The Monogram Murders, by Sophie Hannah (2014)

The Monogram Murders,  by Sophie Hannah (2014)


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

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

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

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

About this book:

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

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

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

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

monogram-murdersheaderWhy is this book worth your time?

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

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

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

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

Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life (1978)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes for the Collector:

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

6a00d8342fd07e53ef0134878f90b5970c-800wi

Anthony Boucher

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

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

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

About this book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this book worth your time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

807072190Notes for the Collector:

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

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

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

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

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Cue For Murder, by Helen McCloy (1942)

Cue For Murder, by Helen McCloy (1942)

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

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

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

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

About this book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

n246275Why is this book worth your time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

thNotes for the Collector:

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

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

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

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

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The Tall House Mystery, by A. Fielding (1933)

The Tall House Mystery, by A. Fielding (1933)

Author: Possibly the most interesting mystery connected with this novel is the identity of A. Fielding, sometimes A. E. Fielding. Many sources give the A. as standing for Archibald, but there is also a body of opinion that suggests that Lady Dorothie Mary Evelyn Moore, nee Feilding (note the spelling difference), is responsible. This material would seem to suggest that Lady Dorothie cannot be the author — her grandson agrees that it’s not possible (see the comments section of the previous post linked in the first paragraph). Eminent mystery critic and blogger Curtis Evans suggests here, not entirely seriously I think, that since Lady Dorothie and Agatha Christie lived in the same street at the same time, Dame Agatha may have published under this pseudonym. I think it’s possible we’ll never know; your guess is as good as mine. Curtis Evans sums up the available evidence well and his article is worth your time if you’re interested.

imagePublication Data: This novel is in the public domain, at least for this Canadian, and I found a digital facsimile copy at Hathi Trust Digital Library, here.  The cover page, which I have reproduced for your visual interest since so few editions are available to show you, tells me that A. L. Burt published this book by arrangement with H. C. Kinsey & Co., another American publisher. No copies are available for sale that I could find on the Internet, at least of any edition prior to 2014. Below you will find a copy of the cover for a print-on-demand edition from CreateSpace under an imprint of “Resurrected Press”.

About this book:

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

As is so often the case, the romantic involvements of a beautiful young woman drive this mystery. Miss Winnie Pratt, who today would be called a debutante, is being introduced to society under the guardianship of her mother, Mrs. Pratt. Winnie is an extraordinary beauty and has attracted the attention of many eligible bachelors. When she expresses a desire to stay “in town” in “a really old house with genuine period furnishings”, one young man finds a way to make that happen. A young solicitor, Moy, has a client who has such a furnished house for rent for a short period. The house is in Chelsea and is spoken of as having housed Angelica Kauffman and with a ceiling possibly painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which would make it approximately from the period 1760 to 1780. Apparently there are enough bedrooms on a single floor to house the party, so that the troupe of servants hired as a group from a vacationing householder will not be unduly stressed.  Moy has plans for himself and four other young men to rent Tall House each for a week and host Mrs. and Miss Pratt as their guests. The five renters include Moy, the very wealthy Mr. Haliburton, the silent and vaguely creepy Mr. Tark, mathematician and scientific writer Charles Ingram (whose half-brother Freddie is involved, but not as a renter), and Charles’s university roommate Gilmour, a civil servant. Charles and Haliburton are the principal suitors for Miss Pratt’s affections and the others are involved out of what might be politeness, or a sense of fun. Ingram is a well-known writer and expert on, among other things, codes and cyphers; Haliburton is enormously wealthy, and either will be a good match for the lovely Winnie.

When the party begins, Mrs. Pratt soon reveals that her preference is for her daughter to marry Haliburton and his money, rather than Ingram and his brains, and she asks Gilmour to stop encouraging Ingram’s pursuit of Winnie. Gilmour tells her that he himself has fallen in with the house rental in order to have a place to bring his own intended bride, Alfreda Longstaff, under the chaperonage of Mrs. Pratt; he hasn’t known Alfreda well or for long, but he tells Mrs. Pratt of his hope to marry her. Mrs. Pratt agrees to chaperone Miss Longstaff and gives Gilmour the impression that she is determined that Winnie’s marriage shall bring Haliburton’s money to Winnie, apparently because it is badly needed. Meanwhile, Ingram is working away furiously but secretively on his latest manuscript, some sort of mathematical or code-related treatise.

largeAs we meet Alfreda Longstaff, she reveals herself to be quite a different character than the beautiful but somewhat dim Winnie. Alfreda feels she is wasting away in her rural surroundings and longs to have a career of some sort. She’s also rather more displeased with the attentions of Gilmour than this gentleman knows. Apparently he came to rural Bispham and attracted her attentions for a month, then vanished without word. When he reappears abruptly some time later and announces his intention to marry her, she appears to agree — anything to escape Bispham! — but her internal monologue tells us that she is galled at having been ignored for so long and doesn’t really love Gilmour. Instead, since she has recently met a London journalist on the golf course, she wants to somehow find a “scoop” and thereby wangle a newspaper job. She tells Gilmour that she’ll stay with him at Tall House but promises nothing except to come to town for a fortnight.

Gilmour tells his fellow members of the rental syndicate about his affection for Alfreda and that he expects to marry her; Gilmour is apparently not picking up on the firm line of Alfreda’s mouth and the subtext that is clear to the reader, and we expect a future disappointment for Gilmour. Ingram’s half-brother Frederick is revealed to be short of money and is coming around to touch Charles for a fiver (and has done so on frequent occasions); Ingram also supports his brother-in-law Appleton, a former actor, in minor ways.

The house party’s mood is not enlivened by Alfreda’s arrival; indeed, the reader learns that Winnie is actually jealous of Gilmour’s obvious affection for the athletic but relatively unlovely Alfreda, and unaccountably means to encourage Gilmour’s attentions (much to the horror of her mother, since Gilmour has only his civil service salary). Alfreda, meanwhile, is engaged in a mysterious errand that involves her masquerading as a Miss Grey at a boarding house in Hammersmith and scraping acquaintance with a large middle-aged lady named Mrs. Findlay by pretending to be interested in Mrs. Findlay’s passion for disarmament. Mrs. Findlay is dubious, thinking that perhaps Alfreda is interested in a sum of money into which Mrs. Findlay has recently come, and asks the landlady to cooperate in helping her to avoid Alfreda.

A week after the arrival of Alfreda, the house party begins to discuss ghosts one night and it is revealed that Tall House, like many such antique homes, is said to be haunted, although by whom and for what reason is not mentioned. Gilmour reveals that if he sees a ghost he is likely to shoot at it since he had an unfortunate childhood experience with someone dressing up as a ghost, and ever since has been infuriated by ghost-related pranks. Of course, as the reader by now expects, a shot rings out in the middle of the night. Gilmour is found with a gun in his hand and dead on the floor nearby, wound in a sheet, is the mathematical Mr. Ingram.

Gilmour immediately reveals that he thought his pistol was loaded with blanks, before the arrival of Inspector Pointer. Alfreda also tells Gilmour that she cannot now marry him, much to his surprise, and she immediately races to a telephone to phone in the scoop to her newspaper friend. Now, at this point, I’ll be much less specific about plot developments; I think it’s likely that you will enjoy reading this book and I don’t want to spoil its surprises for you. I will say, though, that experienced mystery readers will immediately discount Gilmour as having been set up by a clever murderer; the fact that the bullet hole in the sheet around the deceased Ingram is in a very odd orientation will add to your suspicions. Added to which, it seems as though everyone in the house is searching for some mysterious slips of paper that Ingram had produced in his work, and we haven’t been told much about why. Two are found with some mysterious columns of words on them, “VON/OF/DE” and “HELL/LIGHT/CLAIRE”. Another slip appears to be a shred of cheap wallpaper. But the search for more slips of paper continues, even after all the secret compartments sewn into Ingram’s clothing are found empty. The value of various of the slips of paper becomes apparent two-thirds of the way through the book; it’s not exactly a red herring, but it won’t take you to the solution. Only a very, VERY careful reading of what people say to each other, and whether it is attested to or confirmed by others, will do that.

