I can’t believe that there is a GAD enthusiast who doesn’t look forward to the annual Bodies from the Library collections so expertly curated by Tony Medawar. In bringing to public awareness some of the forgotten, neglected, or simply unknown stories that the great and the good of the form produced, these collections have become a source of great excitement, and a must-read for even the most ardent student of the Golden Age.
I have read, enjoyed, and failed to review the three previous entries in this series — mainly because I draw out the reading of multi-author collections over several weeks or sometimes months, and forget what I wanted to say about the beginning stories by the time I get to the end — but having recently spoken to Tony about the brilliant work he’s doing on all our behalfs, he very kindly provided me with a copy of the fourth and, well, I’ve had time on my hands this year and so have been able to read it over a shorter duration and make notes as I go. Here, then, is a story-by-story breakdown of what Bodies from the Library 4 (2021) is bringing you in September.
We open with the previously-unpublished ‘Child’s Play’ by Edmund Crispin, with Judith Carnegie as the newly-hired governess for the three Snyder children and their adopted second cousin. The Snyders — 15 year-old Camilla, thirteen year-old Tony, and 11 year-old Judith — each have about them some element of viciousness that may be excusable simply because of their youth (“Children are often cruel. They don’t realize they’re being cruel, and they don’t mean to be…”), or could be the stain of something darker. And in their treatment of ten year-old Pamela Catesby, whose parents died in an aeroplane crash and who frequently walks alone to the nearby mansion that used to be her home, that cruelty seems to be only more pronounced…
Crispin is a superb wrangler of mood (“Judith…met Pamela walking away from the Snyder house, small and alone against the vacant and restless landscape, like a painter’s allegory of solitude”), and is as trenchant here with Pamela’s abject state and Judith’s sympthy for her as he is with the understated effect of violence once it intrudes. The workings of the plot here rely on a simple principle that harks back to his short works collected in Fen Country (1979), and the sinister air of resolution is wonderfully handled, showing Crispin as so much more than the lightly comedic author he is remembered as today. A triumphant discovery, wonderful to have it published at last.
My only previous encounter with the work of Anthony Gilbert was her novel Portrait of a Murderer (1931) published under her Anne Meredith nom de plume…and since I only got about a quarter of the way through that, she’s not exactly covered herself in glory as far as I’m concerned. The well-plotted but confusingly-written ‘Thieves Fall In’ (1962) is unlikely to change that — a post-Golden Age work from someone trying to keep the spirit of an earlier age alive at a time when there was probably very little interest in such undertakings.
Essentially the story of a pickpocket, this suffers from weirdly shifting points of view, and dialogue intended more to communicate character and intention than pertain in any way to the events that prompted it (“You’re losing your touch” — eh?). It’s short, entertaining, and unlikely to upset anyone, but I can’t say I’d rush out to buy any of her Arthur Crook novels on my experience to date, despite how good Medawar makes them sound in his afterword about Lucy Malleson (to give the author her true identity) and her career.
Contrast ‘Thieves Fall In’ with the recently-discovered Segreant Beef story ‘Rigor Mortis’ by Leo Bruce, published here for the first time: this is superbly written, but — like most of Bruce’s short fiction — pretty easy to see through. Someone has murdered Old Herbertson, “a village Lear with three daughters”, and dumped his body in the coal shed beneath a recent delivery. Beef is being told the details of the case by a junior officer and, as is his wont, disdains the modern scientific policing to go at things from the perspective of good old-fashioned simple human nature.
