Cards on the fable: Mysteries written by bridge players

acedeathcardfrontI’m a bridge player and a mystery reader, and to me it doesn’t seem odd that there should be a natural affinity between playing serious bridge and appreciating a well-written mystery. (And doing difficult crosswords, but that’s another article.) Both require similar skill sets; the ability to notice small clues, draw inferences from them and form a theory that leads to a conclusion. Yes, really, playing bridge is like that if you’ve done it a long time. “Hmm, my left-hand opponent didn’t even twitch when I played the queen of diamonds, so I deduce his partner has that particular king. Therefore Lefty is more likely to have the spade king, and I’m going to finesse him for it.” That’s the same kind of thought pattern that solves fictional mysteries. There’s a similar pleasure in both milieus; the “Aha!” response to solving a problem can be very enjoyable.

4912745286_8d10008dd8Contract bridge was in its infancy during the Golden Age of Detection, of course, since it was invented in 1929. But immediately upon its introduction into polite society, contract bridge became extremely popular among writers of detective fiction and hence among their characters. How often, for instance, do an ill-assorted set of houseguests in a country-house mystery stand up from quarrelling at the dinner table to play bridge for a few hours, with people taking their turn as dummy and wandering in and out of Sir Cedric’s library accompanied by an astonishing variety of weapons and motives? Agatha Christie was a good social bridge player, or at least to my mind she knew enough about it to know the vagaries of how different people keep score, and what happens when you bid and make a lucky grand slam. Cards on the Table is where she has most to say about bridge, but there are many other mentions.

james_bond_03_moonrakerIn fact a number of fairly well known writers (both of mysteries and general fiction) were bridge players to greater or lesser degree, either known to us biographically or merely by things they say in their books. Somerset Maugham, for instance, was a bridge fiend and an excellent player; to a lesser degree, but apparently very highly skilled, was Edmund Crispin (Bruce Montgomery). Philip MacDonald is said to have been an enthusiastic player. Ian Fleming thought so much of bridge that he inserted a well-known bridge problem into one of his James Bond novels (the “Culbertson hand” in Moonraker, where one player has the majority of
34549face cards yet cannot take a single trick). A couple of mystery writers have set a book against a background of the game; Georgette Heyer‘s Duplicate Death (1951) (discussed in detail by me here) is better known than Anne Archer‘s 1931 Murder at Bridge but both take place at a large card party. And well-known Sherlockian pastiche writer Frank Thomas wrote two elementary (sorry) textbooks on contract bridge using Holmes and Watson as a bridge partnership. They’re actually good textbooks for a beginner.

26f29cards1-461847

Omar Sharif at the table

Writers as a category, though, have not produced any great bridge players, it seems. Politics (Dwight Eisenhower and Deng Xiaoping), business (Warren Buffett and Bill Gates) and cinema (Omar Sharif, a top-ranked player who has represented three countries in international competition, and Chico Marx) have all generated great bridge players. But although certainly there are good writers who are good bridge players, no one appears to have reached the top rank of bridge players after achieving success in writing.

btmThe other way of going about it is to start as a bridge expert and write a great mystery. And believe me, folks, that’s never happened. I’m not sure why it is, but expert bridge players seem to have the writing equivalent of a tin ear when it comes to generating detective fiction or indeed any kind of fiction at all. Matthew Granovetter is a well-known American bridge player now living in Italy, and has written many interesting bridge texts and columns, but his three bridge mysteries have been ghastly. GHASTLY. I discuss his 1989 novel I Shot My Bridge Partner here; suffice it to say it made my list of “Mysteries to die before you read”.  There are many others equally awful, now that self-publishing is more common, even more of them, and I’m not sure why. Is it that bridge players think that mysteries are a kind of formula fiction, where you flesh out the activities of a game of Cluedo and meanwhile throw in a bunch of backstage information about bridge tournaments? I’ve seen that a number of times and it never works. I’ve talked before about how minority groups find it useful to use a mystery as a way of telling a story set in their particular milieu, in what I call the “information mystery” format. But those information mysteries have some “guts” to them because the minority stories are fresh and important and dramatic. The maximum stakes of winning or losing a bridge tournament were pretty much exhausted in that antique variety of film, the college football movie of the 1930s, and the two plot threads seem impossible to balance in intensity. Ah well.

41R4aESvkYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Being as obsessive as I am about reading all the mysteries, of course over the years I’ve tracked down dozens of mysteries about bridge written by bridge players. Unfortunately there are no really good ones. In fact the more famous the bridge player the more horrible the mystery, it seems. Terrence Reese and Jeremy Flint are two very famous bridge players who both competed for England at the highest international level, but their 1979 bridge/mystery/thriller novel, Trick 13, is tooth-grindingly painful to read. Reese was well known to be incredibly focused at the bridge table (there’s a famous story about his friends hiring a woman to walk nude around the table while he was playing a hand, and he didn’t notice) and wrote dozens of bridge textbooks; this novel reads as though it was written by someone who had been told how humans tend to act but who had never actually met any. Except for the parts where a woman is spanked with a hairbrush, which are regrettably salacious and smack of someone’s personal knowledge. Ugh.

268678Don Von Elsner was a very good bridge player and it may well have been that he would have found success as a mystery writer if he’d found a way to focus on the puzzle mystery. He had most of what he needed; a sense of how to sprinkle humour through his plots, an understanding that you had to tell a story before you gave bridge lectures, and the ability to occasionally create a reasonably good character.  Unfortunately in the early 60s when he was writing, what publishers wanted was spy novels, so he wrote spy novels with a bridge background about the adventures of one Jake Winkman: bridge player, low-level spy, and enthusiastic heterosexual. He achieved publication in mass-market paperback by a major publisher, so someone was reading these back in the 60s, but they don’t stand up well. The books focus more on sex than violence and the spying is minimal. (One of his plots, about a Commie code being transmitted via the spot cards in newspaper bridge hands, is just ludicrous.)

