Death of an Old Girl, by Elizabeth Lemarchand (1967)

51jjX-d5qQL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Death of an Old Girl is the first of a series of mysteries featuring CDI Tom Pollard of Scotland Yard and his assistant Sergeant Toye. The series ran for 17 volumes between 1967 and 1988 and exhibited many characteristics of Golden Age detective fiction; there’s a certain gentility and good nature that shines through these novels but not at the expense of interesting plots.

This volume came to me unexpectedly as I scoured a used bookstore; I haven’t seen any Lemarchand at my usual haunts for quite some time; although I recall the volumes that were in paperback as having been much more prevalent 20 years ago, they don’t show up often these days. About half her books were never published in paperback and will give you more trouble to find; this one is more common.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of crime fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others; I discuss elements of plot and construction although I don’t lay out the answers in so many words.  If you haven’t already read this novel, reading this essay means it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

UnknownWhat’s this book about?

The scene is Meldon School for Girls, a venerable institution for teenage girls that has recently undergone some updating. A new headmistress with more modern ideas is making changes, much to the displeasure of a coterie of Meldonian Old Girls. The ranks of the old guard are led by a wealthy spinster, Beatrice Baynes, who has an outsized bee in her bonnet about change in general and in particular the sudden modernization of the Art Department by young Miss Cartmell, its new instructor.

In the course of Old Girls Reunion weekend, passions come to a head. After some tempestuous interactions with staff and relatives, Miss Baynes’s murdered body is found stuffed into a puppet theatre off to one side of the Art Room at Meldon. Pollard and Toye are brought in to make sense of the many motivations for this crime and bring it home to what might be a surprising perpetrator.

Unknown-1Why is this book worth my time?

Generally when I try to bring a book to your attention, it’s because it has some feature that is worth your time. Sometimes I’ve tried in the past to convince you that a less-than-stellar book deserves your time because of its historical significance, or prefiguring of another, better novel; many reasons other than mere quality.  With this volume, I’d merely like to suggest that you will enjoy it — reason enough, I trust.

This book is a debut effort by a novelist who has absorbed the general airs and graces of the Golden Age of Detection of the 1920s and 1930s, taken them to heart, but updated them to the period of the 1960s. What made me think so is that, like the 1920s and 1930s, this book contains no graphic violence, no objectionable language, and very little that would offend anyone. The murder takes place offstage (except that the corpse is found hidden behind a little stage, ha ha) and all other crimes are non-violent and moderately forgivable. Perhaps we could call this the ancestor of the modern cozy, although expressed to the Scotland Yard detective format of a previous age.

51majp2SJZL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Death of an Old Girl was published at a time when almost no one was writing — or really reading — this kind of book as popular fiction. I think it’s interesting that it had sufficient in the way of readability and sheer pleasure to get published at a time when this sort of nostalgic exercise was not popular.

There is not much here to trouble the attentive reader who wishes to solve a murder. Pollard and Toye are rather bland and Inspector-French-like nonentities with sketched-in family and personal lives. When they arrive, they reconnoiter, investigate obvious suspect #1, move to #2, on to #3 and in that context reveal some underlying realities behind the murder and unmask a slightly surprising murderer. (I think all my readers will find their way to suspecting #3 but some will not make the leap to the identity of the murderer, #4.)

The people whom I can really see enjoying this are readers who hanker for that nostalgic exercise, a kind of applied blandness that has its adherents among people who want to read unchallenging fiction. All the people here are “nice” except for the few who are “not nice”, and those few are pretty much caricatures. The only not nice person is the murderer, who manages to conceal his/her not-niceness under a bland facade.

12869054I thought it was interesting to look at this book as an exercise in construction, because that’s so clearly what it was for this neophyte author. Only four main subjects, considered seriatim, and nothing happens to interrupt this vision. I couldn’t help but think along the way that Lemarchand had deliberately restricted the field by not offering us even the dismissal of further possibilities.  A bunch of women are mentioned early on as being supporters of the late Miss Baynes and her dislike of modern art (aka nude sculpture and drawing LOL).  But these women never show up and don’t provide interviews or names, so it’s clear they’re not involved. Similarly the upper registers of the Meldonian hierarchy are pretty much sacrosanct; it’s clear that the new Headmistress is unimpeachably virtuous.

There was some interest I found in the character of Miss Baynes, who reminded me of the crazed anti-sex spinster in Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death, but she’s killed far too early to give more than a hint of her presence. In a way, Lemarchand has made an error that I have seen writing textbooks teach is a bad idea; she seems reluctant to have her characters experience any conflict (so everyone has to be pretty much pleasant to deal with). If Baynes’s rages against modernity had been more on-stage than off-, or if she had had a lieutenant prepared to take up the cudgels against vulgarity and young girls seeing the naughty bits in art, this might have been a more exciting book with a few more false trails and interesting characters.

But we can only review the book we actually read. And so I’ll say that I suspect my readers who are fans of Freeman Wills Crofts will enjoy this book; aficionados of the gentle Silver Age mystery that hearkens back to the classics, for instance. Fans of Dorothy Simpson, later Patricia Wentworth, and early P.D. James will like this; fans of Mickey Spillane and male private eye novels will likely not. It’s a gentle murder mystery that will be fairly easy to solve. The difference between this and the kind of cosy mystery that sets my teeth on edge is that, while the author doesn’t focus strenuously on the pool of blood or the battered corpse, neither does she spray everything with potpourri in an attempt to disguise the blood. She’s merely writing about nice people for nice people, that’s all.

This is a charming little book and you’ll come up for air after a few hours thinking, “Wow, for an unassuming mystery that sure had a lot to offer.” I hope you can find a copy cheaply, you’ll enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

 

Phoebe Atwood Taylor gets a little meta

51fWHVJ4tOL._SX292_BO1,204,203,200_I thought I’d share with you a quote from a mystery I was re-reading lately … I always enjoy it when characters in detective fiction talk about the conventions of detective fiction.  This is from Proof of the Pudding, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1945).  Asey Mayo, Cape Cod’s “Codfish Sherlock”, is talking to a young woman in Chapter 6.

