SPOILER ALERT!

Bodies from the Library (comp. Medawar)

Bodies from the Library - A.A. Milne, Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, J.J. Connington, Roy Vickers, Nicholas Blake, H.C. Bailey, John Rhode, Anthony Berkeley, Ernest Bramah, Leo Bruce, Tony Medawar

This is a compilation of previously uncompiled detective short stories, most of them having appeared once in a periodical and then disappeared from view. They are ephemeral enough that that disappearance is hardly a literary crime, but there's a certain interest in seeing a really representative selection of what was coming out at a time when apparently turning your hand to a short detective story was a reliable way of making a bit of extra cash. The main selling point of this compilation is a largely unknown story by Agatha Christie (given pride of place at the end); other well-known names include Georgette Heyer and A.A. Milne. For me, the actual value of the collection was the 2-3 page biographical sketch of the authors at the end of each story. The collection redresses the historical female bias in the surviving material from the Golden Age by presenting mostly male authors, in many cases writing under a pseudonym, presumably to distinguish these stories from other, perhaps more "serious" work. I have not been impelled by any of these stories to run out and find the complete works of, say, Anthony Berkeley or Arthur Upfield, but it's good to have the list on hand for reference.

I see from Amazon that a volume 2 is to be coming out in July 2019.

I'm going to cheat now and just reproduce my brief and ungrammatical notes about the stories as I scribbled them while reading. Spoilers abound, so stop here if you're planning to read the collection.

Before Insulin (J.J. Connington) – An inheritance depends on the date of death of a young man with diabetes; mail fraud detected because of a heavy postmark through thin foreign paper.  Date of story: 1936, in a magazine collection curated by D.L. Sayers. A “fair play” story – relevant clues clearly laid out before solution given.

The Inverness Cape (Leo Bruce) - Brief story about a double bluff; young man ensures he is accused of murder because of a distinctive outfit, and also ensures he has an alibi because said outfit is being mended by a servant at the time (two outfits, of course, and his mistake is disappointingly simple, as he doesn't dispose of the second one properly).  Pub. 1952, one year before the author (whose real name was Rupert Croft-Crooke and was the biographer of Lord Alfred Douglas) -was convicted and imprisoned for (homosexual) indecency.  

Dark Waters (Freeman Wills Crofts) - an apparently perfect murder by drowning (covering up a financial fraud) is detected simply by the victim clutching a distinctive missing button from the perpetrator's overcoat. Not really a "fair play" story.


Linckes' Great Case - spy/senior aristocratic detective story about missing submarine plans, Georgette Heyer, pub. 1923. Characters more interesting than the plot, which had a very obvious and over-signalled solution (identical siblings whose existence was signalled by apparent massive mood swings and slight but significant changes in habits). Romance element intrusive, especially for such a short story.

"Calling James Braithwaite" - Nicholas Blake (i.e. Clive Day-Lewis). 2 part radio play (first half dramatizes the murder (very indirectly) the second has Blake's detective, Nigel Strangeways, coming to what is in fact a reasonably obvious conclusion.  It's a closed-room mystery, set on a small commercial vessel where several different parties have reason to despise James Braithwaite, the owner. One of these is his unhappy wife; another is a man who loves her (but we are more or less given to understand no adultery has taken place, so this early on seems likely to be a red herring. A third is the captain of one of James Braithwaite's boats which he allowed to fall into disrepair and wreck for the insurance money the captain (Maclean) was railroaded into bearing responsibility, and now is first mate to the captain of the current vessel, Greer, who is also the father of Braithwaite's unhappy wife.  There is a false alibi due to wrong time of death, somewhat reminiscent of Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.

The Elusive Bullet - John Rhode (one of several pseudonyms of Cecil ("John") Street).  A professor with a horror of conjecture does a little bit of investigation into what seems to be a slam-dunk case of murder by firearm in a railway carriage. The solution turns on the existence of a flagstaff just beyond the end of a firing range.

