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

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

12173401128What’s this book about?

Miss Maud Silver, retired governess and eagle-eyed private investigator — yes, really — goes to visit her old friend Cecilia Voycey in the country. A few days after she arrives in the village, however, James Lessiter, the unpleasant heir returning to come into the estate of the late Mrs. Lessiter quarrels with everyone in his vicinity and threatens them with various unpleasant consequences. As will be no surprise to connoisseurs of such behaviour, he is promptly murdered.  It seems as though everyone in the village has had an encounter with him in the hours before his death; as Lessiter’s heir, beautiful young Rietta Cray is suspected. There’s a beautiful middle-aged lady who has either been given or stolen some valuable furniture and knick-knacks from the late Mrs. Lessiter’s estate; Carr Robertson and his beautiful but empty-headed girlfriend Fancy Bell; and a host of minor characters from acidulous solicitors to talkative daily help, in sub-plots that range from blackmail to the whereabouts of a set of solid gold statuettes depicting the Seasons. Miss Silver must probe into both the social and economic relationships among all the players before bringing home the murder to a character whom the reader will probably not have suspected.

272355650Why is this worth reading?

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

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

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

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

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

11333908397Foremost of what I noticed was that — well, first you’ll have to accept that, generally speaking, Miss Silver novels are written for women readers. I think this is defensible; my experience behind the counter of a mystery bookstore leads me to believe that 90% of Miss Silver aficionados are intelligent middle-aged women (they appreciate the fineness of the language and a certain elevated air of social intercourse that permeates the novels, rather like Jane Austen). That is important as a premise, because my observation was that many of the plots involve situations where a woman is in jeopardy or difficulty. Again, not uncommon. But what I came to realize was that Wentworth has a trick of creating situations that a woman especially would experience as jeopardy, and she tells the story in a way that strikes a not wholly unpleasant fear into the hearts of women. In brief, she knows what would scare a woman and she knows how to tell that part of the story in a way that does scare a woman.

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

Now, I suggest this is the kind of thing that a woman really understands. Catherine herself regards her actions as merely what she needs to do to survive. (In a delightful moment that is very revealing of character, when confessing what she regards as her peccadillos, she says, “Well, a woman must dress.”). But it’s not so much that she’ll be prosecuted for theft, it’s that she will be socially ruined and may even have to submit to James sexually (although to be fair this is not more than glancingly suggested; she might marry him to prevent scandal).  Other volumes have woman-centred subplots that are equally feminine and bitter. One that stuck with me for a long, long time was a gentlewoman of advanced years who was starving to death and selling her furniture, piece by piece, to stay alive — but cannot bring herself to mention it to anyone or get social assistance. Another features a young woman who is under the thumb of her domineering mother, who wants to spend all the family’s capital on high living and fakes a heart attack any time the daughter’s lover comes close to marrying her. This is not the brutality of a James Hadley Chase, but perhaps, to a certain kind of reader, the prospect of devoting one’s life to one’s domineering mother until one’s marriage chances are over is a horrible situation that has echoes in her own life. This is not about being pistol-whipped, but I think Patricia Wentworth definitely understands the death of a thousand little cuts.

And so my main insight is the presence of this type of plotting, which I think Patricia Wentworth does very well indeed. There is a frequent theme of women being constrained by social situations, social pressures and the niceties of keeping a good face on things, that results in women’s lives being wasted and ruined.

6774817762But there are other recurring themes and even plot structures. There are beautiful young female orphans; some needy, some spiteful and vicious and greedy. There is a recurring theme of two beautiful young women, one of whom is “county” and beautiful but not striking, and the other is glamorous like an exotic poisonous orchid. A woman’s romance with a handsome young man is frustrated, again and again, by an elderly female relative. Men must marry money to maintain their ancestral estates, regardless of whom they love. A domineering woman controls the family’s money and ruins everyone’s lives. A lower-class woman marries the wrong man and is brutalized into committing crimes, or enabling them. Collections of family jewelry are responsible for multiple murders; family heirlooms and even hidden treasure troves are concealed and there is a deadly race to possess them. (And Miss Silver usually mentions the lust for gain in the spirit of Cain.) A foolish middle-aged woman contracts a romantic attachment to the wrong man. And one unusual theme recurs at least twice as the central premise of a book; if Wentworth tells us about a distinctive and striking garment, like the eponymous Chinese Shawl or a coat with a pattern of huge checks, the next person to borrow that garment is found dead after having been mistaken for its owner.

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

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

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

My favour8899446171ite edition

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

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

October 8 Challenge

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

october-8-challenge-chart1

Quick Look: Nine Times Nine, by Anthony Boucher (1940)

Nine Times Nine, by Anthony Boucher (1940)

nine_times_nice_coverWhat’s this book about?

Matt Duncan is an impoverished writer who’s just been let go from the Los Angeles WPA writers’ project (it would take an entire article to explain this idea to the millennial reader; Wikipedia has one here). He runs into a wealthy school friend and rapidly finds himself working as an assistant to Wolfe Harrigan, a professional debunker of phoney religious cults; meanwhile Wolfe Harrigan’s beautiful niece Concha is attracting quite a bit of Matt’s attention, even though she’s engaged to his wealthy school friend.

Currently, Wolfe Harrigan is investigating a religious figure calling himself Ahasver, the Man In Yellow, whose “Temple of Light” is developing a huge following. Sure, it looks like another loony-tunes cult, but Ahasver is raking in a lot of money and developing a lot of fanatical converts. The Temple of Light has a cursing ritual that it enacts in order to bring disaster to its enemies, called the “Nine Times Nine”. When Wolfe Harrigan is the latest recipient of the curse, he laughs; but the next day, Matt Duncan looks up from the croquet lawn to see a man in a yellow robe in the study with Wolfe Harrigan. Harrigan’s sister is sitting outside the study, and she didn’t see anyone leave … all the doors and windows are locked from the inside. But Wolfe Harrigan’s murdered body lies on the floor and no one knows what happened. Lieutenant Marshall of the LAPD investigates, with the help of his wife, who’s a retired burlesque dancer (coincidentally, she’s reading the locked-room chapter from John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins at the time), and learns that, at the exact time of the murder, Ahasver was lecturing to a group of his followers miles away. It takes the talents of Sister Ursula, amateur detective and member of the Sisters of Martha of Bethany, to figure out the answer to this difficult locked-room mystery.

