Another year, another collection of forgotten or unknown tales from the luminaries of detective fiction’s Golden Age brought to us by the tireless efforts of Tony Medawar. So how does Bodies from the Library 5 (2022) stack up?
We know, obviously, that Medawar must be drawing from a shallowing well — you could say that authors are dying to be included in these collections — and so what is impressive here is the very high standard of the works included in this fifth volume, a testament to just how much excellent work was done in the genre during its heyday. There is some genuinely superb stuff here once again, and we have much to be thankful for in light of the work done to bring these stories into the public eye.
We begin with Q.Patrick, a.k.a. Patrick Quentin, an author — actually a pair of authors — who has thus far failed to stir too much excitement within me, so ‘The Predestined’ (1953), with its Anthony Berkeley-esque air of ironic detachment, came as a delightful surprise. Told through a series of vignettes drawn from the life of young Jasper Dogarty, this is at once a coruscating condemnation of those who expect an easy life and a sort of wistful remembrance of a time when youth and hope go so easily hand-in-hand (see the Cambridge undergraduates, awaiting their final exams and “having a final, carefree fling before stepping out of the sheltered groves of Academe into the cold, withering realities of everyday life”).
The difficulty with this type of story is making the core character feel realistic despite having very little time with each incarnation, and Patrick does a wonderful job investing the quotidian concerns of the reprehensible Jasper with the petty avarices and expectations of an unashamedly selfish prig for whom Fate has other ideas. After a couple of admittedly brief encounters with this most mysterious of writing conclaves — there is, I understand, a degree of uncertainty as to which two people actually were Quentin at various stage of his career — this is the point when I can see something in him/them that I’d like to get to know better. And that despite another example in the litany of “hissed” sentences that contain not a single sibilant sound.
The name Ellis Peters doesn’t scream Golden Age, but Medawar’s excellent afterword to this story made me realise just how ignorant I was of the woman’s work outside her Brother Cadfael books. The direction taken by ‘Villa for Sale’ (1966), in which a young English couple are sold a villa for a frankly suspiciously low price, is beautifully kept up in the air until the final stages, and the less you know about it going in the better. Peters does well to invest the opening with the seeds of a certain suspense, and it pays off wonderfully.
Another author I’m yet to warm to after a brief encounter is A.E.W. Mason, whose ‘The Ginger King’ (1940) continues the exceptionally strong start to this volume. Mason’s series sleuth M. Hanaud is asked to consult on a matter of suspected arson, the second case to befall the victims, and if his Hanaud novel The House of the Arrow (1924) had been written in this same style I’d have been a Mason acolyte for a while now. It’s difficult to pin down precisely what makes the idiom of the writing so enjoyable, but it feels like a workmanlike translation into English from which certain shades of subtlety have been lost and to which others have been unintentionally added.
Part of this is Frenchman Hanaud’s imperfect grasp of idiomatic English (“As my friend Ricardo knows, too many cooks and I’m down the drain.”), but it extends beyond just his speech, so that charming thumbnail descriptions peek out (insurance agent Mr. Middleton cast as “a collector’s piece of Victorian England”, the eponymous cat surveying a room with “godlike indifference”, Ricardo feeling a narrative of Hanaud’s has “been more than sufficiently prolonged” and trying to hurry him along) and enrich the plot no end. Mason doesn’t try to play fair, but when he can write like this:
“They hurried home,” Middleton resumed, but Hanaud would not allow the word.
“Home? Have such people a home? A place of little valueless treasures which you would ache to lose? The history of your small triumphs, your great griefs, your happy hours? No, no, we keep to facts. They had a store and a shop and a lodging. They come back and it is all in flames. Good! We continue.”
…you really aren’t going to mind.
‘Sugar-Plum Killer’ (1950) by Michael Gilbert walks an interesting line between the more realism-based crime fiction that followed the Golden Age and the Thorndyke-esque pure scientific detection that arguably started the genre’s belle epoque. Concerning the police of Q Division, this sees a probationary detective witness, and fail to prevent, an especially unpleasant crime, and so vow to solve by way of recompense. A mixture of intelligent detection and forensic know-how, this is a little blast of the more professional end of the spectrum herein, and beautifully written at times (“After a minute this stopped, too.”). I loved Gilbert’s WW2 novel The Danger Within, a.k.a. Death in Captivity (1952), but struggled with the much-admired Close Quarters (1947) and Smallbone Deceased (1950). This makes me curious to read more, however, so the British Library reissue of Death Has Deep Roots (1951) might be coming to this blog at some point.
