Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Mammoth Book of Roaring Twenties Whodunnits

 The Mammoth Book of Roaring Twenties Whodunnits (2004) by Mike Ashley, ed.

For those of us who have a definite idea what a whodunnit is, this collection is a mixed bag--of course most short story collections are, with stories of varying strengths. Ashley makes a big deal in the intro to "Putting Crime Over" by Hulbert Footner that he was surprised by how few short stories written in the 1920s (beyond the obvious ones by Sayers and Christie) were both good whodunnits and reflected the period well. So, new stories set in the period were commissioned (save for three originally from the 1920s). He claims to have excluded hard-boiled crime stories written in the 1920s as well. I find these statements odd when you consider that he didn't mind including stories with little or no mystery or "whodunnit" aspects or hard-boiled/gangster-themes that weren't written in the 1920s--exhibit A: "Kiss the Razor's Edge" by Mike Stotter; exhibit B: "He Couldn't Fly" by Michael Kurland; exhibit C: "A Pebble for Papa" by Collins & Clemens. I much prefer whodunnits in the style of Christie and Sayers and would have enjoyed this collection a lot more if he'd actually stuck to what he says his purpose was--or if he'd just not claimed that he was presenting us with whodunnits in the style of the 1920s. 

Best of the bunch: "Thoroughly Modern Millinery," "The Day of Two Cars," "The Austin Murder Case," "The Man Who Scared the Bank," "The Problem of the Tin Goose," and "Without Fire" by Tom Holt, which is really the very best of the best. These all give a good flavor of the Roaring Twenties in addition to being good whodunnits. ★★ for the entire collection.

"Timor Mortis" by Annette Meyers: Olivia "Oliver" Brown has inherited her aunt's townhouse as wells a private detective agency. She and her partner (employee?) Harry are on the hunt for a missing heiress. As far as I can tell, the whole point of this story is to name-drop as many 1920s personalities as possible to prove that this is set in the 1920s. The mystery isn't much (and no clues or investigation to speak of) and none of the characters are likeable or even interesting. [one shot with arrow] 

"Brave New World" by H.R.F. Keating: Murder at the cricket match. Wilfred Boultbee, who holds the purse strings to a large trust fund, is murdered. The beneficiary of the trust is of course among the crowd--as are others with a motive for murder. Keating does a great job capturing the flavor of England between the wars. Good story--though little in the way of investigation or clues. [one poisoned]

"So Beautiful, So Dead" by Robert J. Randisi: Val O'Farrell is hired to protect a beauty contestant. Her monied "sponsor" fears someone will harm her. Someone does. I liked Val O'Farrell a lot. Solid short story--the culprit is perhaps a bit obvious. [one shot]

"There would have been murder" by Ian Morson: A suspected communist plot gets mixed up in politics and football. But is the King's appearance at the new stadium really the target of the plot? Great characters--especially Sgt. Banks. Superintendent O'Nion is sort of a pain, but necessarily so. (And just as an aside--I kept reading his name as Onion. [one stabbed]

"Someone" by Michael Collins: Dan Fortune's father is one of the few honest cops in the 1920s. Even the gangsters respect him...or so he thinks. [one shot]

"Kiss the Razor's Edge" by Mike Stotter: Billy is a boxer who just wants to box. Doesn't care if he loses one here or there as long as it's not fixed. But Kruger, big man in London's East End gangland, has other ideas. No "whodunnit" here--just a grimy little story about gangs in 1920s London.[one stabbed]

"Thoroughly Modern Millinery" by Marilyn Todd: Murder amongst the Bright Young Things of London. Outrageous French painter, Louis Boucard is killed just prior to his grand opening at the Westlake Gallery. Fun mystery. Captures the spirit of the Bright Young Things and has terrific sketches of character. It would be interesting to see a full-length mystery featuring Fizzy, Squiffy, Bubbles and the gang. [one stabbed]

"The Day of Two Cars" by Gillian Linscott: Tadley Gate has had quite a run of excitement. First they got a petrol pump. Of course only one person had a motor car, but soon there'd be more (or so thought Davy Davitt, owner of the pump). Then the first phone box was installed. Of course, no one ever called anyone--no one in the rural village knew anyone with a phone number. But day two cars show up on the same day and when they were gone there was a dead body left in the phone box. Very nice short story showing the changes coming to rural England. Interesting characters. [one hit on head]

"The Hope of the World" by Mat Coward: A country house murder with a difference. What is one of the most capitalistic of capitalists doing at a house party dedicated to planning the socialist revolution? It doesn't really matter, for he won't be doing anything at all after his first night at the house. And then we must wonder what two undercover officials (one Special Branch and one Scotland Yard) are doing there as well...  [one electrocuted]

"Bullets" by Peter Lovesey: Father Montgomery is doubtful when the police rule Patrick Flanagan's death a suicide. It isn't long before he discovers a puzzling motive for murder. [one shot]

"He Couldn't Fly" by Michael Kurland: The bagman (money courier) for a gangster decides to sing for the grand jury in exchange for protection. But even a police guard can't prevent him from flying out the window when the boss man wants him dead. Typical gangster short story. Not my cup of tea. [one fell from height; two shot]

"Putting Crime Over" by Hulbert Footner: Madame Storey and her secretary are robbed at gunpoint. But Madame Storey isn't at all put out--she just devises a plan to catch the crooks. One of the few stories in the book which were actually written in the 1920s. More of an adventure/caper story--but a hint of the whodunnit in the search for the big man behind the crime wave.

