Capital Crimes – London Mysteries – edited by Martin Edwards
Perhaps Sherlock Holmes was right after all. In The Adventure of the Copper Beeches Conan Doyle’s greatest fictional creation avers that “the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” The reason – “The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.” It may be that this is why I found Edwards’ collection of stories from the 1890s to 1940s centred on London less satisfying that its countryside companion.
As someone who commuted regularly on the London underground, John Oxenham’s A Mystery of the Underground struck a contemporary and disturbing chord. It tells of a stalker who terrorises the District line using made up newspaper stories. So disturbing was the Story when it was first published that passenger numbers on the line slumped in 1897. The book opens with a Conan Doyle story but one that doesn’t feature the famous resident of 221b Baker Street. The Case of Lady Sannox is a macabre story of revenge in which an arrogant surgeon undertakes one last procedure before a secret assignation with his paramour. The story ends with a horrific twist.
H C Bailey’s The Little House also has a modern twist. The detective, Reggie Fortune, is called upon to investigate what seems to be a simple case of a missing kitten but leads to him unearthing a disturbing case of child cruelty. The Tea Leaf by Robert Eustace and Edgar Jepson is a classic example of a locked room mystery. Two men enter a Turkish bath, argue loudly but only one leaves alive. The case centres on how the murder was committed and the solution is intriguing, if not ingenious.
But for every good story, there is one that defies belief. The Finchley Puzzle by Richard Marsh features an amateur sleuth, Judith Lee, who can lip read. This ability has earned her the enmity of London’s criminal fraternity and they try to do away with her using a box of poisoned chocolates. And poisoned confectionary features in Anthony Berkeley’s The Avenging Chance. R Austin Freeman’s Magic Casket taps into the threat of the yellow peril as Japanese criminals harass an elderly woman while J S Fletcher’s The Magician of Cannon Street is just plain daft.
Still, in a collection of 17 stories which tries to represent fairly the diversity of crime writing using the metropolis as its focal point, there is enough good material to keep the reader pleasantly entertained. I particularly enjoyed Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins upon which Alfred Hitchcock based his film, The Lady Vanishes, and The Hands of Mr Ottermole by Thomas Burke which builds up to a shocking finale.
It is well worth a read but follow Sherlock’s advice – seek out the countryside first.
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