“… just like the prohibition gangsters that went to the movies so’s to pick up dazzling’ new ideas from mob pictures, murderers today learn quite a lot from stories. They don’t often leave fingerprints around much any more — they’ve even learned to wipe off their trigger-finger print. An’ they don’t rush off an’ leave their victim clutchin’ a convenient swatch of Harris tweed in his limply outstretched hand, either.”
“I’ve always wondered deeply about that tweed angle,” Lois said. “I mean, I’ve got a Harris topcoat I had the year before I went to college, and I defy anyone to jerk a swatch of it off in the best of health, let alone in a dying moment. It simply couldn’t be done. I always thought it would be more accurate if someone’s Harris coat was found with a couple of detached fingernails imbedded in it. They’d certainly give way before the average tweed would. …”
… “No, this don’t conform to book pattern. In fact, Doc Cummings and I cling to the notion that if you run into book clues it mostly only means that someone had access to a lendin’ library. They read about the clues somewheres, an’ left ’em on purpose to snarl you up. A really smart murderer ought to do the same, usual, common everyday things he always does before he commits his crime — an’ the same, usual, common everyday things afterwards, too. A lot of elaborate preparations an’ fancy workin’ up of alibis isn’t bright. For no matter how smart you are in buildin’ things up and weavin’ things into intricate nets, like, there’s always someone smarter who can tear things down an’ pull ’em apart.”

There’s a good deal more on the topic of exotic lipstick shades, cigarette butts and lingering traces of perfume at murder scenes.  I hope to have something useful to say on the overall topic of Phoebe Atwood Taylor in the near future, but I couldn’t resist sharing this little piece with you.

 

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.

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Great Detectives (Part 3)

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great DetectivesThe Great Detectives: Jessica Fletcher

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.

angela-lansbury-murder-she-wroteToday’s contribution is a character whom some of my regular readers may disparage as being artificial, or cardboard, or merely entirely implausible — Jessica Fletcher, a widowed mystery writer from Cabot Cove, Maine, portrayed by Angela Lansbury, who starred in 264 episodes of a television programme called Murder, She Wrote between 1984 and 1996.  Between 1997 and 2003 there were four made-for-TV movies; between 1989 and 2018, there have been approximately 48 spin-off novels as by, for the most part, “Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain”. (The “approximately” is because Gin and Daggers was released twice, in two editions, in 1989 and 2000; the second edition corrected errors in continuity with the TV series, such as Jessica being unable to drive a car.)

Murder, She Wrote, Prescription for MurderNow, say what you will about her believability as a character, or the astonishingly high murder rate of Cabot Cove — 264 hours of network TV plus 8 hours of movies plus 48 novels, all of which were published after the TV series went off the air and continued for thirty years afterwards, adds up to a durable character who has a great big fan following. The TV series has never been out of syndication since it went off the air, to my knowledge, and has been released on home video in its entirety. Think about it for a minute. It’s extremely unusual to have 48 spin-off novels published after a TV show goes off the air, let alone have them published in hardcover first editions; very few other television programmes have ever managed to sustain the public’s interest for nearly 30 years after going off the air. Only Star Trek and Doctor Who even come close to surpassing Murder, She Wrote’s scale of market penetration.

Why is Jessica Fletcher such a great detective?

1395591810-0To be honest, as she’s presented in the TV programme, Jessica is not such a great Great Detective. She has the knack of being at the right place at the right time, and she certainly is a person who notices small things in her environment and remembers them at the right time to put two and two together. By and large, though, quite a few of her cases are not solved by methods that would be approved by, say, Ellery Queen.

Elman_Jessica-Fletcher-Still-with-FlashlightFor instance, a favourite method of bringing Jessica to the mystery’s solution was to have her realize that the murderer had mentioned something that meant that s/he had to be at the scene of the crime, or in some way had told a lie about his/her whereabouts at the time of the murder.  Yes, that takes a little deductive reasoning, but really it just means Jessica was up against a stupid murderer.  Another method that found frequent approval with the screenwriters was Jessica collaborating with the police to set a trap for the murderer because they didn’t have enough evidence to convict the killer and needed a lot of self-incrimination. Sometimes the trap is based on fake evidence. That’s not the standard of detection that made Ellery famous.

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Richard Levinson (left) and William Link

But for every one of those half-hearted endings, there was another episode that would possibly surprise an experienced mystery reader with its cleverness.  The series was, after all, created by Richard Levinson and William Link (and Peter Fischer) — Levinson and Link created the mystery series Columbo, Mannix, Ellery Queen, and Blacke’s Magic. The writing partnership received the Ellery Queen Award (for outstanding mystery-writing teams) in 1989.  And one of their scripts for a stand-alone made-for-TV movie, the great Rehearsal for Murder, won the Edgar Award in 1983.

Jessica.Fletcher.phoneSo you might not be surprised to know that there’s a clever locked-room mystery as the basis of a Season 1 episode (We’re Off To Kill the Wizard), or that M,SW viewers regularly pronounced themselves baffled until Jessica told them whodunit at about minute 54 of every episode. By and large, the scripts have intelligence and contain interesting puzzles. Levinson & Link’s involvement with the series dwindled as time went on and the puzzles got less difficult, but in the early years even John Dickson Carr aficionados may find themselves challenged by a few of the scripts.

UnknownWhere they generally fall down is plausibility. We’ve all chuckled at the huge murder rate in tiny Cabot Cove, where accepting a dinner invitation from Jessica was tantamount to either suicide or a life sentence for murder. Certainly mystery writers have to go around the world to promote their books, especially for someone like Jessica Fletcher whose books are regularly made into movies (see season 1’s Hooray for Homicide, where Jessica is suspected of killing a producer who turned her first mystery into a B-grade horror movie). But everywhere she goes, from Saskatchewan (Showdown in Saskatchewan, season 4) to Moscow (From Russia With Blood, season 5) to cyberspace (A Virtual Murder, season 10) Jessica’s presence is like the kiss of death for someone. At least 264 someones, making Jessica Fletcher the Angel of Death around the world.

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Jessica Fletcher and Harry McGraw (Jerry Orbach)

Frankly, the producers of M,SW experimented with the format of the programme in a way that would likely have killed any other series.  Beginning in season 6, Lansbury needed a respite from the onerous production schedule of 22 episodes a year, and the scripts began featuring guest stars leading stories without Jessica involved, except in introductory and closing “bumpers”. (For instance, The Grand Old Lady from season 6 repurposed an unused script from Ellery Queen and featured the detecting skills of a young American reporter who looked and acted a lot like Ellery Queen.) A few of these guest detectives were popular with the viewers; Keith Michell as roguish insurance investigator Dennis Stanton was nearly spun off into his own series, and Jerry Orbach as seedy private eye Harry McGraw actually made 16 episodes of the short-lived spin-off The Law and Harry McGraw in 1987-1988. Jessica did a crossover episode with Magnum P.I. and occasionally did a two-part episode, but for the most part the series stayed comfortably and safely within the 60-minute format, and you could just about set your watch by the discovery of the body and the revelation of the murder in each episode.

hqdefaultPossibly in order to bring some freshness to the work for Angela Lansbury, within the boundaries of the series she played a hard-drinking cousin of Jessica’s with an English accent a couple of times; occasionally the mystery plots were more focused on espionage and international plots, and travel to exotic locations like Hong Kong and Italy was a feature of the last few seasons.

