The Collins Crime Club Golden Jubilee Collection

In 1980 to celebrate fifty years of its Crime Club, Collins published their Golden Jubilee collection. The twelve books chosen by Julian Symons were taken from those published between 1930-1955 and which were out of print at the time the selection was made. Having just read the first two shown below in this very edition I thought it would be good to look at the whole collection. The numbers in brackets refer to the total number of books by the author that could have been chosen, assuming all were out of print at the time. 

The Maze (1932) by Philip MacDonald (12)

Obelists Fly High (1935) by C. Daly King (6)

The ABC Murders by (1936) by Agatha Christie (38)

The Loss of the Jane Vosper (1936) by Freeman Wills Crofts (7)

Minute for Murder (1947) by Nicholas Blake (11)

No Mask for Murder (1950) by Andrew Garve (8)

Which I Never (1950) L. A. G. Strong (4)

Even in the Best Families (1951) by Rex Stout (26)

An Afternoon to Kill (1953) by Shelley Smith (8)

The Odd Flamingo (1954) by Nina Bawden (1)

Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954) by Ngaio Marsh (11)

Enough to Kill a Horse (1955) by Elizabeth Ferrars (10)

Firstly, some thoughts on the two that I’ve just read:

MacDonald’s book has the subtitle “An Exercise in Detection” and he explains in the introduction that this is because the reader is presented exactly the same information as his sleuth, Anthony Gethryn, which is the transcripts of the coroner’s inquest, and so they should be able to solve the case just as well as Gethryn does. 

The book is successful in what it sets out to do, and even with pure dialogue MacDonald manages to differentiate his characters and give them personality but because it lacks the investigative phase involving theory and counter-theory it is not the most interesting of mysteries.

“Obelists Fly High” begins with an Epilogue and ends with a Prologue (although neither are exactly that – Philip MacDonald’s “Rynox” uses this device in a much stricter sense) and is cleverer than it seems and this compensates for a dull section compiling a timetable of movements and a good deal of psychological bunkum.

I can understand why Symons selected these two titles, but I disagree with some of his choices.

I would definitely keep “The ABC Murders” – it’s unbelievable that one of my favourite Christie’s was out of print. Say what you like about the estate – and some of us do – but they have done a great job of keeping all of her work easily available.

“The Loss of the Jane Vosper” is not one of the better Inspector French mysteries in my view and with the excellent “Mystery on Southampton Water” unavailable as Crofts switched to Hodder & Stoughton for 1933-34 and so I’m selecting:

Crime at Guildford (1935)

Whilst not as celebrated as “The Beast Must Die”, “Minute for Murder” is a good poisoning mystery set in a WWII civil service ministry and I’m happy with that choice.

I haven’t read “No Mask for Murder” but from the same author I have enjoyed:

Murder in Moscow (1951)

I’m unfamiliar with L. A. G. Strong but I would like to include something by John Rhode/Miles Burton:

Death in the Tunnel (1936)

“Even in the Best Families” is the third book in the “Zeck” trilogy and is an odd choice on that basis so I’d swap it for the first case of Nero Wolfe that I read:

Some Buried Caesar (1939)

I haven’t read anything by Shelley Smith or Nina Bawden but Anthony Gilbert was a prolific club writer, as was E. C. R. Lorac so I would include:

Death Knocks Three Times (1949)

and:

Fire in the Thatch (1946)

There are definitely better Ngaio Marsh books than “Spinsters in Jeopardy” and whilst my favourite “The Nursing Home Murder” is unavailable for selection as the Club only started to publish her in 1939 I would replace it with:

Swing, Brother, Swing (1949)

I have read one Elizabeth Ferrars book, but one author who definitely needs to be chosen is Rupert Penny:

Sealed Room Murder (1941)

That’s my deadly dozen, what’s yours?

 

 

This post couldn’t have been written without significant reference to John Curran’s beautiful guide to the 2,000+ books issued by the Club.

Turning Japanese #16: Murder in the Red Chamber (2004) by Taku Ashibe (translated by Tyran Grillo)

Yuan-Chun, recently made Principal Consort and Chief Secretary of the Phoenix Palace by His Imperial Majesty, has been granted permission for a brief trip home to see her family. To mark the occasion, the Jias have built the beautiful Prospect Garden. When she leaves, Yuan-Chun gives orders that her female cousins and brother, Bao-yu, should live there with each being granted their own residence. However what was intended to be an earthly paradise soon becomes a living hell when the women start to be killed one by one.

