The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Great Detectives (Part 4)

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great DetectivesThe Great Detectives: Ellery Queen

Introduction

As part of a group effort by The Tuesday Night Bloggers, I’ve previously discussed four of my favourite Great Detectives — three created by Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Cool & Lam in Part 1 and Doug Selby in Part 2, along with Robert van Gulik’s Dee Jen-Djieh from 6th century China. Part 3 was devoted to the Typhoid Mary of Cabot Cove, Jessica Fletcher.

Today’s effort is devoted to Ellery Queen, a detective about whom I’ve had a lot to say in the past. So much so that in fact The Tuesday Night Bloggers spent November, 2015 talking about him, and I had a lot to say. If you’re interested in what I had to say about some interesting editions, Ellery Queen and broad brand and continuation works, my five  most/least favourite novels, some novels that I distinguish for reasons that are not the usual ones, or a bunch (1), (2), (3), (4) of individual novels, follow the links in this sentence. If you want the general background, there’s an excellent and very detailed Wikipedia article at this link. And here, as previously, I will refer to the fictional character as Ellery Queen and to the two cousins who created the character as EQ.

img_42-04-09-ellery-queen-spot-adMy topic today is Ellery Queen, the Great Detective. I’m pretty sure this is the only topic I selected for this month’s posts with the Tuesday Night Bloggers that may actually be in the book of Great Detectives that inspired us … According to Anthony Boucher, “Ellery Queen IS the American detective story.” You will find a very complete explanation of everything that anyone would ever want to know about any aspect of EQ and Ellery Queen, at Ellery Queen: A Website on Deduction, an example of web-based writing excellence. (Devote a few hours some day to reading it through; it’s an immense treasure trove of information.) Here’s my take why Ellery Queen is a great detective.

51sHSxFJv2L.SX316.SY316Ellery Queen was created in 1929 for EQ’s entry into a literary contest and attained publication in 1929. That means, in literary terms, that The Roman Hat Mystery was coming into existence at the same time that S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance mysteries were massively dominating the North American literary market. The Benson Murder Case is from 1926, The ‘Canary’ Murder Case from 1927, The Greene Murder Case from 1928 and The Bishop Murder Case from 1929. It’s also perhaps important to remember that the first two films based on the Van Dine novels came to the screen in 1929 with William Powell as Philo Vance; The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case. And they were a big hit — by all reports I can find, the first three Philo Vance novels outsold any other detective fiction by a huge margin in 1926-1928.  It’s hard to assess at this great distance exactly how big a hit, and how environment-forming they would have been for the EQ cousins, but it seems clear that Ellery Queen was pretty much based on Philo Vance.

MV5BNjczNzQ0Njc1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTI5MDgwMjE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_I think that makes sense in the context. It’s easy to understand how the marketplace responds to a huge cultural game-changer. At that point in the history of detective fiction in the U.S., there hadn’t really been a male writer who had such a disproportionate effect on the marketplace. Van Dine became a kind of literary superstar who was guaranteed to sell; if you wanted your detective creation to sell, you might do worse than model him on the latest superstar.

The Egyptian Cross MysteryAnd so Ellery Queen was the protagonist of his first nine mysteries between 1929 and 1935. Each book starred Ellery Queen and was published as by Ellery Queen. Each title fit a specific format: The X Y Mystery, where X is a nationality (Egyptian, Siamese, Spanish) and Y is a concrete noun (Hat, Coffin, Orange). I won’t go into this in great depth, because I’ve had a lot to say about it in reviews of specific books, but these nine books were a huge game-changer in detective fiction. They presented difficult plots whose hallmarks were strongly logical problems set against a backdrop of a baffling murder. And they showcased Ellery Queen as the brilliant amateur who solved them. The EQ cousins immediately took a huge presence in the marketplace, buoyed by their talent for self-promotion, and all of a sudden there were two different sources of Golden Age detection; the UK and the US.

