LitRPG and other ludic fiction

Columbo and DogI’m always fascinated when someone comes up with a new take on an old sub-genre, or inverts an old sub-genre to create a new one. An example of how this can work is the howcatchem — the audience knows quite well whodunit, but wants to see how Lieutenant Columbo will bring home the crime to its perpetrator. That one is a variation on the open mystery, where we don’t always know if the perpetrator will be caught. The howcatchem is not a huge sub-genre, but writers know that audiences are prepared to find that story fascinating as long as it pays off at the end in the way they expect.

wheatley_covercolorOne sub-genre from the end of the Golden Age of Detection was the dossier mystery, which is rather like a whodunit; instead of being entirely written in prose, there are photographs, documents, and actual objects (like a postage stamp or a piece of “bloody” fabric in a glassine envelope) bound or glued into the text. The final chapter was always sealed to prevent premature peeking, and the reader had to exercise some fine
hair_wheatly2colorobservational skills to note that, for instance, the jacket sleeves on one character were too long in a photograph, or there were marks on a handwritten letter indicating water droplets. The originals of these are currently esteemed by collectors and the dossier mystery has enjoyed occasional revival every so often. You might think of it as a cross between a novel and a pop-up book, or some other form in which the reader actually has to manipulate the contents of the volume physically in order to get a complete reading of everything available. Julian Symons in his history of the detective genre Bloody Murder felt that the creation of the dossier novel marked the point at which the classic detective novel became something of a cliche and the crime novel began to arise; certainly the dossier mystery is structured more like a game than an all-prose book.  Perhaps we might think of it as one of the earliest precursors of today’s topic, ludic fiction. (“Ludic,” meaning “game-like” or “about games”.)

19535293488_2Branching away from the Golden Age for a moment, many of my readers will be familiar with a peculiar sub-genre known as a gamebook, especially if they know that what’s meant is more commonly known as a CYOA or “choose your own adventure” novel. The book written in the second person (“You’re heading home after a hard night at the factory …”) and is divided into numbered sections; you start at #1 and read until you come to a decision point, at which point the book offers you choices.  “If you investigate the strange sound, turn to 34; if
51J1viA39lLyou proceed directly home, turn to 187; if you stop at the gas station, turn to 51.” Each choice leads to a small set of different outcomes, some of which end your experience abruptly; the experienced reader will be aware of reading strategies that involve bookmarks or thumbs inserted at decision points. I have a couple of paperback gamebooks written about Sherlock Holmes, although they’re not very interesting. Many of the best entries in this sub-genre were written by Steve Jackson and not all of them are for children.

17736There are very early precursors at the beginning of sound films with a sub-genre that essentially no longer exists, the college-based football movie. Biff the hero has to outsmart the wicked gamblers and make it back to Riverdale in time to play in the Big Game, which is depicted in excruciating detail and in glorious black-and-white. I don’t really think it survived the 1930s as a sub-genre but you’d be amazed at what a lot of those movies there are. The Marx Brothers parodied them in Horse Feathers (1932).

Silent_Hill_film_posterBut all these sub-genres predate the internet and the computer age, and that’s when things really started to get interesting. Essentially a number of tiny niche sub-genres of fiction sprang up that had to do with the interface between games and stories. Clue, Doom and Silent Hill, among many others, are all movies based on games; the novelizations associated with such films are books about movies about games. (Yes, it gets complicated.) A few years ago I wrote about one such movie, Battleship, which takes that relationship between story and game and extends it beyond the breaking point.

MystCoverWhen the gamebook met the computer age, two different things happened. One was the novelization of computer games; essentially, in the same manner as the movie tie-in novel, the events of a computer game were written as prose and published, usually as a paperback original. The other was the invention of the adventure game (think Myst) itself, which was more or less a computer-based
MV5BZGY0MjUwZTktNmM4OS00NmEyLWFmYTYtMDRiNDJjZTM5Y2FhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzg5OTk2OA@@._V1_updating of the choose-your-own-adventure form — with a more formalized version of “saves” to replace having to keep your thumb at paragraph 83. Sometimes the adventure games became novels; sometimes novels became adventure games, such as a long series of Nancy Drew adventure games and a wild version of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express that features a very unexpected twist ending.

981838Just as there are movies based on games, there are also books based on games. I wrote recently about the puzzle adventure, a sub-genre in which the reader follows along an exciting plot line as the protagonist competes in a large-scale puzzle-solving exercise for high stakes (Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, for instance). As noted above, some computer games have been novelized; for instance you can read a fairly faithful version of an old Infocom adventure game called Planetfall in paperback, where the protagonist doesn’t have to keep saving and going
WoW_Box_Art1back to points before he gets killed through ignorance. There are a number of novels that fill in the backstory of the Myst games, and these later became a contribution to a MMO in the Myst universe. An MMO is a Massively Multi-player Online game like World of Warcraft, where hundreds of thousands of players go online every night to kill monsters (and each other) with primitive (and digital) weapons by working in small groups. And of course someone made a movie out of that called Warcraft in 2016, which was then novelized the same year, to fill in more backstory of the particular plot they’d chosen to represent the MMO. Like I said, it gets complicated.

zero-charismaBack in the pre-internet day, I was an occasional player (and even more occasional Dungeon Master) of Dungeons & Dragons, a type of game known as an RPG; Role Playing Game. In D&D, you generate a character for yourself and join other such characters in playing out a fantasy-based game scenario administered by an all-knowing Dungeon Master. Each such character has attributes that are expressed numerically, and events in the game are mediated by rolling dice for random results. It gets very, very complicated, but at a basic level, a stupid character like Axel the Barbarian might have an intelligence of 6 and his smarter associate, Greymalkin the Wizard, an intelligence of 18. Axel’s Strength values, though, would be higher to compensate. Every character has ability scores for Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Then you get into the finer points; if you’re hit with a rock by a child you might take 2 points of damage, which is quickly recovered, but if a Gold Dragon breathes fire on you, you might take 650 points in an instant and “die”.

dekaron-fotoRPGs in the internet age are frequently indistinguishable from MMOs and you are most likely to see the acronym MMORPG commonly used.  There are MMOs that are not RPGs, such as Second Life, and RPGs that are not MMOs, like the paper-based Dungeons & Dragons, but mostly there are MMORPGs. Most MMORPGs of today are currently about Tolkienesque landscapes where warriors and magic-users fight against monsters and evil magicians, but there are many other types; space opera, historic RPGs in various eras (Shogunate Japan, World War II, Ancient Rome), comic book superheroes, global trade, etc. The MMORPG automates the process of dice-rolling and keeps track of various “buffs” (your expensive sword that does an extra couple of points of damage each blow) and “debuffs” (“You have been stabbed by a poisonous blade and will lose 5 points of damage each minute until you take an antidote”) that affect the outcome of play and allow things to move along much, much faster than your Dungeon Master rolling twenty-sided dice behind a screen to figure out if you got hit with a sword or not.

9272bdacef02f937c0b33132905ceb70--new-chapter-cyberpunkAnd that finally brings me to my latest discovery, a brand-new take on ludic fiction. It’s known as LitRPG and it’s starting to be weirdly popular. It’s not exactly what you’d think of as a novelization of a sequence of RPG gameplay: that’s because the fourth wall is constantly being broken to keep the reader updated as to the statistics of the protagonist (and occasionally other characters). You’re in a game and you always know you’re in a game. And that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Here are “the two Commandments of LitRPG” (that I’ve lifted from a website devoted to such things, so it’s their statement, not mine):

  1.  A LitRPG shall involve some type of explicitly stated progression (leveling, report of item finds, quests, etc.)
  2. A LitRPG shall involve a game-type world of some kind that the main character has been involved in.

