Top 10 Women Detectives in Books

books2-pano_22618In the context of a recent exchange on Facebook with some fellow GAD (Golden Age of Detection) aficionados, the idea of a list of “Top 10 Women Detectives in Books” was conceived, and I incautiously came up with such a list in order to contribute the discussion.  It occurred to me that this would cause people to think of their own lists, which perhaps differ with mine; it seemed more useful to provide an annotated list, giving some reasons. So I thought I’d post here about my suggestions.

Although I came up with this list in a remarkably brief period of time, it seems to hold up; I tried to pick my favourite detectives who stand for a certain style and/or period. I’ll say in general that my list seems to be skewed towards women detectives that I think are “important” in the detective fiction genre, rather than women who are good detectives. Bertha Cool is a fascinating character but not a great detective. I’ll say here, as I said in the context of the Facebook exchange, that I am not very knowledgeable about Victorian-era women detectives and my limited experience may have led me to a faulty conclusion; I’m prepared to accept that Loveday Brooke is not the symbolic figure I imagine her to be from my limited knowledge.

I also wanted to say that I regarded it as important that the characters I suggest are ones who have a reasonably significant presence. Rex Stout‘s creation of private investigator Theodolinda (Dol) Bonner I regard as significant to the genre, but one novel and a couple of guest shots in Nero Wolfe novels are not sufficient to really have an effect. There are others; I chose with an eye to recommending women detectives whose work you can reasonably find in reasonable quantities.

And finally, this list is truly in no order other than when they came to mind. I actually did an initial list of 15 and regretfully omitted some names. In case it’s not clear, these are detectives in books and not television; Jessica Fletcher is in enough books to qualify, but she didn’t make the cut.

1. Sharon McCone

8b2f8ab279fea224f07bd1f77c88978fFor those of you wondering why I haven’t included Sue Grafton‘s Kinsey Millhone on this list, that’s because Marcia Muller got there first. I regard the first Sharon McCone novel, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, (1977), as the first contemporary woman private eye novel — the one that started Sue Grafton and Karen Kijewski and a host of other novelists down the path of the spunky, flawed, and loveable modern single woman private eye. It’s sobering to think, indeed, just how many books and writing careers are dependent upon Marcia Muller’s invention of Sharon McCone. Sometimes the spunky is foremost (V.I. Warshawski, by Sara Paretsky), sometimes the flawed is more prominent (Cordelia Gray, by P.D. James), and sometimes the loveable (any number of modern cozy series) takes over.

It’s interesting to go back to the beginnings of the woman private eye novel of the 80s and 90s and remember that when these books were written, the things that Marcia Muller was writing about were not yet cliches. She was inventing the essential boundaries of the genre, perhaps without realizing it. Her work was obviously successful in that it both sold well and spawned a host — a “monstrous regiment”, as it were – of imitators and people who extended the genre. But Sharon McCone was first.

2. Jane Marple

250px-MarpleI’ll be brief about Agatha Christie‘s Miss Jane Marple (1920-1972); she is one of the finest literary detective creations of all time, male or female. Although I don’t suggest that Christie was influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers, Sayers wrote about the character of Miss Climpson and other elderly women in Unnatural Death: “Thousands of old maids simply bursting with useful energy, forced by our stupid social system into hydros and hotels and … posts as companions, where their magnificent gossip-powers and units of inquisitiveness are allowed to dissipate themselves or even become harmful to the community … She asks questions which a young man could not put without a blush.”

Miss Marple solves mysteries by sorting through her great experience of human nature to find parallels. She is a keen observer of events going on around her, and she has learned that people are quite similar; they do the same things for the same reasons in the same situations. And as an elderly woman, she seems to be able to ask questions that the police cannot, or that they cannot even conceive of asking. She receives the confidences of other women, and taps into a network of female observers the existence of which most males are not aware; she gains the confidence of servants about the inner workings of households. Lower-level members of Scotland Yard routinely discount her efforts but fortunately she has demonstrated her abilities to very highly placed officers, which is why she gets to sit in on crucial interviews. In a way, Miss Marple could be thought of as the head of a bizarrely parallel Scotland Yard, one run and staffed by women.

3. Maud Silver

b9285fde1ac615cf34c4f1df824fcda8Miss Maud Silver is the creation of Patricia Wentworth, and she appeared in 32 novels between 1928 and 1961. There are many superficial similarities between Miss Marple and Miss Silver. Both are elderly British gentlewomen of the upper-middle or lower-upper classes. But where Miss Marple is anchored in the realities of everyday village life, Miss Silver is operating more at the comic-book level. To begin with, she is a retired governess who went into business for herself as a private investigator – rather like Miss Marple for hire, and that’s a very unrealistic concept at the outset. But the unrealities concatenate. Miss Silver can go anywhere, talk to anyone, and controls every situation in which she finds herself with her steely gaze and frequent reproving cough; she insists upon Victorian-level manners from everyone with whom she interacts. No one ever asks her to leave, no one ever manages to dissemble or prevaricate. In short, she’s a kind of super-hero who inevitably homes in upon the truth and solves the case where Scotland Yard is baffled.

Why I think she’s important to the mystery genre, and not just an ersatz Jane Marple, is that Wentworth had a wonderful skill at creating a certain style of novel that stood as a model for a huge mass of cozy mysteries and even non-mysteries; a series of novels where the repetitive elements overwhelm the individual ones. Every Miss Silver novel contains the same elements repeated again and again, novel after novel. We have a description of Miss Silver’s sitting room, right down to the individual pictures on the walls. Miss Silver’s clothes. Miss Silver’s cough, and her family members, and her faithful servant Hannah. A beautiful young woman with long caramel-coloured eyelashes, who is torn between her love for a handsome young man and something else that underlies a murder plot. There is always a little bit of romance, there is always a foolish character to whom the reader feels superior. There are upper-class people and the servant classes, and Miss Silver travels easily between each. (She usually gets vital information from servants that no one else can obtain.) I think Wentworth led the way in a certain way that many people mistake for what’s called a “formula”. A formula, to me, is where the same plot recurs again and again. Instead this is a way of accreting detail that makes the reader feel comfortable and knowledgeable about what she is reading. “Ah, yes,” we smile to ourselves, “there’s Randal March, I know him, he’s nice. There, she’s quoting Longfellow again. Gosh, I hope Miss Silver’s cough isn’t serious.” I think this accretion, like a nautilus building its shell, is what led the way for other lesser practitioners — many, many lesser practitioners — to write long series of novels that have little content but always the same background details that make the reader think creativity has been exercised. Charlaine Harris is perhaps the most prominent practitioner of that style these days, but there are hundreds of others.

4. Mrs. Bradley

GladysMitchellI have to confess, in the past I haven’t really enjoyed many of the novels by Gladys Mitchell about Dr. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley — 65 of them, written between 1929 and 1984. I’ve found them very uneven, varying wildly between farce and Grand Guignol, and I don’t seem to be one of the people who is charmed by her humour or her cackling manner. But I do know that she is a significant woman detective in the history of the genre. For one thing, she’s a psychiatrist. This is, in 1929, at a time when there weren’t many women doctors of any description, and not many psychiatrists either. The creation of a highly-educated psychiatrist was, in and of itself, a signal that women were to take a significant place in detective fiction and almost a prefiguring of the women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s.

Mrs. Bradley is powerful in ways that not many women detectives are. She is constantly described as significantly ugly, with yellowish skin and unpleasant features and a cackling laugh. This is quite a change from a mass of women in detective fiction who rely upon their looks to get their jobs done, or who merely support the male detective; she doesn’t care what men think of her, and that’s a significant development. She is also what we might call morally unsound; I’m only aware of one other famous detective, Philo Vance, who has no compunctions about bringing about the death of murderers to save the hangman, as it were. She doesn’t wait for men to tell her what the right thing to do is, she merely does it herself. She relies on women to help her solve mysteries; a woman with a woman sidekick, Laura (although her chauffeur George is frequently useful as well) was fairly groundbreaking in mysteries. All things considered, I have to recommend that you consider this long series of books as significant even though I don’t enjoy them myself.

5. Bertha Cool

66209135_129882075306Bertha Cool was a professional private investigator (and business partner of Donald Lam) in a series of 29 novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, published between 1939 and 1970. She is significant as a detective not for her skills, which were ordinary, but for the type of person that she was, at a time when there were no other such positive characters in any kind of genre fiction. Bertha was big and fat, swore like a trooper, was aggressive and demanding in business dealings, and wasn’t afraid to get into physical fights with other women. (I am unaware of any instance where she gets into a fistfight with a man, but my money’s on Bertha.)

Bertha Cool is a rich and deep character and in order to last 29 volumes she must have had some resonance with the reading public. I think she’s a very unusual character for her time and place and deserves her place among great detectives – she alone could manage the antics of Donald Lam, keep him focused and driving towards a goal. And at the same time she “acted like a man” at a time when few women stood up for themselves in business, especially something like the private eye business.

The accompanying photograph is of actress Benay Venuta, who once made a pilot television programme for a proposed Cool and Lam series which never made it to air. She’s not quite as hefty and aggressive as my vision of Bertha, but there’s little appropriate visual reference material available that suits me.

6. Hilda Adams

critique-miss-pinkerton-bacon5Hilda Adams, R.N., is the creation of Mary Roberts Rinehart; she first came to the public’s attention in Miss Pinkerton, published in 1932, although I note she was actually part of two pieces from 1914 (see the bibliographic listing here). Miss Pinkerton was made into a successful film in 1932 as well, starring Joan Blondell as the crime-solving nurse. Here, she stands as a better example of a certain type of woman detective than Mignon Eberhart‘s Sarah Keate, but I value both these series for the same reasons (I’ve talked about the Sarah Keate films elsewhere). Prominent critic and blogger Curtis Evans suggested that Hilda Adams or Sarah Keate “are somewhat problematical (especially the latter)”. But I think I can make a case for their inclusion that might surprise him.

