Obelists at Sea, by C. Daly King (1932)

WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

Note that there seems to be some small disagreement among booksellers as to whether this book was first published in 1932 or 1933.  Since my copy of Hubin is not at hand, I’m going with what Penguin says in the frontispiece to the copy from which I prepared this review, October 1932.  

And also note: according to a brief note before the book begins, an “Obelist” is a person of little or no value.

13187293416What’s this book about?

Many of the passengers and some of the crew on the S. S. Meganaut, making a trans-Atlantic journey, are gathered in the “smoking room” to attend an auction of “the numbers”. (Passengers lay wagers upon the number of miles to be traveled by the vessel the next day by bidding for the right to own a specific number; the winner may take in more than a thousand dollars, which was a huge sum in 1932 dollars.) Bidding against each other are the wealthy Mr. Smith, traveling with his lovely daughter, and Mr. DeBrasto, a New York lawyer, for the right to own 648, felt to have the best chance of sweeping the pool; the auction has reached $800 and there is felt to be some acrimony between the two men.

Suddenly a number of things happen one after the other in rapid succession. The lights in the smoking room begin to fade and dim to blackness; a woman’s voice from the doorway bids one thousand dollars; there are sounds of breaking glass and a noise of gunshots. When the emergency lights come on, Mr. Smith is dead on the floor, apparently from a bullet to the heart; Miss Smith is lying in a dead faint from which she cannot be roused, and her valuable pearl necklace is missing.

The aficionado of GAD will be delighted to learn that although Mr. Smith’s corpse contains two bullets, both of which appear to have entered his heart simultaneously through the same hole — he did not die of the bullets but from a poisoned cocktail some minutes before. The same poison has affected the young lady to lesser degree, since she only took a single sip of her drink; she is close to death but remains comatose. A number of people in the smoking room were armed and firing shots; a small rubber bulb that had contained poison is found in the pocket of one of the suspects.

C. Daly King

C. Daly King, apparently at sea

Although most of the rest of the events of the book I should and shall leave for your reading pleasure, the remainder of the plot concerns four world-class psychologists who are traveling on the Meganaut. Each apparently represents a distinct school of psychological thought and they collectively offer a hand to investigate the crimes, each one for a few chapters. (I recommend you speak these next names aloud so you’ll more quickly understand the type of book this is, although occasionally the names are missing a key syllable.) Dr. John B. Hayvier (a behaviouralist) first looks into the crimes in chapters sur-titled “Conditioning”, Dr. Rudolph Plechs’s (of the psychoanalytic school) segment is called “Inferiorities”, that of Dr. L. Rees Pons is called “Dominance”, and finally Professor Knott Mittle’s section is called “Middle grounding” (he apparently represents a kind of centrist viewpoint of the “integrative psychology” school that encompasses the other three theorists). Each approaches these events armed with the knowledge of what has gone before, but colours it through his own theories about human psychology. This extends beyond mere theory; one psychologist administers a timed word-association test to a suspect in order to try to demonstrate guilt or innocence.

In a concluding chapter called “The Criminal: Trial and Error”, the investigating team sets a trap for the guilty party, whose identity should be greatly surprising to the reader. There is a lengthy sequence that explains exactly what happened, how, and by whose hand — some of which is known, but much of which will also be quite surprising — as the book ends.

3472877575Why is this worth reading?

Last December, I did a post here about how I would like to read, for Christmas, some extremely unobtainable volumes whose properties combined scarcity and value. Obelists at Sea was one of those books. As far as I know, there is a single paperback edition, Penguin #160, which was published in England in 1938. Since this pre-dates the first North American paperback (Pocket #1 was published in New York in September, 1939), and Britain had extensive paper drives during World War II, its scarcity is easy to understand. The hardcovers are even more valuable due to rarity and age; a near-fine copy of the Knopf first edition (with black Art Deco design on silver cloth — gorgeous!) with the super-rare jacket is offered today on ABE for US$850 and the two available paperbacks are about US$50 each.

A very kind British reader of my letter to Santa got in touch and offered me a copy of Penguin #160 from his personal collection.  I will repay his generosity by not mentioning his name because he’d be inundated with requests for similar great favours, but I will simply thank him with this review.  My copy won’t be leaving my shelves any time soon!

I actually did have a copy of this in my hands once before; my friend, the Edgar-winning author L. A. Morse, whose book collection is exceptional, let me sit in his home and read his first edition over an evening and I gobbled it down, retaining only an impression of what I’d read and few of the details. That was in the 1970s and I was delighted to re-encounter this delightful book because, as you can imagine, I’d forgotten most of the details.

Yes, this is a very difficult mystery to solve, and I don’t think the average reader will manage it. I certainly didn’t, even the second time around. And it’s not exceptional in its “fair play” aspects. One key clue that would immediately solve the mystery is held back by it being enciphered for police secrecy, and the officer who receives it neglects to decode it until the case is solved. There are some complications to the plot, like the two bullets that enter the same wound, that seem more designed to astound the reader and snarl the solution to no purpose.

