The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories Summary

Patricia Craig

The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Beginning with Clarence Rook’s “The Stir Outside the Cafe Royal” and ending with Simon Brett’s “How’s Your Mother?” this collection includes some of the best-known authors in detective fiction, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and P.D. James. Some of the most famous detectives are featured in this anthology as well. G.K. Chesterton’s “The Oracle of the Dog” has Father Brown contemplating a dog’s unusual behavior during a closed-room murder, and Nicholas Blake’s dashing Nigel Strangeways solves a dinner-time stabbing in “The Assassin’s Club.”

Craig describes her selection process in the introduction. One of her aims is to shows the continuity in the genre. Describing how detective fiction seems to be infected with an unmistakable note of exhilaration, for example, she also points out the genre’s basic optimism; in other words, the criminal is usually brought to justice. Another aim is to trace the development of the genre in relation to the historical/cultural period during which a particular story was written. For example, Craig describes how the snobbery and xenophobia that appear in Sayers’ fiction reflected contemporary attitudes.

In her zeal to choose stories that illustrate her various points about the detective short story, however, Craig may have forgotten the importance of entertaining the reader. For example, “Silver Blaze” is one of Conan Doyle’s weaker short stories, “The Assassin’s Club” is unimaginative, and “The Stir Outside the Cafe Royal” is ridiculously mannered.

It is interesting to note that the best stories seem to contradict Craig’s assertion about the preeminence of justice. Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution” and James’s “Great Aunt Allie’s Flypapers” are strong selections that feature an ironic twist at the end. In both James’s story and Julian Symons’ “The Murderer,” psychology takes precedence over pure plot movement. In fact, the latter is less a detective story than a fascinating character study.

The merits of the last three mentioned stories go a long way toward balancing the defects of other selections. The collection includes a variety of authors and styles, offering the reader an opportunity to discover new writers and rediscover favorites.