The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Ellery Queen, broad brand, and continuation works

The Tuesday Club QueenA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every three weeks; the first three Tuesdays of November will be devoted to Ellery Queen.

A note: henceforth when I refer to “Ellery Queen” I mean the literary character. Any reference to “EQ” will refer to the two real-life cousins who wrote together and signed their work as Ellery Queen.

 

elleryqueen

Ellery Queen as a brand

Literary characters like Sherlock Holmes and Ellery Queen are called “brands” in certain contexts because of the similarities between them and the brands of, say, Nike and Burger King. There is a set of associations that aficionados associate with each brand; Nike denotes speed and Sherlock Holmes denotes deductive logic, among many other associations that compose the “brand platform” or brand image. The brand platform — or corporate image — represents how customers feel about the brand in various ways. If I wear a T-shirt with the logo of Apple or a silhouette of Hercule Poirot on it, what am I saying about myself as a person? Whatever the qualities that people associate with Poirot, by wearing the shirt I am associating myself with his brand.

Good brands have three properties: length, depth, and breadth. Length is longevity; good brands have been around for a long time and expect to be around in the future. Superman, dating back to 1938, is a more powerful brand than X-Men, who only date back to 1963. Depth is more difficult to define, but a brand with depth is one where the brand platform has a larger number of complex associations that come to mind in connection with the brand. You might think of Ferrari as a brand with more depth than Chevrolet because there are so many associations for Ferrari with wealth, the international racing circuit, or high performance machinery.

Ellery-Queen-television-full-episodeIn terms of Ellery Queen, it’s the breadth of this brand that is most impressive to me and what I propose to discuss here. Breadth increases with the number of ways in which the brand is available to be experienced. Superman, for instance, began in the pages of a comic book. That brand has since transmigrated to television, film, books, hip-hop dance, popular music, numismatics, video games, and many other modalities. In detective fiction, I’d say there are three major brands with the most length, depth, and overall breadth: Sherlock Holmes, Jane Marple, and Hercule Poirot. But at the second rank there are a number of excellent brands, and in terms of breadth I think Ellery Queen is primus inter pares with other detective brands like Nero Wolfe, Alfred Hitchcock, and Jessica Fletcher because of the extraordinary breadth of the brand.

EQ, the cousins Dannay and Lee who created the Ellery Queen character and eponym, were early innovators in branding breadth. It’s as though, after a certain point, EQ were determined to extend Ellery Queen into every conceivable variation within every available medium. I don’t think what they did was really a brand strategy, as we today know the term; EQ were innovators who were making it up as they went along, since branding theory had not yet been invented, but they had a huge amount of natural talent and an almost uncanny instinct for what worked and what didn’t.

Mag_Myst_Leag_193310_smallIt’s far beyond the limits of a blog post to examine the entire EQ career as an exercise in branding; that would be enough material to write a textbook, although I doubt I ever will. Let me take the lazy man’s way out and present you with a series of roughly chronological bullet points, each of which illustrates an aspect of how EQ approached their literary property. The chronology can be found in detail here and begins in 1929 with the publication of their first novel, The Roman Hat Mystery.

  • After their first three Ellery Queen novels, EQ began to diversify and published their first of four mystery novels as by Barnaby Ross. Although the differentiation made for some interesting marketing ploys, such as the cousins giving amusing lectures while both masked, one as Queen, one as Ross, it soon became apparent that the Ellery Queen brand was the dominant one. It seems as though they quickly admitted the pen name and folded it into the Ellery Queen brand. EQ licensed out the Barnaby Ross name in the 1960s for a series of historical novels … I’ve never been sure quite why.
  • The cousins began a short-lived magazine of their own called Mystery League, which published short stories. It ran only four issues.
  • Over the five years following the first Ellery Queen novel, the cousins diversified by selling short stories to the “slicks”, magazines like Redbook; after five years they had enough to collect in a volume and published their first anthology, which also went into paperback. This encouraged them to keep a strong secondary focus on the short-story form as it allowed them to sell the same material in two markets.
  • Pic_Grub_StreetIn 1934 the first “package” — a compendium volume collecting multiple earlier novels — was published, The Ellery Queen Omnibus.
  • With the final First Period “nationalities” novel in 1935, The Spanish Cape Mystery, EQ began to experiment in two literary directions. One was the subject of my last blog piece, Halfway House as the transition between Periods One and Two; the other was the production of fast-and-dirty novels which seemed designed as scenarios for motion pictures. The first Ellery Queen movie, The Spanish Cape Mystery, came out in 1935 and was followed by two more films based recognizably on novels, and then seven films between 1940 and 1942 that were not based on anything canonic.
  • 57-04-18-Hugh-Marlowe-as-Ellery-Queen-TVThe radio programme The Adventures of Ellery Queen ran between 1939 and 1948; Dannay and Lee wrote the scripts until 1945 and then handed the job to Anthony Boucher.
  • In 1940, one of the radio programme’s scripts was turned into a Whitman Big Little Book; this is a palm-sized (3-5/8″ x 4-1/2″) volume with text on the verso page and a black and white illustration on the recto page. The Adventure of the Last Man Club was a typical entry in the series, which was a primitive attempt at cross-platforming properties from radio, comic strips, and series of adventure novels like Tarzan.  This specific novel will come up in my discussion again; I’ll just note here that this book was written by an unknown author based on an EQ radio script. It was later turned into a paperback original by deleting the illustrations and editing the volume. Even more interesting to me is  Ellery Queen, Master Detective, which is a 1941 novelization of the movie of the same name. The movie is “loosely based” on 1937’s The Door Between. In other words — there’s a book called The Door Between that was altered for a movie and then taken by another (unknown) author and turned into a novel called Ellery Queen, Master Detective. Similarly, The Devil to Pay became the film Ellery Queen and the Perfect Crime, which was novelized as The Perfect Crime. More novelizations of radio plays from the period exist.
  • Ellery Queen’s first appearance in comic books/graphic novels was in 1940, and he was the subject of two short-lived series in 1952 and 1962.
  • 1941 saw the introduction of EQ’s second and soon-to-be-permanent foray into magazine publishing, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which is still published today in 2015.
  • 12188071_10153295969008108_7416595006290925792_oEQ were becoming known as assemblers of short-story packages and they contributed extremely well-informed forewords to a number of other author’s collections, including John Dickson Carr, Dashiell Hammett, Stanley Ellin, Stuart Palmer, Margery Allingham, and Roy Vickers. They continued to assemble volumes of short stories by other authors and occasionally volumes of Ellery Queen stories.
  • 1941 saw the publication of the first novel as by Ellery Queen, Jr., all of which were written by other authors and edited by Lee.
  • In 1942 EQ began to write critical non-fiction about an area of their particular expertise, the detective short story. Queen’s Quorum (1951) is still considered the principal text in this area.
  • In 1961, EQ licensed the first novel as by Ellery Queen (Dead Man’s Tale by Stephen Marlowe) which was the first of 28 novels written by other authors and published as by Ellery Queen. This, with the earlier 5 novelizations brings the total to 33 “as by Ellery Queen” novels; another four novels were ghost-written with close supervision by EQ, so the total is (loosely) 37. This contrasts directly with 30 novels as by Ellery Queen that actually were written by EQ over their lifetimes. There’s an asterisk to this: The Lamp of God by EQ was published in a 64-page edition by Dell Ten-Cent in 1951. So let’s call it 30-1/2 volumes they wrote and 37 they didn’t.  There are a lot of other ifs-ands-buts that go along with this; my point is either that EQ had more novels as by Ellery Queen ghosted than the ones they wrote themselves, or damn close to.
  • Ellery Queen became the subject of a television series a number of times in the 1950s, a television movie in 1971 and 1975, and another short-lived series in 1975-76.
  • Throughout EQ’s lifetime, they licensed the character of Ellery Queen for board games, jigsaw puzzles, and computer games, etc., as often as they could.
  • Finally, although it counts as posthumous, I couldn’t resist the temptation to add in a plug for the first Ellery Queen theatrical adaptation of Calamity Town, written by my Facebook friend and expert in all things Queenian, Joseph Goodrich. The play opens at the Vertigo Theatre in Calgary, Canada, on January 23, 2016 and runs till February 21, 2016.

To sum up: novels, magazines, anthologies, compendia, films, radio, odd-format books, comic books/manga, assemblages of short-story collections, children’s books, non-fiction, licensed novels, television, board games, jigsaw puzzles, computer games and live theatre. The only other detective brands that can approach or equal this breadth are Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple.

Continuation novels

At this point let me stop for a definition of the “continuation novel”; I intend to link this to the breadth of the Ellery Queen brand to tie off my thesis.

“Continuation novel” is a polite term for a novel that, as Wikipedia puts it, “is a novel in the style of an established series, produced by a new author after the original author’s death”. When the series’s characters are still within copyright, the new author must have the permission of the deceased author’s estate (such as Sophie Hannah’s 2014 Hercule Poirot continuation, The Monogram Murders). Characters like Sherlock Holmes may be continued by anyone, and it seems as though any number of authors have had a whack at Holmes in the past decade or two.

You may be surprised to know just how many well-known mystery writers have been continued by other authors.

  • Margery Allingham was continued immediately after her death by her husband and within the last year by mystery writer Mike Ripley.
  • Agatha Christie was continued by Sophie Hannah in 2014, as noted above, and also by Charles Osborne,who novelized three plays in 1998-2000.
  • 58430Dorothy L. Sayers has been continued by mystery writer Jill Paton Walsh.
  • Rex Stout was continued by Robert Goldsborough from 1986 – 1992, and then from 2012 to the present.
  • Erle Stanley Gardner was continued by Thomas Chastain in two Perry Mason novels in 1989/1990.
  • Earl Derr Biggers’s Charlie Chan series was continued by Dennis Lynds in 1974. (Lynds apparently novelized an unproduced screenplay by other authors.)
  • Heron Carvic’s Miss Seeton series was continued by two other authors in paperback originals from 1990 to 1999.
  • Raymond Chandler was continued by Robert B. Parker in 1991; Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series has been continued by Ace Atkins.
  • Leslie Charteris’s The Saint series was continued by Burl Barer in 1997, who novelized a film script of the same year.
  • Craig Rice was continued by Ed McBain.
  • Virginia Rich was continued by Nancy Pickard.
  • And of course a reference work outlining continuation pieces goes on for an entire chapter about Sherlock Holmes. It’s interesting to note that one such novel bears the name of Ellery Queen!

