Beware of the Trains (1953) is a collection of sixteen short mysteries by Edmund Crispin (real name: Bruce Montgomery) that appeared in London newspapers in the late forties and early fifties. It is therefore understandable that they would be short on character development; Crispin, in his Foreword, explains their lack of ambition:
A short story can aim either at atmosphere or at the anecdote; those which follow belong, with the exception of ‘Deadlock’, to the second category. All of them embody the nowadays increasingly neglected principle of fair play to the reader — which is to say that the reader is given all the clues needed to enable him to anticipate the solution by the exercise of his logic and common sense. He should note, however, that for the solutions of ‘The Drowning of Edgar Foley’, ‘Within the Gates’,’Express Delivery’, and ‘The Golden Mean’ he will require in addition some fragments of technical or near technical information on about the level of the average newspaper quiz.
Despite such disclaimers, however, all of the stories are accessible to any reader — which is not to say that Crispin, who read Modern Languages at Oxford, is incapable of linguistic flourishes on occasion. In the following excerpt, notice the carefully balanced phrasing that leads the reader onward to the “sting” at the end:
Thus it was that Gervase Fen, ambling with rather less than his usual vigour from St. Thomas’s Hospital, here he had been visiting a friend, towards St. James’s Park, through which he proposed strolling prior to dinner at the Athenaeum, paused to examine the brass door plates and signboards flanking this particular doorway; and in so doing found himself shoulder to shoulder with a man who had just half a minute to live.
Crispin’s sleuth is Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, who is described thus:
His ruddy, clean-shaven face was pensive; his long, lean body sprawled gracelessly, heels on the fender; his brown hair, ineffectually plastered down with water, stood up, as usual, in mutinous spikes at the crown of his head. For perhaps two minutes he remained staring, mute and motionless, into the amber depths of his glass ….
Fen is very much the armchair detective in these stories, solving cases purely with his intellect and scarcely exerting himself: no fistfights, gunplay, or car chases for him (quite different from the Fen of, say, The Moving Toyshop).
Beware of the Trains (1953)
by Edmund Crispin (1921-78)
Short Story Collection: 16 Stories
1. “Beware of the Trains”
A whistle blew; jolting slightly, the big posters on the hoardings took themselves off rearwards — and with sudden acceleration, like a thrust in the back, the electric train moved out of Borleston Junction, past the blurred radiance of the tall lamps in the marshalling-yard, past the diminishing constellations of the town’s domestic lighting, and so out across the eight-mile isthmus of darkness at whose further extremity lay Clough.
Fate had a conjuring trick in preparation, and they were needed as witnesses to it.
“It’s occurred to me that he may be dead and cut up into little pieces. But I still can’t find any of the pieces …. Good Lord, Fen, it’s like — it’s like one of those Locked-Room Mysteries you get in books: an Impossible Situation.”
Comment: It’s up to Gervase Fen to connect the disappearance of a motorman (driver) from a train and the death of a burglar. It’s murder, all right, and Fen’s good friend, Detective-Inspector Humbleby of the Metropolitan C.I.D., can be relied upon to be flummoxed: “Rather a simple device, really ….” remarks Fen with a yawn. As in many of Crispin’s short stories, the action takes place in a relatively short time period, between midnight and dawn in this case.
2. “Humbleby Agonistes”
“In my job,” said Detective-Inspector Humbleby, “a man expects to be shot at every now and again. It’s an occupational risk, like pneumoconiosis in coal-mining, and when you’re on duty you’ve obviously got to be prepared for it to crop up. But a social call on an old acquaintance is quite a different matter.”
“… he’s the sort of man it’s impossible to visualise outside the context of dogs and guns and an interest in dahlias …”
… he had the precarious, CONSTRICTED air you notice in people who are trying to think of two things at once.
“… the possibility of blackmail neither shocked nor astonished me particularly …”
… he’d stopped and was standing like a man in a trance, staring at the revolver in his hand as if he couldn’t imagine what it was or how he’d come by it.