This idea could be explained at length in a blog post all its own, but I’ll try to make a long story short. My sense is that the creation of a crime-solving nurse character was an attempt, either conscious or unconscious, to bring into detective fiction an underserved market of young women of the lower and middle classes. In 1932, “nurse” or “teacher” were, for most women, the highest-status occupations available; “nurse romances” have been in existence almost since the days of Florence Nightingale, and they were meant to feed fantasies of lower-class women meeting and marrying higher-class men (by being as close as possible to the men’s status). But there had not yet been a mystery series character with whom these young women could identify, and of whom they could approve. Miss Pinkerton crossed the nurse romance with the detective novel, and the idea took hold. Nurse Adams might well be the long-ago ancestor of an immense number of modern-day light romantic cozy mysteries with simplified plots and I think for that reason she is a significant figure in the history of the woman detective. (I believe there are earlier “nurse mysteries”; for instance, 1931′s Night Nurse, with Barbara Stanwyck, might barely qualify, since there’s a crime involved. But the focus is on nurse rather than detective in most of them; Miss Pinkerton focuses on the detection. I’d be willing to believe there are earlier examples with which I’m not familiar, but Nurse Adams was the most successful.)

7. Nancy Drew

nancy-drew2Nancy Drew, written by the dozens of men and women who were published as Carolyn Keene, just about has to be on any list of great women detectives. I’ve said elsewhere that I have issues with this character. She exhibits all the moral certitude of a homeschooled member of a religious sect; she bullies her friends into doing dangerous things, and constantly sticks her nose in when it’s not appropriate or even polite. And she treats Ned Nickerson like crap, considering that it’s so painfully obvious that she’s a virgin that it’s not even worth mentioning. Ned never gets to third base as a payoff for picking up Nancy at the old haunted mansion on the outskirts of town, time and time again.

But Nancy Drew, bless her interfering heart, is on the side of the good guys and was responsible for making multiple generations of young women believe that they, too, could be detectives, or indeed anything they wanted to be. Her simple message, that a logical approach coupled with dogged perseverance solved all problems, echoes today. And if you asked 100 passers-by for the name of a female detective, I think you’d get about half “Miss Marple” and half “Nancy Drew”. That alone makes her worthy of inclusion on this list.

8. Loveday Brooke

dd6e49d1f60445bd80b926a16692b6edLoveday Brooke was a “lady detective” created by Catherine Louisa Pirkis whose stories appeared in the Ludgate Magazine in and around 1894. I have to say that my scholarship is not sufficient to be able to say anything truly original about this character; I’ve certainly read the stories and enjoyed them. I know that a Victorian-era woman detective has to be on this list as the precursor of all the others, but I’m not sufficiently widely read to know if Loveday Brooke is truly the one that should stand for the others, and I’m prepared to be corrected by people who know more about this topic than I do.

I do think that Loveday Brooke was created as a kind of curiosity for the reading public at the time, but the ramifications of such a creation have been truly extraordinary. In 2014, when this is being written, I believe there are about twice as many novels published every year in the mystery genre that have female detectives rather than males, and many thousands of them; all of this flows from the efforts of Ms. Pirkis and her fellow writers and we have to honour them by an inclusion in this list. I’ll look forward to the comments of others upon my choice.

9. Flavia de Luce

Flavia_on_Bike_Master_VectorsI’m not sure how to categorize or describe Flavia de Luce, except perhaps as an “original”. Flavia is the creation of Alan Bradley and has been the protagonist of six novels between 2009 and 2014; in the first book (winner of multiple awards, including the Agatha, Arthur Ellis and Macavity) she is eleven years old, in 1950, living in the village of Bishop’s Lacey in England, and aspires to be both a chemist and a detective. A “child detective” in itself is sufficiently unusual in the history of detective fiction as to be significant. The fact that the books are charming, delightfully written, intelligent, and frequently powerful — and completely avoid the saccharine or mawkish tropes that frequently crop up when adults write in the voice of a child — makes them even more valuable.

I have to say that Flavia de Luce is perhaps the least solid entry in this list; I’m not actually sure that she contributes anything to the history of women detectives in and of herself. But the books are so charming and well-written and intelligent, and Flavia herself is such a complete and fully-rounded character, that I could not resist including her. If she’s displaced a more worthy candidate, so be it; read these books anyway.

10. Kate Delafield

KatherineVForrestThis detective might be the least familiar name on my list. Kate Delafield is a lesbian homicide detective in Los Angeles, created by Katherine V. Forrest, and the protagonist of nine detective novels between 1984 and 2013. It has to be said that these books are not the best-written entries on this list; they have a certain awkwardness and emotional flatness that is sometimes hard to ignore. Why they are significant is that they are a ground-breaking look at the lives and social milieu of lesbians, written by a lesbian for a lesbian audience, and they are in polar opposition to the meretricious “lesbian confession” paperback originals written mostly by men in the 1950s and 1960s. Those books were ridiculous; these are realistic.

Katherine Forrest was among the first writers to realize that the mystery genre could be used to tell the stories of social minorities by making the detective an insider in that minority. Just as the books of Chester Himes gave readers the opportunity to see what it was really like to live in Harlem as a person of colour, and the Dave Brandstetter novels of Joseph Hansen did the same for gay men, so Kate Delafield’s investigations reveal how lesbians live, work, think, and love. They are important because they were among the first such novels to merge the story of a female minority with the genre traditions of the mystery, and they revealed to many other writers (the entire huge output of Naiad Press, for instance) that it was possible to legitimately tell real lesbian stories using the mystery form and other genre traditions. These days, this has been widely imitated by writers within many other minority traditions, some parsed very finely; Michael Nava tells the story of a Hispanic gay man dealing with HIV issues within the larger gay community, for instance, in a series of powerful mysteries. But Katherine V. Forrest broke this ground for lesbians and became a model for many other minority voices.

October 8 Challenge

I’m submitting this for my own “October 8 Challenge” under the heading of “Write about a group of GAD mysteries linked by authors of a single sex.” Yes, I think it bends the rules; if you wish to put a semi-colon after the word “authors”, feel free.  This piece is about GAD and gender, so since I’m in charge, I’ll accept this. ;-)  As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m trying to stimulate creativity, not strict adherence.

october-8-challenge-chart1

The October 8 Challenge!

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The October 8 Challenge — Golden Age Mysteries!

As I’ve mentioned here recently, over the next year I’m offering my friends, mentors, and peers in the Golden Age Detection blogosphere a chance to focus their writing — not on individual Golden Age mysteries, but upon topics that span different authors, themes, etc. You can find that post here, and I recommend it for background.

Here is the “Bingo card” and the “rules”, such as they are. As I’ve said, I hope to stimulate your creativity, not your obedience; if you need to break these rules to produce an interesting essay, feel free to do that. The challenge will run from October 8, 2014 to October 8, 2015. I will keep track of any essay that is brought to my attention as being an entry in this challenge; if all else fails, by editing and re-editing this post, but in some way everyone’s efforts will be collected in this blog.

On October 8, 2015, I’ll be asking all interested parties (contributors and my readers) to select essays that they feel were best. The three participants who receive the most applause will each receive a small token of my esteem; a collectible paperback from my large collection, and I will do my best to tie the specific book to the theme of the essay.

You can create a line of four squares horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. The idea of a “Bingo” was selected to stimulate you to get some work done, not to make you write something in which you’re relatively uninterested; I’d rather see one great essay than four ordinary ones. The other criteria:

  • Each group of books must represent the work of at least two different authors.
  • Each group of books must contain at least three volumes.
  • Volumes of collected shorter stories are welcome as long as all the stories fit the selected criterion.
  • Ambiguous words like “theme” or “location” are meant to be interpreted generously.
  • The books you select should, generally speaking, have been published before 1950. Please don’t misuse the privilege, but if a book written after 1950 directly relates to your chosen theme, feel free to include it as part of the group. The primary focus should still be upon GAD books and authors. (I expect that A-1, about a single series character with multiple authors, will almost always include books written after 1950.)

As I’ve said, please feel free to interpret these criteria liberally. If you have a great idea for an essay that breaks the rules, then break the rules. When you complete an essay that you intend as an entry, please leave a note in the comments section here; those of you who are fellow members of the GAD group on Facebook can certainly communicate with me there. I’ll keep track of the entries and display links to them all in the way that seems best; at this point, I’m not sure whether I’ll need an enormous apparatus or a simple one, so let me deal with this as seems best. Not to worry, I want people to read your work, so I’ll do my best to steer them to it.

Your comments and questions are very welcome and I’ll do my best to respond.

If you click on the colourful chart below, it will expand to full size.

October 8 challenge chart

 

The October 8 Challenge — an explanation

october8Over the past months I’ve very much enjoyed participating in Bev Hankins‘s Golden Age detection-oriented “Vintage Mystery Bingo”. She’s created a Bingo card with squares that you fill in by reviewing a particular kind of book, such as “Read a book published under more than one title” or “Read one locked room mystery”. I’ve found that it helps me focus on getting some reviewing done, certainly, since I now no longer wait for inspiration to strike as I take a book at random from my shelves. I’ve been more directed in 2014, and it’s been a very productive year. The Bingo challenge also has encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone — in fact, there’s one square marked “Read one book outside your comfort zone”. I can’t brag about that one since I haven’t filled it in yet, but I’ve definitely stepped outside my comfort zone in many respects. So thank you, Bev! You can read about Vintage Mystery Bingo here – it’s deep in the heart of Bev’s excellent blog, My Reader’s Block, found here. And I think I’ll be going back for the 2015 version!

Another member of the Golden Age Detection blogosphere, Moira Redmond – whose book blog, Clothes in Books, is found here – caught my attention with an original idea. Moira’s focus, as you can tell, is that she looks at books with an eye to the clothes that characters are described as having worn, and that’s an interesting idea right there. Recently, though, Moira looked at a series of Golden Age mysteries that are linked by a theme; that of the poison pen letter. And that started me thinking.

It occurred to me that many of my peers and mentors in the GAD blogosphere focus on reviewing individual books; certainly I’ve been doing that too. But it seems that a lot of my readers have been especially interested when I’ve discussed groups of books; my posts on the general topic of cozy mysteries and police procedurals have attracted a lot of attention and comments. I am very fond of reading reviews of individual GAD novels, certainly. It’s how I find new authors and new books to stack beside my bed in my about-to-topple pile of to-be-read books. The erudition and analysis represented by the bloggers in the blogs listed on the left-hand side of my blog is absolutely amazing, like a university-level course in analysis and discussion of GAD. I don’t dare name individuals for fear of forgetting someone, but trust me, just work your way down my blogroll and you’ll be astounded. And yet, most of them focus on individual novels.

