LitRPG and other ludic fiction

Columbo and DogI’m always fascinated when someone comes up with a new take on an old sub-genre, or inverts an old sub-genre to create a new one. An example of how this can work is the howcatchem — the audience knows quite well whodunit, but wants to see how Lieutenant Columbo will bring home the crime to its perpetrator. That one is a variation on the open mystery, where we don’t always know if the perpetrator will be caught. The howcatchem is not a huge sub-genre, but writers know that audiences are prepared to find that story fascinating as long as it pays off at the end in the way they expect.

wheatley_covercolorOne sub-genre from the end of the Golden Age of Detection was the dossier mystery, which is rather like a whodunit; instead of being entirely written in prose, there are photographs, documents, and actual objects (like a postage stamp or a piece of “bloody” fabric in a glassine envelope) bound or glued into the text. The final chapter was always sealed to prevent premature peeking, and the reader had to exercise some fine
hair_wheatly2colorobservational skills to note that, for instance, the jacket sleeves on one character were too long in a photograph, or there were marks on a handwritten letter indicating water droplets. The originals of these are currently esteemed by collectors and the dossier mystery has enjoyed occasional revival every so often. You might think of it as a cross between a novel and a pop-up book, or some other form in which the reader actually has to manipulate the contents of the volume physically in order to get a complete reading of everything available. Julian Symons in his history of the detective genre Bloody Murder felt that the creation of the dossier novel marked the point at which the classic detective novel became something of a cliche and the crime novel began to arise; certainly the dossier mystery is structured more like a game than an all-prose book.  Perhaps we might think of it as one of the earliest precursors of today’s topic, ludic fiction. (“Ludic,” meaning “game-like” or “about games”.)

19535293488_2Branching away from the Golden Age for a moment, many of my readers will be familiar with a peculiar sub-genre known as a gamebook, especially if they know that what’s meant is more commonly known as a CYOA or “choose your own adventure” novel. The book written in the second person (“You’re heading home after a hard night at the factory …”) and is divided into numbered sections; you start at #1 and read until you come to a decision point, at which point the book offers you choices.  “If you investigate the strange sound, turn to 34; if
51J1viA39lLyou proceed directly home, turn to 187; if you stop at the gas station, turn to 51.” Each choice leads to a small set of different outcomes, some of which end your experience abruptly; the experienced reader will be aware of reading strategies that involve bookmarks or thumbs inserted at decision points. I have a couple of paperback gamebooks written about Sherlock Holmes, although they’re not very interesting. Many of the best entries in this sub-genre were written by Steve Jackson and not all of them are for children.

17736There are very early precursors at the beginning of sound films with a sub-genre that essentially no longer exists, the college-based football movie. Biff the hero has to outsmart the wicked gamblers and make it back to Riverdale in time to play in the Big Game, which is depicted in excruciating detail and in glorious black-and-white. I don’t really think it survived the 1930s as a sub-genre but you’d be amazed at what a lot of those movies there are. The Marx Brothers parodied them in Horse Feathers (1932).

Silent_Hill_film_posterBut all these sub-genres predate the internet and the computer age, and that’s when things really started to get interesting. Essentially a number of tiny niche sub-genres of fiction sprang up that had to do with the interface between games and stories. Clue, Doom and Silent Hill, among many others, are all movies based on games; the novelizations associated with such films are books about movies about games. (Yes, it gets complicated.) A few years ago I wrote about one such movie, Battleship, which takes that relationship between story and game and extends it beyond the breaking point.

MystCoverWhen the gamebook met the computer age, two different things happened. One was the novelization of computer games; essentially, in the same manner as the movie tie-in novel, the events of a computer game were written as prose and published, usually as a paperback original. The other was the invention of the adventure game (think Myst) itself, which was more or less a computer-based
MV5BZGY0MjUwZTktNmM4OS00NmEyLWFmYTYtMDRiNDJjZTM5Y2FhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzg5OTk2OA@@._V1_updating of the choose-your-own-adventure form — with a more formalized version of “saves” to replace having to keep your thumb at paragraph 83. Sometimes the adventure games became novels; sometimes novels became adventure games, such as a long series of Nancy Drew adventure games and a wild version of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express that features a very unexpected twist ending.

981838Just as there are movies based on games, there are also books based on games. I wrote recently about the puzzle adventure, a sub-genre in which the reader follows along an exciting plot line as the protagonist competes in a large-scale puzzle-solving exercise for high stakes (Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, for instance). As noted above, some computer games have been novelized; for instance you can read a fairly faithful version of an old Infocom adventure game called Planetfall in paperback, where the protagonist doesn’t have to keep saving and going
WoW_Box_Art1back to points before he gets killed through ignorance. There are a number of novels that fill in the backstory of the Myst games, and these later became a contribution to a MMO in the Myst universe. An MMO is a Massively Multi-player Online game like World of Warcraft, where hundreds of thousands of players go online every night to kill monsters (and each other) with primitive (and digital) weapons by working in small groups. And of course someone made a movie out of that called Warcraft in 2016, which was then novelized the same year, to fill in more backstory of the particular plot they’d chosen to represent the MMO. Like I said, it gets complicated.

zero-charismaBack in the pre-internet day, I was an occasional player (and even more occasional Dungeon Master) of Dungeons & Dragons, a type of game known as an RPG; Role Playing Game. In D&D, you generate a character for yourself and join other such characters in playing out a fantasy-based game scenario administered by an all-knowing Dungeon Master. Each such character has attributes that are expressed numerically, and events in the game are mediated by rolling dice for random results. It gets very, very complicated, but at a basic level, a stupid character like Axel the Barbarian might have an intelligence of 6 and his smarter associate, Greymalkin the Wizard, an intelligence of 18. Axel’s Strength values, though, would be higher to compensate. Every character has ability scores for Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Then you get into the finer points; if you’re hit with a rock by a child you might take 2 points of damage, which is quickly recovered, but if a Gold Dragon breathes fire on you, you might take 650 points in an instant and “die”.

