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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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?
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.
‘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.
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?
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.
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.