And here’s the way it works in the text, sometimes:

“I pick up the items and add them to my inventory.
Currency.  500 gold.
Item:  Jeweled Lich Eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul.
Another notification pops across my vision.
Congratulations!  You have just completed the quest ‘Guardian Forest Dungeon.’  You now have an increased alliance with the elves.”

From chapter 7 of S.L. Rowland. “Pangea Online Book One:
Death and Axes: A LitRPG Novel.” (2017)

ace50eca80706ae1dff28766a855fa22--brody-reborn

This cover art is an excellent way of understanding LitRPG; the primitive warrior in a rough landscape, but with a superimposed computer screen giving him information.

In other words, the fourth wall is broken and the reader is yet again reminded that the protagonist is within an MMORPG. Also the reader is constantly being updated as to the status of the protagonist’s health and the things he has in his pockets (“inventory”). So in a Big Battle that is meant to be the climax of a LitRPG novel, every time one character attacks another, you know exactly who hit whom with what, numerically how much damage it did, and what the effects on future combat events are likely to be.  (“White Fang strikes the undead monster with her +2 Elven Broadsword, but undead are naturally immune to Elven weapons so its attack is full force.”)

tumblr_inline_mrg5gaRoB61qz4rgpWhat attracted me to this sub-genre initially is that I always think it’s fascinating when a literary movement starts from the bottom up, rather than the top down. I admit that slash fiction got quite out of hand in the ’00s.  This is a modern genre wherein an author “ships” or writes about sexual relationships between well-known fictional characters who weren’t known to have them — for instance, Sherlock Holmes taking Dr. Watson to bed. I knew it in the 70s and thereabouts as fanfic. In the 00s, all kinds of unskilled enthusiasts were writing about how Ensign Mary Sue attracted the attention of Captain Kirk and got rogered on the holodeck, or whatever. They would post slash on fora for each other and developed a critical language that encompassed it (see Wikipedia on Mary Sue). Slash was a brief craze among young women but it remains popular, and “shipping” appears to have made it into the language. And as I noted, slash was generated by those young women themselves. They weren’t sold it by Random House or Amazon. Their enthusiasm for an implausible sexuality may have led them to excess, but they thought of that stuff themselves and they worked hard doing it.  Possibly from slash we’ll get the Mary Higgins Clark of tomorrow. And so I make a point of looking at genres that create themselves spontaneously, as opposed to, say, the cupcake cozy, which appears to me to be a research-based construct of major publishing companies, purveyed to an uncritical and uncaring public.

2bb598129088196cea260629c5f89963Indeed, LitRPG seems to be something which came spontaneously to life. It’s going to be a difficult genre for anyone to understand who hasn’t played in an RPG or an MMORPG, but it has all kinds of interesting characteristics that are not unlike more successful genres. It appears to have arisen primarily in Russian-language materials associated with professional gamers but, as sometimes happens, there’s a bunch of Americans who claim they did it first. And if they weren’t first, by golly they’re going to be the best and get ‘er done on Amazon. To the credit of both countries, the writers recognize the economic advantages of having the books available in English for the English-speaking market. I might be seeing more than is there; my assessment of the materials surrounding the market was very limited. It looks like a lot of young men are having a lot of fun writing and reading these books; they may not be making a lot of money but they’re having a great time and forming a community.

I surveyed a random sample of LitRPG, which in itself is kind of an issue. Quite a bit of the LitRPG I saw is fantasy RPG based (think Tolkien-ish) but there’s a goodly amount from the strongly militaristic game background and some very odd outliers. I have to confess I didn’t think I’d really enjoy living through the adventures of someone in a mechanized combat suit killing things, etc., so I read through some fantasy based ones and called it a day. I’m saying this so you know my sample is skewed and I may not have the full grasp yet.

My first reaction after gulping one of these novels down was “Wow! Not many people other than gamers are ever going to enjoy that, but it was a lot of fun!” At the outset I was prepared to be quite snotty about the amateurish nature of the writing, but I soon realized something. As you can imagine, LitRPG is quite rigorously plot-driven; literally, the protagonist is given a quest or task and must find a way to accomplish it. Characterization is at a minimum. But if you think about it — that’s very similar to the earliest days of the puzzle mystery in the Golden Age of Detection. I admit that Inspector French doesn’t exactly level up when he works out that the criminal’s alibi can be broken, but there’s a process in RPG called “grinding” where you repeat low-level activities a number of times that reminds me very much of French sending out his minions to search for London stores that sell a certain kind of typewriter. So perhaps it’s merely good fortune, or perhaps a clever selection of an appropriate genre for a novice writer, but these young writers with excellent plotting skills and limited characterization skills get the job done quite nicely, for the most part.

Indeed, there are actually characters in these narratives who are literally labeled as NPCs (non-playing characters), which is a great idea that should have been adopted for the puzzle mystery. That means that only specific characters could be suspects and that old Mrs. Twitterbury who runs the local teashop is merely there to add local colour, and you can be guaranteed she didn’t kill Lord Oldandrich. NPCs are there to add colour and the protagonist knows it, so the audience knows it too and doesn’t get emotionally invested when an NPC gets killed.

The LitRPG authors usually go to a good deal of trouble to create a framing story that is not merely “Generic kid plays a game and this is how it goes”, but adds some urgency or higher-stakes outcome to the situation.  For instance, one protagonist has his consciousness downloaded into an RPG in order to escape an asteroid that’s going to strike earth and kill him and almost everyone else. Another one is playing for economic reasons; his daughter needs a heart transplant and this is the only way he can make the money. My first LitRPG  experience (quoted above; S.L. Rowland’s Pangea Online Book One: Death and Axes, 2017) has a framing story very much like what I expect to be next year’s hit movie, Ready Player One; a young orphan starts out toiling in the lowest levels of the data mines and ends up owning most of cyberspace and Getting the Girl. I’m not sure where these novice writers learned how or why to add this framing story, but I’d say the best ones have it and it’s an elegant technique that is frequently beyond the grasp of amateurs.

And plotting itself is meant to meet the expectations of people (mostly young men with good reflexes) who play a lot of MMORPG. At the outset of games/novels, your character must do low-level things like meet the locals and dispatch unfriendly creatures like … rats. As the protagonist increases in stature and experience, he can interact more seamlessly with the NPCs and fights with progressively stronger enemies (“minibosses”). The classic gaming structure leads to a final “boss fight” with the most powerful entity in the narrative. The boss fight often has an element whereby the protagonist must possess a certain object in order to defeat the final boss (the “sacred sword of the Ancients” or suchlike), or must have teamed up with a certain other character for a joint attack, or in some way met a prerequisite before the final battle. This structure naturally lends itself to a plot-driven novel in a way that is easy for novice writers to execute; gamers know this structure instinctively and, based on their experience of what makes the most satisfying narrative, arrange that whatever it is that the protagonist is fighting at his current level of experience is sufficiently strong itself to put up a good fight but not usually kill the protagonist. It kind of writes itself: a level 35 elf battles three level 32 orcs, not three level 2 fluffybunnies or a level 268 telepathic dragon that spits battery acid.

There seems to be a firm determination that every LitRPG book created shall be part of a series, which is another similarity with Golden Age detective fiction. I’m not sure why there’s an implicit assumption that the character of the protagonist is sufficiently interesting to carry the story, but perhaps this is merely why the best authors create the framing stories noted above and expect those to carry the reader.  Will the hero get his daughter a heart transplant and move forward? (Generally, yes indeed, and has a bigger problem in volume 2.)

