"It is peaceful. The sun shines. The sea is blue. But you forget, Miss Brewster, there is evil everywhere under the sun."- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun, 1941)
Recently, I have made several references to Martin Edwards, an award-winning crime writer and genre-historian, who has been providing the Poisoned Pen Press with introductions for their line of British Library Crime Classics, but Edwards also edited a number of themed anthologies for them – such as a collection of detective stories that take place in the countryside and one about crimes perpetrated in the city of London.
So I thought, why not take a stab at one of those anthologies and Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries (2015) seemed like a good place to start.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle opened this anthology with a story taken from His Last Bow: Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (1917), "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot," which was originally published in 1910 and is set on the Cornish coast. Holmes has been advised to "lay aside all his cases" and "surrender himself to complete rest if he wished to advert an absolute breakdown." So he finds himself on an holiday excursion to Cornwall where he roams through the "traces of some vanished race" that "left as its sole record strange monuments of stone" and "curious earthworks which hinted at prehistoric strife" – which is something that seemed to appeal to his imagination. Nonetheless, Holmes and Dr. Watson are quickly drawn back to old, familiar territory when a devil of a case occurred in the neighborhood.
On his early morning walk, Mr. Mortimer Tregennis crossed paths with the local physician, Dr. Richards, who informs him he has received an urgent call to hurry to Mr. Tregennis' old family home, Tredannick Wartha, where they make an unsettling discovery: his two brothers, Owen and George, acted as madmen and gave the impression of having "the senses stricken clean out of them." His sister, Brenda, "lay back stone-dead in her chair," but there's nothing in the home that could explain who or what "dashed the light of reason from their minds." The explanation belonged to the pages of the sensational crime/horror stories from the nineteenth century and breaks one of the sacred tenants of the Golden Age, but the old-fashioned murder method seemed to fit the ancient atmosphere of the setting. So that's a minor complaint and the story, as a whole, is still a pretty solid entry in the canon.
The second story comes from Conan Doyle's brother-in-law, E.W. Hornung, who's best remembered for his rogue stories about a gentleman-burglar, named A.J. Raffles, but the characters he created to enforce the law appear to be all but forgotten today – such as the rather unique character who appeared in a collection of short stories entitled The Crime Doctor (1914).
Dr. John Dollar presents himself as a crime doctor and prefers curing criminals, "while they’re still worth saving," to traditional detective work and the story Edwards picked for this anthology, "A Schoolmaster Abroad," is an interesting example of the doctor's philosophy. Dr. Dollar is on holiday in Switzerland when he hears about a medical scandal: a local practitioner has been caught "prescribing strychnine pills warranted to kill in twenty minutes," but the practitioner is the same doctor who once saved Dollar's life. There's also the matter of a once promising young man who has become very sullen, downcast and apparently prone to near death experiences. Luckily, Dr. Dollar finds a commonality between the medical and criminal problem, which allows him to stave off the hand of a would-be murderer and this concentration on crime-prevention is what gives this story a rather unique angle – somewhat comparable to Agatha Christie's "Wasps' Nest" from Poirot's Early Cases (1974).
One of Arnold Bennett's short stories from 1927, simply called "Murder," is the third entry for this anthology and the story was far better written than it was thought out. The plot of the story revolves around two men, Lomax Harder and John Franting, who the reader meets in a gun store: one of them legally buys a firearm, while the other steals one. However, the stolen gun is used to commit, what is called is described in the story as a "justified murder as a social act," which leads the murderer to contemplate his act and flee from the possible consequences – helped by shoddy police work and Bennett's attempt at thumbing his nose at "the great amateur detective." I guess Anthony Berkeley, Leo Bruce and Ellery Queen have spoiled me when it comes to the fallible detective. Oh, and the story took place at seaside resort, which justified its inclusion.
M. McDonnell Bodkin was an Irish barrister, journalist, politician and writer of detective stories from the Doylean Era and his legacy consists of having created the first family of meddlesome snoops: the protagonists from Paul Beck, the Rule of Thumb Detective (1898) and Dora Myrl, the Lady Detective (1900) married and had a son – who followed in his parents footsteps in Young Beck, A Chip Off the Old Block (1911). The story from this anthology, "The Murder on the Golf Links," was lifted from the pages of The Quests of Paul Beck (1908) and largely takes place on the titular link of a seaside hotel. Miss Meg Hazel takes Paul Beck into confidence about her engagement to Mr. Samuel Hawkins, a diamond merchant, but she has second thoughts about her promise and a young electrical engineer, Ned Ryan, probably influenced this change of mind.
