Obelists at Sea, by C. Daly King (1932)

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

Note that there seems to be some small disagreement among booksellers as to whether this book was first published in 1932 or 1933.  Since my copy of Hubin is not at hand, I’m going with what Penguin says in the frontispiece to the copy from which I prepared this review, October 1932.  

And also note: according to a brief note before the book begins, an “Obelist” is a person of little or no value.

13187293416What’s this book about?

Many of the passengers and some of the crew on the S. S. Meganaut, making a trans-Atlantic journey, are gathered in the “smoking room” to attend an auction of “the numbers”. (Passengers lay wagers upon the number of miles to be traveled by the vessel the next day by bidding for the right to own a specific number; the winner may take in more than a thousand dollars, which was a huge sum in 1932 dollars.) Bidding against each other are the wealthy Mr. Smith, traveling with his lovely daughter, and Mr. DeBrasto, a New York lawyer, for the right to own 648, felt to have the best chance of sweeping the pool; the auction has reached $800 and there is felt to be some acrimony between the two men.

Suddenly a number of things happen one after the other in rapid succession. The lights in the smoking room begin to fade and dim to blackness; a woman’s voice from the doorway bids one thousand dollars; there are sounds of breaking glass and a noise of gunshots. When the emergency lights come on, Mr. Smith is dead on the floor, apparently from a bullet to the heart; Miss Smith is lying in a dead faint from which she cannot be roused, and her valuable pearl necklace is missing.

The aficionado of GAD will be delighted to learn that although Mr. Smith’s corpse contains two bullets, both of which appear to have entered his heart simultaneously through the same hole — he did not die of the bullets but from a poisoned cocktail some minutes before. The same poison has affected the young lady to lesser degree, since she only took a single sip of her drink; she is close to death but remains comatose. A number of people in the smoking room were armed and firing shots; a small rubber bulb that had contained poison is found in the pocket of one of the suspects.

C. Daly King

C. Daly King, apparently at sea

Although most of the rest of the events of the book I should and shall leave for your reading pleasure, the remainder of the plot concerns four world-class psychologists who are traveling on the Meganaut. Each apparently represents a distinct school of psychological thought and they collectively offer a hand to investigate the crimes, each one for a few chapters. (I recommend you speak these next names aloud so you’ll more quickly understand the type of book this is, although occasionally the names are missing a key syllable.) Dr. John B. Hayvier (a behaviouralist) first looks into the crimes in chapters sur-titled “Conditioning”, Dr. Rudolph Plechs’s (of the psychoanalytic school) segment is called “Inferiorities”, that of Dr. L. Rees Pons is called “Dominance”, and finally Professor Knott Mittle’s section is called “Middle grounding” (he apparently represents a kind of centrist viewpoint of the “integrative psychology” school that encompasses the other three theorists). Each approaches these events armed with the knowledge of what has gone before, but colours it through his own theories about human psychology. This extends beyond mere theory; one psychologist administers a timed word-association test to a suspect in order to try to demonstrate guilt or innocence.

In a concluding chapter called “The Criminal: Trial and Error”, the investigating team sets a trap for the guilty party, whose identity should be greatly surprising to the reader. There is a lengthy sequence that explains exactly what happened, how, and by whose hand — some of which is known, but much of which will also be quite surprising — as the book ends.

3472877575Why is this worth reading?

Last December, I did a post here about how I would like to read, for Christmas, some extremely unobtainable volumes whose properties combined scarcity and value. Obelists at Sea was one of those books. As far as I know, there is a single paperback edition, Penguin #160, which was published in England in 1938. Since this pre-dates the first North American paperback (Pocket #1 was published in New York in September, 1939), and Britain had extensive paper drives during World War II, its scarcity is easy to understand. The hardcovers are even more valuable due to rarity and age; a near-fine copy of the Knopf first edition (with black Art Deco design on silver cloth — gorgeous!) with the super-rare jacket is offered today on ABE for US$850 and the two available paperbacks are about US$50 each.

A very kind British reader of my letter to Santa got in touch and offered me a copy of Penguin #160 from his personal collection.  I will repay his generosity by not mentioning his name because he’d be inundated with requests for similar great favours, but I will simply thank him with this review.  My copy won’t be leaving my shelves any time soon!

I actually did have a copy of this in my hands once before; my friend, the Edgar-winning author L. A. Morse, whose book collection is exceptional, let me sit in his home and read his first edition over an evening and I gobbled it down, retaining only an impression of what I’d read and few of the details. That was in the 1970s and I was delighted to re-encounter this delightful book because, as you can imagine, I’d forgotten most of the details.

Yes, this is a very difficult mystery to solve, and I don’t think the average reader will manage it. I certainly didn’t, even the second time around. And it’s not exceptional in its “fair play” aspects. One key clue that would immediately solve the mystery is held back by it being enciphered for police secrecy, and the officer who receives it neglects to decode it until the case is solved. There are some complications to the plot, like the two bullets that enter the same wound, that seem more designed to astound the reader and snarl the solution to no purpose.