Moran_MSW-CastThe producers later stopped the guest star policy but it seemed evident (to me at least) that Lansbury’s heart wasn’t in the work any more and the final few seasons were desultory. The last years’ scripts had many examples where Jessica was certainly there, but not really necessary to solve the mystery; either that or the reason for her being on the scene was so specious as to be entirely beyond belief.  She actually solved one mystery over the phone. Jessica’s friends relatives (especially the repeating character of her nephew Grady) occasionally took up the slack of detection and let Jessica mostly relax and be an armchair detective.

What was responsible for her popularity?

Jessica_FletcherIt’s safe to say that one of the reasons why Jessica Fletcher attained such great durability is that the series was originally designed to appeal to middle-aged TV viewers. That age group was not well-served by appropriate entertainment in the 1980s and have become even less interesting to television producers in the intervening years. But with Jessica Fletcher, the middle-aged lady who wasn’t afraid to get her hands bloody investigating a murder, the older viewer found a comfortable home.  Jessica radiated confidence and was always at home in a variety of situations; when she found herself dealing with something new, like virtual reality headsets or switching from a typewriter to computer to write her books, she waded in and got the job done.

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Adrienne Barbeau (left) played Maude’s daughter Carol on the sitcom Maude (1972-1978)

Another often cited-reason for Jessica’s popularity is that, especially in the early years, the producers very wisely filled the episodes with guest stars who were familiar to the viewer from other TV and movie appearances, but not huge stars — what one reviewer called the “Love Boat” gambit.  In my house when M,SW was on, the TV room was a hubbub as my family tried to identify exactly where they’d seen the actors before.  “That’s the guy from …” or, “Didn’t she play the X on such-and-such?” There’s a huge list on Wikipedia of M,SW guest stars found here, which included 13 Oscar winners. But many of the guest stars were actors whose careers were declining and who were used more for their nostalgic references than their acting abilities.

0*mDh9v8IaEmifBNdqThe first-rate second-rate guest stars provided a kind of mental anchoring for the audience; a kind of familiarity that let people know that, yes, it might be a story about murder but you know that it’s just light-hearted fun, because gee, that guy was one of the Brady Bunch, wasn’t he? As a general rule, the more famous the actor the less likely it was that their appearance would see them revealed as a victim or a murderer; they would generally manage to keep their reputations unsullied. Some actors appeared more than once in different roles, and some apparently relished the chance to play the killer. Here’s your trivia question — which actor/actress who was the title character in a different detective series appeared three times on Murder, She Wrote and played the killer twice? (Feel free to answer in the comments.)

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Nearly every episode ended with Jessica’s laughter.

Ultimately, though, it was all about Angela Lansbury. She seems to have struck a chord with the audience, male and female, who apparently found her overwhelmingly upright morality attractive. Lansbury, of course, can really act — by the end of the series, she probably could have done scenes in her sleep, but she managed to bring talent if not huge energy to even the most desultory of scripts. When she stopped doing the character, it never recovered.

af18bb24a431a4c418ff6f0a4365a690Whatever the reason for her continued popularity, it’s quite an achievement that Jessica Fletcher’s brand has extended to the present day. I don’t think there’s an enormous presence to Jessica Fletcher, but in this day of reboots and remakes, I think it’s interesting that no one has floated the idea of bringing back Jessica as, say, a much younger woman, or a woman of colour, or even just another middle-aged actress whose career is fading and who could use a comfortable niche on the TV schedule. The books are still going strong, mostly due to library sales, and I think they will continue to do so … whether we ever see Jessica Fletcher on screen again is another matter. I’d certainly watch a reboot.

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Great Detectives (Part 2)

The Great Detectives: Two court officials

Erle Stanley Gardner’s Doug Selby and Robert van Gulik’s Dee Jen-djieh

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great DetectivesIntroduction

I’ve summarized the reason for my series of posts in part 1, found here: a group of GAD bloggers will be telling people about their favourite Great Detective and I’ve taken on a full slate of ten detectives.  Well, when you read a lot, you have a lot of favourites; it was hellish to keep it to ten, and in the process of negotiating who got to write about whom, I had to relinquish the opportunity to blether on about, for instance, Miss Maud Silver.  (But I know my friend Moira will do a great job.)  The latest roundup of links to other bloggers’ work is found here — I will update this as I get more information.

My own Part 1 was about Perry Mason and the detective firm of Cool & Lam, both the product of the hardworking and enormously productive Erle Stanley Gardner (known here as ESG). In fact Gardner wrote about many, many series detectives and I number more than three among my favourites: for instance I talked here about Gramps Wiggins, whom I’m sorry to say was seen in only two novels. If I’m going to get ten detectives into four Tuesdays, though, I’m going to have to keep my nose to the grindstone; and so today, courtesy of the recent four-day weekend and some extra writing time, is my second look at two Great Detectives. My third favourite is District Attorney Doug Selby, about whom I get to write today, and I’ll also add a little appreciation of Dee Jen-djieh, a detective of 7th century China, whose detective stories were written by expert Sinologist Robert van Gulik.

Believe me, I feel kind of silly in linking ESG’s Doug Selby, who worked in 1940s California, with Judge Dee, who worked in the mid- to late 600s in China. Their participation in their own court systems is what links them tenuously together, but truly they have virtually nothing in common — except that the books in which they feature are very good and worth your time.

District Attorney Doug Selby

9781671002630-ukRecently I wrote about two of ESG’s series detectives; Perry Mason, the defence lawyer, and Cool & Lam, the private investigators. The third face of the triangle of judicial attention to murder cases is the state prosecutor, and that role is best filled by Doug Selby. It’s interesting to note that Perry Mason has PIs (Paul Drake) and prosecutors (Hamilton Burger) with whom to contend, and Cool & Lam are pestered by prosecutors and lawyers — each series tells a murder story from a different point of view.