But there are a couple of things about this book that are so interesting that it seems that this scarce book lives up to its reputation. One is that it has on every page the very rare feeling that the author is having a great deal of fun writing this book, and that’s just a great thing to read, because it communicates to the reader and provides pleasure. I do not mean that this book is about a trans-Atlantic journey of the nature of John Dickson Carr’s The Blind Barber. In no sense is this a farce; but the names of the psychologists, Drs. (com)Plechs and B. Havier for instance, should give you the flavour of the charm of this book. There’s also a character named Mr. Younghusband and another whose name is I. Gnosens — innocence.  There is very little realism that’s being attempted here, and that makes it slightly easier to take that the reader must accept that the victim was shot twice but died of being poisoned, et cetera. This book is fun, but not silly.

obelists_sea_coverSpeaking of fun; apparently the definition of “obelist” differs with each of King’s three Obelists mysteries. (The third is the unbelievably scarce Obelists En Route, which I am told takes place on a train. Someday I hope to find out.) In Obelists Fly High, for instance, it’s defined as “someone who views with suspicion”. Well, when you make up words, you get to define them however you like!

The other thing that’s interesting about this book is the way in which the four competing schools of psychology are depicted and contrasted. The author was a well-known psychologist who had written a 1932 volume called The Psychology of Consciousness that apparently led the way in its field — he knew what he was talking about. No doubt if you were a world-class psychologist in 1932, this novel would have been absolutely hilarious, and King apparently had to make it clear at the time that he was absolutely not mocking real people with his psychologist characters. I’m not sufficiently educated in the history of psychology to completely understand what’s going on here, but I imagine the theories and ideas that are tossed around in the course of this mystery were very cutting-edge for 1932. In this aspect this book is a “don’s delight”; we’re privileged to overhear the shoptalk of advanced scientific theorists being applied to a rather far-fetched plot structure. But not too seriously; one of the four is hesitant to accept the concept of consciousness at all, and keeps saying so.

daly-king

C. Daly King

And all things considered, this book is very satisfying. When you learn the identity of the murderer, your reaction is likely to be something like my own: “Oh, rats, I missed that completely!”  Yes, the author’s antics have misdirected you completely and you didn’t think about where people were at a crucial time. Well done, Mr. King.

So — a fun book, with a lovely sense of humour underlying it; an exotic mystery with extremely unusual amateur detectives investigating it; and an extremely difficult puzzle mystery at the heart of it all. I wish you the best of luck in finding your own copy. Given the current interest in classic Golden Age mysteries, I certainly hope an enterprising publisher can acquire the rights to these great mysteries by C. Daly King and make it possible for more than a lucky few people to read them.

The most unobtainable of all of King’s work is a very sad story. Apparently his sales were not very good and he finished a mystery in about 1941 that was never published, because he was dropped by his publishers. But it should give us the hope that someday someone will bring us THAT novel.

My favourite edition

Trust me, any edition of this that you manage to acquire will be your favourite; until and unless this gets reprinted, it will probably be the only one you ever see. For a book hound like me to hold only two copies in 50 years makes it likely that you’re not going to find one at the Junior League Thrift Shop; if you do, you’ll probably have to fistfight a bookseller to get it out of the store.

But if you’ve just won the lottery, the first American edition, with the striking design in black ink on silver cloth, is just lovely. If you had it in original jacket, that would be delightful. In the meantime, I really do like my copy of Penguin #160. Early greenbacks have a kind of literary dignity with their uniform design that did not translate well to the aspirations of American publishers, and they are always nice to look at.

 

The Case of the Buried Clock: some covers

I was tidying books over the weekend and came across a box of Erle Stanley Gardner titles. And it seemed as though I’d been in a mood where I had to have a copy of every single printing of The Case of the Buried Clock (1943), because three different copies of this title were right on top.

I thought I’d collect as many as I could for your amusement, so you could see how cover styles change with the fashions of the times! I might add that I think it’s a good story, with some interesting background about wartime travel habits and the availability of tires that actually adds something to the plot. And there are a few pieces of good descriptive writing, which for ESG were few and far between. I can still remember being in my early teens and learning about sidereal time from this interesting Perry Mason novel!

My favourite? I think it’s Pocket 4509, with the awkwardly-posed sullen sex-kitten in aqua and kitten heels caught in a spotlight. Does this have anything to do with the book? Frankly, almost none of these covers have anything to do with the book.  But I hope to entice you to read it, it’s a good book from his best period of writing. Enjoy!

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Dorothy L. Sayers and the excelsior principle

Tuesday Night FebruaryA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in February will be devoted to Dorothy L. Sayers.

