MR BULMER’S GOLDEN CARP by John Bingham (1971)
Mr Bulmer is a uniquely repulsive little man who manages a dry cleaning shop in Mayfair, and uses the opportunity of searching through the jackets and trouser pockets of wealthy individuals to service his own very profitable blackmail industry. His malignant little sideline has provided him with a regular income – and driven at least one of his victims to suicide. When he seizes upon what he sees as the opportunity of a lifetime, he is unaware that is about to be snared by his own hook. John Bingham, in addition to being a writer of distinction, was also a highly placed official in British Intelligence operations.
WE KNOW YOU’RE BUSY WRITING… by Edmund Crispin (1969)
Crispin, aka Robert Bruce Montgomery, is best known for his Gervase Fen novels but here he spins a delightfully black tale of a struggling writer whose hospitality is impinged upon by a pair of runaways, both seeking a new life away from their spouses. Crispin intersperses the narrative with vivid accounts of a writer desperately searching for the words which will bring his latest novel to life. Sadly for the would-be lovers, their fate is to be organic fertiliser for Mr Bradley’s vegetable plot.
INDIAN ROPE TRICK by Lionel Davidson (1981)
Davidson’s internationally themed thrillers were his bread and butter, but we must not forget that he was a writer of immense sensitivity with a wide range of influences. His own upbringing as a child of a hard-scrabble Polish-Jewish family might have made it unlikely that he would compose a chilling tale of murder on the banks of s Scottish river frequented only by rich Englishmen with the money to buy the rights to snare incoming salmon. A man whose sexual abilities have been devastated by a potentially fatal illness plans revenge on a friend whose libido remains undiminished. The denouement takes place on the banks of Scotland’s sacred salmon river – the Spey.
AT THE LULU-BAR MOTEL by Colin Dexter (1981)
Colin Dexter? Cue Oxford, an irascible senior policeman, pints of English beer and crossword puzzles? Think on. When this story was published, Dexter was already four books into his Inspector Morse series, but the TV adaptations were still six years away. In this tale, Dexter takes us to, of all places, rural America, where a coach load of middle-aged and elderly tourists take a rest stop at the eponymous wayside hotel. The action is centred around a game of vingt-et-un, designed to empty the wallets of the gullible travellers. Dexter describes a scam-within-a -scam -but saves until the last few paragraphs a chilling finale in which the scammer becomes the scammed.
DEATH OF AN OLD DOG by Antonia Fraser (1978)
People might forget that Antonia Fraser, as well as being the daughter of Lord Longford the widow of Harold Pinter and a superb historical biographer, is no slouch when it comes to crime fiction. Here, she taps into that strange love affair that English people have with their dogs. Richard Gavin is a successful barrister (is there ever another sort?) who has kept his upper lip stiff and tremble-free during the death of his first wife, and remarried. The new lady of the Gavin household is Paulina – young. bright and adorable. Her judgment, however is brought into question, when her decision to put an aged, smelly and incontinent spaniel out of its misery coincides with Richard opening an ominous letter from his London doctor.
THOSE AWFUL DAWNS by Patricia Highsmith (1977)
This is the most shocking and slap-in-the-face story in the collection. I would go as far as to suggest that it would not have been written – let alone published – today, with our heightened awareness of child abuse and domestic violence. As an account of casual violence, domestic cruelty, alcohol abuse – and the pervasive power of the Roman Catholic church – it makes for uncomfortable reading. Highsmith’s misanthropy can never have been more glaringly or honestly displayed. her publisher wrote:
“She was a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being…I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly…. But her books? Brilliant.”
Otto Penzler was right, and his verdict resonates in every single sentence of this account of the misfortunes of Eddie, Laura – and their children.
MARY by PM Hubbard (1971)
Like Hubbard’s longer works, which are examined in this feature, a dream-like quality pervades this story, but the dreams are not necessarily pleasant ones. The first words are:
“The nastiest house I have ever been in was the Margesons’ house at Marlowe.”
Bill, the narrator is referring to the style and decor, rather than anything more sinister, but the darkness is about to descend. The lawn stretches down to the river and one day when Bill is sitting outside with Gerald and Janet Margeson, a waif-like teenage girl dressed only in a swimming costume walks up the path from the river. The girl, Mary, has thus invited herself into the otherwise humdrum world of the Margesons, and so begins a subtly erotic tale of obsession, betrayal and, ultimately, murder.
THE GIRL WHO LOVED GRAVEYARDS by PD James (1983)
This exquisite masterpiece tells of a nameless girl, an orphan, who is brought up in a loveless terraced house in east London, the home of her Uncle Victor and Aunt Gladys. Her only joy is the adjacent cemetery which becomes a place of mystical and endless attraction:
“Even the seasons of the year she experienced in and through the cemetery. The gold and purple spears of the first crocuses thrusting through the hard earth. April with its tossing daffodils. The whole graveyard en fête in yellow and white as mourners dressed the graves for Easter. The smell of mown grass and the earthy tang of high summer as if the dead were breathing the flower-scented air and exuding their own mysterious miasma. Seeing the cemetery transformed by the first snows of winter, the marble angels grotesque in their high bonnets of glistening snow.”
Amid the poetry, however, James does not lose sight of the fact that we readers are in search of shocks and sensation. When the girl becomes a young woman, and is determined to find the grave of her dead father, we sense that her quest will end in tears. And so, in a drab suburb of Nottingham, so it does – but not quite in the manner which we have been led to expect
The Best Of Winter’s Crimes 1 has long been out of print, but as it was meant for mass circulation there are plenty of second-hand copies available from dealers such as Abe Books for less than the price of a pint.