Thursday, October 16, 2014

Golden Anthologies 2: A Classic English Crime (1990), edited by Tim Heald

A few weeks ago, in comments to my review of Sophie Hannah's Hercule Poirot "continuation," The Monogram Murders, it was suggested that a clever Christie-related publishing scheme would be to commission someone to write Sven Hjerson detective novels, Sven Hjerson being the vegetarian Finnish detective of Agatha Christie's beloved mystery writer character, Ariadne Oliver, whom Christie based largely on herself. The peculiar Finn Sven Hjerson of course is a surrogate for the peculiar Belgian Hercule Poirot (leave it to Agatha to have gone and invented Nordic Noir mystery--okay, just kidding on that one!).

When this (excellent) idea was bruited, I mentioned that someone had already written a Sven Hjerson short story.  That someone is the late British mystery writer HRF Keating, and that story is "Jack Fell Down."  The story is found in A Classic English Crime (1990), the Crime Writers' Association's centenary tribute to Agatha Christie.  It is a superlative mystery story, as are a number of the others gathered in this collection.  Here is a list of all the stories and their authors:

a centenary tribute to
the Queen of Crime
Means to Murder, by Margaret Yorke
Smoke Gets In..., by David Williams
Holocaust in Mayhem Parva, by Julian Symons
All's Fair in Love, by Susan Moody
The Lady in the Trunk, by Peter Lovesey
Jack Fell Down, by HRF Keating
Experts for the Prosecution, by Tim Heald
A Fete Worse Than Death, by Paula Gosling
Wednesday Matinee, by Celia Dale
Spasmo, by Liza Cody
A Little Learning, by Simon Brett
Good Time Had By All, by Robert Barnard
Cause and Effect, by Catherine Aird

"The legacy of Agatha Christie hangs heavy on Britain's crime writers," writes Tim Heald in his introduction to A Classic English Crime. He continues:

Not everyone accepted the challenge [to write for the anthology a mystery set in the between-the-wars period, in the style of Christie].  One or two of our brightest and best flinched [am I the only one thinking PD James and Ruth Rendell here? I also think Michael Gilbert is sorely missed! TPT], but the baker's dozen who did accept are, I believe, a fine representative of the best of contemporary crime writing--a genre in which we still lead the world....

[Christie], whatever her faults, had inimitable gifts and talents....Modern crime writing has advanced in a number of ways, and its protagonists would argue that it has attained a sophistication undreamt of in the so-called golden age.  At the same time is is no denigration of this collection or of the modern generation to say that in this her centenary year Dame Agatha Christie remains a law unto herself and an incredibly difficult act to follow....

No less than seven of the anthology authors--Yorke, Symons, Lovesey, Keating. Brett, Barnard and Aird--are authors I listed in my previous post when I wrote of distinguished first generation post-GA mystery writers.

Also roughly of that generation are David Williams (1926-2003), whose first "Mark Treasure" mystery, Unholy Writ, appeared in 1976; Celia Dale (1912-2011), whose first novel (not a crime novel, I believe) was published back in 1943; the American-born Paula Gosling (1939), who published her first crime novel in 1974; and Tim Heald (1944), whose first Simon Bognor mystery, Unbecoming Habits, appeared in 1973.

Slightly later, in terms of years of first genre publications, are Liza Cody (1944), whose first Anna Lee Mystery, Dupe, appeared in 1980, and Susan Moody, (1940), whose first Penny Wanawake mystery, Penny Black, did not appear until 1984.

Margaret Yorke's and Liza Cody's stories are good tales, yet they really are psychological suspense stories that bear little resemblance to classic Christie detective fiction, except in milieu. Cody's story, "Spasmo," about an absolutely horrid little boy, does not even have a crime, though it does have a grave moral trespass.

a suspicious character
Julian Symons' and Tim Heald's tales are overly twee jobs in my view, really rather mocking parodies of the Golden Age rather than loving pastiches.

In Symons' tale the main characters come from the board game Clue/Cluedo, aside from a rather unlikable old busybody named "Miss Harple." Symons once said that humor was not his strong point in his mystery writing (much of which is very good), and I tend to agree with him.

Simon Brett's "A Little Learning" is not even a story, really, but, rather, a lampoon of American academics' learned treatises on English mystery (in this case a "doctoral thesis by an American postgraduate student named Osbert Mint").

I suppose American academics led the way with this sort of thing (portentously impenetrable, jargon-laden acadamese), but their British cousins surely have caught up with them by now!

That leaves us eight genuine detective stories in the anthology that are successful at imitating Golden Age style as well as milieu. First, in order of appearance, is David Williams' "Smoke Gets In," which gives us the full Monty of classic English mystery: the village, the country house, the crime (an outbreak of arson that ultimately leads to death) and a couple of bright young things indulging in a jolly spot of amateur detection.

