Miraculous Mysteries: British Library Crime Classics – Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The British Library crime classics series, up to 50 books at the time of writing, has been getting better and better. The team have been digging our more obscure titles, and republishing classics that should be better known.

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From what I heard at ‘Bodies From The Library’, the brilliant golden age crime conference this last weekend at the British Library, (which you can read up about here at Cross Examining Crime and Puzzle Doctor) there are some more exciting and forgotten titles on the way.

Editor, writer and GAD encyclopedia Martin Edwards spoke during the conference on his process in deciding what titles to pick for publication. His remit he said, and I paraphrase, was to pick a real variety of stories, from a broad range of sources, and even if the execution wasn’t perfectly realised, that each tale held something of an original and exciting approach to the mystery story. And this is definitely the feeling with Miraculous Mysteries, Edwards’ selection of locked room shorts, which I was thankful to receive a review copy of from the British Library team.

As there are some very thorough and insightful reviews of this new title already out there (great one here from TomCat), I have decided to give you my top 5 (okay, maybe 6 or 7) stories from the 16 on offer, and will give you one thing (okay, maybe two things) that I liked about each story. So without further ado here are my top ten, in order of appearance:

1 – ‘The Thing Invisible’ – William Hope Hodgson
This short takes as it’s supernatural occurrence, the mystery of a haunted dagger, mounted above the alter of a family chapel, that flies from the wall running through any poor soul who dares enter the chapel after sun down. The best part of this story was the scene in which the detective waits over night in the chapel to hopefully witness the event for himself. This waiting scene is so well written, and is absolutely chilling and heart-racing. 

2 – The Case of the Tragedies of the Greek Room – Sax Rohmer
Sax Rohmer was the pen name of the creator of the ridiculous (but for some reason overwhelmingly popular) Dr. Fu Manchu series. It’s popularity is probably down to Rohmer’s story telling ability, which is evident in this short, which sees Moris Klaw, a ‘psychic detective’ who solves mysteries by placing himself at the scene of the crime until he receives and ‘odic photograph’, a mental impression of the last thing eyes of the victim witnessed before death. The ‘Greek Room’ of the title refers to one greek display room in a small museum, which has experienced haunting events, when one of the guards is killed inside the locked museum on night watch. The solution to the locked room and the appearance of a spectre in white, are both absolutely audacious but work simply for the fact that Rohmer committed to them totally. This was also one of only two mysteries that I didn’t guess the solution to.

3 – ‘The Miracle of Moon Crescent’ – G.K.Chesterton
What can I say about this story, it’s just brilliant. There is so much I could say about this, but instead I’ll just say go and read it, and if you haven’t already, go and read the rest of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, which I’ll write about one of these days. The one thing I’ll pick from this story is a clue. This is one of my favourite clues for how it unlocks the solution to the disappearance of a man from a watched room, who is then found 100 of meters away hung from a tree. The clue: why would someone fire a gun, with a blank round, into the side of a brick building?

4 – ‘The Diary of Death’ – Marten Cumberland
The best thing about this story is the brilliant central idea, and I think Cumberland missed a trick here in not making this into a novel as it would have worked for sure. A famous actress, becoming a recluse at the end of her life, in her last days writes a ludicrous and unfounded diary, slamming all the people whom she felt had wronged her. Now she is dead and gone. But when people start to be killed off one by one, each with a torn page of the diary pertaining to them found on their body, it seems as if her ghost is back to take revenge on her enemies. One victim dies in a locked room, and the solution is super neat, and a favourite of mine from this collection. This was the only other solution I didn’t guess. At least not in full. I was half way there, but a simple idea sneaked up behind me, making it all the more satisfying.

5 – ‘Death at 8:30’ – Christopher St. John Sprigg
This is my first foray into Sprigg’s work which has convinced me that I want to read Death of An Airman, his other re-release in the British Library Crime Classics series. This is probably one of the most hilariously water tight locked room set-ups I have come across: 3 layers of doors, 3 layers of guards, an underground vault, two people either side with revolvers, and the target in a bullet proof glass booth with a gun in hand… and he still dies at 8:30 exactly! The solution is fairly simple and revealed about half way through, but it’s how Sprigg uses the solution to get the untouchable killer to confess which is brilliant, and makes for an great closing scene.

6 – The Haunted Policeman – Dorothy L. Sayers
After two atrocious stories in a row, it was endlessly refreshing to come to this Sayers short, and showed how good a writer she really was. The thing I liked about this one was the originality of the set-up. A policeman on his night round hears shouting and cries for help coming from a long row of houses down a narrow side street. A ruffled looking man runs to the door before the policeman looking through the letter box to see what’s wrong. Beckoning the policeman over, he looks through to see a man lying in the corridor with a knife through the back of his neck, fresh blood on the black and white tiled floor. The policeman bangs on the door of Number 13 to no effect when he notices that the shabby looking man has run away. He pursues him up the street, but doesn’t catch him, and decides to run back to the crime scene. But when he gets there, house number 13 has gone, only even numbers show on the doors, and after knocking on every door on the street none of the houses look like the one he saw through the letter box, even though the other residents heard the cries for help, and saw him and the mysterious man running down the road.

