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.


Some thoughts on Herbert Resnicow’s mysteries

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of detective fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about quite a few novels of Herbert Resnicow. In no instance here do I reveal the identity of a murderer, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read Resnicow’s works, they will have lost their power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read his books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. (The second-last paragraph mentions the two volumes by name that I think you will enjoy the most.)

Herbert_ResnicowThe works of Herbert Resnicow have recently become available to me — okay, I opened a dusty box in “Noah’s Archives” and there they were, held firmly in place beneath the weighty output of Ruth Rendell. As is my habit, I picked one up to flip through in order to remind myself of his work, and eight books later, I thought I’d make some notes. 😉

I mention my personal process only to indicate why I’ve chosen to go against my habit. Generally when I look at an

9780380692781-usauthor, I choose a single book and examine it in depth as a way of talking about a broader view; the author’s themes or preoccupations as exemplified within the pages of one of his/her works. In the case of Resnicow, I found not that much that can be examined in depth and so I thought I’d look at everything at once to see if there was anything of interest that could be teased out with a wider viewpoint.

Resnicow’s oeuvre

Herbert Resnicow’s publication history began in 1983 with The
9780380699230-usGold Solution
, which was a finalist for the Edgar for Best First Novel. There were four more novels in five years in the Gold series, about the adventures of a middle-aged Jewish married couple who trade barbed insults and solve crimes, rather after the model of Mr. and Mrs. North, Nick and Nora Charles, and a host of other married sleuths.

In 1985, he began a second series about a male attorney and his romantic partner, a female university dean, against a background of crossword puzzles and having crossword blanks as part of the story, to be filled in by the reader so as to provide clues to the mystery for the perspicacious.  There were five of these in two years, with the collaboration of well-known crossword compiler Henry Hook (who here has exceeded even his usual brilliance in many instances by constructing puzzles that meet the needs of the plot).

UnknownIn 1987 and 1990, Resnicow published two novels about Ed Baer and his son Warren, a financier and a philosopher respectively. The first of these was The Dead Room and I’ll suggest it’s one of his best known books: it’s the one that appears on lists of locked-room mysteries including the relevant Wikipedia article.

In the latter part of his brief career, he published five novels with famous co-authors: two with Edward Koch, and one each with Fran Tarkenton, Tom Seaver, and Pelé. I must confess I haven’t seen these in a long time and would have been unlikely to re-read them; the celebrity names are uppermost in large type and Resnicow’s name is presented as “with”. I’m not sure it’s fair to call this “ghost-writing” if your name is actually on the book; a writer friend of mine once referred to this as “withing” and that word suits me just fine. Resnicow was a “wither” for celebrity mysteries and there are five of them.

Gold-CurseWhat you’ll find in his work

As I said, I flipped through a bunch of these in a short time, although I’ve certainly read all these volumes and more previously. I re-read all five crossword mysteries and the first two Gold volumes, and The Dead Room. My archives appear not to contain a copy of the second Baer novel, The Hot Place, and I think I shall have to remedy that; I remember it as being quite readable.

The Gold novels set the tone for much of Resnicow’s remaining work. Alexander Gold and his wife Norma are introduced to a mystery that involves some sort of impossible situation. There is a motivation supplied for the Golds to solve the mystery, either financial or in order to save someone from being unjustly convicted of the crime. And the circumstances of the crime are … well, “impossible” is perhaps more precise than I can be in these circumstances. Let’s say it usually seems as though no one could have reasonably committed the crime and then the experienced Golden Age reader will know what’s coming.

md1077001541I don’t think the “impossible crime” puzzles at the centre of these novels are as clever as others do. I have to say, though, that the critical faculties which my fellow bloggers bring to the defence of Resnicow’s abilities are sufficiently significant that I can’t ignore them, and honestly I feel a little guilty for not liking these as much as my peers. Smart and insightful people think these puzzles are clever, and all I can respond is, “didn’t seem that way to me”. I suspect my faculties have been dulled over the years by overexposure to the particular brand of cleverness that produced these plots … or perhaps I’m just not smart enough to see what others see. For a really detailed look at Resnicow’s career from someone who esteems him more highly than I do, I recommend my blogfriend TomCat’s 2011 opinion at Beneath the Stains of Time.

9780345322821-usIn the background of each Gold novel is some consideration having to do with the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Gold. Mr. and Mrs. Gold are nice. Indeed, they are what one would call “good people”; they care about each other and trade barbs and witticisms with the ease of a long relationship with strong bonds of affection (but it’s clear that either would die for the other). They take care of each other, help their friends, and are valuable and productive members of society.