4476825990Why is this worth reading?

Anything by Anthony Boucher is worth your time, to be honest. Boucher — yes, the guy after whom they named the BoucherCon mystery convention — was a prominent critic (for the San Francisco Chronicle) and mystery writer, expert on Sherlock Holmes, creator of mystery-oriented radio programmes, and also an expert on science-fiction. And in general he was a polymath; one of those people who knows everything about a few things and a lot about everything in general. He only published seven mystery novels, but each one of them is intelligent, inventive, and brain-crackingly difficult. Boucher only wrote two Sister Ursula novels, of which this was the first; the other, Rocket to the Morgue, is a fascinating roman a clef set against the background of the actual science-fiction writers group of which Boucher formed a part. Both were first published as by H. H. Holmes (who was an actual turn-of-the-century murderer in Chicago), but Boucher’s other five mysteries came out under his own name.

I won’t say much about the mystery itself here, for fear of spoiling your enjoyment. Trust me, it is a genuine locked-room mystery, and you can imagine that if Boucher had the nerve to suggest to the reader that the locked-room chapter from The Three Coffins would be worthwhile reading, you can bet that he came up with a solution that will make you slap your forehead at the end of the book. If you follow the plot very closely and don’t allow yourself to be fooled by preconceptions, you will possibly be close to the solution at the end; it’s a satisfying and smart answer to a difficult puzzle.

il_570xN.672463820_t2nxBut there are other reasons why this book is worth your time. For one thing, Boucher gives us a wonderful glimpse of West Coast U.S. society just at the U.S.’s entry into the Second World War; these pseudo-religious cults used to be a regular thing in Southern California, and Boucher has produced a delightful insider’s view. The characterizations are charming and, while some of them might be difficult to believe (it’s not likely that burlesque artists marry policemen and settle down, and this is just as unlikely as a mystery-solving nun) they hang together and definitely interest the reader. In fact this novel has a lot about people and how they react to stressful situations. I think it’s safe to say that the mystery is the strongest point of interest in the book, but the background interactions are fun too.

One small point I did notice particularly; Boucher is one of the few mystery writers of the time to introduce a homosexual character, Robin Cooper, into this work (someone who wouldn’t yet identify as a “gay man”, but that’s what we see). Yes, the portrayal is of an effeminate “swish” who’s in cahoots with Ahasver; pretty offensive to the reader of 2015. But two things stand out. One is that there’s a homosexual character at all which, believe me, was very rare in this time and place for a mystery novel. The other is that, interestingly enough, Boucher gives us a glimpse of the social context and tells us that not every 1940 adult was so simplistic as to partake of knee-jerk homophobia.  Listen to this little passage, from page 199 of the IPL edition:

[Lieutenant Marshall is speaking to Matt Duncan] “But Mr. Cooper still interests me. I’ll go further — I am fascinated by our sweet little Robin.” “Why, Lieutenant!” Matt imitated the cherub’s birdlike cadences. “It’s a good act. It’s a honey of an act. But it is an act, and it slipped at the end. He’s no ecstatic hanger-on of the Ancients. He knows what he’s about; and unless my guess is way off, he’s probably about as influential as any member of the Temple.” “You think so? Him?” “The stupid tendency of the normal male is to discount everything said or done by one who seems effeminate. You think, ‘Nuts, he’s a swish — the hell with him.’ It’s about as clever a front as you can pick. Smart lad, our Robin.”

Still not especially politically correct or even enlightened, but further down the path than one might have expected.

I know you’ll enjoy this novel, if you just relax and let it roll along. If you are like me and always want to try to solve the mystery, you’ll find this one quite difficult but not absolutely impossible. And you will also enjoy the milieu of 1940s California, and Boucher’s insightful eye for social change and ear for dialogue. There’s also a romantic subplot, some interesting observations on religious belief, and Sister Ursula, who to me should have been the hero of a few more Boucher novels.

My favourite edition

ninetimesholmesI am given to understand that the first edition of this book was issued without a dust jacket, probably because of wartime paper restrictions. (Added a few days later: I listened to the wrong bookseller — see the comments section below.  The paper restrictions idea was mine alone, and it was wrong.  I’ll add a photo of the first edition’s jacket in the middle of this post for the reader’s edification.)

I think my favourite edition would be U.S. Penguin #553, pictured here. #553 is not, as you might, think, their 553rd book; their numbering system is quite bizarre but this would be one of their first 50 publications, in 1945. I like the deep green that is shared by this line of books; the illustration is cheerfully bad and I like the idea that this is the only such paperback as by H. H. Holmes.

 

 

Static detectives and evolving detectives

A-private-detective-001A question popped up today within the pages of my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection; a gentleman has been asked to lecture to a group of writers about series mysteries and asked for our thoughts.  Thanks, Dan Andriacco, for prompting my thinking processes; I had more to say than would be appropriate in that terse context, and so I’ve moved my efforts here.  I hope my thoughts will be useful to you and your group. I am assuming that this group intends to write mysteries that are sold to publishers for large sums of money, and thus my considerations are addressed more to marketability than to artistic considerations.

First of all, one ground rule; I believe that “series mysteries” require “series detectives”, so I’m going to address the idea of series detectives and use them interchangeably with series mysteries. Series mysteries, of course, are pretty much written by the same author about the same protagonist(s); some sort of detective figure who solves various cases (exceptions definitely exist for any of these terms).  A few names at random are Jane Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Jessica Fletcher, and Ellery Queen. The most important thing in a series is its detective character; if that doesn’t catch the interest of the reading public, you won’t be selling a very long series.

I can certainly understand why writers would want to know more about series detectives. As I understand it, no major publisher will currently look at a stand-alone mystery from a fledgling author. One author told me that she had been told that she’d better come in with a written outline for at least an eight-book series, and that package should contain a publishable manuscript for volume 1, detailed outlines for volumes 2 and 3, detailed character sketches for the detective and any continuing characters, and a sketch plan for where volumes 4 through 8 should take the protagonist. My first reaction was, “Wow.” My second reaction was, “Thank goodness.”

I’ll explain that last snarky remark ;-) but first I have to divide series detectives into two major groups, because the two groups have different characteristics and are treated differently. I’ve invented these terms, but let’s call them static detectives and evolving detectives.