Ellery’s personality here is, as I noted, pretty much based on Philo Vance. That means, to quote Van Dine himself from Benson:

He was a man of unusual culture and brilliance. An aristocrat by birth and instinct, he held himself severely aloof from the common world of men. In his manner there was an indefinable contempt for inferiority of all kinds. The great majority of those with whom he came in contact regarded him as a snob.

But there is a humanity in the young Ellery that is entirely missing from the pompous dandy of the early Philo Vance. In Greek Coffin, he is brash and overconfident, and has a dramatic public failure; it’s as a result of this that he swears never to reveal his thinking during a case until he is completely certain he’s solved it.  Now, I have to admit, from the point of view of the construction of a detective fiction plot, that’s really very convenient.  If the writers can keep the tension mounting until it’s time for Ellery to Reveal Everything, then it makes for a much more readable book. The sensible part of me wants detectives to share their thought processes as they move along, partly because, you know, what if they get hit by the proverbial bus, and partly because it makes it easier to solve for lazy me ;-). But from EQ’s perspective it’s a good choice.

29b_DoubleI think this earliest Ellery is the one that forms the basis for much of what we see as time moves forward in the EQ oeuvre. Later on in the Wrightsville era, Ellery has emotions and he takes considerably more interest in the emotional situation of his suspects; he occasionally begins to fall in love with them (Double, Double, Paula Paris, Calamity Town, and the character in an [unspoilered] early novel who ridiculously becomes radio-based love interest Nikki Porter in the closing paragraphs).  Sometimes he dislikes them (The Origin of Evil, for instance). Sometimes they pretty much bore him except for the logical problems with which they present him (The Finishing Stroke).

31e_kingIn what I think of as the “Hollywood period”, when EQ were trying to sell scripts to the movies, Ellery’s personality becomes plastic and malleable — anything he’s needed to be or do, he’ll be or do, because the cousins’ primary focus is hitting it big as scriptwriters. But then there’s a long period in which Ellery has just almost no personality at all. The astonishing events at the end of The King Is Dead, for instance, just seem to roll off his back without much comment or interest. In the last few books, after a long period of his having been ghosted by other authors, it’s hard to say if Ellery is even interested in what’s going on around him on any level at all. The events of A Fine and Private Place are apparently so uninteresting that he can’t be bothered to do anything about solving the mystery, like search for evidence which is there to be found.

Moran_EQMM-Cover-Fall-1941I suspect that in the post-Wrightsville period, the EQ cousins could legitimately assume that everyone who wanted to read about Ellery’s adventures already knew as much about him as they needed to know. The radio show, nine or ten films, the Ellery Queen name on the masthead of EQMM, even the later television series saw to that. He’s a detective, he’s brainy, his father is a police officer and he solves crimes.  He didn’t really need to have emotions — at one point in the Wrightsville/Hollywood period, he actually is so upset that he wants to quit being a detective, and heaven knows that would have been disastrous to the series. So after a certain point he simply stopped having them.

But what kind of Great Detective is Ellery Queen?  In my view, there are a few basic kinds of cases that seem to suit him best (or, of course, actually suit the cousins who constructed the character and the stories).