I strongly suspect that LitRPG will have little appeal for people who haven’t already played MMORPGs but I found a great deal of simple pleasure to be had in this form; it might be naive in a literary sense but it has energy and enthusiasm.  The plots all move forward pleasingly at a high rate of speed, and there’s always something new and dangerous right around the corner.

51JdHvHLIULIf you’re interested you can find out more by searching for “LitRPG” on Amazon or your preferred bookseller; most of these books are not easily available in printed formats but almost entirely for the Kindle et al. I did enjoy the book I found serendipitously, Pangea Online Book One: Death and Axes, from S.L. Rowland — it was free for Kindle Unlimited and a mere CDN$4.98 if you’re so inclined. If you have a bright nephew of 11 or so who plays MMORPGs, by all means get him a copy; it’s the equivalent of a simple Heinlein juvenile. I read my way through quite a few of these in a week or ten days, trying to isolate some generalized observations, and they’ve all rather blurred together, but honestly I didn’t find many clinkers — just the ones for which I didn’t care due to the subject matter being “future war” or “urban jungle”. If you’re a gamer you’ll know the kind of thing you like already and you should be able to pick it up cheaply. And if your idea of a good time is being the tank for your party while the rest of your crew kills the skeletons and picks up the loot, you’ll love these books.

 

 

The Devil at Saxon Wall, by Gladys Mitchell (1935): A few comments

51mQ+0mR7gL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_At Hallowe’en of this year, my blogfriend Jamie Bernthal-Hooker wrote a piece on The Devil at Saxon Wall (in his excellent blog, Sign of the Crimes, which I recommend to your continued attention) and did me the honour of quoting me extensively in the process. Unfortunately this was, as my regular readers are both aware 😉 in the context of me not enjoying Gladys Mitchell’s writing very much at all and making the decision to put approximately 80 of her e-books into cold storage. Jamie’s opinion of Gladys Mitchell’s writing is much more favourable than mine.

153ff56In fact, it seems as though everyone with any literary taste and scholarship enjoys Gladys Mitchell more than I do, and in particular The Devil at Saxon Wall. Nick Fuller calls it “Gladys Mitchell’s triumph” in a superb in-depth analysis found here; another esteemed blogger and podcaster, Les Blatt, calls it “marvellous” here. Even the comments on Amazon and Goodreads are generally favourable. Critically speaking, I’m a lonely little onion in the petunia patch.

coverAt the end of his analysis, Jamie wonders what my “thoughts were on this one”. And this left me in a kind of ethical bind. I had a copy at hand, it was certainly no trouble to pick it up and read it. But I had already said that I was prepared to set aside Gladys Mitchell and not continue to flog a horse that my readers had already seen me butcher in front of them. I know you get it — as I said, and as Jamie quoted, “There’s something about Gladys Mitchell, or me, and the two of us are immiscible. I have decided to do you all the favour of not beating the topic to death in a vain attempt to keep my promise …”. That’s simply it. I admit it’s fun to be rude and acerbic about novels I don’t enjoy, and I am told my readers enjoy this process, but (a) I have no wish to pursue Gladys Mitchell like the Avenging Furies, and (b) I greatly suspect that, given the number of intelligent analysts and eminent critics who DO enjoy her work more than I do, I’d be making a fool of myself in the process.

witches-the-1966-002-ceremonial-actSo I read the damn book, and I didn’t enjoy it at all, and that’s more or less all you’re going to hear on the topic from me. But I did give it a reasonable amount of thought as to why I didn’t enjoy it, and I actually had an insight or two that I thought was worth sharing. And I will try to keep the acerbity to a minimum. I still think if you want better analysis of Mitchell’s strengths you should go elsewhere, and I’ve given you some links, but I thought I had something original to offer below that has little to do with my personal feelings.

33c62763d1dc7b56e24b46676e54bb32--hard-times-in-new-yorkThe Devil at Saxon Wall is set in a tiny village in Hampshire which is, as Nick Fuller puts it, “horribly rustic”. It’s a story about how the villagers and the vicar are coming into conflict against the background of a few different issues; one is the death of a young woman after childbirth, possibly at the hands of her insane husband; another is what has happened to the child of that marriage; and there’s quite a bit about witchcraft and local superstition and widespread drought. All the villagers are unpleasant (verging on downright evil), speak a local dialect that is quite difficult to understand, are constantly doing unusual things for incomprehensible reasons, and lying. Lying, lying, lying, lying.  They lie about everything that happens around them, constantly and consistently, and it is up to series detective Mrs. Bradley to untangle the lies and figure out what has happened, which she does and solves a lot of problems. At the end, the heavens pour with rain and end the drought.

UnknownThe word that kept coming into my head as I read this book was “squalid”. To quote a dictionary, “(of a place) extremely dirty and unpleasant, especially as a result of poverty and neglect; showing or involving a contemptible lack of moral standards”. The squalid village of Saxon Wall is filled with squalid people doing squalid things. Now, I did say I wouldn’t comment much about the actual book. But in view of my previous remarks about the laudable sexual forthrightness of Mitchell at a time when her peers wouldn’t countenance sexuality in a mystery, I have to note that at one point one of the female villagers comes to the narrator’s bedroom dressed only in a raincoat and boots and offers herself to him; hell, she attacks him and he has to fight her off. And this is not the merely sexual act that it seems, but connected with an alibi and yet another tangle of lies. The encounter is unpleasant to contemplate and mercifully not consummated, but I have to say, Mitchell Went There.  Nevertheless, it is squalid in the extreme.

d8731889042209b597375766c41444341587343The small insight that I had, though, came after I closed the book and tried to ruminate on why I hadn’t enjoyed this book very much at all. Where was this book coming from in the context of 1935? Why did Mitchell want to write about these squalid villagers; what need did she feel she was meeting by doing so? Nick Fuller remarks that this book was written as “the result of hearing a lecture on witchcraft by Helen Simpson (to whom the book is dedicated)”, and I’ll buy that. But why was Helen Simpson, a detective novelist in her own right, lecturing about witchcraft? And why did Gladys Mitchell think that the public would be entertained by a mystery set against a background of rural witchcraft with strong overtones of sexuality and low intelligence?

the-witch-cult-in-western-europeI was aware that many novelists at the time had been influenced by a very popular book called The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, by archaeologist Margaret Murray, published in 1921, whose Wikipedia biography is found here. Essentially and briefly, this volume talked about the idea that European witches had been persecuted for their religious beliefs in a pagan religious tradition that is not 100% modern Wicca, but fairly close. Murray also published a follow-up volume in 1933, The God of the Witches, in which

9780006133933-us-300she tried to describe “the Old Religion” in more positive and everyday terms. Significantly, Murray wrote the entry on witchcraft for the 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica and “used the opportunity to propagate her own witch-cult theory”. Apparently academic reviewers believed that she had “distorted and misinterpreted the contemporary records that she was using” but the book had a great deal of influence and I believe Mitchell would have been very familiar with it. Other mystery writers were influenced by it too, notably Ngaio Marsh in Off With His Head.

happy-halloween-sexy-witches-edition-L-c3tfzLThe general zeitgeist of the times was interested in witchcraft as the Old Religion and it seems to me to contribute to the background of The Devil at Saxon Wall. But that doesn’t explain the entirety of the novel to me, merely a portion of it. Where was all this squalor coming from?

eugenicsIt did seem likely that Mitchell’s interest in eugenics, another component of the cultural zeitgeist that was more prominent in 1935 than today, had something to do with it. There are elliptical mentions of the inbreeding that takes place in small villages such as Saxon Wall; to be fair, though, the exact parentage of a particular individual is a major question of the novel and so it’s not unrealistic that the topic should be mentioned. I do think there’s an undercurrent of Mitchell suggesting that inbreeding contributes to the village being full of mendacious and sexually liberated scoundrels with no moral fibre, but even my dislike for the adherents of eugenics wouldn’t allow me to find direct references in the text where none seem to exist.  (Readers, feel free to prove me wrong, please. Eugenics needs to be exposed to the light of day as being a horrible idea and I’m not sure I did a really effective search.)

