A few years ago I picked up the Library of the World’s Best Mystery and Detective Stories from a garage sale on Queen Anne. Sadly, I now think I may have overpaid. There are six volumes in the set; this one covers American authors. I did not enjoy even one of the stories, except perhaps Bierce’s
The Man and the Snake and that one was marginal at best. It’s not that I expected to like all of the stories. But in a volume titled
best I would think that the stories would be somewhat timeless. Considering that H.G. Wells’ work retains much of its allure 100 years later, some of the
best mysteries should retain their attraction. Either that or Hawthorne picked badly.
I should note that the book so titled later had several other stories added and was titled
best in the title. So maybe they knew.
Here’s the individual stories:
Riddle Stories, introduction by Julian Hawthorne
- The editor, Julian Hawthorne pleads with his readers to accept detective stories as legitimate literature.
- A young man sees a woman outside his house and instantly falls in love with the ghostly presence, who he later sees from a train window. Still intrigued, he searches out the women and proposes marriage.
- A short story about a possible murder in the family mansion. A shadow appears on the wall after the death, and it doesn’t go away or move no matter how the lamplight is directed.
- This is the first short story in the book that I would consider fitting into the modern definition of a mystery story. In this one though, there isn’t much actual mystery. It stars Randolph Mason, who Post designed to be deliberately offensive. He is a criminal defense lawyer who actively schemes with his clients to help them find ways to get away with their crimes. Even today it’s not a usual subject for mysteries. In this case, Mason finds a loophole in the murder statute that requires either a body or an eyewitness. His client uses sulphuric acid to dissolve the body. With no eyewitness, but strong circumstantial evidence, the judge is still mandated by law to acquit him. While provocative, it isn’t a particularly compelling read.
- A former acquaintance returns to woo the hand of an heiress. Only she doesn’t recognize him at first.
- A man stays with a noted herpetologist and becomes mesmerized by the eyes of a snake that he finds in his room until he succumbs the the snake’s wiles and dies.
- A man returns to New York City with his wife, servants, and an oblong box. When the ship encounters rough weather and begins to sink, the man refuses to leave the ship without his box.
- According to the introduction by Hawthorne, this short story by Poe is the gold standard by which detective stories should be judged. I disagree. Perhaps it’s just that writers these days are so much better but I think not. Poe writes here of the strange behavior of William Legrand who finds a
goole bugand then leads his companions on what appears to be a wild goose chase for treasure. However, they find treasure, after which Legrand explains how he decoded a pirate’s message and cipher to find it. In particular, the explanation of deciphering is somewhat tiring if you have any experience with substitution ciphers.
Adventure of the Black Fisherman, Washington Irving
- These two associated stories (the latter being part of the former) tell another gold-hunting story, this time on Manhattan Island before New York City completely overran it. Unlike Poe’s story, Webber doesn’t find buried pirate gold. A ghostly presence attacks him in the middle of digging up what might be a chest. Webber is saved, but when he awakes and returns to the site in daylight, no sign of the gold may be found. It’s left to the readers’ imagination whether there ever was any treasure.
Wieland’s Madness, Charles Brockden Brown
- I read two of the chapters in this novella. Then I put it down. Ugh. Some chick sees a guy wander by the front of her house. Later she is accosted by him in a semi-good way, and she can’t keep him out of her mind. But no one knows who he is. Paragraphs and paragraphs about how she can’t keep his face out of her mind. I stopped reading.