  1. face-to-face-paperbackEllery is possibly best known for solving “dying clue” mysteries; at least, it’s a regular feature of many EQ short stories and at least two good novels (The Scarlet Letters and Face to Face). In the “dying clue” format, a murder victim has just enough time and consciousness left to leave some sort of cryptic reference to his/her killer. When Ellery realizes the real meaning behind the clue, and that it can only refer to one person (because dying people are apparently preternaturally intelligent about that sort of thing, considering and rejecting all kinds of possible dying clues — cf. The Last Woman In His Life) the story is over. So if the reader gets to the clue’s meaning before Ellery does, the story is solved.
  2. There’s a format that appears to be restricted to the short story form that is similar to the dying clue style, in which Ellery is confronted with a situation in which either A, B, or C commits the murder. Ellery must identify the one-and-only-one killer by observing or deducing that only one of the three individuals is not ruled out and thus is the only possible candidate.  (Only suspect A is tall enough to have seen something from the window and thus is the killer.)
  3. Dutch Shoe Mystery1There was a style in Ellery’s earliest days that seemed to vanish later in his career, possibly because they were very difficult plots to construct.  That’s what I think of as the “long, long logical chain” story, like Greek Coffin or Dutch Shoe or Halfway House, in which Ellery (for instance) makes a series of interdependent deductions about the murderer based upon one or two tiny clues.  So from the evidence of a broken shoelace and a few dents in some linoleum, Ellery deduces a hidden relationship between two people and solves the entire murder. These are very satisfying structures for those of us who enjoy this sort of mental exercise, but I bet they didn’t find much favour with the less logical reader.
  4. EQ-OriginPB2There’s a well-known Ellery Queen style of case that I’ll call the ABC format — perhaps best exemplified by The Finishing Stroke and Cat of Many Tails, and not as pleasantly in books like The Origin of Evil and Ten Days’ Wonder. We know that the crimes are linked because something is found upon the murder scene that links them (in The Finishing Stroke, a series of little index cards with weird notations), or there is a device that appears to indicate that the victims are selected merely because of, say, their occupation (Double, Double). Is it a demented serial killer or is someone merely trying to mislead the police and conceal a single crime with a group of others? Ellery figures out the meaning of the way in which the victims are linked and solves the case.
  5. the-greek-coffin-mystery-1960-illus-james-meese-1In closing, perhaps the best-known story format with which Ellery Queen is linked is “the false solution, then the true”. Ellery’s skills seem uniquely suited to cases in which a lesser mind might find a chain of logic that leads to the incorrect killer, but there’s just that one little niggling bit of evidence that doesn’t fit … So first Ellery solves the crime, sometimes in a way to which the reader has been led down a tempting garden path, and then he solves it again correctly the second time and we have a dramatic finish. I think the best example of this is Greek Coffin but really this pattern repeats throughout Ellery’s long career.  Sometimes Ellery merely pretends to solve the case in order to lure the real murderer into making an error (Greek Coffin); sometimes it’s that the wrong solution is easier to pin on an unpleasant person and the correct solution would place the guilt on the shoulders of someone “nice” (at least two novels I can think of, but they’d be spoiled for you so I won’t name them). One of my favourite cases of Ellery’s involves a situation where the false solution, then the true, both point to the same person for different reasons; another is where Ellery persuades everyone to accept the false solution because the truth would ruin someone’s life (and the crime was actually an accident).

hutton-wayneTo sum up — I think if you stood on a street corner and asked passers-by to name a famous male detective, of course you’d get a huge response for Sherlock Holmes. But I think primus inter pares for the remainder of male literary detectives would be Ellery Queen.  The character’s enormous and vastly widespread penetration into every area of the fictional sphere — movies, TV, books, games, radio programmes, jigsaw puzzles, computer games, postage stamps, comic books — has lasted since 1929. It’s a little sad that the EQ estate hasn’t licensed any continuation activities (especially since the cousins were so keen to rent out the Ellery Queen name during their lifetime — the list of ghosted books is a long one) but I think there’s just enough life left in this Great Detective to take him into the 21st century and beyond.

 

Cover art through the ages: The Case of the Velvet Claws, by Erle Stanley Gardner (1933)

This is Perry Mason #1, the volume that brought the hard-punching attorney to the public’s attention, and it’s been reprinted a LOT since 1933. It makes for an interesting look at how book design has changed over the decades. I thought I’d take you on a little tour of the visual images associated with this title, as cover art for books, and those associated with other media.

The story revolves around the highly seductive, financially sound, and morally bankrupt Eva Belter, who is in a lot of trouble. Her married boyfriend is running for office and she wants Perry to pay out some blackmail money to a publication called Spicy Bits, which is threatening to tell all. Perry soon learns that Spicy Bits is owned by — Eva’s ruthless husband. Before too much longer, Mr. Belter is shot and the delightful Eva tries to blame the crime on Perry himself. Perry has to battle his way through his client’s attempts to incriminate him and do a neat piece of deduction in order to solve the mystery so that Eva can inherit Spicy Bits and squash the story — and pay Perry’s huge fee.

