Wednesday 22 July 2020

Bodies from the Library 3 - edited by Tony Medawar

Bodies from the Library 3 eBook: Medawar, Tony: ...

I've mentioned Tony Medawar before on this blog as the leading researcher of obscure crime fiction. He's a great fan of Golden Age mysteries who has uncovered some fascinating material over the years. An example was the Agatha Christie competition story "Manx Gold", which fascinates me. Tony is currently developing a niche as an editor of story collections, including the Bodies from the Library series, which has now reached its third installment. In addition, he's become the supremo of the Agatha Christie International Festival in Torquay, an event I was eagerly anticipating until the pandemic intervened.

I have a vivid memory of my first encounter with Tony. It was at the London Bouchercon, way back in 1990, before I'd published a single piece of crime fiction. We happened to be contestants in a Mastermind quiz. The quizmaster was Maxim Jakubowski, himself a supremely prolific and versatile anthologist. The score was kept by Geoff Bradley, the editor of CADS. On that pleasant afternoon I never imagined that, thirty years on, Geoff, Tony, Maxim, and I would still be in regular contact, having all sorts of criminal conversations. These are three people from whom, in different ways, I've learned a lot.

The other contestants in the quiz, by the way, were Jim Huang, an American crime fan, and the writer Sarah J. Mason, who also took part with me in a re-run of the quiz at the 1995 Nottingham Bouchercon, along with two very knowledgeable Americans, Marvin Lachman and Edward D. Hoch. There is discussion about the quizzes in Marvin's admirable book The Heirs of Anthony Boucher.

Turning to Bodies from the Library 3, like its predecessors it is a mixed bag, with the main connecting link that most of the stories are unknown or little-known efforts by Golden Age writers. (Six stories are also linked by a theme: an orange that saves someone's life, of all things. Of these little tales, Ethel Lina White makes the best attempt to come up with a strong story.) I'd already come across a handful of the entries in the book, including an extremely good Agatha Christie, "The Incident of the Dog's Ball". There are extensive notes about the contributors, and I was especially pleased to learn more about the enigmatic Lynn Brock.

One of the best stories, I felt, came from that talented but rather inconsistent writer Christopher Bush. "The Hampstead Murder" is pleasingly different, and I really liked it. Bush wrote far too much, but this story shows just what he could do on a good day. There's also a story by Christopher St John Sprigg, which makes use of his interest in aeronautics, although this particular mystery is not in the same league as his novel with a similar background, Death of an Airman.

There are a couple of stories by American writers, and two plays, including one by Ngaio Marsh that was previously unknown to me. Although most of the stories have been published before, this was often in obscure magazines (as with the Bush story) and some have never previously seen the light of day.

It is interesting to speculate why this might be. For example, John Curran, who was the first to reprint the Christie story, theorised that she opted to use key elements of the plot for the novel Dumb Witness, and that seems highly plausible. Whatever the reason, it's a story that Poirot fans are sure to enjoy. The best discovery in the book is "The House of the Poplars" by Dorothy L. Sayers, and I'd be fascinated to know why it's never been printed before. While it's no masterpiece, it's certainly good enough to have been published. Did Sayers have reservations about it, possibly because the ending is slightly anti-climactic? Perhaps, but I'm really not sure. At least now, thanks to Tony, we have a chance to read for ourselves a lost story by one of the giants of the Golden Age. 

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