It’s always a pleasure when one of these British Library Crime Classics anthologies drops through the door, especially in this instance given its literary focus! Murder by the Book is a collection of sixteen short stories that qualify for the genre of ‘bibliomysteries’. More specifically, each of these stories revolves around something bookish. For instance, a mystery featuring a book or someone who works in the book trade – a writer, bookseller, publisher or librarian, perhaps. Alternatively, the crime might take place in a bookish location such as a library or bookshop. All of these permutations are valid, and many of them are showcased in this entertaining collection.
As ever with these anthologies, some entries are stronger than others, so I’ll focus on some of my favourites for this review. Luckily, there are several very enjoyable stories here, more than enough to keep lovers of vintage mysteries interested and engaged. There’s also a good mix of well-known writers – E. C. Bentley, A. A. Milne, Edmund Crispin and Ngaio Marsh – and less familiar names – Philip MacDonald, Roy Vickers and Marjorie Bremner. In fact, some of my favourite stories were written by *new* authors (i.e. new to me), which came as a very pleasant surprise.
Some of the best stories in this anthology feature crime writers, perhaps unsurprisingly given their penchant for crafting mysteries. In A Lesson in Crime, by husband-and-wife-team GDH and M. Cole, a rather self-satisfied but sloppy crime writer gets a taste of his own medicine when a stranger starts chatting to him during a train journey to Cornwall.
“Now in that book,” the stranger went on, “you call the heroine Elinor and Gertrude on different pages. You cannot make up your mind whether her name was Robbins with two b’s or with one. You have killed the corpse in one place on Sunday and in another on Monday evening. That corpse was discovered twelve hours after the murder still wallowing in a pool of wet blood… (p. 19)
While it’s relatively easy to work out where this one is heading, the premise and the quality of the writing make it a pleasure to read.
Crime writers also feature in Victor Canning’s excellent story A Question of Character, which opens as follows:
The real reason why Geoffrey Gilroy decided to murder his wife was not just that he wished to marry another woman with whom he had fallen in love. No, that may be the kind of motive which forces a man to the point of thinking about murder. But to take him over the edge into action it needs more than that. Plenty of men would like to murder their wives—and the other way round, I suppose. But that so far as it gets. No, the thing which determined Gilroy was his vanity. (p. 227)
Geoffrey Gilroy and his wife Martha are both crime writers. However, in recent years, Martha’s success has outstripped her husband’s, leaving Geoffrey feeling eclipsed by his wife and her skills with characterisation. While Geoffrey has always had a talent for plotting and building suspense, his insights into character leave something to be desired…
As Geoffrey sets about plotting the perfect murder, we see his strengths and weaknesses as a crime writer being laid out before us. It’s a very cleverly crafted story that dovetails beautifully with these characters’ personalities. A wonderfully gripping tale that reminds me a little of Patricia Highsmith and her talent for domestic noir.
Philip MacDonald’s Domestic Malice is another excellent story in this vein, also featuring an author as the central figure in the action. When the writer Carl Borden experiences severe stomach pains, his close friend Dr Wingate begins to suspect that something rather sinister is wrong. Carl has been married to his wife, Annette, for nine years, and although the couple seemed happy at first, their recent behaviour suggests a more troubled or unsettled relationship.
This is one of those stories where you think you’ve got it all worked out, only for the writer to drop in a sudden volte-face at the end of the narrative to catch you off-guard. A devilishly clever story with a real sting in its tail.
In a slight variation on the mysteries-featuring-writers theme, Marjorie Bremner’s Murder in Advance has a playwright as the murder victim, a man with no known enemies or competitors. At first, Inspector Dacre is puzzled by the apparent lack of motive, but the reason for the killing ultimately emerges. It seems the playwright had been planning to expose a blackmailer by writing a play about his crime; however, before the script could be written, the blackmailer murdered the playwright to avoid a scandal. But who is the blackmailer/murderer? That’s what Inspector Dacre must work out…
I also really enjoyed Edmund Crispin’s We Know You’re Busy Writing… in which a freelance writer struggles to get any work done due to the continual stream of interruptions from callers and timewasters. It’s a brilliant little story that will likely resonate with anyone who has ever worked from home, particularly on a freelance basis.
Other mysteries hinge on clues that appear in particular books. E. C. Bentley’s Trent and the Ministering Angel is a great example of this – an excellent story in which the victim leaves clues to the identity of his murderer in his rock garden, firm in the knowledge that one of his solicitors will link them to the relevant books. Julian Symons’ The Clue in the Book is another enjoyable tale that uses a similar device.
Also of note here is Roy Vickers’ terrific mystery, A Man and his Mother-in-Law, in which a rather selfish man, Arthur Penfold, decides to get rid of his wife’s former guardian, Mrs Blagrove, to avoid any disruption to his cosy life. (Penfold’s dutiful wife, Margaret, is about to leave him to go and live with Mrs B. as she is now in need of constant care.) Again, this is a really compelling story where we know the culprit’s identity upfront – the enjoyment, however, is more in the telling, particularly when Penfold slips up.
In summary, this is another delightful anthology from the British Library, ideal for armchair sleuths with an interest in all things bookish. As ever, the collection comes with an excellent introduction by Martin Edwards, who also provides helpful background notes on each writer. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. (If you’d like to buy a copy of the book, you can do so here via Bookshop.org)