Brief looks at a stack of books

97450_shutterstock_74821612It may well be that I’ve been concealing my reading habits from my friends and blog followers. It’s true that I’m relatively lazy about writing blog posts about books I’ve been reading, at least compared to other bloggers; I’m always astonished that my fellow bloggers can come up with so many interesting things to say every 48 hours or so. And I thank them for it.

51QnFtRcB4LThat doesn’t mean, however, that I haven’t been reading. My actual reading rate is at least a book a day, every day, and quite a bit of it in areas that would be of little or no interest to my readers — heritage cookbooks, for instance. I’m currently going through a lot of self-published zombie apocalypse novels, pandemic stories, and others in the EOTWAWKI/SHTF genre; my interest in LitRPG novels is still with me; and I’m reading Gore Vidal‘s novels as I find them. (Julian is excellent.) A couple of months from now, I’ll be on to other things.

Last month I picked up a couple of boxes of paperbacks at an excellent used bookstore a few hours’ drive from my home; I’m still sorting through them looking for things to re-read. Here’s a handful that don’t offer me the opportunity to talk at greater length but I can still recommend or not, as the case may be.

51Hfc0nsaFL._SX281_BO1,204,203,200_Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Queenly Contestant (1967). The last few Perry Mason novels are the most difficult to lay your hands on in paperback, and if you’re interested in courtroom drama they may be the last titles you tick off your list. I buy them when I see them … this one is not all that gripping, and there’s elements of the story that seem to be recycled from ESG’s earlier books. Although, as I’ve noticed before, Gardner always has something to teach us. (This time it’s the apparent tendency of hotel-based cat burglars to strike while the hotel guests are in the bathtub, because nudity inhibits the desire to chase thieves.)

Cody_dupe_2Liza Cody, Dupe (1981). The very interesting Anna Lee is a British private investigator and all six of the books in the series are worth your time; this is the one that got the ball rolling. Anna is tough and yet vulnerable, and she was those things before it became a cliche of the female PI novel. Her debut case involves investigating a fatal car accident that proves to be connected to a ring of Hollywood film pirates. Beautifully written, a terse and intelligent writing style, and an interesting plot. If you like these, seek out Cody’s other series, three outstanding books about security guard (and amateur wrestler)  Eva Wylie.

2101483Sara Woods, Naked Villainy (1987). The final entry in the 48 books chronicling the adventures of British barrister Antony Maitland, this was published two years after the author’s death. I have often complained about the tendency about elderly authors to write lousy books near the end of their careers; this one is not as bad as all that, but there is rather a lack of tension and excitement. (I note that the author was exactly my age when she wrote this, so obviously it’s not senility LOL.) Woods is an engaging writer who focuses on character nearly as much as plot; the books usually contain an extended courtroom scene and that’s clearly the author’s major interest. This particular story is a rather muddled tale of witchcraft rituals in a wine cellar.

PrintKitty Curran and Larissa ZagerisMy Lady’s Choosing (2018). I picked up this e-book because it was such a peculiar idea; it’s a “Choose your own adventure” type of interactive novel, but with the storyline of a Regency romance. A distinctly modern Regency romance, frankly, because the heroine seems to spend a lot of time moaning with pleasure as the baronet presses his straining manhood against her crinoline, or something. The joke rather palls after a few minutes, I found, but then I don’t read Regency romances at all. This may be gentle mockery or bitter send-up, I can’t be sure.

