What I re-read on my summer vacation (and what I didn’t finish)

I am indebted to the insightful critic (and Gladys Mitchell expert) Nick Fuller for the impetus that produced this post. His post of today’s date (found here) wherein he talks briefly and concisely about a number of different books, very few of which found sufficient favour with him to generate a full-on blog post, seems to have unblocked a mental logjam for me, and I thank him.

This summer has been a tumultuous one for me; for a long string of reasons but principally that in a few weeks I will execute my second full house-move of the summer.  For various real estate reasons I’ve had to live out of bags and boxes for eight weeks and it hasn’t been productive of much in the way of considered thinking about any individual novel.  Now, however, the final resting place is imminent; I’ll have enough space to put in enough bookshelves for all my books and a swimming pool around which to sit and read them. Life will be good.  😉

In the meantime, I’m still reading and re-reading dozens of books as they pass through my hands. (I acquire paperbacks like other people acquire beer; dozens at a time, and I leave the empties all over the house.) Not much has stood out as being exceptionally good or bad; very little has made me think, “Oh, that’s a good example of that school,” or “That was his worst book EVER.” Not much has impelled me to settle in for 1,500 words on any particular topic. But Nick Fuller has confirmed for me that, yes, I can just talk about a lot of books very briefly, if only to prove that I haven’t stopped reading the damn things and thinking about them.

So here’s what I’ve been re-reading on my “summer vacation”.

51nZTaUFX6L._SX285_BO1,204,203,200_Emma Lathen‘s first novel, Banking on Death (1961)and a couple of others of hers (one of which is one of the few things I *did* want to talk about at length, so expect a piece about Death Shall Overcome in the near future). I found what I think is a first printing of the first paperback edition of this charming book (not shown) and was happy to see it. A good mystery and a good introduction to John Putnam Thatcher, vice-president of the third-largest bank in the world, and his cast of subordinates.

1775437Nicholas BlakeThe Whisper in the Gloom (1954). Nicholas Blake wrote great puzzle mysteries and lousy spy thrillers; this is a spy thriller and it is to say the least uninspired. It features a group of young boys mixed up in a spy plot; it finishes up with an assassination attempt at a concert at the Albert Hall that is far too reminiscent of the ending of Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Man Who Knew Too Much.  A young male adolescent might enjoy this.

Ellery Queenin his earliest years; The
romanhatmystery
Roman Hat Mystery (1929), The French Powder Mystery (1930)I picked up a copy of Greek Coffin (1932) but I read that so intensely for a piece a few years ago I still know it off by heart. Roman Hat and French Powder are just as exquisitely boring as I remembered. The word that keeps coming to my mind is “inexorable”. There may be nothing interesting going on, but by golly we’re getting to the finish, like it or not, and you WILL understand why the answer is the answer, or else.

51nPxlH9HpL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Phoebe Atwood TaylorOut Of Order (1936), Punch With Care (1946), Figure Away (1937), and a bunch of others. At my most media-free point, when everything was off to storage and the television and internet hadn’t been installed yet, my sister brought me a bag of Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asey Mayo mysteries, and I was bloody happy to see them. For me these are comfort food. Absolutely first-rate mysteries if you’re not asking for much beyond amusement and diversion; well-plotted, amusing characters, wacky plots, tight solutions, and a fast-moving story line that carries you to the end. What’s not to like?

512hAUmMCML._SL500_SX340_BO1,204,203,200_Leslie FordThree Bright Pebbles (1938), All For the Love of a Lady (1944), Honolulu Murders (1946), The Woman In Black (1947), Ill-Met By Moonlight (1937), and a handful of others I can’t be bothered to dig out, about Washington widow Grace Latham and the soldierly Col. Primrose. There might have been a piece here about how this writer’s two different series (the other is the Mr. Pinkerton novels as by David Frome) are both
Ford-Blackcompletely different and both rather awful, but … ugh. I don’t mind Mrs. Latham’s cook Lilac as much as others seem to — some novels of the period don’t have any characters of different skin colours at all, and while it’s not the best characterization ever, at least it’s friendly and well-meant. However, Leslie Ford writes pretty much the same book over and over, and silly remarks about coloured servants are just one of the cliches; white people don’t come off well either.  Beautiful young girl, handsome young man, someone did something stupid and cannot tell anyone what, romantic entanglements, evil businessman wants to do something wicked, stupid middle-aged women with too much money, Had I But Known, social position, wartime Washington DC, silly Mrs. Latham and strong-jawed nonentity Colonel Primrose and the very unfunny Sergeant Buck, semi-surprising ending.  There, I just saved you a lot of money.

51ZT1WZJ4QL._SX283_BO1,204,203,200_Dorothy Simpson, Wake the Dead (1992). Just … bland. The occasional spark of interesting writing but truly I’d rather watch Midsomer Murders. A boring detective investigating upper-class twits. If you follow the principle that the most morally upright people end up to have done the worst things, you will anticipate the ending easily.

Josephine BellEasy Prey (1959)Such a well-written book, I almost did a piece about it but it’s rather out of the GAD mold.
paul-lehr_easy-preyThis is domestic suspense, not usually my thing but wow, such a tight and smart book. An elderly spinster moves in as the lodger with a nice young couple with a young baby and becomes part of the family, until they find out she’s just out of prison on a charge of murdering a baby. But then absolutely not what you’d expect from there on; the young couple doesn’t believe Miss Trubb could’ve done it and proceeds to investigate, with surprising results. Perhaps the best thing by Bell I’ve ever read; this is a strong mystery plot with strong writing and very strong characterization to make Miss Trubb so believable. Not at all a happy ending but a very right one. This made me think of Patricia Wentworth in that this is the kind of story Wentworth understood; there’s a set of nested fears in this novel about being elderly and female and poor and homeless and powerless that will be most powerful to a female reader, I think.

854395Philip MacDonald, The Polferry Riddle (1931). A terrible book by this excellent writer; his worst ending that I can remember. A waste of Anthony Gethryn. A waste of my time. Always a bad sign when you begin to re-read a mystery and have a sinking feeling … “Oh, this is the one where X, Y, and Z that annoyed me so much the first time.” It still does.

Kenneth Hopkins, Dead Against My Principles (1960). I picked this up, although I hadn’t heard of this author, because it was in the Perennial Library
3610232line and they’ve been a source of good reading in the past. I have to say, this one just stopped me dead. It’s not once in five years that I fail to finish a book, but this one was too ghastly to continue. The author is trying to be funny and apparently our mutual senses of humour are completely incompatible. It’s about three people in their 80s investigating a crime and I cannot think that the author likes elderly people very much. Two old professors and their elderly lady friend dither and dissemble and say enigmatic things and go off on highways and byways and it’s just patronizing and annoying and anti-elderly. Once I stopped focusing on the annoying characterization, the simplistic plot allowed me to skip the middle of the book and proceed to the end, where I confirmed that, yes, I had figured out what was going on. I almost never do that, but I just couldn’t stand another minute of this one.

To my surprise I find I have another stack of books that I’ve gone through this summer that seem to deserve the same terse treatment. I’ll try to bring them to you soon.  In the meantime … this is where I’ll be for most of August.

new pool

 

The Chinese Shawl, by Patricia Wentworth (1943)

8cab35653a74e396c5cbad7820a339b7.jpgI had a small stroke of luck a few weeks ago and found a handful of Patricia Wentworth titles in a charity shop that included a couple of my personal favourites; it seemed like an opportune time for some re-reading and reconsideration.

I’ve read The Chinese Shawl (1943) before, many times in fact since I first discovered the Miss Silver novels. Miss Silver for me has become a kind of “cup of warm cocoa”, a familiar world where all the young women are beautiful, all the young men are handsome and gallant, and Miss Silver solves everything while knitting and emitting the occasional hortatory cough. For those of you not familiar with Patricia Wentworth’s oeuvre, she wrote 32 novels about Miss Silver, a retired governess who became a professional private detective, between 1928 and 1961. The novels usually have a romantic subplot where a nice young woman with long eyelashes finally hooks up with a wealthy young man and heads to the altar. I’ve written about Miss Silver before, and in quite some detail here in an analysis of Miss Silver Comes To Stay (1949), so if you want my generalized look at all 32 novels that’s where to look.

51HoKXRCNKLMy most recent re-reading of The Chinese Shawl produced a somewhat different thought pattern than my usual pleasant nostalgia, though, and I wanted to share it with you. Essentially I realized that over the years in my mind I have developed a kind of idealized mystery novel template in the back of my mind; something against which I hold up Golden Age mysteries and see where they fail to live up to my hoped-for experience. But when it occurred to me that I had never really tried to determine what that idealized mystery novel looked like, I knew I had the beginnings of an article for you.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, I’ll be revealing every crucial element of the above-captioned book, including the identity of the murderer and all relevant plot details. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

2650783What is this novel about?

