Sunday, July 29, 2012

Rex Stout’s The League of Frightened Men

The League of Frightened Men was Rex Stout’s second Nero Wolfe mystery novel, published in 1935. And it has a few features that make it slightly unusual for a golden age detective tale.

Nero Wolfe is engaged by a Dr Hibbard, a prominent psychologist who fears he is about to be murdered. He has no doubt whatsoever of the identity of his would-assassin. In fact two of his friends have already been murdered by the same man.

Twenty-five years earlier a tragic accident had occurred at Harvard University. A hazing prank went badly wrong and a freshman was badly injured. Dr Hibbard had been one of a considerable number of more senior students who had been involved. The victim of the accident, Paul Chapin, had been left severely crippled. It is strongly implied that Chapin’s injuries left him more than just a physical cripple, that as a result of the accident (whether for actual physical reasons or for psychological reasons) Chapin has never been able to have normal sexual relations with women.

The students who had been involved were filled with remorse, naturally enough. They had been practising what they believed was a harmless prank and they had ruined a man’s life. They formed what they referred to as a League of Atonement. Since that time they have been supporting Paul Chapin financially.

Recently Chapin has achieved unexpected success as a novelist. He no longer needs their financial assistance. And now it appears that he has set in train a belated campaign of vengeance. A few months earlier one of the members of this League of Atonement, a judge, had been killed in a fall from a cliff. The similarity with Paul Chapin’s accident (his injuries had been sustained in a fall from a fourth-floor college window) was initially slightly disturbing but then the members of the league were sent a poem. The poem strongly suggested that Paul Chapin claimed responsibility for the judge’s death and that he intended to kill each and every one of them.

The members of the league were somewhat shaken by this, but they were much more seriously shaken when a second member of the league died suddenly in mysterious circumstances, and they each received a second poem. It now seemed almost certain that every member of the league was marked for death.

Nero Wolfe makes the members of the league an offer they can scarcely refuse. In exchange for a very large sum of money he will guarantee to remove the threat that Paul Chapin poses to their safety. Each member of the league will contribute an amount dependent upon his ability to pay, ranging from $8,000 in the case of the league’s richest member down to $5 in the case of the poorest. The total amount is just over $56,000. It is a great deal of money (an astronomical amount in today’s money) but Wolfe has no doubt they will accept his offer, and events prove that he is correct.

The members of the league have varying responses to this situation. Some are so badly frightened they just want to see Chapin dead while others, still tortured by remorse, almost seem to feel that they deserve to be killed by Chapin. They also have varying attitudes towards Chapin himself. Some hate him while others still feel sorry for him.

Chapin regards the entire situation with amused contempt. When he calls on Nero Wolfe the great detective recognises that here he has a worthy adversary, a clever but determined man who seems quite capable of carrying out his threats. He certainly appears to be, as Hibbard had suggested, to be a dangerously twisted and dangerous individual, quite possibly a psychopath.

Wolfe is fascinated enough by him to immediately buy and read all his novels. He is motivated by more than curiosity - he believes that Chapin’s books provide the answers he needs.

This interest in abnormal psychology and in the psychological responses of the intended murder victims is certainly unusual in a golden age detective novel. Wolfe’s solution of the problem posed by this situation also depends very much on his psychological assessment of those involve. In this case it’s not just a matter of solving a puzzle (although all the normal puzzle-solving attributes of a typical golden age mystery are present in this story) it is also a matter of solving a psychological conundrum.

Of course it also has the ingenious plotting you expect in a golden age mystery. It goes without saying that the situation is not quite what it appears to be on the surface and Stout has plenty of plot twists up his sleeve.

As usual much of the interest is provided by the character of Nero Wolfe himself. He is one of the most bizarre and colourful of all fictional detectives.

