I’ve just finished the book Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, by Peter Ackroyd, and it turned out to be very good. Initially got it because I’m working on a story set in Limehouse, and thought this would give me some background. It turned out to be much more entertaining than I expected.
It’s a murder mystery set in London in the 1880s, featuring a set of Ripper-like killings by someone the press dubs the Limehouse Golem. The books helpfully provides us with the killer’s diary, detailing both the details of the killings and their reasons and justifications. The killer even goes so far as to recreate the Radcliffe Highway murders of seventy years before, butchering the family of a shopkeer in the same house where the Marr family was killed. (The Marr killings are a historical fact, but those of the Golem are strictly fictional.)
But there’s so much more here beside the killings! There’s the journey of “Lambeth Marsh Lizzie”, a poor girl who enters the world of the musical hall and becomes a star upon its stage. Through her eyes we get a view of music hall, the odd characters associated with it, and the kindest of them all, the funniest man in the world, Dan Leno.
Then there are scholars such as Marx and Gissing, who rub shoulders with each other in the reading room at the British Museum, along with fictional characters such as John Cree, Elizabeth’s future husband.
The end result is a sort of tapestry that explores London of the times. It was still a city of darkness, with much of the populate living in poverty and desperation, but also a city of great inspiration, as well as a city on the cusp of the modern world. Gissing is, in fact, writing an article about Babbage’s calculating machines, which Babbage intended to bring order and prosperity.
All in all just a great read – erudite and witty, but equally accessible and entertaining. And I got a few bits I can use in my story!
So as the 2015 Super Bowl drew to a close, I began having flashbacks to 10 years ago. In 2005 the Spurs and the Pistons – the previous two champions – met in an epic seven-game NBA Finals. With 15 seconds left in Game 6, the Spurs inbounded the ball, down by two. You may remember what happened next. I certainly do.
The Pistons chose to double-team the ball in the corner, leaving Robert Horry wide open. You remember Horry, don’t you?
“Big Shot” Rob? Won seven titles with three different teams? The guy who’d scored 19 points in the previous 17 minutes of the game? He nailed his open three-pointer, winning the game for the Spurs, who would also take game seven and their third trophy. That was the worst decision in sports history.
Up until yesterday, that is.
You’re the Seahawks, you have the best short-yardage back in the world! Just hand it to Marshawn a couple of times and the game’s over! Instead they threw away an epic drive and a miraculous catch, and turned almost certain victory into defeat.
The game was a great one, with plenty of twists and turns. Only the Seahawks managed to gain a lead of more than a touchdown, and when they looked to be pulling away, Tom Brady and the Pats came storming back, with a pair of fourth-quarter drives totaling about 150 yards and 14 points. And even then the Seahawks didn’t give in.
But their coaches had to get fancy. Better luck next time, Seahawks.
This massive anthology, edited by Ellery Queen, does its best to sum up mystery fiction from its birth in 1841 through 1941, the 101* years of the title, and in large part succeeds. When published, the editor could not have forseen that the traditional mystery would very shortly go into decline; the contents, therefore, amount to a summary of the Golden Age, as comprehensive in its mammoth way as Otto Penzler’s recent Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries, which mentions this volume and contains several of the same stories.
Following a fairly long and generally interesting introduction, the first and largest section is The Great Detectives, beginning with the grandfather of all detectives, Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin in “The Purloined Letter”. Many of the stories here will be equally familiar, such as Lord Dunsany’s “Two Bottles of Relish” or Melville Davisson Post’s “The Doomdorf Mystery”. The standout is a Hercule Poirot story called “A Chess Problem”. You won’t find this in the collected Poirot stories; instead is was used as a section of the novel The Big Four.
Another standout, for a very different reason, is M.P. Shiel’s “The S.S.” – to a modern reader, it’s deadly boring. I can’t imaging that the Reggie Fortune story presents him in the best light, either, though others such as Father Brown, Philip Trent, and Lord Peter Wimsey have more respectable entries.
Queen, dispensing with modesty, also includes one of his own stories.
The next section is The Great Women Detectives, and it’s quite short, with only three stories. Two of them, “The Tea Leaf” and “The Mackenzie Case”, are quite good, but Mignon Eberhart’s “Introducing Susan Dare” drags.
This is followed by another short section, The Great Humorous Detective Stories. The lead story may be the most unexpected in the book. “The Treasure Hunt” by Mary Roberts Rinehart features her character Tish in a hilarious farce, and Tish and her friends manage to wrap up a scavenger hunt and a robbery while indulging in all sorts of shenanigans. There’s a Tuppence and Tommy story by Christie, and a story called “The Mystery of the Missing Wash”, by Octavus Roy Cohen. It’s told in a heavily exaggerated black dialect, and honestly, I couldn’t finish it.