3cff6f783a87505ab94087d10ceaedc2.jpgWhat finally struck me was the thought that The Devil at Saxon Wall was like a peculiar British take on a kind of American genre that has now passed entirely out of fashion; the “hillbilly novel”. And this started to interest me. The concept of “hillbillies” as part of American culture is a long and complex one; it started as a way of describing the impoverished inhabitants of rural areas like Appalachia and the Ozarks and transmogrified into a media stereotype that changed its meaning as time went by.  In the late 1920s, “hillbilly music” was what we would now call “country music”; a fusion of folk songs with other genres like gospel and bluegrass. But the image of lazy, tobacco smoking, overall-wearing farmers clutching a jug of moonshine liquor labeled “XXX” concatenated through American media. Cartoons like “Li’l Abner” and radio and movie depictions of characters like “Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick” and the legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys contributed to a simplistic cliche that audiences recognize to this day. You may not be surprised to know that Elvis Presley got his start as a “hillbilly singer”.

61mwW0gP6wL._SL500_SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I first encountered the hillbilly novel because one of its exemplars was in the well-known collectible paperback series known as Dell mapbacks; Their Ancient Grudge (which the casual reader could be excused for thinking is here titled “Hillbilly Feuding and Loving”, but read carefully, the blurb is disguised as the title) is mapback #435 from 1950. There was a tiny sub-genre of such novels as first-edition (and only edition) paperbacks in the 1950s. These had names like Swamp Hoyden, Backwoods Tramp

39550722-6932279231_088d37b82e_o1and Desire in the Ozarks and usually had as their subject matter a young woman of easy virtue who wanted desperately to get to the big city and would have sex with any man likely to get her there.  I think hillbilly novels were primarily meant as inexpensive erotica for the prurient male that, as a sub-genre, did not survive beyond about 1960. But there were an awful lot of them in the meantime, as paperback collectors can tell you; they can command huge prices as collectibles in today’s market.

beverly hillbilliesThere’s a mediaological excursion probably worth taking in tracing the history of the hillbilly through American culture, from early radio through to The Beverly Hillbillies and beyondbut it’s beyond the scope of these comments. I did want to go back to the origins of the hillbilly novel because I think I can see what might have been a direct connection to The Devil at Saxon Wall — the novels of Erskine Caldwell.

51Gx--vDakL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Tobacco Road (1932) is perhaps Caldwell’s most famous novel but God’s Little Acre (1933) is a close second, mostly because it was banned in Boston. Both volumes are filled with profanity, violence, and frank sexuality that makes them extremely unusual for their time; both volumes were runaway best-sellers, and God’s Little Acre sold more than 10 million copies. You can get plot summaries at the links in this paragraph. I think it’s fair to say that Caldwell pretty much invented the hillbilly novel; I remember remarking in my youth that it seemed as though the entire output of Signet as a paperback publisher seemed to consist of Caldwell’s hillbilly novels.

e2ab10f4194f427078de0faa526ccbe2Now, let me say right off the bat, I have zero evidence and zero chance of getting any to back up this theory. I just want to set it out there, like a temptingly planted pawn in the initial stages of a chess game, that Gladys Mitchell was influenced by these two novels that had such a great success in the years immediately before The Devil at Saxon Wall. I think these two novels had a lot to do with the rise of the hillbilly stereotype in American media. And I think it’s extremely likely that Gladys Mitchell would have been moving in literary and intellectual circles such that she would have had access to these novels to read (I understand they were hard to get in Britain, because of the explicit sexual content).

When I thought about this, it seemed to make sense. Gladys Mitchell wanted to write novels with fairly frank sexual content, as I’ve seen in the reasonably large sample of Mitchell titles I’ve managed to make it through. It’s clear that she was influenced by Helen Simpson’s lecture and I’ll venture to say it’s clear she was aware of and influenced by The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and its sequel; she wanted to write about rural witchcraft. I think it’s not out of the question to suggest that Mitchell wanted to write commercially successful novels and that by emulating certain aspects of Erskine Caldwell she could sell a lot of books. It was more difficult to get books with clearly sexual scenes published but there are many reasons for her to think that, once published, they would sell. Who knows what a researcher more competent (and interested) than myself might find by investigating Mitchell’s papers?

All I’m willing to assert is that the relationship between Mitchell’s work and Caldwell’s work is possible and not wildly unlikely. Your mileage may, of course, vary. I still didn’t enjoy the experience of reading The Devil at Saxon Wall but I hope to have contributed in a small way to the understanding of readers who like her work more than I do. I now intend to return to my intended silence on Mitchell’s work in general, unless provoked, and I leave her to your better judgment.

 

Kubrick’s Game, by Derek Taylor Kent (2016)

51pvfNx4SWLThis book came to me almost by accident — I was at a charity sale this morning and it was next to a book I wanted to look at. I picked it up and thought, “Hmm, interesting title, I wonder what that’s about?” I bought two bags of books but this is the one that I dropped everything to read this afternoon.

Right off the bat — this is not really detective
fiction. But I don’t only read detective fiction, and I trust you don’t either; I suspect you, like I, merely enjoy good books no matter what genre into which they fall. This book, however, I suspect will appeal to people who enjoy puzzle mysteries.

 

Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus (1960)

Kubrick’s Game is a member of a very small sub-genre known as the “puzzle adventure”. I’m not sure exactly how to define the boundaries of the genre … the books in the category are of necessity unique, but they share some characteristics.

Lolita (1962)

Lolita (1962)

 

The book’s basic structure contains a puzzle or game that has to be solved by the protagonist; generally, there is an antagonist who wants to solve the puzzle first. The stakes are

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

almost always high and the puzzle is always very difficult to solve. The common thread is that the puzzle is solved by the protagonist (and a small crew of assistants) right in front of the reader, so that the reader feels like s/he has some

2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

chance of reaching the solution with (or even before) the protagonist.  There’s usually quite a bit of action involved, within a fast-moving plot, but the key element is watching the characters solve a difficult puzzle before your eyes.

 

Possibly the easiest way to describe the puzzle adventure is by giving a few examples.  Some are well-known, others are more obscure.

  • The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown (2003)
  • The Eight, by Katherine Neville (1988)
  • Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (2011) (this will be a blockbuster movie next year and I can’t wait to see it!)
  • Wyrm, by Mark Fabi (1997) (suffers a bit from having the computer programming be out of date, but the crossword puzzle in the middle makes up for it)
  • The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco (1980)
  • National Treasure, a 2004 film
A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

So if you like that sort of thing and recognize any of that list as something you’ve liked in the past, I hope you now have something to look for next. But first get a copy of Kubrick’s Game.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Barry Lyndon (1975)

The book is about an elaborate game, or puzzle, that is buried within the films of Stanley Kubrick — at least, the films over which he had full control. Apparently for half his life, Kubrick was burying tiny clues within his films to a game that he planned

The Shining (1980)

The Shining (1980)

to have film fans play after his death, or perhaps it’s better to say clues to a puzzle that he hoped they could solve. On the 15th anniversary of his death, groups of film students at various important film

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

schools receive a package from Kubrick’s estate; three UCLA students and a faculty member become fascinated by the puzzle and form a team to solve it.