NSY S1E4.avi_snapshot_01.27_[2013.06.29_00.42.49]Static detectives are how series detectives began in the earliest days of detective fiction; back in the days when writers were staking out the basic principles of detective fiction by making it up as they went along, the reading public wanted exactly the same experience of the detective character in each story. The detective is pretty much the same person at the same level of personal development at every stage of every novel. Sherlock Holmes never changed in any major detail. He did not apparently age. He did not fall in love, court the object of his affections, and get married, and produce children who enter the family detective business.  He never suffered any major trauma that caused him to renounce his former avocation halfway through his series and devote his further efforts to being a storefront social worker, or move to Paris. Or, indeed, change his apartment or his deerstalker or his Persian slipper or have those bullet holes in the walls filled in.  Nothing ever changes. Occasionally a continuing character like Watson gets married, but their relationship does not change much.

In many instances other than Holmes’s, the life events of subsidiary characters in the lives of static detectives sometimes form the basis for specific novels — the detective is the maid of honour at her girlfriend’s wedding at which the best man is murdered. One of Nero Wolfe’s detective assistants is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and Wolfe must take the case.

bs-16-06-DW-Kultur-And of course evolving detectives are the other ones. I can’t precisely identify the first evolving detective, but I think there’s a strong case for the first important one to have been Lord Peter Wimsey. In the course of Dorothy L. Sayers’s oeuvre, Wimsey started as a single dilettante / wealthy aristocrat / Wodehouseian Silly Ass, met Harriet Vane, had a number of exciting adventures with her, grew as a human being and a fallible man, and finally married Harriet and produced children. I believe that one of the reasons why this series has had an enduring major presence in the history of detective fiction is that readers, many of whom seem in my experience to be female, enjoy very much the process of watching the romance, proposal, and honeymoon and are prepared to experience it again and again, re-reading the books again and again. Peter and Harriet are a great love story with detective interruptions, to misquote the subtitle of Gaudy Night, and the readers loved to see him change. He grew more subtle and more powerful as time went on. Today’s champion of the evolving detective is Elizabeth George, but Anne Perry is giving her a run for her money, and I bet a bunch of other authors with whom I’m not familiar are also on the best-seller list with this kind of Great Big Romantic Series.

In Lord Peter’s case the subsidiary characters did not change much at all; Bunter doesn’t change one iota during the course of the novels. People get older, like Viscount St-George, and the characters react to world events. But the subsidiary characters are used to serve the development of the character of the detective. Either they remain absolutely static, like a rock of stability to whom the detective turns in times of personal crisis, or they have dramatic things happen to them, like being murdered or accused of murder.

So those are the definitions, and you can probably at this point pick up any mystery novel with which you’re reasonably familiar and say, “Oh, this is a static detective,” or “This is an evolving detective.” At least I hope so; it’s pretty straightforward. Occasionally a static detective makes the jump to an evolving detective, like what happened when Dorothy L. Sayers decided to give Lord Peter some “guts”, as I remember she put it.

What’s interesting for a writer is, first of all, that the choice of a static or an evolving detective affects the way that the book should be structured; and second, that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures.

As far as how the book should be structured — I’ll suggest that my friend, above, got the right advice from her agent. If you are trying to sell a series detective today, it doesn’t really matter if it’s static or evolving, but you have to demonstrate to your prospective publisher that you know what you’re going to be doing eight books from now and are capable of committing to it. There’s no point in them putting together huge cardboard displays for bookstores that say, “The latest Harley Footsnoot mystery!!” if there are only ever going to be two Harley Footsnoot mysteries because you’re out of ideas. And the reason why they want the last five roughed out for them is, perish forbid, you get hit by a truck and they have to hire Eric van Lustbader to finish the series ;-)

If you’ve decided you want to write an evolving detective, you absolutely must know what’s going to happen eight books from now; this is what the publisher will want to know. It’s also the kind of thinking that the reader has a right to expect that you’ve done when you start. If you want to tell the long story of a slow courtship, or how detective Harley Footsnoot realizes that her first husband is wrong for her but his best friend is her true love, over a dozen novels, I want to know that you know what happens in the long story arc and how it happens. You have to structure the first eight books before you write the second one; that way, if you need something to happen in book two that reverberates in book six, you’re always there in advance.  You cannot just make it up as you go along; you’ll produce an unsatisfying series.

And if you want to write a static detective, these days, that’s just fine too. Despite my saying above that it was a tradition from the beginnings of the genre, it’s still very much used today in the entry level of series cozies. Harley Footsnoot is a single mother, she runs a yarn store, and seems to get involved with a lot of local murders that somehow involve yarn. One of her two boyfriends is a cop and the other one is a handsome professor.  Can you see how this goes?  The books are always the same, Harley never changes, she can’t decide between her two boyfriends who themselves never change, and the yarn store rolls along at the same level. So what the publisher wants to see is how you’re going to come up with eight vaguely reasonable murder mystery plots that have something to do with yarn.

The idea that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures works this way.  First, for an evolving detective; you have to know where you are in the character’s development over a dozen novels.  For instance, the one I invented, the detective divorcing her first husband and marrying his best friend over a dozen books — somewhere around book three or four, you need a book where the detective’s husband does something untrustworthy that causes her to first consider that she might end up divorcing him. How that affects the structure of the book is that you have to have a murder plot that is based around trustworthiness.  Say, a small software company turns out to have someone unexpected looting its bank accounts from the inside. The evolving Harley Footsnoot gets to think about trust while she’s solving the case, and how it has reverberations in her own life, because she might be just as oblivious to untrustworthiness as the CFO whose husband stole her passwords.  And readers like this sort of thing very much; they will be pleased that you have created these interconnections between the detective’s personal life and her cases.

e02ab6050512e31c95ab58bf702f3a8eFor a static detective, you need to give a different kind of consideration to structuring the plots. Brainstorm for a minute and see if you can think of eight different murders that have something to do with a yarn store. Well, an employee of the yarn store has a double life and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … someone opens up a yarn store across the street and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … a noted yarn collector comes to town to sign her book about yarn, gets murdered, and Harley is suspected … that’s three, and I’m fresh out. My point is that it gets more and more ridiculous that eight mysteries should happen in the same little town and all of them connected with yarn. Just like the good people of Cabot Cove should have been very, very reluctant to have dinner with Jessica Fletcher, it’s nearly impossible to keep doing the same type of plots over and over. She might be static as a character, but she can’t be as a detective.

