Murder Under the Sun edited by Cecily Gayford

Sun, sea, sand and slaughter. What more could a body want from a summer holiday? Well, perhaps a decent all-you-can-eat buffet, a prime pool-side position and a good book to while away the time with. Luckily, Murder Under the Sun has the latter requirement covered in comprehensive style, collecting as it does nine vacation-based short stories reminiscent of the Golden Age of murder.

Edited by Cecily Gayford, the collection features works by famous names from the annuals of classic crime, as well as a couple of more modern stories with a similar atmosphere and tone. Among the names that will be particularly familiar to fans of the British Library’s Crime Classics series, which has made great strides in reinvigorating the reputations of unfairly forgotten authors, are Anthony Berkeley and Michael Innes.

Berkeley’s Double Bluff sees his series detective Roger Sheringham musing on the merits of circumstantial evidence as he strives to clear the name of a young man accused of an unusually overt murder in the bucolic village of Monckton Regis. While Sheringham plays things close to his chest in his customary way, which makes it a little tricky to solve the case alongside him due to his failure to share clues, the story is notable for seeing him far more riled up and emotional than usual.

In Cold Blood, Innes’ best-known detective, Sir John Appleby, reminisces about a holiday he spent at the south coast hotel recently purchased by his friend Charles Pellow. While Pellow doesn’t keep an insane ex-wife in the attic, he does have an eccentric father in the most palatial guest room. It is this father’s death that casts a pall on Appleby’s visit and no amount of extravagant catering can distract him from it. The irony is strong with this one and the twist is nicely satisfying.

It’s not the only story with a sting in the tale either. Simon Brett’s The Girls in Villa Costas is narrated by a world-weary holiday rep with his eyes on the prize marriage-wise. Not even the richly evoked atmosphere and customs of the Greek island can distract him from his plotting and hilarious consequences ensue. The sarcastic and somewhat sneering tone of the narration is a little jarring at first, but the overall style and mood of the story mean it fits in well with its more classic counterparts.

Another outlier is Birthday Gifts by GDH and M Cole, mainly because the authors are the least well known of those featured in the collection. Still, the way in which Henry Wison, former Superintendent of Scotland Yard, stumbles upon a murder while investigating a tiresome commercial case in Whitehaven neatly captures the accidental way in which so many Golden Age crime stories embroil their detectives. Plus, the modus operandi is particularly ingenious, making it one of the cleverest stories in the collection.

A further trope of classic crime fiction, particularly short stories, is the inclusion of a horrific, almost supernatural aspect to an otherwise entirely mundane mystery. In this collection, this aspect is delivered by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Brazilian Cat, which sees Marshall King visiting isolated Greylands Court in the hope of borrowing money from a previously unknown cousin. There’s no Sherlock Holmes, but there is a spooky country house, a hostile welcome and a potentially deadly puma.

Although the world’s greatest consulting detective doesn’t feature, a number of other famous sleuths do. Edmund Crispin’s The Undraped Torso sees Gervase Fen investigating why a generally publicity-hungry man is suddenly violently opposed to having his photo taken, while The Long Shot by Nicholas Blake involves Nigel Strangeways pursuing the murderer of his host during a fractious house party. Despite their brevity, both stories neatly capture the essence of the relevant sleuth and pose a pretty puzzle for them to solve.

Less noteworthy is the even briefer The Knife by Gladys Mitchell, which presents an angry wife’s monologue rather than a mystery for Mrs Bradley. When compared with how much the other stories manage to achieve within their limited page counts, it falls flat and was perhaps included solely due to being written by a doyenne of crime fiction rather than due to its own merits. This raises a criticism that can be applied to the collection as a whole: it would have been beneficial if Cecily Gayford had included either an overall introduction or a brief preamble to each story, explaining the reasoning behind her selections.

One other criticism can also be raised as, unfortunately, the longest story in the collection is also the weakest. While Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael stories are excellent, her thrillers are often less than thrilling and A Lift into Colmar is no exception. The plot is as meandering as Johnathan Creagh’s interminable car journey through France, yet punctuated by sudden bursts of unlikely and unexpected events, as he attempts to evade a young female admirer. Speaking of whom, there are some sexist and alarming age-gap-related comments, particularly at the start.

Yet, featuring far more hits than misses when it comes to vacation-based villainy, Murder Under the Sun makes it clear that whether you choose to holiday at home or abroad, in a picturesque village or in a metropolitan city, there’s no guaranteed escape from death and destruction. As such, there’s plenty of intrigue and puzzlement to be enjoyed while attempting to solve the myriad murders that take place during summer sojourns.

Also try Billie Houston’s Twice Around the Clock or Bernard J Farmer’s Death of a Bookseller.

Profile Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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