Golden Age Detective Stories, by Marie Smith (ed.)

Golden Age Detective Stories

Golden Age Detective Stories is a 2002 reprint of a collection first published in 1994 as The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Detective Stories.  In her introduction, editor Marie Smith notes that by ‘Golden Age’ she does not mean the period between the wars which is seen as a high point of the detective novel, rather the late Victorian and Edwardian era which was such a time for the short story, produced in vast quantities to fill the burgeoning periodical market.  She claims to have omitted ‘hackneyed’ tales that are frequently anthologised, though there are two by Arthur Conan Doyle which, while not ‘hackneyed’ are easily obtained elsewhere, as are some of the others.  Each story has a very short preface.

The first is Conan Doyle’s ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ from 1891, well-known for the appearance of Irene Adler, and for those few interested in detective fiction who have not read it, it makes a good introduction both to this book and to the mighty Sherlock Holmes, against whom all other consulting detectives are measured.  The next, Israel Zangwill’s ‘Cheating the Gallows’ is a neat idea but one with an implausible premise and a botched execution (so to speak).  The idea that an individual could masquerade as two and fool people at close quarters, simply by the addition of false facial hair and different clothes, is preposterous.  The twist is then left to a final section headed ‘Brief résumé of the culprit’s confession’ which is tacked on rather than being an organic element of the narrative.

Anna Katherine Green’s ‘The Doctor, his Wife and the Clock’ dates from 1895 but is set in 1851 in New York.  It was originally published as a novelette, and while its ponderousness suggests Green may have been attempting to emulate a mid-century style, she was more likely intent more on filling out her quota of words at the expense of pace.  Not so much a whodunnit as whydunnit, the solution is satisfying even if it takes a long time to get to it, and the idea of a blind murderer ingenious.

Much leaner in style is Arthur Morrison’s ‘The Flitterbat Dancers’, with its secret message encoded in musical notation.  It predates Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men’ and features Morrison’s unshowy but highly intelligent Martin Hewitt.  The solution to the cipher is convoluted and you feel that Morrison earned his fee having to work it out.

Fergus Hume, author of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, contributes ‘The Florentine Dante’, also requiring the solving of a code.  The young independent pawnshop owner, Hagar, seems an unlikely sleuth, despite which she solves a puzzle hidden in a second edition of Dante’s La Divina Commedia, though her efforts, while they prove accurate, fail to bring the expected reward.

Another that is not difficult to find elsewhere is a Raffles story by E W Hornung, Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law: ‘Nine points of the law’.  Raffles and Bunny are commissioned to steal an old master that has been bought in dubious circumstances (by a Colonial bounder to boot) and whose rightful owner is desperate for its safe return without any publicity.  It’s not a detective story but Hornung is always fun to read.

‘In the Fog’, by Richard Harding Davis, is a tremendously witty and entertaining series of intertwining sub-stories that fit together, using the device of gentlemen gassing at their club.  Here the motive is to detain a senior Member of Parliament to prevent him speaking at the House.  This they do, but there is an amusing twist which shows their considerable efforts have been in vain.  The physical fog (subject of a recent book by Christine L Corton, London Fog: The Biography) plays only a small role, but the title acts as a metaphor for the fog the narrators weave upon their auditor.  A reference to Sherlock Holmes by one of the yarn-spinners shows how quickly he became a standard for other fictional detectives, and the playfulness of ‘In the Fog’ makes it worthy to stand alongside Conan Doyle’s creation.

Arnold Bennett’s ‘The Fire of London’ does not count as a detective story, nor even a mystery.  Cecil Thorold is a mysterious millionaire champion of justice who relieves a crooked businessman of a large sum of money, only to throw the notes on the fire.  A small fire in London then, rather than The Fire of London, but in a sense the villain, by paying dividends out of capital gained through fraudulent flotations, has created a conflagration in London as the preeminent financial centre, and Thorold is intent to douse the flames.

Robert Barr’s French detective Eugène Valmont inevitably puts one in mind of Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian as Valmont visits a mansion in company with an impoverished peer on the track of ‘Lord Chizelrigg’s Missing Fortune’.  It was hidden by the new owner’s late uncle, an exceedingly eccentric and miserly man.  Needless to say M. Valmont’s ingenuity triumphs and the new peer is impoverished no more.