Perry is quite a bit different in his first outing; much more willing to punch his opponents in the jaw than in later years, and a little more involved in skirting around the edges of legal ethics. In later years he became quite a bit more pompous. We learn all we ever learn about the origins of Della Street here — she was a debutante who had to go to work when her family lost all its money, presumably in the crash of ’29. Della doesn’t like Eva at all, and says so to Perry — “I hate everything she stands for!” Quite different from the mealy-mouthed Della played by Barbara Hale!

Here are the earliest pieces of cover art, both the first edition from William Morrow and a number of revisions for Pocket #73, first published in 1939.

The Case of the Velvet Claws, Erle Stanley Gardner

The first edition, 1933, Wm. Morrow.

51KYR2AIS-L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Pocket #73, from 1940; first paperback edition. Pocket was still experimenting with surrealism on its covers.

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Pocket kept the same #73 for a while but gave this book a number of new cover artists and numbers over the years.

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Velvet Claws

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These are some UK editions and a foreign-language cover.

Perry Mason novels were also frequently anthologized in compendium volumes, and rebound for library and collectors’ editions, some without jackets.

There were a couple of “double-truck” sized newspaper inserts, as was common at the time.

And a 1936 movie was made, let’s say “loosely” based on the source material, starring Warren William as Perry Mason. Why loosely?  Well, the film begins with Perry marrying Della (!) and having their honeymoon interrupted by Eva Belter, who insists at gunpoint that Perry takes her case. (They’re married by night court judge Mary O’Daugherty, played by veteran Clara Blandick — who later appeared in a number of other mysteries and played a crucial role in Philo Vance Returns in 1947.) The story was also dramatized as an episode of the Perry Mason TV show (Season 6, episode 22). You can see the trailer for the film here.

The jigsaw puzzle that accompanied the UK 1st edition (1933) is very rare and very peculiar. I note the origin of this image at ClassicCrimeFiction.com and if you’re looking for one of these, they are vastly experienced and very professional dealers who are likely to be the only place you can obtain it; ABE has none for sale and the only “Harrap Jig-Saw Mystery” they offer with the puzzle — a minor title by J.S. Fletcher — is missing a few pieces and is still £100. I’ve never seen a copy of this puzzle and I certainly would love to own one someday. I believe the jigsaw puzzle was bound in a pocket attached to the inside back cover, and tipped in near the end of the book was a piece of pink tissue that suggests doing the puzzle before breaking the seal — so the final chapter(s) were sealed.

gardnervelvet

The Perry Mason novels are currently in the hands of the American Bar Association, who are bringing out a uniform edition in trade paperback. I’m happy to see these back in print and hope they remain so! Notice how this cover design hearkens back to the first edition? I applaud the designer for that choice.

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Close Quarters, by Michael Gilbert (1947)

close-quartersThis volume has come to mind a couple of times recently, mostly because I did a post on a clerical mystery and it came up in the comments. Then I found my 1952 Hodder & Stoughton 2′ edition (paper-bound, about the size of a digest magazine like EQMM, with an illustration by Jarvis of a shocked clergyman. I’ve shown it here) and thought I’d show off my nice copy and reaffirm my approval of this excellent debut novel by Michael Gilbert. Please pardon my terrible photography but I wanted to show you this funky old edition and couldn’t find an instance on the internet I could scoop to show you.

This was first published in 1947 but has the flavour of an earlier time, to be sure. This is an old-fashioned mystery indeed, what with its numerous plans of the geography of a clerical Close — like a gated community surrounding a cathedral that houses all the attendant clerics and hangers-on. And there is an actual cryptic crossword contained within the pages, that must be solved to reveal a clue. This might be one of the last works of detective fiction to contain a geographic plan without any hint of irony whatever; a delightful hearkening back to the Golden Age.

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

What is this book about?

