I began my relationship with the British Library Crime Classics series in the spring of 2016 with the short story collection “Murder at the Manor”. Having just finished reading “Castle Skull” by John Dickson Carr, for the first time I own and have read all titles published to date, so in celebration I present a selection of ten of my favourite novels from the series.
The Dead Shall be Raised (1942) by George Bellairs A skeleton has been unearthed on the moors above Hatterworth which is identified as that of the prime suspect in a twenty-three year old crime. So on Christmas Eve Inspector Littlejohn is despatched to try to find a killer who thought they had got away with murder. All the usual Bellairs’ characterisation is on show here but it is the cold-case element that makes this title stand out. Plus this is, until next month’s double offering from John Bude, the only two-for-one so you get “Murder of a Quack” (1943) as nice bonus.
The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) by Anthony Berkeley Having previously read the short story “The Avenging Chance” which I was expanded into this novel with six solutions, I was fascinated by how Roger Sheringham’s seemingly airtight solution was ripped to shreds as apparently uncontestable witness testimony was demolished with ease. I gorged on this in one evening and in hindsight would recommend treating it like a box of chocolates and savouring each solution before moving onto the next.
The Cornish Coast Murder (1935) by John Bude The one that kickstarted the series but the publishers at that time could have had no idea just how successful it would become. Reverend Dodd and Doctor Pendrill regularly borrow detective fiction from their local library which they devour and then discuss together. Their latest selection is Edgar Wallace, J. S. Fletcher, J. Jefferson Farjeon, Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, and Agatha Christie (nice choice gentlemen!) but their reading plans are put on hold when the doctor is called out by Ruth Tregarthan with the news that her uncle has been murdered. Julius Tregarthan, local magistrate, is classic first corpse material, and there are a number of people who wished him ill. Their is an apparent problem with the solution, although I recently saw a cover illustration which would help, but I think that is because of the mental picture I get with a particular word – I’ve not read it back but I’m sure it could be made to work – but it is an entertaining read as the vicar finds his comfortable theoretical world of crime is not so delightful when put into practice.
Death in the Tunnel (1936) by Miles Burton Sir Wilfred Saxonby is found shot dead in a locked first-class compartment of the 6.07 to Stourford. It seems to be a clear suicide but Inspector Arnold is not so sure when he hears about a mysterious red light that caused the train to slow unexpectedly in a long section of tunnel. Very much in the “humdrum” mould, this intricate case includes one particular element which I very much enjoyed.
Mystery in the Channel (1931) by Freeman Wills Crofts Two men are found shot dead on a yacht in the middle of the English Channel but there is no sign of a gun. Although the boat is towed into Sussex it soon becomes clear this is not a local crime and so enter Scotland Yard’s finest – Inspector “Soapy Joe” French – at his finest. His investigation takes him to France and back as he breaks down alibis before getting into the tightest spot of his career (by his own admission in “Meet Chief-Inspector French” included as a prelude to the recent reprint of “Inspector French’s Greatest Case” which contains detailed spoilers for this title).
Thirteen Guests (1936) by J. Jefferson Farjeon John Foss is injured at the local train station and is brought to Bragley Court to recuperate, making the number of guests into a thirteen that is unlucky for someone. A classic country house mystery with an interesting take on what seems a very modern issue. Strangely, the much celebrated “Mystery in White” is my least favourite of the four Farjeons reissued so far.
Smallbone Deceased (1950) by Michael Gilbert I was very excited when this appeared in the forthcoming releases for 2019 and whilst it did not quite live up to its exalted reputation, it is still a fine book. Gilbert creates a believable workplace with a lightness of touch and a central character with a memorable idiosyncracy in this story of a body found within a solicitor’s patent document box.
Quick Curtain (1934) by Alan Melville Brandon Baker, star of the new musical “Blue Music” dies on stage…quite literally. Inspector Wilson who was enjoying a night at the theatre takes charge of the murder investigation. Humour is very subjective but I thought this was hilarious, particularly young Derek’s visit to the countryside and the series of ensuing telegrams, and yet it still manages to be a good detective story.
Death of an Airman (1934) by Christopher St John Sprigg A flight instructor dies in a plane crash but it soon becomes clear that this may be no ordinary accident. A pupil at the flying school, Edwin Marriott, Bishop of Cootamunda, gets involved in the investigation which whilst it all goes a bit “Biggles of the Special Air Police” in the middle everything is neatly resolved in the end when a crucial piece of evidence, available from the very beginning, is looked at in the right way. One of the great things about the series is that by publishing even just one book by a forgotten author, it shows there is a demand for them and other publishers can then come in and publish more by them – at least six of Sprigg’s eight other mysteries have been reissued in the last five years.
Murder of a Lady (1931) by Anthony Wynne Mary Gregor is found stabbed to death in her locked bedroom and so Inspector Dundas and Edmund Hailey have to investigate the first in a what becomes a series of impossible murders. Whilst it could done with losing a few pages, the Highland atmosphere is well done and I enjoyed the solution to the first murder. To my mind, of those only published once in the series, Wynne is the most deserving of a second outing but perhaps this has been prevented by rights issues.
Let’s hope that in just over two years’ time BLCC will be bringing up their century having reintroduced us to some more unjustly forgotten classics of the genre.