This new volume of shorts from the British Library celebrates the rural mystery with stories written over a 50-year period by authors as diverse as Arthur Conan Dole, Ethel Lina White, G. K. Chesterton, Margery Allingham, Gladys Mitchell, and Leo Bruce. A pithy introduction by Martin Edwards cites W. H. Auden finding it difficult to read a mystery not set in rural England, before moving on to Colin Watson’s satirical stereotype of a mystery village: Mayhem Parva.
The collection opens with a strong story from Conan Doyle, ‘The Black Doctor’, concerning the murder of a village physician by the local squire, before presenting us with ‘Murder by Proxy’, a manor-house murder by a lesser light, M. McDonnell Bodkin. In fact, the nicest thing about these British Library anthologies is the chance to meet some of the more obscure authors.
As an excellent example of this, the stand-out story in Serpents in Eden is ‘Inquest’ by Leonora Wodehouse, step-daughter of P. G., who combines an original (I think) take on the change-of-will plot device with some wonderful flashes of characterisation:
Miss Taunton’s attitude to God is rather that of a proud aunt; she sees all the motives so clearly and is often a jump ahead of the game. When John Hentish’s health failed, her attitude was that of one whose advice had been taken, for she was a firm believer in the wages of sin.
Miss Mavey was called next, and under the impression that she was on trial for her life, opened with a magnificent defence, giving seven distinct alibis for the afternoon.
Another highlight is H. C. Bailey’s ‘The Long Barrow’, which is an amusing story about an innocent archeologist seemingly finding love whilst looking for Phoenician remains in the West Country (Bailey’s story in Capital Crimes was also notable – definitely an author I want to read more.)
The collection romps home with a couple of very good short shorts. In ‘Clue in the Mustard’, Leo Bruce’s Sergeant Beef uses his gardening skills to catch a murderer. And ‘Our Pageant’, the final story from Gladys Mitchell, features a murderous morris dancer.
Sometimes the stories get a bit too rustic – the Allingham story is waggishly written in Essex dialect and lost me about half-way in (and I’m a big fan of Allingham).
‘Now, now. Har, Mr Light, I’m took aback!’
But generally this is a typically solid collection of rarities and forgotten stories from the Golden Age.
Serpents in Eden
First published 2016 by the British Library
Source: Publisher’s review copy – thanks very much!