The Dartmoor Enigma, by Sir Basil Thomson (1935)

The Dartmoor Enigma, An Inspector Richardson Mystery, by Sir Basil Thomson (2016); originally published in 1935 as Richardson Solves a Dartmoor Mystery. With an introduction by Martin Edwards (who is the current president of the Detection Club and author of last year’s superb history of the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder).

WARNING: This post concerns a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

the-dartmoor-enigma-an-inspector-richardson-mystery-by-basil-thomson-1911095765Last week, I ran across a note of a 2016 electronic reissue of Basil Thomson’s eight mysteries. I’ve read quite a few rare mysteries in my day, but I’d barely heard of this author and only had a dim memory that he had had some sort of personal scandal associated with his life. Sir Basil had been quite a guy who, in a long and varied career, had become Assistant Commissioner for Crime at Scotland Yard, before he mysteriously lost his job. As best I remembered, Thomson’s mysteries were not of a level of excellence that had recommended them for paperback republication in later years, but were well regarded. They were also so little known that I had never managed to read one. And he is so obscure that that excellently exhaustive resource, Stop, You’re Killing Me, did not for once contain a list of his entire oeuvre. Now THAT is a little-known author.

So in a moment of curiosity/weakness, considering the tottering heap of my “to-be-read” pile, I picked up the inexpensive e-book of the fifth book of eight at random and thought, “I’ll look at the first few pages…” Famous last words, of course, but I have to say (1) I didn’t put it down, and (2) I went back and got the other seven in the series the same day.  So you can assume in advance I enjoyed this.

What is this book about?

As a result of both the Chief Constable of Devonshire and Scotland Yard receiving an anonymous letter suggesting that the writer knows the death of the late Mr. Dearborn was caused by a bash in the head rather than his contemporaneous car accident. Chief Inspector Richardson is assigned to the case. The Dartmoor man who died in a car accident soon proves to have been bludgeoned to death. But the victim soon proves to be a complete enigma. He arrived in Dartmoor with a huge sum of money in cash, bought a house, got married — and apparently never existed before he arrived in Dartmoor.

Within a page or two, “The junior chief inspector made his appearance.” We learn nothing about Richardson other than that he is young, having received promotion quickly, and has many fine personal qualities that endear him to his fellow officers. Richardson takes Sergeant Jago in tow and begins his investigation. The local constabulary rather quickly fastens guilt upon a disgruntled ex-employee of the late Dearborn, but Richardson progresses further in short order.

There is not much point in my retailing the activities of the plot here because, frankly, they are the principal virtue of this novel; if I give much of it away, you will enjoy the book much less. Suffice it to say that the deceased’s affairs are considerably more tangled than it would appear at first glance, and that his history appears to contain a film star improbably named Jane Smith, a Borneo gold-mining company, a defalcating young lawyer, and a blameless wife. Richardson tracks down the different threads of the investigation and determines the true identity of the late Mr. Dearborn and also the identity of his murderer, bringing the case to a satisfying close. And in the best Humdrum traditions, there is a smart twist at the end.

1_bacb819f-7bcc-4515-93bf-64e9452f0a2f_grandeWhy is this book worth your time?

A theme that seems to repeat a lot in my reviewing work is my search for charm within the pages of the books I review. It’s a difficult concept to nail down and not very rigorous in its boundaries. Essentially, when I find a book to have charm, it means that the writing is somehow likeable, the story is pleasant to contemplate, the author’s voice is amusing, there are no horrible errors of authorial judgment that I am forced to ignore — and I can close the book with a sense that I have just had a “nice” experience.

When I say this book has charm, and it absolutely does, it doesn’t necessarily have to emanate from the author himself. To be honest, much of the pleasure of this book came from the introduction by Martin Edwards. He understood the book completely, and most of all was able to place it very accurately within a constellation of other authors with whose work I am more familiar. So if I tell you that this is rather like an Inspector French novel by Freeman Wills Crofts, but minus the “timetable mystery” aspect and with the addition of considerable accurate detail about police procedure, you may well understand what that means. This is, indeed, what I’ve called elsewhere a proto-procedural. That is to say, it’s a “detective novel” that focuses on the activities of Chief Inspector Richardson and shows in detail how he works with his fellow officers, but written before the term “police procedural” was invented.