The first of two long stories in this volume, ‘Vacancy With Corpse’ (1946) by Anthony Boucher, originally published under his H.H. Holmes byline, is, pleasingly, another Sister Ursula story. Long-retired Judge Cain, now on the verge of death, has been receiving death threats, and so his granddaughter Felicity ‘Liz’ Cain asks Lieutenant Ben Latimer, who also happens to be her affianced, to provide some police protection at their house. Latimer agrees, and just in time: that evening, at a dinner for Liz’s cousin Sherry, a novice nun in Sister Ursula’s order, events transpire to leave one member of the household dead and the police scrabbling for both cause and motive.
Boucher was, of course, hugely influential — we’ll be hearing more about him in the days ahead — and writes very well, both from a human perspective (“[He] had died in agony, and that last contortion of his features remained frozen there.”) and that of the youthful Liz:
[Her grandfather] had always been old… He had always had that white hair, that heavily lined face. But there had been strength and vigour under the semblance of age; now he was just an old man, weak and helpless and very much alone.
The plot here is moderately complex, and Boucher weaves a good sense of dread from Liz having to face up to a killer in the house, and possibly the family — those watching policemen saw no-one leave after the murder was committed, after all — and Boucher runs an interesting route by making his detective not just fallible but aware of the fallibility of the very institution he represents:
“[T]oo many times a detective discovers a criminal is almost guiltless of his own crime. Since you can’t arrest the true causes, you nab some poor dope because there has to be an arrest.”
Thankfully, Sister Ursula has been “reading stuff they hadn’t ought to let get into convents” and, having the detachment that some of the police there present lack, is able to draw the fangs of the plans and see that the killer is confronted and caught. This uses its WW2 setting well, too, and reuses a principle from one of my favourite minor Agatha Christie novels to explain its happenings, never outstaying its welcome and always full of intrigue and event. By far the greater mystery, however, and one left unaddressed, is how any bar serving “glass[es] of light brown wine” stayed open for any length of time.
Readers of this blog might be aware of how much joy I’ve taken in the various radio scripts from the Golden Age that have found their way into the public eye of late, and the first of two such plays in this volume is found in the form of ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ (1948) by Dorothy L. Sayers. This starts off very much like a 1960’s sitcom, with George trying to hurry his wife Laura out the house to attend a regular bridge meeting, and the object of his anxieties arriving almost the moment she eventually leaves. In part on account of this, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was intended as a sort of ‘laugh along at home’ piece, not least given the startling ease with which Sayers drops some wonderful reversals and revelations throughout — you can well imagine a studio audience going ‘Ooooooooo!!’ one more than one occasion.
In his afterword, Medawar references how the erudite Sayers did wonders for the genre in light of “the tsunami of badly written and poorly plotted mysteries” that poured out in the 1920s and 30, and the ease with which she plays with her characters and audience alike here does a lot to reinforce that position. Sure, as is the case with a lot of these plots where evertyhing must be told by dialogue, some of the lines are a little clunky…
Looks cosy enough, all the same.
I daresay it does — compared to a cell in — whatever prison you have been adorning with your presence.
…but as a three-hander it’s a remarkably agile piece of plotting with some great lines (“It’s extraordinary how charming men can be when you hardly ever see them…”), a light touch with historical references to safe areas and protected occupations, and some genuinely good surprises packed in along the way. The more of Sayer’s non-novel work I read, the more convinced I become that the shorter form of the mystery was a far more natural outlet for her talents, and this is no exception.
The big guns continue to boom, with Anthony Berkeley and ‘Benefit of the Doubt’ (1932) up next. A short piece, this, and one that reads like the setup of a lot of R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. John Thorndyke novels: a young, inexperienced doctor called out in the night to consult on a new patient, perhaps with an air of mischief and skulduggery behind the summons. I’m surprised that this, written as it was fairly late into Berkeley’s regrettably short career, doesn’t do more with the setup — Berkeley was the arch convention-challengers, and this is very conventional indeed, though hard to fault for all its brevity.