Dorothy L. Sayers and the excelsior principle

Unknown“I finally felt that I was unpacking large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails …”

from Why Do People Read Detective Stories? by Edmund Wilson, The New Yorker, October, 1944

Despite the fact that I’m starting off with a quote from Edmund Wilson, perhaps the most well-known foe of the traditional detective novel, no, this is not a hatchet job about Dorothy L. Sayers. It is reasonably well known among my acquaintance among GAD aficionados that I’m not a big fan, but recently I had occasion to re-read her work pretty much from scratch.  And in the way of such re-examinations twenty or thirty years later, I got a different idea than I’d had when I was younger.

NaturalExcelsor_xThe main reason I didn’t enjoy reading DLS when I was younger, as I recall, was because of the presence of a great deal of … let’s call it excelsior, for the moment. (Which is defined as “softwood shavings used for packing fragile goods or stuffing furniture”, if you were wondering.) Simply put, DLS stuffs her books with great volumes of extraneous material that apparently has nothing to do with the mystery or its solution. Some of it I think would be called “characterization”, some is “social history”, some is background material.

When I first started thinking about this piece, I thought I’d test my hypothesis. I selected a DLS title at random from my shelves, which contain all her titles; my hand found The Nine Tailors. I opened the book at random and found … well, unfortunately DLS has divided this work into chapters in a way that has more to do with campanology than common sense, and so “The Fourth Part” begins on page 123 of my paperback edition; that’s the best guidance I can give you.

The particular segment begins “Well, now, ma’am,” said Superintendent Blundell. It continues for a grand total of 2527 words (yes, I actually counted) and involves three separate conversations with three witnesses and the mention of about twenty named individuals, most of whom play no further part in the story. Superintendent Blundell interviews the housekeeper of the titled Thorpe family, the disagreeable and snobbish Mrs. Gates, and then gets corroborating evidence from the shrewish Mrs. Coppins and the schoolmistress Miss Snoot, about the precise placement of funeral wreaths on Lady Thorpe’s coffin. Someone has moved them in order to introduce an extra corpse into the gravesite.

The point of this 2527 words is to establish the following, which actually is the last sentence of the segment: “… [T]hat brought the time of the crime down to some hour between 7:30 p.m. on the Saturday and, say, 8:30 on the Sunday morning.” Twenty-four words. The other 2503 words concern the opinions and personalities primarily of Mrs. Gates, who has extensive and unpleasant opinions about the placement of funeral wreaths with respect to the social status of the wreath-giver, the financial circumstances of Mrs. Coppins’s family that brought her to give an expensive wreath of pink hot-house lilies in January, and the fact that the only schoolboy sufficiently mischievous to have moved either Mrs. Gates’s or Mrs. Coppins’s wreaths, one Tommy West, had a broken arm at the time. 24 / 2527 = 1% content, 99% excelsior. In case it’s not clear, I think this is what Edmund Wilson was getting at.  His bent and rusty nails are here the time period during which the second corpse was surreptitiously buried.

Now, it is not for me or indeed anyone to say that fiction must be written economically. Most murder mysteries could be summed up in about a page if that were the case, and that would not be an enjoyable process. But a ratio of 99% excelsior to 1% rusty nails seemed rather excessive to me in my younger days. I’d always held the view that DLS’s works contained a far too small ratio of signal to noise, as it were. And there is almost zero signal here. Mrs. Gates, Mrs. Coppins, Miss Snoot and Tommy West could have been entirely eliminated from the narrative without any damage to the activities of the plot. I am not asserting that I wanted that to happen; the reader has a pleasant moment of dislike for the pompous Mrs. Gates, and has only wasted a quarter of an hour on the 2500 words of … burble.

I have had a lot of experience with good detective stories that contain extraneous material, ranging from fascinating to burble. Perhaps the most famous example was John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, where the action grinds to a halt while the characters break the fourth wall and talk about how locked-room mysteries work. A favourite of mine, Clayton Rawson, regularly veers off within his books for geometry problems and disquisitions on the history of “blue men” and “headless ladies” and all kinds of things. Edmund Crispin introduces humorous disquisitions on unpleasant characters in English literature. One might almost say that extraneous material is a hallmark of the best detective fiction. There is a caveat here, though; most of the extraneous material touches upon and/or illustrates the topic of the mystery. JDC has that chapter about locked-room mysteries because they’re involved in a locked-room mystery. When Clayton Rawson talks about how carnival sideshow acts are created, it’s because the mystery is set within a carnival. The niceties of social class as portrayed in DLS’s placement of funeral wreaths on a coffin do not seem to contribute anything to a story about jewel theft and campanology. (They emphatically contribute to our knowledge of the social history of the 1930s, I must add.)

Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers

But, dammit, I thought, Sayers was widely read in detective fiction; she was a reviewer and critic and best-seller. I don’t say that a place on the best-seller list provides an automatic assumption of literary quality; Danielle Steele and James Patterson are evidence to quite the contrary. Nevertheless DLS did bring a considerable amount of academic background in the analysis of literature to this process, and I cannot think that she was writing like this by accident. She was capable of identifying the central thread of her story, and theoretically she could eliminate material that didn’t contribute to it. If she didn’t, we have to assume she wanted it there.