Sir Basil Thomson

Martin Edwards’ introduction indeed places Thomson precisely in relation to two other GAD writers. Here’s the sentence that says it all: “Thomson’s mysteries are less convoluted than Crofts’, and less sophisticated than [Henry] Wade’s, but they make pleasant reading.” Yes, indeed. There is enough cleverness in this volume to make me smile at the obligatory twist at the end, but, as Edwards says, “… intricacy of plotting — at least judged by the standards of Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, and John Dickson Carr — was not Thomson’s true speciality.” I agree, but to be honest, that was kind of a pleasant relief. This was an uncomplicated tale, well-written and rather unambiguous. If you are the sort of person who actually tries to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed, you may well, as I did, get all the way to the end first (which in my case makes me puff up my chest with pride for the rest of the day, so there you are). Or you may have the almost as pleasant experience of getting 3/4 of the way to the solution but being fooled by the clever final twist. You will still feel as though you have accomplished something.

500My current interests in social history as woven into detective fiction were also very nicely satisfied by this story. There’s quite a bit of material here about social class. In chapter five, for instance, the disgruntled ex-employee Pengelly, a kind of labour agitator, is visited by the police. “Evidently he had been told by the foreman the quality of his visitors; he was on the defensive.” If you know me, you’ll know that my ears pricked up at the word “quality”. But Scotland Yard is not terribly unkind to Pengelly overall, although it does arrest him for a petty crime — Robertson has a word with the foreman at his new place to save his job. Similarly there is a dotty old peeress who is lavish with money and gives someone a £500 note. Honestly, I hadn’t realized there was such a high denomination of British banknote, it must have been extraordinarily rare. That sum would have paid a maid’s wages for a decade. There’s plenty more of these tiny fascinating details, from a young servant-class woman “dressed in her best walking-suit with its rabbit-skin necklet and her latest hat” to the problems of being a young man with an amazing amount of freckles who gets remembered for them wherever he goes. I enjoyed the activity of stopping reading for a moment while I tried to figure out just what was meant by a tiny detail, like visualizing that rabbit-skin necklet.


Sir Basil Thomson

I did mention above that I dimly remembered that there had been some kind of scandal in Thomson’s life, and I will leave you with this thought. Having this rare old book to read was a pleasure. But having Martin Edwards’s introduction to it really was worth the money because of the  details that he provides, about that scandal and everything else. I do actually want to encourage you to buy this particular edition because of the excellence of the introduction, replete with biographical and personal detail. So I will merely quote one single sentence and let you judge for yourself if you want to find out more.

“In the same year [1925], [Thomson] was arrested in Hyde Park for ‘committing an act in violation of public decency’ with a young woman who gave her name as Thelma de Lava.”

“There!” as PT Barnum might have said. “If that don’t pack them in, I’m a Dutchman!”

I think you will enjoy this pleasant mystery; it is not of the first quality but it is far from the worst. If you like the police procedural or the detective novel, you will broaden your horizons here in an interesting and worthwhile way. You have the introductory remarks of the insightful and expert Martin Edwards to guide you in placing this writer’s work into its precise context with respect to the boundaries of the Humdrum School. Both Dorothy L. Sayers and Barzun and Taylor commented with great favour upon the author. And, holy moly, there’s a woman who “gave her name as Thelma de Lava.” What more could you want?



Clue as Carrier Wave

14330145_964495950345839_2469714263963758410_nI encountered this commercial product recently; it’s the “Harry Potter” edition of Clue (my UK friends will know it as Cluedo). My reaction was, if you’ll pardon my saying so, “WTF?” To me, there didn’t seem to be any rationale as to why there would be a Harry Potter mystery game; the two genres don’t overlap and  there is no natural brand affinity that would make this an obvious product. I understand the idea of a “Sherlock” edition, there’s common ground there, but Harry Potter … no.

imagesThat piqued my curiosity sufficiently to do a quick search, and I found there are a number of such brand crossover editions, some of which I’ve pictured here. The edition that relates to the movie Clue does seem to have some rationale, but — The SimpsonsFireflyThe Big Bang Theory? None of these make any sense to me.

cluedo-sherlockIt does serve as a little corroboration to a theory about detective fiction upon which I’ve been ruminating lately; this just seemed to be a very bare-bones approach to my idea, and thus was more interesting. For my regular readers, this is what I hinted at recently when I suggested that one of the reasons people read detective fiction is because of indoctrination; I’m still not prepared to
clue-simpsons-edition-580x410define that term, it might take quite a long blog post. Suffice it to say here that my idea of indoctrination means that the basic elements of detective fiction are used by writers as a vehicle to carry information about society in an entertaining way. Golden Age detective fiction carried less about society and more about committing a crime in a clever way; modern crime fiction can very nearly ignore the crime and focus on characterization and milieu.

