The Chinese Puzzle, by Miles Burton (1957)

The Chinese Puzzle, by Miles Burton (1957)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #009

13563606What’s this book about?

In a British seaport town, a constable is summoned to the scene of an assault. The locale is squalid and poor, and the particular lodging house at which the assault took place is owned by one Spotty Jim, well known to the police. A Chinese lodger in the house has been assaulted by another Chinese man using a carpenter’s hammer, although the police are experiencing some difficulty in correctly identifying the assailant and the victim.

Desmond Merrion, the series detective, doesn’t claim to be an “Old China Hand”, although he has spent some time in both Hong Kong and Shanghai. He takes a hand in the investigation at the request of Inspector Arnold and helps to untangle a complicated tale of a Chinese laundry worker with too much money in the Post Office Savings Bank, opium smoking, politics, and murder.

9781627550840_200_the-chinese-puzzleWhy is this worth reading?

Well, you know, it’s not. To paraphrase Monty Python, this is not a book for reading; this is a book for laying down and avoiding.

I could understand this book having been written in, say, 1917 or 1923. Ignorance about Chinese people is a hallmark of the Golden Age and pre-Golden Age literature that portrayed them as the “Yellow Peril”, and pretty young white girls were forever stumbling into the clutches of a Chinese mastermind puffing his opium pipe with his eye on world domination.

33f3aa9e0e5e47d913d3b0304c97ec60There was so much of this literature at the time that in 1929 Ronald Knox, a mystery writer and cleric, made one of his “Ten Commandments” for the writing of a detective story that “No Chinaman shall figure in the story.” My idea is that Knox was reacting against a type of story where a criminal mastermind like Fu Manchu could cause plot developments to happen without the necessity of them being sensible or even possible — “Send a thousand coolies to search the city until the woman is found!” type of thing. The authors were white people writing for an audience of white people, and no real knowledge of Chinese people or customs were necessary because, in 1929, the chance of any reader actually having first-hand knowledge of Chinese culture was pretty much non-existent. Authors like Agatha Christie (“The Lost Mine”) and Conan Doyle (“The Man with the Twisted Lip”) wrote stories about opium dens and Chinese secret societies, apparently without the benefit of any research or personal knowledge. In short, they made it up to amuse readers who would never be any the wiser, or care about the reality of the Chinese experience. And they did it so much that it became a cliche.

So in the late 1920s, it was already quite passé to write about mysterious slant-eyed adventuresses luring innocent young white men into a Limehouse opium den. Besides, there weren’t that many Chinese people living in Britain at that point anyway. “The 1921 census figures put the Chinese-born resident population at 2,419.” (From Wikipedia, here.)

chinee-laundryman-never-sleeps1.pngIn the ensuing decades, Britain restricted Chinese immigration and treated Chinese workers and seamen very poorly, forcibly repatriating thousands of Chinese seamen back to Asia after WWII. Most of the Chinese people in Britain in the ’50s were employed in the declining “Chinese laundry” industry and the burgeoning Chinese restaurant industry. In 1951 there were 12,523 Chinese in Britain, and in 1961 the Chinese population was 38,750 — they apparently invented the “takeaway” style restaurant which is now dominated by a later wave of South Asian immigrants.

And in 1957, “Miles Burton” (Maj. John Street, who also wrote as John Rhode) wrote this piece of nonsense.  To start with, the names of the Chinese people themselves are made up out of whole cloth; one of the principal characters is Ah Lock, which is nowhere near a realistic name for a Chinese person. (Something like calling a character “John Smithsky” or “John Smithovich”, I think.) (**See the end of this post: I’ve added a comment that indicates I was wrong about two things in the preceding sentences.) All the white people are constantly making general remarks about the nature of the Chinese personality — “Chinese are apt to scrap among themselves at the slightest or no provocation.” “The others are always chattering away like so many monkeys, but Ah Lock very rarely said a word.” “Most Chinese men are remarkably clever with their hands.” The book is full of such generalizations.

And their command of English is ghastly. Here’s a fairly characteristic passage.

Chu Shek nodded. “That light. They no come back till half-past five. Me all alone. Wife she go sit in gardens. She say flesh air good. Me no likee sit do not’ing.”

“That light” is meant to indicate “That’s right.” Ugh. Sure, this is pidgin English, but these people have been surrounded by white English speakers for years; pidgin should have been far behind them at this point. Apparently the author found it amusing to write, though, so it fills the book. Chu Shek is another nonsensical made-up name. Another fairly major character is a man named Lo Fat, and the author invites you to snigger along with him at how, by golly, this means something quite different in English. And the man isn’t fat! Hilarious.

As I’ve noted previously, Street pays a lot of attention to social class; a common preoccupation for Golden Age mystery writers, it seems. He is on familiar ground when he is talking about the precise social distinctions that separate rural farmers and tradespeople from their “social betters” up at the Manor, and why a doctor’s widow can lord it over a storekeeper’s widow, et cetera.

This book, though, is just … ugly. Really ugly. It’s clear that Street thinks that there’s nothing wrong in comparing Chinese workers to monkeys. And it’s clear that he knows little or nothing about how they speak, or what they think about, or what motivates them. The characters execute their functions in the book with no regard to realism — because Street doesn’t care about them as people. To him, they’re monkeys. They don’t fit into the English class structure because they are below it.

soapine-boston-publ-libraryThere’s an unspoken but obvious assumption underlying the narrative that white people are superior to Chinese people, and it penetrates every level of society. The shared understanding of the white people is that if they go to Asia, they can become an “old China hand” by being able to understand a few words of Cantonese or Mandarin and making business arrangements with the locals. But when Chinese people from Hong Kong — who were putatively entitled to British citizenship — come to Britain, unless they are extremely wealthy they are relegated to doing white people’s laundry and crewing their ships. The Chinese people are expected to make all the adjustments to whites, learn English, and put up with whatever scorn white people care to heap upon them.

Here’s the comments of a (white) lady at the Post Office asked to comment upon one of the Chinese people who paid into the Savings Bank: “He always came to me, for I seemed to be able to understand his few words of funny English better than the others.” It’s clear from her tone that she regards her customer as the equivalent of a child or a mentally handicapped person. And when a Chinese man who works for the “Anglo-Chinese Aid Society” shows up, Inspector Arnold notes:

“… Mr. Ling Tam … was a comparatively young man, remarkably well dressed and wearing tortoise-shell spectacles. Apart from his features, which were unmistakably Oriental, he might have been an English professional man. Somewhat relieved by his appearance, Arnold asked him to be seated.”

chineselaundry03There is much, much more of this; it permeates the book like a bad smell. Honestly, I just couldn’t read a lot of it. It takes an awful lot for me to be unable to finish a murder mystery, but upon my first attempt at this book, I was so frustrated and angry that I just skipped through the middle section of the book and read the ending. Which, incidentally, is permeated with more racism and generalizations about the Chinese character. When confronted, the murderer confesses — because, as Desmond Merrion says, “I was gambling on the Oriental temperament, which has a strongly defeatist element in it. … faced by a sudden and unexpected accusation, an Oriental nearly always collapses. And once he has collapsed, his native fatalism prevents him from recovering.”


George Bernard Shaw – but I couldn’t resist the picture

I suppose I’ve gone on far too long about the disgraceful attitudes and comments that fill this book. The picture that formed in my mind is of an elderly white male, wallowing in white middle-class privilege, near the end of his writing career, who decides to write about a group of people about whom he knows nothing. Nothing. So he just makes it up to amuse his audience, because, heavens, it’s not like anyone Chinese could ever master English sufficiently to read this book. Chinese people are sub-human, and you can say anything you want about them (in a constantly pompous and lecturing tone) because their feelings don’t matter.  I would have been barely willing to accept this level of pompous ignorance in the context of 1927; it was the general lack of knowledge of the times. In 1957, it’s disgraceful. The author just didn’t bother to find out anything about an entire race of people before he turned them into performing monkeys to amuse his audience.

It’s never crossed my mind before to suggest that a book be banned; I disagree with the whole idea. We need to see the mistakes that have been made in the past so we don’t repeat them, and covering them up allows them to breed in the darkness. But if some enterprising publisher takes on the complete works of John Rhode/Miles Burton, I hope that somehow reprinting this particular volume gets overlooked. This is an ugly, nasty, squalid little book and I hope no one ever reads it again.



**The day after posting this, Shahrul Hafiz, a Facebook friend in my Golden Age Mysteries group, mentioned that “the name of Ah Lock, Ah Chong, Ah Meng, Ah Mei and others are very common calling name for Chinese people in Malaysia. Their real name maybe Tan Chee Lock, but most would prefer to call Ah Lock or Ah Chee or Chee Lock or in formal situation Mr. Tan. Nothing wrong or uncommon about calling Chinese people, Ah Lock.” So I was clearly wrong on that one, although I will say in my defense two things: one is that I’d never heard of anyone named Ah-anything although I lived for 35 years in Vancouver, which has a huge Asian population, and second … this is more tenuous … that the individuals concerned are said in the novel to have been born in Hong Kong and aren’t from Malaysia.  But those are poor excuses for having been wrong, and I apologize.

I was sufficiently curious to look at; in their 300 million listings f0r North Americans, there are none for “Ah Lock” but two for “Ah Lok”, none for “Chu Shek”, and there is a 101-year-old man in New York named “Lo Fat” (long life to you, sir!). There are, however, enough people whose names are quite close that I can accept that these names are not just syllables that Street pulled out of the air.

I’ve changed how I represented the author’s name here.  His full name was Cecil John Charles Street, and I made that Cecil Street, but he preferred to be known as John Street.

Quick Look: Perry Mason in the Case of Too Many Murders, by Thomas Chastain

Perry Mason in the Case of Too Many Murders, by Thomas Chastain (1989; authorized by the estate of Erle Stanley Gardner)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #008

41eZbYCS4NL._SL500_SX258_BO1,204,203,200_What’s this book about?

Well-known businessman Gil Adrian shoots and kills his dinner companion in full view of a restaurant full of witnesses, then escapes. A short time later Adrian is found murdered in his Hollywood Hills home. His ex-wife is the immediate suspect, and she turns to well-known courtroom wizard Perry Mason. Perry investigates the late Mr. Adrian’s business and romantic entanglements and his very, very busy life, and although his client seems determined to dig her own courtroom grave, he manages to work out what really happened and how, and brings the crimes home to a murderer who has been heretofore not considered by officials as a suspect.

Why is this worth reading?

I could answer this easily by actually answering the question above in a snide way. The first thing that came to my mind when I looked at my standard “What is this book about?” was “About 256 pages too long.” But the real answer to “Why is this worth reading?” is, “It just isn’t.”

Nevertheless, I’ll try be a bit more detailed. When considering whether to — or, these days, when to — issue “continuation” volumes using the characters and oeuvre of a deceased best-selling author, it seems as though the heirs have a couple of things they think are important, but only one at a time. Some estates go for sales, and some for safety. The ones who want sales, like the James Bond franchise, license the character to a lot of interesting writers, some of whom are relatively disastrous and one or two of whom knock it out of the park; once in a while they have a best-seller, and the rest of the time they have some steady sales. The ones who want safety are somehow timid; “We don’t want to actually CHANGE anything about Grandpa’s beloved character, we just want a couple of original stories that don’t contradict anything and don’t offend anybody, because the fans would buy Grandpa’s laundry lists if we bound them.”

I can’t say anything about Erle Stanley Gardner’s laundry lists, but the rest seems to be just about what happened here. This book is, in fact, arrogant; it is arrogant because it assumes that the reader is stupid and hasn’t been paying attention.  I think I can explain this without spoiling any enjoyment you might have in reading this if you were recovering from brain surgery and needed something simple for distraction. The whole book is built around a trick; something like John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie, except that this trick is horribly terribly obvious from the first chapter. I think even if you had never read a murder mystery before, but only seen them on television, you would grasp what was being dangled tantalizingly before you as being, to quote the back cover, “a fiendishly twisted puzzle” — “the most baffling case of [Perry Mason’s] career.” No, it’s not. The police miss the idea, the detectives and suspects miss the idea, but to this reader at least it was absolutely obvious, and everyone was off on the wrong track.

