If any of my friends is wondering why their perfectly reasonable comments were not published on my blog in the last year or so — it’s because I am too technically incompetent to have realized that they were sitting there waiting for me to approve. Some published themselves and some did not. I’ve just found a storehouse of interesting comments, most from people whose comments I value. My sincere apologies to everyone whom I’ve seemed to have snubbed, that was not my intent at all. I shall do better in the future!


The case of the cynical synthesis


E.R. Punshon (note the ears!)

It’s always interesting to me when an author breaks the fourth wall and speaks, within the confines of a work of fiction, about how or why one writes. Many mystery writers seem to do it, and I’m not sure why, but there’s generally an authentic tinge of “behind the scenes” that fascinates me.

Four Strange WomenThis is from Four Strange Women by E.R. Punshon (1940). Punshon is certainly a minor figure in the history of detective fiction; what I like to call a first-rate second-rate author, who was popular in his day but whose books have, until recently, passed out of print and remained there. The speaker, Mr. Eyton, is a professional journalist who has reported on the murder that takes place in the opening chapters. But he has a bit of a hobby; he’s writing something along the lines of some recent (imaginary) best-sellers, Musings in British Gardens and Dreaming ‘Midst the Flowers; apparently prosodical thoughts on the topic of being outdoors. Eyton’s is Twilight Thoughts Beneath the Trees.

“I am writing a book. … I’ve been working on it for some time,” Mr. Eyton explained. “Whenever I can, I take my bicycle and go to the forest. I describe what I see; above all, what I feel. That’s the secret,” he said, wagging his finger at Bobby. “Any one can see. Few can feel; at least, I mean, few know what they feel until the author tells them. Explain to the average man exactly what he thought when he saw the sunset, the rabbits at play, head the wind rustling through the trees, that’s the secret of success.”

“But suppose,” Bobby objected, “he didn’t feel a blessed thing — except wondering if he could get there before closing time?”

“Ah, the homely touch.” Mr. Eyton beamed approval. “My dear sir, it is, in fact, the public who never felt anything, who couldn’t feel anything, at whom an author aims — that is, if he wishes for a large circulation. You see, it pleases people to know what they would have felt if, in fact, they had felt it. You follow me? … Of course, you mustn’t startle your reader by anything he couldn’t recognize as his own ideas if he ever had any. All is there.”

3620803._UY400_SS400_I think this relates to a favourite quote of mine about detective fiction, which I am chagrined to say I have more than once misquoted over the years, apparently changing it to suit my unconscious needs. Let me take this opportunity to set the record straight and apologize. This is the accurate quotation from page 303 of Q.D. Leavis:  Collected Essays by Q.D. (Queenie) Leavis (her seminal work, Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) is available freely here) on the topic of the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers.

“And in the matter of ideas, subject, theme, problems raised, she [Sayers] similarly performs the best-seller’s function of giving the impression of intellectual activity to readers who would very much dislike that kind of exercise if it were actually presented to them; but of course it is all shadow-boxing. With what an air of unconventionality and play of analysis Miss Sayers handles her topics, but what relief her readers must feel — it is part no doubt of her success — that they are let off with a reassurance that everything is really all right and appearances are what really matter.”

Does this sound like a cynical synthesis? Punshon (in a mystery) is saying that best-sellers fake emotion for people who aren’t equipped to have emotions, and Leavis is saying that mysteries fake intellect for people who aren’t equipped to have intellect. So the synthesis would be that popular fiction in general is faking something or other for the benefit of deficient readers, and therefore the more assiduous your reading, the larger must be your lack of some essential personality component. Yikes. I read more than anyone in my everyday life, and apparently it’s because I’m more stupid and insensitive than anyone I know. But at least I learned about my shortcomings from a novel 😉


Queenie Leavis

My first reaction was that the whole thing seemed very sneering and supercilious, and to be completely honest I’ve valued Mrs. Leavis’s observation for years precisely because it was so tart and acid. (Queenie Leavis is rather like what Dorothy Parker would have been like if she’d been very thoroughly educated in literary theory.) Perhaps it’s a function of advancing decrepitude, or perhaps it’s having recently pinpointed that one desirable function of detective fiction is indoctrination, or the introduction of the reader to information about how society works, but I find these days I am more willing to accept that works of fiction should shoulder the load of educating today’s population about how to manage their emotions and to function within society. Heaven knows nothing else seems to be able to.

As a gloss upon my recent discussion of indoctrination, let me offer Mrs. Leavis’s comment, from Fiction and the Reading Public:

“The modern reader is at once struck by the body of traditional lore the [Elizabethan] people must have possessed which served instead of the ‘knowledge’ (i.e., acquaintance with a mass of more or less unrelated facts, derived principally from an elementary school education and the newspaper) that forms the background of the modern working-man’s mind.”

And note that this volume was published in 1932, pretty much the middle of the Golden Age of Detection. Mrs. Leavis seems to be unhappy that popular fiction transmitted “more or less unrelated facts” at the time they were being communicated, but to today’s reader they are not unrelated; they are all part and parcel of a long-ago age with butlers and pukka sahibs and bodies in the library, with very little in the way of social overlap to today’s context.

It is perhaps distressing and inappropriate that today’s adolescent absorbs social mores as part of the subtext of a poorly-written book about a girl who falls in love with a sparkly vampire, but at least it’s via a book and not a music video or a MMO. Perhaps I’m prejudiced in favour of books, being so heavily invested in them, but it does seem that they are produced by people who are trying to observe human nature and society in general and reproduce the more interesting or useful bits while telling a story — AND they use the written word to do so, which has the effect of expanding one’s ability to communicate with others more precisely. It’s more useful to tell someone their actions are pathetic if both of you know what the word “pathos” means.

So what if mysteries are designed to present me with examples of logical thought structures that I cannot hope to achieve in real life? Very few people’s real-life situations are populated by people who would, for instance, use an audio recording to fake an alibi while they’re off murdering someone. Far more realistic is the common news story that someone has been murdered by a stranger to obtain a ridiculously small amount of money, using a gun or a knife or a blunt instrument, and generally speaking it’s not very interesting or informative (unless you are Truman Capote), merely sad. Detective fiction, in fact, preserves the important social meme that some people do actually try to commit subtle and serious crimes that are meant to remain undetected, and we’d better be on the lookout for them; not everyone can be a Hercule Poirot or a Jane Marple, but we can continue to acknowledge the need for such persons to detect these subtle crimes. And we can take pleasure in experiencing stories of their adventures.

And if, as Mrs. Leavis remarks, we are let off the trouble of truly deep thought by a reassurance that everything is really all right — perhaps it’s the continuing repetition of the meme that some problems (mysteries) exist that require the application of intense thought in order to “solve” them that we are gaining, and that this is a valuable frame of mind to maintain as a common understanding. I might not be able to figure out who killed Roger Ackroyd, but that story helps me to understand that there are thought patterns out there that can be learned, attained, and mastered that would have let me equal Poirot’s achievement in doing so. In the meantime, it’s not a terrible thing that I should be reassured about the essential rightness of the world in the background.

I’ll close off these musings with a final thought. What I seem to be describing is a system where mystery writers are cynical in order to reassure readers that the world itself is not a terrible place. Is this a good thing? Would we be better off with finding a mode of intellectual activity that required us to actually develop intellectual skills that identify crimes rather than continuing to experience those skills by observing a fictional detective and pretending we followed right along? Or are the exigencies of modern life such that we’ll develop those skills if and when we need them, and meanwhile it is appropriate merely to remind ourselves that those skills exist in an enjoyable way?  I suspect I know where my readers’ loyalties lie, but I’m prepared to be surprised if my readers care to do so in the comments.

My apologies also to Erle Stanley Gardner, who inspired the title.





Dance of Death, by Helen McCloy (1938)

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

UnknownThis book was also published under the name Design for Dying.

