Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Detective Megapack, edited by John Gregory Betancourt

High on variety, low on satisfying mysteries
When one thinks of detective fiction, two subgenres tend to come to mind: the cerebral clue-and-reveal mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, or the two-fisted, hard-boiled gumshoes of the Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler set. The Detective Megapack, published in 2013 by Wildside Press, does cover both with the Sherlock Holmes adventure “The Five Orange Pips” and two stories by Hammett, “Arson Plus” and “The Assistant Murder.” Editor John Gregory Betancourt and his crew at Wildside, however, seem to have made a deliberate effort here to broaden the definition of the detective genre to include just about anything involving a crime. In fact, not all of the 30 stories collected here even feature a detective. This envelope-pushing approach even extends to the plots of many of the stories, which go out of their way to subvert the conventions of the genre to the point where that very subversion becomes a cliché. In an inordinate number of the entries included here, if it’s a murder mystery, the victim isn’t really dead. If the story involves theft, it’s not really robbery but insurance fraud. After being hit with these “surprise” twists enough times, the reader finds himself longing for good old-fashioned straightforward mysteries where bad guys commit crimes and detectives solve them.

As is often the case with Wildside’s Megapacks, the selections included in this collection are a mixture of short stories and full-length novels. The success of such a collection often depends on the quality of its longer entries. Fortunately, the longest selection included here, taking up almost a quarter of the ebook, is Monsieur Lecoq, an absolutely outstanding detective novel from 1869 by Emile Gaboriau. Unfortunately, like many lengthy 19th-century novels, Monsieur Lecoq was published in two volumes, and this Megapack only includes the first volume, so you only get half the story! Another novel-length entry, The Rome Express by Arthur Griffiths (1896), is also pretty good, while Richard Harding Davis’s novella In the Fog (1901) and R. Austin Freeman’s novel The Red Thumb Mark (1907) are among the collection’s strongest pieces.

The Detective Megapack offers a mix of both classic and contemporary writers, and in general the older works are of better quality. It’s hard to go wrong with Edgar Allen Poe’s masterful work “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), widely considered the first modern detective story. Catherine Louisa Pirkis’s “The Murder at Troyte’s Hill” from 1893, starring pioneering female detective Loveday Brooke, also stands out from the pack. Among the mid-range, chronologically, are plenty of mediocre specimens of pulp fiction. Though Johnston McCulley wrote some great stories in his day, “Thubway Tham, Fashion Plate” (1920), is not one of them. The title character is a pickpocket with a lisp, not a detective, and the story is not a mystery but rather a silly piece of fluff in which Tham buys some fancy clothes. As for the more recent authors, most of them go the hard-boiled route and end up writing what come across as overdone C-grade movie scripts. David Dean, however, proves himself a rare talent head and shoulders above his peers with his 2011 story “Tomorrow’s
Dead,” an excellent thriller that deserves a Hollywood adaptation.

Having read and reviewed several of these Megapacks, this is one of my least favorites. Overall, this collection just proved too inconsistent, and the editors seem to have concentrated more on the diversity of the selections than on their quality. The ebook is certainly worth its low price, but many of the stories aren’t worth your time.

Stories in this collection
(Some novella-length works have been reviewed individually. Click on titles below.)
Arson Plus by Dashiell Hammett
It Tore the Laugh from My Throat by Meriah L. Crawford 
The Taggart Assignment by Vincent Starrett
Tomorrow’s Dead by David Dean 
The Flaming Phantom by Jacques Futrelle 
Message in the Sand by John L. French 
The Assistant Murderer by Dashiell Hammett 
All’s Well That Ends Well by C.J. Henderson 
The Red Thumb Mark by R. Austin Freeman 
Monsieur Lecoq by Emile Gaboriau 
The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe 
Hell-Bent for the Morgue by Don Larson 
Death of the Flute by Arthur J. Burks 
Oh Fanny by Raymond Lester 
Clancy, Detective by H. Bedford-Jones 
The Tattooed Many by William J. Makin 
Trigger Men by Eustace Cockrell 
Butterfly of Death by Harold Gluck 
My Bonnie Lies . . . by Ted Hertel 
Thubway Tham, Fashion Plate by Johnston McCulley 
The Murder at Troyte’s Hill by Catherine Louisa Pirkis

The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L. Whitechurch 

Secret Suggestion by Vincent H. O’Neil 

The Five Orange Pips by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 

Black Sunrise by Jack Halliday 

The Lion’s Smile by Thomas W. Hanshew 

The Nail by Pedro de Alarçon 

The Rome Express by Arthur Griffiths 

In the Fog by Richard Harding Davis 

Officer Down by Robert J. Mendenhall 

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