‘London is an inexhaustible place.’ he mused. ‘Its variety is infinite.’
Short-story collections must be tough to put together. Who are you collecting them for? New fans or die-hard crime readers? How do you balance the forgotten gems with the deservedly classic, but perhaps over-exposed?
Capital Crimes, a new collection from the British Library, brings together 17 classic crime shorts with a London setting, and offers a good mix of the well-known and the obscure.
There are a few stories I’ve encountered in other collections. Thomas Burke’s chilling serial-killer story ‘The Hands of Mr Ottermole’ always merits a re-read. Edgar Jepson and Robert Eustace collaborated on classic impossible crime ‘The Tea Leaf’, which features the death of a grumpy old man in a Turkish bath, and one of the archetypical murder weapons. Anthony Berkeley’s ‘The Avenging Chance’ was expanded later into The Poisoned Chocolates Case.
However, Capital Crimes is mainly rarities, which is a good thing for the fan.
It opens with a big name, an Arthur Conan Doyle story with no Sherlock Holmes: ‘The Case of Lady Sannox’. This is a surprisingly nasty revenge story about a quiet husband, a beautiful and unfaithful wife, and a flashy surgeon.
In John Oxenham’s ‘A Mystery of the Underground’, somebody is shooting passengers on the Metropolitan Line, seemingly at random.
Murder, grim, cold and calculating, glides unchecked in our midst. No man’s life is safe. You yourself, reading this, may be the next victim – that is, if you are so unwise as to trust yourself alone in a carriage on the District Railway. And this in London, AD 1894!
Richard Marsh’s ‘The Finchley Puzzle’ stars Judith Lee, a teacher of the deaf whose ability to read lips makes her a dangerous enemy to the underworld. I must admit this one lost me, but things picked up in the next story, R. Austin Freeman’s ‘The Magic Casket’. A seemingly worthless Japanese trinket holds the key to a hidden treasure, and only scientific detective Dr Thorndyke can get to the bottom of the matter.
Ernest Bramah’s ‘The Holloway Flat Tragedy’ features the blind detective Max Carrados. A Mr Poleash visits Carrados’ colleague Carlyle with a tale of extra-marital indiscretion and threats from a jealous Latin boyfriend. When he is found murdered, Carrados and Carlyle join the hunt for a man named Peter.
The wittiest story in the collection is ‘The Stealer of Marble’. Edgar Wallace takes us into the mind of fussily precise oddball detective Mr J. G. Reeder. It contains the immortal line:
‘Put down that jug or I will blow your features into comparative chaos!’
Another highlight is ‘The Little House’, in which H. C. Bailey’s affable Dr Reggie Fortune is led from the abduction of a little girl’s kitten to a horrific case which comes across as startlingly modern. Definitely worth reading.
Ethel Lina White’s ‘Cheese’ benefits from a great title and a sweetly romantic pay-off. Innocent country girl Jenny Morgan is the bait in the trap for a human rat, and manages to snare herself a policeman at the same time.
Rounding out the collection are:
- J. S. Fletcher’s ‘The Magician of Cannon Street’, a simple tale of disguise and hypnotism.
- Margery Allingham’s ‘The Unseen Door’, a bit of a one-liner of a story, but displaying the author’s usual knowledge of human nature.
- Hugh Walpole’s ‘The Silver Mask’ is a creepy suspense story with something in common with Hide My Eyes.
- Henry Wades’s ‘Wind in the East’ is a straight-forward piece of detection..
- E. M. Delafield’s ‘They Don’t Wear Labels’ is a domestic suspense about a too-charming lodger.
- Anthony Gilbert’s ‘You Can’t Hang Twice’ is the expected foggy London story. Solicitor Arthur Crook catches a murderer red-handed in a pea-souper and saves his client at the same time.
All told, this is a very persuasive collection covering all the sub-genres of crime and mystery fiction. If you like shorts, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy.
(A minor moan: Dates of publication would have been interesting to a nerd like me.)