After setting the path towards the big reveal, Chastain proceeds to muddy the waters with a few trails of red herrings about the victim’s generally evil tendencies and people whom he’d recently wronged. But all the time, dropping little references to a concept that is the base of the trick. I think you have to have read the book twice (heaven help me, I did) to grasp all the little hinties and word choices. But then about two-thirds of the way through the book, it’s as though Chastain realizes that evidence that satisfyingly demonstrates a criminal’s guilt in a way that is connected to the trick is not going to be possible, but the reader still has to be almost able to solve the crime even though the hints are gossamer-thin, and he has no physical clues to offer. So he starts dropping bigger and bigger hints about the underlying concept, and finally a huge one that ends in Perry Mason saying, “(face palm) By golly, that’s the ticket! I should have realized that 180 pages ago!” Which was when you and I and everyone else over 14 realized it.

41S8VZZ62XL._BO1,204,203,200_But the real problem with this book is that the writer, Thomas Chastain, has what I have to call a tin ear for dialogue and description. It’s not often that this happens to me, but I hit a single word in this novel that struck me as being so off, so impossibly wrong and leaden and regrettable, that it stopped me dead in my tracks and I put the book down for a minute. Paul Drake, Jr. — the book follows the characters of the made-for-TV movies — is, as most of you will remember, a handsome curly-headed cheerful guy who’s a fairly tough PI but scores with the ladies. On page 207 of the paperback, Perry asks him, “Do you think your buddy, Dumas, will notice that you’ve gone?” “I already bade him good night. He won’t miss me as long as his bottle holds out.” My word was “bade”. As far as I’m concerned, Paul Drake, Jr. never “bade” anyone anything EVER. The book is full of big clanging wrongnesses in dialogue like, for instance, Perry using carefree contractions and talking imprecisely. And for the rest of it, the writing is … mushy. The prose is bland, the descriptions are insubstantial and careless, and the characterization is non-existent. Okay, I recognize that Gardner was not known for characterization, but honestly, we don’t know much about most of the characters at all, except from context. It’s like they have one-word character descriptions hanging around their necks and that’s all you get.

So finally I’m into the home stretch and thinking, “Well, he has to do something to make this book come alive, or even gasp for breath. I suppose he’ll work some kind of clever reversal on the ending I foresaw on page 12.” And I came up with a couple of ways that that could be done, and I was actually taking a little interest, when — bang, yeah, it was the ending I foresaw on page 12. I don’t actually throw books across the room, because I usually hope to sell them some day, but holy moly it was tempting. This book is start to finish irredeemably awful.

Thomas Chastain was involved in the Who Killed the Robins Family? game/book/publicity stunt thingie from the early 80s; he co-wrote novels with, of all people, Helen Hayes and Peter Graves. (What we call an “open ghost”.) He wrote a Nick Carter novel, for crying out loud, and one that a critic called “undistinguished”. Wow, you have to work hard to not quite manage to pull off a Nick Carter novel. In fact, Chastain can’t write a lick, and he dragged this project and this franchise down with him. I know that Parnell Hall, an excellent writer, wanted to take over the franchise — if you’re interested, look at the first couple of Steve Winslow novels as by J. P. Hailey, because he told me that’s how he repurposed the novels they didn’t buy. They read very oddly but very satisfyingly once you know the secret, and I bet you will join me in wishing that he would have taken over the franchise instead of Chastain. As it is, Chastain wrote one more of these (TCOT Burning Bequest) and the print franchise died an unhappy death. I would suspect that his performance here was under the strict and stern guidance of the estate — it just seems like that to me, because it’s all so damn bland — so I bet he tried his best. But what an ignominious end this was to such a great franchise!

My favourite edition

Very few editions exist, thank goodness; to the best of my knowledge, one hardcover (Yes! For the library trade) and one paperback.  Both are shown here and both are undistinguished. The hardcover edition reminds me of the colours and layout of the Chastain-written Robins family book that was everywhere one summer in the 80s. I actually hope no further editions are published. It’s difficult to find a mint copy of the hardcover with the original sticker on the front saying “Perry Mason returns!” so that might be my favourite; I think I have one in a box somewhere and some collector will want it someday to complete her Perry Mason collection. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Last Ditch, by Ngaio Marsh (1977)

Last Ditch, by Ngaio Marsh (1977)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #007


Ngaio Marsh, whose Wikipedia entry is found here. This volume is 29th in a series of 32 novels written between 1934 and 1981 featuring Inspector Alleyn of the C.I.D. in England. At the time of publication, Ms. Marsh — later Dame Ngaio — would have been 82 years old. (Her final book was published when she was 87.)

Publication Data:

The first edition is from Collins Crime Club, 1977. This novel has been continuously in print since its first publication, to the best of my knowledge, and a number of paperback editions have been widely distributed in both the United States and Great Britain: I am aware of at least a Dutch translation and there are almost certainly more. My review is based on an electronic edition of recent date; I own a couple of paperbacks but couldn’t lay my hands on them.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read WILL discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery AND it will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.

6f141e67aa75ebe1c19d6cab332bb8beThis book was published 43 years, and 28 novels, after the first publication of an adventure of Inspector Alleyn. At this point we are reintroduced to Ricky, Mr. and Mrs. Alleyn’s first-born and only child, who was about five in Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954). Ricky has now graduated from university and intends to become a writer — of fiction, it seems, although of what sort is not made entirely clear. In order to allow himself some time and space to work on his book, Ricky has, during the “Long Vacation”, taken a rustic room in the fishing village of Deep Cove, on a small island on the far eastern coast of the UK, in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Ferrant and their son, young Louis.

How this situation came about was that Ricky’s parents, Inspector Alleyn and his wife, the celebrated painter Agatha Troy Alleyn, traveled on a sea voyage with a family called the Pharamonds, a moderately wealthy and somewhat outré family who live year round in Deep Cove for taxation purposes. Jasper, a mathematician, is the head of the family; his wife Julia is beautiful and zany, and their young daughters Selina and Julietta are somewhat undisciplined. Jasper’s young brother Bruno also lives in their large house, as do Louis Pharamond and Carlotta, his wife. Louis is an overly well groomed gentleman of leisure with unspecified business interests in Peru. The Alleyns learned that Ricky wanted to find an out-of-the-way spot in which to write, and they ask the Pharamonds to arrange it. Since Mrs. Ferrant does fine laundry for the Pharamonds, they know her and recommend her.

Also in the small village is a riding academy headed by Cuthbert “Cuth” Harkness and his niece Dulcie, a large-built young woman with wide-ranging tastes in sexual partners. Among them seems to be one Syd Jones, a New Zealand import who lives in a “pad” on the outskirts of town.  Dulcie is a talented equestrienne (Marsh’s word, not mine) and maintains the riding stables because Cuth is more interested in a local primitive Christian-esque religious movement of which he is the leading light. Syd does menial work around the stables and, as we later learn, is one of Dulcie’s sexual partners.

As the story begins, Ricky is being introduced to the limited delights of Deep Cove by the Pharamonds (and is instantly besotted with the married Julia). As they arrive at the stables, Cuth is in the process of ejecting Dulcie from his household, because she is both pregnant and uncommunicative about the responsible male. The Pharamonds spontaneously take Dulcie in and give her lunch and offer her a place to stay. Ricky leaves after lunch and encounters the repellent Syd, who invites him back to his pad. Ricky is surprised to meet Dulcie there.  Syd is, we learn, a painter with a great deal of opinion about his talent; Ricky’s mother, of course, is Agatha Troy, and Syd ends up scraping acquaintance because he supports himself by, we are told, offering free samples of a certain brand of paint to celebrated painters like Troy. In further travels on the tiny island, Ricky also becomes suspicious of his landlord, who appears to be too wealthy for a plumber and is doing something mysterious off the island, in private conference with the oleaginous Louis Pharamond. Some days later, Ricky has a run-in with Syd and accidentally steps on a tube of paint, to Syd’s enormous dismay. Syd has made an appointment to see Troy and offer her paint, and of course is dragging along his own crude work for her to see. Syd is ill, with what might be the after-effects of drugs, and Troy ends up feeding him lunch and introducing him to her husband, incognito as a CID officer.

Ricky is invited by the Pharamonds to go riding; immediately upon arrival, they learn that Dulcie has returned to her uncle’s home and they are fighting again. Young Bruno takes the opportunity to do a daring thing and jumps the stable’s prize horse over an extremely difficult fence, without permission or supervision; Cuth is scandalized at the potential for damage to his valuable horse and the family party rides away sedately. They ride off to a local pub some distance away and return in a leisurely way, only to learn that Dulcie has apparently ridden her own wild-eyed mount over the same difficult jump and been trampled and killed in the process.

The stage is now set for Inspector Alleyn to take a hand (having been kept informed of all relevant events by dutiful and frequent letters from Ricky); he wishes to investigate the death of Dulcie Harkness because the police force believes that Syd is involved in a drug-smuggling gang that is using his tubes of paint in order to transport quantities of “hard drugs” (either heroin or morphia). Before Alleyn takes a hand, though, Ricky decides on his own account to find out what Syd is up to and trails him to a nearby seaport, where he is discovered peeking at Syd through a hole in a newspaper by Mr. Ferrant, his landlord, who seems amused. After a violent thunderstorm, Ricky is pushed into the water between a boat and its dock and is very nearly killed.

Inspector Alleyn arrives and begins to investigate. Dulcie’s death, it seems, may have had something to do with a length of wire that may or may not have been stretched in a way that caused her horse to fall. Alleyn and Fox, though, are much more interested in drug smuggling and only seem to get to know the Pharamonds as interesting locals. Ricky continues to investigate on his own and is taken captive by Syd and Mr. Ferrant, who plan on exchanging Ricky’s continued good health for inactivity on the part of Inspector Alleyn and the police. Due to some cleverness of Ricky in the wording of the note he is compelled to write, the police soon figure out that he is at Syd’s, break in, and arrest Syd and Mr. Ferrant. They plan on more arrests in connection with the drug smuggling, but first all the dramatic personae have been bidden to a command performance at Cuth’s religious establishment. During another violent thunderstorm, Cuth preaches an incoherent and mostly inaudible sermon; the guilty party then rushes off and commits suicide. Syd, in need of a fix, implicates the main head of the drug smuggling operation, who promptly disappears. And Alleyn packs up his son and takes him home to his family.

6774801408Why is this book worth your time?

This book is not worth your time. In fact it’s not really worth having in the house, unless you have a wobbly piece of furniture that needs propping up with a book to be level. To paraphrase Monty Python, “This is not a book for reading. This is a book for laying down and avoiding.”

As to exactly how and why this is the case — well, there are three major problems with this book, in the general areas of plot, characterization, and writing. But the problematic overarching aspect is why this book exists in the first place. I propose to deal with the three large problems and then address the supervening issue of concept.

There are three elements that combine to produce the plot of this novel. The first is the drug-dealing/drug-smuggling efforts of Syd, Mr. Ferrant and Louis Pharamond; second, the activities of the riding stable and its denizens Dulcie and Cuth; and finally the actions of the Pharamond household.

I’ve recently remarked in the course of a review of Georgette Heyer’s Duplicate Death, found here, that Golden Age detective writers seemed to have a haphazard grasp of the economics and mechanics of drug smuggling. This book is a perfect example; what’s happened is that Marsh decided to have a drug-smuggling plot and invented the details of how one works — unfortunately without any reference to reality. Folks, this book was written in 1977. In 1971, “The French Connection” was showing people how drug smuggling actually works; literally, tons of drugs were being shipped into port cities disguised as shipments of canned vegetables or tanker-loads of liquid sugar. It was common knowledge that the economics of drug-selling on a large scale made it necessary for drug-dealers to find ways to bring huge quantities into their home countries; we’re talking 16-wheelers, airplanes and container ships devoted to drug smuggling, and tens of millions of dollars were changing hands in the process. And here, Syd Jones is transporting a quantity of drugs that would literally fit into a capsule — perhaps the size of a couple of cold capsules — inserted into the bottom of a paint tube and carried around by hand. In Heyer’s book, I remarked that her drugs were ten times too expensive, worked ten times as effectively, and is ten times as addictive. Here, the drugs are about a thousand times too expensive, being depicted in one-one-hundredth the quantity that would actually do anyone any good to smuggle, and the smuggling operation is being managed by people with a blithe disregard for any potential legal consequences. It’s all complete bullshit.

