Historical crime fiction is big right now and has been since the likes of Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and the Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters. And of course Victorian fiction is right in the thick of it all, thanks to the popularity of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. This particular 1992 volume of Victorian Tales, edited by Michael Cox, is an Oxford anthology that includes writers who actually lived and created stories during the reign of Queen Victoria, as opposed to present-day writers looking back on the era. The roster starts off with an Edgar Allan Poe tale from 1845 and works its way up chronologically through writers Sax Rohmer and Robert Barr (1904).
Editor Cox, who selected all the included stories, opens his Introduction with a G.K. Chesterton quotation about crime writers being divided into two types, "poisoners," who prolong the agony of anticipation or bewilderment in novel form, leaving the reader writhing on a sick-bed of baffled curiosity, or "cut-throats," writers who realize that the murder story cuts lives short and therefore chooses to startle readers via the quick stabs of the short story.
Cox goes on to add that, although the short-story form has inherent limitations, in capable hands these are turned into triumphant effect with pleasures for the reader that the detective novel can't provide. And the tools of those capable hands? An engaging narrative voice; a flamboyance of invention and an economy of style, compression and well-paced plot; and characters sketched swifly, but decisively, and tied back to the simple and surprising main idea. That's really not so much to ask, it is?
The 31 stories included more than meet the task, penned by masters, all. In addition to Poe, Rohmer and Barr, there are also offerings by J.S. Le Fanu, Charles Dickens, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs. Henry Wood, Wilkie Collins, Barones Orczy and Arthur Conan Doyle. The protagonists include police detectives, gentleman amateurs, lady detectives, one psychic detective and even an "anti-detective," in the form of Guy Boothby's Klimo, who devises a crime for himself to solve.
Stories range from M. McDonnell Bodkin's "Murder By Proxy," in which a gentleman is shot in the head at close range—by a murderer who wasn't in the same room, to J. S. Le Fanu's double-locked-room mystery "The Murdered Cousin," where gambling habits prove to be fatal. Conan Doyle's contribution is "The Lost Special," in which cunning Herbert de Lernac commits the "inexplicable crime of the century" by making a train and its passengers vanish into thin air.
If you're a fan of the Victorian era and the more genteel crime writing of the day, this anthology is certainly one you'll enjoy and want to add to your collection.
Todd Mason is collecting the Friday's Forgotten Books links for Patti Abbott today. Check his blog out right here.