Now, I know that many of these folks have an appreciation of not only the depth available in looking at an individual novel, but the breadth and span of how these books fit together as a genre. The everyday discussions, both serious and humorous, in the Golden Age Detection Facebook group to which many of us belong, tell me that these folks know about schools or clusters of mysteries as well as being able to dig deep into an individual novel. And in the past, I’ve often had the experience of picking a book off my own shelves for an hour of re-reading, and thinking, “Oh, this book reminds me of this book,” and going back for a linked volume, and another, and another …

In short, Golden Age mysteries can be seen as a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, if you will, where books are linked by theme, or period, or place, or style, or authors, or characters. And while I love reading about individual books, I suspect that my brilliant friends, mentors and peers in the GAD blogosphere can embrace breadth as well as depth and bring their intellectual powers to analysis of the way that GAD books fit together in groups. And so I determined, after some consultation, to give them that opportunity if they choose to take it up.

Hence, the October 8 challenge. Now, I chose that date for a couple of reasons. One is that I won’t easily forget it — it’s my birthday ;-).  The other is that I share that birth date with another member of the GAD blogosphere who has become a friend, Edgar-Anthony-and-Agatha-nominated author Jeffrey Marks. (I have to confess that he is younger and better looking than I, but it’s still the same damn birthday LOL.) Among his other interesting volumes of both biography and fiction, Jeffrey’s fascinating book, Atomic Renaissance, gives us portraits of women mystery writers of the 1940s and 1950s, giving details of their lives and work; not focused on individual novels but a wide breadth of work from some disparate women writers. Atomic Renaissance is the kind of research I enjoy reading, and it will stand as an example of the kind of research and thought I hope to encourage. You can buy your own copy here, and I think you should do so! (This free plug is your birthday gift, Jeff <grin>.)

So, in honour of Jeffrey and his work, and my advancing age and memory loss, I will bring you a year’s worth of essays from whoever cares to participate, running until October 8, 2015.  I’ll give you the details in another post today; with Bev Hankins’ permission, I’ve lifted her idea of the Bingo card, but made it only 4×4. The second post today will give you the “rules”, such as they are; I don’t intend to be rigorous about this. What I hope to encourage is creativity, not obedience. As people contribute essays, I’ll keep track of them in one post (depending on volume, one post per month, or perhaps per season). And at the end, I will ask all the contributors to judge who will receive first, second, and third place. And those three writers will receive a small gift from my large collection of antiquarian paperbacks; nothing enormous, just a token to represent excellence.

I have to say, I can’t wait to see what happens! My associates in the GAD blogosphere have all excited me and delighted me in the past, and I hope you will continue to do so; let’s instruct and delight each other over the next year with a focus on breadth as well as depth of insight. Any questions or comments, I’ll do what I can to address; feel free to mention them below.

(Speaking of memory loss, to which I’ve confessed above, the original version of this post stupidly confused Moira Redmond and Margot Kinberg, both of whom have fascinating blogs on GAD topics. No excuse, just me being dumb. My sincere apologies, and I’ve fixed my reference.)

 

The Poisoned Chocolates Case, by Anthony Berkeley (1929)

The Poisoned Chocolates Case,  by Anthony Boucher (1929)

1946070Author: Anthony Berkeley was the pen name of Anthony Berkeley Cox, an extremely talented and inventive mystery writer who also wrote as Francis Iles and other names. His biography in Wikipedia is found here; I have elsewhere reviewed his first novel, The Layton Court Mystery, originally published as by “?”. Yes, a question mark. His novel as by Francis Iles, Before the Fact, was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1941 as Suspicion, with Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. He was one of the founding members of the Detection Club. His principal detective as Berkeley is Roger Sheringham, silly-ass amateur detective, but a couple of novels feature Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick, mild-mannered criminology expert; this is the only novel to feature both.

thPublication Data: The first edition of this novel is probably the Collins (UK) edition from 1929 (the jacket features Mrs. Bendix in a low-cut evening gown); I am unable to say reliably whether it predates the Doubleday Crime Club edition of 1929. The first paperback edition is Penguin #36, dating from 1936, originally published with a dust wrapper; you may find it significant that it predates the first paperback published in North America by three years. In other words, one of the first paperbacks ever.

I like the look of Pocket 814, which you’ll see elsewhere in this post, featuring Mrs. Bendix in a low-cut evening gown (do you sense a theme?). This novel was also part of an edition from Dell in the 1980s that I call “puzzlebacks”; the books have the uniform feature of a jigsaw piece on the front, and you see on the back cover where the piece fits into an illustration from the novel. That’s the copy I’ve used for this post.

It is a reworking of a short story published earlier* the same year called “The Avenging Chance” — the solution of the short story is actually one of the solutions that is presented and discarded in the novel form (see below for an explanation of this). (*See a discussion in the comments below.)

This particular book was selected as a Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone, which is to say that Howard Haycraft and Ellery Queen thought it was one of the most important works of detective fiction ever published. I agree wholeheartedly. In my personal opinion, it is one of the finest murder mysteries of all time.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will discuss the solution to this murder mystery in general terms and it will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.

I believe this book to be sufficiently significant in the history of detective fiction that I have decided to spoil your potential enjoyment as little as possible. Nevertheless, if you want to have a delightful experience, I advise you to turn away now, go find a copy of this book and read it before you return.

24044PThis book is about a group of six amateur detectives who call themselves the Crimes Circle. As a discussion topic, they decide to investigate a crime which is familiar to all of them, and some of them have personal connections to various of the dramatis personae. Each detective agrees to investigate the case and provide a solution; one by one, week after week, each presents his or her ideas and conclusions. By the time of the sixth such presentation, it becomes absolutely clear who is responsible for the crime.

The case they investigate involves a box of liqueur chocolates which was received through the post by the universally loathed Sir Eustace Pennefather at his club, with a letter asking for his endorsement as a kind of advertisement that was common at the time. Sir Eustace is both disagreeable and hot-tempered and announces that he’s going to throw the chocolates away, but a fellow club member, Graham Bendix, asks for them because he has lost a bet with his wife Joan and needs to produce a box of chocolates to pay the forfeit. Bendix takes them home; he eats a couple and Joan eats quite a few more. The chocolates have been poisoned with nitrobenzene; Graham Bendix recovers, but his wife dies.

The six members of the Crimes Circle are as follows (and their solutions are presented in this order):

  • Sir Charles Wildman, well-known bombastic defense lawyer; we later learn that Sir Charles’s daughter means to marry Sir Eustace as soon as his divorce becomes final.
  • Mrs. Fielder-Flemming, a playwright whose work focuses on emotions more than facts; some of her dramatic productions have been thinly-disguised retellings of famous murder cases.
  • Morton Harrogate Bradley, a writer of detective novels who has considerable knowledge of criminology in the abstract, but who is perhaps not very serious about its concrete details.
  • Roger Sheringham, amateur detective and man about town, who has solved other murder mysteries in the recent past (chronicled by Anthony Berkeley).
  • Alicia Dammers, an icy and beautiful novelist whose brilliance is universally acknowledged. She writes novels that dissect in unflattering and cold-eyed logical detail the failings of others.
  • Ambrose Chitterwick, a mild-mannered gentleman who nevertheless appears to know an enormous amount about the history of detective fiction and true crime.

anthony-berkeleyEach detective does whatever investigation he or she feels is appropriate and makes a case. Week after week, the opinions of the group are swayed in one direction or another. Although there are really only three principal characters, various other possibilities are considered. At first, everyone is considering the possible reasons for someone to try to kill Sir Eustace, who is very disagreeable, a well-known womanizer, and looking to marry into money; no one could have known that he would pass the chocolates to Mr. Bendix, whom he hardly knew. As time goes by, the possibility is considered that Mr. Bendix has taken the opportunity to murder his wife and throw suspicion on an unknown enemy of Sir Eustace. Some detectives focus upon psychology and some upon physical clues, and the way in which these clues are investigated is gone into in exhaustive detail. As one investigator remarks, even so small a detail as access to the model of typewriter upon which the letter accompanying the chocolates has been typed, or potential access to the letterhead of the chocolate company, is considered indicative of the guilt or innocence of a number of different people.

Week after week, solutions are presented that are, to a greater or lesser degree, believable. One early solution accuses another member of the group; so does the next presentation, although the reader may not feel that a detective who accuses himself is entirely serious. Roger Sheringham’s detailed and intelligent solution is considered quite definitive, but then Miss Dammers presents a different and brilliant solution that seems completely conclusive … so much so that everyone almost forgets that little Mr. Chitterwick has yet to present. However, he takes his turn and, to the astonishment of the group, comes up with a sixth solution to the crime that is both unexpected and absolutely correct.

the-poisoned-chocolates-caseWhy is this book worth your time?

Simply put, this is an absolutely key volume of detective fiction. Anthony Berkeley was a crucial figure in the history of the Detection Club and thus in detective fiction; he wrote some magnificent novels that are still read and enjoyed today. He is pretty much responsible for the invention of the “open mystery” (Malice Aforethought from 1931). And this volume is a puzzle mystery that combines a strong vein of humour with some superb detection. Ellery Queen and Howard Haycraft selected it as a “Queen Cornerstone” and I wholeheartedly agree. This is an amazingly clever work of detective fiction that dazzles in the same way as a Catherine-wheel of fireworks; brilliance piled upon brilliance and building to a completely unexpected solution that nevertheless is completely, wholly right. You may actually gasp aloud.