Admittedly some of these would qualify as “collaborations” rather than continuations. For instance, Ed McBain was given half a book written by Craig Rice before she died and completed it and this is commonly referred to as a collaboration. The operative part of the definition of “continuation novel” is that the original author is dead. The related definition of “pastiche” is apparently based upon the idea that the original author is still alive; thus Case for Three Detectives by Leo Bruce, which presents thinly-disguised portraits of Peter Wimsey, Father Brown, and Hercule Poirot by different names, counts as pastiche but not continuation. Another closely related concept is the “adaptation”, wherein one author adapts the work of another into a different medium (such as film or radio); adaptations can be close or extremely loose (Sherlock Holmes in Washington comes to mind, or the current US television series Elementary). 

If you’ll allow me to lump all these definitions together into one for a moment, to create my own usage, let’s imagine that a “continuation” work is where one writer creates a character and another writer uses that character in an original work, whether closely or loosely allied with the original author’s vision. Under this definition it seems as though nearly every single well-known mystery writer has been continued in one way or another … I can’t think of more than a few who haven’t been, although Sue Grafton comes to mind. (Grafton herself continued Miss Marple by writing a screenplay for A Caribbean Mystery.)

Under this looser definition, Ellery Queen is already a shining example of continuation. EQ published a number of novels as by Ellery Queen that were about the Ellery Queen character but written by two other writers (Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson). EQ licensed both the Ellery Queen authorial name and their other pseudonym of Barnaby Ross for the publication of a wide range of novels, ranging from hard-boiled cop novels to a charming locked-room mystery by John Holbrook Vance. Other authors wrote screenplays, teleplays, and radio plays (including Anthony Boucher) about Ellery Queen. And as I noted above, EQ allowed a couple of their books to be turned into screenplays by one writer which were then novelized by another; I honestly can’t think of another example in literature like this, where an author authorizes two different versions of the same material (one EQ’s, one not) to be simultaneously available. There are Ellery Queen computer games and “mystery jigsaw puzzles” and board games that were designed and created by other people. Now there is a stage adaptation of Calamity Town that means that the Ellery Queen brand is available in just about every communications medium known to humans. And more often than not, that material was created by people other than the EQ cousins.

This really is an extraordinary achievement by EQ, especially since in modern terms it’s taken the resources of a large corporate structure (currently Acorn in the UK) to extend the Agatha Christie brand into as many media platforms. Not only did EQ have to achieve this breadth, they had to invent its possibility; in 1929, “branding” meant something you did to the rear ends of cattle. So full marks to Messrs. Dannay and Lee for creating such a versatile character as Ellery Queen and then for creating the methods to ensure that character’s spread into as many niches as possible.

Into the future

Manfred Lee died in 1971 and Fred Dannay in 1982, and 1982 seems to be the moment when, unsurprisingly, the Ellery Queen brand began to sink into desuetude. Other than the continuing existence of EQMM, which Dannay continued to edit until the year before his death, there was almost no product in any medium bearing the name of Ellery Queen. The people at Crippen & Landru did a diligent and thorough job of tracking down the last remaining unpublished or uncollected material and putting it into modern volumes for our convenience about ten years ago, and Ellery Queen fans owe them a vote of thanks. I’d be willing to believe that pretty much everything is in print that’s going to be in print, barring a few rags and tags. There appear to be no new television adaptations or films, Internet series or virtual reality games on the horizon that leverage the Ellery Queen brand, and pretty much all the print volumes have been published in an attractive uniform E-book edition. I think it’s very likely that the brand has slipped into stasis since 1982 and is in great danger of not being able to recover. (I’m aware that occasionally a brand gets reversed upon itself upon revival, and becomes something quite different from what it used to mean — look up Space Ghost — and I can only hope that that doesn’t happen here.) The neglect of any appreciable amount of new product in 30 years has put the Ellery Queen brand into a terminal condition and it may become a dead, historic brand very much like what happened to Philo Vance.

elementary-london-season-2__140130180340In fact, there appears to be nothing that can rescue the Ellery Queen brand except continuation works. I think most people would be expecting new novels and/or short stories featuring Ellery Queen to come along sooner or later, simply because so many other detective character brands have made it happen that way. In a way I think that Acorn’s production of Sophie Hannah’s Poirot novel of 2014 might have opened the door for a number of such revivals. A couple of GAD brands are in the process of rebooting. I understand there is an American television series production coming in the near future that will transplant Jane Marple to the US as a young woman, and of course there are currently two productions featuring Sherlock Holmes in a modern-day setting. If I had to speculate, I’d say that the most likely thing to happen is that the EQ estate will license someone to write a handful of new novels.

Oh, sure, it would be tempting to suggest finding a continuation author to write actual novels. Certainly the idea appeals to me personally, since I could stand to have a regular supply of new Ellery Queen novels, one every six months for the rest of my life. And I imagine that a lot of my fellow GAD fans would love that to happen. The trouble is, the original Ellery Queen brand appealed to a wide range of regular readers, and the life-support activities implied by, say, bringing out a new Ellery Queen volume once a year for the next decade would not attract any readership beyond a cadre of middle-aged to elderly people (yes, like myself) who are aficionados of the Golden Age form and who know exactly what Ellery Queen stands for. And, frankly, we don’t focus enough buying power to make it worthwhile. It would almost be more sensible to just open up Ellery Queen to full-time house name status, like “Margaret Truman” or “Franklin W. Dixon”, and commission paperback original crime novels at the rate of three or four a year. The brand would be devalued but at least it would still bring in money.

Is that what I would do with the brand personally? Not really. One of the hallmarks of the Ellery Queen brand is a high degree of written literacy; the language, plots, and characters are sophisticated and urbane. Unfortunately today’s post-literate generation is unlikely to want to burden itself with the tedium of actually reading difficult books like that, even on an e-reader. I’d be looking for a way to leverage the brand into an extremely modern platform of some kind, probably as an on-line series, and I’d be looking to cast a very talented young actor to carry the weight of the role for a long time, along the lines of David Suchet. And I would insist that the continuation activities had three hallmarks. It doesn’t seem useful to reviving the brand to reboot it in a 21st-century way, by making Ellery Asian or female or an Asian female, or whatever. Sometimes that works, but I can’t think that would please anyone except those for whom Ellery Queen was a completely new character. So the first stricture would be, keep Ellery pretty much the way he is — single white New York male.  My second idea would be to fix Ellery Queen very firmly in the historical past. I think the 1930s would be most appropriate, but there are problems with this — I understand that Acorn have research that suggests that the period has to be “within living memory”, which is why so many 1920s/1930s brands have been updated to the 1950s and 1960s for recent television production.  If I couldn’t manage the 1930s, I’d fix him in the 1950s and do the rebranding as a period piece, just a different period. And the third stricture is that since Ellery Queen is now really associated principally with the publication of mystery short stories, that’s what I’d be building on. Sure, I’d like some novels. But I think it would be better for the brand to revive by using the short story form, if print is required.

And, of course, this is not my business, in the most literal sense. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ellery Queen and respect the EQ cousins’ great achievements with the character. I don’t want to see the brand die, but I also cannot see that it’s possible to keep the brand alive and preserve it in amber as a Golden Age relic. I have no idea why the current EQ heirs are not licensing continuation material; it’s almost too late, if it isn’t actually past the sell-by date, so perhaps they merely feel that it’s appropriate to let the brand die, out of respect for its former achievements. That’s fair and reasonable, as long as the heirs don’t need the money. If they do want to continue the brand, they have to get busy quickly.

What do you think? Is it time for Ellery Queen to sink into the dust of history, or would you like to see something happen to revive the character and the brand?

 

 

 

Ten interesting Agatha Christie novels

agatha-christieTo commemorate the 125th birthday anniversary of Agatha Christie (September 15, 2015) her estate commissioned a world-wide poll to find out what’s the World’s Favourite Christie. You can find the results here at agathachristie.com, as well as interesting background and links to other interesting stuff. However, I’ll reproduce an ordered list here for your convenience.

  1. And Then There Were None (which has sold more than one hundred million copies)
  2. Murder on the Orient Express
  3. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  4. Death on the Nile
  5. The ABC Murders
  6. A Murder is Announced
  7. 4:50 From Paddington
  8. Evil Under the Sun
  9. Five Little Pigs
  10. Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case

This announcement was followed closely by an article in the Guardian by well-known crime/thriller writer Val McDermid wherein she claimed that The Murder at the Vicarage — which you will note didn’t make the list — is “the best Christie as opposed to the most popular”. You can read it for yourself here. McDermid talks about her childhood experience with this particular book as her introduction to detective fiction, and that she had read it again and again.  This  makes me think that, like my childhood experience with John Dickson Carr‘s The Red Widow Murders that has given me a lifetime’s affection for what is essentially a mediocre thriller, her childhood experience might be colouring her opinion. But TMATV is really a very, very good mystery, unlike Red Widow.

Both pieces caused a small flurry of discussion in my Facebook group devoted to Golden Age detection. There was the usual back-and-forth about the relative positioning of novels on the list, or the presence or absence of a particular title. What it made me think about was what was being championed. McDermid was clear that she wanted to talk about “the best-written Christie” whereas the Christie estate called it “favourite”. Similarly my colleagues and friends in Facebook and the blogosphere had worthwhile things to say about a number of Christie novels and suggestions for what their own top-ten list might contain.