I picked up my copy of this the other day — I read it a number of years ago and had forgotten the details in the intervening time. After refreshing my memory I thought it was a sufficiently enjoyable experience to share it with you.

What is this book about?

Katherine “Kitty” Jocelyn is one of the top debutantes of the New York season. She is slender, dark-haired, pale, and lovely, and in constant demand by advertising agencies to endorse everything from cigarettes to Sveltis reducing pills. Her coming-out party has been anticipated by her family for a long time, and every detail has been under the command of the well-known Mrs. Jowett, the premier social secretary for coming-out parties. Her family has devoted all its time and resources to advancing Kitty’s social career for years.

Unknown-1But the coming-out party does not go as planned, in many respects. Kitty herself is so ill on the night of her masquerade ball that the family persuades her cousin to impersonate her; and, as the reader rightly expects in a murder mystery, Kitty’s body is found soon after. The highly unusual features of her death include the facts that her skin has somehow turned a bright yellow, and her body is so hot that it has managed to maintain a higher-than-normal body temperature — despite its being found in a pile of snow.

Dr. Basil Willing is a psychiatrist who consults with the New York police department who becomes interested in the case. His interest is first piqued by the possibility that Kitty’s cousin Ann is being pressured by the family to continue impersonating the famous debutante; Ann appeals for Dr. Willing’s help to return to her everyday existence. Then there is the bizarre cause of death; there’s a great deal of scientific information packed in here about how and why she died and I won’t spoil it for you, but apparently McCloy came up with an interesting and unusual way of killing someone that is based in scientific reality.

Suspicion falls on members of her family, some of the servants, a couple of Kitty’s many suitors, and even a gossip columnist who seems over-involved in Kitty’s life. But it falls to Dr. Willing to pierce the many competing motives and find what turns out to be a murderer who acted for a very prosaic and understandable reason.

Why is this book worth your time?

13552719._UY475_SS475_I’ve elsewhere spoken of the “brownstone mystery”, a personal coinage describing a type of mystery that’s addressed primarily to a female reader; it’s meant to show the household arrangements of the wealthy class (clothes, social lives, furniture, homes, family relationships) while demonstrating to the reader that wealthy people are just as immoral and vicious as all the other social classes. The brownstone mystery flourished in the 1940s and authors like Frances Crane and Helen Reilly specialized in it. I’ll suggest that this is an early example, but to be frank Helen McCloy is a much better writer than, say, Frances Crane and brings her considerable skills to this, her first book. This is a brownstone mystery plus, and it’s the plus that makes it worth reading.

Unknown-2There’s a lot here to like. Basil Willing became the protagonist of a dozen mysteries in McCloy’s oeuvre, and while his personality is not as fleshed-out as it would later be, especially with the future addition of the beautiful Gisele to his life, he is an interesting and oddly compelling detective. The murder method is fascinating and apparently realistic. McCloy later became known for the occasional mystery involving a little-known chemical, such as the truth serum in 1941’s The Deadly Truth, and her treatment seems scientifically accurate with just enough detail to interest the reader without being tedious. The details of the Jocelyn household and its underlying difficulties are realistic and uncommon. And finally you will understand the motive for the murder without difficulty, but I rather doubt you’ll ever consider it during the course of the novel. The murder plot is clever and well-hidden but not impossible to work out if you’re paying very close attention.

The idea of one person being forced to impersonate another for economic reasons has been the focus of mysteries a number of times; the one that came to my mind in connection with this instance is Puzzle for Fiends by Patrick Quentin. Here the idea is not made much of and soon disappears, which is a little disappointing. Quentin did it better and you might move on to that volume after this, if you’re curious to see how it’s handled over the course of an entire novel.

I frequently pause to comment upon what we learn about the society of the time and place against which the novel is set, but in this case it’s better if I don’t — almost everything is connected with the murder and I’m likely to say too much. But there is quite a bit here about the nature of the “coming out” process, which is a phrase that in 1938 related to debutantes and not sexual preference, and particularly its economic implications. Fascinating stuff and you’ll enjoy it more if you come to it without hints.

A note on editions

31301106My favourite edition is, as usual, the Dell mapback edition — in this case #33, a very early number from about 1942. The cover art by Gerald Gregg features Dell’s trademark, the pioneering use of airbrush for the illustration showing a marionette being manipulated by a skeletal hand, and the typography is excellent; so is the map by Ruth Belew on the back cover, showing the Jocelyn house. I note that there’s an average copy available on eBay today for US$12 and I think this one would be the most collectible; that’s a good price, to my mind. Most of McCloy’s Basil Willing series until about 1950 are available in mapback editions.

The first edition is by William Morrow and I see that what appears to be a good copy without a jacket is available for about US$50. The person on eBay who wants US$650 for a near fine copy in a VG jacket is possibly delusional, since that’s perhaps three times what it should bring to my knowledge, but who am I to say? There’s also a Gollancz omnibus edition of McCloy’s 1st, 3rd, and 4th Basil Willing novels that includes the interesting The Deadly Truth, mentioned above, and might be the best bargain … except for the recent uniform e-books edition from The Murder Room.





When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger (1987)

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

220px-WhenGravityFailsBantamSpectra1988The universe of the science-fiction mystery crossover is smaller than other crossover genres, and I’m not sure why. As I’ve noticed in the past, just about any other genre can easily piggyback on top of the basic carrier wave of the mystery plotline. A crime is committed, a detective investigates, and the crime is solved; it doesn’t matter if it’s a historical mystery or a romantic mystery, a young adult mystery or a spy mystery, the mystery provides the basic plot structure and the other superimposed genre is what attracts the reader.

I suppose it’s more accurate to say that while there are quite a number of science-fiction mystery crossovers, the number of really readable ones is rather small. Too often, the author has decided to retell a traditional story in science fiction terms, and for every intelligent August Derleth who produces clever re-tellings of Sherlock Holmes stories (the Solar Pons stories), there’s a dozen unskilled practitioners who use our reverence for the Great Detective and knowledge of his character to tell a boring and/or uninspired story. Occasionally there’s an inventive writer who falls into a trap; it’s difficult to tell a locked-room mystery story properly if you have aliens around who can walk through walls, or if time travel is a fact of life. That’s what happens when a competent science fiction writer like Larry Niven tries his hand at a mystery; he doesn’t know enough about mystery to make it work properly. In the past I’ve found the science fiction mystery to contain much more chaff than wheat.

Marid_Audran_When_Gravity_FailsOnce in a while, of course, you find a merging of a specific style of mystery with a specific style of science fiction that works quite well. The private-eye story and/or the film noir movie meshes quite well with the science-fiction dystopia story; the best example is probably Blade Runner (1982), where director Ridley Scott added the trappings of film noir to a story by psycho genius science fiction writer Philip K. Dick and produced a great movie.

When Gravity Fails is another successful cross-over of the private-eye story told against a dystopian backdrop and I earnestly recommend it to your attention. It (and its three sequels) were hard to find for many years, and you needed to be actively searching for it in used bookstores if you hoped to find a copy, but these days it’s available on Amazon and in e-format. So you have little excuse to miss this treat.

What is this book about?

Marid Audran, originally from the Maghreb in Northwest Africa, is a small-time hustler in “the Budayeen”, somewhere unspecifed in the Middle East. The Budayeen is the quarter of a large city where prostitutes, alcohol, drugs, and petty crime are rampant. Marid buys, sells, and uses considerable quantities of drugs; his friends and associates are other less-than-reputable citizens who work as prostitutes, pimps, bartenders, and petty criminals.

imagesMarid was born in what we’d call 2172 (and is possibly in his 20s at the time of the novel); there have been a number of scientific and political developments since our century. The main discovery that affects the book is that people routinely have their brains wired for “moddies” and/or “daddies”. Daddies are insertable chips providing skills, like accounting or a knowledge of conversational German, that augment your own personality; moddies contain entire personalities that replace yours entirely (although daddies can still be used on top of them). In other words, you can get a moddie that will make you into Indiana Jones or Kim Kardashian, and adding daddies will allow you to play the violin while you become that person.

