Founded in England in the 1930s, the Detection Club brought together an impressive array of Golden Age Mystery authors. Their projects included The Floating Admiral, a whodunit in which twelve different writers contributed individual chapters, as well as Ask a Policeman, another collaboration in which the mystery writers swapped detectives to solve a murder.
In Six Against the Yard, a half dozen mystery masters—Margery Allingham, Father Ronald Knox, Anthony Berkeley, Russell Thorndike, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Freeman Wills Crofts—each create a perfect crime, a seemingly unsolvable mystery. The stories are then analyzed by Ex-Superintendent Cornish, C.I.D., a real-life retired police detective, to see if they would indeed stump Scotland Yard. This edition also features an afterword by inaugural Detection Club member Agatha Christie on a true unsolved case of arsenic poisoning in Britain in 1929.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Margery Allingham IT DIDN'T WORK OUT
This is a confession. I want to tell the whole truth and to explain how it happened.
In the first place my name is not Margery Allingham. I was born Margaret Hawkins, and later on, when I went on the stage, I changed it to Polly Oliver. I don't suppose you remember the name now, but your fathers might, although I don't know ... it's no good me pretending.
I was clever and I had looks when I was younger, but I was never what you might call a top-liner, not like Louie. It's really because of her that I'm confessing at all. The fair boy, who looked too young to be a policeman when he took his hat off, didn't suspect me. I don't think anybody did, not even the coroner, and there was a shrewd old man if ever I saw one.
I suppose you would say that I've got clean away with it, but I want to tell about it because of Louie. After all, she was the main cause of it. If it hadn't been for her, poor old girl, I certainly shouldn't have ever brought myself to stretch out my hand and — —
But I'm coming to that.
Louie and I were pals, not like girls on the stage are nowadays. I'm not saying anything against them, but they're not the women we used to be. Little bits of rubbish they look to me, as they come in and out of my house. They don't look like actresses. That was one thing about me and Louie. In the old days — I'm talking about thirty or forty years ago — if you saw us a mile off you'd know we were in the profession, with our white boots and our bits of fluff, and the boys running along behind.
We met in burlesque. I was in the chorus, and she had a little part: nothing much, you know, but she used to come on in front of us girls and say, "Here we are, boys!" I can see her now, her figure pinched in and her tights glistening, and her bright yellow curls, which were always real — more than mine were, I don't mind telling you — bobbing up and down as she moved.
Even then she had that spirit — "verve" we called it then, and "pep" they call it now — which made her name for her afterwards. Louie Lester: you've all known it since your cradles, you've all heard your fathers talk about her and most of you have seen her. She went on the halls in nineteen hundred, and she still headed the bill in nineteen-eighteen, at least, up North.
I remember her best in the early days when she was making her name. Grandpapa Has Done It Again, Jonah Likes a Little Bit of Pink, Forget It and Kiss Me Again — Lorn wrote all those songs for her and she ought to have married him. You must remember the act? First there'd be the little twiddly bit from the orchestra, then the red curtains'd go up, and there'd be the "Town Hall" set with the piano and the potted palms, and Lorn himself in the early days sitting there playing. The house'd be clapping by this time, and then the silver curtains that she travelled with her would part over the archway centre-back and out she'd come, all twelve stone of her, silk stockings, petticoats, white skin, and eyes so blue they made the sapphires Jorkins gave her look like bits of glass, all twinkling and shaking, and giving off great waves of life like a dynamo going all out.
They used to say she never had a voice, but she had. It was tuneful, and it filled the hall. She hadn't any fancy notes, but she put the stuff over. And she never tired. They could shout for her again and again and she'd still give them a chorus and lead 'em over the difficult bits like kids at a singing class.
They loved her and she loved them. Her turn was like a reunion.
I haven't described her now — I don't suppose there's any need to — but since you probably remember her when she was stouter and noisier, although she never lost her spirit, I may as well tell you how I saw her, and how I always think of her.
She was tall and fair, with blue eyes and a wide mouth, and a figure that was fine and strong and very human, and she radiated affection. I think myself that was her great gift. You felt she loved you, everybody did; taxi-drivers, people in shops, the orchestra, the house itself, they all sat up and preened themselves when she smiled because it was a personal smile, if you understand me, meant for you and genuine because she liked you. It made her what she was and it kept her there for a long time.
I'm telling you all this because I want you to understand why I did what I did do and where I made my mistake, my terrible mistake.
She met him when she was at the top of her career. There were thousands of men she could have married, men with money, men who could have given her something. Or there was Lorn, if she wanted somebody to take care of. Lorn would have died for her — did die for her, when you come to think of it. She didn't know he had consumption and that theatre up at — but it was pulled down a long time ago and there's no need to rub it in — was a death-trap, notoriously.