Beautiful young Laura Fane comes up to London from the country in January, 1943 because it is soon to be her 21st birthday. We learn about some complicated family issues dating back decades, but in essence Laura inherited a house from her father that is being lived in by her father’s wealthy former fiancée, the formidable Agnes Fane — who was also the father’s cousin at the time of their engagement. Laura’s father broke it off after falling head over heels in love with Laura’s mother. Agnes then went out riding on her high-spirited horse, fell, and has spent the intervening years in a wheelchair. There has been a split in the family ever since; the proud and self-possessed Agnes never spoke to Laura’s father again.

Before he died, the month Laura was born, her father gave a 21-year lease of the house to Agnes. Agnes has lavished money and attention upon the place and paid Laura a considerable amount under the lease; now she wants to own the house. Laura meets Agnes’s adopted daughter, the strikingly beautiful Tanis Lyle, and learns that Agnes wants Laura to come and visit, heal the family breach, and sell the house to Agnes. Tanis is a classic villainess; she entraps young men and toys with their affections, then breaks their hearts and casts them aside. Agnes is completely devoted to Tanis, despite a failed marriage and a young son who remains conveniently “away”, and wants to leave her the house.

95cea3d5e3f3fd2596a6b4c6f51444341587343Laura also meets one of the many young men in Tanis Lyle’s orbit, the handsome young airman Carey Desborough, who is recovering from a crash and may not be able to fly again. Carey was once engaged to Tanis but she broke it off. As frequently happens in Wentworth novels, Carey and Laura fall immediately in love and are clearly on their way to the altar, but Tanis decides that, no, she hadn’t broken off the engagement after all.

So when Laura arrives at the house that she’s never seen, it’s with the twin problems of not wanting to sell the house to Agnes and trying to find a way of marrying Carey Desborough without being called out by Tanis as a man-stealer. So there’s some tension in the household when Laura comes to stay.

9780060810474-ukThe house has other inhabitants; the full-time dwellers are Agnes’s dull and dumpy cousin Lucy (chapter 4 starts off with a genealogical chart for anyone unable to follow the familial relationships), and Agnes’s long-time maid Perry and other staff, but there is a wing full of wartime evacuees and another house guest — Miss Silver, an old school-friend of Lucy and Agnes. Tanis has created a house party full of anxiety and jealousy among many of her suitors and their current romantic partners (when she re-announces her engagement to Carey, which is merely a ploy for this poisonous young woman to get her own way); when Tanis’s ex-husband shows up and makes a scene, the tension levels are raised even higher.

Laura has brought with her a family heirloom, an antique black and heavily embroidered Chinese shawl that she wears to dinner. She accidentally forgets to bring it upstairs with her one night; the next morning, Tanis is found dead in the hallway the next morning, shot in the back, and Laura’s Chinese shawl has vanished.

Wentworth_Chinese_ShawlAt this point the official investigation begins under Superintendent Randal March, who had once been a schoolboy under Miss Silver’s tutelage. I’ll go more deeply into the details below, but essentially a number of suspects present themselves to the attention of the police. Some are excellent suspects, like the crazy ex-husband; some are merely obvious, like a few couples whom Tanis was splitting up by “taking” the male, apparently merely for practice. And then a number of primary characters are more or less equally under suspicion, with no known motive.

Since Miss Silver has been present in the house the whole time, she’s in an ideal position to investigate, and does so at the request of Agnes. Miss Silver sorts out the impossible suspects and focuses upon the likely ones, sorting out a few misguided young people along the way in her inimitable fashion. Although warned by Miss Silver in advance, a slatternly servant who attempts to blackmail the murderer is herself murdered; very soon thereafter Miss Silver listens to the murderer confess and steps in to save the next proposed victim from the same fate.  And then everyone whom the reader wants to get married, or stay married, accomplishes that in a coda.

ce32ed3581ecad5f86276ef24794ed15Why is this novel worth your time?

It’s definitely worth your time if you like the particular admixture of detective fiction with light romance that was Patricia Wentworth’s specialty. As I said above, for me it’s the literary equivalent of a cup of cocoa; Wentworth has the knack of being able to convince us to suspend our disbelief and just accept that two nice young people fall in love with each other against the background of a puzzling murder mystery.

The mystery itself is not enormously difficult, probably because there are only a few possibilities. If the reader accepts that Tanis picked up the shawl in the dead of night to keep herself warm, and then was shot, it would be because she had been mistaken for Laura. And there are only really three people who have any reason to kill Laura for the sake of what must have been a family-based grudge, as Miss Silver outlines in the second-last chapter.

And this is where my idealized murder mystery began to take shape. I was considering writing about this novel and thinking, “Now, my favourite kind of mystery is one where there is one suspect for the consideration of the police, and another for the dullest of readers, and another for the quite perceptive reader, and finally the actual murderer, whom only the most acute reader will identify. And that’s what’s happened here.”

The ex-husband is soon eliminated conclusively as a suspect, even to the imagination of a John Dickson Carr; he’s strapped to his hospital bed under full-time 24/7 nursing care. So there are two Tanis-besotted young men and their aggrieved young wives who hate Tanis, for the dullest of readers. Miss Silver sorts the second couple out around Chapter 35. In Chapter 36 we learn something that Miss Silver has always known but has not yet told the police OR the reader, which is a little unfair — Agnes Fane is not confined to her wheelchair, but merely prefers that the severe limp bestowed by her riding accident not be seen. But she walks around the house in the middle of the night.  And this, of course, immediately places her at the head of the perceptive reader’s suspect list. (In Golden Age mysteries, anyone in a wheelchair is immediately suspect of being able to get around without one, am I right?)

9780515030525-usSo in chapter 39 the blackmailing maid is killed by a shadowy figure, and immediately after in chapter 40 Laura hears and surprises Agnes Fane in the act of walking around the house. In chapter 41, dull cousin Lucy comes to rouse Laura yet again, because Agnes has had some sort of health crisis and Lucy needs help getting her a doctor without letting anyone know (because these sorts of things should be kept in the family). Lucy babbles on to Laura about the night Tanis was murdered, and the reader is increasingly convinced that Lucy is not quite saying outright that Agnes shot Tanis in mistake for Laura. And since this fits the plot so far, we don’t quite know what’s coming next but we expect that Agnes will have to pay for her crimes.

And Miss Silver has roused Carey Desborough to back her up physically, because only she knows that the murderer is really cousin Lucy, who is nuttier than a fruitcake. (Lucy wants to kill Laura and blame everything on her so that she and Agnes will live happily ever after with Tanis’s offstage young son.) So this penultimate chapter surprises the reader yet again. Lucy is the killer whom only a few will legitimately suspect.

Miss Silver provides a tiny clue which lets you know that, yes, you could have figured it out if you had been superhumanly observant. She boils it down to three suspects (Agnes, her maid Perry, and Lucy) who may conceivably have a grudge against Laura, and notes that Lucy is the only one who is short-sighted. “Laura had been wearing a black lace dress. Tanis had changed into black pyjamas and a heavy black silk coat. Only a very short-sighted person to whom all black materials look alike at a little distance could have mistaken that heavy silk for so different a material as lace.” And so that becomes the if-and-only-if condition that identified the short-sighted Lucy as the murderer, which Randal March calls “acute — and how feminine!”

517QMEd1LmLIt’s actually a cheat, since at no previous time has Wentworth remarked that Lucy is short-sighted. She has noted, though, that Lucy reads a lot of thrillers and tries to act like she doesn’t, so perhaps that is hint enough.

However, it did seem as though Wentworth was working towards layering the book in such a way that the identity of the murderer would really be a surprise, and doing so in the way I’ve noted works well. Another mystery writer has commented along the same lines, although my memory fails me as to exactly whom that was. You create a suspect who is obviously guilty and whom the police arrest, then one a little less guilty-looking for the duller reader, a well-hidden suspect for the smarter reader, and a very slender path leading to the only correct answer for the smartest few.

What else, I wondered, has Wentworth done here from which I might extract certain basic principles of mystery construction?

imageWell, there is something here that I only find among the best-constructed mysteries — and it’s the reason I had to abandon spoilers and Tell All, in order to get this across. Essentially there is an underlying structure in this book where the physical facts and actions of the characters combine to produce a puzzle; but all the physical facts and actions of the characters share a kind of thematic bond. The book is “about” something.