650x650_0684b4dbc9c1a09983731913dd49f37c1c10bc3de428b2e562b76039What I see suggested here with these various board games is that the basic structure of a murder mystery — the death of Mr. Boddy, a faceless and personality-free victim, and the attempt to solve the who/what/where questions surround his death — is now so familiar to consumers of fiction that it is essentially a cliche that requires no explanation. The
174096_s0branded characters from other franchises are superimposed upon the basic plot of who killed Mr. Boddy, providing some amusement for children who were bored with Miss Scarlett and Professor Plum. Alternatively there are people who collect everything stamped with, say, the Firefly brand, whether it’s an edition of Clue or a stamped metal lunchbox or a swizzle stick, and thus those brands gain some small extension. And Clue/Cluedo here is the carrier wave that carries the superimposed brand.

ff_cl_flatbt_web_0What I’m moving towards is trying to explain why people like me and my readers still find the structure of mystery fiction entertaining. After all, let’s face it, it’s exactly the same plot over and over and over again. Mr. Boddy gets killed, various people could be guilty, someone investigates and figures out who is guilty, that person is punished. We
81gtzlei-l-_sl1500_know what’s going to happen with an inevitability that approaches 100% (just as we know that at the end of a Harlequin romance that the male and female will become a couple). I’m suggesting that Golden Age detective fiction, and particularly the Humdrum school, are no longer viable precisely because they contain mostly plot and little or no characterization; GAD that contains
movie-edition-prototype-covinformation about the social backdrop against which such crimes are committed is considered “better” when it contains more such information. (I’m thinking here of Dorothy L. Sayers; I don’t enjoy her work as much as others do, but I recognize that a novel like Gaudy Night with no murder and a huge romantic subplot was groundbreaking.) I admit that “all plot no character no milieu” detective fiction was occasionally fascinating in its day — people still know Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? — but when it comes to the less well written outputs of a Farjeon or a Rhode, the mystery plot is like a carrier wave for dead air. Half of John Rhode’s oeuvre is like trying to work the same three elementary-level Sudoku puzzles over and over again, against a background of snobbery, racism, and social elitism, and no one will ever manage to bring that back successfully to the market today. As Julian Symons so accurately notes in Bloody Murder, those pure-puzzle exercises really died with the brief hegemony of the dossier novel.

ptruca1-11966168dtAnd what does an edition of “SpongeBob SquarePants Clue Jr.” tell us about the social backdrop? Merely that, if you’ll pardon my saying so, some people will buy anything. I suspect that quite a bit of the market for such things is people investing in “collectibles” towards a projected coup on eBay 20 years from now … or adults buying toys for children without any idea at all about the semiotic overtones of having a “Family Guy” Clue game, because they have no idea of the social milieu that produced Clue in the first place.  Those ideas are also interesting to me as a student of branding, but I don’t find them particularly pleasant to contemplate (the first is venial and the second is ignorance).  It makes me want to dig out my 30-year-old version of Clue that merely has Mrs. Peacock and Colonel Mustard instead of Marge Simpson and Sheldon Cooper and have the pure Clue experience!




Intertextuality and detective fiction

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

Raymond Chandler, from an April 16, 1951 letter to Bernice Baumgarten (his editor at Brandt and Brandt Literary Agency)

UnknownThe other day I was reading a blog post by a friend, JJ at his blog The Invisible Event, on the topic of how various detective stories are quite similar each to the other: the post is called “When Inspiration Becomes Theft”. JJ makes a first cut at parsing the problems involved in two kinds of similarities found in works of detective fiction.  Sometimes the stories are related to real-life crimes: he mentions Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express as referencing the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping case.  And sometimes the stories are related to each other: he mentions Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) and its similarities to the 1934 film, The Ninth Guest, based on a 1930 book, The Invisible Host (by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning).

Unknown-1As sometimes happens, JJ’s interesting discussion sent me off in a direction quite far removed from the original inspiration. This is because I’ve been doing a lot of speculation lately about a number of approaches to questions like why people read murder mysteries / detective fiction / crime fiction, what they are learning when they do it, and what is likely to happen in the future with this genre.

Here’s a word that’s been rattling around in my head for a while: intertextuality. It’s defined in various ways in various places (I suspect this is because its use was begun by semioticians in the 1960s, Kristeva and Barthes, and now it has different meanings in post-modern contexts).  I have three shades of meaning for it as it applies to detective fiction, but first here’s a standard definition that will get you on the right track; thanks, as always, to Wikipedia.

Intertextuality is the shaping of a text’s meaning by another text.  Intertextual figures include: allusion, quotation, calque, plagiarism, translation, pastiche and parody.

