Published by The British Library
Publication date – 10 June 2021
Source – review copy
Since the dawn of the crime fiction genre, animals of all kinds have played a memorable part in countless mysteries, and in a variety of roles: the perpetrator, the key witness, the sleuth’s trusted companion. This collection of fourteen stories corrals plots centred around cats, dogs and insects alongside more exotic incidents involving gorillas, parakeets and serpents – complete with a customary shoal of red herrings.
From the animal mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle and F. Tennyson Jesse through to more modern masterpieces of the sub-genre from Christianna Brand and Penelope Wallace, this anthology celebrates one of the liveliest and most imaginative species of classic crime fiction.
There is much to be said in favour of the short story. Done well, these are complete tales in their own right, neatly telling a story from start to finish, with a finite number of words and which don’t leave the reader feeling short-changed. Guilty Secrets is a collection of such short stories.
There are stories from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s eponymous Sherlock Holmes and G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown to forgotten stars of Golden Age crime writing such as Headon Hill and Josephine Bell. Most of the stories are only 10 pages or so long. There are of course others that are slightly longer but each is just the right length to read in one go, or in between other everyday tasks or on a quick break.
The stories stretch across a variety of geographical areas, from the South coast of England to India and the Rajah who uses snakes for his cruel punishments. The cases involve amateur detectives, private detectives, police officers and those who like to walk on both sides of the law and introduced me to many characters who would have been well known last century but who have since faded from memory.
A whole host of animals feature in these stories, from slugs to dogs, underwater inhabitants to airborne avian, though the most devilish animals to feature are of course the humans. It would be easy to give the game away if I were to mention all of the animals in these stories. Suffice it to say, in some cases the animal in question is integral to the story, in others it is as a supporting cast member.
As with any grouping of stories, there were some that stood out amongst the others. Favourites for me included Hanging by a Hair, The Hornet’s Nest, Death in a Cage, The Sapient Monkey and The Yellow Slugs.
All of the stories hark back to a time before DNA evidence was gathered, before fingerprinting was the norm and computers helped analyse information and evidence. The victims relied on the dogged determination of their allocated detectives, of intuition, skill and guile to crack the case. These are all examples of the art of detecting.
A great collection of tales, cleverly curated, that you can either sit and read or dip in and out of. Another worthy addition to the British Library Crime Classics series.