So what was she getting at?

In my younger, grumpier years, I thought she was merely in love with the sound of her authorial voice and felt that her readers were as well. There is a considerable body of fannish comment on DLS that suggests that that is precisely the case; DLS fans, and there are a lot of them, just love to embark on a journey into the mechanics of becoming a phony spiritualist with Miss Climpson, or learning the principles that underlie a Playfair cipher, how to pick a lock, etc. Most of these excursions to me seem stuffed to the gunwales with excelsior (the “born-again” activities of the former burglar who teaches Miss Murchison how to pick locks are a repellent example). I felt that for whatever reason, the Wimsey stories were not my style; I set them aside and smiled mechanically when people at my bookstore told me how much they loved them.

I came to this month’s worth of disquisition on DLS, though, with a more open mind than perhaps I had had in the past. It rather seemed that if so many people liked the Wimsey stories, and didn’t find them to be stuffed with excelsior, and this sentiment was shared by some of my fellow bloggers whose opinion I respect, well — there had to be something I was missing.

NPG x2861; E.C. Bentley by Howard Coster

The author who shall not be named here. But he gave his middle name to a style of verse!

Then I had a flash of insight, caused by my having occasion to re-read a 1913 book considered one of the primary texts of detective fiction. I’m not going to name it, because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment should they not have read it yet, but I will provide a quote that I found quite meaningful in this context. And those of my readers who are familiar with this text will know exactly what I’m talking about, I trust. The detective is examining the room of a suspect.

“Two bedroom doors faced him on the other side of the passage. He opened that which was immediately opposite, and entered a bedroom by no means austerely tidy. Some sticks and fishing-rods stood confusedly in one corner, a pile of books in another. The housemaid’s hand had failed to give a look of order to the jumble of heterogeneous objects left on the dressing-table and on the mantelshelf—pipes, penknives, pencils, keys, golf-balls, old letters, photographs, small boxes, tins, and bottles. Two fine etchings and some water-colour sketches hung on the walls; leaning against the end of the wardrobe, unhung, were a few framed engravings. A row of shoes and boots was ranged beneath the window. [Detective] crossed the room and studied them intently; then he measured some of them with his tape, whistling very softly. This done, he sat on the side of the bed, and his eyes roamed gloomily about the room.
The photographs on the mantelshelf attracted him presently. He rose and examined one representing [suspect] and [victim] on horseback. Two others were views of famous peaks in the Alps. There was a faded print of three youths—one of them unmistakably [suspect]—clothed in tatterdemalion soldier’s gear of the sixteenth century. Another was a portrait of a majestic old lady, slightly resembling [suspect]. [Detective], mechanically taking a cigarette from an open box on the mantel-shelf, lit it and stared at the photographs. Next he turned his attention to a flat leathern case that lay by the cigarette-box.
     It opened easily. A small and light revolver, of beautiful workmanship, was disclosed, with a score or so of loose cartridges. On the stock were engraved the initials [suspect’s initials].”

My readers who are familiar with this work will already be nodding their heads, because they recognize that somewhere in that morass of tiny details is a single detail that gives the detective a clue which brings him closer to his solution. And then, in a way which I understand is a characteristic of an author who is trying to hide a clue, at the end of the paragraph is a surprising revelation (the revolver). The idea is that the tiny clue vanishes from the reader’s mind because the immediate surprise supplants it. At the end, the reader can go back and say, “Oh, by golly, there WAS a such-and-such in the suspect’s bedroom, I just forgot about it because I was so focused on that revolver.”

In other words, you conceal the clue by burying it in excelsior and then distracting the reader’s attention.

2940With that in mind, my realization is that this is the kind of thing that DLS was trying to do. It’s not merely excelsior for the sake of it, she’s actually burying clues in it. However, there are a couple of differences. I’d say that about 75% of The Nine Tailors qualifies as pure excelsior, which is considerably more than the 1913 work quoted above. And frankly, it is hard to find the very, very few clues to the mystery that are buried within it like rusty nails — because there are so few of them. The Nine Tailors does not actually have many clues; instead it has quite a bit of psychology about who is the type of person to have committed the crimes, and why, and a lot of speculation as to how the murder could actually have been carried out. (A modern novel based on this scenario would have had a terse comment from the autopsy surgeon a few chapters after the body is discovered, and half the puzzle would have been solved in a flash, I think, if indeed the murder scenario would stand up to such scrutiny.) But it seems to me that this is what DLS was doing. She got far too fond of her talent to create excelsior, with funny accents and dimwitted rustics and the antics of the servant classes about which she could be snobby. And Wilson’s “bent and rusty nails” of clues are not much use in coming to the solution of the mystery, to be honest. Lord Peter really works most of it out by being in the wrong room at the right time, and solving a very difficult cryptogram that depends upon a knowledge of change-ringing.

