Not The Top Ten: Ellery Queen

As promised in my most recent post, I thought I’d apply my Not The Top Ten (Personal) approach to Ellery Queen.

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of detective fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about quite a few novels of Ellery Queen. In at least one case the identity of the murderer will be obvious. If you haven’t already read these titles, they will have lost their power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read any book whose title is unfamiliar to you (I’ve put them in bold italics) before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.

Most overrated novel

472113f2176c6dff7e5e4c30bb818db3This is a tough call, but for me — and I emphasize this is based on personal factors — the most overrated EQ novel is And on the Eighth Day by a hair over The Fourth Side of the Triangle. Both, strangely enough, were written by science-fiction writer Avram Davidson under the direction of Messrs. Dannay and Lee; I’ve read his science fiction and it’s fairly … tepid. And yes, I am aware that And On the Eighth Day received the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Each to his own, as the old lady said when she kissed the cow.

To me, this book is gallingly annoying. It is clearly the product of a storyteller who is self-consciously constructing a parable; it pauses on the verge of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly, like the “Locked Room lecture” chapter in John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, about the moral imperatives that underlie the agonizingly predictable activities of the book. “Look at me! I’m writing in metaphors! and look how abstract I can be!” Okay, not quite that far. But the authorial presence is clumsy and overbearing, at the “nudge nudge wink wink” level. Please, leave me alone and let me read the damn book.

I don’t like the intertwining of Naziism with religious parables; I don’t like the intertwining of the detective story with religious parables. (Let religions do their own work in their own way, say I, without coopting the forms of genre fiction. One of the conventions of detective fiction is that even the most basic assumptions must be verified and nothing is taken on faith.) And I don’t like an authorial presence that muscles its way into the moral high ground without allowing you to decide if it’s merited. So I’m the critic who likes this book the least, but there are a lot of smart people who esteem it highly, and you will have to make up your own mind what you think.

Most underrated novel

4e882a3ea7e348579188dc3e10dbaf48For me, the most underrated Ellery Queen novel would have to be The Murderer is a Fox (1945). I like the Wrightsville period of EQ because it represents the finest example of the Dannay and Lee trying to push the boundaries of the puzzle mystery. And I think The Murderer is a Fox is a better Wrightsville novel than Calamity Town. In Calamity Town the cousins had already established the focus on small-town America and its foibles; here in The Murderer is a Fox, I think they captured atmosphere better than in any other novel. You can see the dust motes dancing in the thick atmosphere of the attic, feel the weight of the heavy blue glass tumbler … and we can sympathize with the hero afflicted with “shell shock” who has to endure clacking tongues and being misunderstood, and with his adolescent self coping with a murdered parent. The solution is truly surprising and effective; it prompts the reader to real emotions and to sympathize with a character in an impossible situation. Just because it’s a book on a small scale doesn’t mean it can’t work on larger themes.

51cuw5ymffl-_sy445_A close runner-up would be Halfway House. I think if it had been called The Swedish Match Mystery as originally planned, we’d right now be acclaiming it as among the best of the Nationalities period.  As it is, it’s not quite Wrightsville and not quite bloodless logic, but in many ways it has the best features of both periods.

If the cousins had actually written A Room To Die In, instead of Jack Vance, I would have considered it in this category; it’s a smart little locked-room mystery that should be more widely read. As it is, it’s definitely the book that would have been better written by John Dickson Carr if I ever do that comparison.

The novel containing the best hook

siamese_twin1This one has to be The Siamese Twin Mystery, which starts with the realization that Ellery and his father are going to have to confront a forest fire in the course of the novel. It’s got everything, as the saying goes, “excepting Eliza running across the ice floes with the bloodhounds snapping at her ass”. I can’t think there’s a single reader who could stop reading once the Queens in the big old Duesenberg take that first fateful turn up to the top of the mountain hoping to escape the blaze… I was hooked like a trout and I think every other reader was too. A skilled authorial presence is saying, “Have I got a story for YOU.”

It’s also really difficult to start your novel with a bang, and then keep it rising steadily until the end; lesser talents can’t avoid a sag in the middle. Siamese Twin makes that work, and the finale is beautifully handled and truly exciting. It pays off every promise of the story hook and then some.

d4fb6aa891c234f7961d426e6e6f2090I suspect many people would suggest that The Chinese Orange Mystery was the best hook — except that it takes so long to get to, for me the little corpse with the spears stuck into his reversed clothes doesn’t really qualify as a story hook but more like the midpoint of Act One. A story hook starts bang! in Chapter One, and you’re either hooked or you’re not. It doesn’t count as a story hook if you expect it in Chapter Five because you read about it on the jacket flap’s précis. There’s a similar problem with The Lamp of God — yes, the vanishing house is a gripping plot development, but it doesn’t happen until too late in the story to qualify as a hook.

The novel containing the best murder method

Queen-Avon425This is a difficult topic that requires a little logic-chopping. The word “method” means, to me, “cause of death”. This lets out novels like The Chinese Orange Mystery, where the scene of the crime is truly outre — but the corpse was prosaically biffed on the head with a poker. The King is Dead certainly has a complex method, but is it “best”? No, it’s just overwrought.

The Egyptian Cross Mystery with the multiple decapitations is certainly a strong contender. I also like the methods in The Door Between, and The Dutch Shoe Mystery; they’re inventive and logical.  But for me the winner is The Tragedy of X, with the ball of needles coated with nicotine stuffed into the coat pocket of the victim. That method was produced by a creepy and inventive turn of thought. And best of all, it has a specific contribution to the book that helps identify the murderer (you’ll understand this if you remember the ending).

The novel containing the best motive

br02b_tragedy_of_yI struggled with this one because I wanted to be sure I understood what “best motive” meant. After much thought, I think “best” means the motive that you would never guess, but that arises organically out of the material.  So that means I’ve dismissed novels where the motive is to get a lot of money, or escape from a terrible relationship; those motives are commonplace. EQ occasionally has a plot structure where someone commits a bunch of actions or murders in order to conceal the only murder they wanted to commit — what you might call the ABC motive. This is a little bit fresher but honestly, in EQ’s hands most often it just means that the actions of the book are strained out of proportion in order to include whatever improbable linking structure the authors thought appropriate. (Ten Days’ Wonder and The Finishing Stroke come to mind.) So I’ve eliminated those, and I’ve also eliminated novels where the murderer is simply insane.

01d_RomanThat leaves me with kind of a tie, for different reasons. The Tragedy of Y is my winner by a hair — the murderer is following the written instructions of a dead man without understanding why. No one could intuitively grasp that, but it actually does arise organically from the characters and setting. A very close second is The Roman Hat Mystery, but the reason that no one would guess that motive is quite different. The book was published in 1929, and back then, it was actually a feasible motive that a person would commit murder because they had “just a drop of coloured blood” and wanted to keep that a secret. Wow — just, wow.  And thank goodness we’re beyond that now.

The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending

ac6b6a80250c6057f2ff0499a38e931bThe French Powder Mystery is well-known for having its final words reveal the name of the murderer for the first time. That was kind of a stunt, but for me it was a very surprising ending and a very surprising way of revealing that information. The other novel that truly surprised me was Drury Lane’s Last Case. EQ managed to build that ending organically until the reader is at a pitch of excitement before the reveal of what should be a very surprising murderer … the only trouble is, I didn’t really believe it was psychologically reasonable.

The novel you should avoid 

9780451045805-us-300I’ve had my say about the awfulness of A Fine and Private Place elsewhere, but I think I have to give pride of place to The Last Woman in His Life. This book is significantly ugly and ill-informed on the topic of homosexuality. It’s probably damning with faint praise to say that, you know, I don’t blame Dannay and Lee all that much (actually Lee probably didn’t have much to do with this one, since he was nearing the end of his life) — I think their hearts were in the right place even if the outcome was atrocious. They were trying to be forward-thinking and liberal, and they got it wrong, wrong, wrong.

