The Puzzle Doctor just commented that Christopher St John Sprigg’s Death of an Airman was his favourite British Library classic crime novel so far, making me wonder which was mine.
If you haven’t picked up on them yet, the BL’s series has probably transformed the face of crime publishing in the UK, revitalising the ‘long tail’ of brilliant crime novelists long neglected by mainstream publishers, and spawning some equally informed competition from the likes of Dean Street Press, Collins and others.
The series has been going for a few years, and has really picked up the pace recently – I began this post in the belief that I had probably reviews at least half of the books, but not so. Therefore my opinions are not 100% authoritative.
The series began with some forgotten early titles about female detectives, of which William Hayward’s Revelations of a Lady Detective was my favourite.
Her opponents are a bonkers mix of aristocratic bank robbers, conveniently-English-speaking Italian unificationists, evil nuns, live-rat-eating sideshow performers, the enormous wife of a pork-and-butter merchant, bent solicitors, evil twins, and larcenous postmen. She’s not afraid to get stuck in, adopting a take-no-prisoners approach reminiscent at times of Mike Hammer.
Slightly less potty, but still authentically odd was the first detective novel, Charles Warren Adams’ The Notting Hill Mystery. What’s not to love about an evil mesmerist called Baron R** and an enigmatic solution?
As the Baron’s direct Mesmeric ‘manipulations’ are judged to be a little inappropriate, a young woman called Rosalie is drafted in to act as a go-between. The Baron Mesmerises Rosalie, and she passes on all the animal-magnetic benefits to Gertrude (see the picture at the top for what this odd little arrangement looks like). Rosalie and Gertrude have a link that goes beyond their Mesmerism, a link spotted by Baron R** and soon used to his nefarious ends.
The series is now solidly in Golden Age mystery land, which is a more nuanced place than you might think, with the working lives of music hall performers, aerodrome manageresses, and zoo directors starring alongside the idle rich. For me, Antidote to Venom has been the first among equals – an inverted crime story with an ambitious depiction of a man’s fall from, and return to, grace.
Crofts cleverly hands us an inverted mystery in which the main character doesn’t quite know how the murder is committed, which is a fairly impressive feat of sleight-of-hand. It also means that the reader is in the dark about the mechanism of the crime, which is where Crofts specialises.
My least favourite so far? Mavis Doriel Hay’s The Santa Klaus Murder, which sapped my Christmas spirit so much I didn’t finish it. Still, a good cover in my opinion (although presumably it did the books no favours as it has been changed to something more like the rest of the list).
Which title is your favourite? Feel free to link in your reviews below 🙂
The full list seems to be:
The Notting Hill Mystery (Charles Warren Adams)
Revelations of a Lady Detective (William Hayward)
Mr Bazalgette’s Agent (Leonard Merrick)
The Cornish Coast Murder (John Bude)
The Lake District Murder (John Bude)
The Sussex Downs Murder (John Bude)
Death on the Cherwell (Mavis Doriel Hay)
Murder Underground (Mavis Doriel Hay)
The Santa Klaus Murder (Mavis Doriel Hay)
A Scream in Soho (John G. Brandon)
Mystery in White (J. Jefferson Farjeon)
Thirteen Guests (J. Jefferson Farjeon)
The Z Murders (J. Jefferson Farjeon)
The Female Detective (Andrew Forrester)
Murder in Piccadilly (Charles Kingston)
Antidote to Venom (Freeman Wills Crofts)
The Hog’s Back Mystery (Freeman Wills Crofts)
Death of an Airman (Christopher St John Sprigg)
Quick Curtain (Alan Melville)
Death of Anton (Alan Melville)
Murder of a Lady (Anthony Wynne)
Resorting to Murder