Binge-reading Gladys Mitchell: Part 3

Come Away, Death (1937) and Faintley Speaking (1954), by Gladys Mitchell

This experiment is starting to pall. I’ve recalled the feelings I used to have 30 years ago when I would set aside Mitchell’s books not to return. But I have been diligently reading away in my spare moments; I’m going to be less verbose so I can talk about more titles in a single post.

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of detective fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about these novels and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read these novels, they will have lost its 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. 

Come Away, Death by Gladys Mitchell (1937)

22703921Sir Rudri Hopkinson, an archaeologist and scholar, drags various of his family, friends, and employees (including Mrs. Bradley) around Greece in order to do some original research by re-enacting the Mysteries (rituals) of various Greek gods. Since Sir Rudri has recently been the victim of a practical joke that may have a deleterious impact upon his professional life, and (to paraphrase his long-suffering wife) he’s nearly off his rocker, you might expect that things don’t go well. They do not, mostly because someone who was in on the joke is on the expedition and seems determined to cause more trouble. It will not exercise the reader’s mind overmuch to predict who gets murdered.

There are a number of big problems with this book. The murder is long, LONG overdue by the time it arrives, two-thirds of the way through the book, and quite a bit of the padding is bumph about landscape description and/or Greek history. It would have been possible to cut quite a bit of verbiage from this large book without sacrificing any actual plot developments. So, quite over-written.

30139008Mitchell is here somewhat incoherent in her writing, as I both recall from my earlier experiences and have heard it said by others, and I was paying close attention in an attempt to figure out precisely how. I can say I found a couple of instances where she begins a conversation between two people by not identifying one of them, except obliquely. Yes, I should have been paying sufficient attention to know who it was, but three pages later I did not and had to go back and guarantee I knew who was talking.  Places are sparely or not described, things are hinted at and not said in words … if you’re not following like a hawk every minute, you’ll lose your way.  That counts for me as incoherent. I’ve described this in the past as a book being “under-written”; that’s an idiosyncratic definition I use when it’s clear to me that the author knows what is going on but has not managed to communicate it to the reader in words, so you have to figure things out from hints. It’s unpleasant and annoying and I’m sure it contributes to people setting Mitchell’s books aside and not picking them up again.

The same paradox has probably already occurred to you; it is quite, quite unusual that a book can be over- and under-written at the same time. It takes an exceptional inattention to balance within the writing process. Whenever anything is important to the plot, you have to move into full analytical mode or you’ll miss what’s going on. But if it’s NOT important to the plot, it goes on for pages of excelsior. It’s maddening, like having to sprint furiously for a bit and then wade through glue, over and over.

UnknownThere are other issues. The depiction of Greek citizens, especially the peasantry, is meant to be amusing but indeed just set my teeth on edge. One of the largest problems for me was that, once Mrs. Bradley figures out whodunit and all the rest — nothing happens. Yes, the murderer is a sympathetic person. But I just don’t think it’s a very good idea to let murderers off scot-free, and Mrs. Bradley ought to know better. That’s not how I expect Golden Age mysteries to end.

Another thing I disliked was that … well, I’m not a classical scholar by any means, but I have read quite a bit about the classical elements mentioned in this novel, and not all of it in the course of fiction. I could not get over the feeling that there was an entire level of material here that was like an overlay over the plot, if only I had a better classical background; something to do with the Mysteries of the gods, and which god was being mentioned at the time, and what they were saying, and what Sir Rudri was hoping would happen as opposed to what did happen. What they used to talk about in school about novels that had a sub-surface level of meaning, so that Moby Dick is not just a whale but Something Else. “Here, if you’re talking about Demeter, who in the group has Demeteresque qualities?” the reader must ask himself, “and what does this mean?”

Being able to discern any deeper meanings might have added to my enjoyment if only Mitchell had just bloody said what she meant instead of merely hinting that This Is A Metaphor for Something Else.  It might be that Mitchell was addressing an audience of 1937 whom she felt had been much better educated in the classics than I; nowadays there needs to be much, much more that’s explained or else the reader is just lost and annoyed.  I’m fairly sure there actually was NOT such a level of meaning (or if there is, I am not smart enough to grasp it), and that the occasional trumpetings of a deeper significance in events were just so much hoo-hah. But it was annoying to not be certain. At the end, I was sufficiently grumpy to suspect she’d just copied it all out of a guidebook holus-bolus.