Still, that's not the point. As I say, she might have married anybody and she chose Frank. I don't know what he was. Something in the orchestra, in a little one-eyed town whose very name I've forgotten. I remember when she brought him round to my dressing-room — I was still in burlesque and only just out of the chorus. I looked at him and she said: "This is Frank Springer. We're going to be married," and I waited for her to wink at me, but she didn't.
I didn't like him even then, and her money hadn't gone to his head at that time. He was an undersized, flashy little object with so much side you wondered he didn't fall over. He could talk: I gave him that. There was nobody who could talk so well to people they didn't know. The first half-hour you were with him made you think you'd discovered something, but all the other half-hours were a disillusionment.
And she never saw through him. At least I don't suppose that's quite true. But she never saw right through him. It made me wild then, and it still makes me wild when I think of it. To everybody else in this blessed world that man was a four-flushing gasbag, a fellow with such an inferiority complex, as they say now, that his whole life was spent trying to boost himself up to himself, and the more weak and hopeless and inefficient he saw himself the wilder and more irritating his lies became.
I had enough of him on the first evening, and when I got her alone I began to laugh at him, and that was the first time I ever saw her "funny."
She wasn't angry, but a sort of obstinate look came into her face. I can't describe it and I won't try, but it was the one thing I never understood about her. He was the one subject on which we never were frank, and one is frank with pals one's known and worked with.
"You're not really going to marry him, duck?" I said at last. I was quite startled by this time.
"Oh, don't you like him?"
It was all she said, but there was an appeal in it. She had a way of doing that, of saying ordinary things and making you feel they were important.
"Yes, I do in a way," I said cautiously, because I didn't want to hurt her. "But you're not really going to marry him? Is he rich?"
"He hasn't got a brown," she said, and she sounded pleased and somehow complacent.
I was younger then and I hadn't learnt what I have now, so I'm afraid I said what I thought.
She walked out on me and in the morning when I tried to get hold of her she told the old girl to say she was out. That was the first row we ever had, and when I met her again it was after her big hit at the Oxford with When Father Brings the Flowers Home With the Milk. We had a drink together and she said she was married.
I said I was sorry for what I'd said about her husband — after all, when a man's a girl's husband it makes him somebody — and she warmed up to me again and I felt things weren't really so bad. I was out of a shop at the time and I saw her at the second house, and afterwards I met him again in the dressing-room.
He was horrible.
Even afterwards, when he was old and I knew him for what he was, I never really loathed him as much as I did at that first meeting after they were married. He took all the credit for her success, talked about her as though he'd made her, and he wore a diamond and chucked his weight about until it made everybody sick. There were a whole crowd of us there, her old friends and several new ones and a lot of smart people. They were nice to him because of her. But he took it all to himself and, although it was a jolly enough gathering, for the first time I saw her in that atmosphere which never deserted her all her life.
It's hard to describe it but it was a sort of pitying-polite atmosphere, almost as though she'd got a hump or a wooden leg, and everyone was too fond of her to let her know that they'd noticed it.
Lorn was sitting in a corner. His illness had got hold of him by then, but we didn't know it. Frank was rude to him and had the impudence to criticise the way he played one of his own songs, but he didn't say anything. He just sat there shivering and sipping his glass of the champagne somebody'd brought in.
He looked so miserable that I went over and joined him, and afterwards, when Louie had fixed up to go out to supper at some titled chap's house and Frank had invited himself and promised that she'd give a show there, announcing he'd accompany her himself, Lorn and I went off and had a meal together.
We went to a Sam Isaacs' — I don't know if it's still there — and had some fish and stout. I had a job to make Lorn eat; he just sat shivering. Neither of us mentioned Louie at first. I knew he was supposed to be in love with her, but then most people were. It became half habit, half affectation with every man who knew her, and I suppose Lorn knew her as well as anybody in the world.
He sat playing with his food, turning it over and over on his plate and looking at it as though he were not at all sure what it was.
"How d'you like him?" I said at last when every other topic had failed.
He put down his knife and fork and looked at me across the little table. Now that I've seen death in a man's eyes I know what it was that shocked me so in his expression.
"Oh, God, Polly!" he said. "Oh, God!"
"You eat your grub," I said, because I was flustered and embarrassed by him. "You mark my words, my lad. The time's coming when it's going to be easy for a respectable woman to get in and out of marriage. She'll get tired of him and pack up."
He looked at me earnestly. "Do you really believe that? Because if you do you're more of a perishing little fool than I thought you were."
"Isn't that what you think?" I said.
Neither of us was in the mood to get touchy with the other.
"No," he said, so quietly that I stared at him. I can see that pale face of his with the great high-bridged mournful nose and the wildish light eyes to this day. "No," he repeated. "She loves him, Polly. She loves that little squirt and she'll go on loving him until she breaks her heart or someone takes him by the back of his scrawny little neck and twists it round and round until his head falls off."
His voice had risen on the words and one or two of the other people in the room — it was a quiet little place — looked round at us. I felt uncomfortable.
