by Sheila Cornelius
The twelve stories in this
collection will appeal Agatha Christie readers or Conan
Doyle's Sherlock Holmes fans. Typical motifs are clever types
of theft, disguise and impersonation, forgeries and intricate plots.
The chief characters are gentlemen' sleuths, or
well-born criminals, acting usually from motives of adventure rather
than gain. There's often a quixotic or Robin Hood-style
motive behind about the hero's actions.
Each story is preceded by a
useful contextual introduction with a short author
biography. In Grant Allen's The Episode of the
Diamond Links, millionaire Sir
Charles Vandrift, holidaying in Lucerne, is tricked into buying back
his own property by conman Colonel Clay, a master of disguise who was
to appear in a series of stories. The interplay of characters,
including a simple-minded curate and his bride, "a breezy
Scottish lass" enlivens an entertaining tale that ends with a twist.
In Guy Boothby's The Duchess of
Wiltshire's Diamonds "gentleman thief" Simon Carne uses a
box to steal a necklace. To carry out the plan he pretends to be Klimo,
fortune-telling mystery solver, as well as "the greatest
living authority on china and Indian art". Also a master of
disguise, his sidekick is his butler. The same idea of one character
playing two people so that one who disappears can be blamed for a crime
appears again in the much longer The
Willow Walk by
If fake diamonds are
standard fare, so too are Old Masters. In E. W. Hornung's Nine Points of the Law,
the cricket-playing, safe-cracking A. J. Raffles is set to retrieve "by fair means or foul" a priceless Velasquez.
Sidekick and narrator Bunny tries to put right his master's "mistakes" as they try to stay afloat in
haunts like the Café Royal and Lord's cricket
club. Raffles' insouciance and colourful expletives contrast
with the cautious Bunny: "For God's sake,
don't talk about the future!" I cried. "I
hate the whole thing; I'm going to give it up!" "So shall I,"said Raffles, "when
I've made my pile.'"
Robert Barr's The Mystery of the Five
Hundred Diamonds is the only
story with a detective as narrator, Eugene Valmont, precursor to Agatha
Christie's Hercule Poirot. Barr's tale is about a
police detective's attempts to guard priceless jewels at a
Paris auction. Hampered by gullible and/or incompetent colleagues, he
pits his wits against the world's top thieves. An unusual
aspect involves the tracking of a canal boat as it proceeds through
locks towards Le Havre. The urbane Valmont takes disappointment in his
stride. Like P.D. James' Inspector Wexford, he finds
consolation in verse: "As the English poet says: 'Full
many a gem of purest ray serene, The dark,
unfathom'd caves of ocean bear.''"
Arnold Bennett's A Comedy on the Gold Coast,
set in cosmopolitan Ostend, has a young millionaire playing cupid as he
tricks a wealthy older friend into letting his daughter marry the man
of her choice. Psychological realism and the well-known
novelist's descriptive powers provide a convincing backdrop
to a story about stock-market speculation.
Specialising in "vivid snapshots
of the European haunts of the rich ad
titled", prolific journalist turned author William Le Queux
loved to entice readers with the words "secret" and "mystery" in his
Story of a Secret
is a complicated narrative in which a chauffeur impersonates a count to
filch some papers containing classified information. It's the
only story with an explicit espionage theme.
author O. Henry's The
Philanthromathematics is a
piquant tale about a scheme to part rich young men from their money by
setting up a bogus college. The contrast between the high-minded
pretensions of academe and the colloquial language of the schemers
provides a humorous commentary. Here the chief schemer describes
reactions to the first intake: "They was mostly young,
bespectacled and red-headed, with sentiments divided between ambition
and food. Andy and me got ‘em billeted on the Floresvillians
and then laid for the students.'"
Another oddity is Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford,
George Randolph Chester's story of a hero whose chef talent
is beating America businessmen at their own game. Plucking inspiration
from mundane situations, Wallingford's interview with a young
would-be investor is particularly ironic, as he pretends to appoint a
secretary but is in fact secretly setting up his "mark" for the absurd
Carpet Tack Company".
Anderson's Blind Man's
takes a clever blind magician called Malvino and has him outwitted
by The Infallible Godahl, an unusually intelligent
master of disguise.
Hodgson's narrator in The
takes the form of a captain's log in a tale about smuggled
gems. Recalling the Sherlock Holmes story of the diamond hidden in a
goose-crop, the story's appeal is enhanced by the
captain's wry remarks about his troublesome passengers. His
exasperation is evident as he describes: "Mr. Aglae, a
sallow, low, fat, darkish man, short and most infernally
The longest and most complex
story is Sinclair Lewis's The
in which the protagonist passes himself off as two people so that one
of them can steal the contents of a bank vault and then disappear. With
a startling change of tone it turns into a Gothic tragedy with
overtones of Edgar Allen Poe and a macabre ironic twist at the end.
Edgar Wallace, whose stories
were turned into more than 160 films, is represented by Four Square Jane,
the first of a series which, like many others in this collection,
eventually appeared in book form. It has the classic elements of
sophisticated venues, a valuable "McGuffin", to
quote Alfred Hitchcock, in this case a priceless
painting, and a thief with a charitable motive. Economical narration,
cleverly planted clues, mysterious messages and convincing dialogue
make this, in my opinion, the best of a well-researched and distinctive
Read a story
from this collection on Penguin Classics
Cornelius completed a
master's degree in Literature and Society at Goldsmiths
College, London. She's written a book and articles about Film
as well as some unpublished fiction, including short stories. Sheila
enjoys crime fiction and is a member of several reading groups.
Michael Sims is the author most
recently of In the Womb: Animals (adapted from two National Geographic
Channel documentaries); he is also the author of Apollo's Fire: A
Journey through the Extraordinary Wonders of an Ordinary Day, which NPR
chose as one of the best science books of 2007; Adam's Navel: A Natural
and Cultural History of the Human Form, which was a New York Times
Notable Book and a Library Journal Best Science Book; and Darwin's
Orchestra: An Almanac of Nature in History and the Arts. For Penguin
Classics he also edited The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel and Arsene
Lupin, Gentleman-Thief, and he is currently editing The Penguin Book of
Victorian Women in Crime. He has written for many periodicals, from the
Washington Post to New Statesman.
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