Thursday, July 17, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Books: A Treasury of Great Mysteries

I'm the type of person who will walk into an antiques store, shoot past all the furniture, china and other trinkets and head straight to the books. On a recent antiquing spree, tucked away in a little nook near the back, I found a near mint condition of the two volume set, A Treasury of Great Mysteries edited by Howard Haycraft and John Beecroft (1957). I got quite the bargain at $1 for each book. The first volume in the anthology is a staggering 576 pages of eleven short stories, novelettes and full length novels from Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, and Eric Ambler to name a few.

The first mystery I read from the collection was Margery Allingham's The Case of the White Elephant. I became an instant fan. Detective stories at the time could be straightforward and simple, but her storytelling and character development had a level of maturity akin to Christie. Elephant was my first introduction to adventurer and amateur detective, Albert Campion, who was originally a supporting character in The Crime at Black Dudley (1929). In Elephant, Campion squares off with an international spy ring and although the plot is slightly dated, it’s nevertheless compelling because Campion is a wonderfully drawn character. I’m planning to search out more of Allingham’s Campion books. The Guardian posted a great article in 2006 about what makes Allingham such a pleasure to read.

John Dickson Carr is a master at the locked room mystery and his The Incautious Burglar (also known as A Guest in the House) was probably the best short story I read from this set. Carr’s ace detective, Dr. Fell, is investigating the murder of the wealthy Marcus Hunt, who is stabbed in his own house wearing a cat burglar outfit. Was Hunt planning to pilfer his own uninsured art collection and, if so, why? Of course, every guest in the house has a motive.

I was unfamiliar with author Edgar Wallace and I found his contribution, The Treasure, unfortunately, weak. The plot has the protagonist, Mr. J.G. Reeder, employing a recently paroled thief to catch a murderer. The thief believes that Reeder, like all detectives, has a hidden treasure trove of stolen goods and so he trails Reeder in search of the alleged riches. The thief and his accomplice are led to a lodge where Reeder supposes (with no real substantial evidence) a woman's body is buried. The thief quickly locates a misplaced stone where he assumes Reeder's wealth is stashed. I won't tell you what happened next, but it left me wondering why a master detective would need the assistance of a bumbling thief to solve a crime. I won't judge Wallace's career on one short story considering that more than 160 films have been adapted from his works.

Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is an undeniable classic, yet I had never read the Cornell Woolrich short from which the film is adapted. The plot is basically the same but the story has fewer characters. Hal Jefferies is immobile for the most part and spends his days spying on neighbor, Lars Thorwald. Jefferies suspects Lars has murdered Mrs. Thorwald, and a police detective friend, Boyne, warily entertains Jefferies suspicions but eventually leaves him on his own. Jefferies recruits his day houseman, Sam, to help investigate. Sam is basically the roles of Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter combined, which is where Hitchcock improved the story by adding more character depth and suspense. In the original, Sam has plenty of time to enter and leave Thorwald's residence whereas in the movie, we are on the edge of our seats as Grace Kelly's character nearly gets caught by Thorwald. Still a good story but the movie is better.

If you like golden oldies, it doesn't get much better than this collection. A Treasure of Great Mysteries is available used from Amazon.

The list of titles for A Treasury of Great Mysteries Vol. 1:
-- Murder In The Calais Coach, Agatha Christie
-- The Case Of The Crimson Kiss, Erle Stanley Gardner
-- The Treasure Hunt, Edgar Wallace
-- Maigret's Christmas, Georges Simenon
-- Puzzle For Poppy, Patrick Quentin
-- The Secret, Mary Roberts Rinehart
-- The Incautious Burglar, John Dickson Carr
-- The Lamp Of God, Ellery Queen
-- The Case Of The White Elephant, Margery Allingham
-- Rear Window, Cornell Woolrich
-- Journey Into Fear, Eric Ambler


Anonymous said...

I go straight for the books also. Someday when you and little D visit at the lake I will share my books with you.


David Cranmer said...

Sounds like a plan. I miss spending time on that lake. Lots of great memories...

pattinase (abbott) said...

These books are so helpful in steering you toward authors you might love.

James Reasoner said...

Our local library had this two-volume set when I was a kid, so I read it more years ago than I like to think about. Great stuff. If you haven't read Queen's "The Lamp of God" yet, you've got a treat waiting for you.

David Cranmer said...

Patti, I totally agree. Margery Allingham in particular was a find for me.

David Cranmer said...

James, it's true, there are some great stories in this set. I haven't gotten to The Lamp of God but it's up next. Speaking of Ellery Queen, I have been looking for the Jim Hutton TV series from the 70's. I haven't seen it since I was a kid, and I'm kind of interested in how it's aged after all these years.

Barrie said...

I'm just like you in an antique store--right to the books. Thank you so much for providing the entire list of title and authors. Lots of good info!