Saturday, 19 November 2016

Two Bottles Of Relish: The Little Tales Of Smethers And Other Stories by Lord Dunsany, Collins Crime Club

A new reissue of Lord Dunsany uniquely overrides this blog's usual concentrating on work from independents. When that reissue also features slight, blackly humorous detective tales of the 1930s' and 40s', being entirely new to me, Pan's investigation is warranted.
   Smethers is a travelling salesman for Numnumo - a relish for meats and savouries – with a self-confessed genius for 'pushing' it on the thresholds of most residences. Looking for a room in central London, close to the company's head office, he encounters Linley; a 'gent' already looking around the one Smethers has arrived at, who is interested but concerned at the high rent. Smethers offers to go halves with him and Linley agrees. Smethers then gives the first of nine criminal accounts based upon the chess-playing Linley's Holmesian ability to find the culprit based solely upon his unerring logic. Inevitably, there is also the Establishment figure already on the case; here, Inspector Ulton - of the Yard.
  In his first-person narrations, Smethers comes across as a slightly seedy chancer and spiv, not entirely honest, which begs the question how he could afford even half of the rent that got him into the property shared with 'posh' Linley in the first place. (Perhaps Linley was, himself, a 'chip off the old block'?) Then, such unanswered questions are all part of the intriguing mythologies spawned by necessarily brief, swiftly penned, commercial genre fiction.
   The history of the first of Dunsany's Smethers tales is at least thumbnailed in an Ellery Queen intro from 1948. Editor Lady Rhondda printed 'Two Bottles Of Relish' in Time and Tide magazine, November 12-19, 1932. "Lord Dunsany has always thought that Lady Rhondda, a militant feminist, published the story as an example of sheer realism, saying to herself, 'That is just how men do treat women.' Gradually, the widespread nausea (to use Lord Dunsany's own phrase) seems to have worn off..." The tale itself concerns the mysterious disappearance of Nancy Elth, and her £200, who lived with known criminal Steeger. (The Yard's nemesis, who reappears in the following tale).
   The remainder of the tales, in content, are lightly engaging and relatively conventional, lacking the promised 'fantasy' element referred to on the back cover. The major exception is the last; 'The Shield Of Athene.' I'd be unwise to describe a tale, the denouement of which is – if you'll pardon the pun – reflected in the title. It is, however, enjoyably Machen-like, with perhaps a flourish of MP Shiel.
   Unless Dunsany scholars know better – and why wouldn't they? - the remaining tales appear to have had their first publication in this collection. Certainly, his stature by the Forties wouldn't necessarily have required prior publicity for the rest elsewhere. Mention must also be made of the cover for this reissue; a beautiful painting of one standing, and one horizontal, Numnumo bottles, the red relish dribbling from each like newly-spilled blood, with the shadow of the one standing ominous and man-like. The Thirties feel, including the choice of font, is well considered and brilliantly evoked by Mike Topping.
Rebecca Lloyd's latest is a novel, OOTHANGBART, which she describes as a "subversive fable for adults and bears," Over at Egaeus, Mark Beech is about to release A MIDWINTER ENTERTAINMENT, the highlights of which include a new Connoisseur tale by Valentine and Howard, a first English translation (by the excellent George Berguno) of an Anatole Le Braz tale, and the same tasteful mix of old and new, utilised in last year's SOLILOQUY FOR PAN. Finally, both UNCERTAINTIES I and UNCERTAINTIES II are now available from Swan River Press. Included is a new tale from Lynda E. Rucker whose own latest collection, YOU'LL KNOW WHEN YOU GET THERE, is also available from SRP.

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