To begin; this mythical island is at the extreme eastern edge of Great Britain, close to the French coastline. No one in either country apparently bothers with more than perfunctory customs operations — bullshit. The head of this organization is apparently willing to stake his unincarcerated future on the transportation mechanism of having tiny capsules of drugs being hand-carried around by Syd Jones, who might as well be wearing a sign around his neck that says, “Evil Drug-Taking Hippie”. More bullshit. The economics of the situation require the ownership of an entire company that does nothing but produce artist-quality paints and pay someone to give them away to professional artists as a kind of promotional scheme. Great steaming PILE of bullshit; in fact, ridiculous bullshit. If you own a company that legitimately produces paint, and the economics of the situation are such that it’s cost-effective to insert tiny capsules of cocaine or heroin into the bottoms of some of the tubes — why on earth don’t you just ship the damn tubes of paint where you want them to be? If the British customs authorities are sufficiently stupefied as to ignore activities on an island just about within swimming distance of France, why would you expect them to be able to detect parcels containing drugs sent by a legitimate business? Everyone in this operation, in fact, is acting like a complete nitwit. The drug barons don’t kill Syd, which would actually be sensible; they try to kill an innocent bystander, Ricky, who might be getting too curious about their operation. Mr. Ferrant’s activities would undoubtedly be of great interest to anyone taking even a remote interest in the detection of smuggling and other such crimes; he travels around for no reason at all and spends far more money than would be available from his putative plumbing business. Yet someone who is depicted as an intelligent and promotable police officer, living in the same town for four years, Constable Plank — no idea. And no one even considers for a moment that his significant lack of acuity is due to his having been bribed or subverted. Bullshit. Meanwhile Louis Pharamond swans about in perfectly tailored riding clothes like some Colombian drug baron, with unspecified “business interests” in faraway Peru, and everyone just buys it. Bullshit, bullshit, BULLSHIT.

So the drug-smuggling plot is bullshit. Considering the riding stables — there is barely a reason why they would be able to economically exist. We see the Pharamonds and Ricky having lunch at a kind of resort which is like night and day to the village (it made me think of the playground of the wealthy in northern Sardinia as compared to the horrible reality of hardscrabble farming in southern Sardinia), so apparently visitors to the resort might like to go riding. But that’s not how I’d like to put my economic future at risk, on the off-chance that tourists might drop by. Nothing is said about transporting horses back and forth off the island (which would actually be a more useful way of transporting drugs) but a riding stable on an island is starting from a deep economic well; food, hay, tack, all has to be shipped in at some expense. In fact it’s clear to me that Marsh didn’t actually give this any thought. She wanted a riding stable to be there, so there was one, regardless of the economic circumstances that would have to be in place for it to exist. It is intimated that Dulcie is a good rider who could somehow compete, but she seems uninterested in anything except her wall-eyed horse, which is a motivator for the plot. In fact Dulcie is pretty much there to be a sex addict and get murdered. Cuth is there to be a non-specific religious nut. His motive for killing Dulcie is that she “revealed her nakedness to him”; this might actually have been a worthwhile subplot if Marsh had thought to mention it before Cuth kills himself. The entire riding stable subplot is just more bullshit.

And then we have the Pharamond family. They are certainly interesting and vivid characters, but what is their function in the novel? Not very much at all, unless you count their acting as protective coloration for Louis — but that’s supposed to be a secret. The key to their existence is revealed in the last sentences of chapter 8, where Julia Pharamond reveals that she is a Lamprey by birth. Ah, yes, the Lamprey family, subject of Surfeit of Lampreys (1940) and apparently so favoured by Marsh as examples of her characterization skill that she brings Mike Lamprey back in later books as a constable and here suggests that the Pharamonds are just Lampreys in disguise. Well, yes, the Lampreys/Pharamonds are vivid. But what they also are, in plot terms, is useless until required. They are zany and unpredictable, and Marsh apparently feels that this allows her to suggest that they’ll do just about anything, and that gives her convenient ways of moving the plot forward. (Young Bruno unaccountably decides to jump an impossible fence on a borrowed horse, which is his entire function in the novel.) Other than that, the entire family has nothing to contribute to the plot; they are, in fact, colourful background decoration.

So — all three major plot elements are just so much bullshit. What about characterization? As I’ve just noted, the Pharamonds are vivid and unusual and dramatic. But characterization is supposed to be contributing not only to the atmosphere but to the plot, to the design of the novel as a whole. They have to be real people with real motives and intelligence, and those motives and intelligence have to be merged with the activities of the plot in a realistic way. And in that sense, every character in this book is complete cardboard. Everyone in the drug-smuggling end is ridiculous, and acting against their own best interests in a way that serves the plot but not themselves. The Pharamonds are literally dragged in from a different novel where their cognates, the Lampreys, spend the whole book being giddy and witty and charming. (If you recall the original novel, the Lampreys actually have nothing to do with the murder plot as it all ends up.)  Marsh couldn’t be bothered to create a new family so she reworked an old one. Do you have any inkling of Jasper’s mathematical background? Neither do I, because all that happens is that Marsh says he’s a mathematician.  Cuth’s preoccupation with primitive Christianity and his raging alcoholism are his only personal characteristics — we don’t see him ride or manage the stables or do anything except drink and orate — which provides the motive for murder and the relaxed moral standard that allows it to happen simultaneously. In fact, everyone is said to have an occupation but no one ever does it in front of us. Most tellingly, Dulcie is implied to be a young woman of extreme sexual availability; what 1977 would have called a “nympho” and we in 2014 might describe as a “sex addict”.  She wouldn’t really have an idea of who the father of her child is. And yet is it not remarkable in the book that she leaves Ricky Alleyn completely unsullied by any sexual advance? Handsome upper-class young man, reasonably virginal, unaccompanied by a female partner — should be easy pickings for the voracious Dulcie. But she leaves Ricky alone. That’s because her nymphomania is the convenient kind that gets the plot going and then disappears.

The only people who are reasonably well-rounded and fully depicted characters, in fact, are Ricky and — that’s it, Ricky. The Alleyns are sketches to remind us of their previous appearances, Fox is almost off-stage, and everyone on the island is a cardboard phoney. And even Ricky has little in the way of fleshing out.  We know a little bit about his emotions, there is information about how he finds Julia Pharamond completely entrancing, but as a living human, he’s at least half cardboard. And for someone who is supposed to be likeable, I found him quite priggish and uptight. There are a number of descriptions of him writing, and we gather that he is writing a novel, but we know nothing about it. My experience of young men who are writing their first novel is that they will buttonhole complete strangers and bore them to exhaustion with the complete story of their work to date, but no, Ricky says nothing. I’ll say more about this in a moment, but for now just remember that even the most completely detailed character in the book is not quite as real as he could have been.

So far, the plot is bullshit and the characterization is cardboard. What’s left is the writing. Here, because Marsh has been doing this for 29 books, she has some tricks upon which she can fall back. Twice, Marsh embraces the pathetic fallacy and has an actual rainstorm start when trouble is brewing. There are occasional vivid turns of phrase, nice moments of description, cleverly-chosen descriptive words that give the reader a picture in an economical way. Mrs. Ferrant, for instance, is described as a blanchisseuse de fin, a fine antique phrase that sums up her work (and at one point we actually smell ironing, which is more believable than most of the characters get). “Ladies a basket” is a phrase that you must read the novel to grasp, but believe me, this phrasing is effective. There is a charming description of a painting upon which Troy is working that actually rings true; we have the picture of what she’s doing and we see it.

For the most part, though, the dialogue is awful and completely overwritten. Ricky’s internal monologue — which is necessary since for most of the novel he is alone and has no one to whom to speak aloud — is especially awful, ridiculous old-fashioned metaphors more suited to an elderly person than a young recent graduate. “Blow me down flat,” thought Ricky, “if I don’t case the joint.” Ugh. This is indeed slang, but slang from another day and time. There are a number of such instances, including Syd’s insistence on calling his home his “pad”, over and over again. I was about that age in 1977 and, believe me, the word “pad” never crossed my lips in any context outside of ice hockey. This might have been an appropriate locution in, say, 1959 or 1962, but 1977? We were long, long past that “groovy” point then. Any time there is slang, it rings false. (At one point Fox compares Dulcie to a “tom”, which would I think have been dated slang even in 1959.) What is clear is that Marsh appears not to have bothered to listen to anyone of the correct age speaking aloud for at least a decade and maybe longer. She was at this point 82 years old and chose to depict characters of this age of her own volition, so full bad marks for getting it so totally wrong. So March’s writing style is not, like her plotting and characterization, wholly abysmal. But her inability to capture the speech patterns of anyone under 60 years old causes as many sticking points as her other issues.

So — plotting zero, characterization zero, writing about 20 percent. This brings me to the overarching question — why exactly was this book written? What was Ngaio Marsh trying to accomplish?

The simplest answer, of course, is that she was trying to earn money by writing. I have to say that in my experience it is unusual for an author of any description in any genre to have any other motivation for writing a book; writing is a time-consuming and thankless task (especially when you have people like me looking at your work closely, which must be unpleasant) and I have only ever known people to do it for money. But if one looks at her most recent output, her previous 20 years of writing has been spent writing standard straightforward detective novels — with the exception of 1968’s Clutch of Constables, which has Troy as its viewpoint character for the only such novel other than 1947’s Final Curtain. Why should she suddenly bring Ricky Alleyn to full existence as opposed to something which would have been incredibly easy — write another Roderick Alleyn novel? Why should she take the chance of failure, which she actually, to my mind, experienced here, when she had a clear path to an easy solution?

I think I have an idea of what happened. I am indebted for the key thought that inspired this idea to a lady named Lucy Sussex, a member of a Facebook group devoted to Golden Age mysteries to which I belong. Ms. Sussex (a stranger to me) posted as follows: “Met someone who knew Ngaio Marsh. ‘She was so mannish.’ And stylish, turning up for rehearsals of the student theatre she directed at the University of Canterbury in a Daimler, and wearing furs. ‘But she was only interested in the boys.'”

I was turning that over in my head. “But she was only interested in the boys.” Yes, that’s believable. She certainly started her career by being in love with her creation, Roderick Alleyn, although she rather took away his obvious halo in later years … And then it hit me. Of COURSE she wanted to write about Ricky; she wanted to have the experience of a love affair with a 25-year-old man.

Once I conceived of the idea that Marsh was trying to create another young man with whom to be in love, this whole novel clicked into place for me. Of course the plotting is ridiculous — its only function is to display young Ricky in various heroic lights, such as spontaneously deciding to investigate suspicious drug-related goings-on, and his final kidnapping and mild torture at the hands of Syd and Gil Ferrant. Of course the characters are cardboard; they’re only there to create situations in which Ricky can be admirable. Ricky falls in love with a slightly older woman and forgets himself so far as to make a physical pass at her? Quite understandable, if you look at it from the point of view of an elderly lady who wants young men to act like that around her. Ricky is a fledgling writer? Perhaps we now know why. Ricky is dutiful to his parents (he writes home about every day or so, it seems), morally upright (bordering on priggish), intellectually gifted, handsome, well-dressed, polite — a young man with every conceivable virtue. This idea also explains a number of things that do not happen in this book, principally among them Dulcie’s inexplicable disinterest in Ricky’s sexual availability. Of course it never crosses her mind — Ricky must remain unsullied because Marsh is in love with him. The only purpose of every action and every person in this book is to display Ricky Alleyn in a good light. Ricky’s love for a married woman means he remains single. Ricky’s Scooby-Doo-level investigative failures can get cleaned up by his dad; Ricky’s involvement with an unpleasant hippie type can be cleaned up by his mom. I even foresee that Ricky’s entry-level fiction was meant to be mentored in a future volume by, say, a glamorous middle-aged established writer of charming appearance with whom he falls somewhat in love …

And, of course, this doesn’t work. Marsh may have been delighted with her creation, but the reader really is not and cannot be. That’s because Marsh’s idea of a 25-year-old man is someone who is apparently 50 and a moralistic prig. Ricky does not appear to be rebelling against his parents in any way, as is common among children of authority figures like police officers; he doesn’t for a moment consider trying drugs or having sex with Dulcie. He doesn’t daydream about how to get Julia Pharamond drunk and have sex with her. He treats his parents like best friends and police officers like jolly chums — like no 25-year-old ever. He goes away to a picturesque location that contains a delightful woman, and manages to stick to his working schedule.

