200 authors I would recommend (Part 4)

Another ten authors whose work I’d recommend. You’ll find Part 1 that explains this list here; the immediately previous article, Part 3, is here; I’ll link here to Part 5 as soon as it’s written.

adonis31. Caudwell, Sarah

The late Sarah Caudwell only wrote four novels about a professor of mediaeval law, Hilary Tamar, who is both the narrator and the principal detective, and a group of young lawyers who all investigate crimes together. All four novels have a taste like fine old Scotch whisky. The degree of literacy needed to understand all the offhand references is phenomenal; this style of writing is what was meant by the “don’s delight” mystery, very little practised today. The language is elegant and difficult — so are the plots. The mysteries are frequently based on obscure points of tax law or inheritance law; not especially realistic characters, but quite modern despite the antique flavour of the language. And there’s one tiny but delightful point that it takes a while to grasp — it’s never mentioned what sex Professor Tamar is. 1981’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered is a good place to start, since it’s the first novel of the four.

Cecil-ATTE Pan32. Cecil, Henry

Two legal eagles in a row — Henry Cecil was a British County Court Judge who wrote mysteries and novels in his off-hours. It’s hard to call some of his books “mysteries”, in the strict sense, although they frequently have to do with criminals and legal processes, but his fiction is worth reading whatever you call it. I think I’d have liked to have been in his courtroom; he has a wicked sense of humour and, of course, a huge knowledge of the back roads and byways of the law. Many of his plots have to do with people who go to great lengths to exploit a legal loophole. He was also great at writing mystery short stories that turn on a single point, something like Ellery Queen, and the collections are certainly worth looking into. Even the most serious pieces have a lovely sense of sly fun in them, especially in the language, and there’s a recurring character named Colonel Brain, the world’s most unreliable witness, who is good value whenever he appears. No Bail for the Judge is a story about a judge who finds himself on trial for the murder of a prostitute and can’t remember anything that happened on the night in question; Alfred Hitchcock was going to make a film of it before his death.

1292147456533. Charles, Kate

Kate Charles writes quite traditional British mysteries, most of which are based around, or have something to do with, the Church of England, its background, rituals, and people. She started in the 90s, kicking off her first series about an artist with a solicitor boyfriend. I found the first book quite gripping, A Drink of Deadly Wine; it was based around the then-current topic of “outing”. Her second series deals with a woman who is a newly-ordained cleric (with a boyfriend who’s a police officer) and the issues she faces, of course complicated by murders. These books have a uniformly high quality, excellent writing, and are by a writer who has really dug deeply into many issues that crop up when religion intersects with crime.

b03a1f091b363aa2776bcca7930ba53334. Chesterton, G. K.

Two religious mystery writers in a row! As my readers are almost certainly aware, Chesterton was responsible for creating that well-known figure of detective fiction, Father Brown, a Catholic priest who investigates crimes and saves souls in the process, over a long series of short stories. I was surprised to note that the stories started as long ago as 1911, since the fifth volume came out in 1935; Chesterton wasn’t prolific but the stories are clever and fascinating. Of course these famous stories have formed the basis for films and television series, and there’s currently one in process, but you’ll have to go back more than 100 years to read about the origins of this meek little cleric. I recommend you do just that; each generation that reinvents Father Brown does so in a way that the original stories usually don’t support.

df8618da651bc3bf05aba53fe9c6961135. Christie, Agatha

There are many well-known names in the mystery field whom you will NOT find me recommending here, but Agatha Christie has sold more fiction than anyone else in the history of the world, and there’s a reason for that. She’s simply a great, great mystery writer. I can’t imagine anyone reading my blog who hasn’t at least dipped a toe into the large body of Christie’s work, so I won’t go on about Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, since you pretty much have to know who they are already. I’ll merely say that if you’re looking for a place to start that is not with the most famous works (Ten Little Indians, Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, The Body in the Library) that have been made into films, some of my favourites are Five Little Pigs, Crooked House, Sad Cypress, and The Moving Finger. And I think Spider’s Web is an excellent play, if you have a chance to see it!

34319336. Clark, Douglas

Douglas Clark’s series of mysteries about Scotland Yard’s Chief Superintendent Masters and DCI Green is well overdue for a revival or at the very least a complete reprinting, start to finish. These are charming, low-key mysteries of the police procedural variety, almost an 80s take on the Humdrum school exemplified by Freeman Wills Crofts. Masters and Green are friends as well as colleagues, and their respective families are also part of the background; the books have the gentle, nearly cozy, flavour that may remind TV viewers of Midsomer Murders. Clark knew a lot about poisons and frequently each volume’s murder has a rare poison as its cause. Perennial Library printed a lot of these titles in the 80s, and Dell did a couple as part of their “puzzleback” series at around the same time. For a while you couldn’t be in a used bookstore without finding a stack of them, and now they seem to have disappeared. There are a bunch of titles that are all equally good places to start; perhaps you’d like to find out from Roast Eggs why a man seems to have burned his house down in order to kill his wife. (It’s from an old quote about selfishness; “He sets my house on fire only to roast his eggs.”) Any of the Perennial Library or Dell titles will get you started, though.

1356595637. Clason, Clyde B.

Clyde Clason wrote ten novels featuring the elderly Theocritus Lucius Westborough, expert on the Roman emperor Heliogabalus and amateur sleuth, between 1936 and 1941. Quite a pace! These books are intelligent and packed with information, with a very elegant writing style; Professor Westborough sprinkles his observations with classical references. Perhaps the most well-known novel is Murder gone Minoan, which reminded me somewhat of Anthony Boucher‘s The Case of the Seven Sneezes; one of a group of people isolated on an island that can be reached only by speedboat is murdered, and Professor Westborough takes a hand to solve the murder as well to try to restore a millionaire’s piece of Minoan treasure. Many of the ten novels feature a locked-room mystery or an “impossible crime”. Rue Morgue has recently brought these novels back into print, and you’ll have a much easier time than I did in getting hold of them; I envy you the opportunity to stack up all ten and knuckle down, since they’re both pleasant and difficult puzzles.

229114938. Cleeves, Ann

Ann Cleeves is the author of the novels upon which the currently popular television series Vera is based, about a dogged and emotional Scotland Yard DI in Yorkshire; there are six original novels and they’re all in print. My exposure to this writer came long before, when I picked up the eight novels about George Palmer-Jones and his wife Molly. George and Molly are from the cozy amateur school, but Ann Cleeves has a lot more up her writing sleeve than can be covered by the word “cozy”; she has a great deal of insight into how people’s minds work and why they do what they do, and her art makes George look as if he’s quite intuitive. I really enjoyed this series; the other three Cleeves series are a bit harsher, but not really hard-boiled. I recommend the first George and Molly story, A Bird in the Hand, as a good place to start.

978044011944939. Clinton-Baddeley, V. C.

Another “don’s delight” writer, although not so much for the erudition as the attitude and background. The author wrote many things, including film scripts as far back as 1936, but produced this lovely set of five mystery novels featuring Dr. Davie of St. Nicholas College, Cambridge, between 1967 and 1972 at the end of his life. Dr. Davie is an elderly don with an almost childlike delight in the wonders of everyday life, and a general unwillingness to do much in the way of exercise. But his bright, intelligent eye takes in everything around him and he finds himself in the middle of mysterious murder cases that only he is able to solve. Death’s Bright Dart mixes a stolen blowpipe with the murder of an academic — in the middle of giving an address to the college — and Dr. Davie takes a hand, mostly by pottering around and chattering with people. All five novels are good fun and contain interesting puzzles at their core. The writing has a great deal of gentle humour of the observational variety. I’ve always felt Dr. Davie was gay, mostly due to a brief passage in one of the books where he observes what must be a group of gay men chattering over drinks, but it’s never mentioned and not really relevant. Any of the five books is a good starting point.

n11303940. Cody, Liza

Every so often I find a book that just sets me back on my heels, it’s so powerful and strongly observed. That’s how I felt about Bucket Nut, the first Eva Wylie novel about a young woman wrestler/security guard/minder in 90s England who goes about her business as best she can despite being what I think of as an emotional basket case. She is rude and crude and powerful and very damaged by her past, and you won’t forget her in a hurry. I’d been following Liza Cody’s work from a previous series about Anna Lee, a woman PI, but the “London Lassassin” stories are, I think, Cody’s best work. There are three Eva Wylie stories and six Anna Lee novels; Anna Lee is a great private eye and worth your time, but you must read the Eva Wylie novels. (I’ve been told by some that they had the reverse of my reaction; they couldn’t get beyond a few pages because the character was so unpleasant. Your mileage may indeed vary.)

