Well, look, it was bound to go wrong, wunnit? In four weeks of reading and writing about Cornerstone titles, assessing their merits and examining whether I felt they added anything to the corpus of detective fiction, I should have foreseen coming across one absolute dud. And trust me to get confident after three (largely) enjoyable weeks and leave this too late to replace with anything else, eh? Right, let’s get this over with.
I’m really annoyed at just how bad the collection Two Bottles of Relish: The Little Tales of Smethers and Other Stories (1952) is. I planned this little run of Cornerstones this month with at least some wider effort: dividing each post into sections named after architectural terms (“cornerstones”, see) and pairing each Tuesday post about a collection with a thematically similar book review on the Thursday of that week — Horning’s stories about the gentleman thief Raffles with Freeman Wills Crofts’ story of a brilliant theft, Arthur B. Reeve’s scientific mysteries with the novel in which John Dickson Carr poured well-meaning scorn on people who write scientific mysteries, the blind Max Carrados and the blind Duncan Maclain. This isn’t exactly frontiers of science stuff, but it’s more thought than I usually give to the timing of things, being instead a creature of impulse that’s free to change direction on a whim…or not be caught out when I’ve tied myself to something that is completely beyond recommendation.
I knew Dunsany’s writing purely from the title story — which, even before realising how poor the rest of these tales were, I never thought was that great, Stanley Ellin having done a very, very similar thing with far greater subtlety to much more striking effect — and was intrigued to see what sort of style he adopted and what novel I might pair with him on the appropriate Thursday. So I reread ‘The Two Bottles of Relish’ (1932), enjoyed its slightly batty comical air and sly comedic asides — “I mean you don’t have to quote the whole of the Inferno to show that you’ve read Milton; half a line may do it.” — and reacquainted myself with little Mr. Smethers, travelling salesman for Numnumo, a condiment “for meat and savouries”. It’s here that Smethers meets and moves in with Mr. Linley, hoping the latter’s Oxford manner will rub off on him somewhat and result in more sales, only for said gentleman to have something of a genius for happening across the answers to, er, baffling crimes.
Given that I understand we’re not entirely sure when Dunsany’s stories were written, about which more later, there’s a nicely knowing 1930s air about the whole thing…
Murder tales seem nice things sometimes for a lady to sit and read all by herself by the fire. But murder isn’t a nice thing, and when a murderer’s desperate and trying to hide his tracks he isn’t even as nice as he was before. I’ll ask you to bear that in mind.
…but the solution makes no sense when you consider it contradicts a couple of assertions made in the text, and you can’t help but feel that if this were written by poor little Edward Plunkett then it would’ve been justly passed over, no-one would have encouraged him to write more of them, and I wouldn’t have wasted my time all these years later.
Incidentally, yes, I have abandoned the structuring of the previous posts in this series. I’m getting through this on pure determination alone, and don’t have the will to write with anything like the same care. I’m also disinclined to search too hard for information on story dates, so any I couldn’t find will just be given as the year of publication of the collection. Any corrections, let me know — sure, these are awful, but I like to get my facts straight.
Second Smethers story ‘The Shooting of Constable Slugger’ (1952) involves a vanishing bullet and revolves around a development so hoary that I’m astounded anyone published this in 1952. As with the first story, there’s no detection from our brilliant detective, and the answer Linley reaches could be wrong…indeed, the only fun this tale supplied was the sheer number of alternative solutions I devised that still work based on the information provided. Then there’s ‘An Enemy of Scotland Yard’ (1937), which seems to have been written by someone suffering short-term memory loss (“If there weren’t any wires, it was done by wireless,” we’re told fifteen thousand times — no exaggeration, I counted) and wishes its cake eaten, had, and then disassembled so the ingredients can be used again (the whole “carrying a revolver was all very well in the days of Sherlock Holmes” thing seems nice, and then Linley turns up for the dénouement with arsenal enough to start a revolution in most politically-destabilised states). Its greatest accomplishment is that, despite being 25 pages long, it somehow manages to explain nothing about two of its three murders.
The remaining Smethers tales are simply weak and poorly-conceived for how late they saw the light of day, and if I read these ignorant of their apparent provenance I’d reverse their publication date by about a century. The return of our Moriarty of Mediocrity in ‘The Second Front’ (1952) — still unpunished for crimes in earlier stories, free “to walk about at large in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland”, implying that restrictions in Wales were tough even back in those days — sees him coughing in Morse code, which wouldn’t even fox Martin Hewitt 60 years earlier. ‘The Two Assassins’ (1952) sees Linley foil an attempt on the life of a prominent politician by simply — and I promise I’m not making this up, because that “fifteen thousand” above was a slight exaggeration — arresting everyone who arrives in the suspected location of the attempted hit. ‘Kriegblut’s Disguise’ (1952) is a Chestertonian principle as told in Dunsany’s wittering, recapitulatory style, in which the best disguise is no disguise at all.