The setting of this mystery is taken from the eighteenth century Chinese epic “The Dream of the Red Chamber” (or “The Story of the Stone”) by Cao Xueqin and some knowledge of this work may have been of value – for example the Wikipedia article explains that in the English translation by David Hawkes, he deliberately kept the names of the main characters in pinyin, translated the names of servants into English, the names of Daoists and Buddhists into Latin, and the names of actors and actresses into French. This convention was used by Grillo for his translation of this mystery.

The solution is really quite interesting and says something quite important to today’s society and the final image is haunting.

Unfortunately it is an absolute slog to get there. The Chinese surname-first name convention is used which is hard when most of the characters are Jia-this and Jia-that. The first chapter opens with a clumsy info dump of who everyone is in the Jia family is but this can be seen from the detailed family tree. There are so many characters but few have any depth. There is no clear sense of when certain events have occurred in relation to each other. There are multiple murders but insufficient time is given to each and no real detection is done – the sleuth simply presents his conclusions of what may have happened without any real build-up or considerations of the alternatives.

One point of interest to me was that among the literature of crime presented to Bao-yu by Tealeaf were the cases of Judge Di Renjie, a real-life figure who was the inspiration for Robert van Gulik’s “Judge Dee” series of books. Having translated the eighteenth century “Di Gong An” as “Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee”, van Gulik wrote his own mysteries in the Chinese style, normally involving three initially separate cases which would end up being connected.

Click here for more reviews of Japanese mystery fiction.

Prague Fatale (2011) by Philip Kerr

My ongoing quest to read a case of each of the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives intersected neatly with JJ’s publication of 100 Books for a Locked Room Library and I happened upon a copy of this book that very afternoon.

Bernie Gunther is back in Berlin, working once more for the Kripo, but is equivocal about his work:

“Berliners were still killing each other, although there wasn’t a moment passed when I didn’t think it risible that I should continue to believe that this mattered very much, knowing what I now knew about what was happening in the East… Still I went through the motions of being a proper detective, although it often felt like I was trying to put out a fire in an ashtray when, down the road, a whole city was the scene of a major conflagration.”

He is investigating the murder of a Dutch railway worker when the Gestapo ask him to look at another dead body, who just happens to be someone that he was chasing the previous night having interrupted an attempted rape. He becomes involved with the woman he rescued, Arianne Tauber, and finds that the two deaths are connected.

His investigations are curtailed when Reinhard Heydrich, with whom he has had previous dealings, orders him to his country residence just outside Prague so that he can become his bodyguard and investigate a recent attempt on his life. Heydrich values Bernie because he is not a member of the Nazi party:

“We don’t have any good detectives left in the SD or in the Gestapo. Within the kind of system that we operate we have all sorts of people; ambitious lawyers, sadistic policemen, brown-nosing civil servants, all, I dare say, good Party men, too; sometimes we even call them detectives or inspectors and ask them to investigate a case; but I tell you they can’t do it. To be a proper detective is beyond their competence. They can’t do it because they won’t stick their noses in where they’re not wanted. They can’t do it because they’re afraid of asking questions they’re not supposed to ask. And even if they did ask those questions, they’d get scared because they wouldn’t like the answers. It would offend their sense of Party loyalty.”

A murder is soon committed (not of Heydrich, as the first chapter, and history, tell us that his end is very different) and whilst Bernie does solve the how of the locked room murder and identifies the killer (with the method he has already revealed to the reader and yet it completely passed me by) but obtaining justice may not be so easy.

This is one of the best books that I have read specifically for this challenge. The murder method is unoriginal but the motive is devilishly brilliant. Bernie Gunther is a compromised character, but makes the reader face the uncomfortable questions of what orders they may have obeyed if their life was threatened and if ultimately someone else would have obeyed those orders anyway. He is a character whom I am sure I will return to.

For further information on Heydrich I can recommend Laurence Binet’s “HHhH” and the film “Operation Anthropoid”.

 

Review of 2022

My TBR pile was on track to be below one hundred for the first time in a long time and then a kind hearted friend told me that there were twenty Brian Flynns in their local charity shop!

My personal reading highlights can be summarised as follows:

Best Short Story Collections

100 Malicious Little Mysteries -averaging 4-5 pages each these are deliciously wicked amuse-bouches. “An Easy Score” by Al Nussbaum where an old woman takes an unexpected revenge on the men who attacked and robbed her was the most memorable for me.