 

 

200 authors I would recommend (Part 3)

Another ten authors whose work I’d recommend. You’ll find Part 1 that explains this list here; the immediately previous article, Part 2, is here; the next piece, Part 4, is found here.

1339239828921.  Brean, Herbert

This author only wrote a handful of books, but all seven are worth your time. Wilders Walk Away is a spooky tale about the Wilder family, who has this funny habit of walking out of the house never to be seen again. Supernatural shenanigans not far off the approach of John Dickson Carr, where everything is resolved un-supernaturally at the end. Really classic American detective fiction, well-written and smart, and frequently with a strong flavour of what I’ll call “Americana”; Brean takes the flavour of the English village mystery and transplants it to the US very successfully. The Traces of Brillhart is an interesting mystery that used to make my life hell; a paperback publisher had mistakenly attributed it to Carr in the back pages of the book and every so often someone would come in and insist that this was the last Carr on their list to track down and read. I hate disappointing a Carr fan!

100151127322. Brett, Simon

I first came to appreciate Simon Brett through his very funny series about hard-drinking second-rate actor Charles Paris, who is constantly hard up and wondering where his next bottle of Bell’s whisky is coming from. Brett takes his protagonist through murder plots set against nearly every type of acting job, from crummy rep theatres to radio drama to cheesy horror films, all with a knowing wink and a great deal of sympathy for the long-suffering Mr. Paris. Lately Brett’s very active writing career has branched out into three other series; not my all-time favourites but still worth a read. Brett is one of the few writers who, for me, successfully balances light humour with murder.

2700481368_178b0a546623. Brown, Fredric

It’s always astounding to me that an author can find success in both the mystery and science fiction fields; when you couple it with a talent for writing great short stories and superb work at the novel length, you have a recipe for great success. Unfortunately the hard-drinking Mr. Brown never found great financial success in his lifetime; rather like Philip K. Dick, he’s more esteemed today than when he was alive. Brown has the ability to convey seedy and disreputable and poverty-stricken backgrounds wonderfully well — carnivals and cheap printing operations and sad rooming houses. You can just about hear the sad jazz score in the background. His most successful novel is probably The Screaming Mimi, which was made into a film, but Brown-lovers esteem the Ed and Am Hunter series most highly. Start with The Fabulous Clipjoint and be prepared to not put it down till it’s finished — it’s that good. Be warned; if you want to actually own physical copies of his books, it’s likely to cost you a small fortune.

089733033124. Bruce, Leo

Leo Bruce is the mystery pseudonym of Rupert Croft-Cooke, who actually spent time in prison because of his homosexuality (see the Wikipedia article here). His Sergeant Beef mysteries are broadly amusing and still excellent puzzle mysteries; there’s a strong flavour of parody. His best known Beef novel, Case for Three Detectives, features the beer-swilling detective beating out thinly-disguised portraits of Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot and Father Brown to the solution. The series featuring acerbic schoolmaster Carolus Deene is much longer and was less successful towards the end of the author’s career, as frequently happens, but there are more than enough good ones from the 50s and 60s to keep the reader of classic British puzzle mysteries happy. Bruce is a sadly overlooked writer who deserves a revival; his writing is excellent, his plotting is first-rate and his general approach is classic.

071235716525. Bude, John

John Bude is another classic British mystery writer overdue for a revival and I’m happy to say that his first novel, The Lake District Murder, is now back in print and gaining him a generation of new fans. I haven’t read The Cornish Coast Mystery but it too is easily available now. Both will serve as excellent introductions to this author’s many novels, which I found delicate and sensible, without too much blood and thunder; rather like the Humdrum school exemplified by Freeman Wills Crofts. When I was searching them out, these novels were rare and expensive; they were worth savouring as well-written examples of the classic English mystery. Humdrum expert Curtis Evans refers to Bude (in the comments below the linked article) as a “competent third-stringer”; I might be a little more generous. Perhaps it’s merely scarcity that prompts me to recommend him but I think you’ll enjoy his books.

Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy26. Burley, W. J.

Burley is best known as the author of the Inspector Wycliffe (WICK-liff) mysteries set in the British West Country, which became the basis for an interesting television programme that my American friends possibly won’t have seen. When you see the television episodes, you realize that the amazing countryside is indeed a strong underpinning of the books; without that knowledge, they’re merely above-average Scotland Yard mysteries. I also enjoyed the two early novels about amateur detective Henry Pym, including Death In Willow Pattern, but you’ll find it much easier to acquire a handful of the 22 Wycliffe novels and settle in for a relaxing weekend.

murder md27. Burton, Miles

Miles Burton is actually a major pseudonym of the prolific Cecil Street, who is probably better known as mystery writer John Rhode. I wanted to recommend both names (you’ll find John Rhode listed later in this series) because the author’s work deserves to be better known. I have to confess I haven’t read many Miles Burton novels, but the few that have passed through my hands have been uniformly interesting. I recommend Murder, M.D. and Death Takes The Living from personal knowledge as being excellent, and A Smell of Smoke has many points of interest. I note here that Ramble House Publishers have brought a couple of Burton titles back into print in recent years, as has a publisher called Black Curtain Press. I must say that I’m not certain that Black Curtain has permission to reprint these titles; if respect for copyright is as important to you as it should be, you may wish to investigate before you purchase.

51HQ--9M8bL28. Carlson, P. M.

P. M. (Pat) Carlson deserves to be much better known for the eight-volume Maggie Ryan series of mysteries (there are others from this writer but I haven’t managed to read them). I’ve read bunches and bunches of “spunky but loveable young woman takes an amateur hand at solving mysteries” and rarely have I found it better done than this series. Carlson knows what she’s talking about in terms of academic backgrounds — Murder is Academic and Murder is Pathological are, to my certain knowledge, accurate as all get-out, and it’s nice to see these settings portrayed by someone who knows them. (Murder is Academic will absolutely delight the professorial types on your Xmas list; guaranteed.) The backgrounds are interesting, the characters are unusual but not outré, and have depth; the mysteries are clever, and the writing is fine. One of the few times when a “spunky but loveable” character doesn’t make me want to throw the book across the room.

funeral29. Carnac, Carol

Another instance of a great author (Edith C. Rivett) being published under two names, both of which are worth looking for; you’ll find E. C. R. Lorac further down this list.  And another instance where I have to recommend you try to find these books even though I haven’t managed to read all of them myself; Carnac/Lorac novels are scarce, sought-after, and expensive — but for good reason. I really enjoyed A Policeman at the Door and It’s Her Own Funeral, and every other Inspector Rivers/Inspector Ryvet novel I’ve ever managed to find. Classic British detection at its best; an undercurrent of sly humour and a strong knowledge of human behaviour coupled with solid writing make these books very worth finding.

three-coffins30. Carr, John Dickson

There isn’t much I can say about John Dickson Carr if you haven’t found your way to him already; I’m just going to hit the high points. He’s one of the most famous — justly famous — mystery writers of all time. You’ll also find his major pseudonym, Carter Dickson, further down his list; these are the two faces of an absolute Grand Master of mystery. JDC is the master of the locked-room mystery, and my Golden Age Detection Facebook group has spent hours discussing which of his many, many books is the best. Carr as Carr writes mostly about Dr. Gideon Fell, an elderly lexicographer who unerringly puzzles out how murders were committed in impossible circumstances, and a smaller series about juge d’instruction Henri Bencolin. Everything with Carr’s name on it is worth reading (there are a few clunkers at the very end of a long and honourable career, but even those are worth your time). Carr knew how to write melodramatic mystery; not much on characterization, and a bit sexist at a time when that was more acceptable, but holy moly the man could plot mysteries. He’s well known for introducing supernatural elements which turn out to be necessary to the down-to-earth murderer’s plotting. The Three Coffins has a huge reputation as one of the best locked-room mysteries of all time (and stops for a chapter to explain the mechanics of the locked-room mystery). I like to recommend some lesser-known minor* novels as being good places to start, notably The Sleeping Sphinx, He Who Whispers, and To Wake the Dead. Wherever you begin with Carr, I trust you’ll acquire the taste for everything he ever wrote.