Agatha-Christie-pictured--002I thought it might be useful to take a more consumer-oriented look with a slightly different focus, based on my self-selected role as a “curator” of such things. Sometimes I conceive of my role as a kind of consumer advocate, to be sure; “This book is worth your time/money/effort and this one is not.” But I also think part of my role is to bring to a knowledgeable readership things which will not necessarily make the top ten list, like novels with flaws or problems, but which reveal something interesting about the author, or are an attempt to try something new — even a magnificent failure here and there.

Here, therefore, is my list of “Ten interesting Agatha Christie novels”. I will say emphatically that these are in no particular order; in fact, they’re all about equal. Perhaps if you’ve finished someone else’s choices for the top ten you might move on to these. And of course I’ll provide a reason as to why a particular volume might pique your interest. The top ten are in no danger of being ignored, but these you might have overlooked.

119865642_6books_375265cThe Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

I’ll step right up to the plate and agree with Val McDermid. This is the first Miss Marple novel and it is the one in which her character is the most “pure”; she is described as being “dangerous”. This is not the fluffy and slightly scattered little old lady of later years. This is a woman with a mind like a steel trap and an acute sense of the squalid lives and minor-league wickedness of nearly everyone in her vicinity. And it is, as I’ve remarked elsewhere recently, a novel of manners. Okay, not Jane Austen, but certainly the central focus of the book is a scandalous love affair.

christie_crooked-houseCrooked House (1949)

A non-series standalone mystery with a truly surprising plot twist at the end. Christie herself spoke of it as one of her personal favourites and it’s one of mine also. There’s not much to it, plot-wise; a wealthy patriarch supports a large family of eccentrics and when he is murdered, there’s a long list of suspects.  It has a similar solution to an earlier Ellery Queen novel that I will not closely identify, just to say that it’s clear that Christie didn’t do this first. But she cleverly uses the reader’s assumptions against him/her.

482b49a5680ac8ced684e8847696fa26Death Comes as the End (1945)

This is a historical mystery set in ancient Egypt, and it reads surprisingly well. Christie was at this point married to archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, so I’m ready to believe that the details are correct. What is surprising and pleasant about this novel is that it is very restrained about those details; it’s not so much about the details of Pharaoh’s court but more like where and how food is kept in a large household of the period. The mystery is not difficult but the book is quite engaging.

UnknownEndless Night (1967)

I’m sure many experienced readers will disagree with this being on anyone’s “best” list. It’s not on mine either. This is, however, a book with a plot twist that is overshadowed by Christie having used it before, but which is still a solid hoodwinking of the reader. It is flawed, partly by Christie having not really understood at this late point in her life what young people were taking for granted and partly by most people having first experienced it through a ghastly filmed version that ruthlessly sucked the intelligence out of the work. But I encourage its naysayers to give it another look; the concept is great, the writing is head and shoulders most books she wrote at this late stage, and it showed she was ready to try something new and different.

Unfinished_Portrait_First_Edition_CoverUnfinished Portrait (1934)

As by Mary Westmacott. Simply put, this is what an Agatha Christie novel reads like when she hasn’t put a murder into it; a story about a shy girl who is in the middle of a divorce who comes to terms with her past. You may think this has something in parallel with Christie’s own life. I think it’s interesting that she wrote this nearly simultaneously with Murder on the Orient Express. I’m not going to claim that Christie was in any sense held back by writing about series characters, but I think much of her non-series work has a more casual tone that suits her writing skills very well.

SpidersWebFinalweb1Spider’s Web (2000)

As novelized by Charles Osborne. I would actually recommend that you seek out a theatrical production of this play on video, if you can find one; it was originally written as a play specifically for Margaret Lockwood and it’s a wonderful starring vehicle for a 30-something actress. It’s also an interesting experience for a Christie aficionado because it recycles ideas and materials from a handful of other Christie short stories and novels, and it’s fun to think, “Oh, THAT’s from that short story about the movie star…”  The mystery is clever and the characterization is excellent. The Charles Osborne version seems to postpone all the tension in the book to a series of revelations at the end of the novel, boom boom boom like a fireworks display, but the play is balanced and fun. I do regret the addition of the character of the adolescent girl — generally, not an appealing aspect to an on-stage production for me — but apparently Margaret Lockwood’s real-life daughter was supposed to play the role.

12-hollowThe Hollow (1946)

This is a Poirot novel in which Christie later mentioned she wished she hadn’t included Poirot. I’m not sure if this would have made it better or worse. I do think this could have been a magnificent novel if she had taken more care in writing it. The character of Henrietta Savernake is beautifully written and wonderfully realistic; so much better-written than the rest of the novel that it’s quite jarring.  In particular the character of Lady Angkatell is … well, to me, just awful. Cardboard with a sign around her neck that says “eccentric peeress”. One great character, one terrible character, all adds up to a sadly flawed novel. But the central premise, the identity of the murderer, takes me back to an Anthony Berkeley novel I read not too long ago in which the author is playful with the idea of the “least likely suspect”. I think people have overlooked just how clever this novel is in that respect. Robert Barnard joins me in esteeming this one.

8849123536_95d37523a0The Big Four (1927)

As I noted above, I do like the occasional magnificent failure. This failure isn’t even really magnificent, but it is of interest to the student of vanished literary sub-genres. This is a novel of “international intrigue and espionage”, with which we certainly do not associate Agatha Christie as an expert. But this is a bizarre and highly melodramatic thrill-ride which I don’t believe anyone is meant to take seriously, and this particular type of novel pretty much vanished at about this time. It’s rather like E. Phillips Oppenheim or Edgar Wallace; vast international criminal conspiracies and the highest political stakes, and poor Hercule Poirot seems rather out of place. This is also cobbled together out of a set of short stories, which doesn’t happen much these days; it produces wild shifts in tone and atmosphere and these things disconcert the reader. The high points are the presence of Vera Rossakoff and the only appearance of Poirot’s twin brother Achille.

UnknownN or M? (1941)

The material in this novel of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford interests me because it’s one of Christie’s few attempts to deal directly with World War II. Poirot and Marple, we know, did not serve their country in any way other than solving mysteries while the constabulary was at war. The Beresfords did their bit as government agents, however, and this novel contains quite a bit of background colour about daily life in wartime, with rationing and black-out curtains and all. Unfortunately Christie chose to focus on the espionage aspect rather than a straightforward mystery and the result is somewhat tepid and inevitable. (If there is a wartime British novel wherein the triumph over German spies is not a 100% certainty, I’d like to see it.)

Ten Little Niggers (1939)

Let me say right off the bat, I don’t like that word any more than you do. But given the fact that it is the original title of the book that the Christie estate has just finished declaring is the favourite Christie novel (now known as And Then There Were None), and it’s sold 100,000,000 copies, I think it should be a point of honour for the true Christie student to track this down and see how this book originated. I have said elsewhere and will repeat here that I don’t think it is a good idea to censor history. It is important to say, when we are forced to use that distasteful word, that it is merely to remind ourselves that people used to use this word and we do not use it today; simply put, we have to know what we hate about this word’s meaning and history in order to combat it more effectively. If we bowdlerize it out of the literature then we run the risk of future generations thinking of this sort of linguistic bullying as something new and fresh, rather than something that has been disparaged by correct-thinking people in the intervening generations.

That being said — once its title was mercifully changed, this is a superb novel. If you have only seen adaptations on television, you’d be well advised to go back and find out how it all got started because, indeed, it was made much more cheery for stage and video productions. In the original, there is no happy ending; there is no love story. And there are more murders committed or disclosed in this one novel than in any other Christie title, or indeed a random half-dozen Christie titles added together. All the characters are unpleasant criminals and there’s a kind of morbid pall, and fear of retribution, that hangs over the novel very effectively.

And so I’ll throw this open to my audience. What Agatha Christie novels do you particularly cherish that have been left off top ten lists? What have we all overlooked in Christie’s work that we ought to have read?

Men Die At Cyprus Lodge, by John Rhode (1943)

3034156528WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book,although the identity of the murderer and other significant details are not revealed. This book is very rare and it is possible that you may never see a copy in your lifetime; you may feel that information about a book you’ll never be able to read is worth any potential spoiling of your enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

The little village of Troutwich is crowded with war workers connected with a training base on its outskirts, but no one ever seems to want to rent Cyprus Lodge until Colonel and Mrs. Guestwick, bombed-out Londoners, find it suitable. The rumours of ghosts are nonsense, of course, everyone agrees. A middle-aged pork butcher died there in the last century, but people who report hearing the jingling of the coins in his pockets or the sound of his wooden garden clogs echoing off the tiled floor are considered, at least for public consumption, to be delusional. The house’s history includes having been used as a house of ill repute, at least until the police shut it down, and then a homeopathic doctor took the place and lasted two years — until he was found dead in the dining room, poisoned by taking aconite. He wasn’t well known in the village, and it’s considered to have been an unexplained suicide.

As the Colonel and his household are about to move in, Troutwich is receiving official scrutiny because there appears to be enemy espionage going on in the village; events at what is hinted to be more than a simple training camp are being passed to the enemy on a regular basis. Series detective Jimmy Waghorn (here using the pseudonym James Walters and purporting to be from the Ministry of Coordination) comes to investigate the espionage, and stands by as the local constabulary look through the empty house and find nothing.

4740105709However, local squire Sir Philip Briningham has made a hobby of investigating haunted houses. When the Guestwicks and their servants report hearing the ghostly clogs and jingling coins, they think it’s some kind of joke. But when a mysterious voice says “Beware of the Monk’s Hood,” they seek official help. Sir Philip is asked to take a hand and is anxious to assist with the local haunted house. Monkshood, the officials know, is the source plant for aconite, so perhaps this has something to do with the homeopath’s suicide. Sir Philip determines that he’ll spend the night in the house alone. When he does so, all the spooky effects obligingly appear, but in the light of day, he and the officials realize that the production of the effects appears to be connected with a sealed-off cupboard. A small group assembles to open the cupboard and, sure enough, the investigators discover a mysterious panel which, when opened, reveals a grinning skull. As Sir Philip reaches in and pulls on the skull to remove it, a group of sharp objects fall from the top of the recess. One of them stabs Sir Philip in the wrist — and he dies almost immediately of aconite poisoning.