A secondary development is that sex reassignment surgery has become routine; Marid doesn’t care if you were born one sex and became another, and it’s not uncommon for people to start a transition and stop halfway, as a “deb”. Marid’s girlfriend began life as a male, and many of his friends have followed similar paths; no one cares what your sexual preference is until they can make money by furthering it.

Marid is unusual, in this society, because he was born a male and remains so, and refuses to have his brain modified to accept moddies and daddies. However, when a series of brutal murders among Marid’s acquaintance begins in the Budayeen, he is forced to become involved. One of the major figures in the Budayeen, crime boss Friedlander Bey, at first suspects Marid of the murders. When that is resolved, Friedlander Bey forces Marid to become his private investigator, at a rate of pay too high to refuse, and to get expensive experimental brain modifications that allow him the widest possible choice of moddies and daddies.

The criminal is killing and mutilating his victims apparently under the influence of a particularly sadistic moddie, possibly one that combines various aspects of various historical serial killers. Marid uses a number of moddies during his investigation, including at one point becoming Nero Wolfe (!) and failing to persuade a hanger-on to chip in as Archie Goodwin. Nero Wolfe and Marid’s own considerable intelligence lead him first to the actual killer and then to the shadowy figure who has been directing the killings.

Why is this worth your time?

images-1As I noted above, the field of the science-fiction mystery — the readable portion — is very small. I’ve enjoyed a few over the years, but there’s more bad ones than good ones. Either the science-fiction aspects overwhelm the mystery story, or vice versa; it’s a tough balance to get right.

George Alec Effinger got it right in this novel, and he did so in a technically very accomplished way. When you’re trying to immerse someone in an unusual environment and time-frame, like 19th century England or 22nd century Africa, you give the flavour by showing how the protagonist reacts to what HE considers to be everyday objects and events around him and letting the reader draw her own conclusions. There’s two ways in which this process usually fails. Either the writer makes the horrible error of getting the details wrong (the 19th century English protagonist looks at his wrist watch) or the writer does an unreadable data dump in the opening chapters to bring you up to date on what you can’t already know. (“Jane knew that the invisible force fields, standard equipment in every flying car since the 2100s, would protect her in the crash.”) The delicate balance is achieved when the protagonist manages to make remarks about what’s going on around him that allow the reader to catch up, without being obvious or introducing a naive character who is in the narrative merely to be told things. Effinger gets this one absolutely bang-on. Not too much, not too little, and it takes a while to get up to speed on why and how things happen, but it’s a very pleasant experience racing up the learning curve. I always enjoy science fiction novels when they manage this perfectly, and very few do.

The other part that Effinger got right is that the structure of the book follows a typical film noir pattern, without pulling its punches. The ending is sad and quite depressing, but it’s gutsy and honest. And there’s a quotation at the beginning of the book that Effinger has nailed in bringing his protagonist into being: from Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder”.

“… He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world … He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”

Unknown-1Marid Audran, despite (or perhaps because of) constant drug and alcohol intake and some fairly obvious character flaws, is the kind of viewpoint character that makes a very pleasant evening’s reading. He’s fascinating, complex, and not all one thing. His surroundings are, to quote Star Wars, “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.” The writing is excellent; Effinger’s ability to take you into a different world is superb.  This is one of the novels I’d recommend to people who don’t like the idea of science-fiction mysteries, possibly due to the same bad experiences I’ve had in the past. And I recommend it to you as a good mystery.

There are extensive references on the internet to this novel being a classic of cyberpunk, a seminal cyberpunk novel, etc. I’m not sure if I can agree 100% with assigning this novel as cyberpunk, but the differences are small. I suppose, like detective fiction, if you have something that “transcends its genre” then it is claimed as a representative of the “higher” art form rather than the “lower”. Not all cyberpunk novels mix film noir stories with futuristic dystopic backgrounds, but since this novel does, I’ll grant you it fits. I think it’s more interesting as a mystery than that, especially since it contains a very knowing nod to Rex Stout, but you can decide for yourself. Certainly cyberpunk was very hot in 1987 and it’s entirely possible that Effinger set out to write one.

Effinger was, unfortunately, both an uneven writer and a short-lived one. He actually wrote two full-length sequels to this volume, but they do not live up to the promise of the first. A Fire in the Sun (1989) and The Exile Kiss (1991) each represent a decline from the previous volume, mostly because Effinger’s finale for the first volume wrote him out of continuing the same life for his protagonist. There was a projected fourth volume that was only a few chapters at the time of Effinger’s untimely death; they look even worse, and that’s sad. I’d almost recommend you read this volume and stop; it’s brilliant in and of itself.

A note on editions

epscifi82_list__78713.1433603782The true first is the hardcover from Arbor House in 1987; you’ll see it above with an uninspired yellow cover and a mawkish illustration. The most expensive version, though, is a jacketless hardcover with 22 carat gold touches on the binding that includes “Collector’s Notes”; Easton Press did this in 1993. Honestly, I can’t figure out why. You can have the first, signed, today for US$125 before postage, etc., and that’s the most collectible one I’ve ever seen. I applaud the instinct to publish some science fiction in archival-quality editions, but this one is gaudy and overdone, to my eye, and the illustrations have nothing to do with the book.

I did this review with a beaten-up copy of the Bantam Spectra first paper edition seen at the top of this column, which is the edition by which I was gobsmacked back in ’87 when it came out. I expect my mental picture of Marid Audran will always be coloured by it. Other editions have followed, including at least one graphic novel, and the novel is currently available in an e-format. You should have no trouble finding your own; I recommend a durable copy since this book stands up to re-reading.



Intertextuality and indoctrination: Why do we read Golden Age detective fiction?

Settle in, this will be a long one 😉 I do not intend to give away too much specific information about any particular work of detective fiction, so no spoiler warning will be required, just this once.


Some months back I published an essay on intertextuality and detective fiction, suggesting that it was one of the reasons we liked to read Golden Age detective fiction (henceforth “GAD”). In that essay I used the term “intertextuality” (which has different meaning depending on whose work you’re reading, so please refer to what I’ve said there if it’s important) to refer, among other things, to the idea that every solution to a puzzle mystery shapes every other solution to every other puzzle mystery. And I noted that this is the kind of thing to which Raymond Chandler may have been referring in the following quotation:

“It is no easy trick to keep your characters and your story operating on a level which is understandable to the semi-literate public and at the same time give them some intellectual and artistic overtones which that public does not seek or demand or, in effect, recognize, but which somehow subconsciously it accepts and likes.

Emphasis mine. What I’ve suggested is that the reading public may not be able to recognize intertextuality in its GAD, but it likes it.

I also promised you a disquisition on “indoctrination”, which I think is another crucial “intellectual and artistic overtone” that goes into the enjoyment of Golden Age detective fiction, but I didn’t define it. I said that it’s one of the two reasons that I actually DO think that people read detective fiction; I’ve since come up with a third, for which I use the general heading of “ingenuity”.  So, so far, the three “I”s of detective fiction.

Why Do People Read Detective Fiction?

bloody_murderJulian Symons, in his ground-breaking 1972 history of detective fiction, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel suggests — and I am very loosely paraphrasing here — that people read detective fiction because they like the way that the genre breaks order and then restores it at the end. The crime is committed (order is broken), the detective investigates, and order is restored when the criminal is caught and punished. It is true that detective fiction, if it hopes to be taken seriously qua detective fiction, must solve any mysteries that it has raised during the course of the story; “law and order” will generally prevail, especially in the context of GAD. I’ve always found this suggested motivation of the restoration of order hard to accept on more than an intellectual level; frankly, it never echoed with me viscerally. Did you ever pick up a murder mystery and think, “Oh, good, now I get to see order broken and restored!”  No, neither did I.