But there are a couple of things about this book that are so interesting that it seems that this scarce book lives up to its reputation. One is that it has on every page the very rare feeling that the author is having a great deal of fun writing this book, and that’s just a great thing to read, because it communicates to the reader and provides pleasure. I do not mean that this book is about a trans-Atlantic journey of the nature of John Dickson Carr’s The Blind Barber. In no sense is this a farce; but the names of the psychologists, Drs. (com)Plechs and B. Havier for instance, should give you the flavour of the charm of this book. There’s also a character named Mr. Younghusband and another whose name is I. Gnosens — innocence.  There is very little realism that’s being attempted here, and that makes it slightly easier to take that the reader must accept that the victim was shot twice but died of being poisoned, et cetera. This book is fun, but not silly.

obelists_sea_coverSpeaking of fun; apparently the definition of “obelist” differs with each of King’s three Obelists mysteries. (The third is the unbelievably scarce Obelists En Route, which I am told takes place on a train. Someday I hope to find out.) In Obelists Fly High, for instance, it’s defined as “someone who views with suspicion”. Well, when you make up words, you get to define them however you like!

The other thing that’s interesting about this book is the way in which the four competing schools of psychology are depicted and contrasted. The author was a well-known psychologist who had written a 1932 volume called The Psychology of Consciousness that apparently led the way in its field — he knew what he was talking about. No doubt if you were a world-class psychologist in 1932, this novel would have been absolutely hilarious, and King apparently had to make it clear at the time that he was absolutely not mocking real people with his psychologist characters. I’m not sufficiently educated in the history of psychology to completely understand what’s going on here, but I imagine the theories and ideas that are tossed around in the course of this mystery were very cutting-edge for 1932. In this aspect this book is a “don’s delight”; we’re privileged to overhear the shoptalk of advanced scientific theorists being applied to a rather far-fetched plot structure. But not too seriously; one of the four is hesitant to accept the concept of consciousness at all, and keeps saying so.

daly-king

C. Daly King

And all things considered, this book is very satisfying. When you learn the identity of the murderer, your reaction is likely to be something like my own: “Oh, rats, I missed that completely!”  Yes, the author’s antics have misdirected you completely and you didn’t think about where people were at a crucial time. Well done, Mr. King.

So — a fun book, with a lovely sense of humour underlying it; an exotic mystery with extremely unusual amateur detectives investigating it; and an extremely difficult puzzle mystery at the heart of it all. I wish you the best of luck in finding your own copy. Given the current interest in classic Golden Age mysteries, I certainly hope an enterprising publisher can acquire the rights to these great mysteries by C. Daly King and make it possible for more than a lucky few people to read them.

The most unobtainable of all of King’s work is a very sad story. Apparently his sales were not very good and he finished a mystery in about 1941 that was never published, because he was dropped by his publishers. But it should give us the hope that someday someone will bring us THAT novel.

My favourite edition

Trust me, any edition of this that you manage to acquire will be your favourite; until and unless this gets reprinted, it will probably be the only one you ever see. For a book hound like me to hold only two copies in 50 years makes it likely that you’re not going to find one at the Junior League Thrift Shop; if you do, you’ll probably have to fistfight a bookseller to get it out of the store.

But if you’ve just won the lottery, the first American edition, with the striking design in black ink on silver cloth, is just lovely. If you had it in original jacket, that would be delightful. In the meantime, I really do like my copy of Penguin #160. Early greenbacks have a kind of literary dignity with their uniform design that did not translate well to the aspirations of American publishers, and they are always nice to look at.

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Dorothy L. Sayers and the excelsior principle

Tuesday Night FebruaryA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in February will be devoted to Dorothy L. Sayers.

Dorothy L. Sayers and the excelsior principle

Unknown“I finally felt that I was unpacking large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails …”

from Why Do People Read Detective Stories? by Edmund Wilson, The New Yorker, October, 1944

Despite the fact that I’m starting off with a quote from Edmund Wilson, perhaps the most well-known foe of the traditional detective novel, no, this is not a hatchet job about Dorothy L. Sayers. It is reasonably well known among my acquaintance among GAD aficionados that I’m not a big fan, but recently I had occasion to re-read her work pretty much from scratch.  And in the way of such re-examinations twenty or thirty years later, I got a different idea than I’d had when I was younger.

NaturalExcelsor_xThe main reason I didn’t enjoy reading DLS when I was younger, as I recall, was because of the presence of a great deal of … let’s call it excelsior, for the moment. (Which is defined as “softwood shavings used for packing fragile goods or stuffing furniture”, if you were wondering.) Simply put, DLS stuffs her books with great volumes of extraneous material that apparently has nothing to do with the mystery or its solution. Some of it I think would be called “characterization”, some is “social history”, some is background material.

When I first started thinking about this piece, I thought I’d test my hypothesis. I selected a DLS title at random from my shelves, which contain all her titles; my hand found The Nine Tailors. I opened the book at random and found … well, unfortunately DLS has divided this work into chapters in a way that has more to do with campanology than common sense, and so “The Fourth Part” begins on page 123 of my paperback edition; that’s the best guidance I can give you.