Let me show you what I mean with reference to this particular book. The event that starts all the other balls rolling is that, many years ago, Laura’s father broke his engagement with Agnes because he had fallen in love with Laura’s mother and ran away with her. Twenty-one years later, Laura herself breaks up the engagement of Carey and Tanis — at least, from the point of view of Agnes. Imagine you’re Agnes for a moment. You were thrown over by Laura’s father 21 years ago, and now your beloved ward is going to be thrown over by her fiancé at Laura’s behest. So the emotional betrayal of the past is echoed by the emotional betrayal of the present.

0af638dafb7bc2a7071b8939503939b4.jpgI have to say, as a reader I find this kind of mystery to be a very satisfying reading experience. I look for thematic echoes like this in mysteries and very frequently do not find them, although they are the everyday stuff of what I term “literary fiction”. Even more interesting to me is the idea that these echoes result in a mystery plot that grows out of character and not mechanical necessity.

Here, it’s entirely possible that Agnes has gone crazy enough to try to shoot Laura (and mistakenly gun down Tanis). Why? Because we understand that Agnes’s betrayal 21 years ago has affected her entire life. We know she is proud and that her broken engagement essentially left her a lifelong spinster, unable to trust men. And Agnes has raised Tanis in such a way that she herself is entirely untrustworthy in romantic matters. She steals other women’s beaux and then casts them aside, she makes and breaks marriage engagements without scruple. You can understand why Tanis is the way she is, because you can understand why Agnes is the way she is. And the whole plot flows from those two characters.

Sure, it doesn’t sound like much to an audience capable of understanding the byzantine relationships of Game of Thrones, or even The Young and the Restless. But think about it in detective fiction terms. Take, for example, The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen (1934). There is pretty much zero in the way of psychological realism; the activities of the plot are entirely subordinated to making the set-piece that is the surroundings of the corpse make any sense. Why would someone come up with a murder plot that requires the murderer to insert two long spears through the clothing of the corpse, all of which is reversed? There’s no reason that doesn’t have the theme to Looney Tunes playing in the background. Whereas here — why, for instance, does Agnes want to own the house so badly? Because she wants it as a legacy for Tanis, and even Tanis’s son after her death. She wants to give her something permanent that will always be there, unlike men LOL. Everything rings true, because you can understand why the characters feel that way.

Detective-Book-Patricia-Wentworth-The-ChineseI’m not saying I dislike Chinese Orange, by the way, just that I much prefer it when a mystery has some element of … psychological necessity, if you will. I like detective novels even more when they contain an attention to detail such that every sub-plot contains the same thematic element. Here, people’s lives worsen when they interfere with romantic relationships, or their own romantic relationship is damaged or broken. Not only are Tanis and Agnes and Laura and Carey all affected by the broken engagement 20 years ago, husbands who dally with Tanis get suspected of murder by their wives, and vice versa. The puzzle is not as difficult as Chinese Orange but there is a good balance between plot and characterization here, and I enjoy that.

There are a few problems, of course. Wentworth here cheats a few times, notably in not providing sufficient evidence about the exact circumstances of Agnes and Lucy. And Lucy is pretty far-fetched as the ultimate murderer; Agnes is the one with all the steely determination who could pull that trigger and then kill the servant to hide her crimes. It’s hard to understand how Miss Silver herself could have known both these women from children and yet not realized that either was capable of murder; she was either less piercingly smart than she usually is, which isn’t possible 😉 or she was giving them the benefit of a doubt, which is not really the firmly upright Miss Silver.

The idea of the disloyal servant who Knows Something and tries to blackmail the murderer is a favourite idea of Wentworth’s — it shows up again in identical form in 1955’s Out Of The Past. I think she found it convenient in plotting terms, since it lets you have an exciting Act II without getting rid of any of the main suspects.

I’ve spent a lot of time re-reading Patricia Wentworth in the recent months and I’m really enjoying the process. There is always something diverting that she has to say about social issues, and even domestic economy, an interesting mystery to solve, and a light romantic plot that doesn’t strain credulity. (Well, okay, all those young women with caramel-coloured eyes and huge eyelashes, that strains credulity. But the romance is fine LOL.) And there is the presence of Miss Silver, who represents order and method and everything that is good about being an English gentlewoman. I’ve gone through her books a number of times now and always enjoyed the experience; I recommend her work to your attention.

 

Four unpleasant children (Part 2 of 2)

imagesThe other day, I published the first half of this essay. It was based upon the experience of picking up four mysteries at random from a box of recent acquisitions and finding that they all, to my surprise, contained children — unlikeable, unpleasant, and vaguely sticky children — as principal characters. This will be slightly less of a hatchet job than Part 1, since I actually liked one of today’s books … but I was in a mood to be less than pleased by children in mysteries.

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of crime fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about (1) The Widow’s Cruise, by Nicholas Blake; (2) Grey Mask, by Patricia Wentworth; and some others, including one by Christianna Brand to which I refer obliquely but specifically below, and Agatha Christie’s The Seven Dials Mystery. I discuss elements of plot and construction although I don’t lay out the answers in so many words.  If you haven’t already read these novels, reading this essay means 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 these books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this rant about?

51Cx4OmyUXL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_The third in my unbroken sequence of children in mysteries occurred when I picked up a copy of The Widow’s Cruise, a 1959 novel by the great Nicholas Blake. I provided a very brief biography of this writer some years back here; under his own name of Cecil Day-Lewis, he was indeed Poet Laureate of England (and his son is indeed the famous actor Daniel Day-Lewis).

As his career wound down, he published fewer novels in the series about amateur detective Nigel Strangeways and this is almost the last really satisfying one, I’ll suggest.  (That would be 1961’s The Worm of Death, which has small problems but large brilliancies.) In this outing, Nigel and his life partner Clare Massinger, a sculptor, board the Menelaos to cruise around the Greek Islands in the company of an assorted group of fellow passengers. The two of most interest are a pair of middle-aged sisters, one of whom is Melissa, a wealthy and glamorous widow, and the other a frustrated academic (Ianthe) recovering from a nervous breakdown.

447a5923b4b047fca5a624e0f32b639fOne of the other passengers is a teenage girl who attended the girls’ school where the bitter academic had taught until her breakdown; Faith and her brother are eager to snap at the heels of the former schoolteacher, who is withdrawn and unpleasant. Also in conflict with Ianthe is the scholar Jeremy Street, who is leading the “Greek history” part of the tour aboard the Menelaos; Ianthe’s last rational act before her breakdown appears to have been to publish a scathing review of Street’s scholarship.

UnknownBut it’s not teenage Faith who aroused my dislike; it’s another fellow passenger who is very little seen in the book but leaves an indelible impression. Little Primrose Chalmers, aged about nine, is the child of two psychoanalysts and her hobby appears to be spying on her fellow passengers and writing things down in a notebook. This unpleasant child contradicts her elders, doesn’t appear to realize when people don’t want her around, and appears to regard her fellow passengers as analytic subjects rather than adults to whom one should be respectful. Things build rapidly to a head and one afternoon, after a shore excursion during which Ianthe disappears, missing and presumed dead, Primrose is found face-down in the swimming pool and her notebook is missing. Apparently she saw or heard the wrong thing at the wrong time.

tumblr_lhm2a4iPD31qd7ygho1_1280Just imagining what it must be like to be trapped on a cruise ship with a child spying on you — let alone under circumstances productive of sexual dalliance, over-indulgence in food and drink, bitter arguments with persons on board from one’s past, and scholarly infighting — it all sounds very unpleasant to me. I’m not suggesting that Primrose deserved to be killed, that’s not fair to say at all about a child, but … how shall I put this? … the experienced mystery reader is not truly surprised.

517AXFNBzAL.SX316.SY316For the most part, this is really more a character study than anything else. Blake does a wonderful job of making us see bitter Ianthe and her less than virtuous sister Melissa, the pouty teenage Faith, the pompous but wounded Jeremy Street, and even the minor characters like a Bishop and his wife whom Nigel befriends, and the Greek cruise director, the greasy and highly-sexed Nikolaides. As you reach the conclusion of the book you will realize that you have actually been fooled by a complex and very deliberate plot, and that you have been given a large number of clues as to what actually happened — and you’ve overlooked or misinterpreted most of them.

My blogfriend, the percipient Kate Jackson, looked at this book last year with her usual acuity, and I do think her opinions and mine coincide for the most part. She made a good comparison of the central plot device here to certain of the works of Agatha Christie, and I agree. However, I think there’s even a stronger parallel in a novel of Christianna Brand’s from 1955 (don’t look up this piece by blogfriend Dan at The Reader Is Warned unless you are prepared to have some enjoyment spoiled of both this book and the Brand one).

51Mbiq780FL._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_What I enjoyed most about The Widow’s Cruise was the quality of the writing, which is head and shoulders above Blake’s contemporaries. The prose is elegant and intelligent, the plot is tidy and masterful, and the characterization, as I said, is the strongest point. Just a pleasure to read something this well-written, where intelligence leaks through the pores, as it were. I’m prepared to sacrifice a couple of Primroses for a book this smart and engaging.

