I’d like to blame it all on Martin Edwards. Those anthologies in the British Library Classic Crime series that Martin edits are just too tempting: those delectable covers! And yes, I have been snapping them up as they come out and enjoying them hugely. However the truth is that the current short story binge was triggered by finding a copy of Diagnosis Impossible: The Problems of Dr Sam Hawthorne by Edward D Hoch in a second-hand bookshop in Leicester. I do like an impossible crime and the short story is a good vehicle for this kind of puzzle. I enjoyed the stories so much that I downloaded two more collections featuring Dr Sam Hawthorne and then moved on to All But Impossible! An Anthology of Locked Room and Impossible stories edited by Edward D Hoch.
At the moment the rest of my reading life is taken up by reading Dante’s Inferno and that may be why I am so much relishing short stories. Every year my book group selects a ‘Big Read,’ a book that is too long or difficult to tackle in a month, but is manageable spread over the summer. In this way we’ve demolished Anna Karenina, Life and Fate, and Middlemarch amongst others. This year it was Dante’s turn and, my goodness, it is a demanding read, though a fascinating one. In the edition I am reading the commentary and the notes are longer than the text. So my bedtime reading at the moment consists of a canto of the Inferno, followed by a short crime story or two, rather like following a meaty main course with a sorbet. And then I fall asleep to Timothy West reading Barchester Towers. Bliss.
I do like a locked room mystery and I can heartily recommend Derek Smith’s Whistle Up the Devil (1953) and newly republished. It’s a fairly short novel, which for me is in its favour, and I read most of it over the course of a train journey. It is a familiar set-up – family curse, eldest son murdered in a locked and guarded room at midnight – but done with tremendous verve. The first murder is followed up by one almost as mystifying, but in a different location. I was gripped from beginning to end. The clues were planted perfectly fairly, but the trick with this kind of novel is to keep you reading at such a lick that you go galloping past them without noticing. Which is exactly what I did. I could have kicked myself at the end, when the solution was revealed.
There are a few weaknesses. Algy, as the gifted amateur sleuth respected by the police, is a pallid imitation of Lord Peter Wimsey, and the characterisation – particularly of the women – made my eyebrows shoot up at one or two points. But no matter, this was a terrific read. In fact I enjoyed it a lot more than John Dickson Carr’s The Case of the Constant Suicides, which I read around the same time, and found rather feeble in comparison.
I’ll begin by saying that I do buy a lot of books. But there are certain categories I tend to avoid. I already pay a hefty subscription to the London Library, so I try not to buy books that I can borrow: biographies, non-fiction more generally, Golden Age crime and ‘literary’ novels (ridiculous expression). So it’s especially a treat to be given a beautiful hardback novel as a present. I was pleased to receive Peter Carey’s Amnesia for my birthday in December, particularly as he is an author I don’t really know. It’s good to have one’s horizons broadened.
The London Library doesn’t stock a lot of new crime so that’s mostly what I buy in paperback or ebook form. But even then I might hesitate over something that seems a bit self-indulgently expensive and that is what happened with The Black Lizard Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, edited by Otta Penzler, which came out in November. £15 or thereabouts did seem a lot for a paperback, so I was thrilled to get this from my brother. Actually it is great value: 69 stories in 937 double column pages. The subtitle is ‘The Most Complete Collection of Impossible-Crime Stories Ever Assembled’ and I am ready to believe it. There are some well-known stories in here, but lots that I hadn’t read. I am savouring them: reading one or two a day. Perfect for these dark, wet January days. Oh, and I love the pulpy cover.