Occasionally, commentators mention Rashomon in connection with this volume, because of how we see the same set of events interpreted by six different viewpoints. The brilliance of this interpretation is that Berkeley has given us six different styles of detection that could have been produced by fellow members of the Detection Club, each of whom has his or her own modality of detective work. Mrs. Fielder-Flemming is perhaps the most wildly emotional — she is the kind of person who “feels” guilt rather than thinks it, while Miss Dammers’s approach is coldly logical about the emotions of others. Roger Sheringham focuses on clues and their meaning; so does Morton Harrogate Bradley, although his approach is more haphazard and amateurish. Sir Charles Wildman takes the legal approach; decide who is guilty and focus your argument to indicate that all the evidence and interpretation leads to the inevitable choice of murderer.  And finally Mr. Chitterwick admits that he has had the benefit of hearing five other interpretations of the situation and has had to only select from bits and pieces of theory in order to build his case; his success lies in his brilliance in sorting theories and facts and not restricting himself in his assessment of responsibility.

poisoned_chocolates2There is also some beautiful and elegant writing here for your delectation. In a way, each detective’s presentation takes on the flavour of that detective’s personality. Sir Charles relies upon bombast, Mrs. Fielder-Flemming emotional speechmaking, and Miss Dammers’s style is the icy dissection of someone who understands emotions but apparently does not experience them. Mr. Bradley’s scattered and diffuse detection approach is the most humorous, probably because he’s the most self-deprecating; and Roger Sheringham’s inner sense of his own intellectual superiority shines through his entire approach and solution. Even Mr. Chitterwick, whose personality is pretty much defined by his not having one, is beautifully portrayed; he has nothing to offer except being perfectly correct. Each presentation has the flavour of its presenter, in the choice of language and description. And each presenter selects a murderer that, in a way, is indicative of his or her personality.

I’ve read this book about five or six times over the years; each time, I think, “Oh, I’ll just skim through it and remind myself why I think it’s so great.” and each time, I find myself savouring it slowly, relishing the fine writing and characterization. I always find some little delightful moment that seems fresh and new (this time through, I was amused by Mr. Bradley’s description of his household’s focus on “paper games” which explain why he has a wad of stolen stationery). Yes, this book is very much of its period — the attitudes towards divorce and extra-marital affairs, for instance, and the common acceptance that an impoverished peer must marry for money. At the same time if you brought the time period up to date, I think these characters would not seem out of place in the modern day. In short, I think this book is a timeless classic.

As I noted above in my “spoiler alert”, if you haven’t yet read this magnificent work, throw your “to be read” pile into the corner and get a copy of this book immediately.  Yes, it’s that good.

7de361267eb67b548f28ba616fc35198Notes for the Collector:

The first edition appears to be from Collins, 1929; the first US edition is Doubleday (Crime Club), 1929. An American bookseller has an “exceptional” copy of the US first of this Haycraft-Queen cornerstone for $1,250 as of this date. I could be mistaken; the British 1st is also 1929, as far as I know. An Oxonian bookseller has a signed copy of the 1930 Collins edition, second printing, no jacket, for  $500. I don’t see any copies of the British 1st available for sale as of today.

I must admit I gravitate towards signed copies and feel they hold their value, but of the number of editions available today, perhaps the most interesting to the collector should be the first paper; Penguin greenback #36 from 1936.  This paperback’s original state has it with a dust wrapper or jacket, apparently identical in design. You can have a copy of this for $150, Near Fine in a VG+ wrapper. Note that this is one of the earliest crime titles in Penguin, the first Berkeley title in Penguin and, to give this some context, was published three years before the first paperback published in North America. Not very beautiful, except to those of us who appreciate the austere simplicity of the Penguin greenback, but definitely a significant edition of this significant novel.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1929 novel qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “O”, “Read one one book with a method of murder in the title.” The victim is dispatched with, of course, poisoned chocolates. I am delighted to note that, as my twentieth review in this group, this now completes my first Bingo — the fifth line from the top. I hope to achieve a couple more before the end of the calendar year. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

vintage-golden-card-00112111

 

The Monogram Murders, by Sophie Hannah (2014)

The Monogram Murders,  by Sophie Hannah (2014)


thAuthor: Sophie Hannah,
born 1971, came to the public eye first as a poet and a translator of children’s books. In 2006 she published the first of what so far has been nine well-received works of crime fiction in what’s known as the Waterhouse and Zailer series. The series has sold exceptionally well in the U.K. and two very popular ITV television productions have been based on her works.

For further information about her published works, the Wikipedia article is here; I recommend care since they have not provided a clearly chronological listing but instead divided her publications into a number of different categories.  (A surprisingly large number of different categories; this author has many interests.) For an interesting take on her career considering her as a poet, the British Council’s take is found here, and the author’s own website is here. The British Council material has a couple of interesting observations about her crime fiction in general.

Sophie HannahHannah has entered into an arrangement with the estate of Agatha Christie to publish this new work using Christie’s character Hercule Poirot.

Publication Data: The first edition of this novel was published September 9, 2014; about four days before the writing of this post. It is currently available in bookstores everywhere and, doubtless, is stacked to the rafters on pallets at Costco. There is a Kindle edition available here and doubtless other formats, but not, at the time of writing, paperback. The copy I used was electronic and from my local library (thanks to a helpful librarian who prefers to remain nameless but, like all her kind, is devoted to bringing books to people who want to read them and deserves our respect).

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will concern large chunks of information about the plot and characters of this book. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.

In this particular review I have not come close to naming any guilty party or revealing any crucial plot details. 

Monogram-Murders_612x952I’m not going to say much about the plot of this book because I expect that it will affect your enjoyment of it should you choose to read it. In bare bones, here’s what happens at the outset; Detective Catchpool of Scotland Yard has fallen into the orbit of Hercule Poirot, who is enjoying a bizarre staycation at a rooming house to get out of his regular routine without leaving town. Three people are found dead in separate rooms on separate floors of a hotel, and in each of their mouths is found a monogrammed cufflink. It is soon discovered that all three people have been involved in each other’s lives in the past, and a long-ago death seems to have had repercussions that reverberated into the present. Catchpool investigates the physical circumstances of people and objects, and Poirot wanders around and says enigmatic things about things that might have happened, or how to view and interpret small events, in order to urge Catchpool to greater effort in improving his detecting skills. Catchpool thereby comes to a number of wrong conclusions, including a couple into which Poirot maliciously misleads him.

At the end, Poirot gathers a large number of people, including hotel staff, into a hotel ballroom and delivers three chapters of explanation as to what happened in everyone’s lives that led to the three deaths. After a fairly exciting and dramatic conclusion, almost everyone lives happily ever after.

monogram-murdersheaderWhy is this book worth your time?

Well, you know, it barely is worth your time. It’s certainly not worth your time at the price you’ll have to pay for a first edition, even at Costco. As I like to say, this is the sort of work that you can wait until it comes out in paperback and THEN avoid it. But there is just enough skill here to keep it from being part of my category of “100 mysteries you should die before you read.” This one won’t kill you, unless it annoys you to death. Sophie Hannah is an able writer who has marketable skills, and this is a competent novel. There are no obvious plot holes, nothing that just doesn’t add up.

I deal with a lot of people regularly who are interested in Golden Age mysteries, and they read them and review them and talk about them. For people like us, this book is environment-forming; this is a significant development in the history of the single most important Golden Age mystery writer and, if this catches on, we may find ourselves inundated by Poirot and Marple authorized fanfic, as it were. But if this is the level of quality we’re going to get, no, it will not be worth much of our time, and after a few such contractually-obligated efforts, the re-animation of Poirot will cease.  (The literary equivalent of a DNR.)

This is not a great mystery or even a believable one. It merely has the legal right to say that Hercule Poirot is a character within its pages. Thus it is interesting in a way that — oh, how can I put this.  If you’re at a dinner party and someone serves you a dish like this, you think of something to say that’s complimentary about a particular excellence of the creative effort, like the innovative spirit that made the chef put fresh lime juice on the scalloped potatoes, and then you push it around with your fork until it’s time for dessert. It doesn’t really matter that the chef is well-known for cooking other kinds of food. It doesn’t matter that only a very few people in the world have the right to add that very particular flavour of Belgian lime juice to the potatoes, because it still tastes weird. And all you can really do is refuse the next invitation to dinner from such a chef.

“People have been cooking and eating for thousands of years, so if you are the very first to have thought of adding fresh lime juice to scalloped potatoes, try to understand that there must be a reason for this.”

Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life (1978)

I haven’t used the word “fanfic” lightly; as near as I can tell, the impulses that lead a person to produce an original work about a copyrighted character and publish it on the internet, or in a photocopied hard copy, are that the person honours the writer, respects the character, and is unable to stop living in that character’s world without new fantasies. Obviously this is a different impulse than that which motivated Sophie Hannah. Hers was probably immense buckets of cash and an iron-clad contract for four more with an option. But the outcome is the same. This is a novel about Hercule Poirot that had nothing to do with Agatha Christie’s mind, or inspiration, or pen, and its reasons for existence have nothing to do with literary achievement.

This sort of post-mortem continuation has been rare, thus far (except in the rarefied reaches of trufan fanfic, which frankly are beyond either my understanding or my patience). The first such continuation I can recall in the puzzle mystery world is the series about a little old lady detective named Miss Seeton, with the five-book series begun by Heron Carvic in the late 60s – mid 70s and continued well after his death in 1980, first with three by James Melville under a different pseudonym, and then 14 by Sarah J. Mason under yet another pseudonym. The complicated bibliography, courtesy of stopyourekillingme.com, is found here, but the point is that the original author only wrote 5/22 of the series. Later on, Rex Stout’s series about Nero Wolfe has continued post-mortem with nine novels by Robert Goldsborough, the latest of which was in 2014.

And of course Sherlock Holmes, where frankly the weight of accumulated fanfic, parody, homage and secondary materials would probably sink 221B Baker Street into the ground were anyone foolish enough to load the building with it. Sherlock Holmes has become the fictional character who is in more films than any other (Dracula is second). In my personal collection I have two textbooks on how to bid at contract bridge wherein Sherlock explains it all to Watson, and a kind of Biblical treasure hunt wherein Sherlock explains complex and fairly ridiculous points of Biblical hairsplitting in the voice of the author. I also have a complete set of the animated cartoon “Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century” wherein Holmes is a reanimated clone, Watson is a robot, and Lestrade is a beautiful female expert in hand-to-hand combat. Yes, really. The character of Sherlock Holmes has been assraped so many times by so many callous authors that his current American television incarnation as a New York tattooed hipster with a drug problem, and an Asian female Watson, is barely even remarkable.