dekaron-fotoRPGs in the internet age are frequently indistinguishable from MMOs and you are most likely to see the acronym MMORPG commonly used.  There are MMOs that are not RPGs, such as Second Life, and RPGs that are not MMOs, like the paper-based Dungeons & Dragons, but mostly there are MMORPGs. Most MMORPGs of today are currently about Tolkienesque landscapes where warriors and magic-users fight against monsters and evil magicians, but there are many other types; space opera, historic RPGs in various eras (Shogunate Japan, World War II, Ancient Rome), comic book superheroes, global trade, etc. The MMORPG automates the process of dice-rolling and keeps track of various “buffs” (your expensive sword that does an extra couple of points of damage each blow) and “debuffs” (“You have been stabbed by a poisonous blade and will lose 5 points of damage each minute until you take an antidote”) that affect the outcome of play and allow things to move along much, much faster than your Dungeon Master rolling twenty-sided dice behind a screen to figure out if you got hit with a sword or not.

9272bdacef02f937c0b33132905ceb70--new-chapter-cyberpunkAnd that finally brings me to my latest discovery, a brand-new take on ludic fiction. It’s known as LitRPG and it’s starting to be weirdly popular. It’s not exactly what you’d think of as a novelization of a sequence of RPG gameplay: that’s because the fourth wall is constantly being broken to keep the reader updated as to the statistics of the protagonist (and occasionally other characters). You’re in a game and you always know you’re in a game. And that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Here are “the two Commandments of LitRPG” (that I’ve lifted from a website devoted to such things, so it’s their statement, not mine):

  1.  A LitRPG shall involve some type of explicitly stated progression (leveling, report of item finds, quests, etc.)
  2. A LitRPG shall involve a game-type world of some kind that the main character has been involved in.

And here’s the way it works in the text, sometimes:

“I pick up the items and add them to my inventory.
Currency.  500 gold.
Item:  Jeweled Lich Eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul.
Another notification pops across my vision.
Congratulations!  You have just completed the quest ‘Guardian Forest Dungeon.’  You now have an increased alliance with the elves.”

From chapter 7 of S.L. Rowland. “Pangea Online Book One:
Death and Axes: A LitRPG Novel.” (2017)

ace50eca80706ae1dff28766a855fa22--brody-reborn

This cover art is an excellent way of understanding LitRPG; the primitive warrior in a rough landscape, but with a superimposed computer screen giving him information.

In other words, the fourth wall is broken and the reader is yet again reminded that the protagonist is within an MMORPG. Also the reader is constantly being updated as to the status of the protagonist’s health and the things he has in his pockets (“inventory”). So in a Big Battle that is meant to be the climax of a LitRPG novel, every time one character attacks another, you know exactly who hit whom with what, numerically how much damage it did, and what the effects on future combat events are likely to be.  (“White Fang strikes the undead monster with her +2 Elven Broadsword, but undead are naturally immune to Elven weapons so its attack is full force.”)

tumblr_inline_mrg5gaRoB61qz4rgpWhat attracted me to this sub-genre initially is that I always think it’s fascinating when a literary movement starts from the bottom up, rather than the top down. I admit that slash fiction got quite out of hand in the ’00s.  This is a modern genre wherein an author “ships” or writes about sexual relationships between well-known fictional characters who weren’t known to have them — for instance, Sherlock Holmes taking Dr. Watson to bed. I knew it in the 70s and thereabouts as fanfic. In the 00s, all kinds of unskilled enthusiasts were writing about how Ensign Mary Sue attracted the attention of Captain Kirk and got rogered on the holodeck, or whatever. They would post slash on fora for each other and developed a critical language that encompassed it (see Wikipedia on Mary Sue). Slash was a brief craze among young women but it remains popular, and “shipping” appears to have made it into the language. And as I noted, slash was generated by those young women themselves. They weren’t sold it by Random House or Amazon. Their enthusiasm for an implausible sexuality may have led them to excess, but they thought of that stuff themselves and they worked hard doing it.  Possibly from slash we’ll get the Mary Higgins Clark of tomorrow. And so I make a point of looking at genres that create themselves spontaneously, as opposed to, say, the cupcake cozy, which appears to me to be a research-based construct of major publishing companies, purveyed to an uncritical and uncaring public.

2bb598129088196cea260629c5f89963Indeed, LitRPG seems to be something which came spontaneously to life. It’s going to be a difficult genre for anyone to understand who hasn’t played in an RPG or an MMORPG, but it has all kinds of interesting characteristics that are not unlike more successful genres. It appears to have arisen primarily in Russian-language materials associated with professional gamers but, as sometimes happens, there’s a bunch of Americans who claim they did it first. And if they weren’t first, by golly they’re going to be the best and get ‘er done on Amazon. To the credit of both countries, the writers recognize the economic advantages of having the books available in English for the English-speaking market. I might be seeing more than is there; my assessment of the materials surrounding the market was very limited. It looks like a lot of young men are having a lot of fun writing and reading these books; they may not be making a lot of money but they’re having a great time and forming a community.

I surveyed a random sample of LitRPG, which in itself is kind of an issue. Quite a bit of the LitRPG I saw is fantasy RPG based (think Tolkien-ish) but there’s a goodly amount from the strongly militaristic game background and some very odd outliers. I have to confess I didn’t think I’d really enjoy living through the adventures of someone in a mechanized combat suit killing things, etc., so I read through some fantasy based ones and called it a day. I’m saying this so you know my sample is skewed and I may not have the full grasp yet.