As to be expected, one of them is found battered to death "in the great, sandy bunker that guarded the seventeenth green" and Beck seems to have stumbled across the evidence needed to secure a conviction, but did that piece of evidence he found point to the real murderer? The story is well written and the plot passable for its time (a bit iffy on fair play), but what endeared this story to me was the fact the final act (surprisingly) was played out in my country!
Hey, I love it when fictional detectives visit my country and, one day, I’ll get around to reading Gladys Mitchell's Death of a Delft Blue (1964) and Patricia Moyes' Death and the Dutch Uncle (1968). Just you wait!
Anyhow, the next story, "The Finger of Stone," comes from G.K. Chesterton's The Poet and the Lunatics: Episodes in the Life of Gabriel Gale (1929), which takes place during a walking-tour in France as a group of three men arrive in the small town of Carillon – a place "famous for its fine old Byzantine monastery" and "having been the scene of the labours of Boyg." Professor Boyg is considered to be "a great discoverer," but recently has disappeared and some assume him to be dead. Murdered even! The explanation is typical of a Chesterton plot and the only that can be said against the story is that it was not Father Brown who came up with an answer for this conundrum.
Only two months ago, I reviewed Richardson's First Case (1933) by Sir Basil Thomson, who has recently been resurrected from the slumber of literary oblivion, but one snippet of his legacy has always lingered in the subconscious of popular culture and concerns the plot of one of his short stories – namely "The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser" from Mr. Pepper, Investigator (1925). The story revolves around Mrs. Fraser and her daughter, Mary, who "had been passing the winter in Naples," but her mother fell ill on the way home and they stopped at a respectable looking Parisian hotel. Mary is asked by the local doctor to fetch medication, but when she returns her mother has disappeared and nobody seems to remember them. The hotel room in which she had left her mother has completely changed and their name does not appear in the hotel registry!
I already knew the explanation to these problems, but I was still glad to finally have had an opportunity to read this historically important and influential story that has inspired (or fine-tuned) a famous urban legend as well as providing a premise for several detective stories – ranging from John Dickson Carr's famous radio-play, "Cabin B-13," to Simon de Waal's Spelen met Vuur (Playing With Fire, 2004).
The next stop in this rapidly expanding post is R. Austin Freeman's "A Mystery of the Sand-Hills," which is originally included in The Puzzle Lock (1925), but the story is not representative of his best work. Dr. John Thorndyke is taking a stroll down the beach when he comes across several "impressions of bare feet in the sand" and "a heap of clothes." It's the beginning of a curious case and Dr. Thorndyke uncovers the truth by closely examining grains of sand, which helped him understand "the character of the cliffs, rocks and other large masses that occur in the locality," but that was more interesting than the eventual explanation – which was extremely disappointing and unsatisfying. So lets move on to the next story.
H.C. Bailey is represented here by a short story, entitled "The Hazel Ice," taken from Mr. Fortune Speaking (1929) and has a plot reminiscent of the mountaineering mysteries by Glyn Carr. You can consider the story as a literary ancestor of Carr. The story takes place in an Alpine resort in Switzerland, where Reggie Fortune is holidaying, but he ends up helping the local police, represented by Herr Stein, when an injured hotel guest returns without his climbing companion – who was lost in a sudden rockslide. Bailey's descriptions of the Swiss mountains, possible dangers mountain-climbers have to face and the nature of the crime is what brought the work of Glyn Carr to mind, but also has solid characterization and interaction between Bailey and Stein, which made this a fun and fairly clever story. Even if it lacked basic fair play. But still a well-written and excellently told story.
The next tale was a bit of a rarity: Anthony Berkeley's "Razor Edge" was published only once in a short story collection, The Roger Sheringham Stories (1994), which was "an edition limited to a mere 93 copies." So this is really the first time a wider audience got to read, what is essentially, a brand new story by Berkeley!
