‘I Say, Look Here!’
You have to get past the language first. Then the attitudes of the times; servants are there to be berated, foreigners sniggered at, women to be divided into maiden aunts and popsies, men rated by their class. But once you strip away the ephemeral language you often find diamond-bright tales of deception. Martin Edwards is a fine crime writer in the classic tradition, but he also edits stories into collections from the British Library’s own imprint.
His beautifully branded covers are taken from classic illustrations, and his selection of authors starts with the cream of the Golden Age. In ‘The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books’ he makes a case for the greatest exemplars of the craft, including most of my favourites, like Christianna Brand, Michael Gilbert and Michael Innes. There are tales of the British abroad, and translated tales from the continental crime writers. There are standalone mysteries like Edith Rivett’s ‘Bats in the Belfry’, the sort of book where the protagonist can be a failed writer living in Regent’s Park, locked-room tales in ‘Miraculous Mysteries’ and railway-themed stories, of which there are a surprising number. There are two volumes of Christmas tales, and one about seaside resorts. There’s a country house murder volume which I should probably have read before writing ‘Hall of Mirrors’.
My personal favourite is ‘Capital Crimes’, a volume of London mysteries that includes a number of tales that still carry a sting, like Thomas Burke’s ‘The Hands of Mr Ottermole’ and the hair-raising ‘The Case of Lady Sannox’ from Conan Doyle. The great thing about Edwards is that his in-depth knowledge of the time and its writers prevents him from including anything dreary, so you don’t get any dead spots in the collections.
They’re great lessons in anthropology, too. My goodness, the English were judgmental! Again and again the protagonists base their decisions about character on how someone speaks, dresses or behaves in a restaurant. You get the sense of a world closed to outsiders, of fellows who went to the same school and married sisters. Their world, could they but see it, is incestuous and claustrophobic. Working class characters are notable by their absence, except for the odd servant. Edwards has taken care in his choices; many volumes from the time are steeped in the anti-Semitism of the era. Given the controversy over Labour and the new anti-Semitism you can see why it’s important to root out hatred now.
Ultimately these are terrific bite-sized mysteries. Sometimes the solutions don’t bear too much thinking about (I always had trouble with that Father Brown story in which the corpse switches heads) but there’s always another mad mystery just behind.
Several of these delightful volumes are now changing hands for double the price online, so if you see them around and they’re still affordable, pick ’em up!