The particular segment begins “Well, now, ma’am,” said Superintendent Blundell. It continues for a grand total of 2527 words (yes, I actually counted) and involves three separate conversations with three witnesses and the mention of about twenty named individuals, most of whom play no further part in the story. Superintendent Blundell interviews the housekeeper of the titled Thorpe family, the disagreeable and snobbish Mrs. Gates, and then gets corroborating evidence from the shrewish Mrs. Coppins and the schoolmistress Miss Snoot, about the precise placement of funeral wreaths on Lady Thorpe’s coffin. Someone has moved them in order to introduce an extra corpse into the gravesite.

The point of this 2527 words is to establish the following, which actually is the last sentence of the segment: “… [T]hat brought the time of the crime down to some hour between 7:30 p.m. on the Saturday and, say, 8:30 on the Sunday morning.” Twenty-four words. The other 2503 words concern the opinions and personalities primarily of Mrs. Gates, who has extensive and unpleasant opinions about the placement of funeral wreaths with respect to the social status of the wreath-giver, the financial circumstances of Mrs. Coppins’s family that brought her to give an expensive wreath of pink hot-house lilies in January, and the fact that the only schoolboy sufficiently mischievous to have moved either Mrs. Gates’s or Mrs. Coppins’s wreaths, one Tommy West, had a broken arm at the time. 24 / 2527 = 1% content, 99% excelsior. In case it’s not clear, I think this is what Edmund Wilson was getting at.  His bent and rusty nails are here the time period during which the second corpse was surreptitiously buried.

Now, it is not for me or indeed anyone to say that fiction must be written economically. Most murder mysteries could be summed up in about a page if that were the case, and that would not be an enjoyable process. But a ratio of 99% excelsior to 1% rusty nails seemed rather excessive to me in my younger days. I’d always held the view that DLS’s works contained a far too small ratio of signal to noise, as it were. And there is almost zero signal here. Mrs. Gates, Mrs. Coppins, Miss Snoot and Tommy West could have been entirely eliminated from the narrative without any damage to the activities of the plot. I am not asserting that I wanted that to happen; the reader has a pleasant moment of dislike for the pompous Mrs. Gates, and has only wasted a quarter of an hour on the 2500 words of … burble.

I have had a lot of experience with good detective stories that contain extraneous material, ranging from fascinating to burble. Perhaps the most famous example was John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, where the action grinds to a halt while the characters break the fourth wall and talk about how locked-room mysteries work. A favourite of mine, Clayton Rawson, regularly veers off within his books for geometry problems and disquisitions on the history of “blue men” and “headless ladies” and all kinds of things. Edmund Crispin introduces humorous disquisitions on unpleasant characters in English literature. One might almost say that extraneous material is a hallmark of the best detective fiction. There is a caveat here, though; most of the extraneous material touches upon and/or illustrates the topic of the mystery. JDC has that chapter about locked-room mysteries because they’re involved in a locked-room mystery. When Clayton Rawson talks about how carnival sideshow acts are created, it’s because the mystery is set within a carnival. The niceties of social class as portrayed in DLS’s placement of funeral wreaths on a coffin do not seem to contribute anything to a story about jewel theft and campanology. (They emphatically contribute to our knowledge of the social history of the 1930s, I must add.)

Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers

But, dammit, I thought, Sayers was widely read in detective fiction; she was a reviewer and critic and best-seller. I don’t say that a place on the best-seller list provides an automatic assumption of literary quality; Danielle Steele and James Patterson are evidence to quite the contrary. Nevertheless DLS did bring a considerable amount of academic background in the analysis of literature to this process, and I cannot think that she was writing like this by accident. She was capable of identifying the central thread of her story, and theoretically she could eliminate material that didn’t contribute to it. If she didn’t, we have to assume she wanted it there.

So what was she getting at?

In my younger, grumpier years, I thought she was merely in love with the sound of her authorial voice and felt that her readers were as well. There is a considerable body of fannish comment on DLS that suggests that that is precisely the case; DLS fans, and there are a lot of them, just love to embark on a journey into the mechanics of becoming a phony spiritualist with Miss Climpson, or learning the principles that underlie a Playfair cipher, how to pick a lock, etc. Most of these excursions to me seem stuffed to the gunwales with excelsior (the “born-again” activities of the former burglar who teaches Miss Murchison how to pick locks are a repellent example). I felt that for whatever reason, the Wimsey stories were not my style; I set them aside and smiled mechanically when people at my bookstore told me how much they loved them.

I came to this month’s worth of disquisition on DLS, though, with a more open mind than perhaps I had had in the past. It rather seemed that if so many people liked the Wimsey stories, and didn’t find them to be stuffed with excelsior, and this sentiment was shared by some of my fellow bloggers whose opinion I respect, well — there had to be something I was missing.

NPG x2861; E.C. Bentley by Howard Coster

The author who shall not be named here. But he gave his middle name to a style of verse!

Then I had a flash of insight, caused by my having occasion to re-read a 1913 book considered one of the primary texts of detective fiction. I’m not going to name it, because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment should they not have read it yet, but I will provide a quote that I found quite meaningful in this context. And those of my readers who are familiar with this text will know exactly what I’m talking about, I trust. The detective is examining the room of a suspect.