(*Corrected on the date of publication; my friend Xavier Lechard is correct, He Who Whispers isn’t “minor”, it’s merely lesser known.)

200 authors I would recommend (Part 2)

Another ten authors whose work I’d recommend. You’ll find Part 1 that explains this list here; Part 3 is found here.

11.  Bentley, E. C. You’ve got to like a guy whose middle name was used as the name for a style of verse (the “clerihew”). You’ve also got to respect his creation of Trent’s Last Case, which was written in 1913 and is an absolutely crucial volume in the history of detective fiction. There are two follow-up volumes from the 30s but Trent’s Last Case is just a necessary book. You have to read it and remember that it was written in 1913 — this writer invented things that we take for granted today.

not to be taken12.  Berkeley, Anthony I’ve written about Mr. Berkeley elsewhere, in connection with his creation of an absolute classic of detective fiction, The Poisoned Chocolates Case. To my mind, the guy is just brilliant. Writing as Francis Iles, he pretty much invented the “open mystery”, where you know whodunnit from the outset but the story is still gripping.  I read a comment recently that said that Berkeley seems to specialize in “trick” stories, where if you know the trick the book is over. There is a little bit of truth in this, but honestly I’d rather try to figure out Berkeley’s tricks than those of a dozen other authors. He’s funny, he’s sardonic, and his puzzles are extremely difficult. Not To Be Taken is generally considered to be right up there with his finest work (Before The Fact, Malice Aforethought, Poisoned Chocolates) but few people have read it.

a90bf282e3fa430250641e41423bdb4f13.  Biggers, Earl Derr Biggers created Charlie Chan and wrote the six novels in the series between 1925 and 1932. So there are about six times as many movies as actual novels, and the movies were created as B-level commercial products. You’ll get a different idea of the Chinese-American detective if you go back to the source material and actually read the books, and I recommend it. The stories are clever and it’s nice to read something from the 1920s that treats Asian-Americans in a little more enlightened way. They’re approaching 100 years old, so don’t be surprised if you find them a bit creaky, but remember that these are the six novels that created a character whose name is still a household word. n59669

14.  Blake, Nicholas Nicholas Blake was the mystery-writing pseudonym used by Cecil Day-Lewis, who late in life became Poet Laureate of England. I’ve heard it said that he will be remembered more for his politics — he was a Communist at a time when that was violently unpopular — and his detective fiction than his poetry. I can’t speak for his politics but his mysteries are exceptional, especially the ones featuring Oxford man-about-town Nigel Strangeways. His most famous mystery seems to be 1938’s The Beast Must Die, which has an excellent premise at its core, but I have liked nearly all of them (a handful of later ones I found a little disappointing). Malice in Wonderland is a witty portrait of a bygone English institution, the “holiday camp”, and a bygone profession, the “mass observer”; Minute for Murder is a favourite of mine. I understand that Head of a  Traveller and The Private Wound both draw heavily on his personal life. I’d recommend any of them, but the earlier the better as a starting point. (And yes, his son Daniel Day-Lewis is the famous actor.)

15.  Block, Lawrence In a long and distinguished career like Lawrence Block’s, you’d expect that there would be a bunch of clunkers among the gems. The gems are there for you — the brilliant and gritty and powerful Matt Scudder private eye series makes up for his beginnings writing “Lesbian confession” paperback originals, I hope — but Block is a master of so many styles and niches that you will certainly find things you love and things you don’t. I’ve found that Scudder fans tend to not like the lightly amusing Bernie Rhodenbarr novels, and vice versa, and that’s fine. Block writes a lot and publishes often, and has tried his hand at a lot of different things. He’s a damn good writer and you’ll find something to your taste, I think. Just don’t give up quickly if you don’t like the first one that comes to hand.

92cbb48cc04905a1e4147d1c5ece6ba516.  Boucher, Anthony I’ve written about Boucher’s novels before, here and here.  He only wrote seven full-length mysteries, but every single one of them is worth reading and is important to the field. He was, in my opinion, the best reviewer of mysteries ever; he knew what to look for and what to point out, telling the reader just enough to pique curiosity without giving away too much. Boucher was frighteningly intelligent and knowledgeable in widely separated areas, from opera librettos to Sherlock Holmes to craft beer; his career spanned books, reviewing, radio scripts, and perhaps most importantly his role as a catalyst around whom other writers coalesced. Strangest of all, he had an equally strong presence in the nascent field of science fiction. I always recommend the Fergus O’Breen series, start to finish; if you’re interested in science fiction, Rocket to the Morgue is a roman a clef about west coast writers such as Robert Heinlein (and yes, the victim is apparently based on Adrian Conan Doyle, whom a lot of real-life people thought needed murdering).

179 Edgar Box (Gore Vidal) Death Likes It Hot Signet05517.  Box, Edgar Edgar Box was the pseudonym used by Gore Vidal for his three mysteries from the early 50s starring randy PR consultant Peter Cutler Sergeant II. It’s a shame he didn’t continue the series, but these three are acerbic, bitterly funny, clever, beautifully written, and fascinating looks at a bygone era. It’s hard to imagine at this remove that it was considered shocking to write about a gay ballerino as a minor character in Death in the Fifth Position, but it was even more shocking at the time that the protagonist didn’t find it shocking, if you follow me. Vidal was a great writer and these are a fascinating little sideline; I frequently recommend these to people who have a taste for “literary fiction” and consider genre works beneath them. Vidal knew how to say just enough to get his point across, and the books are smooth as silk.

18.  Brackett, Leigh Leigh Brackett gets wedged into this category because she ghosted an interesting mystery novel for George Sanders, and wrote a few non-series mysteries that are above average and screenplays for some famous movies, but really she’s much better known as a master of science fiction. Her science fiction is still very readable and has the delicious flavour of high adventure that appeals to adolescent boys of any age; the Eric John Stark series will appeal to 14-year-olds and lure them into reading in a painless and clever way. It seems as though she could write in any genre in both screenplays and print; she novelized Rio Bravo, wrote the screenplay for one of the early Crime Doctor mystery films, an episode of The Rockford Files, the screenplay of The Big Sleep — and has a screen credit for Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. That credential alone will hook your 14-year-old non-reader!

19.  Bradley, Alan Alan Bradley is one of the few writers who knows how to write from a child’s point of view; his series protagonist, teenage Flavia de Luce, is a brilliant creation and one of my T0p 10 Women Detectives in books. The stories are balanced on the knife-edge between sympathetic and twee; my opinion is that they never go too far, but I know some people find them cloying. Try The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and give it 50 pages. You’ll either set it aside, which happens occasionally, or you’ll immediately go and get the other six in the series and savour them slowly.

29571371_christianna-brand-tour-de-force-1955-trad-marilena-caselli-classici-del-giallo-mondadori-1164-del--120.  Brand, Christianna I’ve been a champion of this writer ever since I first read the incredible Tour de Force — about murder on a package tour of the Mediterranean. The central clue is so squarely and fairly planted that it gave me the wonderful forehead-slapping moment I so often want but rarely find — I SHOULD have known whodunnit, but Ms. Brand slipped it right past me. She often does. Death of Jezebel is wonderfully difficult and satisfying, I think. Not all her works are perfect; Heads You Lose has a brilliant story hook but a truly disappointing finish, Death in High Heels has a few false moments, and I don’t personally care for Cat and Mouse much at all, although many people love it. Green for Danger is a well-known puzzle mystery that was made into an Alastair Sim movie, and many people come to her work via that classic. I recommend nearly everything she wrote; I even like Suddenly at His Residence where few others agree. One characteristic of her writing I enjoy is that she added characterization at a time when it wasn’t considered appropriate to detective fiction; the portrait of an adolescent hysteric in Suddenly at his Residence, for instance, is beautifully observed and rather unnecessary; she was writing like a novelist, not just a mystery writer.  She also tried her hand at other types of story; I think it’s almost funny that this great mystery writer may be more remembered for creating the children’s character Nanny McPhee.

Part 3 will be along soon.