And that’s kind of a problem for me. In modern genre studies there’s a concept that has arisen from the bottom up (rather than as the product of, say, academic thought that gets translated down-market to mere fans ;-)); the Mary Sue. This is seen as a common cliché of wish-fulfillment in fan fiction; an “idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ensign Mary Sue, age 16, single-handedly saves the Enterprise with a bobby pin and starts dating Captain Kirk, etc. And it’s linked to the slightly more academic concept of self-insertion, whereby “a fictional character who is the real author of a work of fiction appears as an idealized character within that fiction, either overtly or in disguise.” The author writes him/herself in as the star of their own story; in academic terms, the character is the raisonneur. Here it seems quite clear to me that Mr. Gold is based on Resnicow himself, as is the male protagonist of the crossword novels. If you read the biographical details in TomCat’s piece linked above, I think you will be even more convinced that this is probable.

9780345327321-usI’m not saying that Resnicow does this in any way objectionably; in fact, it’s quite cute and naive. However, I think it is commonly understood that novels based on a Mary Sue protagonist are usually quite boring, and that’s certainly something to consider here. If the impossible crime is the A plot, then the B plot is — well, it’s not much of a plot of all, it’s mostly characterization. The Golds and their best friends are charming and delightful, but nothing really bad ever happens to them, and not much happens to change them or their personalities. They don’t grow, and this is a characteristic of Mary Sues. Now, fans of Nero Wolfe like myself can stand the idea of a B plot about personalities who don’t change much. But unless you are a writer of the quality of Rex Stout, the B plot tends to fade away, and that’s what I find happens here. I remember the A plots quite clearly after 20+ years, but all but the simplest recollection of the Golds’ personalities had gone.

the-dead-room1The two novels about a father-and-son amateur detective team where the father is a businessman and the son a philosopher seem to me to be Resnicow’s best work; at least, The Dead Room has considerable critical acclaim. I certainly liked it, partly because there is some tension between the protagonists. The story is very strong and is an impossible crime mystery, although with a modern twist; it takes place in an anechoic chamber at the headquarters of a stereo manufacturer. I have to say, though, that I solved this one without thinking very hard about it, which frankly surprised me. I’m not very good at solving these plots, even though I’m very interested in how they’re constructed; when I get one first crack out of the box, it’s a signal to me that either I have a bent for this kind of story or it’s not well done.

md1077051789I actually liked the solution of The Gold Deadline the best of all, and here TomCat and I are in agreement, it seems. The book itself has tinges of homophobia (although to be clear it’s actually biphobia about the unpleasant victim), but the central premise is an ass-kicker. The victim is alone in a theatre box during a performance, under observation and someone is guarding the only door to the box. How the crime is committed will doubtless surprise you but it’s really clever, a contrivance at the level of a Death of Jezebel or The Chinese Orange Mystery. 

The five Gold novels and the two about the father-and-son team, the Baers, are the best of the lot; the other nine are distinctly minor.

3185460The five crossword novels feature a couple similar to the Golds, except that one is the world’s most esteemed crossword composer unknown to anyone. They have a number of good things about them, principal among which is four or five original puzzles per book created by the late great Henry Hook. I’ve read plenty of other crossword mysteries and I have to say these might just be the best crosswords ever found in a mystery. They are integral to the plot — you really should solve them as you move through the book in order to understand what’s going on. They are difficult but not impossible to solve, at the level of a New York Times Sunday puzzle. And in at least one instance Hook created a new kind of puzzle which he gives many names; I’ll call them Crossonics, because the sounds of the words are important to the context of the novel.

Unknown-1The most successful of the five to me is the entry about a group of cruciverbalists who are the stars of a New York crossword club, Murder Across and Down. This is the only one where the addition of crosswords actually makes sense to the plot and the crosswords’ solutions have a bearing on the solution. Other than that, there are various specious excuses under which Resnicow assembles precisely six suspects (why six, I wonder? Ellery Queen got by with three) and has them solve and/or create puzzles. Other plots range from far-fetched (six heirs to a cruciverbalist’s will, six candidates for a plum job) to the absolutely ridiculous (a nonsensical Russian spy plot that involves coded messages in the daily crossword puzzle of a newspaper). This last one reminds me of an equally preposterous bridge spy/mystery novel by Don Von Elsner in which codes are transmitted via the bridge column … just not a very good idea.

Murder_City_HallThe worst thing about these is that really they are not mysteries that are solved, per se. I believe all five share the common thread that the murderer is induced to reveal his/her guilt by the process of solving or setting a crossword. Sure, there are clues to guilt that are noted after the fact, but … what it all boils down to is the old “set a trap and the murderer falls into it”. Not plotting for the connoisseur. I have to say that the characterization is well-done throughout these novels; Resnicow does an excellent job of helping us keep the six suspects distinct each from the other.  The Crossword Hunt is particularly good, where Resnicow lets us see six job candidates and then at the end reveals why five of them shouldn’t have gotten the job — for reasons we’ve seen, but may not have thought about. The author shows an excellent grasp of psychology here. But ultimately these five suffer from the same problem as all “crossword mysteries”; it’s nearly impossible to make crosswords a necessary part of the plot of a mystery without structuring the book with impossibilities.

