Book Review: Murder by the Book edited by Martin Edwards
I am always so grateful whenever the latest British Library Crime Classics anthology crosses my desk. Having been raised in the fine tradition of sleuthing exemplified by the Golden Age of detective fiction—many if not most of whose practitioners were British—I always look forward to exploring the gems unearthed by Martin Edwards for his thoughtfully curated collections. Each book is a rich trove of short stories that haven’t seen the light of publication in ages, and are often new even to my rapacious reading habits.
This latest anthology of crime revolves around the world of books, collecting tales that the lively and illuminating introduction terms “bibliomysteries.” Each of the sixteen short stories either involves an author or the book trade, usually treated in a self-referential manner that is droll if not utterly delightful to the bibliophile. Nowhere is this more prominent than in the story that opens the proceedings. In “A Lesson In Crime,” written by the married couple GDH and M Cole, popular author Joseph Newton is harassed into conversation and worse by a fellow train passenger:
“I am not aware,” [Newton] said, “that we were talking of murders, or of anything else, for that matter.”
“There, you see,” said the other, “you did hear what I said the first time. What I mean to say is that, if you expect intelligent people to read your stories, you might at least trouble to make them plausible.”
Newton suppressed the rejoinder that rose instantly to his lips. It was that he had far too large a circulation among fools to bother about what intelligent people thought. He only said, “I doubt, sir, if you are likely to find my conversation any more satisfactory than my books,” and resumed his magazine.
The other fifteen stories all use books and the book industry to equally excellent effect, with perhaps my favorite being Christianna Brand’s “Dear Mr Editor.” Ms Brand is, of course, one of the more famous of these authors, alongside Ngaio Marsh, whose story “Chapter and Verse” closes out the collection. And while that most famous of mystery writers Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is not represented in himself, his legendary creation Sherlock Holmes is ably recreated in S. C. Roberts’ “The Strange Case of the Megatherium Thefts,” a short story that was likely inspired by the real-life theft of books from London’s Athenaeum Club. An author more famed for his other works is also featured with “A Savage Game,” one of the few mystery short stories he wrote in his otherwise varied and prolific career: Perhaps A. A. Milne was too busy inventing more tales of Winnie-the-Pooh and the Hundred Acre Woods to regularly think up plots as fiendish as the one presented within these pages.
While I’d like to claim that all this biographical information had been squirreled away in my own trivia-loving brain prior to enjoying Murder by the Book, much of it was provided by the illuminating introductions written for each entry, rendering this volume more than merely diverting entertainment. As a scholarly document, it provides a wealth of detail in placing each work in its milieu. All of the stories are wonderful snapshots of detecting in and around the early 20th century, having been published for the most part between the 1890s and the 1960s. The technology detailed is, of course, of its time—there are precious few murders here which couldn’t have been solved with the use of 21st century science—though the application of the sleuth’s little grey cells is undoubtedly far more entertaining for us readers.
Another product of its time is the occasional turn of phrase that, at the very least, raises the eyebrows of the discerning modern mystery enthusiast. I greatly appreciated the notes from the publisher as to the possibility of uncomfortable reading, as here in the introduction to Julian Symons’ “The Clue In The Book”:
Throughout his life, Symons was a radical, politically on the left, but ideas about what is “progressive” keep changing. The British Library and Poisoned Pen Press wish to acknowledge that outdated language is used with regard to disability in this story.
One cannot usefully appreciate history without also acknowledging with candor how societies and expectations change. The point of progressivism is, after all, to keep improving everyone’s living conditions for the better, with the understanding that this is an eternal process due to earthly perfection being unattainable, yet no less desirable for being elusive. The British Library Crime Classics series shows us, in one of the most entertaining ways possible, how far we’ve come as a society and how far we have still to go. After all, is not the point of mystery fiction to satisfy that universal hunger for justice, even for the lowest and meanest of us? For anyone who appreciates history as much as they do mystery fiction, this is an invaluable series, with this latest installment being one of its best yet.