35881952Ellery Adams, Murder in the Locked Library (2018). Honestly, I don’t know what to make of this one. Adams is by all accounts an extremely popular writer, at the level of the New York Times bestseller list; I’m willing to believe she writes something that the public wants to read. But this is way beyond the slight suspension of belief I associate with the modern cupcake cozy. This is out-and-out fantasy. There’s a mysterious semi-rural hotel that’s like a castle and spa designed to attract bibliophiles; a secret society that’s protected the hotel’s secrets for centuries; and every other aspect of a woman’s fantasy that you might expect, including wonderful gourmet food, a castle filled with dedicated servants, a village filled with charming shopkeepers and handsome attentive single males, and the protagonist’s delightful twin teenage boys. It’s actually leading me to think that there might be something going on within the cupcake cozy after all — this is on the level of the literary school of magical realism. So this is either really, really good or really, really bad. I do know that it’s not meant to appeal to me in the slightest since there is almost no logic or rigour to what’s going on here. The mystery plot is nonsensical and mercifully brief; almost there merely to serve as a carrier wave for lots of bumph about banquets and personal relationships and the love of books. I can’t say I think most of my readers will enjoy this; I certainly didn’t. If you happen to have enjoyed this, please feel free to comment below and tell me what I have apparently missed.

UnknownAnthony Berkeley, Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery (1927). Amateur sleuth and well-known silly ass Roger Sheringham travels to Hampshire on behalf of the Daily Courier to investigate what looks like the accidental death of Mrs. Vane. Roger’s cousin Anthony follows along and promptly falls in love with the principal suspect; Inspector Moresby keeps his nose to the grindstone and solves the case. Berkeley is famous for his revisionist takes on the Golden Age traditions of the traditional puzzle mystery; this is yet another one of his exercises about the “most likely suspect” being the “least likely suspect” and therefore the “most likely suspect”. I love Berkeley in general for his brilliance, and his sense of intellectual humour, but some of his books are more for the scholar than the reader; this one is Berkeley arching his eyebrow at some mystery cliches and coming up with a surprise ending that you didn’t expect. Here’s the final lines of the book, which sums it up for me: [Inspector Moresby saying to Roger Sheringham] “Do you know what’s the matter with you, sir?” he said kindly. “You’ve been reading too many of those detective stories.” So, apparently, had Berkeley.

the-last-equation-of-isaac-severy-9781501175121_hrNova Jacobs, The Last Equation of Isaac Severy (2018). The subtitle is “A Novel in Clues” and I think that’s the signal that this is some sort of merging of the traditional detective novel with … I’m not sure. Post-modernism? Some sort of highfalutin’ literary movement with which I’m not familiar. It’s as though Raymond Chandler had been asked to write a story about a group of advanced theoretical mathematicians and physicists but not been given all the facts until too late. An elderly scientist dies and members of his family hunt for his final equation; the search takes them to many strange locations, including within themselves, I think. I really did want to find out what happened and persevered, but I’m not sure the ending was worth the effort. None of this could really have happened, which brings me back to the same idea of magical realism.

9780008280260.jpgJ. V. Turner, Below the Clock (1936); the edition shown contains an informative and useful introduction by David Brawn (whose acumen gets more impressive each time I encounter it). Before I say anything about this novel, I learned from the introduction that Turner also wrote as David Hume, and was as such the king of the British hardboiled thriller for decades; all of a sudden, much more interesting. Here, solicitor-detective Amos Petrie takes on a case of murder within the British House of Commons, where the Chancellor of the Exchequer is poisoned with the exotic substance strophanthin. You don’t need to know much more than that — a traditional detective story populated with men in high places who are not as honest as they should be. There’s a fine ending where the murderer poisons himself on the floor of the House rather than be arrested. All in all this is a rather antiquely-flavoured mystery but it’s logical and smart, with a fascinating background and somewhat exciting plot. Well done, David Brawn and the Detective Story Club at Collins, for unearthing this from obscurity and bringing it back for our enjoyment.

pile-of-booksI find to my surprise that I have recently acquired enough books by Michael Gilbert as both e-books and paperbacks to devote an entire post to this excellent writer, even in this brief format, and so I’ll save that pleasure for a later time. The more I read of Gilbert the more I come to think that he rarely, if ever, put his literary foot wrong; I’ve enjoyed everything of his large output that I’ve read, and I hope to recommend some of the better ones to you.

 

 

 

Brief looks at a stack of E-books

My readers have spoken; I had so many complimentary comments the other day on my attempt to provide very brief comments about some books that, yes, I see your point and I’ll try to do more. Today’s exercise is looking at the books that have been hanging around at the bottom of my iBooks list, languishing until I find the time or impetus to write about them. Time to admit that’s just not going to happen and at least point my readers towards or away from them briefly.