 

The main character is Shawn, a film student

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

who is variously described (also by himself) as being autistic or on that spectrum of diagnosis; perhaps a high-functioning Asperger’s patient. He’s developed an obsessive focus on Kubrick’s films and an expertise sufficient to argue with his

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

professor, the resident expert, about the details of tiny elements of various films. Shawn starts to work on the first clue with pretty much his only friends: Wilson is a former child star determined to return to the industry with a directing career, and Sami is a beautiful young woman who also wants to direct.

 

I won’t tell you the details of the plot, which is pretty much the reason you’d want to read this book. Instead I’ll borrow one of the features of my long-time favourite Dell mapbacks and ask you … Wouldn’t you like to know …

 

  • Which of Kubrick’s films contains the only appearance by the director in his own work?
  • Where in 2001: A Space Odyssey there is a chessboard in plain sight that you will never have noticed before?
  • Why people think Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing footage shown on television?
  • Which Kubrick project is known as “The greatest movie never made”?
  • Why “Spartacus Square” at Universal Studios is the only Kubrick set still known to exist?
  • Which film of Kubrick’s was finished after his death by Steven Spielberg, very nearly shot for shot as Kubrick had wanted it?
  • Where there’s an album cover for 2001: A Space Odyssey in A Clockwork Orange, and why it differs from the album as released?
  • Why Eyes Wide Shut and The Shining are filled with imagery referring to the Freemasons?
  • Why CRM-114 is a repeating element in both Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange?

You may not know much about the films of Stanley Kubrick — I certainly didn’t know any of this when I started this book, and no previous viewing of any of these films is necessary. By the time I was finished, I was looking through my collection for copies of all his films in order to have a retrospective screening. You’ll find answers to all those questions and a lot more. One thing this book has done has made me want to see all Kubrick’s films again, with my finger on the slo-mo button.

In fact it is very, very clear that the author, Derek Taylor Kent, knows more about the films of Stanley Kubrick than perhaps anyone (although I imagine right now there are five people posting on a message board somewhere who think I’m hopelessly naive for saying so). Tiny details, conspiracy theories, and the ability to tease a workable puzzle plot out of this mass of tiny details and crazy theories — it all adds up to a wild, wild ride that I very much enjoyed. I read it in a single sitting and I actually recommend you try to manage that, if you can — it will be easier to hold all the details in your head.

There are some flaws to this book, I must add. The characterization is rather flat, but I think this is not for the same reason as Golden Age detective fiction, where rounded characters would make the plotting more difficult. I think it’s just that Kent is still learning how to create realistic characters. The basics are there but there are none of the finer touches that help to truly appreciate the characterization. Definitely a step ahead of cardboard but not by much.

Also the book suffers a little from the defects of its virtues. It is very difficult to create a rambunctious wide-ranging plot with plenty of twists and turns and action scenes and reversals and re-reversals, and have it be perfectly balanced. There are a couple of ideas in the book that I think are overly tweaked, taken just one step beyond where they might have reasonably gone, and for the mere sake of surprising the reader. Since this is Kent’s first adult novel, I suspect he may now have learned that he can carry his audience along — admirably! — and they don’t need to be slapped in the face every 40 pages to keep them awake and on point. On the other hand, what doesn’t work in a book might well work as a screenplay, where realism can be brutally suppressed by spending $75 million on action sequences and special effects. Like I said, the defects of its virtues. The author may yet make a huge pile of money from this book if someone makes an expensive movie out of it. And who knows? Steven Spielberg might, since he’s actually in it as a character.

In my bookstore days, I used to keep copies of a few novels on the list above in stock for my fellow readers who share my taste for this very small category; rather like the special whiskey for favoured customers. If you like what you’ve heard, you may share that taste and will find this book enjoyable; I’ll recommend it. But if the thought of this kind of intellectual activity is something you’d rather have be accompanied by grown-up characters, or at least better-drawn ones, I’ll be back soon with a more traditional detective story, I’m sure.

 

 

 

 

A Murder in Thebes, by Paul Doherty (1998)

Note: This book was originally published as by “Anna Apostolou”; the author whose work it is has many pseudonyms but is generally known as either Paul Doherty or P. C. Doherty. It is now published as an e-book under Paul Doherty.

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 and come quite close to giving away a central secret. 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. 

a-murder-in-thebes

I’m never quite sure how to feel about authors with a huge output of published writing. I’ve had bad experiences with Gladys Mitchell just lately — similarly Edgar Wallace, Elizabeth Linington, and John Creasey. Simenon leaves me relatively cold, although his skill is evident. But Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr, and Agatha Christie are always interesting to me. It’s too simplistic to say that if an author produces a huge number of volumes they must automatically be a hasty and poor writer. It does sometimes make me approach a prolific writer with caution, though.

And that’s the frame of mind I brought to the work of Paul Doherty, who has written, by Wikipedia’s last count, more than 100 mysteries; I believe all or nearly all of them can be categorized as “historical”. I read a few of his earliest books back in the 80s, but have forgotten very nearly everything about them; at that point in time I was already surfeited with Ellis Peters’s adventures of Brother Cadfael (yes, you read that right, I’m not a fan; I think they’re ersatz and bland) and didn’t feel I needed more mediaeval hijinks in my life.  When you couple that with the idea that I only occasionally read anything written after I was born, you can understand why I’ve only experienced about 5% of his output, if that.

But then I discovered that, as Anna Apostolou, Doherty had written a couple of mysteries featuring Alexander the Great. Now, I’ve always had a huge interest in Alexander the Great; I’ve read a bunch of books about him, sparked off by the excellent novels of Mary Renault, and will always pick up anything about him, fiction or non-fiction. When I happened across a copy of #2 in the series, A Murder in Thebes, I thought, what the heck? How bad can it be?

I say this because my pessimism for once had no payoff.  I found, to my pleasure, that while this is not a novel for the ages, it’s very competent and smartly done, and Doherty (whom Wikipedia tells me is an expert on Alexander the Great in his own right) has hit most of the right notes along the way.

The story is actually about sister-and-brother Israelite detectives Miriam and Simeon Bartimaeus; they are fictitious and the conceit is that they were sent to be educated by Aristotle along with Alexander. Miriam is an intellectual with a “determined mouth” who acts as a kind of … well, let’s say “private eye” for Alexander, who apparently keeps running into locked-room murders unknown to history.  Some other characters are actual historical figures in the correct time and place as we know from history; the events in this novel and most of its characters are imaginary, though.

5176BX692ALI suppose you can’t write 100 mysteries without having, if not a formula, then at least a pattern.  This one was easy to see, and the book is well-constructed.  The A plot is the murder case that involves someone killing Alexander’s officers during the siege of Thebes (and after Alexander takes the city); apparently there’s a spy among them in the pay of Persia, known as the Oracle.  Most of the book is devoted to the identification and unmasking of the spy/murderer and, honestly, since I spotted the central clue pretty much within seconds of its transmission, the problem didn’t occupy my mind much. (I will merely say I’ve owned dogs; I got the right answer for mostly the wrong reasons, so that little clue will mislead you.)

The B plot is involved with “The Iron Crown of Oedipus”, a sacred relic of Thebes in its own shrine with attendant priestesses.  The crown itself is fixed to a post, and the post is surrounded by pits of fire, pits of poisonous snakes, and pits of spears. In fact, it’s an “impossible crime” situation; the chief priestess knows how the crown can be removed (without the use of tools, which are blasphemous and sacrilegious in the context) but nobody else is aware.  When the crown vanishes, just before Alexander needs to wear it publicly to confirm his acquisition of Thebes by Macedon, Miriam has to figure out who took it and how.

