Monday, August 25, 2014

Vintage Mystery #33

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2014. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written before 1960 and be from the mystery category.

I read this for L-6: Mystery that involves a mode of transportation in a vital way

The Passenger from Scotland Yard – H.E. Wood, 1888
This novel fits the theme because the opening chapters feature the shenanigans on the overnight mail train to Dover and the crossing of the English Channel. Wood deliberately obscures what the five passengers are up to so we readers stay on guard. After a killing comes out of the blue, we wonder if the book will focus on the murder or the diamond theft.

Reading an early mystery, I had prepared myself for Victorian verboseness and digressions. I was pleasantly surprised by the tightly constructed plot. The characterization of the Scotland Yard man Byde, the fence Grandpa, the pickpocket Bat, and his vicious mentor St. John held my rapt attention. Only mildly stagey and wordy, the intricate and subtle conversations were enjoyable to read. The author feels affectionate toward Byde’s touching belief in education, especially the use of Euclidean geometry to consider and eliminate suspects. Mathematics fans will like Wood’s implicit assertion that training in math fosters clear thinking, a skill and habit that can be transferred to other areas of life.

The evocation of travelling by train in the 1880s is not the only effective period re-creation in the novel. Wood must have lived in Paris during that time because his believable descriptions of the people and places are full of life. Back then, when the cops were unable to identify a corpse, they would expose the remains at the morgue near Notre Dame so that worried friends and relative and perhaps curiosity-seekers and tourists too could stroll by and recognize the departed. I find descriptions like this most worthy tangents:

Passing to the rear of the cathedral, and skirting the little gardens which there lie, the inspector and his companions saw that groups of idlers had already congregated in front of the Morgue. Persons were also approaching from the bridges on both sides, and others were ascending the two or three steps at the entrance to the building. Visitors who had satisfied their curiosity lounged through the doorway, and down the steps, and augmented the knots of debaters scattered along the pavement. Some of the women and children were cracking nuts and eating sweetmeats, purchased from itinerant vendors who had stationed their barrows at the side of the road. One hawker was endeavouring to sell bootlaces; another was enumerating the titles of the comic songs which he exhibited in cheap leaflets, strung together on a wooden frame.

Just wonderful. In the midst of life, there is death, but in the face of death life rocks and rolls, cracking nuts and putting up song sheets on wooden frames. Fin-de-Siecle Paris I add to my list of places to have been cool to have lived.

In the introduction to the Dover edition released in 1977, editor E.F. Bleiler, whose job was to distinguish trash and treasure, considers The Passenger from Scotland Yard to be the best detective novel published between The Moonstone (1866) by Wilkie Collins and The Hound of Baskervilles (1902) by Arthur Conan Doyle.

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