There’s so much to enjoy in this — precisely how much money is enough to warrant murdering someone? — and Beef’s summary of who is guilty and how to catch them concludes delighfully: “Probably [the killer] has done something really silly which will give you a certain conviction. They usually do”. Most exciting about this entry, though, is the revelation after the story that Bruce wrote an as-yet unpublished mystery for younger readers entitled Where Was Withers? (19??). I doubt we’ll see it in print any time soon, Bruce’s star having waned somewhat, but hope springs eternal…
I’ve spent practically no time with Reginald Fortune, the gentleman sleuth created by H.C. Bailey, and, if the ascerbic erudition he brings to radio play ‘The Only Husband’ (1941) is anything to go by, that’s something I’ll have to rememdy before too long. Cecil Richards and his new wife Nell are visiting Cecil’s father, Lord Avalon, and his new wife, the Second Lady Avalon, and things are a little tense: some of the dialogue here is really quite exquisitely uncomfortable, with wealthy people being frightfully rude to each other in the nicest way imaginable. When Reggie Fortune is summoned and arrives too late to prevent a murder, the game is on.
I don’t know if the mystery here is all that hot — look at it from the killer’s perspective, and how the hell did they expect to get away with it? — but, thanks in no small part to recent rafts of reprints, I’ve recently discovered just how much I enjoy a story told through dialogue alone, and the dialogue here is a genuine delight. The need to conjure pictures, and to communicate movement and relationships, simply by what is said (plus a few background effects) is a real talent, and Bailey juggles his cast well and keeps things propulsive and light (c.f., Reggie’s reaction when told to name his own fee for visiting the Avalon pile, or when told that the victim of murder has been found, collapsed out in the woods). Yes, there will certainly be more Mr. Fortune in the future of The Invisible Event.
It’s always pleasing to learn that there’s a ‘new’ story you didn’t know about from a Golden Age favourite, but one of the purest delights of these Bodies from the Library collections is the uncovering of unsuspected gems from unheralded writers. Into this category falls ‘The Police Are Baffled’ (1931) by Alec Waugh: a short, sharp, gently savage crime story that utilises a principle made much more famous elsewhere and is perhaps best encountered in as much ignorance as possible. Which raises the small matter of precisely how to write about it here.
It captures many fascinating ideas — the societal obsession with true crime, the fundamental horror of being confronted with any sort of unpleasantness, the principle of guilt being attached to the most likely person — and captures the spirit of the Golden Age effortlessly in the observation that “[n]o one who’s been through the War has any too particular a feeling about the value of human life”. To say any more would trespass upon giving too much away, so compact and simple is its telling, so I’ll stop here. Waugh seems to have been overlooked for all manner of reasons (his famous brother probably didn’t help matters…), but in bringing this story to public attention Medawar has done us a wonderful service.
For many, the biggest draw of this collection will be the novella Shadowed Sunlight (1945) by Christianna Brand, previously published in six parts and taking up 140 of the 400 pages herein. Fans of Brand will be unsurprised to learn that this leans into her strengths: a coterie of people in tightly-imbricated relationships forced into close association before, during, and after an apparently impossible poisoning in their midst. And, while perhaps a little drawn out, as typically happens with serialised stories, it has more than enough on-Brand magic to please those of us who would love to see her work more readily available.
It has been eight years since Gloria Sandells’ first husband died, and now those gathered on that day are together once again, aboard the yacht of amiable millionaire ‘Thom-Thom’ Thoms which is being used as part of a fundraising week for British war heroes. Gloria is now married to Geoffrey Winson who, on account of their struggling finances, is keen for Gloria’s eldest daughter Jenny to take legal action against the youthful, slightly wealthy Julian Messenger for breach of promise in cancelling their engagement, despite Jenny being more than happy to let bygones be bygones since setting her cap at ‘radio personality’ Roy Silver.
Julian is now betrothed to the incredibly wealthy Truda Deane who, because this is a Golden Age story, is some sort of relative the like of which it makes my head hurt to try and work out (“Truda’s grandmother was also Julian’s great aunt” — they call themselves “half cousins” but, yeesh, could they not be a little more distant so the old lady’s much-desired approbation made her seem little more irrational?). These six, plus a few others, will be swept by force of Thom-Thom’s personality, and his own lustful feelings for Gloria, into each others’ company and, quelle surprise, someone dies. Enter Detective Inspector Dickinson, “a university pup with very little experience indeed” to try and untangle who was where on the fatal night.