O. Henry’s ‘A Retrieved Information’ is a typically bittersweet story from that master of the twist ending, told from the perspective of a safe cracker. Moving to a remote town he finds love and gives up his old life. On the point of being redeemed he has to make a choice: rescue a small child trapped in a bank’s safe and expose himself, ruining his new life, or let the child die.  He makes his choice, but his selfless act is witnessed by the detective sent to find him and it is not left unrewarded.

The inclusion of Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men is surprising, not only on account of its length (occupying a fifth of the entire anthology) and because it is not scarce, having been reprinted numerous times, but because again it is a thriller rather than a detective story, even though there is a mystery at the end as to how the Just Men managed to commit their crime.  It is a clever enough method, though Wallace thought more highly of it than it deserved because he offered large sums for anybody who could solve the mystery before the conclusion of the serialisation in the Daily Mail and found that quite a few could, which resulted in his bankruptcy.

It is a morally ambiguous tale.  The Just Men (actually three plus a common criminal with a particular talent who is recruited for the job) threaten to assassinate the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs unless the Bill for a law which would result in the deportation of political refugees domiciled in Britain back to their countries of origin is dropped.  With no Human Rights Act to protect them, expulsion would have dire consequences.  The Bill’s promoter is a man of strong principle and determination who will not be swayed from a course of action he believes to be right.  He is following the requirements of a democracy, unlike the Just Men, who set themselves up as judge, jury – and executioners.  So are they really ‘just men’, or simply terrorists?

One can imagine a more thoughtful writer crafting a meditation on moral versus legal justice and whether it is ever justifiable to take the law into one’s own hands in a cause one feels to be right.  Other actions they had undertaken had been against wicked individuals who had escaped the law, but murdering a government minister for championing a project with which they disagree is on a different level.  Unfortunately Wallace’s flat prose makes it simply a dull story of extraordinarily resourceful criminals who consider themselves above the law.

There are questions as well that are not answered, such as why, if the same law had been passed in other countries, the Four Just Men had not acted against their legislators, and what would happen if after a short interval the same Bill was reintroduced in the Commons; would they come back and do it all again with the new sponsor?  Wallace ignores the potential in his concern to set up a locked room mystery, making it an unsatisfying read.  The best sections deal with his humorous look at politicians, generally shown to be idiots, and it is easy to suspect that he admired the Four Just Men for their intelligence and forthright approach, and believed their methods to be preferable to the comparable messiness of more orthodox legal processes.

Much tighter is ‘The Mysterious Railway-Passenger’, by Maurice Leblanc.  It is one of his Arsène Lupin stories, telling of mistaken identity and Lupin’s brazen audacity when he is robbed after he nods off in a compartment on a train.  It always seems amusing that Lupin shares a name with Charles Pooter’s son, though there are no other similarities between them.  An elegant anti-hero, Leblanc’s Lupin shows that the French were no slouches when it came to adventure stories, and this rattles along at top speed, with a fast motor car on top of the train contributing to the drama.  It is easy to see why Fritz Lang found the stories inspirational as a film director.

In another railway-based story, ‘The Affair of the Corridor Express’, by Victor L Whitechurch, Thorpe Hazell solves the knotty problem of the small boy who vanishes on a train after his school receives a bogus telegram requesting that he be dispatched to his parents in London.  Hazell, using his unparalleled knowledge of the railways, manages to put together a plausible scenario which leads to the lad’s recovery, none the worse for his ordeal.  This was read on Radio 4 in an abridged version by Benedict Cumberbatch in the short series of Thorpe Hazell cases, Thrilling Stories of the Railway.  Thrilling may be pitching it too strongly, but it is worth either hearing Cumberbatch’s beautifully rendered narration or reading the stories themselves, as Canon Whitechurch’s eccentric amateur detective is a fine addition to the genre.

‘The Diamond Master’, by Jack Futurelle, is another longish story in which a number of diamond merchants receive a wonderful flawless diamond each, then are invited to a meeting in which they are informed by the sender that he has a vast supply which if released at once would destroy the market, as the value of diamonds is regulated by their scarcity; in fact even public knowledge of the existence of such a hoard would itself be enough to send the price plunging, and wreck the merchants’ livelihoods.  The price for his secrecy is a high one, that they purchase from him as a group a hundred million dollars’ worth of diamonds.  He gives them a short period to consider his ultimatum, but the merchants are not without their own resources and thus begins a cat and mouse game in which the two parties seek to outwit each other, the merchants setting detectives to spy on this mysterious man who says he can flood the market, while he on his part seeks to maintain the secret until he can close the deal.