9780688067168-usAnd as for the five withed novels, the less said about those the better.  I did read these on their first publication and they are … competent examples of commercial writing. It’s hard to say if his collaborators contributed anything at all to the novels except their names and a couple of “shooting the shit” sessions to provide background; I rather think not. It’s just that, as Phoebe Atwood Taylor found with Murder at the New York World’s Fair, when half the book has to be there for reasons which have nothing to do with the mystery, and you really need the money for the book, the mystery suffers. The two books with Ed Koch I recall to be particularly egregious; they are determined to present Koch in the best possible light regardless of how much it strains credulity. If the authors had dared to tell the truth about Koch’s everyday life and political manoeuvrings, they would have been much more interesting and less “safe”, and a lot more readable. As they are, they’re what booksellers think of as instant remainders. (Apparently Resnicow died before he did much with the second Koch title beyond an outline, but he gets credit.)

PeleIf you do decide to try Resnicow’s work, I suggest the Gold novels and the two Baer novels, of course, but probably The Dead Room and The Gold Deadline will be sufficient to give you the highlights.

To the best of my knowledge, most of these books are unavailable in electronic editions. You can see that the crosswords would be tough to make available; all five of the Gold novels are available from Kindle Unlimited but I don’t see any evidence of the Baer novels or the “with” novels having made the E-transition. The Dead Room I used to see everywhere as a used paperback, but here in Canada it was issued by Worldwide Library, a prolific subsidiary of Harlequin. Amazon or ABE should get you any of the others you need, though.

Hopalong Cassidy — detective?

Please be warned that this essay concerns a film with a mystery as part of its plot, The Dead Don’t Dream; part of its enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. As I note here, the mystery portion is ridiculous and impossible to figure out, but I thought I’d make my readers aware to be on the safe side. To be honest, I’ll be giving away the “trick” of a movie that is essentially meaningless but I am giving it away, so … if you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.

hoppy_headLast fall I had a look at an old Hopalong Cassidy film, Law of the Pampas. I’ve been following right along with as many of Hoppy’s adventures as I can find; there’s a cable channel available to me that’s been re-running them.  As you might have guessed from the nature of my other interests, I’m interested in Hoppy because that brand went from being the most leveraged brand in history — in about 1951/52 it had penetrated into more markets and sold more 1951 dollars’ worth of goods than even Star Wars later managed, to my knowledge, in comparable currencies — to what it is today, which is to say barely a footnote. I think it’s safe to say that if you ask anyone today living in an English-speaking country who Hopalong Cassidy is, the word “cowboy” will come up immediately, and … nothing else.

In order to fully understand that huge arc from hero to zero, though, you need to understand something about the phenomenon that was Hopalong Cassidy (“Hoppy”, to millions of children) in the early days of television. There’s a lot to this story, and a couple of deeply fannish books have been written about it, so I’ll just hit the high spots and if you’re curious there’s more for you to discover.

Hop-a-long Cassidy - 1shtWilliam Boyd was a silent film star whose career was on the downward slide when he played Hopalong Cassidy first in 1935. Hop-Along Cassidy (aka Hopalong Cassidy Enters) was the first of 41 independent Hopalong productions released through Paramount between 1935 and 1941.  Yes, 41 movies in six years; that’s about 7 per year; they might have shot one every six weeks for most of the year then rested a while. Harry Sherman, the packaging producer, then distributed 13 Hoppy movies through United Artists between 1942 and 1944, keeping to the same breakneck speed. At some point in 1944, as I understand it (I could be wrong on the dates here) William Boyd felt that he had become indelibly associated with the Hoppy character and determined to spend the rest of his life playing him and him alone. So he hocked his assets to the hilt and purchased all rights to the character; the entire film library, merchandising, everything, for $350,000.

hoppyadThat process seemingly took all of 1945 and most of 1946; after acquiring the rights, Boyd himself began production and did a single film in 1946 and a further 11 films in 1947 and 1948, releasing them through United Artists. But the productions were not popular on the drive-in circuit and Boyd was going broke. Then he had the idea of taking one of his older pictures to the local NBC station (as I understand it, KTLA) and rented it for a nominal fee. The broadcasts were enormously popular and went to the national level almost immediately. In 1949, NBC edited the features to a suitable length for broadcast, and Hopalong Cassidy became the first network Western TV series. Apparently there were a lot of Western fans with televisions in 1949; the genre took off across the country and Hoppy’s popularity was single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of the Western genre on television in the 50s and 60s.

HoppyTVThere was a new radio programme from 1948 to 1952, and Boyd packaged a hit television show with 52 episodes of new and old material from 1952 to 1954. There were also comic books and paperbacks and you could even buy the movies themselves on 8mm and 16mm film from Castle Releasing. Boyd retired Hoppy near the top of his game, although his decision probably had something to do with the death of his long-time companion Topper, Hoppy’s big white horse. Boyd continued to make personal appearances for a few years but then apparently preferred that people remember him as he had been, declining interviews, photos and all appearances in his later years.