I have spoken in these pages before about the “tie-in” novel which leads to objects like “Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx” or “The Gracie Allen Murder Case Game”. The tie-in is based on the premise that, if there is a particular piece of writing that you like, you are likely to like other pieces of writing which take place against a common background. For instance, I have squirrelled a bunch of “Indiana Jones” paperback originals. They have no relationship to any existing film except that they all have a drawing of Harrison Ford on the cover; the stories seem designed to appeal to a 12-year-old pre-pubescent boy. Closer to home, you should take a look at the entry in Wikipedia for Ellery Queen. Among the ancillary products associated with this character are comic books, board games, computer games, films, graphic novels, radio and television programmes, and a couple of postage stamps. Tie-ins in the mystery realm are nothing new. This sort of tie-in material that we’re looking at here — because a “continuation novel” is pretty much the same to me as a “tie-in novel” — has the same quality as a tote-bag bearing Hercule Poirot’s silhouette, or a Hercule Poirot video game of “Murder on the Orient Express” (which I’ve played, and it’s pretty good).

poirot-link_1I think, though, that it’s necessary to talk about what is being purchased here, because I have a feeling that a lot of people think they’re about to read something that is like an Agatha Christie novel. Think of it instead as a tote bag. The purpose of the object is to fulfill a function that could easily be fulfilled by many other similar objects, most of them less expensive; a tote bag holds shopping and a novel can be read. But the purpose of purchasing the object is to somehow associate yourself with an evanescent quality; the feeling that you, as a reader, had when you read those authentic Christie novels.

This is very hard to describe; perhaps it’s easier to understand with the tote bag standing in (the one with a silhouette of Poirot on it) for The Monogram Murders. You bought that tote bag because of how it made you feel; perhaps, as you pick it up to go out the door for a round of shopping, you get a little smile knowing that other people will know that you are a connoisseur of good Golden Age detective fiction. Perhaps it’s that you are very fond of Poirot; perhaps it was an idle whim that prompted your purchase. (Even if it was an idle whim, something made you select Poirot as opposed to, say, Mike Hammer or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Marilyn Monroe.) The fact that it holds your shopping is a good thing, but to be honest there are many such bags and some are free at the supermarket. You bought the tote bag not because of function but because you wanted to have an emotional experience associated with the pleasurable experience of reading Agatha Christie novels. In a way, you have chosen to advertise for the brand of your own accord.

And that’s what’s happening here. I suspect that 98 percent of the people who buy and read this novel in first edition will believe, as they turn the last page, that they have just read a puzzle mystery that is as good as anything Agatha Christie ever did; that they have been dealt with fairly, so that no clues have been omitted or hidden; and that their friends will draw certain favourable conclusions about their intellectual activities and abilities, should they happen to see “The Monogram Murders” lying on the coffee table. They choose, in fact, to associate with the Agatha Christie brand experience and advertise on its behalf. (Remember, if one such book is much like another, they can certainly do the job more cheaply by buying, of all things, an authentic Agatha Christie novel and carrying it around.) And whoever is responsible for putting together this package on behalf of the Christie estate will have brought in a lot of money and created a lot of buzz.

The remaining 2 percent of us — some of whom will be reading this, I trust — know what they’ve read, because they have read huge numbers of similar novels. We have already associated ourselves with the Agatha Christie brand, because it’s a useful form of shorthand when explaining our reading tastes to strangers at cocktail parties. “I read Golden Age mysteries.  You know, like Agatha Christie.” “Ahh, yes.” We are familiar with whodunits and whydunits and howdunits and open mysteries and police procedurals, locked rooms and unreliable narrators and Ten Rules for this and that.  And we have pretty much already read ALL the Agatha Christie novels. It’s you — us — to whom I’m speaking here.

For us, I think it’s safe to say that we will be disappointed in the book qua book. This is not, in fact, a very good mystery. It is a so-so mystery that happens to have Hercule Poirot walking through it. It is far too … embellished; there are plot flourishes and idle references to other topics, and incomprehensible character arcs, and the occasional piece of extraneous philosophy. The crimes at the core of this novel are difficult to understand, certainly. They are complicated and involve events that happened 20 years ago, the reverberations of which have concatenated into the present. Bad blood for decades, old festering motives, strong emotions.

And the whole thing is just nonsense, because it doesn’t hang together. It’s missing one essential element that Agatha Christie could nearly always bring; the actions of the plot arise organically from the personalities of the characters. To pick a Christie at random, The Hollow, the crime that takes place would not have occurred in precisely that way if it weren’t for the characters of Gerda and her husband, and the young sculptress, and Lady Angketell.  We see these people sufficiently clearly to realize what they would and would not do, and we believe the emotional truths that Poirot discerns that determine guilt and innocence. In “The Monogram Murders”, we have a farrago of nonsense that’s been cobbled together in order to meet the plot demands of the story hook — three different corpses on three different floors of a hotel. Once that set piece of fireworks has been fired off, well, then someone has to explain it and it has to be complicated. So Hannah seems to have invented three very morally twisted people in order to generate the long string of plot twists that results in three full chapters of explanation; then she has to get them into the same village. Then she has to have someone do an action which is apparently completely against her character, so much so that she spends the rest of her life regretting it. Death, recriminations, hugger-mugger, brouhaha, three accusatory chapters, resolution.

I’m not even sure that it’s possible to write a sensible story based around that story hook, three bodies on three floors of a hotel. The convolutions that Hannah has to take her characters through in order to generate motive and situation are just tortuous;  I think, as a general rule of thumb, if it takes three full chapters at the end of the book to explain the activities of the plot, then there is a little too much plot. Part of that problem is that by the time we are introduced to the three most interesting characters in the action, they are dead. Which is fine, except that everything we are told about their behaviour and actions we have to take with a grain of salt because they’re not around to testify themselves. It adds an air of distancing to all the activities where Catchpool pokes around the nasty underbelly of the charming rustic community, and that takes away from any immediacy the novel might have. You’re listening to other people’s versions of important things that happened 20 years ago.

Then there’s a bunch of stuff that falls into the category of what I call “mystery cement”, because it’s put in only to make the mystery harder.  One, at random, is that our intrepid Scotland Yard investigator has a thing about dead bodies, and there are little flashbacks of his childhood to explain why. Later on in the book, he realizes that it’s not dead bodies per se by which he is revulsed, it’s being left alone with said dead bodies. Great. I think we are meant to grasp that he is making progress in detection, because he is learning that the simple assumptions about what underlies human behaviour are not always precisely correct. There’s an old quote from Chekhov, which I paraphrase as “If there’s a gun on the wall in Act I, it has to go off by Act III.” Agatha Christie’s guns on the wall always went off by Act III; Hannah’s do not. Far from being part of an exciting climax in which Catchpool gets left in a room with a dead body, this little piece of information just … vanishes.  And there’s quite a bit too much of that sort of thing for my taste in this book. Poirot gives Catchpool a significant look and winks and mugs, indicating, “Oh, this is an important clue, reader, it’s just that Catchpool is too stupid to know what it signifies.  So why don’t you worry at it for the next 150 pages until I tell you that it meant … absolutely nothing.”  I still don’t really know why the downward view of one of the hotel employees embracing a woman was even remotely significant, but I think I was just too darn exhausted after three chapters of explanation to take it all in. (Well, that and I’m lazy that way. Once I figured out it went nowhere, I ignored it.)

There are a few good things in this book, though; I must give full credit to the spirit of inspiration that put the lime juice on the potatoes in the first place. Hannah has created a couple of memorable minor characters, including a saucy waitress who really is the best writing in the book, and a feisty elderly lady villager who is hampered by having to mouth ridiculous plot developments. For some reason for me these two characters rang more true than others; the entire staff of the hotel, for instance, is 100% cardboard. (One of them tells lies for no more good reason than to delay a piece of information for a couple of chapters, which is annoying.) The book is structured well, such as it is. Story hook, Act I is competently handled where the principals are accumulated at the hotel; Act II is kept moving more briskly than some (like Ngaio Marsh) where the regrettable sag as dozens of people are interviewed is balanced by different viewpoints and geographical motion. And again, if you have to shovel out three chapters of blow-off as the second half of Act III, that’s hard to manage.  Given the enormous amount of bumph that she has to get across, it’s organized well and presented with reasonable clarity.  I’m not saying that it’s enjoyable to read, or even very interesting, but when I undertook my usual process of trying to follow the path of the crimes in chronological order, step by step, I found it clear.

While I was working on this piece, I had a vision of an editor at Hannah’s publishing house.  This person has perhaps not an enormous amount of knowledge about mysteries in general and Agatha Christie in particular, but is able to keep track of the guns on the wall in Act 1 and knows that some few people like us will actually be reading this book looking to know if the plot makes 100% sense. Now, I got the feeling that this person worked very, very hard in the line edit. I saw no typos, no formatting errors, and no shifts like the one to which I have become prone here, where Catchpool becomes Catchpole and back again. No, this has been professionally line-edited and quite beautifully so, I think. Where this person had to throw up her hands and admit defeat was in bringing this editing to the plot. I can imagine what happened if this book hit my desk. I would have read it through perhaps three times, making sure I grasped the entire structure of the plot and the motivations of the characters, and then — tried in vain to find a way to make this hang together in the way that Agatha Christie’s work did, such that the actions of the characters are created by their motivations, and these actions come together to form a plot that has inter-related elements.  (Murderers plot murders for victims who have done things deserving of murder, in simple terms.) This editor also knows that Belgian lime juice is not habitually consumed on top of scalloped potatoes, as it were, and that if you’re introducing a feature element into your dish, you’d best compose the remainder of the dish to make it stand out. And this editor could do nothing with the nonsense mess of scalloped potatoes — the weirdly recomplicated plot, based on making sense of the three-victims/one hotel paradigm — and the lime juice — Hannah’s take on Hercule Poirot. So the editor gave it a darn good line edit and passed it up the line to people who approved its publication because it will make a shitload of money, as I’m sure they would put it.

So should the 98% of casual occasional mystery readers read this book?  Oh, why not? It’s as good as anything else they’re likely to pick up at random in a bookstore, nine times out of ten. It may make them feel silly that they cannot figure out the solution to the crimes even though it seems to be expected that they will; c’est la vie.  Personally I’d use the money to take a friend out for a nice dinner; the costs are roughly equivalent. But we know our own pleasures best.

