The October 8 Challenge — an explanation

october8Over the past months I’ve very much enjoyed participating in Bev Hankins‘s Golden Age detection-oriented “Vintage Mystery Bingo”. She’s created a Bingo card with squares that you fill in by reviewing a particular kind of book, such as “Read a book published under more than one title” or “Read one locked room mystery”. I’ve found that it helps me focus on getting some reviewing done, certainly, since I now no longer wait for inspiration to strike as I take a book at random from my shelves. I’ve been more directed in 2014, and it’s been a very productive year. The Bingo challenge also has encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone — in fact, there’s one square marked “Read one book outside your comfort zone”. I can’t brag about that one since I haven’t filled it in yet, but I’ve definitely stepped outside my comfort zone in many respects. So thank you, Bev! You can read about Vintage Mystery Bingo here — it’s deep in the heart of Bev’s excellent blog, My Reader’s Block, found here. And I think I’ll be going back for the 2015 version!

Another member of the Golden Age Detection blogosphere, Moira Redmond — whose book blog, Clothes in Books, is found here — caught my attention with an original idea. Moira’s focus, as you can tell, is that she looks at books with an eye to the clothes that characters are described as having worn, and that’s an interesting idea right there. Recently, though, Moira looked at a series of Golden Age mysteries that are linked by a theme; that of the poison pen letter. And that started me thinking.

It occurred to me that many of my peers and mentors in the GAD blogosphere focus on reviewing individual books; certainly I’ve been doing that too. But it seems that a lot of my readers have been especially interested when I’ve discussed groups of books; my posts on the general topic of cozy mysteries and police procedurals have attracted a lot of attention and comments. I am very fond of reading reviews of individual GAD novels, certainly. It’s how I find new authors and new books to stack beside my bed in my about-to-topple pile of to-be-read books. The erudition and analysis represented by the bloggers in the blogs listed on the left-hand side of my blog is absolutely amazing, like a university-level course in analysis and discussion of GAD. I don’t dare name individuals for fear of forgetting someone, but trust me, just work your way down my blogroll and you’ll be astounded. And yet, most of them focus on individual novels.

Now, I know that many of these folks have an appreciation of not only the depth available in looking at an individual novel, but the breadth and span of how these books fit together as a genre. The everyday discussions, both serious and humorous, in the Golden Age Detection Facebook group to which many of us belong, tell me that these folks know about schools or clusters of mysteries as well as being able to dig deep into an individual novel. And in the past, I’ve often had the experience of picking a book off my own shelves for an hour of re-reading, and thinking, “Oh, this book reminds me of this book,” and going back for a linked volume, and another, and another …

In short, Golden Age mysteries can be seen as a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, if you will, where books are linked by theme, or period, or place, or style, or authors, or characters. And while I love reading about individual books, I suspect that my brilliant friends, mentors and peers in the GAD blogosphere can embrace breadth as well as depth and bring their intellectual powers to analysis of the way that GAD books fit together in groups. And so I determined, after some consultation, to give them that opportunity if they choose to take it up.

Hence, the October 8 challenge. Now, I chose that date for a couple of reasons. One is that I won’t easily forget it — it’s my birthday ;-).  The other is that I share that birth date with another member of the GAD blogosphere who has become a friend, Edgar-Anthony-and-Agatha-nominated author Jeffrey Marks. (I have to confess that he is younger and better looking than I, but it’s still the same damn birthday LOL.) Among his other interesting volumes of both biography and fiction, Jeffrey’s fascinating book, Atomic Renaissance, gives us portraits of women mystery writers of the 1940s and 1950s, giving details of their lives and work; not focused on individual novels but a wide breadth of work from some disparate women writers. Atomic Renaissance is the kind of research I enjoy reading, and it will stand as an example of the kind of research and thought I hope to encourage. You can buy your own copy here, and I think you should do so! (This free plug is your birthday gift, Jeff <grin>.)

So, in honour of Jeffrey and his work, and my advancing age and memory loss, I will bring you a year’s worth of essays from whoever cares to participate, running until October 8, 2015.  I’ll give you the details in another post today; with Bev Hankins’ permission, I’ve lifted her idea of the Bingo card, but made it only 4×4. The second post today will give you the “rules”, such as they are; I don’t intend to be rigorous about this. What I hope to encourage is creativity, not obedience. As people contribute essays, I’ll keep track of them in one post (depending on volume, one post per month, or perhaps per season). And at the end, I will ask all the contributors to judge who will receive first, second, and third place. And those three writers will receive a small gift from my large collection of antiquarian paperbacks; nothing enormous, just a token to represent excellence.

I have to say, I can’t wait to see what happens! My associates in the GAD blogosphere have all excited me and delighted me in the past, and I hope you will continue to do so; let’s instruct and delight each other over the next year with a focus on breadth as well as depth of insight. Any questions or comments, I’ll do what I can to address; feel free to mention them below.

(Speaking of memory loss, to which I’ve confessed above, the original version of this post stupidly confused Moira Redmond and Margot Kinberg, both of whom have fascinating blogs on GAD topics. No excuse, just me being dumb. My sincere apologies, and I’ve fixed my reference.)

 

The Poisoned Chocolates Case, by Anthony Berkeley (1929)

The Poisoned Chocolates Case,  by Anthony Boucher (1929)

1946070Author: Anthony Berkeley was the pen name of Anthony Berkeley Cox, an extremely talented and inventive mystery writer who also wrote as Francis Iles and other names. His biography in Wikipedia is found here; I have elsewhere reviewed his first novel, The Layton Court Mystery, originally published as by “?”. Yes, a question mark. His novel as by Francis Iles, Before the Fact, was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1941 as Suspicion, with Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. He was one of the founding members of the Detection Club. His principal detective as Berkeley is Roger Sheringham, silly-ass amateur detective, but a couple of novels feature Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick, mild-mannered criminology expert; this is the only novel to feature both.

thPublication Data: The first edition of this novel is probably the Collins (UK) edition from 1929 (the jacket features Mrs. Bendix in a low-cut evening gown); I am unable to say reliably whether it predates the Doubleday Crime Club edition of 1929. The first paperback edition is Penguin #36, dating from 1936, originally published with a dust wrapper; you may find it significant that it predates the first paperback published in North America by three years. In other words, one of the first paperbacks ever.

I like the look of Pocket 814, which you’ll see elsewhere in this post, featuring Mrs. Bendix in a low-cut evening gown (do you sense a theme?). This novel was also part of an edition from Dell in the 1980s that I call “puzzlebacks”; the books have the uniform feature of a jigsaw piece on the front, and you see on the back cover where the piece fits into an illustration from the novel. That’s the copy I’ve used for this post.

It is a reworking of a short story published earlier* the same year called “The Avenging Chance” — the solution of the short story is actually one of the solutions that is presented and discarded in the novel form (see below for an explanation of this). (*See a discussion in the comments below.)

This particular book was selected as a Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone, which is to say that Howard Haycraft and Ellery Queen thought it was one of the most important works of detective fiction ever published. I agree wholeheartedly. In my personal opinion, it is one of the finest murder mysteries of all time.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will discuss the solution to this murder mystery in general terms 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.

I believe this book to be sufficiently significant in the history of detective fiction that I have decided to spoil your potential enjoyment as little as possible. Nevertheless, if you want to have a delightful experience, I advise you to turn away now, go find a copy of this book and read it before you return.

24044PThis book is about a group of six amateur detectives who call themselves the Crimes Circle. As a discussion topic, they decide to investigate a crime which is familiar to all of them, and some of them have personal connections to various of the dramatis personae. Each detective agrees to investigate the case and provide a solution; one by one, week after week, each presents his or her ideas and conclusions. By the time of the sixth such presentation, it becomes absolutely clear who is responsible for the crime.

The case they investigate involves a box of liqueur chocolates which was received through the post by the universally loathed Sir Eustace Pennefather at his club, with a letter asking for his endorsement as a kind of advertisement that was common at the time. Sir Eustace is both disagreeable and hot-tempered and announces that he’s going to throw the chocolates away, but a fellow club member, Graham Bendix, asks for them because he has lost a bet with his wife Joan and needs to produce a box of chocolates to pay the forfeit. Bendix takes them home; he eats a couple and Joan eats quite a few more. The chocolates have been poisoned with nitrobenzene; Graham Bendix recovers, but his wife dies.

The six members of the Crimes Circle are as follows (and their solutions are presented in this order):

  • Sir Charles Wildman, well-known bombastic defense lawyer; we later learn that Sir Charles’s daughter means to marry Sir Eustace as soon as his divorce becomes final.
  • Mrs. Fielder-Flemming, a playwright whose work focuses on emotions more than facts; some of her dramatic productions have been thinly-disguised retellings of famous murder cases.
  • Morton Harrogate Bradley, a writer of detective novels who has considerable knowledge of criminology in the abstract, but who is perhaps not very serious about its concrete details.
  • Roger Sheringham, amateur detective and man about town, who has solved other murder mysteries in the recent past (chronicled by Anthony Berkeley).
  • Alicia Dammers, an icy and beautiful novelist whose brilliance is universally acknowledged. She writes novels that dissect in unflattering and cold-eyed logical detail the failings of others.
  • Ambrose Chitterwick, a mild-mannered gentleman who nevertheless appears to know an enormous amount about the history of detective fiction and true crime.

anthony-berkeleyEach detective does whatever investigation he or she feels is appropriate and makes a case. Week after week, the opinions of the group are swayed in one direction or another. Although there are really only three principal characters, various other possibilities are considered. At first, everyone is considering the possible reasons for someone to try to kill Sir Eustace, who is very disagreeable, a well-known womanizer, and looking to marry into money; no one could have known that he would pass the chocolates to Mr. Bendix, whom he hardly knew. As time goes by, the possibility is considered that Mr. Bendix has taken the opportunity to murder his wife and throw suspicion on an unknown enemy of Sir Eustace. Some detectives focus upon psychology and some upon physical clues, and the way in which these clues are investigated is gone into in exhaustive detail. As one investigator remarks, even so small a detail as access to the model of typewriter upon which the letter accompanying the chocolates has been typed, or potential access to the letterhead of the chocolate company, is considered indicative of the guilt or innocence of a number of different people.

Week after week, solutions are presented that are, to a greater or lesser degree, believable. One early solution accuses another member of the group; so does the next presentation, although the reader may not feel that a detective who accuses himself is entirely serious. Roger Sheringham’s detailed and intelligent solution is considered quite definitive, but then Miss Dammers presents a different and brilliant solution that seems completely conclusive … so much so that everyone almost forgets that little Mr. Chitterwick has yet to present. However, he takes his turn and, to the astonishment of the group, comes up with a sixth solution to the crime that is both unexpected and absolutely correct.

the-poisoned-chocolates-caseWhy is this book worth your time?

Simply put, this is an absolutely key volume of detective fiction. Anthony Berkeley was a crucial figure in the history of the Detection Club and thus in detective fiction; he wrote some magnificent novels that are still read and enjoyed today. He is pretty much responsible for the invention of the “open mystery” (Malice Aforethought from 1931). And this volume is a puzzle mystery that combines a strong vein of humour with some superb detection. Ellery Queen and Howard Haycraft selected it as a “Queen Cornerstone” and I wholeheartedly agree. This is an amazingly clever work of detective fiction that dazzles in the same way as a Catherine-wheel of fireworks; brilliance piled upon brilliance and building to a completely unexpected solution that nevertheless is completely, wholly right. You may actually gasp aloud.