My first reaction after gulping one of these novels down was “Wow! Not many people other than gamers are ever going to enjoy that, but it was a lot of fun!” At the outset I was prepared to be quite snotty about the amateurish nature of the writing, but I soon realized something. As you can imagine, LitRPG is quite rigorously plot-driven; literally, the protagonist is given a quest or task and must find a way to accomplish it. Characterization is at a minimum. But if you think about it — that’s very similar to the earliest days of the puzzle mystery in the Golden Age of Detection. I admit that Inspector French doesn’t exactly level up when he works out that the criminal’s alibi can be broken, but there’s a process in RPG called “grinding” where you repeat low-level activities a number of times that reminds me very much of French sending out his minions to search for London stores that sell a certain kind of typewriter. So perhaps it’s merely good fortune, or perhaps a clever selection of an appropriate genre for a novice writer, but these young writers with excellent plotting skills and limited characterization skills get the job done quite nicely, for the most part.

Indeed, there are actually characters in these narratives who are literally labeled as NPCs (non-playing characters), which is a great idea that should have been adopted for the puzzle mystery. That means that only specific characters could be suspects and that old Mrs. Twitterbury who runs the local teashop is merely there to add local colour, and you can be guaranteed she didn’t kill Lord Oldandrich. NPCs are there to add colour and the protagonist knows it, so the audience knows it too and doesn’t get emotionally invested when an NPC gets killed.

The LitRPG authors usually go to a good deal of trouble to create a framing story that is not merely “Generic kid plays a game and this is how it goes”, but adds some urgency or higher-stakes outcome to the situation.  For instance, one protagonist has his consciousness downloaded into an RPG in order to escape an asteroid that’s going to strike earth and kill him and almost everyone else. Another one is playing for economic reasons; his daughter needs a heart transplant and this is the only way he can make the money. My first LitRPG  experience (quoted above; S.L. Rowland’s Pangea Online Book One: Death and Axes, 2017) has a framing story very much like what I expect to be next year’s hit movie, Ready Player One; a young orphan starts out toiling in the lowest levels of the data mines and ends up owning most of cyberspace and Getting the Girl. I’m not sure where these novice writers learned how or why to add this framing story, but I’d say the best ones have it and it’s an elegant technique that is frequently beyond the grasp of amateurs.

And plotting itself is meant to meet the expectations of people (mostly young men with good reflexes) who play a lot of MMORPG. At the outset of games/novels, your character must do low-level things like meet the locals and dispatch unfriendly creatures like … rats. As the protagonist increases in stature and experience, he can interact more seamlessly with the NPCs and fights with progressively stronger enemies (“minibosses”). The classic gaming structure leads to a final “boss fight” with the most powerful entity in the narrative. The boss fight often has an element whereby the protagonist must possess a certain object in order to defeat the final boss (the “sacred sword of the Ancients” or suchlike), or must have teamed up with a certain other character for a joint attack, or in some way met a prerequisite before the final battle. This structure naturally lends itself to a plot-driven novel in a way that is easy for novice writers to execute; gamers know this structure instinctively and, based on their experience of what makes the most satisfying narrative, arrange that whatever it is that the protagonist is fighting at his current level of experience is sufficiently strong itself to put up a good fight but not usually kill the protagonist. It kind of writes itself: a level 35 elf battles three level 32 orcs, not three level 2 fluffybunnies or a level 268 telepathic dragon that spits battery acid.

There seems to be a firm determination that every LitRPG book created shall be part of a series, which is another similarity with Golden Age detective fiction. I’m not sure why there’s an implicit assumption that the character of the protagonist is sufficiently interesting to carry the story, but perhaps this is merely why the best authors create the framing stories noted above and expect those to carry the reader.  Will the hero get his daughter a heart transplant and move forward? (Generally, yes indeed, and has a bigger problem in volume 2.)

I strongly suspect that LitRPG will have little appeal for people who haven’t already played MMORPGs but I found a great deal of simple pleasure to be had in this form; it might be naive in a literary sense but it has energy and enthusiasm.  The plots all move forward pleasingly at a high rate of speed, and there’s always something new and dangerous right around the corner.

51JdHvHLIULIf you’re interested you can find out more by searching for “LitRPG” on Amazon or your preferred bookseller; most of these books are not easily available in printed formats but almost entirely for the Kindle et al. I did enjoy the book I found serendipitously, Pangea Online Book One: Death and Axes, from S.L. Rowland — it was free for Kindle Unlimited and a mere CDN$4.98 if you’re so inclined. If you have a bright nephew of 11 or so who plays MMORPGs, by all means get him a copy; it’s the equivalent of a simple Heinlein juvenile. I read my way through quite a few of these in a week or ten days, trying to isolate some generalized observations, and they’ve all rather blurred together, but honestly I didn’t find many clinkers — just the ones for which I didn’t care due to the subject matter being “future war” or “urban jungle”. If you’re a gamer you’ll know the kind of thing you like already and you should be able to pick it up cheaply. And if your idea of a good time is being the tank for your party while the rest of your crew kills the skeletons and picks up the loot, you’ll love these books.

 

 

Hopalong Cassidy — detective?

Please be warned that this essay concerns a film with a mystery as part of its plot, The Dead Don’t Dream; part of its enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. As I note here, the mystery portion is ridiculous and impossible to figure out, but I thought I’d make my readers aware to be on the safe side. To be honest, I’ll be giving away the “trick” of a movie that is essentially meaningless but I am giving it away, so … if you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.

hoppy_headLast fall I had a look at an old Hopalong Cassidy film, Law of the Pampas. I’ve been following right along with as many of Hoppy’s adventures as I can find; there’s a cable channel available to me that’s been re-running them.  As you might have guessed from the nature of my other interests, I’m interested in Hoppy because that brand went from being the most leveraged brand in history — in about 1951/52 it had penetrated into more markets and sold more 1951 dollars’ worth of goods than even Star Wars later managed, to my knowledge, in comparable currencies — to what it is today, which is to say barely a footnote. I think it’s safe to say that if you ask anyone today living in an English-speaking country who Hopalong Cassidy is, the word “cowboy” will come up immediately, and … nothing else.

