Re-released Classics: The Hit and Misses

With ebooks picking up pace, many publishers are looking at their back catalogs to see what hidden gems they might have that would appeal to modern audiences. Some of these re-releases are genuinely in demand. When The Talented Mr. Ripley came out as a movie, Patricia Highsmith saw a resurgence in popularity and the various publishers experienced a windfall from the re-release of the Ripliad series and then The Cry of the Owl and Deep Water.

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Agatha Christie also regularly sees a surge in sales, and whenever this happens, old releases in the same cozy crime and period genre often find their way onto the market. This month, I’ve been handed a bunch of these to review. And some of them are brilliant lost treasures.

Arthur J. Rees, The Hand in the Dark, The Moon Rock, and The Hampstead Mystery

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Arthur John Rees was an Australian mystery writer. In his early twenties, he went to England and made this the location of many of his classics.

The Hand in the Dark is a ‘closed room mystery’. A woman is shot in a country home when everyone is at dinner downstairs and are therefore not implicated. However, a mysterious figure is seen in the bushes by the butler when he goes to fetch the police. Surely, it must be the killer! However, the gun and a bloody rag are soon discovered in the room of a maid and she is arrested. But in a further twist, once the nervous husband recovers his senses, he seeks out the services of a famous detective, as he is convinced she is innocent. This story is wonderful. Perhaps a little predictable (a golden rule in these types of stories is that it is never the staff), however, the story flows and uncovers various elements along the way that keeps the reader guessing.

The Moon Rock is of a similar feel. A rich man obsessed with having his title reinstated is found shot dead after he disinherits his newly discovered-as-illegitimate daughter. Did she do it, did her love interest do it or was it his faithful but overly familiar servant? And who is the ‘monster’ the dead man was running from? The Moon rock offers a story within a story and only once this story is played out, do we start to guess the truth.

However, I also received The Hampstead Mystery. This started off well, a rich man comes home early from a shooting party in secret and is shot at home. The police only discover it when they are sent an anonymous letter. The question being, who sent the letter and are they the murderer. Unfortunately, this story was a little convoluted compared to the other two and didn’t quite have the same charm. Just goes to show, not all books by the same author will go down well as re-releases.

Pearl S. Buck, Death in the Castle

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The description goes, “An ancient castle, a cash-strapped and psychologically unstable aristocratic couple, and the rumor of ghosts weave together in this sparkling historical mystery.” Sound’s good doesn’t it? But it really isn’t for a number of reasons. In reality, the plot is about a castle about to be sold for transport to the US and the hope that some hidden treasure can be found to stave off the need for the sale.

I honestly thought – this must be written by an American teenager who knows nothing about British aristocrats. The behaviour of the family and the staff is like a Disney cartoon version of an upper-class household. There is also a scene where the Prime Minister repeatedly calls the King ‘Your Majesty’ in the same conversation. There’s a sub-plot about the butler’s orphaned granddaughter lording it around the house that was cringe worthy and bizarre. All in all, the writing was silly, with a Mills and Boon type feel.

I started reading this book unaware that the author was a Nobel prize winner, and that was probably for the best because I judged it on the writing alone. Buck was an American and wrote The Good Earth (1931) which was about her insights into the civil unrest in China. It was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and William Dean Howells Medal. So, I guess it’s true what they say – write about what you know. And just because a book is a classic – doesn’t make it a good one…

Oh, well… on to the next book.

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