The modern reader will, of course, recognize the basic Scooby-Doo plot; someone is creating these supernatural effects for a purpose, and another plot twist has generated the underlying motive. With the occasional assistance of Dr. Priestley and Superintendent Hanslet, Jimmy Waghorn investigates the history of the house and many of the inhabitants of the village, including local shopkeepers and the late Sir Philip’s family. Then there’s another murder using aconite in the vicinity of the spooky old house. Although Jimmy gets it wrong, events unfold in such a way that the true engineer of the plot is revealed in a surprising conclusion. In the final chapter, the senior series detective Dr. Priestley explains why his occasional comments were misinterpreted and tells Jimmy why he should have brought the crimes home to the real criminal.

2759Why is this worth reading?

Recently I remarked that John Rhode (a pseudonym of Major Cecil Street, who also published extensively as Miles Burton) and E. C. R. Lorac were the two Golden Age detective writers most unjustly overlooked by modern-day publishers, and a comprehensive reprinting is certainly in order. Both have very large backlists — essential to the publisher who wishes to entice a paperback audience with a large plot of undiscovered new ground. Major Street published four novels in 1943 alone and more than 140 titles in total; an astonishingly large body of work.

51XIWgKNgEL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My friend Curtis Evans, whose Passing Tramp blog is essential reading for the Golden Age of Detection aficionado, devoted a huge amount of work and thought to Maj. Street’s writing in his excellent Masters of the ‘Humdrum’ Mystery; if you really want to know everything there is to know about John Rhode, both the man and his work, that volume is the place to start and probably finish. Click on the title in the previous sentence to buy a copy on Amazon. But just to hit the high spots; Julian Symons, in his volume (Bloody Murder) looking at the history of detective fiction, classified certain early writers as “Humdrums” — because their focus was the puzzle plot, rather than meeting Symons’ preference for “stylish writing and explorations of character, setting and theme”. In 1972 when first published, Symons’ opinion led critical thought. However, today the wheel has spun and many critics and literary historians like Curt Evans are today finding that John Rhode and the rest of the Humdrums did precisely what they set out to do and did it well.  We are now learning that Symons may not have delved very deeply into a school of writing that he simply didn’t like, and that there is plenty of interest in these books about the social context against which they are set, and even the occasional piece of artistic writing. If you’re interested in the Golden Age of Detection, John Rhode is certainly worth investigating.

That being said, this novel is not excellent but merely competent and intelligent. I think my readers will agree that the story hook is very strong. Ghostly hugger-mugger in a spooky house is music to the ears of the GAD aficionado, since we all know that the detectives will ultimately reveal that a nefarious character has been producing supernatural effects in order to keep people away from some sort of criminal activity. Scooby-Doo, Shaggy and the rest of the Mystery Machine gang solved that crime many times, unmasking kindly old storekeeper Mr. Hooper as the Glowing Ghost who was trying to keep the uranium mine all to himself, or whatever. The stakes here are heightened by the fact that nosy people don’t just run away screaming and phone Daphne and Velma for help, they fall down dead from aconite poisoning.  When Sir Philip exposes the fakery but dies in the process, the reader’s attention is firmly locked in place; this unexpected development kicks the interest up a notch.

That’s where everything pretty much grinds to a halt, though. Jimmy Waghorn investigates, certainly, and meets a wide range of characters connected with the late Sir Philip and the town’s tradespeople and police officers. We learn the details of how information is casually mentioned in the local pub by off-duty servicemen, and Jimmy realizes — or is told by higher authorities — that the information must be being transmitted somehow to a person who takes it to Ireland, whereupon it makes its way to Germany. (We never quite get the details of this; the author merely invokes “security” and saves himself the trouble of thinking something up.) But nothing much really happens until a second murder, and Jimmy Waghorn is still completely baffled. The astute reader, meanwhile, testing his/her wits against those of the investigators, will have realized the obvious investigatory course for the officials, which is twofold. They should follow anyone who sets foot anywhere near Cyprus Lodge and investigate them intensively, and meanwhile they should be looking into the history of everyone who’s had anything to do with the place since the death of the original pork butcher. Had they done so, this book would have been much more brief and simple.

2760Apparently the lack of investigatory power has to do with the war, of course. And this book has a constant element of the war as a background — easy to understand for a book that was published in 1943. The details range from small to large. For instance, one hard-working shopkeeper re-uses a piece of glass and constructs a frame for it out of scrap wood, to replace the smashed window of his tobacco shop, because a large pane of glass simply cannot be had in wartime England. A pub keeper mentions that although his customer base is thriving due to the nearby training base, he isn’t profiting unduly because he’s only allowed a certain amount of beer per month to serve all his customers, and so he must balance the needs of the soldiers against those of his long-time customers.  The ubiquitous blackout curtains prevent people from seeing any mysterious figures moving around in the dead of night. And everyone accepts the presence of Jimmy Waghorn because he says he’s with the Ministry of Coordination; if the Ministry were to open a small facility in Troutwich, Cyprus Lodge would be ideal, and so he can poke through the house to his heart’s content. There is a secondary plot strand, wherein the late Sir Philip’s relatives are suspects because they inherit his estate.  The heir is maintaining his manor as an open house for the officer class of the training base because his father would have wanted it that way (and, of course, this alerts the reader to the possibility that the espionage originates in the manor house as the officers play billiards and casually talk about the day’s events).

But the espionage plot has the defects of its virtues. If the war permeates the fabric of the village to such an extent, then the information leaks must be more crucial; surely they can spare a couple of police officers from patrolling for cracks of light from blackout curtains to keep an eye on people surreptitiously dodging in and out of Cyprus Lodge. And if the appropriate Ministry truly wanted to find out the trail of the information leaks, they surely would have asked Dr. Priestley to take a more active role, rather than merely bringing in Jimmy Waghorn, a complete doofus, on a part-time basis. (At one point near the finale, Jimmy actually thinks casually that if he runs into the individual who turns out to be the murderer in the course of some late-night investigations, he’s going to take that person into his confidence so that the real murderer can be identified. D’oh!) Either the espionage is important or it’s not. For the purposes of keeping the novel afloat, it seems to be only important so far as it baffles Jimmy and forms the background for Act II up to the midpoint of Act III. The way Dr. Priestley talks in the final chapter, he would have solved the murders in about 20 minutes after he arrived, by focusing official attention on the correct aspects of everyone’s history and background. I agree, and that just points out that Act II and most of Act III for this novel are padded like a Canadian winter jacket.

This is not a terrible idea, considering that John Rhode is a writer who knows how to hold an audience. The characterization is subtle but good. Particularly noteworthy is a local tobacconist  who’s a member of a religious cult concerned with the Vision of the Great Prophet. Such cults are commonplace in GAD novels (off the top of my head, I can think of novels by Ngaio Marsh, Elizabeth Daly, Ellery Queen and Anthony Boucher that feature some variation on the theme) and this one is just as loony-tunes as the rest. The tobacconist, however, is the only really distinctive character; everyone else is average and everyday, going about their daily business and contributing to the war effort as best they can. But John Rhode was good at portraying this kind of person, especially military men. They may be reserved in demeanour, but they are consistent, honourable and stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen. Oddly, there are almost no female characters in this novel. I haven’t managed to read enough of Rhode’s work to know if this is a commonplace thing or unusual, but it’s worth noting. Dr. Priestley himself is very nearly completely offstage for the entire novel, popping up a couple of times to say enigmatic things and then to be a complete pain in the ass in the final chapter, waggling his finger and saying, tsk, tsk, you should have listened to me more carefully. Apparently Rhode thinks we know him sufficiently well from other novels; I didn’t, but that’s what seems to be being conveyed here.

I think Rhode’s real skill in this novel is with dialogue, which is not something that often calls itself to my attention. There are subtle differences in the language used by various characters that let you know from what stratum of society they come; really well done here. Other writers, particularly Dorothy L. Sayers, make the speech of members of the lower classes that of illiterate bumpkins with what a dear friend of mine, the late mystery writer Greg Kramer, used to call “ha’penny-tuppenny fortnight come Michaelmas” dialogue. But here the speech patterns of everyone concerned are not all that different. Shopkeepers, indeed, seem upwardly mobile — as though they’re trying to improve themselves — and the lords of the manors are more egalitarian. Perhaps this is a wartime thing, and it makes analysis difficult, but it’s more true to life, I think.

For the pleasure of the reading public, particularly my friends who enjoy good Golden Age of Detection work, I certainly hope John Rhode comes back into print soon. I have the feeling that if it were possible for me to read 60 or 70 of his novels, it may well be that I would draw different conclusions about the excellence of this particular volume. With what little I know, and my experience with this kind of novel, I think I’d give this one a B+ and look for better work from the same author.

My favourite edition

The illustration at the top of this post is the cover of Collins White Circle Canada #274; I used my own copy of this book, in much better condition, as the basis for this review. Although I’ve always had a certain fondness for the “green ghost” Crime club edition pictured here, the CWCC edition is delightfully — well, I think the word is “lurid”. The background is a greyish shade of mustard, which makes the black/green cypress trees and touches of dusty brick red in the house stand out. The publishers wanted this to scream off the shelves, and it certainly does. My own copy is in Very Good condition, holding together physically better than is often the case with CWCC books, and if I were to sell it — which I have no plans to do, since it’s so scarce — I think I’d price it at $60 to $75.

Of the nine copies today available on ABEBooks, the cheapest is an ex-library copy of CWCC #274 at $28 plus shipping, fit only for reading or filling a hole in a run of John Rhode, and a first edition in jacket will set you back more than $600. Like so much of Rhode, this is a rare and expensive book in any condition and any edition.