There is one peculiar moment in this novel that amused me greatly, but for all the wrong reasons. Ricky decides to take a little holiday and follows Syd on his drug-smuggling routine. Ricky ends up in a cafe and, insanely, cuts a hole in a newspaper so that he can putatively observe Syd’s movements without being seen or noticed. Syd comes into the cafe, sits himself at a distance and apparently injects himself with heroin surreptitiously at the table. (I leave it to your common sense to decide if that is the most unrealistic action ever; for me, it’s close. Cafes have bathrooms in which such things can be done and most people would be aware of this.) As Syd is leaving, Ricky’s arrangement with the newspaper is discovered by his landlord, M. Ferrant, who is also on the scene. Ferrant joins Ricky for a drink, and the following exchange takes place:

He took the copy of Le Monde out of Ricky’s nerveless grasp and stuck his blunt forefinger through the hole. “Quite fascinating what you was reading, seemingly. Couldn’t take your eyes off of it, could you, Mr. Alleyn?”

“Look here,” Ricky said. He put his hand up to his face and felt its heat. “I expect you think there was something a bit off about–about–my looking–about. But there wasn’t. I can’t explain but–”

“Me!” said Ferrant. “Think! I don’t think nothing.”

He drained his glass and clapped it down on the table. “We all get our little fancies, like,” he said. “Right? And why not? Nice drop of ale, that.” He was on his feet. “Reckon I’ll have a word with Syd,” he said. “Quite a coincidence. He come in the morning boat, too. Lovely weather, isn’t it? Might turn to thunder later on.”

Now, when I read this passage, I immediately thought that Ferrant had decided that Ricky was gay and sexually attracted to Syd; it’s the only thing that makes sense. Because it couldn’t possibly be that Ferrant was telling Ricky that he was about to warn Syd that Ricky was actively investigating their drug-smuggling activities, could it? That would be insanely stupid. I agree that Syd is perhaps too rough and uncultured for the priggish aristo Ricky, but that’s why Ferrant says, “We all get our little fancies, like.” Ferrant is a man of the world and understands the exigencies of gay relationships in 1977; sometimes you have to scope out a prospective partner through a hole in a newspaper as you sneak around observing his actions.

Unfortunately, I seem to be the only person to whom this interpretation occurred. It certainly does not seem to have occurred to Marsh, because she means Ferrant’s comments to be menacing and full of foreboding, judging by subsequent events. And it wasn’t until I realized that Marsh was in love with Ricky that I realized she couldn’t possibly conceive of him having a homosexual attraction, since Ricky was meant to be saving himself for Marsh herself. In many ways it makes perfect sense that Ricky is gay. Overprotective parents in the extreme — a kind of delicate feminine quality to his nature — priggish, uptight, and only willing to be seen to be sexually interested in unavailable married women. My version of how this book continues is that Ricky decides that Syd is his perfect bit of rough, makes a pass, gets beaten up for his pains, and then spends the rest of the book dragging his father into the drug plot so as to exact revenge. That is a less priggish and more realistic Ricky, just not one that an 82-year-old woman in love with her character could contemplate.

So once I realized that this entire novel was a love song written to, and about, the impossibly perfect Ricky Alleyn, I understood it in a different light. It is still unrealistic, unattractive and annoying; now, though, it has those qualities for different reasons.  It is incredibly creepy to read when you realize that an 82-year-old woman is creating a 25-year-old love object for herself and disguising the love letter as a murder mystery. It is essentially a fraud upon the mystery-reading public; it is meretricious and inappropriate and makes me feel a little bit sick to my stomach. And for the life of me, I don’t know why she didn’t continue. From the point of view of a mystery reader, she could have continued to write Ricky novels; she produced three more atrocious novels about Alleyn Sr. in the next five years. I can only hope that her publishers insisted that she return to writing mysteries that had a chance of selling.

I suppose I should have merely left this lie as being a poor mystery novel written by a very elderly lady at the end of a long, long career. But now that I’ve dug into it and given it quite a bit of thought, I realize that it’s not just a poor mystery novel. It’s an atrocious mystery novel that reveals more about Ngaio Marsh personally than I EVER wanted to know, and I feel like I need a long hot shower. I feel like I’ve just accidentally found her stash of porn in a bottom drawer. Do yourself a favour; if you have an unread copy of this lying around the house, throw it away.

pd407Notes for the Collector:

A Near Fine copy of the 1977 first edition, from Collins Crime Club, will cost you somewhere between $30 and $40 plus shipping. I looked at a couple of other Marsh novels from the same period, and this seems like a reasonable range of prices, nothing out of line. I should say that I have generally found that bad books by well-known authors are sometimes more difficult to find and therefore more expensive; in this case, Marsh’s last six or seven books were quite poor so they all seem to be trading in a similar range.

I cannot really say that there is a distinguished edition of this book; nothing really stands out in terms of design over its entire history and multiple paperback editions. (I rather like the Dutch paper edition shown here, but it’s nothing special.) You might as well buy yourself a first, if you feel you must own a copy of this awful book. I’d offer you mine, but I’ve already tossed it.


The Applegreen Cat, by Frances Crane (1943)

The Applegreen Cat, by Frances Crane (1943)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #006


Frances Crane, whose Wikipedia entry is found here. This volume is fourth in a series of 26 novels written between 1941 and 1965 featuring private investigator Pat Abbott and his co-investigating wife Jean.  The Abbotts were the subject of at least two radio programmes and probably three (this is VERY complicated — see Wikipedia for details). All 26 novels feature a colour in the title as a linking device for the series. Her reprint publishers, Rue Morgue, have contributed an extremely interesting in-depth biographical piece found here.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1943 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; first under “G”, “Read one book with a colour in the title.” For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

Publication Data:

The first edition is from Lippincott, an American publisher, in 1943. (The jacket is below.) My own copy, seen at the top of this post, is the first paperback edition, Popular Library 344 (1951), with an exquisite cover by Rudolph Belarski that has been repurposed from the cover of a pulp magazine (also see below). Other editions exist, including an edition from Hammond, an appearance as one of three volumes in a Detective Book Club edition, and a 2011  paper edition from Rue Morgue Press, to whom we should be indebted; they’re republishing a bunch of Frances Crane, among other good works.

910About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

Jean Abbott, the narrator, and her detective husband Pat, are in England, and visiting Stephen Heywards’ country house, which also contains a gaggle of visitors and staff. Pat can only be persuaded to take time off his mysterious but apparently crucial war work with the prospect of seeing the Heywards’ Renoirs. It’s wartime, of course, and everything is rationed — which is why it’s so peculiar that an under housemaid, Elsie, is wearing an exquisite pair of nylon stockings that are unavailable to her social betters.  That phrase isn’t used, but it’s very clear how everyone feels. Wartime Britain hadn’t lost any of its embedded class consciousness, it seems. Jean sees Elsie that night, just before she is going out on a date; by chapter 3, Elsie’s dead body is discovered in a punt. On her body is a dart that can be identified as having come from the manor house, because it has been marked with a “transfer from a kids’ book” of an applegreen cat. So the murderer comes from the manor house. And it soon becomes clear that everyone thinks that Elsie has been strangled by mistake instead of Lorna Erickson, “whose stunning beauty and feline malice made her unanimously feared and hated”.  (That’s a rather florid quotation from the back cover of the paperback edition.) 

Almost immediately, another murder attempt takes the life of the head housemaid, a secret tippler who cannot resist having a pull from a bottle of whiskey that has been adulterated with a huge dose of morphine.  Was the whisky intended for Lorna? Hard to say. At this point the book grinds to a screaming halt — Jean is not really in the picture as the police, and her husband, question the suspects one by one. So we are treated to a series of chapters very much like the habitual pattern of Ngaio Marsh, where one by one the potential suspects display their motives, past, and personalities, each to a boring, talky, overwritten chapter. Tennis is played — women’s clothing is observed. Gossip is exchanged, and some characters reveal things about themselves and their past that sane people being investigated as potential murderers would probably prefer to keep considerably more quiet. Jean manages to dig out nearly everything that the reader might consider important or useful about every suspect; that is, if your interest is interpersonal relationships rather than the niceties of who gives who an alibi and how. Finally (the reader will have the sense at this point that this is a long, long overdue action) Lorna is found strangled, events come to a head, and the murderer confesses.

And I have to say, I’ve read a lot of murder mysteries — a LOT of murder mysteries — and the solution to this mystery asks us to believe one of the most ridiculous motives for murder I have ever been asked to accept, and that’s saying something. (Okay, there’s that Agatha Christie where the woman wants to open a tea shop. But that’s about it.) Really, it’s as though Crane realized that she had to tie this off to get in under her word count, so she picked the least likely suspect, provided a hastily-conceived motive, and wrote “the end” with an air of triumph. I cannot accept that there is a person in the world who would commit three murders for this reason; I actually think this motive is not really sufficient to make someone quit their job or quarrel with a friend. Crane recognizes this, I think, and tries to add a few details here and there to make us think that the murderer is insane. But this is a kind of insanity that only really exists in murder mysteries that need a surprise ending; someone who hides their insanity under a mask of competence and does violent things for what are essentially ridiculous reasons.

Why is this book worth your time?

As you may have gathered by now, I don’t really think it is worth your time. Frances Crane wrote a number of good mysteries, but this is not one of them. There’s a serious flaw at the heart of this book; nothing is even remotely realistic. The wealthy squire with two Renoirs and a house full of ill-assorted, antagonistic guests have obviously been collected together for no other purpose than to draw gigantic sacks of red herrings across the trail of the crimes. When you find out the identity of the murderer, you will realize that the criminal events of the book could have been easily committed at a time when there were not nine or ten extraneous guests in the house and, since there is no rational reason for the murderer’s actions, almost anyone else in the vicinity would have been more readily suspected. Crane has to go to great lengths to prevent her narrator from learning anything useful or relevant in time for it to matter, including locking her in her bedroom at a crucial point. The characters lie when it makes the book more interesting and tell the truth when it’s time for things to move forward.

Elsewhere I have retold an antique joke that is funny to seven-year-olds. “What has four legs, wags its tail, and is filled with cement? A dog.” “But a dog isn’t filled with cement!” “Oh, I just put that in to make it harder.” This book is so encased in cement that the reader soon realizes that all the characters frozen in that cement to the hips are made of cardboard. The dog beneath the cement is a mutt who has been bedizened with ribbons, bows, embroidery and that oh-so-crucial pair of nylons, but remains at the heart of it all a dog of no redeeming qualities and emphatically of no interest to anyone. As I was refreshing my memory of this book, I found myself reading the first page or so of a chapter, and when I realized that nothing of any interest or value was occurring (other than the pseudo-development of pseudo-characters), I’d skip the remainder. When you skip half the chapter ten times in a row, you reach the climax quickly, I assure you — and had the author left out the cement, this would have been a ridiculous short story whose shortcomings would be far more apparent.

I think one of the big problems here is that Frances Crane appears to have no experience with, or indeed any realistic idea of, the background or people about whom she is writing. Indeed she doesn’t seem sure of very much at all. Pat and Jean end up in Britain for vague and largely unexplained reasons — with wartime travel restrictions in place to the point where you can’t get a taxi from the station to the manor. Her upper-class Brits have mental attitudes and social mores more like small-town Americans; no one is concerned about things with which they should be concerned, and is preoccupied instead with who can beat whom at tennis (this is in 1943 when the war was at its height; it’s mentioned, but it’s less important than tennis victories). Yes, there are blackout curtains, but pulling them doesn’t have much to do with the war and more with establishing alibis or taking people away from their alibi witnesses. Pat Abbott is a cypher in a crisp Marine uniform. I very much doubt that Crane had ever seen a Renoir; I’m not even sure that she has ever seen people playing tennis. The servants’ only purpose in the book seems to be to die so that the upper-class people can be suspected of their murders, without actually having to sacrifice an interesting character. Crane appears to have little mental grasp of her large English manor house — the details of the rooms are blurry and indistinct, and it’s hard to tell the floor plan from the writing. If this had been a mapback edition, the artist would be inventing half the layout of the house.