61Q84PPJXCL._SX363_BO1,204,203,200_What really interested me about Hoppy was that he was one of the greatest all-time feats of cross-platform marketing. I can’t say Hopalong Cassidy was the first brand that was cross-marketed in different objects — Little Orphan Annie comes to mind — but anyone who frequents flea markets and collectibles shows has seen tables of Hoppy-related materials. It was an enormously broad-based brand in its day. Literally, they stuck that brand on every conceivable product (except, strangely, for chewing gum; Boyd was against it) — lawn mowers and toy guns and sandwich loaves and neckerchiefs and TV sets and everything in between. There’s a large book or two detailing all the collectibles available and it makes for fascinating reading, although the brand has fallen out of favour today and the values have plummeted. Boyd himself made millions from licensing. And Hopalong Cassidy was the very first featured image on a lunchbox.

hoppy-headerIt’s also the case that William Boyd starred in more movies playing Hopalong Cassidy than any actor before or since has done, as an individual actor playing a single character — a grand total of 66 films. (Few were much longer than an hour.)

I imagine when you have to find 66 different ways to ring some changes on the basic set of seven Western plots (many of which can’t be done in the Hoppy context) you are hard-pressed to come up with anything new. Hoppy’s plots were repetitive and simple.  Here’s a few strains I’ve isolated after seeing perhaps two-thirds of the 66:

  • Hoppy comes to a town where someone is pretending to be an honest citizen but is really a crook; Hoppy finds out and thwarts the underlying criminal plot.
  • Hoppy comes to the defence of a farmer/rancher/little guy/helpless woman who is targeted by an unscrupulous trail boss/land baron/bully.
  • Hoppy comes to the defence of someone unjustly accused of a serious crime, and finds out who really did it.
  • Hoppy must execute a difficult task such as a cattle drive or guiding a wagon train, because someone needs his assistance.
  • Hoppy must mediate between two warring factions who want control of something (water, a town, unfenced land).
  • Someone thinks Hoppy (or one of his sidekicks, or a friend) did something wrong, or dishonourable, and he has to prove them wrong.
  • Hoppy must enter an unusual environment (go to a different country, or disguise himself and take up a different profession) and expose a criminal enterprise.

Hoppy Serves a Writ - 1shtThe one that I wanted to talk about today, at which I hinted in the title to this piece, is “Hoppy defends someone unjustly accused and finds out who really did the crime.” Just abstractly, doesn’t that sound like every Perry Mason episode you ever saw? Yes, from time to time Hoppy had to act as a detective, and that interests me. What happens when you cross a Western brand with a detective plot?

20ce0f649216fe71ddc69babf71e939aWhat prompted this interest in the possibilities of Hopalong Cassidy as a detective was a tiny segment of 1941’s Doomed Caravan. I won’t bore you with the details, especially since there aren’t many worthwhile, but essentially a bunch of outlaws capture a group of cavalrymen, steal their uniforms and equipment, and impersonate the troopers in an attempt to get close enough to rob a freight shipment that Hoppy has agreed to protect. When they arrive in town, everyone takes for granted that they are who they say they are. But Hoppy’s suspicions are aroused by a number of small inconsistencies in their clothing and gear.  He investigates a little, and questions one man about a bullet hole in his shirt and another about the wrong initials in his hatband. We see his eyes narrow, but he keeps his suspicions to himself until it comes time to save the day.

cdb2da219c6b80bec78aa253db7ea35cFor fans of mysteries on film, this film’s strongest player is Minna Gombell. She had a first-rate second-rate career in films, toiling away in relative obscurity, but she made an impression on me in 1934’s The Thin Man as Mimi Wynant Jorgenson, the greedy widow who would do nearly anything for money. Here she plays a tough but straight-shooting frontierswoman who needs the freight shipment to succeed, and her acting skills stand out a mile against her surrounding players. There’s nothing else of any great interest in this movie, but it did pique my interest to see if Hopalong Cassidy had ever displayed any great detective chops.

a5f5f7f13c4932f7c488e63ffed9c5b9There is one late entry in the series, 1948’s The Dead Don’t Dream, which would seem like the ideal candidate; I remember being quite excited when I read the information in the TV listing. Hoppy comes to the Last Chance Inn (at which all the local gold prospectors stay) to attend the wedding of his sidekick Lucky Jenkins to the niece of a wealthy local miner. The miner disappears from the inn and is found dead the next day. And the next night, the man who sleeps in that same room at the inn vanishes and is found dead elsewhere the next day. In fact this is the third time it’s happened.