“Two bedroom doors faced him on the other side of the passage. He opened that which was immediately opposite, and entered a bedroom by no means austerely tidy. Some sticks and fishing-rods stood confusedly in one corner, a pile of books in another. The housemaid’s hand had failed to give a look of order to the jumble of heterogeneous objects left on the dressing-table and on the mantelshelf—pipes, penknives, pencils, keys, golf-balls, old letters, photographs, small boxes, tins, and bottles. Two fine etchings and some water-colour sketches hung on the walls; leaning against the end of the wardrobe, unhung, were a few framed engravings. A row of shoes and boots was ranged beneath the window. [Detective] crossed the room and studied them intently; then he measured some of them with his tape, whistling very softly. This done, he sat on the side of the bed, and his eyes roamed gloomily about the room.
The photographs on the mantelshelf attracted him presently. He rose and examined one representing [suspect] and [victim] on horseback. Two others were views of famous peaks in the Alps. There was a faded print of three youths—one of them unmistakably [suspect]—clothed in tatterdemalion soldier’s gear of the sixteenth century. Another was a portrait of a majestic old lady, slightly resembling [suspect]. [Detective], mechanically taking a cigarette from an open box on the mantel-shelf, lit it and stared at the photographs. Next he turned his attention to a flat leathern case that lay by the cigarette-box.
     It opened easily. A small and light revolver, of beautiful workmanship, was disclosed, with a score or so of loose cartridges. On the stock were engraved the initials [suspect’s initials].”

My readers who are familiar with this work will already be nodding their heads, because they recognize that somewhere in that morass of tiny details is a single detail that gives the detective a clue which brings him closer to his solution. And then, in a way which I understand is a characteristic of an author who is trying to hide a clue, at the end of the paragraph is a surprising revelation (the revolver). The idea is that the tiny clue vanishes from the reader’s mind because the immediate surprise supplants it. At the end, the reader can go back and say, “Oh, by golly, there WAS a such-and-such in the suspect’s bedroom, I just forgot about it because I was so focused on that revolver.”

In other words, you conceal the clue by burying it in excelsior and then distracting the reader’s attention.

2940With that in mind, my realization is that this is the kind of thing that DLS was trying to do. It’s not merely excelsior for the sake of it, she’s actually burying clues in it. However, there are a couple of differences. I’d say that about 75% of The Nine Tailors qualifies as pure excelsior, which is considerably more than the 1913 work quoted above. And frankly, it is hard to find the very, very few clues to the mystery that are buried within it like rusty nails — because there are so few of them. The Nine Tailors does not actually have many clues; instead it has quite a bit of psychology about who is the type of person to have committed the crimes, and why, and a lot of speculation as to how the murder could actually have been carried out. (A modern novel based on this scenario would have had a terse comment from the autopsy surgeon a few chapters after the body is discovered, and half the puzzle would have been solved in a flash, I think, if indeed the murder scenario would stand up to such scrutiny.) But it seems to me that this is what DLS was doing. She got far too fond of her talent to create excelsior, with funny accents and dimwitted rustics and the antics of the servant classes about which she could be snobby. And Wilson’s “bent and rusty nails” of clues are not much use in coming to the solution of the mystery, to be honest. Lord Peter really works most of it out by being in the wrong room at the right time, and solving a very difficult cryptogram that depends upon a knowledge of change-ringing.

This exercise, though, has taught me something of a lesson. The exercise of trying to place DLS’s writing style in context has been revealing — she is following upon the track of the older author whose name I have not mentioned. I find this contextualization reassuring; it has made me realize that she wasn’t really stepping out and creating an entirely new kind of detective fiction, but merely adapting her personal writing style to the traditions of the genre. And if it takes her 2500 words to say nothing useful at all — well, it’s taken me slightly fewer than 2500 words to say very little about her work, and I can refrain from complaining if you can!

 

 

 

 

The Murder that had Everything!, by Hulbert Footner (1939)

12540270_10208104766567176_726760561_nWARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

Mystery writer and well-known New York amateur detective Amos Lee Mappin is called in by pretty socialite Peggy Brocklin, whose $40 million have been abandoned before the altar by a disappearing fiance, Rene Doria.  Rene is not from the highest drawer; in fact, he’s a coarsely handsome nobody who’s spent the last four years in Hollywood trying to get into the movies, and he captivated Peggy with his sexual magnetism. A man like that always has more than one woman on the string to provide the large sums of money that fuel his activities, and we soon meet the wealthy and middle-aged Mrs. Vosper, who loaned Doria a valuable piece of  jewelry when he said he was in a jam. Mappin quickly locates Doria, or at least his lifeless body, and nearby in his apartment are three clues. One is a flower — prepared to be worn in a man’s lapel. The second is a strange doodle on a desk blotter, with four dots in the centre of a circle. (Much as you see on the cover of the latest edition, depicted at the top of this review.) And the third is a tiny piece of broken glass that has a strange shape; maddeningly familiar but unidentifiable.