This exercise, though, has taught me something of a lesson. The exercise of trying to place DLS’s writing style in context has been revealing — she is following upon the track of the older author whose name I have not mentioned. I find this contextualization reassuring; it has made me realize that she wasn’t really stepping out and creating an entirely new kind of detective fiction, but merely adapting her personal writing style to the traditions of the genre. And if it takes her 2500 words to say nothing useful at all — well, it’s taken me slightly fewer than 2500 words to say very little about her work, and I can refrain from complaining if you can!

 

 

 

 

The Twenty-One Clues, by J. J. Connington (1941)

9781616463199-usWARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

The membership of the Church of Awakened Israel (in an unnamed English town) is led by the Reverend Mr. Barratt, who is on very poor terms with his wife Helen, a cold, beautiful, and aristocratic lady uninterested in the social interaction of the congregation. Helen and her snooty family are depending upon an inheritance from the 87-year-old Mrs. Alvington, Helen’s grandmother, and since she is capable of directing her funds towards the Church of Awakened Israel instead of her family, that’s been a source of great tension. Helen’s uncle has recently divorced, to the shock and horror of the religious old lady, who has darkened her door to him forever. There’s rumours buzzing around that Mr. Barratt is having an affair with one Mrs. Callis of the congregation, and both the Barratts have recently received anonymous and accusatory letters.

At the outset of chapter 2, Inspector Rufford is called in to investigate when two bodies are found in an isolated “Lover’s Lane” — Mrs. Callis and Mr. Barratt have seemingly made plans to run away together, but have apparently instead brought a suicide pact to fruition. The dogged inspector investigates thoroughly, finding many small clues in the vicinity; he determines that both were shot with the gun nearby and that the cartridge cases on the ground match that gun. (In a lovely old-fashioned touch that is now completely out of fashion, we have a diagram of the locations of the bodies, cartridge cases, and trails of footprints.) There is another murder that seems only to complicate the tangle of motives,  actions, and alibis. But it takes the personal intervention of the Chief Constable, series detective Sir Clinton Driffield, to unravel the deep meanings of a list of twenty-one clues, and reveal the answers to the old criminologist’s rhyme:

“What was the crime? Who did it?

When was it done? And where?

How done? And with what motive? 

Who in the deed did share?”

And quite a surprising set of answers it is too.

11904Why is this worth reading?

It’s always difficult to find something worthwhile to say about a book after my friend Curtis Evans has written an introduction for it, as is the case here. His preface to the latest edition of this book, the only copy most of us will ever be able to afford to see of this formerly scarce book, gives the reader an explanation of who the author was (Alfred Walter Stewart, a brilliant professor of science), ably discusses his writing interests and the sweep of his work, and then places this particular work in complete context as to where it falls in his career. And since Curtis literally wrote the book on this author (Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, available here, and I highly recommend it), well, you know, he’s the authority.

Luckily for me, he didn’t have much to say about this one other than that it was one of the author’s final four mysteries, near the end of his life, and that it was “inspired by the notorious Hall-Mills double murder case — probably the most publicised murder case in the United States in the 1920s”. (I can say that from what little I know about the Hall-Mills case, the solution here has no relationship to the real-life case.)

So I will paraphrase Curtis Evans for the moment, who goes into great and useful detail to convince you of something I’ll put more simply; this book is worth your time. It’s intelligent, complicated, logical, twisty, and quite enjoyable. There is a fine balance between a mystery that is too difficult for the reader to solve, and one which is too simple for the reader to avoid solving; this book straddles that line in an interesting way. For me, the most pleasant experience with a mystery is coming to a conclusion about the assignment of guilt, and being proved correct, but then learning that the author has been cleverer than I have and demonstrated that I’ve overlooked something that would have given me a more conclusive theory. I enjoyed this book for that reason, and I think there’s a very good chance you will too.

That being said, the thing that Curtis Evans’s introduction didn’t have space to delve into is the pervasive thread that runs through this novel of “social class”. I have to say this was coloured for me by reading two Conningtons one after the other; the other, Murder Will Speak (1938), has a great deal to say from the lips of an unattractive character about, essentially, the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. I may have more to say about that volume later. But The Twenty-One Clues also has a hearty helping of class consciousness.

Here, in the third paragraph of chapter one, we have a clear statement of what’s going on with the Reverend Mr. Barrett’s wife: “Helen was a fish out of water amongst the congregation, most of whom were decent lower-middle-class people with whom she had nothing in common. Her own friends were drawn from a different social stratum, and the narrowness of the Awakened Israelites had long been irksome to her.” And a little while later in the same paragraph, Helen tells it like it is (to her uncle, in private): “They’re so frightfully narrow-minded, not like an ordinary church, somehow. And they’re not my sort. I can’t make friends amongst them. They’re not my class, and they think differently from me on almost everything one can talk about to them.”