353927812Dorothy Rice Sims certainly stands out in the history of bridge, although unfortunately not especially for her contribution to mystery writing. Mrs. Sims may indeed have become famous to bridge players originally because of her marriage to a national bridge champion, P. Hal Sims, and their subsequent winning of the second national mixed-pair championship in the US (and then their shared participation in a very important public bridge competition). But her fascinating biography — read the bare bones of it here in Wikipedia — includes the invention of an entire area of bridge theory, that of the “psychic” bid. She played literally at the dawn of bridge when no one really knew what they were doing, but everyone was anxious to discern what the best “rules” for bidding and play were; except Mrs. Sims. Her philosophy was literally to make things up on the spur of the moment (she wrote a book called How to Live on a Hunch, or, the Art of Psychic Living) and her ground-breaking book, Psychic Bidding, was published after her multiple championships. The next year she collaborated on 1932’s Fog, a thriller taking place aboard an ocean liner, with experienced thriller writer Valentine Williams; I don’t think it’s going too far overboard to suggest that Mr. Williams did most of the heavy lifting. The book is interesting; I’m hampered by not having a copy at hand to refresh my memory, but I recall thinking it was at least competent and enjoyable reading.

2595722This brings me finally to the most successful writer of mysteries and writer on bridge, S. K. (Skid) Simon. Skid Simon collaborated with Caryl Brahms, a newspaper writer and ballet columnist, on the first of eleven comic novels in 1937, A Bullet in the Ballet. This novel immediately catapulted them to the front rank of a writing style which they pioneered, the madcap mystery — Julian Symons would have categorized them as Farceurs. A murder takes place in the eccentric ranks of the ballet company of Vladimir Stroganoff, a zany Russian-born impresario, and Inspector Quill of Scotland Yard must untangle financial, political, and unusual sexual motives before solving the crime. The book was a best-seller in the UK in its year (partly because it was unusually frank about the sexual preferences of certain of the ballet dancers) and generated a career for the pair writing comedic takes on various historical situations before Simon’s untimely death at age 40. I’ve never cared for this particular four-volume series about Quill and Stroganoff, because they seem a little overwrought to me, but they certainly have their adherents.

Skid Simon, though, is much better known to the bridge world than the mystery one; he was one of a small group who created the British-born bridge bidding system known as Acol. I’m not sure how to describe the magnitude of this achievement; it was a revolutionary thing in its day and created the foundation for decades of competition at the highest levels of international play, including the foundations of the careers of Terence Reece and Jeremy Flint.  Simon also wrote a brilliant bridge textbook in 1945, Why You Lose At Bridge, that is still useful today; it focuses on the psychology of bridge players and how they learn what they know about bridge. And it does so in a very amusing way; Simon invents humans like the garrulous Mrs. Guggenheim to take the place of the faceless Easts and Norths that populate many bridge texts.  His text will last a long time; it even has utility for games other than bridge.

41KMA5WMC6LAnd I have to say, in terms of a mystery with bridge in it, the Brahms/Simon collaborations are not on the map; there’s literally no bridge at all. So if you’re looking for a murder mystery that is set against a background of duplicate bridge, I have nothing to offer that I think you’ll really enjoy, I’m sad to say. If you want to read a mystery that has bridge in it that isn’t by a professional player, I recommend the works of Susan Moody about bridge teacher Cassandra Swann; there is a nice balance between bridge and mystery, Susan Moody has a great sense of humour, and she can actually write — she knows how to structure a book to make it flow, without being predictable. Okay, it’s a bit hard to imagine why a bridge teacher keeps getting involved in murders but I personally have been able to suspend my disbelief; I wish she’d write a few more.

Please, please, do not write and tell me about your cousin’s former bridge partner in rural Wisconsin who self-published a bridge mystery. I’ve read a couple of those, perhaps even that specific one, and trust me — I am doing the authors a favour by not reviewing them. So far the field of self-published bridge mysteries has been marked by a uniform awfulness, in my experience, and the experience of shooting those particular fish in that small barrel is not one I relish. Yes, it is impressive to have mastered the strip squeeze; I haven’t managed it. The place for that sort of anecdote is half-time break at a tournament, not grinding the action of a murder mystery to a complete dead stop while you explain your brilliance for ten pages. And, generally speaking, if one wants to write a murder mystery it helps to have read a couple first. Don’t whip out the unreliable narrator gambit or the long-lost twin brother as if I’ve been living under a rock for fifty well-read years. I went through three or four of these no-hit wonders a few years back and until someone writes the breakout novel, you can safely avoid everything that’s not from a major publisher.

1081529Similarly, I am absolutely not interested in any of the handful of cozy bridge mysteries in various series, some of which I’ve also read. On The Slam by Honor Hartman about the little old widow (#1 in a series!) who decides to learn bridge until an unpleasant neighbour is murdered at the table will stand for all of them, as far as I’m concerned. It might possibly be of use if you were having trouble understanding some of the most basic principles of bridge, since it handles them lightly and clearly and for the most part leaves them alone. The mystery itself might trouble a bright fourteen-year-old to solve before the police do; you will not be unduly strained. I gave this book to a dear friend who was very elderly at the time, and in roughly the same situation.  She returned it to me almost immediately with a withering glance, saying, “What PAP.” I have to agree. Generally, any book whose cover proclaims “Bridge tips included!” is suggesting a paucity of attention to the mystery in the process.  And all the Goodreads comments that suggest the positive virtue that you don’t actually have to know anything about bridge to read this book — are missing the point. That’s a bug, not a feature. The book should make you want to learn, not be pleased that you don’t know how.

If you are a bridge player who wants to read a mystery, I suggest that you either go with Susan Moody or avoid the topic of bridge entirely as a basis for a mystery. And if you want to know how to play a better game of bridge, I emphatically recommend S. J. Simon’s Why You Lose at Bridge.

The Nurse’s Secret (1941)

nursesecretThe Nurse’s Secret (1941) is definitely at the B level but is still worth 65 minutes of your viewing time. It’s a fairly faithful remake of Miss Pinkerton (1932), which was based upon an eponymous novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Pretty young Nurse Adams is assigned to special duty at an old decaying mansion. The elderly matriarch’s spendthrift son has blown his brains out, we are told, and the matriarch discovered his body and promptly had a “severe nervous shock”, so requires full-time nursing. The nurse’s boyfriend, police Inspector Patten, asks her to investigate on his behalf. Well, the matron is acting strange, but then so is the butler, and the butler’s wife, and and the dead guy’s girlfriend, and the guy who lives across the street. And it looks more and more likely as if the verdict of accident upon which the matriarch is insisting isn’t all that believable after all. Nurse Adams gets dangerously close to being accused of the second crime before she and her boyfriend sort it all out and Inspector Patten applies the handcuffs.

