More English Mysteries

A couple of weeks ago I picked up another set of short stories by J. S. Fletcher from the city library stacks, titled Green Ink (1926). It was the perfect fiction companion for the end of the day.

These are not classic whodunnits such as you’d find in Agatha Christie or Conan Doyle.  A number of stories involve some humorous scams, such as con artists getting the better of conniving innkeepers, and one in which an unassuming but astute antique dealer outwits a haughty duchess who has been involved in some financial fakery. The title piece “Green Ink” is particularly good and atmospheric. Fletcher is a master of imaginative settings:

Episcopus Lane in Wrychester… was a short, narrow, dark alley, along which few people ever passed. The houses on either side were so old that their timbered fronts leaned towards each other, shutting out sun and sky save in occasional glimpses and patches; consequently the panelled and wainscoted chambers and rooms within their walls were sombre, gloomy, and provocative of silence.

“The Edge of a Precipice” is more of a love story with a psychological twist in which an Englishman returns to a remote town on the North Sea coast after a long sojourn in America to reclaim his old sweetheart. She turns out to be very different than he remembered. Fortunately he learns the truth in time, albeit at the cost of his old romance. The best story of the collection, “High Tide,” also takes place on the sea side—a rocky bit of isolated beach near an inlet where an artist has decided to camp out for a few weeks in order to capture the perfect picture on his canvas.

He wanted to find a thoroughly desolate bit of coast, an inlet, a creek, wild, solitary, romantic, and on its shores a derelict ship, a wreck that should express loneliness in its most extreme form.

It is a tale of piracy, murder, hidden treasure and a mysterious old sailor who meets a sad and fitting end. It is compellingly told even though there is no action other than the gradual unraveling of the mystery from the clues that the artist is able to gather over time. “A Collar Stud” is the story of a Jeeves-like “gentleman’s gentleman” who stumbles on the murder scene of his employer. The narrative is carried along by urbane and witty characterization, reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse, but with a more sinister ambiance.

Earlier this year I read Fletcher’s short story collection, The Heaven-Sent Witness (1930). The Yorkshire author was prolific beyond belief, and he seldom achieved great depth, but for me his tales are always entertaining and easy to read.

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