I’ve been looking for reasons that make more sense about why people read detective fiction. My mind kept returning to the idea that GAD detective fiction in general is one of three immutable genres; that is, every story in GAD is almost exactly the same at a very basic level. (The crime is committed, the detective investigates, the criminal is caught and punished.) Of all the genres I can think of, there are only two others of which this is the case; romance and pornography. Science fiction and westerns, adventure and fantasy, espionage and thrillers and “chick lit”, all of these genres have plots and characters that range widely and are impossible to predict. But in the three immutable genres, the basic stories are always the same.

So if the story is always the same, then what must be differentiating good GAD from bad is some other quality that is carried within the story, or around the story, or above the story — essentially, something not-story. Symons suggests that it’s the restoration of order, and previously I’ve suggested that intertextuality is at least one such quality.

At this point, I went looking on the internet for what people say is the reason they read GAD. I found some of that, to be sure. But what I found within the boundaries of that search was a great deal of material about why women read cozy mysteries. I say “women” not in some overlooked residue of sexism, but because I was impressed by the sheer omnipresence of women’s commentary outweighing men’s by about 99% to 1%. And there are an awful lot of women writing about what it is that they like about cozy mysteries. I started to get interested.

There’s a primitive level of reaction to their chosen literature, by the least literate stratum of aficionados, that I’ve actually seen represented as “Well, I love the plots and the characters.” (As opposed to heaven knows what else — theme?) This is enthusiastic but not very useful because all books have plots and characters. But since the mystery genre is the written word, its aficionados are more literate than many, and I soon found a reasonably high level of discourse on the Internet.

10e1b3c02220a489a82fcf2175a32f3e--nook-books-read-booksOne comment on Goodreads I found particularly interesting: “Why are we particularly interested in the sleuth’s job/craft/hobby?…We could certainly research knitting/cooking/cats on any website. So what makes the combination of characters, occupation and mystery so interesting–and so addictive?”

I think this is the quote that allowed me to make a connection between the cozy mystery and GAD, in terms of why people read it. I started to look at the qualities of GAD that the present-day reader might suggest draws them to the sub-genre. Over and over again, it’s the puzzles and/or the characters. Oddly, to my rough-and-ready estimate after encountering hundreds of mystery readers over the years, the men like the puzzles and the women like the characters (and I emphasize, this is nothing more than a generality). But a lot of GAD fans like locked-room and impossible mysteries, all plot and no character, and a lot of GAD fans revere the great romances of Peter and Harriet and Troy and Alleyn and who, like Dorothy L. Sayers, were “tired of a literature without bowels”.

That allowed me to reduce down to the simplest level by striking the responses that had to do with plots and characters. All books have those things, and there has to be something about those plots and characters that lets us tell good ones from bad ones. What was left, from my commenter on cozies, was … “occupation”. The sleuth’s “job/craft/hobby”.

And that, as you can imagine, was temporarily baffling to me, until I took a step back and realized that, yes, the modern cozy is focused on the occupation of the protagonist. Whether it’s a series about a yarn store or a dog grooming business or a cookie bakery, there are literally hundreds of series of novels about a woman running her own business. Was this a focus on what I have called elsewhere the “information mystery”, where the reader is given a behind-the-scenes look at an unusual background in the course of solving a mystery?

Although I personally enjoy the information mystery form, I can’t accept that this is a huge motivation for people to read mysteries. I’ll cut some of my logical trail short here and suggest that the quality that the respondent identified in the specific was “occupation”, but what this is really about, in larger scale, is “the transmission of social information”. Aha! People read mysteries because they transmit social information.

Parenthetically, I realized that the cozy mystery is actually designed to allow its readers the experience of agency: that is, they get to live vicariously in the persona of someone who has the desire and ability to control their surroundings. The woman who runs a yarn store and solves mysteries has the ability to take a few days off in order to investigate her neighbours — not a common experience in today’s economic environment. So that’s a very specific transmission of social information.

The kind of transmission of social information that I think people enjoy about GAD — and enjoyed, in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s — is subtle. It seems to consist of a repeating pattern; a GAD author has a “voice” that is making authorial observations in the background while the mystery plot is playing itself out in the foreground. The author is, in a sense, teaching the reader how society works, according to the author’s point of view. If the reader likes the author’s voice, and/or agrees with the observations, then the reader will continue to read that author’s books.

Here’s an example to show you what I mean; from Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962).  First a quote from Chapter 1-II, an internal monologue by Miss Marple, then an explanation.

“[T]here had been Amy and Clara and Alice, those ‘nice little maids’ arriving from St Faith’s Orphanage, to be ‘trained’, and then going on to better paid jobs elsewhere. Rather simple, some of them had been, and frequently adenoidal, and Amy distinctly moronic. They had gossiped and chattered with the other maids in the village and walked out with the fishmonger’s assistant, or the under-gardener at the Hall, or one of Mr Barnes the grocer’s numerous assistants. Miss Marple’s mind went back over them affectionately thinking of all the little woolly coats she had knitted for their subsequent offspring. They had not been very good with the telephone, and no good at all at arithmetic. On the other hand, they knew how to wash up, and how to make a bed. They had had skills, rather than education.”

be85ca85cd891c86d13e7e3dd9933cdcI must acknowledge here that Miss Marple is speaking about the past, so although the date is 1962, she’s talking about the ’20s and ’30s. There is so much social information within this single paragraph that it’s almost too much to go through, but here are some bullet points that illustrate what Agatha Christie is saying about Miss Marple’s society — indoctrinating the reader — in that paragraph:

  • Orphanages contained young women who received an education that was suitable for their lowered station in life; they weren’t trained to be teachers or doctors, but servants. Such people in training received lower wages than their trained counterparts.
  • It’s socially acceptable for a member of the middle or upper classes to compare a member of the lower classes to a “moron”. Miss Marple is a “nice person” and she does it.  (Technically it indicates an IQ between 51 and 70, or possibly a mental age of between 8 and 12.)
  • Orphanages are associated with Christian religious organizations named after saints. Although the word “charity” is not used here, it’s likely that Miss Marple saw the training process that she was administering as being connected with church-related charitable work. Orphanages exist because there are sufficiently large numbers of children without parents that they must be managed in an organized way by society.
  • Fishmongers still called themselves that, and had young male assistants; similarly, grocers had young male assistants. These young men were of the lower social orders and it was suitable for them to associate romantically with female orphans/maids. People still ate enough fish that a small village would have a store entirely devoted to selling fish.
  • Supermarkets were not yet known and the economic pattern of a village was such that one went to separate stores for fish and “groceries”.
  • The provision of gardening services at certain estates (the “Hall”) was sufficiently economically viable as to allow young men of the lower classes to work as “under-gardeners”.
  • Certain residences are so well-known that they take a capital letter to distinguish them from others.  The Hall employs under-gardeners, and presumably their supervisory gardeners; therefore it has grounds that require full-time employees to maintain them, and someone can afford to pay them to do that.
  • “Walking out” is a nebulous process that we would know today as “dating”, but it had the implication of constancy. If you were “walking out” with someone you were progressing towards marriage, or at least towards having children.
  • It’s appropriate for elderly middle/upper-class women to knit handmade woollen clothing for the infants of the lower-class maids who had been in their employ. The word “subsequent” indicates that they left Miss Marple’s employment when they got married. Knitting is an appropriate occupation for a member of the leisure class that employs household servants to “wash up”.
  • Adenoidectomy and widespread use of antibiotics to cure adenoidal infections had not yet become commonplace. Having an “adenoidal” voice or presence was somehow undesirable and apparently associated with the lower classes.
  • If someone knows how to “wash up”, it indicates they have experience at washing dishes by hand. Dishwashing machines were not apparently used in the home.
  • Elderly ladies without a large income can afford to have a personal maidservant in their homes. It might be that Miss Marple is trading off lower wages with the training function that she is supervising.