Lee Patrick

Lee Patrick

The earlier film stars Joan Blondell and George Brent at the top of their respective games; this film stars Lee Patrick as Nurse Adams and Regis Toomey as her boyfriend from Homicide.  You may never have heard of Lee Patrick, whom I see as a hard-working woman at the second rank of stardom (or lower). Her most memorable role was earlier in 1941; she plays the small but memorable role of Sam Spade‘s secretary Effie Perrine in The Maltese Falcon. She’s more of a character actor than a glamorous lead. This might actually be her only starring role in a film (although if someone knows differently, I’d appreciate being informed). The unsubstantiated story is that her husband, a writer for magazines, did an unflattering piece on gossipeuse Louella Parsons and Lee Patrick’s career suffered forever as a result.

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Regis Toomey

It’s amusing to watch Miss Pinkerton and then The Nurse’s Secret one after the other because you get to see clearly what it is that makes a B a B. Lee Patrick’s salary was probably a tenth of what Joan Blondell earned for the same role. Patrick has a certain quality of hardness that Blondell only approaches; hard to explain, but you get the feeling that where Blondell might utter a racy wisecrack, Patrick would — away from the microphones — rip off a string of unprintable curses. This isn’t based on anything except my feeling about the two of them, but Blondell certainly turned out to have more widespread popularity and hence staying power. George Brent and Regis Toomey are roughly equal as the two hard-nosed cops. Everything in the B version is less expensive, and less well chosen, and just generally cheaper; sets, costumes, and the quality of everyone and everything in each film. The first film features a creepy old mansion; the second film features a not very creepy old mansion with some weird daytime lighting effects of random shadows that can’t be caused by anything imaginable. Miss Pinkerton builds tension and sustains it; The Nurse’s Secret doesn’t manage to build tension for very long before it dissipates it with ugly lighting, a noodly-doodly music score and a poorly-chosen supporting cast.

Clara Blandick

Clara Blandick

The only high point in The Nurse’s Secret is the actor playing the elderly matriarch, Clara Blandick. I first noticed her chewing the scenery in a small but significant role in Philo Vance Returns (1947), but I later started seeing her in everything everywhere; you know how that goes. Once you recognize a character actor’s face you can’t imagine how you ever missed her before. She played Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz; and generally played in 100+ films, frequently made up to be older than she actually was. And my audience of mystery fans may remember her in a tiny role in the 1936 Perry Mason production, The Case of the Velvet Claws; she plays Judge Mary at night court who marries Perry to Della Street just before the honeymoon is ruined by a murder.

As I’ve said, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen somewhat better written and more expensively portrayed in the earlier film. But if you’re like me and enjoy seeing the first-hand effects of turning an A film into a B production, this will amuse you. And if you haven’t managed to see Miss Pinkerton, it will whet your appetite for something more solid!

 

 

 

Quick Look: Still Waters, by E. C. R. Lorac (1949)

Still Waters, by E. C. R. Lorac (1949)

Still WatersWhat’s this book about?

Artist Caroline Bourne is nearly fifty and wishes to relocate to the country for a “serene old age”. She purchases a small farm in Lansdale (between Lancaster and the Pennines in England) and an associated bit of land containing a disused quarry, now filled with water, and a cottage beside it. She involves her young cousin Kate Hoggett and Kate’s husband Giles to work the land while she restores the entire estate, including an art studio. (Giles Hoggett is known to the Lorac aficionado through his active assistance to Inspector Macdonald in two earlier cases in the area, as a kind of local Watson.) But Caroline’s path to acquiring the farm is not smooth; the auctioneer seems strangely reluctant to accept her bids, and it’s only due to an expensive car getting trapped in a muddy farm road that she doesn’t have well-heeled and determined competition in the auction. But she prevails … except that strange things are now happening in the neighbourhood, and seem to be focused on a missing farm labourer and the dark water of the flooded quarry. There’s also the mysterious behaviour of the new owner of local Hauxhead Castle, who commissions Caroline to do a brochure promoting the castle in its new role as an expensive hotel; but doesn’t seem to care if the brochure is produced.

Inspector Macdonald has dropped by early in the book to catch up with his old friend Giles and takes a hand when the local constabulary proves itself unable to find the missing labourer. MacDonald, Giles, Kate, Caroline, and the local police investigate a number of small mysterious occurrences in the rural farming community, with all its country ways, until a surprising crime is brought home to the guilty — and the still waters are settled.

Why is this worth reading?

E. C. R. Lorac (the major pseudonym of Edith Caroline Rivett, who also wrote as Carol Carnac) is an acquired taste and a difficult one for which to provide. Lorac novels are hard to get and expensive; really, ripe for reprinting, if anyone can find the originals from which to reprint. (I’m aware of a gentleman who has been collecting her 71 first editions for decades and still needs eight to complete the set, three of which he doesn’t expect to ever find.) She wrote — I want to call them “gentle” mysteries. Inspector Macdonald was her major detective, but she also wrote about Inspector Ryvet and Chief Inspector Rivers, all of whom are pretty much the same. They are honest, straightforward, morally upright gentlemen who work hard to catch criminals but are also human beings who form friendships among the people they investigate and take pleasure in everyday things that have nothing to do with murder. The stories sometimes involve fairly brutal murders, but there is always a leavening of people involved who are both interesting and non-criminal. It is somehow clear to the reader that certain characters should not and cannot be suspected — they are, to use an overworked word, “nice”. Her books always have nice people in them; friendly, intelligent, everyday people who find themselves brushing up against criminals. In this case they are primarily farmers.

Lora’s writing is really very good. There’s an interesting choice of language throughout; for instance, on the first page, I learned a new word, “shippon”, a kind of farm outbuilding. The conversational tone is well-written; descriptions are clear and direct. And there is a very nice overall tone that is hard to describe — let’s call it “gentility”. This is a writer who is writing with intelligence and a strong sense of social place, and addressing an audience with intelligence who wants to know about that social structure. She does it by telling you about it and by showing you how it works, in an engrossing and yet economical way. You don’t lose sight of the plot, but you do find some enjoyable byways down which to wander for a moment.

There is a lot of interesting material in this particular volume about the difficulties of agriculture in post-war Britain; quotas for this and that, getting planning permission to renovate a cottage and permission to buy building materials, even the right to employ workers to do renovations. There are also currency restrictions, high import duties, food rationing, and the impossibility of filling out the paperwork to make it all happen. And this is the sort of thing I do enjoy reading about in detective fiction; the little details of life that are different from my own present-day existence. I’ve never lived with food rationing but it seems to have produced a very healthy generation … we could probably all use a little post WWII austerity in our lives ;-) The details of the crime, however, will not occupy you for long. This particular volume, uncommon with Lorac I assure you, postpones any kind of actual criminality until quite a way into the volume and unfortunately the suspense is neither well-built nor dramatically relieved. The criminal plot is so slight as to make this almost a novel about the people and the place, and not a murder mystery. Again, this is not what Lorac is usually all about; her murder stories are usually as bloody and direct as anyone else’s.