I should mention here that my standards for acquiring an E-book are much, much lower than actually picking up a physical book. E-books are so relatively inexpensive that I frequently think, “Oh, for $1.99 [or whatever] I’ll give that a try and see what I think.” I mentioned yesterday that I am very reluctant to set aside a book after I’ve started reading it, but that happens much more frequently with respect to e-books.

41DRaHi439LSaradindu Bandyo-padhyayPicture Imperfect: and other Byomkesh Bakshi Mysteries (1999 as such; different stories have dates ranging from 1932 to 1952, most from the 1930s)This is a collection of short stories translated from Bengali about the “inquisitor” Byomkesh Bakshi and his assistant/associate Ajit. To me it was clear this is the Bengali take on Sherlock Holmes; everyone else has had a whack at using Sherlock to their own ends, why not make him Bengali? Originally I picked this volume up in an attempt to broaden my cultural horizons, as it were. I found the book interesting because it is clearly immersed in a cultural tradition about which I know little or nothing; many similarities, many differences. Could I solve a mystery from a different cultural tradition? Well, I must say, these are very difficult mysteries, at the “locked-room/impossible crime” level in every case, and I was not enormously successful at figuring out what was going on. (I did solve the story called “The Venom of the Tarantula” and a few others.) Ultimately I didn’t find the collection as fascinating as I had hoped, mostly because the author seems to be constantly flirting with the correlation between Holmes and Bakshi and that joke quickly got tired. Perhaps it’s just that the short-story format means that the stories are told in the same way as Doyle told Holmes stories and that evokes the resemblance. But it might be that the author is, reasonably enough, not writing for a Western audience. Anyway, you may enjoy these; I found them diverting but not a taste I would sustain. I’ve found the Feluda series by Satyajit Ray to be deeper and richer stories in the same vein.

51A9mCAE+DL._SY346_George Bellairs novels. I’ve been reading a lot of these lately since they’ve become available electronically.  Detective-Inspector Littlejohn is a pleasant British policeman who works well with his associate, Detective-Sergeant Cromwell, and the stories are innocuous and, if I may say so, not very exciting. I read them last winter thinking that I might get a blog piece out of reading a few dozen and talking about Bellairs as a writer, but stylistically he just doesn’t seem to have much of an authorial voice. I did manage to find Calamity at Harwood (1945) sufficiently interesting, if flawed, to burble on about it here, but the remainder of his books have lain fallow until now. It’s interesting for me to note that this was only seven months ago; ordinarily I can retain the details of plots and characters for much, much longer than that. But today I’m looking at these volumes and remember little about them and that is not common for me. I think I must take that as evidence that they’re not very gripping. The following volumes I’ll admit defeated me and delete them from my e-reader:

  • Death on the Last Train (1948)
  • The Case of the Headless Jesuit (1950)
  • The Case of the Seven Whistlers (1950)
  • Outrage on Gallows Hill (1949) (I seem to have abandoned this on page 12)
  • Devious Murder (1973)
  • Murder Adrift (1972)
  • The Crime at Halfpenny Bridge (1946)
  • Intruder in the Dark (1966) (I found this more interesting than most of these)
  • Death in the Night Watches (1946)

51TcxxnuoeLAlbert A. Bell, Jr. has written five historical mysteries about Pliny the Younger between 2002 and 2014; I enjoyed the first four quite a bit. All Roads Lead To Murder (2002) might have been a one-off but apparently he was sufficiently motivated to continue with The Blood of Caesar (2008), The Corpus Conundrum (2011), Death in the Ashes (2013) and a volume I have yet to see, The Eyes of Aurora (2014). I rather like mysteries set in ancient times but the authors have to live up to the responsibility to do their research; I understand Bell is a professor of such things and it does show through, but not in an onerous way. If you’ve run out of Steven Saylor, Bell offers a decent alternative.