This novel was written in 1970, two years before I came out, and even then I already knew that the stereotypical gay man they present either didn’t exist or had ceased to exist before I was born. Is it that the cousins never bothered to actually, you know, talk to anyone gay? Or that someone had filled their heads with these weird stories of guys built like football players who liked to wear evening gowns, and they accepted second-hand information rather credulously? Perhaps they were told about a bunch of different sub-groups of gay society and somehow conflated them all into one ghastly stereotypical gay equivalent of Little Black Sambo. We’ll never know.

The other problem with this book is that it is really a very poor mystery per se. EQ here offers a puzzle that is very Queenian, as it were: there are three obvious suspects, ex-wives A, B, and C, with little to differentiate them. The plot doesn’t go very far to make us think that any of them is guilty either. Speaking as someone who’s seen this EQ pattern many times before, it was crystal clear that the killer had to be none of the above. And since there are virtually no other people in the book who fit a few other crucial criteria, such as being present during the murder, it’s quite obvious whodunit. The rest is just foofaraw. And it’s foofaraw that EQ went to preposterous lengths to set in Wrightsville, which merely drags down our understanding of Wrightsville instead of adding anything.

This book is irredeemable. It is not merely poor, it is poor and offensive. It’s an ugly stain on a great body of work by two masters of the genre, and I hope no one ever reads it again.

The one you must read in your lifetime even if you only read one by this author

UnknownThe Greek Coffin Mystery is definitely a superb puzzle mystery; I think it’s the finest of EQ’s “Nationalities” series. It’s beautifully plotted, subtly clued, it has one of the least-likely murderers ever, and the book’s structure is one of the finest examples of leading the reader down the garden path in English literature.  (Yes, seriously. THAT good.) I’ve praised it even more extensively here. And yet — this is not the one I think you should read in your lifetime, even if you only read one Ellery Queen book. That honour belongs to Calamity Town.

Since I’ve said above that it’s not even the best Wrightsville novel, let alone the best EQ novel, you may be puzzled at this point. But I do have a reason. EQ mysteries like Greek Coffin and Chinese Orange are brilliant examples of the Golden Age’s finest achievement, the strict-form puzzle mystery. But they did not change the genre, they were merely among its best examples.

Dannay and Lee, writing as Ellery Queen, tried something that only Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers had achieved thus far; they pushed the boundaries of the genre and changed detective fiction, not merely exemplified it. Christie did it by “breaking the rules” in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. EQ did it by boldly trying to add emotions to detective fiction in the United States, in much the same way that Dorothy L. Sayers created her “literature with bowels” in England with novels like Gaudy Night.

Calamity Town is the book where the creativity really happens. (I think of Halfway House as a kind of false start; the two books have many similarities.) It might not seem like much to readers who have grown up with every detective revealing his or her inner humanity, but merely trying to write about people realistically was a great step forward. At the same time, they tried to use the town of Wrightsville as a kind of character in the book, giving us the massive ebb and flow of a small town on a large scale, from Emmeline DuPre to the depths of Low Town. It’s a huge step forward in the idea of putting characterization and reality into detective fiction, because the technique tries to mirror reality.

Inventively, EQ use intense recomplication in this book as a story-telling method — the sections where we get a whirlwind of comments and reactions from a wide variety of minor characters, and even newspapers and radio broadcasts. Not an absolutely original method of telling the story, since E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case did it in 1913 and Philip MacDonald did it in 1930 with Rynox and 1931’s Murder Gone Mad. EQ, however, have a really nice take on the technique by stretching it out into a longer, less frenetic process, and using it to build the rising tide of the action as part of the plot.

All things considered, Calamity Town is not a magnificent book. But it is an original and ground-breaking book and it took the American detective novel a great step forward in 1942, breaking the grip of the Golden Age forever. So it’s an important book, and if you only read one Ellery Queen title, it should be this one.

A Murder is Announced, by Agatha Christie (1950): A Bayardian exploration

WARNING: This essay concerns works of detective fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you WILL learn a huge amount about the plot of Christie’s A Murder Is Announced (1950) including the murderer’s name and motive, and a similar amount about Christie’s The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd (1926). I’ve also needed to talk about the solution to Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die (1938)If you read on, these books will have completely lost their power to surprise you, and that would be a shame, because they’re excellent mystery novels. If you haven’t yet read any of the books mentioned above, go do that and return; if you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

fa9d7ccb2654906bd6f9c04460fb1110I’m sure your first question will be, what is a “Bayardian exploration”? A while ago, I came across a pair of similar volumes by Pierre Bayard, who previously was only known to me as the author of How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. My first discovery of his witty deconstructive talents was with Sherlock Holmes was Wrong: Re-opening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles (and I gather there also exists a volume on Hamlet as yet untranslated from Bayard’s native French that argues that Claudius did not kill Hamlet’s father). It should be clear from the title what he’s about; essentially he approaches the text of The Hound of the Baskervilles from a number of different perspectives and demonstrates that the real murderer is not identified correctly in the text, and also that the author subconsciously knew who the real culprit is. I found his writing to have an overall air of sly humour, but that might just be the effect of all that post-modernist literary theory; your mileage may vary.

RO60073769What piqued my interest extremely, though, was Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery. In the Bayardian spirit, since I haven’t actually read this volume, I’ll tell you my understanding from reading comments about this volume. Essentially Bayard takes apart The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and “proves” that, in a very post-modern approach to the text, the murder was not actually committed by the doctor/narrator but by his sister Caroline, whom Christie has said was a precursor to Jane Marple.

I went back and checked the text, and by golly the doctor never actually SAYS he committed the murder. After the body is discovered he did, in a famous turn of phrase, “what little had to be done”. This is an important point in the text since we are reading the doctor’s handwritten diary in which he describes the events of the novel that involve him directly. First his diary describes the crucial period:

“The letters were brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread. I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone.”

e20e09ded6c1e347c3e3fdec0c102ca6The reader of Christie’s text is meant to understand in the final chapter, as the doctor is contemplating suicide, that in the ten-minute interval the doctor had murdered Ackroyd and set up a few red herrings. When he later says he “did what little had to be done”, the reader understands that the doctor is saying “went over and shoved the dictaphone into my medical bag, pushed back the chair, and left”.

But since the narrator is unreliable, Bayard seems to suggest, he can be even more unreliable than we’ve been told in Christie’s text. Apparently the alternate suggestion is that the doctor fakes his diary entry to conceal the involvement of his sister, for fraternal reasons, and hopes to take the blame if a detective like Hercule Poirot should be on the case. If you re-examine the text, there’s a curious passage that is open to a couple of interpretations. After all is discovered and the doctor is writing his suicide note, he adds:

“My greatest fear all through has been Caroline. I have fancied she might guess. Curious the way she spoke that day of my ‘strain of weakness.’ Well, she will never know the truth. There is, as Poirot said, one way out… I can trust him. He and Inspector Raglan will manage it between them. I should not like Caroline to know. She is fond of me, and then, too, she is proud… My death will be a grief to her, but grief passes…”

If Caroline has killed Ackroyd (for reasons connected with the blackmail of Mrs. Ferrars, for which the doctor takes credit in his confession) but does not know that her brother knows this, and intends to take responsibility for it, the passage makes as much sense, don’t you think?

So these are amusing diversions; M. Bayard is clever and intelligent, and allows people familiar with Christie’s text to have some intellectual fun. I don’t actually suggest that Bayard is “correct”.  Christie’s text says what it says, and it’s considered a classic text of detective fiction because it introduces the idea of the unreliable narrator who is attempting to keep the reader from the solution by misdirection.

imagesParenthetically at this point: there’s a 1938 novel by Nicholas Blake that relates intimately to TMORA and takes it one step further. The Beast Must Die is initially presented in the form a diary in which the diarist announces his desire to kill a certain person but later announces the diarist’s innocence when the person is actually killed. The diary, you will not be surprised to learn, has been faked to protect its writer; it’s truthful up to a point and then, as I recall the precise wording of the text, veers into untruth. This is different from Christie, where the doctor’s diary is scrupulously truthful but very, very carefully worded. (Poirot remarks upon the doctor’s reticence after reading his manuscript but emphasizes that the document is accurate.) Find out more about The Beast Must Die from a fellow GAD blogger and keen analyst here.