I’m not familiar with all the volumes, but this is one of a set of stories that the author told set against the background of rural Lansdale, and Giles Hoggett is at this point a recurring character. (There’s a nice moment where the local bobby realizes that Giles has the ear of his superiors and sets out to outdo the amateur detective.) There’s a somewhat explanatory Foreword addressed to the fictional Giles and Kate, but apparently speaking to two real-life people who are their models. Anyway, I had an odd moment when I first read this book, thinking that I had somehow bought the same book under two different titles. Not so. There’s at least one other Lorac novel in my library that has a remarkably similar plot and characters, called Let Well Alone; so similar that I confused them for a moment.

My favourite edition

I’ve only ever seen the edition at the top of this post, Collins White Circle Crime Club 256C, although my edition is perhaps earlier since its cover price is 1/6. However, I haven’t mastered the many details of Collins White Circle editions; this could be from any Commonwealth country and be simultaneously published with the above edition. The “C” in 256C, the serial number on the spine, could stand for Canada or indeed anything at all, I just don’t know.  What I do know is that this cover design is fairly constant with a large range of Collins White Circle Crime Club paperback editions, with the twin hooded figures used as the standard cover art.  I think this is so that the title-less covers could be printed and shipped to, say, Toronto or New Delhi to have the titles imprinted on locally-printed books … again, just a guess, but I’ve seen the occasional edition with a red title that is obviously a surprint. The design of the two figures has a great Art Deco feel; I always find my heart beats a little faster when I see it from across the room in a bookstore because I might be about to find a really scarce title. Almost all the titles in this series are at least worth a look and some can be very valuable.

How expensive are these? Well, there isn’t a single paperback copy available that I can find for sale on the internet — on ABEbooks, three copies of the first edition in orange boards from 1949, none with a jacket, all Good or better, trading between $45 and $50, without considering postage. Ouch – but a first in jacket might be $300 or more.  A paperback copy of the other Lorac title I mentioned, Let Well Alone, will set you back $16 to $18 without considering postage, and this should be a roughly equivalent price to this title. I should add that this publisher’s editions are notoriously fragile and the best purchase for one of these is one in good condition. My own reading copy, which someone scotch-taped to hold on the loose front cover, I paid $4 for and would probably not take $10 today; all these books are scarce and I will probably re-read this in ten or twenty years, so I’ll just keep it.  Happy hunting!

200 authors I would recommend (Part 5)

Another ten authors whose work I’d recommend. You’ll find Part 1 that explains this list here; the immediately previous article, Part 4, is here; I’ll link here to Part 6 as soon as it’s written.

41. 1418801800Cole, G.D.H. & Margaret

I’ve reviewed a book by the husband-and-wife Coles recently and I have to say, if it’s not clear, that I managed to find one of their less-well-written books to look at — but their books are so scarce and expensive that I think that’s one of perhaps three I have in my library. Even that excellent site, stopyourekillingme.com, doesn’t have a listing for their published works and so I’ve sent you to Wikipedia. I’ve heard it suggested that mediocrity is a reason why some authors remain in obscurity but, honestly, I don’t think that should apply to the Coles. Their mysteries really are worth reading; they were both important writers and opinion leaders in various political spheres and that quality of intelligence in my experience usually produces clever and intelligent mysteries. I certainly enjoyed Death of a Millionaire, and I don’t think it would be spoiling your enjoyment to say that it reminded me of both the best of the Humdrum school and a particular Philip Macdonald novel. The Superintendent Wilson novels will be your best starting point to appreciate the Coles’ work, and that earlier novels are more likely to be to your taste than later (they get rather more political as time goes by). My friend Curtis Evans, whose blog is here, is an expert on the Coles and has a learned book that looks at the full body of their work, a privilege afforded to few but the diligent, that I bought the day it came out.  You can get your copy of The Spectrum of English Murder here.

PB037-750x75042. Conan Doyle, Arthur

The author of Sherlock Holmes shouldn’t need much recommendation from me, but I’ll bring his name forward anyway. As I’ve said, I don’t automatically recommend writers just because they’re well-known, but Conan Doyle stories are really enjoyable reading, by and large. He had a really appealing writing style — a great eye for description, beautiful word choices, simple and direct chains of ideas without too much foofaraw.  I admit sometimes I’ve been annoyed when Sherlock Holmes picks up a clue and, without showing it to the reader, tucks it in his pocket until the denouement. But that was before the “fair play mystery” idea had even been thought of, so I don’t blame him for not fulfilling my expectations. Sherlock Holmes is a character for the ages, and, to disclose fully, I have him tattooed on my chest. Yes, really. I’ve read each of the stories countless times and can always find something new to think about. And if you don’t like reading in the antique style of language, then I recommend you seek out the television series that did all the stories as accurately as possible, starring the wonderful Jeremy Brett. If you’re looking for something of his that isn’t Sherlock Holmes, you might try The White Company, a historical novel that I understand was his personal favourite of his own works.

982662525243. Connelly, Michael

It is true that I don’t read much these days that was written after about 1950, but a damn good writer will always get my attention. I can remember finishing the last page of 1992’s The Black Echo and immediately starting it again from page 1, because it was so elegantly and lyrically written that I didn’t want to leave. By the way, it won the Edgar in 1993 for best first novel. I think you will agree with me that Connelly’s stories about Hieronymous (Harry) Bosch, a homicide detective in Los Angeles with a sad and troubled life, are magnificent. Start from the beginning and savour these powerful and intelligent novels. Connelly’s work has been made into a couple of good movies; 1998’s Blood Work, a very smart novel, had its ending changed when they made a smart movie out of it in 2002, with Clint Eastwood. That means you get to have two bites at the apple of solving it. Connelly himself, by the way, makes the occasional appearance in Richard Castle’s writers’ poker game on TV’s Castle.