Should the 2% of of who are really well read and knowledgeable about mysteries in general and Agatha Christie in particular read this book? Not really. I suspect that one or two of my associates in the GAD blogosphere will enjoy the act of not enjoying this book, as I rather have myself. It is certainly pleasant to know that you have better taste in mysteries than 99% of the world due to your erudition. and it is occasionally pleasant to take one’s sharpest claws to a ready-made scratching post. Those are pleasures that should be beneath me but rarely are. But if you expect intelligent characterization, deft and clever plotting, and an understanding of how the best-selling fiction writer of all time worked her magic, you will definitely be disappointed.  You will find little pieces of nice writing and a few clever bits — early on, there was a piece about the meaning of a sentence where Poirot discerned a very different meaning from other listeners and it gave me false hope for the intellectual level of the remainder.

Ultimately, I think what it all boils down to is, what would this book be like with an original detective character and not Poirot?  On that basis, I think you’ll agree — ugh. This is a turgid, slow-moving book with a far too complicated plot, and a complete disconnect between what people do and why they do it.  And when it has the brand of Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot attached to it — well, as Nero Wolfe would say, “Pfui.”

If you want a good mystery that’s like Agatha Christie, go find one of hers you haven’t read and read it.  And if you want to advertise that you are the kind of person who likes Agatha Christie — buy a tote bag.

Notes for the Collector:

It’s hard to say if this book will have any value in the future. The first edition has been published in immense quantities and it may end up being a situation where, at least for a year or so, it’s more difficult to get a second printing than the first.

Without specific reference to this book, I have noticed in the past that items like this that are attached to the oeuvre of a much more famous author have a way of developing value at a distance that is far greater than the investment required to obtain them. The only problem is, you have to hold them for 30 years for that investment to become worthwhile, and there are no guarantees. Strangely, I suggest that value accretes in relationship to the perceived value of the work, but in a way opposite than you might expect. For instance, if this book is the first in a series of 60 Poirot books by Sophie Hannah, then the first edition will have a relatively low value because millions of copies will remain in circulation, being traded by people who have an interest in the series. If this book is the first and only such Poirot book by Hannah because the public isn’t interested, then it will have an extremely low value for a number of years, the millions of first editions will pass from circulation, and the few remaining copies will be valuable. I have to say that this is the way it used to work, at least. Now that anyone who wants a reading copy can have an electronic one, I don’t know how that will affect the value equation.

 

 

The Case of the Seven of Calvary, by Anthony Boucher (1937)

The Case of the Seven of Calvary,  by Anthony Boucher (1937)

7calv1Author: Anthony Boucher was a very talented man who became well-known in a couple of different competencies. He was a mystery writer, of course, of both novels and short stories; he was also a popular writer of science-fiction novels and short stories. A huge annual conference for mystery fans and readers, Bouchercon, is named after him. In the 1940s, he was the principal writer not only on the Sherlock Holmes radio program but The Adventures of Ellery Queen and his own series, The Casebook of Gregory Hood. He was an esteemed editor of short-story collections, particularly of science-fiction short stories, and received a Hugo Award in 1957 and 1958 for editing Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. And perhaps in the foremost of these multiple occupations, he formed the opinions of generations of mystery readers by his power as the mystery reviewer for the New York Times.

In short, a fascinating, intelligent, and multi-talented man whose life and friendships were just as interesting as his multiple streams of work. I am happy to recommend you to a book called Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography, by Jeff Marks which as you may have gathered is a cross between a biography and a bibliography. I’ve gotten to know and like Jeff over the internet, where he shares his erudition freely, but you don’t have to take my friendly word for the book’s value; it won an Anthony Award for Best Critical Non-Fiction Work, and was a finalist for the Agatha. You can find a copy of the book here, and I think you will find it very interesting. It will also give you full bibliographic detail of Boucher’s many streams of work which, honestly, is a godsend to finally have assembled in one place. I’ll also happily refer you to my friend and fellow GAD blogger John Norris, who reviewed this book insightfully and with useful detail in his blog, Pretty Sinister, with the specific review found here. (And in fact I am indebted to him because I lifted his scan of Collier #AS97 to illustrate this review, since it was the only image available on the entire internet.)

6a00d8342fd07e53ef0134878f90b5970c-800wi

Anthony Boucher

Publication Data: The first edition of this novel is from Simon and Schuster (1937). It has not often been reprinted. I suspect there might be a Japanese edition, but I don’t read kanji. The copy that I used for this review is my paperback from Collier, #AS97, published in 1961; this may actually be the latest edition as such, although the novel is collected as part of a four-book omnibus in trade paper format from Zomba in 1984, which to my knowledge is the only UK edition.

Collier #AS97, shown at the top of this review, is so far away from what’s currently fashionable in terms of book design that it has a kind of normcore beauty. Ah, for the days when the book’s title in large and poorly-kerned Helvetica Bold and a crummy, hard-to-see woodcut at the bottom right was sufficient to cause it to leap off the shelf and into the buyer’s hands. (If you see it at its original cover price of 95 cents, it should leap into your hands; it will probably cost you at least $20 at an antiquarian bookstore if the proprietor knows what she’s got.) I note with particular approval that the potential reader is tantalized by the blurb telling them that this is one of those books where “the reader is given clues to solve the mystery”. Considering that this book is most attractive to highly literate and experienced mystery readers, this seems rather like alerting people at the entrance to the Kentucky Derby that they are likely to see some horses. But 1961 was apparently a more solicitous time in the marketing of paperbacks.

This mystery has recently become available on Kindle from Amazon and I’m happy to see that it’s now available for reading by a wider audience.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will discuss the solution to this murder mystery in general terms and it will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

12309174502The framing device for this novel is that Martin Lamb, a graduate student at UC Berkley in San Francisco, is out at dinner with Anthony Boucher; Boucher is writing up the story that Lamb tells him over dinner. This gets a tiny bit confusing because most of what happens in the book is that Lamb sits and tells things to a different listener in a different armchair, but eventually it becomes easier to pick out where we are. Lamb sits and tells the story of recent on-campus events to his advisor, Dr. Ashwin, an eccentric professor of Sanskrit. Lamb goes into great detail about the events of a recent evening among a group of international students on campus, while Dr. Ashwin listens from his armchair, a glass of scotch in his hand. The evening ends with the stabbing death of an elderly and apparently inoffensive Swiss humanitarian and quasi-diplomat as he is out for a stroll, and a scrap of paper is found nearby that contains what we learn is the symbol of an obscure religious sect, the Seven of Calvary. (There’s an illustration below.)

I think you’ll enjoy the way the events of this novel unfold, so I’m not going to go into an enormous amount of detail in case you haven’t yet read them;  I’ll give you the bare bones to whet your appetite. Martin Lamb is falling in love with a beautiful Hispanic fellow student, Mona Morales, and thus becomes a kind of bemused spectator at the string of events. The late Dr. Schaedel has a nephew in the graduate school, Kurt Ross, and he and a number of other young men have spent the evening drinking and talking. (This book has quite a bit of drinking and talking in it.) And many of these young men (including one Alex Bruce) have an interest in the beautiful young Cynthia Wood, at whose house Dr. Schaedel, she says, asked for directions moments before his murder.

Everyone thinks that the mysterious illustration of the Seven of Calvary means that some sort of religious fanatic is responsible for the murder of Dr. Schaedel, and while there are a number of people with strong religious beliefs, including Cynthia, whose wealthy father recently embraced a strict form of Christianity, none appears to be a fanatic attached to an obscure European sect. Paul Lennox, one of the young men who spent the evening of Dr. Schaedel’s death drinking and talking, goes on for a chapter about the history and background of Gnosticism, and Vignardism, and the history of the Seven of Calvary in the Swiss Alps and their belief in the septenity of their god.

Meanwhile, the police, whose efforts to solve the mystery are almost entirely invisible in this book that focuses upon armchair detective methods, appear to be getting nowhere; most of the principal characters find themselves involved in a university-based production of Don Juan Returns. Martin Lamb plays the murderer and Paul Lennox plays Don Juan, his victim. But during the first-night performance, something is wrong with Lennox’s performance as he is strangled on stage; he actually does die.

12663737861_4Lamb finds himself in over his head in the murder case and turns to Dr. Ashwin’s insight (and never-empty bottle of Scotch) to establish his innocence. Ashwin deciphers the mysteries from the comfort of his armchair. He gathers the group together in his rooms and explains that he had only had three remaining questions before solving the case. The first was answered by an express parcel from the head librarian at the University of Chicago that very afternoon; the second was answered that day by a discovery of Martin Lamb in a novelty and theatrical shop near the campus; and he asks the third on the spot. When he receives a surprising answer to this surprising question, he has everything he needs to solve the case, and explains everything.  In the course of his explanation, he reveals that he had started with seven questions to be answered (and had whittled them down to four before the session began. This further instance of the Seven-ness of the case gives him a way to explain everything that happened, and in great detail, just by answering those seven questions. It’s completely clear who did what and to whom, and why. At this point, Dr. Ashwin explains that there is actually an eighth question; that of the Seven of Calvary. He explains exactly where that idea entered the case and why, and there is nothing further to reveal (except a few paragraphs of “where are they now” as the framing story, wherein Martin Lamb is telling the story to Anthony Boucher, is tied off.)

Why is this book worth your time?

As I mentioned above, Anthony Boucher is of the premier rank of mystery critics and editors; he understands how mysteries are constructed and written. He only wrote a handful of novels and every single one of them is worth your time. If you are a fan of the classic puzzle mystery, you will find something to amuse and/or challenge you in every one of his novels — guaranteed.

This particular book is in fact his first published mystery novel. With many writers’ careers, it very often happens that their first novel is a kind of false start; they manage to sell a book which is their foot in the publishing door, and then after a while find their voice and begin to write the books for which they become known. Is this one of those?