T51ZRHleowOL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_here is a great deal of activity in the book about re-enacting the Greek Mysteries, and wandering around Greece, and various ceremonies, and everyone seems constantly uncomfortable and in conflict. It’s not a pleasant experience for anyone, and to be honest they should all have made for home about day 4. If you take a moment and think about this from the point of view of a sensible person — none of these people have any reason to do what they’re doing, and the only explanation is that Sir Rudri is a bloody loony and has swept everyone up in his nutty scheme, and that lunacy is never truly addressed. Mrs. Bradley is a psychiatrist and Rudri’s actions have led directly to murder, and she is content to solve it rather than stop it (because the victim “deserved it”, it seems). None of this makes sense.

There are three male pre-teenage children in this book, which here I find an unpleasant addition. I have to say that Mitchell depicts them as children and does an excellent job of catching the tone of their conversation and the motivations for their actions.  I believed in these children and they were well-created. I just didn’t want them involved in this nasty murder and I don’t like reading about them in a murderous context if they are, as here, supernumeraries.  Children get scarred mentally when events like this happen, and no one seems to care much in this book.

Summing up: a long, LONG book that maunders and meanders and eventually goes nowhere.  Characters acting against their own best interests, incomprehensible events, very much underwritten, and lots of annoyances. Not much that I took any pleasure in and much I would have rather avoided.

Faintley Speaking, by Gladys Mitchell (1954)

519J5Sd5lTL._SY346_This one was primarily an annoyance. The plot is ridiculous; it’s based around a coded exchange of information among members of a criminal gang that is so stupid and incomprehensible, to say nothing about not actually communicating anything in specifics, that no criminal in her right mind would undertake it. Without going into details, criminals communicate with each other by using the botanical names of ferns that are meant to suggest … activities and warnings. Asplenium Septentrionale, the Forked Spleenwort, indicates that “two attempts at something are to be made”, because “forked”. So you have to be a pteridologist to join this gang or else you never learn where the meetings are LOL. It is such an asinine concept that the entire criminal scheme falls apart immediately when someone not involved with the gang intercepts one of these stupid communications and one of the criminals, a schoolteacher named Miss Faintley, is killed by the gang.

Unknown-1Mrs. Bradley’s secretary and Amazon-at-large Laura Menzies temporarily replaces the deceased schoolteacher. “Oh good!” I thought. “Now we’ll get some interesting stuff, since Mitchell herself spent a lifetime in schools.” No, not in the slightest, unless you count quite a bit of slander, illegality, and back-stabbing among the staff. We don’t see any actual school being taught, and the whole experience is primarily a waste of time; the criminals are absolutely obvious and all that remains is to follow them around a bit to crack the gang and end the story.

I was resolute and finished this one, although I honestly didn’t want to. Everything worked out entirely as expected and the obvious criminals were in fact the guilty parties.    One of the criminals has an unpleasant alcoholic wife who is painted in black strokes; regrettable. I kept expecting there to be more to the criminal plot, but no — just some squalid people doing stupid things to get easy money in a transparently obvious way. Hardly worth Mrs. Bradley’s time, and certainly not worth yours.


I seem to have struck a sequence of annoying Mitchell titles and I’m wondering if anyone has a specific book that they’d care to recommend to keep me at this. I remember approving of St. Peter’s Finger some years ago; are there any others that my readers feel might cheer me up?





The case of the cynical synthesis


E.R. Punshon (note the ears!)

It’s always interesting to me when an author breaks the fourth wall and speaks, within the confines of a work of fiction, about how or why one writes. Many mystery writers seem to do it, and I’m not sure why, but there’s generally an authentic tinge of “behind the scenes” that fascinates me.

Four Strange WomenThis is from Four Strange Women by E.R. Punshon (1940). Punshon is certainly a minor figure in the history of detective fiction; what I like to call a first-rate second-rate author, who was popular in his day but whose books have, until recently, passed out of print and remained there. The speaker, Mr. Eyton, is a professional journalist who has reported on the murder that takes place in the opening chapters. But he has a bit of a hobby; he’s writing something along the lines of some recent (imaginary) best-sellers, Musings in British Gardens and Dreaming ‘Midst the Flowers; apparently prosodical thoughts on the topic of being outdoors. Eyton’s is Twilight Thoughts Beneath the Trees.