Crane’s habitual fascination with women’s clothing and household decoration has lost its sparkle here. Even the pair of nylon stockings that starts the criminal plot rolling turns out, on the last page of the novel, to have been a cheat. I was expecting to read details of just how the boundaries of clothing coupons meant that women had to repurpose their clothing in specific ways in order to remain fashionable; instead of the minutely observed details in other books, here we just get a French blue suit with a cherry-red sweater worn by the hostess, but no idea about why this is interesting in any way. It doesn’t reveal her character, it doesn’t show her attitude to fashion, it’s just what she has on. In at least one other instance, Crane commits a cardinal writing sin.  She describes a character’s outfit and tells us why this means she is a certain type of person — but there is no link between the two. We’re not shown, we’re told, and not even very competently.

Ultimately, to sum this up — it’s just nonsense. The stage is set, nine or ten suspects pop up, talk for a chapter each, then are dismissed. There are three murder victims about whom no one seems really upset, a lot of hugger-mugger of detection that takes place mostly offstage, and some sketchy and vague descriptions of rooms and clothes. And the murderer is a crazy person with a crazy unbelievable motive. If you want to read an interesting Frances Crane novel, try The Golden Box; there’s some meat there to replace the cement.

25721346-5664312675_0abea1d2b1_o1Notes for the Collector:

A VG copy in VG jacket of the first edition of this novel will cost you approximately $75; I don’t regard this as a significant piece of the history of detective fiction, but I know that people collect all kinds of things, including Frances Crane firsts.  I don’t need one of these to the tune of $75, but your mileage may vary.

My own copy is, as I noted, a really lovely copy of Popular Library #344, with the Belarski cover. (The image at the top of the post is scavenged from the internet.)  My copy is close to Fine; tight, clean, unmarked, unrolled and with bright colour.  There’s a copy available from various internet booksellers for $45 that doesn’t sound as good as mine. Frankly, I think this is a much more collectible volume; people are collecting runs of Popular Library, Belarski covers, and volumes of the Abbotts. This is a key volume in a number of senses. I wouldn’t take $60 for mine and I expect it to appreciate. If you can find a beautiful copy of PL #344, that’s the one I would recommend collecting.

As promised, I have shown you the original Belarski cover art for G-Man Detective; note the differences, in that for the paperback edition a row of books has been omitted, and the flying dagger has been turned into a dart marked with an applegreen cat. I was unable to identify the specific date of publication of this magazine and it may actually be that the paperback art was repurposed into the magazine cover — I doubt it, but it’s possible. Anyway, if you find a copy of the magazine for sale, it’s likely to set you back about $35. Needless to say, no one in the book is described as wearing an off-the-shoulder peasant blouse and this may well show someone from a story in the magazine — or not.

Vintage Challenge Scorecard

The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine (1938) (#005 of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #005

$(KGrHqZ,!oQF!K6tt)S5BQK)+QwFlQ~~60_35The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine (1938)


S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) was, in the late 1920s, one of the best-selling authors in the United States.  In 1939, he died “of a heart condition exacerbated by excessive drinking”. He published 12 mysteries between 1926 and 1939 that featured Philo Vance, a foppish aesthete and amateur detective, and was also a well-known writer on such topics as Nietzsche and aesthetic philosophy. Many of his books were made into films and he also wrote a dozen mystery “short subjects” for the screen. His best-known biography, Alias S. S. Van Dine, says that he got started writing mysteries when he was confined to bed recovering from a cocaine addiction.  His life and work are interesting and complex, and summarizing it in a single paragraph cannot do it justice: I recommend the biography, and the Wikipedia entry for both Van Dine and Philo Vance.

Publication Data:

This is the second-last of 12 novels, from 1938, and was the last novel published in the author’s lifetime. The Winter Murder Case, released posthumously, was conceived as the basis of a movie featuring Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie.  It seems unarguable that this book was conceived and produced with a similar motive in mind, as a vehicle for popular radio star Gracie Allen, who was known for publicity stunts.  The film version was released in 1939, a year before Allen ran for president of the U.S. and received 42,000 votes.

The first edition is from Scribner’s in 1938; first UK is from Cassell, also in 1938.  First paper is the edition you see above, released as The Smell of Murder by Bantam, 1950, #756. To my knowledge this is the only time that a Van Dine novel was issued under any other title. (Philo Vance books follow a pattern of titles: The (six-letter word) Murder Case, and I gather that originally this title was meant to be merely Gracie.)  Other editions exist, including a paperback from Otto Penzler’s line, and the entire text of the novel is online from Project Gutenberg.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it. 

Philo Vance and his associate S. S. Van Dine, chronicler of his exploits, are assisting District Attorney Markham with a case focused on gangster Benny the Buzzard. Vance and Van Dine are out in the country when they encounter a young woman (Gracie Allen) employed by a perfume company, the In-O-Scent Corporation, as assistant to George Burns, here represented as a perfumier. Ms. Allen is what would today be known as a ditz; her conversation is replete with non-sequiturs and she is surrounded by a general air of goofiness. Vance apparently finds her charming. The action soon focuses on a nightclub called the Domdaniel where not only do a group of gangsters hang out — I almost called them a coterie, which gives you an idea of how Van Dine’s language rubs off on the reader — but Gracie’s brother is employed as a dishwasher. (It is not likely that the brother’s character in the book is meant to have anything to do with Allen’s real-life brother, but it is worth noting that in 1932/33, the Burns/Allen radio appearances contained a year-long search for Allen’s supposedly missing brother as a publicity stunt.  Contemporary audiences would be likely to have this more at the top of their minds some five or six years later.)

The activities of the gangsters, escaped convicts, etc., are focused on the Domdaniel nightclub and the first dead body is identified as that of Allen’s brother. There is a character involved with the gangsters, a Mr. Owen, who stands out because of his anguished and rather Nietzschean philosophy (the author’s first success was with a volume called What Nietzsche Taught, and the action grinds to a halt whenever Owen and Vance begin to chat) and the rather muddled plot concerns a secret entrance to the nightclub’s office, an escaped convict, and various manoeuvrings concerning a poisoned cigarette that smells of “jonquille”.

After some tedious gangster-focused material (the author apparently knew nothing about real gangsters) that is periodically interrupted by Gracie Allen saying cute and silly things, Vance solves the crime and arranges that an associated reward should go to Allen; Burns proposes to Allen in the final pages.  Vance also encourages the murderer to commit suicide, a Nietzschean echo of an earlier book, The Bishop Murder Case.

As noted, there is a filmed version of this novel which was released in 1939. Gracie Allen receives first billing over Warren William’s efforts as Philo Vance (referred to by Gracie as “Fido”) and many poor-quality prints exist of this film if you’re interested in seeing it. The film ignores most of the more complex material of the book and instead is a starring vehicle for Gracie, including an opportunity for her to sing a novelty song (“Snug as a Bug in a Rug”) where she runs the first lines of many popular songs together, apparently mistaking the link between tune and lyrics.

tumblr_llemg8HRrr1qceuzao1_500Why is this so awful?

I haven’t got a copy of Alias S. S. Van Dine handy but my recollection is that like many authors who strike it big, the author established spending habits early in his career that required labour to sustain. In 1932/33, for instance, he churned out a dozen short mystery stories that served as the basis for a series of short films (about 20 minutes) starring Donald Meek as Dr. Crabtree, Criminologist. As we progress along his career towards his death in ’39, though, his earning options grew fewer. He was no longer turning out four Philo Vance novels in three years as he did between 1933 and 1935; he released his last “true” Vance novel in 1936, The Kidnap Murder Case, and there were two years before the release of this piece of work.  In fact he was casting about for money, I think. He did have income coming in from filmed versions of his work; again, about one a year. But he had a very expensive penthouse in Manhattan and a dilettante’s lifestyle to support, one not unlike that of Philo Vance.

Part of the reason why his income was decreasing was because his work was, not to put too fine a point on it, getting worse and worse. There is an often-quoted line by Julian Symons in his history of detective fiction, Bloody Murder, which runs “The decline in the last six Vance books is so steep that the critic who called the ninth of them one more stitch in his literary shroud was not overstating the case.” And this book is his eleventh.

To the modern eye, frequently, there is little to choose between Philo Vance at his best and worst. Such tricks as having an alibi established by a specially-made phonograph record were inventive in 1927 but vieux jeu today. Certainly, connoisseurs of the locked room mystery appreciate the door-closing mechanism in The Kennel Murder Case as well as the Benson, and there is inventiveness and intelligence behind quite a bit of all of the first six novels. It has been said that The Bishop Murder Case is an early and essential precursor of the modern serial killer novel, but written at a time when the concept of a serial killer did not yet exist.

What is really hard to take, though, is the pompous nitwit who is at the centre of it all, Philo Vance. This is the detective about whom Ogden Nash wrote “Philo Vance/needs a kick in the pance.”  Wikipedia has a full article on him that goes into great detail, but I can find no better commentator than Dashiell Hammett reviewing the first Vance novel:

“This Philo Vance is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition and his conversational manner is that of a high-school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary. He is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that any one who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory; he managed always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong.”

Yes, it’s unfair to judge the mysteries of yesteryear by the standards of today. Yes, literary styles were different then. And yes, mysteries were in their infancy and one cannot expect the same level of sophistication as available to a modern writer who has the inventiveness and trickery of a century upon which to draw. But honestly, Van Dine was not much of a writer. Philo Vance is a ghastly annoyance with whom you must deal if one wants to try one’s hands against his clever plots (or his stupid ones since, for instance, Greene’s murderer is pretty much the only suspect left alive at the end). And judging by the alacrity with which the filmed versions calmed down Vance’s pomposity, I think most people would agree that one reads Van Dine to get past Vance for the intricacy of the solutions.

So we have a trajectory of an author whose best-selling days are behind him and who is scraping around trying to find well-paid work in Hollywood. And we have the beginnings of something that is a much more common and well-developed phenomenon in this day and age — product placement.  And when they collide, this is the result.

445467522The movie industry was just waking up to the possibilities of tie-in materials. At about the same time, Whitman Publishing did a series of novels for young people with names like Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx and Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak. Whitman later went on to publish many series familiar to children in the 1950s and 1960s, with cheap pictorial board covers and names like Walt Disney’s Annette and the Mystery at Moonstone Bay; not much in the way of change, merely new faces.

This volume is something quite special, at least I think it is. You’ll note that Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx contains no author’s name upon the jacket; the author was more or less irrelevant to the experience. But a merger of Philo Vance and Gracie Allen is a cross-over perhaps not quite as impressive as, say, Spiderman versus Superman, but an amalgamation of two media platforms nevertheless, and this is unusual for such an early time as 1938. This is not an age where the crossover is common, either by shuffling two icons together into a story or taking a single franchise into a quite different platform. Its examples are unusual and worth noticing.

gracie-allen-murder-case-smUltimately, that’s why this belongs in my Die Before You Read section; it’s a very early example of the crossover novel, and it fails more thoroughly than any other in my recollection. Bonita Granville and the Mystery of Star Island, let’s face it, was a piece of disposable trash aimed at pre-teen girls. It might even be an early example of slash fiction, albeit the authorized version. It doesn’t really matter if the novel had any literary quality because it didn’t need to, and thus its author remained mercifully anonymous. But when you take a well-known intellectual like Willard Huntington Wright and put his writing talents at the service of a radio comedienne, well, you already have a brand mismatch. Vance is known for being smart, Gracie’s known for being dumb. Putting the two together in a single novel is a waste of talent; his fans won’t appreciate her, and vice versa. And all the attempts to try to make it work — don’t work.