51r3ucwctol-_ac_us160_In the first chapter, the Dean of Melchester Cathedral is lying awake worrying. His sleepless night allows him to painlessly introduce us to both the Close itself and its cast of inhabitants, and a few of their ongoing problems. Someone is persecuting Appledown, the head verger, with some vicious anonymous letters. And the other morning someone put an overlay on the flag raised in the morning saying “Boozey old Appledown”, to the great amusement of the choirboys charged with flag duty. And then there’s the recent accidental death of Canon Whyte, who fell more than a hundred feet from a high tower. The Dean has to balance everyone’s schedules to cover absences and holidays, and is having a troublesome time doing so. The widow of the late Canon Judd refuses to leave the home to which she is no longer entitled. The Dean’s sleepless night is fully occupied with troubles.

It’s when someone paints a rude message in letters two feet high slandering Appledown once again that the Dean feels he must take a hand. He pulls a few discreet strings at the higher levels of Scotland Yard and has his own nephew, Sergeant Pollock, a budding young C.I.D. officer, come for a visit whose unofficial and hush-hush purpose is to investigate the anonymous letters.

51h1sobzqel-_ac_ul320_sr240320_Pollock, a thoroughly nice and respectful young man, soon identifies that the Cathedral’s Close is what we would know as a “closed circle”; because of the geography, it’s possible to  say with certainty that the blackening of Appledown’s name has been undertaken by someone who lives within the Close. Very shortly thereafter, a body is found, and Pollock’s investigation steps up its intensity with the addition of his superior from Scotland Yard, Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, who leads the remainder of the investigation.

Among helps and hindrances, the unspeakable Mrs. Judd sees fit to keep track of the daily lives of her neighbours with the aid of a telescope, and while her eyesight is not what it could be, she still provides valuable information. The lives of all the Close’s inhabitants are gone into, in detail, and reveal various surprises; some unsavoury, some amusing. A mysterious crossword puzzle discovered among the effects of the late Canon Whyte provides a clue to the location of some vital documents. There is another death, and this one is a little more brutal and unpleasant than most of the Golden Age; the stakes become much higher. Various more facts come quickly to light, and finally Inspector Hazlerigg makes an arrest and explains everything to the fascinated Dean in the final chapter.

Why is this book worth your time?

1807452It occurred to me as I was thinking about this book that the best way of describing its position in the broader sweep is as the perfect homage — and farewell — to the Golden Age. Although this book was published in 1947, we do not find out until the last three lines of the book that its date was the “summer of 1937”. To wit:

“Pollock tiptoed out. He felt an overmastering desire for a steak — done red — and a pint of milk stout. Since it was the summer of 1937 he got both without difficulty.”

Parenthetically, that says a lot, doesn’t it? My sense is that in 1947 one could get neither because food rationing was still firmly in place.

I have no idea what Michael Gilbert (1912-2006) was actually thinking when he wrote this, his first novel in a long writing career; to me, he was writing a commercial product that he felt would sell, but one which revealed a great knowledge of the highways and byways of Golden Age mystery plotting and a great affection for the genre. What he accomplished was to create a series character in Inspector Hazlerigg who lasted at least six novels, until 1953, and who was the lead detective in the well-known classic Smallbone Deceased (#4, in 1950).

6426This is a love song to Golden Age mysteries gone by, what with the lovingly detailed maps, an actual crossword puzzle, and the determination early on that the Close is, well, closed. Gilbert was signaling here that, yes, he loved this old form and would proceed to write a bunch more Golden Age mysteries (including a brilliantly clever book about a murder in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp, 1952’s Death in Captivity). So it was a vain effort, in a way, since the true Golden Age mystery was on its deathbed in the 1950s. But we got six excellent mysteries out of his homage.

105297717_amazoncom-close-quarters-9780600200819-michael-gilbertGilbert’s career changed direction in 1959 with the publication of Blood and Judgment, (a novel; see the comments below) about Inspector Petrella of Scotland Yard. I briefly discussed another volume in this series here. This series were still puzzle stories, after a fashion, but at this point Gilbert had successfully embraced the best intentions of the kitchen-sink school and/or a kind of social realism. Petrella’s streets were dirtier and grittier than Hazlerigg’s by a long shot. Later Gilbert moved into the area of the spy novel (or rather the intelligence agent novel) with the creation of the elderly Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens, among other characters; he wrote a lot of non-series novels and short stories.

