Thursday, February 20, 2014

Just Ask a Policeman: Six Against the Yard (1936), by Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts, Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers and Russell Thorndike

Six Against the Yard, often erroneously stated to be a product of the Detection Club (five of the six contributors of stories in Six were Detection Club members) is a cleverly-presented collection of six long (about 10,000 words each on average) crime stories.

In Six, authors Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts, Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers and Russell Thorndike present supposed "perfect" fictional murders, which a real Scotland Yard man, the recently-retired George W. Cornish, tries to show are not so perfect after all.

When I first read this book back in the 1990s I thought it a clever exercise in crime fiction, but on rereading it I find I am perhaps more struck by how it illustrates the different fictional approaches of the various authors.  I will try to show below just what I mean.

"It Didn't Work Out," by Margery Allingham

I'm telling you all this because I want to understand why I did what I did do and where I made my mistake, my terrible mistake....

Allingham's brilliant murder story is one of three tales in the collection told in the first person by the culprit (an inverted murder).

Former music hall performer Polly Oliver (born Margaret Hawkins and writing this account, we're told, under the name "Margery Allingham") tells why and how she resorted to murder to free a woman friend from an abominable husband.

Besides boasting an ingenious murder and a murder scene that would film beautifully (there is terrific tension), Allingham's tale has great poignancy--a hallmark of much of the author's writing, I think. Among the Crime Queens she always seems to me the writer with "heart." She has a rare capacity to make the reader empathize with her characters.

Ex-Superintendent Cornish notes in his response that he had to remind himself Allingham's account "was only a story....the highest compliment I can pay to Miss Allingham's skill in the creation of character and atmosphere...."  Quite right!

"The Fallen Idol," by Ronald Knox

....was not Enrique Gamba the Inspirer of the Magnolian Commonwealth; and was not any slight put upon him apt to be regarded in the light of unpatriotic activity?...There was rejoicing, therefore, in the streets of San Taddeo, and many were the huzzas raised, and caps thrown into the air, especially among the citizens who stood nearest to the police, and had reason to suppose that the police were looking.

Knox's tale of the murder of an anticlerical Latin American strongman has some sharp sardonic writing that gives it resonance right up to today. Knox himself was a prominent English priest and the author of six detective novels, plus that classic crime story "Solved by Inspection" (see here for a review of one of his crime novels).

"Idol" frustrated me, however, because, alone among the tales in this collection, it is cast as a pure puzzle, not an inverted mystery (where we know who the murder is from the start); and Knox leaves the solution up to poor Cornish to divine.  Is Cornish right?  Who knows?  I'd like to see some keen mystery writer minds go to work on this one.

I also should note Cornish's confident assertion in his response that, unlike in Magnolia, "'third degree' methods...would never be tolerated in Britain."

"The Policeman Only Taps Once," by Anthony Berkeley

I was born in Connecticut when Connecticut was really tough.  And was it tough!  Believe you me, a guy that was born in Connecticut round about then wouldn't need any asbestos suit in the next world. Hell'd feel a sweet, cool breeze to him after Connecticut.

Berkeley's tale is one of the great Golden Age mystery satires, a take-down of what he obviously saw as the "ungentlemanly" tough school of American crime fiction (the title of the story of course is a play on James M. Cain's popular and seminal 1934 noir novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice).

Our tough guy narrator, the aptly-named Eddie Tuffun (amusingly not from Chicago, as Berkeley knew his readers would expect, but rather Connecticut), had a "swell racket" going in the States. We never learn what it was, actually, as Eddie writes as if everyone has extensive knowledge of rackets. However, cops being what they are, Eddie had to hop it for his own good to England, where he is a bit of ye olde bullock in ye olde china shoppe.  This gives rise to such exchanges as:

"Can't you understand English?"
"Not like the way you English talk it."

Eddie hits on a new (and very old) "racket": marrying a rich English dame.  He finds one and promptly weds her, memorably declaring: "I could always size up a dame with both eyes shut."  However, things don't quite go as Eddie expected them to and he soon finds himself planning his bride's murder.

There is a twist, but most readers will probably be able to see it well ahead of time, especially if they happen to have read a certain Richard Hull novel that came out a couple years earlier.  The crime itself is probably the least interesting in the book, and Cornish in my opinion makes pretty short work of it in his response.  However, the glory of the tale is in its satire, a field in which Berkeley excelled.

I note this warning from Cornish: "Like her husband, she apparently thinks that Kate [the housemaid] is 'dumb.'  A great many people do think that about their servants, but the average domestic is by no means as stupid as her employer imagines."

"The Strange Death of Major Scallion," by Russell Thorndike

"How goes it, old man?  Very well, I see.  You've looked after Number One and no mistake.  Your memsahib's been telling me everything in the garden's a wow."

Memsahib and wow.  That such words should be used in our home.

Best known for his Doctor Syn novels, Thorndike in his contribution to Six has his murderer draw on a murder committed by Doctor Syn (nice plug!).  It is a remarkably nasty killing, like something out of one of Vincent Price's Doctor Phibes films.

