Guilty Creatures, a Menagerie of Mysteries – Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton and many more

It’s always a joy to receive one of the latest British Library Crime Classics releases through the post, and this clever anthology of short stories, Guilty Creatures – a Menagerie of Mysteries, is no exception to the rule. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.) Included here are fourteen vintage mysteries, each featuring an animal, bird or invertebrate of some description as an integral component in the case. As Martin Edwards notes in his introduction:

Animals play an extraordinarily wide variety of roles in crime stories. They may be victims, witnesses, even detectives. (p. 8)

Moreover, they can also provide – or indeed uncover – vital clues in the investigations, as illustrated by some of the best stories showcased here.

As ever with these anthologies, part of the joy of reading them comes from the mix of authors included, ranging from the well-known (Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton and Edgar Wallace) to the somewhat less familiar (Christianna Brand, Mary Fitt and Clifford Witting). Also of note is the seam of darkness running through this collection, with several of the stories channelling a rather sinister vibe not always associated with ‘cosy crime’ fiction from this era. It’s something that gives this anthology an interesting edge, very much in line with the predatory characteristics one might observe within the animal kingdom itself. On that ominous note, I’ll start with some of the gentler stories here and work my way up to the more ruthless end of the spectrum…

In Arthur Morrison’s The Case of Janissary – one of my favourites in the anthology – Janissary, a much-fancied horse, is the intended victim of a crime, destined to be ‘nobbled’ in advance of a key race to fix the outcome. The Redbury Stakes has attracted significant interest from the betting fraternity, with sizeable amounts of money riding on Janissary as the pre-race favourite. Needless to say, an attempt to sabotage the frontrunner is launched, only to culminate in a very interesting twist. This delightful story features Horace Dorrington, a Raffles-like scoundrel who combines investigation with crafty trickery in rather unexpected ways.

Mary Fitt’s The Man Who Shot Birds is another excellent story, a very clever puzzle involving a jackdaw, a valuable diamond star, a gold watch of sentimental value, and—of course—a man who shoots birds. This is my first encounter with Mary Fitt (aka the classical scholar Kathleen Freeman), but I’d be interested in reading more on the strength of this piece. A bird also features in F. Tennyson Jesse’s story, The Green Parrakeet, a sinister little tale in which the titular creature acts as a bit of a smokescreen for the true nature of a tragedy.

Headon Hill’s The Sapient Monkey is a lovely story involving a performing monkey, some banknotes and a case of false accusation – a charming little piece with a satisfying conclusion. Also very enjoyable is The Oracle of the Dog, one of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories from the early 1920s. In this tale, the term ‘armchair detective’ is particularly apt, with the investigator solving a seemingly impossible murder from the comfort of his own home. It appears that Colonel Druce has been stabbed to death with a stiletto-like implement while sitting alone in his summer house. The fact that several other people could see the garden at the time makes the incident appear all the more mysterious. This is a story in which the behaviour of the victim’s dog is crucial to the resolution, with actual doggy-like traits trumping any suggestions of a sixth sense.

Cats feature prominently in Clifford Witting’s domestic mystery, Hanging by a Hair. There is a touch of Patricia Highsmith (in the vein of A Suspension of Mercy)about this story, in which Arthur Marstead is caught between his critical, self-centred wife, and his timid yet clingy lover, Violet.

He walked towards the house, a tall man in the middle thirties, with a premature stoop, untidy hair, eyes peering through horn-rimmed spectacles, and a general area is absent-minded anxiety. He stepped into the room, to find that his wife had summoned him to close the windows because Rufus has sneezed in his sleep.

On Rufus were lavished the love and care that he himself should have enjoyed. He disliked Rufus—disliked him above all other cats except one, which was Tiggles, Violet’s blue Persian. With Rufus the antagonism with mutual and Rufus held aloof, but Tiggles—like Violet—maddened him with cloying attentions. (pp. 227–228)

When Violet is found dead, murdered with a spanner, suspicion falls on Arthur as the chief suspect – however, as with the Chesterton, the animals provide the solution here, leaving vital clues for the investigators to discover in this partly sinister, partly humorous domestic entanglement.

There are touches of humour and darkness too in Christianna Brand’s excellent story The Hornet’s Nest, in which Harold Caxton, a horrible little man, snuffs it during the wedding breakfast for his second marriage. 

Harold Caxton waited for no one. He gave a last loud trumpeting of his nose, stuffed away his handkerchief, picked up the spoon beside him and somewhat ostentatiously looked to see if it was clean, plunged spoon and fork into the peach, spinning in its syrup and scooping off a large chunk he slithered it into his mouth, stiffened—stared about him with a wild surmise—gave one gurgling roar of mingled rage and pain, turned first white, then purple, then an even more terrifying dingy dark red, and pitched forward across the table with his face in his plate. (p. 289)

This is a very clever mystery in which the finger of suspicion falls on each of the four main suspects with a link to Caxton: his new wife, Elizabeth; his adult son from his first marriage, Theo; his adult stepson, Bill; and his physician, Dr Ross. While hornets do not actually appear in this story, they are highly significant as a metaphor in this meticulously planned murder, providing inspiration for the solution to this case.