Death at Dyke’s Corner, by E. C. R. Lorac (1940)

UnknownWARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book,although the identity of the murderer and other significant details are not revealed. This book is very rare and it is possible that you may never see a copy in your lifetime; you may feel that information about a book you’ll never able to read is worth any potential spoiling of your enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

11831756_10207661356081152_1492410585426506123_nWhat’s this book about?

Medical student Steven Langston and barrister Roland Straynge are driving through an exceptionally rainy night, returning to London after a Hunt Ball. When they are navigating a double hairpin turn, they are blinded by the lights of an oncoming lorry as they realize there is a motionless car immediately ahead that is standing in the worst possible place for it to be. With the help of exceptionally good driving by all concerned, the unavoidable crash is not very serious; Langston and Straynge and the lorry driver escape shaken but uninjured, but soon find a dead man at the wheel of the wrecked Daimler. Except that the late Morton Conyers was dead before the crash, and appears to have died from carbon monoxide inhalation.

The late Mr. Conyers is the principal of a very successful company called John Home & Co. — and it will save the modern reader time and effort to think of this company as equivalent to Walmart. When John Home sets up shop in a village, it sells everything and anything, and drives most local merchants out of business. Thus Conyers himself is the object of great hatred among the small businesspeople of the villages into which his company expands. The personal life of the deceased is also tumultuous; his elegant and long-suffering wife has managed to keep quiet about her husband’s many sexual infidelities among women of the lower classes, but her son Lewis has harboured a burning resentment for many years. When they learn of the death, there is a brief but  unusually frank exchange between mother and son. Lewis learns almost immediately that his late father’s valet, the ferret-like Strake, has been eavesdropping when Strake makes a crude attempt to blackmail Lewis; Lewis strikes him to the ground in fury and puts him in the hospital. The Conyers’ chauffeur is also resentful of his late employer and had recently given his notice; suspicion also falls on him since it seems as though the Daimler had been tampered with in order to generate a fatal dose of carbon monoxide.

1911_Daimler_Landaulette_crashedInspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is called in and immediately begins to investigate not only the family but the economics of the local market town of Strode. From the local squire, Colonel Merryl (and his beautiful daughter Anne) they learn of the social context in which the Conyers family operates. Local opinion of Mr. Conyers is that he was an upstart tradesman and a dirty dog who would not be admitted to the social circles of the upper classes, despite his great wealth; most people felt a little sorry for the innocent Mrs. Conyers and her son, whom Anne describes as “a nicely behaved young man with a pleasant voice and an inferiority complex”), but they were regrettably tarred with the same brush as the father.

Opinions in the village are equally strong since it has been learned that Conyers planned to open a branch of John Home in the village. Macdonald interviews the local chemist, the butcher, and other smallholders in the ancient village; since it seems likely they were about to be driven out of business, they were of course resentful and angry. Opposition seems to be led by a nasty local moneylender, Shenton, who boasts that he has managed to acquire property such that Conyers’s plans to open in the Market Square would be frustrated; Shenton wants to keep many of the local businessmen under his extortionate thumb as he always has. But was Conyers out driving the evening of his death to make a secret cash deal with someone for a key piece of property? Some local businessmen were apparently resigned to progress … many were not. And none of the villagers were prepared to put up with Conyers’s buying of the favours of foolish young local women with presents of expensive jewelry.

Lacock_01As the investigation progresses, Macdonald realizes that local opinion is that Lewis Conyers murdered his father, but Lewis appears to have an alibi of sorts. Apparently he worships Anne Merryl from afar and, the night of the accident, was mooning about hoping to have a brief word with her at the Hunt Ball (from which the first-chapter drivers were returning, and at which Lewis would not have been welcome). The villagers, however, seem to think that the police are stalling on arresting Lewis, whom they believe is obviously guilty. Emotions in the village begin to run high and Lewis Conyers is attacked by an unknown party and seriously injured.

bourton5Macdonald has now got a pretty good idea of who committed the murder, based on some perceptive observations of tiny physical clues that will probably have escaped the reader. But emotions are running high and many of the villagers now seem to think the unpleasant Shenton is the guilty party. When one village suspect attempts to commit suicide, possibly prompted by the Shenton’s apparent impersonation of a police officer, things come to a head. Shenton is taken into custody and is later released, swearing revenge upon the police; the villagers are agog and a little group of vigilantes goes to Shenton’s house to carry out some impromptu investigations in a threatening manner. But Shenton has a store of petrol that gets ignited. One of the little group of villagers dies horribly in the burning building and the fire threatens to spread to the entire village; all the villagers are running around madly rescuing their relations and their possessions. Meanwhile Macdonald is told that Shenton has escaped the fire and the police officer begins to track him through the village; there is an exceptionally tense finish as the two men are locked in a tiny room at the back of a shop as the fire races through the village. But Macdonald breaks free and arrests the murderer, whose identity will probably be a complete surprise to the reader. In the final chapter everything is explained to the local police and the Justice of the Peace — and of course the reader.

6129Why is this worth reading?

I’m starting to think that E. C. R. Lorac, aka Carol Carnac (pseudonyms for Edith Caroline Rivett, about whose personal life not much is known, and to whom I’ll refer here as ECR) is the Golden Age mystery writer who has been most unjustly neglected by the passage of time (although John Rhode/Miles Burton is a close second). Other writers have a few of their novels that have survived the years, and get the occasional reprint. For instance, one or two of Anthony Berkeley‘s tours de force like The Poisoned Chocolates Case continue to remain in print, and when a reader discovers this great book, s/he has a hint that tracking down other Berkeley titles will be worthwhile.

But ECR’s work suffers from two problems; one is that every single volume of her more than 70 titles is scarce, and thus difficult and expensive to obtain (barring a few very late works of no great excellence that you may find occasionally in a secondhand book store), and the other is that there is no single work that stands out and that has been cherished by critics as her finest work. They’re all good, but none of them seems to be great. (I like to call an author like this a first-rate second-rate writer. Not famous, but a really satisfying writer of good books.) ECR’s scarcity and relative obscurity has resulted in many aficionados of the Golden Age of Detection missing out on some very fine mysteries, and I for one would love to see that change. In the meantime, every copy available is frequently snapped up by a collector who cherishes it. And some are so rare that it is speculated that fewer than ten copies exist.

019This particular volume is satisfying and delightful, for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a damn good mystery. The solution is intelligent and surprising and you will have the uncommon experience at the end of thinking, “Oh, I should have seen THAT!” ECR does an excellent job of balancing at least two major plot trails, those of the victim’s family and those of his economic victims. It’s rare that a reader enters Act III of a typical mystery without having eliminated at least one major plot trail — here, everything is in play.  Unless you are paying an exceptional amount of attention, you will be fooled; I freely confess I was, and I enjoyed that experience.

The characterization is excellent. Other volumes of ECR I’ve read tend to focus on the upper classes and merely sketch in the “servants and villagers” who provide information to the plot but nothing really important to the novel. Here, we’re dealing with real people. The shopkeepers are quirky and realistic. ECR has done a good job here on making morally unsound characters like the valet and the moneylender three-dimensional and not merely cardboard characters who kick the occasional puppy to demonstrate their complete wickedness.

The flow of this novel is first-rate. ECR’s works occasionally suffer from their slow deliberate pace (as I noticed in my look at another ECR volume, Still Waters, where virtually nothing actually happens in the action of the novel). This volume starts with excitement, lets you get interested in the victim’s family issues, then switches to the larger viewpoint of the village resisting change and starts to build a double line of tension. And I suspect few ECR stories build to such an exciting climax as a manhunt through a burning village that finishes up in the near-death of the detective and the principal suspect and then a final surprise twist in the ending. This novel is really well constructed and built.

The writing, as usual, is excellent. ECR has a good touch with dialogue that displays character; people speak in the way that reveals who they are, but it feels more natural than cliched. And the author’s love of the countryside is apparent here. There are no long rambles through farmland and countryside, as sometimes happens in her novels to slow things down for a moment while she gives you the feel of the land; this is because, as seems to be a bit unusual for ECR, nobody in this book is motivated by their love of the land and thus there is no occasion for anyone to get all lyrical about it. But there’s enough here that we can see the little maze of twisted streets and Tudor-era shops and outbuildings that make up this so-typical ancient village — and we understand what’s going on when Macdonald is racing through its streets and alleys after his suspect.

I have to say that the part I most enjoyed here, though, was what I think of as social context. That’s one of the reasons that Golden Age mysteries are so interesting to me — the chance to find out about a way of life that was commonplace not too many years before I was born, but has its bases and mores rooted in systems of social class and interaction that are completely foreign to the modern day. It is not often done as well here as ECR provides, mostly because many Golden Age writers are standing in a position of agreeing, pretty much, with the upper classes. In this volume we find out how people feel about the potential destruction of the traditional village way of life by the encroachment of modern methods of trade and commerce. This means that the villagers will have access to stylish clothing and a wider range of food and entertainment, to the great dismay of the upper classes who think such things are vulgar and unsuitable for their inferiors. They will also be able to have jobs working in stores rather than being destined for domestic service and work on the land.

The thing that I thought was really delightful about this book’s approach to the social context was made plain by the squire’s daughter, Anne Merryl. When her father begins to whinge about how vulgar and unsuitable it is that the village will be “spoiled” by the economic development inherent in the building of a John Home store in the village, she refutes him. She speaks of her desire to do something useful and earn money by perhaps working at the store as a beauty consultant or a fashion advisor — to the horror of her parents. But she compounds that horror. When her parents remonstrate with her for buying a delicious cake from a not-too-distant John Home store, since it takes business away from local tradespeople, she faces up to them. “If our own tradespeople would sell cakes like this, I wouldn’t go to John Home’s. In Laing’s Baker in Strand you can buy three cakes. One is rich fruit. Awful. One is seed cake. Awfuller. One is Maderia. [sic] Awfullest. Then there are little sponge cakes with pink, green or white icing. I’ve eaten them since I was three.  I never want to see them again.” Her parents remind her that the local tradespeople will be squeezed out — “decent folk with a tradition all their own, all pushed out to make room for John Home”. Anne angrily reminds them of the improved social conditions for staff in the John Home stores as opposed to being bullied by the local tradespeople in the old-fashioned way, and speaks forcefully about “Manton the butcher — another horror. Look at his shop in summer. Flies all over the meat and no cold storage.” Another character remarks about “The small trader, owning his own shop, was a monopolist, and he has underpaid his employees and exploited the necessities of the country folk who had to buy their goods at his shop or go without. Independence has often been used as a cloak to inefficiency, and unwillingness to oblige, and economic unsoundness.”