But as Wikipedia also notes, “As philosopher William Irwin wrote, the term “has come to have almost as many meanings as users, from those faithful to Kristeva’s original vision to those who simply use it as a stylish way of talking about allusion and influence.”

I’m going to use it in a particular way here to talk about detective fiction, and note that I’m making distinctions among three kinds of intertextuality.

  1. Real life shapes detective fiction; detective fiction shapes real life, and some detective fiction shapes other detective fiction.

    md199363009As noted in The Invisible Event and elsewhere, some detective fiction is inspired by/steals from other detective fiction and/or real life crimes — and vice versa.  Murder on the Orient Express contains an intertextual reference to the Lindbergh kidnapping. In another mode of this intertextual relationship, Elizabeth Linington’s Greenmask! is a story whereby an old J. Jefferson Farjeon novel inspires a “real-life criminal” (in a novel) to copy the methods of that book’s murderer in order to divert suspicion from himself and send the police chasing a non-existent serial killer.  There are at least two cases on record where high-school students have been inspired by Stephen King’s Rage (as by Richard Bachman) to take their fellow students hostage at gunpoint. This intertextuality process can be like the formative process of cliches and tropes; if enough other texts refer to a crime, or a mystery, or a criminal, that concept becomes a cliche. Modern-day detective fiction is intertextual in its marketing; two intertextual references that I’ve seen on book covers recently are “This will delight P.D. James fans” and “This criminal is a modern-day Raffles!”
  2. Each book in a series of novels about the same detective shapes the other books in that series.

    a320e69e73270af80c1e19e5b689aba2The second variety of intertextuality in detective fiction is internal; the best example is my own observations on the Miss Silver novels of Patricia Wentworth, where the same descriptions of the same pieces of clothing, and the same supporting characters, appear again and again in novel after novel. I think it’s safe to say that this is associated with the way in which series characters are created and built. It may be that Sherlock Holmes started it all, with the Persian slipper of tobacco, the supportive Mrs. Hudson, and the ever-present hypodermic for cocaine.  Certainly I am not alone in being able to draw a rough freehand map of Nero Wolfe’s office and properly place the red leather chair … and Kinsey Millhone is constantly accompanied by her all-purpose black dress and her Volkswagen Beetle.

  3. Every solution to a puzzle mystery shapes every other solution to every other puzzle mystery.

    AC6_13975779961The final variety of intertextuality is most interesting to me because it appears to be a peculiar property of detective fiction. That is, at least in terms of detective fiction / puzzle stories / Golden Age mysteries and others that choose to follow in their footsteps, every mystery assumes in its solution that the reader is intertextually familiar with the solution to every other existing mystery, and the author makes an implicit pact with the reader that the solution to this particular volume will not repeat any “trick” or effect or subterfuge that has been demonstrated in any other story. Without getting into detail, the reader is quite safe from reading a brand-new mystery where the answer to “who killed a child-murdering kidnapper in the confines of a snowbound vehicle” is “everyone” — that’s because that’s already been done, and quite well too. More to the point, authors know it and readers know it, and each knows that the other knows it. And since the author knows that the readers know it, the author cannot produce a version of this old book where, say, a blackmailer is murdered aboard an airplane by everyone else aboard. “It’s been done!” the reader will cry, and quite rightly too.  But the justification for this cry is Type 3 intertextuality.

If you think about it, this kind of self-referential intertextuality (Type 3) is peculiar to the literary tradition that started with Golden Age detective fiction, at least when you compare it to other large-scale genres. Romance stories, for instance, are quite the opposite; every story of young love exists in a kind of romantic bubble, where the young lovers — and with any luck, the reader — all exist outside real life. No other love stories are invoked. Westerns resolve into a handful of sub-types (settlers versus Indians, gunmen versus other gunmen, etc.) but there is very little intertextuality in the stories each to the other. And while the worlds of science fiction are many and all wildly different, it is an uncommon exercise for one writer to create within the universe of another, as if a Dune-ean sandworm were to attack the Los Angeles of Blade Runner. But in detective fiction, this Type 3 intertextuality of solutions is embedded at a very basic level, and in a way that no other genre of fiction either requires or displays.