And many more, most less securely expressed. (Why is it associated with the lower classes to be poor with arithmetic? Etc.) Of course, no author actually sits down to tell you these things; they form part of the unspoken backdrop and the author at the time of writing assumed you know these things.

Janssen_Reading Mysteries for Romance Lord Peter WimseyI’ll suggest that every mystery from the Golden Age of Detection contains such material, spoken and unspoken. And of course immediately I expect you’re thinking, “Well, every single book I’ve ever read does that.” Undeniably so. What I’m suggesting is that this is a particular reason why people enjoy reading Golden Age mysteries. Whether the plot and characters are illustrating a “pure puzzle” plot or Peter is proposing to Harriet on an Oxford bridge in Latin, the authorial material about how society works — what I call “indoctrination” — is always present and, I’ll suggest, forms a significant part of the reader’s enjoyment. (I’ve called it “indoctrination” because it imparts “doctrine” — the rules and processes of social behaviour at a certain time and place.)

imagesMy understanding is currently that this takes place specifically in mysteries because people read mysteries in order to “figure out” the plot. If there’s a corpse on the library hearthrug, and a button lying nearby, the reader knows because of the mystery form that that button is significant and must be explained before the end of the book. The size and shape of the button will tell the detective and the reader whether the button comes from a glove or a raincoat. And when the raincoat is discovered from which that button has become separated — the astute reader will be reading carefully to note if that button comes from the right or left face of the garment, because the astute reader knows, as a matter of societal information, that men’s and women’s raincoats have the buttons on opposite sides. Usually the author finds a way to have one character explain the difference between men’s and women’s raincoats explicitly, for the benefit of the reader, if it’s important to the determination of the identity of the murderer. British raincoat habits are not automatically known by readers in, say, Tahiti. But there’s always a level at which the author assumes that the reader shares an understanding; we all know that buttons are generally from human clothes and not, say, from pets or vacuum cleaners or books, to mention three things that could have a legitimate function in a library.

1930s-dinner-party-©-Bert-Morgan-PG-3As we get further and further away from the publication date of a mystery, the number of unspoken assumptions grows larger and the amount of background knowledge required must usually be accumulated from other reading. Take, for instance, the idea that when dining at an aristocratic country house, there is an explicit but unspoken precedence that takes place as people enter the dining room. People of higher social rank enter before people of lower social rank. This process is referred to as “going in” — the third daughter of an earl, being an “Honourable”, goes in before a famous but untitled movie star. And the younger daughters of impoverished earls are sometimes very zealous about their exact place in the social order if it happens to be higher than that of wealthy commoners.

Nearly a century later, it is almost necessary to explain the concepts of higher and lower social rank to someone born in the 21st century, who has absorbed from the cradle the credo that everyone is created equal. In the GAD context, it can be thought of as an attack on the established social order to “go in” before someone of higher rank; certainly if the author tells us that Mr. Jones pushed his way into the dining room ahead of Lady Bumbershoot, we know something important about how Mr. Jones feels about the social conventions IF we know that the correct order of “going in” is important to the people involved.

Whether or not the social gaucheries of Mr. Jones have anything to do with the later murder of Lord Bumbershoot is a matter for the author, of course. But the reader of a murder mystery is conditioned to examine such things to see if the author is telling them something that bears upon the mystery. Suppose that Lord Bumbershoot left a half-completed letter on his writing desk suggesting that he and his wife had been gravely insulted by some unidentified person’s behaviour. That will not be a clue to anyone who doesn’t know about “going in”; the person aware of the “going in” rules will suspect Mr. Jones. The truly experienced GAD reader will, of course, look for someone other than Mr. Jones, who is perhaps a red herring in this context. What I’m getting at is that the “going in” rules form a part of the plot and are important to the characters; but if you don’t know what they are or even that they exist, you won’t be getting the maximum amount of information from the author about the plot necessary to solve the mystery.

Ultimately, the constant reader of GAD amasses a large amount of social information that may or may not be useful in the context of any particular mystery novel. Perhaps in a different novel, people go in to dinner without anyone remarking upon who goes in before whom, or why. That particular piece of indoctrination isn’t relevant to this novel, but perhaps the fact that British pubs closed early on Sundays, or that gas rationing was in place during the Second World War, may have something to do with the mystery’s solution. Sometimes you’re told specifically; sometimes it’s assumed you know without being told.

I’m going to suggest that we read GAD partly in order to collect these little snippets of indoctrination and that we enjoy that process enough to keep us returning to the GAD form. We may think, “Oh, if *I* was living in England in the 1930s, I would know not to push into the dining room in front of Lady Bumbershoot.” We might speculate on the whys and wherefores of early closing day and wonder how it would affect our everyday lives, or whether the potential loss of one’s hereditary title due to an undisclosed illegitimacy would be sufficient motive for murder. It can be a kind of cultural archaeology; trying to understand, in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night, why it is that female scholars are treated differently than male scholars — or indeed what it is that “illegitimacy” meant in a modern time when many people’s parents are not married. We think about how it might affect our romantic relationships in 1930s England if the object of our affections were of a different social class — or the same gender.

police and fire awrds 1938 in oldham
cc ah mayall.And for the person who reads a lot of GAD, as I think most of my readers do, there’s another kind of pleasure available; that of “mastery”. It’s pleasant to realize without being told that Mr. Jones should not have pushed into the dining room ahead of Lady Bumbershoot, and why. In a meta-sense, it’s pleasant to be aware that if Jones’s faux pas is important to the murder plot, the author will make sure you are aware that Lady Bumbershoot has been insulted, and precisely how — then in your attempts to solve the mystery, you can focus on more relevant things, like the button on the hearthrug (without having to look up the meaning of “hearthrug” like a millennial might have to).

I wonder if I’m reading too much into this provision of background social information; as I noted, it’s certainly a part of every novel. But I think it’s peculiarly a part of the mystery genre because the informed reader tries to assess the meaning of events and objects in respect to the mystery plot in every such story. I’ll maintain that indoctrination is at least worth considering as one of the reasons why people still read mysteries from 90 years ago, and enjoy them, and keep the best ones in print.

When I did my piece on intertextuality, I left the reader with a hint that a future piece would be this one about indoctrination. I’m happy to say that I’ve identified a third term that begins with the letter “I” that I regard as an element that explains in part why people read mysteries; ingenuity. You may have an idea already what I’m getting at, but I intend it to be the subject of a future article. In the meantime, your comments on the concept of indoctrination are welcome below.










The Dutch Shoe Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1931)

dutchSome blogfriends are working their way through the great American mystery writer Ellery Queen book by book, a prospect which interested me sufficiently to chime in on a discussion of this volume at least.  I intend to add links to their work on this book as I become aware of it; I just wanted to mention that, as always, my work is based on my own analysis (since I haven’t yet seen theirs).

I will note here that I’ve
EQ & the Murder Ringalso screened the movie that was loosely based upon this novel, Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring (1941), starring Ralph Bellamy as the great detective. The novel is not cited in the credits. Here, the phrase “loosely based” is stretched to its limits; I merely wanted to alert my readers to the existence of what might be termed a movie of this novel. Feel free to not track it down, it’s rubbish.

In an attempt at clarity, I use “Ellery Queen” to refer to the detective character and “EQ” to refer to the cousins, Messrs. Dannay and Lee, who wrote the books.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this mystery novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

The Dutch Shoe Mystery, by Ellery Queen

What is this book about?