A bit of an oddity and a very ambitious story, especially given that it was only Stout’s second detective novel, but Stout knows what he’s about and the results should satisfy any lover of this type of mystery. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Ka of Gifford Hillary

Dennis Wheatley’s The Ka of Gifford Hillary, published in 1956, is one of the “black magic” novels for which he was most famous although in fact the majority of his very large literary output consisted of non-occult thrillers. While there is no black magic as such in this book there are certainly supernatural, or at least paranormal, forces at work here.

Sir Gifford Hillary is the chairman of a large shipbuilding firm. He is asked by the Minister for Defence to undertake on an unofficial task. The Minister is convinced that the security of the United Kingdom can only be assured by a complete reliance on nuclear weapons and to fund the building of such weapons economies will need to be made in other areas of defence spending. For one thing, the Royal Navy will need to be abolished. Hillary’s job will be to help in creating a political climate favourable to such a drastic change.

Sir Gifford has other problems closer to home. His beautiful wife Ankaret has had many affairs. Sir Gifford has learnt to deal philosophically with the situation. Ankaret is a passionate woman whose physical needs are considerable but she loves her husband and he tolerates her infidelities. But now Ankaret has created a very awkward situation. Sir Gifford has a scientist named Owen Evans living in his house, a scientist who works for his shipbuilding company but also pursues his own pet personal projects, which at the moment consists mostly of working on a death ray. Ankaret has no intention of sleeping with the scientist but she has been flirting with him rather outrageously and now he has become obsessed by her. So obsessed that he has determined to murder Sir Gifford. Which he does. And Sir Gifford has the unsettling experience of watching his own murder.

Gifford Hillary is dead, but to his surprise he is still very much around. He assumes that this strangely ghostly existence means that he is in fact a ghost but the truth is much stranger than that. It appears that the ancient Egyptians were right - a person has not just a soul but several distinct spiritual essences, one of which is the ka. And now Sir Gifford’s ka has become not just a spectator at his own murder but will be the observer of many other disturbing events.

He will watch his wife murder the lustful scientist and then calmly forge a letter in his own handwriting placing the blame on Sir Gifford. Sir Gifford is not angry at her for this. After all he’s dead so she’s not doing him any harm and he rather admires her presence of mind in coming up with such a clever way of evading the law.

Hillary will also become a witness to a communist plot to assassinate the Defence Minister and a series of misadventures (partly his fault) that threaten to ruin the career of his nephew. He has two children of his own by his first marriage (Ankaret was his second wife and was much younger than her husband) but frankly they don’t like him and he doesn’t like them. His nephew has become more like a real son to him.

Hillary can see these events happening but he cannot intervene or make contact with anyone. But somehow he has to foil the communist plot and save his nephew’s career. And perhaps there is a way he can influence events. He has an idea of how this can be done but it will prove to be an exceptionally difficult task. Being dead is rather a big disadvantage but Hillary is resourceful and he isn’t giving up. The results of his efforts will lead him to a shocking discovery about his own death.

It all sounds very silly, and it is, but that was never a problem for Wheatley. He was no great literary stylist, his books suffer from certain characteristic structural faults and his characterisation was pretty sketchy but there was no doubt of his ability to come up with bizarrely fascinating plots that worked in spite of their outlandishness. And there was certainly no doubt of his ability to tell an enthralling story.

One of the characteristic faults of Wheatley’s writing was his propensity for indulging in lengthy digressions on the subjects of his favourite political hobbyhorses. Wheatley’s political views are unfashionable today but he gave a great deal of thought to politics and was often unnervingly prescient. His political conspiracy theories were elaborate and ingenious and enormous fun. He was never afraid of pushing his conspiracy theories too far - he pushed them as far as he possibly could.

The book starts a little slowly - Wheatley was never in a hurry - but once the plot really gets going the tension becomes truly nail-biting. Quite apart from the annoyance of being dead everything seems to conspire against Gifford Hillary. Hillary however is not a man to allow death to stop him from doing what he has to do.

There’s actually considerably more to Hillary’s death and his subsequent ghostly existence  than meets the eye but I don’t intend to spoil what is definitely one of Wheatley’s cleverest plots.