200 authors I would recommend (Part 1)

8f881f43035e3361e41fd1063c8f087cA friend and fellow mystery aficionado Curtis Evans, whose world-class blog on Golden Age Detection can be found here, some years ago published a list of 150 Favourite Golden Age British Detective novels — the list can be found here and I recommend it to your attention. I just came across the list today and it started me thinking …

At more than one point in my life, I spent my working days standing behind the counter of a murder mystery bookstore essentially recommending books to people — because I had read so damn many of them. I’ve been an omnivorous and reasonably indiscriminate reader now for decades, helped by a natural talent for speed-reading and a very good memory, and as a result there are very, very few mystery writers whose work has never crossed my path or about whom I don’t have some kind of opinion. I like all kinds of books, and all kinds of mysteries; when it comes right down to it, if it looks like a mystery I’ll usually give it an hour. I frequently get asked to recommend a good mystery and I’m happy to do so; sometimes I’ll recommend an average one, if I think it will appeal to a specific reader for a specific reason.

074bc0a398a016801d420210That being said, there’s a certain category of books that finds a place on my shelves and stays there, rather than getting cleared out in a once-a-decade fit of temper. I have met many people who are baffled that I can read a murder mystery more than once; but for me, there’s a certain kind of novel that I believe only reveals its secrets upon a second or third reading. Those are written by the authors whom I will track down everything they ever wrote and keep it, as best I can. And those are the authors whom I’ll recommend.

Prodded by Curtis Evans’s list, I decided to do one of my own, Part 1 of which is below. I’ll try to annotate it for you, to give you a hint of my favourite books or even where to start. This can’t be a comprehensive list; in fact, its secret is that I went through the excellent website that lists mysteries and their authors, Stop, You’re Killing Me!, and skimmed through its 4,600 authors looking for names that struck a chord. I can’t say it’s every author I would ever recommend, and no doubt I will be horribly embarrassed to realize that I have missed one or two essential names. There are one or two names whom others find essential that I cannot recommend because they bore me or annoy me; Curtis and I differ about the enjoyment we receive from Ruth Rendell, for instance. But for Rendell’s work, I could even recommend one or two titles I’ve enjoyed (From Doon with Death, her first, was a breath of fresh air). The names here are authors for whom, by and large, I’m fairly confident that you will pick up a book of theirs at random and find something to enjoy.

c10779This is a personal list; these are the authors that I like, not the ones I think you should read because they are significant. They appear to be skewed in a few directions by my personal experience; you’ll find a lot of gay mysteries, a lot of Canadian mysteries, and a bunch of my personal friends. Your mileage may vary. As always, your comments and polite disagreements are very welcome.  I’ve done the list of 200 names already and will post them in bunches as I find time.

You’ll find that if you click on the author’s name, it will take you to a list of his/her/their works.

  1. Abbot, Anthony
    The Thatcher Colt mysteries date back to the 1930s and were the source material for a couple of interesting old films. You may find these difficult to acquire but keep your eyes open, they’re worth it. Classic American detection with good writing and interesting plots. I liked About the Murder of the Nightclub Lady; About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress is tough to find but very enjoyable.
  2. Aird, Catherine
    Modern British detective novels in the classic whodunit style, these mysteries have a gentle sense of humour, a knowing approach to human nature, and clever plots. The Complete Steel has a wonderful ending; The Religious Body is a gently clever puzzle mystery.
  3. Aldyne, Nathan
    T
    he four novels in the Valentine and Clarisse series (Vermilion, Cobalt, Slate, and Canary) about a handsome gay bartender and his zany best girlfriend who solve mysteries in and around the gay community are uneven and occasionally silly, but they have an enormous amount of joie de vivre and will let the average reader know what the gay community was like in the halcyon period immediately before HIV.
  4. Ames, Delano
    The Dagobert and Jane novels from, essentially, the 1950s are pretty much screwball farce wrapped around clever mystery plots. Very good fun. I started with a good one, Corpse Diplomatique, which gave me the taste for them.
  5. Anderson, James
    I recommend the three Inspector Wilkins mysteries, which are lovely send-ups of the classic Golden Age mystery, starting with The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy; the novelizations of three of the episodes of Murder, She Wrote are actually readable.
  6. Aspler, Tony
    I’ve never met my fellow Canadian Mr. Aspler, but his three 90s mysteries about a Toronto wine journalist are amusing, very readable, and informative. Start with Blood Is Thicker Than Beaujolais.
  7. Bailey, H. C.
    The volumes about Dr. Reginald Fortune, mostly collections of short stories from the 1930s, are justly famous and worth your attention. Pretty much any volume with his name in the title is a good introduction. Bailey had an expert hand with the puzzle short story; the characterizations are sometimes flat but there are stories that will stay with you for a long time.
  8. Barnard, Robert
    An expert on Agatha Christie and a writer in the classic mode, his books from 1974 to 2011 are a wonderful mix. Some are hilarious and farcical — Corpse in a Gilded Cage and Death on the High C’s will leave you with tears of laughter. And some are intelligent and literary and very serious, like Out of the Blackout. He wrote mysteries in three series with Mozart as a detective, and a minor British aristocrat, and a young black Scotland Yard detective; his range was huge and his intelligence shines through every book. Most unusually, he wrote about series detectives with an equal facility to his one-off non-series novels; the stand-alone novels may be his best work.
  9. Beeding, Francis
    Beeding wrote thrillers that might seem antique and slow-moving to the modern reader, but he was a careful constructor and technician and you will find yourself turning pages late into the night — the best recommendation of all.
  10. Bell, Josephine
    Classic British mysteries, frequently with a medical background; the earliest ones are the best. Death at the Medical Board and Murder on the Merry-go-Round might be easiest to find, and they are a good introduction.

Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, by William S. Baring-Gould (1969)

Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, by William S. Baring-Gould (1969)

NeroWolfeWhat’s this book about?

Most aficionados of detective fiction are familiar with the exploits of Nero Wolfe, the corpulent private detective who directs the activities of his associate Archie Goodwin in some 70 recorded cases written by Rex Stout (and a handful of licensed continuations by Robert Goldsborough). Nero Wolfe has been the subject of two films, four radio series, and two television series — you can read all about him in his Wikipedia entry here.

This book is what used to be called an “appreciation” — perhaps it still would be. It consists of a recapitulation of the plots of all extant novels and short stories as at the date of publication. Both Rex Stout and the series were still alive at this point and my first paperback edition is missing information about the final three novels, a couple of short story accumulations, and all of Robert Goldsborough’s continuation novels. As well, since all the stories take place against a common background of Wolfe’s New York brownstone and a recurring cast of characters, the volume accumulates what is known of persons, places, and things that figure in what has become known as the “corpus“. Corpus is a play on words referring to Wolfe’s bulky body and the complete oeuvre of his fictional adventures. As the back cover blurb on my first paperback edition (shown above) indicates, this is “a handbook for informed appreciation, a compendium and a chronology”. There is nothing here that attempts to bring any new understanding to where the character comes from, or to deepen your understanding of Nero Wolfe’s place in detective fiction; this is merely an assembly of facts and citations.

f643024128a041cb24846010Why is this worth reading?

It’s not.

This is because we now have Wikipedia and the internet; anyone can now indulge him- or herself in whatever level of information and speculation they wish about the exact dimensions of Wolfe’s office, the placement of his red leather chairs, how many cookbooks precisely are on the shelves of his chef Fritz, etc. The publication dates and plot summaries of every single Nero Wolfe volume are available from Wikipedia and a number of other websites. There are single-purpose Wolfe-oriented discussion groups (one of which I helped moderate for a few years), organizations like the Wolfe Pack operate websites and have physical meetings, etc. The functions of this volume have been entirely superseded by the internet.

In fact, I’m kind of at a loss to know why this volume was published at all, although until Penguin reprinted it in trade paperback format I used to sell a lot of used paperback copies of the Bantam edition to Wolfe aficionados at fairly high prices. There is nothing in this book that one cannot glean from reading the novels themselves and, honestly, the novels are much, much better written and more lively. If you have read the books, then you don’t need plot recaps. If you haven’t read them, well, there is a faint likelihood that it will be of benefit to you to know what you’ve missed, but isn’t it better to merely obtain a list of the books and tick them off as you go? And if you for some unfathomable reason cannot live without knowing the dimensions of Wolfe’s office — his fictional office, I hasten to add, and subject like everything else in the corpus to the vagaries of Rex Stout’s constant forgetfulness of minor details — then that information can be gleaned from the novels themselves, and you can spend an evening if you so desire in drawing up a floor plan and trying to imagine what the waterfall picture looks like. This volume, incidentally, does not contain such a floor plan.

