Edited by Martin Edwards – Continental Crimes, British Library, 10/06/2017.
A book review by Jonas Rohe, Queen’s University Belfast
Continental Crimes is a collection of classic crime short stories from writers of the British tradition which are set, as the name suggests, on the European continent. Edwards’ anthology contains fourteen stories dating from the early 20th century, through the Golden Age of Crime, to the 1950s. The tales are roughly in chronological order by date of publication, starting with Doyle’s The New Catacomb (1898) and ending with Michael Gilbert’s Villa Almirante (1959).
Edwards’ editing is on point as usual and he gives a lengthy introduction in which he deconstructs the idea of “familiar homeliness” of British classic crime stories, which are assumed to have a pretty narrow spectrum of sceneries. As Edwards describes, they offer in fact several different settings apart from the foggy streets of London or the cosy village in the south of England, and most British classic crime writers have some cosmopolitan stories to offer. Edwards also gives a short introduction to each story and writer, which is of particular interest for the lesser known writers in his anthology.
The stories cover classic tropes of the crime genre, such as the untraceable crime in Stacy Aumonier’s The Perfect Murder (1926) or the Gothic mystery story in the uncanny German castle in Farjeon’s The Room in the Tower (1912). Also represented are the well-constructed whodunit in Chesterton’s The Secret Garden (1910), with the unlikely detective Father Brown, as well as a somewhat familiar train mystery by the Queen of Crime herself, Agatha Christie, in Have You Got Everything You Want? (1934).
But not all crime stories are created equal and so naturally there are those that are appealing and others less so. As an example, in Petit-Jean (undated) from Ian Hey, we are presented with an interesting WWI crime story, which is not only very believable in its laconic descriptions of the characters and the everyday normality of trench warfare, but is also convincing with a certain squaddie humour and a keen sense for linguistic difficulties, which speakers of French will appreciate.
In contrast there are stories where the attitude towards women drifts into the downright misogynistic; well across the line of what can be expected even in vintage crime stories. For example, in Josephine (Doris Bell Collier, 1897 – 1987) Bell’s The Packet Boat Murder (undated), the narrator’s comments about the young female murder victim suggests that she has brought her fate upon herself by the ill-advised action of romantically pursuing a man, and the text actually includes the line “She was asking for it!”. Or Michael Gilbert’s Post-WWII story Villa Almirante (1959) set in Italy which, although compellingly written and a well-constructed, is packed with misogynistic comments and views that seriously take the enjoyment out of the tale, containing, among other cringe-inducing punchlines “many a successful marriage was founded on a good beating”.
On the whole, Continental Crimes offers a good selection of stories for fans of the classic crime genre, although the quality of the tales varies. Edwards’ editing is informative, and his introductions offer a solid background to the respective short stories and their authors. Overall, this is, both from a narrative and an historical point of view, a compelling book, with a varied spectrum of crime stories, for those who want to experience British classic crime outside the worn-out setting of the British Isles.