Now, this is something you just don’t see in many works of Golden Age detective fiction. Bucolic “Mrs. Bumble who runs the village shop” is generally portrayed as merely the centre of gossip and the occasional bit of background information about potential suspects — but the unspoken assumption is generally that her store has everything the locals need at fair prices. (Think about why Miss Marple in At Bertram’s Hotel needs to travel to London to visit the Army and Navy Stores.) ECR has put her finger on the oncoming wave of progress that will shortly sweep away this antiquated lifestyle, but the really interesting part to me is that ECR is saying the villagers themselves knew it was coming and didn’t know how to deal with it. There’s a recent thriller by the excellent John Sandford (Shock Wave) that addresses the same issues, when a thinly disguised version of Walmart is moving into a small Minnesota town, and honestly, there’s not much difference between the two sets of reactions. But many Golden Age mysteries merely sketch in this issue by having the local squire bemoan the advent of progress, or Lady Poobah remark that it’s SO hard to get housemaids these days. ECR gives us both sides of the coin and it’s both fascinating and surprising.  It’s also rather sobering to think that when the village burns down at the end, it will merely make it more likely that John Home will clear the burned sites and build a modern store immediately.

To sum up — good writing, good plotting, great social context, interesting characterization, and a clever and difficult mystery. They don’t write ’em like that any more, and for the life of me I can’t think of why we can’t get our hands on these.

My favourite edition

The illustration at the top of this post is the cover of Collins White Circle Canada nn#30 — this is “unnumbered #30” from the first year of this company’s publications, 1942. Another way of describing this, based on internal evidence bound into the book, is “C1”. (I can’t confirm this because my copy is, paradoxically, too tight to show this identifier. But I accept this assertion because it’s shared by a number of knowledgeable individuals.) An experienced dealer in Collins White Circle Canada cites it as “Very rare” and suggests that 20 to 50 copies are estimated to still exist. My copy (not the one depicted here), in reasonable condition (VG) with a good binding, is missing a small piece of the spine at the bottom (essentially the word “Lorac”). I think it might bring $60 to $70 at auction but, believe me, it’s not leaving my hands; it’s irreplaceable. This is the only paperback edition (no, it’s not, see below); as of today, there are no copies of the first edition available on AbeBooks. Similar first editions are trading at a base level of $500 US! So this is my favourite edition mostly because it’s the only one I’ve ever seen or I’m ever likely to see.

(Later the same day as this review was published, I learned that there is a Crime Club paperback of this novel; it’s still scarce, just not AS scarce as I’d thought. My thanks to my Facebook friend and fellow GAD aficionado Louise Davis who generously provided the information and a photograph of a book from her collection — second picture from the top.)

The D.A. Takes A Chance, by Erle Stanley Gardner (1948)

D.A.TakesaChanceThe8047WARNING: If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel.  This is a work of detective fiction where the solution is intended to be surprising. Although the solution is not explicitly discussed, this review will be quite informative; you may wish to preserve your ignorance of this classic work so that you will enjoy it without advance knowledge upon first reading. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

G135What’s this book about?

Beautiful Doris Kane drives into “Madison City”, California (based on Ventura) to visit her newlywed daughter Paula and her husband Jim Melvin. When she arrives at the house, there’s nobody home and nobody’s been there for a while; there’s a letter in the mailbox from well-known shyster lawyer Alphonse Baker Carr (“old ABC”). A snoopy neighbour mentions the Melvins had a wild party where there might have been a pistol shot. And when Doris investigates the spare bedroom, the bed is drenched with blood. Doris runs for the law. But when she leads slow-moving, hard-punching Sheriff Brandon and handsome war hero District Attorney Doug Selby back into the house, the letter is gone and the house is spotless.

Selby and Brandon continue to investigate. ABC shows up, as does Jim Melvin. He tells Doris the story of some Hollywood type who got drunk and shot himself in the arm. Jim is working to sell a lucrative project to Madison City (newfangled parking meters that reset to zero when the car leaves, thus doubling the take) and tells Doris he and Paula have moved temporarily to a secluded house for reasons connected with the considerable political machinations necessary to get the project across. Jim takes Doris back to the other residence and puts her to bed, the couple mentioning that they have a female house guest who hasn’t been sleeping too well. In the middle of the night, party girl Eve Dawson makes her way into Doris’s bedroom, looking for company and conversation; she’s accustomed to music, dancing, liquor, and company, and she’s been secluded and isolated while she recovers from — a recent bullet wound. The two house guests chatter for a few minutes, then Doris falls asleep. But in the morning, Paula Melvin discovers that Eve Dawson has been stabbed to death with a big carving knife.

7109075167_e1345267d5_bThis kicks up Selby and Brandon’s investigation into high gear, but everyone’s clamming up quickly. When they go to the little town of Highdale to interview Eve Dawson’s mother, they learn — from, among others, a garrulous cab driver who is under the mistaken impression that people don’t recognize him as a blabbermouth — that beautiful Eve had left town to seek her fortune and was apparently on the verge of Hollywood stardom (at least according to Eve).  They also find the source of the carving knife, a local hardware store, which recently sold its last such knife in stock to, of all people, old ABC. The trail of evidence leads to Eve’s roommate, a hard-edged beauty named Eleanor “Babe” Harlin who never met a nickel, or a wealthy man, she didn’t like. Her diamond-hard demeanour enables her to rebuff the lawmen in classic style. Meanwhile ABC has been busy in the background, muddling the trail on behalf of all the politicians and money-men profiting from the civic affairs of both Highdale and Madison City. Every time Selby and Brandon learn something, ABC and the politicians muddy the waters and fiddle with the meaning of the clues, constantly keeping the detectives on the defensive as everyone starts moving around at top speed. Meanwhile, Selby’s ally and sometime romantic interest Sylvia Martin, a reporter for the Madison City Clarion, mobilizes her story to counteract Selby’s political antagonists who control the other city newspaper, the Blade.

As things start to come to a head, someone slips a non-fatal dose of barbiturates to Babe Harlin; then two more characters eat some chocolate creams that appear out of nowhere and find themselves drugged. Intrepid Doug Selby works out what must have happened, then makes an arrest. And in a dramatic showdown finish, Selby realizes that he has enough evidence on old ABC to convict him of criminal conspiracy and put an end to his nefarious career. But the slippery ABC wriggles out of the worst of the charges by embarking on a dramatic and very surprising path with a key witness.  The reader is left anxiously awaiting the developments in the next novel that will grow out of this wild twist at the end of the novel. If I’d read this book when it first came out, I would have immediately placed an order for the next volume and anxiously awaited it for a year!

4701450662_2209e406ab_bWhy is this worth reading?

This is the eighth novel in a series of nine about Doug Selby, published between 1937 and 1949.  From the jacket flap of the first edition: “Too much candy, too many knives, too many politicians, and a great deal too much of suave unscrupulous A. B. Carr make this one of Selby’s toughest and most brilliant cases.” I have to agree.

It’s not clear to me why Erle Stanley Gardner (ESG) gave up writing this series in 1949. As near as I can tell, it was easy money — take the same type of plot that would underpin a Perry Mason novel, turn it inside out so the lawyer is the villain and the district attorney is the hero, and … the mixture as before. ESG had a great hand with a story hook, and this novel starts with a bed full of blood that gets the reader’s attention immediately and never lets it go. The plotting is complicated but the reader can always grasp it. Also, unlike some of the later Perry Mason novels, everyone’s motivations throughout the action make complete sense, even though those motivations aren’t easy to see. The writing is smooth and clear, with just enough description to give you a picture of where you are and what you’re seeing, but it’s the characterizations that carry the plot, and at this point ESG was at the height of his powers.

9351944._UY200_And there are some great characters in this book too. Alphonse Baker Carr is just wonderful; you really get a full picture of this glad-handing, smooth-tongued lawyer who is so sneaky, he could follow you into a revolving door and come out ahead of you on the other side. He’s the equivalent of Perry Mason, but minus the moral code and responsibility — and whenever he’s on the scene, he heats up the room and intensifies the action. Another wonderful character is the minor one of the talkative cab driver. ESG doesn’t make the novice mistake of telling us what this guy is really like. Instead, everything that everyone says, including the driver himself, is written as though everyone believes what this doofus is saying about how he’s a model of closed-mouthedness is 100% true. But the reader grasps the picture, through subtle and clever writing, and sees that Doug Selby is counting on the cab driver to spill the beans everywhere he goes, which will suit Selby’s purposes just fine. Babe Harlin is another perfectly-written character; you can see her the hard shell of beauty and grasp the rough-and-tumble life that’s brought her to this point, hooked in with these sleazy politicians. Even Doris Kane, who is not much more than a minor character, in the few glimpses we see of her is a fully-formed character who leads us into the action in the first chapter by seeing Madison City with the eyes of a stranger.