Anyway — as it contributes to my thinking about another Christie text below, here’s what I’m taking from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Agatha Christie was capable of creating a character in a detective novel who was … well, not precisely lying, but not telling the whole truth either. And this character specifically creates a written text that appears to say one thing and actually says another.  The character shows and tells us things about himself and his actions that are true, but presented in such a way as to mislead readers and detectives.
So I had stored M. Bayard’s high-spirited gedankenexperiment in my head as amusing but largely irrelevant to my own interests, which are in the text of Golden Age mysteries as they’re actually written. But the other day, I came across a comment that interested me in this kind of meta-analytic way, with reference to another Christie novel; 1950’s A Murder is Announced.

358d942b1ad1c9c88400b00e1ed1e7a2A Murder is Announced had been on my mind of late for a couple of reasons. I wrote a rather long essay, published elsewhere, about recognizing the presentation of LGBT characters in Golden Age detective fiction (here, GAD) — and two characters from AMIA, the Misses Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd, played a large part. My thesis was that characters in GAD were not said to be LGBT but sometimes were; the way you could explore this idea is by looking for stereotypes. To make a long story short, Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd are my best example of a long-term lesbian couple. The text never makes it clear, in words of one syllable, that they are a romantic partnership as well as a domestic one. (They raise chickens together.) But to my mind, it’s clear that Hinchcliffe’s anguish at the murder of Murgatroyd is that of a spouse, not a business partner.

Then there were a couple of little things that contributed to this picture. One was an idle thought that the process of concealing one’s LGBT identity, of being “in the closet”, is quite a bit the same as concealing one’s identity as a murderer in a piece of detective fiction. Rather like the experience of the doctor in TMORA. A gay man working in a conservative office environment — or a few decades ago anywhere — doesn’t have to announce his sexual preference, and doesn’t need to tell lies, but can leave things around like, say, a snapshot of himself with a beautiful female friend tacked up over his computer monitor. This is neither an original nor an especially complex insight, just one that was on my mind.

a murder is announced book coverFinally what coalesced everything for me was a comment I read here, in a discussion of the perception of Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd. The basis is an intelligent note that is focused upon the relationship of these two women, but the poster says two quite extraordinary things that got my mind working. The first is:

“It’s clear Christie was a close observer of human nature and the subtleties of relationships. In fact, in this same book she has two other women who are longtime friends and companions in the same house, but there’s zero undercurrent as in the [Hinchcliffe/Murgatroyd] case.”

And the second was even more striking for me:

“Incidentally, while thinking about this case, I realized that almost every possible non-polygamous relationship exists among the main characters in this one book, from single to married to widowed to trophy wife to lesbians to friends.”

One comment from a different writer suggests that “Letitia Blacklock and Dora Bunner have a Boston marriage but of the friendship-only variety.” (It was actually Charlotte masquerading as Letitia, but let that pass.) There’s an extensive discussion of the concept of “Boston marriage”, but what it boils down to is, according to most of the people who have read the book and given this matter some thought, Letty and Dora are not having sex and Hinch and Murgatroyd pretty much are.

The part that hadn’t struck me previously is the relationship between Lotty and Dora. Now, bear in mind two things here. One is that, in this novel, Lotty is the murderer of both Dora and Murgatroyd. The second is that, in Christie, we have precedent for murderers to provide testimony about their own activities that is partially true and partially false.  With that in mind, this is Jane Marple speaking in the denouement of AMIA about the relationship between Letty/Lotty Blacklock and Dora Bunner.

“The whole thing was going splendidly. And then – she made her big mistake. It was a mistake that arose solely from her kindness of heart and her naturally affectionate nature. She got a letter from an old school friend who had fallen on evil days, and she hurried to the rescue. Perhaps it may have been partly because she was, in spite of everything, lonely. Her secret kept her in a way apart from people. And she had been genuinely fond of Dora Bunner and remembered her as a symbol of her own gay carefree days at school.”

Pan-G144 Christie A Murder is AnnouncedNo, I’m not going to make a big thing about Christie’s using the word “gay”; she meant it in the sense of “festive”. But I started to wonder — how does Jane Marple know this stuff? The police have evidence, yes, that Rudi Scherz saw Charlotte in Switzerland when she was a patient, and that’s why she has to murder him. But if you think about it, it’s impossible for Miss Marple to know why Miss Blacklock has done anything that she’s done. The final chapter is full of “must haves” — “Charlotte must, I think, have overheard a good deal that morning she came into the cafe.” So this is not evidence that Miss Marple and the police are getting from Charlotte herself; this is what Miss Marple knows happened and why she THINKS it happened.

My astute readers will have gotten to my central thought by now, I think. There’s already one instance in the book of a lesbian couple who don’t exactly conceal their relationship but make it look like something more innocent. Why shouldn’t Charlotte and Dora have been in a youthful relationship at school? And why shouldn’t they have corresponded all these years?  Frankly, that stuff about “an old school friend who had fallen on evil days” isn’t substantiated by anything and could be just so much nonsense. And it could be nonsense that Miss Marple was led to believe by tiny clues that the pair scattered in their path; perhaps even faked letters about the circumstances of their past. There’s nothing textually that stops this from being the case; I’ll be scrupulous and say that there’s nothing that really suggests it, either.

Well, now, wait.  Even Miss Marple says “[Charlotte] loved Dora – she didn’t want to kill Dora – but she couldn’t see any other way.” And Charlotte Blacklock, in the dramatic scene where her guilt is revealed in her kitchen, says

“‘I didn’t want to kill anybody – I had to – but it’s Dora I mind about – after Dora was dead, I was all alone – ever since she died – I’ve been alone – oh, Dora – Dora -‘ And once again she dropped her head on her hands and wept.”

Does that sound to you like a Boston marriage? Or does it sound to you, much like is suggested by the vehemence of Miss Hinchcliffe’s desire to physically injure her lover’s murderer in the same scene, like Charlotte and Dora were more of a long-term couple than you’d heretofore thought? Jane Marple says Charlotte loved Dora; she didn’t say exactly how much.

 

All of the events of the novel, if you care to consider them in a harsher light, can be brought to the doorstep of a considerably more evil Charlotte Blacklock than you may have considered. All you have to do is treat the text with the same respect that Miss Marple and the police treat the evidence; corroborated evidence is fine, and speculations about people’s emotions are just that, speculation.

tumblr_nn6x3yNypg1rrnekqo1_500Here’s how my version goes. Miss Blacklock didn’t get a letter from Dora pleading poverty; they made that up to explain her presence in the household as “companion”. In reality, they have been, and probably still are, lovers. They settle in a village which is known to accept a pair of women living together without scandal being aroused. And they safeguard the fortune they have cheated to obtain. Then Charlotte realizes that she has to dispose of Rudi Scherz and enlists Dora’s help in generating an alibi. Charlotte must safeguard herself from her lover’s carelessness and Miss Murgatroyd’s awareness, and kills them both, and finally is found out by Miss Marple, who uses a trick to force a confession.

I’m not going to be specific about what surrounds the killing of Dora Bunner in my version.  I’ll merely say that if some of the individuals concerned were males, it would be more tenable that Charlotte kills Dora and Murgatroyd in order to end up with Hinchcliffe, but as the text stands it’s not reasonable. Hinchcliffe appears to be truly in love with Murgatroyd. There are other possibilities for the person with whom Charlotte sees herself after the police investigation dies down; the various permutations of Pip and Emma in the novel, wherein just about anyone of the right age could have been either, may have meant that Charlotte intended to control the fortune even if she had had to relinquish it. But once I started considering, there’s one person whose presence in the Blacklock household is equally inexplicable — the volatile Mitzi. Mitzi, who has escaped from war-torn Europe — perhaps Switzerland, where Charlotte and her sister stayed for a year during the war. Mitzi, who is of a closer age to Charlotte than any other potential lover; Mitzi, who finally cooperates in forcing an admission of guilt out of Charlotte because, after all, Charlotte has just finished killing her previous lover, Dora.  Perhaps it’s Mitzi who will be Charlotte’s lover after all is said and done.

