I’m way too late in the month to start to attempt this (as I type this it is the evening of the 12th August) but I added a post to my Instagram feed earlier this month regarding it being the 80th anniversary of the first ‘Penguin 10’ and that I had all the books in first edition, first impression Penguin editions. Penguin Books started publishing in July 1935 and by July 1938 had printed book number 150. To celebrate this they next published ten Mystery and Crime novels in August 1938. This was the first time that all ten books published together were from the same genre although later they would do blocks of ten for the same author as well, most notably the Shaw million where 10 books by George Bernard Shaw were published simultaneously each in an edition of 100,000 copies in July 1946. I then added that I intended to read each of these eighty year old paperbacks the next month and gradually it has dawned on me that reading all of them this month would be more appropriate; so I have nineteen days to read ten novels and write something about them and as they are mystery and Crime stories I’ll be careful to not give away anything. I’ll start reading now and add reviews as I finish each book, so here goes…
151 – The Invisible Man – H.G. Wells
During my teenage years I read a lot of H.G. Wells, not just the famous books such as The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and War of the Worlds but his short stories and even his History of the World in two large hardback volumes so I assume I must have read The Invisible Man back then but I had no memory of it when I came to read it for this exercise. The story had slipped away as easily as the Invisible Man hoped to do. I suppose the many adaptations of the novella on TV and film and the borrowing of the original concept by other writers had also not helped but I was genuinely surprised by the story and the way that it is told. The book effectively starts near the end of the Invisible Man’s tale and the first half of the book is spent with him invisible (and with no explanation as to how this happened) arriving in the small village of Iping in West Sussex and then becoming an interesting and annoying tenant at The Coach and Horses Inn. He is wrapped in bandages and explains that he has been disfigured. From the number of chemical bottles he brings with him it is assumed that he had had some sort of accident whilst doing his research. His obsessive secrecy and short fuse temper soon become a problem and eventually after a few months, with his money running out, he is forced to leave the village but not before causing several injuries and leaving a trail of destruction.
He heads out onto the Downs (open countryside in this part of England) encounters a tramp and forces him to help him as they make their way south towards the coast. Eventually the tramp escapes and warns people about the Invisible Man before seeking refuge at a police station. The Invisible Man finds his way into the home of Dr Kemp, whom he recognises from studying at Oxford and this is where we find out all the back story as to how and why Griffin had become invisible as he introduces himself and tells his story to Kemp. His obvious criminal intent and apparent incipient madness worry Dr Kemp so that he also manages to raise the alarm with the police and the hunt is on…
The book was first written in 1897 however the Penguin edition states that it is from the re-issue of June 1926, I have been unable to find out if this is a revision of the original book or that if for some reason it had been out of print for some considerable time. Although Iping is indeed a real place the other two locations in the book (Port Stowe and Burdock) are both fictional.
152 – Enter a Murderer – Ngaio Marsh
New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh was considered in her time to be one of the ‘Queens of Crime’ along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham and is best known for her detective stories featuring Roderick Alleyn of the London Metropolitan police. Enter a Murderer is the second of thirty two novels she wrote about Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn and is set in a theatre which is an environment very familiar to Marsh as she also worked as a theatre director. The crime is easy to describe, the final scene of the play being performed at the Unicorn Theatre involves one character threatening another with a gun, the gun is dropped when he realises that he cannot hope to escape, picked up by the original person being threatened and in an ensuing struggle goes off killing the original attacker. The gun was supposed to be loaded with dummy shells as it is seen being loaded in an earlier scene and blanks would still cause injury at such close range so in fact another gun is fired with blanks in the wings at the same time as the dummy shot in order to provide the correct noise. This is Marsh showing her theatrical knowledge as presumably she had seen this very trick done on stage. However the dummy shells have been replaced with real ones and the novel then revolves around ‘who replaced the bullets?’
The book is tightly written and numerous plot lines involving various romantic liaisons between the cast and supporting staff at the theatre along with an unresolved drug running episode from 6 years earlier are all interwoven. In the foreword Marsh is apparently consulting her own detective:-
When I showed this manusript to my friend, Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn of the Criminal Investigation Department. he said
“It’s a perfectly good account of the Unicorn case, but isn’t it usual in detective stories to conceal the identity of the criminal?”
I looked at him coldly.
“Hopelessly vieux jeu my dear Alleyn. Nowadays the identity of the criminal is always revealed in the early chapters.”
“In that case,” he said, “I congratulate you.”
I was not altogether delighted.
I must admit I didn’t get who it was until just over three quarters of the way through so I’m clearly not as good as her fictional detective, however I really liked the book and I will certainly be reading more Alleyn mysteries. One final thing that struck me early on though was when Alleyn was being particularly awkward about bossing people around and not telling them why he then apologises for being a bit Hitlerish. The book was written in 1935 just a year after Hitler came to power and 4 years before the start of WWII.
153 – The Piccadilly Murder – Anthony Berkeley
Whilst I quickly warmed to Inspector Alleyn that certainly could not be said of Ambrose Chitterwick, the amateur criminologist in Berkeley’s 1938 novel, who I really didn’t get on with almost from the first. Chitterwick was one member of the fictional Crimes Circle and it was he that solved the murder in probably Berkeley’s best known story “The Poisoned Chocolates Case”. The Crimes Circle was loosely based on The Detection Club which Berkeley had helped set up and included most of the famous pre-war crime writers such as H. C. Bailey, E. C. Bentley, G.K. Chesterton. Agatha Christie, G. D. H. Cole, Margaret Cole, Freeman Wills Crofts, R. Austin Freeman, Ronald Knox, Arthur Morrison, Baroness Emma Orczy, John Rhode, Jessie Rickard, Dorothy L. Sayers, Henry Wade and Hugh Walpole. As can be seen from that list they are also well represented in this collection of ten books. Frankly I didn’t like Chitterwick in The Poisoned Chocolates Case and when I realised that this was a whole novel featuring him I wasn’t that impressed.
My poor opinion of the character seemed to be justified in the first half of the book and the obsequious chief of police also failed to ring true which made getting going at this story quite difficult. The second half of the book however made struggling with the first all worth while as the characters settled into more rounded individuals and the plot got gradually more interesting. I worked out who did it about two thirds of the way through the book as the red herrings were a bit too obvious and I can see why Berkeley hasn’t really stood the test of time as a crime writer and is now largely forgotten despite being a significant writer in the 1930’s. His work has dated rather badly and unlike Christie and Sayers for example he simply hasn’t got the style to morph into period pieces he just feels anachronistic.
There are no previous publication dates in the book so I’m assuming that the Penguin edition is the true first edition of this book making it one of the earliest books to be first printed by Penguin who up until then had been involved in paperback reprints of existing volumes.