Comment: Gervase Fen as the perfect armchair detective, leaving it only to recharge drinking glasses; D.I. Humbleby recounts the odd occurrences involving an old friend from “the 1914 war,” and Fen solves it in real time. The story’s format was pioneered by Poe, utilized by Doyle on occasion, and is still favored by Paul Halter.
(Why “Agonistes”? This is speculative, of course: In John Milton’s SAMSON AGONISTES, the sightless Samson — like the clueless Humbleby — is “Blind among enemies, O worse than chains”; the Inspector, being too close to the subject, could be metaphorically “eyeless in Gaza.”)
3. “The Drowning of Edgar Foley”
In a room in Belchester Mortuary — a plain room with a faint smell of formalin, where dust-motes hung suspended in a single shaft of sunlight — the financier and the labourer lay on deal tables under greyish cotton sheets, side by side. The scene was of a sort to evoke facile moralising, all the more so since the labourer had left his wife moderately well off, whereas the financier had died penniless.
… if Fen had never set eyes on the widow of Edgar Foley, the topic of Foley’s death might well have lapsed, and in that case an unusually mean and contemptible crime would probably have gone unpunished.
“Yes. HE’S where he belongs. And if his widow isn’t exactly inconsolable, you can hardly blame her, can you?”
“You’d think it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.” Fen lit a cigarette. “Only sooner or later, you know, they wake up of their own accord; and then there’s liable to be trouble anyway ….”
“Just one thing,” said Fen affably, “if you don’t mind. It’s this: after the recovery of Foley’s body, what did you do with his boots?”
Comment: Fen is able to prevent a gross miscarriage of justice; speaking of which, a passage from Hans Gross’s CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION serves to disprove an alibi; meanwhile Superintendent Best unwittingly aids Fen’s investigation.
4. “Lacrimae Rerum“
“You chatter about ‘the perfect crime’,” said Wakefield irritably, “but you seem incapable of realising that it isn’t a topic one can ARGUE about at all. One can only pontificate, which is irrational and useless.”
“What I have in mind is a murder which was committed several years before the war — the first criminal case, as it happens, with which I ever had anything to do.”
“The murderer is at the present moment living quite openly almost next door to New Scotland Yard.”
“… something in the last paragraph of that letter struck me as being ever so slightly odd ….”
“… I was on the point of leaving, in a welter of civilities, before he quite unexpectedly let the cat out of the bag.”
Comment: Fen reminisces about his first case, the one that got away. It helps, but is not essential, to be familiar with Tchaikowsky’s Sixth Symphony; as for the title, it has a specialized significance for two characters. (Latin: “tears of the world”, rerum being a feminine noun, which may or may not be of any significance.)
5. “Within the Gates”
It was immediately outside the entrance to an office building, within a stone’s throw, almost, of New Scotland Yard, that the thing happened.
The assailant struck viciously at his victim’s unprotected head, snatched the typescript from his hand as he fell, and scrambled back into the car, which slewed away from the curb with a squeal of tyres, and in another instant was gone.
“Discretion,” said Fen with great complacency, “is my middle name.”
“… method, as opposed to intuition, always IS slow.”
Comment: Fen witnesses a crime and smokes out a traitor; the death of a cipher expert leads our sleuth to a solution relating to cryptogams (note the spelling); D.I. Humbleby is still two steps behind Fen. (The title here is probably from Milton’s PARADISE LOST, Book X, line 230: “Within the Gates of Hell sat Sin and Death”.)
6. “Abhorred Shears”
“It’s the Bolsover case,” said Humbleby dolefully. “A person named Bolsover has been murdered, and I can’t make out how it was done.”
“Very earnest and science-minded, is young Fred: the sort,” said Humbleby with all the savagery of a cornered humanist, “that reads books in his spare time about how motor-cycles work, with a widow’s peak and dotty-looking eyes behind his glasses and a brash, cocky way with him.”
“The next thing, obviously, was to discover which of our three suspects had opportunity to drop atropine into Bolsover’s tankard. And for our sins, we found that they’d all had opportunity.”
