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The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime:
Con Artists, Burglars, Rogues and Scoundrels from the Time of Sherlock Holmes

Michael Sims (ed)

"As far as I can see, messieurs, there is not much to choose between you. You, Monsieur le Chevalier, desired to buy the diamonds at the price of paste. You, madame, feared you had bought paste at the price of diamonds. You, monsieur the secretary, tried to get stones from an unsuspecting person for half their value. He took you all in, that brave Colonel Caouchouc – it was diamond cut diamond"

Reviewed 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 false-bottomed 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 Sinclair Lewis.

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 top-drawer 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 titles. The 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.

Internationally famous author O. Henry's The Chair of 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 "Universal Covered Carpet Tack Company".

Frederick Irving Anderson's Blind Man's Buff takes a clever blind magician called Malvino and has him outwitted by The Infallible Godahl, an unusually intelligent master of disguise.

William Hope Hodgson's narrator in The Diamond Spy 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 inquisitive".

The longest and most complex story is Sinclair Lewis's The Willow Walk, 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 selection.

Read a story from this collection on Penguin Classics

 Sheila 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.
Sheila's other Short Reviews: The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 2008

Anne Enright "Taking Pictures"

Courttia Newland "Music for the Off-Key"

Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-shorts

Liz Niven and Brian Whittingham (eds)  "Bucket of Frogs"

Andre Mangeot "A Little Javanese"

Publisher: Penguin Books

Publication Date: 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

Editor bio: 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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