And so the book is excruciating. Since everything in the plot has to be engineered to keep Gracie in the scene as much as possible, allowing her to exhibit multiple virtues but giving her absolutely no vices, the plot becomes merely ridiculous. Everything — logic, common sense, characterization, human qualities — is sacrificed to the need to show off Gracie Allen. You’ll notice in the plot outline above, I haven’t really said very much about the plot. That’s mostly because very little of it makes much sense. It’s easy to tell that the writer intended this as the basis of a screenplay (I think of this as a “reverse novelization”) because there aren’t all that many locations used; the Domdaniel nightclub recurs again and again, and other obviously interesting locations like, for instance, George Burns’s perfume factory are ignored because they would be expensive to shoot. For the rest of it, well, there are gangsters, and Van Dine had no ear for how gangsters talk or who they are. They are merely physical descriptions with labels like “chanteuse”, “boss”, “underling”.  And there is a silly murder method based on a poisoned cigarette. And there is Gracie Allen making silly jokes and non-sequiturs, and Vance having a quite unnecessary fondness for her on first sight. Nothing makes sense and nothing rings true.

In short, this is tawdry and meretricious and altogether unfortunate. It really makes one think that, like so many other authors, Van Dine should have quit mysteries before releasing his last few, or perhaps that he should merely have settled for the screenplay income and not released this as a novel also. After his death, his estate felt more free to tamper with the asinine character at the base of all this, and the 1940s brought a considerably more ordinary Vance to prominence in radio for many years.  There was a market for a detective brand named Philo Vance, it just wasn’t the one the character’s creator had much to do with.  But the author was busily ruining his own brand before he died, and it was rehabilitated by others. If modern television is looking for competition for Sherlock Holmes in his various incarnations, this is one brand that could, I believe, be rehabilitated successfully. Just not by doing cross-over stuff with it.

There is a further reason why this volume in particular rather than, say, the 12th in the series (the Sonja Henie vehicle) I have pinpointed for my Die Before You Read series, a specific defect of literary quality unique to this volume.  It’s because of what Colin Watson calls, in Snobbery With Violence, the Silly Ass quality.

Philo Vance and Peter Wimsey and Reggie Fortune and Albert Campion and even Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham all qualify as the Silly Ass detective (but only Vance is American, which tells you something).  Watson describes it as:

“[A] young man in smart clothes, sickly grin and monocle, whose vocabulary was as limited as his means and expectations were supposed to be substantial. He was generally depicted as having difficulty in understanding the import of what other people said to him. When making his own laboured but idiotically affable contribution to dialogue, he would … address his companion as ‘old bean’.”

A well-known type in the early history of detective fiction. But two things occurred to me in considering the Silly Ass character type in relation to this particular novel. The first is that, in order to work, the Silly Ass has to be surrounded by characters who are not actually Silly Asses, in order for the Silly Ass’s mannerisms to be more attention-getting.  For every Peter Wimsey there needs to be a Charles Parker against whose backdrop he can glitter.

And the second is that, in every reasonable sense, Gracie Allen has assumed the mantle of the Silly Ass. Read the above quote again with that in mind.  “[D]ifficulty in understanding the import of what other people said to him”? Exactly. The Silly Ass was pretty much over when Philo Vance worked it to death, and other comic talents mined its base metal for new alloys.  Like Gracie Allen, who transmogrified it into the Ditzy Young Woman.

But, as I noted in point one — the one thing you need if you have a Silly Ass is a Not-Silly-Ass.  In fact, the one thing you do not need is the modernized version of your own protagonist as Ditzy Young Woman.  There is no staid presence against whom they can play, and so they merely try to out-amuse each other until the piece of fiction is over.  This is not very enjoyable to consider in the abstract, since there is no opportunity for the interrelationship to contribute to any plot structure, and in this concrete case it’s simply boring and silly, like two seven-year-olds shrieking “Look at me! Look at me!”.

If you actually want to read a Philo Vance novel after this, I’d recommend The Bishop Murder Case, which as noted above is actually a proto-serial killer novel at a time when the phrase didn’t exist. The ‘Canary’ Murder Case — yes, there is a single quote mark surrounding the word “Canary” and yes, that is how the book’s title is represented if you’re a purist — is also interesting for its very early puzzle-mystery contributions to the construction of an alibi. And if you want to see one of the films, The Kennel Murder Case is considered the best, but I actually also highly recommend The Bishop Murder Case because Basil Rathbone’s only outing as Philo Vance is not to be missed.

Notes For the Collector: has a Very Good copy of the first edition for $500, which seems a bit high to me: other similar copies are listed from $235 to $350, and less crisp copies from around $90 up.  The only copy on Abe of the first paper edition shown at the top of this review is listed at $20.  My own copy is in much better condition than the one shown; I would say it’s VG+ and I might price it for retail sale at $20 to $25.  I always think the variorum title is worth having, especially since Van Dine is so rigorous about naming his books.

Since the text of the novel is freely available for the interested reader, this novel is certainly not scarce. A poor book in a well-known series is often scarce, but this book is also available in print-on-demand format. Unlike most of my Die Before You Read series, various copies of this book might appeal to collectors interested in Burns and Allen, Philo Vance completists, and even collectors of Bantam paperbacks. It’s not easy to find a crisp one of these and although the cover illustration doesn’t appear to be Gracie Allen, this would qualify as a movie tie-in to some collectors.

pic1583568_mdA DVD copy of the film version is available on Amazon for $22 as of this writing; I have never seen it screened on television. I was fascinated to learn that as a tie-in to the tie-in of the filmed version, Milton Bradley released a board game that looks to be a cousin of Clue. I’ve never seen this object in real life and I suspect that if you like this sort of thing, this particular item would be VERY collectible if it was accompanied by the novel and film.

Dead Over Heels, by Charlaine Harris (1996) (#004 of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #004

Dead Over Heels, by Charlaine Harris (1996)


Charlaine Harris was born in 1951 and toiled away in the lower reaches of commercial fiction until she hit it big with the Southern Vampire Mysteries, aka the Sookie Stackhouse novels, the source material for the well-known and well-received television series True Blood.

Publication Data:

This is the fourth volume in the Aurora Teagarden mystery series and has a slightly unusual history. In 1996, the Southern Vampire series was some five years in the future; Aurora Teagarden was Ms. Harris’s only source of writing income, barring two very early non-series novels. (She was in the same year to introduce the first novel in her second series, the Lily Bard mysteries.) Anyway, the first edition of this book is Scribners US.  The first paperback appears to be — I’m not absolutely certain — the book you see in the vicinity of these words, from Worldwide Library in 1997 (cited in Abe) or January, 1998, as it says in my copy. Since Worldwide Library was at that point in time a subsidiary of Harlequin Enterprises, that makes the first paper a Canadian edition.

Then came the success of True Blood, and all of a sudden you could have sold Harris’s laundry lists. The first US paper seems to be 2008, from Bantam (note that this is 12 years after US hardcover publication). There has been a British omnibus edition in two volumes containing all eight novels in the series, the full series in individual paperbacks from Gollancz, and  a new hardcover edition from Bantam in 2012, no doubt for the library trade.

What’s important to note is that the traditional path of hardcover-to-paperback has been deformed here for whatever reason, and that no one was interested in this book in the slightest until 2008 when Harris hit the jackpot with True Blood.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it. 

Aurora Teagarden lives in the small imaginary town of Lawrenceton, Georgia. At the opening of this eight-book series, she works as a librarian and has an extra-curricular interest in “real murders”. Over the course of the series, by the time we reach this fifth book, she has dated a policeman, a priest, and a writer, but married a wealthy industrialist. Aurora — “Roe” — is wealthy in her own right, having inherited the property of a fellow librarian in book one.

As this book begins, Roe is lounging on the patio while the female half of her husband’s married pair of bodyguards is mowing the lawn.  A low-flying plane buzzes by and a man’s body falls from it, embedding itself into the freshly-mowed turf.  The body turns out to be that of a local police officer with whom Roe had had a history of disagreements, as has her female bodyguard. In short order other people in the town are attacked, all of whom have had public disagreements with Roe just before they died. Roe, in the meantime, deals extensively and in detail with her personal life while the investigation goes on around her. It turns out that Roe has had a secret admirer for a long time who has decided to kill people who have the bad luck to come into conflict with Roe. The climax of the book comes when the admirer is holding Roe’s husband at gunpoint in a cemetery and is forestalled by Roe stabbing him, then hugging him until her husband can hit him with a gun butt.

Why is this so awful?

There are two things that are wrong with this novel in a very large way. One is its mistaken emphasis on the form of the “cozy” mystery, and one is its membership in what I will call the “industrial” novel.

What is an “industrial” novel?  It’s certainly an adjective that I use idiosyncratically. In order to understand it, you have to place it within its proper context, that of “commercial fiction”.  And so I’ll define that first. Commercial fiction is probably most easily defined by its antonym, literary fiction. If it isn’t literary, it’s commercial. I suggest that literary fiction is most often written for artistic reasons and commercial fiction is most often written to make money.  You know the difference, right?  Literary fiction wants to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and commercial fiction wants to sell a million copies of itself.

Commercial fiction embraces a large range of genres: mystery, romance, western, science fiction, etc.  (So does literary fiction but genre-based literary fiction is quite rare.) Some writers of commercial fiction are trying to approach the standards of literary fiction; most are just trying to make a buck.  I should add here that I have no problem whatsoever with commercial fiction; in fact, I find literary fiction quite tiresome. I do not disrespect commercial fiction because it is written to make money; usually, books in this category have a strong focus on entertaining the reader, and I am a reader who likes to be entertained.

I use the term “industrial fiction” to describe a subset of commercial fiction; again, it’s hard to define, but what I’m talking about here is fiction that is not constructed with the pleasure of the reader foremost in mind. In fact, I think of industrial fiction as novels that are written to fulfill a contract. Or, as Truman Capote said in a different context (referring to Jack Kerouac), “That isn’t writing.  That’s typing.”  Monty Python’s Flying Circus once released a record (in 1980, so pre-CD) called “Contractual Obligation Album” and I think that title encapsulates what is happening here.  I’m also reminded of the Jack Nicholson character in the film version of The Shining, typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” over and over and over.  Had he collated those pages and submitted them to his publisher to fulfill a contract, that’s what I mean by industrial fiction.  And the day that robots or computers or artificial intelligences begin to publish their own works, that will truly define industrial fiction.

As to why this particular novel seems to me to be industrial fiction;  this is a slight, slight book that has been padded into 80,000 words. The actual material of the plot in and of itself takes very little space; the criminal events are few and far between.  The rest of the book consists of bumph, which to me means padding; material about the personal life of the protagonist that has little or nothing to do with the events of the novel.

For instance, I opened my copy of the novel at random and found (page 53) a large paragraph detailing the physical layout of the Lawrenceton Public Library along with a note to buy pregnancy vitamins for her pregnant bodyguard and some anguish about how the woman could be pregnant because her husband had had a vasectomy. Page 130, immediately after Roe discovers the concussed body of her male bodyguard on her lawn, has a paragraph detailing what Roe needs to do about, among other things, picking up the man’s paycheque at the factory. Pages 164-165 are completely devoted to Roe’s mental monologue as she leaves the house for the beauty parlour to get ready for a dinner party (which party also has nothing to do with the plot except for the murderer’s presence).

Now, the fact that this bumph has nothing to do with the plot is not automatically a bad thing, of course. This could be termed characterization; we learn more about Roe than this reader, at least, actually wanted to. The fact that there is such an enormous amount of bumph that one has to wade through in order to get to anything meaningful could also be described in the context of detective fiction as obfuscation; hiding tiny clues in a long laundry list of stuff is a tradition that dates back at least to E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case. So, for me to call this industrial fiction is more a personal reaction that is saying, “I don’t like this kind of fiction and think its primary reason for existence is monetary,” whereas I’d be ready to praise similar novels for similar reasons.  I acknowledge that. I disliked this novel and I’m prepared to admit that that colours my interpretation of the motives which produced it.

Where I am on more secure ground, though, is with the nature of this bumph.   And here, I’m going to quote myself from elsewhere in this blog (specifically, the entry for #002 in this series). “One key element of good mysteries is that there is generally a sub-theme that relates to the larger theme, but in a subtle way that is not obvious from the beginning.  For instance, to create something from whole cloth, if the main plot theme is the murder of a plagiarist at a university, and there is what appears to be an unconnected theme about the failure of a restaurant business wherein we meet many of the suspects, in some way the theme of plagiarism must relate to the failure of the restaurant by the end of the novel. Perhaps the restaurant is failing because someone has stolen the recipes from another chef but failed to get the details correct. That’s how the mystery should work.”