But these are all speculations … they’re based on a premise that Agatha Christie, like other writers of detective fiction, had the job of creating characters who looked like one thing and acted like another. I don’t think you can say that it’s wrong for a reader who is aware that he has signed up to be fooled by the author to range through a wide spectrum of theories in an attempt to not be fooled; it’s merely that my speculation is after I know who Christie says was the murderer, that’s all.

If I were to be really getting wild in my speculations, I’d start thinking about who in the volume might have had a sex-change operation. It’s that pesky Pip and Emma dilemma. They turn out to be both women … but did they both start out as women? It’s always been curious to me that Charlotte’s medical operation in Switzerland was for goitre, which I understand was quite a bit less curable than it is today.  (We have iodine in salt these days, which forestalls it.) What other reasons are there for people to have a secretive operation in a European country — and then to come home with a lifelong habit of wearing a concealing strand of pearls?  Scars from goitre aren’t the only things that pearls serve to conceal; there’s also the telltale signs of a shaved-down Adam’s apple… Did the deceased financier actually fake his own death and then return as his secretary?

I apologize to anyone whom I’ve offended by these speculations, or anyone who thinks I’m crazy for speculating that the story could go beyond the only text. In closing, I thought I’d offer a long quotation from Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read:

“When we talk about books…we are talking about our approximate recollections of books… What we preserve of the books we read—whether we take notes or not, and even if we sincerely believe we remember them faithfully—is in truth no more than a few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion…We do not retain in memory complete books identical to the books remembered by everyone else, but rather fragments surviving from partial readings, frequently fused together and further recast by our private fantasies. … What we take to be the books we have read is in fact an anomalous accumulation of fragments of texts, reworked by our imagination and unrelated to the books of others, even if these books are materially identical to ones we have held in our hands.”

Further recast by our private fantasies, indeed.  Enjoy your own imaginative takes on books you have read!

 

Death Through the Mill, by Laura Colburn (1979)

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of mysteries go through my hands. My fondness for collectible paperbacks has taught me that if it’s unusual and weird, or even inexplicable, then it goes into my collection. The ugly, the silly, the ridiculous, and the meretricious — all these things have found a home in Noah’s Archives.

I’ll have to confess here, though, that occasionally I guess wrong about the future demand for certain books. Today’s book is an example of just how wrong I have occasionally been.

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. 

9780890835258-us-300What is this book about?

The interest in this book lies not so much in what it is “about” but how it was packaged and produced. But to keep to my format, I’ll give you a plot summary first and discuss the production later.

Carol Gates is a freelance artist who has been selected to illustrate a volume of true-crime stories written by well-known writer Henry Marston, who lives in Millerton, a charming small town in Vermont. Henry is engaged in renovating a quaint old mill with a long history into a living and working space, as well as writing his new book. After she’s spent a few days getting to know the author, and the inhabitants and history of Millerton, she discovers Henry’s body — after it’s been mangled by a trip through the mill wheel.

Carol has solved a mystery before (Death in a Small World, #23 in this series) and thus finds it perfectly natural to investigate what she believes to be a murder, even though she knows no one in town — her father is the sheriff of a nearby town and an old friend of Millerton’s sheriff, and this gives her just enough purchase to manage an investigation. Is the motive concerned with the bad blood surrounding a collapsed real-estate deal to locate a ski hill near Millerton? Or perhaps one of the instances of historical feuding among members of the older families in Millerton? Is it concerned with a string of local burglaries? Or is it something that no one’s thought of except in passing, to do with antique furniture or the history of the mill itself?

After realizing the truth and arranging to confront the killer and prove her theory, Carol finds herself “trapped in total darkness with an enraged, desperate killer”. Luckily she thought to arrange backup and thus has the chance to explain all the mysterious goings-on after the killer is arrested.

Why is this book worth your time?

As a mystery, it’s not worth a minute of your time. The writing is … ghastly. It’s as though the author worked with a copy of some entry-level textbook on “how to write a mystery” and ticked off the points one by one as they were achieved, but taking great pleasure in seeing how many cliches it would be possible to work into the text. Here’s a horrible portent of things to come from page one, sentence two, where the author takes a moment to acquaint the reader with a physical description of the detective:

As she passed the coat closet, she stopped, opened the door, and scanned her reflection in the full-length mirror. She noted with approval the calm, unfurrowed brow, the wide gray eyes, the long aristocratic nose, the noncommital set of the lips. She ignored the paint-stained khaki shirt, several sizes too large, and the torn jeans rolled up almost to the knee. She nodded with almost royal condescension to the image in the mirror, then let her lips curve into a grin and shouted, ‘Whee!’

Is that not what everyone does in the morning, stand in front of the mirror and do a quick up-and-down with approval? Stopping to notice that our brows are unfurrowed and that our lips are set in a non-committal way — whatever that means — but skipping entirely over anything below the neck except to note that it’s thoroughly covered. Yes, every single bit of prose in this book is dumbed down to that horrible level of G-rated pap. And to quote a cheeseball text that purports to teach novice writers the mistakes they shouldn’t make, this is a “description dump” on page one. Just the first of many dumps to come, believe me.

The experienced reader will begin to take pleasure in just how horrible this novel is … when the protagonist arrives in Millerton, for instance, and meets her landlady, who greets her with a home-cooked meal and an indigestible chapter of backstory — sorry, local history. The landlady’s name is not Mrs. Exposition, but it should be.

Everything in this book makes an episode of Murder, She Wrote look daring and avant-garde. It’s a massive wad of half-understood writing cliches, presented in a prose style that is apparently aimed at ESL students, and culminating in a denouement that is so massively predictable, it’s very nearly boring. You’ll be flipping through the part where the murderer is threatening the detective in what the author no doubt thought of as the “gripping climax”, because it’s patently obvious that she’ll survive. Although, like me, you may be wishing otherwise.

Here’s something that brought a smile to my non-commital lips 😉 when I realized the full value of just how horrible this writing was. Carol’s been given the job of illustrating this true crime book, and drives up to Vermont to meet with the author — and they never spend a moment talking about the job for the first week she’s there. They even mention this oversight every once in a while in the first half of the book, in the manner of, “Gee, we really should talk about this, but I’m too busy right now laying a trail of red herrings with a subsidiary character — why don’t you come up to my place tomorrow and discover my body, so we’ll never have to think about this again?” It begs the question of why anyone would bother to illustrate a true crime book with Carol’s cute drawings anyway, but that is not the only mysterious gap in logic in this horrible book. They come at you so thick and fast, you’ll hardly notice one over another.

There is, in fact, a reason why I purchased this book, other than its general level of illiterate awfulness. As you’ll note from the cover above, it’s #34 in the series of Zebra Mystery Puzzlers. And I think the blurb on the cover will explain the idea better than I can:

Can you solve the crime by finding the clues in the story, on the cover, and in the illustrations — before you cut open the final sealed chapter? / The novel that lets YOU be the detective!

Yes, Gentle Reader, that’s the point of this. YOU are the detective, because you have the opportunity to examine a series of terrible drawings that are scattered through the text, to read the descriptive passages that explain what you are seeing, and solve the crime.

The shoe and crank.pngHere’s an example of what the terrible drawings look like — and please pardon my limited photographic capacity. If you weren’t told on the facing page that “The rusty crank rested on the desk, next to a plastic bag that contained the fatal shoe,” would you have known? The clue, such as it is, is the series of parallel scratches on the sole of the shoe. Oh, sorry, the fatal shoe. Why it’s the fatal shoe, I have no idea, other than the fact that the victim was wearing it. Since it’s clear that the artist has no idea what a mill-wheel crank looks like, neither shall we, so it’s conveniently slithered off to the side of the desk. That tells you that it’s not a clue. Immediately after this is revealed, “Carol stirred herself,” so in the burst of laughter that the experienced reader will emit at the thought of Carol as a self-mixing cup of coffee, you’ll forget all about the crank anyway.

