RogerBW's Blog

Grab Bag, Charlotte Macleod 30 January 2020

1987 collection of short mystery stories by MacLeod.

I've said before that short mystery stories tend to suffer by comparison with novels because there isn't room to do the character development that I really enjoy; they hew closer to the story-problem format, having to lay out a complex problem and resolve it in a very limited space. But with a writer who doesn't always do a great job of character development anyway, but is able to indicate which stock character they're using with great economy, they can work rather better…

There is, admittedly, a certain saminess to some of these stories (mostly published in the mid 1960s, with a few from the 1980s): MacLeod is quite fond of setting up an expectation (e.g. about who's the criminal and who's the victim) and then reversing it.

  • “Homecoming” (new here) is a story of what Max Bittersohn gets up to when he's away from his wife: pulp theatrics with the Infamous Dr Yang and incompetent henchmen. It's quite enjoyable and doesn't overstay its welcome, but it doesn't really fit with the setting of the Bittersohn-Kelling stories. Or the rest of the book.

  • “Monique” (started in 1966, new here) is a slightly drab tale of a seedy massage parlour (no, not that sort) that flounders because its narrator is a cipher: why does she keep going back to this not terribly good masseuse in the first place, and having established the habit why does she then break it off? That's not crucial to the plot, but it would help the story hold together. It works, though.

  • “Rest You Merry” (1965) is the prototype of the novel of the same title: there's no criminal element, just the setup of the Christmas decorations and the objector who gets his revenge.

  • “Fifty Acres of Prime Seaweed” (1985) is Yankee rurality; the high jinks with a helium balloon sit oddly against a tale of domestic murder.

  • “It Was an Awful Shame” (new here) is the prototype of The Convivial Codfish; it's interesting to see what was a core idea in that book and what was added on later.

  • “The Mysterious Affair of the Beaird-Wynnington Dirigible Airship” (1986) is a parody of the house-party murder, with a bunch of reputable-appearing guests who are in practice no such thing, and a plot which may be predictable but still works reasonably well. Not to mention

one glorious pendant earring of blazing rubies and sparkling brilliants, along with a note which, translated from the French, read simply but meaningfully, “You know what you must do to get its mate.”

  • “A Snatch in Time” (1963) is a tale of time travel and obsession that works superbly, for all its comic framing.

  • “Clean Slate” (1965) is another rural Yankee tale, this one about a general store; it feels like an anecdote more than a story, but it works all right.

  • “The Felonious Courtship of Miles Peabody” (1965) is a somewhat tired tale of social manipulation; it's all right, but nothing special.

  • “Force of Habit” (1965) has a widow moving into a new flat and kept awake by mysterious nuns. It's a bit too obvious what genre this is going to fall into.

  • “Better a Cat” (1966) is a very short story that's mostly twist, but none the worse for that.

  • “Lady Patterly's Lover” (1965) has the young wife and the crippled husband and the lover… and some surprising good sense.

  • “Journey for Lady G.” (1966) could almost be a Saint story, as the poor gentry try to sell off a painting and run into fraudsters.

  • “Father Knew Best” (1967) is a tale of mushrooms that doesn't owe anything to The Documents in the Case but does its own thing very well.

  • “Assignment: Marriage” (1967) has the police helpless against a serial wife-murderer, unless one of their own… it's rather fun, and I'd have liked to read more about this character.

“Then I assume what you really want is for me to make sure he finds her. Where would be the best place for me to get picked up?”

That was in truth exactly what he wanted, but hearing it stated so calmly appalled him. “Inspector Fanshawe, do you honestly mean you'd be willing to marry a man simply to get him pinched?”

She shrugged. “Women have married for sillier reasons. I shall need rather substantial expense money if I'm to be a good catch.”

  • “More Like Martine” (1966) has a woman in the shadow of her more successful sister, stuck in hospital and worried that her husband is going to leave her. It's a little pat but still enjoyable.

  • “The Dastardly Dilemma of the Vicious Vaudevillian” (new here) has a variety show threatened by an unscrupulous rival, and the detective who effortlessly sorts everything out; like “Dirigible Airship” it originated as a plot for a live action affair (it's not clear whether this was a play, a murder party, or something in between).

There's vastly more range here than MacLeod displayed in the novels I've read; if there'd been this much variation among her four series, I'd have enjoyed them a lot more. Going by publication dates, the majority of these pre-date MacLeod's series-writing career, which began with the novel-length Rest You Merry published in 1979; and they have some very different voices, some of which showed very slightly in her early series novels but which I find distinctly more interesting than her main body of work.

I'm going to have to track down some of her early non-series novels now.

Not every story's a hit, but most of them are worth reading. Recommended.

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See also:
Rest You Merry, Charlotte MacLeod
The Convivial Codfish, Charlotte MacLeod

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