#1023: “The act of homicide always throws a man off balance.” – Bodies from the Library [ss] (2018) ed. Tony Medawar

The annual Bodies from the Library (2018-present) collections, in which Tony Medawar expertly selects long-forgotten and previously-unpublished stories and plays, have become essential purchases for anyone with even a passing interest in the great and the good of detective fiction’s Golden Age.

And so, with Bodies from the Library 6 (2023) coming out this summer, I return to the source and the very first volume in the series, which positively overflows with famous names who it would have been entirely reasonable to expect had nothing more to offer to the reading public. Aaah, how innocent we were back in those days, eh?

We begin with ‘Before Insulin’ (1926) by J.J. Connington, concerning the small matter of a legacy handed down by a will that might be suspect and so is brought to the attention of Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield. Of course, it’s bound to be dodgy, the matter simple needs to be proven, and unfortunately, as much as I enjoy the crispness and clarity of Connington’s prose, the narrative provides an explanation that would obviate Driffield’s key deduction and hence barrier to the criminals’ success. More Connington in the world is a good thing, and I finished this with a feeling of anticipation for jumping back into his novels before too long, but it’s not exactly a humdinger of a tale.

A previously uncollected case for Sergeant Beef, ‘The Inverness Cape’ (1952) by Leo Bruce sees our beer-swilling sleuth unpick “the most brutal case I ever had to tackle”: the bludgeoning to death of an elderly spinster while her wheelchair-bound sister looked on. I’m not convinced the short story was Bruce’s ideal form, since the overwhelming majority of the Murder in Miniature [ss] (1992) collection plays out much as this one: clearly defined and easy to follow, then stumbling when the small matter of tying things up in a clever way rears its head. It’s a shame, too, that — despite being written in the first person — so little of Beef’s personality, surely 70% of the character’s raison d’etre, is in evidence. Also, ‘Gilly’ is a man’s name — who knew?

A short, sharp, savage little tale from Freeman Wills Crofts, ‘Dark Waters’ (1953) sets up its central conceit — unscrupulous solicitor having lost his client’s money, which the client suddenly wishes to access — with admirable brevity, and evolves into a plan of murder with similarly breathless haste.

For Weller discovery would mean the end of everything. He would not escape prison. His business in the nearby town, his charming house on the Thames, his position and his friends — all would be gone. He could look forward to nothing but poverty and misery.

But there was an alternative.

It’s not remotely fair play, but then Crofts didn’t write that sort of story very often; instead it’s quick, nimble, and doesn’t outstay its welcome all the way to the stinger of a final line.

More of a frothy thriller than a detective story — though, interestingly, containing sufficient hints to qualify as at least trying to point the reader in the right direction — ‘Linckes’ Great Case’ (1923) by Georgette Heyer concerns our eponymous tyro of a detective called in to find out who has been leaking submarine plans to the Russians, and is notable if only for the hilarious opening interview twixt Linckes and his boss which goes, very approximately, like this:

BOSS: Well, the only people who could have done it are Caryu, Winthrop, Johnson, and Tassel.
LINCKES: What can you tell me about Winthrop?
BOSS: Ye gods, man, you can’t seriously tell me you suspect Winthrop?! The man’s above reproach!
LINCKES: What can you tell me about Tassel?
BOSS: Christ on a bike, Linckes, there’s no way Tassel would have leaked them — look elsewhere.
LINCKES: Maybe we should look at Caryu, then.
BOSS: *explodes*

As no particular fan of Heyer’s novels, I enjoyed this, even if there’s nothing beyond its opening to compel it to the memory.

Every volume of Bodies from the Library has contained at least one script, and the very first one was ‘Callings James Braithwaite‘ (1940) by Nicholas Blake. The eponymous ship is named after the owner of the company under whose auspice it sails, and the man in question has chosen to take a voyage on said ship…surrounded, in true Golden Age fashion, by a lot of people who have good reason to want him dead.

The mystery here is a fairly simple one, but what’s pleasing is how the killer’s plan ends up frustrated — initially it seems like a rather foolish murder, but then you realise how much the personality of the victim plays into its failure and it reframes things very neatly. Additionally, the final moments are rather bracing, finishing as this does on a moment of alarm rather than smug resolution of the detective having gotten his man.