51AK97dcFUL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_But where we know virtually nothing about Perry Mason as a person, Doug Selby is a fully realized person and his personal life is centre stage in the nine volumes about him. As the series begins, with 1937’s The D.A. Calls It Murder, Selby and his associate Rex Brandon have just won election as District Attorney and Sheriff respectively in “Madison City”, California — based on the actual city of Ventura, but in those days a more rural location — on a “reform” ticket, defeating a corrupt administration. The crooked politicians are constantly maneuvering against Selby and frequently do so through their newspaper, the Blade; Selby was supported by the Clarion and works with Sylvia Martin, the local reporter, to get his story told against the Blade‘s propaganda efforts. Selby is somewhat linked to Martin romantically, but also there’s a doomed love story when, in the second volume, Selby convicts a young hell raiser in the Stapleton family and ruins them socially. Beautiful Inez, the criminal’s sister, goes off and becomes a lawyer herself in order to make Selby respect her, and this highly-charged love triangle has echoes throughout all the volumes.

25236894Another fascinating character in the series is Alphonse Baker Carr, sleazy criminal lawyer. “A.B.C.” is Selby’s arch-enemy and rather like the anti-Perry Mason, and there’s a long storyline with A.B.C. that echoes through the final seven books of the nine. Essentially the Blade is out to get Selby and force him to resign, so that the corrupt politicians can take power again. They dog his footsteps and expose what they perceive to be his weaknesses; meanwhile, A.B.C., on the side of his criminal clients, throws up obstacles on the other side of his cases.

d-a-goes-to-trial-pb-407-erle-stanley-gardner-6th-prt-1949-646197f534cefca83504e68a746713ccIn the meantime, Selby and Rex Brandon, straightforward and good-natured sheriff, fight their way through unusual cases and apply old-fashioned police methods to new-fangled cases. Selby is a great character, perhaps one of ESG’s greatest successes. He’s fallible but excellent; as a mystery writer of my acquaintance once observed, the kind of person whom I’d like to have investigate my own murder. He seems very moral and upright but also very human, and finds the constant onslaught of abuse from the Blade hard to take. But his observational skills as a detective are excellent; he rather combines the functions of Paul Drake, who digs up the clues, and Perry Mason, who interprets them and forces the legal system to accept his view of them. I looked at volume #8, 1948’s The D.A. Takes A Chance, here — I recommend you read all nine in order, because the story builds to an elegant and dramatic conclusion in volume #9.

v1.bTsxMTU5NjUxNDtqOzE3NzI5OzEyMDA7NzY4OzEwMjQThere was a single made-for-TV movie in 1970, They Call It Murder, based on book #3, The D.A. Draws a Circle. It starred Jim Hutton as Doug Selby; Hutton later went on to play Ellery Queen in the eponymous TV series. They Call It Murder is … okay, but uninspired. But the books are great work.

Dee Jen-djieh

Judge Di (c. 630 - c. 700) of the T'ang court

Judge Di (c. 630 – c. 700) of the T’ang court

First of all — let’s get the spelling right. Robert van Gulik wrote before the introduction of a standardized orthography for representing Chinese in English, and his Dee (family name) Jen-djieh (personal name) would today be spelled as Ti Jen-chieh by users of the Wade-Giles script and Dí Rénjié in the most widely used system of today, Pinyin. This is important because, as some of my readers will be surprised to learn, the eminent Judge Di was a real historical person. So if you go looking for information about “Judge Dee” you’ll only be referred back to van Gulik; “Di Renjie” will get you a lot more information. (You might also look for Ti Jen-chieh and Di Renjiay.) I will call van Gulik’s character Dee and the historical personage Di.

810CKYghySLThe historical Di practiced as a district magistrate from 663 to 678, first under the direct rulership of members of the Tang Dynasty and later under the “monstrous” concubine, Lady Wu, who ruled “de facto or de jure” from 665 to 705. Lin Yutang remarked (in his biography of Lady Wu):

“Among the people he [Di] is more popularly known as the judge who invariably tracked down the criminal. As a judge who often went about in plain clothes to detect crime, he made the astounding record of always solving crime mysteries which had puzzled and frustrated other judges and magistrates.”

5418And so the Dutch historian van Gulik found references to Judge Di and translated a volume known loosely as Dee Goong An. This was published in English in 1949 as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee and was the beginning of van Gulik’s many novels and short stories about Judge Dee, which he wrote from 1951 until 1968. van Gulik also translated and published a 13th century casebook for district magistrates, called T’ang-yin-pi-shih (Parallel Cases From Under The Pear Tree), from which he harvested many of the key elements of his Judge Dee plots.

x500So other than being a historical personage known for his detective skills, why is Judge Dee a great detective? There are a number of reasons why I enjoy his adventures very much. One is simply strangeness. I’ve remarked elsewhere that I enjoy finding out the minutiae of everyday life in 1930s England from reading Golden Age Detection novels; in the Judge Dee stories, everyday life in the second half of the 7th century in China is astonishingly different than my everyday life, and it’s fascinating to see the differences and the similarities.

ec7c898106057d3daf6082444ef5b372--deeOne thing that van Gulik found difficult was the transition between the Chinese literary tradition and the Golden Age model. In the Chinese originals, for instance, the identity, history, and motive of the criminal is stated right up front — making them all inverted detective stories instead of whodunits. The Chinese originals frequently feature supernatural elements; ghosts, visits to the Netherworld, etc., and bizarre elements like the testimony of animals and household objects. The original stories were part of a literary tradition that embraced … well, call it a “passionate interest for detail”…  and so there are many digressions, including poetry, Confucianist instruction, philosophy and religious discussions, etc. The Chinese loved novels with huge casts of related characters, and complex familial relationships; as well, they were accustomed to reading about exactly how the criminal was executed in great and gruesome detail.

x500So van Gulik had a great deal of work to do in order to re-cast his stories into a modality that would be acceptable to the Western audience. The testimony of animals and kitchen utensils is gone, as are most of the elements that we would see as digressions from the story line. Yes, there are supernatural elements in van Gulik — just as there are supernatural elements in John Dickson Carr. Judge Dee appears to believe in ghosts, but doesn’t rely on their testimony or allow them to do anything much more than guide him to places where actual evidence is found. Much of what Judge Dee does in his stories is detective work of a kind that would not be too bizarre to a modern audience. For instance, in The Chinese Bell Murders, he deduces that a student could not have strangled his mistress because his long fingernails “of the sort affected by the literary class” would have left marks on her throat that were not seen upon examination.

van Gulik artwork

A courtroom scene, illustrated by van Gulik himself. Note the flail and rod in the hands of the attendants; not just for show.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of the Judge Dee stories are the courtroom scenes; 7th century China had a legal system that was far, far different than our own. Judge Dee had very nearly absolute authority within his courtroom and acts as judge, jury, defence lawyer, prosecution lawyer, and weigher of evidence all at the same time. Dee was entitled to use torture in the courtroom to elicit confessions (such as in The Chinese Nail Murders) and is sometimes required to (Chinese court procedure forbade conviction without confession) but generally, in the best Perry Mason tradition, Dee relies on careful questioning and close observation of behaviour. He’s frequently solved the case himself before it comes to court, and he runs his courtroom in order to demonstrate to the populace the guilt of the villains.
And where Perry Mason has his private eye Paul Drake, Judge Dee has a small group of investigators around him who serve as his eyes and ears in levels of society where he cannot penetrate, even while disguised. Sergeant Hoong, Ma Joong, Chiao Tai, and Tao Gan are all individuals with human qualities and failings, who have sexual and familial relationships, enjoy good food, and are constantly seeking adventure and excitement. Dee himself frequently disguises himself as a member of a lower class of society and goes out to investigate his cases; he’s occasionally required to demonstrate his mastery of sword-fighting and boxing.