"Valentino's Valediction" by Amy Myers: Things get a little complicated when two British housewives, with a Valentino infatuation look for a Sheik closer to home. Interesting mystery twist--but doesn't really seem to me to be in the 1920s tradition. [one appendicitis complications; one strangled]

"Skip" by Edward Marston (Keith Miles): Skip Halio, a bookie, who got his name from skipping town when the odds went against him, tries to skip town once too often and winds up a murder victim. Interesting twist at the end. [one hit by train]

"The Broadcast Murder" by Grenville Robbins: A locked room radio murder mystery and the murder is broadcast live over the air. Tremayne, an announcer on the radio, appears to have been strangled while giving the news. He was alone in the recording studio, a locked room. When the manager bursts into the studio there's no one there--not even Mr. Tremayne, alive or dead. A clever mystery with a very surprising twist at the end.[one hit on head]

"For the Benefit of Mr. Means" by Christine Matthews: The murder of the hostess of a star-studded birthday party forces Fatty Arbuckle (already disgraced by the accusations of rape and the death of an actress) and the titular Mr. Means (also a disgraced personage) to turn sleuth in an effort to find the killer before the cops arrive. Interesting set-up--but little in the way of actual detection. The truth comes out because everyone keeps making snide comments to each other. [one fell from height]

"Without Fire" by Tim Holt: When murder strikes on a cross-Atlantic steamer from England to New York, the Captain, lacking a ship's detective, conscripts a failed barrister turned "play doctor" (a writer who fixes up poor lyrics for musicals) as amateur sleuth. [one poisoned]

"The Austin Murder Case" by Jon L. Breen: A Philo Vance pastiche--Vance is on the spot for murder when his friend, District Attorney Markham, invites him to a masquerade party hosted by Jack Austin. Austin is an unpopular theatre actor on the verge of bursting into the talking picture world. But someone decides to prevent his journey west...permanently. A really well-done pastiche--it pairs a good mystery with just the right amount of self-aware, tongue-in-cheek humor. [two stabbed]

"The Man Who Scared the Bank" by Archibald Pechey: When one of a bank's most trusted customers tries to scam them (and apparently most successfully), the bank's president turns to "The Adjusters" a group of people led by a very intelligent young woman who take on cases that the police can't help with.

"A Pebble for Papa" by Max Allan Collins & Matthew V. Clemens: A murder to prevent a gang war. Belongs in a book titled The Mammoth Book of Gangsters & Mobster," NOT a book of Whodunnits. [two shot]

"Beyond the Call of Beauty" by Will Murray: P.I. Norris from the Weld Detective Agency is on the hunt for a missing co-ed. What he finds is a fortune-teller with a past after his search leads him through smoky jazz clubs. A tip of the hat to Dashiell Hammett.  [one stabbed; one hanged]

"The Problem of the Tin Goose" by Edward D. Hoch: The pilot in a barnstorming, stunt-flying troupe is stabbed while alone in the the locked cockpit of one of the planes. Doc Sam Hawthorne solves the case.[one stabbed]

"I'll Never Play Detective Again" by Cornell Woolrich: When roses destined for a bride-to-be kill her younger sister with a thorn prick, the best man sets out to discover who the intended victim was and who the killer is. The answers ensure that he'll never play amateur detective again. A somewhat dark take on the whodunnit. [one poisoned; one explosion]

First line (1st story): Greenwich Village is our enclave, our village, and we rarely venture east of Washington Square Park, unless of course it is for one of our fancy dress balls which we hold at Webster Hall on Eleventh Street near Third Avenue.

Rumsey, the dear little man, is not at all a brilliant person; but he is a perfect compendium of crime, and, since crime seems to be the most interesting of subjects to persons of every degree nowadays, Mme Story finds him very useful at the dinner table. (from "Putting Crime Over" by Footner)

"...I lost my way. It was raining, murky but not dark, and I set off in entirely the wrong direction. I found what I took to be my assigned destination, only to find it was full of Germans. Fortuitously, they were even more surprised than we were. With respect, if you want someone to help you find something, I think you've got the wrong man." (from "Without Fire" by Tom Holt)

Last lines (last story): "I'll never play detective again. You find--crawling things under the stones you turn up."

Total deaths = 28

1 comment:

Rick Mills said...

Love those short stories. "I kept reading his name as Onion" Well, not quite as bad as U.N.Owen.