“I am writing a book. … I’ve been working on it for some time,” Mr. Eyton explained. “Whenever I can, I take my bicycle and go to the forest. I describe what I see; above all, what I feel. That’s the secret,” he said, wagging his finger at Bobby. “Any one can see. Few can feel; at least, I mean, few know what they feel until the author tells them. Explain to the average man exactly what he thought when he saw the sunset, the rabbits at play, head the wind rustling through the trees, that’s the secret of success.”

“But suppose,” Bobby objected, “he didn’t feel a blessed thing — except wondering if he could get there before closing time?”

“Ah, the homely touch.” Mr. Eyton beamed approval. “My dear sir, it is, in fact, the public who never felt anything, who couldn’t feel anything, at whom an author aims — that is, if he wishes for a large circulation. You see, it pleases people to know what they would have felt if, in fact, they had felt it. You follow me? … Of course, you mustn’t startle your reader by anything he couldn’t recognize as his own ideas if he ever had any. All is there.”

3620803._UY400_SS400_I think this relates to a favourite quote of mine about detective fiction, which I am chagrined to say I have more than once misquoted over the years, apparently changing it to suit my unconscious needs. Let me take this opportunity to set the record straight and apologize. This is the accurate quotation from page 303 of Q.D. Leavis:  Collected Essays by Q.D. (Queenie) Leavis (her seminal work, Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) is available freely here) on the topic of the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers.

“And in the matter of ideas, subject, theme, problems raised, she [Sayers] similarly performs the best-seller’s function of giving the impression of intellectual activity to readers who would very much dislike that kind of exercise if it were actually presented to them; but of course it is all shadow-boxing. With what an air of unconventionality and play of analysis Miss Sayers handles her topics, but what relief her readers must feel — it is part no doubt of her success — that they are let off with a reassurance that everything is really all right and appearances are what really matter.”

Does this sound like a cynical synthesis? Punshon (in a mystery) is saying that best-sellers fake emotion for people who aren’t equipped to have emotions, and Leavis is saying that mysteries fake intellect for people who aren’t equipped to have intellect. So the synthesis would be that popular fiction in general is faking something or other for the benefit of deficient readers, and therefore the more assiduous your reading, the larger must be your lack of some essential personality component. Yikes. I read more than anyone in my everyday life, and apparently it’s because I’m more stupid and insensitive than anyone I know. But at least I learned about my shortcomings from a novel 😉


Queenie Leavis

My first reaction was that the whole thing seemed very sneering and supercilious, and to be completely honest I’ve valued Mrs. Leavis’s observation for years precisely because it was so tart and acid. (Queenie Leavis is rather like what Dorothy Parker would have been like if she’d been very thoroughly educated in literary theory.) Perhaps it’s a function of advancing decrepitude, or perhaps it’s having recently pinpointed that one desirable function of detective fiction is indoctrination, or the introduction of the reader to information about how society works, but I find these days I am more willing to accept that works of fiction should shoulder the load of educating today’s population about how to manage their emotions and to function within society. Heaven knows nothing else seems to be able to.

As a gloss upon my recent discussion of indoctrination, let me offer Mrs. Leavis’s comment, from Fiction and the Reading Public:

“The modern reader is at once struck by the body of traditional lore the [Elizabethan] people must have possessed which served instead of the ‘knowledge’ (i.e., acquaintance with a mass of more or less unrelated facts, derived principally from an elementary school education and the newspaper) that forms the background of the modern working-man’s mind.”

And note that this volume was published in 1932, pretty much the middle of the Golden Age of Detection. Mrs. Leavis seems to be unhappy that popular fiction transmitted “more or less unrelated facts” at the time they were being communicated, but to today’s reader they are not unrelated; they are all part and parcel of a long-ago age with butlers and pukka sahibs and bodies in the library, with very little in the way of social overlap to today’s context.

