I was delighted when a review copy of The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards came through the letter box. Of course I immediately rifled through it to see what his choice had been and if he had included any of my old favourites – or left them out! And yes, Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger is there – Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke isn’t. To be fair virtually all of my favourite books are mentioned, even if they don’t figure as one of the 100. The introductions to each section refer to hundreds more – including an honourable mention of The Tiger in the Smoke. And then there was also the question of how many of the 100 I had read: quite a few, but equally there were plenty I’d never heard of.
However, as the author points out in the introduction, this isn’t a list of favourite or ‘best’ novels but ‘reflects a wish to represent the genre’s development in an accessible, informative, and engaging way.’ In all these aims he certainly succeeds and what a rich field he reveals it to be. Crime fiction has sometimes been regarded as a conservative genre, but the works assembled here show that this was by no means always the case, with plenty of left-wing writers and books that challenged the status quo. And this was also true of form as well as content. It seems that between the wars pretty much everything that could be done in crime fiction was done. It could be experimental in the extreme. To give just one example, Richard Hull wrote a novel, Last First (1947) which was dedicated to those who read the end of a detective novel first: it opens with the final chapter. The Story of Classic Crime is full of such gems. I love knowing that the first Perry Mason novel, The Tale of the Velvet Claws (1933) was published in a jigsaw edition, as was J. S. Fletcher’s Murder of the Only Witness (1933): the books were accompanied by jigsaw puzzle that provided a clue to the mystery, a concept surely ripe for revival.
I found many old friends here, but also fascinating writers and books new to me. It was a great pleasure reading it and I know I’ll be hunting out some of the books described here for years to come. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books deserves a home on the shelf of every aficionado of golden age crime.
A few months ago my good friend Margot Kinberg wrote a post on her splendid blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, about novels that end where they began. I suggested that Margot write a short story that began and ended with the same sentence and her reply was along the lines of ‘I will if you will.’ It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I thought it would be great fun and so it’s proved . We agreed to post them today and link our blogs. She hadn’t read my story and I hadn’t read hers. I could hardly wait. Here is her story – it’s a cracker – at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. It’s called ‘Wine Country.’ This is mine and the title is ‘Cold for May.’
It was cold for May, very cold.
But it wasn’t as cold as that woman’s heart.
With most of the people I’ve cleaned for, I’ve soon been on first-name terms, but not with her. Oh, I was Jenny to her, but she insisted on being Mrs Forster to the end. She was the kind of employer every cleaner hates, always looking to find fault, always setting little traps to see if I was doing my job properly. And then there was the trouble over her gold bracelet that went missing. From the way she questioned me, it was obvious that she thought I’d pinched it. I found the bracelet a week or two later down the side of a chair, but she didn’t bother to apologize. So why didn’t I hand in my notice, you ask. Well, if it hadn’t been for the old gentleman, I would have. And when I say gentleman, I mean gentleman. Those too were so different you’d hardly credit that they were father and daughter.
When I first started cleaning there, Mr Pullman was still living alone. He had his bed in a big room downstairs looking out onto the garden. It had a nice Georgian fireplace and bookcases and red velvet curtains. With a fire in the winter, it was cosy and in the summer, there was a lovely view of the garden. But then he became bed-ridden, and his divorced daughter moved in to look after him. And to give her her due, he was well looked after in a way, but there was precious little love in it. She had all sorts of petty little rules, like not having a fire after the end of March – and he wasn’t allowed to smoke indoors. Not that he was much of a smoker, but he did like the odd cigar. And other thing, before she came, he’d have visitors, other nice old ladies and gents. She let them know they weren’t welcome and that stopped. He was lonely, poor old gent, and that’s why I stayed.
Tuesday and Friday mornings were my times and Mrs Forster used to go out to do her shopping or go to the hairdressers. I’d take my tea-break in his room and we’d have a chat. She didn’t know about that and she wouldn’t have liked it if she had known. We used to talk about my kids and about his other daughter, Cordelia, living in Toronto with her husband. She’d just had her first baby. She was a lot younger than Mrs Forster – they were half-sisters, I believe. Just as soon as she and the baby could travel, they’d be coming over to see him.
It was a miserable day in early May, raining stair-rods, when I arrived at the house and Mrs Forster asked me to witness the signing of her father’s new will. I expected to see a solicitor, but no, it was just him and her and the next-door neighbour as the other witness. Well, he signed it alright and Mrs. Forster covered the will with a blank piece of paper, just leaving the bit at the bottom for me and the neighbour to sign. Downright rude, I call that. I wouldn’t have looked anyway. She sealed it in an envelope and gave it back to her father. He wrote his name on it and she hustled us out of the room.
Later that morning when me and Mr. Pullman were having our tea together, I could see that something was bothering him. He said, half to himself, ‘Perhaps it’s only fair that as she’s living here and looking after me, she should have the house.’
So then I knew. She’d persuaded him to change his will and leave the house to her. Worth a bloody fortune it would be, property prices being what they are in Hampstead. We’re talking millions! There was plenty for the two daughters, but that wasn’t enough for her, she had to cut Cordelia out. He was miserable about it, I could tell, hadn’t wanted to do it. But he was at her mercy. Undue influence they call it, don’t they? I bet she threatened to go off and leave him, have him put in a home.
After a while he beckoned me to come closer, though there was only us in the house. He said, ‘Jenny, go over to my desk. I want you to get something for me. You see that drawer second down on the right?’
I did – and I saw something else: an envelope sticking out of a pigeon-hole. So that was where she’d put the will.
‘Pull the drawer right out,’ he went on. ‘There’s another little drawer behind it. You have to hook your finger under it. Nobody knows about that.’ Meaning that she didn’t know.
There was a roll of twenty pound notes in there. I took them over to Mr. Pullman and when I gave them to him, he pressed them back into my hand. ‘There’s £500 there. I want you to have it. I was going to leave you something in my will, but well . . . better in any case that you have it now.’ I told him it was too much, but he said, ‘You’ll hurt my feelings if you don’t take it,’ and I could see he meant it, the dear old man, and it was his to do what he liked with.
We sat quietly together, watching the rain streaking the windows and the branches of the horse chestnuts thrashing about. There was a chill in the air.
‘It’s a miserable day,’ I said. ‘Would it cheer you up to have a fire?’
And he said that it would. And while he was at it, he was going to have a cigar and the hell with it.
The following week Cordelia arrived with her baby. Talk about chalk and cheese. She was a lovely young woman, a breath of spring, not a bit like her half-sister. The weather changed too, and I’m glad Mr Pullman had that time with her, though I could see how tired he was getting.
I wasn’t surprised when Mrs Forster rang me this morning to say that her father had passed away in the early hours. His poor old ticker had given out, that’s all. The excitement of seeing Cordelia and her baby had been too much for him. I told Mrs Forster that I’d only been coming for his sake and that I wouldn’t be coming again.
But I do wish I could see her face when she opens that envelope and finds a blank piece of paper instead of her father’s new will. And I can’t help but laugh when I think of what he used as a spill to light that cigar. She might suspect my part in it, when she thinks back to that chilly morning when she tore me off a strip for lighting a fire in his bedroom. But she won’t be able to prove anything.
It was like I told her at the time.
It was cold for May, very cold.