As Mappin continues to investigate, he has occasion to take advice from a couple of well-connected reporters on the society circuit, including Beau Gramercy, whose column can make or break anyone in modern cafe society. Using his extensive contacts in the upper social echelons, Mappin starts to uncover the outlines of something larger than this isolated incident, where a number of handsome impoverished men have been systematically fleecing wealthy women. The detective identifies the mastermind behind these schemes and solves the case.

1363Why is this worth reading?

If you aren’t familiar with the life story of Hulbert Footner, I recommend you to his Wikipedia article found here. I’m a Canadian, and he was too — but I wouldn’t recommend you to his work merely for that, or that he explored the rather remote area of the Canadian Rockies in which I live in 1911 and gave his name to Lake Footner in northwestern Alberta. He was at various time an actor and a dramatist, but eventually settled into writing detective fiction until his death in 1944. This is one of the writers who used to have the most interesting biographic paragraphs on the inside back jacket flap … not much seen these days. That alone might interest you in his work, though.

He wrote two different detective series. His first was from a series of short stories in a “slick” magazine about Madame Rosika Storey that were accumulated into books, and these are perhaps his best-known works. But later in his career he switched over to writing about mystery novelist Amos Lee Mappin, protagonist of this novel, who moved in New York’s cafe society. Both detectives have young women who assist them in something of the Watson role; this is an unusual thing in GAD and gives both series a bit of proto-feminist interest. Really, though, it seems to me as though he was merely writing for a female audience.

dell0074And in terms of a female audience, I thought this book was very interesting. Without revealing too much about the book and potentially spoiling your enjoyment, I can say that the criminality that underlies the book is the getting of money from wealthy women who become emotionally involved with the wrong man. Some of it seems like blackmail, some of it seems like merely … social pressure. It can’t be easy to be young, pretty, and one of the wealthiest heiresses in the world, if you happen to meet a devilishly handsome “bad boy” who sweeps you off your feet.

dell0074backSo the crime here is one in which men prey on women, and Amos Lee Mappin and the young woman who assists him together find out who is guilty and stop the blackmail. An interesting story and an interesting premise for a story at a time when, even though women were reading detective fiction in large numbers, they weren’t finding themselves often represented as either the partners of male investigators or the targets of large-scale criminal operations.

At least, that’s the point I was going to make when I first started to write this review. Because up until then, the picture in my mind was of a charming piece of GAD written in the 1920s. Nothing disturbed my picture of a detective of the early 1920s; everything that was described seemed to be contributing to this picture, whether it was clothes, patterns of speech, and a specific detail that I cannot explain for the sake of your potential enjoyment, but which explains two of the three main clues noted above. Then I realized that this had been published in 1939! It really did surprise me, and I went looking for evidence that this had been written and kept in a drawer for 15 years, or perhaps was a re-writing of an earlier book or story … but no. This book was written in 1939 but if you start the book with the presumption that you are in 1924, you won’t be any worse off.

This, to me, is strange stuff, and I can’t explain it. I mean, more famous authors like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, as they advanced in age and were nearing the end of their careers, wrote books that took place in the year of publication and yet contained the attitudes, vocabulary, and social mores of a time 20 or 30 years earlier. I suspect that the context is long gone that will let me understand how this book achieved publication when it, to me, seems to be completely out of step with its context. I mean, 1939 — the year of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Rawson’s Footprints on the Ceiling, and Stout’s Some Buried Caesar. Okay, this book is not quite antimacassars and voh-de-oh-doh, but neither is it seemingly set in the same social context as any of those novels, all with wealthy women who do pretty much what they choose.

Anyway — unless you are over 90 and read this when it first came out, and have a social context in which you can place it, you’re probably going to enjoy this novel; just ignore the copyright date and revel in a time when “cafe society” meant something different than hanging with your crew at Starbucks.

My favourite edition

Full disclosure: Although I’ve had the Dell mapback edition shown above for years, and even read it way back when, I’d quite forgotten about this minor work until Coachwhip was kind enough to send me a review copy of the edition shown at the head of this review. I’m sorry to say that my first love will always be for the mapback, but I have to say this is an attractive modern edition. The typography is attractive and the book has a nice hand-feel to it, in weight and cover finish; I am happy to see that Coachwhip avoids the bad habits of other small presses and sticks to simple cover designs like the one here.  I venture to guess that their edition will be about the same price as a Very Good to Near-Fine copy of Dell #74, the first paperback edition, and will look considerably less lurid on your shelves. So call this one my second favourite, but if there weren’t a mapback, it might be my first.

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Rex Stout, Week 2

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout.

Here they are, alphabetically:

Al, Paperback RevolutionRex Stout in UK Services Editions (Welcome, Al, and thanks for your contribution!)