If you’re going to write eight books or more about a static yarn expert, you have to structure the life of the detective so that she moves around. Don’t put her in a yarn store — that’s your fantasy life talking, not novelistic necessity. Instead, think of a reason why she interacts with different yarn situations. For instance, she is in charge of acquisitions for the world’s only yarn museum, run by a wealthy eccentric. So she goes to San Francisco and visits a yarn collector, she goes to London for a yarn exposition, she goes to rural Louisiana to acquire a collection of antique yarn. The structure doesn’t have to involve physical motion; for instance, one great static detective was Emma Lathen’s Wall Street banker, John Putnam Thatcher. Each book took him into a different area of business; automobiles, biotech, real estate. He was always meeting new groups of people who had a murder to deal with, but at the same time his group of workers (perfect secretary Miss Corso, and his three wildly different subordinates Trinkham, Bowman, and Gabler) remained dependable and unchanging subordinates.

So both evolving and static detectives have sets of static subsidiary characters who rarely change. The difference is that in a static book, the excitement and emotions come from strangers, and the continuing characters are the refuge (and the readers’ favourites). In an evolving book, the excitement and emotions come from continuing characters, and frequently the strangers are the refuge (the bitter unhappy detective throws herself into her work).

But it’s important to note that your static subsidiary characters need to have a constant utility in the plot; you can’t just give your detective a best friend because everyone has a best friend. Remember how Static Harley had two boyfriends, a cop and a professor?  That’s because the professor is always doing research for her and coming up with crucial information to move the plot forward, and the cop bends the rules and gets her information she shouldn’t be able to access (arrest records) and protects her physically if people get violent. Holmes had Watson because he needed someone to whom to speak aloud, so that the reader could follow his thoughts to some extent. But Watson was also a doctor, and that occasionally came in handy with fainting clients or on-the-spot autopsy reports.

There’s one other crucial difference between static and evolving detectives that may affect a writer’s decision to focus on one or the other style; it might depend on how generally cheerful a person she is. That’s because static detectives are allowed to be happy — evolving detectives cannot be. Even Harley Footsnoot’s switch to marrying her first husband’s best friend cannot be allowed to flourish in perfection; either he gets killed in book eight (which results in her third marriage in book sixteen), or she discovers that he too has terrible flaws that cause her to be agonized for another eight books before deciding to go it alone and lonely.  If you run a yarn business, though, you frequently get the opportunity to spring your brother-in-law from jail in the second-last chapter and then the book ends as you explain at a jolly family picnic how you figured it all out from the mismatched yarn strands. If you’re naturally a depressive type, you might want to do your mental health some good by working on books where people are occasionally happy.

So why, when my friend told me she’d been asked to plan eight books in advance, did I think, “Thank goodness!”?  Because I read — until I pretty much gave up reading most modern mysteries, for reasons not unconnected with these ideas — far, far too many books where the author lost his way. Evolving detectives who just sit around and are gloomy without learning anything from it (I’m talking to you, ScandiNoir authors). Static detectives where the 32nd consecutive murder at the same charming Cape Cod B&B should have had the proprietor locked up on general principles years ago.  Evolving detectives who hardly bother with the murder plot because they’re too busy quarrelling with their romantic partners; static detectives who apparently ignore the necessities of everyday life at the drop of a hat to go off and track down a clue. Evolving detectives with personal lives that make Dynasty look sedate, and which would likely get them suspended from the police force; static detectives whose perfect lives are wish-fulfillment fantasies of motherhood, business ownership, and the Kama Sutra with her chiseled cop hubby. And very particularly the protagonist’s best friend who is chubby and a figure of fun, but at the 2/3 point of the novel says something witty that turns out to give the detective the idea needed to solve the case. Because every subsidiary character will have a strong function in the plot that will allow them to be memorable without making them two-dimensional. Not like the works of some authors (I’m talking to you, Charlaine Harris) whose books are so cluttered with subsidiary characters left over from other books, and with no functions at all, that there’s barely room for anything other than a round of howdy-dos.

If you plan eight books ahead, you will know where you are at all times in the progress of your evolving detective’s tumultuous life, and you won’t clutter the books with vivid but useless characters. And in the progress of your static detective, you’ll have arranged to have plots that naturally take the protagonist into contact with lots of strangers who murder each other, while the detective’s home life remains non-violent and cozy. You will have planned out the continuing characters so that they’ll be useful and consistent and do what you need them to do. And you might actually get my $8.95 in a bookstore — times eight.

October 8 Challenge

Whoops! Some hours ago when I posted this, I forgot to claim it for a square in my own challenge; see below.  This is about square 2D, a group of GAD mysteries linked by a style of detective or detection.  (In fact, two different styles.)

october-8-challenge-chart1

 

Quick Look: New Graves at Great Norne, by Henry Wade (1947)

New Graves at Great Norne, by Henry Wade (1947)

51fOz96CZNLWhat’s this book about?

The story begins with a leisurely introduction to the little English village of Great Norne. As we are told in the opening lines of chapter two, “Great Norne had once been a flourishing little port, in the days before railways drew a large part of the profit away from the coast-wise carrying traffic … In the early nineteenth century it had attained its peak population of over five thousand, but it was now down below three, and numbers were slowly but steadily falling.” Wade sketches an economical picture of all levels of society; a foolish elderly woman church organist, the squire of the local manor, fishermen and manual labourers who drink at the dockside pub. When the Reverend Theobald Torridge is discovered dead at the bottom of a flight of dockside stone steps, his legs entangled in some rope, everyone thinks he’s lost his way in the fog and taken a tumble. (And, in order to preserve the clerical reputation, the coroner neglects to mention the broken bottle and general scent of whisky surrounding the late vicar.)

No one seems to think for a moment that this is murder; why, there hasn’t been a violent death in the community since young Ellen Barton committed suicide twenty years earlier. But when Rev. Torridge is accompanied to heaven by Colonel Cherrington, who has apparently committed suicide, and then there are more deaths, including the violent murders of two elderly spinster sisters, Chief Inspector Myrtle must investigate all aspects of all the crimes. Suspicion falls upon one or another of Colonel Cherrington’s family and acquaintances, and the villagers in general, until the common link shared by the victims is realized and the crime is brought home to an entirely unlikely perpetrator.