From the modern standpoint this emphasis on and fascination with class is very disconcerting. In 2016, one does not think these things; if one thinks them, one does not comment on them, for political correctness has taught us that class distinctions (at least in the United States and for the most part in other English-speaking countries) either do not exist or must be ignored. The problem for the modern reader is that not only are these statements about the immutability and importance of class presented unchallenged, but they are omnipresent; coming from the lips of “good” characters as well as unpleasant ones.

In chapter 2, for instance, two railway workers have reported seeing the bodies, but they have not yet been discovered.  The inspector asks, “Were they tramps, or that kind of people?”

“Tramps? No, they was not tramps. It’s a fair distance, but my eyes is good, an’ I knows a tramp when I sees one. They was middle-class people, by the look of ’em. Not but what their clo’es wasn’t a bit ruffled. But they looked good clo’es; no rags about ’em an’ all o’ one piece, if you see what I mean.”

Obviously an uneducated person by his speech, but by observing two face-down corpses at quite a distance from a moving train, he can tell their social class immediately and give reasons for his categorization. The doctor who examines the bodies observes that the woman is “quite good class, too, judging by her clothes, and the smell of verbena bath salts”.

And then the wonderful dullard Inspector Rufford is constantly judging the “financial status of householders from the general appearance of the streets in which they lived”. When he goes to break the news to Mr. Callis about his wife —

“Good Lord!” ejaculated Callis, evidently revolted at the idea. “Will there be an inquest?” Rufford recognized the tone. It was the old story which he had heard so often before. “An inquest? But inquests don’t have to be held on people like us, surely.”

UnknownPeople like us.  (sigh)  I could easily go on… the fine distinctions and constant reference to social class permeate every chapter of this book. Everyone is surprised to find that a teenager who steals a car is the son of someone who brings in £1000 a year, and they feel sorry for his parents. (And the 15-year-old girl whom he is seeing is “at a glance” categorized as a whore, although the character uses the word hetaira, since “he preferred euphemisms to plainer but coarser expressions …”.  She’s helpful, polite, and truthful, but she’s having sex before marriage and is of a lower class, so she’s a whore.  Nice.) People’s clothes and speech are said to reveal their class origins, and it is clear that everyone thinks that Mrs. Barratt has “married beneath her” and come to regret it. The interesting piece of this is that it doesn’t seem as though the author is deliberately making a point of this “class parsing” to say something about the class system, or that it in any way relates to the solution of the mystery. For this writer, the class system permeates everything he’s writing about, and it’s simply part of the background to be accepted.

For me, this was a part of the book that was hard to take. It didn’t exactly spoil my enjoyment of this clever and well-written plot. Instead it gave me a couple of different mental issues. Principal among them was, “Does this fixation on social class have anything to do with the solution of the mystery?” Well, technically, not really. It has a tiny bit to do with the motives, but not in more than a contributory way. Also I kept thinking, “Did people really think like this and talk like this?” Here, I’m on shaky ground. I recognize that GAD writers need to pack a lot of information about their characters’ backgrounds and personalities into as small a space as possible, and this may have been a kind of literary shorthand that this author felt his audience would understand. Honestly, though, on the balance of probabilities I think it’s a kind of 1941 hangover of an elderly writer’s attitudes from a bygone day. Remember that World War 2 was in full swing for the world outside this book (it is never mentioned within) and class barriers were falling like bombed-out buildings everywhere in Britain. Except if you’re in your late 60s and soon to be pretty much unable to leave your house, as this writer was at the time.

So, by and large, I think you’ll enjoy this book as I did. You may find yourself a little horrified at ideas such as that one could assign a 15-year-old girl to the category of whore simply because of her sexual availability and with whom she chooses to exercise it, but this is not the worst level of language misuse I’ve ever seen in GAD; it’s Twenty-One Clues, not Ten Little anything, so you will not be too horrified to continue. Try it, you’ll like it.

My favourite edition

Really I do like the cover of Coachwhip’s recent edition, shown at the top of this post, which is simple, graphic, and effective (and does NOT partake of many of the modern cliches about the design of GAD reprints, for which my thanks; British Library Crime Classics has a lot to answer for and will soon run out of period postcards to repurpose, I trust.) Coachwhip publishes my favourite edition because it contains the introduction by Curtis Evans, which is excellent and wonderfully informative. Buy your own copy here.

The true first edition from H&S is gorgeous, and quotes the little rhyme that I enjoyed so much. There isn’t one for sale on ABE Books, but the first US, VG in a VG+ jacket, is $200. And it doesn’t have Curtis’s introduction!

Disclosure: I get books from Coachwhip to review, but this wasn’t one of them; it was a Christmas gift. Whatever the source, I never say anything about books that I don’t really think anyways. For fans of GAD, I think Coachwhip is doing an excellent job and deserves your support.