4279de94b610700b1002b4e3cac79b7cAnd so I turn from a child who was a victim to a child who ought to have been a victim, as I mentioned yesterday. Grey Mask, a 1929 novel by Patricia Wentworth, is the earliest of my four encounters with the under-21 set and the very first in the long series of novels about Miss Silver, a retired governess who became a private investigator.

I’ve had quite a bit to say over the last few years about the work of Patricia Wentworth; The Clock Strikes Twelve (1944); The Dower House Mystery (1925) (a non-Miss Silver mystery); Poison in the Pen (1954); and a long piece about Miss Silver Comes To Stay (1949) that contains quite a bit of general observation about her entire oeuvre. I’m thinking of another more major piece in the future (in that regard, does anyone know why you would want to poison an innocent caterpillar?) but in the meantime it’s been pleasant to dip into the many mysteries she currently has available thanks to e-books. I’ll let those other pieces speak for themselves, if I may.

6a00d834515bbc69e2019101ea6a4f970c-600wiHowever, this is Miss Silver’s first outing, and honestly I suspect it was nearly her last. It took nearly ten years for the author to create a second Miss Silver novel and there were well more than a dozen non-series novels in the interval. I think it’s clear that Miss Silver got re-worked a little bit in the interval. She’s more aggressive here, less self-effacing, and, if you’ll pardon a more modern metaphor for this antique character, she’s more in your face. It’s the only book in the entire series where Miss Silver is heard to speak using contractions.

51B6LNvU-FLGrey Mask comes from a more antique tradition, and one that will not be well known nearly a century later. Essentially this comes from a style of novel that asks the reader to believe that (a) there is a secret society devoted to a large-scale cause, usually political, personal, or financial gain; (b) the people involved in this secret society wear masks at their meetings so that they won’t recognize each other if they meet mask-less; and (c) innocent and brave young people, frequently with troubled romantic lives, are constantly getting mixed up with these societies and bringing them to an unpleasant end. Indeed, you may have already read one of these (Agatha Christie’s 1929 novel, The Seven Dials Mystery) or seen this repetitive element used in film or television (for instance, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut and a vast array of direct-to-video gialli about witchcraft and female frontal nudity).

9781453223628-book-coverSo in 1929, when this was written, I suspect it may have been about the final point in time in which the reader was meant to take this seriously. This book, like all such books, chronicles the involvement of an innocent young person with the masked secret society; the innocent person decides that s/he is going to find out just what’s going on and do the job that the police cannot. Here it is Charles Moray, who four years ago had his engagement broken by the beautiful Margaret Langton. He travels the world, trying to forget (yes, the book is pretty much at this level of cliche) and upon his return he finds out that Margaret is a member of a masked secret society that is … blackmailing people? It’s not absolutely clear. But any clandestine meeting of people where everyone gets a mask and a number has got to be more than vaguely criminal. So Charles decides to take on Grey Mask, the leader of the group, and win back Margaret.

Wentworth_Patricia_Grey_Mask2Meanwhile, and this is what brought this so unfavourably to my attention, a new character arrives. Margot Standing is approximately 18 years old, fresh from a European finishing school, and the beautiful blonde daughter and heir of a wealthy shipping magnate who was recently lost at sea.  There’s a lot of money at stake and Grey Mask has his/her eyes on controlling Margot’s inheritance, so plans begin to take shape.

But Margot — oh, my, Margot. Oh, my. Apparently she’s been living in an extremely limited environment for the past decade or so, possibly one for the mentally challenged. She acts like an unsophisticated girl of about 12; she is credulous, pleasure-seeking, slightly rebellious, lazy, and oh, so stupid. Unbelievably stupid. Walking-into-traffic stupid. One of the first things she does is reply to a want-ad that is clearly designed to lure girls into the white slave traffic . She has no sense of self-preservation and apparently no sense that anyone would want to injure or inconvenience her. Why? Well, mostly because …

“A glance in the mirror never failed to have a cheering effect. It is very difficult to go on being unhappy when you can see that you have a skin of milk and roses, golden brown hair with a natural wave, and eyes that are much larger and bluer than those of any other girl you know. Margot Standing’s eyes really were rather remarkable. They were of a very pale blue, and if they had not been surrounded by ridiculously long black lashes, they might have spoilt her looks; as it was the contrast of dark lashes and pale bright eyes gave her prettiness a touch of exotic beauty. She was of middle height, with a pretty, rather plump figure, and a trick of falling from one graceful pose into another.”

What happens is that every single eligible male and a few who aren’t fall immediately in love with her, and wealthy aristocrats are competing for the right to buy her dinner and listen to her burble about whatever is on what passes for her mind.

9780446301350So that’s half the plot right there; Margot charms everyone. The remainder consists of Margot doing things that are unimaginably stupid and to the immediate benefit of Grey Mask and the group of conspirators, and then Margaret and Charles quite obviously falling in love all over again (but first, of course, he has to find out why she jilted him). And there’s a small percentage about Miss Silver acting rather in the role of private investigator Paul Drake from the Perry Mason series, whose job it is to pop up every now and then and provide information about who lives where and what they did last night. Miss Silver actually does save the day at the end, after some moderately surprising plot developments, and rescues Margaret and Charles from their imprisonment in a soundproof cellar. You will not be surprised to know that Grey Mask is someone who has not previously given any signs of the ability to be the mastermind of a powerful criminal organization — and has been fooling everyone for years.

51XlQmHKasL.SX160.SY160I suppose for me Margot was the sticking point. Frankly, if you have a plot that allows you the freedom to have just about anyone — passers-by, delivery boys, taxi drivers, waiters — be in the pay of your secret society, you don’t need the active cooperation of your victim in walking directly into every trap in sight. Similarly if you’re trying to keep Margot disguised and out of the hands of the secret society, it doesn’t help that she lets her secret slip to every man who talks to her politely for five minutes. She is a fifth wheel in the budding re-romance of Margaret and Charles, she eats all Margaret’s food and can’t afford to replace it, and is constantly gushing about how fabulous all the men in sight are and whether they are romantically interested in her. In later decades and milieux she might have found herself a preppy, bon chic bon genre, or a Sloane Ranger. But in this volume she’s a pompous little Valley Girl before her time. It’s unpleasant to consider that a wealthy man would have left his daughter so completely unequipped to meet the exigencies of modern life; her idea of work is apparently asking her father’s lawyer to give her money.  And I rather think this is the kind of person the Communists wanted to stand up against a wall and shoot; I’m somewhat more sympathetic now.

29010So Margot is carrying the weight of the plot and just cannot stand up to it. If you find yourself unable to countenance Margot, as I was unable, then you will not enjoy this book very much since it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen from the outset. The day will indeed be saved, the lovers will reunite, and the villain will be killed while trying to escape. I did have a moment’s pleasure thinking of what Miss Silver might have made of this lazy nitwit as a governess but I think Miss Silver would have more sense than to waste her effort. There is not much here but the bare bones of what Miss Silver would become in the future; she’s the only person in the book I wanted more from.

EUni12TPatricia Wentworth made the error of introducing repellent children at least once more; Vanishing Point, from 1953, features a young girl who is simultaneously an invalid and a plucky young thing with dreams of becoming an author. The result may leave the reader needing insulin because of a sugar overdose. But I haven’t heard anything from most of my regular commenters about other awful children in detective fiction. Does no one remember the xiphopagous twins from Ellery Queen‘s The Siamese Twin Mystery? The impossibly perfect offspring of Lieutenant Mendoza in the works of Dell Shannon? Horrible little Billy and Jackie from Queen’s The Tragedy of Y? Agatha Christie is full of them: the Girl-Guide-aged taxi dancer in Christie’s The Body in the Library, or Hallowe’en Party, with two repellent little girls (one sweet, one sour); the little ballerina in Crooked House, or the pudgy and unpleasant victim in Dead Man’s Folly; Pippa Hailsham-Brown from Spider’s Web or Linda Marshall from Evil Under The Sun. That creepy little group in Margery Allingham‘s The Mind Readers; brats in Erle Stanley Gardner‘s TCOT Empty Tin, Deadly Toy and Spurious Spinster — and that’s just with thinking about it for ten minutes.  There’s possibly a long series here!!

 

 

 

 

Four unpleasant children (Part 1 of 2)

box of books

Not the actual books; this, however, is an illustration from a tutorial on how to pack books, which I have found useful.