The Great Thieves comes next, and this may have been my favorite section. It’s got a very good Raffles, “The Criminologists’ Club”, and an even better Saint story, “Paris Adventure”.
Queen leaves detection behind in The Great Crime Stories, which includes well-known stories such as Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” and Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Suspicion”. Aside from those, the most notable story is “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole”, by Thomas Burke.
The last section is called The Detective Story To End Detective Stories; its selection, as you may guess, is debatable.
Many of these stories surprised me. “The Absent-Minded Coterie”, with detective Eugene Valmont, was neatly done and very amusing; Ronald Knox, famous for his rules for detective stories, is represented by the only good story he ever wrote, “Solved By Inspection”; there’s a fine Albert Campion story, and two humdrum ones with Arsene Lupin.
The reputations of many of these authors, giants in their own time, has suffered in the decades since, but this huge book (995 pages!) is probably the best introduction possible to mystery fiction as it stood seventy years ago.
The Great Detectives
C. Auguste Dupin in “The Purloined Letter”, by Edgar Allan Poe
Nick Carter in “The Mystery of Mrs. Dickinson”, by Nicholas Carter
Martin Hewitt in “The Lenton Croft Robberies”, by Arthur Morrison
Prince Zaleski in “The S.S.”, by M.P. Shiel
The Old Man In The Corner in “The Dublin Mystery”, by Baroness Orczy
The Thinking Machine in “The Problem of Cell 13″, by Jacques Futrelle
Eugene Valmont in “The Absent-Minded Coterie”, by Robert Barr
Arsene Lupin in “The Red Silk Scarf”, by Maurice Leblanc
Dr. Thorndyke in “The Puzzle Lock”, by R. Austin Freeman
Father Brown in “The Secret Garden”, by Gilbert Chesterton
Average Jones in “The Man Who Spoke Latin”, by Samuel Hopkins Adams
Uncle Abner in “The Doomdorf Mystery”, by Melville Davisson Post
Philip Trent in “The Sweet Shot”, by E.C. Bentley
Max Carrados in “The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage”, by Ernest Bramah
Inspector Barraclough in “The Pink Edge”, by Frank Froest and George Dilnot
Mr. Fortune in “The Long Dinner”, by H.C. Bailey
Hercule Poirot in “A Chess Problem”, by Agatha Christie
Superintendent Wilson in “The Owl At The Window”, by G.D.H and Margaret Cole
Lord Peter Wimsey in “A Matter of Taste”, by Dorothy L. Sayers
Dr. Hailey in “The Cyprian Bees”, by Anthony Wynne
Miles Bredon in “Solved by Inspection”, by Ronald A. Knox
Roger Sheringham in “The Avenging Chance”, by Anthony Berkeley
Albert Campion in “The Border-Line Case”, by Margery Allingham
Mr. Linley in “Two Bottles of Relish”, by Lord Dunsany
Sam Spade in “A Man Called Spade”, by Dashiell Hammett
Professor Poggioli in “The Resurrection of Chin Lee”, by T.S. Stribling
Ellery Queen in “The Mad Tea Party”, by Ellery Queen
Colonel March in “The Crime in Nobody’s Room”, by Carter Dickson
The Great Women Detectives
Ruth Kelstern in “The Tea Leaf”, by Edgar Jepson and Robert Eustace
Gwynn Leith in “The Mackenzie Case”, by Viola Brothers Shore
Susan Dare in “Introducing Susan Dare”, by Mignon Eberhart
The Great Humorous Detective Stories
Tish in “The Treasure Hunt”, by Mary Roberts Rhinehart
Tommy and Tuppence in “The Disappearance of Mrs. Leigh Gordon”, by Agatha Christie
Florian Slappey in “The Mystery of the Missing Wash”, by Octavus Roy Cohen
The Great Thieves
Raffles in “The Criminologists’ Club”, by E.W. Hornung
Arsene Lupin in “Arsene Lupin in Prison”, by Maurice Leblanc
The Infallible Godahl in “Blind Man’s Bluff”, by Frederick Irving Anderson
Four Square Jane in “The Stolen Romney”, by Edgar Wallace
The Saint in “Paris Adventure”, by Leslie Charteris
The Great Crime Stories
“The Clock”, by A.E.W Mason
“The Most Dangerous Game”, by Richard Connell
“The Eleventh Juror”, by Vincent Starrett
“Philomel Cottage”, by Agatha Christie
“Faith, Hope, and Charity”, by Irvin S. Cobb
“The Hands of Mr. Ottermole”, by Thomas Burke
“Treasure Trove”, by F. Tennyson Jesse
“Suspicion”, by Dorothy L. Sayers
“The Silver Mask”, by Hugh Walpole
“Ransom”, by Pearl Buck
The Detective Story To End Detective Stories
“The Perfect Crime”, by Ben Ray Redman
I read lots of old books. Lots of old books, ranging from the 1970s back to the 30s and beyond. Most of the time it’s pretty easy to make sense of these, despite the occasional reference which, though clear at the time, is lost on a modern reader, and despite differences in the authors’ environment and my own. I won’t go into how long it took me to comprehend the Inns of Court, for example.