Now, that’s a bare-bones story hook worthy of John Dickson Carr, isn’t it? What a pity something happened along the way to this admirable concept. What went wrong, I’m not entirely sure. Hoppy starts to investigate the rancher’s disappearance immediately, trying to get the wedding back on the rails. But this movie doesn’t really make any sense. There is ominous music when it seems like people are listening outside a door, or when something scary might happen … but nothing ever really happens. Hoppy seems to have a string of unaccountable and unmentioned intuitions that guide him as to precisely what to do next to make the plot move along at a brisk clip, but none of them are motivated by anything that actually happens or even anything that’s spoken about.  Within the hour, for instance, Hoppy is off to see the uncle’s dark and ominous gold mine — for no real reason except that no one knows where the uncle’s gold is kept. Yes, the uncle is there and he’s deceased. And everyone just sort of accepts this and sits around and talks about it, until Hoppy figures out what’s going on (more divine intuition).

People come and go, people talk about events, but no one detects and there’s nothing that happens that explains anything. The killer tries to kill Hoppy, and it’s never clear why, except of course that he’s investigating.

HopalongCassidyFilms.gifAfter further hubbub and back and forth, people coming and going, Hoppy finally figures out that the room contains a four-poster bed that kills people. In the middle of the night, the top of the bed descends soundlessly, suffocates the sleeper, and then returns to its topmost position. Now, this is also a clever idea. But in terms of the plot, it makes no sense at all. The owner of the inn has nothing to do with it; the actual criminal is someone who occasionally stays at the inn. How did the bed get there? WHY did the bed get there? Who in this Western world needed to kill people surreptitiously? When you think about it, in the other Hoppy movies, people die all the time from gunshots without any need for complicated mechanical traps.

There’s more, but it makes just as little sense as what’s gone before. Lucky’s engagement is broken (which everyone in the contemporaneous audience would have known to be inevitable anyway; Lucky has to chase the girls to keep the plots moving). Hoppy identifies the killer, and how I will never know, since there are no clues; he accepts someone’s comment as to one of the suspects’ criminal background. No detection, no investigation, just intuition and action.

To sum up — this is a great idea for a mystery movie, that suffers from terrible execution. No one thought any of this through, it’s just needless obfuscation, and the script has no underlying logic. Just a bunch of things that happen, ominous music, the killer gets arrested, and Hoppy makes a little joke as everyone prepares to leave.

983712c1ad67e46193d162211ca9f2b0At the time of production of The Dead Don’t Dream in 1948, the brand was just about at its nadir. Boyd was paying for the productions himself and cutting corners wherever possible; mostly by sticking with a small crew, trying to get everything in a single take, and skimping on services like music and screenwriters, using unknowns who needed experience. These weren’t even as good as the early “B” pictures in the series but more like “C” grade. I understand that, particularly with Boyd’s self-produced films, they were later chopped up a little to fit into television running times, which might explain the general air of incoherence and unmotivated plot developments in this outing. I suspect there’s another ten minutes of plot that needed to make it into the finished product and didn’t.

So unless there’s something I haven’t yet managed to see, the chances of Hopalong Cassidy taking shape as a detective are slim to none. Occasionally he participated in a mystery-like plot, just as he occasionally participated in the occasional romantic plot, but overall, his Western chops remain unsullied by any cross-genre participation.  In a way, it’s too bad. The Hoppy brand had a huge following in its day, but if it had been rebooted as a “Western detective” series, who knows, it might still be around today!

Not The Top Ten: Ellery Queen

As promised in my most recent post, I thought I’d apply my Not The Top Ten (Personal) approach to Ellery Queen.

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of detective fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about quite a few novels of Ellery Queen. In at least one case the identity of the murderer will be obvious. If you haven’t already read these titles, they will have lost their power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read any book whose title is unfamiliar to you (I’ve put them in bold italics) before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.

Most overrated novel

472113f2176c6dff7e5e4c30bb818db3This is a tough call, but for me — and I emphasize this is based on personal factors — the most overrated EQ novel is And on the Eighth Day by a hair over The Fourth Side of the Triangle. Both, strangely enough, were written by science-fiction writer Avram Davidson under the direction of Messrs. Dannay and Lee; I’ve read his science fiction and it’s fairly … tepid. And yes, I am aware that And On the Eighth Day received the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Each to his own, as the old lady said when she kissed the cow.

To me, this book is gallingly annoying. It is clearly the product of a storyteller who is self-consciously constructing a parable; it pauses on the verge of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly, like the “Locked Room lecture” chapter in John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, about the moral imperatives that underlie the agonizingly predictable activities of the book. “Look at me! I’m writing in metaphors! and look how abstract I can be!” Okay, not quite that far. But the authorial presence is clumsy and overbearing, at the “nudge nudge wink wink” level. Please, leave me alone and let me read the damn book.

I don’t like the intertwining of Naziism with religious parables; I don’t like the intertwining of the detective story with religious parables. (Let religions do their own work in their own way, say I, without coopting the forms of genre fiction. One of the conventions of detective fiction is that even the most basic assumptions must be verified and nothing is taken on faith.) And I don’t like an authorial presence that muscles its way into the moral high ground without allowing you to decide if it’s merited. So I’m the critic who likes this book the least, but there are a lot of smart people who esteem it highly, and you will have to make up your own mind what you think.