Occasionally, commentators mention Rashomon in connection with this volume, because of how we see the same set of events interpreted by six different viewpoints. The brilliance of this interpretation is that Berkeley has given us six different styles of detection that could have been produced by fellow members of the Detection Club, each of whom has his or her own modality of detective work. Mrs. Fielder-Flemming is perhaps the most wildly emotional — she is the kind of person who “feels” guilt rather than thinks it, while Miss Dammers’s approach is coldly logical about the emotions of others. Roger Sheringham focuses on clues and their meaning; so does Morton Harrogate Bradley, although his approach is more haphazard and amateurish. Sir Charles Wildman takes the legal approach; decide who is guilty and focus your argument to indicate that all the evidence and interpretation leads to the inevitable choice of murderer.  And finally Mr. Chitterwick admits that he has had the benefit of hearing five other interpretations of the situation and has had to only select from bits and pieces of theory in order to build his case; his success lies in his brilliance in sorting theories and facts and not restricting himself in his assessment of responsibility.

poisoned_chocolates2There is also some beautiful and elegant writing here for your delectation. In a way, each detective’s presentation takes on the flavour of that detective’s personality. Sir Charles relies upon bombast, Mrs. Fielder-Flemming emotional speechmaking, and Miss Dammers’s style is the icy dissection of someone who understands emotions but apparently does not experience them. Mr. Bradley’s scattered and diffuse detection approach is the most humorous, probably because he’s the most self-deprecating; and Roger Sheringham’s inner sense of his own intellectual superiority shines through his entire approach and solution. Even Mr. Chitterwick, whose personality is pretty much defined by his not having one, is beautifully portrayed; he has nothing to offer except being perfectly correct. Each presentation has the flavour of its presenter, in the choice of language and description. And each presenter selects a murderer that, in a way, is indicative of his or her personality.

I’ve read this book about five or six times over the years; each time, I think, “Oh, I’ll just skim through it and remind myself why I think it’s so great.” and each time, I find myself savouring it slowly, relishing the fine writing and characterization. I always find some little delightful moment that seems fresh and new (this time through, I was amused by Mr. Bradley’s description of his household’s focus on “paper games” which explain why he has a wad of stolen stationery). Yes, this book is very much of its period — the attitudes towards divorce and extra-marital affairs, for instance, and the common acceptance that an impoverished peer must marry for money. At the same time if you brought the time period up to date, I think these characters would not seem out of place in the modern day. In short, I think this book is a timeless classic.

As I noted above in my “spoiler alert”, if you haven’t yet read this magnificent work, throw your “to be read” pile into the corner and get a copy of this book immediately.  Yes, it’s that good.

7de361267eb67b548f28ba616fc35198Notes for the Collector:

The first edition appears to be from Collins, 1929; the first US edition is Doubleday (Crime Club), 1929. An American bookseller has an “exceptional” copy of the US first of this Haycraft-Queen cornerstone for $1,250 as of this date. I could be mistaken; the British 1st is also 1929, as far as I know. An Oxonian bookseller has a signed copy of the 1930 Collins edition, second printing, no jacket, for  $500. I don’t see any copies of the British 1st available for sale as of today.

I must admit I gravitate towards signed copies and feel they hold their value, but of the number of editions available today, perhaps the most interesting to the collector should be the first paper; Penguin greenback #36 from 1936.  This paperback’s original state has it with a dust wrapper or jacket, apparently identical in design. You can have a copy of this for $150, Near Fine in a VG+ wrapper. Note that this is one of the earliest crime titles in Penguin, the first Berkeley title in Penguin and, to give this some context, was published three years before the first paperback published in North America. Not very beautiful, except to those of us who appreciate the austere simplicity of the Penguin greenback, but definitely a significant edition of this significant novel.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1929 novel qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “O”, “Read one one book with a method of murder in the title.” The victim is dispatched with, of course, poisoned chocolates. I am delighted to note that, as my twentieth review in this group, this now completes my first Bingo — the fifth line from the top. I hope to achieve a couple more before the end of the calendar year. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

vintage-golden-card-00112111

 

The Case of the Seven of Calvary, by Anthony Boucher (1937)

The Case of the Seven of Calvary,  by Anthony Boucher (1937)

7calv1Author: Anthony Boucher was a very talented man who became well-known in a couple of different competencies. He was a mystery writer, of course, of both novels and short stories; he was also a popular writer of science-fiction novels and short stories. A huge annual conference for mystery fans and readers, Bouchercon, is named after him. In the 1940s, he was the principal writer not only on the Sherlock Holmes radio program but The Adventures of Ellery Queen and his own series, The Casebook of Gregory Hood. He was an esteemed editor of short-story collections, particularly of science-fiction short stories, and received a Hugo Award in 1957 and 1958 for editing Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. And perhaps in the foremost of these multiple occupations, he formed the opinions of generations of mystery readers by his power as the mystery reviewer for the New York Times.

In short, a fascinating, intelligent, and multi-talented man whose life and friendships were just as interesting as his multiple streams of work. I am happy to recommend you to a book called Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography, by Jeff Marks which as you may have gathered is a cross between a biography and a bibliography. I’ve gotten to know and like Jeff over the internet, where he shares his erudition freely, but you don’t have to take my friendly word for the book’s value; it won an Anthony Award for Best Critical Non-Fiction Work, and was a finalist for the Agatha. You can find a copy of the book here, and I think you will find it very interesting. It will also give you full bibliographic detail of Boucher’s many streams of work which, honestly, is a godsend to finally have assembled in one place. I’ll also happily refer you to my friend and fellow GAD blogger John Norris, who reviewed this book insightfully and with useful detail in his blog, Pretty Sinister, with the specific review found here. (And in fact I am indebted to him because I lifted his scan of Collier #AS97 to illustrate this review, since it was the only image available on the entire internet.)

6a00d8342fd07e53ef0134878f90b5970c-800wi

Anthony Boucher

Publication Data: The first edition of this novel is from Simon and Schuster (1937). It has not often been reprinted. I suspect there might be a Japanese edition, but I don’t read kanji. The copy that I used for this review is my paperback from Collier, #AS97, published in 1961; this may actually be the latest edition as such, although the novel is collected as part of a four-book omnibus in trade paper format from Zomba in 1984, which to my knowledge is the only UK edition.

Collier #AS97, shown at the top of this review, is so far away from what’s currently fashionable in terms of book design that it has a kind of normcore beauty. Ah, for the days when the book’s title in large and poorly-kerned Helvetica Bold and a crummy, hard-to-see woodcut at the bottom right was sufficient to cause it to leap off the shelf and into the buyer’s hands. (If you see it at its original cover price of 95 cents, it should leap into your hands; it will probably cost you at least $20 at an antiquarian bookstore if the proprietor knows what she’s got.) I note with particular approval that the potential reader is tantalized by the blurb telling them that this is one of those books where “the reader is given clues to solve the mystery”. Considering that this book is most attractive to highly literate and experienced mystery readers, this seems rather like alerting people at the entrance to the Kentucky Derby that they are likely to see some horses. But 1961 was apparently a more solicitous time in the marketing of paperbacks.

This mystery has recently become available on Kindle from Amazon and I’m happy to see that it’s now available for reading by a wider audience.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will discuss the solution to this murder mystery in general terms 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. 

12309174502The framing device for this novel is that Martin Lamb, a graduate student at UC Berkley in San Francisco, is out at dinner with Anthony Boucher; Boucher is writing up the story that Lamb tells him over dinner. This gets a tiny bit confusing because most of what happens in the book is that Lamb sits and tells things to a different listener in a different armchair, but eventually it becomes easier to pick out where we are. Lamb sits and tells the story of recent on-campus events to his advisor, Dr. Ashwin, an eccentric professor of Sanskrit. Lamb goes into great detail about the events of a recent evening among a group of international students on campus, while Dr. Ashwin listens from his armchair, a glass of scotch in his hand. The evening ends with the stabbing death of an elderly and apparently inoffensive Swiss humanitarian and quasi-diplomat as he is out for a stroll, and a scrap of paper is found nearby that contains what we learn is the symbol of an obscure religious sect, the Seven of Calvary. (There’s an illustration below.)

I think you’ll enjoy the way the events of this novel unfold, so I’m not going to go into an enormous amount of detail in case you haven’t yet read them;  I’ll give you the bare bones to whet your appetite. Martin Lamb is falling in love with a beautiful Hispanic fellow student, Mona Morales, and thus becomes a kind of bemused spectator at the string of events. The late Dr. Schaedel has a nephew in the graduate school, Kurt Ross, and he and a number of other young men have spent the evening drinking and talking. (This book has quite a bit of drinking and talking in it.) And many of these young men (including one Alex Bruce) have an interest in the beautiful young Cynthia Wood, at whose house Dr. Schaedel, she says, asked for directions moments before his murder.

Everyone thinks that the mysterious illustration of the Seven of Calvary means that some sort of religious fanatic is responsible for the murder of Dr. Schaedel, and while there are a number of people with strong religious beliefs, including Cynthia, whose wealthy father recently embraced a strict form of Christianity, none appears to be a fanatic attached to an obscure European sect. Paul Lennox, one of the young men who spent the evening of Dr. Schaedel’s death drinking and talking, goes on for a chapter about the history and background of Gnosticism, and Vignardism, and the history of the Seven of Calvary in the Swiss Alps and their belief in the septenity of their god.

Meanwhile, the police, whose efforts to solve the mystery are almost entirely invisible in this book that focuses upon armchair detective methods, appear to be getting nowhere; most of the principal characters find themselves involved in a university-based production of Don Juan Returns. Martin Lamb plays the murderer and Paul Lennox plays Don Juan, his victim. But during the first-night performance, something is wrong with Lennox’s performance as he is strangled on stage; he actually does die.

12663737861_4Lamb finds himself in over his head in the murder case and turns to Dr. Ashwin’s insight (and never-empty bottle of Scotch) to establish his innocence. Ashwin deciphers the mysteries from the comfort of his armchair. He gathers the group together in his rooms and explains that he had only had three remaining questions before solving the case. The first was answered by an express parcel from the head librarian at the University of Chicago that very afternoon; the second was answered that day by a discovery of Martin Lamb in a novelty and theatrical shop near the campus; and he asks the third on the spot. When he receives a surprising answer to this surprising question, he has everything he needs to solve the case, and explains everything.  In the course of his explanation, he reveals that he had started with seven questions to be answered (and had whittled them down to four before the session began. This further instance of the Seven-ness of the case gives him a way to explain everything that happened, and in great detail, just by answering those seven questions. It’s completely clear who did what and to whom, and why. At this point, Dr. Ashwin explains that there is actually an eighth question; that of the Seven of Calvary. He explains exactly where that idea entered the case and why, and there is nothing further to reveal (except a few paragraphs of “where are they now” as the framing story, wherein Martin Lamb is telling the story to Anthony Boucher, is tied off.)

Why is this book worth your time?

As I mentioned above, Anthony Boucher is of the premier rank of mystery critics and editors; he understands how mysteries are constructed and written. He only wrote a handful of novels and every single one of them is worth your time. If you are a fan of the classic puzzle mystery, you will find something to amuse and/or challenge you in every one of his novels — guaranteed.

This particular book is in fact his first published mystery novel. With many writers’ careers, it very often happens that their first novel is a kind of false start; they manage to sell a book which is their foot in the publishing door, and then after a while find their voice and begin to write the books for which they become known. Is this one of those?

7ofcalvWell, yes and no. Certainly this book is very clever and very original, and obviously written by someone with both a great knowledge of and a great love for murder mysteries. At the second paragraph, the Anthony Boucher character starts to lecture about the nature of a “Watson” to Martin Lamb, who actually plays the Watson role throughout most of this book, and the self-referential nature of having the author be a character adds a kind of bizarre Wonderland quality. Really, given that the author is a character and considering the nested “story within a story” conceit that is framed within the prologue and epilogue, this might almost pass for an early attempt at a kind of self-referential post-modernism. Just like Scream was a slasher movie about people who have seen a lot of slasher movies, this book is a mystery for people who have read a lot of mysteries. The first pages of my copy are a cast of characters with asterisks thoughtfully inserted against the names whom Boucher wishes us to know are possibly guilty; minor characters and spear-carriers are ruled out.