It is perhaps distressing and inappropriate that today’s adolescent absorbs social mores as part of the subtext of a poorly-written book about a girl who falls in love with a sparkly vampire, but at least it’s via a book and not a music video or a MMO. Perhaps I’m prejudiced in favour of books, being so heavily invested in them, but it does seem that they are produced by people who are trying to observe human nature and society in general and reproduce the more interesting or useful bits while telling a story — AND they use the written word to do so, which has the effect of expanding one’s ability to communicate with others more precisely. It’s more useful to tell someone their actions are pathetic if both of you know what the word “pathos” means.

So what if mysteries are designed to present me with examples of logical thought structures that I cannot hope to achieve in real life? Very few people’s real-life situations are populated by people who would, for instance, use an audio recording to fake an alibi while they’re off murdering someone. Far more realistic is the common news story that someone has been murdered by a stranger to obtain a ridiculously small amount of money, using a gun or a knife or a blunt instrument, and generally speaking it’s not very interesting or informative (unless you are Truman Capote), merely sad. Detective fiction, in fact, preserves the important social meme that some people do actually try to commit subtle and serious crimes that are meant to remain undetected, and we’d better be on the lookout for them; not everyone can be a Hercule Poirot or a Jane Marple, but we can continue to acknowledge the need for such persons to detect these subtle crimes. And we can take pleasure in experiencing stories of their adventures.

And if, as Mrs. Leavis remarks, we are let off the trouble of truly deep thought by a reassurance that everything is really all right — perhaps it’s the continuing repetition of the meme that some problems (mysteries) exist that require the application of intense thought in order to “solve” them that we are gaining, and that this is a valuable frame of mind to maintain as a common understanding. I might not be able to figure out who killed Roger Ackroyd, but that story helps me to understand that there are thought patterns out there that can be learned, attained, and mastered that would have let me equal Poirot’s achievement in doing so. In the meantime, it’s not a terrible thing that I should be reassured about the essential rightness of the world in the background.

I’ll close off these musings with a final thought. What I seem to be describing is a system where mystery writers are cynical in order to reassure readers that the world itself is not a terrible place. Is this a good thing? Would we be better off with finding a mode of intellectual activity that required us to actually develop intellectual skills that identify crimes rather than continuing to experience those skills by observing a fictional detective and pretending we followed right along? Or are the exigencies of modern life such that we’ll develop those skills if and when we need them, and meanwhile it is appropriate merely to remind ourselves that those skills exist in an enjoyable way?  I suspect I know where my readers’ loyalties lie, but I’m prepared to be surprised if my readers care to do so in the comments.

My apologies also to Erle Stanley Gardner, who inspired the title.





Dance of Death, by Helen McCloy (1938)

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. 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. 

UnknownThis book was also published under the name Design for Dying.

I picked up my copy of this the other day — I read it a number of years ago and had forgotten the details in the intervening time. After refreshing my memory I thought it was a sufficiently enjoyable experience to share it with you.

What is this book about?

Katherine “Kitty” Jocelyn is one of the top debutantes of the New York season. She is slender, dark-haired, pale, and lovely, and in constant demand by advertising agencies to endorse everything from cigarettes to Sveltis reducing pills. Her coming-out party has been anticipated by her family for a long time, and every detail has been under the command of the well-known Mrs. Jowett, the premier social secretary for coming-out parties. Her family has devoted all its time and resources to advancing Kitty’s social career for years.

Unknown-1But the coming-out party does not go as planned, in many respects. Kitty herself is so ill on the night of her masquerade ball that the family persuades her cousin to impersonate her; and, as the reader rightly expects in a murder mystery, Kitty’s body is found soon after. The highly unusual features of her death include the facts that her skin has somehow turned a bright yellow, and her body is so hot that it has managed to maintain a higher-than-normal body temperature — despite its being found in a pile of snow.

Dr. Basil Willing is a psychiatrist who consults with the New York police department who becomes interested in the case. His interest is first piqued by the possibility that Kitty’s cousin Ann is being pressured by the family to continue impersonating the famous debutante; Ann appeals for Dr. Willing’s help to return to her everyday existence. Then there is the bizarre cause of death; there’s a great deal of scientific information packed in here about how and why she died and I won’t spoil it for you, but apparently McCloy came up with an interesting and unusual way of killing someone that is based in scientific reality.

