Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Mammoth Book of Vintage Whodunnits: Maxim Jakubowski (Ed)

A compilation is almost always likely to be a bit like a curate’s egg, because the editor’s choices are rarely likely to match any one reader’s totally. And Vintage Whodunnits follows this beat. Though one must confess that on average it is not such a bad collection. The only grouse I have is that some of the stories in this collection cannot even be loosely categorized as a whodunnit (not even as crime, in the odd instance). This is more surprising, considering there isn’t quite a shortage of whodunnits to choose from. (And as an aside, is it whoddunit or whodunit? The latter, suggests, Microsoft Word, the former is what the editor has used, not just here, but in some of the other compilations he has put together as well.)

The most interesting part about Vintage Whodunnits is that the editor has included stories from authors who are generally not known for their crime fiction – people like Arnold Bennett, Alexander Pushkin, Bulwer Lytton, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Thomas Hardy. And some of them actually churn out a good yarn, especially Thomas Hardy with The Three Strangers. The master of countryside description spins a classic set in the English countryside he knows so well, and proves that crime is no stranger to his pen. Typically evocative of the setting, the plot is tight, if a bit predictable. Of course, a couple of others demonstrate that the whodunnit is not quite their métier, like the entirely predictable and rather naïve Murder! by Arnold Bennett and the utterly unreadable and incomprehensible The House and the Brain by Bulwer Lytton and The Limitations of Pambé Serang by Rudyard Kipling. Then there is Mark Twain with the hyperbolic humour of The Stolen White Elephant and an equally funny but much more believable A Personal Magnet from O Henry.

The usual suspects are there of course, spinning their tales effortlessly and effectively, like Wilkie Collins with The Biter Bit, Baroness Orczy with The Dublin Mystery, Alexandre Dumas with Markheim, and the inevitable Edgar Allan Poe with The Purloined Letter and Arthur Conan Doyle with The Adventure of the Three Students – not the best Sherlock Holmes mystery, but not a bad pick for this compilation. And then there are those characters – E. W. Hornung’s Raffles, Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin (the story Edith Swan-Neck is a real classic), Ernest Bramah’s blind detective Carraras, and the eponymous Nick Carter (the modestly titled tale Nick Carter, Detective is a real let-down, a bit of a waste of time, really).

A varied collection, Vintage Whodunnits is a good companion for a relaxed weekend.