Barry is back today with his review the short story anthology Wicked Women. After you read the review make sure you surf over to BV Lawson's very cool blog In Reference To Murder and check out other possibilities…
WICKED WOMEN (1960) edited by Lee Wright
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
Selected and introduced by the esteemed mystery editor Lee Wright, this is a largely solid collection of tales by (mostly) well-known authors. I have a criticism which some readers might consider a spoiler that I’ll save until the last paragraph of the review. But first, the stories:—
Margery Allingham: The case appears to be a relatively straightforward one: after he and his wife dined with his aunt, Mary Alice Cibber, Richard Woodruff returned later and shot her. Detective Inspector Kenny knows that once all the evidence is presented, “One Morning They’ll Hang Him.” But he needs Albert Campion’s help to locate a critical item: the gun.
Robert Arthur: It requires “Weapon, Motive, Method—” to commit a crime. The ambitious Lucy has used each husband as a stepping-stone to a better future, divorcing one as a better prospect comes along. Ferdinand Relling could make her the First Lady of the United States. Current husband Tom is an obstacle, and divorce won’t play well with voters. Widowhood, on the other hand, is a different matter….
Agatha Christie: Retired and now living in the country, former C.I.D. Inspector Evans recognizes Mrs. Merrowdene as the former Mrs. Anthony, who was tried for and acquitted of killing her husband, the death being deemed an “Accident.” Evans’s friend Haydock is all for leaving it in the past, but Evans can’t let things lie, especially after he learns her current husband has purchased a new life insurance policy.
M.R. James: Although he is “not specially infected with the witch-finding mania,” Sir Matthew Fell must testify to the strange events that have occurred three times in “The Ash Tree” just beyond the window of his bedroom in Castringham Hall—events involving Mrs. Mothersole. On her way to the gallows she says: “There will be guests at the Hall.” Soon after, bizarre and inexplicable death befalls, and it isn’t confined to a single generation.
Kenneth Millar: Santa Barbara-based private detective Rogers is hired by Mrs. Dreen to “Find the Woman,” her missing daughter, young motion picture star Una Sand. Did Una vanish willingly, did she drown in the sea beyond the family’s beach house, or was she murdered? Featuring much of the author’s vivid, poetic prose—e.g., “Nothing could have looked more innocent than the quiet blue cove, held in the curve of the white beach like a benign blue eye set in a serene brow”—hardcore mystery fans will recognize that Millar is the pseudonym of Ross Macdonald, author of the classic P.I. Lew Archer novels, among others. Under the same title, a revised version of this story was subsequently included in the Macdonald collection The Name is Archer.
Emily Neff: Marcia Hendrix has long believed her marriage to oft- traveling businessman Charles is ideal and idyllic, even when she finds a woman’s cigarette lighter in his coat pocket. But when she eventually learns that there really is another woman in Charles’s life, she sets out to do something about it, and unwittingly acquires a “Partner in Crime” in the process. The ending is easily foreseeable, but the story is entertaining nonetheless.
Q. Patrick: Thirty-six-year-old John Tuthill Crane is the kind of man who’d ask, “Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?” because he’s always been inordinately close to his doting, overprotective mother, Claire. Until, that is, vacationing in Maine by himself because Claire has to help nurse another son’s measles-infected children in Philadelphia, he meets and becomes passionately involved with Lotte Rank. Mother stays in touch daily by phone, and also by letters, so John’s loyalties are torn between the two women. What will happen when Claire finally arrives in this story by an author I’ve seldom known to disappoint?
Ellery Queen: “No Parking” is the problem for writer and amateur sleuth Ellery Queen, one that could mean the difference between life and death for Broadway actress Modesta Ryan on a stormy New York evening. Having earlier accepted the proposal of one suitor and rejected two others, she calls Ellery near midnight, says she’s in trouble, and begs him to come to her Madison Avenue apartment. Once he finally arrives, he has an emergency and a mystery to deal with.
Dorothy L. Sayers: It has been a month since a woman named Andrews has poisoned a family in the nearby town of Lincoln, and the police have had no luck in capturing her. Estate agent Harold Mummery, whose wife Ethel is recovering from a nervous breakdown, is feeling slightly under the weather with digestive issues, despite eating excellent meals from their newly-hired cook, Mrs. Sutton. When he considers timelines, he develops the “Suspicion” that Mrs. Sutton is really Mrs. Andrews….
Wilbur Daniel Steele: The philandering, egomaniacal B.J. Cantra fancies himself quite “The Lady-Killer.” But when he gets separated in the Carolina woods from friends with whom he’s vacationing and meets Cath, wife of farmer Jess Judah, he’s suddenly faced with the kind of customer for his imagined charms he’s never had to deal with.
Joan Vatsek: The principal of the missionary school in Egypt, Miss Haskell, a woman stern and sometimes repellent, a woman of contradictory behaviors, is also a source of magnetic fascination for Patricia Burney, the newest and youngest teacher. Miss Haskell’s sister Ivy fell to her death from “The Balcony” in her bedroom, the bedroom now given to Patricia in a story that’s subtly erotic in places, and which is the most literary of those in the anthology.
Edgar Wallace: The last and, for me, weakest story in the collection is “The Dancing Stones.” In colonial Africa, Commissioner Sanders tries to negotiate a truce between Limbili, king of the Yitingi, who considers himself the world’s greatest king, and the Icheli. When Sanders rejects the advances of the fifteen-year-old dancing Daihili, who resents the rejection, and whose father willingly gifts her to Limbili, a confrontation ensues that almost costs Sanders his life.
This is a nicely diverse group of stories that provides a good mix of mystery categories including straightforward crime, traditional and hardboiled detective stories, psychological suspense, the supernatural, and one, as mentioned, I’d call literary.
The book’s biggest problem is its title. Why? Because a couple of the stories are fairly-clued whodunits. Wicked Women, however, gives the game away so that even inexperienced mystery readers who like to try to solve the puzzles before the detectives do needn’t worry about spotting clues to a culprit’s identity in these. It’s evident from the outset that the criminal will be a woman. Allowing for that relatively minor fault, the book is recommended.
© 2015 Barry Ergang