And then, of course, the “final sealed chapter”. Indeed, the last signature (eight double-sided pages) has been bound into the book without being cut, so that — if you have suffered a traumatic brain injury or have an IQ hovering around room temperature in Fahrenheit and thereby failed to solve the mystery — you will not be in any danger of discovering the identity of the murderer without the deliberate act of cutting the pages. Here is what most of us know from the pages of Ellery Queen and Rupert Penny as the “Challenge to the Reader”:

It's your turn.pngAnd be sure to Write your Answers Here!, because otherwise how would the next reader have her enjoyment spoiled? The author does not, after the manner of C. Daly King, provide a “clue finder” to tell you exactly which clues were where. That’s because there’s so much denouement crammed into the final eight pages that they actually have to be printed in a type size about two points smaller than the rest of the text, so there isn’t room to explain anything like that.

8af78c9a-9b65-11e5-966a-5ac58b93acfbSo my faithful readers will now be well down the path of just why I have half a box of these damn Zebra Mystery Puzzlers in my basement, and as many as possible with an uncut final chapter. I’m too young to have been able to buy “dossier novels” when they first came out, but I know that these exercises in detection now command a fancy price in the marketplace. A 1936 original of Murder Off Miami is today selling for more than $100US, and even the 1979 reprint is commanding a hefty price. I can’t describe these better than has a bookseller on ABEBooks, so I’ll quote him:

The four crime dossiers devised by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links in the 1930s were a completely original novelty and, at least initially, immensely popular both in Britain and around the world. Although there had been ‘solve it yourself’ crime books in the past, such as the ‘Baffle Books’ created by Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay, Wheatley and Links were to take the format one or more steps further. What makes the crime dossiers so unique was that they presented the reader with all the evidence that an investigating team of detectives might gather and then ask him to solve the crime. To this end, a variety of physical clues and reports were housed together in a cardboard folder, which if worked through methodically as any detective might, would yield the correct solution to the problem. Having used deduction to arrive at a prime suspect, the reader could then check his findings with the actual solution to the mystery that was concealed within a sealed section towards the rear of the folder.

Yes, you guessed it. I rather thought back in the day that Zebra Mystery Puzzlers were to the 1970s as crime dossiers were to the 1930s, and that today my forethought in laying down uncut copies of as many ZMPs as possible would pay off in the future. But alas, they have not. Zebra even commissioned a couple of these from a fairly well-known author, Ron Goulart (they’re the ones as by Josephine Kains, if you’re curious), and those two sell for a slightly higher price — perhaps $8 for an uncut copy. My own (cut) copy of Death Through the Mill cost me $4, and I think I probably paid three times what it’s worth today. I note today on eBay that you can get a package of eight uncut ZMPs, including one of the Goulart titles, for $20.

Well, I hope my foolish investment has given you a moment of amusement … Now you know that experienced paperback collectors have to lay down a lot of bottles of plonk in the cellars to come up with the occasional desirable vintage. I hope your own collecting instincts are better than mine!

The Knife Slipped, by Erle Stanley Gardner (2016/1939)

cover_bigMy regular readers may already be familiar with the fascinating story behind this novel. It was found among the papers of the late Erle Stanley Gardner and the story of how it now comes to be in print is probably an entire essay by itself — in fact you can read about it here in the blog of my friend Jeffrey Marks, who’s currently writing a much-anticipated biography of Gardner. Jeff cleverly put two and two together and identified the manuscript as having been rejected by Gardner’s publisher at Morrow as the second novel in the Cool & Lam series. Thayer Hobson, according to Jeff, thought there wasn’t enough character development for both Cool and Lam, and also that the novel was “too risqué for the audiences”. (See below for the details.)

So the novel was written in 1939. That’s my best guess, because the volumes before and after are cited in Wikipedia as having been published in January 1939 and January 1940, respectively. After Jeff Marks brought it to the attention of Hard Case Crime, it was published for the very first time a few days ago (December, 2016). Hence the unusual date after the title above.Truthfully, its first edition is December, 2016. But it is quintessentially of 1939.

There’s a lot of fascinating stuff here for fans of Cool & Lam, but I suspect if you read this novel you may well become a Cool & Lam fan even if you weren’t before.

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?

Donald Lam is a skinny little runt who is smart as a whip and down on his luck. He’s staying employed at the shabby little detective firm of Cool & Lam at the whim of Bertha Cool, an extra-large matron with chubby fingers that glitter with diamonds; she has a mind like an adding machine and a mouth like an open sewer. Sorry. There’s just something about Gardner’s writing in this book that makes me use language like that; I think that’s more metaphors in one paragraph than I usually use in a longer piece. But all the language in this book is short and punchy and terse and vulgar, and it’s left me wanting to get a lot of pulp-fiction metaphors out of my system.

bigger-they-come1

An early representation of Bertha Cool in Pocket #228

Anyway, Bertha is keeping Donald on a short leash. In their first meeting, 1939’s debut novel, The Bigger They Come, he more than proved his worth but took Bertha out of her comfort zone. Donald demonstrated, in that novel, that his disbarment had deprived the bar of an excellent lawyer, when he manipulated a little-known loophole in the law to allow someone to literally get away with murder. Bertha knew that Donald’s talents could make her money; she just had to find a way for their clashing personalities to get along.

Bertha is keeping Donald short of money, but he’s not starving, merely hungry. That makes him grateful to accept assignments like the one that arises after mother-and-daughter clients Mrs. Atterby and Mrs. Cunner hire Bertha to find out the identity of the buxom blonde that Edith Cunner’s husband is keeping in an apartment. However, that’s just the start. After Donald tracks down Mr. Cunner and the blonde, and makes friends with the building’s pretty switchboard operator, Ruth Marr, he finds out that Cunner has yet another apartment under another name. Ruth has a crush on Cunner, and Cunner spends an evening with a steady stream of police officers and firemen who drive up to his place in official cars, stay a few minutes, and leave.

The plot is fascinating, so I won’t reveal much more. There is, of course, a murder; the police are looking for Donald and Ruth Marr, whom it seems have been framed. It seems as though Cunner is connected to a city-wide corruption scheme, and there are already political reformers on the case. Bertha smells money and decides to … well, I’ll let her tell it to Donald.

“Bertha said, … ‘He called the police and told them I was trying to blackmail him.’
‘Were you?’
‘Not exactly. Bertha was trying to cut herself a piece of cake, and –‘
‘And what?’ I asked.
‘And the knife slipped,’ she said.
‘But I suppose it’s my finger that’ll be cut,’ I said.
‘For Christ’s sake, Donald, don’t be such a pansy! In this game you’ll be getting in jams all the time. Get the hell out of here and lie low until I can find out what it’s all about. Bertha won’t be idle, lover. Right now I’ve got something by the tail, and I don’t know whether it’s a bear, a lion, or just a bunch of bull.'”

Delightfully put, and it turns out not to be bull. There’s actually a twin plot structure to this; Bertha is pursuing the money off-stage, and Donald (and Ruth) are running around for our amusement, trying to stay out of the hands of the police while finding out more about what’s going on and pursuing the identity of the murderer. Finally Donald comes to a crucial realization about the clothing choices of a mysterious visitor to the soon-to-be corpse and identifies the murderer; Bertha swoops in and finds a way to extract the maximum amount of money from the situation.

In the final chapter, Bertha informs Donald that he has to leave town for a while, essentially so that the solution to all the crimes can come out the way she wants it, without the inconvenience of Donald’s testimony. “Remember, lover, what Bertha Cool said. She wouldn’t cut herself a piece of cake without seeing that you had a slice.” So she makes arrangements for Donald to “follow a witness” to Honolulu on a cruise ship so that he can take life easy … and reveals that she knows more about the situation than Donald has suspected when Bertha makes the trip even more attractive; the witness is a beautiful young woman with a crush on Donald (who describes herself as a “nymphomaniac”). “… Bertha Cool deftly speared a French pastry and transferred it from the platter to her plate. Her eyes were twinkling with humor. ‘Now try to say “no,” you little bastard,’ she said.”

Why is this book worth your time?

gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner

It’s probably pretty clear that I’m a big Cool & Lam fan; I used to say I’d read all 29 of them, but now I’m happy to say that I’ve read all 30 (and I dearly wish there was another box full of manuscripts in an archive somewhere). I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my blog that, to me, the Cool & Lam novels represent ESG’s attempt to have more fun with his writing. Perry Mason is always an officer of the court, but Donald Lam actually spends the night with women, and Bertha Cool slaps women around about once a book and swears like a trooper. The Cool & Lam novels are just as fast-moving as Perry Mason’s adventures, and there’s a fairly high amount of detection involved in the stories; just that they’re a little sexier and a little more vulgar.