But if you are a Nero Wolfe fan, and you have tracked down a copy of Where There’s A Will complete with photographs, and you have spent a month’s rent on a first edition of Corsage, and have a copy of every Tecumseh Fox mystery and Alphabet Hicks mysteries and the Dol Bonner mystery, and Double for Death in the mapback edition, and the book/movie The President Vanishes, and the Nero Wolfe Cookbook, and all the Goldsborough novels, and and and — then you will not strain at the gnat, relatively speaking, that is this volume. You can acquire a copy on Abebooks for under $10 as of this writing. One of the entries for the hardcover first says “A ‘must’ for any serious Rex Stout collection.” And that sentiment brings me to my point.

In recent months I have been giving thought to “tie-ins”. These are artifacts that are connected with fictional characters but not usually invented by the original creator of that character. I’ve posted an article (found here) about Sophie Hannah’s authorized continuation of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot character, The Monogram Murders. My piece here talks at some length about the relationship between the book and the film of S. S. Van Dine’s The Gracie Allen Murder Case, and goes into the nascent industry of the movie tie-in novel represented by such volumes as Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak. My piece even notes the existence of a Milton Bradley board game called “The Gracie Allen Murder Case Game” marketed as an adjunct to the short-lived film that will set you back a cool $700 or so IF you can find a well-worn copy, which you probably can’t; it’s bloody rare indeed.

In 2015, the movie tie-in paperback has perhaps waned in popularity from its zenith in, perhaps, the 80s and 90s, where it was very nearly obligatory for every film being marketed to boys and young men to come with its accompanying novelization (a kind of prosodic dumbing-down of the plot of the film in simple English), and for films featuring handsome male actors and/or musicians addressed to girls and young women to have an accompanying novelization in slightly higher-level language but more colour close-up photos tipped into the centre. Tie-in novels have rather died down in the subsequent years, but the concept is still going strong in ways you may find difficult to believe. Murder, She Wrote was last broadcast in 1996 (although there were four subsequent made-for-TV movies). Donald Bain, listed as co-author with the imaginary Jessica Fletcher, has published 35 volumes in the series of novels featuring Jessica Fletcher, most in hardcover; two a year for quite a while, including 2015. Thirty-five volumes, still going strong almost 20 years after the last episode of the TV series — quite an achievement.

In a very general sense, a tie-in is a commercial product that is associated with a character, either real or imaginary, but that does not contribute to the original purpose or reason for the celebrity of that character. Jessica Fletcher was the main character of a television series; therefore, novels — as well as lunch boxes, memo pads, aprons, tote bags, coffee cups, and “appreciations” — which feature that character are all tie-in materials.

There are mysteries which purport to be written by celebrities like Martina Navratilova and Willie Shoemaker, and ones which apparently actually were written by Steve Allen. Those are tie-ins to celebrity. There are ancillary novels that accompany various series of films and television; Quantum Leap books, Babylon 5 novels, Indiana Jones adventures, and enough Star Trek novels to sink a Battleship — which also has its own movie tie-in novel. Frankly, the thought of a board game becoming a film which is then turned into a novel fills me with wildly mixed emotions ranging from nausea to hilarity, but mostly I find it bathetic in the extreme. That novel must take awfulness to a new Stygian depth. I have the weird feeling that if I open the novel, I’ll implode and form a new Heinleinian multiverse, or something.

What the tie-in process boils down to, though, is that a writer creates a character; in this case, Nero Wolfe. The character becomes very popular and people are anxious to get, and read, new books in the series. (Or to experience new Indiana Jones films or watch new episodes featuring Jessica Fletcher or, way back when, listen to new radio episodes featuring The Shadow.) The original material doesn’t appear fast enough to suit enthusiastic fans, and this is where tie-in materials start to be created. What also happens, of course, is that the creation of these tie-in materials makes economic sense to someone. If you can create a lunch box for $1 and sell it for $3, fine. But if you can put a picture of Donny Osmond on it and sell it for $7, even if you have to pay Mr. Osmond $1 for the privilege, you are doing very well indeed. A $3 lunch box works as well as a $7 lunch box; what you are saying is that you like Donny Osmond and want your luncheon companions to know that, and it’s worth $4 to be able to say so.

Back in the day, this was a primitive form of branding. The manufacturers of Ovaltine knew that children liked radio stories about Little Orphan Annie and so created mugs for drinking Ovaltine with pictures of Little Orphan Annie on them. Note that in the old days, these things related directly; Ovaltine provided mugs from which one could drink Ovaltine, and this is an elegant closed circle. It didn’t take long to figure out, though, that there were two ways in which this process could be made to pay. One is that the tie-in didn’t have to relate directly to the character; for instance, a Little Orphan Annie colouring book. The other is that sometimes it is worthwhile to create tie-in materials that are nearly worthless and give them to children (and credulous adults) as ways of cementing brand loyalty. Hence, the Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring. If you listened to the radio program and possessed a decoder ring, you would receive secret messages which you could decode — mostly, as I understand it, having to do with the advisability of drinking lots of Ovaltine. If you were a child who was not in possession of the ring, your ring-less status was derided by your friends and it was clear that you were not getting the full benefit of your fannish appreciation of Little Orphan Annie. Children who owned rings were au courant with the cultural zeitgeist, although I doubt they’d have expressed it that way. Either way, children drank more Ovaltine and more than repaid the cost of the nearly worthless rings.

As time marched on and branding became a more sophisticated process, the existence of tie-ins was a signal of a certain level of brand involvement by the parent company. The folks at Disney were the masters of such branding programs. When the very first sketches were being laid down for the first nascent ideas that were to become, say, The Lady and the Tramp — those sketches were also passed to the marketing department to get to work on Lady and the Tramp comic books and plastic toys and lunch boxes and colouring books and dozens of other things. And the number and extent of such tie-in materials signalled the level of investment that the parent company found worthwhile. Lassie and Dan’l Boone had huge ancillary marketing materials in hundreds of categories; a decade later, The Munsters and The Partridge Family took those numbers into the thousands. You could sleep on Munsters sheets and eat Munsters cereal from Munsters bowls, and carry your Munsters lunchbox home from school while wearing your Eddie Munster jacket, read a Munsters comic book, and play with your glow-in-the-dark Munsters toys and games, while signed-in-plate photographs of Butch Patrick and Yvonne de Carlo smiled down from your bedroom walls. There was no limit to the things upon which Munsters iconography could be stencilled — that is, until they went off the air and everyone had to have a Star Trek lunchbox. There’s no money in static branding.

And so I believe that the adults to whom brands and characters were marked with tie-in materials became accustomed to thinking of characters as the appropriate subject of tie-in materials. For something to be culturally significant, it had to be accompanied by tie-in materials; and this brings us finally back to Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street. As I said, there is really no reason for this volume to exist. It is a kind of cooing noise expressing pleasure at the idea of Nero Wolfe. But it was created, and marketed, as “A ‘must’ for any serious Rex Stout collection.” That’s an idea that deserves a little unpacking.

wolfe-plaqueWhat exactly is a “serious” Rex Stout collection? I’d venture to say that it’s one that is worth the most money. But I have been in the position of selling relatively worthless objects at hefty prices — like, for instance, first editions of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street — to people who didn’t want them for some pleasure that they’d receive by reading the book, but merely wished to possess a copy of the book so that they could say they owned one. So that, indeed, they could prove they had a “serious” collection. I think a “serious” collection can be paradoxically defined as the one that contains the highest number of frivolous objects. The less the object has to do with the original character, the more it’s only in the possession of the “serious” collector. The possessors of these serious collections are thoroughly convinced that the money they spent on acquiring them will be recompensed some day, perhaps by an envious younger person who will double or triple the price paid in order to acquire the tie-in object. But for an example of where that goes wrong, I give you (a) Beanie Babies; (b) the egregious and nearly worthless objects known as “collector plates”; (c) the entire output of the Franklin Mint. Did you pay $500 for a copy of a script from the original Nero Wolfe TV program, apparently annotated in Lee Horsley’s handwriting? Kiss your $500 good-bye, unless you can find someone with the same disease you caught; you may have to infect them personally with the importance and significance and sheer gravitas of such a scarce object.