The plot here is based on the idea that Roe has a secret admirer who commits crimes against people whom he believes to have disrespected her.  The theme — hard to say.  Perhaps it’s that unrequited love should not be concealed, or that crazy people do crazy things in the name of love, or … well, I can’t say.  It’s certainly not obvious.  And one of the reasons it is not obvious is because there is literally nothing in the novel that illustrates it.

There is a sub-plot in this book wherein a married couple learn that the wife is pregnant although the husband has had a vasectomy. I was immediately looking for connections here and found nothing.  Similarly, there’s quite a bit of material about the relationship between Roe and her husband, all of it irrelevant. There is no instance of unrequited love anywhere else in the book; we know absolutely nothing about why the murderer has fixed his attentions upon Roe. There is nothing in the book that could be described as a reversal, or a twist, on the idea of unrequited love — barring a brief moment when one of Roe’s discarded boyfriends announces that he wants her back.  But this goes nowhere.

In fact, one of the reasons that I chose this particular novel to pillory in this series is because I was extremely amused by the idea that the author has indeed revealed the real theme of this book; “Things drop out of thin air and land in front of you and cause you problems”.  Can’t you just see Ms. Harris thinking, “Oh, I know, I’ll have the dead body drop out of an airplane in Chapter 1! That’s exciting! That’s going to really hook the reader and get her interested.” It might do so, but for someone who is actually reading this book looking for structure, it tends to send entirely the wrong message. There is just no reason for anything to happen in this book. It’s more like Harris made up what she feels to be an interesting character — Roe, who has lots of money, gets lots of sex, has a handsome husband, loving family, and devoted retainers, a career, and a cat — and then had to think of something for her to do that would qualify as a mystery without, you know, actually AFFECTING her.  I think of this as the worst kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy. I am told by textbooks on writing that the cardinal sin is to be too kind to one’s protagonist, and that this is the sign of a novice writer who is destined to remain unsold.  And that’s why I suggest that this is industrial fiction, because there is no other reason for this to exist save that two parties signed a contract agreeing to publish what showed up as long as it had Aurora Teagarden in it.

Which brings me, at long last, to the second part of my complaint; the mistaken emphasis upon the “cozy” form. It is certainly true that I dislike cozies as a sub-genre of the mystery; I don’t think that murder should be a bloodless game, by and large, and there ought to be a certain amount of societal outrage inherent in the killing of one person by another. But mostly why I object to cozies is that, 95% of the time, they are written by people who either don’t understand how commercial fiction works or are incapable of producing it skilfully.

A defender of the work of Ms. Harris, and I imagine there are quite a few of them (whom I will discourage from sending me angry screeds about my insolence in daring to suggest that someone who sells as many books as Ms. Harris can possibly be incompetent; save your breath to cool your porridge, ladies, that argument won’t fly with me) will say, “Well, you know, I don’t read these for the murders.  In fact I don’t usually care whodunit.  I like to read about Aurora Teagarden and her everyday life and what it’s like to live in small-town Georgia. So POOH to you and your insistence that mysteries should be written to your stupid high standards, I like these and I’ll continue to read them.”  Go for it; if you wish to embrace mediocrity, I have no wish to stop you and will take great pleasure in selling you rare copies at inflated prices of the rubbish you apparently cherish.

The problem with this particular book is that about 75% of its contents have nothing to do with murder or the plot. Do you wish to call the padding and bumph about Roe’s personal life “characterization”? I will only ask you to note that Roe Teagarden is not someone who exists in the real world. In fact, this character is not likely to exist anywhere because she seems to be a wish-fulfillment fantasy for Charlaine Harris about what she would like her personal life to be like. Roe Teagarden is a cardboard cutout whom Harris shuffles through events taking great care to preserve her from any lasting impacts.  The cutout is incredibly detailed, right down to the colour of the frames of her eyeglasses, but cardboard nevertheless.

“But, but, but,” sputter the fans.  “Harris actually kills off the husband in a later book.” Yes, and that’s an example of another big and similar problem that is only really easy to see when you look at Harris’s work as a whole. I can give you an example from the work of someone who is a much better writer; Agatha Christie.  Her mystery-writing character, Ariadne Oliver, is constantly bemoaning the fact that she has made her detective, Sven Hjerson, a vegetarian Finn.  I’ve forgotten the reference, but at one point Mrs. Oliver bemoans the fact that she is constantly getting letters from people who say, rightly, that a REAL Finn wouldn’t say/do such-and-such, and that a REAL vegetarian wouldn’t say/do such-and-such.  That’s because Christie wishes us to believe that Mrs. Oliver (like her own experience with Hercule Poirot) makes up bits of the character to simply generate some interest in the reader and is then buried by their accumulated weight in later volumes.  And that’s what happens here; and she gets out from under the accumulated weight by killing the husband and starting fresh.

In Charlaine Harris’s work, this is most easily seen by looking at the 13 volumes of the Southern Vampire series. Here’s how it works.  In a novel, Harris has a plot problem, usually that there is not enough of the primary plot structure upon which to usefully or productively focus.  So she introduces a subsidiary character or two, and introduces a sub-plot, that enables her to deliver a complete book.  I’m thinking here of the character of Alcide Herveaux, a handsome werewolf who first appeared in book 3, Club Dead. To me, it’s easy to see that she introduced werewolves in an off-hand way because she wanted a supernatural romantic involvement for Sookie as a sub-plot in a book where Bill Compton was off-stage. Then she had to give Alcide a girlfriend and tie her into the plot, so that Sookie wouldn’t have to deal with three romantic interests instead of merely two.

But in the nature of such things, the reader becomes invested in secondary characters who recur from book to book and wants to see them in every book. And since Harris uses this trick in nearly every book to add some oomph to a sagging plot — by the time the 13th volume rolls around, there is almost no room for plot, because we have an obligatory interaction with every single minor character who has ever stepped onto the stage, even if it’s only a “hihowarya” phone call or a brief musing about whatever happened to …

And it’s the same in this series, although somewhat less because the series was shorter. The first few volumes use the trick of having Roe in an unsatisfactory romantic relationship and aware that she is interested in someone else.  Then there’s a volume where she meets a man and is powerfully attracted to him, and marries him.  But this means that the plots cannot contain new potential boyfriends — so Harris kills off the husband.  As I recall dimly, she then stupidly repeats the process of boyfriend/boyfriend/husband and, had the series not ended, Roe would have been well on her way to a third husband.  Anyway, at this point in the series we have to deal with many characters and incidents from Roe’s previous adventures, and the leftover attitudes of those characters towards her, and bringing those characters up to date with a snippet of information about how they’ve changed lately, or not changed lately, plus Roe’s favourite stores, jewelry, habits, attitudes, moralizing … it’s as though the character is wearing a “fat suit” made up of old material that she has to drag with her wherever she goes. And listening to it all is like sitting on an airplane trapped next to someone who wants to tell you the story of her life and her opinion on everything under the sun, and you sat next to her the last four flights.

The point of this is that because the “characterization” doesn’t arise organically from the characters interacting with sensible plots, and is merely meretricious and/or wish-fulfillment fantasy for the writer, it’s leaden and it weighs down the character. And it weighs down all future novels in the series, and accretes more such bumph because Harris, having discovered a trick that works, makes use of it again and again.  This is, to me, why Harris is now working on her fourth series character; she doesn’t have the knack of creating a plot and characters that illustrate a theme, so she pads the novels with bumph and then has to deal with the consequences, and soon she has to abandon these characters who have become too laden with bumph to move in any direction.  It’s the literary equivalent of an episode of “Hoarders”.  If Roe was the type of person who would organically accumulate, say, old lovers and people who wanted to possess her for their own, this particular novel would make some sense.  As it stands, it’s just the fantasy of an author who probably wishes someone would admit to having unrequited love for her AND it’s really obvious that she hasn’t the faintest idea how this might work in real life.  The character in the novel is unremarkable in the extreme and has no psychological realism.  If he’s fixated on Roe to the point of killing for her, would he casually introduce her to his date at a dance?  Doesn’t ring true, and nothing about this character, plot or book does ring true.

I should add that I have no wish to see Charlaine Harris in the poorhouse, as it were.  She’s quite entitled to write this nonsense in whatever quantity she wishes, and sell it to the credulous people who require nothing more than what one amateur reviewer charmingly called a “brain dump”.  If you love her work because it doesn’t challenge you, I have no doubt there will be plenty more of the same.  But you will not be able to change my mind about the true merits of her work, so don’t bother trying; your comments will be deleted and I will be much more amused than taken to task by them.

One final parenthetical note: the acknowledgement cites “the fact that Joan Hess gave me exactly one suggestion for this book when I was in a bind”.  Since that is one more idea than I have ever found in the collected works of Joan Hess, I find that difficult to believe, but having swallowed the camel that is Aurora Teagarden, why should I strain at this gnat?  I expect that some work of “housewife mystery soft-core porn” that is the specialty of Ms. Hess shall form the basis for a future work in this series, if I can ever bring myself to finish and then re-read one.

Notes For the Collector: has a signed copy of the uncorrected proofs for the first edition at $50 plus shipping, similarly a signed first for $25 and a signed paperback for $10. It’s odd that most of the books I look at under the Die Before You Read heading are essentially worthless; this is not likely to be so for Charlaine Harris ever again. Because of True Blood, Harris’s entire oeuvre has become somewhat collectible. Still, this really is a poor book in a poor series; purchase with care.

Knave of Hearts, as by Dell Shannon (1962) (#003 of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #003

Knave of Hearts, as by Dell Shannon (1962)


Linington“Dell Shannon” was the principal pseudonym of Barbara Linington (left), who also wrote as Elizabeth Linington, Egan O’Neill, Anne Blaisdell, and Lesley Egan. Many early hardcover editions of her books made much of the fact that she was a proud member of the John Birch Society, which Wikipedia describes as “radical right-wing” and “a fringe element of the conservative movement” which was actually denounced by William F. Buckley as being “far removed from common sense”. In my opinion, Ms. Linington was a ghastly racist whose political views were a little to the right of Attila the Hun and who used her books as a vehicle for her far-right politics. She was also known as the “Queen of the Procedurals” — I am unable to determine who gave her this title, or precisely why, but it seems to be based on the fact that she was the most prolific female writer working in the genre of the police procedural mystery novel. My contention will be that she merely appropriated the form without understanding its roots, but that will be seen below.

Publication Data:

$T2eC16J,!)0E9s37FbcFBRjGk444nw~~60_3This is the fourth volume in a series documenting the adventures of Lieutenant Luis Mendoza of the LA police department. The first edition is from William Morrow in 1962; first UK edition appears to be from Oldbourne, 1963. A number of paperback editions and book club editions exist. It is ordinarily my practice to display the edition which I have in my hands but the entire internet doesn’t appear to contain a photograph of the 1984 paperback from Mysterious Press; my edition has a tasteful and vaguely Art Deco cover that is part of a uniform edition of a handful of Shannon’s novels. As a placeholder I have given you an image of the first edition but I’ve allowed pride of place to the thin-lipped and censorious face of the author herself, above.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it. 

Lieutenant Luis Mendoza leads a team of detectives working in the Los Angeles homicide squad of 1962. The story begins with a scene where he breaks up with his girlfriend, beautiful red-headed Alison Weir, who owns and runs a charm school. We soon learn that although the police made an excellent case against Allan Haines for the rape and murder of Mary Ellen Wood, and he was tried and executed, his alibi witness came forward some months later and exonerated him.  And since the newspapers are leading an outcry against this error, the detectives must work extra-hard to find the killer.

We learn a little bit about the personal lives of some of the team of detectives as they plod through a routine which is hinted at, but not really described in detail — too boring, one supposes. Mendoza is famous for his poker-playing, his inherited millions, his Abyssinian cats, his beautiful wardrobe, his Facel-Vega sports car and his hunches about how to solve murder cases; this last is a good thing since he seems to do very little actual work. After dithering around for most of the novel getting nowhere, an out-of-town policeman walks in and hands them the solution to the identity of the real rapist/murderer, who is just about to murder, you guessed it, Alison Weir. In what is meant to be an exciting finish, Mendoza ruins his sports car in the process of racing to the crime scene to save her in the nick of time and, one supposes, reconcile with her, since the many further books in the series detail their idyllic married life.

