Monday, August 1, 2011

Crime Fiction on a EuroPass: England

I've committed to another challenge. I finished Bev's Vintage Mystery Challenge easily.  I started her Color Challenge and it went out the window after two books. Maybe I 'll finish it by the end of the year

But this one -- the idea of Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise -- has a built in deadline of every Monday for the next 12 weeks so I think I'll be able to commit and deliver. Plus it's not strictly about reading and reviewing a single book. I can write about the setting used in a book or an author from that country or create a  reading syllabus (lists are easy) of books featuring the country. A wide choice is available. It made it for a very attractive challenge. So here goes...

Stop #1 is England. Too much to choose from. Where do we go?  Who do I pick?  I feel I need to write about someone or some book well deserved of reading but utterly forgotten.  So how about Christopher St. John Sprigg?  His books have been out of print for decades, two of them are nearly impossible to find, and all of those I have read were witty, puzzling and far from your average whodunit.

C. St. John Sprigg
 Sprigg wrote only seven mysteries and had one series detective Charles Venables, a gossip columnist turned crime reporter, who appeared alongside Inspector Bray. The duo appear in only three books. I've read one of those. In the US it was published as Pass the Body (The Crime in Kensington in the UK) and includes an impossible crime.  The novel takes place in the Garden Hotel – a fancily named boarding house that is home to quite a motley crew and run by the Budges, a husband and wife who don’t get along very well.  When the wife disappears from her locked bedroom on the third floor foul play is suspected.  One of the boarders who was keeping the woman company is suddenly whisked away from the door by a mysterious someone and later turns up locked in a wardrobe.  The search for Mrs. Budge is on but when her head turns up in a hatbox the search turns instead for a clever and cruel killer.

I also enjoyed The Corpse with the Sunburnt Face which for the most part takes place in West Africa.  The story is a blend of the crime novel and the supernatural and plays up some black magic and African folklore elements in the story of a Britisher caught up in the activities of great Kwana festival (utterly fictional).  The ending may well remind hardcore detective fiction devotees of the controversial ending of The Burning Court by John Dickson Carr.

Death of an Airman includes an impossible crime as well. It has a tendency to ramble a bit. But the detective character, an Anglican bishop, makes up for the cumbersome passages with his wit and insightful observations.

The Six Queer Deaths incorporates occult and supernatural aspects, but also reveals Sprigg's Marxist leanings. By 1935 he was avowed Communist and wrote political treatises under the pseudonym "Christopher Caudwell." He even wrote a Marxist interpretation of poetry. The story is more somber than his previous six detective novels, but still has some imaginative aspects in the plot.

Someone should reprint most of these titles in easy to afford paperback editions. Sprigg's work is entertaining and unusual. It stands out from the majority of the work in a period of the Golden Age known for formulaic stories and cardboard characters. I'd class him alongside Christianna Brand for he shares her talent for wit, an arch prose style and clever plots.

The Detective Novels of C. St. John Sprigg
Crime in Kensington (1933) aka Pass the Body
Fatality in Fleet Street (1933)*
The Perfect Alibi (1934)
Death of an Airman (1934)
The Corpse with the Sunburnt Face (1935)
Death of a Queen (1935)*
The Six Queer Things (1937)

*These two titles are the most difficult to find. I have yet to find either title anywhere.

For the complete list of posts celebrating England as Stop #1 in this Crime Fiction EuroPass Challenge go to the Mysteries in Paradise blog.


  1. Aha! No wonder you immediately jumped aboard my idea for a Baantjer tribute, the date perfectly coincides with this Europass challenge. And here I was thinking you actually cared... :(

  2. Thanks for this contribution John

  3. I joined the Europass challenge to allow myself a well-deserved crime reading binge and the opportunity to clear some of the titles currently languishing in my TBR. However, given that I will be in close proximity to the antiquarian bookstores in Edinburgh during August, this challenge could turn out to be quite dangerous ... My bank manager is already looking quite anxious!

  4. John, you've definitely interested me with this author... Curses! I'm supposed to be RETURNING stuff to the library, not borrowing more out!!! The university has some of his stuff, including "Corpse with the sunburned face" (although that last one is online only)... Darn, I'll have to remember it for when I come back.