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Book scouting Dorothy L. Sayers

Tuesday Night FebruaryA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in February will be devoted to Dorothy L. Sayers.

 

 

Book scouting Dorothy L. Sayers

The mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers were widely published in England and the United States by a variety of different publishers; as is often the case, the American publishers moved towards the more lurid end of the spectrum while the British publishers kept it somewhat more classy. There is plenty here to enjoy, regardless of which style you prefer. DLS had a variety of paperback publishers in the US and only a few in the UK; the Four Square and Penguin editions are all quite collectible.

I’ve also added the cover of a volume connected with Sayers’ advertising career (and Murder Must Advertise); The Recipe Book of The Mustard Club, written largely by Sayers and with recipes largely contributed by her husband. Note that Suspicious Characters is an American retitling of Five Red Herrings, just in case anyone has a moment of delight thinking that there is a Lord Peter title they have yet to read (sorry!).

 

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Rex Stout, Week 4

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_n.jpgA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in January have been devoted to Rex Stout (and next week we’re on to Dorothy L. Sayers).

Here they are, alphabetically:

Tracy B., Bitter Tea and MysteryThe Nero Wolfe Novellas

Kate Jackson, crossexaminingcrimeThe Rubber Band (1936) by Rex Stout

Moira Redmond, Clothes in BooksRex Stout and the case of the non-series sleuths

Noah Stewart, Noah’s ArchivesPrisoner’s Base, by Rex Stout (1952)

Helen Szamuely, Your Freedom and Ours: So what is it about Rex Stout?

Again, I’ll repeat my suggestion that if you have a blog and wish to join us, just get in touch.  And if you DON’T have a blog and wish to participate, let me know and I’ll find you a blog to which you can post as a guest.  Anything on the topic of Rex Stout this month — or Dorothy L. Sayers next month — will be welcome!

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Prisoner’s Base, by Rex Stout (1952)

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_nA group of bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and each publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout. Stout’s stories about Nero Wolfe are called by fans the corpus and I’ll use that locution here.

WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

Prisoner’s Base (1952): A Nero Wolfe Mystery

rspb1963-1fWhat is this book about?

It’s an average day in the brownstone: Wolfe and Archie have recently been squabbling about a lack of work, and there is tension in the air. While Wolfe is in the plant rooms, a good-looking young woman arrives. Perhaps she’s a prospective client, but she’s … eccentric. She knows enough about the routine at the brownstone to arrive when Archie is alone, she doesn’t want to reveal her name, and she wants to pay $50 a day to rent the south room for a week.  While she’s locked in the south room awaiting Wolfe’s disposition, an elegant lawyer arrives and offers Wolfe $5,000 to find a young woman named Priscilla Eads who is about to turn 25; next week she will assume ownership of a ten million dollar corporation, Softdown Towels. Perry Helmar shows Wolfe photographs of Priscilla Eads that reveal her to be — the lady in the south room.

Easy money, right? But Wolfe does feel a small responsibility to the young lady whom Archie is championing. Instead of turning Priscilla over to the lawyer, he offers her two choices. Either she can pay him $10,000 for not turning her over to the lawyer while she enjoys a week in the south room, or she can have a head start until tomorrow morning, when he will talk to Perry Helmar, the lawyer. Priscilla chooses the head start, takes her bags, and leaves in a frosty temper.

prisbase5_fsThe next morning, before Wolfe’s self-imposed deadline expires, Inspector Cramer arrives and informs Archie that two murders occurred last night. One was the murder of one Margaret Fomos, whose bag and keyring were missing. She worked as a maid at the home of Priscilla Eads. The other murder was that of Priscilla Eads.

I’ll try to tell you very little beyond this point; I think you’ll want to read this book, and I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment. Suffice it to say that when Wolfe learns that Archie is being questioned about Priscilla’s murder, he leaves the brownstone and travels to the police station to spring his assistant.  You know it’s serious when Wolfe has to leave the house for any reason. I’ll say that one of the murders in this story brings Archie as close to being emotionally affected by his work as you will ever see him. And Wolfe performs one of the greatest feats of ratiocination in the corpus. Hell, anywhere in Golden Age detection, which I’ll speak about below.  The story ends in a very satisfying way and Archie has an opportunity to discharge his accumulated emotional upsets with a display of his strength and physical prowess.

For years, that’s how I thought the book ended, rather abruptly but satisfyingly. Then I learned that there’s a final very brief chapter that ties everything together beautifully that appeared in the first edition and then was omitted from most paperback editions, probably accidentally. You can find it at this link provided thoughtfully by the Wolfe Pack, just one of the many reasons to be grateful to this fan organization’s diligence and scholarship.

200px-Stout-PB-1Why is this book worth your time?