This is also a mystery for people who have read a lot of everything else. Only a very few authors in the mystery genre have this enticing quality, where the action frequently stops dead in its tracks for a two-page lecture on ancient Swiss religious beliefs, Sanskrit tongue-twisters, or the origins of the Don Juan mythos. (At one point Boucher inserts an asterisk to a footnote that says, in my paraphrase, “If this doesn’t interest you, skip two pages ahead; you won’t miss anything relevant to the murder.” Saucy, but useful.) I can only think of John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson as sharing this quality whereby they spray nuggets of information, relevant or irrelevant, through the pages of a mystery. (Yes, others do it too, but more sparingly; these guys are the big three.) Speaking as a reader, I find it charming and diverting but I know that some people find this kind of information dump annoying in the extreme.

The actual mystery element is a strong and predominant part of the novel’s plot, which is why I’ve been, for me, relatively uncommunicative about its details. There are only a few suspects and while it is not terribly difficult to assign responsibility for the murders, it is considerably more difficult to figure out howdunit. John Norris, in his review referred to above, makes the point that there are a couple of easy deductions available at the beginning of the mystery that may well make the incautious reader think they’re about to beat one of the great puzzle constructors, but, at about the midpoint of the book, there’s a revelation that completely recontextualizes everything that’s happened thus far and throws all those earlier deductions up in the air. (And again, I’m indebted to him for saying it first.) In other words, the author has been a couple of steps ahead of the reader the whole time and has led you down the proverbial garden path; in a way, this is a kind of Ellery Queenian “false solution then the true”. The ending, with everyone gathered for the “blow-off”, is certainly a Golden Age trope but the manner in which it’s conducted, with the kindly old professor listing off the seven crucial points and following with the unexpected eighth, is pure John Dickson Carr/Dr. Fell.

And that’s my only small quibble with this great book; it borrows here and there. One of the central puzzles is strongly suggestive of an earlier novel by S.S. Van Dine; there are elements reminiscent of Ellery Queen, Philo Vance, John Dickson Carr and Rex Stout. Another small problem is that the premise of having Dr. Ashwin sit in his armchair and have stories brought to him (the Rex Stout aspect) means that there has to be a way to introduce action into the plot or it descends, as it does here, into long chapters of storytelling by someone who isn’t guaranteed to be a reliable narrator. I note that this is the one and only adventure of Dr. Ashwin; Boucher’s subsequent creation of brash California PI Fergus O’Breen is much more suited to tell interesting stories. Let me be clear, though, this is more a meta-problem; there’s nothing at all wrong with the way that this book is constructed and written. The characterization is sufficient to the needs of the plot, the settings are obviously something of which Boucher had personal knowledge, and the language is elegant and erudite.

Really, there is a huge amount here to enjoy, especially if you like to experience an author’s growth by reading his work chronologically. If you like an unexpected spate of learning about — well, about something you didn’t know that seems interesting — then Boucher is one of a very small group of authors with a style of sufficient authority that they can just shut the plot down for a moment’s lesson, or a joke, or even a little puzzle that pays off in a later chapter. It’s a fun and charming style and it takes a great deal of obscure knowledge to bring it off. It’s not impossible to solve this mystery upon first reading, but I suggest that even an aficionado of the puzzle mystery will find it difficult. I enjoyed this book a lot and it’s part of the oeuvre of an important mystery writer and critic; I urge you to read it.

807072190Notes for the Collector:

As I’ve noted above, the first edition is from Simon and Schuster, 1937; first UK is as part of an omnibus volume published by Zomba in 1984, and first paper is from Collier, 1961. There’s an ugly Macmillan edition as part of their Cock Robin imprint, some sort of “bringing back the oldies” line from 1954 (the primarily blue cover earlier in this review). A facsimile of the jacket of the first edition is $18 and it’s the cheapest Boucher-related item in AbeBooks.

If I were going to get a reading copy, I’d be after a crisp Fine copy of Collier #AS97 for $20 to $30 or the Kindle edition; if I had just won the lottery, I’d be investing $600 to $800 in one of the three — three! — signed first editions on sale today. They may not be the prettiest editions — the $600 one has a facsimile jacket and none is what I’d call crisp — but, gee, the thought of having a copy that my favourite mystery critic of all time had held and signed, well, that would be worth every penny.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1937 novel qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “G”, “Read one academic mystery.” Very nearly every single character in this novel is either a student or a professor and the action takes place on the UC Berkley campus. I’d originally meant to read this as “a book with a number in the title”, but I have a couple of those in mind and close at hand. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

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Cue For Murder, by Helen McCloy (1942)

Cue For Murder, by Helen McCloy (1942)

129248Author: Helen McCloy (1904 – 1994) came from a writing family and began her writing career as a journalist, first for William Randolph Hearst and then as a freelancer. Her first mystery was published in 1938 to great acclaim and she continued to write 13 novels about her psychiatrist-detective, Dr. Basil Willing, on and off until 1980. She published 16 volumes of non-series mysteries (and there are some posthumous collections of short stories, etc.) Her marriage to Davis Dresser, who as “Brett Halliday” created the Michael Shayne series, lasted from 1946 to 1961. She was the first woman to serve as president of Mystery Writers of America (1950) and received an Edgar award in 1954 for her mystery criticism.

I think it’s safe to say that connoisseurs of detective fiction regard McCloy as one of the best American writers of detective fiction during her career. Her work is uniformly of a high quality; she’s skilled at planting clues and especially at delineating the psychology of murderers and murder suspects. Mike Grost suggests that although Cue for Murder is considered to be one of her better novels, his preference is for her later works and regards her work after 1945 as better than her earlier books; I tend to agree. I have elsewhere reviewed what might be her most famous work, Through A Glass, Darkly (1950).

dell0212Publication Data: The first edition is from 1942, William Morrow. The book was frequently republished in the 1940s, including its first paperback appearance as Dell mapback #212 in 1948, and then appears to have fallen out of publishing favour. Anthony Boucher selected it as one of his World’s Great Novels of Detection series for Bantam (F3027) in 1965, and it doesn’t appear to have been reprinted since. Amazon gives a peculiar listing which suggests that the book will be republished by The Murder Room (a subsidiary of Orion in the UK who’s been reprinting other of her titles) at the end of 2015. No e-book appears to exist.

McCloy’s work was very occasionally adapted for television; “Cue For Murder” was adapted for a French-language television program, “Le Masque”, in 1989. I have not been able to view this production.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will give away large chunks of information about the plot and characters of this murder mystery. You will probably learn enough here to be able to solve the mystery without really thinking about it. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of this book’s 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. 

dell0212backThe book begins at an art gallery opening in Manhattan, filled with smartly-dressed women and attentive men. Dr. Basil Willing, a psychiatrist who consults to the police department, is attending, and meets Broadway star Wanda Morley and her surrounding players. Wanda’s new play opens that night; we see her with a handsome young actor, Rodney Tait, who stars with her and who is said to adore her. (His erstwhile girlfriend, also present, seems to disagree.) Wanda will share the stage with Leonard Martin, returning to the stage after a year’s illness.

We learn that something strange has happened recently from a tiny snippet of a newspaper story, of the “human interest” variety. There’s a tiny knife-grinding shop sharing the alley with the rear of the theatre (see the map back’s map, nearby, for a better idea of what everything looks like and where it is). Someone has broken into the shop and used the equipment to surreptitiously sharpen a knife — and, before leaving, the mysterious sharpener has released the shop owner’s pet canary, which is found fluttering around the shop.

Dr. Willing decides to attend the opening night. At this point we need to know a little bit about the play itself. It’s a revival of Sardou’s Fédora — not a well-known or especially good play. (Wanda is said to only choose lousy plays as her starring vehicles because her acting looks so much more realistic against the unbelievable events, and this tells you a lot about Wanda and her view of art.) Victorien Sardou is not remembered today except perhaps as the playwright whose original play was turned into the opera Tosca by Puccini, and this work which became the eponymous opera Fédora by Umberto Giordano, which actually brought the fedora hat into popularity for first women, then men. Fédora was written for Sarah Bernhardt; it concerns a young noblewoman (who in the original production wears a soft hat, which ended up named after the play) whose lover, a revolutionary, is brought to her home in Act I, mortally wounded. The lover is attended by a doctor and then discovered by a police officer; he dies at the end of Act I and Fédora vows revenge. (This revenge doesn’t come to pass because all anyone ever gets to see of the play is Act I.)

Since the part of the dying revolutionary has no lines and is required to only lie there motionless until he is kissed goodbye by Fédora and then expires, Sarah Bernhardt used it as a publicity vehicle; she enlisted her handsome young aristocratic friends to play the role onstage, giving them all the excitement of acting without requiring any actual talent or experience. Edward VII was one of them, and he delighted in having gone unrecognized. The novel tells us that Wanda Morley learns of this and decides to revive the tradition; the producers don’t care who plays the role and are pleased to save the money required to hire a motionless supernumerary. So the casting of her lover is up to Wanda.

Immediately before the play begins, an unknown man who will play Fédora’s lover is seen to make his way to the alcove where he lies down and begins to pretend to be near death, lying motionless. After the curtain rises, the only three actors who have any business near him are Rodney Tait as the doctor, Leonard Martin as the policeman, and of course Wanda Morley who kisses him good-bye before he is said to expire. Act I curtain and the stagehands begin to strike the set; of course, the unknown man is truly deceased. Dr. Willing comes up from the audience to possibly assist with first aid and notices something very odd. Although the dead man is lying in a pool of blood with a surgical scalpel sticking out of his chest, a passing housefly ignores the blood and seems fascinated with the handle of the knife. No one is quite sure why, but a number of witnesses note that the housefly will not leave the scalpel alone, even though the blood would seem to be a more attractive target. We also learn that a mysterious figure in a long dark cloak has been hanging around on a fire escape and no one can identify him … or her.

Basil Willing soon identifies the victim as wealthy young John Ingelow, who is said to have been leaving his wife Margot, aka “Magpie”, in order to marry Wanda. Is Wanda’s romance with Rodney Tait just a publicity stunt? She’s certainly done this before with other co-stars, one of whom was Leonard Martin. Did she truly mean to run away with the victim, or is this merely another example of her desire for publicity? Wanda is constantly saying that she wants to leave all the annoying hurly-burly and glitter of the theatrical life and be merely a homebody housewife … was John Ingelow the man for whom she meant to abandon her career, or was she merely stringing him along for more publicity as a femme fatale?

The investigation progresses, but the public’s demand to see the play now that it’s been involved with murder is so great that the show must indeed go on. A brash young playwright named Adeane seems to be the only person who wants to take the ill-fated role of the dying revolutionary ( so that he can get some attention paid to his unpublished scripts); the theatre is standing room only when the production resumes. And, as the experienced reader will have already guessed, Adeane is found dead in the same position in the same set at the end of Act I on re-opening night, and again only the same three actors have gone near him.

Very shortly after the second death, Basil Willing works out the identity of the murder and, more importantly, the reason behind all the murderous activities. He confronts the killer in an exciting climax, and then explains everything.

n246275Why is this book worth your time?

This is certainly a highly-regarded novel by a well-known and esteemed mystery writer; it’s absolutely worth your time if for no reason other than the collective intelligence of a lot of mystery critics suggests that it is.  It really is a good book.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way; I didn’t like this as much as I might have done — I didn’t even like it as much as I felt I should, given the admiration I have for other critics who think it’s a great mystery. There is some beautiful writing in this book, not just descriptive pieces like showing the reader what it’s like to be acting in a play, or viewing it from the audience. The beautiful writing is also concerned with what people are thinking and why they do what they do, and from that point of view it’s masterful. When McCloy talks to the reader about how shallow Wanda Morley is — selecting cheeseball revivals of lousy plays in which to appear so that critics will say, “Oh, why doesn’t anybody put Wanda Morley into a play that’s worthy of her talents?” — we get it. We get it in a way that adds value to the book because we grasp not only what underlies Wanda’s career, but that McCloy understands the theatrical milieu well enough to give us inside information about it and the motivations of the people within it. Wanda’s tired protestations — about how she’d really rather be a housewife, and yet she never actually does anything about achieving that goal — are both funny and entirely understandable. McCloy (and through her, Dr. Willing) understands human nature and understands how to tell us, and show us, so that we can understand it too.

