Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards

Until recently I had only known Martin Edwards as the editor of the British Library Crime Classics anthologies, but he has also written a large number of crime novels of his own. This one, Mortmain Hall, is the second in a new series set in the 1930s and featuring Rachel Savernake, an amateur detective and daughter of a notorious judge. I hadn’t read the first book, Gallows Court, but I hoped that wouldn’t matter too much.

Beginning with an epilogue (not a prologue), and then a first chapter with the opening line “The ghost climbed out of a hackney carriage”, the novel was off to an intriguing start. As Rachel follows the ‘ghost’ into a station and onboard a train, a story begins to unfold of an author – Gilbert Payne – who faked his own death and escaped to Tangiers.

Just as I was becoming interested in Gilbert’s story, however, we leave him behind and join journalist Jacob Flint, who is in court watching a trial – a case of a possible miscarriage of justice. Also watching in court that day is Leonora Dobell, Britain’s leading criminologist who has an obsession with murder to equal Rachel’s own. Mrs Dobell has a particular interest in injustices, last minute acquittals and people who have narrowly escaped hanging. Descriptions of some of these trials follow, but we won’t find out how they are connected until the second half of the book, where Mrs Dobell invites a group of guests – including Rachel – to a house party at Mortmain Hall, her remote Gothic estate on the North Yorkshire court. But before the truth is revealed, another murder will take place…

Mortmain Hall is a fascinating murder mystery, but I do think it was a mistake to read it without having read Gallows Court first; I felt as though there must have been a lot of backstory for Rachel and the other characters that I didn’t understand. Add this to the number of different storylines introduced in the first few chapters of the book and the descriptions of various criminal trials, each with their own set of murderers, victims and witnesses, and I quickly found myself becoming confused. Eventually, though, all the threads of the novel began to come together and I could appreciate the cleverness and complexity of the plot.

The book ends with a ‘Cluefinder’ (a tradition in Golden Age detective novels), in which all of the clues that appeared throughout the story are listed and explained. I have to confess, I missed most of them, but I’m sure other readers will have been much more observant than I was!

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Miraculous Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

A train that disappears without trace. A haunted chapel containing a dagger with a mind of its own. An entire crime scene which vanishes overnight. A series of unexplained deaths in a museum. A house suddenly abandoned like the Mary Celeste. These are just a few of the puzzles to be solved in Miraculous Mysteries, the latest of the British Library Crime Classics anthologies edited by Martin Edwards.

There are sixteen stories in the collection and they each deal with a different locked room murder or ‘impossible crime’. These are often my favourite types of mysteries – crimes which at first appear to have no rational explanation but with solutions which are either completely ingenious or so simple the reader is left wondering how they could possibly have been fooled! For that reason, I’m not going to discuss the individual stories in any detail but will just give each one a brief mention.

Many of the authors whose stories are featured in Miraculous Mysteries were new to me (although some of them may already be familiar to those of you who have read other books from the Crime Classics series) and I appreciated the biographical information Martin Edwards provides before every story. I was particularly impressed by Christopher St John Sprigg’s Death at 8:30 in which the exact time of a man’s death is predicted, and Nicholas Olde’s The Invisible Weapon, a short but perfectly paced mystery which I felt that I should have been able to solve, but didn’t quite manage it!

Although many of the stories in the book feature a crime committed in an actual locked room (Too Clever by Half by husband and wife team G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, Locked In by E. Charles Vivian and The Aluminium Dagger by R. Austin Freeman are three examples), there are others which don’t. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost Special is the disappearing train story I mentioned in my opening paragraph – it’s not a Sherlock Holmes mystery, but it does include a letter written by an anonymous person I would like to think might be Holmes! The Sands of Thyme by Michael Innes – the first time I’ve had the pleasure of reading Innes – is set outside in the open air but the principles are the same as in a locked room mystery, with the crime taking place in a seemingly impossible location.

The Music Room by Sapper (better known for his series of Bulldog Drummond crime thrillers) is another good one. By the time I came to this story I was halfway through the book and took a moment to reflect on how rarely, when it comes to stories like these, we are given access to the detective’s own thought processes. The authors included in this collection find a variety of different approaches to take – the detective entertaining a friend with an account of an old case; a passive narrator observing the actions of his detective companion; anything to make the mystery more difficult to solve and to keep ‘obvious’ clues obscured from the reader until the end of the story.

What else is there? Well, there’s The Thing Invisible, a gothic, ghostly mystery by William Hope Hodgson, The Diary of Death by Marten Cumberland, about a killer who appears to be using a diary for inspiration, and The Broadcast Murder by Grenville Robbins, which is set in a radio studio. We also meet detectives ranging from the obscure – such as Sax Rohmer’s Moris Klaw, who investigates The Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Room – to the better known, such as G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, who appears in The Miracle of Moon Crescent. And it was good to be reacquainted with Gervase Fen, Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature, in Beware of the Trains by Edmund Crispin. I was hoping for something more fun and quirky from Crispin (remembering The Moving Toyshop, which I read last year), but still, this was quite an enjoyable story about a missing train driver.

Two of my favourite stories, though, were The Haunted Policeman by Dorothy L. Sayers, a Lord Peter Wimsey story which offers an intriguing twist on the locked room mystery, and The Villa Marie Celeste by Margery Allingham, in which a family disappear from their home – but have they been murdered or is something else going on? This last story is an Albert Campion mystery and I think I actually enjoyed it more than the full-length Campion novel I read last year!

Although the quality varied from story to story, none of them disappointed me, and on the whole I thought this book was a great read. I’ll definitely consider reading more of Martin Edwards’ British Library Crime Classics anthologies.

I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley.