Curiosity drove me to Murder By the Book, Mysteries for Bibliophiles , one of the recent titles in the British Library Crime Classics series of detective stories from the Golden Age of crime.
More than 100 titles have been published since this series began in 2014, most of them by authors I’ve never heard of let alone read. My experience of Golden Age crime fiction has been pretty much limited to Agatha Christie with a dash of Marjorie Allingham, Josephine Tey and John Bude.
I had an idea that a short story anthology would be a good way to get to know more of the writers from this era. The Crime Classics series includes several themed collections but If I was going to choose one, then surely an anthology with a bookish theme would be the perfect starting point??
Murder By The Book is a collection of sixteen stories which feature authors, scriptwriters, ghost writers, book sellers and book collectors. They were written and published largely between the 1890s and the 1960s.
Of the sixteen authors represented there were only two I recognised as crime writers — Ngaio Marsh whose contribution Chapter And Verse includes an appearance by her famed fictional detective Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, and John Creasey whose story The Book of Honour is set in India. What surprised me most was to see a story included by one A.A Milne (yes, the same Milne who wrote the Winnie The Poo tales) and another by the poet Cecil Day Lewis.
This is where the short preface to each story, written by Martin Lewis, proved invaluable. He gives a potted bio of the author and places the story in the context of their body of work.
From these I learned that Milne wrote only one detective novel (The Red House Mystery) but it became such a best seller he was elected to membership of the Detective Club.
Cecil Day Lewis was far more prolific. He turned to crime fiction to supplement his income, writing under the pseudonym of Nicholas Blake,. According to Edwards, “in a twist of fate that the author would not have foreseen … he seems to be more highly regarded for his crime fiction than his verse.” I’m not entirely convinced about that statement despite Martin Edwards’ undoubted wealth of knowledge about the Golden Age of Crime. Cecil Day Lewis the poet I’ve certainly heard about but never Nicholas Blake the crime writer.
A Book Worth Reading?
it’s fair to say I found the stories in Murder By The Book to be of variable quality. Some, like the first story A Lesson in Crime by G.D.H and M. Cole, were so short they came to an end almost before they started, their brevity giving little scope for character development or scene setting. The John Creasey tale was a particular disappointment because though it built up a good portrait of a father and son relationship. I expected more of a mystery.
The three most interesting tales all involve marriages that are not as perfect or blissful as they might appear to outsiders.
Trent and the Ministering Angel by E.C. Bentley concerns the death of Gregory Landell, a wealthy scholarly man who’d married late in life. His lifelong friend had harboured suspicions for some time about Landell’s wife. She never showed George any affection and was always in earshot every time his friend visited. On his death she inherits the whole estate but something doesn’t seem quite right so Landell’s lawyer asks amateur detective Phillip Trent to take a look. The the dialogue is delightfully vicious and the solution has an ingenious connection to Lewis Caroll.
The marriage in Malice Domestic by Philip Macdonald looks to be a happy, successful relationship. But when the writer Carl Boden begins suffering terrible stomach pains and severe bouts of sickness after eating, suspicion falls on his wife. For Carl is only sick when he eats at home. This story, one of the few in the collection set outside England builds slowly but ends with a delightful and unexpected twist.
My favourite is one of the last in the book: A Question of Character, by Victor Canning features a husband and wife who are both mystery writers. When the wife’s fame eclipses that of her husband, jealousy and resentment ensure. Geoffrey Gilroy has had enough of playing second fiddle to his wife and would much rather be with his mistress. Canning takes readers inside the mind of a potential murderer as he plots to bump off his wife, the tension mounting as we wait to discover if Gilroy succeeds.
These three tales alone made Murder By The Book worth reading. It delivered exactly what I wanted — a taster of Golden Age crime writing that’s given me some names of authors I’ll want to explore further.
Murder By The Book, Mysteries for Bibliophiles, edited by Martin Edwards: Footnotes
Murder By the Book was published by British Library Publishing in August 2021. All titles in the Crime Classics series can be found here. My thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for providing a free copy of the book in return for an honest review.
Here is a list of the authors/stories included in the collection:
A Lesson in Crime by G.D.H and M. Cole
Trent and the Ministering Angel by E.C. Bentley
A Slice of Bad Luck by Nicholas Blake
The Strange Case of the Megatherium Thefts by S.C. Roberts
Malice Domestic by Phillip MacDonald
A Savage Game by A.A. Milne
The Clue in the Book by Julian Symons
The Manuscript by Gladys Mitchell
A Man and his Mother-in-Law by Roy Vickers
Grey’s Ghost by Michael Innes
Dear Mr. Editor… by Christianna Brand–
Murder in Advance by Marjorie Bremner
A Question of Character by Victor Canning
The Book of Honour by John Creasey
We Know You’re Busy Writing… by Edmund Crispin
Chapter and Verse by Ngaio Marsh