The problem with it considered strictly as a piece of detective fiction is that the murder itself is easy to figure out. My God, is it easy. Let’s face it. There are really only three suspects for whom the murders are physically possible; the murders are committed onstage in front of an attentive Broadway audience and a stage full of actors. Unless you’re prepared to put in a lot of thought considering ways in which people could be dropped in by ropes from the ceiling, or knives thrown 60 feet with unerring accuracy — all of which are stupid and generally impossible, and I’ll tell you right now, they aren’t the answer — there’s only three people on your list of suspects, and they are all three of the principal actors. If you can construct a list of circumstances and conditions that the identity of the murderer must meet, and then hold those three people up against it, it’s childishly simple to figure out whodunit. Even if the title of the book wasn’t telling you exactly which clue was the vital one …

The point of this book is not so much whodunit, though, as whydunit. And that’s a slightly more difficult issue. It is clear from the way the material is presented that any solution to the mystery must explain (1) the fly that buzzes around the knife handle; (2) the repeated liberation of the knife-grinder’s canary from its cage, and (3) the motive for wanting to kill these people in the first place. There’s also a minor physical clue that must be explained away, the circumstances surrounding someone seen in a long dark cloak standing in deep shadow.  (And there’s a tiny point about the nature of an outdoor clock at the top of a skyscraper that today’s reader will not really understand, since analog clocks are out of fashion, but it doesn’t really matter since the time sequences in the book are precise and clear.) For me, the only unclear point was the motive.

That’s because, in the decades since 1942, other authors have manipulated these same facts for the pleasure of the reader. As far as the fly buzzing around the knife handle, well, I might have an unfair advantage since there’s a particular medical condition in a member of my immediate family that is directly relevant. But anyone who has read the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon has seen the same material presented in the same way. The underlying principle was apparently known in Babylonian times. With respect to the liberation of the canary; that’s not really a physical clue but a mental one. If you understand why the canary was freed, you’ll understand the motivation for the crimes and, honestly, the symbolism is a bit tacky. It’s the kind of thing that sounds good in a book, but that I doubt would actually occur to someone. And as far as the person in the long dark cloak — I’ve seen that same idea used as the basis for the central “trick” in a mystery novel by E. X. Ferrars from about the same time period (the wartime blackout in England, as I recall), and I dimly remember but cannot name a couple of other novels that used it too. I’m not saying McCloy didn’t use it first, far from it, but at this remove I’ve definitely seen it used by others and thus it is not really surprising.

The problem is that although I was clear about the identity of the murderer from a fairly early point, due to one of those “casual remarks” clues that I find so easy to spot these days (you know, when one character drops an off-hand remark about the earlier history of another and there’s no real reason for mentioning it), there’s no proof until very close to the end of the novel and that pretty much comes from the murderer confessing the details. Although the murderer’s motivation is lying right there for any police officer who cares to go looking for it, it takes a tiny leap from the facts to the circumstances which apparently no one but Basil Willing is capable of making, even though he doesn’t seem to have done so either. Instead, Dr. Willing pretty much does what I did; creates a list of circumstances and conditions that the murderer’s identity must meet, figures out whodunit, and then starts to investigate the motivation for the crimes.

I mean, let’s face it. The murders are committed in front of hundreds of people; I can’t actually imagine that anyone would hope to get away with it in a plan that has hundreds of ways to go wrong and only one way to go right. I suggest that it’s much easier to acquire a sharp knife in dozens of ways that are easier and safer than by breaking into a shop and sharpening one. If the murderer actually wanted to kill the victims and ruin a third party’s life in the process, I can think of a lot easier ways than committing two murders in the middle of sold-out theatrical performances (a blunt instrument and a dark alley come to mind). What this book is about is a crazy person doing insane things, and mostly for the purposes of making an interesting mystery. And that kind of spoils my enjoyment. For a book that people esteem so highly for containing so much psychological insight, the central psychological issues are pretty much nonsensical.

All things considered, there is a lot to applaud in this book and a small core of disappointment. Like I said, the writing is beautiful. You can see the production of Fédora unfolding before you (in fact, you see it so many times you’ll never need to actually go to see it should anyone be silly enough to mount a production). There are little moments of description that are so evocative and clear that you can see things happening, and take in tiny details of clothing and background. It all clicks because it has a basic rightness about it; the author has seen these things, either in real life or her mind’s eye, and is showing them to you as they are. Nothing is slurred or fuzzed over; if it’s in the book, it’s clear. Essentially everything about this novel is beautifully arranged; if it were a film, I’d be praising things like set design, costuming, and production values. You will believe most of the people are doing things for real reasons — the only exception being the murderer.

It’s a truism of literary analysis that you have to work with the book you actually read, not the one you want to have read. Helen McCloy is a great writer and, let’s face it, Anthony Boucher thought this novel was worth including in a “Great Novels of Detection” series. Who am I to argue with Anthony Boucher? Well, all I can say is that if this book had left out the silly path from the murderous idea to the actual murderer, and allowed the murderer to act like a rational human, I think I would have liked it better. It probably wouldn’t have been a detective novel. It would have been an interesting crime novel at a time when such a thing was not yet possible (the psychological crime novel was still some years away in inception), because the only flaws in this book have to do with the mystery plot in and of itself. The murderer would have confessed, possibly after the first murder but certainly after the second, because the motivation which is given for the murders would have been completely accomplished and nothing else would have been necessary. Then Basil Willing in his psychiatrist’s persona would have been an interesting commentator on why the murderer did what was done, and this would have been an extremely powerful book. It’s been sacrificed for the puzzle mystery. Now, as a reader who has spent most of his life tracking down and appreciating well-written puzzle mysteries, I can’t say with a straight face that I think this is bad. Helen McCloy wrote good puzzle mysteries and I love puzzle mysteries. I just can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the puzzle mystery had been left out and the sheer intelligence behind this book had been allowed to shine through.

In a way, there’s an analogy with something in the book. Wanda Morley picks bad plays in which to star, because they make her talents look more impressive. It makes me wonder if Helen McCloy wrote a poor puzzle mystery because it makes her beautiful writing look more impressive. It’s kind of a shame that the puzzle per se is the least interesting thing about a book that’s known as a great puzzle mystery … I suggest that you read it for yourself to see if you agree. Whatever she’s writing, Helen McCloy is worth reading.

thNotes for the Collector:

The first edition is from William Morrow, 1942. Other contemporaneous editions exist, including ones from Detective Book Club and World. First paper edition seems to be Dell mapback #212 from 1948 (it appeared in an edition of “Thrilling Mystery Novel Magazine” in 1946, it’s up to you whether that counts as a paperback or not). The Bantam Great Novels of Detection paperback edition, with entries selected by Anthony Boucher, is from 1965.

I note that, as of today, on Abe Books, there’s a copy of the mapback edition that is signed and inscribed; even though it’s only in Fair condition, $30 plus shipping seems like a fantastic price for a copy. I may grab this one myself! The second most interesting copy available is a Very Good copy of the first edition in jacket for $50 plus shipping and this may actually be the one that is of more interest to collectors. I’m very fond of mapbacks, is all. The 1965 Bantam Great Novels of Detection series was a very good series, containing writers like Hake Talbot, Ellery Queen and Christianna Brand, and you could do worse than focus on collecting a set of them.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1942 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; sixth under “G”, “Read one book set in the entertainment world.” Everyone agrees this is one of the great backstage mysteries. I’m surprised I haven’t yet managed a complete line of six books, but I’m getting closer.

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The Tall House Mystery, by A. Fielding (1933)

The Tall House Mystery, by A. Fielding (1933)

Author: Possibly the most interesting mystery connected with this novel is the identity of A. Fielding, sometimes A. E. Fielding. Many sources give the A. as standing for Archibald, but there is also a body of opinion that suggests that Lady Dorothie Mary Evelyn Moore, nee Feilding (note the spelling difference), is responsible. This material would seem to suggest that Lady Dorothie cannot be the author — her grandson agrees that it’s not possible (see the comments section of the previous post linked in the first paragraph). Eminent mystery critic and blogger Curtis Evans suggests here, not entirely seriously I think, that since Lady Dorothie and Agatha Christie lived in the same street at the same time, Dame Agatha may have published under this pseudonym. I think it’s possible we’ll never know; your guess is as good as mine. Curtis Evans sums up the available evidence well and his article is worth your time if you’re interested.

imagePublication Data: This novel is in the public domain, at least for this Canadian, and I found a digital facsimile copy at Hathi Trust Digital Library, here.  The cover page, which I have reproduced for your visual interest since so few editions are available to show you, tells me that A. L. Burt published this book by arrangement with H. C. Kinsey & Co., another American publisher. No copies are available for sale that I could find on the Internet, at least of any edition prior to 2014. Below you will find a copy of the cover for a print-on-demand edition from CreateSpace under an imprint of “Resurrected Press”.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will give away large chunks of information about the plot and characters of this 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. 

As is so often the case, the romantic involvements of a beautiful young woman drive this mystery. Miss Winnie Pratt, who today would be called a debutante, is being introduced to society under the guardianship of her mother, Mrs. Pratt. Winnie is an extraordinary beauty and has attracted the attention of many eligible bachelors. When she expresses a desire to stay “in town” in “a really old house with genuine period furnishings”, one young man finds a way to make that happen. A young solicitor, Moy, has a client who has such a furnished house for rent for a short period. The house is in Chelsea and is spoken of as having housed Angelica Kauffman and with a ceiling possibly painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which would make it approximately from the period 1760 to 1780. Apparently there are enough bedrooms on a single floor to house the party, so that the troupe of servants hired as a group from a vacationing householder will not be unduly stressed.  Moy has plans for himself and four other young men to rent Tall House each for a week and host Mrs. and Miss Pratt as their guests. The five renters include Moy, the very wealthy Mr. Haliburton, the silent and vaguely creepy Mr. Tark, mathematician and scientific writer Charles Ingram (whose half-brother Freddie is involved, but not as a renter), and Charles’s university roommate Gilmour, a civil servant. Charles and Haliburton are the principal suitors for Miss Pratt’s affections and the others are involved out of what might be politeness, or a sense of fun. Ingram is a well-known writer and expert on, among other things, codes and cyphers; Haliburton is enormously wealthy, and either will be a good match for the lovely Winnie.

When the party begins, Mrs. Pratt soon reveals that her preference is for her daughter to marry Haliburton and his money, rather than Ingram and his brains, and she asks Gilmour to stop encouraging Ingram’s pursuit of Winnie. Gilmour tells her that he himself has fallen in with the house rental in order to have a place to bring his own intended bride, Alfreda Longstaff, under the chaperonage of Mrs. Pratt; he hasn’t known Alfreda well or for long, but he tells Mrs. Pratt of his hope to marry her. Mrs. Pratt agrees to chaperone Miss Longstaff and gives Gilmour the impression that she is determined that Winnie’s marriage shall bring Haliburton’s money to Winnie, apparently because it is badly needed. Meanwhile, Ingram is working away furiously but secretively on his latest manuscript, some sort of mathematical or code-related treatise.

largeAs we meet Alfreda Longstaff, she reveals herself to be quite a different character than the beautiful but somewhat dim Winnie. Alfreda feels she is wasting away in her rural surroundings and longs to have a career of some sort. She’s also rather more displeased with the attentions of Gilmour than this gentleman knows. Apparently he came to rural Bispham and attracted her attentions for a month, then vanished without word. When he reappears abruptly some time later and announces his intention to marry her, she appears to agree — anything to escape Bispham! — but her internal monologue tells us that she is galled at having been ignored for so long and doesn’t really love Gilmour. Instead, since she has recently met a London journalist on the golf course, she wants to somehow find a “scoop” and thereby wangle a newspaper job. She tells Gilmour that she’ll stay with him at Tall House but promises nothing except to come to town for a fortnight.