Comment: A comparatively slight story but with good deductions by Fen; Humbleby is certain one of three people murdered a new-found relative: They all had opportunity and motive but not, apparently, the means. (The title? Crispin explains in his Foreword: “The title ‘Abhorred Shears’ has caused some perplexity, and an explanation may perhaps be acceptable here. The relevant lines are in Milton’s LYCIDAS: ‘Comes the blind Fury with th’abhorred shears, And slits the thin spun life.’ The particular Fury referred to is of course Atropos. And atropine, named after her, is the poison which figures in my tale.”)
7. “The Little Room”
She was a trim elderly woman, well laced in, with greying hair and rather hard features, and she had a good command of that most devastating of a salesman’s weapons, uninterrupted speech.
Well, they got engaged, and the wedding was all set for a day last June. And then, on the actual morning of her wedding-day, Betty disappeared.
For some little time he was happily occupied with filter paper, hydrogen peroxide, and a solution of benzidine sulphate in glacial acetic acid.
Comment: Fen goes house hunting and discovers skullduggery; the domestic impact of World War Two receives some comment; and the placement of a door bolt proves to be all-important.
8. “Express Delivery”
They looked slightly like giraffes, Fen concluded as he studied the photograph in question; and you would have taken them for brother and sister rather than for husband and wife.
A gawky, conscientious, desperately dull sort of man with thick-lensed glasses and a stammer. He was one of those unfortunate people who are obviously doomed to come to nothing however hard they try …
And then he checked himself, for Fen was staring at him with the eyes of a man half blinded by unaccustomed sunlight.
Comment: Fen and Humbleby unravel a knotty problem of murder-for-gain; the solution involves things that travel faster than sound. (“Express” in the title refers to what is commonly rendered “high-powered”.)
9. “A Pot of Paint”
It was the flat of the spade that had knocked Church out, Fen supposed, and not the edge: lucky for him.
… and at the foot of the staircase lurked a stoutish lady, also elderly but with an air of settled misanthropy …
“He’s had a lucky escape,” said the doctor, in the slightly petulant tones of one to whom an interesting fatality has been denied.
Comment: A case of robbery and assault solved by Fen, assisted by the sturdy Inspector Bledloe.
10. “The Quick Brown Fox”
“No, on the whole I don’t think criminals get much help from detective stories. And if by any chance they ARE addicts, that fact by itself is almost certain to scupper them, since their training in imaginary crime — which as a rule is extremely complicated — tends to make them over-elaborate in the contriving of their own actual misdeeds; and that, of course, means that they’re easy game ….”
… he had none of that appalling narrowness which you normally get in people who are engaged in breeding money from money.
“… it was at this point in our conversation that we heard Eleanor’s scream. Eleanor had gone to call her fiance down to his breakfast, and had found him murdered in his bed.”
“You think the solution obvious?” said Fen mildly.
“… I hope no one will imagine I’m mocking at detective-story devices. In point of fact, I dote on them. But so long as criminals take them for a model, the police are going to have a very easy time; because … your genuinely murderous addict will dig his cunning and complicated pits for the investigators, only, in the upshot, to fall head first into one of them himself.”
Comment: We all know who jumps over the lazy dog, but a too-clever murderer fails to allow for a typewriter ribbon; Fen outwits the killer — and Wakefield, an annoying acquaintance.
11. “Black for a Funeral”
At ten o’clock on the evening of July 24th, 1951, Police-Constable Albert Tyler set out on his bicycle from the little police-station in the village of Low Norton … P.C. Tyler struck out on the road eastwards and was presently swallowed up by the night. Thus began the curious affair of the disappearing car, the black neck-tie, and the abortive burglary.
“Yes, he was a funny bloke: mad about the women, and not too scrupulous as to whether they were married or not. But in spite of that, you couldn’t help liking him — same way you can like a cat, provided you keep your pet goldfish out of its reach.”
“So the conclusion you’re forced to, really, is that for some unknown reason the murderer took the green tie off, and put the black one on, after he’d done the murder …. Perhaps,” said Beeton without much conviction, “as a sort of gruesome joke: black for a funeral, you know.”