The characters here are, unsurprisingly, the strongest component, Gloria the crowning marvel of them all: a vainglorious horror, ekeing out an existence by using her fading looks to leech off wealthy men while her husband watches, the two of them alternately manipulating Jenny and supporting her as the psychology twists and turns:
The fear grew bitter in Gloria’s mind that this child might in the end be too strong for her; that Jenny had suddenly grown up, beyond the power of all her delicate bullying, her subtle deception, her camouflaged egotism, her grasping vanity and selfishness.
Brand has never been an especially facile writer, but there’s a grimness to aspects of this that perhaps reflects the wearying effect of the Second World War — it’s not without moments of amusement (“Roy had been ‘borrowed’ from the BBC by Mr. Thoms to sing…at lady Templeton’s party that evening; and since the BBC could, all too easily, spare him, he had been granted permission to spend till Thursday morning in being vocally grateful on Britain’s behalf in any form he desired.”), but the title seems to represent something more pessimistic than the usual in this vein. The plot has a clever double layer than serves to make events even more baffling, but the eventual resolution satisfies for the relationships it limns, creates, and destroys rather than the mechanics or a lot of the hand-wringing that took place to get us there. It’s all more than worth it, though, for the utterly delightful Tiggy, seven year-old daughter of Gloria and Geoffrey, whom we can add alongisde the Carstairs clan to the pantheon of Perfectly Realised Young People in GAD Fiction.
As no particular fan of the novels of Gladys Mitchell, the short radio play ‘The Case of Bella Garsington’ (1944) makes me wish she had written more of this kind of thing. Originally broadcast in February, we’re told up front that Bella Garsington is guilty of murder, but the challenge to the listener was to figure out how she was caught based on evidence she gave at the inquest into her father-in-law’s death. The solution, and the name of the competition winner (who got about £20 in today’s money — I wish I was paid that for every mystery plot I solved!), was then broadcast in March — you, of course, required to wait no longer than it take your eyes to scan down a paragraph of text.
Did I solve this one? Well, no — I identified what I thought was a promising seam, given the framing used to tell the story, but I’m not sure many people would get this these days given the, er, principle of the solution. I can’t even think of a subtle clue, except to say that it reminded me of the short story ‘Who Killed Baker?’ (1950) that Edmund Crispin devised with Geoffrey Bush. Mitchell displays here the same keen principle as the best of Crispin’s short work, and at times her dialogue (“What was his servants for?”) is subtle enough to render some of the descriptions offered herein irrelevant — in other words, close to perfect.
We find ourselves in, presumably, the early 19th century for ‘The Post-Chaise Murder’ (1940) by Richard Keverne, where the shooting of a mysterious traveller is notable only for the fact that the 200 guineas the victim was carrying were not stolen from his person despite an obvious search being made of his clothes. Sir Christopher Hazzard, whose sport is “to hunt the criminal as others hunt the fox”, takes an interest and makes some telling observations that don’t quite tally with the accepted story: for one that, though dressed as a sea-faring man, the victim’s hands have “never hauled on a tarry rope”. Mishief is clearly afoot…
Medawar’s afterword makes it clear that Keverne wasn’t exactly a practised author of detective fiction, and while elements of this feel very true to the era in which it is set — revelations about the gauges of pistols, the inhumanity shown to the man believed guilty of the crime, the merits of medico-detection — at time of publication this was all fairly old beer. The tone of Keverne’s prose is note perfect for an earlier age, and he folds in enough history to justify all the to-ing and fro-ing, but this care lends something of a liminal air to a story that, by 1940, should be more complex than it is and should declare more than it does. This leads me to suspect it was written long before publication, but whether that could ever be proved is doubtful.
