Some fairly brief thoughts on a couple of very enjoyable mysteries from the British Library Crime Classics series – both set in London, both initially published in the 1930s, but very different from one another in terms of style.
The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell (1938)
A dark and gritty mystery set amidst the London docklands, a location steeped in atmosphere and squalor.
When local resident Harry Reed rescues June Harvey and her young brother, Leslie, in a riverside accident, all three become embroiled in a network of shady events in the heart of the community…
An unemployed former dressmaker, Mary Holland, is found dead in her lodgings, presumably from suicide given the bottle of Lysol found nearby. Nevertheless, when Detective Sergeant Chandler begins to investigate, he quickly establishes that the case might not be quite as simple as it first appeared. A post mortem reveals traces of heroin in Mrs Holland’s body, but no syringes were found in her room, a point that the detective finds puzzling to say the least.
Events take a more sinister turn when Sergeant Chandler himself disappears without a trace, possibly having discovered some vital clues to the case. As a consequence, Inspector Mitchell of Scotland Yard is called in to take over the investigation, including the question of whether these incidents are connected.
What follows is less a whodunnit (the guilty parties are all pretty clear early on), but more an exploration of the criminal network, complete with all its threads and complexities. Murder is not the only crime being committed here. There are instances of blackmail, drug smuggling, shady importation deals and other nefarious activities, with chiffon nighties passing from one part of the dubious chain to another.
Where this mystery really excels is in the portrayal of dockside neighbourhood, the dark, grimy streets, the fog-bound quayside, and the shabby houses due to be demolished once the remaining tenants are evicted.
The light faded rapidly as the Fatima churned upstream. The fog was patchy now, for the wind had risen and cleared those parts of the river where the banks were low and the water exposed. Here the boats could move freely, guided by one another’s lights and the various familiar landmarks on shore. The intervening banks of fog, by contrast, seemed all the thicker and more menacing. (p. 65)
Bell captures the lives of her working-class characters with just the right notes of sympathy and compassion, illustrating their day-to-day troubles and preoccupations in a very believable way. These are ordinary, everyday people living in dismal conditions, often relying on Public Assistance as a vital part of their welfare.
Bell has created some memorable figures amongst her large cast of disparate individuals, whose lives intertwine as the narrative unravels. June Harvey and her younger brother, Leslie, are particularly engaging – the latter drawing on his curiosity and enthusiasm to assist the police with their enquiries. The more upmarket criminals are equally well portrayed, illustrating both their weaknesses and their ruthlessness when faced with adversity. Alongside the darkness of the narrative there are some lighter moments too, touches of humour in the feuds between neighbouring families, and in the views of Sergeant Welsford, Inspector Mitchell’s rather presumptive sidekick.
In summary then, this is a very enjoyable mystery, strong on authenticity and atmosphere. Definitely one I would recommend to other readers with an interest in this period.
The Lost Gallows by John Dickson Carr (1931)
This colourful mystery, written when Carr was just twenty-four-years old, is an altogether more melodramatic affair than Bell’s Port of London. Almost Victorian Gothic in style, The Lost Gallows is a hugely enjoyable revenge story, primarily set in a notorious gentlemen’s club in central London.
When the Parisian detective, Henri Bencolin, meets up with his old friend, Sir John Landervorne, at London’s Brimstone Club, he is quickly drawn into a complex mystery involving another club resident, the Egyptian, Nezam El Moulk. In recent weeks, El Moulk has been spooked by the appearance of a series of macabre items at the club, the latest of which is a tiny model of a gallows, sent directly to the Egyptian by post. It seems the perpetrator is operating under the pseudonym ‘Jack Ketch’, a nickname or common shorthand for the public hangman, but his real identity is a closely guarded secret.
The main mystery that Bencolin must turn his mind to here is to identify Jack Ketch, who seems to be seeking revenge for a crime allegedly committed by El Moulk some ten years earlier. In short, the race is on to find Ketch before he can claim payback, presumably on the 10th anniversary of the original deed.
Also swirling around in the mix are several other gruesome incidents for Bencolin to get his teeth into. The sighting of a shadow showing a man ascending the gallows; the mystery of the infamous ‘Ruination Street’, a location that cannot be found on any London map; the vision of a car being driven by a corpse. These are just some of the ghastly goings-on at play here.
It loomed up out of Jermyn Street soundlessly. Distorted by the muddy fog, it had a devilish life of its own, and its staring lamps bounded towards me as I turned. I heard the officer’s cry and the shrilling of his whistle. Then the great green limousine swept past me into the Haymarket. (p. 34)
This is a complex mystery with a lot going on, particularly in the first half of the book. Nevertheless, these seemingly disparate threads do eventually come together as the narrative approaches its end. As in Bell’s mystery, the London location is vividly portrayed, the city bustling with activity amid the fog-bound streets.
London that night was a wet chaos of fog, screeching with taxis and smeared on the sky with a blur of electric signs round Piccadilly. But as we turned down the Haymarket, there was a sense of intimacy crowded into these dun-coloured walls. The heavy-footed traffic rumbling past, the shine of light on wet pavements—clank, babble, shrill policeman’s whistle, and loom of big arm in water-proof—all carried a suggestion of companionship through mere virtue of the fog. It was not until we entered the theatre, until the house darkened and the curtain rose on that pale mimic world of terror which was Vautrelle’s play, that the afternoon’s devils returned… (p. 31)
There is a real sense of melodrama in Carr’s portrayal of events as the ghoulish atmosphere is dialled up at every given opportunity. And while the characterisation is a little thin and clichéd in places, the actual story itself is never less than entertaining. Great fun for lovers of gothic-style mysteries, as long as they’re prepared to suspend belief!
My thanks to the British Library for kindly providing review copies.