Kate Jackson, crossexaminingcrimeDepiction of Race in Rex Stout’s A Right to Die (1964)

Tracy K., Bitter Tea and MysteryNon-Wolfe Mystery Novels by Rex Stout

Jeffrey Marks, The Corpse Steps OutFive Favourite Wolfes

Moira Redmond, Clothes in BooksA Crime Against Rex Stout

Noah Stewart, Noah’s ArchivesSome lesser known titles by Rex Stout

Helen Szamuely, Your Freedom and Ours: Rex Stout’s Other Detectives

Again, I’ll repeat my suggestion that if you have a blog and wish to join us, just get in touch.  And if you DON’T have a blog and wish to participate, let me know and I’ll find you a blog to which you can post as a guest.  Anything on the topic of Rex Stout this month will be welcome!

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Some lesser-known titles by Rex Stout

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout.

Rex Stout’s lesser-known titles

A lot of my fellow bloggers will be focused on the exploits of Nero Wolfe, and deservedly so. Nero Wolfe is one of the greatest literary creations of the 20th century; the books are original, intelligent, emotionally resonant, and have that strange quirkiness that seems to convince everyone who reads them that there actually is a brownstone on West 35th and Wolfe is at this moment yelling at Archie about the germination cards.  I love the Nero Wolfe stories, all of them, and I expect to talk about at least one of them this month.  But Rex Stout wrote for many, many years, and produced some very interesting work before he settled into the corpus exclusively. There is a lot of merit (and some silliness) in these stories and you may want to experience them for yourself.  Here are some of the high spots.

Stout-Hand_in_GloveThe Hand in the Glove: A Dol Bonner Mystery (1937)

Let’s start with the very best. If, perish forbid, Stout had never thought of Nero Wolfe, we might today be discussing the merits of about 35 volumes of the exploits of Dol Bonner, and the entire course of detective fiction would have been changed.  The idea of a female private investigator, or investigator in any sense, was flirted with occasionally by perhaps a double handful of early writers, but no single character really caught the public’s attention (despite a strong showing from Erle Stanley Gardner’s Bertha Cool) until Marcia Muller’s first Sharon McCone novel transformed the genre in 1977.  (It’s called Edwin of the Iron Shoes, and it’s worth your time; remember, she was inventing what a later generation of writers took for granted.)

dell0177Rex Stout almost managed it, though. To this day I’m not sure just why Theodolinda “Dol” Bonner, running her own private investigation agency, didn’t catch on. To me, this novel is catchy and clever, and manages to balance strongly logical ratiocinative thinking with some powerful emotional work. It is literally a country house mystery; wealthy P. L. Storrs is surrounded by his family, his associates, and his neighbours at his country estate, Birchhaven, when he is found strangled by being hung from a
dell0177backtree with wire. This is the same thing that’s been happening at a neighbour’s game farm with pheasants and small animals, but Storrs’ death starts a furore that embroils everyone for miles and results in another death before Dol identifies the killer and threatens to shoot that person in the kneecap if a full confession is not forthcoming.  I don’t want to give too much of this away, but Dol is the only person who realizes the importance of a pair of gloves to a murder by wire, and goes looking for them.  She finds them inside a hollowed-out watermelon, and just exactly why and how makes for a fascinating few chapters.  Perhaps readers didn’t like that Dol is a self-declared “man-hater” who refuses romantic involvements coldly and vehemently; what we might describe today as a bristly and angry early feminist.  To me, that’s fascinating, but it might not have been what the reader of 1937 was looking for.  For whatever reason, this was the first and last Dol Bonner novel.  She reappears a couple of times later on in the corpus, notably The Mother Hunt where Archie needs female operatives to act as nursemaids, and she appears to have spent the rest of her life running her own agency. The source novel engendered a made-for-TV movie from 1992 called “Lady Against The Odds” which stars Crystal Bernard … I’m not a fan but it has its adherents.

I think this is a vitally important point in the history of the 20th century female private investigator novel and I urge you to find a copy for yourself. My own favourite is, as usual, the mapback version from Dell but the first edition is also strongly graphic and beautiful.  I gave a copy of this to a mystery writer friend of mine who intended to teach a university class on feminism and mysteries. Nora Kelly’s comment to me was, “Why does no one KNOW about this?” You may share her pleasure.

two_complete_detective_books_194303Three Tecumseh Fox mysteries

Tecumseh Fox mysteries are … meh. They’re well written and not stupid, but they’re missing some essential spark of vivacity that they require, and Stout had missed whatever it was.  Tecumseh Fox is a “quirky” private investigator but no one ever comes right out and says anything about him that makes much sense in that context. To me he just seems grumpy and unpredictable, but energetic and
doubledeathfrontinterested in solving his cases. The first one, Double for Death (1939) is everyone’s favourite but mine; I actually prefer both the other two, 1940’s Bad for Business and 1941’s The Broken Vase.  Double for Death has a bitterly ironic twist in its finish that everyone enjoys; for me the central clue is telegraphed. Both the other two exhibit more subtlety in clueing. Stout reworked Bad For Business as a Nero Wolfe novella, “Bitter End”, in the same year, so apparently he liked the idea but not the characters.  The location of the central clue is certainly amusing, and the puzzle depends upon the reader being quite acute about a casual remark by one minor character, which I like.