In order to fully understand that huge arc from hero to zero, though, you need to understand something about the phenomenon that was Hopalong Cassidy (“Hoppy”, to millions of children) in the early days of television. There’s a lot to this story, and a couple of deeply fannish books have been written about it, so I’ll just hit the high spots and if you’re curious there’s more for you to discover.

Hop-a-long Cassidy - 1shtWilliam Boyd was a silent film star whose career was on the downward slide when he played Hopalong Cassidy first in 1935. Hop-Along Cassidy (aka Hopalong Cassidy Enters) was the first of 41 independent Hopalong productions released through Paramount between 1935 and 1941.  Yes, 41 movies in six years; that’s about 7 per year; they might have shot one every six weeks for most of the year then rested a while. Harry Sherman, the packaging producer, then distributed 13 Hoppy movies through United Artists between 1942 and 1944, keeping to the same breakneck speed. At some point in 1944, as I understand it (I could be wrong on the dates here) William Boyd felt that he had become indelibly associated with the Hoppy character and determined to spend the rest of his life playing him and him alone. So he hocked his assets to the hilt and purchased all rights to the character; the entire film library, merchandising, everything, for $350,000.

hoppyadThat process seemingly took all of 1945 and most of 1946; after acquiring the rights, Boyd himself began production and did a single film in 1946 and a further 11 films in 1947 and 1948, releasing them through United Artists. But the productions were not popular on the drive-in circuit and Boyd was going broke. Then he had the idea of taking one of his older pictures to the local NBC station (as I understand it, KTLA) and rented it for a nominal fee. The broadcasts were enormously popular and went to the national level almost immediately. In 1949, NBC edited the features to a suitable length for broadcast, and Hopalong Cassidy became the first network Western TV series. Apparently there were a lot of Western fans with televisions in 1949; the genre took off across the country and Hoppy’s popularity was single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of the Western genre on television in the 50s and 60s.

HoppyTVThere was a new radio programme from 1948 to 1952, and Boyd packaged a hit television show with 52 episodes of new and old material from 1952 to 1954. There were also comic books and paperbacks and you could even buy the movies themselves on 8mm and 16mm film from Castle Releasing. Boyd retired Hoppy near the top of his game, although his decision probably had something to do with the death of his long-time companion Topper, Hoppy’s big white horse. Boyd continued to make personal appearances for a few years but then apparently preferred that people remember him as he had been, declining interviews, photos and all appearances in his later years.

61Q84PPJXCL._SX363_BO1,204,203,200_What really interested me about Hoppy was that he was one of the greatest all-time feats of cross-platform marketing. I can’t say Hopalong Cassidy was the first brand that was cross-marketed in different objects — Little Orphan Annie comes to mind — but anyone who frequents flea markets and collectibles shows has seen tables of Hoppy-related materials. It was an enormously broad-based brand in its day. Literally, they stuck that brand on every conceivable product (except, strangely, for chewing gum; Boyd was against it) — lawn mowers and toy guns and sandwich loaves and neckerchiefs and TV sets and everything in between. There’s a large book or two detailing all the collectibles available and it makes for fascinating reading, although the brand has fallen out of favour today and the values have plummeted. Boyd himself made millions from licensing. And Hopalong Cassidy was the very first featured image on a lunchbox.

hoppy-headerIt’s also the case that William Boyd starred in more movies playing Hopalong Cassidy than any actor before or since has done, as an individual actor playing a single character — a grand total of 66 films. (Few were much longer than an hour.)

I imagine when you have to find 66 different ways to ring some changes on the basic set of seven Western plots (many of which can’t be done in the Hoppy context) you are hard-pressed to come up with anything new. Hoppy’s plots were repetitive and simple.  Here’s a few strains I’ve isolated after seeing perhaps two-thirds of the 66:

  • Hoppy comes to a town where someone is pretending to be an honest citizen but is really a crook; Hoppy finds out and thwarts the underlying criminal plot.
  • Hoppy comes to the defence of a farmer/rancher/little guy/helpless woman who is targeted by an unscrupulous trail boss/land baron/bully.
  • Hoppy comes to the defence of someone unjustly accused of a serious crime, and finds out who really did it.
  • Hoppy must execute a difficult task such as a cattle drive or guiding a wagon train, because someone needs his assistance.
  • Hoppy must mediate between two warring factions who want control of something (water, a town, unfenced land).
  • Someone thinks Hoppy (or one of his sidekicks, or a friend) did something wrong, or dishonourable, and he has to prove them wrong.
  • Hoppy must enter an unusual environment (go to a different country, or disguise himself and take up a different profession) and expose a criminal enterprise.

Hoppy Serves a Writ - 1shtThe one that I wanted to talk about today, at which I hinted in the title to this piece, is “Hoppy defends someone unjustly accused and finds out who really did the crime.” Just abstractly, doesn’t that sound like every Perry Mason episode you ever saw? Yes, from time to time Hoppy had to act as a detective, and that interests me. What happens when you cross a Western brand with a detective plot?