 

This particular volume is fascinating, at least to me, because I can see the direction in which ESG could have taken Cool & Lam from this novel. To be honest, this novel is quite a bit “harder” than the volume that actually took its place as the second Cool & Lam adventure, and more so than any volume at the top of my memory. In this one, Donald is about to be murdered when he beans his opponent with a rock and nearly kills him; Donald empties the man’s wallet (calling the money “sinews of war”) and leaves him in a ditch unconscious with the murder gun slipped into his holster. Bertha allows the real murderer to escape in exchange for large amounts of money, deliberately stirring up trouble with city politics in the process, and sends Donald to Honolulu so he won’t have to testify to the inconvenient truth. This is NOT Perry Mason pronouncing sententiously that he’s an officer of the court. This is Bertha Cool delivering a lecture on how city politics works (at the end of chapter XII) that will curl your hair with its cynicism and accuracy. She describes a middle class woman to her face as a bitch, a slut, and a tart in the course of three sentences; near the end of the book she hits a middle-aged woman “flush on the jaw” — “like a man”. And there is no love lost between Bertha and Donald; as noted above, when Bertha is cutting herself a slice of cake, she doesn’t care if the knife slips and cuts Donald.

In fact I’m at a loss as to why this novel was rejected for lack of character development of the main characters, although I think that ties into the second reason it was rejected. There actually is a lot of character development here, it’s just that it’s very risqué for the audience of 1939. Donald spends the night with a female witness — to my mind, unusual for 1939, at least that it’s pretty clearly stated that she’s available for sex — and quixotically tries to rescue her from the consequences of her romantic inclinations. (There’s a lovely moment of writing where a woman describes herself as a “nymphomaniac”, or what we would today call a sex addict, but Donald realizes that she’s been sold a line by a man who wanted to break their engagement  … and he doesn’t tell her, merely allows the reader to see that he knows what happened.)

Here’s a little passage that I think is very revealing of Bertha’s character:

“Bertha Cool said, ‘Let’s quit beating around the bush. What’s her husband doing, cheating around, going to whorehouses, or keeping a mistress?’ …
Mrs Atterby said reproachfully, in a low voice, ‘I always use the word “houses of prostitution” in talking to Edith, Mrs. Cool.’
‘I don’t. I call ’em whorehouses,’ Bertha said acidly. ‘It’s easier to say. It’s more expressive, and it leaves no room for doubt.'”

In the same conversation, Bertha delivers this little speech:

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, cut out the weeps! By God, you’d think your husband was the only man on earth who ever stepped out. They all do — those that are able. Personally, I wouldn’t have a man who was true to me, not that I’d want him to flaunt his affairs in my face or to the neighborhood, but a man who doesn’t step out once in a while isn’t worth the powder and shot to blow him to hell.”

And she also mentions casually that married men are lousy lovers, and she’s tried two of ’em. Having read all 29 books, I don’t remember any other instance in which Bertha mentions having had lovers.

I think there’s plenty of Bertha, but perhaps not enough Donald here. And that’s perhaps because the quality of writing in this book, in terms of subtle characterization and descriptive writing, is well among the strongest of any of Gardner’s work. Gardner knew better than to tell — he only showed, for the most part. (We’ll except the last few novels he wrote in the late 60s, though.) Here, the showing of Donald’s character is subtle and enlists the reader’s help to fill in the blanks. If you’re not paying attention, you miss the conclusions you’re supposed to draw. When you read the book, try to figure out what Donald’s actual attitude is towards Ruth Marr, start to finish throughout the book. To me, it makes Donald seem more like a fallible human being who is capable of holding two different attitudes towards the same woman at the same time. But in order to realize what’s going on, you have to pay attention to what his motivations are — and Gardner never tells you those, he only shows you.

For me this book is fascinating because there is an indefinable difference between the 29 canonic novels and The Knife Slipped. Starting with the title, which doesn’t match the cadence of the others. This Bertha is more aggressive, particularly about the business she accepts; my recollection is that later on in the series she wants nice quiet divorce work rather than political or murderous minefields. This Donald is more on the economic knife-edge, although it’s earlier in his career; later in the canon he also tends to sleep on the couch rather than bed the damsel. Certainly the agency’s secretary Elsie Brand is quite different here and not the ally to Donald she later becomes.

I can sort of understand why a cautious editor might not want to publish a book that displays Bertha Cool as a greedy overweight amoral quasi-criminal. To be honest, her personality only really has one note in this book. To me it is a fascinating and rich note, but she doesn’t change in the course of the novel. Donald’s personality is displayed in a subtle and intelligent way, at least to me, but I’ve had the benefit of reading 29 other novels in which he’s featured. It’s entirely possible that my appreciation of this novel is coloured by the other 29. If your (or that editor’s) view is that there’s no character development, I’d be hard-pressed to gainsay it.

fools-die-on-friday-movie-poster-9999-1020429460

Dell 541 (left) and its reissue, #1541 (right), in which the girl has more clothes on and Donald’s still not peeking

What is certain is that everything is a bit more crude — no, a lot more crude. I can’t prove it, but I believe ESG never went as far as saying “whorehouse” in any other novel. Bertha’s amoral view of politics and government is quite strong stuff for 1939, I think, at least coming from an author like Gardner whose stories were fit for the prudish editor of Black Mask. Oh, sure, women are frequently unclothed in Donald’s vicinity, but he never actually goes much beyond passionate kisses. And as you can see in a nearby illustration, they usually have more of their clothes on. To be fair, there is a suggestion in the final paragraphs of 1941’s Double or Quits that Elsie Brand and Donald have had sex. But that’s merely because Elsie laughs at a nurse’s warning that Donald might be “abnormally stimulated” by a caffeine injection. In this book, a girl with whom Donald has spent the night (passed out) walks in on him in the bathtub and hands him a glass of tomato juice, “as utterly casual about it as though I’d been sitting in a chair at a lunch counter”, then walks out wordlessly.

 

There are plenty of these sorts of little jarring differences of tone in The Knife Slipped, and I have to say that figuring out what’s different was quite a bit of the pleasure for me with this book. If you’ve already read your way through A. A. Fair, I suspect that will be quite pleasurably for you as well.

There’s another part of this book that is quite pleasant to contemplate and that’s the amount of sheer detection in it. Bertha and Donald are smart people who know what it means to be a detective. They know, for instance, that the police will routinely stake out their offices. They know that if you’re a man wanted by the police, the last place they’ll be looking for you is a department store tearoom. They know that a man in a tuxedo never gets stopped by the police, and that an overweight dowager in an evening gown with fists full of diamond rings can get past an apartment manager like nobody else. And they are both capable of understanding the precise meaning of a witness’s description of a pair of men’s pants where the police do not, which lets them solve mysteries where the police cannot.

Summing up: I think you’ll enjoy this book a lot, although perhaps not as much as I did unless you’re already very familiar with the other 29 Cool & Lam novels. There is a certain crude energy about it that is exhilarating; the writing is great, the plotting is excellent, and for me the characterization was fascinating. The loose ends of the plot are tied off in a very satisfying way in the final moments of the book. It’s funny, vulgar, and occasionally exciting (the scene where Donald is about to be murdered by a corrupt official is excellent).  My friend Jeff Marks, an expert in all things Gardnerian, puts this in his “top 10 of the Cool/Lam cases, and perhaps even in the top 5.” I’ll go a little further; this is one of my top three Cool & Lam cases, and even in my top ten of all of Gardner’s work. Sad that it hasn’t been a part of the Cool & Lam oeuvre from 1939, but this late publication in 2016 fully deserves its place as what we might call “number 1.5” in the full 30 volumes.

My favourite edition

There’s only one paper edition currently, from Hard Case Crime, December, 2016. It’s shown at the top of this column with cover art depicting the 21st century burlesque artist Dita von Teese, heaven knows why. I am frankly planning on buying a couple of mint copies of this first edition, sealing them up and laying them away. I recommend you do too — you won’t lose money on it.