The reader will not be surprised by this puzzle either, if s/he ‘s paying attention; there are a couple of very broad hints that seem a little anachronistic and thus obvious even to a reader of limited experience with detective fiction.  I’ll accept that Doherty is a historian and thus I’ll suspend my disbelief about what he says was a common toy among Theban children and Macedonian soldiers. But honestly, it might just as well have had a neon arrow in the text saying, “Big ol’ clue right here.” There was just no reason to include its repetitive mention otherwise.

I actually think the reader is supposed to grasp the central premise of what’s going on; it’s an interesting idea, that the author should build in opportunities to make the reader feel better about his/her intellectual gifts.  After you put two and two together — well, okay, I’d figured out the killer and I’d figured out the puzzle, and I felt very clever for a moment. It’s not an experience I often have with detective fiction, and it would have been very unusual to have it with, say, Christie, Carr, or even Gardner upon my first reading of their works way back when. I suspect I might be able to solve other volumes in this series, and others of Doherty’s many series, without too much strain, and while that seems superficially an attractive prospect it does rather pall when I contemplate the great books which have so cleverly pulled the wool over my eyes and provided me with more pleasure by fooling me.  Your mileage may definitely vary, and I know Doherty has a lot of adherents, so perhaps I’m extrapolating far too much from a single example.

517Z+admXbL

I’m not sure why Doherty inserted the distancing mechanism of having the central characters as Israelites … for me it doesn’t work as well as merely having a Macedonian do the job. I suspect it has something to do with offering the reader a female character with whom to identify and having her not be, as one might say, overly troubled with sexual activity. Miriam protects children and the innocent and wields great power as a favourite of Alexander, and reacts angrily for the most part when she is sexually harassed.  I just find it hard to accept that a female from what today is called Israel would be in that position; it strains my suspension of disbelief somewhat.

The part that Doherty really has nailed on the head is the character and situation of Alexander. I’ll be blunt and say that I was expecting Alexander to have been de-gayed for the lowest common denominator of reader; not so, and full marks for having Hephaestion described as Alexander’s companion and lover, and kissed once in a while to boot.  Indeed, the everyday socialization of what we would think of today as “kinks” is a part of the narrative, and not in a sniggering or heteronormative way either; it’s part of everyday Macedonian life and this murder too, since many of the male characters have male partners and casual lovers, and cross-dressing is an accepted idea that bears upon the plot without being meretriciously paraded.

Similarly, this is not your average cozy, in the sense that as the book begins, Alexander breaks the siege of Thebes and captures the city, killing many of its inhabitants and enslaving the remainder. We’re not spared the stacks of dead bodies and the terrible smell and floating ash of their funeral pyres; there’s also a rough-and-ready cure for diarrhea offered by Alexander. The punishment for just about everything is death. The characters lead lives, at that everyday level, that seem appropriate for the time and place without any sops to 21st century morality.  (Neither do any characters decry the backwardness of their own existence, thank goodness.)

All things considered, I enjoyed this. It’s a nice easy mystery story based firmly and accurately in historical knowledge — and you don’t “walk out humming the research,” as occasionally happens with other historical mystery writers. The characters are simply drawn and pleasant to contemplate and there is the “impossible crime” aspect, although not much of a one to be honest.

Would I go out and get more of these? I hope to track down the remainder of the Alexander series, certainly, but I would have done that anyway just to see how the rest stack up. I think I’ll spare myself his mediaeval mysteries for the moment; while I’m sure it would be delightful to have a further hundred books to add to my To Be Read list, I just can’t face all that mediaevality (with the disembodied face of Derek Jacobi floating in my mind, exclaiming pompously, “But this is positively mediaeval!”). It is, however, a sharp lesson to me not to be so fast to assume that because a writer is fast, his quality suffers. This is a well-written book with good characterization and an excellent balancing of the plot structure and I’ve read a lot worse — a LOT worse — in the cozy genre.

 

 

 

 

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, by Martin Edwards (2017)

StoryofClassicCrime_Website-350x525When I talk about a reference book such as this, it’s not common for me to first tell you about my emotional reactions upon first reading it. One doesn’t usually, after all, have an emotional reaction to a reference book. But if you’ll pardon me for a minute, I’ll get a little personal and nostalgic.

Back in the 1970s, I was a teenager who spent a lot of time reading everything and anything in the way of genre fiction that I could get my hands on. I read Erle Stanley Gardner and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Marion Zimmer Bradley and Robert Bloch and dozens — hundreds — more writers. Paperback originals, series characters, comic books, novelizations, all were meat and drink to me. Then one day I came upon a copy of Bloody Murder (From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel), (1972) a reference book by the late great Julian Symons, and it was a profound experience.

Up until then, I had learned — by listening to teachers and librarians — that literary fiction was worthy of scholarly attention but science fiction, detective fiction, horror, and other genres were not. A librarian at a former school had led a campaign to get Nancy Drew out of the school library, for instance, because it was “trash”. But here was Symons, obviously an intelligent, well-read, and scholarly writer, and he was taking detective fiction seriously. And if I read everything that he had read and talked about, I too could be seen to be taking detective fiction seriously (and perhaps somehow get to make a decent living doing it, although I confess that never happened).

I remember reading and re-reading that book, seeing how Symons talked about the history of the genre and where various books and authors fit into it as it moved forward. I began to understand the grand sweep of the genre and I began to develop my first primitive critical instincts; I already knew what I liked and disliked, and now I was starting to figure out why I felt that way. And Symons gave me lists of books and authors that would enable me to read in a guided way, to help me read more of what I was liking and avoid with foreknowledge the books I wouldn’t like.

I’m not sure I can even describe the emotions that Bloody Murder provoked in me when I first read it; a sense that it was not only me who liked these books and took them seriously, but there were others out there as well who could be my friends. I do know, though, that when I embarked upon my current topic, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, I had a strange surge of emotion. Because I realized that somewhere, in some small town in England or North America or somewhere where English is spoken and read, some young person is picking up this book from a library shelf or as a gift from an intelligent aunt/uncle, and becoming inspired by the grand sweep of Golden Age detective fiction. That young person is about to acquire a lifelong habit of reading, and has a scheme of books that she can follow to guide her towards books she will like and away from books she won’t. And I can envision her in her bed reading this volume late into the night and making mental notes about which books to start looking for first.

If you’re still with me — my apologies. As I said, it’s not common to talk about how a reference book made you feel. But honestly, I had a kind of thrill when I read this book (which, for the sake of space, I’ll shorten to Classic Crime); not only for the nostalgic reasons noted above, but because it is a better book for the purpose than Symons’. This is a book that I never thought of writing, but might have done; there is no need now, because Martin Edwards has done a better job than I ever could. This is the book I would have sent from the future to my younger self to guide and shape my reading for decades to come.

Decades after acquiring my copy of Bloody Murder, I’m a very, very well read fan of classic detective fiction. In a way, Classic Crime is written not only for that teenager or neophyte of whatever age who wants to know what to read next, but also for me; someone who’s read perhaps 95% of the books mentioned here and very much wants to read the other 5% immediately.  Let me tell you, as someone who is known in a small way as an expert — Martin Edwards is an expert’s expert. I know of very few people who can speak authoritatively about such a wide range of books and authors, but Mr. Edwards knows whereof he speaks. He didn’t just read about these books, he read them. He has read in depth; he has read in breadth. He understands what he’s read; he is convincing about its relative merits and/or flaws. He has the knack of being able to sum up what he’s read in a few sentences, which is tough, and he has a lively and engaging writing style that communicates the pleasure he finds in this genre in an intelligent way. I learned a few things, and got pointers to a few books and authors that I haven’t yet tracked down but intend to.