Suspicion falls on members of her family, some of the servants, a couple of Kitty’s many suitors, and even a gossip columnist who seems over-involved in Kitty’s life. But it falls to Dr. Willing to pierce the many competing motives and find what turns out to be a murderer who acted for a very prosaic and understandable reason.

Why is this book worth your time?

13552719._UY475_SS475_I’ve elsewhere spoken of the “brownstone mystery”, a personal coinage describing a type of mystery that’s addressed primarily to a female reader; it’s meant to show the household arrangements of the wealthy class (clothes, social lives, furniture, homes, family relationships) while demonstrating to the reader that wealthy people are just as immoral and vicious as all the other social classes. The brownstone mystery flourished in the 1940s and authors like Frances Crane and Helen Reilly specialized in it. I’ll suggest that this is an early example, but to be frank Helen McCloy is a much better writer than, say, Frances Crane and brings her considerable skills to this, her first book. This is a brownstone mystery plus, and it’s the plus that makes it worth reading.

Unknown-2There’s a lot here to like. Basil Willing became the protagonist of a dozen mysteries in McCloy’s oeuvre, and while his personality is not as fleshed-out as it would later be, especially with the future addition of the beautiful Gisele to his life, he is an interesting and oddly compelling detective. The murder method is fascinating and apparently realistic. McCloy later became known for the occasional mystery involving a little-known chemical, such as the truth serum in 1941’s The Deadly Truth, and her treatment seems scientifically accurate with just enough detail to interest the reader without being tedious. The details of the Jocelyn household and its underlying difficulties are realistic and uncommon. And finally you will understand the motive for the murder without difficulty, but I rather doubt you’ll ever consider it during the course of the novel. The murder plot is clever and well-hidden but not impossible to work out if you’re paying very close attention.

The idea of one person being forced to impersonate another for economic reasons has been the focus of mysteries a number of times; the one that came to my mind in connection with this instance is Puzzle for Fiends by Patrick Quentin. Here the idea is not made much of and soon disappears, which is a little disappointing. Quentin did it better and you might move on to that volume after this, if you’re curious to see how it’s handled over the course of an entire novel.

I frequently pause to comment upon what we learn about the society of the time and place against which the novel is set, but in this case it’s better if I don’t — almost everything is connected with the murder and I’m likely to say too much. But there is quite a bit here about the nature of the “coming out” process, which is a phrase that in 1938 related to debutantes and not sexual preference, and particularly its economic implications. Fascinating stuff and you’ll enjoy it more if you come to it without hints.

A note on editions

31301106My favourite edition is, as usual, the Dell mapback edition — in this case #33, a very early number from about 1942. The cover art by Gerald Gregg features Dell’s trademark, the pioneering use of airbrush for the illustration showing a marionette being manipulated by a skeletal hand, and the typography is excellent; so is the map by Ruth Belew on the back cover, showing the Jocelyn house. I note that there’s an average copy available on eBay today for US$12 and I think this one would be the most collectible; that’s a good price, to my mind. Most of McCloy’s Basil Willing series until about 1950 are available in mapback editions.

The first edition is by William Morrow and I see that what appears to be a good copy without a jacket is available for about US$50. The person on eBay who wants US$650 for a near fine copy in a VG jacket is possibly delusional, since that’s perhaps three times what it should bring to my knowledge, but who am I to say? There’s also a Gollancz omnibus edition of McCloy’s 1st, 3rd, and 4th Basil Willing novels that includes the interesting The Deadly Truth, mentioned above, and might be the best bargain … except for the recent uniform e-books edition from The Murder Room.





When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger (1987)

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. 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. 

220px-WhenGravityFailsBantamSpectra1988The universe of the science-fiction mystery crossover is smaller than other crossover genres, and I’m not sure why. As I’ve noticed in the past, just about any other genre can easily piggyback on top of the basic carrier wave of the mystery plotline. A crime is committed, a detective investigates, and the crime is solved; it doesn’t matter if it’s a historical mystery or a romantic mystery, a young adult mystery or a spy mystery, the mystery provides the basic plot structure and the other superimposed genre is what attracts the reader.