7ofcalvWell, yes and no. Certainly this book is very clever and very original, and obviously written by someone with both a great knowledge of and a great love for murder mysteries. At the second paragraph, the Anthony Boucher character starts to lecture about the nature of a “Watson” to Martin Lamb, who actually plays the Watson role throughout most of this book, and the self-referential nature of having the author be a character adds a kind of bizarre Wonderland quality. Really, given that the author is a character and considering the nested “story within a story” conceit that is framed within the prologue and epilogue, this might almost pass for an early attempt at a kind of self-referential post-modernism. Just like Scream was a slasher movie about people who have seen a lot of slasher movies, this book is a mystery for people who have read a lot of mysteries. The first pages of my copy are a cast of characters with asterisks thoughtfully inserted against the names whom Boucher wishes us to know are possibly guilty; minor characters and spear-carriers are ruled out.

This is also a mystery for people who have read a lot of everything else. Only a very few authors in the mystery genre have this enticing quality, where the action frequently stops dead in its tracks for a two-page lecture on ancient Swiss religious beliefs, Sanskrit tongue-twisters, or the origins of the Don Juan mythos. (At one point Boucher inserts an asterisk to a footnote that says, in my paraphrase, “If this doesn’t interest you, skip two pages ahead; you won’t miss anything relevant to the murder.” Saucy, but useful.) I can only think of John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson as sharing this quality whereby they spray nuggets of information, relevant or irrelevant, through the pages of a mystery. (Yes, others do it too, but more sparingly; these guys are the big three.) Speaking as a reader, I find it charming and diverting but I know that some people find this kind of information dump annoying in the extreme.

The actual mystery element is a strong and predominant part of the novel’s plot, which is why I’ve been, for me, relatively uncommunicative about its details. There are only a few suspects and while it is not terribly difficult to assign responsibility for the murders, it is considerably more difficult to figure out howdunit. John Norris, in his review referred to above, makes the point that there are a couple of easy deductions available at the beginning of the mystery that may well make the incautious reader think they’re about to beat one of the great puzzle constructors, but, at about the midpoint of the book, there’s a revelation that completely recontextualizes everything that’s happened thus far and throws all those earlier deductions up in the air. (And again, I’m indebted to him for saying it first.) In other words, the author has been a couple of steps ahead of the reader the whole time and has led you down the proverbial garden path; in a way, this is a kind of Ellery Queenian “false solution then the true”. The ending, with everyone gathered for the “blow-off”, is certainly a Golden Age trope but the manner in which it’s conducted, with the kindly old professor listing off the seven crucial points and following with the unexpected eighth, is pure John Dickson Carr/Dr. Fell.

And that’s my only small quibble with this great book; it borrows here and there. One of the central puzzles is strongly suggestive of an earlier novel by S.S. Van Dine; there are elements reminiscent of Ellery Queen, Philo Vance, John Dickson Carr and Rex Stout. Another small problem is that the premise of having Dr. Ashwin sit in his armchair and have stories brought to him (the Rex Stout aspect) means that there has to be a way to introduce action into the plot or it descends, as it does here, into long chapters of storytelling by someone who isn’t guaranteed to be a reliable narrator. I note that this is the one and only adventure of Dr. Ashwin; Boucher’s subsequent creation of brash California PI Fergus O’Breen is much more suited to tell interesting stories. Let me be clear, though, this is more a meta-problem; there’s nothing at all wrong with the way that this book is constructed and written. The characterization is sufficient to the needs of the plot, the settings are obviously something of which Boucher had personal knowledge, and the language is elegant and erudite.

Really, there is a huge amount here to enjoy, especially if you like to experience an author’s growth by reading his work chronologically. If you like an unexpected spate of learning about — well, about something you didn’t know that seems interesting — then Boucher is one of a very small group of authors with a style of sufficient authority that they can just shut the plot down for a moment’s lesson, or a joke, or even a little puzzle that pays off in a later chapter. It’s a fun and charming style and it takes a great deal of obscure knowledge to bring it off. It’s not impossible to solve this mystery upon first reading, but I suggest that even an aficionado of the puzzle mystery will find it difficult. I enjoyed this book a lot and it’s part of the oeuvre of an important mystery writer and critic; I urge you to read it.

807072190Notes for the Collector:

As I’ve noted above, the first edition is from Simon and Schuster, 1937; first UK is as part of an omnibus volume published by Zomba in 1984, and first paper is from Collier, 1961. There’s an ugly Macmillan edition as part of their Cock Robin imprint, some sort of “bringing back the oldies” line from 1954 (the primarily blue cover earlier in this review). A facsimile of the jacket of the first edition is $18 and it’s the cheapest Boucher-related item in AbeBooks.

If I were going to get a reading copy, I’d be after a crisp Fine copy of Collier #AS97 for $20 to $30 or the Kindle edition; if I had just won the lottery, I’d be investing $600 to $800 in one of the three — three! — signed first editions on sale today. They may not be the prettiest editions — the $600 one has a facsimile jacket and none is what I’d call crisp — but, gee, the thought of having a copy that my favourite mystery critic of all time had held and signed, well, that would be worth every penny.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1937 novel qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “G”, “Read one academic mystery.” Very nearly every single character in this novel is either a student or a professor and the action takes place on the UC Berkley campus. I’d originally meant to read this as “a book with a number in the title”, but I have a couple of those in mind and close at hand. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

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Cue For Murder, by Helen McCloy (1942)

Cue For Murder, by Helen McCloy (1942)

129248Author: Helen McCloy (1904 – 1994) came from a writing family and began her writing career as a journalist, first for William Randolph Hearst and then as a freelancer. Her first mystery was published in 1938 to great acclaim and she continued to write 13 novels about her psychiatrist-detective, Dr. Basil Willing, on and off until 1980. She published 16 volumes of non-series mysteries (and there are some posthumous collections of short stories, etc.) Her marriage to Davis Dresser, who as “Brett Halliday” created the Michael Shayne series, lasted from 1946 to 1961. She was the first woman to serve as president of Mystery Writers of America (1950) and received an Edgar award in 1954 for her mystery criticism.

I think it’s safe to say that connoisseurs of detective fiction regard McCloy as one of the best American writers of detective fiction during her career. Her work is uniformly of a high quality; she’s skilled at planting clues and especially at delineating the psychology of murderers and murder suspects. Mike Grost suggests that although Cue for Murder is considered to be one of her better novels, his preference is for her later works and regards her work after 1945 as better than her earlier books; I tend to agree. I have elsewhere reviewed what might be her most famous work, Through A Glass, Darkly (1950).

dell0212Publication Data: The first edition is from 1942, William Morrow. The book was frequently republished in the 1940s, including its first paperback appearance as Dell mapback #212 in 1948, and then appears to have fallen out of publishing favour. Anthony Boucher selected it as one of his World’s Great Novels of Detection series for Bantam (F3027) in 1965, and it doesn’t appear to have been reprinted since. Amazon gives a peculiar listing which suggests that the book will be republished by The Murder Room (a subsidiary of Orion in the UK who’s been reprinting other of her titles) at the end of 2015. No e-book appears to exist.

McCloy’s work was very occasionally adapted for television; “Cue For Murder” was adapted for a French-language television program, “Le Masque”, in 1989. I have not been able to view this production.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will give away large chunks of information about the plot and characters of this murder mystery. You will probably learn enough here to be able to solve the mystery without really thinking about it. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of this book’s details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

dell0212backThe book begins at an art gallery opening in Manhattan, filled with smartly-dressed women and attentive men. Dr. Basil Willing, a psychiatrist who consults to the police department, is attending, and meets Broadway star Wanda Morley and her surrounding players. Wanda’s new play opens that night; we see her with a handsome young actor, Rodney Tait, who stars with her and who is said to adore her. (His erstwhile girlfriend, also present, seems to disagree.) Wanda will share the stage with Leonard Martin, returning to the stage after a year’s illness.

We learn that something strange has happened recently from a tiny snippet of a newspaper story, of the “human interest” variety. There’s a tiny knife-grinding shop sharing the alley with the rear of the theatre (see the map back’s map, nearby, for a better idea of what everything looks like and where it is). Someone has broken into the shop and used the equipment to surreptitiously sharpen a knife — and, before leaving, the mysterious sharpener has released the shop owner’s pet canary, which is found fluttering around the shop.

Dr. Willing decides to attend the opening night. At this point we need to know a little bit about the play itself. It’s a revival of Sardou’s Fédora – not a well-known or especially good play. (Wanda is said to only choose lousy plays as her starring vehicles because her acting looks so much more realistic against the unbelievable events, and this tells you a lot about Wanda and her view of art.) Victorien Sardou is not remembered today except perhaps as the playwright whose original play was turned into the opera Tosca by Puccini, and this work which became the eponymous opera Fédora by Umberto Giordano, which actually brought the fedora hat into popularity for first women, then men. Fédora was written for Sarah Bernhardt; it concerns a young noblewoman (who in the original production wears a soft hat, which ended up named after the play) whose lover, a revolutionary, is brought to her home in Act I, mortally wounded. The lover is attended by a doctor and then discovered by a police officer; he dies at the end of Act I and Fédora vows revenge. (This revenge doesn’t come to pass because all anyone ever gets to see of the play is Act I.)

Since the part of the dying revolutionary has no lines and is required to only lie there motionless until he is kissed goodbye by Fédora and then expires, Sarah Bernhardt used it as a publicity vehicle; she enlisted her handsome young aristocratic friends to play the role onstage, giving them all the excitement of acting without requiring any actual talent or experience. Edward VII was one of them, and he delighted in having gone unrecognized. The novel tells us that Wanda Morley learns of this and decides to revive the tradition; the producers don’t care who plays the role and are pleased to save the money required to hire a motionless supernumerary. So the casting of her lover is up to Wanda.

Immediately before the play begins, an unknown man who will play Fédora’s lover is seen to make his way to the alcove where he lies down and begins to pretend to be near death, lying motionless. After the curtain rises, the only three actors who have any business near him are Rodney Tait as the doctor, Leonard Martin as the policeman, and of course Wanda Morley who kisses him good-bye before he is said to expire. Act I curtain and the stagehands begin to strike the set; of course, the unknown man is truly deceased. Dr. Willing comes up from the audience to possibly assist with first aid and notices something very odd. Although the dead man is lying in a pool of blood with a surgical scalpel sticking out of his chest, a passing housefly ignores the blood and seems fascinated with the handle of the knife. No one is quite sure why, but a number of witnesses note that the housefly will not leave the scalpel alone, even though the blood would seem to be a more attractive target. We also learn that a mysterious figure in a long dark cloak has been hanging around on a fire escape and no one can identify him … or her.