20ce0f649216fe71ddc69babf71e939aWhat prompted this interest in the possibilities of Hopalong Cassidy as a detective was a tiny segment of 1941’s Doomed Caravan. I won’t bore you with the details, especially since there aren’t many worthwhile, but essentially a bunch of outlaws capture a group of cavalrymen, steal their uniforms and equipment, and impersonate the troopers in an attempt to get close enough to rob a freight shipment that Hoppy has agreed to protect. When they arrive in town, everyone takes for granted that they are who they say they are. But Hoppy’s suspicions are aroused by a number of small inconsistencies in their clothing and gear.  He investigates a little, and questions one man about a bullet hole in his shirt and another about the wrong initials in his hatband. We see his eyes narrow, but he keeps his suspicions to himself until it comes time to save the day.

cdb2da219c6b80bec78aa253db7ea35cFor fans of mysteries on film, this film’s strongest player is Minna Gombell. She had a first-rate second-rate career in films, toiling away in relative obscurity, but she made an impression on me in 1934’s The Thin Man as Mimi Wynant Jorgenson, the greedy widow who would do nearly anything for money. Here she plays a tough but straight-shooting frontierswoman who needs the freight shipment to succeed, and her acting skills stand out a mile against her surrounding players. There’s nothing else of any great interest in this movie, but it did pique my interest to see if Hopalong Cassidy had ever displayed any great detective chops.

a5f5f7f13c4932f7c488e63ffed9c5b9There is one late entry in the series, 1948’s The Dead Don’t Dream, which would seem like the ideal candidate; I remember being quite excited when I read the information in the TV listing. Hoppy comes to the Last Chance Inn (at which all the local gold prospectors stay) to attend the wedding of his sidekick Lucky Jenkins to the niece of a wealthy local miner. The miner disappears from the inn and is found dead the next day. And the next night, the man who sleeps in that same room at the inn vanishes and is found dead elsewhere the next day. In fact this is the third time it’s happened.

Now, that’s a bare-bones story hook worthy of John Dickson Carr, isn’t it? What a pity something happened along the way to this admirable concept. What went wrong, I’m not entirely sure. Hoppy starts to investigate the rancher’s disappearance immediately, trying to get the wedding back on the rails. But this movie doesn’t really make any sense. There is ominous music when it seems like people are listening outside a door, or when something scary might happen … but nothing ever really happens. Hoppy seems to have a string of unaccountable and unmentioned intuitions that guide him as to precisely what to do next to make the plot move along at a brisk clip, but none of them are motivated by anything that actually happens or even anything that’s spoken about.  Within the hour, for instance, Hoppy is off to see the uncle’s dark and ominous gold mine — for no real reason except that no one knows where the uncle’s gold is kept. Yes, the uncle is there and he’s deceased. And everyone just sort of accepts this and sits around and talks about it, until Hoppy figures out what’s going on (more divine intuition).

People come and go, people talk about events, but no one detects and there’s nothing that happens that explains anything. The killer tries to kill Hoppy, and it’s never clear why, except of course that he’s investigating.

HopalongCassidyFilms.gifAfter further hubbub and back and forth, people coming and going, Hoppy finally figures out that the room contains a four-poster bed that kills people. In the middle of the night, the top of the bed descends soundlessly, suffocates the sleeper, and then returns to its topmost position. Now, this is also a clever idea. But in terms of the plot, it makes no sense at all. The owner of the inn has nothing to do with it; the actual criminal is someone who occasionally stays at the inn. How did the bed get there? WHY did the bed get there? Who in this Western world needed to kill people surreptitiously? When you think about it, in the other Hoppy movies, people die all the time from gunshots without any need for complicated mechanical traps.

There’s more, but it makes just as little sense as what’s gone before. Lucky’s engagement is broken (which everyone in the contemporaneous audience would have known to be inevitable anyway; Lucky has to chase the girls to keep the plots moving). Hoppy identifies the killer, and how I will never know, since there are no clues; he accepts someone’s comment as to one of the suspects’ criminal background. No detection, no investigation, just intuition and action.

To sum up — this is a great idea for a mystery movie, that suffers from terrible execution. No one thought any of this through, it’s just needless obfuscation, and the script has no underlying logic. Just a bunch of things that happen, ominous music, the killer gets arrested, and Hoppy makes a little joke as everyone prepares to leave.

983712c1ad67e46193d162211ca9f2b0At the time of production of The Dead Don’t Dream in 1948, the brand was just about at its nadir. Boyd was paying for the productions himself and cutting corners wherever possible; mostly by sticking with a small crew, trying to get everything in a single take, and skimping on services like music and screenwriters, using unknowns who needed experience. These weren’t even as good as the early “B” pictures in the series but more like “C” grade. I understand that, particularly with Boyd’s self-produced films, they were later chopped up a little to fit into television running times, which might explain the general air of incoherence and unmotivated plot developments in this outing. I suspect there’s another ten minutes of plot that needed to make it into the finished product and didn’t.

So unless there’s something I haven’t yet managed to see, the chances of Hopalong Cassidy taking shape as a detective are slim to none. Occasionally he participated in a mystery-like plot, just as he occasionally participated in the occasional romantic plot, but overall, his Western chops remain unsullied by any cross-genre participation.  In a way, it’s too bad. The Hoppy brand had a huge following in its day, but if it had been rebooted as a “Western detective” series, who knows, it might still be around today!

The October 8 Challenge!

october8

The October 8 Challenge — Golden Age Mysteries!

As I’ve mentioned here recently, over the next year I’m offering my friends, mentors, and peers in the Golden Age Detection blogosphere a chance to focus their writing — not on individual Golden Age mysteries, but upon topics that span different authors, themes, etc. You can find that post here, and I recommend it for background.

Here is the “Bingo card” and the “rules”, such as they are. As I’ve said, I hope to stimulate your creativity, not your obedience; if you need to break these rules to produce an interesting essay, feel free to do that. The challenge will run from October 8, 2014 to October 8, 2015. I will keep track of any essay that is brought to my attention as being an entry in this challenge; if all else fails, by editing and re-editing this post, but in some way everyone’s efforts will be collected in this blog.

On October 8, 2015, I’ll be asking all interested parties (contributors and my readers) to select essays that they feel were best. The three participants who receive the most applause will each receive a small token of my esteem; a collectible paperback from my large collection, and I will do my best to tie the specific book to the theme of the essay.

