The solving of murder in fiction has always had its challenges, and this book demonstrates one way of meeting it, with scientific method. This book of fourteen short stories edited by Martin Edwards is from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics series, and is a representative sample of various authors writing during a “Golden Age” of detective writing. Featuring well known authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers as well as stories by Ernest Dudley and J.J. Connington, all the murders are worked out by scientific method. As may be expected, those writers who favour detectives with medical or other training bring in their expertise. Happily each expert who spots an obscure poison or unusual clue has time to explain why they are significant and how they managed to work out who was the guilty party. An interesting introduction by Edwards shows how the need for variation in murder method occupied the minds of various writers, as admitted by Sayers, and two writers co authored these stories while Sayers herself drew on the scientific knowledge of a doctor, Robert Eustace, for an entire novel. In addition to the informative introduction there is also a short biography of each author putting the story in the context of their career and its original publication. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.
Sherlock Holmes is the expert on methodical investigation, but in his story he has to call on various skills to find the truth. Lady Studley summons the assistance of an eminent doctor when her husband exhibits strange symptoms in a story which also contains elements of gothic horror. The very existence of bodies exercise some detectives when only tiny hints of the truth remain. Bees terrify and confuse with some reason in another story. Doctors and scientists are drawn into the search for the truth, even when they lack social skills. One extremely clever scientist seems to have an undue influence over his assistant, but she nevertheless manages to have some rather good ideas. There are elements of fluke as investigators spot a tiny detail of the murder scene and make discoveries on which to base their investigation. An ancient game proves significant, as specialist knowledge is not limited to chemicals. A cake recipe provides a clue in one case. Some professionals are happier to throw themselves into an investigation than others, as a murdered body can throw those who usually work with the living. Chemicals and their lie at the heart of many stories, and sometimes an investigator has to move fast in order to save lives.
This is a book which maintains interest as each story has to introduce characters and context, show a crime or a potential problem, and resolve it all within a limited space. This is especially so in the case of Edmund Crispin’s “Blood Sport” which draws on a particular little known scientific observation and thus identifies the culprit inside four pages. Some stories are more based on characters and the methodical examination of motive and then finding the means, however obscure, whereas others are based on the discovery of an anomaly. These short stories are all little gems, carefully chosen and happily made available once more, all based on the vital scientific detection of experts.
As I said before regarding a book of short stories, I find them ideal at the moment when I am, quite honestly, finding it difficult to hold on to all the facts of a murder mystery for the full length of a long book. As I suggested in my post about books of the Second World War, I do read several books at once, and this book allows me to be distracted from it at the end of each story. I think I will check back through for other such collections that I have not reviewed.!