Most underrated novel

4e882a3ea7e348579188dc3e10dbaf48For me, the most underrated Ellery Queen novel would have to be The Murderer is a Fox (1945). I like the Wrightsville period of EQ because it represents the finest example of the Dannay and Lee trying to push the boundaries of the puzzle mystery. And I think The Murderer is a Fox is a better Wrightsville novel than Calamity Town. In Calamity Town the cousins had already established the focus on small-town America and its foibles; here in The Murderer is a Fox, I think they captured atmosphere better than in any other novel. You can see the dust motes dancing in the thick atmosphere of the attic, feel the weight of the heavy blue glass tumbler … and we can sympathize with the hero afflicted with “shell shock” who has to endure clacking tongues and being misunderstood, and with his adolescent self coping with a murdered parent. The solution is truly surprising and effective; it prompts the reader to real emotions and to sympathize with a character in an impossible situation. Just because it’s a book on a small scale doesn’t mean it can’t work on larger themes.

51cuw5ymffl-_sy445_A close runner-up would be Halfway House. I think if it had been called The Swedish Match Mystery as originally planned, we’d right now be acclaiming it as among the best of the Nationalities period.  As it is, it’s not quite Wrightsville and not quite bloodless logic, but in many ways it has the best features of both periods.

If the cousins had actually written A Room To Die In, instead of Jack Vance, I would have considered it in this category; it’s a smart little locked-room mystery that should be more widely read. As it is, it’s definitely the book that would have been better written by John Dickson Carr if I ever do that comparison.

The novel containing the best hook

siamese_twin1This one has to be The Siamese Twin Mystery, which starts with the realization that Ellery and his father are going to have to confront a forest fire in the course of the novel. It’s got everything, as the saying goes, “excepting Eliza running across the ice floes with the bloodhounds snapping at her ass”. I can’t think there’s a single reader who could stop reading once the Queens in the big old Duesenberg take that first fateful turn up to the top of the mountain hoping to escape the blaze… I was hooked like a trout and I think every other reader was too. A skilled authorial presence is saying, “Have I got a story for YOU.”

It’s also really difficult to start your novel with a bang, and then keep it rising steadily until the end; lesser talents can’t avoid a sag in the middle. Siamese Twin makes that work, and the finale is beautifully handled and truly exciting. It pays off every promise of the story hook and then some.

d4fb6aa891c234f7961d426e6e6f2090I suspect many people would suggest that The Chinese Orange Mystery was the best hook — except that it takes so long to get to, for me the little corpse with the spears stuck into his reversed clothes doesn’t really qualify as a story hook but more like the midpoint of Act One. A story hook starts bang! in Chapter One, and you’re either hooked or you’re not. It doesn’t count as a story hook if you expect it in Chapter Five because you read about it on the jacket flap’s précis. There’s a similar problem with The Lamp of God — yes, the vanishing house is a gripping plot development, but it doesn’t happen until too late in the story to qualify as a hook.

The novel containing the best murder method

Queen-Avon425This is a difficult topic that requires a little logic-chopping. The word “method” means, to me, “cause of death”. This lets out novels like The Chinese Orange Mystery, where the scene of the crime is truly outre — but the corpse was prosaically biffed on the head with a poker. The King is Dead certainly has a complex method, but is it “best”? No, it’s just overwrought.

The Egyptian Cross Mystery with the multiple decapitations is certainly a strong contender. I also like the methods in The Door Between, and The Dutch Shoe Mystery; they’re inventive and logical.  But for me the winner is The Tragedy of X, with the ball of needles coated with nicotine stuffed into the coat pocket of the victim. That method was produced by a creepy and inventive turn of thought. And best of all, it has a specific contribution to the book that helps identify the murderer (you’ll understand this if you remember the ending).

The novel containing the best motive

br02b_tragedy_of_yI struggled with this one because I wanted to be sure I understood what “best motive” meant. After much thought, I think “best” means the motive that you would never guess, but that arises organically out of the material.  So that means I’ve dismissed novels where the motive is to get a lot of money, or escape from a terrible relationship; those motives are commonplace. EQ occasionally has a plot structure where someone commits a bunch of actions or murders in order to conceal the only murder they wanted to commit — what you might call the ABC motive. This is a little bit fresher but honestly, in EQ’s hands most often it just means that the actions of the book are strained out of proportion in order to include whatever improbable linking structure the authors thought appropriate. (Ten Days’ Wonder and The Finishing Stroke come to mind.) So I’ve eliminated those, and I’ve also eliminated novels where the murderer is simply insane.

01d_RomanThat leaves me with kind of a tie, for different reasons. The Tragedy of Y is my winner by a hair — the murderer is following the written instructions of a dead man without understanding why. No one could intuitively grasp that, but it actually does arise organically from the characters and setting. A very close second is The Roman Hat Mystery, but the reason that no one would guess that motive is quite different. The book was published in 1929, and back then, it was actually a feasible motive that a person would commit murder because they had “just a drop of coloured blood” and wanted to keep that a secret. Wow — just, wow.  And thank goodness we’re beyond that now.