Finally, the most malevolent stories in the collection seem to feature invertebrates and reptiles. In The Man Who Hated Earthworms, a man must take drastic action to prevent a worldwide catastrophe, while in H. C. Bailey’s The Yellow Slugs, the titular creature provides a vital clue to some sinister goings-on. Perhaps the most brutal of all, though, is Garnett Radcliffe’s Pit of Screams, probably best avoided by anyone with an aversion to snakes!

In summary then, this is another fascinating anthology from the British Library Crime Classics series — definitely worth considering for its diversity of twisty stories, nicely linked together by an interesting theme.

30 thoughts on “Guilty Creatures, a Menagerie of Mysteries – Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton and many more

  1. mallikabooks15

    This sounds a really intriguing collection; I like mysteries involving animals (so long as none are harmed) and I certainly haven’t yet come across any involving earthworms or slugs, real or metaphorical. Definitely going to check this out.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. You might need to be careful with one or two of the stories — The Case of Janissary, for example, where there’s a clear attempt to drug the horse — but most of them should be fine. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I loved the Clifford Witting one. There’s a definite whiff of Patricia Highsmith about it. Think Deep Water or A Suspension of Mercy, with a dash of Shirley Jackson thrown in.

      Reply
  2. heavenali

    Another excellent sounding anthology, though I must admit to having given away my copy unread during the big pre move cull. It’s amazing to think there are so many mysteries involving animals. It reminds of an Agatha Christie novel, Dumb Witness, with a fox terrier called Bob.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, I’m not familiar with that Christie, so I shall have to look it up. (Thanks for the tip.) That said, I read quite a few of her novels in my youth, and much of the detail has long disappeared!

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        Thanks to this I have joined yet another streaming service in order to watch Dumb Witness. The dog Bob was the star of the show (although not a fox terrier as described by the people in his life, but actually a Wheaten terrier). He had competition from David Suchet playing Poirot with his toddling steps and two delightful sisters who are in contact with the Spirits!

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s quite a sinister vibe running through several of these stories. One or two of them are Very Strange, The Man Who Hated Earthworms being a case in point!

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review, Jacqui – it really is a marvellous collection. As you highlight, it’s a very varied one, and some of the stories really are quite dark, verging on the brutal. I think it really reflects the range of classic crime, which isn’t just cosy murders. And of course, I was most happy that there was a Reggie Fortune story! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the variation in tone was interesting. I have to admit to finding one or two of the stories a bit too brutal for my tastes (especially the snake pit one), but by and large they hit the spot!

      Reply
  4. Julé Cunningham

    These BLCC collections are a treasure, Martin Edwards does a stellar job in gathering a variety of stories for each one. And I do love that cover!

    I second Ali’s suggestion of ‘Dumb Witness’, I especially enjoyed the David Suchet TV version because the dog that played Bob is SUCH a charmer!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’m always impressed by his breadth and depth of knowledge about these writers, qualities that are very evident from his excellent introductions. And yes, the cover is particularly appealing. It’s taken from an advertising poster for rail travel (‘See England by Rail’), focusing on the county of Norfolk.

      (PS Thanks also for the endorsement of Dumb Witness. I will look it up!)

      Reply
  5. madamebibilophile

    It’s incredible the range of stories BLCC are able to source! This sounds a wonderful collection. By coincidence I just saw Dumb Witness on tv last week and agree with Ali and Jule – the dog in the Suchet adaptation is such a sweetie!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, and it’s not just the usual cosy crimes or locked room mysteries. There are two three quite sinister pieces that wouldn’t feel out of place in ‘vintage weird’ type of anthology.

      Reply
  6. BookerTalk

    The BL has shown tremendous imagination with this series, Martin Edwards showing once again the depth and breadth of his knowledge of classic crime.
    I would definitely fall into the category of readers who would not be able to look at the last story in the collection!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, me too. The Pit of Screams was too brutal for my tastes, but I can see why it qualified for inclusion. As you say, Martin Edwards adds tremendous value to the series as a whole. I keep wondering when he’ll run out of potential titles, but there’s no sign of that happening just yet!

      Reply
  7. buriedinprint

    I’ve been curious about this one since you left details about it in my recent “critters” post. It really does sound like one I would enjoy. Especially for the variety. I know you really enjoy this imprint (and can wholly understand the appeal): are you uptodate with reading all their offerings, or do you pick and choose just according to your mood?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the range is interesting as the individual stories are all quite different from one another in style or tone, despite the overarching theme! As for the BLCC titles, I tend to pick them up from the TBR depending on my mood (rather than trying to read them in any particular order). They’re great escapism, especially when I’m busy or in need of something light and entertaining.

      Reply

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