One tiny little genre that he returned to again and again was the small field of the “men’s adventure novel” — think Nick Carter, Killmaster, and a kind of muscular and aggressive novel where things blow up and the strong-jawed hero gets the girl. Yes, Gilbert wrote those novels, but he wrote them omitting most of the explosions and with a healthy dose of reality governing the action; intelligent observation and a sensible approach to human nature are his hallmarks. There are a number of novels of his that can be described as “one lone wolf takes on a corrupt organization”, and I’ve always found him a dependable provider of that particular plotline, much like Dick Francis. 1966’s The Crack in the Teacup is an excellent example.

michael-gilbert-books-and-stories-and-written-works-u4

Michael Gilbert

He even wrote a companion piece to the current volume; 1984’s The Black Seraphim takes place against a similar location and background but has a considerably more modern feeling about it. At this point in his career Gilbert was in full command of his style and could vary it to meet the needs of his chosen subject matter; now he is far beyond the repressed virtues of the Golden Age mystery. The Night of the Twelfth (1976) is a really well done and occasionally horrific novel about a serial killer of young boys; 1980’s Death of a Favourite Girl has a very surprising and sexually frank ending. Gilbert was one of a few authors who maintained his full command of his art up until he retired.

The point of this particular novel, though, is that it’s an absolutely classic Golden Age mystery as the first novel of a writer who went on to write some top-notch novels in a more modern idiom. It’s really, really well done. There is some excellent character work — for instance the horrible Mrs. Judd, who is drawn with a broad brush, but whose unpleasant presence is necessary to the plot. You will truly believe that she spies upon her neighbours with a telescope. The book is full of moments of gentle humour mostly based on observation and character, and about tiny moments in the everyday lives of real people. Oh, and Gilbert wipes the eye of Dorothy L. Sayers in at least one respect. Sayers’s representation of how people solve cryptograms and such puzzles (in The Nine Tailors,  Have His Carcase, and a boring short story), is painful and mawkish; it’s like a solution guide being mouthed by cardboard puppets. Michael Gilbert, on the other hand, can have you overhearing two people who are working together to solve a cryptic crossword and having fun doing it, and at the same time, for American readers and non-cruciverbalists in general, explaining the principles gently and easily without making a big deal of it.

The solution to the mystery is difficult but not absolutely impossible for the reader; always a pleasant experience to be fooled on some but not all of the answer. You will be diverted by the high quality of the writing and amused by the economical but effective characterization. You will also have the pleasure of having a first-hand description of some recondite practices and habits of the clerical inhabitants of a tiny closed community, from the point of view of a keen-eyed observer with a great sense of humour. I recommend you start here and read your way through the entirety of Mr. Gilbert’s work; through re-encountering this great novel, I think I’ll have another read through his oeuvre myself!

Cover art through the ages: The Red Box (1937), by Rex Stout

case-of-red-box-nero-wolfeThe first book publication of The Red Box, the fourth Nero Wolfe novel by Rex Stout, was actually not the first edition; the story was serialized in The American Magazine over five issues in 1936-1937. It’s a story that begins with a beautiful model who dies after eating a piece of poisoned candy from a box that she’s stolen as a prank, in the offices of a fashion company where she is employed. The owner of the company is the next to die — in Wolfe’s office, poisoned by an aspirin tablet; before he dies, he tells Wolfe that the key to the mystery will be found in a red leather box. The third murder is committed by a trap that spills a poisonous substance upon someone getting into a car; the final death by poison is that of the murderer in Wolfe’s office.

With a story like this, you won’t be surprised to note that most of the cover artists focus on the red box itself, which is frequently conflated with the box of chocolates, and the beautiful and deceased fashion model … but there are occasional surprises, like the Jove edition that shows us the deadly aspirin tablet. Poison and orchids are a constant motif, of course.