It’s both a political thriller and a supernatural thriller. While Wheatley did not write horror as such, his Black Magic books being more accurately described as occult thrillers, there are certainly some effective and very macabre horror moments in this one.

Wheatley is always good trashy fun, with plenty of excitement and a dash of sex, and The Ka of Gifford Hillary is immensely entertaining. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Demon Caravan

Mention French Foreign Legion adventure stories and most people will think of P. C. Wren but in fact the grand master of that particular genre was Georges Surdez (1889-1949). Surdez was born in Switzerland but emigrated to the United States as a young man. Demon Caravan, published in 1927, is one of his best known Foreign Legion novels.

What makes it particularly interesting to me is that it is also a species of lost world novel, a genre for which I have a great fondness.

A French camel patrol in the Sahara gets shot up in the foothills of the Iron Mountains and the officer in command, Lieutenant Brangin,is wounded. This is all a bit strange since these mountains were assumed to be uninhabited although there have been some strange stories circulating among the local Arabs suggesting that the mountains are inhabited by demons.

The lieutenant tells his story and the new commander of the camel patrol, Captain Lartal, is intrigued by it. When he is ordered out of the fort to pursue a raiding party he contrives to find himself in the spot where Lieutenant Brangin’s party was ambushed. The patrol camps for the night but during the night his old comrade-in-arms Corporal Tlemsani informs him they are being watched, and watched from close quarters. Lartal and Tlemsani creep out of the camp and capture two intruders. The one Lartal captures is something of a surprise - she is a beautiful young woman. Presumably the same woman that Lieutenant Brangin had mentioned as being apparently the daughter of the sheikh of these mysterious mountain people.

The woman and her companion, a large black man who appears to be her servant, refuse to divulge any information. While the obvious course of action would be take them back to the fort for further questioning Lartal indignantly rejects any such suggestion. It would be ungentlemanly and it could dishonour the woman. And Lartal, although he is a hardbitten soldier, is also in his own way both a gentleman and a romantic. He releases both captives. This will prove to be a fateful decision, but also a fortunate one.

On returning to the fort Lartal finds himself thinking about this young woman. He finds himself strangely restless and disturbed. His commanding officer, the rather whimsical and kindly Captain Vasil, diagnoses the problem immediately. Lartal has fallen in love.

Lartal then receives orders to leave the area to undertake a mission far to the east but before he leaves he receives a mysterious message. The message is cryptic in the extreme but oddly enough although it would appear to be from some native leader it is written in excellent French. It invites Lartal to a rendezvous and advises him it would be very much to his advantage to keep this rendezvous. It also suggests he should travel with a bare minimum of an escort. Lartal, with Vasil’s blessing, sets off accompanied by Corporal Tlemsani.

This rendezvous will lead Lartal to the discovery of the mystery of the Iron Mountains. They are very much inhabited. The interior of the mountain range is lush rich country and there is a very large community living there. In fact there’s a whole city. Lartal will discover that the young woman he captured and released, Morjana, is indeed the daughter of the chieftain but the identity of this chieftain will provide another surprise. Even more surprisingly Lartal soon finds himself betrothed to Morjana.

But all is not well among the people of the mountains. A fanatic named Omar has been stirring up trouble and this trouble is about to come to a head.

The novel is reminiscent in some ways of Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. There is plenty of action and adventure but that’s not the primary focus of the story. It is the personalities and the motivations of the main characters that are most important. These characters will face both opportunities and dangers and their lives will never be quite the same again.

It is also the story of a strange lost city facing a deadly threat to its survival.

Surdez was quite an accomplished writer. He wrote for the pulps as well as writing novels but he has a fairly polished style. Like Kipling he has the ability to deal with the subject of colonialism with subtlety and understanding, without relying on the prejudices of his own day but also without the equally pernicious prejudices of our day.