103157270844. Connington, J. J.

As well as reawakening my interest in the Coles (above), I’m also indebted to Curtis Evans for reminding me just how good a mystery writer J. J. Connington was. His extremely significant volume of critical analysis from 2012, Masters of the Humdrum Mystery (buy your copy here and I highly recommend it; you’ll gain a lifetime reading list from it) spends about a third of its time discussing J. J. Connington (under his real name, Alfred Walter Stewart, apparently no relation LOL).  Connington novels used to be an extremely difficult thing to acquire in the used book market, but these days with ABEBooks and eBay, and the fact that he’s completely in print at the moment thanks to Dr. Evans, you can look forward to an enjoyable set of volumes. These are classic British puzzle mysteries from the true Golden Age, the genuine whodunit. Connington’s intelligence and creativity shine through these stories. At his very best, he takes the reader on a guided voyage through a set of interesting facts and allows you to arrive at the wrong conclusion, then dazzles you with what was really going on. I very much enjoyed being hoodwinked by all those I’ve been able to read so far; The Sweepstake Murders stood out, and so did Case with Nine Solutions when I reviewed it here.

51ctTMG5GhL45. Constantine, K. C.

The 17 novels featuring Mario Balzic, a police chief in a small Pennsylvania town — well, you may think they’re just too artistic to be thought of as “only” mysteries. To me, this is what the idea of genre fiction is all about; really great genre fiction transcends itself and becomes a story that can be appreciated by anyone, even if they’re not familiar with the genre’s historical and popular forms. Constantine writes at an elegant and lyrical level while talking about simple and ordinary things. There are a few mystery writers who manage it; the poet Stephen Dobyns does it, Dashiell Hammett did it, and so does Constantine. These are plainspoken stories about ordinary people whose lives have somehow gone a little wrong. They’re inarticulate and in pain. Chief Balzic has to put things right as best he can, with the profundity only available to a wonderfully ordinary and real man. His love for his town and his fellow man is what sustains him, I think. Start at the beginning with 1972’s The Rocksburg Railroad Murders, reading in order, and you will see how the writer grows the character lovingly over the next 30 years and shares that growth with us.

362c697d009b5a6e69e62385908027c846. Coxe, George Harmon

George Harmon Coxe was a prolific writer of pulpy mystery novels — many of them about hard-drinking newsmen who solved crimes, and in general about hard-punching men who squared off with violent criminals. His books were a mainstay of the early Dell mapback series, which is where I picked up the taste for them. The Kent Murdock stories about a newspaper photographer on the crime beat in Boston are quite a bit more literate than you might imagine from looking at the salacious artwork. As was not always the case in the days of pulp, the stories make logical sense; they’re about ordinary people trapped in desperate situations who do what we might do, and yet there’s always a beautiful dame in trouble. There’s a number of writers who were mining this vein, but I like Coxe the best. Start with Murder with Pictures, proceed chronologically, and see how many Coxe stories you can acquire in the original mapback edition just for the verisimilitude.

7e345eef0fcbc134cd3d7112bdcac2b147. Crais, Robert

I don’t really read private eye novels any more, but Robert Crais’s name on a new novel always makes it into my to-be-read pile anyways. He’s another of the writers like K. C. Constantine, above, who writes so beautifully that he could transcend his genre. But Crais is completely grounded in the traditional private eye novel and perhaps doesn’t care about transcending the genre, thanks very much. He just wants to write interesting, intelligent, exciting novels about two wonderful characters, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. I remember when the first volume came out as a paperback original in 1987, The Monkey’s Raincoat; everyone in the mystery world was gobsmacked, and the book was on all the major awards lists. He hasn’t stopped being a great writer, but now the characters are deeper.

1235014278548. Crispin, Edmund

Sooner or later every mystery reader discovers the Gervase Fen novels and if you haven’t already, now is a good time. Crispin was unique. He was a master of the Farceur school of detective fiction, whose work has a constant mocking smile playing around the corners of its mouth as it says outrageous and unexpectedly funny things. Not out and out farce, mind you — classic whodunits, with Oxford don Gervase Fen investigating locked room mysteries and various other impossible crimes, but at the same time constantly keeping the reader off-balance and giggling. If you trace down every literary reference in every Fen novel, you’ll be a very, very well-read person and you’ll have had a great deal of fun being fooled by the novels. My favourite Crispin is Love Lies Bleeding, but the first novel, The Case of the Gilded Fly, is also a good place to start reading. A lot of Crispin’s reputation rests on the widely-beloved novel, The Moving Toyshop; for me, that emperor has no clothes, and I’d recommend almost any of the others first. Your mileage may of course vary.

1354382237049. Crofts, Freeman Wills

Crofts is yet another focus of expertise for historian and analyst Curtis Evans, so I’ll recommend you to the same book, Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, as I did above — another third of the volume is about this author and his mastery of the Humdrum style. Freeman Wills Crofts came to prominence with the 1920 publication of The Cask, and was considered a major author of the Golden Age of Detection. Crofts is the master of the “alibi mystery”, especially with respect to railway journeys; his detectives are always questioning station attendants to find out if a disguised Mr. X could have taken the 3:16 from Little Puddleworth and arrived at the manor in time to kill Lady Pamela, although I just made that bit up. You get the idea. Inspector French always seems to be in charge of cases where the murderer is willing to go through an incredible rigamarole to make himself immune to suspicion, and he is what Julian Symons was talking about in Bloody Murder when he invented the term “Humdrum”. Inspector French solves cases by painstaking, exhaustive detective work; he makes sure that what people tell him is true, and his focus is on physical facts. The Cask is a bit dated these days, and it doesn’t feature French, but it’s a good place to start; the only novels that might disappoint you are ones from the late 1950s when Crofts’s confident writing and plotting had fallen off due to age. But he was very readable for 30 years and more than 30 volumes!

43867379250. Cutler, Stan

Occasionally I just want a light mystery with which to relax; something where I don’t have to try too hard to figure out the puzzle, because it’s pretty obvious, and instead I can focus on some interesting and charming characters and their humorous interactions. If you’re looking for something along those lines, try Stan Cutler’s four novels about the unlikely partnership of gay ghostwriter Mark Bradley and straight and old-fashioned PI Rayford Goodman solving L.A. crimes in the 90s. The writer has the pleasant habit of alternating POVs of the protagonist, chapter by chapter, and I think the stories are well handled and very readable. You see the same events from two different perspectives and that’s fun. If you start with Best Performance by a Patsy, you can read the four novels in order. Cutler seems to have moved on to a different style of mystery fiction, and I haven’t read any of it yet, but I would be prepared to pick them up; he has the knack of amusing me without being cloying or unlikely.

