CRAIG BROWN: Why doesn't this collection of whodunnits tell us anything about the authors?

rating showbiz 3

Murder by the Sea: Ten Classic Mystery Stories for the Summer

Edited by Cecily Gayford Profile €8.99

Evaluation: rating showbiz 3

How many real murders take place by the sea? For 25 years I have lived in a seaside town in Suffolk.

As far as I know, there were no murders at all during this period, unless, of course, they were so ingenious that they went unnoticed.

In fact, the only crime I can remember happened in 2009, when a disgruntled chef at a local hotel vandalized a Ferrari sports car belonging to flashy pop star Jay Kay.

The Crimes of Murder By The Seaside, a collection of short stories - some of them vintage to the point of decrepitude - are both more grisly and less fun

The Crimes of Murder By The Seaside, a collection of short stories – some of them vintage to the point of decrepitude – are both more grisly and less fun

In 1996, Thorpeness, just up the coast, made headlines – at least local headlines – after a police chase involving a 90-year-old retired farmer called Leslie Evans.

Police had spotted Mr Evans driving erratically and followed him as he made his way to the local golf course and continued driving.

At this point the police commandeered a golf cart and gave chase, but Mr Evans was too quick and gave them the slip through the side entrance to the sixth hole. He was arrested the following day at his home in Saxmundham.

The Crimes of Murder By The Seaside, a collection of short stories – some of them vintage to the point of decrepitude – are both more grisly and less fun.

Many involve the discovery of a corpse with a broken head, usually described in macabre taste.

“He looked at us, with the most strange and horrible effect, the discolored face of a man…on the left temple, just behind the eyebrow, was a jagged, shapeless wound as might have been made by a hammer.”

Taken together, these stories are drawn from what is regularly described as the golden age of detective fiction – the two decades between World War I and World War II.

Growing up in Ireland, author William Trevor remembers reading such tales as a child.

“Throughout England, it seemed to me, corpses were being discovered by maids in libraries. The village poison pens were working tirelessly. There have been murders in Mayfair, on trains, in airships, in the saloons of Palm Court, between the acts. Golfers have tripped over dead bodies on the fairways. The police chiefs woke them up in their gardens. We had nothing like it in West Cork.

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A century later, most of the stories in this beautifully crafted paperback have a certain period charm, if not a whole lot more.

It makes it all the more disappointing that the editors didn’t add any background information: no date is given for each story, and not a word about the authors.

Yet they were often as interesting as their stories and, in many cases, more so.

For example, Razor Edge author Anthony Berkeley (who also wrote like Francis Iles and A. Monmouth Platts) wrote Before The Fact, the novel on which Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion was based.

It begins with the startling paragraph: “Some women give birth to murderers, some sleep with them and some marry them. Lina Aysgarth had lived with her husband for nearly eight years before realizing she was married to a murderer.

Another of his novels, Malice Aforethought, features a seemingly respectable doctor who decides to poison his domineering wife.

It seems that the author founded on himself the chilly character of the doctor; even scarier, he dedicated the book to his domineering ex-wife, whom he divorced a year later.

It strikes me as very interesting that Edmund Crispin, the author of the last story in the book, Man Overboard, also wrote (as Bruce Montgomery) the music for six of the Carry On films, including Carry On Cruising and Carry On Nurse , and that R. Austin Freeman, author of A Mystery Of The Sand-Hills, was a trained physician with extreme political views who was staunchly in favor of coerced sterilization of socially undesirable people.

So, unfortunately, the stories are left up in the air, without any historical or authorial context. In Freeman’s case, a word or two about his background would certainly have brightened his contribution: crime writer Julian Symons described reading his work as “like chewing dry straw.”

Any collection is likely to have its ups and downs. For me, the inclusion of a Sherlock Holmes short story in an anthology invariably eclipses all others.

By the time you read the character at Paddington Station “pacing up and down the platform, his tall, gaunt figure made even leaner and taller by his long gray traveling cape and close-fitting cloth cap”, you are addicted.

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Oddly, the Sherlock Holmes short story that kicks off this collection, The Boscombe Valley Mystery, isn’t set by the sea at all – a flagrant violation of the Commercial Descriptions Act, but a crime it may be worth. best left to one of today’s lesser detectives to investigate.

My own suspicion is that the editor of this collection, Cecily Gayford, has confused the fictional Boscombe, which is, Dr Watson tells us, near Ross in Herefordshire, with the real Boscombe, a suburb of Bournemouth on the south coast .

But let’s not be too picky, The Boscombe Valley Mystery has everything you might expect from a Sherlock Holmes story, including paradoxical ruminations – “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”, a corpse with head battered by repeated blows from a heavy, blunt weapon, and miraculous detective work by Holmes.

In this case, he successfully predicts that the murderer is “a tall, left-handed man, lame in his right leg, wears thick-soled hunting boots and a gray cape, smokes Indian cigars, uses a cigar holder, and carries a blunt penknife”. ‘.

Arthur Conan Doyle was brilliant at maintaining the enigma of Holmes through the skillful publication of new details about his life.

In this particular story, we learn that the great detective once wrote what he describes as “a little monograph on the ashes of 140 different varieties of pipe, cigar, and cigarette tobacco.”

The second story in the collection, Weight And See by Cyril Hare, is also set miles from the seaside.

In Battersea, London, an old woman has been killed in her flat by a blow to the back of the head from a blunt instrument, and the bulky Det Insp Mallett of the CID is first at the scene of the crime.

The enigma in this story, like in half of the others, is less thriller than howdunnit. In this case, the solution involves, among other things, a Heath Robinson electric doorbell button hidden in a dog’s basket.

The next story, Error At Daybreak by John Dickson Carr, involves a human impulse that appears to have stopped when in fact it has not.


‘How the hell can you stop an impulse?’ asks a viewer. “We stop him with a small hard rubber bullet…placed under the armpit,” replies the detective, Colonel March. “The arm is pressed hard against the side; blood flow is cut off; and the man is ‘dead’.’

Reading this passage, I remembered seeing the magician Derren Brown stop his own pulse live on stage a few years ago. Mystery solved! That’s what he had to do!

A good number of stories involve the murder of a blackmailer.

In an ingenious story by Father Brown, The Absence Of Mr Glass, set – hooray! – firmly anchored by the Scarborough seaside, the detective’s creator, the great GK Chesterton, observes that blackmail is the most morbid of crimes, “because it’s a crime concealing a crime; a black bandage on a blacker wound”.

But Edmund Crispin, the author of the final story, Man Overboard, set in Brixham, South Devon, thinks otherwise. He suggests that blackmailers are often responsible for uncovering crimes worse than their own.

“Writers of fiction resent and resent blackmail,” observes his detective, Detective Inspector Humbleby, “yet on the whole it always struck me as one of the less heinous crimes and the most socially useful.

To be the victim of a blackmailer, you almost have to be guilty of something or other… I don’t care what the novelists say. I love blackmailers. Salt of the earth. Here’s to them.

Ten Classic Crime Stories For Summer says it all on the cover, and I imagine many people will take this little book to the beach to relax in the sun while reading battered corpses.

And this paradox was at the heart of the golden age of detective writing. The more macabre the story, the more we appreciate it.

As the late PD James once said, these stories “deal with violent death and violent emotions, but they are escapist novels”. We are bound to feel no real pity for the victim, no empathy for the murderer, no sympathy for the falsely accused.

“For whom the bell rings, it does not ring for us.”

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