Recently I purchased a couple of boxes of mystery paperbacks; the editions ranged from the 40s to the 90s and the novels themselves were a mixed bag of good, bad, and indifferent.  (They included about 15 of the works of Leslie Ford, so expect something about her oeuvre at some near future point.) Almost all of them I’d read before, just wanted to have them on my shelves. I was dipping into one and then another, for a quick skimming re-read, hoping that some volume would strike a chord of excellence or failure and I could get a blog post out of it.

badseed

Little Rhoda, from “The Bad Seed”, filmed in 1956.

I do intend to get a couple of blog posts out of this box of books, but I had an experience that was not quite my normal reaction to a single mystery, and I thought I’d share it.  Essentially I hit four books in a row that all had children in them as featured characters, ranging from plot complications to murder victims. I had so much to say I had to divide it into two parts; I won’t be long delayed with the second part, I assure you.

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of crime fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about (1) Death and the Dutch Uncle, by Patricia Moyes; (2) Spinsters in Jeopardy, by Ngaio Marsh; and perhaps some others. I discuss elements of plot and construction although I don’t lay out the answers in so many words.  If you haven’t already read these novels, reading this essay means 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 these books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this rant about?

1023138This started when I picked up an old volume of Patricia Moyes that I dimly remembered having read 20 or 30 years ago; Death and the Dutch Uncle (1968). I read most of Moyes’s novels about Inspector Henry Tibbett of Scotland Yard and his charming wife Emmy when they were brought out in a uniform paperback edition in the early 80s by Henry Holt (see left); I’ve written about her first novel here. Most of the details were gone — frankly, this is why I re-read things, because it takes me a while to remember the book and I enjoy the process.  But I did remember that this particular volume had left me with a bad taste in my mouth; just not why that was.

“Hmm,” I thought as I progressed. “This isn’t the standard Golden Age style mystery, this is more like a mild espionage story, or perhaps a tale of international intrigue. Not really suited to Henry and Emmy, but Moyes is not being too serious here so it manages to keep me reading.  I wonder what it was that annoyed me so much the first time?  I don’t see any signs of it.”

16051797Then I hit the character of little Ineke de Jong, a Dutch child who is “eight and a half” and the grand-daughter of an important character, and the whole book came back to me with a rush. She is pushy, arrogant, demanding, and has “rosy cheeks, china-blue eyes, and flaxen hair tied with two blue ribbons …”. Her presence in the novel as a character is designed, I think, to allow various bad guys the chance to put pressure on her grandfather. I expect it’s entirely possible that many people would regard this precocious and aggressive child as being charming and cute; I can’t think of anyone I’d try to get away from faster.

Certainly there is a point to creating a character that you think your audience is going to enjoy. As the cover blurb for this novel suggests, Patricia Moyes put the “who” back in whodunnit, according to the Chicago Daily News at least. You get to convey information or build a platform for a plot point, and divert the reader by giving her a likeable character to provide that information/be that platform. From my point of view, though, when it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work at ALL. The remainder of this book was irretrievably spoiled for me because the damn kid set my teeth on edge and I hated reading about her.

9780345022479-usThis is a bit of a self-indulgent book in more than this way. As is evident from many of her other books, Moyes liked to write about European locations and, frankly, she usually does it well. She has a nice way of giving you knowledge without making you think you should have brought a guidebook along. Apparently there is something that she found charming about the Netherlands, both urban and rural; the urban part was fine, but her take on the countryside was saccharine and kind of insulting. There’s a moment where three elderly Dutch bumpkins misunderstand Henry that is not quite pleasant to read even though it’s supposed to be comical. Moyes is also kind of condescending about the general level of intelligence of London-based petty criminals and doesn’t find much to like about hotel staff either — these are two major threads in the early part of the book. And in a move that might have seemed cute and meta (but given the level of grumpiness that had already been provoked in me by little Ineke I found merely annoying), Moyes has represented Henry’s police contact in the Dutch force as being Inspector Van Der Valk. Ooh, meta and intertextual. I might have been prepared for that in a different context, but not this book, it seems.

1081179436So I ploughed through to the end and, yes, it was just as annoying as I’d remembered. Henry and Emmy perform feats of courage and athleticism that are perhaps somewhat beyond the norm. The story line is complicated by people who perform criminal acts of needless complexity and extent, and Ineke (of course) gets kidnapped with Emmy. Everyone is saved, the young lovers are reunited, and there’s an epilogue that neatly ties off all the loose ends.  Nothing here is really what I’d call a mystery, it’s more like the sedentary middle-aged version of a light espionage novel.  Three out of ten; most of her others are better.

9780006131625-us

Next I turned to Ngaio Marsh’s Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953); I’ve got a number of copies of this lying around, I’m sure, but I always try to pick up my favourite edition with the posed photograph of the “corpse” whenever I see one (see left). This book may well be familiar to a large percentage of my regular readers and there’s a bit of background here.  Marsh’s series detective, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, gets married during the course of the 32-novel series to the impossibly perfect Troy Alleyn; together they produce little Ricky Alleyn. I’ve already had quite a bit to say about 1977’s Last Ditch, in which a young adult Ricky gets involved in a drug-smuggling plot; it’s part of my series called 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Readfound here. That book is absolutely horrible. This earlier volume features Ricky as a ghastly young tyke of about six, and is very close to that level of awfulness.

5077968098_be818fef4c_bThe plot finds Alleyn and his family traveling in Roqueville, France because Alleyn has unaccountably decided that he can better investigate the origins of a narcotics ring while trailing his wife and child. Ridiculous, of course, but necessary to the story. Troy, his wife, wants to visit a local cousin, the oddly-behaved P. E. Garbel. As they travel to Roqueville by train, a coincidence occurs that is downright miraculous; a blind flies up at just the right moment and Alleyn witnesses what appears to be a murder in the very chateau he seeks to investigate in connection with the drug ring. In another astonishing coincidence, one of the Alleyn family’s fellow train passengers (one of the titular spinsters) needs an emergency operation for appendicitis and all the other doctors in the area are at a conference (don’t you hate when that happens?). Dr. Baradi, one of the leaders of a witchcraft cult headquartered at the Chateau of the Silver Goat, must perform the operation. And yes, the plotting is just as ruthlessly utilitarian as I’m making it sound. If something is interfering with Alleyn getting involved with the witchcraft cult, whoosh, away it goes, on the headlong way to Act II.

SpinstersInJeopardyThe chateau is filled with drug addicts of the upper levels of British and French society; one of Troy’s fellow painters, a raddled movie star whose career is on the downhill slide, the cult’s other leader Mr. Oberon, a pair of brainless but nice young Brits (Robin and Ginny), etc. Among these cultists are a couple of rather odd spinsters, to make the title work. Everyone lies around all day in a stupor induced by the overuse of cannabis, to which they are all “addicted” (hereabouts it appears to have qualities much like heroin). Very shortly after Alleyn first investigates the chateau, little Ricky is kidnapped. Through an exhibition of … I’ll call it astonishingly intuitive police work, Alleyn rescues his son with the assistance of a local chauffeur, Raoul, and Raoul’s fiancee, the voluptuous and faintly moustached Teresa.

Marsh-SpinBMeanwhile the book has been building to Act III in which the witchcraft cult is going to spend Friday night getting hopped up on marijuana and sacrificing the one virgin left in the building; Ginny, the youngest spinster of all. You will not be surprised to learn that Alleyn penetrates the witch cult and reveals his presence at the most dramatic moment possible; he solves a murder, proves who’s behind the narcotics ring, and rescues everyone who needs to be rescued.

9780515087185-us-300There’s a lot to dislike about this book, I found. The helpful locals, Raoul and Teresa, are “simple peasant types” and while it’s not overly emphasized, it’s clear that they’re in the book as comic relief; their language is nowhere near as hilarious as Marsh seems to think. The drug ring, as I’ve noted before with Marsh, is ridiculously conceived. It just doesn’t seem very sensible to try to camouflage a heroin factory by running it out of a crumbling chateau where you sacrifice virgins on the weekends; someone is bound to notice something, you know? The masterminds, for whom the penalties for their crimes may include death, are remarkably unwilling to confront or challenge Alleyn and rely upon kidnapping little Ricky at an early stage of proceedings — to give him something to worry about. If there’s anything more designed to draw attention to your operation than kidnapping the son of the detective investigating you, I cannot imagine what it might be (it would have to involve fireworks LOL). And it’s actually unpleasant to think that Inspector Alleyn could allow his family and especially his extremely vulnerable child to be involved with a den of Satanist drug dealers. I mean, come on. The kid gets kidnapped and rescued and the family still hangs around. This story requires more suspension of disbelief than a bungee jump.

