previously thrown into the limelight; that alone makes it easy to recommend, and the Véry story is simply a joyous bonus.

See also:

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: I think that the stories are included are all of a high standard. There is not one which stands out as hugely inferior from the rest. The wide variety of plots made this an overall entertaining read as you were never sure what you were going to get next. Although there are a mixture of writing styles, all of the authors write well and I enjoyed how some of the tales had more unusual formats.


For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Chinese Orange Mystery from last week as both it and the opening story here have a nationality in their title.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category At least two deaths with different means.

22 thoughts on “#337: Foreign Bodies [ss] (2017) ed. Martin Edwards

  1. This volume has been on my radar for a while now as I’m fond of short stories. They are easy to dip in and out of and don’t require the same investment of time – I’m a very slow reader at the best of times.

    I’ve read a few of these British Library collections – Crimson Snow & Murder at the Manor – and found them a mix in terms of quality, but overall more than enjoyable enough to keep me interested and going back to search out other collections. I have noticed that the first tales included, those written earlier, engage me a lot less. Of course that’s something I’ve noticed in the past with writing in general; pre-WW1 writing has (to me anyway) a very different feel to what came out in the years immediately following the war.

    • I do love the fact that these stories are anthologised chronologically, but I do totally agree that I find it’s usually a few stories in before my GAD interest feels piqued. The same thing happened in the Miraculous Mysteries impossible crime collection — the couple of stories that finish it are superb, and it feels almost like the collection builds to that crescendo.

      I do, however, generally struggle to enjoy short stories: I much prefer the complexity of a novel, and find too many of these schemes in the shorter form too simplistic to really hold focus for any length of time. But then when I find one I love — like the Pierre Very story here, or Rintaro Norizuki’s ‘The Lure of the Green Door’ (I seriously need to stop going on about that story, I’m aware) — I really, really love them. So I suppose that’s some consolation.

      • I hope I didn’t come across as saying that I prefer the short form to the novel all the time. I’m as much a fan of a well constructed and well written novel as the next guy, but I’m equally happy with a nicely put together short as well.
        It all depends on the circumstances – how much time I want to spend on a given story – or even the writer. And I do like Stout’s halfway house option, the novella.

        • I started off suspicious of the novella, but I’ve come to embrace it in recent years. Doesn’t hurt that Erle Stanley Gardner wrote some absolute belters, either…

  2. Looks like we have pretty much the same view on this one, some absolute winners, with a few real duds. Glad you liked Cold Nights Clearing as much as I did as well, and the Véry story is a little masterpiece. It’s a shame that the whole thing has to start off with these stories of ‘historical interest’ as you mentioned, as if anyone is coming to these titles with not much GAD experience they could be put off quickly. I guess the idea is to draw people in with bigger names, but big names doesn’t mean good quality!

    For all it’s flaws I actually quite enjoyed Strange Tracks by Balduin Groller, one of your one stars. Granted it is totally obvious who the killer is, and their is pastiche-a-plenty without quite knowing what they are doing. But I thought the reason someone would take 30 minutes rather than 15 minutes on a journey they know well, and the idea that the murder, as the detective states, should have been committed by someone who was a native to the area, but equally someone who wasn’t a native (and both ideas can be deduced and proved from the same evidence) I thought was pretty satisfying for 1911.

    • I should possibly cut ‘Strange Tracks’ a little slack, but man that detective irritated me: rush or don’t rush, there is no middle ground, and I find “character criticises another on some basic precept to show how advanced their own thinking is” a very lazy and frequently misapplied form of showing how damn smart the sleuth is. So maybe I’m harsher here on more personal grounds than normal.

      Also, I have also read quite a few Holmes imitators, and so my patience with people not getting what they’re trying to rip off is somewhat worn out…

  3. I’m a bit wary of this. An anthology based on simply featuring stories from authors in different parts of the world seems to be a concept that is really disappointing – odds are they have nothing more in common than being, well… foreign.

    And this is what I get from your review as well. Very different types of stories (and some of those types are definitely not what I’m looking for) with very varying quality. Doesn’t really seem to be my thing at all.

    I like anthologies to have a common theme according to content, not the trappings around them. I’d be just as wary of an anthology where everything they have in common is that they are set on a Sunday, or that the main female protagonist is called Mary Sue…

    • Yeah, you make a great point; the concept of simply not originally being written in English is a good link, but you’re right that perhaps an additional level of connection would be helpful — foreign ship-based mysteries, or locked room mysteries like The Realm of the Impossible. As Colin notes below, too, the dates veer quite widely around the traditional Golden Age, too, so there’s an a variation in tones and styles and everything. The inclusion of ‘Kippers’ in here makes no sense to me at all, it’s wildly different from the rest.

      But, well, you gotta try these things. Hopefully this will be very successful and in turn lead into a second, more structured anthology.