Quick Look: Skeletons in the Closet, By Elizabeth Linington (1982)

Skeletons in the Closet, by Elizabeth Linington (1982)

elinington1What’s this book about?

Sergeant Ivor Maddox of the LAPD and his team have a number of crimes on their collective hands, as always. A couple of female skeletons turn up buried under a house that’s being demolished, and when they begin to investigate, they realize that there are perhaps dozens of skeletons that have turned up in similar circumstances over many years. A pair of robbers is robbing little shops for tiny amounts of money. A 13-year-old boy is found raped and murdered in an alley; another young girl is the victim of a hit-and-run. Someone is vandalizing churches. Someone jumps off a tall building, except it later turns out he was thrown. And someone has murdered a wealthy businessman under peculiar circumstances for a peculiar reason.

Maddox and his associates investigate the crimes as they come up, one overlapping the next. They solve a fair number of the smaller cases and all the large ones by the end of the book. And Maddox and his detective wife Sue make plans for Sue’s pregnancy.

Why is this book worth your time?

As I occasionally have cause to say, it’s not.  This book is rubbish between boards, and you should avoid it entirely.

I’ve reviewed one of the works of Ms. Linington before; it’s from my “Books You Should Die Before You Read” series, found here, under her “Dell Shannon” pseudonym. I’ve declined to add this to “Die Before You Read” because it’s shooting fish in a barrel; same reasons as my last essay.  Essentially all Linington’s books are the same. They’re from the “police procedural” school, but they are not in any sense realistic investigations of real crimes. They are nonsensical investigations of made-up crimes involving cardboard characters, and they without exception contain racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, theism, income-ism, and any other prejudice you can imagine. If you’re not an upper-middle-class or higher white person in a heterosexual marriage with a good career who believes in a Protestant god, then you’re pretty much a worthless piece of human garbage who gets what’s coming to you.

In this particular volume, the police decline to investigate a murder because it involves two illegal immigrants “from south of the border”, code for Hispanics. They advise a woman who has assaulted her “dyke”employee how to get away with it; she can be blackmailed, because she won’t want anyone to find out she’s a dyke. They pin a horrendous crime on a “hulking Negro” who ought to have been locked up or given the death penalty years ago, think the police, if it weren’t for the leniency of the parole board and the psychiatrists. A man calls his son a “pansy, a damn queer”, for wanting to become an artist instead of an accountant, and threatens to disinherit him. A man kills his younger boyfriend because he has consulted a psychiatrist to be somehow counselled out of his sexual preference, which apparently was possible in 1982. (Linington does not acknowledge the existence of gay liberation or the NAACP, it seems.) Churches are vandalized by a pair of teenagers, apparently because one’s father is an atheist and thinks it’s all bunk, and of course atheists cannot raise moral children. And in what appears to be a moment of comedy relief, a pair of small-time criminals keep committing petty crimes in the same neighbourhood because apparently they cannot read well enough to follow the highway signs and leave LA.

Poor people commit stupid crimes; stupid people commit stupid crimes. Almost everyone is stupid except middle-class white people and above, and even they commit the occasional crime. Although we think for most of the book that it’s an upper-class person who has committed a crime, it turns out to be one of their lower-class, lower-intelligence employees.

In fact, the only crime that the police have any real problem solving is one where a white middle-class man has killed a bunch of ugly middle-aged women, serially, after marrying them for their money. He hasn’t bothered to conceal his tracks very well; he merely moves every couple of years after burying two or three bodies under the house, and has remained employed with the same company.  But since he is reasonably intelligent, white, and not hulking, drooling, or queer, the police can’t seem to get a handle on him. Oh, he’s insane! That’s the only thing that makes sense. Because there’s no reason for a white well-employed middle-class guy to kill people unless he’s insane, right?

I don’t know much about police procedure in Los Angeles in 1982 — but it’s clear that the author didn’t either. Regardless of their personal preferences, I rather doubt they can decline to investigate a bar fight/murder simply because the victim and killer are both Mexicans, or refuse to charge a woman who’s faked a burglary to cover an assault, just because the assault victim is gay. There’s not much police procedure, indeed, other than going out and talking to people. There are occasionally people who “dust for prints” but they never seem to come up with much useful information. In fact one crime is solved by a police officer walking by a car and making a guess that it has been in a hit-and-run, because it’s the right colour and model. The police never discuss their cases in groups, except over lunch. Oh, and women cops are there to do the paperwork and typing, bless their hearts. And deal with teenagers and break the news to widows. You know — girl stuff.

I’m at a loss as to why people kept reading these books. They’re not sufficiently well written to attract the upper-class white folks who apparently Miss Linington so reveres (she was, as her jacket flaps used to mention proudly, a member of the John Birch Society). And the middle-class folks who actually did read these books in Book Club editions — Linington was a mainstay of the Detective Book Club, since she was very prolific — must have occasionally woken up to the idea that the author didn’t think too much of them. Linington has no knack for describing people or places and the characters are almost all stereotypes. (There’s a “grieving father” in this book whose reactions are so emotionally flat that I toyed for a moment with the idea that the author was trying to hoodwink the reader. Nope — she just couldn’t write.)

What it might be, although I can’t say for sure, is that Linington had a knack for making white middle-class folks think that they were being protected by brave, stalwart police officers who solved almost every crime that came their way. And that the police cared a lot more for the difficulties of white middle-class folks than they did for people of colour, different sexual preferences, different ethnic origins, non-Christian religions, or those who had committed the sin of poverty.

I’d like to think, however, that these kept being published because — well, because they were fodder. They were fast, easy, disposable books written for people who weren’t paying much attention to what they were reading. Most of them didn’t even get paperback publication, which indicates to me that the primary purchasers of the first editions were libraries. Libraries, before the day when they found it acceptable to stock paperbacks, needed a constant source of inexpensive genre fiction. And the same with book clubs. For those reasons, I’d like to believe that Elizabeth Linington had a career despite the fact that her horrendous prejudices seeped through every page and volume that she produced, not because of it.  I am discouraged to think that American readers may have actually enjoyed these books because of their prejudices. But at least her career is over and shows no signs of being revived. No reprints on the horizon, no television series, no chance that these will find any peculiar favour in the fickle minds of the general public. Thank goodness.  The LAPD already has enough public relations problems.