9780006165309-us-300Little Ricky, as you can imagine, represents one of the reasons I’ve never had children. I actually do think Ngaio Marsh is a writer of considerable skill and intelligence, and she has a great deal of ability to make the reader see her characters as people. I believe that she is showing Ricky as a six-year-old, subject to the emotions and reactions of a child — and it’s that that I don’t like about this book. Marsh is working hard to make this child appealing and realistic and what it makes me want to do is close the book, pour myself a Scotch, and go confirm the restrictive covenant with my condo management company that guarantees no children and no pets. The child is chatty, follows his parents around like a homing pigeon, and requires constant reassurance about nearly everything in his environment, like a recently housebroken cocker spaniel. Now, to be fair, he actually gets kidnapped and might be expected to be a bit needy upon his return. But Ricky’s is the kind of anxiety that shows up whenever Marsh wants to make Troy and Alleyn look like good parents; when the action truly starts, he’s conveniently and thoroughly asleep. (And he’s only six, but he’s absorbed the British principle of the stiff upper lip.) If I had found myself stranded with the Alleyn family in that situation, by the hundredth repetition of “Why, mummy?” I would have joined the witchcraft cult and sacrificed Ricky.

51Cx4OmyUXL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_My next two lucky dips I’ll chronicle 4279de94b610700b1002b4e3cac79b7c
in the very near future; in one, a young girl is killed in an excellent Nigel Strangeways mystery by Nicholas Blake, and in the other, the reader only wishes the young girl is killed in a less than excellent Miss Silver mystery by Patricia Wentworth.

Meanwhile, in the comments below, who are your favourite awful children in detective fiction?

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s all my fellow bloggers’ fault: three lazy reviews

Women writers

My fellow mystery bloggers hard at work

It’s been a little while since I’ve been a very regular blogger, I’m sorry to say, and I’m going to take the liberty of blaming some of my recent laziness on the excellence of my fellow bloggers. Allow me to explain. Three times in the last few weeks, I’ve thought, “Oh, that particular piece would make a good blog post, because reasons.” Two books and an old mystery movie, to be precise. So I take the work and go through it a couple of more times, looking for themes, something unusual about this particular item, etc. And then I go and look on the internet and, darn it, someone by whose intelligence I have been impressed in the past has already taken the same item apart and explained it much better than I would have done, and — and this is the killing part — in fewer than a third the words it would have taken me to do it. How galling. 😉

So may I recommend you to a couple of other reviews?

The Six Iron Spiders, Phoebe Atwood TaylorThe Six Iron Spiders, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (she liked to sign herself PAT) from 1942, was well covered by the excellent (and enviably prolific!) Kate Jackson here, in her blog crossexaminingcrime in 2016. Kate notes the idea right off the bat that also made me think the book was interesting; that the civilian war effort is a crucial aspect of the plot as well as of the setting in this story.

WW2 First aid courseAsey Mayo, the “Codfish Sherlock”, is involved with a murder that happens in his own home at a meeting of volunteer first aid attendants being instructed in advanced techniques by Asey’s cousin Jennie. The story proceeds at PAT’s characteristic high-speed pace, with bodies that disappear and reappear and people running in all directions at high speed. The difference here is that everyone speaks through the shared lens of The War at its everyday level for the American populace. Thus high-speed chases are discouraged because tires for one’s personal vehicle are impossible to obtain, and people are constantly doing war-related things like spotting — sitting in a dark place looking for enemy aircraft/submarines — or studying first aid, or doing a kind of orienteering, where everyone agrees to meet in 90 minutes at an encoded location on a list everyone should have memorized.

As Asey remarks to himself near the end of the book,

“… it would be hard to plan a murder, and harder to commit one after you’d planned it. You couldn’t ever quite tell where your victim might be, what he might be doing, or how many other people might be watching you from a spotter’s station, or how many people might suddenly fly to the scene on a problem of one sort or another.”

Given the type of plotting that PAT is famous for, no wonder; the more confusion with people running around on secret business, the better. So that was the main point of interest for both of us. I must agree with Kate’s dislike of PAT’s less than charming observations about women in slacks; I can only add in PAT’s defence that generally she was more tolerant of difference than many of her contemporaries, and actually seemed to me to champion a specific kind of ultra-competent womanhood. There are many examples of highly competent women in PAT’s novels, Jennie Mayo herself being a prime example.

Iron spider skillet

An iron spider.

And to answer the question shared by everyone who cannot see the cover art for most editions: “iron spiders” in this case are a Cape Coddy way of referring to cast-iron frying pans. The spider appears to me to have a longer handle and a deeper bottom than similar skillets.

Atomic Renaissance, by Jeffrey MarksIf you want more information about Phoebe Atwood Taylor, this most fascinating writer of fast-moving wholesome Americana, the only reference book worth your time is by a friend of mine, Jeff Marks.  Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s is the only volume to give you the background on this madcap writer. I will forgive Jeff that his blog, The Corpse Steps Out, doesn’t get enough attention because I know that his biographies of mystery writers always take a long time to research and are just fascinating when they get to us … write faster, Jeff!

Murder by the Clock poster, 1931

MURDER BY THE CLOCK, 1931

Next I was going to have a look at an old film from my archives, Murder by the Clock from 1931, based on two works by mystery writer Rufus King. “Oh, good,” I thought idly, “there’s a book AND a movie that I can talk about, and Inspector Valcour deserves some attention.” Cliff Aliperti at his blog Immortal Ephemera, to my horror, had more to say about the movie in his excellent piece found here than I would have done, and — oh, the shame — at even greater length, because he knew about many

Murder by the Clock, Rufus King

Murder by the Clock, by Rufus King (Popular Library #31 from 1944)

filmic things I’d never heard of. Then when I found that my superbly well-read friend John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books had in 2012 done an in-depth look at the book … found here … my review was mentally being wadded into a ball and tossed away. Why bother, when these guys totally get it already? John’s assessment that this book is more like Ross MacDonald than any of King’s contemporaries is just brilliantly insightful, and I like King’s playful way with language just as much as he does. One tiny correction to a comment in John’s column; the William Boyd who plays the lead here is not the same William Boyd as became Hopalong Cassidy. The lead actor here called himself William “Stage” Boyd to distinguish himself from the man who later became Hoppy, and nearly ruined Hoppy’s film career by being involved in a scandal.  Fascinating stuff.  But the two actors had the same name, which made it very confusing.

Murder by the Clock, 1931

A lobby card from Murder by the Clock, 1931

Anyway, the movie has a creepy element injected into it that has nothing to do with the book of the same name, that I understand is taken from a stage play of Rufus King’s. An elderly woman is terrified of premature burial and has had an elaborate system installed  that sounds a booming horn outside the family mausoleum, if she should wake up in her coffin. Shades of Edgar Allan Poe, right? The horn, as you may well expect, goes off at least once during the movie and if you’ve been following along, it will make you jump when it booms. The really amazing thing about this movie, though, is the performance of Lilyan Tashman playing, apparently, She Who Must Be Obeyed. Tashman takes the ball from Theda Bara and runs with it. She is the Vamp ne plus ultra and can apparently rule every heterosexual male in sight with just a whiff of her perfume. Valcourt is made of stronger stuff, though — although the fact that Rufus King was gay may have something to do with his resistance. Lilyan Tashman is a fascinating figure who died only a few years later at age 33, probably from breast cancer, leaving only a handful of fascinating performances by which to judge her. Here, she’s really something. The movie is definitely worth a look for her alone, since the mystery plot will not occupy your mind for long. As of today, you can find it here on YouTube.

Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley

Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley (Penguin #6)

After being outdone twice, I thought I’d have a look at something by a favourite author of mine, Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley (1933). (Published in the US as Dead Mrs. Stratton.) This time I looked first to save myself some time — sure enough, Kate had looked at this book six months ago. Karyn Reeves, at A Penguin a week, also had a look at this one some years back. Both bloggers have insight into what’s going on here and have given us interesting assessments; not much more for me to add. I’m going to have to start unearthing books that are far more scarce!

I agree with Kate Jackson that this is a kind of variation on The Poisoned Chocolates Case, in that Berkeley’s plot makes it clear that the truth about what happened to the completely obnoxious Mrs. Ena Stratton is entirely a function of who happens to be telling the story of her death. The story begins by … well, sort of telling you who commits the murder, but anyone familiar with Berkeley’s over-the-top cleverness knows that it can’t end there. Ena is constantly threatening to kill herself, as one of a vast range of attention-getting stratagems that have infuriated everyone around her, and when she is found hanged after a bizarre party, no one is surprised. Berkeley’s detective, the Silly Ass Roger Sheringham, traces the peculiar course of a chair upon which Mrs. Stratton did or did not stand, as various characters report having moved it here, there, and everywhere around the roof upon which her body is found. It seems as though everyone lies to the police at every opportunity and Sheringham is the only detective in a position to find out what really went on. Again, the experienced Berkeleyite will know that there is always one final twist at the end of the tale, and so it is here. I think you will be ultimately surprised when you learn who did what to Ena Stratton, and when; the final pages hold the final punch.