You can create a line of four squares horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. The idea of a “Bingo” was selected to stimulate you to get some work done, not to make you write something in which you’re relatively uninterested; I’d rather see one great essay than four ordinary ones. The other criteria:

  • Each group of books must represent the work of at least two different authors.
  • Each group of books must contain at least three volumes.
  • Volumes of collected shorter stories are welcome as long as all the stories fit the selected criterion.
  • Ambiguous words like “theme” or “location” are meant to be interpreted generously.
  • The books you select should, generally speaking, have been published before 1950. Please don’t misuse the privilege, but if a book written after 1950 directly relates to your chosen theme, feel free to include it as part of the group. The primary focus should still be upon GAD books and authors. (I expect that A-1, about a single series character with multiple authors, will almost always include books written after 1950.)

As I’ve said, please feel free to interpret these criteria liberally. If you have a great idea for an essay that breaks the rules, then break the rules. When you complete an essay that you intend as an entry, please leave a note in the comments section here; those of you who are fellow members of the GAD group on Facebook can certainly communicate with me there. I’ll keep track of the entries and display links to them all in the way that seems best; at this point, I’m not sure whether I’ll need an enormous apparatus or a simple one, so let me deal with this as seems best. Not to worry, I want people to read your work, so I’ll do my best to steer them to it.

Your comments and questions are very welcome and I’ll do my best to respond.

If you click on the colourful chart below, it will expand to full size.

October 8 challenge chart

 

The October 8 Challenge — an explanation

october8Over the past months I’ve very much enjoyed participating in Bev Hankins‘s Golden Age detection-oriented “Vintage Mystery Bingo”. She’s created a Bingo card with squares that you fill in by reviewing a particular kind of book, such as “Read a book published under more than one title” or “Read one locked room mystery”. I’ve found that it helps me focus on getting some reviewing done, certainly, since I now no longer wait for inspiration to strike as I take a book at random from my shelves. I’ve been more directed in 2014, and it’s been a very productive year. The Bingo challenge also has encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone — in fact, there’s one square marked “Read one book outside your comfort zone”. I can’t brag about that one since I haven’t filled it in yet, but I’ve definitely stepped outside my comfort zone in many respects. So thank you, Bev! You can read about Vintage Mystery Bingo here — it’s deep in the heart of Bev’s excellent blog, My Reader’s Block, found here. And I think I’ll be going back for the 2015 version!

Another member of the Golden Age Detection blogosphere, Moira Redmond — whose book blog, Clothes in Books, is found here — caught my attention with an original idea. Moira’s focus, as you can tell, is that she looks at books with an eye to the clothes that characters are described as having worn, and that’s an interesting idea right there. Recently, though, Moira looked at a series of Golden Age mysteries that are linked by a theme; that of the poison pen letter. And that started me thinking.

It occurred to me that many of my peers and mentors in the GAD blogosphere focus on reviewing individual books; certainly I’ve been doing that too. But it seems that a lot of my readers have been especially interested when I’ve discussed groups of books; my posts on the general topic of cozy mysteries and police procedurals have attracted a lot of attention and comments. I am very fond of reading reviews of individual GAD novels, certainly. It’s how I find new authors and new books to stack beside my bed in my about-to-topple pile of to-be-read books. The erudition and analysis represented by the bloggers in the blogs listed on the left-hand side of my blog is absolutely amazing, like a university-level course in analysis and discussion of GAD. I don’t dare name individuals for fear of forgetting someone, but trust me, just work your way down my blogroll and you’ll be astounded. And yet, most of them focus on individual novels.

Now, I know that many of these folks have an appreciation of not only the depth available in looking at an individual novel, but the breadth and span of how these books fit together as a genre. The everyday discussions, both serious and humorous, in the Golden Age Detection Facebook group to which many of us belong, tell me that these folks know about schools or clusters of mysteries as well as being able to dig deep into an individual novel. And in the past, I’ve often had the experience of picking a book off my own shelves for an hour of re-reading, and thinking, “Oh, this book reminds me of this book,” and going back for a linked volume, and another, and another …

In short, Golden Age mysteries can be seen as a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, if you will, where books are linked by theme, or period, or place, or style, or authors, or characters. And while I love reading about individual books, I suspect that my brilliant friends, mentors and peers in the GAD blogosphere can embrace breadth as well as depth and bring their intellectual powers to analysis of the way that GAD books fit together in groups. And so I determined, after some consultation, to give them that opportunity if they choose to take it up.

Hence, the October 8 challenge. Now, I chose that date for a couple of reasons. One is that I won’t easily forget it — it’s my birthday ;-).  The other is that I share that birth date with another member of the GAD blogosphere who has become a friend, Edgar-Anthony-and-Agatha-nominated author Jeffrey Marks. (I have to confess that he is younger and better looking than I, but it’s still the same damn birthday LOL.) Among his other interesting volumes of both biography and fiction, Jeffrey’s fascinating book, Atomic Renaissance, gives us portraits of women mystery writers of the 1940s and 1950s, giving details of their lives and work; not focused on individual novels but a wide breadth of work from some disparate women writers. Atomic Renaissance is the kind of research I enjoy reading, and it will stand as an example of the kind of research and thought I hope to encourage. You can buy your own copy here, and I think you should do so! (This free plug is your birthday gift, Jeff <grin>.)

So, in honour of Jeffrey and his work, and my advancing age and memory loss, I will bring you a year’s worth of essays from whoever cares to participate, running until October 8, 2015.  I’ll give you the details in another post today; with Bev Hankins’ permission, I’ve lifted her idea of the Bingo card, but made it only 4×4. The second post today will give you the “rules”, such as they are; I don’t intend to be rigorous about this. What I hope to encourage is creativity, not obedience. As people contribute essays, I’ll keep track of them in one post (depending on volume, one post per month, or perhaps per season). And at the end, I will ask all the contributors to judge who will receive first, second, and third place. And those three writers will receive a small gift from my large collection of antiquarian paperbacks; nothing enormous, just a token to represent excellence.

