London in the 1890s. Mrs Hazel Bright, widow, receives a suggestion that she takes rooms at 14, Ryegate Mews, above a bookshop, with one Eldamunde Cunningham. Expecting a doddering old spinster, she instead finds a young woman with an interest in problem-solving. Not the “I’ve lost my keys” kind of problem – more the “I’ve been attacked by a goblin” sort of problem.
The Eldamunde Cunningham Mysteries is a collection of thirteen short stories, published here for the first time (I believe) by Gneiss Press, who were kind enough to send me a review copy. They are written by J Conrad Beech, of whom I know little apart from… well, he wrote this. As might be expected from the description – two colleagues living together, one writing the stories (in letters to a school friend in this case) and one solving crimes – comparisons with Sherlock Holmes must be made. But the problem with old Sherlock – it would take something very special to take his place. So, is this it?
Unfortunately, no, but then what is?
Let’s start with the good points. The characters – both Hazel and Elda and also Mrs Nash, the housekeeper – sparkle. Elda is an eccentric, yes, but not in the same way that Holmes is. She seems a little less of a recluse and certainly possesses more social skills than the great detective. Mrs Nash forms a good contrast to her – the class clash between them makes for some enjoyable scenes. It would be nice if Hazel served more of a purpose than just narrator and occasional sounding board, but her opinions, not being on the same wavelength as Elda are essential for the structure of such stories and her voice is excellent company throughout the book.
As regular readers of my meandering will know, I’m rather under-read on the Holmes stories, but the one thing about them that has always irked me is whenever Holmes deduces something without the observations being made to the reader beforehand. As a fan of the classic fairly-clued detective yarn, this goes against what I read mystery stories for. Now having read a bit more Holmes, I’ve realised that this trait is not as prevalent as once I thought, but unfortunately it is pretty prevalent here.
The “I can see that you’re an unemployed milkman who was savaged by a badger last Monday”-style deductions whenever Elda meets a client are a bit annoying, although they are done well – at least her deductions don’t go as far as Holmes’ extreme ones, but most of the stories are reading about Elda solving the crime, rather than giving the reader a chance to figure it out for themselves. Admittedly, that’s pretty hard to do in short story form, but as I’ve recently been reading some more Edward D Hoch stories, and some Sherlock Holmes ones, unfortunately these have got a pretty high bar to hit. Sometimes it’s all a question of timing…
Having said that, some of the plotting is rather ingenious, especially in the second half of the book. The first story is available on Kindle, but I would encourage the reader not to judge the collection based on that one as I think it was my least favourite in terms of plot. Some of the later stories such as The Beardsmore Goblin, or my favourite, The Chinese Vase, have some clever twists and turns, much better than the first offering. Save 77p and buy the collection for about four times that, if you are interested.
Anyway, to summarise, these stories were an enjoyable read. They don’t reach the heights of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but what does? The characters were fun, with a little development as the stories progress, and I’d be interested to see a second collection.