519R39VbXlLStuart Turton‘s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018). I can do no better than quote the author’s elevator pitch for the book. “It’s an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, but set in a Groundhog Day loop, with a bit of Quantum Leap body-swapping thrown in.  Our hero Aiden wakes up every day in the body of a different house guest … but it’s the same day, so he sees the same event from very different perspectives.” So, yeah. Metatextual, intertextual, post-modern, all that good stuff that I like so much. And honestly, this should have been a book that I was waving over my head, saying “THIS is the kind of thing I want to read.” I very, very much wanted to like this book and instead found it overwhelmingly annoying. It’s arch and self-mocking and yet trying very hard to thrill and divert the reader; just too much cleverness going on all at once. Like someone doing card trick after card trick after card trick at your table in a restaurant; I wanted a little breathing time to consider what I was experiencing and also to taste my dinner before it got cold. It occurred to me more than once during my reading of this volume that it would have made a superb video game, and I truly hope someone brings this to the public. That way you could keep trying to get through a character’s experience until you succeeded, and then set the game aside until you were ready to tackle the next chapter. I may re-read this, now that I know what’s going on with it, but not for quite a while.

51dWAAE3rzL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon (2002). Essentially this is the perfect marriage of cyberpunk and the hard-boiled detective story. Takeshi Kovacs, mercenary soldier, is hired by an extremely wealthy man, Laurens Bancroft, to find out who killed his previous body. Meanwhile, Kovacs himself has been “sleeved” in the temporarily available body of the boyfriend of the cop on the case, Lieut. Kristin Ortega. Bancroft’s wife Miriam looks 22 and is over 300, and doesn’t necessarily want her husband to find out what happened. Kovacs’s only ally turns out to be the lonely and bored AI embodied in his hotel, whose theme is classical musician Jimi Hendrix. I was very impressed with what I’ve seen of a recent eponymous television programme from Netflix — there are interesting differences between the original text and the TV production. But the Kovacs trilogy, as it was originally written (Altered CarbonBroken Angels from 2003 and Woken Furies from 2005) is full of interesting writing, lots of careful thought and plot structure, strikingly original ideas, and a solid understanding of what makes a noir plot noir. I’ve also recently enjoyed two of his standalone novels, Market Forces (2004) and Black Man (2007), also published as Th1rte3n, which is horribly prescient about a possible future path for the United States.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

new pool

 

Masks Off at Midnight, by Valentine Williams (1933)

Valentine Williams

Valentine Williams

A few years ago I happened to mention a Valentine Williams novel in the course of a piece on mysteries written by bridge players (found here).  Williams himself was not a bridge player but his co-author of Fog (1932), Dorothy Rice Sims, was a national champion. In the brief paragraph about that particular book I mentioned that it seemed likely that Williams did most of the heavy lifting with respect to writing that volume, a thriller that takes place on an ocean liner. At that time I noted Williams’s name for later investigation but since the peak of his career was in the 20s and 30s and he apparently had no long-lasting appeal or huge market, his volumes didn’t pass through my hands that often.

There’s been a couple of developments since my bridge-players article that have made Williams’s work more available. One is the general resurgence of interest in Golden Age material, and a concomitant republication of the well-aged backlist of many major publishers. The other is that, in my home in Canada, the date at which works pass into the public domain is more permissive than other jurisdictions and some very interesting authors are now available to me over the internet for no charge.

That second development is what led me to Masks Off at Midnight. The hard-working volunteers at Faded Page are currently doing an excellent job of bringing public-domain volumes back into readable electronic formats for Canadians. I hasten to echo their reminder that, if you live outside Canada, check your country’s copyright laws before downloading or accessing the files. Faded Page has made available sufficient of the works of Valentine Williams that I was able to flip through three or four of them before finding the present volume sufficiently interesting to investigate in more depth.

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 discuss elements of plot and construction and, although I do not lay out the answers, I did need to discuss the murder’s motive.  If you haven’t already read this novel, reading this essay means 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. 