The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending

ac6b6a80250c6057f2ff0499a38e931bThe French Powder Mystery is well-known for having its final words reveal the name of the murderer for the first time. That was kind of a stunt, but for me it was a very surprising ending and a very surprising way of revealing that information. The other novel that truly surprised me was Drury Lane’s Last Case. EQ managed to build that ending organically until the reader is at a pitch of excitement before the reveal of what should be a very surprising murderer … the only trouble is, I didn’t really believe it was psychologically reasonable.

The novel you should avoid 

9780451045805-us-300I’ve had my say about the awfulness of A Fine and Private Place elsewhere, but I think I have to give pride of place to The Last Woman in His Life. This book is significantly ugly and ill-informed on the topic of homosexuality. It’s probably damning with faint praise to say that, you know, I don’t blame Dannay and Lee all that much (actually Lee probably didn’t have much to do with this one, since he was nearing the end of his life) — I think their hearts were in the right place even if the outcome was atrocious. They were trying to be forward-thinking and liberal, and they got it wrong, wrong, wrong.

This novel was written in 1970, two years before I came out, and even then I already knew that the stereotypical gay man they present either didn’t exist or had ceased to exist before I was born. Is it that the cousins never bothered to actually, you know, talk to anyone gay? Or that someone had filled their heads with these weird stories of guys built like football players who liked to wear evening gowns, and they accepted second-hand information rather credulously? Perhaps they were told about a bunch of different sub-groups of gay society and somehow conflated them all into one ghastly stereotypical gay equivalent of Little Black Sambo. We’ll never know.

The other problem with this book is that it is really a very poor mystery per se. EQ here offers a puzzle that is very Queenian, as it were: there are three obvious suspects, ex-wives A, B, and C, with little to differentiate them. The plot doesn’t go very far to make us think that any of them is guilty either. Speaking as someone who’s seen this EQ pattern many times before, it was crystal clear that the killer had to be none of the above. And since there are virtually no other people in the book who fit a few other crucial criteria, such as being present during the murder, it’s quite obvious whodunit. The rest is just foofaraw. And it’s foofaraw that EQ went to preposterous lengths to set in Wrightsville, which merely drags down our understanding of Wrightsville instead of adding anything.

This book is irredeemable. It is not merely poor, it is poor and offensive. It’s an ugly stain on a great body of work by two masters of the genre, and I hope no one ever reads it again.

The one you must read in your lifetime even if you only read one by this author

UnknownThe Greek Coffin Mystery is definitely a superb puzzle mystery; I think it’s the finest of EQ’s “Nationalities” series. It’s beautifully plotted, subtly clued, it has one of the least-likely murderers ever, and the book’s structure is one of the finest examples of leading the reader down the garden path in English literature.  (Yes, seriously. THAT good.) I’ve praised it even more extensively here. And yet — this is not the one I think you should read in your lifetime, even if you only read one Ellery Queen book. That honour belongs to Calamity Town.

Since I’ve said above that it’s not even the best Wrightsville novel, let alone the best EQ novel, you may be puzzled at this point. But I do have a reason. EQ mysteries like Greek Coffin and Chinese Orange are brilliant examples of the Golden Age’s finest achievement, the strict-form puzzle mystery. But they did not change the genre, they were merely among its best examples.

Dannay and Lee, writing as Ellery Queen, tried something that only Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers had achieved thus far; they pushed the boundaries of the genre and changed detective fiction, not merely exemplified it. Christie did it by “breaking the rules” in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. EQ did it by boldly trying to add emotions to detective fiction in the United States, in much the same way that Dorothy L. Sayers created her “literature with bowels” in England with novels like Gaudy Night.

Calamity Town is the book where the creativity really happens. (I think of Halfway House as a kind of false start; the two books have many similarities.) It might not seem like much to readers who have grown up with every detective revealing his or her inner humanity, but merely trying to write about people realistically was a great step forward. At the same time, they tried to use the town of Wrightsville as a kind of character in the book, giving us the massive ebb and flow of a small town on a large scale, from Emmeline DuPre to the depths of Low Town. It’s a huge step forward in the idea of putting characterization and reality into detective fiction, because the technique tries to mirror reality.

Inventively, EQ use intense recomplication in this book as a story-telling method — the sections where we get a whirlwind of comments and reactions from a wide variety of minor characters, and even newspapers and radio broadcasts. Not an absolutely original method of telling the story, since E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case did it in 1913 and Philip MacDonald did it in 1930 with Rynox and 1931’s Murder Gone Mad. EQ, however, have a really nice take on the technique by stretching it out into a longer, less frenetic process, and using it to build the rising tide of the action as part of the plot.