Admittedly there is a kind of intertextuality that operates above the level of genre fiction. Romances don’t require you to admit the existence of any or all other romances, but if the author mentions Romeo and Juliet, it will not be misunderstood. Neither will it be misunderstood to mention the star-crossed lovers in a Western, a mystery or a science fiction novel; their intertextuality is at a scale that transcends genre.  Similarly there is a kind of type 3 intertextuality that is below the level of usefulness and is generally ignored.

c700x420Yes, it is  accepted intertextuality that one writer does not copy the solution of another writer’s mystery; but there are some areas of situational intertextuality that have become more like sub-genres than any kind of rule-breaking. If Chapter 2 of your mystery reveals that an elderly millionaire has invited eight of his quarrelling relatives to his snowbound country estate, changed his will, and given his staff notice, you will not be surprised when he’s murdered. But you should also not be offended by the fact that he’s been murdered with the same blunt instrument, or poison, or pistol as the last six such Golden Age mysteries you read where that situation happens. You might be surprised in Chapter 19 if the corpse has been stabbed with an icicle of frozen blood that promptly melts and confuses estimations of the time of death, but I daresay you will not be surprised to learn that that’s been done a couple of times before. If you set out to write — or deliberately set out to purchase and read — a Golden Age country house mystery, the list of reasonable methods, characters, motivations, and locations available is quite small. Mystery writers cannot help repeating them; in order to avoid suggestions of that intertextuality that is plagiarism, they generally try and make them as different each from the other as possible. Patricia Wentworth’s Wicked Uncle (1947) and Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead (1934) are practically the same book in many, many ways, but I don’t think they support an allegation that Wentworth was in any sense trying to “copy” Marsh. They’re just both country house mysteries about the same kinds of people committing the same kind of crime in the same kind of location.


And why have I been so fascinated by all three types of intertextuality? Well, after my lengthy burbling, you may have forgotten the quotation from Raymond Chandler with which I started this post. For detective fiction, what are the “intellectual and artistic overtones which that public does not seek or demand or, in effect, recognize, but which somehow subconsciously it accepts and likes”? Based on demand, I’m going to suggest that intertextuality — at least types 2 and 3 — meets that definition. I’ll go as far to suggest that it is an important part of the reason why detective fiction continues to be published. Most readers haven’t the faintest idea of what intertextuality is, and yet subconsciously they accept it and like it.

bloody_murderI’ve been really digging into an old reference book, Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder, and finding that I continue to disagree with much of what he had to say about detective fiction. (I may well publish a long article in the near future called something like “Where Symons Got It Wrong”😉.) I’ve always felt there was something vaguely bogus about his contention — and if I do him wrong in summarizing it, I’m sure I’ll hear about it — that we read detective fiction because we enjoy seeing a state of peace and order being broken and then restored by authority.  Honestly, I’ve been reading mysteries for 50 years and I’ve NEVER felt like that.

The two reasons that I actually DO think that people read mysteries took a long time for me to figure out; I’m not sure if they comprise a complete list, just that they seem to be characteristics that to me explain a lot of why people read mysteries.  One is because they like the experience of intertextuality (all three types) and the other is because they like … a concept I’ll call indoctrination.  I look forward to discussing that one at length in the near future, and I’ll merely leave the name as a hint of things to come.


A quick note on opposites (Crosses, Coffins, and Oranges)

WARNING: This post concerns works of detective fiction, which means that part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about these novels, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

The Egyptian Cross Mystery.4-1Sorry to have been absent for a while.  I’m currently working on a larger piece about the nature of detective fiction … consider this your teaser preview.😉  In the meantime, here’s something that struck me this morning as I was leafing through a copy of Ellery Queen’s The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932).

I’ve never cared much for this book … to me it’s a bit overwrought, with the dramatic cross-country chase at the end showing all the signs of being arranged by the author and not the characters. And the poor old crazy guy who thinks he’s Egyptian is more to be pitied than suspected; he’s rather been wedged in there to add a reason for the title. Nevertheless there are some lovely bits of logical detection and this book has the honour of being the only murder mystery of which I’ve ever heard that features the game of checkers (draughts).  And if you re-read the page immediately before the Challenge to the Reader, you’ll find that the central clue is my very favourite type of all — something that isn’t there.  Most people can draw an inference from an object that’s present, but few are equipped to realize the significance of an object that’s absent.

three-coffinsAs I was flipping through it this morning, I realized that this book is the “opposite” of two other books that it pre-dates. The theme of the three brothers is repeated in John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins (1935), with a very similar backstory originating in a very similar part of the world. But the plot concerning the brothers is — well, let’s call it “turned inside out” in Carr’s novel.  I won’t say more for fear of spoiling your pleasure, but if you read both novels looking for ways that families of three brothers who emigrate from the Carpathian area are similar, you’ll have the ideal “compare and contrast” essay for your English professor😉.