Lawrence Block: The Collected Mystery Stories – having enjoyed a first encounter with one of the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels, I was delighted to pick this collection of 71 stories for just £4. It opens with three tales of Bernie, before introducing the reader to the lawyer Martin Ehrengraf, who despite sometimes overwhelming evidence that his client is guilty always presumes that they are in fact innocent and will go to any extent to demonstrate this.  Also included are some of the exploits of hitman Keller and private eye Matt Scudder, alongside plenty of stand-alones, including “Strangers on a Handball Court” which puts a new spin on Patricia Highsmith’s classic premise.

Stanley Ellin: The Speciality of the House – I first read this collection too young when I was still at secondary school and couldn’t properly appreciate it. There is some humour such as “The Orderly World of Mr Appleby” and “Unreasonable Doubt” but this is more than tempered by the horror of the title story and others such as “Death on Christmas Eve” and “The Question”. Intriguingly there are two stories which are unresolved and yet done so well that I didn’t feel cheated.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Paul Halter –  Having read a few of his novels and two short story collections I finally got round to buying up the remainder of his oeuvre from Locked Room International.  He is definitely the modern King of the Impossible Crime. I particularly enjoyed the simplicity of the method in “The Demon of Dartmoor” to explain how someone was pushed out of a window despite there being no one close to them, the subtle clue which explained “The Madman’s Room” and the dizzying back and forth of “The Seventh Hypothesis” with its echoes of the film “Sleuth”.

Best Novels

I have three novels of the year, which handily fit neatly into the following categories.

Best Classic Mystery Award: Death of Jezebel by Christianna Brand – this has been long out of print and yet a number of my friends had read and reviewed it and praised it as the best thing since sliced bread. I was therefore very excited when it was reissued as a British Library Crime Classic. It was almost impossible for it to live up to such stratospheric expectations and coming in to land I was feeling slightly disappointed and then there was the genius reveal which is absolutely brilliant and yet absolutely absurd at the same time.

Best Translated Mystery Award: Death of the Living Dead by Masaya Yamaguchi – an amazing Japanese hybrid mystery which looks at what might happen if some people although they had experienced events that would normally have killed them did not die and blends that with a classically clued mystery. My full review is here and Libby Stump has written a number of posts such as this which have whetted my appetite for more – if they ever get translated that is!

Best First Mystery Award: The Red Death Murders by Jim Noy – a spectacular début novel which more than lives up to its daring claims to “provide clues openly in the tradition of Agatha Christie, ingenious explanations worthy of John Dickson Carr, and a complex plot to delight fans of Seishi Yokomizo”. My full review is here.

Thanks for reading and commenting during 2022 and here’s to a fantastic 2023.

Dead Men’s Morris (1936) Gladys Mitchell

“A jolly good murder,” he continued with enthusiasm, “would make Christmas jolly well worth while.”

Mrs Bradley is staying for Christmas with Carey Lestrange, nephew of her first husband, at his pig farm in Oxfordshire, when a local solicitor suffers a fatal heart attack whilst ghost hunting in an attempt to win an unsolicited £200 bet. The coroner rules it to be death by natural causes but a second suspicious death soon follows and Mrs Bradley finds herself once more upon the case.

As this was an early Mitchell title I had hoped it might be a better one and more on the lines of The Saltmarsh Murders (1932) and Death at the Opera (1934) which I enjoyed rather than Death and the Maiden (1947) and Tom Brown’s Body (1949) which I did not.

Unfortunately it is not: the morris dancing motif implied by the title is very much secondary to that of pig farming and whilst Mrs Bradley could be said to bring home the bacon to me it was just pig swill. There is too much repetition of key questions and then determining exactly who everyone was sleeping with and where on the nights in question. And there’s 290 pages of it!

There was one description though of Mrs Bradley that caught my eye:

To bring this terrible little old woman into the heart of his affairs was rather like asking a shark to defend one from cannibals. The shark might, and, he was certain, could eat the cannibals – in this case that particularly nosey inspector of police – but would it not turn upon him  and engulf him as a kind of relish to the meal?

She may be one of the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives but I’m done with her except perhaps for Speedy Death, her very first case which I know has a number of interesting and unusual features.