The clues take the clever Inspector Pointer to various London locations and eventually to a casino on the continent, but it is a small out-of-the-way cottage that reveals another corpse and an exciting finish, where Pointer must knock out a disguised murderer before a third life is lost.

41ykquzHhtL._SX200_Why is this book worth your time?

I’ll be honest and say that my expectations of this volume were not high. Although I hadn’t read a Fielding mystery before, I’d been told that they were from the Humdrum school so well represented by its foremost practitioner, Freeman Wills Croft. I rather felt that, had Freeman’s novels been truly superior examples of the kind of thing that Crofts did so well (an investigation by a police officer doggedly tracking down the clues to a surprise ending), they would have survived and been more enthusiastically reprinted. An eminent critic and the world’s expert on Humdrum mysteries, Curtis Evans, reviewed two Fielding mysteries earlier this year and gave them only faint praise (his reviews are here and here and his speculations about Fielding’s identity are linked in the first paragraph of this post), as does another recent review found here of this specific volume.

But as I progressed through the pages, I found myself quite charmed by the writing. I like to read mysteries of this vintage as much for their explication of the social background of their period as for the puzzle, and I found myself interested in both. The puzzle aspects are frequent and enigmatic. When I mentally lined up the slips with the mysterious words, I found that the phrases “Light of” and “Claire de” popped out at me, and this is precisely the sort of deduction that I enjoy making in the course of reading an old mystery. What they meant wasn’t clear to me until much later, but I was looking for connections with the word “moon” furiously for the remainder of the novel. There are similar puzzle aspects, little clues dropped here and there that, at a distance of 75 years, it’s obvious are meant to confuse and mislead. Mysterious slips of paper, secret pockets, Alfreda’s mysterious activities with the perhaps-disguised Mrs. Findlay — these are the puzzle aspects of old mysteries that I find charming and enticing, and there are plenty of them here.

The other part is the social history background, and again there is plenty here. It is difficult for us to realize at this remove that, in 1933, crossword puzzles were such a new phenomenon that newspapers used crossword competitions to boost circulation, and offered prizes of £2,500 at a time when you could live on the proverbial £50 a year that impoverished young women were always seeking to improve in mysteries of the period. This is rather like the potential to win a million dollars by competing on Survivor, and perhaps it’s the re-valuing of the pound that makes it less obvious to today’s reader, but this is very serious business. What would you do to win a competition that yielded 20 or 25 years’ salary? Similarly, the plight of Alfreda, whose parents cannot afford to educate her for a trade and must merely hope that she marries well, is hard to understand but interesting. The quest for financial independence is a theme throughout this book — the victim’s relatives who touch him for a fiver (doesn’t sound like much, but again, look at it in terms of £50 a year), Mrs. Pratt’s desperation for Winnie to marry money, and some of the underlying motives for the murderous actions that I think it’s better that I don’t tell you. Also there’s the underlying situation — five single men who rent an old house and fill it with servants (and give a couple of balls) simply to amuse a beautiful woman whom a couple of them hope to marry? That’s not the way we do things in the 21st century, and I rather doubt it’s the way most people did things in the 1930s. But it’s quirky and intriguing and a good story hook, and I enjoyed the clever mind that thought of it.

Other commentators have remarked that Fielding is a sloppy writer who will sacrifice a lot of believability for the sake of a tricky and surprising ending. I have to say that although I have noticed sloppy writing in a couple of other Fielding novels that I’ve read recently, courtesy of Hathi Trust, this one didn’t especially annoy me at any particular point. Yes, some of the plot twists are unbelievable, but to me the plot twists were no more difficult to accept than, say, the “Ruritanian romance” plots of  E. Phillips Oppenheim or the wild adventures of Edgar Wallace, both from about the same point in time. Fielding wasn’t necessarily trying to be believable, but to amuse, and — I was amused. I was certainly surprised by the ending, and that is not an experience I have often with detective fiction … the identity of the murderer was actually a surprise to me, and I felt instinctively a rather fair one. Perhaps I’m credulous; perhaps I was reading too quickly. Perhaps my ability to suspend my disbelief has grown greater over the years. Perhaps I was fooled by my generally low expectations into thinking that because certain characters were depicted as socially unattractive that the plotting habits of the period would also reveal them to be criminals. But after decades of mystery-reading and thousands and thousands of books, I’m not often fooled, and I was fooled. And I enjoyed it! I’m not saying that this is a puzzle plot with the skill and depth of, say, Anthony Berkeley. Once I realized how I’d been fooled, I went back and looked and found it wasn’t — well, not 100% fair play. You have to be paying very close attention to see how the author works the trick, and it’s a question of a tiny shift of viewpoint that’s very subtle. But I’m someone who has failed to be fooled by everyone from Carolyn Keene to Agatha Christie, and if it takes a little unfair play for me to have the rare and enjoyable experience of being fooled, I’ll concur.

I think you might enjoy this novel if you’re an experienced reader of detective fiction; paradoxically, I think you won’t manage to enjoy it as much if you are a newbie, although you’ll definitely be fooled by the ending. It’s not a great mystery, but it has charm and some skill, it’s an interesting period piece and I liked it.

Notes for the Collector:

As I noted above, I cannot locate a copy of this novel available for sale other than a print-on-demand edition from 2014. And, of course, it is available for your reading pleasure on the internet from Hathi Trust. I did a brief search for other Fielding novels from the 1920s and 1930s and found that, as usual, condition and the presence of a jacket will lift these novels from the $15 range to perhaps the $70-$90 range. I must say that the jacketed copies I’ve seen of various Fielding novels seem to me to be aesthetically very pleasant and much above the general range of contemporaneous jackets; really very pretty work with good design and colours that may have faded over time but are still attractive. If you want a reading copy, well, it’s free. If you want a collectible copy, good luck finding one.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1933 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; third under “N”, “Read one book with a size in the title.” I am not myself a “Tall” but I’ll claim it as a clothing size almost out of desperation. I have to confess I have been stymied by this category and up until recently was entirely unable to think of a qualifying novel; I am indebted to Linda Bertland, writing at Philly Reader, for having reviewed it before me to fall under the same category in the same challenge. Ordinarily I try to select books for review where I can show you a number of editions, but “Needs must when the devil drives.” My apologies for the lack of visual references.

vintage-golden-card-0011211

 

PVR Overload!

watching-tvIt’s been a little bit more than a year since I got my first PVR, and in my usual way I’ve managed to fill more than half of it up with stuff that I’m absolutely sure I’m going to review “real soon now”. Unfortunately the backlog is such that I think I’m going to merely do one big recommendation, just in case you find some of these items passing by in your television feed and a brief recommendation will tip the balance, or perhaps get you to add a title to your Netflix list (I don’t have Netflix; I have boxes of DVDs LOL).

I should mention that these films have all been on Turner Classic Movies since March 2013. If you don’t get TCM and you like old mysteries, this might be a good investment for you; TCM is not reluctant about re-running movies once every year or so. I liked all these films enough to hold onto them in the hopes of reviewing them someday; I will suggest that any of them will fill an idle hour, although your mileage may vary. I’m one of those people who enjoys bad movies but I understand that that taste is not universally shared.