I have to say, I can’t wait to see what happens! My associates in the GAD blogosphere have all excited me and delighted me in the past, and I hope you will continue to do so; let’s instruct and delight each other over the next year with a focus on breadth as well as depth of insight. Any questions or comments, I’ll do what I can to address; feel free to mention them below.

(Speaking of memory loss, to which I’ve confessed above, the original version of this post stupidly confused Moira Redmond and Margot Kinberg, both of whom have fascinating blogs on GAD topics. No excuse, just me being dumb. My sincere apologies, and I’ve fixed my reference.)

 

Last Ditch, by Ngaio Marsh (1977)

Last Ditch, by Ngaio Marsh (1977)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #007


last-ditchAuthor:

Ngaio Marsh, whose Wikipedia entry is found here. This volume is 29th in a series of 32 novels written between 1934 and 1981 featuring Inspector Alleyn of the C.I.D. in England. At the time of publication, Ms. Marsh — later Dame Ngaio — would have been 82 years old. (Her final book was published when she was 87.)

Publication Data:

The first edition is from Collins Crime Club, 1977. This novel has been continuously in print since its first publication, to the best of my knowledge, and a number of paperback editions have been widely distributed in both the United States and Great Britain: I am aware of at least a Dutch translation and there are almost certainly more. My review is based on an electronic edition of recent date; I own a couple of paperbacks but couldn’t lay my hands on them.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read WILL discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery AND it will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.

6f141e67aa75ebe1c19d6cab332bb8beThis book was published 43 years, and 28 novels, after the first publication of an adventure of Inspector Alleyn. At this point we are reintroduced to Ricky, Mr. and Mrs. Alleyn’s first-born and only child, who was about five in Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954). Ricky has now graduated from university and intends to become a writer — of fiction, it seems, although of what sort is not made entirely clear. In order to allow himself some time and space to work on his book, Ricky has, during the “Long Vacation”, taken a rustic room in the fishing village of Deep Cove, on a small island on the far eastern coast of the UK, in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Ferrant and their son, young Louis.

How this situation came about was that Ricky’s parents, Inspector Alleyn and his wife, the celebrated painter Agatha Troy Alleyn, traveled on a sea voyage with a family called the Pharamonds, a moderately wealthy and somewhat outré family who live year round in Deep Cove for taxation purposes. Jasper, a mathematician, is the head of the family; his wife Julia is beautiful and zany, and their young daughters Selina and Julietta are somewhat undisciplined. Jasper’s young brother Bruno also lives in their large house, as do Louis Pharamond and Carlotta, his wife. Louis is an overly well groomed gentleman of leisure with unspecified business interests in Peru. The Alleyns learned that Ricky wanted to find an out-of-the-way spot in which to write, and they ask the Pharamonds to arrange it. Since Mrs. Ferrant does fine laundry for the Pharamonds, they know her and recommend her.

Also in the small village is a riding academy headed by Cuthbert “Cuth” Harkness and his niece Dulcie, a large-built young woman with wide-ranging tastes in sexual partners. Among them seems to be one Syd Jones, a New Zealand import who lives in a “pad” on the outskirts of town.  Dulcie is a talented equestrienne (Marsh’s word, not mine) and maintains the riding stables because Cuth is more interested in a local primitive Christian-esque religious movement of which he is the leading light. Syd does menial work around the stables and, as we later learn, is one of Dulcie’s sexual partners.

As the story begins, Ricky is being introduced to the limited delights of Deep Cove by the Pharamonds (and is instantly besotted with the married Julia). As they arrive at the stables, Cuth is in the process of ejecting Dulcie from his household, because she is both pregnant and uncommunicative about the responsible male. The Pharamonds spontaneously take Dulcie in and give her lunch and offer her a place to stay. Ricky leaves after lunch and encounters the repellent Syd, who invites him back to his pad. Ricky is surprised to meet Dulcie there.  Syd is, we learn, a painter with a great deal of opinion about his talent; Ricky’s mother, of course, is Agatha Troy, and Syd ends up scraping acquaintance because he supports himself by, we are told, offering free samples of a certain brand of paint to celebrated painters like Troy. In further travels on the tiny island, Ricky also becomes suspicious of his landlord, who appears to be too wealthy for a plumber and is doing something mysterious off the island, in private conference with the oleaginous Louis Pharamond. Some days later, Ricky has a run-in with Syd and accidentally steps on a tube of paint, to Syd’s enormous dismay. Syd has made an appointment to see Troy and offer her paint, and of course is dragging along his own crude work for her to see. Syd is ill, with what might be the after-effects of drugs, and Troy ends up feeding him lunch and introducing him to her husband, incognito as a CID officer.

Ricky is invited by the Pharamonds to go riding; immediately upon arrival, they learn that Dulcie has returned to her uncle’s home and they are fighting again. Young Bruno takes the opportunity to do a daring thing and jumps the stable’s prize horse over an extremely difficult fence, without permission or supervision; Cuth is scandalized at the potential for damage to his valuable horse and the family party rides away sedately. They ride off to a local pub some distance away and return in a leisurely way, only to learn that Dulcie has apparently ridden her own wild-eyed mount over the same difficult jump and been trampled and killed in the process.

The stage is now set for Inspector Alleyn to take a hand (having been kept informed of all relevant events by dutiful and frequent letters from Ricky); he wishes to investigate the death of Dulcie Harkness because the police force believes that Syd is involved in a drug-smuggling gang that is using his tubes of paint in order to transport quantities of “hard drugs” (either heroin or morphia). Before Alleyn takes a hand, though, Ricky decides on his own account to find out what Syd is up to and trails him to a nearby seaport, where he is discovered peeking at Syd through a hole in a newspaper by Mr. Ferrant, his landlord, who seems amused. After a violent thunderstorm, Ricky is pushed into the water between a boat and its dock and is very nearly killed.