Could this be the man?
Susan Moody's "All's Fair in Love," is a simply delightful story, told in epistolary form by a young woman working for an insurance agency, investigating a case of suspected fraud at the Grand Hotel at Chorlington Spa.

She reports that a hateful old woman at the hotel has been murdered, and that the murder is being investigated by "an unpleasant little man, rather too emphatic as to spats and moustaches...."

Peter Lovesey's "The Lady in the Trunk," about a murder at a train station, is a first-class tale of detection, based on alibis and a splendidly simple but devious trick. There is also excellent humor in the depiction of the relationship between an unbearably pompous, know-all police inspector and his much put-upon sergeant.  A classic detective tale in its own right is this one, with considerable dashes of Freeman Wills Crofts as well as Christie.

Equally good at detection, and pitch perfect as Christie pastiche, is HRF Keating's "Jack Fell Down," about a famous Finnish detective, Sven Hjerson ("an excessively tall gangling gentleman" who frets about getting fresh vegetables), solving a murder that takes place on a funicular on the isle of Capri. The characters are perfect Christie types--I especially liked the sporty Englishwoman Arabella Buckley, who plants herself on Hjerson and functions as his Watson--and the title is, of course, classically derived from a nursery rhyme, "Jack and Jill."

Paula Gosling's "A Fete Worse Than Death," about a fatal poisoning at a cake baking contest at a village fete, feels a bit more contemporary (one could imagine the story taking place post-WW2 as well), but the village atmosphere is good nevertheless and the cluing excellent.

Celia Dale's "Wednesday Matinee," about death striking a London playhouse, feels, I must admit, more like Margery Allingham than Agatha Christie, but it's a splendid story, with memorable atmosphere and characters and a revelation handled with all the skill of the virtuoso storyteller.

Who done it?  The house servants are on the case....
Robert Barnard's "Good Time Had by All" is an inspired tale about a murder at a country house that is set in the servants' hall. We get solely the speculations of the butler, cook, maids, footmen, etc., many of whom turn out to be rather excellent crime solvers (the first housemaid, Ethel, who reads detective fiction and once was employed in a doctor's household, is especially perspicacious).

Of course their "betters"--"five coppers from Addersfield, and a French gentleman with moustaches you could uncork a bottle with who's staying with the Chief Constable"--are on the case as well, but you only hear about their doings second-hand, as it were. Reading this tale again after many years, I was powerfully reminded of the television series Downton Abbey (there's even an under-footman named Thomas).

Finally, Catherine Aird's "Cause and Effects" is typically good Catherine Aird, detailing an ingenious village poisoning murder in the author's amiably chatty fashion.

I think that overall even Agatha Christie herself would have been quite pleased with this collection. Eight of the stories are first-rate examples of "classic English crime," with five--the Moody, the Lovesey, the Keating, the Dale and the Barnard--in my view standing with the best of English classic crime fiction, whatever the era.  A good time had by all, indeed!


  1. Sounds a good collection by and large; was a bit confused with your review of the Keating- is Poirot in it as well?

    1. Nope, grimwig, just a mental slip on my part, now corrected! It's too much to expect that both Hjerson and Poirot would have been riding that funicular! ;)

      I wish Keating had written a whole series of Sven Hjerson tales. He gets more true Christie elements in this one story than Sophie Hannah does in the hundreds of pages of The Monogram Murders.

      Poirot is in the country house in Barnard's story, but we never see him, only hear what the servants say about him--very clever!

  2. Tim Heald's remark that "modern crime writing has advanced in a number of ways" is the sort of thing that irritates me. Art and literature change, but I don't think they progress. Would anyone argue that drama has advanced since Shakespeare's day? Would anyone like to suggest a modern play that is better than Hamlet? Or more sophisticated?

    1. Yeah, I thought it was a bit condescending. Actually there was quite a lot more going on during the GA that stereotypes would have us believe.

  3. I wonder if Julian Fellowes knew of the Barnard short story. It sounds an awful lot like Gosford Park which is basically the prototype for his much more successful TV series.

    1. Could be! I got tired of Downton Abbey, I have to admit, but loved Gosford Park.

  4. it was suggested that a clever Christie-related publishing scheme would be to commission someone to write Sven Hjerson detective novels, Sven Hjerson being the vegetarian Finnish detective of Agatha Christie's beloved mystery writer character, Ariadne Oliver

    What a damn' good idea! Hie thee with it to HarperCollins at once!

  5. Never come across this one Curtis - I do really like original anthologies of new work on a theme - you expect a few stories to fail, or get the tone wrong or just not quite engage enough, but if you get more than a 50% hit rate, that seems like a success to me, which is clearly the case here.