This book was nominated for an Edgar award for Best Novel. As you will soon discover, I suspect this may have been in a parallel universe.

Why is this so awful?

The police procedural is a sub-genre of the mystery novel that consists primarily of a group of police officers who work as a team, doing everything that they do in order to solve crimes. We see good officers and bad officers doing both smart and stupid things, following hot leads and trails that peter out. The officers’ work is never done and they are usually working on multiple cases at the same time; occasionally these cases are less than serious. Sometimes cases remain unsolved. Most such novels describe a number of cases that are in various stages of closure. This is meant to give the reader the flavour of what police work is really like. The best-known practitioner of this school is Ed McBain, whose many novels of the 87th Precinct in a fictional city not unlike NYC have delighted generations of readers.

This novel and its companions in the series are meant to be procedurals, and the author as noted above is known as the Queen of the Procedurals (for some reason, procedurals are very, very rarely written by women or for them, it seems). In fact, these novels are more like romances than procedurals. The author appears to know virtually nothing about how police officers actually behave or work in real life — but then, as soon becomes clear, she appears to know virtually nothing about how human beings actually behave in real life, so this ignorance of procedure is unsurprising.  Frankly, it seems as though at some point many years ago, she spent a couple of days hanging around a police station, listening credulously to bullshitters telling her exaggerated tales of their own excellence, and parlayed that into a long-term career.

What we are presented with, in fact, is a right-wing nitwit’s fantasy about how police should work, unsullied by little things like the rules of court, evidence, and common sense. I realize that it is usually an error to ascribe the social values of 2013 to a novel published in 1962, but the attitudes and mores displayed here as if they were normal and sensible are so disgusting and so disgraceful, so anti-law, that I cannot believe that the citizens of 1962 would not have risen up and replaced their police force to a man had they acted or thought like this.

For instance, an early example from Chapter 5 (page 66 in my edition). The hero — the hero! — says:

“There’ve been thirty-odd cases of rape and attempted rape through headquarters this eighteen months, and in all but seven or eight of them the woman was at least partly to blame, for voluntarily putting herself in danger. And I’m not counting the statutory cases, where it’s legally rape because the girl’s under age — I mean the real thing, sex by force. Thirteen of those cases ended in homicide. Of those thirteen women, six can be called — mmh — respectable. The others had asked for it, just like those where it didn’t end in murder — hanging around bars alone, picking up strangers, or they lived or worked or visited in the back alleys of bad districts.”

The corollary, of course, is that because the rapist in this particular case is not a badly-dressed drooling degenerate, or a Negro — the two are pretty much equivalent to this author in later cases — the police are baffled and the public is outraged. Later on (page 75), Mendoza says, in conversation with his second-in-command, “… can any man say there hasn’t been a time he didn’t have the impulse to violence with a woman — to let her know he’s a male creature? Or with some men, to repay her for being female? Tell the truth to yourself if not to me.” Sergeant Hackett replies, “Like they say, touché.  It’s a thing in us, if we’re men at all.”  The incredible part is that of course this is being written by a woman about an imaginary police officer, whose job seems not to be to serve and protect but rather to sit around in his office and make moral judgments. Wikipedia and other sources are silent as to whether Linington ever married or had children or anything approaching a relationship with a normal human, but I’m suspecting not. Nor, I suspect, was she ever the victim of a crime that she felt to be “her fault”.

The police procedure in this novel is nearly non-existent. Unlike the classic procedural, the entire police force seems to work on a single case here. Officers apparently decide what to do by divine inspiration and then go and do it — very rarely are they actually directed, they are merely said to be directed. It seems as though the author feels as though the routines of police work are far too boring to be dwelt upon, even though this is actually the basis of the procedural. The police specifically deprecate “head doctors” as having useless opinions in cases like these. My instinct is to suggest that this is because any psychiatrist worth his salt would lock up half these policemen as being misogynistic psychos after a few minutes of conversation. (Immediately after opining that head doctors are useless, Mendoza muses about the blonde with whom he apparently had casual sex  the night before.  She is nameless. “A silly female. Just, in effect, a female — compliant — and obtuse. Nobody to talk to, to enjoy being with, just for herself. You might say, on a par with the waitress who fetched you a meal when you were hungry. That kind of thing.” One wonders why the female readers of 1962 did not rise up en masse and insert these volumes into the author’s vagina sideways.) And in fact, the boring police work is depicted as being just as useless as actually, you know, bothering to research it for the edification of the reader. Instead, Mendoza is constantly said to have “instincts” that have led him to promotion over his fellows. And the out-of-town police officer who comes in while on vacation in LA and identifies the killer does so because he had a “feeling” that this individual killed a girl in his home town. How can someone be Queen of the Procedurals who doesn’t know much about police work and doesn’t think it’s worthwhile anyway? Bah, it’s all rubbish. These police officers threaten reporters with violence for reporting the truth and having an anti-police attitude — Mendoza punches one and there are no consequences. They bemoan the interference of the ignorant public and the counterproductive justice system, all of whom collude to prevent the police from administering the rough justice that they alone know how to dish out, to anyone whom they decide is guilty. And these men are the HEROES of this novel.

The other disgraceful part of this novel is the author’s attitude towards her fellow human beings.  And here, I have to say, she constantly works the same trick. Essentially she selects a minority whom she dislikes — and believe me, that’s all of them, because this lady only likes upper-class well-spoken well-dressed white people who are God-fearing, obedient and Republican — and creates a character who is NOT as bad as she implies the rest are.  Mendoza, for instance, is probably Mexican (his internal monologue appears to imply that his grandmother pretends to be descended from the pure-blooded Castilian settlers of long ago, in order to raise her social class) but he is wealthy, well-dressed, a professional, etc.  And so when other characters imply that he is a “dirty Mex”, because this is a perfectly natural attitude for a member of the white middle-class hoi polloi, Mendoza allows himself to reflect on how misguided they are. Similarly, in later books in this series, there is a kind, sensible, family man who is, as they were called back then, a Negro police officer. This gentleman doesn’t raise a finger to stop his fellow officers from bullying and occasionally beating other Negroes, and occasionally allows himself a God-fearing regret that they don’t know better than to have too many children, but he himself is the kind of Negro whom whites should respect and pat on his woolly little head. Grr. Certain types of people are irredeemable; I think the author is incapable of believing that a Communist or a homosexual could ever be a “good person”, and all such in her books have metaphorical horns and tails. The lower classes are all lazy scum who breed too frequently all except the occasional one who works her way out of poverty by dint of keeping her skirts long and her knees together and her nose to the grindstone. (Alison Weir’s comments about the girls from whom she takes money to teach them manners are absolutely outrageous. She seems to believe that, without her gentling influence, they would all be makeup-caked whores teetering around on four-inch heels having sex with anyone who asked.)

There’s a moment in this novel that made my blood boil. Chapter 14, page 193 in my edition, Mendoza is having a difficult time solving the case by intuition, and police work isn’t helping, so he decides to go out and get drunk at lunch.  Yes, seriously.  He goes to a restaurant where he is known, and a kindly black waiter who notes that he’s drinking much more than usual and not touching his food generously offers to make him food more to his taste, and suggests that he cut back on the drinking.  To which Mendoza replies, and I quote, “Hell and damnation … are you trying to wet-nurse me, boy? If I don’t get served here, there’s a bar three doors down.” Boy, indeed. What a disgrace to the badge.

Of particular note in this volume is the author’s attitude towards women — this book is, in a sense, about women, because the “psycho killer” at the heart of it all has been driven off the deep end by finding out that the woman he loves is a slut.  (It’s hard to say exactly why, but I suspect she indicates that she is willing to have sex before marriage with him, so he strangles her and all other women whom he decides are sluts.) One character, the slatternly Madge Parrott, is a case in point. Her best friend and fellow slut — sorry, waitress of easy virtue/roommate — was killed by the killer because she was willing to have sex with him, it seems.  They used to laugh at him for being unsophisticated and thinking that they were virgins. Madge is entirely willing to cooperate with the police, of course, but makes no bones that she would fuck the bejeezus out of Mendoza or any other nice guy if it got her a wedding ring and a ticket out of waitress-dom. In the meantime she will insist upon being plied with daiquiris before she gives out information, and you know that’s the sign of a bad girl. A middle-aged women who is driven by economic necessity to rent rooms in her house is presented as a fool. There are no women police officers in the homicide squad, of course. (Later in the series one is added and it turns out that the men are too timid to suggest that she type their reports, which is precisely why she’s there.  In fact, she longs to BE their secretary and is sad that they reject her typing skills.)

And Alison herself rejects most ordinary men because she has been spoiled by the ultra-macho Mendoza; it’s only when she decides to subordinate her red-headed wilfulness to his masculine superiority that he can save her life and end the book.  In the meantime, she accepts a date with a polite nonentity (the killer, of course) because she is single, and heaven forbid she should stay home on a Saturday night alone. So she spends a weeknight  redoing her nails in copper to match her new skirt, so as to please a man about whom she doesn’t care a scrap. The book is full of such nonsense.

Other than ridiculous characterization, a complete ignorance of police procedure and a plot that is based on coincidence, the other dire aspect of this novel is the writing style. And here, other than a reliance upon cliches about race, class and gender that are horrific to the modern eye, there are two main issues that grate tremendously upon the reader’s ear.

The first is that Mendoza, in order to give him a character beyond the trappings of his money, cars, cats and lack of integrity, constantly speaks in Spanish words and phrases. This rather feels, to quote Dashiell Hammett describing Philo Vance, “like a high-school girl who had been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary.” It is constant and unrelenting, and I found it very hard to take. At the end of the novel, when Mendoza is racing across town insanely in order to save Alison from first the fate worse than death and then death, he seems to lose the ability to speak English at all. This book is putatively written for an English-speaking reader, and much like Dorothy L. Sayers including a dozen pages entirely in French with no translation in Clouds of Witness and expecting the reader to get the point, it is incredibly annoying. I don’t know what the Spanish is for “Go fuck yourself, you bigoted hag,” but I would have liked to scream it into the writer’s ear.

My long-time loathing of Linington’s writing began in my early teens when I became aware of a stylistic tic of hers that drove me crazy. It’s connected with the word “the”, misused in place of “a” or “an”. She puts this idiosyncratic use of the word into the mouths of all sorts of different characters as if it were common parlance for everyone, and it drives me crazy.  For instance, and I found this almost by opening the book at random: “… the most respectable high-minded women, nine times out of ten they’ll feel the animal attraction to the big male brute, never mind if he’s the plumber or the garage mechanic or whatever …” (page 69 of my edition).  What’s wrong with “an animal attraction to a big male brute”, etc., just like the rest of the world says it? And it’s so constant and consistent, in all her novels regardless of the pseudonym she’s using, that it’s like a signature. For me, it’s like a sore tooth that she keeps biting in my mouth.

It is astonishing to me at this remove that this writer was so popular in the 60s that she published dozens of novels under a handful of names. But I take a great deal of pleasure in the fact that her work is almost completely out of print today, mostly because she is racist, sexist, misogynist, a terrible prose stylist and completely ignorant of the requirements of the form in which she was working. I hope I have persuaded you to avoid her work completely in the future.

Notes For the Collector: offers an inscribed and signed 1st edition from a UK bookseller for the unusual price of $102.48. A Good first in jacket will set you back as much as $40 or $50, and a reading copy in paperback might cost you $5. There are no noteworthy editions, to my mind, and even the paperbacks do not have the cheerful vulgarity that marked so many of their fellows during this period. Many, many book club editions exist — she was a profilic contributor to their lists — and since these editions are nearly worthless, you should have to pay nearly nothing for them. If you truly feel you must read these books, I recommend you pay as little as possible for them.

As I have commented elsewhere, good books by good writers hold their value and even increase. Therefore, on that logical basis, someone would have to pay me to accept a copy of this book. I seem to have paid $2.50 for mine, which means I’ve wasted $2.50 that no one will ever give me back.