There’s an early edition (Avon #82) from Avon that is very attractive, and was repurposed for Avon Murder Mystery Monthly #9 in 1943. But my favourite is the cheerfully vulgar Avon T-216, which shows about as much leg as was legally allowed (and changes the title to Case of the Red Box) and is a classic Good Girl Art cover. Avon #82, though, drew the attention of the New Yorker magazine, who mentioned in a small paragraph in 1946 that this book contained 17 instances where Wolfe wiggled a finger. Over the years the reprint rights devolved to Bantam, who has kept the book in print pretty much continuously ever since. It is sad to note that Nero Wolfe is now at what might be the poorest level of publishing, since Bantam is now reprinting the series in “twofer” volumes. But the first edition, a restrained design in shades of grey and red, is elegant and lovely and reminds us of former glories.

It was probably this novel to which Edmund Wilson was referring in 1944 when he complained that he felt that he was “unpacking large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails”, but most critics would be much kinder to this book than that. The solution is ingenious and depends upon Nero Wolfe’s mastery of linguistic niceties, and Archie Goodwin is his characteristically saucy self throughout. You can get a Very Good first edition in a Very Good restored jacket today for US$6,000, a nice copy of Avon T-216 for US$20, and a Kindle edition for $6.95.

 

Cover art through the years: The Rasp, by Philip Macdonald (1924)

Cover art through the years: The Rasp, by Philip Macdonald (1924)

It’s clear that my most popular posts have been the ones where I say the least and show the most pictures; my readership figures for recent posts collecting the cover art of Dorothy L. Sayers and John Dickson Carr have been through the roof. So I’ll be bringing you more posts like that in the future, since they’re easy to put together and fun to conceive, and you folks like them. I’ll be calling these “Cover art through the years” unless they’re affiliated with another blogging project like Tuesday Night Bloggers.

The best way to appreciate how styles in cover art have changed, I think, is to take a classic book that has been frequently in print over many years and see how many iterations its design can go through. I decided on the spur of the moment to pick a book from my shelves at random — well, no, I should be more truthful. This happened when I was shelving books and sorting alphabetically by author.  As I muttered to myself, “Is it really necessary to have FOUR different copies of The Rasp on my active shelves?” an idea was born. And so I scoured the internet for different photos of different editions.

Look how many different ways of seeing the cover art there have been! It’s interesting, because the central mystery puzzle of this novel is dependent upon — and I’ll be circumspect about how I phrase this — a visual image. The only artist to even come close to this visual image (a) gets it wrong, and (b) is close to giving away the mystery; unfortunately all this suggests to me is that a bunch of art directors didn’t bother to read the book carefully before packaging it, which is quite common these days and apparently was back then also.

I do like the earliest Collins hardcovers, which are classically lurid, but my favourite here would have to be the cheerful surrealism of 1984’s edition from Vintage, where two oval portraits and a fireplace grate combine to form a shocked face. My second favourite would be US Penguin #79, with an extremely detailed pencil drawing and some exquisite typography.

But the most valuable paperback edition is the first UK Penguin (greenback) printing from 1937, in excellent condition with a crisp paper dust jacket (yes, early UK Penguins had a jacket; it adds hugely to their value if present). This edition also seems to be #79, which is a peculiar coincidence or else more probably my research has misled me. (added later the same day: See below in the comments; my expert friend John from Pretty Sinister books confirms that they are both #79, published years apart, and it’s just a strange coincidence.) Because of the superb condition and the provenance — it comes from the collection of Ian Ballantine, who founded Ballantine Books — ABE’s most expensive copy is priced today at US$175. A “Good” copy (“Good” is bookseller code for “barely acceptable as a reading copy”) of the 3rd printing with a chipped jacket will set you back US$60.

Which one is your favourite? And if anyone knows if UK Penguin #79 and US Penguin #79 are both The Rasp, let me know in the comments, please!