TheDutchShoeMysteryEllery Queen is trying to figure out a tricky point concerned with the time of death of a diabetic, and drops in on his friend, Dr. John Minchen, for a consultation at Minchen’s offices in the Dutch Memorial Hospital. After they dispose of the question, the doctor invites Ellery to witness an operation.

Abigail Doorn, the elderly patron of the Dutch Memorial, has fallen and ruptured her gall-bladder; since she is also a diabetic, she requires the services of the hospital’s finest surgeon, Dr. Janney, to save her life, and the operation is imminent in the main operating theatre. Ellery is queasily interested in seeing the surgery; the two meet various hospital personnel and members of Mrs. Doorn’s family, awaiting the results.

03c_DutchA hush falls over the operating theatre as the doctors, gowned and masked, enter. The patient is brought in — but the doctors soon realize something is wrong. Mrs. Doorn was strangled with a piece of wire before her body was wheeled into the room.

Ellery takes immediate charge of the scene and stops anyone from entering or leaving while the police are on their way. Two immediate skeins of investigation present themselves. Mrs. Doorn’s immense fortune is the mainstay of a great deal of work at the hospital, and also supports her family. It soon appears as though a mysterious figure had been impersonating Dr. Janney in the minutes before the operation.

A discovery which interests Ellery more than any of the police is that of a bundle of clothes which were apparently used by the person impersonating Dr. Janney. Of most interest is a pair of white duck trousers that have been basted to temporarily raise the hems, and a pair of shoes with a number of interesting features, including missing tongues and a broken lace that has been mended with adhesive tape.

22991After suspicion has been thrown on various people affiliated with the hospital, and upon various members of Mrs. Doorn’s family, there is another murder that seems to clarify things for Ellery. He performs a piece of extended deduction about the condition of the shoes and pants, then about a piece of furniture in the room where the second murder takes place, and sends for a mysterious document that he knows exists. There is a stirring denouement in which Ellery announces a very surprising solution to the murders, and then the document is produced as complete justification for his theory.

Why is this book worth your time?

Dutch Shoe Mystery1This book gets an automatic pass into your library simply because, well, it’s an Ellery Queen novel. If you’re at all interested in the Golden Age of Detection, anything by EQ is important and the first dozen or so are absolutely crucial. In the 1930s EQ led the pack of many similar writers writing puzzle mysteries upon the Great Detective model of S.S. Van Dine; the plots are complicated and difficult and the erudition is sprinkled throughout. EQ set the goalposts for good mystery writing in the United States for a long time, both in their own novels and the significant contribution that is Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in order to understand the branding of mystery tropes, you have to understand Ellery Queen.

03l_DutchThat being said, even in that first nonet of the “Nationalities” series, some are primus inter pares and some are also-rans.  This book is chronologically the third written by the cousins: Roman Hat was 1929, French Powder was 1930, Dutch Shoe was 1931, and then, kaboom, a deluge of great mysteries. EQ published 4 mysteries in 1932 and 4 in 1933, four of them as by Barnaby Ross, and they’re all worth your time. An important EQ reference title, Royal Bloodline from 1974 by Francis M. Nevins, Jr., says that in 1931 the cousins “were persuaded by their agent to take the plunge and make it as professionals or bust”. I think it’s reasonable to assume that that plunge took place between the publication of Dutch Shoe and whatever volume came next. The cousins worked like dogs for the next two years to get their careers off the ground.

So let’s say that Dutch Shoe is the last of the Nationalities series to have any tinge of … I won’t call it “amateurism” because those books are not amateurish. But there is a small difference between someone who has a “day job” and writes, and someone whose writing pays the bills. Professionals try to write what sells (rubbish like 1938’s The Four of Hearts, for instance) whereas your day job supports you while you try out different ways of telling your stories.

971588Here, it’s interesting to see what EQ had not yet learned how to do. They hadn’t yet perfected the idea of “the false solution then the true”, which would blossom so dramatically the next year in Greek Coffin (1932). They hadn’t yet established Ellery’s reluctance to talk about the solution to a mystery before he was willing to commit to it (Greek Coffin and 1958’s The Finishing Stroke will tell you why) — and really this idea is present in everything else they ever wrote about Ellery Queen, because it’s so useful in a storytelling context for mysteries. It’s a reason why the plot should automatically build towards a dramatic climax, and the cousins must have blessed the day they thought of it.

For me, this novel is quite “stripped down”. Ellery still has large elements of pompous Philo Vance-ean twit, but we don’t get much of the angst about ruining people’s lives in the course of solving a mystery in which Ellery wallows later in his career. There’s truly a minimal amount of clueing, per se; the shoelace, the basted pants, a timetable, a map of the hospital floor, and that’s about it. Nothing like a corpse with spears stuck into its clothing, or a naked corpse in a full-length cape, or a crucified headless corpse; a dead old lady lying on an operating table. The rest is all investigation of people’s whereabouts and character. It’s not surprising that most of the hospital professionals and the victim’s family members have something to hide — this is, after all, a mystery. There’s chapter after chapter of “Ellery talks to another suspect”; here’s where he was, here’s why he might have wanted to kill Mrs. Doorn.

7156995._UY200_There’s not much … excitement here. The solution of the mystery is based entirely upon two things; deductions based on the shoes/pants, and deductions based on circumstances associated with the second murder (the position of a cabinet). As Ellery says in the blow-off, “the shoes and the trousers told me everything but the name … the cabinet told me the name. And it was all over.” No car chases, no forest fire. Ellery then deduces that a certain document must be in existence, and the revelation of its identity is the last line of the book. If you’re looking for action, this one is a dud.

There are two ways in which this novel is yet another variation on a recurring theme; I’m indebted to the Nevins text cited above for the overarching Queenian theme of “manipulation”. I can’t be too specific about what happens here, but there is a plot element in which one character directs the criminal actions of another, and this is a repeating element in many, many EQ stories: Ten Days’ Wonder (1948), The Player on the Other Side (1963), and 1932’s The Tragedy of Y, for instance.

The Tragedy of Y actually combines both recurring Queenian themes, as does Dutch Shoe from a year earlier; the second element is the story of a wealthy family ruled by an elderly matriarch where members of the family are “poisoned” and evil. In Tragedy of Y it’s the taint of syphilis, in 1943’s There Was an Old Woman it’s hereditary lunacy. The Doorn family in this novel is perhaps a prototype for these later examples; here, Abigail’s son is an overweight, profligate roue but her daughter is relatively normal, and the poison is merely money. Abigail Doorn’s character is perhaps more closely modelled on Hetty Green than later novels’ characters.

And finally, there’s an editorial note in Chapter 17 that specifically notes that Dutch Shoe takes place chronologically before even Roman Hat, the first volume published. This might actually be the first adventure of Ellery Queen … showing promise of greatness yet to come, but not manifesting much of it yet. Not much action, not much characterization; lots and lots of logical deduction from small clues and the occasional false note. You should read it, but you’ll enjoy others of the Nationalities series a lot more.

What do we learn about the society of the time from this book?

There are a number of interesting elements here for the social historian; some major, many decidedly minor.

I am still trying to figure out the meaning of a casually capitalized word tossed into the Foreword, as by unseen framing character “J.J. McC.”: “… this is my reward for engineering the publication of his Actionized memoirs”. Readers, on “Actionized”, I am stumped. I had rather thought it was some personal development movement like Pelmanism but my research has led me nowhere. Your comments are welcome.

One minor character is the head of the Obstetrical Department, Dr. Pennini. Dr. Minchen is explaining the bad relationships among the staff, and mentions that Drs. Pennini and Janney don’t get along.

“Not petty, Ellery.  You don’t know Dr. Pennini, or you wouldn’t say that. Latin blood, fiery, the vengeful type, she’s certainly far from –”

“What’s that?”

