Saturday, August 20, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 4 tales from The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories

Collection: The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories
Editor: Patricia Craig

Title: Bring Back the Cat!
Author: Reginald Hill

Joe Sixsmith, a Brit of West Indian derivation, is a fledgling private eye called on to help find a cat that's gone missing. The owner, Mrs. Ellison, is a neurotic woman who lives in the sort of neighborhood where a man with Sixsmith's skin color is usually mistaken for the gardener. Her family is a strange, antagonistic bunch: a husband who lounges around reading the paper and pretending he's uninterested in Sixsmith's amateurish sleuthing, and two sullen, dysfunctional teenagers - a son, Auberon, and a daughter, Tittie (an apt nickname). Their next door neighbor, Bullivant, is cantankerous and has a ferocious dog (the prime suspect?).

There's more going on in this household than a missing cat, and from the start Sixsmith is in over his head. Part of what makes the story funny is that the people he interviews assume that he knows more than he does, so they offhandedly share things about themselves that startle him; at times he hits on the right line of questioning by accident. Sixsmith is not a stupid man by any means, just inexperienced, with a tendency to mull things over rather than make quick timely deductions. He's a likable guy with a dry sense of humor, and he does his best to deal with these people; by the end he's uncovered everything, inadvertently, and only realizes it after the fact.


Title: The Killing of Michael Finnegan
Author: Michael Gilbert

After a spy is brutally murdered, his widow and two of his colleagues work together to track down the killers and attempt to foil a terrorist plot. The story contains a novel's worth of material: a back-stabbing insider, forced confessions, some politics, sharp efficient characterizations, strong emotional moments, a race against the clock, and dry humor mixed in with the deadliness of the characters' undertakings.


Title: The Oxford Way of Death
Author: Robert Barnard

It has happened twice in the last year that a student would begin to read his weekly essay to a normally comatose old gentleman, only to find on concluding his piece that he had been reading for some time to a corpse.

At St. Pothinus's Hall, the Fellows are for the most part aging and wedded to their ways; they don't care much about their college's poor academic record, so long as they can stay comfortably encrusted to their posts. When the Fellow responsible for teaching Ancient Persian passes away in front of his one student, the other Fellows wonder who can replace him. The mischievous Wittling, who teaches classics, finally points out a suitable candidate: Sandowa Bulewa, who is - horrors! - a woman. Not only a woman, but a young black woman who had studied at Cambridge and the Sorbonne. With the exception of the story's narrator, Peter Borthwick, who at age 47 is the second youngest man there and considered too forward-thinking, the Fellows can't stomach the thought of Sandowa Bulewa as a colleague, though Wittling is willing to give it a try if only to stir things up and make trouble. Little does he know that his suggestion will lead to his death.

The Oxford Way of Death is an excellent dark comedy, a funny and disturbing look at the amorality, conformity, and stagnation often found in academia. Even the forward-thinking narrator, good at stating his principles and making his indignation known, will subside like the rest. As he says: "It's amazing what we liberal intellectuals can take in our strides, when we set our minds to it."


Title: Three is a Lucky Number
Author: Margery Allingham

"At five o'clock on a September afternoon Ronald Frederick Torbay was making preparations for his third murder." Torbay is a black widower, and one way the author builds suspense is to have him think back on his first two murders even as he's getting ready for the third. In some respects his wives have been similar - middle-aged women, unnoticed and unused to affection, who also have some money; in other ways their personalities have differed, with his current wife (and soon-to-be victim) the most sensible one so far. The story's spark comes mostly from the details, the mounting suspense, and the hope that Torbay will get his comeuppance.


Other recommended stories from The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories: Death on the Air (by Ngaio Marsh) and Great Aunt Allie's Flypapers (by P.D. James).