I’m a big fan of Christianna Brand, considering her not only one of the best puzzle plotters of the Golden Age, but also a top writer of dialogue. Up to this point, I’ve focused on her novels with the exception of her excellent short story Twist for Twist (which I really should get around to reviewing at some point). Her short story collections are incredibly difficult to come by in physical form for a reasonable price, but patience has led to me snatching up Brand X and Buffet for Unwelcome Guests rather cheap. The latter is notable for containing a bibliography towards the rear which lists out all of her short stories (the contents of which seems to have lately made its way to wikipedia). While skimming through the list of short stories, it caught my eye that a dozen or so weren’t included in any of the Brand short story collections. It’s the uncollected story Cloud Nine that led me to Verdict of 13.
This anthology was assembled by Julian Symons, who at the time was the president of the famed Detection Club. Each story within the anthology was written by a member of the club specifically for the anthology, as opposed to this being a collection of pre-existing works. That makes this an interesting collection, as you’re getting original stories by names as notable of Symons, Brand, Michael Gilbert, Michael Innes, and Ngaio Marsh. Most of these stories have been published in other collections since, although three seem to still be exclusively available here.
Symons’ concept for the anthology was stories that deal with a jury, although he made clear that it need not involve twelve jurors or a court of law. Having read this collection, I’d translate that as “stories that involve someone being judged by others.” In fact, of the stories, only one actually involves a courtroom jury at all. And that’s a good thing, as thirteen stories in a row concerning court cases would be enough to try anyone’s sanity.
Overall it’s a solid collection. There’s no outstanding entry of the Twist for Twist or The House in Goblin Wood variety, but most all of the stories will leave you glad that you read them. Although this was published in 1978, many of the tales take place in the first half of the century, giving the collection a classic feel.
Before we get to the actual stories, the book starts with a forward by Julian Symons. It’s an interesting read, covering the history of the Detection Club to its present day. Symons presents it as somewhat of an arc: a highpoint in the early years up until Dorthy Sayers’ death in 1957, doldrums under the presidency of Agatha Christie (attributed to her shyness), and a resurgence (coinciding with Symons’ ascension) at which point the dusty old rules were discarded. At least that’s his take on it…
Great Aunt Allie’s Flypapers – PD James
An aged widow dies, leaving her fortune to a great nephew that she’d only met as a small boy. The nephew has since become a priest, and is conflicted about taking the money. He wants to validate that his great aunt was truly innocent of the crime that she was acquitted of some sixty years prior: the murder of her then aged husband.
I’m a sucker for a murder in retrospect, and this short leaves me wanting for more of PD James. Although the story was written in 1978, much of it is seen through the eyes of the past, so there’s a classic feel to it. The story gets its name because apparently women used to soak flypaper in water to extract arsenic, which was then applied to the face as a beautifying agent. Interestingly, this trick for extracting poison comes up again in Christianna Brand’s entry to the anthology.
I actually caught the relevant clue, contemplated it, and then discarded the theory. As a result I somewhat saw the twist coming, but it was still a strong finale.
Also collected in The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories and Murder in Triplicate.
Rogue’s Twist – Gwendolyn Butler
Another look into a murder from the past, told somewhat oddly through a series of conversations at dog training classes (during which the dogs are fed chocolate as a reward!). Butler does this thing that I always hate – referring to characters in multiple ways, in this case both by their name and in respect to the dog that they own. That sort of thing always muddles things enough to where I lose interest rather than strain to keep track of who is who.
As the story goes on, you pick up that someone in the class is a detective and another has obviously got to be the culprit. The most interesting part is probably the interpretation of what constitutes a jury. I doubt that the evidence presented would hold up, but a decent entry.
Twenty One Good Men and True – Dick Francis
This is one of those odd entries that breaks – no, repositions – your expectations for the collection. A set of short narratives told from seemingly random characters coalesces into a story on illegal betting at a racetrack. The mystery lies in how people are able to consistently place guaranteed bets on a horse race. I wouldn’t track down this anthology just to read this, but it really threw a fun curve into Verdict of 13.
This story is also available in the Dick Francis collection Field of 13, under the alternate title Blind Chance.
Verdict of Three – Michael Gilbert
Perhaps not unexpected from Gilbert, we get a story involving a spy in post-war England with a past in Northern Africa. It’s a common theme based on his own time in the war, most famously depicted in his prison camp impossible crime novel The Danger Within.
The spy in question is called into the office and accused of sharing political secrets with the enemy. There’s a flashback to prep school and a similar situation that the spy faced as a youth. This isn’t so much of a mystery, but more a man twice put into a tight spot and the question of how he’ll make it out. The tension across the split narrative made this a read that flew by.
Also available in the Michael Gilbert short story collection The Curious Conspiracy.
Cloud Nine – Christianna Brand
This is the title that I bought the collection to read, and I’ll say that it disappointed a bit. It’s a strange set up – three nineteenth century women find themselves sharing a cloud in heaven. What they have in common is that they were all acquitted for murder. The story is basically a conversation between them in which they each protest their innocence, with a coy wink that they were really guilty.
Brand chose her cast from history – Adelaide Bartlett, Florence Maybrick, and Madeline Smith are all real women acquitted of the crime of murder. Madeline Smith may be familiar to Brand fans for her staring role in a Brand novel published under the name of Mary Ann Ashe two years prior to this collection – Alas, for Her That Met Me! (although it’s noteworthy that Smith is portrayed in a different light in Cloud Nine). Brand was clearly interested in these historical trials (further evidenced by her 1960 novel Heaven Knows Who, covering the trial of Jessie M’Lachlan) and has done a fair amount of research into the crimes.