Minchen seemed surprised. “I said she was the vengeful type. Why?”

Ellery lit a cigarette with elaborate ceremony. “Naturally.  Stupid of me. You didn’t mention …”

In other words, in 1931, an exceptionally intelligent logician doesn’t consider the possibility that a doctor can be female. Fascinating as a pointer to how things were; after meeting Dr. Pennini, Ellery then proceeds to make a couple of sexist remarks, including quoting Euripides: “I hate a learned woman.”  There are a couple of examples in the long bibliography of EQ where there’s a woman character who is treated with an unpleasantly virulent misogyny, most notably Delia Priam in 1951’s The Origin of Evil; this would be one of the earliest, but luckily it doesn’t last long in this volume.

The relationship among amateur detectives, police officers, and the newspapers is an interesting one in this book. There appears to be an implicit assumption that the newspapers are entitled to access to police officials, and are always admitted to crime scenes to take pictures and the like; more interesting because it’s tacit. One newspaperman is allowed pretty much a complete entree behind the scenes and repays the favour by not writing negative stories during the course of the investigation. But there’s a brief moment where we see that other newspapers are calling for Inspector Queen’s resignation for his obvious failure, etc.

The reader has to remember that at the time of publication of this book, insulin was only ten years old; the management of Type 1 diabetes was not what it is today, to be sure. I suspect that the details of surgery on a diabetic are accurate for 1931, and that really is very interesting; it was much more life-and-death than it is today, to be sure.

And another tiny puzzling phrase: “[so-and-so] must be guarded as if he were the Maharajah of Punjab. I want a detailed report of the identity, conversation and subsequent movements of every soul who comes within ten feet of him!”  This Maharajah may have been the young man of the Victorian Era who spent his early years pretty much under house arrest; I’m not sure that his restrictive lifestyle was a household word in 1930s USA. Possibly this was just a generalized comment regarding how closely wealthy people are guarded; possibly this is a reference to the guarding of the Koh-i-Noor diamond and people who owned it. Hard to say.

There are a couple of examples in this book where a reasonable amount of research is unable to reveal exactly what the authors had in mind with a specific reference; it’s sad to think that in less than a century, our information about such things has deteriorated to this extent. In another 50 years we may have to have a cultural glossary attached to GAD just to understand things like telephone party lines, rubber rationing, and the niceties of interaction with servants (or servants themselves).

Notes on editions

My favourite edition, I think, is shown above; the later cover variant of Pocket 202 with the group of startled masked doctors against a yellow background. Delightfully lurid.

The first edition is the “Queen of diamonds” edition also shown above; as of today, there only appears to be one such for sale on Abe. This is a copy signed by Manfred Lee in terrible shape, with no jacket (“fair” in this context means, “barely saleable”); the dealer is asking US$250. Hard to say what that means a better copy would bring, signed or unsigned.

md1308691993There’s one interesting paperback edition from Signet in 1968; the cover nearly eschews illustration entirely and spends three-quarters of the cover in text, pretty much repeating the function of the traditional “Challenge to the Reader”. I think it’s quite appropriate for a novel like this, where the focus is almost entirely on deduction, to be marketed as such; a remarkable example of truth in book design, which doesn’t happen often.










Brief notes on a few to avoid

As I had occasion to remark recently, I haven’t been enjoying the Golden Age of Detection lately. I suspect that after decades of diligent and obsessive reading, it may well be that I’ve read everything worth reading and now there’s nothing left but the dregs … or it could be merely that I’ve had a long run of bad luck with book acquisition and book choices.

Rather than spend a lot of time going into just one volume I disliked and why, I thought I’d sum up a few recent disappointing experiences. I hasten to add that, as a contributor to DorothyL once furiously reminded me, yes, I am aware that people worked hard on these books and what novels did I ever publish anyway? How dare I not like specific books, and for … reasons? It may well be that the book that did not please me would please you, and possibly for the same reasons. So please take these comments with a grain of salt. My belief is that my opinions don’t change anyone’s mind who would have purchased (or not purchased) a particular book anyway. And from most of these authors I have had pleasure in their other works, so there’s that.

UnknownNearly Nero, by Loren D. Estleman (2017)

This is a volume of comedic short stories about “Claudius Lyon, the Man Who Would Be Wolfe”. Essentially a wealthy and overweight man who is fascinated by the Nero Wolfe stories tries to emulate the great detective by setting up an equivalent household and solving cases for nothing. The short stories are amusing but slight; the humour is vulgar and obvious.

Although it’s clear that the author is immensely knowledgeable about the Wolfe stories, and I understand that he is taking a humorous approach rather than a reverent one, there’s a certain quality of intellect that is sadly lacking. Without getting into detail, there’s a Wolfe novel where he reflects upon the use of a diphthong and thereby solves a case. There’s also a “continuation” novel by Robert Goldsborough in which the solution depends upon a linguistic connection occasioned by a suspect’s last name. The first story in this book has to do with an error occasioned by a homophone, and it’s just so damn crass and obvious, I nearly lost my will to continue. The remainder was pretty much a series of “single trick” stories; once you realize the trick, the story is over. They are not dependent on, or interactive with, the relationship between pseudo-Archie and pseudo-Nero, and indeed the stories could be about anyone.

Stout wielded a rapier and Estleman is swinging a large and very blunt instrument. My judgement is NOT Nearly Nero.

imagesRipped (A Jack the Ripper Time-Travel Thriller), by Shelly Dickson Carr (2012)

This is a book by the granddaughter of GAD Grandmaster John Dickson Carr.  Where he wrote for adults, she is writing for pre-teens. Where he had magnificently researched historical detail, she has apparently memorized the contents of a dictionary of Cockney rhyming slang and uses it obsessively. Where he added a delightful smell of Satanic brimstone to his time-travel mystery novels, she merely knocks off the central premise of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. In short, he could write and she cannot.

I have to say that I took into consideration that the target audience for this novel is a “young adult” and I am certainly not that. It’s not fair to dislike a book for not being written to your level when it wasn’t meant to be. As well, I was sort of hoping that his talent had made it down to her generation, and I think it’s difficult to justify blaming an author for not being her grandfather. That’s a bit unfair. However, I note that Ms. Dickson Carr uses a different name with which to copyright her works; she’s deliberately inviting the comparison and has to live with the consequences.

Anyway, the book is just … relentlessly okay. It has an overall air of moral correctness that is something adults fondly imagine that children like; children are, happily, not usually fooled. The author confesses that she has taken liberties with details of the Ripper’s victims. She has also somehow managed to sanitize the gruesome details without really doing so, if that makes sense; there are descriptions of slashed throats, etc., but you get the feeling the author would really rather be focused on something much nicer. Characters are constantly grimacing and gesturing with their fists to express emotion, because the author has apparently been told it’s not writerly to merely tell the reader what’s happening. But what that emotion is precisely is not clear, and so everyone strides around like a bunch of demented mimes, making no sense. People just don’t act like this; even young adults will know better.

I believe this book to have been self-published, or the equivalent in production from a tiny press. The cover bears an announcement that the book was awarded the “Benjamin Franklin Award” by the “Independent Book Publishers Association”; I was sufficiently curious to look up the website for this and stopped reading when I read “Winning an IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award™ expands your marketability and solidifies your credibility.” It certainly may expand your marketability but trust me, your credibility just went down the tubes. This award is worse than meaningless, it’s misleading; as near as I could tell, the marketing materials are more important than the literary merit. It will be a mark in the future of a book to avoid, for me.

x298The Maze: An Exercise in Detection by Philip MacDonald (1932)

I’d been looking forward to reading this for years; an obscure but well-regarded novel by a favourite author, republished in 2016 as part of the Detective Club reprint series from Collins that has been so successful lately. For a long time, I’d been hearing about this novel as being a triumph of the “pure” detective story. Well, this latest reprint has lifted a 1980 introduction to the novel by Julian Symons, who accurately if incautiously remarks, “… The Maze has the weakness inherent in that desire for a wholly logical crime story, the weakness that we take an interest in the solution to the crime but not in the people who may have committed it.”