A few interesting historical principles peak through — the implied difference between “panel” and “private” patients, the need to obtain a second opinion in order to be allowed to cremate a dead body (very Freeman, that) — but more compelling is the veiled threat I detected in the brief introduction, in which Berkeley tells us that these events were related to him by a practising GP, “but the doctor who told me this story is no longer alive”…what’d you do to him, Tony?!
S.S. van Dine‘s ‘The Scandal of the Louvre’ (1916) tells of a theft from that great gallery perpetrated partly on remunerative grounds but also because so many of the objets d’art on display were plundered by conquering armies, and “countries that can produce no art, deserve none.” The adoption of historical events for fictional ends is fun here, and Van Dine’s characters stand out a little more than in the other works of his I’ve read, and for a passable time you could do much worse.
They way the scheme against an unwanted element in an otherwise happy family menage comes into view in ‘The Pressure of Circumstance’ (1943) is well-handled by J.J. Connington. Clearly old Norris Lessingham disapproves of the amount and manner of time his daughter-in-law Claire has been spending with sexually rapacious Owen Langler, especially since her husband, Norris’ son Jack, has been out of the country for two months on an expedition to the Amazon. The question remains: what do to about it?
Connington’s background in science comes in here, as in several of his works, and it’s interesting to see that the essential principle would crop up in one of his novels…though used to slightly different ends. The two strands of fun to be derived here come from watching Lessingham slowly move his prey into position…
Evidently Mr. Owen Langler was no very formidable opponent in this game which was being forced upon him… Finesse was hardly necessary in dealing with a person of his mental equipment.
…and from the wonderful tension of speculation whether our intended criminal will see his scheme come off without repercussions. Connington is, in my experience, a functional writer most of the time, not given hugely to atmosphere and mores, and this story benefits from not seeking to generate melodrama where none is necessary. There’s even a tidy little treatise on the cause and effect of the method employed, and while the whole setup is too unlikely for life, it’s perfectly pitched for the purposes of fiction from this genre and era. I get the impression Conning didn’t write much short fiction — there was a story of his in the first Bodies from the Library (2018), I seem to remember — and that’s a shame.
I can’t write much about ‘The Riddle of the Cabin Cruiser’ (1943) by John Dickson Carr because it’s such a short piece, and one that admirably confines itself only to the simple matter at its core. A radio play originally broadcast in two parts — problem and solution — it’s another piece of subtle Carrian plotting and clewing, and the decision to print the solution upside down on the final page is a good one, recalling the puzzle books of my youth. It, like the Berkeley story above, is a minor entry in the oeuvre of a massively important writer and, like the Berkeley story, difficult to fault for its brevity. If you’re a fan of Carr, you obviously want to read everything he’s written, and this opportunity is not to be passed up.
With certain entries on this list, I can’t help but wish that the tone adopted by an author for their short fiction was more in evidence in their longer works — and it remains true for ‘Skeleton in the Cupboard’ (1952) by Ianthe Jerrold. We know from the first line that Corney Dew has buried his brother-in-law Davy in a Celtic barrow on his, Corney’s, land, and watch as a local archaeological society tries to get permission to excavate the mound, unaware of its recent grisly addition.
[A]lthough Corney had very little respect for antiquarians, he doubted if [they] would be soft enough to take Davy for a Druid.
Jerrold’s turn of phrase here is exquisite at times, among my favourites being that Corney knows he is safe having disposed of the thankless Davy because “nobody had enquired after [him] for fear of seeing him again”. I thought there might be a little more going on here than transpires, and the final line feels like a punchline which doesn’t quite work — c.f. ‘The Seven Deadly Virtues’ (1960) by Stanley Ellin — but the slightly facetious air of the whole thing is a masterstroke of pitch, and hugely difficult not to enjoy.
The previously-unpublished ‘The Year and the Day’ by Edmund Crispin marks that august gentleman’s third inclusion in five volumes of Bodies, and it’s to be wondered just how many thoroughly enjoyable stories by him still linger forgotten or unknown. This concerns our unnamed narrator, a barrister, being approached at his club by a recently-retired, and also unnamed, brain surgeon with whom he attended university. With the latter being “drunk enough to want to tell someone, anyone, about something he was proud of”, a story emerges slowly that’s all the more enjoyable for how the reader’s suspicions develop alongside those of the narrator. I’ve long maintained that the short story was Crispin’s metier, and this does nothing to challenge that: fun, faintly horrific, and very enjoyable.