“Jumping Jenny” is a colloquial back-formation from Robert Louis Stevenson for a hanged woman, which practice thankfully died out some time in the 20th century nearly everywhere on earth. Its male equivalent is the “jumping jack”, the phrase Stevenson used; to my knowledge the exercises that one does in calisthenics classes are named after the jerks and spasms of a person who’s just been hanged. Perhaps your instructor will switch to more strenuous pushups, as mine did when I mentioned this cheerful fact. I need to learn to keep things to myself sometimes. 😉

The Sleeping Sphinx, John Dickson Carr

The Sleeping Sphinx, by John Dickson Carr (Bantam #996)

The reason I mention the bizarre nature of the party is that it has an echo in another great mystery by a great writer. Here, as in John Dickson Carr’s The Sleeping Sphinx (1947), there is a party at which people dress up as “a well-known murderer or his victim.” In Carr’s book, this is two days before Christmas (!). Okay, who has parties like this?

Sheringham notes that the host is a writer of detective stories and that the idea of the party

“… exactly carried out the light-handed treatment of death in his books. There were about a couple of dozen guests, certainly not more, and each one was supposed to represent a well-known murderer or his victim. The idea was not strictly original …”

This seems to me to be saying that at some point in the past someone had given such a party, and not in a fictional sense either. My online searches revealed nothing about who might have done so, but either Carr and Berkeley are referring to the same thing or else Carr is referring to Berkeley, which is likely — the idea has a certain Grand Guignolerie about it that would appeal to Carr. My first instinct is to suggest that both writers seem to be taking for granted that there is a really high standard of literacy extant about readers’ knowledge of famous murderers and what they looked like. At one point Sheringham remarks that Una Stratton had dressed up as Mrs. Pearcey and another guest as Mary Blandy. Pearcey was executed in 1890 and Mary Blandy in 1752 and I cannot imagine that the average person of 1933 would have known what they looked like, or how they dressed. Nor can I imagine going to a party dressed as a famous murderer; even less as a famous victim. It just seems in very poor taste regardless of period. Would you want to go to a party dressed as Sharon Tate or O.J. Simpson?

Cordially invited to meet death, Rex Stout

“Cordially Invited to Meet Death”, a novella by Rex Stout, this newspaper insert edition from 1943

I know from an old Nero Wolfe story, “Cordially Invited To Meet Death”, that there was such a profession as “party-arranger” that encompassed activities like that. Bess Huddleston, in the story, arranges “the Striker dwarf and giant party”, among other such extravaganzas (including an abortive attempt to hire Wolfe to attend a party and solve an imaginary crime). But enticing people to dress up like murderers or victims to have a party is just beyond me. It’s hard to prove a negative, but I hope the Carr/Berkeley reference to such a party is merely a detective writer’s way of establishing mood and not a kind of party that actually existed.

(added 12 hours later) It occurred to me that one of the characters mentions the recipe for “chicken à la Toulousaine”. It’s not difficult and quite tasty: there’s a recipe here.

***

I think the lesson is clear that I will have to look further into the recesses of Noah’s Archives to find things about which my fellow bloggers haven’t already spoken. Well, consider me as doing the literary equivalent of spitting on my hands … But it is a pleasure to recommend good work by other bloggers too. Now that I have managed to master the intricacies of the linking function at the top left of this page, I can recommend entire blogs to your attention where I merely cited individual articles before. Go through the three dozen links there and see where your fancy leads you!

 

 

 

 

Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, by S.S. Van Dine (1928): Some thoughts

In the last couple of days I’ve been following a discussion in my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection (you can find it here, although you may have to join the group to see anything). As you’ve probably already guessed, group members were discussing Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, an article from the September 1928 edition of The American Magazine.  

Although I’ll quote extensively from this article, you can find a copy of it here and I recommend the full article to your attention.  The rest of this piece will assume that you have indeed gone and read it.

why-men-drinkIn the process of considering the various arguments, I realized that although I’d certainly read Van Dine’s 20 Rules, it had been so many years that I’d forgotten the article entirely. I thought it would be interesting to have another look at it and share the results here.

The first thing that comes to my mind is, in an introductory paragraph before he approaches the rules themselves, Van Dine outlines what he’s trying to do. And there are two things that are fairly crucial here. One is that he’s talking specifically about the “detective story” and the other is, as he says in the opening sentence, that “The detective story is a game.” In fact, he compares it to my favourite game, bridge.

Gaudy_nightNow, I’ll just ask you to agree with me that “detective story” has a very particular meaning, and it’s differentiated from other similar concepts like “crime story”, “spy story”, etc. First, a detective story must, ipso facto, contain a detective. I think you’ll agree that there must be a crime within the story that is investigated (“detected”) by that detective, and by and large that crime is murder. For the most part that crime is solved in the course of the story by the detective, and the criminal is brought to justice. This all seems very simple and straightforward, but I’ve learned in the past that when you’re dealing with slippery ideas it’s best to define your terms. Certainly there are detective stories not concerned with murder (Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers comes to mind) and occasionally a criminal gets away or “cheats the hangman” by committing suicide, etc. But for most detective stories, there’s a detective and a murder and a solution and a criminal.

e837293de9a79e7c468db088cea80a1a--cluedo-table-plansWhether or not detective stories are a “game” is something that I’ve seen discussed, and participated in discussing, practically to the point of screaming when the topic arises. So I will merely say that many, many people consider detective stories to have the nature of a game, a kind of battle of wits; but I don’t believe the definition of “detective story” should be restricted in this way, so as to entirely outlaw non-ludic approaches.

What follows purports to be “laws” governing the creation of a detective story. When I started looking at these 20 rules of Van Dine’s, I thought “Hmm, some of these aren’t rules.” And indeed, some of them aren’t. Quite a bit of the content of Van Dine’s article is two other things: (1) material that will enable you to discern if something is a detective story or not, and (2) material that lets you know which elements of detective stories Van Dine doesn’t like, or thinks are overdone.

Here’s a transcription of my notes as I read through the 20 Rules. You might want to open a copy of Van Dine’s original article in another window and follow along.

