Monday, September 17, 2018

Murder at the Manor: Review

It's not a bit like those delightful detective stories. In a detective story all the people in the house are gaping imbeciles, who can't understand anything, and in the midst stands the brilliant sleuth who understands everything. Here am I standing in the midst, a brilliant sleuth, and I believe, on my soul, I'm the only person in the house who doesn't know all about the crime.
~"The White Pillars Murder"

Murder at the Manor: Country House Mysteries (2016) edited by Martin Edwards is another fine addition to the British Library Crime Classics series which brings back into print short stories and novels from the classic age of detective fiction. Stories which have in most cases been out of print for far too long. Most of them come from the Golden Age--the period between the world wars--with a few from earlier and later. All them are worthy examples of that grand tradition of bringing together groups of people for a weekend or so at large home in the British countryside to dress for dinner, have a party, and...most likely...witness or commit murder.

We start with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and end with Michael Gilbert and in between we find well-known authors such as G. K. Chesterton and Nicholas Blake as well as names that most readers will find unfamiliar--Dick Donovan, J. J. Bell, and possibly J. S. Fletcher. As with all collections, the quality varies, but Edwards is quite good at selecting stories in a more narrow range of excellence. Overall, an entertaining look at a delightful sub-genre of crime fiction. My favorites include "The Murder at the Towers" by E.V. Knox; "The Perfect Plan" by James Hilton; "The Mystery of Horne's Corpse" by Anthony Berkeley; and "The Message on the Sun-Dial" by J. J. Bell (roughly in that order). ★★★★

A synopsis of the stories:

"The Copper Beaches" by Doyle: The Holmes classic which emphasizes the Great Detective's commentary on evil in the countryside--"But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folks who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser."

"The Problem of Dead Wood Hall" by Dick Donovan: Two men who had paid court to the same woman die in mysterious circumstances. No evidence is found to prove accident, natural causes, or murder, but our narrator has a go at find the answer. He's sure that two murders have gone unavenged--but will he be able to find the evidence to bring the villain to justice?

"Gentlemen & Players" by E. W. Hornung: Raffles, the Gentleman Thief, plots to steal a coveted necklace from under the nose of a Scotland Yard man delegated to defend the jewels from another well-known thief. Bunny thinks his friend should concentrate on cricket while the Yard is on the hunt, but those sparkling diamonds and sapphires are difficult to resist....

"The Well" by W. W. Jacobs: A man murders a blackmailing hanger-on who might spoil his chances at matrimonial bliss. But he learns (the hard way) that you really shouldn't hide the body on your own property. And especially not somewhere that your lady-love might lose a precious bracelet.

"The White Pillars Murder" by G. K. Chesterton (not a Father Brown story): Dr. Adrian Hyde, an unorthodox detective, has taken on two assistants/apprentices and sends them to White Pillars to discover who has killed Melchior Morse. In the course of their investigations, they decide that maybe detecting is not the life for them after all.

"The Secret of Dunstan's Tower" by Ernest Bramah: Bramah's blind sleuth, Max Carrados, is called upon by his friend Dr. Tulloch to get to the bottom of a "ghostly" haunting that is causing his patient to slowly slide towards death. Carrados is certain there is a villainous human hand at work.

"The Manor House Mystery" by J. S. Fletcher: featuring the mystery of Septimus Walshawe who has died of poisoning. It is inconceivable that the man has committed suicide, but no one is able to discover the method--until our detective Marshford arrives on the scene. But was it murder after all?

"The Message on the Sun-Dial" by J. J. Bell: A dying man leaves an illegible scrawl on the nearby sundial as a pointer to his murderer. Will anyone be able to decipher it?

"The Horror at Stavely Grange" by Sapper: Ronald Standish is called upon to discover how two men in the Mansford family have met their deaths...before another Stavely Grange heir falls victim.

"The Mystery of Horne's Corpse" by Anthony Berkeley: A man keeps finding the corpse of his cousin (and the man who would be his heir). But when he brings the authorities to examine the body, it disappears. Is he going crazy? Or is someone trying to drive him there?

"The Perfect Plan" by James Hilton: As the title suggests, a man devises the perfect plan to murder his hated employer. He follows through on it and, to all appearances, gets clean away with it. But his own conscience puts a spoke in his wheels. 

"The Same to Us" by Margery Allignham: Mrs. Molesworth scores a social coup when she convinces the Chinese scientist, Dr. Koo Fin, to attend one of her week-end parties. It's just her luck that burglars strike on that very weekend.

"The Murder at the Towers" by E.V. Knox: A marvelous send-up of the country house plot. Great fun from the first line: "Mr. Ponderby-Wilkins was a man so rich, so ugly, so cross, and so old, that even the stupidest reader could not expect him to survive any longer than Chapter I."

"An Unlocked Window" by Ethel Lina White: Domestic suspense in the form of two nurses alone with a patient in an isolated house. There is a serial killer on the loose with a preference for those nightingales in white....

"The Long Shot" by Nicholas Blake: The lord of the manor is killed--poisoned by ginger-beer that it seems nobody could have poisoned. Nigel Strangeways uses a handkerchief to get the culprit to give her/himself away.

"Weekend at Wapentake" by Michael Gilbert: A couple of servants do murder for the sake of an inheritance...that they wouldn't have gotten anyway.

[Finished 9/14/18]

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