UnknownWhy is this worth reading?

Henry Wade is not a well-known mystery writer but he is certainly a very good one. My plot summary above doesn’t approach the fully kaleidoscopic view of village life provided in this volume; the first two chapters are devoted entirely to laying down the manner in which this story will be told, where we learn a little about the lives and backgrounds of various residents of Great Norne. This doesn’t sound unusual, but what sets this volume apart is the high quality of the writing.

In fact this is a very gentle mystery, all things considered. I wouldn’t call it a “cozy”, because there is no sense that any unpleasantness is being overlooked or glossed over so as to spare the reader. There are occasionally violent moments and it’s not likely that the average reader will make it through the scene where two elderly women are murdered without at least a little mental discomfort. But gentle — gentle in the sense that everything moves very, very slowly. I thought as I savoured the surprising ending of this volume that it was rather like cooking a live lobster. You put the lobster in water and heat it very, very slowly so that the lobster doesn’t realize he’s meant for dinner; at the end, though, you have a dead lobster and a high-quality meal. The police here are not chasing around in high speed cars — they’re barely doing anything at all except talk with people.  Even though there are a handful of deaths in a short time, everyone goes about their everyday lives and waits for the police to solve the crimes.

Part of this slow, slow build of tension is the very realistic idea that not everyone in the village is wholly concerned with the murders 24/7 to the exclusion of the rest of their everyday lives. People still do their daily shopping and meet friends; they have family problems and money problems. We briefly share the thoughts of many of the residents of the village, their opinions, and we learn enough about many of them to know what lies beneath the surface. We learn that what people think of their fellow villagers doesn’t always share the same benevolence with which the villagers view their own actions. Indeed there is a lovely paragraph in chapter 1 that describes the vicar that will give you the idea both of the difference between internal and external view, and the high quality of the writing:

“The Reverend Theobald Turridge … was, in fact, narrow in outlook and interest, harsh in judgment of his fellow-men, though diplomatically gentle with those who thought and saw as he did … [H]is good looks were spoiled by a weak and obstinate mouth, which he firmly believed to be strong and sensitive. … He was a good preacher … but the congregation showed a growing proportion of older people; the young thought him pompous and an ass, their harsh and critical judgment missing his better points.”

We see how he sees himself, and we see how others see him. Everyone is a mixture of good and bad. A foolish spinster cannot carry a tune, to the great detriment of the church choir, but everyone forbears to say anything because she devotes herself so thoroughly to this good work and obviously loves it. A very humble workman is rude and crude, and gets so drunk that he passes out in his own barrow after a night at the pub, but he provides liquor, food, and companionship for an elderly woman neighbour whom he calls “ma”. And as I mentioned above, the coroner decides to ignore a smell of alcohol and a broken whisky bottle found when Reverend Turridge is found at the bottom of a flight of stone steps, because the coroner felt the elderly reverend deserved to be remembered for his good works. In other words, plot developments arise spontaneously out of a firm grasp of character and a knowledge of how people really act.

thOne of the most delightful aspects of this book is that the murderer is someone whose thoughts we have been allowed to share, in the same minimal way that we have shared the thoughts of other villagers — but because that person’s thoughts were occupied with non-murderous topics at the time, we learn nothing connected with the murder. The murderer, like all the other villagers, has a day-to-day life and things that they consider important with which they occupy their days, and the murderer’s building towards the murders is long and drawn-out. In fact the murderer is concealing the passions which bring about the murders so thoroughly and well that it comes as a complete surprise to both the villagers and the reader when the truth is revealed. Is this fair? I rather thought it was, actually. If you have a serious issue in your own life, you may think about it a lot, but occasionally you are more concerned about whether the rain will stop before you have to walk home, and if someone dipped into your thoughts at that moment, that’s what they’d get. I think this is a legitimate ploy — not quite as deeply buried as, say, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but if you are misled, I think you only have yourself to blame.

If you are an aficionado of the English village mystery, I think you will find this a very fine specimen; the writing is really superb. On nearly every page you will find a beautifully-turned phrase, many of which will make you pause for a moment to appreciate their rightness. The dialogue is spot-on, all social classes having their individual speech patterns beautifully noted and reproduced. The writing is economical — locations and clothing are sketched, not described in detail. But behind it all you have the sense of Henry Wade’s superb command of all the details of the everyday life of an English village of a few thousand souls. He knows where the local squire makes economies and how often the poorest workman can afford to drink gin rather than beer; he knows that the kindness of the doctor’s wife is well hidden behind her teasing of her husband, and that people already knew exactly how much alcohol was consumed by Reverend Turridge. In fact this is a village where everyone knows everyone’s background, history, secrets, and probable future, and Wade knows that in order to be believable, a murder plot must be very, very carefully concealed from one’s fellow villagers. Every character seems authentic; every description seems accurate; and every development seems logical. Given the underlying premise that motivates the murderer, everything is logical and necessary, and this is very often not something I find myself able to say about any murder mystery. Just like the idea that the most expensive clothing is frequently the least embellished, sometimes the best-written mysteries are the ones that move slowly and eschew wildly dramatic plot developments.

I have to say that this sort of book is an acquired taste. Rather like Dickensian-era fiction, where the author took a couple of chapters to tell you the family history and background of the major characters before they were even born, this book is s-l-o-w going. No sex, no explosions, no car chases, and nothing at all really happens until Chapter 3. The police are nonentities with official titles who merely get the job done without troubling the reader to take their characters into account. But as I have come to learn over the years, it takes a very intelligent writer to produce a book like this, without relying on Grand Guignol or terrible madness or even a meretricious focus on sexual peccadillos. And this is an intelligent writer who knows how to keep the reader interested in character and plot actions with which the characters are vitally concerned. Just like that lobster, if you stay in the cool water of the first few chapters, you’ll find that your interest heats up, little by little, until you find yourself at two a.m. just turning pages in order to find out whodunit. And THAT is the mark of a great mystery writer, to my mind. If you don’t have this taste already, I urge you to acquire it.

My favourite edition

Henry Wade is an acquired taste, and you will have to go some distance and lay out some money to acquire it. My own copy is the Perennial Library P807 paperback shown at the head of this post; I have never seen or held another copy of this book, or indeed any Wade novel, except the handful of paperbacks produced in the mid-80s by Perennial Library. A reading copy will set you back $15 or $20 — yes, for the paperback — and I can only hope that this author’s work comes back into print in the near future so that more people will be able to appreciate it.