9780226848754_p0_v1_s550x406As a person, Dee has many personal qualities that will be attractive to the modern audience. As a strict Confucian, he respects his ancestors; Dee regulates his household sternly but with both mercy and generosity. Dee has three wives, about whom we don’t learn much, although he acquires Third Wife in the course of one of the novels. We only know that he has three sons and a daughter from a casual mention in a short story. Dee’s relationships with his subordinates are correct but friendly; Dee is interested in the people around him and their lives, and interacts socially with many levels of society. And he’s what we might think of as a “good” judge; he cares strongly about finding the right answer and punishing the guilty. It’s frequently hard to figure out what’s going on in his mind, but it would be a pleasure and a privilege to sit down with him and discuss his cases.

I recommend that you experience van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories not in the order in which they were written, but such that you follow the chronology of Dee’s life as he moves upwards through the judicial ranks. You will find this chronology in Judge Dee at Work (1967) as a postscript.

image-w1280

Khigh Dheigh (left) as Judge Dee in the 1978 made-for-TV movie.

edbda5af07a0dfe4286274317c356ae7Other authors have written stories about Judge Di; Frédéric Lenormand has written at least 18 French-language stories that have yet to be translated into English, and other novelists both Chinese and non-Chinese have speculated about the character. There are (terrible) television series, and films — notably a weird 1974 made-for-TV movie called Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders, a sought-after collectible, but also three excellent recent Chinese-language productions produced and directed by Tsui Hark (2010, 2013 and 2018).

61HCF1BKN5L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_There are also other books about van Gulik, who was a fascinating polymath with many interests — his expertise in Chinese erotic drawings means that all the Judge Dee volumes have his drawings as part of the publication, and there’s always a nude woman depicted. I’m greatly indebted for a lot of this brief piece to a large and excellent volume by J. K. Van DoverThe Judge Dee Novels of R.H. van Gulik, where he traces the connection to
51R7JAQizoL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_various modern-day detectives in a fascinating and erudite way. It truly is everything you need to know and quite a bit more to think about, and I recommend it to your attention if you can find a copy. Any unreferenced quotes in this piece are to this book, and I’m grateful to Van Dover for organizing my thoughts quickly and easily. I’ve read other material about van Gulik, including what that brilliant Dutch mystery writer Janwillem van de Wetering had to say (Robert van Gulik: His Life, His Work (1987); van de Wetering also published a volume in 1997 called Judge Dee Plays His Lute, which I have yet to read)Van Dover has everything you’ll ever want, both top-level fact and deep background, and says it all best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Great Detectives (Part 1)

The Great Detectives: Two by Erle Stanley Gardner

Perry Mason, Cool & Lam

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great Detectives

I’ve taken some time away from the Tuesday Night Bloggers recently but I’m happy to be back contributing to a large-scale joint project about Great Detectives (to coincide with the release of the book 100 Greatest Literary Detectives).  Every Tuesday for the next while, a group of bloggers will be telling people about their favourite Great Detectives and I’ll hope to be right there beside them with a full ten of my favourites over the course of this month.  Mine are mostly unlikely to be added to the list of 100 Greatest Literary Detectives but, for one reason or another, I think my choices have greatness within them. I’ll add a link here to the contributions of others when I find out exactly where they are. (The roundup of links is found here.)

Erle Stanley Gardner

Today’s entries were both detectives created by the prolific Erle Stanley Gardner (whom I’ll shorten to ESG). You can find ESG’s Wikipedia entry here; I have to mention that my friend Jeffrey Marks (who wrote the definitive biography of Craig Rice) is bringing out a new biography of ESG to which I’m looking forward with considerable interest! Perhaps he’ll forgive me, though, if I hit the high spots in advance.

ESG taught himself law, passed the bar and practiced at the same time as he wrote more than a million words a year for the pulp magazines. That’s where he developed his writing style and an incredible discipline that had him turning out four books a year under his name and various pseudonyms for many years; between short stories and novels, his huge bibliography is a volume all its own (from Kent State University Press in 1968). The first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws from 1933, sold 28,000,000 copies by 1948 and in the mid-50s, ESG novels were selling at the rate of 20,000 copies a day. There were movies and TV series and TV movies and radio programmes based on his work, and every kind of ancillary Perry Mason merchandise you can imagine, from comic books to lunch kits.

Barbara Hale as Della Street and Raymond Burr as Perry Mason

Barbara Hale as Della Street and Raymond Burr as Perry Mason

Perry Mason

It’s likely that everyone who grew up in an English-speaking country within reach of a television set has the image in their head of Raymond Burr as Perry Mason. From 270+ episodes of the long-running TV series, a long-running radio programme and more than 80 novels, we know a lot about his character; Perry Mason is a criminal lawyer who fights hard for his clients and the more difficult a situation is, the more he seems to enjoy it.

In the novels, there’s a kind of standard pattern (dare I say “formula”) for how his cases work themselves out. At the outset, Mason becomes interested in a case because of some unusual or striking feature — the story hook. Things develop rapidly and there’s pretty much always a murder for which Mason’s client is arrested. Mason investigates everyone and everything, with the help of his faithful secretary Della Street and private eye with offices down the hall, Paul Drake. Eventually it turns out that the District Attorney, Hamilton Burger, has one view of the case and Perry has to discern a different pattern from the same facts in order to bring home the crime to the true criminal. Frequently at the last minute, he always does so and exonerates his client.

Perry Mason, The Case of the Caretaker's Cat (1935)

Perry Mason, The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat (1935)

At one point in The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat (1935) Burger says, “You’re a better detective than you are a lawyer. When you turn your mind to the solution of a crime, you ferret out the truth.” This is true, although at times Mason is excellent at pulling legal tricks out of his sleeve to confound his opposition.

