Every month on Past Offences, we focus on the crime fiction of a particular year.
To celebrate the new year this January, I went back 100 years to 1915, honestly expecting rather a thin crop of reviews.
To my surprise – and probably aided by Project Gutenburg and other sources of out-of-copyright texts – there has been no shortage of entries this month. More adventure stories than usual, and, to my surprise, a far few female authors.
The book is a forgettable romp. Its language and attitude are dated and its substance is…well…almost non existent. And after so much adventure the ending is a whimper rather than a bang which is something of a disappointment. But it’s enjoyable enough as an example of the British “Tally Ho Chaps” sensibility in action (and in the early days of the war I’m sure this would have been appreciated) and perhaps worth the short time reading it occupies to understand the origins of the now well-worn trope of an innocent man on the run.
Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery had a more positive experience of The Thirty-Nine Steps:
I was reading this book more as an educational experience (a classic written during a time period that I am interested in), rather than expecting to really like it, but it turned out to be an entertaining read all the same.
Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise began with a G. K. Chesterton but then swapped over to Sax Rohmer’s The Yellow Claw (originally serialised in Lippincott’s Magazine). Gaston Max is a French detective on the trail of a Chinese opium syndicate in London, led by the evil Dr King.
I was particularly interested in the timing of this plot, set before World War One, which attributes corruption in high places to the Asiatic influences, a little ironic as it was the British who intentionally introduced opium to China through trade in the 1840s.
Interesting that Rohmer’s other Chinese master criminal, Fu-Manchu, is supposed to be based on a real-life Mr King, when presumably the Dr King in The Yellow Claw is a more direct descendent.
Col’s review of The Yellow Claw was less taken with Rohmer…
209 pages long, though at times it appeared to be 2000 pages long. Not great and I can safely say I’m done with this author. Best thing about it was that I didn’t spend any money on it.
More sinister Asians crop up in another adventure story: Peggy Ann read Number Seventeen by Louis Tracy, a British journalist who occasionally collaborated with M. P. Shiel, finding:
Many twists and turns involving an American tourist, kidnapping, shots through the window, a conspiracy involving a Chinese political group, tiny carved ivory skulls, a motorbike chase and the two fun detectives from Scotland Yard. Although this book could have probably been a little shorter and still told a grand story I did enjoy this. It was full of action, that left you a little breathless, and great characters.
Jose Ignacio brought us a book by the superstar novelist of the period, Edgar Wallace’s The Man who Bought London, awarding just a ‘C’ to this tale of multi-millionaire King Kerry:
Although I have found the plot rather far-fetched, the narrative manages to grab the reader’s attention, the book is well-written, and has a surprising final twist. All in all, this is a mystery fiction that reflects faithfully the time when it was written, but it isn’t exactly my preferred kind of entertainment.
John from Noirish read K. by leading light of the ‘Had I But Known’ school, Mary Roberts Rinehart:
According to Wikipedia, K is a crime novel. Certainly there are crimes in it — there’s an attempted murder and what one might call an attempted manslaughter, plus (as is finally revealed) some manslaughters in the past, yet the only mystery element, the matter of K.’s identity, is explained early on. Really the novel is more of a soap opera than anything else.
And, as such, it’s very entertaining.
I admired Rinehart’s progressive thinking and her willingness to portray people as they really are rather than as 1915 sensibility, still recovering from Victorian values, might have insisted they should be.
John also watched The Cheat, a Cecil B. DeMille silent (obviously) movie from 1915, a story based around $10,000, a new dress, and a sinister Japanese bad guy.
There’s not much sense in discussing the merits of the acting in elderly silent movies like The Cheat—it’s sort of like comparing the thespian capabilities of Marcel Marceau with those of Judi Dench. In this instance most of the acting is as understated as it can reasonably be within the context of the medium—Hayakawa is especially good in this respect, conveying more in the twist of a lip than most silent-movie actors can in a prolonged scenery chew. Ward, however, is more of the old school, and this is obviously the way director DeMille wants her to be: as her distress mounts, with her tumblingly disheveled hair and her black-rimmed staring eyes, Edith comes more and more to resemble a refugee from the much later Night of the Living Dead (1968).
A quartet of female writers now; two obscure and two more high profile.
John at Pretty Sinister Books looked at Natalie Sumner’s The Official Chaperon, capturing my first thought:
Chances are if you are asked to name one woman mystery writer from the early twentieth century you wouldn’t immediately think of Natalie Sumner Lincoln. I’d wager that you are probably reading her name for the very first time.
This is not really a detective novel at all. It’s not even a crime novel though thievery makes up much of the plot. It’s nothing more that an early twentieth century version of a 1980s night-time soap opera. It all reminded me of episodes of Dynasty in which wealthy people dressed in expensive clothes (a lot of space is devoted to the wardrobe descriptions), drink champagne, carry themselves haughtily and accuse each other of stealing each others spouses and partners rather than jewelry and handkerchiefs.
Les at Classic Mysteries looked at Isabel Ostrander’s At 1:30 (good bit of artwork on the cover) in which the murder of Garret Appleton is investigated by Damon Gaunt, who may have been the first blind detective in fiction (Max Carrados was first anthologised in 1913, but Ostrander may have published a Gaunt story before that).
[Gaunt] had developed quite a reputation among criminal investigators as a detective who never failed to reach a successful conclusion in a murder case. That’s pretty amazing when you realize that Gaunt had been blind since birth – although he had developed his other senses to the point where they told him more about the world around him than mere sight ever could.
And Bev at My Reader’s Block looked at a book of short stories by Anna Katharine Green, The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange. Wealthy ‘girl detective’ Violet presents something of an enigma to her narrator:
He’s not entirely sure why she, a child of fortune, should desire money enough to take on “uncongenial work,” but I suspect it is because she wants a sense of independence that having access to your own funds gives. She is free to spend it on what she likes–or to use it support just causes if that is her wont.
Finally, Moira at Clothes in Books surprised me with a Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Lost Prince, in which two boys, Marco and the Rat, travel across Europe passing messages to Samavian counter-revolutionaries.
It’s not crime, but it is certainly a good strong adventure thriller, in the tradition of John Buchan’s 39 Steps (also 1915) or Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda. There is a mystery or a secret at the heart, but if anyone (including the children at whom it is aimed) doesn’t guess it by about page 50 I’d be surprised.
Thanks to everyone who contributed. So, which year will be next? Over to you…
*Not 1915, ’32, ’39, ’46, ’52, ’58, ’63 or ’71.