132332What is this book about?

Laurel, a “drowsy little country town” of 20,000 on Long Island, is undergoing upheaval. When the modern reader learns in the opening paragraphs that “New York was no more than an hour away by car,” we understand that real estate development is about to come to Laurel and not everyone is going to like it. In this case the upper classes are focusing their resentment of change upon “Brent Hordern, the millionaire” (the phrase is used as if there’s only one millionaire in the vicinity).

Brent Hordern drives a $15,000 Rolls and has a White Russian chauffeur (Ivan) in smart plum-coloured livery; before Hordern finally appears in the pages, we learn that nearly everyone in the book has reason to hate him on either a financial or emotional level. Financially, as one might expect, he is busily engaged in ruining the fortunes of many local landowners. Emotionally, he is entangled with two women, each of which has her own set of admirers. Constance Barrington is a “chic and attractive widow” recently arrived from Europe, who loves Hordern but is not reciprocated; she’s a “vamp.” Jenny Tallifer is “one of the outstanding members of the younger set of Laurel,” whom Hordern wishes to marry but whose suit is not encouraged. Jenny loves the poor but honest editor of the local newspaper, but must for social reasons marry into money; her entire family has a long aristocratic lineage and is broke.

The story moves quickly towards a large set-piece; a group of monied locals has amused itself for years by putting on first a grand masked ball, each year a different period, and at midnight having a thematic pageant. All the upper classes get dressed in costume and play along but, for various social and financial reasons, Hordern has been forbidden to attend; there are many guards and they’ve been instructed to be on the lookout. This year the theme is Versailles, and at midnight it’s designed that the “Sultan of Morocco” is to be presented to “the court of Louis XVII”. Wave after wave of locals parade past the “French court”, costumed either as Moroccan or French courtiers. The parade’s climax is the time for the Sultan to open the curtains of his sedan chair and step forward — but nothing happens. Eventually someone opens the curtains to reveal the corpse of Brent Hordern dressed in a burnous, shot with a .38. Chaos ensues.

In the crowd is a young detective from Scotland Yard, Trevor Dene. Yes, he’s from Scotland Yard, and yes, this is Long Island, New York, USA. He’s a Cambridge man, on some kind of vacation with his wife (who married him in an earlier book and who is from the area) and has been making himself agreeable to the locals sufficiently to be welcomed to the pageant. We get very little idea of what Mrs. Dene is like, but Dene is immediately allowed a free hand with respect to the murder, essentially having full police powers.

Dene, an untidy young man in flannels with sandy hair and large horn-rimmed spectacles, is completely in control of the entire case. He identifies each area of the investigation and pursues it to its end, whether it’s financial or personal, and identifies motives for everyone in town. I won’t give you too much more about the plot, since that from here on in is the principal interest of this book, but it moves quickly, has a lot of interesting false trails, and finally leads to a dramatic confrontation in which Dene faces the armed and murderous killer, who confesses in great detail and is then shot by the police. Curiously, Dene decides exactly where guilt is going to be apportioned and to whom, so as to enable various nasty social secrets to be kept hidden and true love to come to fruition.

13648840Why is this book worth your time?

I do have the habit of asking that question and most often I can be quite emphatic about my answer — a book is or isn’t worth your time. Here, I have to be a little more nebulous — let’s say yes, this is worth your time, but with qualifications.

Recently I quoted Sophie Hannah, author of the two continuation novels of Hercule Poirot to which is imminently to be added a third, as having said something sharp and on the money.  I’ll repeat it again:

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

And that’s why this book might well be worth your time. It is a story told to us in a very overtly story-like way; I don’t think we are actually meant to believe in the existence of the characters as real people and I don’t think we are actually meant to believe that the events of the plot might have happened. This story is a kind of sketch of a real, breathing story. But it’s meant to be fun and engaging and I think it succeeds, within its own self-imposed limits.

