I very, very rarely read crime, of any persuasion; Golden Age or noir, Old World or New, it just tends not to draw me. Or so I thought. For some reason, this year, between about the 22nd and the 31st of December, crime was nearly all I wanted to read. (Perhaps this is because we discovered all twelve series of David Suchet’s Poirot are available on ITV’s new streaming service. Who can say?) Anyway, here’s what I made of it all.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie (1916; pub. 1920): I hate to say this given it’s the novel that introduces the famous Hercule Poirot, but… largely forgettable. It’s a poisoning murder, set in a country house, with clues that include a false beard and a lethal dose of strychine. Poirot is brilliant from the start, but the other characters are quite forgettable (with the possible exception of Hastings, our narrator, whose voice is just daft and pompous enough to reveal his own self-delusions, and to showcase how much potential Christie had even at this early stage of her career).
Sparkling Cyanide, by Agatha Christie (1945): Much, much better all around. Another poisoning mystery—a young and beautiful woman, recently married, appears to commit suicide by drinking a cyanide-laced glass of champagne at a public party for her birthday; one year later, her husband, convinced that her death was murder, gets all the possible suspects together in the same venue, and promptly dies in the same way. Because the novel starts with a section in which each chapter is focalised through a different suspect, and because the novel starts well after the first death, it’s a more structurally exciting and sophisticated fiction, and the characterisation is much improved. It’s odd that the killer’s identity is, in many ways, very similar to the solution in Styles; the books were published twenty-five years apart. But that said, the solution here is more satisfying than in Styles, precisely because of that improved insight into character. A really good entry in the Christie canon.
The Norfolk Mystery, by Ian Sansom (2013): Sadly disappointing. The premise was very promising: shocked into near-nihilism by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, ex-soldier Stephen Sefton takes a job as amanuensis to Professor Swanton Morley, a prolific autodidact who intends to write a guide to every county in England in under a decade. On their first jaunt, in Norfolk, the body of a local vicar is discovered hanging in his vestry, but Morley is convinced all is not as it appears… and he’s right. Or, well, actually, he’s wrong. Frustratingly [mild spoilers, I guess?], what originally appeared to be the case is in fact the case. It’s not quite a murder. We do figure out what happened, eventually, but the route of deduction is circuitous and greatly obstructed by Morley’s characterisation; Sansom was obviously aiming for a sort of lower-middle-class Sherlock Holmes figure, someone who knows a lot and spouts off about it endlessly, but most of Morley’s observations aren’t to the point the way that Sherlock’s are. Sefton, meanwhile, remains largely a cipher. It’s difficult to imagine what Sansom’s purpose in writing the book might have been. I won’t carry on with the series.
The Outsider, by Stephen King (2018): Half horror, half crime, this one, which is a subgenre I’m finding myself attracted to. Beloved Little League baseball coach Terry Maitland is accused of an appalling crime against a child. Forensic evidence and eyewitness testimony both put him at the scene; it was definitely him. But it can’t have been… because he was also captured on tape at a conference hundreds of miles away at the same time, on the same day. From this premise, King spins a story of a supernatural, superhuman predator out of legend, and brings together a band of misfits with skin in the game to catch the creature. Holly Gibney appears again in this book; I gather she featured in the Bill Hodges books (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch), which, on the basis of The Outsider, I would happily read. Contemporary King has often misfired for me (couldn’t finish The Institute, for example), but this feels like some of his quintessential work.
The Lost Gallows, by John Dickson Carr (1931): My very first British Library Crime Classic, and an excellent choice! This one has a crackerjack premise: a wealthy man is apparently abducted, his car somehow driven around London by his unfortunate chauffeur’s corpse, and a message received that he has been “hanged on the gallows in Ruination Street”… which doesn’t exist. The note is signed “Jack Ketch”—London’s historic name for an executioner. I absolutely loved this: the atmosphere of gloom, fog, and miserable gentlemen’s clubs is second to none, while the intrigue of a street that doesn’t exist and the creepiness of the little model gallows that keeps appearing on tables create proper shivers. As the foregoing may have suggested, I really like mysteries whose solution seems like it must be supernatural (but isn’t); the sense of impossibility tickles my brain. Inspector Henri Bencolin, the detective protagonist in this story, is a remarkably dark character, repeatedly described as “cruel” and “malicious” by the narrator (who’s supposedly his friend!) It gives the story a more modern feel, and it also makes Bencolin more of a person, instead of a detective “type”. Highly recommended, and I’ll be reading more of Carr’s work very soon.
Green for Danger, by Christianna Brand (1944): A tremendously plotted crime novel, my second BLCC (there’s a 3 for 2 deal and I was in the British Library bookshop a few days ago… I couldn’t resist), set during the Blitz in a Kentish military hospital. In the opening chapter, a local postman delivers seven letters to the hospital from doctors and nurses accepting posts there. One year later, that postman dies on the operating table, and one of those seven doctors and nurses is the killer. Why anyone would want to kill him, and how they could possibly have done it in the operating theatre with multiple other people present, is the core of a totally fiendish puzzle—but what I loved so much about Green for Danger was the character work. The complex social ecosystem of V.A.D.s and ward sisters is described perfectly, the bravery and boredom that go hand in hand when bombing is a regular threat, the appeal of illicit sex in a newly topsy-turvy world characterized by stress and danger. Fantastically misleading at times, and with a false-bottom reveal I genuinely didn’t see coming (though, to be fair, I rarely do). Top drawer.
The Mysterious Mr Badman, by W.F. Harvey (1934): Delightfully subtitled “a Yorkshire bibliomystery”, this is another great premise: the splendidly named Athelstan Digby, a humble blanket manufacturer, is on holiday visiting his nephew on the North York Moors. One day he agrees to mind his landlord’s shop, which happens to sell secondhand books, and receives three separate requests for John Bunyan’s The Life and Death of Mr. Badman—not in stock until the very end of the day, when a young lad sells him a parcel of secondhand books containing that very title. Soon after, one of the customers who’d inquired for the title is found shot dead on the moor, and Athelstan—plus his doctor nephew, Jim Pickering, and the delightful Diana Conyers, who Jim seems to have met during the first world war when she was a V.A.D.—determines to investigate. This is mostly a novel about politically motivated blackmail, and less a novel about books as murder-worthy objects in their own right, but the character interactions are marvelous. I would love to read more fiction featuring Athelstan Digby; sadly I don’t think Harvey wrote any more novels including him.
From this I have concluded that I held out on the BLCCs for far too long. I thought I wasn’t keen on Golden Age crime—turns out, what I’m mostly not keen on is subpar contemporary parodies of Golden Age crime. The real stuff is proving fantastic!