What’s really interesting is that, if you follow the strict canon of the novels only, what we learn about Perry Mason as a person is — very nearly nothing. We know he likes “thick filet mignon steak with French-fried onions” and “hot soup … and garlic bread”, or “au gratin potatoes” — in The Case of the Crooked Candle he mentions “green turtle soup … nice sizzling steaks, and salad, with a dish of chili beans on the side and tortillas”. This knowledge of his food preferences is because there’s almost always a scene in a restaurant, where Perry and Della catch up on the case over food while Paul Drake has to run back to his office with a hamburger to go.

The Case of the Crooked Candle (1944)

The Case of the Crooked Candle (1944)

And that’s about it. We learn at one point that he lives in an apartment, but what it looks like — nothing. He drives powerful cars, dresses well and is attractive to women. And very occasionally Perry expresses that he enjoys such pursuits as ocean cruises, deep sea fishing, relaxing on a beach or in the desert in the company of Della Street. He has no personal friends, family, personal history, or back story. Not once in 80 novels did Perry’s “old school friend” ever show up looking for representation; no alma mater, no former girlfriends, zip. He’s well known to maitres d’ and parking attendants and taxi drivers as a big tipper but we know so little about him personally, we don’t even know his favourite colour.

Warren William as Perry Mason

Claire Dodd as Della Street, Warren William as Perry Mason, Eddie Acuff as Spudsy Drake; The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936)

The six early black-and-white films are not considered canonic, although they are amusing and a little shocking — certainly it’s unusual to see Perry get married and leave Della alone on the honeymoon to take on a case, or see him rhapsodizing about the culinary arts. And Paul Drake has an earlier incarnation as “Spudsy Drake”, comedy sidekick (best played by the laconic Allan Jenkins). No one considers these films to be the “real Perry”.

TCOT Drowsy Mosquito (1943)

TCOT Drowsy Mosquito (1943)

If you’re looking for a single volume that will tell you everything you need to know about Perry Mason as a person, I recommend his very first outing: 1933’s The Case of the Velvet Claws, where he’s at his most hard-punching and physically active. There you will learn everything about him that’s ever said, except during his romantic interludes with Della, which are exemplified in the fascinating 1943 volume The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito. As a man dealing with beautiful women, try TCOT Fan-Dancer’s Horse from 1947; he’s on display as a house guest in 1936’s TCOT Sleepwalker’s Niece. And to see his detective skills in full view, try TCOT Crooked Candle (1944) or TCOT Green-Eyed Sister (1953), which showcases his command of forensic science.

The Bigger They Come (1939)

The Bigger They Come (1939)

Cool & Lam

ESG was so productive that he issued this series initially under his pseudonym of A. A. Fair. The private investigation firm of Cool & Lam is only on view in the 30 novels which make up that particular series, but we know more about both the protagonists from the first chapter of the first book (The Bigger They Come, 1939) than we ever learn in 80 Perry Mason novels.  At the beginning of that book, “sawed-off runt” Donald Lam is unemployed and starving, but Bertha Cool sees something in him (that he’s a good liar, at the outset) and hires him for her detective agency.

Benay Venuta, from the unsold pilot for Cool and Lam

Benay Venuta, who played Bertha in the unsold pilot for Cool and Lam

Bertha Cool is introduced as being “somewhere in the sixties, with grey hair, twinkling gray eyes, and a benign, grandmotherly expression on her face. She must have weighed over two hundred.” (Donald later revises that estimate upwards.) “She evidently didn’t believe in confining herself to tight clothes. She wiggled and jiggled around … like a cylinder of currant jelly on a plate. But she wasn’t wheezy, and she didn’t waddle. She walked with a smooth, easy rhythm.” In Chapter 2 she mentions the sad story of her cheating husband (the only time we ever hear it) and mentions, “Sure, I do anything — divorces, politics — anything. My idea of ethics in this business is cash and carry.” She has a foul mouth and a complete lack of conscience, but she likes to cut herself a slice of whatever cash is in her vicinity.

Donald Lam is, as the judge who’s prosecuting him for murder in chapter 13 remarks, “frail in his physical appearance, apparently young, innocent and inexperienced”. (He’s said to be 5’6″ and about 130 pounds soaking wet.) Nevertheless he has, with “consummate brilliance”, “jockeyed the authorities of two states into such a position that they are apparently powerless to punish him for a cold-blooded, premeditated, and deliberate murder, his part in which he has brazenly admitted.” You see, Donald qualified to be a lawyer but never practised; he’s smart as a whip and knows a few legal tricks that most lawyers have never thought of. He grew up small and had to learn how to fight with his brain. “Donald Lam” isn’t his real name, but we never find out what that is.

Spill_the_Jackpot_11Over their 30 outings together, Bertha is the muscle and Donald is the brains. Bertha controls the purse strings but soon realizes that she makes more money with Donald than without him — she takes him into partnership and he’s constantly driving her crazy, especially by spending money to make things happen when she prefers to pinch every penny, but she begrudgingly admits he gets the job done and makes them both money. The formula is that Donald gets mixed up with the case and a beautiful woman involved with the case simultaneously, and has to dodge fistfights and violence while working out whodunit, usually in the nick of time.

Cool & Lam unsold pilot

Benay Venuta as Bertha Cool & Billy Pearson as Donald Lam in the unsold pilot for Cool & Lam

There was a TV pilot made for a Cool & Lam program in 1958, based on Turn On The Heat (1940) when Perry Mason was at the height of its TV popularity, but it never went anywhere.  A pity; this unconventional pair of detectives gets to the solution of 30 mysteries before the police, and their adventures would have made interesting television.

If you want the raw Bertha and Donald, before a veneer of sophistication overtakes them in later novels, I recommend The Bigger They Come; you’ll also find a recent discovery, a previously-unpublished Cool & Lam novel from 1940 called The Knife Slipped, to be of interest. If you want to see Donald actually win a fistfight, that’s Double or Quits; he studies fighting in Spill the Jackpot and Gold Comes in Bricks but still continues to get beaten up whenever he’s in a fight. And Donald spends time in Colombia (Crows Can’t Count) and Mexico (All Grass Isn’t Green).

Bats Fly at Dusk, Cool & Lam

The Dell mapback edition of Bats Fly at Dusk

Bertha takes two cases on her own while Donald is off fighting in WW2; Bats Fly at Dusk and Cats Prowl at Night, although Donald’s presence is felt by telegram. The entire series is worth your time, if you want to see legal legerdemain mixed with gangsters, shady schemes, beautiful women and the pugnacious Sgt. Frank Sellers (who asks Bertha to marry him at the end of Cats Prowl at Night). The language is frequently salty and Donald’s bedroom antics with witnesses (and Bertha’s secretary Elsie) are quite salacious, but there’s a hard core of detection at the centre that will satisfy even those keen on the puzzle mystery.