So I have to say that my favourite edition is the only one I’ve ever seen, with its bright yellow background and a good piece of illustration; I don’t believe I’ve located a reproduction of the first edition’s cover anywhere on the internet, and the reprint hardcover from the 70s above is dully-coloured and doesn’t illustrate any scene from the book.

 

 

Quick Look: Last Will and Testament, by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole (1936)

Last Will and Testament, by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole (1936)

colewilllargeWhat’s this book about?

Elderly Lord St. Blaizey is that classic figure of detective fiction; a man who has quarrelled with his crippled son and heir, fired his private secretary, alienated his wife Helen and his daughter-in-law, and seemingly everyone else in his life, and then dies in mysterious circumstances after falling from his horse. It soon proves to have been murder by person or persons unknown; Dr. Benjamin Tancred, consulting detective, and his friend Paul Graham, the narrator, who have known the family for years, take a hand in the investigation at the request of elderly lunatic Sarah Pendexter. Sarah has had a dream that her brother’s murder was committed by her nephew Rupert, and when Rupert turns out to be the surprise beneficiary of Lord St. Blaizey’s estate, thanks to a suspicious codicil added to the will, it may be that Sarah is not as lunatic at all that. Dr. Tancred talks to the suspects and investigates until the circumstances surrounding a second murder, that of the fired private secretary, makes things more clear to the detective team. At this point it’s more a howdunit than a whodunit and finally Dr. Tancred finds a way to assign the guilt to its proper quarters.

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Why is this worth reading?

Frankly, this book just about isn’t worth your time. The Coles’s detective novels are very, very hard to get these days, and I can’t say I have read more than a handful of the 34 volumes. Certainly these authors are literate and intelligent writers. This book is competent, for the most part. The flow of the novel is even and assured, and the writing occasionally moves above the pedestrian level to wit and even elegance. The language is fine, and the background milieu of rural Cornwall is delightful (and the authors obviously know whereof they speak). But of all the novels of the Coles I’ve read, this is certainly the worst introduction.

There are a number of problems from which this book suffers; one of the most annoying is that this is actually a continuation of an earlier story which formed the introduction of Dr. Tancred, unsurprisingly named Dr. Tancred Begins. Helen Pendexter’s father’s murder formed the basis of that case and both Dr. Tancred and his Watson pretty much fell in love with Helen in the process. Some twenty-five years later (in fictional terms; that volume’s publication predates this one by only a year) we find that Helen has married Lord St. Blaizey’s only son, who was crippled by a tiger while on an anthropological expedition in Africa. I haven’t read the first volume, but it makes me wonder how a young woman whose personality endeared her to the protagonist in volume 1 can change sufficiently by volume 2 to display some pretty unpleasant behaviour. If you actually have managed to read volume 1, you will have problems with volume 2. The publishers (and H.R.F. Keating in his introduction to the “Disappearing Detectives” edition pictured nearby) insist that no knowledge of the previous volume is necessary. I’m suggesting it might actually be counterproductive, and that’s a BIG problem for a mystery.

12493966022I can’t say that it’s especially terrible that the characters in this novel are two-dimensional and unrealistic. That was the fashion of the times and I believe the connoisseurs of the time would have found any attempt at realistic characterization to be not in the best interests of the mystery. But there is a big issue with the characterization. There are two characters in this novel who are, indeed caricatures of reality, just like the rest. But the authors have used these two characters in a very regrettable way.  One is Sarah Pendexter who is so nutty that these days she would invite medication and hospital-based restraint; she provides “information” which she admits is from her “visions” of things that have happened. The other is a homeless man (what was then known as a “tramp”) who provides crucial information but who is, I’ll put it mildly, not a reliable informant. My issue is that these unrealistic characters are constrained to act in irrational ways because the only way in which the plot can be moved forward is by irrational action. To kick off the action of the novel, Sarah has such a violent hatred for her nephew that she tries to hire Dr. Tancred, pretty much, to frame him for murder. And the tramp lies about events for no reason at all, except that it extends the plot by a few chapters while Dr. Tancred traces the lie back to its source. If your plot is so poorly constructed that you have to invent weird characters to make them reasonable, that’s another big problem. Still more problematic is that the authors put crucial information into unreliable mouths; not only is that a tired old trick even in 1936, but it forces the reader to wade through acres of unpleasant craziness to glean the kernel of truth. And the reader does, because we have seen so many times that a character who admits to telling lies is always telling the truth about something that seems improbable.

Dr. Tancred and his dogsbody are colourless doofuses who are so incompetent that we learn about 3/4 of the way through the book that they have misunderstood a fairly important fact about the crime. And again, the only reason for this misunderstanding is that it pads out the novel; their error is caused by not having asked anyone to confirm an assumption Dr. Tancred made. It also seems clear that delaying the action is the function of the second murder. I started to think as I neared the end that this may well have started life as a short story. There’s just not enough story here to fill a novel.

To sum up: the writing is good, the plotting is contrived, the characterization is dire, the background is interesting, and the mystery is undemanding. I know the Coles have better mysteries because I’ve read some; I recommend that you find one. G.D.H. and Margaret Cole are only minor figures in the history of Golden Age Detection, but they are first-rate second-rate writers, if you follow me, and you should have at least a glancing idea of what they’re about. They certainly influenced more memorable writers.

6167341345My favourite edition

I’ve illustrated every cover variant I found for this book, including a couple that I’ve never seen or held. The volume to the left, an early example of the trademark “green ghost” cover art from Collins Crime Club in England, is a delightful entry in this long series; whenever I see this cover art in a bookstore my heart gladdens, because the series is important and occasionally fine. So this would be my favourite. The jacket for the first edition (at the top of this post) is unfortunately quite drab at a time when Collins was doing wonderful covers for other novels by the Coles; I would have expected something a lot more graphic than this effort.

I should mention here that I am indebted to ClassicCrimeFiction.com for the picture of the first edition’s jacket at the top of this post; it’s the only such picture on the entire internet, as near as I could tell, and I have only lifted it from their site because there is no other to show my scholarly readers with a taste for early Crime Club jackets. ClassicCrimeFiction.com is an excellent place to acquire scarce novels such as the present volume, since that is their specialty, and I highly recommend them to your attention. If anyone can get you rare volumes like those of the Coles, they can.