Basil Willing soon identifies the victim as wealthy young John Ingelow, who is said to have been leaving his wife Margot, aka “Magpie”, in order to marry Wanda. Is Wanda’s romance with Rodney Tait just a publicity stunt? She’s certainly done this before with other co-stars, one of whom was Leonard Martin. Did she truly mean to run away with the victim, or is this merely another example of her desire for publicity? Wanda is constantly saying that she wants to leave all the annoying hurly-burly and glitter of the theatrical life and be merely a homebody housewife … was John Ingelow the man for whom she meant to abandon her career, or was she merely stringing him along for more publicity as a femme fatale?

The investigation progresses, but the public’s demand to see the play now that it’s been involved with murder is so great that the show must indeed go on. A brash young playwright named Adeane seems to be the only person who wants to take the ill-fated role of the dying revolutionary ( so that he can get some attention paid to his unpublished scripts); the theatre is standing room only when the production resumes. And, as the experienced reader will have already guessed, Adeane is found dead in the same position in the same set at the end of Act I on re-opening night, and again only the same three actors have gone near him.

Very shortly after the second death, Basil Willing works out the identity of the murder and, more importantly, the reason behind all the murderous activities. He confronts the killer in an exciting climax, and then explains everything.

n246275Why is this book worth your time?

This is certainly a highly-regarded novel by a well-known and esteemed mystery writer; it’s absolutely worth your time if for no reason other than the collective intelligence of a lot of mystery critics suggests that it is.  It really is a good book.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way; I didn’t like this as much as I might have done — I didn’t even like it as much as I felt I should, given the admiration I have for other critics who think it’s a great mystery. There is some beautiful writing in this book, not just descriptive pieces like showing the reader what it’s like to be acting in a play, or viewing it from the audience. The beautiful writing is also concerned with what people are thinking and why they do what they do, and from that point of view it’s masterful. When McCloy talks to the reader about how shallow Wanda Morley is — selecting cheeseball revivals of lousy plays in which to appear so that critics will say, “Oh, why doesn’t anybody put Wanda Morley into a play that’s worthy of her talents?” — we get it. We get it in a way that adds value to the book because we grasp not only what underlies Wanda’s career, but that McCloy understands the theatrical milieu well enough to give us inside information about it and the motivations of the people within it. Wanda’s tired protestations — about how she’d really rather be a housewife, and yet she never actually does anything about achieving that goal — are both funny and entirely understandable. McCloy (and through her, Dr. Willing) understands human nature and understands how to tell us, and show us, so that we can understand it too.

The problem with it considered strictly as a piece of detective fiction is that the murder itself is easy to figure out. My God, is it easy. Let’s face it. There are really only three suspects for whom the murders are physically possible; the murders are committed onstage in front of an attentive Broadway audience and a stage full of actors. Unless you’re prepared to put in a lot of thought considering ways in which people could be dropped in by ropes from the ceiling, or knives thrown 60 feet with unerring accuracy — all of which are stupid and generally impossible, and I’ll tell you right now, they aren’t the answer — there’s only three people on your list of suspects, and they are all three of the principal actors. If you can construct a list of circumstances and conditions that the identity of the murderer must meet, and then hold those three people up against it, it’s childishly simple to figure out whodunit. Even if the title of the book wasn’t telling you exactly which clue was the vital one …

The point of this book is not so much whodunit, though, as whydunit. And that’s a slightly more difficult issue. It is clear from the way the material is presented that any solution to the mystery must explain (1) the fly that buzzes around the knife handle; (2) the repeated liberation of the knife-grinder’s canary from its cage, and (3) the motive for wanting to kill these people in the first place. There’s also a minor physical clue that must be explained away, the circumstances surrounding someone seen in a long dark cloak standing in deep shadow.  (And there’s a tiny point about the nature of an outdoor clock at the top of a skyscraper that today’s reader will not really understand, since analog clocks are out of fashion, but it doesn’t really matter since the time sequences in the book are precise and clear.) For me, the only unclear point was the motive.

That’s because, in the decades since 1942, other authors have manipulated these same facts for the pleasure of the reader. As far as the fly buzzing around the knife handle, well, I might have an unfair advantage since there’s a particular medical condition in a member of my immediate family that is directly relevant. But anyone who has read the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon has seen the same material presented in the same way. The underlying principle was apparently known in Babylonian times. With respect to the liberation of the canary; that’s not really a physical clue but a mental one. If you understand why the canary was freed, you’ll understand the motivation for the crimes and, honestly, the symbolism is a bit tacky. It’s the kind of thing that sounds good in a book, but that I doubt would actually occur to someone. And as far as the person in the long dark cloak — I’ve seen that same idea used as the basis for the central “trick” in a mystery novel by E. X. Ferrars from about the same time period (the wartime blackout in England, as I recall), and I dimly remember but cannot name a couple of other novels that used it too. I’m not saying McCloy didn’t use it first, far from it, but at this remove I’ve definitely seen it used by others and thus it is not really surprising.

The problem is that although I was clear about the identity of the murderer from a fairly early point, due to one of those “casual remarks” clues that I find so easy to spot these days (you know, when one character drops an off-hand remark about the earlier history of another and there’s no real reason for mentioning it), there’s no proof until very close to the end of the novel and that pretty much comes from the murderer confessing the details. Although the murderer’s motivation is lying right there for any police officer who cares to go looking for it, it takes a tiny leap from the facts to the circumstances which apparently no one but Basil Willing is capable of making, even though he doesn’t seem to have done so either. Instead, Dr. Willing pretty much does what I did; creates a list of circumstances and conditions that the murderer’s identity must meet, figures out whodunit, and then starts to investigate the motivation for the crimes.

I mean, let’s face it. The murders are committed in front of hundreds of people; I can’t actually imagine that anyone would hope to get away with it in a plan that has hundreds of ways to go wrong and only one way to go right. I suggest that it’s much easier to acquire a sharp knife in dozens of ways that are easier and safer than by breaking into a shop and sharpening one. If the murderer actually wanted to kill the victims and ruin a third party’s life in the process, I can think of a lot easier ways than committing two murders in the middle of sold-out theatrical performances (a blunt instrument and a dark alley come to mind). What this book is about is a crazy person doing insane things, and mostly for the purposes of making an interesting mystery. And that kind of spoils my enjoyment. For a book that people esteem so highly for containing so much psychological insight, the central psychological issues are pretty much nonsensical.

All things considered, there is a lot to applaud in this book and a small core of disappointment. Like I said, the writing is beautiful. You can see the production of Fédora unfolding before you (in fact, you see it so many times you’ll never need to actually go to see it should anyone be silly enough to mount a production). There are little moments of description that are so evocative and clear that you can see things happening, and take in tiny details of clothing and background. It all clicks because it has a basic rightness about it; the author has seen these things, either in real life or her mind’s eye, and is showing them to you as they are. Nothing is slurred or fuzzed over; if it’s in the book, it’s clear. Essentially everything about this novel is beautifully arranged; if it were a film, I’d be praising things like set design, costuming, and production values. You will believe most of the people are doing things for real reasons — the only exception being the murderer.

It’s a truism of literary analysis that you have to work with the book you actually read, not the one you want to have read. Helen McCloy is a great writer and, let’s face it, Anthony Boucher thought this novel was worth including in a “Great Novels of Detection” series. Who am I to argue with Anthony Boucher? Well, all I can say is that if this book had left out the silly path from the murderous idea to the actual murderer, and allowed the murderer to act like a rational human, I think I would have liked it better. It probably wouldn’t have been a detective novel. It would have been an interesting crime novel at a time when such a thing was not yet possible (the psychological crime novel was still some years away in inception), because the only flaws in this book have to do with the mystery plot in and of itself. The murderer would have confessed, possibly after the first murder but certainly after the second, because the motivation which is given for the murders would have been completely accomplished and nothing else would have been necessary. Then Basil Willing in his psychiatrist’s persona would have been an interesting commentator on why the murderer did what was done, and this would have been an extremely powerful book. It’s been sacrificed for the puzzle mystery. Now, as a reader who has spent most of his life tracking down and appreciating well-written puzzle mysteries, I can’t say with a straight face that I think this is bad. Helen McCloy wrote good puzzle mysteries and I love puzzle mysteries. I just can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the puzzle mystery had been left out and the sheer intelligence behind this book had been allowed to shine through.

In a way, there’s an analogy with something in the book. Wanda Morley picks bad plays in which to star, because they make her talents look more impressive. It makes me wonder if Helen McCloy wrote a poor puzzle mystery because it makes her beautiful writing look more impressive. It’s kind of a shame that the puzzle per se is the least interesting thing about a book that’s known as a great puzzle mystery … I suggest that you read it for yourself to see if you agree. Whatever she’s writing, Helen McCloy is worth reading.

thNotes for the Collector:

The first edition is from William Morrow, 1942. Other contemporaneous editions exist, including ones from Detective Book Club and World. First paper edition seems to be Dell mapback #212 from 1948 (it appeared in an edition of “Thrilling Mystery Novel Magazine” in 1946, it’s up to you whether that counts as a paperback or not). The Bantam Great Novels of Detection paperback edition, with entries selected by Anthony Boucher, is from 1965.

I note that, as of today, on Abe Books, there’s a copy of the mapback edition that is signed and inscribed; even though it’s only in Fair condition, $30 plus shipping seems like a fantastic price for a copy. I may grab this one myself! The second most interesting copy available is a Very Good copy of the first edition in jacket for $50 plus shipping and this may actually be the one that is of more interest to collectors. I’m very fond of mapbacks, is all. The 1965 Bantam Great Novels of Detection series was a very good series, containing writers like Hake Talbot, Ellery Queen and Christianna Brand, and you could do worse than focus on collecting a set of them.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1942 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; sixth under “G”, “Read one book set in the entertainment world.” Everyone agrees this is one of the great backstage mysteries. I’m surprised I haven’t yet managed a complete line of six books, but I’m getting closer.

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