Ricardo-Cortez-and-June-TravisCHere’s what about 40% of my DVR’s storage capacity looks like:

  • Three Perry Mason movies with Warren William: TCOT Howling Dog (1934), TCOT Lucky Legs (1935), TCOT Velvet Claws (1936).  And with Ricardo Cortez, TCOT Black Cat (1936).
  • Murder on the Blackboard (1934), and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935); Hildegarde Withers mysteries with Edna May Oliver. Murder on a Bridle Path (1936) with Helen Broderick as Miss Withers. The Plot Thickens (1936) and Forty Naughty Girls (1937), featuring ZaSu Pitts as Miss Withers
  • The Thirteenth Chair (1937); Dame May Whitty plays a spiritualist who solves a murder.
  • Detective Kitty O’Day (1944) and Adventures of Kitty O’Day (1944), where Jean Parker plays the titular telephone operator at a hotel who solves mysteries with her boyfriend, Peter Cookson.
  • The Death Kiss (1933): Bela Lugosi is top-billed but only supports this story about an actor who’s killed while on set shooting a movie called “The Death Kiss”. I love backstage movies where the real camera pulls back to reveal a fake camera and crew shooting the movie within the movie!
  • Having Wonderful Crime (1945): Pat O’Brien as J.J. Malone and George Murphy/Carole Landis as Jake and Helene Justus in a story based on a Craig Rice novel. And Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone (1950), where James Whitmore plays J. J. Malone and, the script having been changed from Hildegarde Withers, Marjorie Main plays the earthy Mrs. O’Malley. (Her novelty song is worth the price of admission alone.)
  • After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), and The Thin Man Goes Home (1944). Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy).
  • chained-for-life-3Chained For Life (1952): Real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton have a vaudeville act, but when one murders the other’s husband, they both end up on trial. Yes, seriously. They sing and dance, not very well. The kind of movie that it sounds like much more fun to watch than it actually is, unfortunately.
  • The Dragon Murder Case (1934), with Warren William as Philo Vance; The Casino Murder Case (1935), with Paul Lukas as Vance; The Garden Murder Case (1936), with Edmund Lowe as Vance; Calling Philo Vance (1940), with James Stephenson as Vance. And The Kennel Murder Case (1933), with William Powell as the best Vance of all.
  • The Murder of Dr. Harrigan (1936), with Kay Linaker as the multi-named Sarah Keate (in this case, Sally Keating — from the Sarah Keate novels by Mignon Eberhart). Ricardo Cortez as the love interest.
  • Sherlock Holmes (1922), starring John Barrymore in the famous silent.
  • Miss Pinkerton (1932), with Joan Blondell as a sleuthing nurse from the novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
  • Guilty Hands (1931), wherein Lionel Barrymore kills his daughter’s sleazy boyfriend.
  • The Scarlet Clue (1945), with Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan investigating a murder at a radio station.
  • before d 1Before Dawn (1933), a good old-fashioned Old Dark House film with Stuart Erwin and Dorothy Wilson as a beautiful young psychic.
  • We’re on the Jury (1937), with Helen Broderick and Victor Moore as jurors on a murder case who comically take the law into their own hands.
  • The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), with William Powell and Jean Arthur as a sleuthing couple.
  • Welcome Danger (1929), a comedy with Harold Lloyd investigating murders in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
  • They Only Kill Their Masters (1972), with James Garner as a small-town lawman solving a murder with the help of veterinarian Katharine Ross.
  • Seven Keys to Baldpate (1935), starring Gene Raymond in another remake of the Earl Derr Biggers thriller.
  • Lady Scarface (1941), with Judith Anderson chewing the scenery as a cruel mob boss.
  • Fast and Loose (1939), with Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in one of the “bookseller” trilogy, each of which featured a different pair playing Joel and Garda Sloane.
  • The Verdict (1946), with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre solving a mystery in Victorian London.
  • Secrets of the French Police (1932); Gregory Ratoff is a mad hypnotist who runs a scam with Gwili Andre as the bogus “Tsar’s daughter”.
  • moonlightmurder1Moonlight Murder (1936), with Chester Morris taking time off from being Boston Blackie to investigate a murder case during a performance of Il Trovatore at the Hollywood Bowl.
  • Nancy Drew, Detective (1938), with Bonita Granville as the plucky teenage investigator.

Are any of these cherished films for you — or are any of them over-rated? Your comments are welcome.

 

 

Murder at the Pageant, by Victor L. Whitechurch (1930)

Murder at the Pageant,  by Victor L. Whitechurch (1930)


2359830847Author:
 Victor L. (Lorenzo) Whitechurch was a mystery writer and a clergyman with the Church of England who, at the time of writing this novel, was about to retire at the age of 62 as “Rural Dean of Aylesbury”. Many authorities cite him as Canon Whitechurch, especially in the context of his religious writing, which doesn’t seem to have made up a large part of his writing output. He is principally known for a volume of stories called Thrilling Stories of the Railway (1912) and his series detective, eccentric vegetarian exercise fanatic Thorpe Hazell. Whitechurch is certainly acknowledged to be a minor but worthy writer of Golden Age Detective stories by authorities such as Ellery Queen (Thrilling Stories of the Railway is a Queen Cornerstone volume)

Publication Data: The first edition of this novel is from Collins Crime Club (UK), 1930, and an early US edition is from 1931. There were a couple of early reprint editions; then the book went out of print, as near as I can tell, until the mid-80s, when Dover did a reprint (my understanding is that Dover would only reprint mysteries if they were in the public domain or very, very inexpensive) and Greenhill Books also did a small-format hardcover, pictured nearby. As far as I know, there has never been a mass market paperback edition.

About this book:

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

Sir Harry Lynwood is the Lord of Frimley Manor and has agreed to a kind of aristocratic party game. He and his many houseguests don expensive costumes and re-enact a visit from Queen Anne to Frimley Manor in 1705. Mrs. Cresswell plays the Queen and her well-known necklace of enormous pearls plays a great role in the re-enactment, which also involves “the Queen” being carried in an antique sedan chair from the front gage of the estate to the steps of the Manor. The house party (and a sprinkling of upper-class locals) enjoys itself immensely, dines and retires. But in the middle of the night, two people are seen to be carrying off a dying man in the sedan chair. They flee when discovered; the man in the sedan chair gasps out the words “The … line …” and dies in the arms of Captain Roger Bristow, who used to be with the Secret Service and apparently specializes in solving mysteries. (To the best of my limited knowledge, this is his only appearance.) Captain Bristow soon combines his talents with the considerable investigative abilities of Superintendent Kinch to take on the twin crimes of the unidentified dead man and the theft of Mrs. Cresswell’s necklace.

9910380328The investigative team proceeds in a fairly straight-line way to dig into the crime, pick up tiny clues like a scrap of gold lace and the contents of the side pockets of a stolen and abandoned car, interview and re-interview witnesses, and bring the crime home to the criminals. There are not really any false trails or red herrings, although there are certainly a couple of people who begin the story as suspects and end it exonerated. The investigators continue to narrow the circumstances of the crime such that only one person who was legitimately in the house that night can have been responsible for a good part of the criminal activity. That person is accused and becomes determined to confess everything in order to get revenge on the other guilty party, and that person’s identity and complicity in the crimes. The dying man’s final utterance turns out to have been significant to solving the crime but not determinative of its answer — in other words, if the dead man’s speech had been completely understood, half the crime might have been solved but not all of it. The final lines of the book reveal that an assumption under which the investigators have been labouring is, amusingly, not quite what they thought it to be — but the crimes are solved and everyone is happy.

2300655Why is this book worth your time?