TheManWithTheClubfoot-C1There’s a number of reasons why the story lacks that realistic quality; I truly do think that one of the reasons is that Valentine Williams was deliberately not trying to write realistically.  Looking over his publishing history, it seems as though his greatest successes were in the area of espionage/adventure fiction. He’d had some personal experience in that area and his stories about the evil genius “Clubfoot” fighting against the British Secret Service appear to have been by far his most popular work (judging solely by what I can find about him; everything seems to mention Clubfoot). I flipped through a couple of the Clubfoot books and they seem cast in an antique form; clean-limbed young Englishmen rescuing plucky young beauties from Sinister Foreigners. The Daily Telegraph called The Man with the Clubfoot “An extremely vivid story, full of thrilling incidents.” I think that’s accurate for as much of Williams’s work as I’ve seen.

That being the case, it’s reasonable to find, as I have, that this book is filled with lightly-sketched characters doing fairly silly things in the name of producing an exciting plot. So there’s “old coloured Mamie” who brings Jenny Tallifer her breakfast in bed, Ivan the White Russian dreaming of the vanished glories of the Tsar, and “one of Hordern’s farm-workers, a Polack …” because racial and social stereotypes are an easy way to populate an exciting story. I’m not as repelled by this casual stereotyping as I usually am because, frankly, all the upper-class WASPs are stereotypes too. (Particularly Constance Barrington, about whom more below.) The only characters who approach realism are the ones who take social position sufficiently importantly to commit murder to protect theirs — which is kind of why this mystery was not especially difficult to solve. The characters whom Williams troubles to motivate are the ones to keep your eye on.

Probably the main problem for the modern reader is that this book is not based in literary traditions that are fresh and familiar. Here, we have the storytelling techniques that Williams perfected in Secret Service adventures; this story mode is long gone, although shreds of it remain in the stories like the films about Jason Bourne and James Bond. As readers, we’ve learned that it’s more satisfying if Ivan the White Russian has a motive for the murder that’s individual and significant, not merely a longing for the ancien regime and a hatred of wealthy people on political grounds.

34738538What do we learn about the social milieu?

There is one interesting idea within this novel that is likely to slide right on by the modern reader, because the “college widow” is so antique a meme that it may have completely lost its meaning today. Constance Barrington plays the role here … beautiful, wealthy, with “unassailable … social presentability”, and an outsider in local society. She is a widow, which means she’s sexually experienced and without the handicap of a husband for the local young Lotharios to overcome. “To all appearances she was not even very interested in men. For that, as every young wife in Laurel realized long before the men were aware of it, she was all the more dangerous.” Her type is related to the Theda Bara-esque vamp, but with the added overlay that in a college town she has a constant flow of new devotees.

597591a40ba03752128c42f9efecd5e6There’s an excellent article on the college widow from the Paris Review here, which goes into more detail about why the audience of 1933 would be much more familiar with the idea. As the article notes, for the modern audience there’s only really one readily accessible point of exposure to this cliche, which was already somewhat past its prime; the Marx Brothers’ 1932 film Horse Feathers, in which the exquisite Thelma Todd is the college widow who tries to extract knowledge of the college’s secret football plays from Groucho using her sexual wiles. (The movie turns into a “football movie” in its final minutes, which is an antique form of B-movie about which I’ve written glancingly before.) Someone says that she’s the college widow, and everyone nods knowingly. Oh, THAT kind of girl.

Other than shedding some light on that antique meme, this volume doesn’t offer much in the way of social observation because it’s not really realistic. Laurel is the kind of town where everyone seems to have money, nobody really does, and nobody does anything except keep up social appearances. There is a lovely moment of description of Constance  Barrington that I thought might appeal to my blogfriend Moira, whose Clothes in Books is always an interesting lens through which to view older texts:

