Review 1397: Deep Waters

I have read several of British Library Crime Classics’ mystery story collections, usually themed around a locale. In Deep Waters, most of the stories are set at sea, although some involve rivers and one each a pond and a swimming pool. The stories are in chronological order by when they were published, from 1893 to 1975.

The first story, “The Adventure of the ‘Gloria Scott'” by Arthur Conan Doyle, is a Sherlock Holmes I have never encountered before, supposedly his first case. Like several of the first few stories, it presents and solves a puzzle so quickly that I was barely aware there was a puzzle. In fact, as I read these stories, I felt as if I was watching the evolution of the mystery story.

“The Eight-Mile Lock” by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace, only the second story, was one of three written by women. It details the theft of a diamond bracelet from a party staying on a houseboat. The mystery is not so much about who stole the bracelet or how but where he put it to evade the police.

“The Gift of the Emperor” is a Raffles story written by E. W. Hornung, who was Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law. I don’t know if it was the last of Raffles’s career, but it seemed to be.

One of the stories I liked best was “A Question of Timing” by Phyllis Bentley. The main character, Robert Beringer, uses his observation skills as a writer to foil a criminal, save a detective’s life, and get the girl, all during a walk. This story takes place on an embankment of the Thames.

I have a frustration in general with mystery short stories as they really only have space to pose and solve a puzzle. So much that I enjoy about mystery novels is not possible at this length. Some of these stories, though, had beautiful descriptions of their settings. In any case, this is a good collection for those interested in the evolution of the mystery story.

I received a copy of this book free from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

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Day 843: Murder at the Manor

cover for Murder at the ManorMurder at the Manor is another collection of classic mystery short stories published by Poisoned Pen Press. Each of these stories is set at a country manor.

This collection features writers the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, Margery Allingham, and Ethel Lina White. Some of the stories are ingenious, and one is an amusing satire of the genre.

The satire was the story that most stood out, “The Murder at the Towers” by E. V. Knox. Just the first sentence gives a sense of it:

Mr. Ponderby-Wilkins was a man so rich, so ugly, so cross, and so old, that even the stupidest reader could not expect him to survive any longer than Chapter 1.”

And he doesn’t. Mr. Ponderby-Wilkins is found hanging from a tree, suspended by a muffler. His guests decide to “go on playing tennis as reverently as possible” until the detective arrives. When the detective, Bletherby Marge, arrives, he is described as a person who is sometimes mistaken for a baboon. The story continues on to turn the genre on its head.

“The Copper Beeches” by Arthur Conan Doyle is the only story I had previously read. Miss Hunter comes to consult Sherlock Holmes about an unusual offer of employment. She has been offered a job as governess at an inflated wage under the condition she bob her hair. Holmes advises her to take the position but promises to come immediately to her assistance if she summons him. She soon does and explains she has been asked to put on a certain blue dress and sit with her back to the window. Holmes immediately realizes he can prevent a crime.

“The Problem of Dead Wood Hall” by Dick Donovan is another early mystery. This case refers to two mysterious deaths, two years apart, of first Mr. Manville Charnworth and then Mr. Tuscan Trankler. Although no cause of death can be determined, both men show signs of having died the same way. Unfortunately, this story is turgidly written, and the method of murder and identity of the killer are easy to guess.

“Gentlemen and Players” by E. W. Hornung is a Raffles mystery. Raffles takes his friend Bunny along on a weekend at a country house, where they have been invited because Raffles is such a good cricket player. Raffles doesn’t usually rob his hosts, but he resents being invited as if he were an entertainer. And old Lady Melrose has such a nice necklace.

“The Well” by W. W. Jacobs is more of a psychological study than a  mystery. Jem Benson is about to be married. He has a cousin, Wilfred Carr, who continually borrows money from him. But this time Wilfred threatens to tell Jem’s fiancée Olive a disreputable secret if he won’t cough up. The two men walk out to the woods near a disused well and only one of them comes back.

“An Unlocked Window” by Ethel Lina White raises a lot of suspense when two nurses are left alone with their patient. A maniac in the neighborhood has been murdering nurses. Nurse Cherry suddenly realizes she left a window unlocked.

link to Netgalley“The Mystery of Horne’s Copse” by Anthony Berkeley is quite entertaining, about Hugh Chappell, who stumbles over the corpse of his cousin Frank late one night on the way home from dining with his fiancée’s family. Only the body isn’t there when he brings the police back, and Frank and his wife are on vacation at Lake Como. This is an odd state of affairs, but then it happens again and again until the last time the body is indeed Frank’s, and Hugh is wanted for murder. In this story, I particularly enjoyed Hugh’s spunky fiancée Sylvia.