The Euthanasia of Hilary's Aunt (Cyril Hare, pseudonym of Judge Gordon Clark). A short stinger - a ne'er do-well nephew prepares a sleeping draught to euthanize his terminally-ill aunt, but miscalculates because he is unaware of her true marital status. She disabuses him and then insists on taking the sleeping potion, leaving him without the reward of his misdeeds

The Girdle of Dreams (Vincent Cornier). "Often implausible, sometimes preposterously so, Cornier's work in nonetheless always entertaining."  Eh - the wise old professor tracks down the provenance of a Renaissance bride's girdle, and links the only possible descendant to various obscure tropical poisonous substances which enabled said descendant (in disguise as an old woman) to rob a prominent jeweller.  No particular character development or any hope of the reader actually discovering the methods, so this is just an "isn't that curious" kind of story. I have little doubt the obscure facts alleged in the story are fundamentally correct, but little reason to care.

The Fool and the Perfect Murder (Arthur Upfield).  Australian, set in the outback.  One remote rancher kills another, then disposes the body according to a set of procedures suggested by a drifter. Upton's half-aboriginal detective, "Bony" (Napoleon Bonaparte), catches him because he trips up by overdoing it and by missing a medical detail.  Interesting mostly because of the racial details; I didn't think the warning about political incorrectness at the beginning was  wholly necessary; as far as I could see the narrative voice evinced high respect for the aboriginal peoples.

Bread Upon the Waters (A.A. Milne, of all people). A short stinger - a nasty young man resolves to commit a money-related murder, and decides to muddy the matter of his own motive by doing a motiveless murder first, and then ensuring his detective-fiction-obsessed uncle (the object of his own schemes) gets involved. He gets his comeuppance because he has developed a relationship (and, it turns out, enough to establish a money-related motive) with his first victim.

The Man with the Twisted Thumb (Anthony Berkeley). This story of a pair of aristocratic Englishmen and an ex-governess, mucking about in spy matters they don't understand in Monte Carlo, has a Wodehouse feel to it - the dialogue is quite flip - with perhaps a nod to Lord Peter Wimsey, though neither of the young men is particular brilliant, and the solution is provided by a relative in the Secret Service. There is a nascent romance, which doesn't seem to be stifled in any way by the tendency of the young man in question to knock people out (using his Oxford expertise) at a moment's notice.

The Rum Punch (Christianna Brand). Framed by domestic concerns - story counts down the days until Sergeant Troot is due to take his wife and kids on vacation - a story of domestic conflict and deceit, and the use of the "woman's weapon", poison. Women don't come off well in this story; 2 of the 3 main ones are murderous, and the third dangles two lovers.
Blind Man's Bluff (Ernest Bramah) - short play set in WW1; an unsavoury couple and their Japanese associate scheme to acquire government dispatches being taken by a young American to French allies. Much revolves around the jiu-jitsu skills of the Japanese person (difficult to remember that in this war he is an ally against the Germans). Carrrados, the author's recurring blind detective, foils the scheme.

Victoria Pumphrey (H.C. Bailey) . A young woman of more ancestry than means finds herself stuck in a dead-end typing job in a lawyer's office.  While there, she runs into a former butler who has done very well for himself financially, and who is trying to establish a claim for an inheritance for a protegé (whom we never see). Miss Pumphrey takes a trip to a country house to meet the old dying gentleman and an Autralian claimant of dubious veracity. She meets and spars flirtatiously with the Australian, but has to engineer a house fire in order to provoke the old gentleman to disappear - upon which, since she has met the family, she is able to verify that the old gentleman is long dead and his house servants have been playing a fraud. "This is how Miss Pumphrey entered upon the profession of which she is the most distinguished practitioner" - but the afterword about the author H.C. Bailey does not mention any sequels.

The Starting Handle Murder (Roy Vickers). A “gentleman” commits a well-planned murder (on a train) of another gentleman (whose behaviour and nickname is ‘Balmy’), thus ridding his long-time love of an abusive husband, and acceding to her affections and improved money & social position.  Many years later, an unresolved loose end involving the theft of jewellery leads to the likely conviction/hanging of a groom and likely jailing of his innocent girlfriend.  The gentleman, in compliance with his code, turns himself in. There’s a twist in the last sentence. This one is short, but I thought it was fairly trenchant in its comments on pre-WWI class attitudes that were fading away by the time this story was published.

The Wife of the Kenite (Agatha Christie). A grim tale of revenge taken by a woman against a brutal war opponent; the resolution is foreshadowed if you read Judges 4 (Deborah’s revenge), but it doesn’t take long to get there.  Set in South Africa, with the villain being German and the outraged woman Flemish. Apparently Christie had recently visited South Africa, so there was some scene-setting and use of Afrikaans terms like kraal and stoep.