Roger Sheringham is spending a couple of days at the seaside resort of Penhampton, where bathing in the sea is "notoriously dangerous" and as a consequence the local mortuary is larger than usual, because "swimmers are obstinate people." It's no surprise to anyone when the police has remove a body from between the rocks of a sunny, seaside cove and everyone assumed the man had simply drowned, but Sheringham reminds his host, the chief constable of Penhampton, that people had been murdered by drowning before – even though the small district had never seen a murder in modern times. Sheringham is proved to be correct and his hunch was based on some astute deduction about victim's cut lip, chin stubble, scratches on his back and his bathing suit, which makes this one of his triumphs as an amateur detective. A nice change of pace from being one of those fallible detectives and glad the story was rescued from complete obscurity, even if it was not as grand as one of his full-length mystery novels. And, hey, it's basically a brand new Sheringham story, which is definitely a huge plus in favor of this story!
The next stop is a short-short by Leo Bruce, "Holiday Task," which came from Murder in Miniature and Other Stories (1992) and takes place on the coast of Normandy, France. Sgt. Beef is described as "deliberately enjoying his holiday" when he meets an old friend, Léotard of the Sûrété, who's investigating the apparently accidental death of reputedly "the most detested man in the French prison system," but when one assumes the prison governor was murdered the case becomes an impossible one – because the question has to be answered how the governor and his car vanished from a guarded prison complex. It has a simple, elegant explanation, but one locked room enthusiasts has seen before in a story that's well known to us.
Helen Simpson follows Leo Bruce with a short-short of her own, "A Posteriori," which takes a comedy-of-manners style of approach to the espionage genre and the ensuing result is a very funny, scandalous and original story. You have to read it for yourself, because it's very short and going into details would probably spoil it.
The following story from this collection, "Where is Mr. Manetot?," was penned by Phyllis Bentley and was salvaged by Edwards from the pages of a long-forgotten anthology, Missing from Their Home (1936), which is filled with missing person stories. I have no idea about the overall quality of that anthology, but Bentley's contribution proved itself to be a small, shimmering gem of crime-fiction. The story opens with a brief report on Mr. Manetot, who has gone missing from his home, before moving to an unknown man in the lounge of a seaside hotel who has been listening to the report on the radio and pulls several sheets of papers from an envelope and begins to read them.
It's a written account from an unknown person who tells a story of how favor to a friend placed him in a position "to hang a murderer" and story gets progressively unsettling from there on out. There's one particular evocative scene, when the narrator peeks through a window of a locked door at a train station, showing Bentley would have made a good scenarist and especially loved how the whole world around him seemed to snap back to normal when he stopped looking. Conclusion of the story is well done and the open-ended conclusion worked even better. One of my favorite stories from this anthology!
The next story, Gerald Findler's "The House of Screams," was extricated by Robert Adey from an issue of an extremely obscure, illustrated publication called Doidge's Western Counties Annual and included it in Murder Impossible: An Extravaganza of Miraculous Murders, Fantastic Felonies and Incredible Criminals (1990) – which he co-edited with Jack Adrian. Adey’s introduction to this story from that anthology noted Findler's tale showed "inventiveness and originality," combined with "a flair for the dramatic," which "leaves one wishing he had written more." I agree with the opinion of the late Adey. It's an excellent story that can be read as a ghost story with a logical explanation. The nameless narrator of the story finds a rundown, overgrown house that's "wrapped up in solitude" and has a "To Let" sign on it, which is exactly a place he has been looking for the escape from modern life. He only wants "to write, write, and write," but one night his peace of mind is disturbed by the ghostly screams of a woman echoing through the house. The answer for the disembodied screaming is found in a locked attic room and in the local cemetery, which makes for a nice, atmospheric story.
I was reminded of John Dickson Carr's "The Dead Sleep Lightly," from The Dead Sleep Lightly and Other Mysteries from Radio’s Golden Age (1983), and the plot bore some resemblances to the second murder from the first story in this collection, Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot."
Finally, this collection closes with a short-short by Michael Gilbert, which is entitled "Cousin Once Removed," which can be categorized as a Hoist-on-Their-Own-Petard tale and concerns a man who wants to remove his cousin to cash in on their grandfather's inheritance. However, his scheme to commit the perfect murder proves to be a double-edged sword and he cuts himself badly.
So, all in all, Resorting to Murder is an interesting selection of detective stories that have not often found their way in similar collections, but (it must be said) most of the stories here derive their interest mainly from their historical significance or rarity. Not all that many stone-cold classics (except for Phyllis Bentley). I also missed one of the best and most famous of all short holiday mysteries: Agatha Christie's "Triangle at Rhodes" from Murder in the Mews and Other Stories (1937). Not a very original pick, but it's one of the stories of its kind.