‘I Say, Look Here!’

Books

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!

21 comments on “‘I Say, Look Here!’”

  1. Ben Morris says:

    I often saw these books on the shelves of bookshops and wondered about them, then I read the Christmas mysteries collection and it introduced different styles to me. I think I’ll take another look to see if there’s anything else I fancy.

    With reference to your question earlier this week regarding how collections of short stories should be presented, these appear to be by theme, probably for commercial reasons but when reading them did the theme idea seem appropriate to you as a writer, reading others work?

  2. Brooke says:

    Thankfully the collection is available in the US and I have read most, starting with the stand alone The Original Female Detective. The 2 volumes of George Bellairs and the volumes by John Bude are worth the price. In the US, prices are affordable; Amazon US is bundling volumes, e.g. 129 USD for 23 works or 6USD per book. All paperback. The series is a great example of good design and well planned marketing–on both sides of the Pond.

    Edwards’ care in selection is reasonable. But I’ve read some regrettable passages in R.A. Freeman, Fergus Hume, J. S. Fletcher, A.C. Doyle, etc. And Christie and Sayers are guilty of the same. We move forward anyway.

  3. Brooke says:

    The Friday song? How about something from Aretha…your choice.

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    I’ve read one or two. Finished ‘Blood on the Tracks – Railway Mysteries’ the other week. It’s a great collection. I have to admit the socio-political inappropriateness has, so far, gone past me. I don’t know why as I’m fairly sensitive to such things from our present day politicians, news services and leading lights (so called).

  5. J F Norris says:

    And don’t forget my biggest pet peeve with the Golden Age of Detective fiction, a genre period I fell in love with when I was a teenager — the prejudice of physiognomy. I loathe reading all that nonsense about weak chins, large noses, shifty eyes and all the rest of it. I can forgive almost everything that is dated and morally wrong about this period except for that narrow-minded idiocy about judging people by their facial appearance and dismissing them so readily when they aren’t attractive enough or expecting them to be criminal because of the way their DNA formed their chin and nose. It’s more deplorable than the rampant antisemitism and homophobic joking/insulting that plagues this period of popular fiction.

    The working class is very much NOT absent! What books and stories are your reading? You can find dozens of working class, non-servant characters (mostly in supporting roles) in all of Bellairs books as well as those by Bude, Lorac, Alan Melville and John Rowland all of whom are all published in by this imprint.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I’ll definitely look out Blood on the Tracks. I’ve always had moments of discomfort in reading anything from earlier time periods, including P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, all sorts of general fiction where anti-Semitism wouldn’t even have a name, it was just the norm, where foreigners were all strange and ignorant, and black people didn’t exist except as some form of exotic. Not even going to mention the attitude toward Asians of all sorts. I put it down to being an island nation where the Scots, Irish, and Welsh were all objects of ridicule and the capital even made fun of any people from more than ten miles beyond London. So why read them? If you ignore (!) all those attitudes there are some tremendously good stories, which is why we read anything. Oh, dear, I’ve just depressed myself completely. If I look at Canadian writing I can find the same attitudes, too, with the addition of anything smacking of educated English. Being of no class ourselves we really resented an apparent assumption of entitlement lodged in those clipped words.

  7. Peter Tromans says:

    …. ten miles from London. Apart from London having grown so it’s now ten miles outside the M25, nothing has changed.
    Signed with a Black Country accent.

  8. Jan says:

    I tell you what JF Norris you have opened my eyes here.
    I have read all that weak chin/ eyes too close together guff time and time again and never twigged before that it is the expression of the old belief in physiognomy. I just thought I was reading OTT physical description. Just didn’t hit home to me.

    Dunno if that’s me being thick ( I have a very low forehead and walk in a stooped fashion with my knuckles dragging along the floor. Could that be part of my problem? No joke – JOKING sorry for any offence caused) I wonder what future generations of readers will make of our rigid politically correct literature? Will it be scoffed at like we laugh at the old dead mores of the Victorian era or the 1920s?

    Once pointed out the physiognomy is perfectly obvious really. The fascism, homophobia,etc is more obvious and out of step. Although Agatha Christie never seemed that homophobic in much of her work and the rascism / fascism in the books sometimes struck an odd note like she knew it was crap. It was all variable for want of a better expression.

    I have read before Christies work was the product of a group of people. Like some Shakespeare theories! Maybe that accounts for the variations.

    Again many grovelling apologies for lack of PC in my joke.

  9. Jo W says:

    Am I allowed to say that I have been enjoying these British Library Classics for the past couple of years? Or will I be accused of supporting racism,antisemitism and remarks on ugly physiognomy?
    I have read these books for the stories,but mostly I have relished the correct use of English grammar and spelling.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    I have all of these collections, and yes, they are very entertaining. The quality of the stories selected is usually very high, and they are often presented chronologically in a volume. ‘Blood On The Tracks’ is my favourite so far, along with ‘The Long Arm Of The Law’. What actually grabbed me about these, are the covers, cropped from old railway posters. One volume in the collection, ‘Murder At The Manor’, has, as it’s cover, a picture of Christchurch Mansion, part of Ipswich Museum, and somewhere that I had the immense pleasure of working, one summer. I prefer the collections to the single novels, because I have tried a few, and a couple of those were nigh on unreadable: I managed to finish them, but they were very hard work, being badly, and obviously hastily written. The only story I have ever given up on completely, is one in an otherwise excellent Wordsworth collection called ‘The Black Veil’. It’s called ‘The Sorcerer’, the name of it’s ‘author’ escapes me for the present, (probably for the best) and it features a 1920’s proto James Bond, called Leslie Vane. It makes ‘Varney The Vampire (Or The Feast Of Blood)’ look like Shakespeare. It’s unreadable in this day and age, having a hair-raising cliff hanger every page or so, and inserting things to make it make sense. Awful. However, I can recommend these British Library collections. The one of ghost stories featuring books and libraries is excellent, too.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    I’m all for stamping out racism, homophobia, bigotry of all kinds – it has no place nowadays, but I think that if you feel uncomfortable reading stories written when maps of the world contained large areas of pink, and the sun never set on the British Empire, pink gins all round, etc., then just don’t read them. I see them as historical documents, when things were very, very different. I do wince when occasionally a character uses the ‘N’ word – one of my all time favourite writers H.G. Wells is guilty of it in some of his short stories, and I feel slightly revolted that such a forward looking man would do so: and then I thought that it wasn’t an objectionable term in Edwardian times, just a slang term, like ‘bloke’ or ‘lass’, or ‘tosh’. What I’m trying to say, is that enjoying these stories, for their ingenuity, and yes, fun, doesn’t make you a ravening bigot. Are the millions of people who are enthralled each year at the theatre by the tragedy of Othello bigots? Of course not – they’re watching a great story superbly told. When reading any period story, unless it is written by an utter bigot, and skewed disgustingly, just enjoy it for what it is. Otherwise, close it, and go back to the stuff that doesn’t make you think.