Brought back from obscurity with seven books in the British Library’s Crime Classics range, John Bude is an author I’m yet to warm to, and his 72-page novella ‘Murder in Montparnasse’ (1949) hasn’t changed that. Every evening the hunchback Prosper wheels the ancient M. Pierre Lebrun — “Paralysed, half blind…slowly going mad through continual drinking…” — to his table at a cafe, leaves him to go drinking himself, and then collects his ward in the early hours to return home and repeat the procession the following day. One evening, Prosper returns to find Lebrun dead, and Inspector Moreau is put on the case to discover who could have wanted the old man out of the way.
It would be exceedingly generous to classify this story as a procedural investigation in the manner of Freeman Wills Crofts, since the whole thing is strung together by slow progress and the flimsiest possible reasoning (Good heavens! A man with a beard wouldn’t have stubble in his sink…!), and is transparent to an unforgivable degree. If written four decades earlier it might hold some interest, but for as late as it comes it’s distressingly content to vaguely reheat obvious tropes and slop them down on a plate. I’ll not deny that the loose, meandering tone does have a certain Gallic charm about it but, after all the preceding delights, this one left me irritated, impatient, and then annoyed when it turned out there wasn’t even a clever reversal up its sleeve.
I really must read more H.C. Bailey — thus far I’ve only encountered him via forgotten stories included in this series and, while ‘The Thistle Down’ (1939) is far from vintage stuff, I find his weirdly staccato way of writing very appealing. Reggie Fortune, called in by a captain of industry to investigate the suspected suicide of the man’s secretary, makes short work of the problem and identifies the guilty party without Bailey feeling the need to bring the reader in on most of the key points…and that should vex me, but doesn’t. Maybe it’s on account of Fortune himself that I’m willing to be forgiving — his self-aggrandising remark when Inspector Underwood is surprised by his presence is delightful, and surely not to be taken to seriously — but, whatever it is, we can expect more Bailey in my future, I just wish someone would take up the excellent work of the much-missed Rue Morgue Press and publish him in paperback…
‘The Magnifying Glass’ (1956) by Cyril Hare is a short, sharp shock of a story that changes focus at least twice and as such is hard to pigeon-hole. Hare deserves credit for not over-burdening us with exposition up front, and instead trusting that the average reader will be familiar enough with the tropes — take note, Bude — to follow without corralling. Like most short shorts, it’s difficult to find much to criticise it on, and easy to commend it for getting on with the job and then getting out of the way.
Finally, Julian Symons and ‘The ‘What’s My Line?’ Murder’ (1956), concerning the apparently impossible poisoning of a contestant on the eponymous TV show. At first, the sketchy nature of how who relates to whom was a little frustrating, but you have to admire the naturalistic way Symons allows his relationships to fall out of his narrative, and the description of a lively party is especially enjoyable for the trenchant barbs thrown around so casually. This sort of story usually has one of two conclusions and, apparently divested of any need to play fair with the reader, Symons opts for the less interesting one, but the tone of the whole thing is very difficult to dislike. Medawar’s afterword informs us that Gilbert Harding, the detective in the case, was a real-life TV personality, but he’s one who exists in my limitless ignorance and so I couldn’t connect to that side of things. I don’t think I’m ever going to be a fan of Symons’ writing, but in small doses like this I can’t deny that I find him rather agreeable.
Five books in, then, and the selection here might well be the strongest yet — this series continues to delight with the high standard of forgotten gems that Medawar uncovers, and it will be a sad day indeed when he reveals that there are genuinely no more Bodies from the Library collections to be compiled. My pick for the best five stories would probably be:
- ‘The Ginger King’ (1940) by A.E.W. Mason
- ‘Where Do We Go from Here?’ (1948) by Dorothy L. Sayers
- ‘Skeleton in the Cupboard’ (1952) by Ianthe Jerrold
- ‘The Year and the Day’ (19??) by Edmund Crispin
- ‘The Predestined’ (1953) by Q. Patrick
…but the shorter pieces like the Carr, Peters, and Van Dine are wonderful, and there’s sufficient range here to ensure that all fans of the genre will find something to enjoy. Book 6 can’t come soon enough.
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)