 

Reprint of the Year 2022: The New Investigations of Inspector Maigret (1944) by Georges Simenon (translated by Howard Curtis and Ros Schwartz)

 

After the five-story collection “Death Threats” in 2021, Penguin continue their (hopefully to be completed) new translations of the Maigret short stories with this bumper edition comprising the following:

The Hanged Couple – a barge crashes into the lock at Le Coudray because its husband and wife crew are hanging dead inside. The doctor says there was a gap of some hours between their deaths so what exactly happened and why?

The Boulevard Beaumarchais Case – there are bound to be consequences when a man is living with his wife and her sister and takes the latter as his mistress.

The Open WindowThe fact that for once Maigret was involved at the very beginning of a case was a matter of chance. Maigret is waiting to arrest a dodgy businessman but his quarry is shot under his nose.

Death PenaltyBut he was like those dogs who, let loose on a boar, would rather let themselves be disembowelled than retreat. If Maigret can’t get his man for one crime then he’ll make sure he gets him for another.

Candle WaxHe had been expecting to make a brief journey in space and instead he made an exhausting journey in time. Maigret investigates a brutal murder in the back of beyond.

Rue Pigalle – It was an absolutely classic case. Maigret had always claimed that if it weren’t for chance fifty per cent of criminals would escape punishment, and that without tip-offs another fifty per cent would remain free. A tip-off leads Maigret to a bar in Rue Pigalle where he finds a group of ne’er-do-wells but have they actually committed a crime?

Maigret Gets It WrongThere are people whose faces you can’t even smash because you’d be afraid your hand would get stuck in them! Maigret definitely wants to find an unpleasant man guilty of murder but has he been too clever for the good inspector? 

Madame Maigret’s Suitor – Maigret has to treat his wife as an official witness when a man she has been watching everyday in the square in front of their house is found dead. The case becomes a race between the two of them to discover the truth of what has been happening in the neighbourhood.

Their are nine other stories, one of which I still haven’t read, which I was going to write up yesterday but minor illness intervened.

This is an excellent collection, representing fantastic value for money, and a good place for anyone wishing to investigate France’s most famous fictional policeman, or an essential buy for those who have been collecting the Penguin new translations.

France won’t be winning the World Cup tomorrow, so give them something to cheer about with a vote for Maigret!

Reprint of the Year 2022: The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) by Ellery Queen

Kate at Cross-Examining Crime is once again running her Reprint of the Year competition and here is my first nomination.

In a case of mistaken identity Captain Kidd kidnaps David Kummer and his niece, having mistaken him for John Marco, another guest staying on Spanish Cape. However later that night somebody rectified this error as the next morning Marco is discovered dead, dressed in only his opera cape and holding his cane. Ellery Queen is immediately drawn into the murder investigation as upon arrival at his holiday home he discovers Rosa, the missing girl, but not her uncle who Kidd took out to sea on his boat.

In his inimitable painstakingly logical fashion he solves the case, but only once he finally receives a key piece of information, without which he cannot make sense of the murderer’s actions.

During the course of his enquiries a number of other characters and authors are referenced, first when Ellery asks:

“What kind of male swears at a woman?”

“Well, sir,” murmured Tiller after a discreet cough, “in fiction it is the – ah – Dashiell Hammett type, sir.”

Secondly when having inspected Rosa’s hands Ellery says:

“You see, physical habits leave – very often – visible marks on the impressionable carcass. Dr Bell taught that to Doyle, and Doyle passed it obligingly onto Holmes; it was the secret of most of Sherlock’s prestidigitating deductions, as it were.”

Later he confirms the reason for saying “she” rather than “he”

“Oh, yes, that was a female. Didn’t you smell the powder? Sorry I can’t give you the makers name and odeur; I’ve never been Vance-ish in that direction.”

And then with a nod to the Knox Decalogue:

“You should have seen her fly at the walls! Just as if she thought there was one of those secret passageways here you read about in Oppenheimer and Wallace.”

I can’t remember a book with quite so many such references and although Ellery does not proclaim his fictionality in the way that Gideon Fell does, along with the Challenge to the Reader before the final chapters, it reminds us that Queen were very much playing a game with their readership.

The book even ends with Ellery describing the writing process as he promises to make sure a clue that he never refers to but which helps eliminate one suspect “will be neatly buried in the book”.

This may not the best of Queen but a vote for the Spanish Cape Mystery is a vote for the excellent American Mystery Classics series. 

Until next week, au revoir.

The Godwulf Manscript (1973) by Robert B. Parker

A fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript has been stolen from a Boston university and a ransom demanded for its safe return. President Forbes decides to hire Spenser, former cop turned private eye, to find it. From such humble beginnings he soon finds himself involved in “organized crime, dope-pushing, theft, radical politics, adultery and murder”.

