Academy Mystery Novellas 2 at Goodreads
Academy Mystery Novellas 2 at IBList
Overall Rating: 6/10
"The Empty Hours" by Ed McBain. Ed McBain's Mystery Book #1, 1960.
"The Sound of Murder" by Donald E. Westlake. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, December 1962.
"Storm in the Channel" by Georges Simenon. "Tempête sur la Manche." Police-Film, 20 May 1938.
"Murder in the Dark" by Hugh Pentecost. The American Magazine, February 1949.
In 1985 Academy Chicago Publishers released a four-volume series of books featuring rarely re-printed novellas by popular mystery writers. The books were divided into four mystery sub-genres and included four novellas apiece. The volume titles and themes were: Women Sleuths, Police Procedurals, Locked Room Puzzles and Great British Detectives. The series featured sixteen stories by sixteen different authors, with no writer appearing more than once. Though labeled as novellas some were actually longer short stories, or novelettes. Many of the stories saw little print, which is not surprising as it has always been difficult to publish and re-print stories of such awkward length. The series itself was later reprinted, in 1991, as a boxed set by The Readers' Digest Association.
Volume two in the series is well balanced in that it features two strong stories and two average ones, two real novellas and two novelettes, and though each work follows police procedure, the stories themselves are diverse within the sub-genre. The better works are the first two: McBain's "The Empty Hours" and Westlake's "The Sound of Murder." While the Simenon and Pentecost stories are not bad, they are not memorable and, with so many stories out there, questionable in their re-print worthiness.
McBain's "The Empty Hours" is a cold, distant telling of the murder of a young woman who, despite her modest situation, lived in an expensive apartment with expensive things. The mystery expands and reveals itself very much through official procedure, and culminates in a tragic denouement. Westlake's story is similar in that it too is genuinely tragic, but while McBain's tragedy is brought on by the gritty reality of the urban landscape (specifically New York City), Westlake's tragedy in "The Sound of Murder" is internalized and the petty needs of humanity are reflected in a neurotic and sensitive middle-aged detective.
Georges Simenon's novelette "Storm in the Channel" is a far lighter story than the first two. It involves a recently retired Jules Maigret on holiday with his wife, stranded in a rooming house during a rainstorm, where one of the employees gets murdered. Though there are procedural elements in the investigation, much of the focus is on humour so that it reads more like a cozy than what a reader might expect a procedural to be; paired down to its investigative elements and removing the lightness could have led the story toward its own dramatic tragedy, but instead the death and motivation feel almost incidental. Similarly Hugh Pentecost's "Murder in the Dark" is an uneven story that reads like a fusion between different sub-genres, with the procedural aspect being not among its most notable. In an interesting change the detective is relegated to observer as a secondary player, an initial suspect, abducts the narrative and investigates in a clumsy, inefficient way. Add a love story and other tidbits from assassins to the locked room ("where in the hotel are those diamonds?") and the mish-mashing is complete. The story's greatest achievement is in the confessional written out by our protagonist, and the details in diamond-smuggling, appraisal and retailing that I found fascinating.
With the exception of Pentecost's piece, the investigators themselves play an important part in the story itself. The gritty down-to-earth qualities of McBain's detectives are very much a part of the dark New York landscape. Westlake's detective is a self-questioning and neurotic late middle-aged man whose awareness of his own mortality makes the reader aware of general human mortality, and his self-concern is in striking contrast with the waste in which human life is eventually equated to. Finally, Simenon's detective is more comical and unaffected by the tragedy of the victim in his story, and to me this unfortunately diminishes the characters themselves. In Pentecost the characters are more pastiche, and the detective is a bit player who stands grinning in the background.
Though overall the anthology is somewhat above average, it is certainly an interesting overview of the procedural, at least for the twenty-five years leading up to 1962. I'm certain there are other, more comprehensive anthologies out there dealing with police procedurals, though perhaps not devoted on the longer short form.
|Readers' Digest reprint