Demon Caravan is an exciting tale of adventure but it’s a little bit more than that. A fascinating read, and highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Winston Graham's Marnie

Winston Graham's 1961 novel Marnie is best know today as the source of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 movie of the same title. The movie was somewhat controversial at the time for its relatively frank treatment of sexual problems and today if anything it divides audiences even more.

The novel was very successful at the time. Winston Graham (1908-2003) was a best-selling author most widely known for his Poldark historical novels. He also wrote thrillers and Marnie fits into the latter category. It’s a psycho-sexual crime novel with much more emphasis on sex than on crime.

Marnie is a thief. And a very successful one. Her crimes are intricately planned and daring.  She has devised a remarkably successful modus operandi. She invents a false identity for herself, talks her way into a job and then manoeuvres herself into a position where she has access to the company’s money. This is easy for her because she has a natural gift for mathematics which employers quickly recognise. She is also a very competent employee and even in the short time she stays in a job she usually wins promotion. After that the successful completion of the robbery is just a matter of waiting for the ideal time. It may take weeks, but the results are inevitable. Marnie has created a whole series of these false identities and has carried out a whole series of robberies but she covers her tracks very thoroughly indeed.

The fact is that Marnie is so gifted and capable that she could easily make a success of any job. She has no real need to steal. At least she has no material need to be a thief. But she does have a deep psychological need to do so. Marnnie has issues, and although she has never admitted it to herself those issues revolve around sex. It also has to be admitted that she enjoys stealing although again it’s as much the fulfillment of a psychological need as it is the excitement of the life she leads.

Marnie believes she is happy. She also believes that she steals in order to support her invalid mother. As with most things in Marnie’s life there’s a fair amount of self-deception in this, a self-deception that is entirely unconscious.

All goes well with her criminal career until she gets a job with a printing company called Rutland’s. She makes the mistake of staying there longer than usual, and she makes the further mistake of becoming involved on a social level with the people there. In particular with two men. Marnie has never had any interest in men, or in love or marriage or sex. She especially has had no interest in sex. She is a virgin and she intends to stay that way. Her mother has told her how disgusting the sexual aspects of marriage are and Marnie has no intention of finding out about such distasteful matters for herself. Despite this she allows herself to become friendly with two men, Terry Holbrook and Mark Rutland, both descendants of the original founders of the firm.

In the case of Terry it’s certainly not Marnie who is the instigator of things and she really dislikes him. With good reason, since he’s a rather unpleasant young man. With Mark it is different. He’s really the first man who has ever interested her as a person, the first man she’s ever felt at ease with, and the first man who seems to understand her. She’s fended off Terry’s advances quite successfully and she’s confident she can avoid going too far with Mark. She certainly would not let either of them touch her, but without realising what has happened she has developed rather a liking for Mark’s company.

She finally decides she has stayed too long, cleans out the company’s safe and disappears. But her one passion in life, her love of horses, has led her to make a fatal mistake. Mark has discovered where she keeps her horse stabled and tracks her down. She assumes that he will hand her over to the police but Mark has other plans. He intends to get the money back, but he also intends to marry Marnie.

This is where the book really starts to get interesting. The marriage is a complex web of misunderstandings, wishful thinking, deception and self-deception. The way Marnie sees it is that she has been blackmailed into marriage. The way Mark sees it is that he loves her and she loves him. He knows she is a strange woman but he believes that love will conquer all. He can save her.

As you might expect their wedding night is not a success. In fact nothing happens. Nothing happens for a week or more until finally Mark’s passions get the better of him. Marnie is so obviously appalled that that is the last time he tries to have sex with her. But he still loves her and he still believes that patience and understanding will prevail and that Marnie’s fear of sex can be overcome. After all psychiatrists are good at that sort of thing aren’t they? Surely a psychiatrist will find this to be a relatively simple matter. In fact her psychiatrist finds her to be anything but an easy case.