Spenser’s working practice is summed up in the following dialogue:

“Okay,” I said, “tell me about SCACE, then.”

Her face was less friendly now. “Why do you want to know about SCACE?”

“I won’t know till I’ve learned. That’s my line of work. I ask about things. And people don’t tell me anything so I ask about more things, and so on. Now and then things fall into place.”

The problem is that in this book, everything does fall into place. He’s pointed in a particular direction and from then on events follows step by step. Everything just falls into Spenser’s lap. There are no red herrings, no deductions, no detection and yet he has been classed as one of the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives. He’s a funny guy and good company but I won’t be keeping my eye out for him.

 

Cryptic Crossword

I’ve done some themed crosswords in the past but this one is just a general cryptic. Two clues though will be of particular interest to regular readers of the blog and some of the others will give you an idea of some of my non-mystery related interests. The best news this time is that I found an online grid creator which then produces an interactive puzzle which can be found here.

Beau Geste (1924) P. C. Wren

When I was a youngster it was around this time of year that as a family we would head into the centre of Sheffield to look around the shops and compile our Christmas wish lists. In those days there was a beautiful Puffin Classics imprint and I decided that what I really wanted was “The Prince and the Pauper” by Mark Twain (appropriately for a now fan of GAD fiction a tale of physical doubles and mistaken identity) but that I would also put another of the series on my list.

 

I was lucky enough to receive both books and whilst I gobbled up the Twain first, it was “Beau Geste” that stuck with me and became something of an obsession. I got the double video cassette of the 1982 TV series, designed myself a birthday cake of a legionnaire, ran away to join the legion after accidentally killing a man in my English homework, and wrote a piece of French A-level coursework based around the hideous “La Gloire de Mon Père” by Marcel Pagnol, re-telling the story from the perspective of an old rifle which had seen better days in the legion and was now reduced to pheasant hunting!

The book begins with Major Henri de Beaujolais relating his recent experiences to George Lawrence, a fellow traveller, as they cross Africa before returning to Europe. He was in charge of a relief column sent to Fort Zinderneuf in the middle of the Sahara. Upon arriving he found that although the French flag was still flying and the fort seemed to be fully manned in fact every embrasure was filled with a dead man. The gates were bolted so one of his men climbed the walls to open them from the inside. He does not do so and, fearing a mutiny from his superstitious troops, de Beaujolais is forced to follow him in. Here he finds a further two bodies on the roof, one laid out respectfully and the other a sergeant-major who holds a jewel in one hand and a letter in the other, which is a confession from the man who stole the “Blue Water”. Further mysterious events occurred but neither de Beaujolais nor Lawrence can make any sense of it.

The second part of the book is a narrative by John Geste, the youngest of three brothers, which recounts the evening that the “Blue Water” sapphire was stolen from their guardian, Aunt Patricia, following which Michael and Digby Geste both flee leaving letters confessing to the crime. John does not believe either is responsible but are trying to protect the real thief and, as has he has done since childhood, he follows them in his turn. He enlists in the French Foreign Legion, something they had previously talked about, and is very relieved when he catches up with them in Algeria. From there their road leads inexorably to the charnel house of Zinderneuf and eventually to the revelation of the culprit whose actions set the whole story in motion.

The Leonaur version that I now have is unabridged but I would recommend the slightly abridged Puffin version mentioned above as it removes a completely unnecessary and anti-semitic visit to a pawnbroker and has a much tighter final chapter.

I used to cry buckets over this book SPOILERS ROT 13 ng Zvpunry’f qrngu, ng Nhag Cngevpvn’f ernqvat bs uvf yrggre, naq nsgre n pbhcyr bs ernqvatf – V ernq gbb snfg – rira zber jura V ernyvfrq gung uvf fnpevsvpr unq orra pbzcyrgryl haarprffnel nf Fve Urpgbe arire erghearq ubzr naq fb jbhyqa’g unir qvfpbirerq gur fnyr naq fhofgvghgvba.

I was much less emotional on this re-reading, the first in at least ten years, but I still enjoyed it very much. Wren wrote two sequels, neither of which had such a good premise, and included a piece of retconning that I never checked properly to see if it really would have fitted with the first book.

As I coincidentally came across Moira’s review at Clothes in Books yesterday evening, I enclose links here and here.