7 – ‘Beware of the Trains’ – Edmund Crispin 
As a massive Crispin fan I was really happy to find a story of his in this collection, and to see that more of his work is going out to the masses. I do think there are better locked room shorts from Crispin, The Name on the Window for example being a miniature masterpiece. However on reading this again for the first time in a while I think I under estimated it, and the level of joy and exuberance coming from Crispin here shows that he was at his prime when writing this. The story concerns the disappearance of a train driver between two watched and surrounded stations, and my top thing from this short are these few hilarious lines which show off Crispin’s wit and revelation of character at it’s top form. The passage concerns station master Maycock angry that he hasn’t been told about a police presence at his station:

‘Mr. Maycock, clearly dazed by this melodramatic intelligence, took refuge from his confusion behind a hastily contrived breastwork of out-raged dignity. ‘And why,’ he demanded in awful tones, ‘was I not hinformed of this ‘ere?’
   You ‘ave bin informed,’ snapped the second porter, who was very old indeed, and who appeared to be temperamentally subject to that vehement, unfocussed rage which one associates with men who are trying to give up smoking…
…’And it wouldn’t ave occurred to you, would it’–here Mr Maycock bent slightly at the knees, as though the weight of his sarcasm was altogether too much for his large frame to support comfortably–’to ‘ave a dekko in my room and see if I was ‘ere?’ 

However, there are one or two duds in the collection (in fact only two) and so, as an addition to this list I want to give the award for, in my opinion, the worst story in the collection to….

‘Too Clever By Half’ – G.D.H and Margaret Cole.
For me, this story is so atrocious that I couldn’t go without mentioning it. It seems that even Martin Edwards didn’t think of them very highly, saying in his introduction that they saw detective fiction as a ‘trivial’ side line to their more ‘worthier’ political work.

I went from anger to laughter with how bad this was, as it seemed to fall into every bad writing and poor detective trope I could think of. The bad writing is too much too number, literally saying things like ‘…I could not rid my mind of the feeling that there was something wrong than a mere suicide’, but in terms of the story, lets take this for instance: The great detective is sure that a suicide note is in fact a note taken out of a letter, with the top and bottom cut off, when the doctor says it could possibly be read that way he states:

“Of course it can,” I insisted. “Once that occurs to you, you see it can’t mean anything else.”

It can’t mean anything else. Wow! This is the classic bad trope of a detective telling the reader what is true, without any evidence, that we are expected to believe. This is the kind of thing that Berkeley so sharply satirised and criticised in the Poison Chocolates Case, which I wrote about in my last post. Here’s another quote for good measure:

‘But I doubt if I should have convinced Inspector Cox of their [my deductions] correctness at that stage if it hadn’t been for that opportune discovery of mine about the colour of the ink.’ 
‘Yes that was the goods,’ said someone. ‘Just like a bit out of a detective story–only there they’d have analysed the ink, and put down a lot of unintelligible stuff about it having the wrong chemical composition.’ 
Ben Tancred laughed. ‘We managed without that,’ he said. 

The covering of the fact that again the ink could have had multiple meanings and reasons for being a different colour, by saying that in a detective story it would have been ‘a lot of unintelligible stuff’ is just so lax it’s hilarious. And what’s even funnier about this, is that it is the exact point that is satirised in The Poison Chocolates Case, even down to ink pots as an example. In saying all this, it is possible that the Cole’s were not trying to create a puzzle for you to solve with the detective, but if that were the case I think it would have had a very different feel. Have a read and let me know what you think.

Well, over all an enjoyable collection with only two real duds that I could speak of. This isn’t a revolutionary set of locked room mysteries, but what Edwards has managed to do with this collection is to give you the experience of each story being so different and consistently interesting, pulling out obscure and forgotten titles along the way, and therefore the collection is great to read as a whole.

I hope there is a second one! (And I hope that one has at least once Carr story in it!)

 

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Ronald Knox: The Short Stories (1931-1947)

Priest, theologian, classicist, translator, tutor, chaplain at Oxford university and detective fiction writer, Ronald Knox like many of the early detective novelists had an eclectic and rich background and output.

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Knox was an avid writer and reader of detective fiction, and wrote many essays on the subject. He was also one of the original members of the Detection Club alongside Agatha Christie, Dorothy L.Sayers, G.K Chesterton and many other prominent and important novelists, started by Anthony Berkeley. Knox compiled a list called the Ten Commandments For Detective Novelists , a set of laws for the club, which the other members went on to joyfully break. The Detection Club also collaborated on a series of three novels, in which each member would write a chapter, Knox contributed to three of these titles.

The priest come novelist also wrote works in numerous areas including essay collections and theological texts. Amongst these were many satirical essays, and his detective novels are frequently satirical in nature. William Reynolds writes in his book The Detective Novels of Ronald A.Knox (1981): “Knox’s satire is directed against persons, institutions, or habits of thought whose principles the modern world accepts most uncritically … he is taking aim at pretensions, substitutions of show for substance.” This is a perfect grasp of satire, and in the vein of making the mighty look humble, a very biblical form of satire also. 