Here’s how MacDonald put it in his own introduction from 1932: “In this book I have striven to be absolutely fair to the reader. There is nothing—nothing at all—for the detective that the reader has not had. More, the reader has had his information in exactly the same form as the detective—that is, the verbatim report of evidence and question.”

This is absolutely the case. And the result is a book that balances an exquisitely boring plot with a lack of characterization or, indeed, anything much of interest at all. It’s certainly a fair book, as I’d heard for years, but so is Sudoku. The solution is somewhat unusual, principally because it breaks one of the “rules” that I associate with the Golden Age, but it is neither satisfying nor ultimately interesting. This is why Symons called them Humdrums; it’s a book-length game of Cluedo.

I know Philip MacDonald wrote many, many more interesting books and I recommend any of them except this one. Similarly this seems to be one of the few clinkers in the otherwise excellent choices of Collins’s Detective Club editors. Possibly it’s that it had been difficult to get for a long time and they bowed to pressure for a choice from what is essentially their own backlist. But some of my readers are fond of the pure puzzle form and I am sure they will enjoy this; no distracting characterization or description to get in the way.

28220808All the Little Liars: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery by Charlaine Harris (2016)

This is #9 in the long-running Aurora Teagarden series of cozy mysteries by Charlaine Harris, who still feels compelled to write these despite the flood of huge royalty cheques from True Blood and her other works which would allow her to retire in comfort.  And in what is surely a coup of genius, she’s created yet another series (the Midnight, Texas books and upcoming TV programme) that seems designed as a kind of rest home for the subsidiary characters from her other series who will not die. Please GOD let this be the last Aurora Teagarden novel she writes.

All the Little Liars is a festival of minor characters from the previous books in the series, which seems to be the mainstay of this writer’s career. There is so much nonsense from other volumes weighing down this book that one has to focus really hard on the slight and ridiculous criminal plot. Occasionally Harris’s work has a freshness and energy, not to mention excellent characterization, but this is just tired and tiresome. The plot concerns a teenage girl who identifies as LGBTQ — the young woman is treated respectfully but the protagonist’s young male relative is sexually assaulted by a trucker while hitchhiking, which seems to happen for no plot-related reason that I can grasp. It’s contradictory and vaguely unpleasant to contemplate. The book is pretty much unreadable, at least to me. I know that Harris has many, MANY fans who will take this amiss, and they would possibly suggest that perhaps I have not tried hard to appreciate her work. Believe me, I have tried. But over the years her books have become slighter and slighter in plot and heavier and heavier in characterization to no purpose that I am no longer able to shovel aside the heaps of bumph to get to the meat that is barely there.

There have been six low-budget Vancouver-based made-for-television productions of books from this series and doubtless this is meant to be fodder for yet another film. Aurora Teagarden is impossibly perfect and so it was apparently appropriate to have her portrayed by the impossibly perfect Candace Cameron Bure. This actress is a former child star and there’s just something ABOUT her — she’s like a Stepford wife who’s practised hard and learned how to smile a lot, and I find her impossibly creepy to watch. The films themselves are fairly close to the novels, but there’s a smell of bologna in the air at all times and you just know that nothing unpleasant will ever happen that isn’t completely resolved by the two-hour mark.

As I was checking the dates, etc., for this piece I learned to my horror that a tenth volume in the series is expected in September of 2017. I may wait for it to come out in paperback before I avoid it 😉

9310142The Velvet Hand, by Helen Reilly (1953)

This book has been sitting staring at me to one side of my desk now for months. I’ve been trying and trying to think about something nice to say about this book, and I can’t. It’s been out of print almost since it was published, and for once, I think the paperback market was correct to refuse it. It’s another book of which I’d been aware for years and never come across a copy; just disappointing, that’s all. Rather a waste of time for Inspector McKee and me.

It’s a poor example of what I have elsewhere called the “brownstone mystery”, where the main function of the plot is to carry the reader through observations about how upper-class people live, complete with details of clothing, furniture, and bitchiness. The mystery here will not trouble anyone with experience in reading Agatha Christie; in fact the solution was so obvious that I discarded it early on and was working my way through exactly how the answer had been double-twisted. Pfui, as Nero Wolfe says.  SPOILER ALERT: This is, in fact, a variation on the Birlstone Gambit, and since that was last successfully done by Ellery Queen in 1935, it’s long past time in 1953 that it was retired.  END SPOILER

51c8rYTmg-L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Death in the Middle Watch, by Leo Bruce (1974)

I really, really like a lot of Leo Bruce’s novels about schoolmaster Carolus Deene, but I cannot warm up to this at all. There’s a lot of satirical material here. This includes the promotion to the main stage of the repellent Mr. and Mrs. Stick, the married couple who “do” for Deene, whose low-class antics are usually relegated to the sidelines. Most of this stuff just isn’t funny and I constantly wanted to fast-forward through the comedy. Almost all of the characters are played for laughs and the detective spends most of his time sneering at how bloody awful all the suspects are being. The plot itself is — well, it’s sort of an inside-out version of a rather famous story by Agatha Christie. The reason that Deene and the Sticks are on a cruise is completely unbelievable, the characters are shuffling through the timetable one-dimensionally … the late great Mr. Bruce seems to have phoned this one in. The shipboard comedy mystery combination inevitably brings to mind John Dickson Carr’s The Blind Barber, which I personally believe is an awful book by a great writer; perhaps the comparison is more accurate than I’d realized.

10444918The Big Grouse, by Douglas Clark (1986)

Elsewhere I have talked about the “police procedural” form as being novels about the activities of a group of police officers, who work together on one or many cases simultaneously. Their personal lives are usually intertwined with their cases. This series is a long-running one about the activities of Chief Superintendent Masters and his team who investigate murders in a matey and jokey way, except when it comes to the crunch. Many of their cases have to do with strange poisons and scientific/pharmacological backgrounds.

I’ve enjoyed a bunch of these in the past, notably Premedicated MurderThe Gimmel FlaskRoast Eggs and a few others. This one, though, is where the 70-something author takes on what doubtless he called “women’s lib”. The team receives its first female member, Detective Sergeant Tippen. Masters, of course, is supportive and correct; however one middle-aged member of his team is of the old school which calls women “petal” and expects them to automatically make tea and clear the table after. The distasteful part of this is that it seems to be suggested that if DS Tippen doesn’t play along with this, she’ll have made an error.

Usually Clark’s mysteries are complicated and subtle; everyone is baffled until CS Masters Figures It All Out from One Tiny Clue. This one is rather odd; almost of the Intuitionist school, as I understand it. Masters is convinced, for no real reason that I can see, that a man has been murdered. He deduces the general whereabouts on very slender evidence, and figures out that there is a body, and precisely where it is, on what amounts to magical thinking. Then there’s one clever bit of scientific information about ducks nibbling the body and being poisoned by the substance that poisoned the human. It’s absolutely obvious who the killer is, as it usually is in Clark’s stories (hint: the one who has access to the weird chemicals).

On a recent re-reading, I realized near the end that I had been skimming through the less-than-pleasant personal interactions of the detectives to get to the mystery plot, and then skimming through the mystery plot because it wasn’t very believable. That’s a bad combination of instincts to skim. This particular volume is relatively inoffensive, it’s just more than a little dull, and with a tinge of unpleasant social attitudes towards women in the workforce. I’ll call this one “less than recommended”.


I hope to have not offended my regular readers too much; ultimately what these things all boil down to is questions of taste. I’m not unhappy that yours might vary from mine, but I do hope you find these notes useful.