 

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.

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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!

Death of His Uncle, by C.H.B. Kitchin (1939)

9794058efda64200cd4824583e86f71fI’ve recently moved into a larger place with more space for bookshelves; concomitantly, I’ve been enjoying the process of unpacking a few hundred boxes of books, some of which haven’t seen the light of day for more than 20 years. In the next little while, you can expect me to be making happy discoveries of books that I’m finding pleasant to re-read, as they come serendipitously to hand.

This volume attracted me because I opened it up and immediately hit upon a quote that was so astonishingly well linked to some issues about which I’ve been pondering that, well, I had to re-read it immediately. (I’ll share it with you near the end of this piece.) Then when I found out a little more about the author and realized what a fascinating book this is, I knew I had another winner to share.

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?

imagesBritish stockbroker Malcolm Warren has solved two mysteries already as an amateur detective, and when an Oxford acquaintance, Dick Findlay, asks him to take a hand in investigating the disappearance of Findlay’s uncle, a middle-aged suburban householder, Warren believes he knows what to do.

Warren, with Findlay in tow, traces the last few days of Dick’s uncle Hamilton, who apparently took a vacation in Falmouth, embarked on an unusual
8037927program of activities, and finished up by removing all his clothes (and wig) upon a deserted beach and committing suicide. After a thorough investigation of the uncle’s last days, an increased knowledge of the vanished gentleman’s heirs and relatives, and everyone’s various romantic interests, Warren writes a long letter to his friend, Detective-Inspector Parris of Scotland Yard, and answers all the loose ends and outstanding questions.

I’ve deliberately avoided giving very much detail because quite a bit of the pleasure of this charming book is following Warren’s investigation of the details of the case; the less I say, the better.

Why is this book worth your time?

There are a number of reasons why this enjoyable book is worth your time; the idea that it’s charming is a major part of it, of course. Although its publication date of 1939 is somewhat later than most of this category, I think this is a “don’s delight”; a Golden Age mystery written by a highly literate person for highly literate people.

For instance, in the opening pages of the book, Malcolm Warren (the first-person narrator) reveals that he has an interesting talent; he can improvise on the piano after the fashion of various classical composers. (“This,” I would say after considerable pressure, “is a Beethoven Air with Variations. This is a César Franck Choral Prelude. This is a Brahms Intermezzo,” etc.) Of course the less-than-donnish reader like myself is flattered to think that such an intelligent person could assume I could tell the difference between a Brahms Intermezzo and Three Blind Mice — although since the music isn’t actually audible, readers like myself tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. Similarly the narrator plays bridge, is a connoisseur of sherry, hobnobs with titled people, and is invited to country-house weekends.

1988The story, aside from being written in elegant language, is quite smart. Kitchin takes the time to establish his narrator as a fallible human with likes and dislikes, and the result is that this is someone by whose opinions and experiences you will be amused even when the book takes the occasional sag. Sometimes he even puts those sags in — Warren takes some personal time to have dinner with his sister, to no narrative purpose whatever save that it makes him seem more realistic. Unlike many other amateur detectives, Warren has a job at which he works, and co-workers with whom he interacts. Everything works together to give you a well-rounded portrait of the narrator. And because you see the narrator as human, you understand how and why he makes his occasional errors; they slow down the detection, but it’s more realistic and much more enjoyable. The book meanders every once in a while and is better for it.

15807059142Without spoiling too much for you, the plot is simple and clear. Warren investigates the last days of the vanished uncle, finds out what his plans were (including some which he was keeping from his friends and relations), figures out exactly where he ended up, and brings the guilt home to the appropriate person. Of course there are surprises along the way. One concerns an object which the reader has lost track of through never thinking about it — sorry if this is enigmatic, but I’d prefer to maintain your surprise. Think of this as the equivalent of the object which Peter Wimsey realizes is missing from the opening scenes of Five Red Herrings; except in this case the detective is equally as forgetful as the reader. I didn’t succeed in beating Warren to the solution, and I have to confess I wasn’t trying very hard. I was enjoying the plot and the writing so much that I simply relaxed and let it all happen, and that’s a very pleasant experience.

I promised you a quotation from the book that I found extraordinarily relevant to my recent interest in how societal matters and mores are revealed within the pages of Golden Age detective fiction: it’s rather long, but bear with me, please.

“I have always maintained that when an ordinary member of the public is confronted with a crime or a mystery, he bases his conduct on the detective stories he has read. I have read a good many detective stories and find them a sedative for the nerves. Oddly enough, what I like in them isn’t so much the puzzle of the plot, still less sensational hairbreadth escapes, but precisely the element which you would least expect to find in such stories — the humdrum background, tea at the Vicarage, a morning in an office, a trip to Brighton pier — that microscopic study of ordinary life which is the foil to the extraordinary event which interrupts it. A good detective story, I have found, is often a clearer mirror of ordinary life than many a novel written specifically to portray it. Indeed, I think a test of its goodness is the pleasure you can derive from it even though you know who the murderer is. A historian of the future will probably turn, not to blue books or statistics, but to detective stories if he wishes to study the manners of our age. Middle-class manners perhaps. But I am old-fashioned enough to enjoy the individualism of the middle class.”

It’s always pleasant when a character in a detective story starts to speculate about the workings of detective stories! I agree completely with Kitchin; I derive a great deal of pleasure from detective stories because of their microscopic study of ordinary life. In this volume, for instance, we learn the precise number of courses of dinner (two) during which one converses with the diner at one’s right hand before turning politely to the diner upon your left. And in a similar degree of granularity, here’s a fine point of social class which I was happy to learn. The narrator is staying in a wealthy country house in a bedroom “nearly the size of his flat”. He finds “[a] notice in a gold filigree frame [which] told me that dinner was at half-past eight — half an hour later than it had been in the Wimbledon house — half an hour higher on the social scale.” That’s the stuff I love to learn from Golden Age novels and there is plenty of it here.

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C.H.B. Kitchin

The other thing that urged my immediate re-examination of the entirety of Clifford Kitchin’s work is when I did a little investigation of this author to bring to you here. To my surprise, I learned that he was rather like his narrator (both were known for improvising at the piano), with one large difference — Kitchin was what we would today term gay, and lived for many years with a male domestic partner. He was a wealthy barrister who was “out” in the most upper-class of gay men’s society of the time; high-ranking politicians, artists and poets, the wealthy, and some well-known novelists. That was a point of similarity that immediately fascinated me and explained some of the attitude that I found underlying the narrator’s dispassionate observations. Although it’s dangerous and frequently unsupportable to speculate about an author based merely on his fiction, it seemed to me that there’s a faint air of the “outsider” about the narrator and perhaps the author; Warren observes keenly and wryly, but he doesn’t seem to ever be truly a part of the society in which he participates. I believe this is well known as a hallmark of gay fiction. You’ll find some interesting glosses on Kitchen’s biography in Wikipedia here, and from a gay POV here.

Kitchin’s reputation in detective fiction rests primarily upon his first of four Malcolm Warren mysteries, 1929’s Death of My Aunt. I’ve obtained a copy of that and another Warren mystery, Crime at Christmas, and may well be doing more Kitchin analysis in the near future (Crime at Christmas seems very timely!). I wanted to mention that his other non-mystery novels were very highly regarded and “writerly”, and although I’m not reading much these days that isn’t genre fiction, this volume was so well-written and interesting that it may just tempt me to step outside my comfort zone. Praise indeed! I hope you find the time to get a copy of this excellent volume. None of the four mysteries appear to be available in electronic format and the fourth title, The Cornish Fox, appears to be both scarce and expensive. (Also timely is my family’s need to find me appropriate Christmas gifts! I’ll drop a word in Santa’s ear, perhaps.)

The Guardian pimps out the Golden Age of Detection

This morning I encountered an article from The Guardian written by one Sarah Hughes; you can find it here, and you may want to skim it before you continue (if you care to continue, that is). At first I was merely angry, because my initial reaction was that Hughes was an uncritical cheerleader who merely absorbed what she’d been told by publicity people and regurgitated it into a cheerful puff piece. Then I started to think more clearly about what I had read.