As to why one would have a Nero Wolfe “collection” that consisted of anything more than novels written about Nero Wolfe — your guess is as good as mine. I confess to having owned a “Nero Wolfe” necktie that is vaguely orchidaceous, that I bought at the time of the Timothy Hutton TV series; it’s a nice tie, but I never wore it and gave it to my brother. I bought it because it was attractive, not because it was associated with the program. It cost me about twice as much as it should have. I have a copy of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street that originally sold for 75 cents; I paid $3 for it, and I would expect to get $5, possibly from one of my readers. That’s the used book business; old books are worth what they will bring from a knowledgeable reader. I paid $35 for a bootleg DVD of 1937’s The League of Frightened Men, because I wanted badly to see it; I wasted $35.

In fact, I actually really, really like the Nero Wolfe novels and stories; I’m well versed in their details and chronology. I’ve read every single one, again and again. I can quote chunks of them. But let me confess; I don’t care in the slightest how big the front room is, or how big the globe is, or the dimensions of the waterfall picture. I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t CARE. I like the characters, I like the writing, and I like the spirit and feeling of the books. But by and large, I can tell you — anyone who is trying to convince you that there is something called a “serious Nero Wolfe collection” is trying to take your money. I know this, because I have stood behind the counter of a mystery bookstore and sold people copies of this book, and the Cadfael Companion, and a twee little volume purporting to detail the Wimsey family history, and Agatha Christie tote bags, and Murder, She Wrote coffee cups, at a minimum of 100% markup and, frankly, whatever the traffic would bear. I did that so that I could afford to keep the store’s doors open to make copies of really good, well-written mysteries available to people who wanted to read them, but the people who manufactured the coffee cups have no such excuse.

I have no objection to getting together with like-minded people to discuss the novels and stories, as long as it doesn’t get too out of hand. Most members of organizations like the Wolfe Pack are sensible and intelligent bibliophiles who esteem the same fiction I do, and know the difference between a first edition in jacket of Fer-de-Lance and a TV script that Lee Horsley has scribbled on. In fact, some of my best friends, et cetera. I enjoy finding depths of meaning and a better understanding of American cultural themes and motifs in the books, and I enjoy discussing those things with other people. But if you come to me looking for my $3 paperback of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, I might take $5 but I’ll try to stick you for $12 — and I’m a relatively nice person. Other merchants will not be so kind, and you may end up with a sample of Lee Horsley’s handwriting at vastly inflated prices.

If you think you need to have a “serious Nero Wolfe collection” — try and understand that that really consists of fiction written featuring Nero Wolfe. Be well-read rather than “serious”; buy the novel and not the lunch box. And leave this book alone.

51pwNjGwcbL._SL500_SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My favourite edition

I have a first paperback edition that I skimmed to write this piece, and I’ve had and sold a number of copies of the first edition; since I always made more money from the true first, seen here, I suppose it would be my favourite edition. It’s certainly the one with the best graphic design of any I’ve seen. As of today on Abebooks, a decent copy should set you back somewhere around $25 depending on where you live. Beware of the BCE (book club edition), which looks quite similar but is relatively valueless.

My least favourite volume

I will add here that if you think I was hard on THIS volume, I reserve the utmost scorn and disapproval for a similar volume by one Ken Darby. William Baring-Gould was merely an enthusiastic fanboi before the term existed, albeit a literate and well-read one; Darby regurgitates the same material in worse prose and less exact detail and, to my enormous distaste, stops for a wholly unnecessary chapter to “prove” that any rumours that Messrs. Goodwin and Wolfe are gay are false and vile canards, and says a lot of nasty things about homosexuality in the process. Frankly, I’m gay and had never even considered such an idea; it’s directly contradicted over and over by the Stout-written stories themselves. I gather that the Darby book is out of print and relatively unavailable, and in my opinion it should stay that way, because the author was a vulgar and homophobic toad. I’ll decline to provide you with the title of this piece de merde or even to tag his name; let the book die in its well-deserved obscurity.

 

The Case of the Solid Key, by Anthony Boucher (1941)

The Case of the Solid Key, by Anthony Boucher (1941)

415BWWnlvBL._SL500_What’s this book about?

Under-employed playwright Norman Harker, fresh on the Hollywood scene, gets involved with a small semi-amateur theatre company, formed and financed by a group of actors to bring themselves to the attention of casting directors. His main interest is the lovely but mysterious ingenue Sarah Plunk, but he also wants to have his play produced under the auspices of managing director Rupert Carruthers and business manager Adam Pennworth. The company is currently working on a strange allegorical play called The Soul Has Two Garments, written and financed by famous and very nearly saintly Arctic explorer (but terrible playwright) Lewis Jordan. The experienced mystery reader’s ears will prick up when we learn that there’s a strange insurance policy in existence that pays $50,000 if one of the principals behind this awful play should die before the production is mounted.

Almost immediately, a horribly burned corpse is found backstage, alone in a room locked from the inside, apparently a casualty of an experiment in on-stage pyrotechnics gone wrong; Rupert Carruthers has spent the preceding days quarrelling with his associates and has a long history of gouging and swindling unsuspecting playwrights and actors, and everything points to an impossible murder. The door to the workshop where Carruthers has been working is locked with a very peculiar key; it’s one solid piece, which means to Lieutenant Jackson of Homicide (and amateur actor/detective Fergus O’Breen, part of the company) that no standard jiggery-pokery to hocus the door could have been possible.

Anthony Boucher

Anthony Boucher

Besides the company of actors, many of whom have suspicious backgrounds and motivations, the plot is complicated by the involvement of Lieutenant Jackson’s brother Paul, well-known movie star, and his screen partner (and “girlfriend for publicity’s sake”) Rita La Marr, whose sweater seems to contain her principal assets — and Fergus O’Breen’s sister Maureen, publicity agent at Metropolis Pictures, home of the Jackson/La Marr pairing. Is this well-known romance finally over — and why? And since everyone wants to be noticed by Metropolis, has someone hired well-known “ribber” Vernon Crews to impersonate an important person and get some publicity?

Finally Lieutenant Jackson, assisted by Fergus and Norman, works out what must have happened and brings the criminal to justice. In the process, a romantic pairing reaches a satisfying conclusion and many mysteries, large and small, are solved.

10122566014Why is this worth reading?

As I’ve noted elsewhere, anything by Anthony Boucher is worth reading. They named the world’s largest mystery convention after him — what else do you need to know? His specialty was locked room mysteries and/or impossible crimes. This is the third of four Fergus O’Breen mysteries written between 1939 and 1942, and taken as a whole, they are great work by this great mystery aficionado, prominent critic, and all-around polymath. Fergus O’Breen is brash and charming and devil-may-care; some of the characters are unusual and interesting; and the crime at the centre of the novel has a number of satisfyingly twisty interpretations before the detectives reach the correct conclusion.

In fact, as you can easily tell, I’m a big Boucher fan, whether he’s writing mysteries or science fiction or fantasy or radio scripts or criticism, at all of which he excelled. That being said — this is not his best work. But let me add, Boucher’s second-rate work is better than a LOT of other writers’ first-rate work. I’m not saying this is a bad book, merely that it isn’t as superb as most of his others.

There are a number of things wrong with the plot, most of which I can’t go into in depth because I will spoil your enjoyment. I’ll merely say that a handful of the characters are not easily distinguished one from the other because they’re rather bland; the central premise of the locked room isn’t all that gripping or indeed necessary to the plot; and if there is anyone who doesn’t figure out the “surprise” behind the Jackson/La Marr subplot before the book is half over, well, they should go back to Young Adult reading. A couple of the characters are petty squabblers, and it doesn’t seem that there is any reason for them to be so except that the book needs a little tension. And the character of Vernon Crews, perhaps the most interesting idea in this and other Boucher novels, is offstage, to the detriment of the plot. Crews is based on someone who actually existed in Hollywood at about this time; Vince Barnett was a bit-part actor who made more of a living from acting by being hired in real life to impersonate people or play preposterous characters so that wealthy Hollywood people could play elaborate practical jokes on each other. Now, THERE is the basis for a mystery I’d like to read some day.