And, since this was actually broadcast, I wonder if any recordings of it exist. I seem to remember hearing somewhere that Nigel Strangeways’ surname is pronounced “Strang-wise” and this might finally have cleared the matter up for good…

Another piece of rigorous scientific detection from John Rhode comes in the form of ‘The Elusive Bullet’ (1936) which sees a wealthy man shot in a train carriage while his wastrel, inherits-upon-the-old-bird’s-death nephew was not only riding the same train but in possession of a rifle, too. It’s pretty fun stuff, too, enlivened by a few interesting observations about ballistics which you just know the detail-fixated Rhode had a wonderful time researching, even if the method is so unlikely as to introduce another three or four elbows to the long arm of coincidence.

The most distracting thing about rereading this — apart from the Golden Age’s obsession with cousins falling in love, I mean — is that it now reminds me of another story in which a man’s cow (or sheep…?) is shot dead by someone on a train whose initial bullet missed its target — can anyone help me out with the title of that? [Edit: I have a feeling it’s The Two Tickets Puzzle (1930) by J.J. Connington] And it’s amusing to reflect that, since first reading this, I’ve encountered another story from a modern author that does almost the exact same thing to equally entertaining ends.

I’m yet to warm to the novels of Cyril Hare, but the short fiction of his that I’ve read has been completely delightful: sharp, topped off with magnificent twists, and always confounding in how swiftly he pulls a rug. ‘The Euthanasia of Hilary’s Aunt’ (1950) is no exception — a short, charming, and fast-moving little tale of a devious layabout and the comeuppance that’s waiting for him upon its fabulous final line.

I like the ideas behind a lot of Vincent Cornier‘s work, but often find his prose a slog even when, as here, he pens some beautifully acute sentences (“The elderly lady smiled like a warm cat.”). So the fact that ‘The Girdle of Dreams’ (1933) fits his usual idiom so well was a delight — with a jeweller lost in raptures of admiration when the eponymous piece is bought to him for sale…

Whoever that bride had been she surely could not have had one-tenth of the radiantly faery beauty of the one who waited for him there — among the secrecies of shade and luscious peace in this pavonine pavilion where the sound of zephyred blossoms and warm music lived.

The story would actually be perfectly fine if it stopped at the end of the first part, but Cornier’s decision to then unpick the crime committed and fasten blame proves to be a canny one, since his sleuths Professor Wanless and Major Helmersdyne — this is the only story to feature them that I’ve read — are enjoyable company and the Raffles-esque criminal getting his due is pleasing for how petty it all feels. “Often implausible, sometimes preposterously so, Cornier’s work is nonetheless always entertaining,” is how Medawar sums him up in his afterword, and on this evidence it’s difficult to disagree.

“A bloke does a killing and leaves the clues for the detectives to find. {Detective stories are] all the same. Why in ’ell don’t a bloke write about a bloke who kills another bloke and gets away with it? I could kill a bloke and leave no clues.” Thus the seed is planted which will flourish into ranchman Harry Larkin deciding to murder his neighbour William Reynolds in ‘The Fool and the Perfect Murder’ (1948) by Arthur Upfield.

One of the real joys of Upfield’s writing is how effortlessly he conveys the huge spaces and consequent infinite patience of rural Australia, with Inspector Napoleon ‘Boney’ Bonaparte taking months to slowly follow up the various clues which, due to the tracker’s arts, sing out so tellingly amidst the natural order of the setting. Larkin’s plan might well be “as simple as being kicked to death in a stockyard jammed with mules”, but there’s little like Boney’s detection in the genre — Murder on Safari (1938) by Elspeth Huxley is the closest thing I’ve read to date — and the way the net draws so tightly as to even surprise our killer is wonderful in its devastation.

Another feckless layabout keen to profit from the death of a wealthy relative — and hopefully an imminent death, perhaps with some help crossing the veil — is to be found in ‘Bread Upon the Waters’ (1950) by A.A. Milne, which contains further evidence that crime fiction lost a fine farceur when his reputation became so entrenched in the Hundred-Acre Wood. It would be easy to attribute this short, tongue-in-cheek tale to Anthony Berkeley…and that, as far as I’m concerned, is about as high as praise gets.

And it’s to Anthony Berkeley that we turn next, with the ten-part ‘The Man with the Twisted Thumb’ (1933) — a title which give Sherlockian allusions, though the story itself is a rather more light and zesty series of incidents in the Bright Young Thing mould, as a confusion over a woman’s clutch purse at a swanky Monaco party leads to night-time shenanigans and plenty of deception.