09g_ChineseAnd the other “opposite” book is one of Queen’s own; The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934). The linking theme is in the case of Egyptian Cross the “tau” or letter T, and in Chinese Orange it’s the idea of “reversal”.  I have to admit my second “opposite” might be considered stretching things a bit; truly Cross and Orange are kind of the same plot, in that all the bizarre circumstances surrounding various corpses have actually been created for the same reason, in order to obscure something that was a necessary and revealing act of the murderer.  Both use the corpses themselves as a necessary part of the dramatic surroundings.  But Orange is almost delicate in its avoidance of bloodshed and inability to identify the corpse, whereas Cross contains a string of decapitations and lashings of blood and violence.

You’ll make your own mind up about whether they’re opposites … interesting to think, though, that Carr and Queen took the same plot point within two years and wrote different novels around it.  I may have to do some more re-reading to see if these gentlemen overlapped ideas in other ways.



Sweet and Low (1974), by Emma Lathen

Sweet and Low (1974), by Emma Lathen

WARNING: This book is a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

“Emma Lathen” is a joint pseudonym of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart. I may refer to them here as a singular author, but I know the difference.😉

51a7VsJdTKL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_What’s this book about?

John Putnam Thatcher is senior vice-president of the third largest bank in the world, the Sloan Guaranty Trust. His corporate responsibilities include the assumption of an important seat on the board of directors of a very large philanthropic trust indeed. The Leonard Dreyer Trust is closely affiliated with the Dreyer Chocolate Company, a huge corporate presence that sells what might be a quarter of the chocolate bars in the U.S.  (If you think of this company as Hershey, you won’t be far off the mark.)

Companies that manufacture chocolate bars must of necessity trade on the Cocoa Exchange, which is a high-stakes enterprise like a mini-stock market, intimately connected with predicting what the price of cocoa beans will be at various points in the future. The individuals who master such valuable skills are few and far between, and although Amory Shaw trades on behalf of Dreyer, because of his experience and brilliance, everyone sees him as the Grand Poobah of the cocoa market.

lathensweetThe town of Dreyer, New York is the home of both the chocolate company and a large part of the action of this novel. First a smaller-scale trader appears to have drunkenly fallen into the swimming pool at his Dreyer motel; theories of accident are soon dismissed when Amory Shaw himself staggers onto the floor of the Cocoa Exchange with a knife in his back and dies without speaking. The police investigate Shaw’s fellow traders, attendant brokers, office staff and personal relationships. Meanwhile, Dreyer has chosen this time to launch a major new product, with a huge advertising blitz for the Old Glory bar. Simultaneously, everyone is annoyed with the activities of a pompous and self-absorbed auteur filming the Cocoa Exchange for a documentary for public television. But it falls to Thatcher to take the larger-scale view of events and figure out just what happened and whodunit.

md16292038904Why is this book worth your time?

I do think it is worth your time; if I can say so without angering anyone, this is a first-rate second-rate mystery, and I don’t mean that at all disparagingly. The Emma Lathen novels set out merely to entertain and divert without invoking more than glancingly any major social issues or deep characterization values. The author deliberately avoided anything that would bring this novel into the first rank, but for what it sets out to do, it does it extremely well.This is a lighthearted and wry mystery that will amuse you but never upset you.

This is the 15th outing for John Putnam Thatcher and Emma Lathen now has the recipe down pat. There are a few paragraphs at the beginning about the nature of Wall Street.  We briefly meet some of the cast of continuing characters of Thatcher’s associates at the Sloan; his immediate staff, all of whom have personal characteristics that are useful when exposition is required to the reader, and/or his dunderheaded boss Bradford Withers, who is constantly involving the Sloan in projects beyond his capacity to manage that require Thatcher to step in.

As a very senior executive with a taste for detection, Thatcher involves himself in the murder-related business affairs of such things as a chain of take-out chicken restaurants (Murder To Go), biotechnology companies (Green Grow the Dollars), and professional hockey teams (Murder Without Icing). And since he is required to do so without necessarily knowing anything about things like the Winter Olympics (Going for the Gold) or Persian carpets (By Hook or by Crook), the book’s characters are required quite naturally to explain themselves and their industry to Thatcher and hence to to the reader. It all works really well to produce what I’ve called an “information mystery”, where the reader is given a behind-the-scenes look at an unusual background in the course of solving a mystery.

16119697The authors comprising Emma Lathen are a lawyer and an economist, and they definitely seem to know what they’re talking about in business terms. Their mastery of each industry depicted, including here the Cocoa Exchange, seems extensive and they have the knack of making it clear to you without resorting to huge blasts of information. Things come to the reader naturally by seeing the characters doing things and having them explained to Thatcher. Lathen also has the knack of creating simple characters with only a few traits or drives, but ones which the reader grasps immediately. There is also a strong overtone of, “Well, he may ably run a multi-million dollar chocolate company but he’s a nitwit in this particular respect,” and most readers will find this charming and humanizing.