I’ll suggest that this early example of the Golden Age mystery is certainly worth your time, mostly because it has a considerable amount of what I can only call “charm”. It is gentle and subtle; all the violence is off-stage, and the investigators are courteous and polite to the suspects. It is, in fact, in an old-fashioned way, “gentlemanly”. This is a book written by an old-fashioned gentleman for an audience of old-fashioned gentlefolk, with nothing untoward, nothing really unpleasant, and the social order is restored in the end.

I have to admit that, as I was reading it, I kept thinking, okay, surely something is going to happen. But — no. The modern reader will be surprised to find that there are no false trails. There are not two criminals working at cross-purposes to commit different crimes; there is no innocent party who has his or her own agenda and who is muddling the trail. No red herrings, no false clues, no embarrassing little secret that an innocent party is working to conceal. Nothing of what I call the “B-plot”. In fact the gentry kind of hang around and wait to be questioned, more or less; they don’t do much when they’re not in the library being asked polite questions by a polite investigator. All we see is chapter after chapter of the investigators looking into a particular clue and making arrangements to investigate it in more depth.

The modern reader will also be surprised to find that there is very little in the way of characterization in this novel. The author does not try to work on our feelings by unjustly accusing an obviously innocent person. Well — okay, just a little. The Vicar’s scapegrace nephew and a young woman staying in the house are both suspected. The young woman immediately leaves the reader’s consciousness as a potential suspect; first, because the author has not troubled to give her any kind of distinct personality, and second, because the investigators so obviously do not believe she is guilty. They must consider her guilt because it’s their job to do so, but you can tell they don’t believe that a “nice” upper-class girl such as Sonia could have done anything criminal in the slightest. And for some reason the Vicar’s nephew falls into the same category; we learn that although he has been rascally in the past, he has turned over a new leaf and was in the process of doing so the night he borrowed the Vicar’s car without permission. But it is just as clear that they have not really suspected him.

In fact, all the criminals come from the servant classes and their associates. This will come as something of a surprise to the devotee of the country house mystery, who is accustomed to upper-class matrons or retired colonels who commit desperate crimes because of an early unsuitable marriage or enormous “bridge debts”, but in this case, since the house party’s members merely stand around and wait for the investigation to be over, it’s clear to the reader that we must look elsewhere for the guilty party. The only person who actually has a distinct personality is Mrs. Cresswell, the owner of the stolen pearls, who is depicted as someone by whom others are amused; she is vain and takes every opportunity to show off her heirloom necklace. The investigators consider the possibility that Mrs. Cresswell has done something for the insurance money, etc., but they just can’t accept it (to be fair, there are motivations portrayed in the book for it to not be unreasonable; they are family heirlooms, etc.). The dead man actually does sound like he might have been an interesting character, a kind of shady but upper-class private investigator, but we don’t really get a chance to see him in action. Dead, you know. And devotees of the country house mystery are a bit baffled at about the one-third point of the novel because they are being given no one at whom to look — no one to suspect because she’s obvious — no one to suspect because he’s not obvious. Everyone in this book is pretty much what they seem to be.

Essentially this is a murder in the course of a theft perpetrated by professional criminals, some of whom are masquerading as servants. And this was published in 1930, which may have been the last point at which the reading public would have been prepared to accept this solution. This book was published two years after S. S. Van Dine had published “Twenty rules for writing detective stories”, and one of those rules was #17, “A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story.” Admittedly Van Dine’s rule was addressed to the interaction of amateur detectives with amateur criminals; police officers could investigate professional criminals. 1930, though, is the very tail end of the public’s willingness to accept this as part of a puzzle mystery. In the literary realm of the “don’s delight”, the upper classes don’t really want to read about crimes committed by the servants, even if they are detected and punished.

I can certainly understand the suggestion that Whitechurch’s work would be very much in the realm of Freeman Wills Crofts. It’s reasonable to look at both these writers as being precursors of the police procedural; and these gentlemen frequently had professional criminals as their antagonists, whereas other writers had moved on to retired colonels with bridge debts, as it were. But there is a difference between Whitechurch’s style and Crofts’s, and it took me a while to see it. Crofts’ novels are interesting because Inspector French starts investigating a case by investigating the people; he interviews them at length, investigates their movements and activities, their personalities and households and associates. Yes, he investigates clues, but his style of mystery-solving involves consideration of various suspects and whether the clues fit them (and whether their alibis hold up). Whitechurch, on the other hand, doesn’t really have any suspects, only characters standing around. His police officers focus on clues; where they come from, their meaning, their implications. The police do police work like tracing down cars by their license plate numbers (there’s a charming moment where a senior policeman opines that two digits and four letters may not allow enough possible license plates for the huge increase in the number of autos on the road, the unspoken bit being that now automobiles are within the financial reach of upper middle-class people). They ask people questions, but it’s a little weird; it’s as if upper-class people weren’t allowed to lie, so the police just accept everything they say and try to find another way to make the clues reveal the criminal.

My research into Whitechurch indicated that he took great trouble to make sure that his books were accurate in the realm of how the police were represented; he went so far as to submit his works to Scotland Yard to ensure that everything was accurate. I actually did think it was interesting to learn how a police officer in the 1930s would have gone about looking for license plates that had been thrown into an unspecific ditch; what resources they would call upon, how they would plan, etc. But some of it seemed to me like a display of investigative technique without much actual relevance to the case they were solving. And some of the investigative technique misses the mark completely. The actual location of the pearls, for instance, is such that it’s just ridiculous that the investigators missed it. That’s because the pearls are needed for a “big reveal” at the end of the book — and heaven knows something is required, since the criminals are desperately anxious to reveal the entire criminal plot in great detail and don’t require much prompting once they’re caught. The discovery of the pearls, in fact, disposes of the only red herring that I had noticed that was not mentioned by the writer with any emphasis. Mrs. Cresswell’s husband is said to be fiercely protective of the pearls, restricting his wife from wearing them except upon ceremonial occasions and hiring detectives to protect them. However, he seems strangely uncaring about the pearls when they are stolen, and of course I immediately suspected that he may have had a hand in stealing them. On the last page of the book Mr. Cresswell reveals that the pearls in fact were replaced by him by paste copies, long before the theft, and he doesn’t care because they’re worthless. And the detectives share a little chuckle about how credulous Mrs. Cresswell has been. And honestly, don’t you think the police would have found that out a long, long time ago? So the focus on clues is only upon clues where the investigators can display policing skills that move the plot forward a little, but not actually solve the case or anything.

Crofts was the better writer because his focus on alibis kept the focus of the novel upon people, and it created a kind of breaking point in each novel. When French managed to discover exactly how the criminal had faked his alibi, bang! the book was at its climax and the criminal was immediately arrested. Whitechurch’s focus upon clues means that, at the three-quarter point of the novel, midpoint of act III, the police realize exactly what has happened with the theft and murder, but the people concerned — the professional criminals — have to explain out loud why things happened the way they did, or else it wouldn’t make any sense to the reader or the police. In fact, in this novel, one of the principal criminals is entirely off-stage until after the climax of the novel. Admittedly this is well foreshadowed in the earlier material, but it is very strange to the modern reader, who is accustomed to the shock of surprise at learning that the kindly old retired Colonel, who has been being a nice person in the background throughout the novel, has actually been desperate for money and committing criminal acts. Here, Whitechurch introduces us to the second person who was carrying the body in the sedan chair when he is shot by his accomplice on page 243. And really, I couldn’t tell you what his name is or what he looks like. I knew he had to exist, it’s just that he’s not really in the book. I think this was an acceptable story-telling method at the time, since people hadn’t really been writing detective stories long enough to know what worked and what didn’t. But I think it’s one of the reasons why Crofts has remained somewhat in print and Whitechurch has not.