Verily, Major Scallion is objectionable, but....Well, read it for yourself.  It is a compulsively-told tale, even if Cornish thinks the murderer would not have had a prayer of getting away with his crime.

"Blood Sacrifice," by Dorothy L. Sayers

And all Mr. Scales could do was to pocket the wages of sin and curse Mr Drury, who had (so pleasantly) ruined his work, destroyed his reputation, alienated his friends, exposed him to the contempt of critics and forced him to betray his own soul.

It's interesting to compare Sayers' tale in Six with Allingham's, as both are set in the world of the stage.

Although I enjoyed both tales, I have to admit I was more moved by Allingham's.

Sayers tells of a "true artist" playwright who nevertheless sells his play to a celebrated actor-manager who promptly adulterates its hard-hitting anti-war message with mawkish sentiment.  What to do? Why, murder of course!

It is easy to see the plight of the playwright, John Scales, reflecting for Sayers, who was in between her novels Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon at this time (the latter work actually began in 1936 as a stage play), her own struggle to rise above "mere puzzle" detective fiction and produce "real literature."

I get Sayers' point, but I find the problems faced by the protagonist in Allingham's story more affecting. However, Sayers does present readers with a fascinating philosophical problem with her tale's "murder": is it really murder at all?

"The Parcel," Freeman Wills Crofts

To Stewart Haslar his idea as to how Henry Blunt might be safely murdered soon became an impersonal problem like those he had dealt with when managing chain stores in Australia. Once its thrill and horror had worn off he set to work on it with his customary systematic thoroughness.

The mild-mannered and intensely religious former railway engineer Freeman Wills Crofts presents us with a Golden Age version of the methods of the Unabomber in his story.

As usual with Crofts, murder is meticulously carried out, in  a parable-like story.  His murderer, brought to this criminal pass by a fatal flaw (gambling addiction, a recurring failing in Crofts characters), plots to destroy his tormentor with a homemade bomb, sent through the mail. Will Cornish be able to dismantle Crofts' mechanically "perfect" murder? Read it and see.

Indeed, read the whole book.  It's an enticing piece of crime fiction.

Six Against the Yard once was a very rare book, but it was reprinted in Britain last year by HarperCollins, for which I commend them, though it would have been nice had they listed all six contributors on the cover.

Instead, on the cover HC lists only Allingham and Sayers and, in addition, the name of Agatha Christie is given in bigger letters than those of Allingham and Sayers.  Why is Agatha Christie's name there at all, you may ask?  Because they've added a true crime essay by Christie to the book.  Dame Agatha is everywhere these days, it seems, even on books with which she had nothing to do originally.

I would have liked to have included a photo of George Cornish, but didn't have the rights, so here is a link.  Expect to see more on him in the coming days....


  1. Interesting review! It's definitely as good, if not better, a premise as a round robin novel or swapping detectives. Maybe Knox's story was playing with the genre and Cornish by showing how one plotted the crime with the other trying to solve it, but leaving open the question if the detective was correct or not.

    1. Maybe Knox didn't know the solution! Must admit the word association game he used seemed rather old hat too.

  2. I knew of this book's existence but have never seen a copy; good to know that it's back in print! There are a couple of stories here that don't seem to be available in any other publication so this will appeal to completists, certainly. I've never managed to read the Berkeley story, for instance, and now I think I'll finally be able to. Thanks for letting us know!

    1. Noah, the Berkeley story is very funny. I don't recall seeing any of these stories elsewhere, except Dorothy Sayers in a collection of her stories, still in print, and Crofts in an out-of-print collection of his stories.

    2. You know, Noah, I was thinking how funny it was having Berkeley come with Connecticut as the locale of the tough guy character, how Berkeley obviously chose Connecticut as opposed to say, Chicago, but then I was thinking today, oh, God, Newtown! A tragedy like that can really change a perception.

  3. I have this title in paperback and it is very affordable. Of all the 10 books published as a result of Detection Clubs' projects before 1960, Double Death( I think Cecil Street aka John Rhode had an important part in this particular project) is the most elusive title and the only title that I have not owned yet. I think the 2 titles that I enjoyed most are Anatomy of Murder and More Anatomy of Murder. Collection of true crime stories being retold by some of the Detection Club members.

    1. I have reviewed Double Death here, should have linked that. Neither this nor Six Against the Yard were actually Detection Club projects, however.

      Crofts was the "Humdrum" involved with Double Death. I have the story behind this in an appendix to Masters of the Humdrum Mystery. John Street (he actually went by John, not Cecil) edited a Detection Club short works collection, Detection Medley (more on that in Masters as well).

  4. Really enjoyed this review a great deal - thanks Curt, when it was reissued the addition of the Christie essay really did hog the limelight but the book itself sounds much, much better than I thought - thanks chum, will definitely be getting a copy!

  5. Neat review, and you managed to convey each author's distinct style well. The more I read about Allingham, the more I'm interested in her.

    1. Thanks, Kelly, I do like to quote from the authors' writings when I can. I do seem to be talking about Allingham a lot lately. Maybe it was reviewing Julia Jones' book about her father that got me started again. Expect to see some more this year here!