With the Bodies from the Library 5 (2022) collection due in a couple of months, and spin-off Ghosts from the Library (2022) coming later in the year, the time seems ripe to revisit one of the earlier collections which — given the timespan over which I first read them — I failed to review on publication. And since, for reasons too complicated to bore you with here, the second volume was the first one I encountered, it’s there I’ll head today.
Bodies from the Library 2 (2019) contains 15 long-forgotten and/or unpublished stories from some of the most famous and prestigious names to ever dabble in Golden Age detective fiction, resurrected and given their day in the sun thanks to the tireless efforts of Tony Medawar. As elsewhere in this series, each story is followed by a precis of the author’s career, which is fascinating for the lesser-known names and full of details that fill out the lives of the more famous (it was here where I first learned that Edmund Crispin was afflicted with Dupuytren’s Contracture, for instance). Since these stories were not written to be included in the same anthology, we’ll take then one-by-one and hope something intelligent to say about each one occurs to me at this second reading. Right, off we go…
We start with the previously-unpublished ‘No Face’ by Christianna Brand, which has a great line in tumbling, hallucinogenic prose as psychic Joseph Hawke tries to convince the police that he has insights to offer on a series of killings. Wracked by the contrary pressures of knowing he has falsified all of his “visions” to date yet can find no explanation for the messages he is receiving, Hawke’s journey from frantic outsider to sudden celebrity is an interesting one — arguably more interesting than the murder plot, which relies on hand-waving and monologuing to not quite explain the effects achieved. Easily the most interesting part of the whole thing is the Philip K. Dick-esque reflection on the nature of prophecy (“Should not one simply ‘foresee’ what inevitably must be?”), and it’s refreshing to see that even an author of Brand’s unquestionable skill could stumble when trying to tie the rigour of detection to the nebulous world of psychic chicanery.
The magnificent prose continues with ‘Before and After’ (1953) by Peter Anthony — nom de plume of brothers Peter and Antony Shaffer — a sequel to their novel The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951) (“My last locked room case was a shattering business…”) in which Mr. Verity must again establish how a murder was committed. It is beautifully written, with snark and hilarity in high concentration throughout…
Even in death Mrs. Carmichael’s face still held the irritability of one forced to lean on others who were all too often engaged elsewhere.
…and Mr. Verity indulging in his “infuriating habit of tendering [his services] unasked”, putting backs up (“You’ve lost a sister and made £15,000. Some people would consider that you have made a profit on the day’s activities.”) while a little subtle psychology makes its way into the clever solutions he proposes. The coda then added is, at the risk of spoiling the game, pure Anthony Berkeley, though lacks that gentleman’s talent for clever construction, given that a contradiction — or unforgivable oversight — is necessary to spring a second trap. Still, I enjoyed this shorter case more than the aforementioned novel, so maybe the later Antony/Shaffer books also demonstrate an improvement on their debut…we must wait and hope for reprints to find out for sure.
Less successful is ‘Hotel Evidence’ (1934) by Helen Simpson, in which a man agrees to cook up evidence of infidelity in order to allow his unhappy wife to divorce him (interestingly, the only recourse allowed to a wife at the time). Again, some delightful descriptions can be found (attendees at a dance hall watching proceedings “with the rapt stillness of trees and mountain tops attentive to Orpheus’ lute”, say), but its inclusion in this collection feels like a result of Simpson’s other work rather than because of the story itself, which feels like something from Cosmopolitan after they gave up on criminous tales. Odd, odd stuff.
A great many people extol the virtues of the writing collaborative that produced novels and short stories under the name Q. Patrick and others, but my admittedly slight reading thus far has yet to convince me of their merits, a situation not improved by the novella ‘Exit Before Midnight’ (1937). Concerning an apparent attempt to stop a business merger being completed, for some reason, on New Year’s Eve, this finds various folk isolated in a skyscraper while someone murders them…a setup as gloriously GADish and delightful as you could hope for.
And yet, man is it ever slow and recapitulatory, full of monologues as everyone explains their thinking, their reasoning, their motivations ad nauseum, dragging out a 20-page story to four times that length on sheer determination alone. Yes, some beautifully atmospheric ideas and prose results, but rarely has my relief at reaching the end of a story been so palpable, and this second reading was, if anything, harder for the memories it brought back from my first encounter. I’m also not sure, on this experience, that Hugh Wheeler and Richard Webb should have been allowed to write either women protagonists or romance (“But then blondes are always dumb.” — er, thanks?).
Another effort long on atmosphere is the radio play ‘Room to Let’ (1947) from the pen of Margery Allingham. Framed as an unsolved case being relayed to the November Club, an “exclusive gathering [of] world-famous detectives who, regardless of nationality, meet each year in a different capital city to discuss new crimes and recall old ones”, this is a borderline impossible crime: the 1904 “case of the shot without a gun”.