  1. Mostly correct, although it assumes that detective stories contain detectives, mysteries, and clues. I’d suggest the reader must have AN opportunity to solve the mystery before the detective announces the solution and should be in possession of all necessary information; deductions are another matter entirely.
  2. I’m not entirely sure what this means, but I suspect it has to do with mysteries that feature an unreliable narrator, like at least one Agatha Christie novel that I bet all my readers are muttering the name of at this point. Whatever Van Dine means, I’m not sure I care to bar anything from the detective story, and I like stories with an unreliable narrator.
  3. 51Cil1Cm-yLJust plain wrong, and plainly merely a dislike of Van Dine’s. If the A plot is a murder mystery, the B plot can be anything the author desires, and I think Patricia Wentworth demonstrates that romance works quite well.
  4. Ditto, although Rule 1 applies.
  5. Mostly correct, although Trent’s Last Case is an example of where this premise can fail. There’s an entire school of humorous detective story writers that would disagree also.
  6. Agreed, at least with the first sentence. The rest is either obvious or a statement of the kind of book Van Dine likes to read.
  7. I agree there usually should be a murder, although I offer Gaudy Night again. I am pleased to see Van Dine note that Americans (remember, this was published in The American Magazine) wish to bring the perpetrator to justice. The quote is from Act 1, Scene 5 of Hamlet and might be rephrased as “Murder is always horrible.” I think personally a lot of mystery writers and detective story writers tend to forget that murder is horrible, and I’d like us all to remember that; we’re a bit desensitized these days by television programmes that are thinly disguised torture porn.
  8. HangmanI completely agree, although I have no issue with stories that raise the spectre of supernatural activities as long as they are debunked completely by the end. Vide John Dickson Carr and Hake Talbot.
  9. Just plain wrong, and plainly merely a dislike of Van Dine’s. He assumes that his way of telling the story is the only way. I believe, however, that it’s a tenet of good fiction writing in a general sense that there should be a single protagonist, or a single individual with whom the reader identifies. So this is a generalized quality of good writing and not merely of good detective stories. For the rest of it — I give you The Moonstone, with its multiple narrators.
  10. Absolutely correct, although “in whom he takes an interest” might be overstating the case.  John Dickson Carr, in The Grandest Game in the World, put it as “any character whose thoughts we have been allowed to share.” I also disagree with that stricture; I wrote about it three years ago in a review of New Graves at Great Norne by Henry Wade. See also Rule 11.
  11. 1682156-inline-inline-2-a-real-life-butler-weighs-in-on-downton-abbeyWrong, wrong, wrong; merely Van Dine’s personal dislike, and snobby and elitist to boot. If Rule 10 is correct, Van Dine is saying here that servants cannot play a prominent part in the story; the way this reads, Van Dine thinks servants or menials are not “worthwhile” and capable of offering a spirited chase to the detective (or, perhaps, that they don’t have thoughts worth sharing). That’s a statement of his ideas about social class, but it should have nothing to do with detective stories.
  12. 95dec7a7d8f170fa5f4024758664a26fPossibly correct, in terms of guiding the “indignation of the reader,” but why bother making this rule? Half of the output of Freeman Wills Crofts disproves it, to name but one author.
  13. Correct; what Van Dine is saying here is that detective fiction is neither adventure fiction nor secret-service romance. It’s just a definitional issue. I gather he doesn’t care for those sub-genres.
  14. Correct, with the same stricture as I applied to Rule 8.
  15. I agree with at least the first sentence, although I think that the number of people who actually solve Golden Age mysteries before reading the final chapter is much, much smaller than Van Dine seems to think. The last sentence of this goes way beyond the evidence he’s offering and although it seems reasonable, I’d like to sit down and argue this out with a couple of well-read friends. Yes, there are readers who spurn the “popular” novel but read detective stories. But to assert that this is because of the possibility that the reader can possibly solve the mystery before the fictional detective is far, far too all-encompassing a statement to suit me. Frankly, I think it’s far more likely that they — we — read Golden Age detective stories because they eschew emotional content and we prefer that kind of emotion-free story. It may be a bug and not a feature.
  16. UnknownIt’s certainly true that Van Dine wrote his own books as if he agreed with this extraordinary statement; they mostly lack atmosphere and description (although Benson turns on subtly worked-out character analysis and Bishop and Dragon rely on creepy atmosphere for part of their charms). It rather makes me sad to think that he thought so little of the intelligence of readers and/or the writing abilities of his fellow writers that he thought it impossible to write a book with descriptive passages, character analyses, and atmosphere that would still perform all the functions of a detective story. Instead he prefers to pigeonhole detective stories and make them equivalent to a “ball game or … a cross-word puzzle”. I really dislike this idea; I want more. In fact I want as much atmosphere and description and characterization as I can get, along with the mystery, and I feel that many writers who wrote after Van Dine give it to me.
    My understanding is that many Golden Age detective story writers felt that in-depth characterization was inappropriate because it gave the reader a way of bypassing the correct “game” structure and instead allowed them to pick the murderer by his/her psychological profile — or, simply put, that the murderer was the person whose character the author most wanted you to understand. Well, as Van Dine himself notes, there are people who get their “answer out of the back of the arithmetic” and whether or not detective stories are a game, they’re not playing properly.  Too bad, but let’s not cater to that lowest common denominator.
  17. Just plain wrong (had he not read the Father Brown stories featuring Flambeau?) and I suppose a personal prejudice. There’s at least one novel by Anthony Berkeley that turns this on its head.
  18. 37dec98c957979fa20eadf6394380fc2Although I agree for the most part, I can think of at least one Sherlock Holmes story that disproves this idea conclusively and, frankly, there’s no reason for it to be a “rule”. If Van Dine is playing a game, and if the logical chain of events leads to accident or suicide and is fairly before the reader, how can this be wrong?
  19. Again, this is Van Dine distinguishing between detective stories and secret-service tales and war stories. The part that interests me is the two final sentences here; I think the emphasis on gemütlichkeit is misplaced, given Rule 7’s emphasis on the horror of murder. The last sentence is quite astonishing and I’m not sure I quite understand what Van Dine was getting at. If there are readers who have everyday experience with puzzle mysteries, I think I’m happy not to be one of them. And as an outlet for “repressed desires and emotions”? I think anyone who uses detective stories as that kind of outlet needs psychiatric help. Is he suggesting that people read detective stories because they want to commit crimes in their everyday life — or even solve them? Perhaps I’ve misunderstood; no doubt my readers will lead me to the light in their comments.
  20. imagesI must note right off the bat that Van Dine threw this in to make the numbers up to 20 Rules; he says so. That being said, this is nothing more than a list of ten things that Van Dine thinks are out of style. and in no sense a “rule”. It amused me to consider that (a) is so different in 2018 that, if you did manage to find a cigarette butt on the scene of a crime, not even considering DNA evidence from saliva, there are so few people who actually smoke these days that your criminal would stand out like a sore thumb. I’m not sure what (g) is referring to. For the remainder of these I can actually think of at least one specific story to which Van Dine would object; one is Poe’s Thou Art The Man. I’ll leave that exercise for the reader, for fear of spoilers.

I’m not sure if this next suggestion will strike fear into the hearts of my readers, or perhaps make them guffaw at how far out of my depth I am, or perhaps merely raise a dubious eyebrow, but I’m now working on my own set of rules, as yet undetermined as to number. I hope to bring that to you in the very near future.  Your suggestions are welcome.

 

 

Deep Freeze, by John Sandford (2017)

John Sandford, Deep FreezeI don’t read much in the way of current best-sellers, but I can’t resist John Sandford whenever he comes out with something new.  I formed the habit some time back — I think coincidentally I picked up just the right book at just the right time. I remember reading Winter Prey (1993) some years after it came out and being struck by the writing, plot, and characterization. In fact I was hooked like a trout and have gone back to read everything Sandford ever wrote, and I have half a bookcase filled with his first editions. Winter Prey is a puzzle mystery in the middle of a long string of serial killer novels, which is probably why it caught my attention, but Sandford knows what he’s doing and writes like a dream.

I’ve written elsewhere about my favourite Sandford novel, Bad Blood (2011), which is an entry in this author’s series about unconventional police officer Virgil Flowers. That one is still an amazing read and I still highly recommend it. I also go into some detail about Sandford and his various series, so if you’re interested, start with that review.

This volume is the tenth Virgil Flowers novel, and it’s another high-quality read. The story is about how Flowers is sent to a small town (Trippton, Minnesota) to investigate the murder of a bank president, pretty much the wealthiest woman in Trippton. Flowers has history in Trippton; a few years back (Deadline, 2014) he investigated a murder that ended up sending most of the local school board to jail for embezzlement and/or murder. The late Gina Hemming had an interesting sex life; she was about to divorce her husband, who apparently has taken to wearing nylons and calling himself Justine, and she has been seeing a beefy Harley-riding escort who sells sexual services under the guise of therapy. She’s also running Trippton’s financial scene with a firm hand and has offended a few locals.

It’s quite clear from the beginning of the book who killed Gina; this is a howcatchem, perhaps most often thought of as the province of Lieutenant Columbo, because we are introduced to the killer in the opening paragraphs and learn just how the deed was done. It’s how it was complicated later by witnesses and other parties that forms most of the basis of the book, and to Sandford’s credit this is also an interesting story.  You’ll feel sorry for the murderer, eventually, and somewhat less sorry for the victim.

John Sandford, Deep Freeze
There’s also an interesting secondary plot that should hold your interest; Flowers is saddled with an out-of-town private investigator who is investigating a local crime that will probably make you laugh. Someone has been opening up Barbie dolls — copyrighted, brand-protected Barbie dolls — and inserting a sound chip into them that makes them sound like they’re having an orgasm when you squeeze their stomach. The altered Barbies (“Barbie-O”) are sold as naughty novelties on various e-platforms and Mattel, the owner of the copyright, is sufficiently furious to send Margaret Griffin out from Los Angeles to put a stop to it.

Trouble is, the manufacture of Barbie-Os is the only thing between a few of the townspeople and starvation, and there’s a great deal of resistance to Griffin’s investigations. Flowers must become involved, although reluctantly since it seems to many people as though this is a victimless crime. His truck is firebombed and he takes a serious beating from a group of women who depend on the Barbie-O income. Eventually Flowers solves that case and stops the further manufacture of the Barbie-O. (I won’t tell you what the inventive product is that these folks come up with next, but it will make you laugh, I suspect, the next time your cell phone buzzes in silent mode.)

There’s a certain inevitability about this book; you know Flowers is going to solve the cases, you just don’t quite know how or when. Sandford is such a good writer that he carries you right along regardless of how much you think you know what’s going to happen. These stories are starting to attain the level of John D. MacDonald, and to me that’s high praise indeed. Sandford is a keen observer of human nature and … well, to me he just gets it. He writes exciting stories that have a healthy leavening of humour and excellent characterization … and these days each new volume is better than the last. Start with Dark of the Moon, the first Virgil Flowers novel from 2007, and keep going if you want to get hooked on a good series of books.