Some other mysteries

5636305009_5535c76c3f_bRed Threads is a 1939 mystery starring Inspector Cramer, Wolfe’s constant antagonist, who here is sympathetic and helpful. The protagonist is a young female fabric designer — she shares her avocation with Stout’s wife Pola, and so that part of it is intriguing and interesting and rings with truth.  There’s a bunch of hooey about what are called “Indians” (in my part of the world the preferred term is “First Nations”), and it is so stereotyped and awful that it seriously mars the book for me.  The book is centred around a romance and ends happily; Stout was good at writing those romantic stories, I think.

alphabet_hicksAlphabet Hicks (1941, also published as The Sound of Murder) is about a detective named Alphabet Hicks who is pretty much the same person as Tecumseh Fox.  He’s quirky and unpredictable but there is nothing real underneath the quirks.  His one outing depends, unfortunately, on convincing the reader that two people’s voices sound exactly the same and would be mistaken one for the other. That may be the case, but it’s a story that is hard to tell in the written word.

Stout-Mountain_CatThe Mountain Cat Murders (1939) is set in a small town in Wyoming and features a spunky young woman trying to solve the deaths of her father and mother. The “Mountain Cat” is a glamorous, wealthy, and often-married playgirl who is easily the most interesting character in the book; the mystery is competent but essentially dull. One point in the solution involving an illiterate miner is … far-fetched.

Two strange novels

438f09964bfb8f5e9e2764f9081e1eeeHonestly, I can’t recommend that you track down and read How Like A God, Stout’s “breakout novel” of 1929 that brought him to the public’s attention. It took me a few years to find a copy and I was almost sorry I’d found it, since the anticipation was much, much more pleasant than the achievement. This is a novel written in the second person, and I hope — sorry, you hope you’ll never have to go through that again, because you find it so damn disconcerting and unnecessary. It also has some of what a friend of mine calls “steamy bits” which are not as steamy as they must have been in 1929; as well, Stout seems to have been rather prudish about saying what he was getting at.

President_Vanishes1_fsMuch, much more interesting, I trust, is The President Vanishes, Stout’s one outing into the “political thriller”, published anonymously in 1934. There is a lot of stuff here that I wish I had the education in American history to be able to appreciate; it is clear that Stout is taking off “brownshirts” and fascism, and political laziness, and the far right wing. There is a lot of social history material here that I am only poorly equipped to grasp. What I do see is that Stout had the knack of writing a suspenseful thriller; if he had started writing them later on into their history, I think he would have produced some good ones.  There was a money-losing eponymous film made the same year; the film was protested by a Catholic morality organization for no really good reason that I can see, but again, this is social history beyond my knowledge. The book itself you may find boring and antique; I would actually agree but gee, there are the bones of a damn good book buried in there.

fb3c7e06498c97959796b4e5a674141414d6741There are other novels and stories; I understand that a very early story whose events form the basis for Fer-de-Lance and a few uncollected pieces have just very recently been collected, so there’s something out there for even the most well-read Stoutian. There is a strange “lost world adventure” called Under the Andes from 1914, there are a couple of what I think of as Oppenheimerish Ruritanian romantic stories, and just generally a handful of stories from the slicks that don’t prefigure much of the excellence which Stout was preparing to achieve with Nero Wolfe. Nothing especially stands out unless you happen to be interested in the cognates of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Pellucidar stories. And finally, Forest Fire (1933) is a novel with some early LGBT interest that may make you think of Rod Steiger in The Sergeant; it’s tough going as a novel, though, especially since this is another one where Stout is being oblique and prudish.

 

 

Beware Your Neighbour, by Miles Burton (1951)

439WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

Hallows Green is a single street in the British city of Barncaster that contains ten houses.  This is a quiet little street that you probably would never enter unless you had business there … upper middle-class people living in fairly nice houses.  There’s a doctor, a lawyer, a retired professor, a retired admiral, a bank manager, a philanthropic widow, an amateur photographer of some renown, two brothers of independent means who live with their families in houses that face each other. The only unusual people there are Mr. and Mrs. Egremont at number 1, who are popularly supposed to be the Prophet and Prophetess of some strange cult.  But no one bothers their neighbours much and the general atmosphere is that of an oasis of quiet in the city.

Welwyn_Garden_City_cul-de-sacOne by one, the inhabitants of Hallows Green begin to receive strange and ominous messages. All are different — some elaborate, some simple. But all these messages refer to death. Before notifying the police, the retired admiral calls in his amateur detective friend Desmond Merrion to see if he can shed light on the baffling warnings that have come to eight of the ten houses.

Before too long, the amateur photographer’s stock of equipment and negatives are burned, with his back yard shed.  Another resident is bashed with a heavy branch that’s been set in the form of a booby trap. Finally, as the police are called in, two residents of a house are found mysteriously dead. Desmond Merrion works with his long-time associate, Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard, to determine an extremely unusual state of affairs and bring the crime home to a surprising criminal.

Why is this worth reading?