8362746625_6d9bef7c6a_bI can’t say there is much to support my idea, but I’ll hesitantly suggest that the reason that ESG stopped this series was — the characters were too human. Over the nine volumes, Doug Selby has relationships with both reporter Sylvia Martin and someone who’s not in this volume, Inez Stapleton. Given that many of the characters in this series are the exact opposite of their professional counterparts in the Perry Mason series, Inez is a kind of Della Street gone wrong; the daughter of a wealthy family who is sweet on Selby before he runs for political office but, when Selby convicts her brother of a crime, the family loses its social pre-eminence. This is something like what we learn about Della Street in the earliest volume of the Perry Mason series. But where Della became a secretary, Inez went to law school and now is a frequent courtroom antagonist of the district attorney. Sylvia is a staunch ally of the DA and maintains that position here, but it’s pretty clear she’d like to be Mrs. Selby some day. I can’t tell you precisely what ABC gets up to here, for spoiler reasons, but it’s a significant development in his character’s life and lifestyle and represents a real advancement and change. And I think that’s the problem. ESG wasn’t really comfortable with characters who changed as they grew and progressed; it wasn’t really his comfort zone. Every Perry Mason novel is pretty much the same, and similarly with his Cool & Lam series. Even Selby himself changes throughout the series; at the beginning he’s idealistic, later he goes off to war and comes home a hero — but a slightly more cynical hero, more willing to believe the worst of others on short notice, and automatically assuming that he has political antagonists and they’re working against him.

Again, I have to say I don’t know of any evidence to support this suggestion. Gardner was an excellent, prolific and diversified writer, with large numbers of series characters available to him. He could have simply decided to focus on Perry Mason because that’s something he was guaranteed the public would want to buy. If he ever mentioned in writing why he stopped writing this series, I’m not aware of it; I just have a sense of what was going on, that’s all. But what this means, of course, is that this may well be the most well-characterized series he ever wrote. You can trace the development of the characters through these nine delightful novels, and I think you will enjoy them if you do.  But this also means that it’s important to start with the first volume and not this one, the eighth. If you’ve read the previous seven, you’ll enjoy this one a LOT more, and you will be anxiously awaiting your chance to get your hands on the ultimate volume.

My favourite edition

It’s pretty clear that when you have a mystery that involves a beautiful and, shall we say, slutty girl who’s found dead in bed in nightclothes, the cover art is, five times out of the six variations above, based on that Good Girl Art (GGA) selling point. It’s just a natural. When you think of how many covers of this period were GGA when there wasn’t any reason for it, well, you have to expect this cover to be GGA.  That being said, I actually like the edition at the very top of this piece (which, as is my habit, shows the copy at hand from my collection), Pocket #1010 — mine is the third printing. Silver Studios, who produced the cover, cleverly managed to get TWO beautiful women in nightclothes onto the cover in a nice graphic way. Ordinarily as a collector and sometime dealer, my attention is frequently drawn to valuable editions or the true first — in this case, the Morrow edition is, yes, GGA, but the illustration seems muddy; the colours are muted and not really attractive.

Death Walks in Eastrepps, by Francis Beeding (1931)

death-walks-in-eastrepps

WARNING: If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about not only the book under discussion, but also Philip MacDonald’s Murder Gone Mad and The Mystery of the Dead Police, and Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders, all of which are works of detective fiction where the solution is intended to be surprising. Although the solutions and the murderers are not explicitly discussed, this review will be quite informative; you may wish to preserve your ignorance of these classic works so that you will enjoy them without advance knowledge upon first reading. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

As wealthy businessman Robert Eldridge embarks on the 7:15 train to the little seaside holiday town of Eastrepps, we learn a little about him from his interior monologue — not much, but enough to know that there is a secret in his past that has kept him exiled for a number of years in South America. Now he’s off for his weekly overnight visit to his married mistress Margaret.

In the next chapter, on the same date and time, we meet some residents of Eastrepps; middle-aged curmudgeon and borderline drunk Colonel Hewitt, and his unmarried sister Mary, who are sitting down to dinner. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Hewitts are broke; they lost most of their money when Anaconda Ltd. crashed. (“Broke” means that their household is down to a single incompetent servant girl.) After a tumultuous dinner in which the Colonel differs cholerically with the secretary of the golf club, the servant girl, and anything else that comes to mind, Mary goes out to take some flowers to the parish church. On her return, she stops in to spend a moment in the lovely garden of her wealthier friend, Mrs. Dampier; then turns her way towards home. She doesn’t live long enough to make it there, though.

We are then introduced to the local police who investigate her brutal murder; Inspector Protheroe, hungry for promotion, and his subordinate, the solid and stolid Sergeant Ruddock. We meet a few more locals, and hear that Mary Hewitt didn’t have an enemy in the world. Then a London reporter, Mr. Ferris, who is vacationing in Eastrepps, smells a juicy murder story. The locals are agog with the news of murder in their sleepy town, but the Honourable Alistair Rockingham, who is being nursed back to health after a nervous breakdown, is surprisingly unaffected. At the coroner’s inquest, which is meant to be adjourned while the police investigate, local fisherman John Masters announces that he has seen the killer walking in the darkened streets; a bearded man.

il_340x270.750477499_q6kfAs the police investigation progresses, Eldridge’s mistress, Margaret Withers, is being blackmailed by her dissolute cousin Dick Coldfoot; her divorce is not yet final and if her affair is exposed, she’ll lose custody of her child. But no one else appears to know of her affair. Then as Inspector Protheroe is making his way home late one night, after a hard day of investigation, he hears what seems to be a baying hound — almost immediately, he discovers the second victim.

Young Miss Taplow is of good family and no one knows any reason why she should have been killed. The murder method is the same, and the crimes are linked; it soon seems clear that a madman is murdering almost at random when there is another murder of a local. The newspaper headlines proclaim the existence of the “Eastrepps Evil”, and Inspector Wilkins of Scotland Yard begins an investigation (to the chagrin of Inspector Protheroe).

It soon seems as though the Honourable Alistair Rockingham is crazier than anyone has known, and he’s been sneaking out at night and strolling around the village tipping his hat to passing women. The police go through a great deal of trouble to establish that he’s getting out of the house at night, and upon his arrest, he falls to his knees and starts howling like a dog. (Parenthetically, it’s interesting that this particular type of madness appears to have been restricted to fictional crazy people; I’ve never heard of it in real life.) The newspapers trumpet the idea that the Eastrepps Evil has been caught right up until, whoops, the secretary of the local golf club and the genteel Mrs. Dampier are murdered in the same way. But just as questions are being asked in the House, Sergeant Ruddock remembers Mr. Eldridge having told a little lie about his whereabouts at the time of one of the murders. Ruddock finds a clue that links the victims, in that they all lost money when Anaconda Inc. crashed — and it turns out that Eldridge is actually the promoter behind Anaconda. This makes Ruddock the hero of the Yard, to the complete discomfiture of Inspector Protheroe. Inspector Wilkins builds his case and arrests a suspect, who is taken to trial — there’s a long courtroom sequence — and executed. That would seem to be the end of the story, until Margaret Withers notices a tiny physical clue that reveals the very surprising identity of the actual killer, and a dramatic finale ensues.

BeedingWhy is this worth reading?

I’ve written before about early precursors of what was not yet known as the “serial killer” mystery/thriller; the term “serial killer” was not yet invented in 1931. But there are a handful of mystery novels from the Golden Age, such as this, that prefigure the modern serial killer novel. Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger fictionalized the case of Jack the Ripper in 1913. Philip MacDonald wrote two “mad killer” novels, Murder Gone Mad (1931) and Mystery of the Dead Police (1933, with two variant titles, which I discussed here). Agatha Christie flipped the narrative in 1936’s The A.B.C. Murders. And then there is Death Walks in Eastrepps from 1931, which was considered so significant that it’s on the Haycraft-Queen list of Cornerstones. This is almost certainly the most important book Francis Beeding ever wrote; the two authors who collaborated under that name do not cut an enormous figure in the history of detective fiction, but this book’s place is assured. Anything on the Cornerstones list is worth your time automatically.

The writing style is interesting. Writers at this point in time were experimenting with different ways of telling a story, and this one is in the “multiple viewpoints” format. We get to dip briefly into the minds and lives of various people in the town of Eastrepps, including some of the murder victims. In that sense it’s like MacDonald’s Mystery of the Dead Police, which does the same thing. This volume is not quite as successful, to my mind, perhaps because the effort of recomplicating the viewpoints is not sustained throughout the entire novel. (The courtroom sequence slows the book down to a crawl and to no really useful purpose.)

UnknownPart of this reason this volume is of particular interest in tracing the development of the serial killer novel is that it’s neither fish nor fowl. I can’t go too much into detail without giving away too much about this particular volume, but at the end of the book I think you won’t be 100% clear on whether the murderer is sane or insane, and that’s actually interesting. Sometimes the murder in these early stories is completely crazy (Murder Gone Mad, for instance); sometimes the murderer is a sane person counterfeiting the actions of a crazy person for his/her own purposes. That’s what I meant above by “flipping the narrative”. It only took five years from Murder Gone Mad for Agatha Christie to realize that you could subvert the premise and generate a very clever mystery plot such that a clever killer would mislead the police into thinking they were looking for an insane person.

In this volume, though, it wasn’t really clear to me whether the author was suggesting that either (a) Eldridge, who is tried and executed for the crime at about the three-quarters point, and/or (b) the person who actually committed the murders, is insane. There’s a school of thought that says that any person who murders another, let alone four or five, is insane. I’m not qualified to say whether that’s true or not. The courtroom sequence seems to be implicitly assuming that Eldridge has a reason to murder people whom he ruined financially many years ago; I don’t understand it, but there is also no suggestion that he’s killing them because he’s insane. Nevertheless there is no need to prove motive. The link between Eldridge and the victims seems to be sufficient for the judge and jury.

$(KGrHqRHJCYE8fi(bspCBPOqYprsIQ~~60_35The actual murderer seems very calm and cool and collected when in the process of confessing the crimes; not crazy at all. The part that is especially rational, though, is the deliberate way in which the evidence is planted on Eldridge. The murderer doesn’t have any personal animus against any of the victims; that’s irrational. I don’t want to be specific about the reason the murderer gives for committing the crimes, but — well, it’s sort of rational and sort of irrational. It actually makes a certain amount of sense, but it’s rather like using an elephant gun to kill a flea. So I think whether or not this is a “mad killer” novel is rather up to the reader. The novel says what it says, and what you make of it is up to you.