Gilmour tells his fellow members of the rental syndicate about his affection for Alfreda and that he expects to marry her; Gilmour is apparently not picking up on the firm line of Alfreda’s mouth and the subtext that is clear to the reader, and we expect a future disappointment for Gilmour. Ingram’s half-brother Frederick is revealed to be short of money and is coming around to touch Charles for a fiver (and has done so on frequent occasions); Ingram also supports his brother-in-law Appleton, a former actor, in minor ways.

The house party’s mood is not enlivened by Alfreda’s arrival; indeed, the reader learns that Winnie is actually jealous of Gilmour’s obvious affection for the athletic but relatively unlovely Alfreda, and unaccountably means to encourage Gilmour’s attentions (much to the horror of her mother, since Gilmour has only his civil service salary). Alfreda, meanwhile, is engaged in a mysterious errand that involves her masquerading as a Miss Grey at a boarding house in Hammersmith and scraping acquaintance with a large middle-aged lady named Mrs. Findlay by pretending to be interested in Mrs. Findlay’s passion for disarmament. Mrs. Findlay is dubious, thinking that perhaps Alfreda is interested in a sum of money into which Mrs. Findlay has recently come, and asks the landlady to cooperate in helping her to avoid Alfreda.

A week after the arrival of Alfreda, the house party begins to discuss ghosts one night and it is revealed that Tall House, like many such antique homes, is said to be haunted, although by whom and for what reason is not mentioned. Gilmour reveals that if he sees a ghost he is likely to shoot at it since he had an unfortunate childhood experience with someone dressing up as a ghost, and ever since has been infuriated by ghost-related pranks. Of course, as the reader by now expects, a shot rings out in the middle of the night. Gilmour is found with a gun in his hand and dead on the floor nearby, wound in a sheet, is the mathematical Mr. Ingram.

Gilmour immediately reveals that he thought his pistol was loaded with blanks, before the arrival of Inspector Pointer. Alfreda also tells Gilmour that she cannot now marry him, much to his surprise, and she immediately races to a telephone to phone in the scoop to her newspaper friend. Now, at this point, I’ll be much less specific about plot developments; I think it’s likely that you will enjoy reading this book and I don’t want to spoil its surprises for you. I will say, though, that experienced mystery readers will immediately discount Gilmour as having been set up by a clever murderer; the fact that the bullet hole in the sheet around the deceased Ingram is in a very odd orientation will add to your suspicions. Added to which, it seems as though everyone in the house is searching for some mysterious slips of paper that Ingram had produced in his work, and we haven’t been told much about why. Two are found with some mysterious columns of words on them, “VON/OF/DE” and “HELL/LIGHT/CLAIRE”. Another slip appears to be a shred of cheap wallpaper. But the search for more slips of paper continues, even after all the secret compartments sewn into Ingram’s clothing are found empty. The value of various of the slips of paper becomes apparent two-thirds of the way through the book; it’s not exactly a red herring, but it won’t take you to the solution. Only a very, VERY careful reading of what people say to each other, and whether it is attested to or confirmed by others, will do that.

The clues take the clever Inspector Pointer to various London locations and eventually to a casino on the continent, but it is a small out-of-the-way cottage that reveals another corpse and an exciting finish, where Pointer must knock out a disguised murderer before a third life is lost.

41ykquzHhtL._SX200_Why is this book worth your time?

I’ll be honest and say that my expectations of this volume were not high. Although I hadn’t read a Fielding mystery before, I’d been told that they were from the Humdrum school so well represented by its foremost practitioner, Freeman Wills Croft. I rather felt that, had Freeman’s novels been truly superior examples of the kind of thing that Crofts did so well (an investigation by a police officer doggedly tracking down the clues to a surprise ending), they would have survived and been more enthusiastically reprinted. An eminent critic and the world’s expert on Humdrum mysteries, Curtis Evans, reviewed two Fielding mysteries earlier this year and gave them only faint praise (his reviews are here and here and his speculations about Fielding’s identity are linked in the first paragraph of this post), as does another recent review found here of this specific volume.

But as I progressed through the pages, I found myself quite charmed by the writing. I like to read mysteries of this vintage as much for their explication of the social background of their period as for the puzzle, and I found myself interested in both. The puzzle aspects are frequent and enigmatic. When I mentally lined up the slips with the mysterious words, I found that the phrases “Light of” and “Claire de” popped out at me, and this is precisely the sort of deduction that I enjoy making in the course of reading an old mystery. What they meant wasn’t clear to me until much later, but I was looking for connections with the word “moon” furiously for the remainder of the novel. There are similar puzzle aspects, little clues dropped here and there that, at a distance of 75 years, it’s obvious are meant to confuse and mislead. Mysterious slips of paper, secret pockets, Alfreda’s mysterious activities with the perhaps-disguised Mrs. Findlay — these are the puzzle aspects of old mysteries that I find charming and enticing, and there are plenty of them here.

The other part is the social history background, and again there is plenty here. It is difficult for us to realize at this remove that, in 1933, crossword puzzles were such a new phenomenon that newspapers used crossword competitions to boost circulation, and offered prizes of £2,500 at a time when you could live on the proverbial £50 a year that impoverished young women were always seeking to improve in mysteries of the period. This is rather like the potential to win a million dollars by competing on Survivor, and perhaps it’s the re-valuing of the pound that makes it less obvious to today’s reader, but this is very serious business. What would you do to win a competition that yielded 20 or 25 years’ salary? Similarly, the plight of Alfreda, whose parents cannot afford to educate her for a trade and must merely hope that she marries well, is hard to understand but interesting. The quest for financial independence is a theme throughout this book — the victim’s relatives who touch him for a fiver (doesn’t sound like much, but again, look at it in terms of £50 a year), Mrs. Pratt’s desperation for Winnie to marry money, and some of the underlying motives for the murderous actions that I think it’s better that I don’t tell you. Also there’s the underlying situation — five single men who rent an old house and fill it with servants (and give a couple of balls) simply to amuse a beautiful woman whom a couple of them hope to marry? That’s not the way we do things in the 21st century, and I rather doubt it’s the way most people did things in the 1930s. But it’s quirky and intriguing and a good story hook, and I enjoyed the clever mind that thought of it.

Other commentators have remarked that Fielding is a sloppy writer who will sacrifice a lot of believability for the sake of a tricky and surprising ending. I have to say that although I have noticed sloppy writing in a couple of other Fielding novels that I’ve read recently, courtesy of Hathi Trust, this one didn’t especially annoy me at any particular point. Yes, some of the plot twists are unbelievable, but to me the plot twists were no more difficult to accept than, say, the “Ruritanian romance” plots of  E. Phillips Oppenheim or the wild adventures of Edgar Wallace, both from about the same point in time. Fielding wasn’t necessarily trying to be believable, but to amuse, and — I was amused. I was certainly surprised by the ending, and that is not an experience I have often with detective fiction … the identity of the murderer was actually a surprise to me, and I felt instinctively a rather fair one. Perhaps I’m credulous; perhaps I was reading too quickly. Perhaps my ability to suspend my disbelief has grown greater over the years. Perhaps I was fooled by my generally low expectations into thinking that because certain characters were depicted as socially unattractive that the plotting habits of the period would also reveal them to be criminals. But after decades of mystery-reading and thousands and thousands of books, I’m not often fooled, and I was fooled. And I enjoyed it! I’m not saying that this is a puzzle plot with the skill and depth of, say, Anthony Berkeley. Once I realized how I’d been fooled, I went back and looked and found it wasn’t — well, not 100% fair play. You have to be paying very close attention to see how the author works the trick, and it’s a question of a tiny shift of viewpoint that’s very subtle. But I’m someone who has failed to be fooled by everyone from Carolyn Keene to Agatha Christie, and if it takes a little unfair play for me to have the rare and enjoyable experience of being fooled, I’ll concur.

I think you might enjoy this novel if you’re an experienced reader of detective fiction; paradoxically, I think you won’t manage to enjoy it as much if you are a newbie, although you’ll definitely be fooled by the ending. It’s not a great mystery, but it has charm and some skill, it’s an interesting period piece and I liked it.

Notes for the Collector:

As I noted above, I cannot locate a copy of this novel available for sale other than a print-on-demand edition from 2014. And, of course, it is available for your reading pleasure on the internet from Hathi Trust. I did a brief search for other Fielding novels from the 1920s and 1930s and found that, as usual, condition and the presence of a jacket will lift these novels from the $15 range to perhaps the $70-$90 range. I must say that the jacketed copies I’ve seen of various Fielding novels seem to me to be aesthetically very pleasant and much above the general range of contemporaneous jackets; really very pretty work with good design and colours that may have faded over time but are still attractive. If you want a reading copy, well, it’s free. If you want a collectible copy, good luck finding one.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1933 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; third under “N”, “Read one book with a size in the title.” I am not myself a “Tall” but I’ll claim it as a clothing size almost out of desperation. I have to confess I have been stymied by this category and up until recently was entirely unable to think of a qualifying novel; I am indebted to Linda Bertland, writing at Philly Reader, for having reviewed it before me to fall under the same category in the same challenge. Ordinarily I try to select books for review where I can show you a number of editions, but “Needs must when the devil drives.” My apologies for the lack of visual references.

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Murder at the Pageant, by Victor L. Whitechurch (1930)

Murder at the Pageant,  by Victor L. Whitechurch (1930)


2359830847Author:
 Victor L. (Lorenzo) Whitechurch was a mystery writer and a clergyman with the Church of England who, at the time of writing this novel, was about to retire at the age of 62 as “Rural Dean of Aylesbury”. Many authorities cite him as Canon Whitechurch, especially in the context of his religious writing, which doesn’t seem to have made up a large part of his writing output. He is principally known for a volume of stories called Thrilling Stories of the Railway (1912) and his series detective, eccentric vegetarian exercise fanatic Thorpe Hazell. Whitechurch is certainly acknowledged to be a minor but worthy writer of Golden Age Detective stories by authorities such as Ellery Queen (Thrilling Stories of the Railway is a Queen Cornerstone volume)

Publication Data: The first edition of this novel is from Collins Crime Club (UK), 1930, and an early US edition is from 1931. There were a couple of early reprint editions; then the book went out of print, as near as I can tell, until the mid-80s, when Dover did a reprint (my understanding is that Dover would only reprint mysteries if they were in the public domain or very, very inexpensive) and Greenhill Books also did a small-format hardcover, pictured nearby. As far as I know, there has never been a mass market paperback edition.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will discuss the solution to this murder mystery in general terms 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. 

Sir Harry Lynwood is the Lord of Frimley Manor and has agreed to a kind of aristocratic party game. He and his many houseguests don expensive costumes and re-enact a visit from Queen Anne to Frimley Manor in 1705. Mrs. Cresswell plays the Queen and her well-known necklace of enormous pearls plays a great role in the re-enactment, which also involves “the Queen” being carried in an antique sedan chair from the front gage of the estate to the steps of the Manor. The house party (and a sprinkling of upper-class locals) enjoys itself immensely, dines and retires. But in the middle of the night, two people are seen to be carrying off a dying man in the sedan chair. They flee when discovered; the man in the sedan chair gasps out the words “The … line …” and dies in the arms of Captain Roger Bristow, who used to be with the Secret Service and apparently specializes in solving mysteries. (To the best of my limited knowledge, this is his only appearance.) Captain Bristow soon combines his talents with the considerable investigative abilities of Superintendent Kinch to take on the twin crimes of the unidentified dead man and the theft of Mrs. Cresswell’s necklace.

