Fancies Decently Fresh (by R.T. Raichev)

R. T. Raichev is an expert on Golden Age-style mysteries whose articles related to the genre have appeared on this site several times. This time, he turns his attention to the authors Edmund Crispin and P. D. James, discussing a stand-out story from each. A spoiler warning is in order here, as the plot of each story is discussed in detail. R. T Raichev’s own short stories appear in EQMM frequently. This year’s July/August issue contained his story “Sweet Death,” an entry in his series starring mystery writer Antonia Darcy and her husband, Major Payne, characters who have also been featured in several critically acclaimed novels. We have another story in the series coming up in 2023.  —Janet Hutchings

One 19th century critic reviewing the Sherlock Holmes stories wrote, “In view of the difficulty of hitting on any fancies that are decently fresh, surely this sensational business must soon come to an end.” What the critic was prophesying was nothing less than the imminent demise of the mystery genre—despite the fact that the latter had only just evolved and was proving extremely popular with the public. Even more surprisingly, the critic seemed to regard the Sherlock Holmes stories—the very same stories that were causing copies of the Strand magazine to sell in record numbers—as the genre’s swan song.

It was a truly extraordinary prophecy, foolish and presumptuous and doomed to remain unfulfilled. More than 150 years have passed since the inception of “this sensational business,” i.e., of the mystery genre, and stories involving crime and detection are more popular than ever. There have been duds, inevitably, but the best examples of the genre have had the power to puzzle, bamboozle, charm, amuse, amaze, hold in suspense and provide intellectual stimulation to generations of readers—and they continue to do so.

The two short stories I have chosen to discuss have more than fifty-five years between them. They are both strikingly original, they stay in the mind and, considered as “fancies,” they remain more than “decently fresh.”

Edmund Crispin’s “Who Killed Baker?” was first published in London’s Evening Standard in 1950. It appeared in book form in 1979, in the collection Fen Country. While seeming to fit perfectly in the traditional whodunit mould, complete with clues, red herrings and some clever misdirection, it is also a trick story, an ingenious exercise in reader manipulation and a witty post-modern jeu d’esprit. It has been condemned by some as “gimmicky” and as an “anti-crime story”—charges which would have delighted its author who was famous for his mischievous sense of humor.

Edmund Crispin was the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery (1921-1978), an English crime writer of some note who was also a composer. Crispin took an academic interest in the genre and reviewed detective stories for the Sunday Times. His oeuvre encompassed nine novels and two collections of short stories, all of which he infused with his own brand of whimsical comedy and erudite literariness. He was, in the words of Julian Symons, one of the “farceurs.” The other farceur was Michael Innes—real name J.I.M. Stewart—whom Crispin’s greatly revered. Indeed “Edmund Crispin,” the pseudonym he chose for himself happens to be the name of a character in Innes’s 1936 novel Hamelt, Revenge. As we can see, meta playfulness has been one of the hallmarks of Crispin’s detective fiction from the very start of his writing career.

The story’s very title—”Who killed Baker?”—must be one of the most unusual strategies of deception in the history of detective fiction. What it does is plant the idea in the reader’s mind that they are reading an orthodox whodunit in which a character called Baker is killed and that the point of the story is to discover the identity of Baker’s killer. Up to a point this is true—but not entirely.

What we get is a story within the story which opens with a post-prandial gathering of academics, discussing—over walnuts and stuffed dates—the superiority or otherwise of philosophy over criminology. Professor Gervase Fen is one of those present. Fen is Crispin’s serial sleuth, though in this particular instance his role is confined to that of a raconteur. And it is a role he plays very cleverly indeed. How cleverly we only realize when we reach the denouement and it dawns on us that, had the story been told differently, had there been no emphasis on the question in the title and had the phrase “the body” been substituted with one containing more specific information about the victim’s identity—well, then there would have been no mystery at all.

