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In the early decades of the Twentieth Century, London was arguably the greatest city in the world. Sure, New York was nipping at its heels, and Paris could out-do both in terms of culture, but London remained the vibrant capital of a globe-spanning empire. It’s no surprise that the London of that era remains a popular setting for novels, from smoke-clouded gaslights to the London Underground to 221B Baker Street. With such a wide body of London-based fiction to choose from, it seems natural that the British Library would build one of its first two original anthologies around London mysteries. As the Golden Age of detection is largely associated with British writers of the 1920s-’30s, it makes sense that the series would focus on the iconic capital, home to many a good mystery. As always, Martin Edwards provides an excellent introduction to the volume, and more informative introductions to each story. As part of the British Library Crime Classics series, it is available now in the UK and will release in North America on June 2nd through Poisoned Pen Press.

British Library Crime Classics - 2015.

British Library Crime Classics – 2015.

Some of the earlier stories are a bit dry, though Edwards’ introduction gives them historical (and authorial) context, and Golden Age readers should well be familiar with the time period. Though there are a pair of big names (Conan Doyle and Margery Allingham), many of the authors are not as well-known today, and most are overdue for rediscovery—Edwards has a knack for pulling long-lost authors out of the past’s overlooked shelves, and gives each one a stellar introduction. Together, the London of these stories becomes a wonderful and atmospheric element, the perfect cityscape for half a century of classic crimes. No matter what elements of Golden Age Mystery you enjoy most, there’s probably something here to interest you: puzzlers, whodunits, some thrillers and suspense tales, some crime-focused stories, and a number of detective tales both straight-laced and sensational.

I’m more familiar with Ernest Bramah from his Kai Lung fantasies of a China that never was, but here he provides a quite serviceable detective tale featuring a blind detective. Despite how gimmicky that sounds, it’s well-realized depiction, as the blind man and one of his colleagues meet with one Mr. Poleash, fearing for his life after marital indiscretion; shortly afterwards, Poleash is found dead in his own apartment. R. Austin Freeman’s “Magic Casket” is a tale of scientific detection with strong “yellow peril” undertones, as Japanese criminals harass an elderly woman who deals in antiquities for a seemingly worthless carved casket. J.S. Fletcher has a similar use of sensational elements in his “The Magician of Cannon Street,” where a hypnotic murderer from a two-year-old crime is tracked down using clever disguises—an intriguing story that kept me reading, if a bit daft with some of its ideas.

Richard Marsh’s “The Finchley Puzzle” features female detective Judith Lee, who’s honed her lip-reading skills as a teacher for the deaf. As criminals make failed attempts at Lee’s life, an elderly couple living alone are found dead in their separate bedrooms, each untouched and uninjured. “The Tea Leaf” by Eustace and Jepson is the obligatory impossible crime, and it’s a real humdinger—a man is murdered in a sauna with only one way in and out, right after quarreling with his rival, who pleads innocence; with that kind of set-up, you can expect an ingenious solution.

The first tale, “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is one of several pieces combining horror and mystery. Doyle’s morbid little tale involves an arrogant surgeon called out to help a Turkish merchant whose wife had cut herself on a poisoned scimitar, and ends on the kind of chilling nastiness that makes Victorian-era horror so effective. There’s another suspenseful, horror-ish tale in “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole,” about a serial killer who’s strangling victims to death quite literally under the noses of the local police. Panic grips London as more bodies are found and the authorities come no closer to finding the mysterious killer; the conclusion is a wicked-sharp twist that caught me off guard. John Oxenham’s “A Mystery of the Underground” has another serial killer on the lose, slaying victims on the Tube and creating panic in the streets. Oxenham’s story is more sensational and less suspenseful, but he writes it rather well in an epistolary style, with journalists reporting the sudden murders and almost bumping into the killer themselves.

Together with Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries, Capital Crimes makes a great case for the British Library Crime Classics’ ability to craft original anthologies of vintage stories… though with Martin Edwards at the tiller, this should be expected. The quality and variety of the tales is astounding; Edwards has dug out some excellent stories by now-unknown authors. No matter what type of mystery you prefer, from puzzlers to suspense tales, there will be something here for you—not all may be your cup of tea, but I found the collection to be well-rounded enough that even the stories that normally are not my cup of tea were enjoyable and of high quality. A mystery reader interested in the Golden Age may well profit from these volumes, while a newer reader may find them informative of what authors and what kinds of stories they prefer. Readers more familiar with modern bestsellers may be disappointed by the older prose styles, but I think readers who know what they’re getting into will find Capital Crimes an excellent survey of the genre circa the first half of the 20th Century.

I received an eARC of this volume thanks to NetGalley, Poisoned Pen Press, and the British Library in exchange for an open and honest review.

Contents list:

  1. The Case of Lady Sannox by Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. A Mystery of the Underground by John Oxenham
  3. The Finchley Puzzle by Richard Marsh
  4. The Magic Casket by R. Austin Freeman
  5. The Holloway Flat Tragedy by Ernest Bramah
  6. The Magician of Cannon Street by J.S. Fletcher
  7. The Stealer of Marble by Edgar Wallace
  8. The Tea Leaf by Robert Eustace and Edgar Jepson
  9. The Hands of Mr. Ottermole by Thomas Burke
  10. The Little House by H.C. Bailey
  11. The Silver Mask by Hugh Walpole
  12. Wind in the East by Henry Wade
  13. The Avenging Chance by Anthony Berkeley
  14. They Don’t Wear Labels by E.M.Delafield
  15. The Unseen Door by Margery Allingham
  16. Cheese by Ethel Lina White
  17. You Can’t Hang Twice by Anthony Gilbert