There are a couple of other minor issues that niggled at me as I refreshed my memory of this book; I like the character of Fergus O’Breen, but he’s not much on view here because the viewpoint character is most often the bland playwright. And Boucher is well known for adding little snippets of side information that cast an oblique light on the plot; here, the excursions into other areas (such as the visit to an all-girl rooming house near the end of the book, or an amusement park) seem a little forced and artificially vivacious. The romantic sub-plot between the playwright and the ingenue is … sticky sweet and a little unpleasant, especially when you contrast Sarah Plunk with a sad alcoholic actress with whom she chums around.

There’s also a character in the book who is what we would call today gay and, as I remarked in my last piece on a Boucher book, this is unusual for the time and place. I can’t say exactly why I have a problem with this character for fear of spoiling your pleasure, but you’ll know by the end of the book what my issue is — I just cannot accept that he does what he does for the reasons that he gives. It’s an interesting take, but it doesn’t come together, to the detriment of the book. Similarly, Lewis Jordan is probably based on someone in real life, but he doesn’t ever actually come to life; he’s simply cardboard, which is a shame.

I wish Boucher would have taken a little bit longer with this book, or perhaps run it through one more draft before publication; the elements are here to produce a tremendous mystery but it doesn’t actually quite come together with the satisfying “click” that marks his best work. Nevertheless — a second-rate novel by Boucher is still a damn good mystery, and there’s an opportunity here to see a certain element of 1940s Hollywood society depicted by a brilliant writer who actually knew people like this. All four Fergus O’Breen novels are worth your time, even if this one should be fourth on the list.

8f6ed6d8fdef0d7e04a716cf440d2cd7My favourite edition

To the left is Popular Library #59 from 1945, a delightfully lurid cover of an early number from this ground-breaking publisher before they moved to their equally delightful “breasts and guns” themes in cover art exemplified by the great Rudolph Belarski (check out this cover). Other than the fact that there’s a key, I can’t figure out what the cover is intended to depict; it doesn’t appear to relate to the book at all, and I don’t really care. Look at those colours! A Near Fine copy of this early paperback will set you back $40 as of the date of this writing and I think I’d rather own this edition than the Simon & Shuster Inner Sanctum first, shown above (and today’s price for a Near Fine one of those is $400).

Also noteworthy — perhaps for different reasons — is the edition shown at the head of this review, Pyramid X-1733 from 1968, possibly the paper edition most commonly available. This is an entry in their “Green Door” series that could have used the linking device of the green door to great effect, except they’d apparently moved on by that point. So the front cover is merely ordinary. And I have to say, the back cover material intended to give you a taste of the book’s contents is simply and egregiously wrong, almost to the point of giving away the answer to the book. Although there are collectors of the Green Door series, and I’m one of them, if you don’t have a particular interest in this edition you should avoid it.

Miss Silver Comes To Stay, by Patricia Wentworth (1949)

Miss Silver Comes To Stay, by Patricia Wentworth (1949)

12173401128What’s this book about? Miss Maud Silver, retired governess and eagle-eyed private investigator — yes, really — goes to visit her old friend Cecilia Voycey in the country. A few days after she arrives in the village, however, James Lessiter, the unpleasant heir returning to come into the estate of the late Mrs. Lessiter quarrels with everyone in his vicinity and threatens them with various unpleasant consequences. As will be no surprise to connoisseurs of such behaviour, he is promptly murdered.

It seems as though everyone in the village has had an encounter with him in the hours before his death; as Lessiter’s heir, beautiful young Rietta Cray is suspected. There’s a beautiful middle-aged lady who has either been given or stolen some valuable furniture and knick-knacks from the late Mrs. Lessiter’s estate; Carr Robertson and his beautiful but empty-headed girlfriend Fancy Bell; and a host of minor characters from acidulous solicitors to talkative daily help, in sub-plots that range from blackmail to the whereabouts of a set of solid gold statuettes depicting the Seasons. Miss Silver must probe into both the social and economic relationships among all the players before bringing home the murder to a character whom the reader will probably not have suspected.

272355650Why is this worth reading?

In order to answer that question for this specific book, I need to talk about all the Miss Silver novels. You’ll understand as we proceed. I have a very large library of paperbacks that’s mostly stacked up in boxes in a spare room; occasionally I open a box at random and see what I find. The latest such box contained a heap of some 19 volumes of Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver novels, and I had an experience that was rather like a Netflix binge. I’d read all the volumes before, of course, but I arranged them in date order and waded in, stopping to acquire the ones I couldn’t find in E-versions, and read Miss Silver from start to finish. It’s been a very interesting experience; I had the opportunity to make some large-scale observations about how Wentworth’s writing works, and what exactly she was trying to do with the Miss Silver brand.

In the past I have written briefly about my admiration for Wentworth’s command of a very specific type of writing. In every book in the series of 32 volumes published between 1928 and 1961, the same tiny elements are always present, again and again. We have a tour of Miss Silver’s sitting room, with specific references to things like Victorian reproductions and the rich peacock blues of her curtains, and dozens of silver-framed photographs of children (of clients whom she’d saved from the gallows). We get a description of Miss Silver’s clothing in tiny detail, complete to the exact colour of the bog-oak brooch and her Alexandra fringe under her hairnet, the velvet coatee that she wears in draughty country homes at dinner. Miss Silver has what’s called a hortatory cough — she coughs to reprove people for impropriety at least once in every book. She quotes the poetry of Tennyson, and pretty much always the same quotes (“The lust for gain/in the spirit of Cain,” for instance). We know the name of her long-time servant, her relationship with her former pupil and now young Scotland yard detective, demi-aristo Randal March, and the names of Randal’s supervisor’s daughters, the three Lamb girls. We see Miss Silver knit in the Continental style, with the needles held low in her lap.  We see Miss Silver gently steering the lives of her two nieces, one “good” and one a flibbertigibbet who is a sore trial to her staid solicitor husband.  And this mass of tiny detail is repeated and accreted in every single volume, over and over and over again, sometimes with tiny changes as time moves forward. If you like this sort of thing, well, this is the perfect series. If you find it evidence of a lack of creativity, that’s your privilege (I’d beg to differ, but I understand what prompts the opinion).

10232794219Miss Silver generally has the same effects upon murder plots and characters, over and over. She pretty much always straightens things out so that a beautiful young woman (frequently with long caramel-coloured eyelashes and “good eyes”) can marry the man whom she has misunderstood, or about whom she’s heard lies, or who repents of having left her years ago, without the threat of one or both of them being arrested for the murder. Frequently she meets people of different social classes; every book has upper-class suspects and lower-class witnesses, pretty much, although there are frequent instances of lower-class villains. In every encounter, she uses her mastery of a specific social interaction — the manners which an elderly Englishwoman of middle- and upper-class expects of people with whom she converses — and exploits good manners to investigate crimes. If she encounters rudeness, or an unwillingness to cooperate, she either coughs or in extreme cases dismisses a certain kind of loose-moraled young woman from her presence. She wheedles information out of tongue-tied housemaids that is unavailable to the police; she manipulates the village network of gossip and clacking tea-time tongues to get a wealth of detail about who said what when and to whom, and what they were wearing at the time. Since she has the respect and admiration of higher-ups, lower-level officers have to obey her, not that they aren’t leaping to do so anyway since she solves more murders among the upper classes than the average Metropolitan squad in a year.

To me, this is the kind of book that is meant for a person who is relieving an experience of extreme youth; the delight in hearing a familiar story told in the same way, word for word, again and again. We all know of a child who must have the same book as a bedtime story over and over, and woe betide the guest reader who skips a page or gets a word wrong. I can’t explain what’s happening here in psychological terms, but I know it’s common and not pathological. It’s a yearning for the familiar, perhaps — a reassurance that some events are dependable and that no matter what horrible things happen, Miss Silver can step in and save the day, mete out punishment to the guilty, arrange it so that good people live happily ever after, and then vanish from the village tea-tables so that gossip will not continue to spread. So those are the stylistic considerations that have impressed me over the years.

My recent Silver binge, however, gave me a few insights that are struggling towards completeness; bear with me, but I have delved deeper than I’ve heretofore gone, and wanted to share my preliminary thoughts.