9910380328The investigative team proceeds in a fairly straight-line way to dig into the crime, pick up tiny clues like a scrap of gold lace and the contents of the side pockets of a stolen and abandoned car, interview and re-interview witnesses, and bring the crime home to the criminals. There are not really any false trails or red herrings, although there are certainly a couple of people who begin the story as suspects and end it exonerated. The investigators continue to narrow the circumstances of the crime such that only one person who was legitimately in the house that night can have been responsible for a good part of the criminal activity. That person is accused and becomes determined to confess everything in order to get revenge on the other guilty party, and that person’s identity and complicity in the crimes. The dying man’s final utterance turns out to have been significant to solving the crime but not determinative of its answer — in other words, if the dead man’s speech had been completely understood, half the crime might have been solved but not all of it. The final lines of the book reveal that an assumption under which the investigators have been labouring is, amusingly, not quite what they thought it to be — but the crimes are solved and everyone is happy.

2300655Why is this book worth your time?

I’ll suggest that this early example of the Golden Age mystery is certainly worth your time, mostly because it has a considerable amount of what I can only call “charm”. It is gentle and subtle; all the violence is off-stage, and the investigators are courteous and polite to the suspects. It is, in fact, in an old-fashioned way, “gentlemanly”. This is a book written by an old-fashioned gentleman for an audience of old-fashioned gentlefolk, with nothing untoward, nothing really unpleasant, and the social order is restored in the end.

I have to admit that, as I was reading it, I kept thinking, okay, surely something is going to happen. But — no. The modern reader will be surprised to find that there are no false trails. There are not two criminals working at cross-purposes to commit different crimes; there is no innocent party who has his or her own agenda and who is muddling the trail. No red herrings, no false clues, no embarrassing little secret that an innocent party is working to conceal. Nothing of what I call the “B-plot”. In fact the gentry kind of hang around and wait to be questioned, more or less; they don’t do much when they’re not in the library being asked polite questions by a polite investigator. All we see is chapter after chapter of the investigators looking into a particular clue and making arrangements to investigate it in more depth.

The modern reader will also be surprised to find that there is very little in the way of characterization in this novel. The author does not try to work on our feelings by unjustly accusing an obviously innocent person. Well — okay, just a little. The Vicar’s scapegrace nephew and a young woman staying in the house are both suspected. The young woman immediately leaves the reader’s consciousness as a potential suspect; first, because the author has not troubled to give her any kind of distinct personality, and second, because the investigators so obviously do not believe she is guilty. They must consider her guilt because it’s their job to do so, but you can tell they don’t believe that a “nice” upper-class girl such as Sonia could have done anything criminal in the slightest. And for some reason the Vicar’s nephew falls into the same category; we learn that although he has been rascally in the past, he has turned over a new leaf and was in the process of doing so the night he borrowed the Vicar’s car without permission. But it is just as clear that they have not really suspected him.

In fact, all the criminals come from the servant classes and their associates. This will come as something of a surprise to the devotee of the country house mystery, who is accustomed to upper-class matrons or retired colonels who commit desperate crimes because of an early unsuitable marriage or enormous “bridge debts”, but in this case, since the house party’s members merely stand around and wait for the investigation to be over, it’s clear to the reader that we must look elsewhere for the guilty party. The only person who actually has a distinct personality is Mrs. Cresswell, the owner of the stolen pearls, who is depicted as someone by whom others are amused; she is vain and takes every opportunity to show off her heirloom necklace. The investigators consider the possibility that Mrs. Cresswell has done something for the insurance money, etc., but they just can’t accept it (to be fair, there are motivations portrayed in the book for it to not be unreasonable; they are family heirlooms, etc.). The dead man actually does sound like he might have been an interesting character, a kind of shady but upper-class private investigator, but we don’t really get a chance to see him in action. Dead, you know. And devotees of the country house mystery are a bit baffled at about the one-third point of the novel because they are being given no one at whom to look — no one to suspect because she’s obvious — no one to suspect because he’s not obvious. Everyone in this book is pretty much what they seem to be.

Essentially this is a murder in the course of a theft perpetrated by professional criminals, some of whom are masquerading as servants. And this was published in 1930, which may have been the last point at which the reading public would have been prepared to accept this solution. This book was published two years after S. S. Van Dine had published “Twenty rules for writing detective stories”, and one of those rules was #17, “A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story.” Admittedly Van Dine’s rule was addressed to the interaction of amateur detectives with amateur criminals; police officers could investigate professional criminals. 1930, though, is the very tail end of the public’s willingness to accept this as part of a puzzle mystery. In the literary realm of the “don’s delight”, the upper classes don’t really want to read about crimes committed by the servants, even if they are detected and punished.

I can certainly understand the suggestion that Whitechurch’s work would be very much in the realm of Freeman Wills Crofts. It’s reasonable to look at both these writers as being precursors of the police procedural; and these gentlemen frequently had professional criminals as their antagonists, whereas other writers had moved on to retired colonels with bridge debts, as it were. But there is a difference between Whitechurch’s style and Crofts’s, and it took me a while to see it. Crofts’ novels are interesting because Inspector French starts investigating a case by investigating the people; he interviews them at length, investigates their movements and activities, their personalities and households and associates. Yes, he investigates clues, but his style of mystery-solving involves consideration of various suspects and whether the clues fit them (and whether their alibis hold up). Whitechurch, on the other hand, doesn’t really have any suspects, only characters standing around. His police officers focus on clues; where they come from, their meaning, their implications. The police do police work like tracing down cars by their license plate numbers (there’s a charming moment where a senior policeman opines that two digits and four letters may not allow enough possible license plates for the huge increase in the number of autos on the road, the unspoken bit being that now automobiles are within the financial reach of upper middle-class people). They ask people questions, but it’s a little weird; it’s as if upper-class people weren’t allowed to lie, so the police just accept everything they say and try to find another way to make the clues reveal the criminal.

My research into Whitechurch indicated that he took great trouble to make sure that his books were accurate in the realm of how the police were represented; he went so far as to submit his works to Scotland Yard to ensure that everything was accurate. I actually did think it was interesting to learn how a police officer in the 1930s would have gone about looking for license plates that had been thrown into an unspecific ditch; what resources they would call upon, how they would plan, etc. But some of it seemed to me like a display of investigative technique without much actual relevance to the case they were solving. And some of the investigative technique misses the mark completely. The actual location of the pearls, for instance, is such that it’s just ridiculous that the investigators missed it. That’s because the pearls are needed for a “big reveal” at the end of the book — and heaven knows something is required, since the criminals are desperately anxious to reveal the entire criminal plot in great detail and don’t require much prompting once they’re caught. The discovery of the pearls, in fact, disposes of the only red herring that I had noticed that was not mentioned by the writer with any emphasis. Mrs. Cresswell’s husband is said to be fiercely protective of the pearls, restricting his wife from wearing them except upon ceremonial occasions and hiring detectives to protect them. However, he seems strangely uncaring about the pearls when they are stolen, and of course I immediately suspected that he may have had a hand in stealing them. On the last page of the book Mr. Cresswell reveals that the pearls in fact were replaced by him by paste copies, long before the theft, and he doesn’t care because they’re worthless. And the detectives share a little chuckle about how credulous Mrs. Cresswell has been. And honestly, don’t you think the police would have found that out a long, long time ago? So the focus on clues is only upon clues where the investigators can display policing skills that move the plot forward a little, but not actually solve the case or anything.

Crofts was the better writer because his focus on alibis kept the focus of the novel upon people, and it created a kind of breaking point in each novel. When French managed to discover exactly how the criminal had faked his alibi, bang! the book was at its climax and the criminal was immediately arrested. Whitechurch’s focus upon clues means that, at the three-quarter point of the novel, midpoint of act III, the police realize exactly what has happened with the theft and murder, but the people concerned — the professional criminals — have to explain out loud why things happened the way they did, or else it wouldn’t make any sense to the reader or the police. In fact, in this novel, one of the principal criminals is entirely off-stage until after the climax of the novel. Admittedly this is well foreshadowed in the earlier material, but it is very strange to the modern reader, who is accustomed to the shock of surprise at learning that the kindly old retired Colonel, who has been being a nice person in the background throughout the novel, has actually been desperate for money and committing criminal acts. Here, Whitechurch introduces us to the second person who was carrying the body in the sedan chair when he is shot by his accomplice on page 243. And really, I couldn’t tell you what his name is or what he looks like. I knew he had to exist, it’s just that he’s not really in the book. I think this was an acceptable story-telling method at the time, since people hadn’t really been writing detective stories long enough to know what worked and what didn’t. But I think it’s one of the reasons why Crofts has remained somewhat in print and Whitechurch has not.

In fact, on page 175 of my copy, one of the principals sits down and makes a list of people’s names so that he can hold them up against the facts one by one, if his instinct is true and the lovely Sonia is completely innocent, as everyone seems to assume. In a Freeman Wills Crofts novel, this might have been a hundred pages earlier; Inspector French needed a list of people so they could start investigating alibis. Crofts’ stories are quite complex; this is an easy straight line from start to finish; the police tell you everything they’re thinking as they go along, and they’re not all that brilliant.

So if you want to experience a kind of simple, entry-level detective story, with nothing too taxing and nothing hidden from you, this may well be a book you’ll want to pick up. I got a good deal of enjoyment from it, some of which was for reasons that had nothing to do with the plot. For one thing, my copy (from Greenhill Books, see below) was apparently reprinted by copying the actual pages of the first edition, and so I took a great deal of pleasure in the antique typography that you can easily tell was done with hot metal type on a Linotype. I’m funny that way; modern kerning pairs are fine, but there’s something naive and charming about hand-set type. It was a constant delight to my eye. Similarly the intricacies of merging a semi-colon into a double em dash … well, perhaps you won’t enjoy that as much as I did. But the antique standards of punctuation are there for you to enjoy if you can.

The other reason I enjoyed this is that it is the kind of book that modern-day readers think is the antecedent of the cozy. As I’ve said above, I think it’s more like the antecedent of the police procedural, but there’s just something about this book that is charming — it’s so gosh-darned nice. It’s nice that everyone respects police officers; it’s nice that people tell them the truth and try to help them. It’s nice that the investigators are old-fashioned upper-class gentlemen, investigating crimes among a group of people whose idea of a good time is renting an expensive costume and partying like it’s 1705. No one does anything immoral, no one is unkind or rude, and the most troubled person in sight is one whose vanity has made her a mild figure of fun. I truly think the modern cozy is quite a bit different from this; the modern cozy is more likely to rip the lid off a cesspool of suburban sin and crime. This is more like a police procedural against a background where everyone loves and trusts the police. Certainly a bygone era, but one that it’s pleasant to visit.

P.S.: I have to acknowledge that I received this handsome volume as a prize in a contest from my friend John, proprietor of an excellent blog at Pretty Sinister Books. I answered a bunch of difficult questions about children in the Sherlockian canon and this book was the result.  Thanks, John!

whitechurchpageantNotes for the Collector:

As near as I can discern from booksellers on the Internet, the first edition is green cloth and the “cheap edition”, later the same year, is in black (and a further edition in 1933 is blue). The first US edition is Duffield, 1931; an American Dover trade paper edition exists from 1987, and the edition shown at the head of this post is the attractive edition from Greenhill Books, 1985 (its “Vintage Crime Classics” line) that I read for the purposes of this post. It is a smaller-format hardcover; one dealer remarks plaintively that there is “heavy rippling to the laminate coating on the dust jacket” but I actually believe this is deliberate and decorative (or at least unavoidable); I found it gave the book an interesting texture.