Allingham was, to my eye, far more successful at mood than plotting, and the shifting focus here gets a little dizzying even while she peppers her tale with delightful historical notes — the ignominy of being the first house in a street offering a room to rent, the growing Suffragette movement seeking more active roles for women in work — and a growing sense of meticulously-crafted unease. The folding in of another, historical, element might prove too much for a less-accomplished writer, but we have here enough subtle details and the utilisation of overlaid sound effects to build up a patchwork of suspicion and discomfort that works surprisingly well. And while the solution relies on some frank cheating, it’s at least explained by the lovely note on which the whole thing terminates.
I’m really starting to think that radio might have been a better medium for some Golden Age authors, with both Allingham and Gladys Mitchell — neither of whom have exactly delighted me with their prose efforts — producing excellent audio dramas that have been reproduced in this series.
Another author whose novels I’ve failed to find much joy in is Jonathan Latimer, whose story ‘A Joke’s a Joke’ (1938) finds a practical joker who would be right at home in You’ll Die Laughing (1945) by Bruce Elliott perpetrating a grand deception against a colleague. Much like the Helen Simpson story above, this isn’t especially criminous, but it is at least swift and amusing, rather reminiscent of ‘The Joan Club’ (1959) by Richard Levinson and William Link. Medawar’s afterword informs us that this is Latimer’s only known short story, and that’s a shame — the swifter form suits his breezy style and lack of rigour, which I’ve found tends to get tedious over the duration of a full novel.
Uncovered by Dr. John Curran among her papers, ‘The Man Who Knew’ by Agatha Christie is an early version of the story ‘The Red Signal’ from the collection of supernatural-tinged stories The Hound of Death (1933). Things are rather more suspense-adjacent here — indeed, the opening section in which a man discovers a revolver hidden in his flat and then hears of his uncle’s murder is pure Cornell Woolrich territory — and only the callowness of Christie as a plotter when this was likely written prevents this from concluding in a more satisfying manner. That opening is quite marvellous, however, and hints at a parallel universe in which the Queen of Crime instead kick-started the Domestic Suspense subgenre three decades earlier than her female American counterparts got in on the game.
‘The Almost Perfect Murder Case’ (1929) by S.S. van Dine is notable only for the effort the killer expends on what must be one of the most transparent murder schemes ever committed. I don’t care if it is supposed to have taken pace in 1909, Van Dine and his sleuth Philo Vance can do a perishin’ sight bettah than this.
Edmund Crispin‘s best work was done in his short stories, and the 15-part novella ‘The Hours of Darkness’ (1949) bears this out, the essential plot being rather forgettable but the writing a delight. Murder during a game of hide-and-seek at a country house on Christmas Eve sees Gervase Fen relieved to be pulled away from the “children’s party which descends on my house like a black cloud” every year because “if there’s one thing more horrible than violent death, it’s the sight and sound of a large number of the young simultaneously enjoying themselves”. One especially gruesome possibility aside — brought about by a latecomer requiring the lights to be turned back on sooner than the killer might have been expecting — it’s a standard affair with rounds of interviews and a revelation whose provenance is apparently clear to the detective but not explained to the reader.
But the writing…oh, the writing. From a police sergeant offering a “vague parody of a salute” to Inspector Wyndham idly doodling mermaids in his notebook, from one suspect’s “faint, unanalysable impression of shabbiness” to Fen talking about “Crispin proposing to write the case up…poor old chap, he gets terribly muddled”, rarely does a page go by without some Crispinian absurdity dropped in for no reason other than to surprise and delight.
“You had asked her to marry you?”
“Yes, I asked her yesterday — that is, on the 24th. She refused.”
“I’m sorry,” said Wyndham with a bizarre and palpably insincere sympathy.
Add in a few era-appropriate touches — Simon Moore eking out a living as “a professional weekender”, references to their independently-wealthy host living “as comfortably as governmental extortions permitted”, talk of “Esquimaux” and igloos — and a discussion on how actual real-world crime bears little in common with the detective story (“Naturally it has to be concerned with what’s possible, but what’s probable is practically outside its sphere.”) and you’re in for a delightful, forgettable time. Perfect for the radio broadcast it was originally written as, exactly the thing to hunker down with on a cold New Year’s Eve.
Another piece of disappointing plotting saved by astute writing, ‘Chance is a Great Thing’ (1950) showcases E.C.R. Lorac‘s talent for character-through-dialogue. Witness the warm-hearted concern the late-middle-aged Mr. and Mrs. Banks display when young Peggy Tiler calls in on them expressing apprehension about the health of the elderly aunt she’s visiting, and contrast it with the waspish, self-interested comments they swap when Peggy leaves. This is an exemplary case of allowing your characters to show attitudes that all the fancy prose telling in the world would render tedious, and indicative of what is best about the Lorac novels I’ve read to date.
The plot, such as it is, intrudes clumsily for about five paragraphs at the end, and it’s difficult not to wish that this had taken the path Helen Simpson and Jonathan Latimer did above and perhaps exclude the less explicitly criminous element, which would leave the whole thing with a sort of Stanley Ellin-esque air of deliberate irresolution. It’s rare to want less murder in a murder story, especially when a grand total of one murders is committed, but there you have it,
‘The Mental Broadcast’ (1945) by Clayton Rawson is also non-criminous, concerning as it does the commission and elucidation of a card trick. It’s difficult to get too excited about, but also difficult to resent…and at least we finally get one of The Great Merlini’s interminable prestidigitative manoeuvres explained for a change.
