The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, by Martin Edwards (2017)

StoryofClassicCrime_Website-350x525When I talk about a reference book such as this, it’s not common for me to first tell you about my emotional reactions upon first reading it. One doesn’t usually, after all, have an emotional reaction to a reference book. But if you’ll pardon me for a minute, I’ll get a little personal and nostalgic.

Back in the 1970s, I was a teenager who spent a lot of time reading everything and anything in the way of genre fiction that I could get my hands on. I read Erle Stanley Gardner and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Marion Zimmer Bradley and Robert Bloch and dozens — hundreds — more writers. Paperback originals, series characters, comic books, novelizations, all were meat and drink to me. Then one day I came upon a copy of Bloody Murder (From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel), (1972) a reference book by the late great Julian Symons, and it was a profound experience.

Up until then, I had learned — by listening to teachers and librarians — that literary fiction was worthy of scholarly attention but science fiction, detective fiction, horror, and other genres were not. A librarian at a former school had led a campaign to get Nancy Drew out of the school library, for instance, because it was “trash”. But here was Symons, obviously an intelligent, well-read, and scholarly writer, and he was taking detective fiction seriously. And if I read everything that he had read and talked about, I too could be seen to be taking detective fiction seriously (and perhaps somehow get to make a decent living doing it, although I confess that never happened).

I remember reading and re-reading that book, seeing how Symons talked about the history of the genre and where various books and authors fit into it as it moved forward. I began to understand the grand sweep of the genre and I began to develop my first primitive critical instincts; I already knew what I liked and disliked, and now I was starting to figure out why I felt that way. And Symons gave me lists of books and authors that would enable me to read in a guided way, to help me read more of what I was liking and avoid with foreknowledge the books I wouldn’t like.

I’m not sure I can even describe the emotions that Bloody Murder provoked in me when I first read it; a sense that it was not only me who liked these books and took them seriously, but there were others out there as well who could be my friends. I do know, though, that when I embarked upon my current topic, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, I had a strange surge of emotion. Because I realized that somewhere, in some small town in England or North America or somewhere where English is spoken and read, some young person is picking up this book from a library shelf or as a gift from an intelligent aunt/uncle, and becoming inspired by the grand sweep of Golden Age detective fiction. That young person is about to acquire a lifelong habit of reading, and has a scheme of books that she can follow to guide her towards books she will like and away from books she won’t. And I can envision her in her bed reading this volume late into the night and making mental notes about which books to start looking for first.

If you’re still with me — my apologies. As I said, it’s not common to talk about how a reference book made you feel. But honestly, I had a kind of thrill when I read this book (which, for the sake of space, I’ll shorten to Classic Crime); not only for the nostalgic reasons noted above, but because it is a better book for the purpose than Symons’. This is a book that I never thought of writing, but might have done; there is no need now, because Martin Edwards has done a better job than I ever could. This is the book I would have sent from the future to my younger self to guide and shape my reading for decades to come.

Decades after acquiring my copy of Bloody Murder, I’m a very, very well read fan of classic detective fiction. In a way, Classic Crime is written not only for that teenager or neophyte of whatever age who wants to know what to read next, but also for me; someone who’s read perhaps 95% of the books mentioned here and very much wants to read the other 5% immediately.  Let me tell you, as someone who is known in a small way as an expert — Martin Edwards is an expert’s expert. I know of very few people who can speak authoritatively about such a wide range of books and authors, but Mr. Edwards knows whereof he speaks. He didn’t just read about these books, he read them. He has read in depth; he has read in breadth. He understands what he’s read; he is convincing about its relative merits and/or flaws. He has the knack of being able to sum up what he’s read in a few sentences, which is tough, and he has a lively and engaging writing style that communicates the pleasure he finds in this genre in an intelligent way. I learned a few things, and got pointers to a few books and authors that I haven’t yet tracked down but intend to.

Perhaps the most worthwhile thing he has done, in this book of many virtues, is crystallized a number of sub-genres into easy groups — a kind of skeleton or schema for how to look at detective fiction. Chapter topics like “country house mysteries” or “impossible crimes” … I’m tempted to give you my bullet points that described each of the 24 chapters in a few words. I think, though, that it would improve your knowledge of how Golden Age detective fiction fits together to make that experiment yourself. It amused me to speculate that, like the Crime Club symbols of old, someone should produce 24 little emoji that link a book to a specific sub-genre of the 24 he outlines. It would simplify the GAD reviewer’s task immensely 😉

Of course there are things that Edwards says with which I disagree; frankly, that’s half the fun of a book like this. “Why, that’s not the volume he should have chosen to represent such-and-such author!” What it really provoked in me was the desire to buy the author a beer and sit down for an hour or two in a pub to hear why he chose what he chose, and perhaps argue for my own substitutions. I’m not going to say he’s actually wrong about anything; his opinion occasionally varies from mine and it would be fun to hash it out and maybe learn something, or change my mind. To be honest it would be fun to sit down over a beer with anyone who’s read most of the books described here.