‘The Mug in the Gambling Hall’ (1952) sees a man win a thousand pounds — about £35,000 or $48,000 US today — and then go and live in the Riviera, because of course you can just throw up your entire life on that sort of money. ‘The Clue’ (1952) uses answers in a crossword to narrow down the profession and interests of a murderer, which is about as convincing as it sounds (I’d currently be growing primroses in Hastings, own a marmoset, and be ignorant of the Greek alphabet if that reasoning held). And ‘Once Too Often’ (1952) — perhaps an admission of how many times Dunsany was allowed to get away with such under-plotted stories — sees them finally catch the culprit from the opening story because he’s…disguised his Alsatian as another type of dog and hung out at Charing Cross Station every day? Honestly, I don’t care. I am losing my mind.
The important thing is that this finally disposes of Smethers and Linley.
The bad news? There are still eighteen stories in this collection. And it’s not that they’re bad so much as how disinterested Dunsnay seems in doing anything even slightly interesting. ‘An Alleged Murder’ (1952) reads like the setup of a latter-era Agatha Christie novel, with a man finding the diary his ex-lover left behind having disappeared following her marriage to a man cleared of a murder charge. ‘The Waiter’s Story’ (1952) sees our eponymous worthy overhear two men plotting to kill a third, and so warn this third gentleman only for him to say “Well, did I ask for your advice?” and die a little while thereafter. ‘A Trade Dispute’ (1952) is another almost Chestertonian idea wherein one man disguises himself as another to beat a border inspection…but it sprinkles ideas loosely rather than knowing which theme it wants to explore.
Dunsany’s crime tales are the sort of thing an old bore tells and gets away with simply because no-one has the stomach to challenge such a boring old codger. How did the killer disguise himself? He just did. What was the killer’s clever alibi? Well, it was very clever, never you mind the details. Doesn’t that setup allow for about five other possible explanation? Yes, but no because here’s the answer, young fellamelad. All well and good, I guess, but when he has a character in ‘The Speech’ (1952) lament the lack of ingenuity in crimes these days it just feels…wrong, given the lack of ingenuity Dunsany himself has to offer. The collection as a whole reads like the sort of writing tasks I set myself at university: you have 30 minutes, and you can’t go back and edit what you’ve written…the difference being that I never imagined anyone would publish my callow efforts.
But, man, the world is negative enough right now, and it seems curmudgeonly to simply repeat this refrain for story after story, so let’s see if we can pick some highlights out of the fourteen that remain.
‘The New Master’ (1952) is like something Philip K. Dick might have written, imbued as it is with a pale facsimile of Dick’s terror at the intersection of technology and humanity. Dick would perceive the merit of setting this in a slightly more fantastical milieu — you really appreciate subtle world-building when you see such slapdash non-attempts — and as such it doesn’t quite land, but it’s perhaps the first genuinely interesting idea in the whole collection. And ‘A New Murder’ (1952) at least posits something close to a John Rhode-ian method of murder, using the ingenuity of science to kill someone with the plague.
‘The Murder in Netherby Gardens’ (1952) has an arch air about it, being the story of a man accused of murder and his version of how his innocent conduct has been misinterpreted. Alas, as is standard for Dunsany, the story doesn’t really convince — Stanley Ellin (him again…) did a similar thing with far more conviction — but the principle is an interesting one, even if the cynicism in the final line is about as surprising as two cousins falling in love in a GAD story. Possibly the best story is saved until last, with ‘The Shield of Athene’ full of that bittersweet terror that pervades the most affecting fairy-tales of our early years…the only problem being that it is a fairy-tale, with only the slightest argument for being included in a collection of ostensibly criminous works. My understanding is that Dunsany might have written more of this sort of thing, however, and on the evidence provided herein he probably should have stuck to that.
So, is this a Cornerstone?
The purpose of a cornerstone, in both its literal and literary interpretation, is arguably that something can be built out from it. As a foundational text of detective fiction, you’d hope a Cornerstone titles would in some way point forward to what might be possible in the years ahead, give a sense of how the genre can develop and progress. Cornerstone titles need not themselves be masterpieces, but they should ideally have some insight on the genre that might otherwise have remained unexplored, or demonstrate the way in which telling a story under a particular device could be utilised.
Even without Cornerstone considerations, Dunsany’s stories feel like a sort of celebrity vanity project: published because their author is well-known, and more than likely to languish — disdained and rightfully forgotten — if anyone else’s name were attached. As I say above, published in 1852 they might have some little interest, given their overly-simplistic take on what would have been a starrlingly nascent for of fiction at the time, and something like this sweeping in on the coat-tails of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of gloomy ratiocination would make perfect sense. The simple expedient of explaining away the ket principle of a story — a clever disguise, a brilliant alibi, a staggering piece of legal reversal — by simply waving your hands and going “Yes, but never mind about that…” fits in that era of growth and experimentation.
In a post-GAD world, however, there is no space, no time, and no need for Dunsany’s back-of-an-envelope scribblings. The genre had already excelled so far beyond the point of any of these tales, and was already making a course-correction into the Realist school that would come to typify the growing Suspense subgenre that had already been birthed when these stories saw the light of day. As such, Dunsany is too late, too little, too slapdash to be anything other than one grimly famous line in his most famous work, and rightly forgotten in every other regard. Maybe his non-criminous writings are magnificent — ‘The New Master’ and ‘The Shield of Athene’ show buckets of promise, just not mystery writing prowess — but this collection is best put to use propping up that wonky table in your cellar and forgotten about.