I’ve already gone on too long to impose on you with a biography of my third favourite ESG detective, hard-punching district attorney Doug Selby, hero of ESG’s D.A. series; that will have to be for next time. (some hours later) Next time came sooner than I thought: Here is part 2, about Doug Selby and Judge Dee.

 

 

Money in the Morgue, by Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy (2018)

Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy, Money in the MorgueProbably my regular readers are already familiar with the reason this book exists. Ngaio Marsh died in 1982, after publishing 32 novels about Roderick Alleyn, second son of a baronet and a police inspector with Scotland Yard. She left behind three short chapters comprising the introduction to the present volume, as well as “a page of rough notes”; the notes did not apparently solve the murder or provide a motive and stipulated that all the action of the book takes place over the course of one night.

The daunting task of fashioning a book out of this sparse beginning was given to Stella Duffy, who shares a number of personal characteristics with the late Dame Ngaio. Duffy is originally from New Zealand, moved to London, works in theatre, writes detective fiction, and was awarded an OBE. As Duffy elsewhere remarked, “I would have been a bit miffed if they had asked someone else.” I agree it seems like a natural match.

I must here note that the “call to adventure” came from David Brawn, who is “estates manager” at Harper Collins. Brawn was responsible for the continuance of Hercule Poirot as by Sophie Hannah in 2014, in The Monogram Murders (about which I commented here).  Brawn and what are now two Poirot novels by Sophie Hannah have received my criticism in the past — I’m still quite creeped out by the existence of an estates manager at a major publishing house and have been quite disparaging about the whole idea here. In that article I damned with faint praise the work of Stella Duffy, who has continued to entertain me with her writing, and expressed my displeasure with the idea that Ngaio Marsh needed in any sense to be continued.

Stella Duffy

Stella Duffy

Ladies and gentlemen, I have changed my mind, and I apologize to all concerned. If David Brawn can bring books like this to the public, he himself deserves an OBE, and Stella Duffy deserves the Gold Dagger. This is the best continuation novel I’ve ever read. Duffy has combined a real grasp of Marsh’s traditional themes, preoccupations, and even language with the ability to write like Marsh and, may I add, Marsh at her best. Ngaio Marsh at her best means somewhere around 1940 to 1945, and that’s when Marsh set this book (and Duffy continued and finished it). If you are that kind of Ngaio Marsh fan and you haven’t got time to read the rest of this, here’s the conclusion I want you to reach: buy this book immediately because you will enjoy it very much.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others; I discuss elements of plot and construction although I do not lay out the answers.  If you haven’t already read this novel, reading this essay means it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

Ngaio Marsh and Shakespeare

Ngaio Marsh and friend

What is this book about?

Inspector Alleyn is in New Zealand, at a point in World War 2 when its invasion by Japan is forecast as a strong possibility.  The recovering soldiers and local patients at Mount Seager Hospital include Alleyn, who is doing a quiet little job of investigation involving some coded radio transmissions and pretending to be an invalid as cover; he has been in the hospital but not really part of it. The pulse of the experienced reader will quicken faintly as the opening pages reveal a rough map of the grounds of the hospital grounds and buildings.

nz20The everyday activities of the hospital involve a number of staff members: handsome young Dr. Hughes and crabby old Sister Comfort, Father O’Sullivan the unctuous vicar and various nurses and workers, and most especially the convalescing patients, all take their orders from the serene and authoritative Matron. A number of things happen roughly simultaneously at the outset of this night. The death of young Sydney Brown’s grandfather has caused him great distress, and his bereavement is being mitigated. A fat and pompous government payroll clerk, Mr. Glossop, has to spend the night at the hospital due to bad weather and needs to lock his cash in the Matron’s safe. One young and pretty nurse, the less than chaste Rosamund Farquharson, has won the enormous sum of one hundred pounds betting on an outsider at the races, and has also been relieved of it by Matron to put it in the safe for safekeeping. And there is a welter of personal relationships and romantic frustrations and sins small and large that are hinted at in the opening chapters.

Since the title of this book is Money in the Morgue, the experienced reader will not be surprised to learn that both the money and the Matron disappear quite soon into the book, although her body shows up in short order. Alleyn reveals his police credentials and, with the assistance of Sergeant Bix of the New Zealand Army substituting for his usual assistant Inspector Fox, takes charge of the case.

The plot’s the thing here, and since the action of the book takes place over such a short period of time, just about anything I say will spoil your enjoyment. I’ll merely note that Alleyn, in his usual display of gentlemanly uber-competence, solves every crime in sight before the break of dawn, some of which will not have made themselves plain to the less perceptive reader, and rights every wrong that needs righting. There is a very surprising climax followed by a series of short scenes in which all the loose ends are tied off.

Ngaio Marsh, 1940s

Ngaio Marsh, 1940s

Why is this book worth your time?

Ngaio Marsh was one of the four Queens of Crime of the Golden Age, we are often told, although I consider her fourth among that quadrumvirate after Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham. I had a try at talking about my five most/least favourite of her novels here; I’ve written about her paperback editions in general, from a collector’s standpoint, here, here, and here. And I went into great detail about Hand in Glove (1962) here and Last Ditch here (as part of my 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read series, which may give you all the idea you need of my opinion LOL).

I mention all this to drive traffic to my blog (smiling) but also to bolster the idea that, yes, I’ve read everything Ngaio Marsh ever wrote, multiple times, and given her work a lot of thought over the years. Some of her books are great; some of her books are awful. From my point of view, the ones that are great are generally speaking (a) written in her best period, roughly 1937’s Vintage Murder to 1947’s Final Curtain, (b) set in her native New Zealand, of which there are only four (and one is awful).

Marsh’s best writing is marked by a few general qualities. Since she was deeply engaged in the theatre — I won’t say that her best books are set against the theatrical background, because that is to my mind regrettably not true, but when Marsh grasps the three-act structure of a good play and applies it to her work, it escapes the dreaded Marshian second-act sag as Alleyn interviews all the witnesses one by one. (My friend Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog calls this “wallowing in the Marshes”.) She understood how this structure works and, when she got it right, she got it right. My experience is that she didn’t often get it right but when she did, it’s almost always in a book she wrote between 1937 and 1947 or so. Stella Duffy gets it right here. The sag is cleverly leavened by action that arises organically out of the situation … the interviews still happen but they’re not a deadly slog, as Marsh could sometimes manage.