Knox wrote 6 detective novels in total, and also published three short stories. Published at important points in his writing career, these three shorts are all marvellous and perfectly represent the different aspects of Knox’s detective fiction works and impact. So by way of introduction to Knox’s work I will discuss these three brilliant shorts.

Solved By Inspection – 1931
Knox’s first short story showcases his series detective Miles Bredon, who appears in 5 of his novels. Bredon is employed by the ‘Indescribable Insurance Company’ to investigate suspicious claims made by it’s clientele. This is simply one of my favourite short detective works and shows that Knox was a deft hand with the locked room mystery format, creating a very original entry into the cannon. Eccentric millionaire, and darling to the press Herbert Jervison, after a trip to India, has become obsessed with astral projection, meditation and psychic experiments, now calling himself The Brotherhood of Light. Locking himself into what he calls his laboratory, an old gym and racket court, he takes two weeks worth of supplies and says he must not be disturbed on any account. However, when he doesn’t emerge after the two weeks is up, the door is broken down and he is found dead in his bed. But stranger still Jervison has died of starvation, the food all around him being completely untouched. 

The solution is extremely clever, simple and terrifically dark. One that lingers in the mind for some time. I have this story in a collection called The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories, edited by Patricia Craig, which is a collection of shorts that I highly recommend.

The Motive – 1937
Knox also wrote stand alone detective works, and The Motive is a top example. A satirical work no doubt, this short is set in the common rooms of Simon Magus college, a mythical college that Knox used as a way of exploring and satirising the culture of university don’s. Here the story is told by the infamous lawyer Sir Leonard Huntercombe, a man who was ‘probably responsible for more scoundrels being at large than any other man in England’. Huntercombe waxes lyrical, (mainly to stop another don from talking), on a strange set of crimes that almost took him to court.

These two crimes concern firstly a brutal murder attempt, where a young, proud man is challenged late at night to swim 10 lengths of the hotel swimming pool blindfolded. As he does this the swimming pool is slowly drained, enough that he cannot reach to get out, and once his he removes his blindfold he realises that he has been left to lose energy trying to keep afloat which will eventually cause him drown through fatigue. The pool could then be refilled and we have a perfect murder.

But this is unsuccessful and what follows is a very nicely conceived impossible disappearance from a locked and watched train carriage, with a killer solution. The ending of the story is hilarious and totally unexpected, perfectly summing up Knox’s satirical aims.

This story also happens to have been published in the heavily debated Golden Age sweet spot of 1937, which allows me to submit this post for the 1937 edition of Crimes of the Century at the brilliant Past Offences.

NPG x1954; Ronald Arbuthnott Knox by Howard Coster
The man himself

The Adventure of the First Class Carriage – 1947
Another aspect of Knox’s oeuvre was his knowledge of the Sherlock works and his input into the world of ‘Sherlockian studies’ or ‘Sherlockiana’.  This he started in a book called Essays in Satire (1928) where he published a satirical essay called “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes”. This and following writings were a series of mock-serious critical and historical writings on Sherlock Holmes, where the writer assumes that Sherlock Holmes is a real figure, and uses historical information to build up biographies and clear up anomalies is the Doyle stories. It’s a fascinating form of writing and worth looking up. 

As a fan then of Sherlock the last short story Knox published doesn’t come as surprise. The Adventure of the First Class Carriage is a Sherlock tale, written in homage to Doyle’s inimitable style in which Watson reflects on the case of the disappearance of Mr Nathaniel Swithinbank. The Swithinbank’s maid, Mrs Hennessy, has made a secret trip to Baker street to discuss strange goings on at the manor house. Arguments, tensions between husbands and wife and a ripped up suicide note with a strange fragment pointing to a specific point in the reeds near the house ‘where the old tower hides both the first and the second floor windows.

What Sherlock is so surprised at is how the clues to this mystery seem so obvious and therefore backwards – why leave a suicide note in the bin where it would be easily found?. The whole reason for the case is another brilliant subversion and ends with Sherlock uttering the latin phrase ‘sic vos non vobis’, which closes the story very nicely, seeing that the work in itself is a homage to the great detective and to Doyle’s work. There is love for Doyle here, and also, a very sly thread of comic parody going on, terms like ‘she dived her hand into a capacious reticule’  being charmingly witty whilst playing with the Watsonian language.

There will be a lecture given this year on Knox’s work at the Bodies From The Library conference at the British Library in June, which I much look forward to. I would be very interested to know if anyone has read any of the Knox novels? And what would you recommend?

Updates:

Golden age expert Martin Edwards very helpfully commented that:

(Knox’s) Ten Commandments were not the laws of the Club. They were included in an essay that prefaced an anthology. Some elements of the Decalogue were, however, introduced into the Club’s initiation ritual, which was primarily drafted by Dorothy L. Sayers.