Although one of the flaws that badly dated Julian Symons’ work was that he tried to predict the future of crime fiction (and, unfortunately, missed the mark by a long shot), I’ll go out on a limb and make a prediction. This incredibly well-done volume should win every award for non-fiction of its year in both the American and British detective fiction awards — and if not, I’d like to know what can beat it.  A magnificent achievement and one that should be on the reference shelf of every single one of my readers.

I get no financial benefit from this; here is a link to Edwards’ American publishers, which link has the added advantage of a long excerpt from the introduction that should whet your appetite.  Buy a copy of Classic Crime in 100 Books immediately for yourself; pay it forward and buy one for any 15-year-old ferocious reader of mysteries you know. I’m looking for an opportunity to get a signed copy and shake the author’s hand in person.  And buy him that beer!

 

She Had To Have Gas, by Rupert Penny (1939)

SheHadToHaveGas315As I mentioned in my last post, after struggling hard with Gladys Mitchell, I felt I needed something a bit more … structured to read. A few weeks ago a copy of this Rupert Penny novel was on top of a box of books I was moving… and I spent an hour flipping through it refreshing my memory as to its contents.  So I thought I’d share it with you.

More than five years ago I first looked at a Rupert Penny novel here and another one here last year; I’ll just hit the high spots. Rupert Penny used to be one of the most difficult tastes in mystery reading to satisfy. His books were nearly impossible to get and commanded astronomical prices (in the range of US$500 for ANY hardcover). He was only published in flimsy wartime editions, many of which did not last, and his occasional paperback publications similarly came on the market in small editions and then vanished.

As of today, ABE Books has none of the first editions available, and the very rare paperback copies from the 1940s are US$75 to $100. I had a scarce Collins White Circle paperback edition of Sealed Room Murder that I recall brought me $75 some years ago. But then the excellent Ramble House brought all nine of his books back as print-on-demand trade-format paperbacks and the GAD world could finally read its way through Penny’s oeuvre. To the best of my knowledge, She Had To Have Gas was published once in 1939 by Collins Crime Club, and that was it until Ramble House reprinted it. My copy has a curious error; the back cover is a blurb for a different Rupert Penny novel, Cut And Run. But in the way of POD, possibly mine is one of a very few such misprints.

For those of you who have never encountered Rupert Penny’s work — well, his focus is definitely on the “impossible crime” story in the manner of the Humdrum school. In Penny, the puzzle is all, and characterization is not much in evidence. The novels are structured around really difficult puzzles that theoretically are “fair play” , in that Penny asserts that the reader is given all necessary information to make a solution possible.  To that end, I believe all his novels contain the Queenian conceit of the “Challenge to the Reader”; the novel comes to a halt while the author breaks the fourth wall and poses some questions that the reader should be able to answer (but, frankly, is unlikely to be able to).

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. 

What is this book about?

It is October, 1938 in the small town of Craybourne and we are introduced to Mrs. Agatha Topley, a somewhat meek widow and first-time landlady who is having a problem with her only lodger, a slatternly Londoner named Alice Carter. Miss Carter is behind on her rent and Mrs. Topley needs the money. Alice has introduced her frequent male visitor as her cousin, Mr. Ellis, and Mrs. Topley has written him a note to urge him to mention the matter to Miss Carter. Since she hates to cause a fuss, she hopes this will be sufficient.

When Mrs. Topley returns from a shopping excursion, she immediately loses her temper. Her lodger has apparently taken charge of Mrs. Topley’s cherished radio and moved it into her room, since it’s playing at full blast. Miss Carter’s door is locked and she’s not answering. When Mrs. Topley smells gas, her anger turns to panic. She pushes a chair in front of the door and peeps through the transom window, only to see Miss Carter’s body shrouded in the bedclothes, with a rubber tube disappearing beneath them.

Mrs. Topley immediately runs to get the local policeman and a few minutes later they return to find — the bed is empty and all Miss Carter’s possessions have vanished.

Meanwhile, mystery writer Charles Harrington is puzzled about the seeming disappearance of his niece Philippa and discusses the problem with his friend, the Chief Constable. Philippa has requested a huge sum of money (£5000, which in 2017 terms would equal the purchasing power of roughly US$320,000) and refuses to say why. The Chief Constable enlists the assistance of policemen Tukes and Best (whose girlfriend is Philippa’s maid) and both cases are investigated. Apparently Philippa got romantically entangled with a sleazy actor who has been blackmailing her …

The police quickly follow some clues and make a grisly discovery at the actor’s studio — the body of a young woman missing her head, hands and feet. The body is clad only in undergarments and the wrists and neck are concealed by tennis racquet covers. It’s not clear whether the corpse is that of Philippa or Alice Carter but everyone fears the worst for both girls.

At this point Penny’s series detective Inspector Beale, accompanied by journalist Tony Purdon, becomes involved. Assisted by Tukes and Best, they investigate. You should experience the details of the investigation for yourself, but as noted above, the action stops at page 200 and the author poses three questions. If you can answer them, you’ve solved the case. If not — Inspector Beale explains everything in the final chapter and unmasks the criminal, whose identity should prove to be very surprising to the average reader.