There isn’t that much of a mystery here, it’s more Brand playfully spilling the details of each crime. I suppose the central puzzle involves Adelaide Bartlett, who was accused of poisoning her husband. A fatal dose of chloroform was discovered in his stomach, yet swallowing that dose should have caused burns in his esophagus. An enthusiastic fan might label this as an impossible crime, and indeed Brand makes the punchline of the story an explanation of how the poisoning was accomplished (although it isn’t anything especially interesting).
I’m curious is Julian Symons was influenced by Brand’s entry, as he published Sweet Adelaide (1980) two years after this anthology was released, which provides a novelization of the Bartlett crime.
Pelly and Cullis – Michael Innes
This is the only story in the collection that explicitly involves a jury, although they deliver a body instead of a verdict. The jury has already decided on the guilt of the man on trial, but moments before they deliver the verdict, one of the jurors is found to be dead in his seat. This raises the question of whether a verdict can truly be delivered, as not all 12 men are able to acknowledge that the judgement truly is “the verdict of you all”.
It’s an interesting premise, but Innes doesn’t make much of it. There’s great potential in the puzzle of how the juror was poisoned, as it must have been one of the eleven other jurors while they were deliberating. The solution ends up being really frustrating, making this the least memorable in the collection. This is twice now that I’ve read a short story by Innes, and twice that he’s provided a disappointing resolution.
Available in the 2010 collection Appleby Talks about Crime.
Something the Cat Dragged In – Patricia Highsmith
A cat drags a severed hand into a house, and the homeowners decide it would be better to nose around a bit rather than call the police. Based on initials engraved in the wedding ring found on the hand, the family figures out the likely victim. The story gets pretty tense as the investigation leads closer and closer to the killer. Unfortunately Highsmith takes her foot off the gas rather than providing the ending this deserved. Still a riveting read.
Also available in the Patricia Highsmith collection The Black House (1981).
The Postgraduate Thesis – Celia Fremlin
This gets the “I didn’t see that coming” award for the collection. A young man attempts to rent a summer cottage to devote some time to the novel he’s writing, but ends up relinquishing it to a young woman who’s dead set on staying there. It seems that the house was the scene of a brutal murder some centuries in the past, and echoes of the crime are said to still haunt its walls.
Everything about this story was saying “supernatural twist”, but then wow… It’s just not the type of twist that I’ve seen in anything else I’ve read. There’s something Paul Halter-ish about this story, and while I don’t want to oversell it, if you stumble upon it, it’s worth your time. The Post Graduate Thesis is also available in the Celia Fremlin collection A Lovely Day to Die (1984).
Gup – H.R.F Keating
This story unfolds as a series of gossip between various groups of people, and it’s a bit hard to follow because of that. The characters involved in the telling of the story shift every page or so, making it difficult to get your bearings until you acclimate to the style. There’s a murder of a British woman in India, told through the point of view of the locals. Nothing about the crime or the resolution is particularly interesting. If anything, the story is memorable for the style in which it’s told.
Murder at St Oswald’s – Michael Underwood
A class full of school boys plot to poison their cruel teacher. It’s an amusing read because the boys have no clue about how to actually acquire or make the poison. The twist in the end had me laughing out loud.
Also collected in the imaginatively named Detective Stories (1998).
Morepork – Ngaio Marsh
A camping trip in remote New Zealand goes bad when a member of the party plummets to his death while attempting to cross a bridge over a ravine. An examination of scene suggests that the bridge had been sabotaged. A set of flooded rivers have stranded the campers, preventing them from getting help, but also suggesting that it was one of their own who tampered with the bridge. This leads to an informal trial, giving the story its jury angle.
It’s an interesting set up, but man, Marsh handles it clumsily. There’s a particular piece of evidence that is so obviously going to lead to the guilty party, and one character’s reaction to learning of its existence evaporates any remnants of a mystery.
This story is also available in The Collected Short Fiction of Ngaio Marsh.
Who Killed the Cat – Peter Dickinson
Peter Dickinson has been on my radar due to the impossible crime featured in his novel The Poison Oracle – a book that has long sat on top of my To Be Read pile without actually making the transition off of it. Who Killed the Cat is an interesting introduction to Dickinson, as it’s easily the strangest tale in The Verdict of 13. This is a science fiction story, populated by a single human and a bunch of strange aliens. Each alien is named after the animal that it most closely resembles – Bird, Hippo, Mole, Skunk, etc – although Dickson has created some fantastical differences for all of them.
Out of this diverse alien cast we get Cat, our victim. Cat has been bludgeoned to death, and there’s a mystery of who had the opportunity and motive to commit the murder. There’s a barrage of sci-fi world building thrown at you in the sixteen pages, and I think most any reader is going to be so taken in by the alien wonders that the mystery kind of takes a back seat. The ending is great and very much reminded me of something Ray Bradbury might have written.
Also collected in Tales of Elemental Creatures under the title “The Fifth Element”, although apparently with alterations.
Waiting for Mr McGregor – Julian Symons
A gang of revolutionary thugs – dubbed The Beatrix Potter Brigade and decked out with animal masks and pseudonyms from Peter Rabbit – attempts to kidnap an aristocrat’s son, but the plan goes awry. Suspecting that one of their own members is a plant, the group stages a trial. I’m reluctant to call this a mystery, as it’s really just stooges throwing accusations around, but I suppose there’s the question of who the inside man is. It’s an interesting enough read, but nothing memorable.
Also collected in The Man Who Hated Television.
Overall, it’s a high quality collection, although there aren’t any titles that I’d go ringing a bell about. The highlights for me were the entries by Peter Dickinson, Celia Fremlin, and PD James.