“The barrier lay rather in the woman herself. She did all the usual things. She played a little golf, gave small teas or dinners for bridge at her charming house, visited a little. But she encouraged no intimacies. She lived her own life. She steered clear of all cliques, moving in and out of Laurel society with her slow, enigmatic smile and strange, questioning regard which Jenny was very sure missed nothing. With her dead white skin, almond-shaped eyes as green as any cat’s, and reddish gold hair—the authenticity of its tint was the subject of inexhaustible surmise in Laurel drawing-rooms—and the rather picturesque style of dressing she affected, Constance Barrington would have stood out against any background. But at Laurel the women—at any rate, as far as the married set was concerned—bothered little about clothes and still less about their complexions. To be a Tallifer, a van Bossche, a Parton, or a Foxley was sufficient to secure recognition—to rely upon dressmaker or beauty specialist smacked of the plebeian. And so against the roughened skins and sensible tweeds of the Laurel matrons Mrs. Barrington’s vivid, exotic beauty, her floppy hats and trailing frocks, were by contrast as striking as a blackbird in a field of snow.”

The perennial conflict so often noted in British GAD fiction; the tweedy countrywomen are jealous of the elaborately gowned townswoman.

Chauffeur livery advertisement by Moss BrosThe idea of the White Russian who has come down in social rank is also part of a vanished milieu that we don’t really grasp any more; Inspector Alleyn actually started his career lumbered with a White Russian butler (in 1934’s A Man Lay Dead) but this gentleman was mercifully retconned out of existence by the second book, as I recall. I’m not sure what degree of sartorial excellence, or lack of excellence, is meant to be indicated by Ivan’s plum-coloured livery (where the standard is unrelieved black). That his employer is a show-off? Aspiring to the ton? Hard to say.

At first glance I was mystified by a reference within chapter 19 to chouette, literally “owl” or “owl-like”, which in my experience is … oh, you might describe a very cool jazz musician or a super-stylish teenage girl as chouette, at least in Quebec. But that can’t be what’s meant here:

“Ned Bentley had been in a crap game, while Leo, his brother, had whiled away the tedium of waiting with innumerable rounds of chouette with Rosalie Ashford (dancing-girl) and George Foxley (Sultan’s cup-bearer).”

From the context I figured out that what was meant was a kind of three-handed variant of backgammon, of which I’d never heard.

There’s one peculiarity that I cannot reconcile. Chapter 23 contains the information:

“where the Acropolis Restaurant, Proprietor Joe Ionides, announced by a notice in the window of its built-out verandah that ‘Wines & Liquors’ were on sale within.”

This book was published in 1933 (oddly, the copyright date on my copy is 1933 AND 1934) and Prohibition ended in December of 1933. So either there’s some flouting of the law going on here that wasn’t common, to my knowledge, or else Williams is anticipating what he knew was going to be the new reality; Franklin Roosevelt had been elected in 1932 promising to end Prohibition. I just don’t recall other volumes from precisely this time period making a point of having liquor for sale in stores. Or, by the copyright dates, he may have revised it in 1934 and added this little nod that his audience would have appreciated.

94bff580286ad944ccb890d99081d7f1--men-dress-double-breastedThere’s a mention of a man in a Palm Beach suit, which I thought was white and double-breasted. Other people agree, but I found at least one differing definition: “The “Palm Beach Suit” is a term used to describe the combination of navy blazer, buttondown oxford cloth shirt, stone colored chino’s or khakis, and brown slip-on mocs like topsiders worn with no socks.” Again, perhaps a question more suited to Moira at Clothes in Books, but it interested me.

To sum up; I enjoyed this volume although it’s light and fast-moving and not very challenging. In fact perhaps I enjoyed it because it was those things; I might just have been in the mood for something less brain-cracking than John Dickson Carr or Anthony Berkeley. I’m encouraged to know that it’s in the public domain in Canada and easily available, see above, which bodes well for the rest of the world.

 

 

 

 

The Chinese Shawl, by Patricia Wentworth (1943)

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

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

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

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

2650783What is this novel about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ce32ed3581ecad5f86276ef24794ed15Why is this novel worth your time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Four unpleasant children (Part 2 of 2)

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

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

What’s this rant about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Four unpleasant children (Part 1 of 2)

box of books

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

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

badseed

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

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

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

What’s this rant about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

9780006131625-us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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