It’s hard to say what a first in jacket would cost, since I couldn’t find one for sale. A first edition without jacket is about US$50. A first US from 1931, VG in a worn DJ, is about US$300 and this might indicate that a VG first in VG jacket would be perhaps $500. A nice copy of the first US without jacket is about $25.

If you merely want a reading copy, I’d pick up a secondhand copy of the Dover trade edition; it might not be pretty but it was made to last and it will hold its value. The Greenhill Books edition is more attractive but also more expensive; probably meant for libraries or collectors.

I am indebted to the folks at ClassicCrimeFiction.com for the ability to show you what the first edition jacket looks like, the deep green with the strong yellow accents; I acknowledge that the illustration of the jacket is theirs, and it’s the only one on the internet so I am showing it to you for scholarly purposes. Classic Crime Fiction are among the world’s most accomplished dealers in vintage detective fiction, especially British editions, and if anyone is ever going to have a crisp first edition of this volume available, it’s probably going to be them. I recommend you bookmark their site and check in every once in a while.

111204617822014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1930 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fourth under “O”, “Read a book by an author you’d never read before.” Ordinarily this would be difficult; I’ve tried at least one of every author you’ve ever heard of, as best I could, over a long career concerned with mysteries. However, I’ve had a close look at Canon Whitechurch’s output and to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never read any of his books before; if I have, I certainly don’t remember it. I remember having a facsimile edition of Thrilling Stories of the Railway pass through my hands but I don’t think I found it sufficiently interesting to plough through. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

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Duplicate Death, by Georgette Heyer (1951)

Duplicate Death,  by Georgette Heyer (1951)

UnknownAuthor: Georgette Heyer was a prolific author of romances (44) and detective novels (12). Wikipedia tells us that she “essentially established the historical romance genre and its sub-genre Regency romance”. I understand that it’s difficult to know much about her life, and the reason is clear; she’s quoted as saying, among other things, “as for being photographed at Work or on my Old World Garden, that is the type of publicity which I find nauseating and quite unnecessary. My private life concerns no one but myself and my family.” Since she lived before the days of TMZ, she appears to have managed her personal information quite effectively. I urge you to try the Wikipedia article, found here; they have collected more information than I had ever heard, and the material about her tax problems and her plagiarists, apparently including Barbara Cartland, is fascinating stuff.  This is probably as good as it gets for personal information.

In her dozen mysteries, four feature Scotland Yard Superintendent Hannasyde, four feature his one-time subordinate Inspector Hemingway, and four are non-series.

41h2V+596TLPublication Data: The first edition of this novel is from Heinemann (UK), 1951; a number of paperback editions exist, mostly from England, and an electronic version is available today on Amazon. I have a couple of paperback copies of this book, and an e-book, but I relied primarily upon an audio book version that I got from the library (I use them as company when I go walking for exercise).

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. 

thThe book starts by taking a leisurely chapter to introduce Mr. James Kane and family; Mr. Kane is not particularly a character in this book, believe it or not. This is actually a re-introduction since I gather that Mr. Kane first appeared as a teenager in They Found Him Dead (1937) (I’ve been unable to check this with an actual copy of the book), as did his younger brother Timothy. Timothy will be considerably more prominent in this book. In fact, Timothy is now 27, a Cambridge graduate and a fledgling lawyer, and is in love with a young woman who has an extremely mysterious background, named Beulah Birtley. Miss Birtley, at the beginning of Chapter 2, refuses Timothy’s hand in marriage, apparently because she doesn’t wish to discuss her background or “her people”. Beulah is employed as a secretary by Mrs. Lilias Haddington, a wealthy bonne vivante who is much in society and is bringing out her 19-year-old daughter Cynthia, a spectacular beauty. Since Timothy has both money and aristocracy in his family (I can’t figure it all out, but his mother’s name is Lady Harte) the predatory Mrs. Haddington had considered him as a potential suitor for the vacuous Cynthia; indeed, Timothy met Beulah while pursuing the acquaintance of Cynthia, and soon changed his mind. The full extent of their involvement is not known to Mrs. Haddington, but it’s hard to imagine how she could be any more bitchy about it than she already is. Beulah, in fact, is the subject of constant verbal abuse from Mrs. Haddington, and it is obvious to everyone, including Timothy, that Beulah would have resigned a long time ago if she were able. Something funny is going on.

We spend the next while observing the vaguely squalid details of the Haddington home, which has been established with much more money than taste. There is a full staff, including a supercilious butler, Thrimby, who toadies to Mrs. Haddington in return for a handsome salary. Mrs. Haddington is something of a social mystery; we get the picture of an extremely polished and completely emotionless — save for viciousness and self-interest — lady who came from nowhere. Her sister Miss Pickhill, a minor character, establishes that Lilias (or “Lily”, as the sister tells us she was born) has hauled herself out of mediocrity by her bootstraps; her husband Hubert is deceased, but his estate is said to have been very large. She does keep a man around the house, one Dan Seaton-Carew; a kind of well-dressed hair-oiled lounge lizard who appears to be the romantic interest of both mother and daughter simultaneously. Mrs. Haddington has somehow managed to attract the friendship and assistance of former society flapper Lady Nest Poulton and has thus been catapulted into the higher reaches of society; although it’s speculated that Mrs. Haddington somehow bought her way in, Lady Nest’s husband, a financier, is enormously wealthy. She seems to have sponsored a society ball for the debutante Cynthia out of the goodness of her heart.

7787166296_a5e29fee0cThe story truly begins upon the day that Mrs. Haddington is preparing to give a duplicate-bridge party at 9 PM, and the day is not going well. Beulah has a series of errands including to Covent Garden to buy flowers, and to go to see Miss Spennymoor, the household’s on-call alterationist, to come and make adjustments to Cynthia’s frock for the evening’s party. Mrs. Haddington learns that one of her card players has to cancel, and she determines, much against her better judgment, to invite Mr. Sydney Butterwick to take his place.  Mr. Butterwick is a high-strung and eccentric “homosexual” who appears to have a crush on Dan Seaton-Carew and the last time he was in the Haddington home, caused a scene. Next Beulah and Thrimby get into a fight about her having left the tools of her flower arrangements misplaced, including a coil of wire that ends up in a bathroom. And then Beulah is seated with Miss Spennymoor the alterationist; Miss Spennymore has plenty of old gossip including some about one of Cynthia’s suitors, Lord Guisborough. The day lurches from disaster to disaster, but finally settles down and the card-party begins.

Duplicate bridge involves a number of tables of four players at a time who all play the same hands, and compare the scores. As you can imagine, the four players at the table are focused quite strongly upon the bidding and play of the cards. So although there were 51 people in the house, including servants, most of them were in constant view of other people who would be very certain of precisely who was at their table. Dan Seaton-Carew is called to the telephone midway through the game; when he is discovered to have been strangled with a piece of picture wire, there are only a few people who could reasonably have committed the crime.

2302468569Chief Inspector Hemingway arrives with his subordinate, Inspector Grant, a Scot who sprays words of Gaelic throughout his conversation. Hemingway re-establishes that he knew Timothy years ago and soon begins a penetrating investigation. The circle of suspects soon reduces to a few, Mr. Butterwick chief among them. (Mrs. Haddington, Beulah, Lord Guisborough and Thrimby are most of the remainder.) Mrs. Haddington reveals that the victim had recommended Miss Birtley’s services to her; the police soon realize that Miss Birtley has recently done nine months for embezzlement and forgery, and that Mrs. Haddington and Seaton-Carew had been holding this fact over her head for unspecified reasons of their own.

The investigation continues; Hemingway interviews everyone and they continue to interact among themselves. We learn that Seaton-Carew is implicated in the “white drugs” trade (at which point the reader begins to realize why Cynthia Haddington has been so annoyingly insistent upon getting back her favourite petit-point compact, which has been missing for days). The next day, Lady Nest Poulton goes into a nursing home for reasons that her powerful husband will not mention, but are obviously to do with cocaine withdrawal. We meet Lance Guisborough at home with his Communist sister Beatrix (“Trix”), who asks to be called “Comrade” and wants her brother to give up his title, which he cherishes. Beulah continues to skirmish with Mrs. Haddington. When she forgets her employer’s cheque and has to return to the house one evening, Thrimby insists upon telling Mrs. Haddington, but discovers that Mrs. Haddington has been murdered in the same way in the same place in the same room.

075510885xAt this point, the investigation goes into high gear. Lilias’s censorious sister Miss Pickhill is called in to be Cynthia’s guardian; Cynthia, however, may have more problems with drug withdrawal after her supply is cut off. Hemingway and his staff re-interview a number of people and learn two interesting things, that are mostly buried in a morass of tiny details; Mrs. Haddington said an odd thing to her lawyer at her last visit, and Miss Spennymoor’s chatty ramblings have actually contained a tiny kernel of useful truth. Armed with the might of having put two and two together, Hemingway calls all the suspects together at the scene of the crime and reveals a quite unexpected solution. We finish with Mr. Kane, the vanished subject of chapter 1, observing that Timothy and Beulah are about to get married.

Why is this book worth your time?

To be honest, I’m not absolutely sure that this book is worth your time. My general feeling is that any book by an important author is worth your time; Georgette Heyer is certainly an important author to the historical romance genre, but not especially so to connoisseurs of detective fiction.  I have to say that this seems to me to be a second-rate mystery by a second-rate mystery writer.

I can definitely defend “second-rate mystery”. If you’ve read the extensive plot summary, above, you’ll see that there are a couple of major plot threads that can be summed up by the knowledge that Dan Seaton-Carew was somehow in league with Lilias Haddington to circulate drugs among the wealthy members of high society. There is a problem that seems common among detective stories of this vintage; the writers seem not to understand the economics of drug-taking in any reasonable way.  In chapter 11, for instance, Hemingway remarks, “The stuff’s worth a blooming sight more than its weight in gold …” He is referring to cocaine, and from references to the way that valuable amounts of it are concealed within cigarettes, tiny packets of “boric acid” for eyewash, and Cynthia’s powder-compact, it would seem to be worth — perhaps $500 per gram in present-day terms. (My understanding is that that is ten or so times the current street price, some 60 years later.) It’s hard to tell, but there’s definitely the idea that it’s only very wealthy people who can afford any of the stuff to begin with. The thing is, though, that the users who are depicted are somehow using about 1/100th the effective dose to produce the same effect. Cynthia’s powder-compact might hold two or three grams of cocaine; it’s lasted her what might be six months of constant use. My understanding of the present day is that an experienced user can go through a gram in a weekend or less. Something is just not adding up. The stuff costs ten times as much as it should, and it lasts ten times as long as it should, and it seems to be about ten times as addictive. (Cynthia is not quite addicted after using perhaps two grams, it seems.) I have to admit that the economics of drug-taking in the 1950s were certainly based upon a much, much smaller supply chain than is presently in operation, and no doubt prices were considerably higher; but really the whole thing to me is sounding like those police departments in the 1970s who used to announce that they had seized half a pound of marijuana with a street value of nearly a million dollars.

Added to which, it does seem quite stupid of a criminal who is apparently making as much money out of his situation as Dan Seaton-Carew to risk breaking it off with his partner in crime by dint of not only romancing his partner’s daughter but addicting her to cocaine in the process. It is perfectly obvious to everyone that Cynthia uses drugs — the author makes this quite clear to even the most unacute reader — and thus this would be a bone of contention between Lilias and Dan. Why would a drug dealer go out of his way to addict an overwrought and spoiled young girl who would immeasurably increase his chances of being caught? I don’t believe it. I really don’t believe most of this book; I don’t believe that Georgette Heyer knew anything much about the economics of drug-taking or its circumstances, and never bothered to think through the protective actions that a professional criminal would take to conceal his activities. In fact, she means the entire drug plot to be fairly obvious.