I suppose it’s more accurate to say that while there are quite a number of science-fiction mystery crossovers, the number of really readable ones is rather small. Too often, the author has decided to retell a traditional story in science fiction terms, and for every intelligent August Derleth who produces clever re-tellings of Sherlock Holmes stories (the Solar Pons stories), there’s a dozen unskilled practitioners who use our reverence for the Great Detective and knowledge of his character to tell a boring and/or uninspired story. Occasionally there’s an inventive writer who falls into a trap; it’s difficult to tell a locked-room mystery story properly if you have aliens around who can walk through walls, or if time travel is a fact of life. That’s what happens when a competent science fiction writer like Larry Niven tries his hand at a mystery; he doesn’t know enough about mystery to make it work properly. In the past I’ve found the science fiction mystery to contain much more chaff than wheat.

Marid_Audran_When_Gravity_FailsOnce in a while, of course, you find a merging of a specific style of mystery with a specific style of science fiction that works quite well. The private-eye story and/or the film noir movie meshes quite well with the science-fiction dystopia story; the best example is probably Blade Runner (1982), where director Ridley Scott added the trappings of film noir to a story by psycho genius science fiction writer Philip K. Dick and produced a great movie.

When Gravity Fails is another successful cross-over of the private-eye story told against a dystopian backdrop and I earnestly recommend it to your attention. It (and its three sequels) were hard to find for many years, and you needed to be actively searching for it in used bookstores if you hoped to find a copy, but these days it’s available on Amazon and in e-format. So you have little excuse to miss this treat.

What is this book about?

Marid Audran, originally from the Maghreb in Northwest Africa, is a small-time hustler in “the Budayeen”, somewhere unspecifed in the Middle East. The Budayeen is the quarter of a large city where prostitutes, alcohol, drugs, and petty crime are rampant. Marid buys, sells, and uses considerable quantities of drugs; his friends and associates are other less-than-reputable citizens who work as prostitutes, pimps, bartenders, and petty criminals.

imagesMarid was born in what we’d call 2172 (and is possibly in his 20s at the time of the novel); there have been a number of scientific and political developments since our century. The main discovery that affects the book is that people routinely have their brains wired for “moddies” and/or “daddies”. Daddies are insertable chips providing skills, like accounting or a knowledge of conversational German, that augment your own personality; moddies contain entire personalities that replace yours entirely (although daddies can still be used on top of them). In other words, you can get a moddie that will make you into Indiana Jones or Kim Kardashian, and adding daddies will allow you to play the violin while you become that person.

A secondary development is that sex reassignment surgery has become routine; Marid doesn’t care if you were born one sex and became another, and it’s not uncommon for people to start a transition and stop halfway, as a “deb”. Marid’s girlfriend began life as a male, and many of his friends have followed similar paths; no one cares what your sexual preference is until they can make money by furthering it.

Marid is unusual, in this society, because he was born a male and remains so, and refuses to have his brain modified to accept moddies and daddies. However, when a series of brutal murders among Marid’s acquaintance begins in the Budayeen, he is forced to become involved. One of the major figures in the Budayeen, crime boss Friedlander Bey, at first suspects Marid of the murders. When that is resolved, Friedlander Bey forces Marid to become his private investigator, at a rate of pay too high to refuse, and to get expensive experimental brain modifications that allow him the widest possible choice of moddies and daddies.

The criminal is killing and mutilating his victims apparently under the influence of a particularly sadistic moddie, possibly one that combines various aspects of various historical serial killers. Marid uses a number of moddies during his investigation, including at one point becoming Nero Wolfe (!) and failing to persuade a hanger-on to chip in as Archie Goodwin. Nero Wolfe and Marid’s own considerable intelligence lead him first to the actual killer and then to the shadowy figure who has been directing the killings.

Why is this worth your time?

images-1As I noted above, the field of the science-fiction mystery — the readable portion — is very small. I’ve enjoyed a few over the years, but there’s more bad ones than good ones. Either the science-fiction aspects overwhelm the mystery story, or vice versa; it’s a tough balance to get right.