In fact, on page 175 of my copy, one of the principals sits down and makes a list of people’s names so that he can hold them up against the facts one by one, if his instinct is true and the lovely Sonia is completely innocent, as everyone seems to assume. In a Freeman Wills Crofts novel, this might have been a hundred pages earlier; Inspector French needed a list of people so they could start investigating alibis. Crofts’ stories are quite complex; this is an easy straight line from start to finish; the police tell you everything they’re thinking as they go along, and they’re not all that brilliant.

So if you want to experience a kind of simple, entry-level detective story, with nothing too taxing and nothing hidden from you, this may well be a book you’ll want to pick up. I got a good deal of enjoyment from it, some of which was for reasons that had nothing to do with the plot. For one thing, my copy (from Greenhill Books, see below) was apparently reprinted by copying the actual pages of the first edition, and so I took a great deal of pleasure in the antique typography that you can easily tell was done with hot metal type on a Linotype. I’m funny that way; modern kerning pairs are fine, but there’s something naive and charming about hand-set type. It was a constant delight to my eye. Similarly the intricacies of merging a semi-colon into a double em dash … well, perhaps you won’t enjoy that as much as I did. But the antique standards of punctuation are there for you to enjoy if you can.

The other reason I enjoyed this is that it is the kind of book that modern-day readers think is the antecedent of the cozy. As I’ve said above, I think it’s more like the antecedent of the police procedural, but there’s just something about this book that is charming — it’s so gosh-darned nice. It’s nice that everyone respects police officers; it’s nice that people tell them the truth and try to help them. It’s nice that the investigators are old-fashioned upper-class gentlemen, investigating crimes among a group of people whose idea of a good time is renting an expensive costume and partying like it’s 1705. No one does anything immoral, no one is unkind or rude, and the most troubled person in sight is one whose vanity has made her a mild figure of fun. I truly think the modern cozy is quite a bit different from this; the modern cozy is more likely to rip the lid off a cesspool of suburban sin and crime. This is more like a police procedural against a background where everyone loves and trusts the police. Certainly a bygone era, but one that it’s pleasant to visit.

P.S.: I have to acknowledge that I received this handsome volume as a prize in a contest from my friend John, proprietor of an excellent blog at Pretty Sinister Books. I answered a bunch of difficult questions about children in the Sherlockian canon and this book was the result.  Thanks, John!

whitechurchpageantNotes for the Collector:

As near as I can discern from booksellers on the Internet, the first edition is green cloth and the “cheap edition”, later the same year, is in black (and a further edition in 1933 is blue). The first US edition is Duffield, 1931; an American Dover trade paper edition exists from 1987, and the edition shown at the head of this post is the attractive edition from Greenhill Books, 1985 (its “Vintage Crime Classics” line) that I read for the purposes of this post. It is a smaller-format hardcover; one dealer remarks plaintively that there is “heavy rippling to the laminate coating on the dust jacket” but I actually believe this is deliberate and decorative (or at least unavoidable); I found it gave the book an interesting texture.

It’s hard to say what a first in jacket would cost, since I couldn’t find one for sale. A first edition without jacket is about US$50. A first US from 1931, VG in a worn DJ, is about US$300 and this might indicate that a VG first in VG jacket would be perhaps $500. A nice copy of the first US without jacket is about $25.

If you merely want a reading copy, I’d pick up a secondhand copy of the Dover trade edition; it might not be pretty but it was made to last and it will hold its value. The Greenhill Books edition is more attractive but also more expensive; probably meant for libraries or collectors.

I am indebted to the folks at ClassicCrimeFiction.com for the ability to show you what the first edition jacket looks like, the deep green with the strong yellow accents; I acknowledge that the illustration of the jacket is theirs, and it’s the only one on the internet so I am showing it to you for scholarly purposes. Classic Crime Fiction are among the world’s most accomplished dealers in vintage detective fiction, especially British editions, and if anyone is ever going to have a crisp first edition of this volume available, it’s probably going to be them. I recommend you bookmark their site and check in every once in a while.

111204617822014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1930 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fourth under “O”, “Read a book by an author you’d never read before.” Ordinarily this would be difficult; I’ve tried at least one of every author you’ve ever heard of, as best I could, over a long career concerned with mysteries. However, I’ve had a close look at Canon Whitechurch’s output and to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never read any of his books before; if I have, I certainly don’t remember it. I remember having a facsimile edition of Thrilling Stories of the Railway pass through my hands but I don’t think I found it sufficiently interesting to plough through. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

vintage-golden-card-0011211

 

Last Ditch, by Ngaio Marsh (1977)

Last Ditch, by Ngaio Marsh (1977)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #007


last-ditchAuthor:

Ngaio Marsh, whose Wikipedia entry is found here. This volume is 29th in a series of 32 novels written between 1934 and 1981 featuring Inspector Alleyn of the C.I.D. in England. At the time of publication, Ms. Marsh — later Dame Ngaio — would have been 82 years old. (Her final book was published when she was 87.)

Publication Data:

The first edition is from Collins Crime Club, 1977. This novel has been continuously in print since its first publication, to the best of my knowledge, and a number of paperback editions have been widely distributed in both the United States and Great Britain: I am aware of at least a Dutch translation and there are almost certainly more. My review is based on an electronic edition of recent date; I own a couple of paperbacks but couldn’t lay my hands on them.

About this book:

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

6f141e67aa75ebe1c19d6cab332bb8beThis book was published 43 years, and 28 novels, after the first publication of an adventure of Inspector Alleyn. At this point we are reintroduced to Ricky, Mr. and Mrs. Alleyn’s first-born and only child, who was about five in Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954). Ricky has now graduated from university and intends to become a writer — of fiction, it seems, although of what sort is not made entirely clear. In order to allow himself some time and space to work on his book, Ricky has, during the “Long Vacation”, taken a rustic room in the fishing village of Deep Cove, on a small island on the far eastern coast of the UK, in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Ferrant and their son, young Louis.

How this situation came about was that Ricky’s parents, Inspector Alleyn and his wife, the celebrated painter Agatha Troy Alleyn, traveled on a sea voyage with a family called the Pharamonds, a moderately wealthy and somewhat outré family who live year round in Deep Cove for taxation purposes. Jasper, a mathematician, is the head of the family; his wife Julia is beautiful and zany, and their young daughters Selina and Julietta are somewhat undisciplined. Jasper’s young brother Bruno also lives in their large house, as do Louis Pharamond and Carlotta, his wife. Louis is an overly well groomed gentleman of leisure with unspecified business interests in Peru. The Alleyns learned that Ricky wanted to find an out-of-the-way spot in which to write, and they ask the Pharamonds to arrange it. Since Mrs. Ferrant does fine laundry for the Pharamonds, they know her and recommend her.

Also in the small village is a riding academy headed by Cuthbert “Cuth” Harkness and his niece Dulcie, a large-built young woman with wide-ranging tastes in sexual partners. Among them seems to be one Syd Jones, a New Zealand import who lives in a “pad” on the outskirts of town.  Dulcie is a talented equestrienne (Marsh’s word, not mine) and maintains the riding stables because Cuth is more interested in a local primitive Christian-esque religious movement of which he is the leading light. Syd does menial work around the stables and, as we later learn, is one of Dulcie’s sexual partners.