Perhaps the most worthwhile thing he has done, in this book of many virtues, is crystallized a number of sub-genres into easy groups — a kind of skeleton or schema for how to look at detective fiction. Chapter topics like “country house mysteries” or “impossible crimes” … I’m tempted to give you my bullet points that described each of the 24 chapters in a few words. I think, though, that it would improve your knowledge of how Golden Age detective fiction fits together to make that experiment yourself. It amused me to speculate that, like the Crime Club symbols of old, someone should produce 24 little emoji that link a book to a specific sub-genre of the 24 he outlines. It would simplify the GAD reviewer’s task immensely 😉

Of course there are things that Edwards says with which I disagree; frankly, that’s half the fun of a book like this. “Why, that’s not the volume he should have chosen to represent such-and-such author!” What it really provoked in me was the desire to buy the author a beer and sit down for an hour or two in a pub to hear why he chose what he chose, and perhaps argue for my own substitutions. I’m not going to say he’s actually wrong about anything; his opinion occasionally varies from mine and it would be fun to hash it out and maybe learn something, or change my mind. To be honest it would be fun to sit down over a beer with anyone who’s read most of the books described here.

Although one of the flaws that badly dated Julian Symons’ work was that he tried to predict the future of crime fiction (and, unfortunately, missed the mark by a long shot), I’ll go out on a limb and make a prediction. This incredibly well-done volume should win every award for non-fiction of its year in both the American and British detective fiction awards — and if not, I’d like to know what can beat it.  A magnificent achievement and one that should be on the reference shelf of every single one of my readers.

I get no financial benefit from this; here is a link to Edwards’ American publishers, which link has the added advantage of a long excerpt from the introduction that should whet your appetite.  Buy a copy of Classic Crime in 100 Books immediately for yourself; pay it forward and buy one for any 15-year-old ferocious reader of mysteries you know. I’m looking for an opportunity to get a signed copy and shake the author’s hand in person.  And buy him that beer!

 

A question for my readers

Unknown

What we thought we sounded like.

Lately I experimented with an alternative to the good old blogging format (I write, you read, you leave comments if you feel like it) found here, in which my knowledgeable and well-read blogfriend JJ at The Invisible Event and I discussed a specific novel (And Be A Villain by Rex Stout) in a real-time conversation using Facebook Messenger.  Then I did a traditional blogpost on the same book.

I know our similarly well-read and knowledgeable mutual friend Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog enjoyed it, because he wants some more of it.  Earlier today, I in Canada, JJ in England, and Brad in California, USA had a three-cornered chat on Facebook Messenger about — well, we were trying to find a topic that would interest our readers about which we could have a three-way chat.  As Brad notes, we did have a VERY wide-ranging and no-holds-barred discussion about all kinds of things to do with GAD, including its racism, sexism, classism, and any other ism you can think of; the difference between US and UK GAD — and sadly that there is no Canadian GAD to speak of.

But we didn’t really find a topic upon which we all fell with cries of delight.

ThreeStoogesDrunk

What we probably sounded like 😉

So I suggested we come to you, our readers, and ask. What topic of general interest about Golden Age Detection (GAD) would you be interested in reading about, when discussed by three well-read and enthusiastic participants?

We’re looking for more generalized things — not a specific book or a specific author, but one step back in distance, perhaps a group of authors or a sub-category of book or an all-embracing topic.

Don’t think too much about it — just say what comes to mind.  We’ll cut this off soon if and when we find a topic.

Thanks in advance for giving us the benefit of your thinking!

 

And Be A Villain, by Rex Stout (1948)

77592And Be A Villain was also published under the UK title More Deaths Than One. The American title bestowed by its author is a snippet of quotation from Hamlet: “… one can smile and smile, and be a villain.” The British title is a snippet from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol: “For he who lives more lives than one, more deaths than one must die.”

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 more than you care to know about the titular novel, although IN THIS POST I do NOT reveal the identity of the murder or crucial details.  I’m doing this post in conjunction with my fellow blogger JJ, at “The Invisible Event“, who carried on a conversation with me about the same novel, a transcript of which is found here. That discussion reveals EVERYTHING. If you haven’t already read this mystery and read either post, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame; it’s an excellent book. So please go and read the book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

1991252What is this book about?

Madeleine Fraser is the host of a 1948 version of the talk show; this one is on radio and is a hit. Twice a week she welcomes guests who all sit around and chit-chat with her and co-host Bill Meadows on a topic putatively of interest to the listening audience. One fateful day, the topic is betting on horse racing. Among the guests are a professor of mathematics, to talk about statistics, and Cyril Orchard, who runs a racing tip sheet. In order to please one of the sponsors — a soft drink called Starlite, The Drink You Dream Of — at a certain point in every program’s proceedings everyone pours a glass of Starlite and comments on how refreshing it is, et cetera. (An early form of product placement.) Unfortunately for both the sponsor and the racing fraternity, when Mr. Orchard drinks his glass of Starlite, he falls down dead from cyanide poisoning, on the air.

Irascible private investigator Nero Wolfe needs money and decides to send his assistant Archie Goodwin to Ms. Fraser and her organization — associates, her manager, sponsors’ representatives — in order to drum up a fee for taking the case. The sponsors are anxious to pin blame on anyone and anything but Starlite and agree to foot the bill. Wolfe then embarks upon a program familiar to Stoutian aficionados; he calls all the suspects together in his home, and questions them exhaustively on every aspect of the death. Then he identifies small inconsistencies in the group story and sends Archie out to investigate them individually, with Archie paying special attention to any beautiful young woman involved in the case.

Stout-ABAV-2In the audience that day was 16-year-old Nancylee Shepherd, who “organized the biggest Fraser Girls Club in the country”. Miss Shepherd is what’s called a bobbysoxer, although not in the text, and her favourite intensifier is “simply utterly”. Although she is pert and sassy (more than verging on obnoxious), she is no match for Nero Wolfe, who pries a crucial observation out of her.

Wolfe goes quite a long way towards the solution but reaches a point where he can go no further — so he stirs the pot by faking a document that sends Madeline Fraser and her entourage into high gear. Someone reacts by poisoning a chocolate candy from a box of another sponsor, Meltettes, and a second person is murdered. The circumstances of this murder give Wolfe most of what he needs.

And-Be-a-Villain-Montreal-Standard-5-7-49_fsIn a separate but important sub-plot, Wolfe receives an ominous telephone call midway through the case from someone whom he knows to be a very powerful figure in organized crime; a man named Arnold Zeck. Zeck suggests politely that Wolfe withdraw from the case; Wolfe refuses, but the request gives him inferences that he uses later to solve the case. He spends about 18 hours in his office chair pushing his lips in and out, thinking; he’s solved the case and is deciding just how best to bring off the revelation. In classic Wolfe fashion, he brings everyone together (police and suspects) at his brownstone, explains his chain of logic, identifies the killer and collects his fee.

MoreDeathsThanOne-UK4_fsIn the final brief chapter, Wolfe receives another call from Zeck, who congratulates him on solving the crime without bringing a specific aspect of it to police or public attention. Wolfe thanks him, and says, “… when I undertake an investigation I permit prescription of limits only by the requirements of the job. If that job had taken me across your path you would have found me there.” “Then that is either my good fortune or yours,” says Zeck, and hangs up. The reader familiar with the Wolfean corpus understands this to be the first volume in a trilogy about the collision of Wolfe and Zeck. The second appearance is in 1949’s The Second Confession, in which Zeck sends gunmen to destroy Wolfe’s plant rooms, and the third is the magnificent climax, 1950’s In the Best Families, in which Wolfe finds it necessary to go to extraordinary lengths to defeat Zeck once and for all.