But Fen plays it fair. He warns the company that “it’s a case in which the mode of telling is important—as important, probably, as the thing told.” He also says that “the situation which resulted in Baker’s death wasn’t in itself complicated or obscure.”

The dramatis personae are paraded for our inspection starting with the eponymous Baker who is paunchy, wears dandified clothes and has “black, heavily brilliantined hair”. He is the owner of a toy-making business; he is wealthy, self-important and something of a sadist. He doesn’t seem to have a single redeeming feature which, in keeping with the genre’s conventions, makes him the perfect whodunit victim.

Baker’s wife Mary is young and attractive, with a “Rubensish” figure and she is bullied by Baker. At the time of the murder she is having an affair with their chauffeur Snow. A reference is made to the 1935 cause celebre involving Alma Rattenbury, whose young lover killed her husband—and readers are left to wonder whether perhaps a similar fate awaits Baker.

The fourth person staying at the house is Baker’s business rival Eckerson. The reason for the latter’s visit is to discuss a possible merger of his business with Baker’s. We are told that Eckerson is obstinate but only in business matters—apart from that his personality is entirely colourless—which seems to be reflected in his physical appearance—he is an albino. We hear that Eckerson and Baker “antagonized each other from the start.” Thus Erickson is also added to the list of possible suspects.

The body is discovered by the Bakers’ cook Mrs Blaine who catches a glimpse of it through the drawing-room window, lying in the shadow of the fireplace. She immediately notices the dark, veinous blood streaking the hair. The murder weapon is later revealed as a kitchen knife, which was aimed at the jugular vein but is found to be “innocent of fingerprints.” A burglary has been staged, rather amateurishly, clearly in an an attempt at creating a smoke screen.

It is not a hard case to solve and within twenty-four hours the police have made an arrest. As for the question, Who killed Baker? the answer is: the public executioner. (This is 1950s England and capital punishment is still very much in evidence.) Baker was found guilty and subsequently hanged for the murder of Erickson, his business rival.

This denouement is met with a howl of rage from one of Fen’s companions. Fen admits that it is a trick story, though he points out that ample warning has been given. The story was told in a way which only suggested that Baker was the murder victim. Clues were provided, such as the cook seeing the dead body through a window and spotting blood on the hair—but Fen had made it clear that Baker’s hair was dark and heavily brilliantined—so no blood would have shown on it, certainly not when glimpsed from a distance—ergo the body couldn’t have been Baker’s. Erickson, on the other hand, was an albino and, as everybody knows, albinos’ hair is notoriously white . . .

“Who killed Baker?” revolves round one deceptively simple question on which the story depends for its ultimate effect. It is a bold experiment in story telling which manages to be at once devious and scrupulously fair. It is sui generis, one of its kind. It employs a single very specific and very ingenious idea as a fulcrum for its plot. It delivers its coup in a way that can’t be replicated in any subsequent performances.

                                      * * * *

The characters in P.D.James’s “The Part-time Job’ also operate in the shadow of the hangman’s noose. The story is set in 1953, the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, though it was written in the new millennium and published in 2006 (in the anthology The Detection Collection ed. by Simon Brett). It is interesting to note that the characters are the same age as James who was born in 1920.

P.D. James needs no introduction. At the time of her death she was the doyenne of English crime fiction and was often referred to as the Queen of Crime. She penned nineteen novels, two collections of short stories (which I personally prefer to the novels) and three books of non-fiction. She must have been at least 85 when she wrote “The Part-time Job” and one can’t help admiring the clarity, incisiveness and general excellence of her prose in addition to the mesmerizing insights she provides into the troubled mind of the anonymous narrator.*

The story is an exquisitely composed, ghoulishly macabre, morally ambiguous account of a revenge served very cold. It is a first-person narrative that takes the form of a posthumous confession. The  anonymous narrator informs us that by the time we read this, he will be dead. He then explains that he resolved to kill his tormentor, Keith Manston-Green, when he was 12 and that he managed to achieve his ambition at the age of 33. (Which happens to be Jesus’s age when he was crucified. One is left wondering whether this should be seen as an instance of James’s penchant for dark irony.)

