I’ve long been a fan of Lord Dunsany’s beautiful prose, and I can’t get as much of it as I would like. Much of his early work, now in the public domain, is high fantasy, which is a genre I’m not fond of. His later (non-public domain) work isn’t much published anymore. So I was overjoyed to discover that Harper Collins has reprinted Dunsany’s only volume of crime stories, Two Bottles of Relish: The Little Tales of Smethers and Other Stories — and at a very reasonable price. An early Christmas gift to me!
The story behind the Smethers stories, according to the book’s introduction (originally written in 1948, by Ellery Queen) is that Dunsany noticed that readers were passing up his “delicate” prose in favor of murder mysteries. So Dunsany decided to write something “gruesome” to match the public’s taste. The result was the infamous short story “The Two Bottles of Relish,” which was sufficiently gruesome that no one would publish it. It was finally printed in Time and Tide magazine in 1932, by editor Margaret, Lady Rhondda. Dunsany wrote eight more Smethers stories over the years; all nine of them are in this volume, with 15 more crime-related tales.
I love two things about Dunsany’s prose: the poetry of his description and his raconteurlike style: his writing has the rhythm of a born oral storyteller. The tales in this volume aren’t quite as poetic as Dunsany’s early fantasy stories, or even as poetic as his delightful Jorkens tales (Baron Munchausen-like tall tales/reminiscences told over drinks at a British social club). Still, you encounter lyrical passages here and there, like spice, and the raconteur’s voice is certainly present. Smethers, who narrates the first nine tales, is a humble salesman for Numnumo, a “relish for meats and savouries.” He is the Watson to his brilliant roommate Mr. Linley’s Holmes, or maybe the Archie Goodwin to Linley’s Nero Wolfe, since Linley rarely leaves the apartment, a few times delegating the footwork to Smethers. In fact, Linley won’t even pick up the phone to make his own calls. Inspector Ulton of Scotland Yard completes the classic detective trio.
Most of the Smethers tales, and several of the others, are in the puzzle-mystery, ratiocinating detective genre, as practiced by Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and so many others. I want to call the Smethers tales pastiches of that style, because I get the impression, especially in the first few stories, that Dunsany doesn’t take the genre entirely seriously, though he’s certainly good at inventing outrageous ways to murder someone. Linley even pulls off some brilliant Holmesian-style deduction about a murderer from nothing more than an unfinished crossword puzzle.
The remaining tales are mostly in the first person (best for Dunsany’s storyteller voice) and range from murder to burglary to espionage and terrorist cells. Plus piracy. And politics. Some of the tales are in the Jorkin’s “tale told in a club” style, and several are framed as the narrator listening to the reminiscences of a retired detective. All are delightful.
Standouts for me:
The Two Bottles of Relish: This really is the best of the Smethers stories. The ewwww-inducing solution still packs a punch, even today.
An Enemy of Scotland Yard: A Smethers tale, notable for the unusually active role that Smethers plays.
The Clue: Smethers again. Linley does his finest Sherlock Holmes imitation, with a crossword puzzle.
The Pirate of the Round Pond: Three schoolboys with a model boat and dreams of the pirate’s life.
A Victim of Bad Luck: There’s no such thing as a foolproof burglary plan. This one is pretty light, but how the crooks get caught is cute.
The New Master: The narrator is disturbed by his friend’s uncannily good chess-playing robot. Dunsany had a pronounced anti-technology stance: he saw the increased mechanization of the modern world as taking over people’s lives, to society’s detriment. You could read this story in that light, and you’d probably be right. But I think it’s also about the ill effects of ability (or power) without humility.
The Speech: In the unstable political situation before the first world war (I think that’s when this is set), a rising Opposition party member plans to make a speech in the House of Commons that will antagonize Austria, and potentially ignite Europe.
…there was no stopping him. The Government couldn’t, of course. And as for the Opposition… they were probably thinking more of how it would embarrass the Government than how it would annoy the Austrians.
Murder by Lightning: A retired detective remembers his first big break. I recently read another murder story that used a very similar method, but it didn’t spoil the pleasure of this story for me.
The Shield of Athene: Dunsany has some fun with classical Greek mythology. I really liked this one.
If you like classic ratiocination-based crime stories, or little tales beautifully told, give this a try.
A couple of charming Dunsany stories that I’ve shared over previous winter tales seasons:
- The Highwaymen: Not quite a ghost story, but a lovely little weird tale that just begs to be read aloud.
- Thirteen At Table: Mr. Linton ends up at a most interesting dinner party. Is the haunting rats in the wainscoting, or bats in the belfry? You decide. Slightly creepy and gently humorous.
Another review of the book, at The Pan Review.