August has been remarkably kind to me this year right down to throwing some particularly nice review books my way. 'Murder by the Book, Mysteries for Bibliophiles' was waiting for me when I got back from Shetland, and whilst there were other things I should have read first I couldn't resist diving into it.
It was a sound decision, it's a collection that doesn't put a foot wrong as far as I'm concerned. This is partly because like the recent Guilty Creatures anthology the links to the overall theme are sometimes slight - it might be that a book is a clue or a writer is plotting no good, or that a mystery writer turns detective, occasionally the hapless writer is the victim. There are instances where the writers are clearly having considerable fun with their brief and others which throw some unexpectedly personal sidelights onto their writers.
It's also fair to say that I really enjoy books about books - the perfect companion volume to this is The Haunted Library edited by Tanya Kirk and also from the British Library team. It's got some (to me at any rate) genuinely scary stories in it, so 'Murder by the Book' would provide some light relief to go alongside it.
I was asked if I could focus on one particular story for this review; The Strange Case of the Megatherium Thefts' by S. C. Roberts, to which the answer was fair enough, yes. I did wonder what I'd do if I really didn't like it (could happen) but as it stands I enjoyed it a lot, and to my mind, it's one of the most interesting entries in the book - if not quite my favourite.
S. C. Roberts was a prominent bookman, Secretary to Cambridge University Press for a quarter of a century before becoming Master of Pembrooke College, and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. He was also a committed Sherlock Holmes fan and a leading exponent of Sherlockian scholarship in this country (I'm shamelessly cribbing from the introduction here).
'The Strange Case of the Megatherium Thefts' was initially privately printed in 1945 and is an homage to Conan Doyle's style. It's a charming story and contains the only crime in the book that I could well imagine committing. I'm not alone in this as it was apparently inspired by a real-life crime in the Athenaeum Club. In it Holmes is consulted by a professor about the strange disappearance of a number of library books, who has been taking them, and why is duly revealed.
I have mixed feelings about writers using other authors' characters. We build up very personal ideas of who a character is, and too often in when another writer takes them on we get their vision and it isn't close enough to our own to be satisfying. There's also the Ask A Policeman risk. Here members of the Detection Club swapped characters between themselves creating affectionate but merciless parodies of each other's work. It's really enjoyable but I haven't been able to take Mrs. Bradley or Lord Peter Wimsey seriously since.
Roberts makes a good job of Holmes though, he does it with affection, a light touch, and without parody - it's a successful hommage. The bookish references multiply too which is what I really enjoyed here - there's the obvious co-opting of a fictional character, the bookish nature of the crime, and then there's the partial list of stolen books, which include Three Men in a Boat and The Wrong Box - it's a nice comic touch. (Those are the two I've read, both are comic masterpieces).