To begin with, if you’re at all interested in being entertained by detective fiction, this is a Nero Wolfe novel and you should have read it already. So there’s that. ;-) The Nero Wolfe corpus is of such a uniformly high standard of intelligence and good writing that I was unable to do my usual “five most favourite/five least favourite” — because I don’t have any least favourites. They’re all great books, and every five or ten years I re-read the corpus just to remind myself of what great books they are.

Is this my most favourite episode in the corpus? That takes a little explanation. Some years ago I was involved in an online colloquium about the corpus where people contributed e-mails to a round-robin discussion of each of the books in chronological order for three weeks. (Something not unlike the Tuesday Night Bloggers.) I volunteered to moderate a discussion of this particular volume — which may be better known to some under its British title, Out Goes She — and I can’t remember taking anything so seriously for a long while. I read and re-read that book exhaustively and produced an enormous amount of material about various of its themes, including the role of women in 1952 American society (touched on here in the business sense), the language of the book, Archie Goodwin as seen within the Romantic tradition, etc.  I probably produced more words that week to prompt discussion than there are in the book! So it’s not perhaps my absolute favourite, but it is the one I know forwards and backwards.

This is not the most dramatic book Stout ever wrote, to be sure. Most Rex Stout fans have other books that they prefer, frequently ones like The Doorbell Rang or what’s known as the Zeck Trilogy. Honestly, I find those a little tiny bit overwrought. For me, Archie and Wolfe are at their best on a small, intimate scale, solving human problems for human beings; gangsters and government take away that intimacy and make the actions ring less true. This story has always rung very true for me, pretty much because it’s one of the few times that Archie actually cares about a female suspect. He flirts with them, he teases them, he romances them, but it’s clear that he regards their confidences to be Wolfe’s property and their favour to be entirely temporary. Here, Archie has a strange relationship with an attractive woman involved in the case because she is neurotic, and he seems to somehow understand her neurosis and be able to work with it where no one else can. They are forming the beginnings of an adult relationship that may actually extend beyond the confines of this volume … if it weren’t for the fact that she becomes the third victim. And Archie gives full rein to his full romantic self. Not romantic in the sense of hearts and flowers, but Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

imagesThis is Archie at his best. He feels his actions have put all the victims in danger, concatenating from his refusal to fight harder to hide Priscilla Eads in the south room for a week, and now he’s in a cold fury trying to make it up to the corpses by cooperating with the police. This is an Archie whom we do not often see. It has occasionally happened that his attractive female clients have been murdered before his eyes (Bess Huddleston, for instance); this is the one time he takes it to heart and allows his emotions to guide his actions. For me it’s a challenging moment in the corpus and one that shows Archie at an extreme. And yet the writing is so smooth and clear that it carries you along; the process for the reader is that we hear Archie’s interior monologue and his exterior interactions, and we realize what he’s not telling people (if we’re paying attention). You have to deduce what Archie is feeling, and not necessarily by paying attention to what he’s saying. I enjoy that process.

Another reason I like this book a lot is that, as I said above, Wolfe performs one of his greatest feats of deduction, worthy of John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen. And again, it’s so beautifully written, and so clear, that you don’t realize how clever it is. It’s what I call a third-level clue format.

At the first level of such logic is what I’ll call the Murder, She Wrote solution. This is where Jessica notes, as the one and only necessary clue to solve the mystery, that one suspect says something that reveals knowledge that only the murderer can have; that structure repeats again and again in the M,SW archives. That’s a positive clue. For an example of level two, I’ve written recently about one of the Thin Man films, The Thin Man Goes Home, in which the murderer does something ordinary but the fact that it is done in an ordinary way reveals that he knows that the second victim is already dead. This is a negative clue; you have to realize what didn’t happen.

nw201969-2-aThe present case is, for me, one of the few examples of level three, the equivalent of the logic that underlies a mystery at the level of Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery or John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge … telling you about it would spoil it, and for many readers it just sneaks right under their radar. Essentially the reader is operating under a misapprehension as to why and when something happens, and it’s only when Wolfe realizes what could have happened that he is able to solve the case. I have to add that this is not a locked-room mystery, or more than glancingly the same as the Byzantine murder plots that underlie Carr and Queen et al.  What I’m saying here is that there is not really a central clue that is broken and thereby reveals the solution; instead Wolfe has to examine all the suppositions that underlie what is “known” about the case, and when he finds one that is not as assured as it seems, that that leads him to the solution. You and everyone else will overlook the supposition that is not what it seems, and that’s why this is so hard to solve. And Wolfe (with Stout’s connivance) makes it all look simple.

This is Wolfe at his best. He is grumpy and irascible here, but he also demonstrates a great deal of regard for Archie. Although I have to admit that Wolfe does actually leave the house quite often, this is one of the times that he does it in order to rescue Archie, and those are few and far between.

So: Wolfe at his best, Archie at his best, an intimate plot, an astonishing puzzle and a surprising solution. Definitely worth your time, and a good book with which to introduce people to the brownstone.