  12. Jan says:

    Things are in and of their time.

    PG Wodehouse’s wonderful, wonderful stories written with the lightest of comedy touches shouldn’t be dismissed because certain aspects of his world jar a with our modern day concepts.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Jan, I have laughed too much at numerous Wodehouse efforts to ever dismiss him and likewise the other authors I mentioned (not that I laughed at them). They are documents of their time and we pass over items that are distasteful.
    That whole Bertillier scale and bumps on the head is a really annoying thing and can possibly be blamed on the French (oh, goody). Fortunately it didn’t last very long, except in out of the way corners. I wonder if some scientists and police found some of their nearest and dearest showing measurements indicating criminal tendencies and realised they couldn’t possibly be accurate.

  14. Peter Tromans says:

    A word, such as any Anglo-Saxon term for a body part or function, starts out quite innocently and PC. We take a negative attitude toward the meaning of word and possibly adopt it as a term of abuse and the unfortunate word becomes non-PC. We can even run out of words for things as the more complex ones seem to be too long or too difficult, especially for the great unwashed. There’s a TV advert in the UK for something that ‘liberates’: it appears to make people very happy and sing and dance, but they don’t say what it does. There is a clue is in that it contains something called senna.

    As for appearances, I have a problem. There are quite a few politicians who, to me, look like and don’t be fooled they are . If I’m judging them by their appearance, I’m in the wrong. If I’m judging their appearance by their other qualities, I’m still wrong. Is it possible for me to liberate myself from the prejudice of anthroposcopy? Probably not until I find a non-PC, Anglo-Saxon word for it.

  15. Peter Tromans says:

    Apologies, I may have wrecked Mr F’s website by using angle brackets …

  16. Ed DesCamp says:

    A quick observation (I don’t know how to leave a link) – BookBub is showing Calabash at one of their selected ebooks for today. Yes, I read it a while back, but it’s good to see it come back around, especially for those of us in the US.

  17. Helen Martin says:

    All this just proves that this group of people is careful of the feelings of others, that we don’t judge people except by their actions and even then we ask why. Just as we’re supposed to. I think we’re safe to read period fiction. There! Everyone stand down and take a deep breath.
    It’s all tricky country, though, isn’t it?

  18. glasgow1975 says:

    I have been reading these for a while, I love the covers, and as ‘historical’ documents I can allow some leeway with the xenophobia or anti-semitism, or the nonsense of weak chins etc

  19. Diane Englot says:

    My library has begun to carry many of these, and they’re popular. Fun reads.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    Judging people by their physiognamy is a constant in some period literature, I’ve noticed. It took a long time to die out, too. Characters in Ian Fleming’s ‘James Bond’ books are lovingly described, leaving you in no doubt whatsoever that (a) A female character is beautiful, in all respects, and (b) That the short, damp palmed, slug-necked German, is a ‘bad ‘un’. Oh, and by the way, never, under any circumstances, try to emulate Bond’s alcohol intake from the books. Years ago, me and some friends tried following along with the drinks Bond has at dinner with M, at M’s club, Blades, when Bond is trying to find out if Sir Hugo Drax cheats at cards, in ‘Moonraker’. We never tried it again. In one short chapter, in which Bond tells M that he needs to be ‘slightly tipsy’, he drinks:
    A dry Martini
    Three fingers of Latvian Vodka
    A bottle of Champagne (Mouton Rothschild ’46) – to which Bond adds some Benzedrine. Jesus.
    A second bottle of Champagne (M says to Bond that “The second bottle always tastes better”!)
    A large glass of vintage Brandy.
    We were ruined after the first bottle of fizz – we drank bog standard stuff, by the way. The real world will out: ” Where was Bond when that SMERSH agent Bolokov stole those plans?”
    “Er, in the gents, sir, steering the porcelain bus. He’ll be out soon – 009 reports that when he nipped in for a gipsy, Bond was at the ‘dry heave’ stage…”

    By the way, the oddest way of judging people, was often used by Dennis Wheatley, when describing women. His way of showing if a female was a ‘wrong ‘un’, was to describe every part of her lovingly (though not to the almost fetishistic detail of Fleming), and then give her thick or fat ankles. How very peculiar.

  21. Helen Martin says:

    Someone on an antiques program described the women of (Sussex?) as having thick ankles and the WI (I think) asked him back to prove that they didn’t. Thick ankles must be a known unforgivable insult. Over here I think we all have thick ankles, come from hard working down to earth types, don’t we?

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