Berkeley’s not trying anything daring here, and is instead simply out to have as much fun as possible, which comes across easily through his souffle-light prose and the constant cliffhangers and Saturday matineee-esque reversals that top and tail each part. And, y’know, it’s nice to see him enjoying himself, even if the whole edifice is so light that it threatens to blow away at times. Everyone needs to let their hair down sometimes, and I’m sure the Women’s Institute for who this was written appreciated not receiving another lecture on undercutting the expectations of crime fiction…wonderful though that would have been.

Little did we know when this volume was first published just how much material by Christianna Brand would be coming into circulation in the years ahead, and the previously-unpublished ‘The Rum Punch’ provides a tantalising hint to similarly-unseen material of hers that might yet see the light of day. It’s easy to forget just how smooth so much of Brand’s prose is, with characterisation bleeding through effortlessly (“Mrs. Bee was darting about, hen-headed…”) as Sergeant Troot must contend with the semi-impossible poisoning of Mr. Waite at a party the victim was hosting.

It will come as no surprise that Brand has great sympathy with her young characters, and that there’s an achingly human motive behind the scheme when revealed in the closing stages, but this suffers in my eyes because it would have been so very easy for Brand to play fair and yet — go back and check — at the key moment she fails to inform you of the crucial action…so there’s less enjoyment in seeing it laid out. Still, this does little to dampen my enthusiasm for the new collection of Brand’s work that Medawar mentions in his afterword which, given that it didn’t materialise in 2020 as claimed, is hopefully not too far off…

Having made the acquaintance of Ernest Bramah’s blind detective Max Carrados a year ago, the stage play ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’ (1918) made for interesting revisiting. Three confidence tricksters have been buttering up an attache, stringing him along into a deception that will enable them to relieve him of sensitive information…though two of them are hiding from the third the nature of this information, telling him instead that it’s a mere matter of money being lifted. All is set to go off tonight, and when the mark arrives with the unanticipated Carrados, no-one sees any reason why they shouldn’t be able to pull of their coup — after all, what could a blind man possibly do to stop them?

I appreciated at this second encounter how well Bramah has adapted Carrados’ operation so that the singular talents of the blind detective show through in this new medium: spotting the absence of a ring on a lady’s finger, using his keen sense of smell to distinguish another key clue…Carrados is more ingenious on the page, but his creator should be commended for making this work so well. It feels a little unresolved in the final moments, as if Bramah wasn’t quite sure what to do once the plot has been foiled, but it would make for an entertaining night at the theatre and as such is difficult to criticise too harshly.

2023 will definitely probably be the year that I finally get round to reading some of H.C. Bailey’s Reggie Fortune stories, as I’ve only encountered Bailey through this series and found him greatly enjoyable every time. ‘Victoria Pumphrey’ (1939) features not his surgeon-detective but instead the eponymous titled lady, whose own prospects have been somewhat diminished by preceding generations, resulting in her having to get a job of work as a typist…which is only the first step on a path to criminal investigation.

Bailey’s lightness of tone is incredible, as he tiptoes along a line that threatens facetiousness at every moment, but is able to draw it back with some staggeringly brutalist descriptions of the landscape…

A windmill stood with unmoving sails, a giant scarecrow, and leered at her. A scrap of wild marsh broke the tilled land and, beyond it, stunted birches stood white amid yellow moss and pools of oily, dark water, an uncanny goblins’ wood.

…which remind you that serious work is afoot. It’s quite a clever little idea, too –and if not exactly bursting with originality in the scheme of things, deserves credit for how damn enjoyable retreading familiar ground (Titchborne Claimant, invalid patriarch, etc.) feels while reading it.

‘The Starting-Handle Murder’ (1934) is one of the tales of Roy Vickers‘ Department of Dead Ends, that “fussy old gentleman who sets out with the vague intention of following the hounds on foot and accidentally stumbles headlong over the fox”. And while this tale of a man who commits murder to free the woman he loves from a marriage which is swiftly deteriorating due to her husband’s madness doesn’t quite exploit the loose-end nature of the undertaking as fully as when at its best, Vickers’ tone — that of a faintly fusty but nevertheless fascinating elderly relative taking their sweet time to set the tone while telling a shaggy dog story — is just…exquisite.

Those were the days of ‘Society’, when phrases like ‘a leading hostess’ and ‘a well-known clubman’ had real meaning. This Society may have been easier for a rich man to enter than in the Victorian days. But for some lost reason those that were in seem to have attached far more importance to their position than in any previous period of history. If you were in, you spoke of a friend who had dropped out much as nowadays you might speak of a friend who had been sent to Devil’s Island. It was as if they regarded the society of non-fashionable doctors, lawyers, business men and the like — in short, the whole middle-class, cultured or otherwise — as being uncivilised and intolerable.