Another short, sharp piece of murder is found in the previously-unpublished ‘Boots’ by Ngaio Marsh: a murdered woman, her husband claiming responsibility, her lover asserting that the husband’s story cannot be true. It’s a simple tale, structured in such a way that becomes more interesting the more you think about it, but it’s very short, so I don’t really know what I can say about it. Except that if you’re not even going to go to the basic effort the killer avoids here then you frankly deserve to hang. Oh, and Marsh’s usual detective Roderick Alleyn is in this, but I have no idea why.
The softboiled stylings of T.S. Stribling make for enjoyable reading — “[She] was not a pretty woman. She had eyes underlined with cocktails, and relaxed lips” — and ‘Figures Don’t Die’ (1953) is the exact mix of solid deductions (Maria Owens’ lack of social life) and frank sophistry (“She couldn’t have invented such a story in a thousand years.”) that such tales usually produce. Following the gangland-style shooting of accountant Cyril Owens, psychologist Dr. Poggioli and his unnamed Watson narrator investgate the murder to see what they can uncover, and this slightly looser take on the mystery form stands in lovely contrast to the tales that have preceded it in this collection.
As seen in the recent Daniel Hawthorne novels from Anthony Horowitz, our narrator here is also an author who, it would appear, trails around after Poggioli and writes up his cases. As such, we get some enjoyable meta-fictional reflection (“Mrs. Owens was too orthodox for the purposes of modern mystery stories…”) alongside what feels like some social commentary on the nascent class system emerging in the U.S. at about this time (“Our set was on…well, on a higher plane than most social groups… We didn’t play contract or canasta. We would discuss morals and peoples’ right to love.”). The mystery might be rather light, and the psychology rather tepid, but it’s a wry time that would be difficult not to enjoy.
This first section concludes with the bland suspense of ‘Passengers’ (1933) by Ethel Lina White, the story she expanded into The Wheel Spins (1936) which was in turn filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes (1938). 22 year-old Edna, suffering under the First World Problems of being “an attractive orphan…with no relatives, clumps of friends, and a private income” is dissatisfied to be returning to England after two delightful weeks in Italy. On the train she makes the acquaintance of Miss Winnifred Bird, who is also returning to Blighty as the star witness in a murder trial. When Edna dozes off in her cabin, she awakens to find Miss Bird has disappeared along with all sign she was on the train, and the other passengers deny any knowledge of her presence.
This should be a doozy, tapping into near-universal fears of persecution, alienation, and suspicion, but White’s writing, for me, never really captures the nightmarish quality of events: compared to a similar setup in, say, ‘All At Once, No Alice’ (1940) by Cornell Woolrich Edna’s distress is communicated through blunt sentences devoid of engagement, and the solution reached via the thinnest logic and a startling act of borderline violence that, honestly, would be more effective if it turned out to be the wrong thing to have done. I think I just don’t gel with HIBK-ish writing, since there’s really nothing here to complain about per se, but it’s the story that did the least for me in this opening selection.
The final six stories, collected here under the heading Six Mysteries in Search of Six Authors, are linked by the conceit of each being written — allegedly — in response to a drawing given to the authors in question. Published in the Sunday Dispatch between 17th April and 22nd May 1938, they are…
‘After You, Lady’ by Peter Cheyney, in which gangster Rudy Scansa seeks to solve the problem of Jim Tullio’s imminent release from prison; a problem because Scansa arranged for Tullio to be put away in the first place and has muscled in on his rackets in his absence. Cheyney’s faux-boiled prose and dialogue — not a terminal ‘g’ in the entire story — gets a little wearin’, but as poorly as his prose an’ ideals have dated there’s breath enough in his archetypes (“Her Ma wants to bring her up to be the sorta dame that men look up to… She wants to be the sorta dame they look round at.”) an’ this slides by on energy alone. Dunno if I could read a whole novel of this sort of thin’, though.