‘White Cap’ (1942) by Ethel Lina White does a good job of entwining the three strands of business, romantic entanglement, and murder into one story. Its mid-war setting allows for some interesting reflections on the upwardly mobile Miss Ratcliffe having achieved a notable role as head of the Peninsular Works factory (“While she was professing interest in [the men at the factory], her keen brain was mincing up their suggestions and theories until they emerged as facts — for which she took all the credit.”), working in an air of mutual suspicion among the workers who know their jobs could be cut at any moment under the name of efficiency. When Miss Ratcliffe is found murdered, and young Tess Leigh has suffered one of her blackouts at the time of said murder after being fired by that newly-accomplished corpse…things look bleak.
Some of the prose here is lumpy, and you have to accept a decidedly romantic view of serendipity (if not so much of romance) in order to allow for the final revelation…but, honestly, I minded this far less than you might expect. White is good at borderline-Suspense school emoting (“The knowledge made her feel not only miserable, but cheap and ashamed, so that her dominant instinct was to hide.”), and that lumpy prose goes down easier because of the sublime turns of phrase and imagery that White is also able to employ:
The industrial town was built upon rolling moorland whose natural beauty had been destroyed; but the Council had acquired a range of hills — the Steepes — as its lungs and playground.
…and there’s a certain petard-hoisting come the end, which is always pleasing.
We turn next to John Rhode, and the previously-unpublished stage-play ‘Sixpennyworth’, which sees a man stabbed in the back during a sudden power cut in a local pub. As with virtually everything I’ve read by Rhode, this is functional in the extreme and entertaining while it lasts, but unlikely to live long in the memory — the criminal aspect being far less interesting than the implications of what husbands posted overseas are allowed to tell their wives in letters home. Can we also offer up ‘Julius Hogwash’ as the least likely name ever found in a GAD mystery? Or indeed just in fiction?
Easily the least famous name in this collection, at least from a detective fiction perspective, is that of C.A. Alington, and yet the man had a rather illustrious writing career and, Medawar informs us, had the distinction of being the “public face of the so-called selection panel for Collins’ Crime Club” which, it seems, was something of a sinecure. Based purely on its title, I remember imagining that ‘The Adventure of the Dorset Squire’ (1937) was due to be a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and I was a little surprised to find it instead filling more of a farcical/Wodehousian niche. On this second reading I appreciate how damn funny it is, even if it does stretch inclusion on criminous grounds once again a little far. Still, it’s an exquisitely-constructed piece of buffoonery, and can be faulted only in lacking a punchline worthy of the invention on display.
We finish with yet another author who is more to my taste in their short stories rather than their novels: the great Dorothy L. Sayers. The previously-unpublished ‘The Locked Room’ offers nothing new in setup — a financially-ruined man having “unhappily destroyed himself” in his library with the doors and windows all sealed on the inside — or execution, but Sayers’ class always shines through when she denies herself the space to become didactic.
Whether it’s Mrs. Deerhurst, wife of our future victim, typified as “one of those porcelain women who arouse, according to temperament, all the brutality or all the sentimental chivalry of their attendant males” or Anthony Severin “knitting his brows horribly [while reading] a work by Dorothy Richardson”, Sayers has an economy and a clarity of expression that few of her peers could ever match. Even the easy respect betwixt Lord Peter Wimsey and his manservant Mervyn Bunter is effortlessly conveyed (“I think a dark purple tie would be more appropriate to the melancholy occasion…”) and there’s time for a bit of commentary on generation-based cross-gender attitudes.
The solution to the locked room of the title is nothing special, and the conduct of Wimsey doesn’t quite add up to my way of thinking, but I find Sayers so very enjoyable in these shorter pieces that I’m willing to let it slide in this effort which, for all we know, might never have been intended to see the light of day.
So, there you have it, the expected mix of delightful rarities and questionable turgidity, the one guarantee being that we’ll disagree over which label applies to which story. My impressions from first reading were largely borne out at this second encounter — I liked that E.L. White story more this time around, I won’t deny — and these collections remain vital reading for anyone with a keen interest in experiencing as much as possible from this bygone age of the masters of the form. I usually pick a Best Five or so with longer collections, and here they’d be:
- ‘The Adventure of the Dorset Squire’ by C.A. Alington
- ‘Before and After’ by Peter Antony
- ‘White Cap’ by Ethel Lina White
- ‘The Locked Room’ by Dorothy L. Sayers
- ‘No Face’ by Christianna Brand
Management reserves the right etc., etc., but the quality here is generally fairly high, as you’d hope. All in all, a lovely reminder of how much depth could be found in the work of the Golden Age, and a wonderful primer for more Bodies to drop in June and then their Ghosts to follow in September.
The Bodies from the Library collections, edited by Tony Medawar