As the story begins, Ricky is being introduced to the limited delights of Deep Cove by the Pharamonds (and is instantly besotted with the married Julia). As they arrive at the stables, Cuth is in the process of ejecting Dulcie from his household, because she is both pregnant and uncommunicative about the responsible male. The Pharamonds spontaneously take Dulcie in and give her lunch and offer her a place to stay. Ricky leaves after lunch and encounters the repellent Syd, who invites him back to his pad. Ricky is surprised to meet Dulcie there.  Syd is, we learn, a painter with a great deal of opinion about his talent; Ricky’s mother, of course, is Agatha Troy, and Syd ends up scraping acquaintance because he supports himself by, we are told, offering free samples of a certain brand of paint to celebrated painters like Troy. In further travels on the tiny island, Ricky also becomes suspicious of his landlord, who appears to be too wealthy for a plumber and is doing something mysterious off the island, in private conference with the oleaginous Louis Pharamond. Some days later, Ricky has a run-in with Syd and accidentally steps on a tube of paint, to Syd’s enormous dismay. Syd has made an appointment to see Troy and offer her paint, and of course is dragging along his own crude work for her to see. Syd is ill, with what might be the after-effects of drugs, and Troy ends up feeding him lunch and introducing him to her husband, incognito as a CID officer.

Ricky is invited by the Pharamonds to go riding; immediately upon arrival, they learn that Dulcie has returned to her uncle’s home and they are fighting again. Young Bruno takes the opportunity to do a daring thing and jumps the stable’s prize horse over an extremely difficult fence, without permission or supervision; Cuth is scandalized at the potential for damage to his valuable horse and the family party rides away sedately. They ride off to a local pub some distance away and return in a leisurely way, only to learn that Dulcie has apparently ridden her own wild-eyed mount over the same difficult jump and been trampled and killed in the process.

The stage is now set for Inspector Alleyn to take a hand (having been kept informed of all relevant events by dutiful and frequent letters from Ricky); he wishes to investigate the death of Dulcie Harkness because the police force believes that Syd is involved in a drug-smuggling gang that is using his tubes of paint in order to transport quantities of “hard drugs” (either heroin or morphia). Before Alleyn takes a hand, though, Ricky decides on his own account to find out what Syd is up to and trails him to a nearby seaport, where he is discovered peeking at Syd through a hole in a newspaper by Mr. Ferrant, his landlord, who seems amused. After a violent thunderstorm, Ricky is pushed into the water between a boat and its dock and is very nearly killed.

Inspector Alleyn arrives and begins to investigate. Dulcie’s death, it seems, may have had something to do with a length of wire that may or may not have been stretched in a way that caused her horse to fall. Alleyn and Fox, though, are much more interested in drug smuggling and only seem to get to know the Pharamonds as interesting locals. Ricky continues to investigate on his own and is taken captive by Syd and Mr. Ferrant, who plan on exchanging Ricky’s continued good health for inactivity on the part of Inspector Alleyn and the police. Due to some cleverness of Ricky in the wording of the note he is compelled to write, the police soon figure out that he is at Syd’s, break in, and arrest Syd and Mr. Ferrant. They plan on more arrests in connection with the drug smuggling, but first all the dramatic personae have been bidden to a command performance at Cuth’s religious establishment. During another violent thunderstorm, Cuth preaches an incoherent and mostly inaudible sermon; the guilty party then rushes off and commits suicide. Syd, in need of a fix, implicates the main head of the drug smuggling operation, who promptly disappears. And Alleyn packs up his son and takes him home to his family.

6774801408Why is this book worth your time?

This book is not worth your time. In fact it’s not really worth having in the house, unless you have a wobbly piece of furniture that needs propping up with a book to be level. To paraphrase Monty Python, “This is not a book for reading. This is a book for laying down and avoiding.”

As to exactly how and why this is the case — well, there are three major problems with this book, in the general areas of plot, characterization, and writing. But the problematic overarching aspect is why this book exists in the first place. I propose to deal with the three large problems and then address the supervening issue of concept.

There are three elements that combine to produce the plot of this novel. The first is the drug-dealing/drug-smuggling efforts of Syd, Mr. Ferrant and Louis Pharamond; second, the activities of the riding stable and its denizens Dulcie and Cuth; and finally the actions of the Pharamond household.

I’ve recently remarked in the course of a review of Georgette Heyer’s Duplicate Death, found here, that Golden Age detective writers seemed to have a haphazard grasp of the economics and mechanics of drug smuggling. This book is a perfect example; what’s happened is that Marsh decided to have a drug-smuggling plot and invented the details of how one works — unfortunately without any reference to reality. Folks, this book was written in 1977. In 1971, “The French Connection” was showing people how drug smuggling actually works; literally, tons of drugs were being shipped into port cities disguised as shipments of canned vegetables or tanker-loads of liquid sugar. It was common knowledge that the economics of drug-selling on a large scale made it necessary for drug-dealers to find ways to bring huge quantities into their home countries; we’re talking 16-wheelers, airplanes and container ships devoted to drug smuggling, and tens of millions of dollars were changing hands in the process. And here, Syd Jones is transporting a quantity of drugs that would literally fit into a capsule — perhaps the size of a couple of cold capsules — inserted into the bottom of a paint tube and carried around by hand. In Heyer’s book, I remarked that her drugs were ten times too expensive, worked ten times as effectively, and is ten times as addictive. Here, the drugs are about a thousand times too expensive, being depicted in one-one-hundredth the quantity that would actually do anyone any good to smuggle, and the smuggling operation is being managed by people with a blithe disregard for any potential legal consequences. It’s all complete bullshit.

To begin; this mythical island is at the extreme eastern edge of Great Britain, close to the French coastline. No one in either country apparently bothers with more than perfunctory customs operations — bullshit. The head of this organization is apparently willing to stake his unincarcerated future on the transportation mechanism of having tiny capsules of drugs being hand-carried around by Syd Jones, who might as well be wearing a sign around his neck that says, “Evil Drug-Taking Hippie”. More bullshit. The economics of the situation require the ownership of an entire company that does nothing but produce artist-quality paints and pay someone to give them away to professional artists as a kind of promotional scheme. Great steaming PILE of bullshit; in fact, ridiculous bullshit. If you own a company that legitimately produces paint, and the economics of the situation are such that it’s cost-effective to insert tiny capsules of cocaine or heroin into the bottoms of some of the tubes — why on earth don’t you just ship the damn tubes of paint where you want them to be? If the British customs authorities are sufficiently stupefied as to ignore activities on an island just about within swimming distance of France, why would you expect them to be able to detect parcels containing drugs sent by a legitimate business? Everyone in this operation, in fact, is acting like a complete nitwit. The drug barons don’t kill Syd, which would actually be sensible; they try to kill an innocent bystander, Ricky, who might be getting too curious about their operation. Mr. Ferrant’s activities would undoubtedly be of great interest to anyone taking even a remote interest in the detection of smuggling and other such crimes; he travels around for no reason at all and spends far more money than would be available from his putative plumbing business. Yet someone who is depicted as an intelligent and promotable police officer, living in the same town for four years, Constable Plank — no idea. And no one even considers for a moment that his significant lack of acuity is due to his having been bribed or subverted. Bullshit. Meanwhile Louis Pharamond swans about in perfectly tailored riding clothes like some Colombian drug baron, with unspecified “business interests” in faraway Peru, and everyone just buys it. Bullshit, bullshit, BULLSHIT.

