I am pleased beyond words to offer the following, the first unsolicited fan contribution to Criminal Brief, something I first invited way back in May of this year.
It is only fitting that the inaugural column should be written by our faithful and constant friend, Jeff Baker, who offers the following as his biographical blurb:
“Jeff Baker lives and writes in Wichita, Kansas.”
One could have wished for a little more detail, but I, for one, am content to say, “Welcome, Jeff! and many thanks!”—while noting that Jeff’s knowledge of the genre is encyclopædic, as has been demonstrated passim via his many enlightening and informative comments on this website.
IF I RAN THE ANTHOLOGY
by Jeff Baker
The idea was simple. Plan out an imaginary anthology of mystery stories focusing on forgotten or at least neglected authors with works that deserve at least another look today. What I didn’t expect was to stumble across a copy of the very book I was imagining, one that wasn’t intended as a collection of neglected works when it came out over 65 years ago.
The Boys’ Second Book Of Great Detective Stories (1940, Harper & Row), edited by Howard Haycraft, features “14 fictional detectives created by world-famous authors,” as it says on the jacket. What would be called a Young Adult book today, and a sequel to the earlier Boys’ Book of Great Detective Stories, the anthology was intended to spotlight then contemporary and well-known authors and characters, as the first book featured Sherlock Holmes, Uncle Abner, Father Brown and so on. But the bulk of these have since faded into distant memory. All of them remain what the British would call “ripping good reads” today.
“The Young Doctor” features H.C. Bailey’s Reggie Fortune (“a doctor by training and a detective by accident”), who is not the doctor of the title and isn’t even referred to as “Doctor” in a story that ties into recent events of the postwar (WWI) world. And here I bring up the fact that many of the stories and introductions refer to “the Armistice,” “the War,” or “the World War.”
“In A Telephone Cabinet”, by the husband and wife team of G.D.H. and M.I Cole, presents a locked-room murder in what is basically a house’s built-in phone booth. Luckily, the Cole’s sleuth, Superintendent Wilson, happens to be walking by.
Atmosphere permeates “The Door Key” by Frederick Irving Anderson. It comes off as the perfectly-written mystery story from the Saturday Evening Post during the heyday of the magazine short-story. I admit I had never heard of Anderson or his character Deputy Parr. It made me want to wander around the rural New England setting of the story for a little while longer.
Of the obscure detectives in this anthology Ernest Bramah’s blind Detective Max Carrados was the most familiar to me, but I had never read “The Game Played In The Dark,” which is more of a suspense story than a detective puzzle, with a switch between the roles of predator and prey.
Of course, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t obscure at all, and “The Million Dollar Bond Robbery” starts off like a Sherlock Holmes story (the detective and his roommate, the landlady letting in the client) with a moment or two where the reader might have been able to solve the case, or at least make a good guess. And an impossible vanishment on top of everything else!
I had thought that “Detective Barney” featuring Barney Cook, the “boy detective” of author Harvey O’Higgins, would have been unreadable today. Instead the story breezed along and was even reminiscent of Charles Dickens (who is referenced in the story) with its streetwise kid fallen in with adults involved with intrigue. (In this case, the Babbing Detective Bureau.)
“The Vanishing Diamond” by John Rhode, involves another impossible theft. Thanks to the story introduction by Haycraft, I know that Rhode’s mathematician-detective Dr. Priestley is in the mode of the scientific detectives like R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke. He’s also a lot of fun to follow through the vanished hallways and rooms of a house of some eighty years ago.
This anthology benefits as an historical document thanks to the informative story introductions by Haycraft. Keep in mind, this was published with younger readers in mind. I’ve read plenty of introductions to “Young Adult” anthologies that were cloying and putrid. Nothing in Boys’ Second Book fits that description. Several of the then-living authors selected the stories for inclusion into the book themselves and at least a couple made a deliberate mystery about the identities behind their pseudonyms.
No such mystery behind the still-well known Dorothy L. Sayers whose Lord Peter Wimsey solves “The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba,” after arranging to be mistakenly declared dead!
“Common Stock” by Octavus Roy Cohen actually made me want to hang out for a while with his detective, Jim Hanvey. Hanvey is just plain old fun to be with, and I delighted in his chaperoning the courier of a valuable document. He reminded me of Joseph Comming’s Senator Banner and all the fun totally distracted me from anticipating the clever twist at the end.
“Thirteen Lead Soldiers” by H.C. McNeile, a.k.a. “Sapper,” features the legendary Bulldog Drummond, adventurer, retired military man and seeker of excitement, in a case set in an English castle. I confess I’d heard of Drummond but never read him. Suffice to say that Drummond solves a killing at a secret conference involving a clue that reminded me of Agatha Christie, and finds a way to dispense justice as well. I found Drummond’s company as much fun as Hanvey’s, but he’d be a little more dangerous to be around.
“The Avenging Chance” by Anthony Berkley features his detective Roger Sherringham in the story which became Berkley’s novel “The Poisoned Chocolates Case,” which features several possible solutions. This is the title story of the recent Crippen and Landru anthology.
The War, what we now call the First World War, affects every story and author in these pages, either by the time the character lives in or by the author’s own circumstances of writing. Sapper started writing dispatches from the battlefield. Bailey started writing fiction “as a relief” during his time as a war correspondent. Christie began plotting out mysteries during her work in hospitals during the War.
I felt a slight foreshadowing (given knowledge of history) of the trouble to come, but there is no hint of dark clouds on the horizon in this book.
Of all the authors in Boys’ Second Book it is probably Edgar Wallace whose reputation has fallen the furthest. Long gone are the days when his publishers could claim that one out of every four books sold in the English language was by Wallace. Nonetheless, “The Shadow Man” features Wallace’s detective J. G. Reeder, Reeder’s unwanted affinity for the way that evil operates and a clever (and now quaint) way of covering the sound of gunshots.
Aimed at a young readership, the stories in the anthology do not shy away from death or violence (though most of that is offstage.) And not all the stories involve murder. It has plenty to recommend, the discovery of forgotten authors and of course, plenty of good reading.
Or, to quote the introduction to the E.C. Bentley story which opens the anthology: “The Phillip Trent story which follows, ‘The Inoffensive Captain,’ was first published in The Strand Magazine. In it we find the engaging amateur detective (who is an artist and journalist by profession) matching wits with a rogue of equal ingenuity and daring. The scene is London.”