Michael Dirda Picks Mysteries You Won’t Find on the Bestseller List

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Last week, my wife finished listening to her latest audiobook, “The Death of Mrs. Westaway” by Ruth Ware, which she summed up as “almost too captivating.” Those words—the kind a publicist might splash on the cover of a paperback—virtually guaranteed that I wouldn’t add Ware’s novel to the pile of mysteries near my bedside table. Anything seriously suspenseful upsets my emotions and can easily upset me for days. Therefore, I much prefer smart who-and-how, where my brain, rather than my guts, is trained.

Despite this innate wimp, I actually bought Will Thomas’ first book because of its quietly thrilling title, “Some Danger Involved”, but then – head down in shame – never had time to read it. read. Since then, Thomas has produced a dozen other novels set in late Victorian England, all about “private investigative agent” Cyrus Barker and his associate Thomas Llewelyn. Feeling I should have rightfully explored this series a long time ago, I spent a few enjoyable evenings earlier this month with its latest, “Fierce Poison.”

The book opens when Roland Fitzhugh, a newly elected MP, stumbles into Barker and Llewelyn’s offices, gasps that he needs their help, and immediately dies on the spot. Poison. Barker understandably feels honor bound to solve Fitzhugh’s murder.

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As the investigation proceeds, the reader learns that Barker, middle-aged, physically tall, grew up in China, speaks Cantonese, and was once a pirate in the South China Seas, then later the partner of the former heavyweight champion of England. He also has a large fortune and regularly pays checks to organizations that help the poor and downtrodden. His best friend and former second in command, Ho, now runs a somewhat dodgy tearoom in London’s East End. Several other characters from previous episodes of this Sherlock Holmesian series, including the beautiful Lady Ashleigh, make appearances.

Unlike his boss, Barker’s partner Thomas Lewellyn – the book’s narrator – is around 30, married, eager to have a child and rather anxious. Amid considerable chaos, he periodically longs for a quiet evening at home with Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White.” Given such an obvious clue, readers familiar with this complex plot masterpiece will guess the motive for Roland Fitzhugh’s death – though the identity of his murderer remains a surprise.

All in all, “Fierce Poison” provides enjoyable entertainment for gaslite-era crime enthusiasts. Yet viewed critically, Thomas’ plot feels lightly padded, key revelations happen by chance, and various characters behave in ways that don’t make sense. Still, both heroes engage, so I’m now actively hunting for my copy of “Some Danger Involved.” It is in this house, but where precisely is a mystery.

In 2005, Guillermo Martinez, an Argentinian novelist with a doctorate in mathematics, released a worldwide bestseller called “The Oxford Murders”. In “The Oxford Brotherhood”, Martinez reunites his anonymous narrator – presumably himself – and Professor Arthur Seldom as they attempt to solve a series of crimes involving a missing page from Lewis Carroll’s diary. Sounds good already, doesn’t it?

A young researcher named Kristen discovers a scribbled note that sheds new light on Alice Liddell – the child friend who inspired “Alice in Wonderland” – and her notorious photographs of unclothed little girls. Before she can upend years of Carrollian scholarship, Kristen is hit by a car and nearly dies. Soon after, someone starts killing people in a way that mirrors episodes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

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Suspicion inevitably falls on the Lewis Carroll Brotherhood, headed by a retired British intelligence officer. Disturbing, even sordid, elements linked to its various members gradually emerge, including the suicide of a young girl, possible pedophilia and the coded list of clients of a pornographer.

Overall, “The Oxford Brotherhood” – translated by the multilingual Alberto Manguel – is somewhat meandering but satisfying enough, save for one flimsy explanation for one particularly shocking death. Kristen’s groundbreaking discovery, however, turns out to be speculation already familiar to members – including me – of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.

Crippen & Landru only publish collections of short stories, but these do exceptionally well. Two of the offerings this spring include William Brittain’s “The Man Who Solved Mysteries,” edited and presented by Josh Pachter, and “Hildegarde Withers: Final Riddles?” by Stuart Palmer, presented by Steven Saylor. Both feature highly effective and highly enjoyable puzzle stories, originally published in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

Brittain’s detective is Leonard Strang, a high school science teacher who lends his logical mind to all sorts of crimes: where did a cheating student hide the stolen exam answers? Who is planting bombs in various municipal buildings? How was a man’s skull crushed while standing alone on the porch of two bachelors? What’s weird about the odometer on the car used in a small town burglary? Some of Mr. Strang’s exploits featured in a previous Crippen & Landru collection, “The Man Who Read Mysteries”, which also focused on Brittain’s stories about protagonists who draw inspiration – for crime or its solution – works of famous novelists. The titles follow a pleasant formula: “The man who read John Dickson Carr”, “The woman who read Rex Stout”, etc.

Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers is a sharper American version of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, which should be enough to recommend her to thriller fans. Yet her exploits in this second Crippen & Landru collection, after “Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles” in 2002, are almost eclipsed by Palmer’s two excellent Sherlock Holmes pastiches and her account of the strange case of David Lang, in which this Tennessee farmer allegedly disappeared in front of witnesses as he simply walked through a field.

Let me conclude by alerting Baker Street enthusiasts to “A Sherlock Holmes Notebook”, by Gary Lovisi, the very able editor of Paperback Parade magazine. Despite some misprints and sloppy prose, it offers profusely illustrated chapters on publishers, collectors, films and books inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal detective.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

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