So the drug-smuggling plot is bullshit. Considering the riding stables — there is barely a reason why they would be able to economically exist. We see the Pharamonds and Ricky having lunch at a kind of resort which is like night and day to the village (it made me think of the playground of the wealthy in northern Sardinia as compared to the horrible reality of hardscrabble farming in southern Sardinia), so apparently visitors to the resort might like to go riding. But that’s not how I’d like to put my economic future at risk, on the off-chance that tourists might drop by. Nothing is said about transporting horses back and forth off the island (which would actually be a more useful way of transporting drugs) but a riding stable on an island is starting from a deep economic well; food, hay, tack, all has to be shipped in at some expense. In fact it’s clear to me that Marsh didn’t actually give this any thought. She wanted a riding stable to be there, so there was one, regardless of the economic circumstances that would have to be in place for it to exist. It is intimated that Dulcie is a good rider who could somehow compete, but she seems uninterested in anything except her wall-eyed horse, which is a motivator for the plot. In fact Dulcie is pretty much there to be a sex addict and get murdered. Cuth is there to be a non-specific religious nut. His motive for killing Dulcie is that she “revealed her nakedness to him”; this might actually have been a worthwhile subplot if Marsh had thought to mention it before Cuth kills himself. The entire riding stable subplot is just more bullshit.

And then we have the Pharamond family. They are certainly interesting and vivid characters, but what is their function in the novel? Not very much at all, unless you count their acting as protective coloration for Louis — but that’s supposed to be a secret. The key to their existence is revealed in the last sentences of chapter 8, where Julia Pharamond reveals that she is a Lamprey by birth. Ah, yes, the Lamprey family, subject of Surfeit of Lampreys (1940) and apparently so favoured by Marsh as examples of her characterization skill that she brings Mike Lamprey back in later books as a constable and here suggests that the Pharamonds are just Lampreys in disguise. Well, yes, the Lampreys/Pharamonds are vivid. But what they also are, in plot terms, is useless until required. They are zany and unpredictable, and Marsh apparently feels that this allows her to suggest that they’ll do just about anything, and that gives her convenient ways of moving the plot forward. (Young Bruno unaccountably decides to jump an impossible fence on a borrowed horse, which is his entire function in the novel.) Other than that, the entire family has nothing to contribute to the plot; they are, in fact, colourful background decoration.

So — all three major plot elements are just so much bullshit. What about characterization? As I’ve just noted, the Pharamonds are vivid and unusual and dramatic. But characterization is supposed to be contributing not only to the atmosphere but to the plot, to the design of the novel as a whole. They have to be real people with real motives and intelligence, and those motives and intelligence have to be merged with the activities of the plot in a realistic way. And in that sense, every character in this book is complete cardboard. Everyone in the drug-smuggling end is ridiculous, and acting against their own best interests in a way that serves the plot but not themselves. The Pharamonds are literally dragged in from a different novel where their cognates, the Lampreys, spend the whole book being giddy and witty and charming. (If you recall the original novel, the Lampreys actually have nothing to do with the murder plot as it all ends up.)  Marsh couldn’t be bothered to create a new family so she reworked an old one. Do you have any inkling of Jasper’s mathematical background? Neither do I, because all that happens is that Marsh says he’s a mathematician.  Cuth’s preoccupation with primitive Christianity and his raging alcoholism are his only personal characteristics — we don’t see him ride or manage the stables or do anything except drink and orate — which provides the motive for murder and the relaxed moral standard that allows it to happen simultaneously. In fact, everyone is said to have an occupation but no one ever does it in front of us. Most tellingly, Dulcie is implied to be a young woman of extreme sexual availability; what 1977 would have called a “nympho” and we in 2014 might describe as a “sex addict”.  She wouldn’t really have an idea of who the father of her child is. And yet is it not remarkable in the book that she leaves Ricky Alleyn completely unsullied by any sexual advance? Handsome upper-class young man, reasonably virginal, unaccompanied by a female partner — should be easy pickings for the voracious Dulcie. But she leaves Ricky alone. That’s because her nymphomania is the convenient kind that gets the plot going and then disappears.

The only people who are reasonably well-rounded and fully depicted characters, in fact, are Ricky and — that’s it, Ricky. The Alleyns are sketches to remind us of their previous appearances, Fox is almost off-stage, and everyone on the island is a cardboard phoney. And even Ricky has little in the way of fleshing out.  We know a little bit about his emotions, there is information about how he finds Julia Pharamond completely entrancing, but as a living human, he’s at least half cardboard. And for someone who is supposed to be likeable, I found him quite priggish and uptight. There are a number of descriptions of him writing, and we gather that he is writing a novel, but we know nothing about it. My experience of young men who are writing their first novel is that they will buttonhole complete strangers and bore them to exhaustion with the complete story of their work to date, but no, Ricky says nothing. I’ll say more about this in a moment, but for now just remember that even the most completely detailed character in the book is not quite as real as he could have been.

So far, the plot is bullshit and the characterization is cardboard. What’s left is the writing. Here, because Marsh has been doing this for 29 books, she has some tricks upon which she can fall back. Twice, Marsh embraces the pathetic fallacy and has an actual rainstorm start when trouble is brewing. There are occasional vivid turns of phrase, nice moments of description, cleverly-chosen descriptive words that give the reader a picture in an economical way. Mrs. Ferrant, for instance, is described as a blanchisseuse de fin, a fine antique phrase that sums up her work (and at one point we actually smell ironing, which is more believable than most of the characters get). “Ladies a basket” is a phrase that you must read the novel to grasp, but believe me, this phrasing is effective. There is a charming description of a painting upon which Troy is working that actually rings true; we have the picture of what she’s doing and we see it.

For the most part, though, the dialogue is awful and completely overwritten. Ricky’s internal monologue — which is necessary since for most of the novel he is alone and has no one to whom to speak aloud — is especially awful, ridiculous old-fashioned metaphors more suited to an elderly person than a young recent graduate. “Blow me down flat,” thought Ricky, “if I don’t case the joint.” Ugh. This is indeed slang, but slang from another day and time. There are a number of such instances, including Syd’s insistence on calling his home his “pad”, over and over again. I was about that age in 1977 and, believe me, the word “pad” never crossed my lips in any context outside of ice hockey. This might have been an appropriate locution in, say, 1959 or 1962, but 1977? We were long, long past that “groovy” point then. Any time there is slang, it rings false. (At one point Fox compares Dulcie to a “tom”, which would I think have been dated slang even in 1959.) What is clear is that Marsh appears not to have bothered to listen to anyone of the correct age speaking aloud for at least a decade and maybe longer. She was at this point 82 years old and chose to depict characters of this age of her own volition, so full bad marks for getting it so totally wrong. So March’s writing style is not, like her plotting and characterization, wholly abysmal. But her inability to capture the speech patterns of anyone under 60 years old causes as many sticking points as her other issues.

So — plotting zero, characterization zero, writing about 20 percent. This brings me to the overarching question — why exactly was this book written? What was Ngaio Marsh trying to accomplish?

The simplest answer, of course, is that she was trying to earn money by writing. I have to say that in my experience it is unusual for an author of any description in any genre to have any other motivation for writing a book; writing is a time-consuming and thankless task (especially when you have people like me looking at your work closely, which must be unpleasant) and I have only ever known people to do it for money. But if one looks at her most recent output, her previous 20 years of writing has been spent writing standard straightforward detective novels — with the exception of 1968’s Clutch of Constables, which has Troy as its viewpoint character for the only such novel other than 1947’s Final Curtain. Why should she suddenly bring Ricky Alleyn to full existence as opposed to something which would have been incredibly easy — write another Roderick Alleyn novel? Why should she take the chance of failure, which she actually, to my mind, experienced here, when she had a clear path to an easy solution?

I think I have an idea of what happened. I am indebted for the key thought that inspired this idea to a lady named Lucy Sussex, a member of a Facebook group devoted to Golden Age mysteries to which I belong. Ms. Sussex (a stranger to me) posted as follows: “Met someone who knew Ngaio Marsh. ‘She was so mannish.’ And stylish, turning up for rehearsals of the student theatre she directed at the University of Canterbury in a Daimler, and wearing furs. ‘But she was only interested in the boys.'”