Under Canadian copyright law, the enormous backlist of Miles Burton (and John Rhode, both pseudonyms of Cecil J. C. Street) came into the public domain this year. Since Burton/Rhode novels are one of my current interests, I’ve acquired two dozen of them from archive.org and I’m currently in … well, let’s call it hog heaven. ;-)  Rhode and Burton novels have been difficult and expensive to acquire for many years and I’ve never had more than a dozen of them pass through my hands, at least that I can recall. Now that I can get them in quantity, I’ve had the opportunity to barely begin to get to know this writer, but so far I’m enjoying what I’m reading.

The ones I’ve recently acquired have mostly been titles from the latter part of Burton’s career like this one. After having gone through a handful of them in a glorious couple of days, I’ve noticed a repetitive plot structure that seems to be frequently, but not always, present. It has to do with a criminal deciding to commit a crime and constructing a bogus situation that will pin the guilt upon some nearby person; the real criminal doesn’t appear until near the end of the novel after the detective notices that some tiny things don’t add up.  I’m happy to say that this is NOT one of those. I found this one the most satisfying of the handful I’ve recently gobbled, and I enjoyed it quite a bit; the criminal is someone at whom the reader has had a chance to look, and I think that’s important. I was also pretty much completely hoodwinked by the plot, which I find enjoyable.  Yes, this book requires some suspension of disbelief, but not more so than many Golden Age mysteries.

There was also some interesting moments of social history, always a great interest of mine in the context of GAD.  Like so much of GAD, the finest of inferences about topics of social history are not always available to a modern audience who have lost the context. It is not quite clear to me why Mrs. Egremont wearing sandals in public is somehow linked to her being … “not our sort, dear,” although I hasten to add that that’s not a direct quote.  There are some lovely moments in the thoughts of an aging philanthropist and worker of good deeds who reflects that she cannot afford to replace her assistant and so the assistant’s budding romance must be nipped in the bud. The precise shades of social distinction between various retired professionals are unspoken but definitely there; apparently retired admirals trump retired lawyers in the leadership sweepstakes.  And the single-minded gentleman who spends his days and nights thinking about photography is given the same kind of amused tolerance as modern Britons give, say, the twitcher (bird-watcher) or the railway anorak (I hope I have those terms correct!).

Oddly enough, I had a weird flash of a very unlikely author for comparison; Mary Roberts Rinehart. MRR did these closed-circle streets very well, but in a completely different way. Her “cul de sac” novels like The Album (1933) focus on heightening tension and a kind of claustrophobic shrinking of the characters’ viewpoints to a smaller and smaller area. Burton’s Hallows Green’s inhabitants, for the most part, are everyday folks with ordinary and fairly happy lives; there are children and servants and a life outside the street. Rinehart’s books focused on gloomy landscapes that produced emotional stress and violence (an old lady is murdered with an axe in The Album). Burton follows a different path, where the happiness of everyday life is interrupted by bizarre and inexplicable events that soon lead to violence. It’s easier for an ordinary person to empathize with the peaceful neighbours of Hallows Green, I think, but I was surprised at the amount of tension that the author managed to induce. You really do want to know who is doing these things, and why.

It’s impossible for me to go on about Miles Burton without mentioning the excellent work of my blog-friend Curtis Evans, who literally wrote the book on this author in 2012. I’m coming to my own conclusions now that I’m having a chance to read Burton/Rhode for myself, but I have to say that those opinions will have been influenced by Masters of the Humdrum Mystery. Go get a copy (click on the title) and read for yourself; I think it is what has gotten me so interested in Cecil John Charles Street lately.

My favourite edition

I read this in an electronic edition freely available from archive.org and there doesn’t seem to be any “cover art” associated with that. As you can imagine, there haven’t been many editions and this volume seems to have been published pretty much in its Collins first edition (seen above) and then neglected. So my favourite edition thus far is the one I got freely from archive.org, now that it’s January 2016 and it’s in the public domain in Canada and Australia.  I know this situation is different in the United States and Great Britain and it may not be legal for you to obtain this free e-book; please proceed accordingly.

With that in mind, I note that there actually is a 2013 trade paperback edition which is spelled Beware Your Neighbor available. I do not believe that this company has the legal right to publish that book and so I won’t enable you to find it. The title is misspelled, the cover is ugly, and, frankly, the description of the book is completely incorrect in every detail. If you’re going to commit an act of literary piracy disrespectful of the author’s heirs, you should at least do it with a little class.

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Rex Stout, Week 1

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout.

Here they are, alphabetically:

Kate Jackson, crossexaminingcrimeNero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin: A Blending of Genres

Tracy K., Bitter Tea and MysteryToo Many Cooks: Rex Stout

Jeffrey Marks, The Corpse Steps OutI Can’t Read 55

Moira Redmond, Clothes in Books: Rex Stout and Christmas

Noah Stewart, Noah’s ArchivesBook scouting Rex Stout

Helen Szamuely, Your Freedom and Ours: Was Rex Stout Right About Watson?

And we’re off, with a wide range of interests and backgrounds represented!  Again, I’ll repeat my suggestion that if you have a blog and wish to join us, just get in touch.  And if you DON’T have a blog and wish to participate, let me know and I’ll find you a blog to which you can post as a guest.  Anything on the topic of Rex Stout this month will be welcome!