#38: Five to Try – Short Story Collections

Following my torrent of Sherlock Holmes I was tempted to do a ‘Five to Try’ on the short story collections, picking my favourite story from each.  But it’s not as if the Holmes canon doesn’t have enough words dedicated to it already, and thus I thought I’d opt for collections by other authors instead.

So, the rules: collections of short stories by a single author (no compendiums, wherein the quality always varies horrendously), readily available today…that just about covers it.  And so, alphabetically by author, we have:

Fen Country (1950-79) by Edmund Crispin

Fen CountryThe second of Crispin’s two short story collections, published posthumously.  My choice of the two because of the way a lot of the stories hinge on a very simple core idea – homonyms, for example – that might come across a gimmicky but manage in about six or seven pages to communicate setting, setup, event, outcome and misdirection.  Frankly no small feat! Yes, consequently the characters tend to suffer (the ebullient Fen is a curiously neutered presence in the stories in which he features) but for sheer inventive interpretation after inventive interpretation this is hard to beat.  And as an example of Crispin’s tight hold on the reins of his plots (which could, let’s face it, get a bit beyond him in his novels) this reinforces his reputation in a form that has often proved the undoing of lesser talents. [Available in ebook and thoroughly unattractive print form from Bloomsbury]

Recommended reading: ‘Death and Aunt Fancy’, ‘The Hunchback Cat’, ‘Outrage in Stepney’ Continue reading

#19: Five to Try – Starting John Dickson Carr

John Dickson Carr wrote just shy of 80 books and, since he is the finest practitioner of detective fiction the world has ever seen, you would like to know where to start in this cavalcade of brilliance (because some of them are bound to be, er, unbrilliant).  I am here to help.

Just to be clear on the rules: novels that are readily available, as always, restricted to impossible crimes because that’s why we love him, and presented in order of recommended reading (so, start with the first one). That is all, here we go…

Constant SuicidesThe Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) Hey, you; yes, you, with the cup of tea.  I want you to write a book about people inexplicably hurling themselves out of a window when sleeping alone in a room at the top of a tower.  I want it to be creepy, I want it to be fast-moving, I want it to have an undertone of threat; it also has to be fairly-clued, the culprit resonsible must be a complete surprise and you can kill as many characters as you like.  Oh, and make it funny.  Make it laugh out loud, technicolour funny, but light enough to take up residence in your brain without leaving so much as a shadow and without undoing the threat mentioned above.  What’s that?  It’s already been done?  Oh, forget it, then I’ll just read that book instead.  [Available from Rue Morgue Press in print only, the recommended version as some other publishers inexplicably and unforgivably give away key points in their cover art]

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#17: The Hollow Man, a.k.a. The Three Coffins (1935) by John Dickson Carr

Hollow ManWhile I technically popped by blog Carr cherry a few weeks ago in recommending Death-Watch, it was at best a passing thumbs-up to the man and his achievements.  And, following the disappointment of my intended novel under review, the time is probably ripe to dive in, get the first Carr review up and prop open the floodgates.  And why not The Hollow Man (a.k.a. The Three Coffins)?  Carr’s most well-known work, an arguable masterpiece of detective and impossible crime fiction, surely the most widely written about impossible crime novel on the internet…why not trot out the usual platitudes, recommend it unreservedly and fill the gap in my schedule?

Except, and here’s the different perspective I’m hoping to bring to this, the first time I read The Hollow Man I hated it.  I hated it.  It was published as part of Orion’s Crime Masterworks series and that alone stimulated sufficient interest for me to give it a go but, being in my nonage of classic crime fiction, I couldn’t really tell you what an ‘impossible crime’ was and so didn’t know what to expect.  I somehow knew of Carr vaguely (the internet was not quite so well-informed then as now), had ten or so Agatha Christies to my name – including Murder in Mesopotamia, which I failed to recognise for the impossible crime it is – and figured that alone meant I would be in for a similar kind of experience and knew what I was doing.

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#11: Five to Try – Non-Carr impossible murders

Simple criteria: novels only, readily available, not conceived in the fertile ground of John Dickson Carr’s imagination.  I’ve also restricted the impossible crime to being the comission of the murder – people stabbed or shot while alone in a room, effectively – more to help reduce the possible contenders than anything else.  Several stone cold classics are absent through the inclusion of other invisible events but that’s a future list (or five…).

Carr – doyen of the impossible crime, responsible for more brilliant work in this subgenre than any other three authors combined – will eventually get his own list (or five…), I just have to figure out how to separate them out; restricting it to five novels was hard enough for this list, but if you’re looking to get started in locked room murders these would be my suggestions:

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#7: Five to Try – Golden Age crime fiction

So I love my classic crime, we’ve established that, but where does this leave you?  After all, having someone go on about themselves all the time gets a bit boring.  You’re always saying that, aren’t you?  Sensible person that you are.  So, just for you – yes, you – here’s a list of five books I’d recommend if you’re thinking of getting started reading classsic crime fiction but are a little overwhelmed by all these books by dead authors (I feel the same about classical music, for what it’s worth).

My criteria are fairly simple: novels only, first published between 1920 and 1950, and widely available for purchase now.  It’s all very well having someone recommend the most amazing book ever, but if it was last in print in 1932 and only changes hands in book-fair back rooms for the kind of money that it takes to keep your kids in shoes for a decade…well, that’s just someone showing off, isn’t it.  Why share a love of something that can’t itself be shared?  The list is alphabetical by author, too, because that just seems sensible:

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#4: The Wooden Overcoat (1951) by Pamela Branch

Wooden Overcoat, TheThe less you know about Pamela Branch’s debut novel the more you’ll get out of it, and obviously this poses a problem for my nascent blog.  A few cultural touchstones, then: it falls somewhere within kicking distance of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1954), 1980s comedy classic (one of those words should be in ironic quotation marks, surely?) Weekend at Bernie’s (1989), and the output of Kelley Roos.  There is a dead body.  It must be hidden.  Difficulties ensue.  And this undertaking (if you will) is very, very funny.

The funny is a difficult one, because I’m honestly not sure at which point it becomes funny.  It starts off strange and becomes only stranger as it goes, all the while introducing a gentle absurdity that, at least for me, tips over into outright hilarity at times.  It’s not consistent rolling-in-the-aisles comical, but I’d be surprised if you could read too much of this – especially in the set-pieces like the ‘picnic’ and, later, its glorious counterpoint in chapter 18 – without at least a wry smile on your face.  There are a few quite lovely suprises, hence my recommendation that you know as little as possible going in, and it all stays far enough this side of zany, bawdy nonsense to remain just about believable.

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