I mean, I could read stuff like…

He left by the eleven-three [train] — a dangerously pointless thing to do, because the eleven-three is local and peters out at Stortford Mills. If you want to go by the eleven-three from Hartways to Victoria you have to get out at Stortford Allills and wait on the same platform until the eleven-twenty comes along. So you might just as well catch the eleven-twenty to start with and save yourself a wait on Stortford Mills platform.

…all day, and so really must give the DoDE collection I have a second go later this year.

Finally, ‘The Wife of the Kenite’ (1922), an uncommonly hard-edged tale from Agatha Christie which sees a German with links to a regime in the process of being over thrown flee for his life and seek refuge at the farm of a sympathiser and his wife. Thematically this hints at ideas which would become regular features of Christie’s work but, being from so early in her career, the manner of their address is perhaps more on the nose than we’ve come to expect. Still, it’s fascinating reading to see her working in an idiom that’s so unlike the work she has become known for.

And that was Bodies from the Library (2018), which I’m pretty sure even Tony Medawar wouldn’t have imagined would go on on be as successful as it has been: the series comprises five volumes to date with a sixth on the way, plus Ghosts from the Library (2022) and who knows what other spin-offs to come. We can all be very thankful for the work that has gone in to bringing these excellent, otherwise-neglected gems to our attention, and here’s hoping there’s enough material for several books yet.

Oh, and if you want my top five picks from this volume, they’d currently be:

  1. ‘The Euthanasia of Hilary’s Aunt’ (1950) by Cyril Hare
  2. ‘Bread Upon the Waters’ (1950) by A.A. Milne
  3. ‘Victoria Pumphrey’ (1939) by H.C. Bailey
  4. ‘The Starting-Handle Murder’ (1934) by Roy Vickers
  5. ‘The Elusive Bullet’ (1936) by John Rhode

Do with that information what you will.


The Bodies from the Library collections, edited by Tony Medawar

  1. Bodies from the Library (2018)
  2. Bodies from the Library 2 (2019)
  3. Bodies from the Library 3 (2020)
  4. Bodies from the Library 4 (2021)
  5. Bodies from the Library 5 (2022)

The Ghosts from the Library collections, edited by Tony Medawar

  1. Ghosts from the Library (2022)


It’s worth reminding you, too, that the annual conference on Golden Age detective fiction which shares its name with these anthologies is taking place at the British Library on Saturday 24th June 2023 It’s always a wonderful day, and comes highly recommended — you can buy tickets here.

6 thoughts on “#1023: “The act of homicide always throws a man off balance.” – Bodies from the Library [ss] (2018) ed. Tony Medawar

  1. The exquisiteness of Vickers is indeed something to behold. For me, he’s the most underrated mystery author of all.
    Looking forward to your savoring that collection.


  2. I keep collecting these but have yet to read anything, which is madness, I know. I’m sure each collection has its mix of highs and lows, but I’m curious if any volume stands out as being the strongest. I see you have yet to tackle Bodies 3, but am interested on which 10 stories stand out the most across all of the collections.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do pretty much the same thing, Ben: I’ve got all five, but I’ve only read two of them. Not this one, and not Volume 3, with its entries by Berkeley, Carr, Christie, Marsh, and Sayers! (Plus a Stuart Palmer story featuring Hildegarde Withers! Come on! what am I waiting for?!?)

      I think, however, that you can pick and choose as you like. And I would suggest, knowing you, that you go directly to Volume 4 and read “Shadowed Sunlight,” the novella by Christianna Brand. No, it doesn’t come close to her best work, but it’s wonderful nonetheless.


      • Yeah, I’m going to be pecking at individual stories from these rather than reading them straight through. That’s what I do with the Carr and Brand collections as well, although in that case it’s because there’s no need to drain the well dry all at once.

        I do read the occasional anthology all the way through, but those tend to be the 10 stories by assorted authors format.


    • I think I’ve put a pick of my top five stories at the end of each post, so to be honest you’re best off just checking out those lists.

      A common feature is frequently that the names which come with very little in the way of preconceptions turn out to have written some of the most surprising stuff, possibly just on account of writing less and so saving up their ideas for when it really mattered. But then there are some great tales in these by authors I’m not normally a fan of: Cyril Hare, Gladys Mitchell, etc. S…yeah, all bets are off if you want any recommendations!


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