"You be quiet," I said. "Don't say such dreadful things. Frank's not the type to get done in and if he is it's not going to be by you or me."
I remember I choked over the last word, and he laughed and gave me a bit of bread and we cheered up after that. But I think of it now sometimes. It's twenty-five years ago. I didn't believe in the subconscious or fate then, and I don't now, really, but I did choke and I did kill him.
Lorn took me home that night. I was digging at old Ma Villiers' just off the Streatham High. You certainly wouldn't remember her, but she was a fine old trouper and had been quite a queen of melodrama in her day. We sat round the fire in her kitchen and I can see her now standing on a swaying chair, ferreting about in the cupboard for some cinnamon for Lorn's cold.
After he had gone — and he went slowly, I remember, with heavy steps like an old man — she stood talking to me while I filled my hot-water bottle from the kettle on the stove. She was a great gaunt old woman — they don't all run to fat — with a shock of grey hair and a Shakespearean manner.
"There's death there," she said. "You won't see him again."
I was sharp with her.
"He's all right. He's only got a cold and he's fed up because his girl's married somebody else."
She looked at me sharply with her little black eyes.
"A scratch, a scratch, but marry 'tis enough,'" she said. "You won't see him again."
She was right. I didn't. I never saw Lorn again. I heard about his death long afterwards from some people who were in the same bill as Louie up North when Lorn collapsed. They were nice people, a dancing act, who came into a burlesque show in which I was playing. We were calling them "revues" by that time. I remember the woman, a pretty little dark-haired thing, she was called Lola Darling, telling me with tears in her eyes of the awful row there had been back stage, Louie insisting that Lorn was not fit to go on and Frank bullying her and swearing first at her and then at Lorn, and finally Lorn staggering out to the piano and doing his little bit in the icy draught that would have killed an elephant, let alone a man half dead already. And then Lorn collapsing — dreadfully vivid she was, I dreamt of Lorn in pools of blood for nights afterwards — and being rushed off to hospital and dying there.
"Who's accompanying her now?" I said, and when she told me Frank was doing it himself I felt anxious.
He didn't smash her career at once. Nobody could have done that except Louie herself. But he chipped away at the foundations of it, if you understand what I mean. The rumour went round that the act was temperamental, but that didn't matter while she drew the houses.
I didn't see much of her then. She used to write to me sometimes, but her letters grew guarded. At first they were all about Frank. Frank did this, Frank did that, Frank was so clever, Frank won three thousand pounds at Doncaster on one race. But afterwards I didn't hear so much about Frank. She wrote generalities.
All the time, though, she was at the top of the bill, and when she did come to London her old songs went down just like they used to do, even if some of the new ones weren't so successful.
The rumour went around that Frank was jealous of Lorn's memory, and threw a tantrum every time she revived one of his songs.
He wrote one or two for her himself, but they were terrible, and even her personality couldn't put them over. I believe he gave her hell when that happened, but, of course, nobody knew about it then.
That was the beginning of the secret life she led, the life that turned her into two different people.
Meanwhile I was having my own adventures. My husband — did I say I had a husband? — died and left me the little bit of money he had, bless him. We never got on together but we never worried each other. I banked my money and went on working.
It was war time now and there was a lot of stuff going. I was so hurried I didn't have time to think. We were all so busy making merry in case we died to-morrow that I didn't realise I was getting older, but I was always a sound worker, reliable and steady, and the managers found me little bits so that I could live and save my spot of money.
It was nearing the end of the war that I first saw the new Louie. We hadn't set eyes upon one another for two years, and although there had been rumours about her, her extravagance, her wildness and the sort of crowd she was mixed up with, I was not prepared for the atmosphere I found when I went round to her dressing-room at the Palladium after my own little show at the Winter Garden was done.
I tapped on the door and the dresser opened it half an inch. It was a new woman. Old Gertie had got the sack, I heard afterwards. This new one was a beery old party with a face like a frightened hare. When she saw I wasn't going to hit her she opened the door a fraction or so wider.
"You can't come in," she said. "Miss Lester's resting."
"Resting?" I said. "What's she been doing? Swimming the channel?"
"Polly I" I heard Louie's voice from inside and I pushed the woman aside and went in.
She was lying on a couch, her make-up still on but standing out from her face as though the skin beneath it had shrunk. I hardly recognised her. She was heavier, older, and although still lovely there was an exhaustion, a weakness which was incredible when associated with Louie.
"Oh, Polly," she said, "oh, Polly ..." and burst into tears.
This was so unlike her that I forgot myself entirely.
"Why, Duck," I said, "why, Duck, what's the matter?"
She wiped her tears away and looked nervously at the woman.
"You clear out, Auntie," I said. "Go and have a drink. I'll look after Miss Lester."
The old rabbit stood her ground.
"Mr. Springer said she wasn't to be left," she said.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Six Against the Yard"
Copyright © 2013 The Detection Club.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.