14675Why is this book worth your time?

If you’re an aficionado of the classic puzzle mystery, Rupert Penny is for you; particularly if you prefer your difficult logic problems unencumbered by excessive realism in the characterization department. The plot is not especially original, but Penny learned from the best. This particular volume has elements that reminded me of Freeman Wills Crofts (the minute-by-minute timetable involved in Alice Carter’s disappearance), Ellery Queen (I’ll merely mention the decapitations in The Egyptian Cross Mystery), John Dickson Carr (a certain sexual liberation of one of the female characters that may remind you of The Judas Window) and even, dare I say it, Agatha Christie (an aspect of the solution that I expect will surprise most readers, but I cannot identify which of her titles because I’d give the whole thing away).

Although I’ve suggested that Penny in general prefers to avoid in-depth characterization, this volume has some nice touches. The landlady Mrs. Topley, although offstage for most of the book, is a crucial witness to the events of the first chapter and if you hope to solve this mystery, you’ll have to understand both what she did and why she did it. And for once this is not unfair; her actions and reactions arise organically out of the text and she’s presented in sufficient detail that you won’t feel cheated when you learn what you overlooked.  You may even feel sorry for the widow who can’t bring herself to ask her lodger for the back rent due to an excess of gentility. Inspector Beale and his friend Tony are rather “jolly chums”, chaffing and teasing each other in the manner of public-school boys; you might find them a bit too carefree about the facts of brutal murders, but honestly I found this more believable than if they wrapped themselves in a shroud of gloom.

And there are some amusing asides from the character who is a mystery writer. I always enjoy seeing mystery writers put mystery writers into their books as characters, and here Charles Harrington has a bit to tell us about the business:

“Charles Harrington … had contrived twenty-three such works, and the plot for the twenty-fourth was in course of construction. His sales averaged thirty thousand copies per book, including the United States and editions down to half a crown, and as well there were at least five magazines of repute which would take a short story whenever he cared to offer one, and send him by return a cheque for round about forty guineas. … He had a good car, and servants, and every year he invariably passed one month in Scotland and one on the Continent; and all these things cost money.”

Harrington also supports his niece Philippa to the tune of £20 a month at a time when a young woman could survive on £50 a year if she got bought a lot of dinners by young men. He also has what seem to be genuine feelings about his missing niece. I have a feeling that Penny himself was not finding detective fiction so lucrative as his invented character, since he published no short stories and no cheap editions to my knowledge; perhaps this is the same instinct that made Dorothy L. Sayers live vicariously by allowing Lord Peter Wimsey to buy first editions and fancy motorcars with a lavish hand. It’s also mentioned that the sleazy actor twice tried his hand at detective fiction, which invariably piques the interest of the alert reader, but no further details of his efforts are given.

The puzzle at the core of this volume is a very difficult one. One essential element — and I’ll try and describe this without spoiling your potential enjoyment — requires the reader to connect two different viewings of the same physical object and identify a crucial difference. Again hoping not to spoil a different book, this certainly reminded me of John Dickson Carr’s The White Priory Murder because you need to form a picture in your mind of what you’re seeing and not just accept the description. You’ll probably find yourself at the denouement flipping back to an earlier page and thinking, “Oh, yes, he DID say that about that object, didn’t he? Damn, I missed that.” There’s another crucial aspect that requires one of the detectives to jump to a conclusion and for the murderer to gratefully agree and bolster the erroneous conclusion with some hasty lying, which is tough to spot. I didn’t solve this one, although frankly I rarely do, and if the pleasure of a difficult puzzle like this is of primary importance to you, you’ll enjoy reading this book slowly and carefully.

There are a number of interesting sidelights on social issues that are small but, to me at least, satisfying. Mrs. Topley, for instance, considers the various ways in which “three and six” could make a difference to her everyday life, including funding her contributions to the Christmas Club and getting in a quarter ton of coal before the price goes up. There are details of the grubby undergarments worn by the dismembered corpse that will interest my friend Moira of the excellent blog Clothes in Books (but very little else that will pique her interest, frankly), and quite a bit of background on the ways and means of gas in terms of household heating as well as suicide/murder. (How many minutes does it take to smell gas? You’ll find out.) There’s also an interesting moment or two about the state of the scientific art with respect to blood analysis in 1939.

But make no mistake, this is not a classic for the ages. By virtue of the difficulty of the underlying puzzle, it’s definitely a cut above a time-passer, but there’s a pervasive air of cardboard throughout that allows the characterization to be sufficient to conceal the murderer, if you follow me. The characters do what they’re said to do because the author says so, and not because Penny has troubled to construct them so that they will logically do those things.  Let me merely say that this is a first-rate second-rate mystery.

However, if you’re looking for a really difficult puzzle and don’t require much realism in its presentation — this is definitely a book for you.  Enjoy!

 

 

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

6583643

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 😉

q-d-leavis

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.