This particular volume is merely the one that was at the top of my Lathen stacks; there are 24 novels in total, from 1961 to 1997. Some are better than others. A couple of my favourites are Murder To Go and Green Grow the Dollars, partly for personal reasons; both books have the ring of truth from my personal experience, and if you can find one that overlaps your own employment history you will enjoy it very much indeed, I’m sure. Lathen is at her best when she is discussing industry, and so ones like Ashes to Ashes, where the focus is on personalities, aren’t as enjoyable for me.

One more subtle problem is found in this book as well as a couple of others. Occasionally Lathen takes on a large industry and wants to show the reader the full supply chain, as it were; this book has a time-wasting narrative thread about people who actually sell chocolate bars for a living, and it has nothing to do with the murder. It veers dangerously close to the author wanting you to “walk out humming the research,” always a dangerous tendency. Lathen is at her best when she’s got a small cast of characters who are at the heart of the action.

28971Finally, she’s generally referred to as a “witty” writer and I have to agree. Her ability to sketch ridiculous characters is excellent; they’re nonsensical and simplified, but believable. She also has the knack of submerging her writing style to the exigencies of the narrative — avoiding the trap of “look at me, I’m writing!” that I find so difficult when, say, P.D. James goes off on the landscape for a page or two — except every once in a while she lets off a line that is wickedly bitter and funny. She lets you find out that characters are funny by what they say and do, rather than by being told that they are funny, and that’s the most enjoyable way to do it for the reader. Overall her writing style is gentle and intelligent.

This is as good a place to start with John Putnam Thatcher as any; if you enjoy your first one, all of them will be worth your time. I’ve enjoyed them all, and they stand up to re-reading.

6617228-MMy favourite edition

Really, Emma Lathen has not been well served by book designers. The Canadian Pocket edition shown at the top of this post (and which I used for this review) is one of a uniform edition that is relentlessly banal. The US Pocket edition manages to get across “business” and “murder” but avoids “chocolate”, which is a keyword for this book. The first US edition from simon & Shuster, depicted here, manages to get across “chocolate” and a little bit of violence, and the typography is very attractive; I’ll say that’s my favourite, but it’s the best of a bad lot. You can have a reasonable copy of it for US$60, which is perhaps a bit high. The UK first from Gollancz, with an overcomplicated ampersand that makes the reader think the title might be “Sweet So Low”, is about US$20.

There are two versions of the UK Penguin cover depicted here;  I haven’t held this book to be sure, but I suspect that the minimalist version that has the chocolate bar coyly peeping out to the left of a white field has the same photograph of the smashed chocolate bar but continued over on the back of the volume. Really a very poor idea — wraparound covers have definitely got a place in paperback design but the whole idea is that you have to be able to tell what you’re looking at from a moment’s glance on the shelves of a bookstore.

There’s definitely room in the publishing world for a uniform edition of this intelligent author and I hope someone reprints her work with some considered design work.


Miss Silver: the coatee, the fichu, and the bog-oak brooch

I must first apologize to my friend and fellow Golden Age mystery blogger Moira Redmond, whose blog, Clothes in Books, is the pre-eminent source for all topics that combine Golden Age mysteries and the clothing therein. This is your turf and not mine, Moira, and I shouldn’t be trespassing, but I had what a ditzy character in an old Rex Stout novel calls an “ungovernment impulse”.  If you are interested in this sort of thing, you’ll find Moira’s blog fascinating, as I do. In the future, I don’t expect to talk about clothes often, but this one topic got me going …


Not Miss Silver, but ladies of the period

Miss Silver is the detective protagonist of 32 books written by Patricia Wentworth; she is an elderly lady who had a career as a governess before becoming a private investigator. Yes, seriously. Here and more recently here, I have commented upon my admiration for her works. But one thing I mentioned casually in the latest post has been stuck in my mind, and I had to do a little research to settle my thoughts — so I thought I would share the results.