We learn that the narrator and Manston-Green were at school together. Manston-Green was a bully who terrorized his victim mercilessly for years. As though in passing, we are also told that while working at the family locksmith business later in life, the narrator had a part-time job, the same part-time job as his late father’s. The revelation of what the part-time job involves is in fact the big surprise at the end of the story.

We become privy to the narrator’s thoughts and actions—to the meticulous planning that goes into committing the perfect crime and how he contrives to derive the the most visceral of satisfactions from it. (In this respect the story is similar to such classic tales of revenge as Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and Maupassant’s “Vendetta.”) While we may sympathize with the narrator for the terrible bullying he suffered, we are also disturbed by the display of so much murderous hatred, the harboring of such long-term grievances and by the obsessive, single-minded, indeed manic, pursuit of revenge that involves the killing of an innocent person.**

The narrator carries out his plan patiently, systematically and with clockwork precision. He starts by sending anonymous messages to Manston-Green—each containing “the same insinuating poison”—taunting him over his young wife’s alleged infidelity. This leads to public rows between Manston-Green and his wife, which is as the narrator intended. He then bludgeons the wife to death with one of the bully’s golf club and makes it look as though it was Manston-Green who did it in a paroxysm of extreme jealousy.***

Some readers may ask, if he got away with the wife’s murder so effortlessly, why didn’t he just bludgeon the bully to death instead? Wouldn’t that have been more satisfying and more certain than going through the tremendous effort of setting up Manston-Green for murder—hoping without being sure that the jury would find him guilty and condemn him to death?

The answer is no. Simply eliminating his bully wouldn’t have done. Earlier in the story we are told that in 1939, at the start of the war, the narrator—only 19 at the time—feared that Manston-Green may be killed in action and that he may be remembered as a hero—an idea he found “intolerable.” His aim was to “make Manston-Green suffer over months of protracted agony”—while waiting for his execution—just as the bully had made him suffer for years.

In the last two pages of the story we finally learn that his part-time job, so far only enigmatically alluded to, is that of a public hangman. It is he—the narrator—who puts the rope round Manston-Green’s neck, thus fulfilling his ultimate goal, his lifetime ambition. He informs us that he is “a meticulous craftsman,” as was father before him, that he is “highly experienced.” What makes his joy complete is the certainty that Manston-Green has recognized him—he sees it in his eyes—in the one second before he slips the white hood over his head and pulls the lever.                                                                                      

The narrator’s anonymity adds a chilling undercurrent to our perception of him since it conjures up the idea of the dangerous, nameless stranger some of us fear. It also affords an opportunity for the reader to project themselves into the narrator’s shoes more effectively. Anyone who may have been bullied and may have wanted to exact revenge gets their chance to do so, vicariously, by reading this story.

*Compare to the sad muddle of “The Harlequin’s Tea-set,” the last short story Agatha Christie ever wrote when she was in her early 80s.

** This is not the first time P.D.James has written about a character’s obsession with revenge. Her novel Innocent Blood (1980) is about a father who plans to kill the woman who killed his young daughter. Her short story “The Victim” (1973) is concerned with a wronged husband who plots—“systematically and with dreadful pleasure”—the murder of the man who stole his young wife away from him.

 *** The idea of a murder being committed for the sole purpose of implicating another person and making him suffer for it is not new. It was used at least twice by Agatha Christie, in her novels Murder is Easy (1939) and Towards Zero (1947). It is interesting to note that the cover of “The Part-time Job”—published as a separate booklet in 2020 to mark what would have been P.D.James’s 100th birthday—is similar to to the first-edition cover of Towards Zero, in which the murder weapon is also a golf club. Both covers show a stylized drawing of a golf club.

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