Serpents in Eden: Countryside Crimes is another selection in the British Crime Library Classics series. I knew that this was a selection of short stories, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the crimes within these pages are not all murders. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so here’s a list of the stories:
- The Black Doctor: Arthur Conan Doyle
- Murder by Proxy: M. McDonnell Bodkin
- The Fad of the Fisherman: G. K Chesterton
- The Genuine Tabard: E.C. Bentley
- The Gylston Slander: Herbert Jenkins
- The Long Barrow: H. C. Bailey
- The Naturalist at Law: R. Austin Freeman
- A Proper Mystery: Margery Allingham
- Direct Evidence: Anthony Berkeley
- Inquest: Leonora Woodhouse
- The Scarecrow: Ethel Lina White
- Clue in the Mustard: Leo Bruce
- Our Pageant: Gladys Mitchell
Martin Edwards provides a wonderful introduction to these tales, and this includes a quote from Sherlock Holmes:
It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that that lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.
Edwards also ties in Auden’s feeling that crime in the countryside has a particular quality to it: “the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder,” and also discusses Colin Watson’s term “Mayhem Parva” to describe the subgenre of crime in the English village which Edwards argues is personified in the extremely popular Midsomer Murders.
It’s here in this aptly-named collection that you can definitely see the roots of the cosy. In Margery Allingham’s A Proper Mystery, for example, the crime involves the possible sabotage of the village flower show and the judging of just who’s grown the best vegetables. E.C. Bentley’s The Genuine Tabard involves some gullible American tourists while The Glyston Slander is the story of the damage wrought by a chain of anonymous poisoned pen letters–hard to imagine Scotland Yard these days dropping whatever else they’re doing to go chase the anonymous letter writer in a sleepy little village, but that’s exactly what happens in Herbert Jenkins’ story.
I’ve said it before, so here it is once again–short story collections are a great way to discover ‘new’ authors, and this collection contains some gems. I’d heard a great deal about R. Austin Freeman and Anthony Berkeley so I was delighted to find a short story from each of them here. R. Austin Freeman’s The Naturalist at Law is the story of a man who is found, apparently drowned, in a shallow ditch. There are a couple of things wrong with the scenario–the victim’s dental bridge and his keys are missing. Series character Thorndyke notes a third element of the puzzle that doesn’t add up, but to mention this will give away too much of the story– our sleuth holds this key piece of evidence back until the big Reveal.
Another favourite story, Direct Evidence from Anthony Berkeley (1893-1971) features the author’s series character, Roger Sheringham, and involves a case in which Sheringham can apply one of his pet theories: that “a grain of circumstantial evidence […] is worth a ton of direct evidence almost every time” although “it’s the fashion, of course, to sneer at circumstantial evidence.”
But circumstantial evidence eliminates the human factor. Circumstantial evidence is the only evidence by which a case can really be proved, logically and irrefutably.
Sheringham is busy arguing his point with his sidekick Alec, when a damsel in distress walks in and asks Sheringham to help her brother, James. James was known to be involved romantically with a married woman, a “scalphunter,” named Mrs Greyling, and according to a dozen eyewitnesses who witnessed a quarrel between the two, James shot Mrs Greyling and killed her. James will likely hang for the crime unless Sheringham can prove that a dozen witnesses were wrong.
There’s also a very unusual story, Inquest, from P.G Wodehouse’s stepdaughter. A country doctor steps into a train bound for London, and distracted by the fact he’s forgotten his shopping list, he can’t quite place his fellow passenger. But when the passenger coughs, then the doctor remembers that he met this man, a clerk, at the house of an unpleasant man who may have been murdered but whose death was ruled, ultimately, as a suicide.
I have to mention Ethel Lina White’s story The Scarecrow which features a woman-in-peril (White’s forte) whose former lover, a man who attempted to strangle her, has escaped from a mental hospital.