My favourite puzzle mystery writers (Part 1)

A still from “The Kennel Murder Case” showing Archer Coe’s dead body as seen through the keyhole of his locked bedroom. A great mystery film!

Years ago, I stood behind the counter of a murder mystery bookstore and recommended books to people. Those recommendations were based on my having read 25,000 of the damn things — yes, you read that right, 25,000 mysteries, and I’m not even the best-read person I know. My recommendations usually went down three specific lines. (1) “If you like this writer, you’ll like that writer.” (2) “This is an absolute classic that almost everyone enjoys.” (3) “If you’re interested in [fill in name of occupation, background, locale, whatever] you’ll like this book/author.” As you can see, most of my recommendations were based on memory… knowing that Joan Hess fans will usually like Joanne Fluke novels, for instance, after having read enough of each author’s work to be able to make the connection with a degree of certainty. Or remembering that the only murder mystery about croquet is H.R.F. Keating’s A Rush on the Ultimate.
Occasionally, someone was sufficiently interested to ask “But what are YOUR favourites?” I usually sloughed that question off since the answer was not likely to be helpful to the person who asked it. Frankly, my taste is for a particular kind of antique story that’s very much out of favour these days, the puzzle mystery — and to be precise, I like the subgroup of that set called the locked room mystery. (If you’re not grasping these definitions, try Wikipedia; I contributed to those articles.) These are absolutely not to everyone’s taste. For one thing, there’s a tradition in that genre that the characterization is more or less absent; all the characters are cardboard caricatures. They kind of have to be; the novels themselves are on the level of a game of Cluedo, and if the characterization is not all at the level of Miss Scarlett and Colonel Mustard, any characters who are more realistic stand out like a sore thumb and call attention to themselves as potential murderers. The classic puzzle mystery is more about timetables and maps and alibis than it is about who WOULD have committed the murder. (And, obligingly, most victims in antique puzzle mysteries have thoughtfully quarreled with everyone in sight and changed their wills twice on the day of their demise, just to make it possible for everyone to be a suspect equally.)
Why do I like this style? Oh, I suppose it’s the same instinct as leads people to do crossword puzzles. It’s like a two-handed game between the author and the reader, for me. The author tries to fool me or mislead me, and I try to see through the stratagems. It’s pretty much just based on the kind of mind one has, and the kinds of entertainment that particularly amuse that kind of mind. I like puzzle mysteries, duplicate bridge and crossword puzzles, and you can see how those things go together. If you don’t like that sort of thing, you just don’t — no harm, no foul. (Although I love to quote, or misquote, the esteemed critic Mrs. Q. E. Leavis, whom I recall as saying “The novels of Miss Dorothy L. Sayers present the appearance of intellectual activity to people who would very much dislike such activity if they were forced to undergo it.” Now THAT is my kind of bitch.)
Occasionally, I will encounter someone who shares my interest in the Golden Age puzzle mystery, and whom I sense will not be bored by recommendations of my favourite authors. So, if you’re one of those people — here you go. These are in no particular order and I’ll try to indicate the books that have most pleased me. You can find out more about these authors in Wikipedia, by and large, and I recommend you start there if you’re curious. Since this is likely to be a long list, I’ll only do a few authors at a time over the next while and make this a series of posts.

Christianna Brand

Christianna Brand
Ms. Brand is better known these days for having written the children’s books upon which the Nanny McPhee films were based, but she got her start writing mysteries. Her mysteries have always been difficult to obtain — one of them, Death of Jezebel, may take half your life to track down — but they are both delightful and nearly impossible to solve, although quite fair. (For instance, a vital clue to the solution of 1955’s Tour De Force is displayed openly, but in the opening paragraphs of the book, an excellent piece of misdirection; by the time the information is useful, you’ve forgotten all about it.) Green For Danger was made into a brilliant film in 1946, starring Alastair Sim, and is her best-known novel. It is certainly good, and I also enjoyed Suddenly at His Residence (also published as The Crooked Wreath), London Particular (also published commonly as Fog of Doubt) and the three mentioned above. Heads you Lose and Death in High Heels, from the beginning of her career, are less successful; try not to start with them, if you can. One of the things that I find most enjoyable is that Brand has the ability to create characters who are quite realistic, and flawed, without making them stand out as being obviously guilty of the crime by dint of being the only realistic characters in the book. This set her apart from her contemporaries. Yet, the puzzles at the heart of the novels are so difficult and complex that you could never, ever guess the answers; these are mysteries that need to be solved with logic and observation, not intuition.

Mystery writers Dannay and Lee, who wrote as — and about — Ellery Queen, and as Barnaby Ross

Ellery Queen
At the beginning of his/their career, between 1929 and 1936, the authors who wrote as and about Ellery Queen produced a series of ten puzzle mysteries that I’ll call the “nationalities” series. Each novel (except the last) has a nationality in its title and almost all of them are brain-crackingly difficult. At that point, the authors were tightly focused on creating difficult puzzles that admitted of only one logical solution. To that end, the books stop at a specific point and the authors issue a “Challenge to the Reader”; at that precise point in the book, you have all the information you need to solve the mystery. The nice thing is, you do. I find it hard to recommend any of these in particular, although The American Gun Mystery and The Egyptian Cross Mystery are probably the worst through being too histrionic and overwrought — the rest are uniformly brain-crackingly brilliant. 1936’s Halfway House was originally planned to be called The Swedish Match Mystery and its removal from the series signals an intention by Queen to stop writing this sort of novel, which is a shame from my point of view. Queen’s later mysteries tended to focus upon themes and to my mind were less successful. 1943’s There Was an Old Woman, for instance, sacrifices intelligibility for the purposes of fitting the book into the scheme of a nursery rhyme. You might enjoy the later works Calamity Town, The Door Between and Cat of Many Tails, which is actually a very early example of the “serial killer” novel. 1958’s The Finishing Stroke returns chronologically to the era of the earliest novels and makes it clear that the authors have really finished mining out that lode; their hearts aren’t in it and they never published another decent mystery that wasn’t ghost-written by someone else. 1970’s The Last Woman in His Life is so awful that it ought to be withdrawn from publication to preserve their honour.
PS: As Barnaby Ross, the authors wrote four novels, two of which are certainly worth your attention; The Tragedy of X and The Tragedy of Y. Y, particularly, is a brilliant piece of logic — these novels are only marred by the detective characters themselves, who are even more deliberately conceived as cardboard than was usual.

More soon — stay tuned!

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