Quick Look: Perry Mason in the Case of Too Many Murders, by Thomas Chastain

Perry Mason in the Case of Too Many Murders, by Thomas Chastain (1989; authorized by the estate of Erle Stanley Gardner)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #008

41eZbYCS4NL._SL500_SX258_BO1,204,203,200_What’s this book about?

Well-known businessman Gil Adrian shoots and kills his dinner companion in full view of a restaurant full of witnesses, then escapes. A short time later Adrian is found murdered in his Hollywood Hills home. His ex-wife is the immediate suspect, and she turns to well-known courtroom wizard Perry Mason. Perry investigates the late Mr. Adrian’s business and romantic entanglements and his very, very busy life, and although his client seems determined to dig her own courtroom grave, he manages to work out what really happened and how, and brings the crimes home to a murderer who has been heretofore not considered by officials as a suspect.

Why is this worth reading?

I could answer this easily by actually answering the question above in a snide way. The first thing that came to my mind when I looked at my standard “What is this book about?” was “About 256 pages too long.” But the real answer to “Why is this worth reading?” is, “It just isn’t.”

Nevertheless, I’ll try be a bit more detailed. When considering whether to — or, these days, when to — issue “continuation” volumes using the characters and oeuvre of a deceased best-selling author, it seems as though the heirs have a couple of things they think are important, but only one at a time. Some estates go for sales, and some for safety. The ones who want sales, like the James Bond franchise, license the character to a lot of interesting writers, some of whom are relatively disastrous and one or two of whom knock it out of the park; once in a while they have a best-seller, and the rest of the time they have some steady sales. The ones who want safety are somehow timid; “We don’t want to actually CHANGE anything about Grandpa’s beloved character, we just want a couple of original stories that don’t contradict anything and don’t offend anybody, because the fans would buy Grandpa’s laundry lists if we bound them.”

I can’t say anything about Erle Stanley Gardner’s laundry lists, but the rest seems to be just about what happened here. This book is, in fact, arrogant; it is arrogant because it assumes that the reader is stupid and hasn’t been paying attention.  I think I can explain this without spoiling any enjoyment you might have in reading this if you were recovering from brain surgery and needed something simple for distraction. The whole book is built around a trick; something like John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie, except that this trick is horribly terribly obvious from the first chapter. I think even if you had never read a murder mystery before, but only seen them on television, you would grasp what was being dangled tantalizingly before you as being, to quote the back cover, “a fiendishly twisted puzzle” — “the most baffling case of [Perry Mason’s] career.” No, it’s not. The police miss the idea, the detectives and suspects miss the idea, but to this reader at least it was absolutely obvious, and everyone was off on the wrong track.

After setting the path towards the big reveal, Chastain proceeds to muddy the waters with a few trails of red herrings about the victim’s generally evil tendencies and people whom he’d recently wronged. But all the time, dropping little references to a concept that is the base of the trick. I think you have to have read the book twice (heaven help me, I did) to grasp all the little hinties and word choices. But then about two-thirds of the way through the book, it’s as though Chastain realizes that evidence that satisfyingly demonstrates a criminal’s guilt in a way that is connected to the trick is not going to be possible, but the reader still has to be almost able to solve the crime even though the hints are gossamer-thin, and he has no physical clues to offer. So he starts dropping bigger and bigger hints about the underlying concept, and finally a huge one that ends in Perry Mason saying, “(face palm) By golly, that’s the ticket! I should have realized that 180 pages ago!” Which was when you and I and everyone else over 14 realized it.

41S8VZZ62XL._BO1,204,203,200_But the real problem with this book is that the writer, Thomas Chastain, has what I have to call a tin ear for dialogue and description. It’s not often that this happens to me, but I hit a single word in this novel that struck me as being so off, so impossibly wrong and leaden and regrettable, that it stopped me dead in my tracks and I put the book down for a minute. Paul Drake, Jr. — the book follows the characters of the made-for-TV movies — is, as most of you will remember, a handsome curly-headed cheerful guy who’s a fairly tough PI but scores with the ladies. On page 207 of the paperback, Perry asks him, “Do you think your buddy, Dumas, will notice that you’ve gone?” “I already bade him good night. He won’t miss me as long as his bottle holds out.” My word was “bade”. As far as I’m concerned, Paul Drake, Jr. never “bade” anyone anything EVER. The book is full of big clanging wrongnesses in dialogue like, for instance, Perry using carefree contractions and talking imprecisely. And for the rest of it, the writing is … mushy. The prose is bland, the descriptions are insubstantial and careless, and the characterization is non-existent. Okay, I recognize that Gardner was not known for characterization, but honestly, we don’t know much about most of the characters at all, except from context. It’s like they have one-word character descriptions hanging around their necks and that’s all you get.

So finally I’m into the home stretch and thinking, “Well, he has to do something to make this book come alive, or even gasp for breath. I suppose he’ll work some kind of clever reversal on the ending I foresaw on page 12.” And I came up with a couple of ways that that could be done, and I was actually taking a little interest, when — bang, yeah, it was the ending I foresaw on page 12. I don’t actually throw books across the room, because I usually hope to sell them some day, but holy moly it was tempting. This book is start to finish irredeemably awful.

Thomas Chastain was involved in the Who Killed the Robins Family? game/book/publicity stunt thingie from the early 80s; he co-wrote novels with, of all people, Helen Hayes and Peter Graves. (What we call an “open ghost”.) He wrote a Nick Carter novel, for crying out loud, and one that a critic called “undistinguished”. Wow, you have to work hard to not quite manage to pull off a Nick Carter novel. In fact, Chastain can’t write a lick, and he dragged this project and this franchise down with him. I know that Parnell Hall, an excellent writer, wanted to take over the franchise — if you’re interested, look at the first couple of Steve Winslow novels as by J. P. Hailey, because he told me that’s how he repurposed the novels they didn’t buy. They read very oddly but very satisfyingly once you know the secret, and I bet you will join me in wishing that he would have taken over the franchise instead of Chastain. As it is, Chastain wrote one more of these (TCOT Burning Bequest) and the print franchise died an unhappy death. I would suspect that his performance here was under the strict and stern guidance of the estate — it just seems like that to me, because it’s all so damn bland — so I bet he tried his best. But what an ignominious end this was to such a great franchise!