My favourite edition

I’ve only ever seen the book club edition depicted at the head of this post, which was an inexpensive reprint of the Doubleday first edition. No paperbacks exist, to my knowledge, although I note there’s a British “large print” edition.  I found this book so hateful and vulgar that I think my favourite edition would be one that’s blazing in a fireplace.  I don’t usually recommend burning books, but a child might get hold of this and take it to heart.

Quick Look: The Judge Sums Up, by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1942)

The Judge Sums Up, by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1942)

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Collins White Circle (Canada) #87, first paper, 1944

What’s this book about?

Mr. Justice Unwin is summing up a great deal of evidence at the trial of Peter Gaskell for the murder of Walter Drage. In an extended flashback, he sums up the evidence by, for, and against the prisoner. Gaskell and Drage were staying in a rural hotel, Gaskell recovering from a breakdown from overwork. They both became involved with the same pretty young girl, and at the end of a week the evidence ends in a great mass of detail about the last hours leading up to Drage’s body being found at the bottom of a seaside cliff. We meet and hear from chambermaids, a hotel manager, various other guests at the hotel. We become very familiar with the ways in which barristers at trial are guided and corrected by the judge as to the admissibility of various kinds of evidence. We peek into the thoughts and preoccupations of the jurors, learned counsel, and even the judge himself, who apparently solves crossword clues in one part of his mind while summing up with another.

As Mr. Justice Unwin approaches the last phase of his summing-up, having left the reader with the impression that Mr. Gaskell is going to be found immediately guilty by the acquiescent jury, he has a mild heart attack and the trial goes into abeyance until he recovers.

The second half of the book depicts the activities of investigator Morley Aston, who travels to the hotel with the intention of overturning the case against Gaskell. As we meet people whom we’ve previously seen testify, and hear them tell their stories in a different context and manner, a completely different picture of the events of that fateful day begins to form in the reader’s mind. As Aston investigates, he collects sufficient evidence to bolster a surprising new theory about the murder case; this is explained to the reader in a long chapter, and the final moments are devoted to an unusual ending to the trial, once the Justice returns to the bench.

Why is this worth reading?

J. Jefferson Farjeon has recently enjoyed a resurgence of interest, thanks to the republication of his Mystery in White by British Library Crime Classics to delighted critical and public reception. And rightly so, judging by this volume. It is a very intelligently written work of classic detective fiction and I highly recommend it. I haven’t gone into too much detail about the events of the book; I think it’s very unlikely that most of my audience will have already read it, which is not the case with many of the books about which I’ve written. This is such a clever little mystery that I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment once you do manage to find a copy (there’s every chance this will soon be reprinted).

You will note on the cover illustration of the first paperback edition (and pretty much the only paperback edition, as far as I know) that the judge has noticed a single word that “has given him a new approach the problem of guilt or innocence”. This is in fact true; unfortunately I worked out the word to which the cover refers and it helped me work out the approximate solution before the end of the novel. It spoiled my enjoyment just a little, because it was truly an elegant and detailed solution that had been painstakingly created to take the trial evidence and turn it on its head. I think of this kind of novel as a “snowglobe mystery” — halfway or two-thirds through the book, the author gives the plot a shake and all the familiar features and inferences of previous events are transformed into something with a different, nearly opposite meaning. Perhaps it’s that I have a fondness for this kind of plot, which is difficult to manage. But if you enjoy Golden Age Detection classics I think you will enjoy, and be surprised by, this book. So pardon me for not telling you much about it; just this once, trust me. If you like Anthony Berkeley and Christianna Brand and Freeman Wills Crofts, you’ll like this book too.

And if you haven’t managed to work out the crucial word, the judge’s thoughts explain its importance in the final sentence.

My favourite edition

I’ve only ever seen the edition at the top of this post; I have a rather more bedraggled copy than shown here. Collins White Circle paperbacks were not well made, for the most part, and many have disintegrated over the years. I’m aware of about three other editions including the first, which has an undistinguished type-only cover, and a strange publication as an insert into a Philadelphia newspaper in bedsheet format. There don’t seem to be any beautiful editions; the Collins White Circle has at least the charm of being ugly in a naive retro way.

Quick Look: Hand In Glove, by Ngaio Marsh (1962)

Hand In Glove, by Ngaio Marsh (1962)

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Fontana, their 4th paper edition from 1974

What’s this book about?

Elderly, fussy Mr. Pyke Period, quite fixated on lineage, is sharing his house with a brace of excellent servants and has recently taken a roommate, retired solicitor Harold Cartell (whose boxer bitch Pixie keeps the household in a constant uproar). Mr. Pyke Period is writing a book on etiquette and to that end hires Nicola Maitland-Mayne as a temporary typist, mostly because of her family connections. Harold Cartell’s family connections include being the second husband of Desiree, Lady Bantling, blowsy and rackety, who lives nearby with her third husband, the bibulous Bimbo Dodds and aspiring painter Andrew Bantling, Desiree’s son by her first (deceased) husband.  They also include his sister Constance “Connie” Cartell, loud and brash, whose slutty adopted niece “Moppett” and her unspeakably awful and vaguely criminal boyfriend Leonard Leiss are creating social havoc in the neighbourhood. Aspiring painter Andrew and semi-aristocratic typist Nicola meet and fall in love — Nicola will soon introduce him to her good friend, the celebrated painter Agatha Troy Alleyn, and her husband Roderick “Handsome” Alleyn, Scotland Yard Inspector. In fact, Nicola and Andrew are a common sight in Marsh mysteries, the young couple in the throes of new love, and they have a charming romantic relationship that serves as a relief from the unpleasant nature of most of the rest of the characters.

434051142After we meet the principals and the neighbourhood, Mr. Pyke Period gives a strained luncheon party at which his heirloom cigarette case disappears, and later that day Lady Bantling gives a hard-drinking scavenger hunt on the occasion of April Fool’s Day. Pairs of party guests are all over the neighbourhood searching for clues. It will be no surprise to the experienced mystery reader when Harold, who has quarrelled with or is an impediment, financial or social, to pretty much everyone in the novel, turns up at the bottom of a workmen’s ditch the next morning, having had a dirty great sewer pipe rolled down upon him.