As the tension ratchets, his well-oiled plans are nearly derailed by a random murder, until an expert realises exactly where the diamonds come from: he makes them.  As the idea of artificial diamond manufacture is well known now, the modern reader may twig the origin fairly early on.  Nor is it clear how, having manufactured the diamonds in the form of discs, replicas of famous gems could be cut that were literally indistinguishable from the originals, something one would have thought would require a moulding rather than a cutting process.

Futurelle is fascinated by the idea of making huge diamonds and the implications that would have for the trade, and he includes a detailed description of how it is achieved, a method requiring large quantities of brown sugar and novel engineering techniques, not to mention ownership of a power station.  In comparison the characters are a little thin, but the story shows how even the best-laid plans can be scuppered by some unforeseen element, and it is a toss-up to the end quite how the contest between the two parties will resolve itself.  There is even a social comment in depicting police brutality towards a vagrant caught in possession of some diamonds in the effort to obtain information.

More modest in scope is Ellis Parker Butler’s ‘The Hard-Boiled Egg’, the first in his collection Philo Gubb: Correspondence-School Detective, in which the main character, a paperhanger by trade, is studying to be a detective (or rather a ‘deteckative’) by correspondence course.  A gullible man, he shares a room with a man who happens, so he tells Gubb, to be studying to be a crook, and who inveigles perhaps the world’s densest would-be detective into a dubious scheme involving a gold brick and a $100 ‘deposit’.  It doesn’t look good for our budding gumshoe, until a more worldly friend puts him wise to his would-be collaborator, known as ‘Hard-Boiled’ because of his baldness, and almost by accident Gubb foils a con and is instrumental in Hard-Boiled’s capture.  Amusing, but a very slight tale, it does whet the appetite to read the rest of Gubb’s adventures as ‘the foremost deteckative of Riverbank, Iowa’.

Jack London’s ‘The Master of Mystery’ is a strange tale that unites the detective story and anthropology.  Some blankets have been stolen, but unfortunately Scundoo, the local shaman, is in disgrace because of a cock-up in predicting the weather, so the villagers call in a shaman from another island.  Scundoo however isn’t going to be easily beaten, giving the new man a wrong tip which humiliates him when he makes an absurd accusation.  Meanwhile Scundoo comes up with a plan to identify the thief and restore his reputation.  Guess who ends up with the blankets.  Shamanism here is less about magic than acute psychology, out of which the shaman does very well at the expense of the credulous population.  (The editor incorrectly gives London’s date of death as 1910 rather than 1916.)

‘“Spontaneous Combustion”’, by Arthur B Reeve, tells of a strange death, as a result of which the dead man’s adopted nephew calls in an old college friend who combines acute powers of detection with scientific knowledge.  The dead man had apparently died as a result of the titular spontaneous combustion; that would suggest natural causes, except his will has vanished as well.  The local doctor surprisingly has decided not to investigate further.  Reeve outlines various theories connected to spontaneous human combustion such as the wick effect and the possibility of alcoholism making the victim inflammable, and the overriding problem inherent in igniting a body in a domestic setting that is mostly composed of water.

Our detective brings his knowledge of chemistry to bear and establishes that rather mundanely the man was murdered and then half burnt to destroy the evidence of the crime, allowing the murderer to steal the will and disinherit the adopted nephew and his sister.  Rather than go to court with a good lawyer to muddy the forensic waters, as would happen in real life, the perpetrator confesses, tries to commit suicide, then when that doesn’t work runs off and unsuccessfully attempts to burn the will.  The science bit sounds dubious to the modern reader, though it would have been impressive when first published, but the working out still holds the interest.

R Austin Freeman invented what he called the ‘inverted’ detective story.  Nothing to do with ‘inverts’, it was a form in which the reader knows about the crime and the criminal early on, and then watches the detective find the solution.  In this example, ‘A Wastrel’s Romance’, an unsuccessful petty criminal who has descended the social scale and is penniless gate-crashes a large party near London on the outlook for an opportunity to commit larceny.  He bumps into a society woman he knew briefly many years before.  Unfortunately when he gets the chance he chloroforms her in a fit of desperate madness then thinking she is dead, and overcome with remorse, flees the scene, in his haste taking the wrong overcoat.

The scene then switches to said detective who brings the methods of modern science to bear and with nothing more to go on than dust samples vacuumed from the coat manages to determine where its owner lives.  As with ‘“Spontaneous Combustion”’, the reader may think that the collating of the various microscopic samples to pinpoint their origin is done a little too easily, but the intention of the author to involve the reader, who already knows the answer, in witnessing the detective arrive at the solution is admirably achieved.  The structure also allows the reader to see the criminal’s psychology at work as events unfold, something not possible in a conventional detective plot where such information must be withheld until the villain is unmasked.