This is a mystery-suspense novel but the mystery and suspense come more from the unravelling of the secrets of Marnie’s past, and her mother’s past, than from the unravelling of a crime. In the course of this unravelling Marnie will make some startling discoveries but by the time she does this she has other problems to worry about. Her criminal past is also about to catch up to her. Now the challenge is not just to escape the chains of the past but also to stay out of prison.

If you think the explanation of Marnie’s problem is the sort of obvious explanation that a modern writer would choose you will be surprised. Writers in 1961 were rather more original and rather more subtle than writers of today and the explanation is not the obvious one at all.

The plot and the themes are rather similar to those of the film but with a few important differences. In particular the Marnie-Mark relationship is different in several respects, the explanation of Marnie’s sexual problems is somewhat more complex and also different in important respects compared to the film, and the ending is quite different. So if you’ve seen the movie don’t assume that this going to be the same story. Hitchcock and his screenwriter Jay Presson Allen use the same basic plot as a jumping-off point but they do different things with it so if you have seen the movie the novel is still well worth reading for both its similarities and its differences.

Marnie is a fine example of a crime novel in which crime is not really the focus. The author has other intentions besides writing a crime novel but even judged as a crime novel it’s exceptionally interesting. Of course the assumptions about psychiatry and about the solving of psychological problems purely by discovering the hidden trauma in the past are a little dated but Winston Graham handles the story with sufficient skill to make this a fascinating read.

Apart from being a kind of sexual mystery it is also a novel about identity, or rather different layers of identity. Marnie has other reasons for her constant re-invention of herself besides its usefulness to her as a criminal. She needs masks to hide behind and perhaps in some ways this is more important to her even than thieving. The lies we tell ourselves, the lies we tell others, the lies that we live, these are all issues addressed in this novel. The truth exists, but do we really want the truth?

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sax Rohmer's The Dream Detective

Psychic or occult detective stories enjoyed a considerable vogue towards the end of the 19th century and for the first quarter of the 20th. The best-known are William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the ghost finder and Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence stories. There were also the Flaxman Low stories of Hesketh V. Prichard (1876-1922) and Kate O'Brien Prichard. And there was also Sax Rohmer’s The Dream Detective.

Published in 1925, The Dream Detective recounts ten cases in the career of Moris Klaw. Klaw is pretty much what you’d expect an occult investigator to be - a rather shabby and oddly dressed old man, tall and stooped and with a bald head, and with a prodigious knowledge of the occult.

There is a fascinating difference though that sets these stories apart from the psychic detective stories of other writers. In most cases the psychic detective investigates supernatural happenings (or happenings assumed to be supernatural) using the methods of science (albeit very unconventional science of an occult nature). But Moris Klaw’s cases are essentially straightforward if unusual crimes without any overt supernatural elements, but he investigates them by methods that are most certainly occult.

Moris Klaw has come up with several singular theories of crime. The first is that very powerful emotions, such as those experienced by both a murderer and his victim, are imprinted on their surroundings where they can be recovered. Klaw does this by sleeping at the crime scene. In his sleep he receives a kind of mental photograph of the crime (hence the use of the term dream detective as the title of this collection). Klaw believes that thoughts have an almost physical existence, an idea that finds its fullest expression in the best story in the collection, The Case of the Veil of Isis.

His second theory is the Cycle of Crime. Certain objects, especially historical relics, are continually involved in a series of crimes often over the course of many centuries. To some extent this can be true of houses as well. As Moris Klaw points out in The Case of the Haunting of Grange, a haunted house is not haunted by one ghost over the course of many generations but rather by a new ghost in each generation, but the manifestations will always follow the same pattern. It’s not so much that the house is haunted by a ghost as the house itself possesses some quality that produces ghostly manifestations. In some cases this may be as a result of an atrocious crime or the career of a notorious scoundrel who lived in the house at one time.