Foremost of what I no11333908397ticed was that — well, first you’ll have to accept that, generally speaking, Miss Silver novels are written for women readers. I think this is defensible; my experience behind the counter of a mystery bookstore leads me to believe that 90% of Miss Silver aficionados are intelligent middle-aged women (they appreciate the fineness of the language and a certain elevated air of social intercourse that permeates the novels, rather like Jane Austen). That is important as a premise, because my observation was that many of the plots involve situations where a woman is in jeopardy or difficulty. Again, not uncommon. But what I came to realize was that Wentworth has a trick of creating situations that a woman especially would experience as jeopardy, and she tells the story in a way that strikes a not wholly unpleasant fear into the hearts of women. In brief, she knows what would scare a woman and she knows how to tell that part of the story in a way that does scare a woman.

I might not yet have been precisely clear on this, but let me give an example sub-plot from the present volume. An upper-class woman whose husband has died and left her in reduced circumstances has been allowed to live in the Dower House on the estate of, as the story begins, the recently-deceased Mrs. Lessiter, her long-time friend. This woman (Catherine Welby) has become financially dependent upon the largesse of Mrs. Lessiter; a situation has arisen where Catherine has been allowed to use valuable and beautiful antiques to furnish the Dower House from Mrs. Lessiter’s holdings, over the course of decades. Catherine will maintain that these items were given to her; Mrs. Lessiter isn’t around to say differently. Many years ago, Mrs. Lessiter’s heir James was an unsuccessful bidder for her hand in marriage. Now, as Mrs. Lessiter’s estate is being settled, James reveals that his belief is that Catherine has stolen these items and is about to discover that she’s sold some of them to pay for her taste in luxuries. And he also reveals that he has located a memorandum in his late aunt’s papers that states that she loaned the items to Catherine. It seems as though he intends to ruin her, both socially and personally, by having her prosecuted for theft. But is he actually putting pressure on her to submit to his amorous desires? Perhaps luckily, he is murdered before we find out.

Now, I suggest this is the kind of thing that a woman really understands. Catherine herself regards her actions as merely what she needs to do to survive. (In a delightful moment that is very revealing of character, when confessing what she regards as her peccadillos, she says, “Well, a woman must dress.”). But it’s not so much that she’ll be prosecuted for theft, it’s that she will be socially ruined and may even have to submit to James sexually (although to be fair this is not more than glancingly suggested; she might marry him to prevent scandal).

Other volumes have woman-centred subplots that are equally feminine and bitter. One that stuck with me for a long, long time was a gentlewoman of advanced years who was starving to death and selling her furniture, piece by piece, to stay alive — but cannot bring herself to mention it to anyone or get social assistance. Another features a young woman who is under the thumb of her domineering mother, who wants to spend all the family’s capital on high living and fakes a heart attack any time the daughter’s lover comes close to marrying her. This is not the brutality of a James Hadley Chase, but perhaps, to a certain kind of reader, the prospect of devoting one’s life to one’s domineering mother until one’s marriage chances are over is a horrible situation that has echoes in her own life. This is not about being pistol-whipped, but I think Patricia Wentworth definitely understands the death of a thousand little cuts.

And so my main in6774817762sight is the presence of this type of plotting, which I think Patricia Wentworth does very well indeed. There is a frequent theme of women being constrained by social situations, social pressures and the niceties of keeping a good face on things, that results in women’s lives being wasted and ruined. But there are other recurring themes and even plot structures. There are beautiful young female orphans; some needy, some spiteful and vicious and greedy. There is a recurring theme of two beautiful young women, one of whom is “county” and beautiful but not striking, and the other is glamorous like an exotic poisonous orchid. A woman’s romance with a handsome young man is frustrated, again and again, by an elderly female relative. Men must marry money to maintain their ancestral estates, regardless of whom they love. A domineering woman controls the family’s money and ruins everyone’s lives. A lower-class woman marries the wrong man and is brutalized into committing crimes, or enabling them. Collections of family jewelry are responsible for multiple murders; family heirlooms and even hidden treasure troves are concealed and there is a deadly race to possess them. (And Miss Silver usually mentions the lust for gain in the spirit of Cain.) A foolish middle-aged woman contracts a romantic attachment to the wrong man. And one unusual theme recurs at least twice as the central premise of a book; if Wentworth tells us about a distinctive and striking garment, like the eponymous Chinese Shawl or a coat with a pattern of huge checks, the next person to borrow that garment is found dead after having been mistaken for its owner.

Again, I think this is the same sort of thing as the constant insistence upon the rich peacock blue of Miss Silver’s drawing room curtains. “A domineering woman controls the family’s money” and ruins everyone’s lives is a plot structure that recurs multiple times; partly because Wentworth knew that this plot would be understood and accepted by her audience, but also because it allowed her to ring a set of changes upon the basic structure and give a different answer each time. (Once, in a clever reversal, the domineering woman at the heart of the family is the only good character and trying to do right by her greedy relatives.) Wentworth understands that the very familiarity of the plot structure is one of the things that attracts her readers. A couple of times throughout her oeuvre, she has a character who is a writer of popular fiction, usually female; these characters casually mention the virtues of writing the same thing over and over.

There is a lot in the 32 volumes about the interaction of social classes, especially in the period immediately after World War 2 when such things were in upheaval in Britain. To be honest, that is more analysis than I’ve had opportunity to do, and it’s such a huge and complex topic in Wentworth, I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble since the reader could attain similar insights at less trouble by merely reading 32 novels. It’s clear that Wentworth is writing for a middle class audience, and flattering them by having it an implicit condition that the reader is familiar with the foibles and habits of the upper classes and despairing of the charming shortcomings of the lower classes. The novels document the poisonous interactions of upper-class families who have more airs and graces than capital, to be sure, but they also depict the painful gentility of the lower classes in attempting to get their children usefully married and established in useful and long-term careers like farmer or housemaid. And when the upper and lower classes intersect, it takes the middle-class Miss Silver — we are always reminded that she’s an ex-governess — to penetrate beneath the social conventions of upper and lower classes and find out the truth. Housemaids cannot reveal what they saw in the dead of night because they were canoodling with the butcher’s boy, and mother cannot know. Scallywag low-class men steal the savings of servant women by marrying them and buying a motor garage. And the young daughters of good families occasionally fall in with the wrong man and ruin their chances at marriage, or meddling mothers insist that their daughters marry men for money with whom they’re not in love. There are occasional partnerships between classes; a repeating theme is a middle-aged woman with a personal servant who is slavishly devoted to her needs (and this includes Miss Silver herself, who constantly takes pride in her housekeeper’s scones). But all classes have their good and bad, both characters and relationships.

There’s more analysis here, but there is so much going on that it will take a long time to consider the entire oeuvre and tease out the strongest strands. So when it comes to why is this particular volume worth reading; honestly, I think it is, if you enjoy the traditional gentle English village mystery with a not-especially-troublesome solution. Taken on its own, this is light and pleasant reading. But I cannot recommend this one volume without also strongly urging you to commit to … well, perhaps not all 32, but enough of a representative sample to let you understand exactly what Wentworth’s skills were and where her focus was constantly applied. One book is interesting, but all 32 form an enormous portrait of social change, changing circumstances, wealth and poverty and gentility and criminality. And all focused around an ex-governess of exquisitely rigorous gentility with a mind like a steel trap.

My favour8899446171ite edition

To the great dismay of some, I seem to have a particular fondness for a peculiar paperback design concept — one with photographic illustrations of the corpse, posed with a model as the deceased would have been found. I can’t explain it; perhaps it’s something to do with my affection for the level of cheesiness in general in paperback design from about 1939 to 1990. I love the lurid, and having a real person painstakingly posed as a corpse — delightful. Coronet has produced one of my favourite editions of this style in a uniform edition of Wentworth from the 1980s, and while some are disappointingly banal, others are quite exciting examples of good design coupled with that enjoyable concept. The cover depicted here, in shades of green with brown and red accents, has a composed rectangularity that is not often found in designs of this period and I think it’s one of the best of the series.

Note: I have been detected in an error by a sharp-eyed lady in my Golden Age Detection Facebook group, Carolyn Bean, and have corrected a description of the relationship between two characters. I can only say it’s the effect of reading great heaps of these novels one after the other; after a while every handsome young man’s relationship with a beautiful young woman kind of blurs together. Thanks, Carolyn, and I appreciate your mentioning it; my apologies to my readers for the slip-up.

october-8-challenge-chart1October 8 Challenge

I’ll be claiming this post as an entry in my own October 8 challenge; the lower right-hand corner, a group of novels that spans the 1920s to the 1950s.