    • Hmm, I’m not sure I’d be all that bothered about a loose theme, or the even the lack of one. I know the British Library anthologies thus far have had more focused links but, personally speaking, I wouldn’t let the absence put me off. I remember reading Ellery Queen’s Murdercade last summer and (I think) the only comnection between the stories there was the fact they had appeared in EQMM. I had a good enough time with the book regardless – some were better and more engaging than others but their being, broadly speaking, crime yarns satisfied me.

      • Fair enough; I don’t really read much in the way of shot story collections, and those I do tend to either be by one same author or to have some sort of link (impossible crimes, railway mysteries, etc). My personal tastes might have ,ade me a little resistant to picking up something that’s just “Hey, here’s a bunch of stories”, but if I were to examine that closely it’d probably be some specious nonsense as to why… 🙂

        • Each to his own of course, and I can only speak for myself in such matters. I do understand how themed collections are attractive and maybe draw more readers but I suppose I’m just thinking that most short stories made their first appearance in papers and periodicals where the only link, if one was present at all, was the crime/detective aspect.

      • I think my main problem is that I want mysteries when I read, and my definition of mystery is not as wide as the common definition of the word (see my blog for a discussion on that).

        For example, I bought the Big Lizard Book of Christmas Mysteries a while ago and read it, because I love Christmas and I love mysteries and I especially love Christmas mysteries. I may blog on that anthology a bit later on as well, so I’ll not write too much about it here, but the problem was, yes, most of the stories were tied to Christmas somehow, but there were very, very few mysteries. Those that were were written by the usual suspects, and they were stories I’d generally read before. I think on the whole there was one or two stories that were new to me and that I genuinely liked. There were definitely some well-written stories in there, but not the kind of stuff that I want to read.

  4. You seemed to have enjoyed this collection less than I did, (thanks for the mention), but I think we had similar favourites. The Kennel – Wow! Talk about sinister! If nothing else the fact that many of these stories from around the world, have smatterings of Poe or Doyle, shows how much the work of these disseminated.

    • Yeah — ‘The Kennel’ is crazy sinister, and really quite a lovely change of tone. Reminded me a little of Roald Dahl to an extent, which I forgot to mention in my review.

  5. I published “Murder a la Carte” on my blog in its entirety as part of a Tuesday Night Bloggers salute to poison in Golden Age mysteries. This was back in June 2016. I found the story in an online archive of a defunct magazine called The Living Age. To date the post of that story has only 273 hits and zero comments. I figured no one really cared about it or really even read it all. But I bet that’s where Martin Edwards found the story.

    If you read a lot of Edwardian and early 20th century fiction you will discover that much of it is structured like “Strange Tracks” with its minutiae about everyday routine and a “slow start” in getting to the main action. The unintentional pastiche was perhaps wholly intended as it was with many of the writers who aped popular bestselling detective fiction like Headon Hill in the UK and Isabel Ostrander in the US. Sounds to me like he was doing exactly what everyone else was doing in 1911.

    Maurice Level was one of the most popular writers for the Grand Guignol Theater troupe. Several of his stories were adapted for the stage for that theater company best known for essentially creating “slasher” entertainment. I believe he also wrote a few original one act pieces especially for the troupe.

    • Hahaha, that’s brilliant, John — sorry, I completely missed you publishing that. Does make one wonder what else is to be found in the pages of these defunct magazines. Well, actually, I think Tony Medawar’s forthcoming anthology might at least partially answer that…

      I think the tendency to dwell on slow minutiae and build-up is why I haven’t read a great deal of Edwardian-era crime fiction. I know there’s a huge amount about the societal aspect of such an era to be gleaned from careful reading of such, but when I got into this kind of thing as a young man I didn’t have the patience for al that folderol. In media res, please! As my patience grows, and my interest in the more obscure history of the genre is stoked by further reading, perhaps I’ll go back and enjoy that sort of thing more. Time will tell.

      And, hey, more Level would be hugely appreciated since it exists — anyone wanna publish it? I’d read more of his brand of sinister happenings very happily indeed…

  6. Sounds like an interesting mix of stories, even if some are less successful than others. I have this on my TBR pile but I appreciate the warning about the potential spoiler. I will make sure I read the inspiration before tackling that short story!

  7. Thanks for the review. 🙂 I confess I faltered after the first three stories – which makes sense given the ratings you awarded to Chekov, Rosenkrantz and Groller. A pity, since the subsequent two stories received 4 stars each…

    • The Rosenkrantz is entertaining enough, it’s just brief and not overly complex. However, I understand there’s a translatio of one of his novels coming out fairly soon from Abandoned Bookshop, and I’m curious enough to read that on this evidence.

      It’s really not alll bad as a collection, as I say, I just don’t go for everything as fully as I’d like to. But some of these ae gems tha I’ve very pleased to’ve had the chance to read.

  8. This collection has The Spider in it? Hm, might have to check it out for that alone, I missed that issue of EQMM. (Although I would have probably picked this up anyway, I’m interested in these anthologies and will probably end up with all of them, as long as Martin Edwards remains editor.)

    • Yeah, ‘The Spider’ is really very good indeed. Another honkaku author for us all to hope to see in translation before too long…

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