One of the things about the Miss Silver books, as I note elsewhere, is that they talk about the same things over and over again. And this absolutely includes Miss Silver’s clothing, a constant source of paragraphs of narrative. We see her in a series of apparently very drab and out-of-date dresses.  Here’s a fairly representative description from 1943’s The Chinese Shawl:

Miss Silver, like Cousin Lucy, wore glacé shoes with bows, and strange thick stockings. She was dressed in one of those flowered garments which saleswomen press upon unresisting elderly ladies for summer wear. In Miss Silver’s case it consisted of a dark green dress lavishly patterned with a kind of Morse code of dots and dashes in orange, magenta, and green. The accompanying coatee was mercifully of a plain dark green. The collarless neck had been filled in with a twist of cotton lace, and was fastened by a heavy oval gold locket-brooch bearing in seed pearls the entwined initials of Miss Silver’s father and mother, now some forty years deceased.


Glace evening slippers with bows

Now, I think this is wonderfully descriptive. We see that brooch in many, many books. Certainly we can see that fabric in our mind’s eye, and the writer’s feeling about it may have been summed up by the word “mercifully” in the next sentence. I suspect that the dark green dress ends just above the glacé shoes with bows. Glacé shoes, incidentally, have a smooth and highly polished surface, and I was delighted to find a picture that pretty much sums them up, although the bows are not what one might wish.  The experienced mystery reader will hearken back to the Agatha Christie title, 1940’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, in which a pair of glacé shoes with bows plays an important role.


Again not Miss Silver, but she is never without her knitting

This is pretty much how Miss Silver is described as being clothed in each of the 32 books, with changes here and there — for instance, when she is in a draught-ridden country house, she relies upon a shabby black velvet coatee to keep her warm in the evenings, and at dinner she changes the locket-brooch for “a brooch of Irish bog-oak in the form of a rose with a large pale pearl in the middle of it”.

For years, I have been taking three words/phrases for granted that Wentworth uses and re-uses to describe Miss Silver’s clothing, book after book after book, without ever bothering to confirm my impression of what they were. The other day I thought, “Damnit, I should really know what a coatee is, since I go on about it so much.” I’ve just done some research, and I thought I would share the results.


This is a black velvet evening cape but could pass as a coatee if it had divided sleeves.

The Coatee

Years ago I used to think Miss Silver’s black velvet coatee was a strange old-maidish garment that merely covered one’s shoulders and tied at the neck; sort of like a scarf with a closure. I was unable to find a picture on the internet that showed such a thing, probably because as near as I can tell, no such garment exists.  It would have been pretty useless anyway.  No, a coatee is — well, okay, let’s call it what it is, a little coat or jacket. I note that it doesn’t have to have sleeves, although I suspect Miss Silver’s did, since she relied on it for warmth. The part that surprised me is that a variant of the coatee is worn by men, frequently with an outfit that includes a kilt.


The ways of the coatee are seemingly various; the closure may be diagonal or vertical, and the shoulders may be puffed or flat. And I will add that no power on earth could compel me to wear those plaid trousers, with or without the formal coatee, even in my own family’s tartan.

The lace fichu

Miss Silver is often said to wear a lace fichu; I had merely consigned that odd word to a category of “women’s clothing names I’ll never need to understand” but now, as I said, I’m curious.

A fichu proves to be “a small triangular shawl worn around a woman’s shoulders and neck”, according to the internet, and meant to fill in the low neckline of a bodice. This certainly seems to go well with the generally out-of-date aspect of Miss Silver’s accoutrements. It’s pronounced fee-SHOO.



Bog-oak rose brooch

The bog-oak brooch

Bog-oak is “an ancient oak tree that has been preserved in a black state in peat”. I understand this as the very early stages of a fossilisation process whereby the wood reacts with the water and turns brown or black and hard to the touch.  It was used for jewelry in the 18th and 19th centuries, although not so much today (it’s still used to make carved tobacco pipes).


Bog-oak rose pendant

I felt fortunate to find two pieces of bog-oak jewelry, either of which could be a match for Miss Silver’s constant companion; neither, alas, features the large pale pearl. I’m not sure why the brooch is silvery; some bog-oak jewelry is said to be lighter in colour, depending upon how long the oak was submerged, etc.

img-thingAnd finally, in an attempt
to see what wonders the internet can sometimes generate at random, I tried a number of Google searches to see if I could find what Google thinks of “dark green dress lavishly patterned with a kind of Morse code of dots and dashes in orange, magenta, and green”. Nothing came very close, but I couldn’t resist sharing this exceptionally … vivid fabric with you. It rather reminded me of a brilliantly graphic coat fabric that Wentworth describes in 1956’s The Silent Pool: “bold squares of black and white with an emerald strip”. The internet is visually silent on that point, and possibly rightly so, since the coat proves fatal to its wearer. I’m sure Miss Silver’s sartorial taste would never run to such garments that would draw attention to oneself, but she does solve the mystery.