AndBe-UK-Panther_fsWhy is this book worth your time?

As I frequently remark in this context, this is a book by an author who is one of the most important writers of detective fiction of the 20th century. Anything with Rex Stout’s name on it is worth your time; even his earliest rubbish, so you can understand how he got to the top of his profession. Anything with Rex Stout’s name on it as part of the body of work (with specific reference to Wolfe, this has become known as the corpus, referencing Wolfe’s large bulk) about Nero Wolfe is especially worth your time; reading every volume of the corpus is to most people a delightful experience because of the ongoing and ever-changing yet constant relationship between Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin.

Reading the corpus gives you an accretion of detail that allows you to experience fully the references in each specific volume. As Wolfe fans can testify, you see the same elements again and again, in similar contexts — by the time you open your 30th volume, you’ll already know why it’s important who gets to sit in the red leather chair in Wolfe’s office, and why it’s useless to bring clients to see Wolfe between four and six in the afternoon. (He’s in the plant rooms cultivating his orchids.)

AndBe7_fsIf you needed more reasons, this is one of the very best volumes in the series. There are 47 books in the series, and I think it’s arguable that this is in the top ten (although not the top five). All three volumes of the Arnold Zeck trilogy are superior; there are not many instances in the corpus where an element of the story carries over from one volume to another — Zeck, Orrie Cather, Wolfe’s daughter/Montenegro — and all such instances have a heightened level of excellence.

But what, in Stoutian terms, defines a heightened level of excellence? That takes a little explanation. I think of each Nero Wolfe piece (I’ll use this term to refer to novels, novellas, and short stories) as having three levels: micro, meso, and macro.

md20734549133As Nero Wolfe enthusiasts know, one of the most enjoyable things in the corpus is the ongoing relationship between Archie and Wolfe. They constantly bicker. Archie must badger Wolfe to work and rein in his spending; Wolfe indulges himself by frustrating Archie, either romantically or by refusing to tell him about progress on cases. There are constant explanations of the daily routine of the brownstone that they (and chef Fritz and “orchid nurse” Theodore) share; how those routines are broken occasionally but mostly observed. I think of this as the micro-level of each piece.

andbeavillainThe meso-level is concerned with the case itself; Archie and Wolfe learning about people connected with the ongoing case, although they’re unlikely to ever meet again. This is the level of clients, witnesses, and murderers. It’s also the level of Wolfe’s supportive team of private investigators and friends: Saul, Orrie, Fred, Dol Bonner, Lon Cohen, etc.  The meso-level is usually the most important level in any given Wolfe piece but most of it vanishes with each new work. The patterns, however, remain. In each new book it’s a different young female suspect whom Archie takes dancing at the Flamingo Club, but it’s always the Flamingo Club.

Finally, the macro-level has to do with long story arcs — for instance, Wolfe’s personal friendship from childhood with restaurateur Marko Vukcic (proprietor of the famous restaurant Rusterman’s) which begins in Too Many Cooks (1938) and ends so sadly in The Black Mountain (1954). The macro-level can also be about world events and circumstances that have an overarching impact upon Wolfe’s world; for instance, during World War II, Wolfe consults for the US government without fee. It’s important to note that the macro-level is not truly present in every single Nero Wolfe story but, as you will see, I suggest that its presence is what lifts a story from the ordinary level of excellence to a heightened brilliance.

md1044970895So every story has the micro- and meso- levels; the excellent stories all share some involvement at the macro-level. Here the macro-level is represented by this volume’s membership in the Zeck trilogy; if you’ve read the other two volumes, you know that Wolfe undertakes one of the greatest challenges of his life in the defeat of Arnold Zeck.  Zeck is Wolfe’s Moriarty, if you will; no other male challenges the detective to this extent. (There are a handful of Irene Adlers, though.) There are other social issues that are illustrated, notably the inner workings of the radio industry and the phenomenon known as bobby-soxers; Wolfe always has to contend with social institutions that are beyond his control when the zeitgeist impinges upon his private world. But the macro-level is definitely Wolfe’s encounter with what we later call organized crime. There’s also quite a bit of information about Wolfe’s attitude towards the income tax and why he hates paying it, but it’s the first third of Wolfe’s interaction with Zeck that is the mark of distinction here.

nw131968may2aThe meso-level is the case at hand; who killed Cyril Orchard and why? Wolfe follows his familiar pattern of investigation here as almost always. Wolfe sends out Archie to see the locations and speak with as many of the suspects as possible; meanwhile, Wolfe pressures the suspects into attending a large-scale meeting in his office. Archie reports verbatim conversations back to Wolfe, who finds a loose thread in the tapestry and picks at it until it unravels. This leads to a second murder and, when the murderer thus panics, Wolfe figures out what happens and calls a meeting in his office to identify the killer and end the book. In this book, Wolfe represents that he’s stymied at a certain point and resorts to the stratagem of faking a document in order to prod the suspects into action; this is not his usual inaction, but he wants the money quickly and pushes more than he usually does. Although the document is never used, the pressure pays off dramatically when one of Madeline Fraser’s inner circle of advisors is murdered with a poisoned box of Meltettes, another sponsoring candy. To Wolfe’s mind this narrows the range of suspects to a very small number and he soon identifies the guilty party. The traditional ending in Wolfe’s study, where he calls everyone together and lays out the case (and then Inspector Cramer puts a large hand on the guilty party’s shoulder), here is satisfying and moderately surprising.

md1738271855In the process of solving the mystery, Wolfe uncovers a scheme of organized blackmail that is brilliant.  You really should read the book to get the full picture, but it would work today as well, if not better, than 1948 — requires no evidence or proof of anyone’s misdeeds — and has the good sense to stop after a year of payments. It is a scheme worthy of a kingpin of crime like Arnold Zeck, and Stout achieved a great thing in inventing it. Stout didn’t always depict gangsters well, but his intelligence produced great schemes for them to carry out.

The micro-level is represented by the everyday activities of the brownstone. For instance, Wolfe provides a wonderful meal for a physician who gives him valuable information in return — “fresh pork tenderloin, done in a casserole, with a sharp brown sauce moderately spiced”, with a mention of the extraordinary brandy labelled Remisier, “of which there are only nineteen bottles in the United States and they’re all in [Wolfe’s] cellar.” Archie goads Wolfe into action by planting a story in the newspapers, via Lon Cohen, about how Wolfe has failed to solve the case. Wolfe and Fritz the household chef argue about whether horse mackerel is as good as Mediterranean tunny fish for a veal dish called vitello tonnato. Madeline Fraser gets to sit in the red leather chair in Wolfe’s office.  And at the end of the novel, Wolfe gathers all the suspects in his office and solves the case.

Micro, meso, and macro levels are all present in this excellent volume; I recommend it to your attention and hope you form the same attachment to the adventures of Nero Wolfe as I have.  It’s brought me delight for many, many years.

md13726386061A note on editions

Wikipedia has someone, or a group of people, who has devoted considerable time and effort to outlining the publishing history of every single Wolfe title. I don’t see any reason to re-invent their wheel; you can find that information at the bottom of this page. My own favourite edition is my beautifully near-mint copy of Bantam #824, shown above, with Madeline Fraser in a blue low-cut suit looking at Nero Wolfe. It’s the first US paper edition; the UK paper precedes it but with the variant title as noted at the top of this review.