Her thesis, such as it is, suggests that “Crime fiction is turning back the clock to its golden age with a host of books that pay homage to the genre’s grande dame, Agatha Christie, either intentionally or in spirit.”

Some points that this thesis, and the article in general, brought to mind:

  • 162499Sophie Hannah is not a good example of a writer who is “paying homage” to Agatha Christie. While I’m not prepared to go as far as others and say that she’s dug up Christie’s corpse and is assraping it in the public square in return for sacks of money and more celebrity (as you can probably tell, I’m not far from that opinion; my review of the first such continuation is here) , her two recent “continuations” of Hercule Poirot are more like examples of how NOT to pay homage to Agatha Christie. #2, Closed Casket, contains a fart joke. I rest my case.
  • “[R]eprints of 30s and 40s crime classics are continuing to sell well …” Well, first, that’s not the Golden Age; the Golden Age is the 20s and 30s. Second — prove it. That is, prove it without reference to publicity material from any major publisher which has a vested interest in making some people believe that they should get on the bandwagon and purchase reprints of crime classics because everyone else is. I don’t think the reprints are selling “well”; my sense is that, as I’ll discuss later, large publishers with a Golden Age backlist are generating profits where none were available before, but only slight profits. They’re merely selling well enough to repay the minuscule cost of keeping them available in electronic format.
  • The article goes into detail about a lot of new authors who have little or nothing to do with Golden Age mysteries. If, to quote the editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury, a  series by one Plum Sykes is “subversive, wickedly funny and modern”; fine, but those things aren’t really the hallmarks of the Golden Age. The hallmark of the Golden Age is plotting — and not, as a HarperCollins editor suggests, that “the disciplines of the golden age … really centre around plot and character.” Since Golden Age writers specifically and deliberately eschewed characterization, that particular editor doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There’s a lot of rubbish in this article about books that have no relationship to the Golden Age because they’re coming out soon, and that’s the actual point of this article; selling a few books that have nothing to do with the Golden Age.
  • I am sad to learn that “writer and theatre-maker Stella Duffy” has been hired to complete an unfinished novel by Ngaio Marsh. I’m not enormously familiar with Stella Duffy’s work, but she has written a couple of crime novels that I thought were well-written and interesting (see, I do occasionally read something written after I was born!); it’s not Duffy to whom I object. It’s the idea itself; that Ngaio Marsh is merely the latest mystery writer to be continued. If you are a publisher and you seriously think that Golden Age mysteries will sell in quantities that please you, then by all means commission one from a mystery writer.  I have a few friends I can recommend who are very knowledgeable. (Jeffrey Marks has a track record in fiction, wrote a book on how to market genre fiction, and is an acknowledged expert on the Golden Age. And he hits his deadlines.) Dressing up a corpse and having it wheeled around the bookstores by another author is starting to get tiresome. What I really think is that HarperCollins, despite its protestations, is only sure that it can sell books by an author whose name has a high recognition factor regardless of the fact that she happens to have been dead since 1982. And that is not the unalloyed confidence in the material they would have me believe they possess.

But I didn’t write this entirely to slag some silly under-informed writer for The Guardian for doing a puff piece; I actually used to take that paper, all the way to Western Canada, because it has a wonderful crossword puzzle, and I’ll let a few things slide for having received so much cruciverbal pleasure in the past. What I think is happening here is that Britain’s major publishers buy a lot of advertising space. While I would never dare suggest that they paid for this article — that is emphatically untrue, from what I know of The Guardian — I will say that major publishers are probably not unhappy to see a piece addressed to uninformed readers that suggests that those readers will be part of a hot literary trend if they are to buy something that says it’s a Golden Age mystery, and coincidentally here’s a couple of upcoming projects to put on your Christmas list. I get that. It’s part of how books are marketed these days. It should not be a surprise if people who know bugger-all about Golden Age mysteries are selling books by writers who know bugger-all about Golden Age mysteries to readers who, etc.  And they’re attaching the Agatha Christie/Golden Age label to such things in the same way that the Ngaio Marsh label is being attached to Stella Duffy’s next volume. It’s like the label “gluten-free!” on food that never contained gluten; not exactly untrue, but misleading.

You may be surprised that I think Sophie Hannah is quoted as actually having said something sharp and on the money.  I liked it so much, I’ll set it out for you:

“I think the resurgence in the popularity of golden age crime fiction is partly down to the fact that we do, at some level, like to have that satisfaction of having a story told to us in a very overtly story-like way,” she says. “Inherent in golden age crime writing is the message: ‘This is a great story and you will have fun reading it’.”

Now, that, as Lord Peter Wimsey once said, “absolutely whangs the nail over the crumpet.” It’s sort of the inside-out version of what I noted above, the well-known truism that Golden Age mysteries are all plot and not much characterization. People who like strong plots like Golden Age Mysteries. But Hannah here puts it in a way that is much more accessible to the average reader, and much more likely to actually SELL a few than me blethering on for many thousands of words about plot structure and social issues. “Oh,” says Brenda at W.H. Smith, “that famous writer said this kind of book will be fun. I think I’ll give one a try.” What this makes me think is that Sophie Hannah is an intelligent and competent writer who understands the Golden Age mystery, and would probably be able to write a really good one if she were not lumbered with the corpse of Hercule Poirot having to be front and centre. (And probably she could do without people like me making fun of her work; I bet she could write something that would appeal to my Golden Age sentiments and really sell like hotcakes at the same time. I look forward to that.)

I hope that sense of fun comes through in my appreciations of Golden Age mysteries, and I will be trying in the future to bring quite a bit more of that if it’s currently lacking. Thanks to Sophie Hannah for putting this idea in this way; it was something I needed in my toolkit. And it’s something with which my fellow aficionados will agree, I think.

Even James Prichard, Christie’s great-grandson, has something more intelligent to say than anything I’ve read from him lately.

“There’s a terrible tendency to see golden age crime as cosy crime, but I think it’s pretty evident that my great-grandmother found murder a serious and horrific business,” he says. “The reason that these books have lasted and that so many people still read or try to emulate them today is because the plots stand up. People enjoy the puzzle elements in them and they like the fact that you might feel a little uncomfortable, but never so uncomfortable that you can’t go on.”

Remarkable that for once he seems to have the right idea — the plots stand up.

murder_is_easyNow that I’ve followed the time-honoured tradition of a slam, then a bouquet, I’ll finish out the pattern with a closing slam or two. The Guardian chose to illustrate its understanding of how Golden Age mysteries are paid homage to with a photograph of Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple standing beside Benedict Cumberbatch “in an ITV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder Is Easy“. How stupid and insensitive was THAT particular choice? As I’m sure my readers know, Miss Marple was not actually in Murder is Easy — she’s been wedged in there to get a few more viewers, because, you know, Agatha Christie apparently needs help to draw an audience. “Of course we respect Agatha Christie, except we’ll change her bestselling work around as we see fit, because the poor old dear didn’t understand the modern day.” Sounds more like assrape than homage to me.

My final observation has to do with one of the people quoted in this article. David Brawn is the “estates publisher at HarperCollins” who says this:

“One of the main reasons behind the sudden popularity of crime from this period is that modern publishing and new technology allows for shorter runs in printing, which means that we can now mine backlists that would previously have been unprofitable …”

In other words, they’re delightedly mining their own backlist for books where they don’t have to pay the heirs, for one reason or another, to bring in a few extra pence. The part that surprised me, though, is his title as “estates publisher”. There’s an article from The Bookseller here that talks about what that is and how it works. Honestly, you should read it. It sounds like half his job is disabusing literary heirs to a major oeuvre that their dead granny’s literary output deserves a full hardcover re-issue and a film deal, and the other half is encouraging literary heirs to a major oeuvre that they should slap a coat of lipstick and a sexy dress on their deceased granny and hire her out for the aforementioned assraping, with a chorus chanting “Now a major motion picture!”. The whole idea of having an “estates publisher” gives me the cold chills. You might feel the same way.