Book Review: Guilty Creatures: A Menagerie of Mysteries by Martin Edwards
The involvement of animals in popular mystery fiction, as Martin Edwards notes in his excellent introduction to this collection, has been a large and lively part of the genre from its very inception. From what’s commonly acknowledged as the first detective story, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders In The Rue Morgue,” to the plethora of modern day mysteries featuring helpful animal sidekicks, mystery writers have often inserted animals into their tales in such a way as to confound and delight their readers. The animal may be a sleuth, a murder weapon, a clue, or an important metaphor for the crime at hand. With this compendium of fourteen classic British short stories—almost all of them from the fair-play tradition—Mr Edwards showcases each of the aforementioned devices, resulting in a terrific book that will satisfy any mystery lover who also loves, or is at least interested in, the animal kingdom.
The anthology opens with a contribution from perhaps the most famous author of mystery short stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, himself. While Sir Doyle was proud of the plot of “The Adventure Of The Lion’s Mane,” the denouement can seem rather obvious to anyone with a working knowledge of marine biology. Still, this tale is no eye-roll-inducing “The Speckled Band.” That other great scribe of the mystery short story, G. K. Chesterton, is better represented here by “The Oracle Of The Dog.” This tale features his best known hero, the ordinarily mild-mannered Father Brown, who has an uncharacteristic outburst at the expense of a young man imparting the tale of a dog barking furiously at a suspect in the murder of a local rich man:
Father Brown sprang to his feet with a startling impatience.
“So the dog denounced him, did he?” he cried. “The oracle of the dog condemned him. Did you see what birds were flying, and are you sure whether they were on the right hand or the left? Did you consult the augurs about the sacrifices? Surely you didn’t omit to cut open the dog and examine his entrails. That is the sort of scientific test you heathen humanitarians seem to trust when you are thinking of taking away the life and honour of a man.”
While his railing against pagans and atheists is perhaps misplaced—goodness knows that non-churchgoers have hardly cornered the market on superstition—the underlying sentiment that decries irrationality is certainly shared by the other detectives in this collection, hero and villain alike. I really enjoyed how varied the protagonists were here, from the obviously heroic Sherlock Holmes and the scientifically inclined Solange Fontaine of F Tennyson Jesse’s “The Green Parrakeet,” to the morally ambiguous unnamed narrator of Garnett Radcliffe’s “Pit Of Screams,” to the outright villainous Horace Dorrington of Arthur Morrison’s “The Case Of Janissary,” among many others.
The animal theme allowed Mr Edwards to dig deeply into the annals of British crime fiction to present some truly excellent gems that may be little known to today’s reading public. What is it about animals that inspires so many to write so well? Is it the mystery engendered by humanity’s proximity to animal-kind without yet a means of transparent communication? Is it the knowledge that these creatures we often dismiss as amusing or harmless can yet inspire fear merely by their primal nature? The latter is perfectly captured in Josephine Bell’s “Death In A Cage,” where the sentiments of a constable stationed near the London Zoo one foggy evening turn quickly from compassion to near terror:
All his sympathy for suffering dumb animals, oppressed by alien fog, evaporated. He was frightened, and he resented it bitterly. Coming at him, as it had, in his isolated blindness, the fear was unreasonably strong. Suppose something was loose in there? A tiger, a bear, something of that sort. It would be likely to upset the monkeys; it might be after them. It might be anywhere. It might soon be after him!
This anthology is a must-read for anyone with an appreciation of both mysteries and zoology. In addition to curating the ceaselessly entertaining stories themselves, Mr Edwards has also written for each a brief introduction to the author and, often, the provenance of the piece, giving readers a fascinating window into the history of British crime fiction, through the lens of animal involvement. Clever and varied, this is one of his best collections yet.