The editor claims that the Father Brown story included, ‘The Honour of Israel Gow’, while one of the finest of G K Chesterton’s early ones is ‘by no means the best known’.  On the contrary I would have said that the strange account of the good and faithful servant bequeathed all the gold in the house and who takes the instruction literally, down to the gold in religious books and the gold teeth in his master’s skull, is probably the best known of them; and as with some other entries in the book it is not difficult to get hold of elsewhere.

This is a world refreshingly free of the necessity to obtain Home Office permission, or the presence of a doctor, to dig up a corpse, and after initially contemplating whether the Devil is involved in the mystery – candles without candlesticks, loose piles of snuff, little piles of cogs and springs, diamonds minus their settings and so on – realises that what is missing is the gold that went with them.  Chesterton makes great play with the logic displayed by the Holmesian detective in drawing conclusions from evidence, as if there could be only a single interpretation which happens to be the truth.  One of Father Brown’s colleagues asks what the connection could be between snuff, diamonds, wax and bits of clockwork, whereupon Father Brown describes three possible ways they could be linked, all far from the truth of this particular case.  As he tells them, ‘Ten false philosophies will fit the universe…’

Writing a detective story is no bar to inserting humour, but Ernest Bramah’s ‘Smothered in Corpses’ is funny, a spoof on those breathless episodic adventure stories in which logic is sacrificed to movement as the hero hurtles from one danger to another.  Calling your hero Dr John Humdrum might be considered ladling the whimsy on a little thickly, but it does not outstay its welcome as Humdrum finds himself in increasingly preposterous situations at the behest of a mysterious young woman while the titular corpses pile up, and then disappear, as the ‘plot’ advances.  In an equally spoof introduction, Bramah claims that he was on the point of concluding a 120,000-word serial ‘of feuilleton scope’ but knocked it down to 4,000 words for a competition.  His brevity contrasts admirably with those penny-a-liners who churned the stuff out.

If Barmah is the soul of lightness, Melville Davisson Post’s ‘The Angel of the Lord’ has an almost Biblical intensity.  Marrying detection to the Western, this Uncle Abner story begins with Abner’s nine-year old nephew Martin entrusted with a large sum of money to deliver in payment for cattle, on the grounds that if Abner or Martin’s father were to try, they would end up dead in that lawless country, whereas a child would merely be robbed.  Those were tough times.  Martin meets a man on the road, Dix, and when putting up for the night at a tavern fears that his companion means to do him harm, having realised that he is carrying a large sum in his saddle bags.  Fortunately the God-fearing Abner, whose Christianity takes a distinctly muscular form, comes to the rescue and proceeds to tell Dix that he knows about past sins Dix has committed, having used a mixture of shrewd observation, deduction, and reading meaning into seeming coincidences.   Abner dispenses his own brand of justice, though with a stern intent behind it, resulting in a surprisingly low-key ending.  Post had a law degree, but one suspects an interest in theology as well.

The final story in this anthology is Conan Doyle’s ‘His Last Bow’, with ‘An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes’ added to the title.  The second Conan Doyle in the book, it is a surprise to see another when the Holmes stories have always been so readily available.  This adventure comes from the end of Holmes’s career and in it he is pitted against the Teutonic efficiency of German Intelligence.  Or not quite as efficient as they thought themselves, a failing von Bork, in charge of German espionage in England immediately prior to the declaration of the First World War, discovers to his cost.

From the opening image of von Bork and his embassy colleague smoking, the glowing ends of their cigars in the dark looking like ‘the smouldering eyes of some malignant fiend’, to the ending in which Holmes tells Watson that there is an east wind coming, words that cannot be read without hearing Basil Rathbone declaiming them above stirring patriotic music, Conan Doyle’s literary contribution to the war effort zips along, but there is no detection involved.  Despite that lack, it is a fitting conclusion to Holmes’ career as it is a fitting end to this volume.

In sum, Marie Smith has compiled a congenial set of stories though the title is inaccurate in a number of them: crime in one form or another is the common factor, but they are not all detective stories.  Certainly don’t be misled by the cover, featuring a detail taken from Newnes’ Sixpenny Copyright edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (the volume which contains ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’).   With a collection as enjoyable as this though, who’s going to quibble about the definition of what counts as a detective story and when exactly the ‘Golden Age’ begins and ends?

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