Moris Klaw has an assistant - his beautiful and rather glamorous daughter Isis Klaw. She is the keeper of his occult library and her knowledge of such matters comes close to equalling that of her father. He often works with Inspector Grimsby of Scotland Yard. Grimsby had been a sceptic but after the affair in the Menzies Museum he is convinced that Moris Klaw is not merely genuine - he recognises that in any crime that has odd or unusual elements to it Klaw’s help is absolutely essential to him. Grimsby is young, talented and ambitious but most importantly he has a knack for working with other people.

Many of the cases involve archaeological artifacts and several are set in museums or involve collectors of artistic or archaeological objects. The Tragedies in the Greek Room are caused by the famous Athenean Harp, the most valuable item in the Menzies Museum. The Case of the Headless Mummies revolves around both mummies and the legendary Egyptian Book of the Lamps. The Case of the Potsherd of Anubis (one the best stories here) is about an ancient vase which is believed to have the power to summon great powers, an object sought by at least three different parties all with their own motives.

There is also, in The Case of the Case of the Crusader’s Axe, a battle-axe with a bloody history.

In The Case of the Blue Rajah the object is a fabulous diamond with a notorious history. In The Case of the Ivory Statue (another of the standout stories) it’s a modern work of art, but it is a statue of an ancient Egyptian dancer.

Sax Rohmer is best remembered for his Fu Manchu novels but he wrote in various genres, always entertainingly. The Dream Detective is a superb combination of crime and the occult, thoroughly enjoyable and original and is highly recommended.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Sir John Hawkwood: A Tale of the White Company in Italy

Sir John Hawkwood and his famous White Company have inspired quite a few writers, including most famously Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But so packed with action was Hawkwood’s life that even a team of writers working non-stop would scarcely suffice to chronicle all his adventures.

The real Sir John Hawkwood was the son of a tanner who dreamed of becoming a soldier. He achieved his objective, running off to join the English army fighting in France during the Hundred Year War. He was born to be a soldier and was knighted for bravery by the Black Prince after the epic battle of Poitiers (or so the story goes). With the coming of peace (not destined to be a permanent peace since the war would flare up again early in the following century) Hawkwood, along with many others, drifted into the life of a freebooter. He led a famous company of mercenaries known as the White Company and sold his services to the highest bidder.

Italy proved to be ideal for Hawkwood’s purposes with so many independent principalities and city-states and endless wars. The Italian mini-states made much use of mercenaries (or condottieri as they were known), a practice that could prove dangerous. Hawkwood soon gained a reputation as the most skillful and clever of all these soldiers of fortune. The condottieri were as famed for their treachery and their fondness for pillaging as for their military prowess but the White Company was, by condottieri standards, relatively well-disciplined. And while Hawkwood could be treacherous he was perhaps less treacherous than most (which isn’t saying much).

Hawkwood fought for many different employers, changing sides regularly. He ended his career as Captain-General of Florence.

Marion Polk Angellotti in her 1911 novel Sir John Hawkwood: A Tale of the White Company in Italy, presents us with a somewhat idealised portrait of the man. It’s based very loosely on an actual episode in his career but the author is more concerned with telling an entertaining story than with sticking to the historical facts.

As the story opens Hawkwood is in the service of Prince Antonio della Scala of Verona, a most untrustworthy and unpleasant employer. Verona is fighting a bitter war against the Duke of Padua. Hawkwood is given a task by his employer which he considers to be unworthy of a soldier - to pretend to kidnap the Princess Giulia so that dela Scala can pretend to rescue her. The prince’s hope is that the princess, who dislikes him exceedingly, will be so grateful that she will consent to marry him.

Hawkwood not only refuses the task, he hatches a plan to sabotage it. The grizzled old warrior is somewhat under the spell of the young and beautiful Giulia and he decides that for once in his life he will do something honourable, something that the Black Prince himself would have approved.

Of course everything gets more complicated for both the plotters and the counter-plotters and it seems that this quixotic adventure may yet cast Hawkwood his life. On the other hand it might make him feel like a true knight again and dicing with death is part of his trade anyway.