I was turning that over in my head. “But she was only interested in the boys.” Yes, that’s believable. She certainly started her career by being in love with her creation, Roderick Alleyn, although she rather took away his obvious halo in later years … And then it hit me. Of COURSE she wanted to write about Ricky; she wanted to have the experience of a love affair with a 25-year-old man.

Once I conceived of the idea that Marsh was trying to create another young man with whom to be in love, this whole novel clicked into place for me. Of course the plotting is ridiculous — its only function is to display young Ricky in various heroic lights, such as spontaneously deciding to investigate suspicious drug-related goings-on, and his final kidnapping and mild torture at the hands of Syd and Gil Ferrant. Of course the characters are cardboard; they’re only there to create situations in which Ricky can be admirable. Ricky falls in love with a slightly older woman and forgets himself so far as to make a physical pass at her? Quite understandable, if you look at it from the point of view of an elderly lady who wants young men to act like that around her. Ricky is a fledgling writer? Perhaps we now know why. Ricky is dutiful to his parents (he writes home about every day or so, it seems), morally upright (bordering on priggish), intellectually gifted, handsome, well-dressed, polite — a young man with every conceivable virtue. This idea also explains a number of things that do not happen in this book, principally among them Dulcie’s inexplicable disinterest in Ricky’s sexual availability. Of course it never crosses her mind — Ricky must remain unsullied because Marsh is in love with him. The only purpose of every action and every person in this book is to display Ricky Alleyn in a good light. Ricky’s love for a married woman means he remains single. Ricky’s Scooby-Doo-level investigative failures can get cleaned up by his dad; Ricky’s involvement with an unpleasant hippie type can be cleaned up by his mom. I even foresee that Ricky’s entry-level fiction was meant to be mentored in a future volume by, say, a glamorous middle-aged established writer of charming appearance with whom he falls somewhat in love …

And, of course, this doesn’t work. Marsh may have been delighted with her creation, but the reader really is not and cannot be. That’s because Marsh’s idea of a 25-year-old man is someone who is apparently 50 and a moralistic prig. Ricky does not appear to be rebelling against his parents in any way, as is common among children of authority figures like police officers; he doesn’t for a moment consider trying drugs or having sex with Dulcie. He doesn’t daydream about how to get Julia Pharamond drunk and have sex with her. He treats his parents like best friends and police officers like jolly chums — like no 25-year-old ever. He goes away to a picturesque location that contains a delightful woman, and manages to stick to his working schedule.

There is one peculiar moment in this novel that amused me greatly, but for all the wrong reasons. Ricky decides to take a little holiday and follows Syd on his drug-smuggling routine. Ricky ends up in a cafe and, insanely, cuts a hole in a newspaper so that he can putatively observe Syd’s movements without being seen or noticed. Syd comes into the cafe, sits himself at a distance and apparently injects himself with heroin surreptitiously at the table. (I leave it to your common sense to decide if that is the most unrealistic action ever; for me, it’s close. Cafes have bathrooms in which such things can be done and most people would be aware of this.) As Syd is leaving, Ricky’s arrangement with the newspaper is discovered by his landlord, M. Ferrant, who is also on the scene. Ferrant joins Ricky for a drink, and the following exchange takes place:

He took the copy of Le Monde out of Ricky’s nerveless grasp and stuck his blunt forefinger through the hole. “Quite fascinating what you was reading, seemingly. Couldn’t take your eyes off of it, could you, Mr. Alleyn?”

“Look here,” Ricky said. He put his hand up to his face and felt its heat. “I expect you think there was something a bit off about–about–my looking–about. But there wasn’t. I can’t explain but–“

“Me!” said Ferrant. “Think! I don’t think nothing.”

He drained his glass and clapped it down on the table. “We all get our little fancies, like,” he said. “Right? And why not? Nice drop of ale, that.” He was on his feet. “Reckon I’ll have a word with Syd,” he said. “Quite a coincidence. He come in the morning boat, too. Lovely weather, isn’t it? Might turn to thunder later on.”

Now, when I read this passage, I immediately thought that Ferrant had decided that Ricky was gay and sexually attracted to Syd; it’s the only thing that makes sense. Because it couldn’t possibly be that Ferrant was telling Ricky that he was about to warn Syd that Ricky was actively investigating their drug-smuggling activities, could it? That would be insanely stupid. I agree that Syd is perhaps too rough and uncultured for the priggish aristo Ricky, but that’s why Ferrant says, “We all get our little fancies, like.” Ferrant is a man of the world and understands the exigencies of gay relationships in 1977; sometimes you have to scope out a prospective partner through a hole in a newspaper as you sneak around observing his actions.

Unfortunately, I seem to be the only person to whom this interpretation occurred. It certainly does not seem to have occurred to Marsh, because she means Ferrant’s comments to be menacing and full of foreboding, judging by subsequent events. And it wasn’t until I realized that Marsh was in love with Ricky that I realized she couldn’t possibly conceive of him having a homosexual attraction, since Ricky was meant to be saving himself for Marsh herself. In many ways it makes perfect sense that Ricky is gay. Overprotective parents in the extreme — a kind of delicate feminine quality to his nature — priggish, uptight, and only willing to be seen to be sexually interested in unavailable married women. My version of how this book continues is that Ricky decides that Syd is his perfect bit of rough, makes a pass, gets beaten up for his pains, and then spends the rest of the book dragging his father into the drug plot so as to exact revenge. That is a less priggish and more realistic Ricky, just not one that an 82-year-old woman in love with her character could contemplate.

So once I realized that this entire novel was a love song written to, and about, the impossibly perfect Ricky Alleyn, I understood it in a different light. It is still unrealistic, unattractive and annoying; now, though, it has those qualities for different reasons.  It is incredibly creepy to read when you realize that an 82-year-old woman is creating a 25-year-old love object for herself and disguising the love letter as a murder mystery. It is essentially a fraud upon the mystery-reading public; it is meretricious and inappropriate and makes me feel a little bit sick to my stomach. And for the life of me, I don’t know why she didn’t continue. From the point of view of a mystery reader, she could have continued to write Ricky novels; she produced three more atrocious novels about Alleyn Sr. in the next five years. I can only hope that her publishers insisted that she return to writing mysteries that had a chance of selling.

I suppose I should have merely left this lie as being a poor mystery novel written by a very elderly lady at the end of a long, long career. But now that I’ve dug into it and given it quite a bit of thought, I realize that it’s not just a poor mystery novel. It’s an atrocious mystery novel that reveals more about Ngaio Marsh personally than I EVER wanted to know, and I feel like I need a long hot shower. I feel like I’ve just accidentally found her stash of porn in a bottom drawer. Do yourself a favour; if you have an unread copy of this lying around the house, throw it away.

pd407Notes for the Collector:

A Near Fine copy of the 1977 first edition, from Collins Crime Club, will cost you somewhere between $30 and $40 plus shipping. I looked at a couple of other Marsh novels from the same period, and this seems like a reasonable range of prices, nothing out of line. I should say that I have generally found that bad books by well-known authors are sometimes more difficult to find and therefore more expensive; in this case, Marsh’s last six or seven books were quite poor so they all seem to be trading in a similar range.

I cannot really say that there is a distinguished edition of this book; nothing really stands out in terms of design over its entire history and multiple paperback editions. (I rather like the Dutch paper edition shown here, but it’s nothing special.) You might as well buy yourself a first, if you feel you must own a copy of this awful book. I’d offer you mine, but I’ve already tossed it.