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English Country House MurdersThe short story is such an amazing genre—a powerhouse of character, plot, and theme packed into a tiny package. But you have to be a little more determined in finding great short story collections, because they don’t tend to get as much press as novels and nonfiction. Or, you have to find them by serendipity—at a used book sale, for example—as I did this collection of a short-story sub-genre: the English country house mystery.

Editor Thomas Godfrey, somewhat tongue in cheek, defines these mysteries as:

  • written by actual British authors
  • incorporating a crime, preferably murder, but theft is acceptable; with bonus points for multiple crimes and death by poison—and, of course, with the crime taking place in the country house or its grounds
  • involving a detective, whether professional or amateur, preferably one who is on the scene or quickly in attendance after the crime is committed; “police involvement is irrelevant, unless the detective is a police official”
  • challenging to the reader vis à vis the puzzle but without any cultural or social concerns: “no tears for the victim, no anguish for the falsely accused, no jeers for the perpetrator once revealed”

It’s that final quality that make these mysteries (whether in short story or book form) so appealing to me; I read them to participate in the solving of the puzzle, and not to gain deep social or moral insights. They’re written and read for entertainment. Though some in this collection had literary merit (“Fen Hall” by Ruth Rendell, for example), I even enjoyed the more tedious ones, content to be transported to a different place and time, where all I had to think about was who killed the Duke of Hawksmere (“The Man on the Roof” by Christianna Brand).

I found some of my favorites included here: Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James. Holmes was represented in a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a well as a more recent pastiche by James Miles. There was also a funny send-up of the genre, featuring Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse, another favorite of mine. And I found a lead to source for British short fiction, Winter’s Crimes, an annual series of contemporary crime stories, no longer published but with a long back history.

Earlier, I read Godfrey’s grisly yet wonderful collection, Murder for Christmas, and I just discovered there’s a volume 2—so another book for my list.