It’s a stirring and skillfully written tale of chivalry and knightly adventure. Angellotti’s Sir John Hawkwood might be a radically cleaned-up version of the original but he’s no plaster saint either. He’s an interesting mixture of ambition, greed, honour and courage.

The Black Dog Press edition (with the title of The Black Death) also includes a series of additional short stories written for the pulp magazine Adventure between 1911 and 1915 in which Angellotti recounts further adventures of hero, some dealing with events prior to the novel and some dealing with the later stages of his career.

There’s a fair amount of action in these tales although the author is more interested in intrigue and in her character’s personality than in giving us endless accounts of battles.

Born in 1887, Angellotti had a reasonably successful writing career in the early part of the 20th century and achieved her greatest and most lasting success with her novel Firefly of France, dedicated to the great French World War I air ace Georges Guynemer. For some reason she gave up writing in the 1920s although apparently she lived until 1979.

With its colourful and memorable hero The Black Death is definitely a worthwhile purchase for any fan of the pulps or adventure fiction in general.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Twelve Women Detective Stories

Twelve Women Detective Stories is an Oxford University Press paperback featuring twelve stories written between 1861 and 1950, all featuring women detectives.

Interestingly, most of the writers were male but lady detectives enjoyed quite a vogue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (a vogue that continues to this day).

As with any anthology the quality is variable but most of the stories are pretty good.

The weakest entry is Gladys Mitchell’s A Light On Murder, a very dull lighthouse murder tale from 1950 (and the most recent story in this volume). But it’s really the only dud story here. Arthur B. Reeves’ The Clairvoyants is a failure but at least it’s an interesting failure, an attempt to combine a story of confidence tricksters with Freudian mumbo-jumbo. Stories involving fake spiritualists usually appeal to me but this one seems rushed and the ending is too pat.

Anna Katharine Green's An Intangible Clue is also a little on the dull side besides being a trifle silly.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the other nine stories are pretty good.

There are some well-known writers here and some obscure ones, although many of the latter were quite well-known in their day. Baroness Orczy is among those who remain justly famous and her contribution is a Lady Molly of Scotland Yard story, and a very good one - The Man in the Inverness Cape.

Fergus Hume is remembered today mostly for his novel The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. His contribution is one of his tales of the gypsy detective Hagar, certainly one of the most unusual and quirky detectives featured here.

The earliest story in the collection is the anonymously authored The Mysterious Countess from a collection called The Revelations of a Lady Detective. Written in 1861 it is not just the first appearance of a female detective but dates from the earliest years of the detective story when the genre was only just beginning to take its modern shape. The heroine, Mrs Paschal, goes undercover. A mastery of disguise was of course a vital necessity to any nineteenth century fictional sleuth.

These are not all murder stories. Catherine Louisa Pirkis’s Drawn Daggers (despite its lurid title) is not a tale of murder but it still presents a challenge to Miss Brooke which she solves with her customary skill.

Hugh C. Weir’s The Man with Nine Lives tells of an unfortunate man who has survived no less than eight attempts on his life but the famous detective Madelyn Mack with discover that all is not as it seems. For my money this is one of the strongest entries in the anthology.

Even better is F. Tennyson Jesse’s Lot’s Wife, a very dark and twisted tale.

Grant Allen’s The Cantakerous Old Lady strikes a lighter note and is entertaining and rather charming.

L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace were an interesting male and female literary team and Mr Bovey’s Unexpected Will is fun, as are most of their stories.

Henry Cecil’s On Principle rounds off the anthology with a cynical but amusing twist and provides a suitable end point since it feels far more modern than any of the other stories.

These stories mostly date from a time when female fictional detectives were expected to be both ladylike and feisty. They rely mostly on their wits although at least one of the Victorian lady detectives has cause to regret that she lefty her trusty Colt revolver at home.  

On the whole quite a strong anthology and certainly worth picking up.