My favourite edition

Very few editions exist, thank goodness; to the best of my knowledge, one hardcover (Yes! For the library trade) and one paperback.  Both are shown here and both are undistinguished. The hardcover edition reminds me of the colours and layout of the Chastain-written Robins family book that was everywhere one summer in the 80s. I actually hope no further editions are published. It’s difficult to find a mint copy of the hardcover with the original sticker on the front saying “Perry Mason returns!” so that might be my favourite; I think I have one in a box somewhere and some collector will want it someday to complete her Perry Mason collection. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Quick Look: Where There’s a Will, by Rex Stout

Where There’s a Will, by Rex Stout (1940)

24073PWhat’s this book about?

Take a deep breath: this will be complicated. Nero Wolfe has been overspending and a new case drops into his lap that will pay the bills. June, May, and April (oldest to youngest) are three sisters. June is a famous author whose husband is Secretary of State; May, a brilliant chemist, is the president of Varney College; and April is a celebrated star of stage and screen. When their wealthy older brother Noel dies, his will’s provisions for distribution of his multiple millions leave the sisters aghast; he’s left it all to what they are too mealy-mouthed to call his mistress, femme fatale Naomi. The sisters come to Wolfe to broker some kind of agreement — it’s not the money, they all say, it’s the scandal. Meanwhile, Noel’s widow Daisy is a bizarre figure. She had been a great beauty until the late Noel shot off a stray arrow and hit her in the face. She apparently lost an eye and is terribly scarred, but nobody knows for sure because she has worn a veil ever since. Daisy arrives at the brownstone and announces that she doesn’t care about the scandal, she wants to squash Naomi like a bug in public. The family conference deteriorates.

n61493Very shortly thereafter, we learn, in what will be a surprise to very few by now, that Noel was actually murdered and everyone is a suspect who was at his country house that weekend; all the people mentioned above plus a couple of State Department guys, a lawyer or two, a swain for the intoxicating April, and June’s two early-20s children. Everyone is gathering (for no better reason than to scrap it out en masse, it seems) and Nero Wolfe actually leaves the house to meet with them all. Many, many plot complications ensue in short order; the experienced reader will not be surprised to learn that if you have a person whose features are always veiled, don’t be terribly surprised if someone impersonates her in the course of a murder mystery. The intense activity culminates in Archie Goodwin’s discovery of the second victim, about 90 seconds before Wolfe hightails it out the door so as not to be detained by the police and miss dinner.

Wolfe quickly talks to many of the principals but it’s not till he works his way down to Sara, June’s young daughter, and learns that someone has tried to steal a bunch of old photographs that she took the day of the murder, that he gets a vital piece of information. Coincident with Inspector Cramer showing up at the brownstone with a warrant to arrest him as a material witness, Wolfe delivers the murderer instead and gets to stay home counting his fee.

409f094176c73647da1f66f30edcbbc0Why is this worth reading?

Occasionally I am willing to recommend books just because they are by a certain author, mostly because, well, if you are seriously interested in this Golden Age Detection stuff then you need to have read everything this person wrote — because it’s important. Some of these are, off the top of my head, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout.   So all the work of Rex Stout gets an automatic recommendation from me. Even if it’s a lousy book, it’s still important to understand where it fits into his entire oeuvre because you have to assume that everyone else who wrote at that time and henceforth will be familiar with it.

That being said, there are not many Stout books that are dreary to plough through; even given my relaxed standards and great affection for his work, this is a pretty good book. It’s a lot of fun; there is a cheerful spirit that underlies it throughout and it almost seems as though Stout had a good time writing it. The plot moves at a HELL of a clip, darn close to the pace of a Phoebe Atwood Taylor novel or a Craig Rice story about Jake and Helene Justus. When you look back, the entire novel takes place in a completely compressed time frame that almost seems like 24 hours or so. There are lots and lots of vivid subsidiary characters, Nero Wolfe actually leaves the house on work! and, let’s face it, this book has a veiled scarred lady and three extraordinary sisters named June, May, and April. If there is anyone that’s ever put this book down halfway through, I’d like to know why and how.

b78e1e402bd573e96d98ad955f0a515aThere is also some really good writing in this book. Stout has a little writing trick I’ve noticed. He tends to not describe rooms and locations unless something is actually going to happen that requires you to know what the location looks like. So about halfway through the book when he goes into detail about what is where in something like a rec room in a mansion, with a wet bar, the Stout fan’s ears prick up just a tich. But the precise writing of that section of the book was a pleasure to re-experience. Certainly the lives of the characters and their personalities are larger than life. But there is some nicely observed writing where Archie, who has “a month ago paid a speculator five dollars and fifty cents for a ticket to Scrambled Eggs” and professes himself a big fan of April’s work, nevertheless has a moment where he sees her truly: “she came in and pressed her hands to her temples like the heroine at the end of the second act …”.

And of course the brownstone itself is eternal. Barring Johnny Keems, who … well, it’s best to read these books in chronological order, isn’t it? Wolfe is peevish and unpredictable, Archie is faintly lecherous and keenly observant, Saul, Fritz, and Fred are their usual selves, and the red leather chair is in its accustomed place. All’s right with this world.

6bd2ef9cb824cd475ba920f2a38dff3cMy favourite edition

This has in the past been a very difficult book to find in print. It’s a long story and I’m not sure I understand it all, but when Bantam acquired the Nero Wolfe novels to print as paperbacks, it was forced to leave this one book in the hands of Avon, who reprinted it sporadically and let it lie until Bantam finally acquired it. Added to which, there is a clue in the book of a group of photographs. In the first edition, and in the edition to your left, and not very many other editions, that set of photographs is reproduced in a small and fairly useless form (in the Avon edition it’s tipped in between pages 162 and 163). In most later editions, at least until fairly recently, the photographs were absent.

Anyway, my favourite edition is the one you see to the left, Avon 103, part of a brief experiment they did with putting picture frames around their book covers.  Because of its scarcity, I used to find all the editions of this book very beautiful, because they meant I would shortly be quite a bit wealthier (depending on edition); mystery bookstores used to have a long waiting list for any reading copy of this book, and the vile green undistinguished edition above could bring me $20. Those days are gone!