But some stories, stories that even today are considered classics, were written for such a specific audience, and with assumptions about the knowledge that the audience would possess, that some of their finer points are just about indecipherable today.
The specific story that prompted me to write is an excellent ghost story “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad”, written around 1900 by the English writer M. R. James. James was a scholar and teacher at both King’s College, Cambridge, and at Eton, and his stories were initially written to be read aloud to his colleagues and students at those schools. As such, they assume that the listener (or reader) will be familiar with Latin, with English literature, with history and geography, and with the Bible.
I’m about to detail the plot of “Oh Whistle”, so if you haven’t read it, go now and do so.
The story concerns a youngish professor at Cambridge by the name of Parkins, a man of little humor and only a bit more imagination, who disdains those who believe in ghosts, ghouls, or other such supernatural manifestations. During the Christmas break he’s made plans to go to Burnstow on the coast of East Anglia to work on his golf game. Upon hearing of this, a fellow professor asks if he could look at the remains of a Templar preceptory there. This Parkins readily agrees to.
He discovers the old ruins quite easily, and while poking around, makes another discovery: a brass whistle, inscribed in Latin, apparently hundreds of years old. The first line of the inscription reads “Fur Flabis Flebis”. The second reads “Quis Est Iste Qui Venit” (“Who is this that comes?”), a reference to the Book of Isaiah.
Parkins proceeds to blow this whistle, and after many odd and unpleasant happenings, is at length assaulted by a supernatural being that forms a corporeal body from the bedclothes of the second bed in his room at the inn.
But while the story presents a translation of the second portion of the Latin, the first is a mystery even to Parkins himself. Presumably this was of great amusement to the James’ listeners, as it means (approximately) “You will blow this, thief, and you will weep.”
That seems like a rather important thing to know if you want to understand the story. In addition, the title is from a poem by Robert Burns that details an illicit romance – surely intended ironically in this case, and another nuance easily missed. By me, at least.
As I said, most writers are not so willfully obscure as James is, and I’m really not sure if understanding the story completely was worth the effort it took. Since I first read it 20 years ago, I suppose it is nice to finally know what the Hell was going on! James wrote many other excellent stories, the best know of which is “Casting The Runes”, which pretty much everyone will understand, and since his work is in the public domain, it’s widely available for free.
I do recommend the excellent collection Casting The Runes And Other Ghost Stories, which is not free but includes an excellent introduction and many footnotes by Michael Cox.
(The title of this post, naturally, translates as, “Oh, the times! Oh, the ways!”)
« Back to the Past
Horace Rumpole, barrister, was not hard to find. The self-proclaimed “Old Bailey hack” was frequently at work there in London’s Central Criminal Court, or at the Uxbridge Magistrate’s court, or meeting with a client in Wormwood scrubs. He could be found – rarely – in his chambers at Equity Court, in the fictitious Outer Temple, and more frequently at Pommeroy’s Wine Bar nearby. Sometimes he even returned home to his wife Hilda, whom he referred to as “She Who Must Be Obeyed.”
In addition, back in the 1980s, he could also be found on the shelves of any bookstore you happened to enter. Though not much spoken of today, the Rumpole books by John Mortimer sold by the bushel.
The books are mostly collections of short stories, many adapted by author John Mortimer from his own scripts for the British television series. Rumpole is presented as an experienced barrister still clinging to a low rung on the ladder of his profession, and not expecting to rise much further. He’s a confirmed blowhard and cynic, and derives much of his pleasure in life from needling the judges and opposing counsel he faces each day.
No description could possibly convey the utter hilarity of these stories. Rare indeed is the situation that Rumpole takes seriously, though he does in the end generally come through for his clients (sometimes despite their wishes!). And in addition to the humor there are moments of melancholy and outrage, as his clients circumvent justice or fall unfairly into its implacable grasp. Rumpole himself rarely despairs, but continues to soldier on, despite at least one forced retirement, as well as cases with titles such as “Rumpole’s Last Case” and “Rumpole and the Angel of Death”.
You can really start anywhere, but if possible it’s best to read the stories in chronological order, as the cast of continuing characters come and go, get married, become judges or take silk as Queen’s Counsel, and so forth. Through it all Rumpole is unchanged, as enduring as England itself, and frequently as silly.