I’m also finding it very difficult to believe the plot with respect to Beulah Birtley. She is presented as being an unjustly convicted criminal whose innocence was not believed; and then, it seems, Dan Seaton-Carew had some sort of idea that he would enlist her to assist in his drug-dealing schemes. It’s not clear, but it seems as though he felt she was too instinctively honest and so passed her over to Lilias Haddington to use as a slavey. The part that is especially difficult to believe is that a 27-year-old small-time aristocratic lawyer like Timothy would fall in love with a convicted criminal. There is vague talk about having the case reopened to demonstrate her innocence, but really, it seems as though nobody cares. Lady Harte is said to be ready to welcome the girl into the family and Timothy has no shred of thought that marrying a convicted criminal could be a bad idea for his legal career.

This, to the modern eye, is not all that much. I’m sure most of us know someone who’s been convicted of something; it’s no longer the impediment to one’s social and professional life that it once was. So Beulah is a criminal, and apparently that doesn’t matter to society, which is accepting.

The problem with this is that it goes directly against another major development in the plot, and I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t discuss this without being very clear about the identity of the murderers — yes, the two crimes were committed by different people. Lilias strangled Dan Seaton-Carew precisely because he was addicting her beloved daughter to cocaine and taking the chance of ruining their drug-selling career. Lilias’s one concern in life is to make a good marriage for her daughter, and she wants her to have a titled husband. But Lilias, on the afternoon of her death, has consulted a lawyer and asks an odd question about the details of the Legitimacy Act. In fact, Lord Guisborough’s parents were not married at the time of his birth, as Miss Spennymoor has rattled on about with no one listening, and his birth certificate is stamped “legitimated”. It’s hinted at that this would ruin his social career, and that he should take good care to keep the information from Lilias Haddington. The trouble is that according to the Legitimacy Act, he cannot inherit the title and, when he learns that Lilias Haddington has worked this out and intends to prevent the marriage to a title-less gentleman, he murders her and tries to make it look as much as possible like the first killing.

But you see the problem. Beulah’s criminal acts are easily redeemed by society — the mere circumstances of Guisborough’s birth are ruinous to his future. It’s as though Heyer is trying to make two contradictory points about similar sets of circumstances. Either society is forgiving or it’s cruel, but trying to indicate that it’s both at the same time is not very sensible.

For the rest of it, the solutions are so completely out of the blue that — well, it’s fair, it’s just not structured properly. The attentive reader wise in the ways of detective fiction will have been paying attention to Miss Spennymoor’s rambling chatter, but unless you have specific knowledge of the contents of the Legitimacy Act (U.K.) as at 1951, you’re pretty much out of luck. I have to say this is very, very much like Cyril Hare’s An English Murder of the same year, but where His Honour worked the details of the relevant legislation into the story gently and intelligently, Heyer just plops the answer into place, like it or lump it. Admittedly it is reasonable that Lilias should have killed Dan. One problem on that score is that there are very few other people who can seriously be considered, at least the way Heyer shapes the novel. The only real suspects are Beulah and Mr. Butterwick. But Mr. Butterwick is so completely over the top effeminate that it seems impossible that he would strangle a man whom he is said to love, and Heyer has spent so much time building Beulah into a sympathetic character that it would be ridiculous to undo all that and make her the surprise murderer. Lilias is the only character who has the nerve and the desire to kill her partner in crime, so it really sticks out a mile from the outset. It’s then clear that someone has killed her for a different reason, one that shouldn’t have anything to do with drugs. Heyer just pulls in the Legitimacy Act out of the blue. If I had been more familiar with the relevant legislation, it would have been obvious. After all, how many peers of the realm do you know who are strongly determined to keep their inherited title, even in the face of sharing a house with a Communist sister who constantly berates you for the inequality? We even see the distaff branch of the family, who have plenty of money but no title. It stands out a mile because it’s such a huge stretch of the social structure. When you have a character whose only claim to a beautiful girl is the title he has to offer — it’s very likely that the potential loss of that title would lead to murder. No one else seems to have any secrets worth keeping; Beulah has told all, all the drug addicts are packed off to rest cures, and Mr. Butterwick seems unconcerned that the Superintendent has problems dealing with homosexuals.

I have to say that I was surprised to see a character in a 1951 detective novel referred to so casually as a homosexual. The police express distaste for him, but it seems to be concerned with his potential for hysterics and dramatic scenes than any possible illegality inherent in his non-existent sex life. He is a figure of fun, start to finish, and it’s quite distasteful to see a caricature this grotesque offered as being even remotely believable. I understand that this was the social tone at the time, but so was Stepin Fetchit considered funny in his milieu, and today we find him extremely distasteful. I’m actually happy to say that this is one of the few distasteful appearances of the comedic homosexual in detective fiction; by and large, Golden Age detective fiction seems to have avoided this cliche. Whether that’s merely for fear of not amusing the audience, or sheer ignorance, I can’t say, but I’m happy that my favourite authors have by and large avoided this offensive solecism. This instance is quite ugly, and it spoiled a lot of my enjoyment immediately.

Another reason why this is a difficult book to enjoy is the writing style. As I understand is common in Heyer’s writing, almost the entire novel is told in the form of conversation, with most major events described in flashback in later speech. This is good, in the sense that you have plenty of opportunities for people’s speech to reveal their character. After a while, though, it becomes quite maddening that one never really gets to see anything happen. The discovery of the body, for instance, in both cases, is re-told by a character some hours later, and I’m not sure why. Is it that Heyer felt she couldn’t write action scenes? Is it that Heyer felt she was wonderful at writing dialogue? (Well, she sort of is. She has a good ear for the way people actually speak, and then she takes it one step further.)

In fact, as my regular readers will know, I have a feature in my blog called “100 mysteries you should die before you read”, and I seriously considered this novel for inclusion in that august category. What stopped me is that there are two features about this book that, taken together, seemed to me sufficiently redeeming as to lift the book from the truly awful to the merely very poor. One is, as I noted, that Heyer has a good way with dialogue. The other is that this book has some truly good work with respect to, of all things, the descriptions of furnishings. Just like she uses dialogue to show character, she also uses portraits of living spaces to show character, and it’s very effective.

Here is a very long passage, for which my apologies, but I thought it built so effectively that you should have it all. This is our first view of the expensive but not excellent house against which Mrs. Haddington displays the beauty of her daughter.

“The house in Charles Street which was rented by Mrs Haddington differed externally hardly at all from its neighbours, but was distinguished internally, according to young Mr Harte, by an absence of individual taste which made it instantly remarkable. Nothing in the furnishing of its lofty rooms suggested occupation. From the careful arrangement of expensive flowers in the various bowls to the selection of illustrated periodicals, neatly laid out on a low table before the drawing-room fire, the house reminded the visitor of nothing so much as an advertisement of some high-class furnishing emporium. Sofas and chairs of the most luxurious order were upholstered in the same material which masked the tall windows, and were provided with cushions which, embellished with large tassels, were exactly placed, and incessantly plumped up, either by her butler, or by Mrs Haddington herself.
The entrance hall and the staircase were carpeted with eau-de-nil pile. A Regency sidetable stood under a mirror framed in gilt, and was flanked by two Sheraton chairs whose seats were upholstered in the exact shade of green to match the carpet. A door on the right of this broad passage opened into the dining-room – mahogany and wine-red brocade – and beyond the discreet door which gave access to the basement-stairs was one leading into an apartment built out at the back of the house and furnished as a library. Two tall windows, fitted with interior shutters, and draped with curtains of studious brown velvet, looked out at right angles to the dining-room on to a yard transformed into a paved garden with a sundial and several flower-beds, which displayed, at the appropriate seasons, either daffodils, or geraniums. Standard authors in handsome bindings lined the walls; a massive knee-hole desk, bearing a blotter covered in tooled leather, a mahogany knife-box converted to accommodate writing-paper and envelopes, and a silver ink-stand, stood between the two windows; and all the chairs were covered with oxhide leather. Above this apartment, and having access on to the half-landing between the ground and first-floors, was a similar room, dedicated to the mistress of the establishment, and known to everyone except Miss Birtley (who persisted in calling it Mrs Haddington’s sitting-room) as the Boudoir. It was of the same proportions as the room beneath, but decorated in quite another style. Diaphanous folds of nylon veiled the two windows by day, and opulently gathered ones of lilac brocade, drawn across the shallow embrasures, shut out the night. A low table of burr walnut, bearing an alabaster cigarette-box and an ashtray en suite, stood beside a day-bed furnished with cushions of lilac and rose silk. There were two arm-chairs, upholstered in lilac satin; several others, described by their creators as incidental, filling gaps against the panelled walls; a carpet of purple pile; and, in the corner between the door and the first of the two windows, a spindle-legged table bearing on it a telephone (cream enamel) and a reading-lamp, shaded in rose silk. Thoughtfully placed beside this table was a low, cabriole-legged chair, its lozenge back and sprung seat upholstered in the same delicate shade of lilac brocade which hung beside the windows. The floral decoration of the room was provided by an alabaster bowl on a torchére pedestal, filled in summer with roses or carnations, and, in winter, by honesty and sea-lavender.”

Now, the other reason I provided such a huge wad of description is that, deeply buried in this enormous mass of detail of colour and use and household routine, there is a tiny piece of useful information. In the final few lines, you learn where the telephone is, and the circumstances of its situation on a table; that becomes important later when both victims are strangled while seated at the telephone. And this is how a good writer buries that information.

If you really had to, you could draw a diagram of what you’ve seen, and put into position such colours as the eau-de-nil carpeting in the entryway and the studious brown curtains in the library. And that magnificent attention to insignificant detail is what separates this book from the truly awful. Yes, the plot is silly and uninspired, and turns on a trick the basis of which would be known to few. Yes, the characters range from uninspired to cardboard. But the dialogue runs from good to sparkling, and the descriptions of rooms and furniture border on the obsessive, and that’s kind of interesting. I can’t say that I would recommend that anyone actually read this book, but at least if they do, they will find some interesting information about domestic furnishings in the middle of the 20th century, as opposed to nothing worthwhile at all.

As a postscript: I originally picked out this book for review because I am a dedicated bridge player and wanted to know what Heyer had to say about bridge. There is no bridge in this book, not even a description of people actually playing a card. There is a delightful moment just before the first body is discovered when two women get into a quarrel about the play of a hand, and this will be painfully familiar to every bridge player; it is this that makes me think that Heyer may have actually seen the game played, for nothing else gives any indication. I think it would be enormously difficult and expensive to set up approximately 11 bridge tables in a private home and have a duplicate bridge movement, but not impossible; I wish we could have seen more of how it was arranged. (Miss Birtley is required to refill the cigarette boxes halfway through the evening, which to me would have meant that the rooms were unbearably smoky, but that’s an entirely 21st century perspective.) Many of the book’s cover artists in the past seem to have assumed that “duplicate” has to do with the duplicated circumstances of the two corpses, both seated in the same place. If you’re coming for a bridge mystery, though, look elsewhere.

5322336455_3136414e02_zNotes for the Collector:

The first edition is Heinemann, 1951 and is apparently difficult to get with a decent jacket, as is so often the case with books of this and earlier vintage. The best two copies of this book on abebooks as of today are each just under US$100, including shipping and handling; the jackets are VG+. If you don’t insist on a jacket and merely wish a first edition, that might set you back $10 or $15. Interestingly enough, I selected a romance title of hers from the same period and the best first on the market is — just under US$100. I can’t say this is definitive, but it makes me wonder; I’d always thought first editions of her romances were worth much more than her detective stories. There are some peculiar outliers in the pricing; some recent and undistinguished hardcover editions are selling for twice the price of a first. I expect there’s a reason for this, I just don’t know what it is. Libraries?

There are many paperback editions but none of them very distinguished, save perhaps an early Pan edition with a cover by Carl Wilton which I’ve shown you here.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1951 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “E”, “Read one book set in England.” This book is set in England and wouldn’t have worked under any other legal scheme. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

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