There is a “trick” — a surprise, or “reveal” — underlying this book that I shouldn’t reveal because it will completely spoil your enjoyment. I have to say, though, that the history of detective fiction is filled with firsts; The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the first detective novel to work its particular trick on the reader, as are Murder on the Orient Express and The Crooked Hinge and The Judas Window and, well, just about every John Dickson Carr novel. There’s a long-standing tradition in detective fiction that writers do not repeat a trick that was first used by another writers. Well, I’ve certainly read a couple of more modern mysteries that use this trick quite effectively, in different contexts, etc. But this is to my knowledge the first time this trick was used, and in 1931, this must have been an astonishingly creative piece of work. It’s clearly the reason why this is a Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone volume. The modern reader may not be quite as surprised by this ending as the reader of 1931, but you will certainly understand why 1931’s reader was gobsmacked. Given the somewhat different social contexts, 1931’s reader would have been aghast and astounded. It’s a subversive premise to underlie a piece of Golden Age detective fiction; all I can say is, it would have been a great pleasure to be a reader in 1931 who picked this book up without having heard teasing hints about it from a blogger.

34570My favourite edition

The gorgeous Art Deco first US edition from Mystery League, to the left, is head and shoulders above every other edition. Beautiful colour scheme, a gorgeous piece of hand-drawn typography, and the stylized corpse below the green skull — just lovely. I’m not aware of any mass-market paperback edition; all the others I’ve seen have been just ordinary. You can have your own for about US$75 plus shipping as of today’s date from a dealer on Abebooks. It will always hold its value, because it’s a Cornerstone volume.

Too Many Magicians, by Randall Garrett (1966)

2262290596What’s this book about?

Lord Darcy is the Chief Investigator for His Royal Highness Richard of Normandy. If you’ve never heard of Richard of Normandy, that’s because this is both a novel of detection and of fantasy; specifically, in the sub-genre of “alternate history”. What if Richard the Lion-Hearted had survived that archer’s arrow in 1199 and then financed the research that codified the Laws of Magic? Fast-forward to 1966, to a world where magic works and science is in its infancy, where men wear swords and where the major enemy of the Angevin Empire (after Britain conquered France once and for all) is the Polish Empire of King Casimir X, and the two empires are currently in the middle of a cold war.

907891267In the middle of some espionage activities that have produced a corpse for the investigative attentions of the great detective Lord Darcy, his “Watson”, forensic sorcerer Sean O’Lochlainn, is attending a meeting of the Royal Thaumaturgical Society at a London hotel. When the Empire’s Chief Forensic Sorcerer, Sir James Zwinge, is found dead behind a locked door in the hotel (and one that has been well-protected by magic spells), Lord Darcy and Master Sean have two cases to investigate that soon reveal international ramifications at the highest diplomatic level. Lord Darcy and Master Sean are inveigled into solving the case by the machinations of the Marquis of London and his assistant Lord Bontriomphe, ordinarily loyal allies but in this case needing to push to achieve fast results. Meanwhile, the relationship deepens between handsome Lord Darcy and Mary, Dowager Duchess of Cumberland, and a young prince of Mechicoe finds a way to express his rare magical talents in a way useful to the investigation. The story proceeds at a rapid pace, pausing only as Lord Darcy rescues a beautiful Polish sorceress from the icy waters of the Thames, and ends up at a gambling club, the Manzana de Oro, where the crimes are brought home to a guilty party who should be a surprise to many readers.

275352632Why is this worth reading?

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care for the idea of a fantasy detective story in an alternate timeline where magic works, then you are not likely to find much of interest here. That’s a shame, because this is a very clever story written by someone who was well-read in both the fantasy and mystery genres. Randall Garrett died regrettably young, and so only produced three volumes about Lord Darcy; this novel, and two volumes of short stories. But his fellow writer and friend Michael Kurland knew there was a great demand for more stories of murder and magic, and produced two further novels in the series.

And why was there such demand? Well, there are two major reasons I see for this set of stories being so popular. The first and foremost is that Garrett got the balance right between fantasy and mystery, and that’s very difficult to do — and satisfying to read.

When you begin with a premise like this, there are two competing sets of storytelling themes that have to be balanced. Yes, it is fascinating to speculate on what a gambling club would be like in a world where people have a Talent to affect the laws of chance, or how everyday items like refrigerators and house keys would have developed when based on magical principles. But if you stop for a lecture every time a character in the book opens the fridge or the front door, the action of the book soon grinds to a halt and gets bogged down beyond redemption. Garrett managed to give the reader just enough to interest, and titillate the imagination, without delving too deeply into details.

10562694527The other theme that has to be balanced is the need to have an internally consistent world-view that produces a fantasy murder mystery, without solving the crime by merely making up the rules. For instance, if you tell the reader that only women can use a particular magic spell, but then solve a crime by revealing in the final chapter that a male criminal had come into possession of the long-lost Amulet of Nermepherr that allowed him to cast that spell — well, you’ve just lost my interest once and for all. That’s the equivalent of a Golden Age of Detection writer introducing a master criminal in the last chapter who’s disguised as the local vicar; not fair and not interesting. I can tell you, there are a number of well-known authors who haven’t managed to pull off that balancing act, including the pseudonymous J.D. Robb, where all the technology is cutting-edge 2060 and half the social attitudes are 1985.  Here, it’s balanced beautifully. You learn the details of the spells that the sorcerers are talking about, their limitations, their effects, and everything you need to know to solve the crime. But the actual locked-room mystery itself is clever and very fair. (I don’t think it will be giving away too much to reveal that Garrett was familiar with a specific Carter Dickson novel and a specific Agatha Christie novel to produce this plot, but if you’re relying on what you think you recognize, you’ll be fooled. Very pleasantly, I may add.)

The second reason why these stories were so popular is that Randall Garrett had a very unusual sense of humour that is present in nearly every sentence and paragraph of his stories. I think it’s a conceit that’s based on the idea that in a parallel universe, familiar people and things from our own universe might be barely recognizable; here, Garrett allows himself every opportunity to drag in references to fictional characters from our universe, sometimes in a very hard-to-understand way.

TooManyMagiciansMost of my audience, being familiar with the Nero Wolfe canon, will find themselves smiling at the idea that the gourmandizing and horticultural Marquis of London never leaves his townhouse and employs a womanizing investigator named Bontriomphe to do his legwork. Bon = good; triomphe = win, therefore the gentleman is Archie Goodwin, and that’s an easy example of the kind of referential and macaronic wordplay with which these books are riddled. (See if you can figure out why his chef’s name is Frederique Bruleur.) But Garrett goes much, much further than that, and buries his punning references in the depths of obscurity.  For instance, I mentioned above that Lord Darcy rescues a Polish sorceress; her name is Tia Einzig, and she makes reference to her uncle Neapeler Einzig having escaped Poland and found safety on the Isle of Man. Those facts have very little to do with the story per se, but when you begin to dig into the etymology of the words and their possible cognates in other languages — Tia = Aunt, and Einzig is a bastardized translation of, essentially, “one in a zillion” — “Solo”.  Neapeler is a German word for Neapolitan, a person from Naples; again, a bastardized translation might be Napoleon. So her uncle is Napoleon Solo — the Uncle from Man.

In this volume, there’s a long, long chain of explanations that leads you to a moment where you slap your forehead, because a man named Barbour is a Pole by birth. There’s another set of allusions grafted into a short story that reference, believe it or not, bidding conventions in contract bridge. (If you play bridge, the explanation of why a “short club” was used to hit the victim will leave you giggling uncontrollably.) There’s a James Bond character, hidden references to the Grey Lensmen and the Pink Panther … one of the attendees at the magicians’ meeting is named Gandolphus Gray, which refers to Lord of the Rings. I will hold out temptingly the idea that it’s clear to me that there are other references in these books to people in our own universe but I just don’t know enough to know what they are; some are science fiction writers. The victim, Sir James Zwinge, is apparently based on the famous “magical debunker” James Randi. And to complete the circle, Garrett’s collaborator and continuation writer, Michael Kurland, is here represented as Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Coeur-Terre.

I think why this works so well for the reader is because I suggest that the kind of mind that enjoys solving murder mysteries is the same kind of mind that can look at “Neapeler ” and think “Neapeler = Naples-ian = Napoleon” and from there get to Napoleon Solo and the Man from U.N.C.L.E, and then be amused by the Uncle from Man. If you don’t like that sort of thing, then you will not actively dislike this book for that reason; it’s quite easy to overlook every instance of such wordplay if you’re simply not looking for it. But once you realize it’s there, and you do like that sort of thing — you’ll want to read this book to find out whodunnit, certainly, but you may also re-read it to see if you can catch yet another layer of wordplay that’s been buried by the clever Mr. Garrett.

So for mystery fans, you have a difficult locked-room mystery (and a light espionage plot). For fantasy fans, you have a clever alternate-history story and the interesting idea of state-regulated magic. And for paronomasiacs, you have the kind of word play that is only available when a dedicated and widely-read punster devotes considerable time and effort to burying a level of humour in a novel that’s only there if you look hard for it. I really enjoy this book, and all the Lord Darcy stories; I hope you do too.

Lord DarcyMy favourite edition

This volume and all the Lord Darcy stories have a complicated publishing history, but an interesting one. This novel originally appeared broken into sections in successive issues of Analog magazine, devoted to science fiction stories; so that’s the true first. It was then published in hardcover by Doubleday and the first paper is an ugly edition from Curtis. Someday I’ll write a monograph on how Curtis did nearly everything wrong as a publisher, mostly with covers, but choosing Garrett was one of the few good publishing decisions they ever made. All the Lord Darcy pieces by Garrett have been collected into a single compendium volume, Lord Darcy, and I think this is my “favourite” volume. My favourite is frequently the most valuable and/or the most beautiful, but in this case, it’s the most functional. If you need to flip back and forth to trace the appearance of a single character through different stories, this is how you want to do it.