Reviewed by Kirsty Gibson
I’ve been reading my way through the British Library Crime Classics for some time now, so when Simon gave me a copy of Murder at the Manor to review I was very excited. A collection of mystery stories written mostly in the early twentieth century and set (you guessed it) in manor houses? I was in.
I hadn’t read any of the British Library Crime Classic short story collections before, and what struck me most was the range of authors included. Selected by Martin Edwards (who wrote the brilliant Golden Age of Crime Fiction), they cover everyone from Arthur Conan Doyle to James Hilton, and everything from secret passages to hidden pulleys and false alibis to fake murders. Each story has a brief introduction that puts the author in context, gives details of their most famous work, and explains why that particular story was chosen.
As with all BLCC books, the authors tended to be very popular in their time but have got lost among Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. This is the case with Ethel Lina White. Best known for The Wheel Spins – turned into The Lady Vanishes by Alfred Hitchcock – her story An Unlocked Window is one of the most gripping and tense in the collection. Nurse Cherry, looking after her elderly charge in a manor house in the middle of the countryside, finds herself alone with her companion, Nurse Silver. Unfortunately for them, there’s a murderer on the loose targeting nurses in lonely country houses; perhaps even more unfortunately, they’ve left a window open. The chapter introduction tells us that this story was televised in the sixties by Alfred Hitchcock, and was celebrated as being one of “TV’s scariest episodes”. I haven’t seen the adaptation, but it is easy to see why he chose it. It’s difficult to write about plot twists without giving spoilers, but suffice to say that An Unlocked Window won’t disappoint.
On the other end of the scale is The Mystery of Horne’s Copse, in which Hugh Chappell finds his Cousin Frank’s body no fewer than three times. The body vanishes the first two times and, fearing he’s going mad, Hugh flees the scene of the real murder – at which point he becomes the main suspect. Sylvia, his steadfast fiancée, insists on marrying immediately so that she can help prove his innocence, and they set off to Italy to discover who really killed Frank.
Although Anthony Berkeley has been on my to-read pile for a while, this is the first story of his I’ve read. Agatha Christie was a big fan of his, and it’s easy to see his appeal; there a certainly some similarities between their characters and style. The Mystery of Horne’s Copse was everything I expected and contained all my favourite elements of Golden Age fiction, from the ‘decent sort’ protagonist to the unwavering romantic interest, and the amateur detective to the jovial policeman. I won’t go on more about it here, but I’ll be looking up more Berkeley in the near future.
It’s always tricky to review a collection of short stories, and especially one that contains such a variety of authors, styles, and plots. Although you may think a book of closed circle mysteries could become repetitive, Murder at the Manor does the complete opposite; it serves to show the range of possibilities of crime fiction, and Edwards’ selection is sometimes dark, sometimes funny, but always charming. The crimes are seldom gory and, more often than not, there’s a clever plot twist or two (including one in which the butler actually did it – although I won’t say which). Martin Edwards has selected a real variety of tales, and has definitely given me some authors to add to my ‘investigate further’ list.
Kirsty Gibson lives and works in Oxford.
Martin Edwards (ed.), Murder at the Manor (British Library, 2016). 978-0712309936, 384pp., paperback
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