George Alec Effinger got it right in this novel, and he did so in a technically very accomplished way. When you’re trying to immerse someone in an unusual environment and time-frame, like 19th century England or 22nd century Africa, you give the flavour by showing how the protagonist reacts to what HE considers to be everyday objects and events around him and letting the reader draw her own conclusions. There’s two ways in which this process usually fails. Either the writer makes the horrible error of getting the details wrong (the 19th century English protagonist looks at his wrist watch) or the writer does an unreadable data dump in the opening chapters to bring you up to date on what you can’t already know. (“Jane knew that the invisible force fields, standard equipment in every flying car since the 2100s, would protect her in the crash.”) The delicate balance is achieved when the protagonist manages to make remarks about what’s going on around him that allow the reader to catch up, without being obvious or introducing a naive character who is in the narrative merely to be told things. Effinger gets this one absolutely bang-on. Not too much, not too little, and it takes a while to get up to speed on why and how things happen, but it’s a very pleasant experience racing up the learning curve. I always enjoy science fiction novels when they manage this perfectly, and very few do.

The other part that Effinger got right is that the structure of the book follows a typical film noir pattern, without pulling its punches. The ending is sad and quite depressing, but it’s gutsy and honest. And there’s a quotation at the beginning of the book that Effinger has nailed in bringing his protagonist into being: from Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder”.

“… He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world … He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”

Unknown-1Marid Audran, despite (or perhaps because of) constant drug and alcohol intake and some fairly obvious character flaws, is the kind of viewpoint character that makes a very pleasant evening’s reading. He’s fascinating, complex, and not all one thing. His surroundings are, to quote Star Wars, “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.” The writing is excellent; Effinger’s ability to take you into a different world is superb.  This is one of the novels I’d recommend to people who don’t like the idea of science-fiction mysteries, possibly due to the same bad experiences I’ve had in the past. And I recommend it to you as a good mystery.

There are extensive references on the internet to this novel being a classic of cyberpunk, a seminal cyberpunk novel, etc. I’m not sure if I can agree 100% with assigning this novel as cyberpunk, but the differences are small. I suppose, like detective fiction, if you have something that “transcends its genre” then it is claimed as a representative of the “higher” art form rather than the “lower”. Not all cyberpunk novels mix film noir stories with futuristic dystopic backgrounds, but since this novel does, I’ll grant you it fits. I think it’s more interesting as a mystery than that, especially since it contains a very knowing nod to Rex Stout, but you can decide for yourself. Certainly cyberpunk was very hot in 1987 and it’s entirely possible that Effinger set out to write one.

Effinger was, unfortunately, both an uneven writer and a short-lived one. He actually wrote two full-length sequels to this volume, but they do not live up to the promise of the first. A Fire in the Sun (1989) and The Exile Kiss (1991) each represent a decline from the previous volume, mostly because Effinger’s finale for the first volume wrote him out of continuing the same life for his protagonist. There was a projected fourth volume that was only a few chapters at the time of Effinger’s untimely death; they look even worse, and that’s sad. I’d almost recommend you read this volume and stop; it’s brilliant in and of itself.

A note on editions

epscifi82_list__78713.1433603782The true first is the hardcover from Arbor House in 1987; you’ll see it above with an uninspired yellow cover and a mawkish illustration. The most expensive version, though, is a jacketless hardcover with 22 carat gold touches on the binding that includes “Collector’s Notes”; Easton Press did this in 1993. Honestly, I can’t figure out why. You can have the first, signed, today for US$125 before postage, etc., and that’s the most collectible one I’ve ever seen. I applaud the instinct to publish some science fiction in archival-quality editions, but this one is gaudy and overdone, to my eye, and the illustrations have nothing to do with the book.

I did this review with a beaten-up copy of the Bantam Spectra first paper edition seen at the top of this column, which is the edition by which I was gobsmacked back in ’87 when it came out. I expect my mental picture of Marid Audran will always be coloured by it. Other editions have followed, including at least one graphic novel, and the novel is currently available in an e-format. You should have no trouble finding your own; I recommend a durable copy since this book stands up to re-reading.



Not The Top Ten: Ellery Queen

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

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

Most overrated novel

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

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

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

Most underrated novel

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

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

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

The novel containing the best hook

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

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

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

The novel containing the best murder method

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

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

The novel containing the best motive

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

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

The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending

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

The novel you should avoid 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the second was even more striking for me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Death Through the Mill, by Laura Colburn (1979)

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

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

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

9780890835258-us-300What is this book about?

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

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

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

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

Why is this book worth your time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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