Reviewed by Harriet
The relation between Douglas Stone and the notorious Lady Sannox was very well known both among the fashionable circles of which she was a brilliant member, and the scientific bodies which numbered him among their most illustrious confrères. There was naturally, therefore, a very widespread interest when it was announced one morning that the lady had absolutely and forever taken the veil, and that the world would see her no more. When, at the very tail end of this rumour, there came the assurance that the celebrated operating surgeon, the man of steel nerves, had been found in the morning by his valet, seated on one side of his bed, smiling pleasantly upon the universe, with both legs jammed into one side of his breeches, and his great brain about as valuable as a cup full of porridge, the matter was strong enough to give quite a little thrill of interest to folk who had never hoped that their jaded nerves were capable of such a sensation.
This is the exciting beginning of the first story in this delightful volume, a collection of seventeen vintage short stories, all set in London. This one, ‘The Case of Lady Sannox’, is by none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, but does not feature Sherlock Holmes. Although it’s certainly a crime story, and a pretty horrific one at that, there’s no detective involved at all. In fact, what becomes clear from reading all the stories in this lively collection is that, perhaps unlike authors of the full-length crime novel, the writers of short mystery stories seem from the start to have treated the genre in a variety of sometimes unexpected and experimental ways. There’s a late-Victorian serial killer making use of a variety of bizarre home-made instruments to carry out his devilish murders on the London Underground, a female detective from around the same period whose ability to lip-read enables her to solve cases that have baffled the police, a blind detective whose Watson-type sidekick is a struck-off solicitor, a ground-breaking ‘impossible crime’ story and many more besides.
Many of the authors included in the volume were previously unknown to me, but evidently were much admired in their day. Thomas Burke, for example, specialised in melodramatic stories of working-class life, and his scary tale ‘The Hands of Mr Ottermole’ was highly regarded by the American author Ellery Queen, who said: ‘No finer crime story has ever been written, period’. ‘The Silver Mask’, an impressively macabre story, is by Hugh Walpole, whose writing made him stupendously rich and earned him a knighthood.
The names from around the mid-20th century will be more familiar, at least to lovers of golden age crime. A story by Margery Allingham features her much-loved detective Albert Campion, and one by Anthony Berkeley is a version (with an interesting variation) of his well-known The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Rather surprisingly, to me at least, the writer E.M. Delafield, famous for her Diary of a Provincial Lady, is represented here, as is Anthony Gilbert (actually a woman), one of the earliest members of the prestigious Detection Club. I was also very taken with Ethel Lina White, of whom I had not heard before, and whose story ‘Cheese’ begins very enticingly:
This story begins with a murder. It ends with a mousetrap.
The murder can be disposed of in a paragraph. An attractive girl, carefully reared and educated for a future which held only a twisted throat. At the end of seven months, an unsolved mystery and a reward of £500.
It is a long way from a murder to a mousetrap — and one with no finger-posts; but the police knew every inch of the way.
Martin Edwards’ introduction gives a helpful overview of crime writing during the time period covered by this collection, in which, he tells us, the stories appear ‘roughly, although not precisely, in chronological order’. Herein lies my only quibble about this book: I do wish the dates and places of the stories’ original publication had been included. It would have been easy to do, and would have been a helpful feature for anyone interested in the development of the genre. But then I’m a literary geek, and this omission won’t bother most people, I’m sure. Overall the book is an excellent addition to the British Library’s impressive series of crime classics.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Read more about the British Library Crime Classics in our Spotlight on Publishers article.
Martin Edwards (ed.), Capital Crimes: London Mysteries (British Library: London, 2015). 9780712357494, 319 pp., paperback.