I have said this many times but I do believe that Edmund Crispin in a totally underrated writer of the golden age of detection. Crispin had some striking ideas in his work, marking many of his stories out as original. And there is no better way to see the most complex and nuanced of these ideas that in his short stories.
This is going to be the first in a two parter where I look at Crispin’s collections of short stories, both at the start of his writing life and at the end. Originally published in 1953, almost 10 years into Crispin’s mystery writing career, Beware of the Trains catalogues a selection of 16 of the best of Crispin’s short works mostly containing his series detective, Oxford Don, Gervaise Fen. I love this 70’s yellow covered Gollancz copy I have, which I found tucked away on a old book stall that used to run from Spitalfields Market in central London.
For most of these stories, the mystery, plot and solution hangs on a single, intricate idea. It feels here as if Crispin here had so many of these deceptively simple, little ingenious gems that hadn’t found their way into a novel, so he gave them a short story in which to explore their possibilities. It’s this cleverness, and the pushing of one idea to the limit which makes his short works stand apart. They are not just detective works made short, but act as small essays or experiments on the structures and framing devices of detective fiction.
Every story in here I regard highly, so I have chosen my top 5 to wet your appetite. (But you know me by now and my renegade ways, I may even go past 5). Without further ado:
1 – Beware Of The Trains
The opening story, and one of Crispin’s more famous shorts which concerns how the driver of the titular train impossibly disappears from the driver’s seat between stations. I have read this on a number of occasions, and this time round it really struck me how brilliant it is. There are some lovely tricks here, encased in lush, economic scene description and effortlessly comedic writing, showing off all of Crispin’s skills with flair.
2 – Express Delivery
A case of who shot who, and why. Eve Crandall sits in the garden of her well to do big game shooting, aunt and uncle’s property. The aunt arrives home to find a gun missing from the cabinet and rushing round to the garden sees James, Eve’s nephew, poised hidden in the garden ready to shoot his cousin. He fires, catching Eve on the side of the head, but not killing her. The Aunt whipping a gun from her pocket, shoots the cousin. It all happens in a moment, but what was a set up, and what wasn’t, and what was the motive for any of it? A super original story idea, a beautiful resolution and the amount of false solutions in such a short time makes this story stand out a mile.
3 – A Pot Of Paint
I am tentative in saying this, but this short story is possibly my favourite short crime story ever written. For me it’s a perfect example of everything that the detective genre can be. In just over six pages Crispin weaves the tale of a jeweller who is knocked out and robbed by an unknown assailant outside the front of his country house while painting the fence. There are four characters, one location, and from the single clue of the titular pot of paint, Fen works out who the assailant was and what happened. I have read this so many times and every time I am blown away.
4 – Black For A Funeral
If I was placing a top three of this top five this story be in there, and amounts to a ingenious semi-impossible crime that I wasn’t aware that Crispin had written until finding this collection. The body of adventure story writer Mr Derringer is found beaten to death at the gates of his country home. A ladies man (and often married ladies), there is no shortage of suspects, but there is one problem. He took a train into London for a ‘posh dinner’ that day, and on the way back stopped at a station to talk to a porter friend. But according to the timings, it was impossible for him to have made it back from the station to his home in time to be bludgeoned to death, unless someone had driven him. But there is no sign of the car, and the one road that leads to his property has on it a level crossing, the gate-keeper of which claims that no vehicle or person of any kind had travelled that way all night.
5 – The Name On The Window
Simply one of the best impossible crime shorts going, another flawless piece of mystery writing. An architect is found dead in an forgotten 18th century pavilion, and there are only the victims footprints in the thick dust. Again the workings are based around a single, ingenious idea, the name written in the dust on the window. This also has a modernist style reference to the ‘locked room lecture’ by John Dickson Carr, who was the writer that got Crispin into writing detective fiction.
6 – Dead Lock
This story is the longest of the collection and is written from the perspective of a child, not something that always works (you can read my last post about when that device isn’t used well), but in this case it’s authentic without being overwhelming, and plays a key role in how the story fits together, subtly acting as a coming of age story. It concerns the murder of another ladies man, found beaten and drowned in the local lock of a small canal. This being a stand alone, non Gervaise Fen mystery, there is a lovely cockney accented and unassuming detective, whose affability pulls the rug out from under the suspects feet. There is some very clever use of bloodstains and body positioning to wrap the tendrils of the mystery together.
I implore you to find this collection if you can, it is well worth the money. Next post: the later works.