‘Too Easy’ by Herbert Adams, wherein Ann Yates finds herself accused of the murder of the boss with whom she was recently romantically involved. There’s an attempt at clewing here, and the writing goes down easily enough, but at best it’s standard fare where the genre is concerned. I definitely got distracted by one character sharing their name with former Austrlian Prime Minister John Howard and another with Richard Parker, the tiger in Life of Pi (2001) by Yann Martel — leading to some odd pictures in my head where certain conversations were involved — and I still solved it, so that gives you sime impression of what to expect.
‘Riddle of an Umbrella’ by J. Jefferson Farjeon, a Hitchcockian suspense tale in which the chance discovery of an umbrella leaning against a signal post by the side of a railway line gives our narrator “five of the most unpleasant minutes it has ever been my lot to endure”. There’s a certain vagueness in details here which might simply be due to the principles at play being far more familiar in 1938, but that doesn’t intrude on the enjoyment of this rather breathless tale. It packs at least one good surprise and, in the final paragraphs, shows a neatness in summary that is all the more pleasing for how easily certain gaps are filled in.
‘Two White Mice Under a Riding Whip’ by E.C.R. Lorac, a magnificently-titled affair that makes the picture after which it’s named a part of the plot: it having been drawn by a woman whose son has been kidnapped, the trauma of which has rendered her mute. Psychologist John Latham, having been handed this very picture by the afflicted woman, sets about solving the mystery it presumably unlocks and, honestly, makes leaps of logic that make Adam West’s Batman look like a paradigm of rigour and reasoning. This matches my general experience of Lorac to date in that tonally it’s expertly marshalled but the plot is frankly all over the place.
‘Signals’ by Alice Campbell, inspired — if inspired thus t’were — by easily the dullest of the pictures, that of a sign of a pub called the Red Lion. At this pub will appear solicitor Guy Bletchley just as one of the guests has been accosted by others therein on suspicion of murder, and naturally there will be conflicting versions of what has unfolded. This is another superb little story from a writer who was previously unknown to me, managing to cram a surprising amount (and with admirable subtlety) into the doubtless strict word count allowed by a newspaper, and as such marks another wonderful discovery that Medawar has brought to our attention.
‘A Present from the Empire’ by G.D.H. & M. Cole rounds things off, with Lady Elaine Bowman bored at a formal annual dinner organised on behalf of “the great mandated territory of Malaria” (no, I have written that correctly — one feels the Coles’ leftist politics in naming this outpost of the Empire after an infectious disease). When a familiar face causes her to remember events from her past, things take a vaguely mawkish turn…but then didn’t Golden Age writers delight in hiding a wolf in sheep’s clothing? It’s not difficult to see where this is headed, but it’s a very good example of its type that I enjoyed very much. It’s reminded me that I’d like to read some of the Coles’ novels, because I have no idea what to expect from them, so watch this space…
If I had to pick a top 5 from this collection, I’d go with the stories from Brand, Campbell, Crispin, Mitchell, and Waugh, but mainly these forgotten cast-offs again highlight just how much quality there was in the the depth of crime and detective fiction writing in the 1920s to the 1940s that made it the Golden Age. Kudos to all involved in bringing material of this calibre to light; it’ll be on general sale in just over a month, so get your orders in now to ensure the future of this series. Although, well, a fifth collection has already been announced for next year (and can already be pre-ordered via certain online stores — the cover will probably be blue, though I hold out hope for orange…), and I can well believe that another tranche of fascinating forgotten gems await us…but you’ll want a sixth one after reading this.
And maybe a seventh, hey?
The Bodies from the Library collections, edited by Tony Medawar
- Bodies from the Library (2018)
- Bodies from the Library 2 (2019)
- Bodies from the Library 3 (2020)
- Bodies from the Library 4 (2021)
- Bodies from the Library 5 (2022)
The Ghosts from the Library collections, edited by Tony Medawar
- Ghosts from the Library (2022)