All in all, I found the collection mixed in quality but enjoyable. Some of the stories are truly suspenseful, and some present a good puzzle.

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Day 806: Silent Nights

Cover for Silent NightsSilent Nights is a collection of classic mystery stories set at Christmastime. Represented are well-known writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers as well as writers who are not as well known now, such as Ethel Lina White and Leo Bruce. At least, I am no expert, but I have not heard of them before.

Like most mystery short stories I’ve read, these are more concerned with posing a puzzle. They are not long enough for much serious characterization or detailed plotting. Still, I found some of them surprisingly effective.

In “Waxworks” by Ethel Lina White, for example, atmosphere is created in a story of a female reporter who decides to spend the night in a haunted wax museum. She is stalked there by a jealous coworker.

“Stuffing” by Edgar Wallace has an ending reminiscent of “The Gift of the Magi” in which the ill-gotten gains from a robbery that are hidden in the crop of a Christmas turkey end up in the hands of a poor, innocent couple about to depart for Canada. They think both the turkey and the money are gifts from the woman’s rich uncle.

In “The Unknown Murderer,” H. C. Bailey’s detective Dr. Reggie Fortune figures out the game of a pathological murderer. In “Cambric Tea” by Margery Bower, a jealous man tries to frame two innocent people for murder.

link to NetgalleyNot all are that successful. “A Problem in White” by Nicholas Blake doesn’t tell the solution (which I guessed) unless you turn to the back of the book. “The Name on the Window” by Edmund Crispin depends its puzzle on which side of the window the victim supposedly wrote the name of his attacker. Yet for this solution, we must suppose that the victim was stabbed and then walked around a building and down a long hallway for no apparent reason than that he could collapse on the other side of the window. Not, I think, the behavior of a dying man. (And, typically, he didn’t just write the name of his attacker; he hinted at it.)

In any case, this collection made me interested in looking for some of the longer works by some of these authors.

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Day 421: The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

Cover for The Ghost of the Mary CelesteI haven’t read anything by Valerie Martin since her creepy Mary Reilly, which of course was a reworking of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I understand her novel Property won the Orange Prize, however, and The Ghost of the Mary Celeste was certainly worth reading, so I will look for some of her others.

This novel is based on the mysterious history of the Mary Celeste, a merchant ship that is famous for having been discovered in 1872 completely abandoned in the Atlantic Ocean. The captain, Benjamin Briggs, had his wife Sarah and two-year-old daughter Sophie aboard the ship, which had no other passengers, just the crew. No explanation has ever been found for the disappearance of everyone on board.

Martin’s book doesn’t so much attempt to offer us an explanation as add to the mystery surrounding this event.

The novel begins, though, with an earlier maritime tragedy. Captain Joseph Gibbs and his wife Maria go overboard in 1859 during a fearsome storm while she is trying to board a lifeboat.

Back at home after their deaths, Sallie Cobb is concerned about her younger sister Hannah, who claims their cousin Maria wants to take away her son Nathan, the little boy Hannah has been caring for since his parents were lost at sea. Maria’s family, the Gibbs, have been very unlucky at sea. Many of them having died there, including, of course, Maria. Sallie is worried about Hannah’s well-being, as she also claims that their mother, who died when Hannah was young, has been coming to talk to her.

Nathan only lives another few months, and Sallie is concerned about Hannah’s sorrow and her insistence that she has talked to both Maria and their mother. Sallie thinks that Hannah, who has always been fanciful, may be deranged from grief. Sallie is self-absorbed, however, for she is being courted by her childhood friend and cousin, Benjamin Briggs, Maria’s brother and also a sea captain, with whom she is in love.

The next section of the book leaps ahead in time to 1881 to follow Arthur Conan Doyle on a trip to Africa, where he is working as a ship’s doctor. It is during this trip that he decides to write a story about the Mary Celeste. Unfortunately, the story, which proposes a lurid explanation for the mystery, is understood by many to be true, even though he didn’t bother to research it and has almost all the facts wrong. Although he is taken aback by the response, especially of the victim’s families (whom he never considered), this story begins his writing career. Later he meets a spiritualist who has a connection with the Mary Celeste.

http://www.netgalley.comThrough such meanderings, including documents, newspaper clippings, journals, a journalist’s memoir, and visits with spiritualists, we eventually find ourselves back on the Mary Celeste by means of Sallie’s journal. This journal has found its way into the hands of Conan Doyle.

This story is haunting and melancholy, and Martin is not so much interested in what exactly happened aboard the Mary Celeste as in the event’s repercussions. Evocatively written, this novel will carry you along with it.