Consider a few of the famous fictional detectives domiciled in the city of London: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes; Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey; John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell; Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion; and P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh to mention a few. Holmes arose in the late 19th century; the others were all 20th century, and especially the golden years of mystery and detective fiction, roughly the 1920s to the 1940s.
London has also experienced its fair share of famous murders and mayhem, with Jack the Ripper being perhaps the best known but by no means a singular occurrence.
Put all of that together, and it’s inevitable that a collection of crime and mystery stories set in London should be published. The British Library, as part of its British Crime Classics series, has produced Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, edited by the highly regarded mystery writer Martin Edwards.
The collection is comprised of 17 stories that are about as varied as the genre of mystery and detective novels. Arranged approximately by the date they were published, the stories cover a period stretching from the 1890s to the 1950s, and this include the Golden Age era. A few of the authors are still known today – Margery Allingham, Arthur Conan Doyle and Austin Freeman, to cite three, but many have been forgotten, a sad commentary that this volume attempts to correct. In their day, these authors and their books were wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and elsewhere as well.
The plots and themes are diverse. A serial killer is shooting victims at exactly the same time every Tuesday – on the London tube. A doctor’s fixation with a married lady ends in ironic tragedy. A women finds her life threatened – because she can read lips. A valuable pearl necklace has been stolen, with the only clue a metal box designed by a prison inmate. A man seeks the help of a detective, fearing for his life, and then he’s murdered. A middle-aged woman tries to help a penniless young man – with disastrous consequences. The owner of a stationer’s shop is murdered in his easy chair. A young woman new to London agrees to help the police catch a killer, and ultimately has to rely upon her own wits to survive.
One story seemed to come close to home. In the story of the serial killer operating on the underground, the tube line involved is the district line – the line we typically took during our vacations to go east toward the city of London or west to Knightsbridge and Kensington. And one of the bodies is discovered at the St. James’s Park tube station, which was our base of operations.
The stories are intriguing in themselves, but they also offer a lens into the times in which they were written. Edwards has done an excellent job in his representative selection.
And the stories are great fun to read.
Photograph by Derek Quantrell via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.