The other quality that Marsh occasionally got right, and thereby lifted her work from average to extremely good, is more difficult to describe. It is a property of most well-written books, but it’s extremely important in detective fiction, which is highly plot driven. In long-winded terms; first Marsh creates believable characters who do things for believable reasons. Then she makes the things they do further the plot — and since those things are done for believable reasons, the reader can accept that they happened. Little or no suspension of belief is required. If you believe in the people, you believe in the plot, even though the plot is paramount. And then it becomes a very satisfying experience to be surprised at the REAL meaning of some of those actions — because they have become believable for a different, yet believable, reason. This is the sort of thing that happens when you have a well-hidden criminal, as you do in this book. Mr. X does action Y, and it seems as though he did Y because we see that he is the kind of person who would do that. It later turns out that he did Y for different reasons, ones that further the criminal plot; and thus there are new reasons to believe that he did Y. To me it’s one of the most satisfying ways of approaching a detective novel. You see the setting and the characters and the actions, and you think you know what you’ve seen. Then the author shakes the snow globe and, holy moly, all your assumptions were wrong and everything means something else that is also wholly believable. I think in the present volume this is all down to Stella Duffy’s plotting skills, and they are superb.

At her best, between about 1937 and 1947, Marsh’s ear for her own writing was very keen. Perhaps it was merely that she had an editor who held down the worst of her later excesses; perhaps this editor also encouraged her to occasionally step out. Marsh had moments of writing, quite often about the beauties of New Zealand, that were downright lyrical; Colour Scheme (1943), for instance, is filled with descriptions of the countryside and the vegetation and the weather (and the hideously powerful fumaroles) that beautifully set the scene and add delightfully to the atmosphere. Wikipedia appears to assert that the Marshian fragment completed by Stella Duffy was written in 1946 and I can see many reasons why this would be so. Her previous two novels had been set in wartime New Zealand (Colour Scheme and Died in the Wool) and this seems to follow right along; the same location, the same premise, the same framing story of Alleyn writing letters to Fox and Troy. Anyway, I think her writing style at this point was at its most effective height. She was writing elegant prose for intelligent people, with a good ear for dialogue and strong powers of characterization and description.

WWII nurses

These nurses reminded me of what the nurses and matron of this story might have had to dress like as they did a tough and messy job — crisp outfits and starched caps.

When I read this volume, I felt immediately that the writing style was actually from that period; Duffy has picked up on that perfectly and really carried it through with great restraint. I gather from an interview that she found words and phrases in Marsh’s oeuvre that had been repeated and tried to use them. Just a great idea. Ordinarily I don’t mind if a continuation writer doesn’t sound so much like the original writer as long as she thinks like the original writer. Here, Duffy has really matched and occasionally exceeded Marsh’s prose at her most intelligent, and yet restrained herself from adding her own voice, for the most part. My attention was caught by a tiny snippet about Miss Farquharson being mocked for a non-NZ accent when ordering a drink — that sounded like Duffy herself. I mention that because it’s the only time I had the thought of Duffy and not Marsh herself writing this.

And now I have come to the part for which Stella Duffy deserves all the praise and then some. If all she got was the first three chapters of this and a page of notes then all I can say is, she’s got a hell of a career ahead of her as a Golden Age continuation writer if nothing else. There is a central twist in this book that is killingly clever as it reverses your expectations; it’s thoroughly foreshadowed and almost obvious once you go back and look to see where you’ve been led astray. Frankly, fooled I was and fooled I was happy to be. I enjoy books like this and they have that true Golden Age quality of story-telling, a delightful reversal that’s a twist in the tale. This is something that Marsh only occasionally reached and there are not many of her novels that are this clever and thus this enjoyable in terms of the criminal plot.

All the characters are believable, and I am happy to say that they are believable in the sense of it being 1946. Duffy doesn’t make the error of ascribing modern-day points of view to characters for whom they are anachronisms. In fact as I read through the book, I kept being reminded of characters from other Marsh novels. Bix and Fox are pretty obvious cognates, rather a “tip of the hat” kind of thing. There are Matrons and nurses and handsome young doctors in The Nursing Home Murder, she knew that background. Pompous Mr. Glossop reminded me of a couple of other characters in other novels (perhaps Death at the Bar), angry little men whose job, plot wise, is to keep people on edge and confrontational. There are other Maori characters in Vintage Murder (this book name checks a Maori doctor we first met in Vintage Murder) and Colour Scheme, a mixture of good and bad like all populations. Evasive Father O’Callaghan made me think of a minor character in Overture to Death; the unpleasant Sister Comfort made me think of a major one. The added fillip in the present volume is that there is just the faintest, most delicate tinge of lesbianism in a comment in Chapter 35 that doubles the meaning of a central relationship in the book … which to my mind is an elegant echo of the faint and delicate tinge of lesbianism in Ngaio Marsh’s own life. (I hasten to add, to my mind it’s just a rumour and probably not true. Not that that’s a bad thing, just that it wasn’t her thing.) Certainly it is in Duffy’s own life; she is married to a woman. So I’m willing to believe she knows what she’s laying down here and, for me, it was precisely the right amount. Another “tip of the hat”.

So many nice things in this book; I could go on and on. The grand revelation of the book is pulled back just the tiniest bit from being truly explosive, but you know, Marsh herself wasn’t very good at coming up with a explosive finish. There’s some great work with the tiniest details of life during food and rubber rationing; just enough to remind the reader when they are. Similarly the niceties of linguistic New Zealand are handled just as cleverly here as Marsh did herself; “I reckon you’d better rattle those dags if you’re going to get a shoofti at it … ” to me is the equivalent of Dead Water‘s “‘Oh, Patrick!’ ‘Don’t say ”’Ow, Pettruck!”'” in its conveyance of accurate everyday NZ usage.

So many things to like, indeed, that I’m astonished to think that, you know, I want more of this. And that truly is a surprise. With Sophie Hannah’s resurrection of Poirot, I merely want that to stop, or for Hannah to work on a project more suited to her considerable talents. This one is done so well that I want Stella Duffy to write a whole new series of Alleyn adventures, based on no Marshian notes at all. I can’t believe I just typed that, but, yeah; I think I would enjoy the hell out of that. In the meantime I’m going to get my hands on a lot of other Stella Duffy mysteries.

A note on editions

Of course there is only one edition of this book at the moment; I got this in electronic format the day it came out, which was yesterday. Yes, I’m a fast reader LOL. So if you want to read this you have the choice of a hugely overpriced electronic version or a reasonably priced first-edition hardcover that still costs twice what the electronic version does. Honestly, this is such a good book, I’m going to go out and get one or even two copies of the first edition and lay them down for the future; I think this book will appreciate.