Superintendent Alleyn takes charge and leads Inspector Fox through a brief investigation — brief, because it doesn’t really take a lot of effort to eliminate a great mass of red herring subplots and narrow the focus to motive and opportunity.  Everyone’s movements during the long and confused party are traced, and various lies, mistakes, and subterfuges are put to rest in a remarkably short time; the disappearance of the cigarette case, why the strained luncheon was so strained, why Connie Cartell got a letter of condolence the day before her brother died, the events of the party, and the criminous activities of loathsome Leonard and manipulative Moppet. Things come to a head when one character is bopped on the head,non-fatally, and Alleyn soon works out why and by whom. And since the murderer is helpfully the only person who meets a single physical criterion necessary to the killer, and the reader is directly shown that, it is not a huge achievement to figure out whodunnit just as fast as does Handsome Alleyn, but it does feel good to figure out the mystery, doesn’t it?

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1st edition, U.S.

Why is this worth reading?

I believe it’s generally agreed that the works of Ngaio Marsh begin to decline in quality, pretty much at this precise point in her career. Before this point, she had a long period of, say, 90% well-crafted books, and after this point the comments are of the “Well, this is good BUT” variety. Flaws begin to accrete: poor pacing, unbelievable characters, clearly manipulated plot structures, anachronistic social contexts.  Worst of all, the books got boring. Marsh has always been known for mishandling Act II; Alleyn meets the characters and interviews them, one per chapter,until the reader wants desperately for something to happen. her skill in characterization frequently had to carry the reader through to Act III, when the solution begins to coalesce. In books written after this point, believe me, you’ll occasionally want to scream.

I have been known to be unkind about many of Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries, although I’ve certainly read every single one a number of times. I don’t seem to like the same ones other people do, although there’s a certain pleasure in revisiting Marsh’s characterization skills even in ghastly failures like The Nursing Home Murders — or Last Ditch, which I reviewed here, and which actually made my “Die Before You Read” list. My personal favourite is Overture to Death (1939, a great year for art in many media) but I also think 1955’s Scales of Justice is a fine mystery novel. Most of the rest of her novels have various flaws, but the ones set in New Zealand have an assuredness of place that is sometimes absent in her work. By and large, though, my opinion is, if there are four Queens of Crime, she for me is #4.

That being said — I have recently re-read this novel, never having thought it particularly distinguished in the past, and I have to say, it has considerable skill and intelligence that I missed upon previous readings. Perhaps it’s that I’ve finally realized what she was setting out to do; this book has a Theme. It is About Something; there is a central concept at its core. In previous essays here, I’ve mentioned that for me an essential element of a well-written mystery novel is this kind of dovetailing of the pieces around a central concept. For instance, if a mystery’s central crime (the A plot) is focused around plagiarism at a university, then the B plot should eventually also resolve itself to be focused around plagiarism, in a different way. I used the imaginary example of a popular restaurant owner plagued by a blackmailer because, as it later turns out, her best recipes were stolen — or plagiarized. Everything in the book is sooner or later related to the theme of one person stealing another’s creative work.

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First edition

I can’t think of how I came to miss it before, but this book does have a theme that just revealed itself to me: the subtle one of family. In this book it includes pride in one’s family tree for Mr. Pyke Period (who has created his own family of servants); this contrasts with the light approach of Desiree, Lady Bantling, who is on her third marriage but still casually uses the title she acquired with the first husband. Charmingly, it includes an actual family tree in the novel — which I hadn’t realized until now is a big clue as to what Marsh was on about here. Nearly everyone in the book is somehow focused upon matrimony, or divorce, or lineage, or their lives have been affected by someone else’s concerns. Connie Cartell, for instance, is child- and boyfriend-free, but she has somehow “adopted” a young girl — to create her own family. Her niece Moppett and her ghastly boyfriend are creating a partnership like Bonnie and Clyde. Nicola and Andrew, of course, are clearly going to be affianced by the end of the novel. And from high emotions to low comedy … Howard’s boxer, Pixie, is in heat– she wants a family too! There’s a reasonably funny scene in the book where Pixie once again slips her leash, every male dog for miles ends up competing for her sexual attentions, and a huge dog fight ensues. At moments of such large-scale crisis, people get unguarded and important clues might appear…

Once I realized that there was this theme built into the structure of the book, I was quite charmed by how deftly the plot had been constructed. I began to see the way in which certain less prominent characters had been designed to provide counterpoint to a different view of family; there was a kind of organic quality to the book so that it seemed that the characters’ differences were merely casual and random, but they had to have been planned. It’s a difficult thing to do for any mystery writer, because it means the book has to be consciously mapped from the outset to make sure that all the pieces contribute to the theme. The late Ruth Rendell’s Wexford novels contain great examples of this technique, where the crime that Wexford is solving has strange reverberations in the activities of his family — at the end of the novel, you realize that “everybody has the same problems”. That’s what Marsh does here, and it’s very well done indeed.

I’m more used to finding mysteries that are constructed like this in what I might call more serious works; novelists like Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar and Fredric Brown, telling dark stories of how people deal with, for instance, insanity. It’s a nice surprise to find that level of construction in what “Francis Iles” (Anthony Berkeley) said in the Guardian (at least according to the blurb on my Fontana paperback), is “Light, entertaining and disastrously readable.” You know, it is. It’s fast-moving, clever, funny, and she’s managed to avoid the sag of Act II by telescoping the action into a very brief time period and having engrossing sub-plots.

It was a pleasure to discern this structure because I felt pleased at being able to find more ability in her work than I sometimes have. For many readers she is a favourite, and it’s hard to be objective about someone who admittedly has a reputation for writing great mysteries that will endure my opinion. Perhaps someday I’ll write about why there are so many of her books where I say to myself, “I like this book, BUT …”.  In this case, I learned something about how to structure a mystery novel and had a chance to appreciate why she really is a Queen of Crime. You may not care for the general air of unpleasantness among most of the main characters, as I didn’t for many years, but I hope you will now be able to discern the great bone structure beneath the surface of this novel. Enjoy.

Berkeley F-777My favourite edition

Most editions of this novel have been relatively undistinguished. In 1974, the edition with the cover art shown at the head of this piece and which I read to produce it, I remember being chagrined because it was the signal that Fontana had changed its mind about the uniform edition they had been doing with a photographic representation of the dead body on the cover — as my readers know, I like that idea for some reason! So there is no photo edition of this particular title. I’d have to go with Berkley F-777 shown to the left, although it too was a signal; it’s about when Berkley switched from small size paperbacks to a taller format, and the industry followed along. This was from the early 60s, and if it had been produced a few years earlier, the book would be cut off at her calves. So the size was unusual and “modern” for its time, although it doesn’t seem so to us. And I like the cheerful way that the striking cover art flirts with giving away the secret of the contents.