With thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the review copy.
There is something about these dark, late autumn evenings that are perfect for a bit of old fashioned mystery and suspense. Murder at the Manor – edited by Martin Edwards brings together a fabulous collection of short stories, mysteries that are set in that favourite golden age setting of the country house. As Edwards explains in his introduction, country house crime stories remain as popular as ever. Their appeal is driven particularly by nostalgia for a bygone era. The stories in this collection were written over a period of approximately sixty-five years, and cover a period in which society in Britain and life in those country houses was changing. These stories therefore cover a period before, after and naturally during that period typically referred to as the Golden Age of crime fiction. There are some real gems in this collection, with several well-known authors of these kinds of tales, including Arthur Conan Doyle, E W Hornung, G K Chesterton, Margery Allingham, Ethel Lina White and Nicholas Blake.
It is always hard to review an entire collection of stories, so rather than trying to talk about each story – I will endeavour to give just a flavour of this superb collection, which I just loved. Each story is prefaced with a short bio of the author, setting the story which follows in the context of the author’s body of work. Several of the authors were new to me, some old friends.
In this collection we are treated to a glorious mixture of mystery story ingredients, country house parties, poison, jealousy, strange inscriptions, bizarre and unexplained phenomenon, wills, suspense, jewel theft, amateur sleuths and ingenious policemen.
There was only one story in the collection that I had read before, The Copper Beeches by Arthur Conan Doyle, which is the opening story. As a Sherlock Holmes fan, I was happy to read it again. A young woman named Violet Hunter consults Sherlock Holmes as to the wisdom in accepting a position of governess which she desperately needs, the job specifications are very odd – her prospective employers requiring her dress in a certain way when asked, and to cut off her hair. Miss Hunter decides to take the position in Hampshire at a house called The Copper Beeches, but it is agreed that Holmes and Watson should be on standby in case needed. It is not long before Holmes and Watson are travelling to Hampshire to meet with Miss Hunter again, and hear the story of her peculiarly sinister employment.
“The story features both Sheringham and another regular Berkeley character, Chief Inspector Moresby, and its twists and turns illustrate why Agatha Christie, among others heaped praise on the ingenuity of Berkeley mysteries.”
Anthony Berkeley is a writer I hadn’t read before – and this mystery is absolutely brilliant – true I had mostly worked out what was going on, but I was desperate to know how it would all be solved. The story revolves a young man, Hugh, who had suffered from shell shock in the First World War. He is the owner of Ravendean, and his cousin Frank who is abroad with his wife, is Hugh’s heir. Happily engaged to Sylvia, his future seems an assured one. Until one night, following dinner with his fiancée and friends, Hugh finds his car won’t start and decides to walk through Horne’s Copse. Half way through the wood, Hugh stumbles upon the body of his cousin Frank, with a bullet hole through his head. Shocked, supposing his cousin to be in Italy Hugh races off for help, the doctor and the police. On his return with the police and his friend the doctor, Frank’s body is gone, and all sign that Hugh was ever there obliterated.
J J Bell is another author who was new to me – and his story The message on the Sun Dial is superbly executed in which he uses the plot device of the ‘dying message’. Philip Bolsover Wingard (generally known by his middle name) is a man with debts. Bolsover is heir to his more sensible and reliable cousin Philip Merivale Wingard. When Bolsover’s latest forgery of his cousin’s name is discovered by his furious cousin, Bolsover is driven to take extreme action. Later that night, in the grounds of his cousin’s estate – a knife is drawn, and a man is murdered. Behind him is left a strange and inexplicable message on the edge of the sun dial. Can anyone fathom what it means, and solve the mystery of the attacker?
I recently read Fear Stalks the Village by Ethel Lina White, so I was looking forward to reading The Unlocked window which comes toward the end of this collection. I wasn’t disappointed; it’s a fantastic story of suspense, set in a country house where two nurses have care of a very sick patient. The neighbourhood have been terrified by a series of recent murders; nurses have been targeted by a medical student with a grudge.
“Nurse Cherry hurried through her round of fastening the windows. As she carried her candle from room to room of the upper floors, she had the uneasy feeling that she was visible to any watcher.
Her mind kept wandering back to the bad business of the forgotten oxygen cylinder. It had plunged her in depths of self-distrust and shame. She was overtired, having nursed the patient single-handed, until the arrival, three days ago, of the second nurse. But that fact did not absolve her from blame. “I’m not fit to be a nurse,” she told herself in bitter self-reproach.”
Will the unprotected women in the house fall victim to the murderer on the loose, are they really as vulnerable as Nurse Charry starts to fear? I read that whole story with my heart in my mouth. Brilliant, spine tingling stuff! I really must read more Ethel Lina White.
Murder at the Manor is a superb collection – most especially for fans of the Golden Age.