Comment: For Fen, a case that’s solved using a process of elimination; there is an impossible-crime element that Fen easily dispels; and he is ably assisted by the efficient country cop, Sergeant Beeton.
12. “The Name on the Window”
… his doorstep was occupied, he found, not by a dyspeptic, over-heated child with an unintelligible query, but by a neatly-dressed greying man with a red tip to his nose and woebegone eyes.
“… there are big grounds, with an eighteenth-century pavilion about a quarter of a mile away from the house, in a park. That’s where it happened — the murder, I mean.”
“… I gather he was also a good deal of a faddist — Yogi, I mean, and the Baconian hypothesis, and a lot of other intellectual — um — detritus of the same dull, obvious kind: that’s where the ghost-vigil comes in.”
Humbleby leaned forward earnestly. “Here is the point: windows nailed shut; no secret doors — emphatically none; chimney too narrow to admit a baby; and in the dust on the hall floor, only one set of footprints …”
Comment: D.I. Humbleby presents Fen with a “locked-room” problem on Boxing Day: the murder of an architect with several possible motives behind it. The solution involves a palindrome; and Gideon Fell and his famous locked-room lecture get a mention.
13. “The Golden Mean”
It was in the village of Chigfold, isolated on a corner of one of the Devon moors, that Gervase Fen encountered the only man who has ever seemed to him to be definitely evil.
That mere motive is no proof of attempted murder, he was well aware; yet … the possibility of accident scarcely even crossed his mind. Proof was the problem — PROOF.
“I’m telling you to get out and stay out, d’you hear? And to stop poking your superior nose into what doesn’t concern you.”
Comment: Fen is morally certain murder-for-gain is the motive; but evidence is lacking, and Inspector Waycott thinks it was just an accident; the “deserted, wind-swept moorland” setting is used well. (The title refers to a precious metal standard, as Fen explains.)
“We know who DID the killing — we’re morally certain, that is — but the wretched fellow has an alibi and I can’t for the life of me see the flaw in it.”
“Perhaps there isn’t a flaw in it … It wouldn’t be the first time a moral certainty had turned out to be a total delusion.”
So there you have all the ingredients for a thoroughly explosive mixture — and in due course it does in fact explode.
Comment: Murder — or self-defense? Only two people know for certain, and they’re getting married — to each other: “Justice,” concludes Fen, “has already been done.” (This is the last Fen story in the collection.)
Inspector George Copperfield … devoted his spare time to improving the prose style of his reports with the help of a volume entitled HOW TO WRITE GOOD ENGLISH: an innocuous occupation which in his more buoyant moments led him to suspect that he had missed a profitable vocation as an author of realistic crime-fiction in the manner of M. Simenon.
The murder shocked him, of course: as an ordinarily humane person he held no brief for violence. On the other hand, if someone had GOT to be murdered in Lampound, then Blanche Binney was undoubtedly an excellent choice.
There are plenty of would-be amateur detectives in the land; but to few is it given, as it was given to Barney, to provide the authorities with conclusive proof of guilt in a murder case. The thing came about by accident rather than by expertise, for Barney was a day-dreamer, not a serious criminologist; but this was one instance where a day-dreamer rather than a serious criminologist was what the police required.
Comment: Gervase Fen is absent from this story. It’s murder, and maybe half the village has a motive; good twist at the end; the narrative is told in a lightly satirical style.
16. “Deadlock” (with 1 map)
My father disliked Murchison … So did I. So did Aunt Jessica. So did Captain Vanderloor. So, in fact, did everybody — which no doubt accounts for what happened to him.
And I just heard him say, as I closed the door behind me: “Curious about that blood ….”
I was at the age when I expected a detective to be hawk-eyed and ruthless, and I felt cheated.
Children and adults have very different values about some things — death in particular.
Comment: Another non-Fen story, a first-person narrative told through the eyes of a teenaged boy some years after the event; Crispin effectively relates a detective story and, using mainstream technique, achieves an elegiac tone that seems appropriate to lost youth and innocence.