All things considered, Calamity Town is not a magnificent book. But it is an original and ground-breaking book and it took the American detective novel a great step forward in 1942, breaking the grip of the Golden Age forever. So it’s an important book, and if you only read one Ellery Queen title, it should be this one.

Top Ten Lists are boring!

carr-vs-christieMy friends Brad of ahsweetmysteryblog and JJ of The Invisible Event are two mystery experts in the blogosphere. Both are well-read gentlemen who make very insightful contributions to the ongoing GAD dialogue and are fun to read too. Recently they’ve been having fun with the 2017 Christie vs. Carr Smackdown — essentially a series of fun exercises in which they compare and contrast Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. I’ll link to a couple of useful entries here and here that will let you follow these guys on their own, which they deserve.

The Smackdown process has transmogrified into an interesting format they call Scattergories that has allowed Brad and JJ to work into something that’s quite different than the usual Top Ten list. I’ve done Top Ten lists myself at various times and it can be kind of fun to come up with a schema for how to rank your favourites and least favourites. But I’ve found the Top Ten format stale and unprofitable, mostly because it’s quite peculiarly personal. As my two blogfriends put it, “Top Ten Lists are boring!” It’s like trying to convince people that your favourite flavour of ice cream should be theirs.

Here’s their basis that underlies their Scattergories process:

  1. Most overrated novel
  2. Most underrated novel
  3. The novel containing the best hook
  4. The novel containing the best murder method
  5. The novel containing the best motive
  6. The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending
  7. The most Carr-like Christie (or the most Christie-like Carr)
  8. The one you should avoid (unless you’re a purist and/or like to suffer . . . )
  9. The Christie that Carr would have made better if he had written it (and vice versa)
  10. The one you must read in your lifetime even if you only read one Christie/Carr

As you might imagine, when I read this, I was fired up to get busy on my own and happily disagreeing with their choices. (You kind of have to be a book blogger to understand how disagreeing with someone you like can be fun. 😉 ) As I started to dig into the topics, I noticed they divided into two types of observations: one set about an author’s work ranked internally (“most underrated”) and a smaller set about how an author’s work compares to that of another author. Let me split these out and make a few alterations …

Observations about individual books in an author’s oeuvre

  1. Most overrated novel
  2. Most underrated novel
  3. The novel containing the best hook
  4. The novel containing the best murder method
  5. The novel containing the best motive
  6. The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending
  7. The one you should avoid (unless you’re a purist and/or like to suffer …)
  8. The one you must read in your lifetime even if you only read one by this author

And then

Observations about how one author’s work compares to another

  1. The novel by one author that brings to mind the style or focus of another author
  2. The novel by one author that would have been improved if it had been written by another author
  3. Of two authors’ best books, which is the best?
  4. Of two authors’ worst books, which is the worst?
  5. Of two authors’ entire body of work, which is better?

Those last questions I’ve added were intended to suggest, say, that one decides what Ngaio Marsh title is her best, and then what Christianna Brand title is her best, and then which is the better of the two.  And vice-versa for their worst efforts. And then — considering all the Nicholas Blake (for instance) novels against all the Michael Gilbert novels, who has the body of work which best repays study?

I like this way of looking at books and oeuvres and authors in this way; it seems fresh to me and is a kind of structure against which I can improvise, rather like jazz. And honestly the possibilities are endless. If I want to compare Anthony Berkeley to an endless succession of other authors, I can try … or I can blether on about someone obscure like Pat McGerr. And the process works quite well, heaven help us, for non-mystery authors as well. With apologies to Brad and JJ’s idea of Scattergories, I think I’m going to call this “Not the Top Ten”, or NTTT. In fact NTTT Personal and NTTT Comparisons.

elleryqueenAnd because I was provoked (a delightful process, I assure you) by the comments section into considering other authors by the addition of comparisons involving Ellery Queen works, my first NTTT Personal attempt will be a separate post on EQ, using the eight questions above.  See what you think!

A quotation about mysteries from Fran Lebowitz

“Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

In my lifetime, I’ve read one zillion mysteries. This is not because I care about who did it. I don’t care. And I almost never figure it out. I don’t have that kind of mind at all. I don’t care who did it. I have reread mysteries numerous times and I don’t even remember who did it. I’ve read all the Agatha Christies. I’ve read all the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout. He wrote many of them, but not enough for Fran. I’m always hoping to find one I’ve never read. It’s the same as the New Yorker’s dream of finding an extra room in your apartment that you didn’t know was there. One thing I like about mysteries is that they end. Which is true of so little else.”

12901176_10156759506600230_7491903967036767053_oFrom an interview in the New York Times of this week.  I had the privilege of meeting this insightful thinker many years ago in Toronto and having lunch with her and a bunch of publicists, quite by bizarre accident. We talked principally about clothes — she has an unusual approach to clothes and always wears approximately the same thing — and murder mysteries. I can see that she would find something to love in the Nero Wolfe stories — they’re both completely immersed in being New Yorkers!