Inspector Alleyn arrives and begins to investigate. Dulcie’s death, it seems, may have had something to do with a length of wire that may or may not have been stretched in a way that caused her horse to fall. Alleyn and Fox, though, are much more interested in drug smuggling and only seem to get to know the Pharamonds as interesting locals. Ricky continues to investigate on his own and is taken captive by Syd and Mr. Ferrant, who plan on exchanging Ricky’s continued good health for inactivity on the part of Inspector Alleyn and the police. Due to some cleverness of Ricky in the wording of the note he is compelled to write, the police soon figure out that he is at Syd’s, break in, and arrest Syd and Mr. Ferrant. They plan on more arrests in connection with the drug smuggling, but first all the dramatic personae have been bidden to a command performance at Cuth’s religious establishment. During another violent thunderstorm, Cuth preaches an incoherent and mostly inaudible sermon; the guilty party then rushes off and commits suicide. Syd, in need of a fix, implicates the main head of the drug smuggling operation, who promptly disappears. And Alleyn packs up his son and takes him home to his family.

6774801408Why is this book worth your time?

This book is not worth your time. In fact it’s not really worth having in the house, unless you have a wobbly piece of furniture that needs propping up with a book to be level. To paraphrase Monty Python, “This is not a book for reading. This is a book for laying down and avoiding.”

As to exactly how and why this is the case — well, there are three major problems with this book, in the general areas of plot, characterization, and writing. But the problematic overarching aspect is why this book exists in the first place. I propose to deal with the three large problems and then address the supervening issue of concept.

There are three elements that combine to produce the plot of this novel. The first is the drug-dealing/drug-smuggling efforts of Syd, Mr. Ferrant and Louis Pharamond; second, the activities of the riding stable and its denizens Dulcie and Cuth; and finally the actions of the Pharamond household.

I’ve recently remarked in the course of a review of Georgette Heyer’s Duplicate Death, found here, that Golden Age detective writers seemed to have a haphazard grasp of the economics and mechanics of drug smuggling. This book is a perfect example; what’s happened is that Marsh decided to have a drug-smuggling plot and invented the details of how one works — unfortunately without any reference to reality. Folks, this book was written in 1977. In 1971, “The French Connection” was showing people how drug smuggling actually works; literally, tons of drugs were being shipped into port cities disguised as shipments of canned vegetables or tanker-loads of liquid sugar. It was common knowledge that the economics of drug-selling on a large scale made it necessary for drug-dealers to find ways to bring huge quantities into their home countries; we’re talking 16-wheelers, airplanes and container ships devoted to drug smuggling, and tens of millions of dollars were changing hands in the process. And here, Syd Jones is transporting a quantity of drugs that would literally fit into a capsule — perhaps the size of a couple of cold capsules — inserted into the bottom of a paint tube and carried around by hand. In Heyer’s book, I remarked that her drugs were ten times too expensive, worked ten times as effectively, and is ten times as addictive. Here, the drugs are about a thousand times too expensive, being depicted in one-one-hundredth the quantity that would actually do anyone any good to smuggle, and the smuggling operation is being managed by people with a blithe disregard for any potential legal consequences. It’s all complete bullshit.

To begin; this mythical island is at the extreme eastern edge of Great Britain, close to the French coastline. No one in either country apparently bothers with more than perfunctory customs operations — bullshit. The head of this organization is apparently willing to stake his unincarcerated future on the transportation mechanism of having tiny capsules of drugs being hand-carried around by Syd Jones, who might as well be wearing a sign around his neck that says, “Evil Drug-Taking Hippie”. More bullshit. The economics of the situation require the ownership of an entire company that does nothing but produce artist-quality paints and pay someone to give them away to professional artists as a kind of promotional scheme. Great steaming PILE of bullshit; in fact, ridiculous bullshit. If you own a company that legitimately produces paint, and the economics of the situation are such that it’s cost-effective to insert tiny capsules of cocaine or heroin into the bottoms of some of the tubes — why on earth don’t you just ship the damn tubes of paint where you want them to be? If the British customs authorities are sufficiently stupefied as to ignore activities on an island just about within swimming distance of France, why would you expect them to be able to detect parcels containing drugs sent by a legitimate business? Everyone in this operation, in fact, is acting like a complete nitwit. The drug barons don’t kill Syd, which would actually be sensible; they try to kill an innocent bystander, Ricky, who might be getting too curious about their operation. Mr. Ferrant’s activities would undoubtedly be of great interest to anyone taking even a remote interest in the detection of smuggling and other such crimes; he travels around for no reason at all and spends far more money than would be available from his putative plumbing business. Yet someone who is depicted as an intelligent and promotable police officer, living in the same town for four years, Constable Plank — no idea. And no one even considers for a moment that his significant lack of acuity is due to his having been bribed or subverted. Bullshit. Meanwhile Louis Pharamond swans about in perfectly tailored riding clothes like some Colombian drug baron, with unspecified “business interests” in faraway Peru, and everyone just buys it. Bullshit, bullshit, BULLSHIT.

So the drug-smuggling plot is bullshit. Considering the riding stables — there is barely a reason why they would be able to economically exist. We see the Pharamonds and Ricky having lunch at a kind of resort which is like night and day to the village (it made me think of the playground of the wealthy in northern Sardinia as compared to the horrible reality of hardscrabble farming in southern Sardinia), so apparently visitors to the resort might like to go riding. But that’s not how I’d like to put my economic future at risk, on the off-chance that tourists might drop by. Nothing is said about transporting horses back and forth off the island (which would actually be a more useful way of transporting drugs) but a riding stable on an island is starting from a deep economic well; food, hay, tack, all has to be shipped in at some expense. In fact it’s clear to me that Marsh didn’t actually give this any thought. She wanted a riding stable to be there, so there was one, regardless of the economic circumstances that would have to be in place for it to exist. It is intimated that Dulcie is a good rider who could somehow compete, but she seems uninterested in anything except her wall-eyed horse, which is a motivator for the plot. In fact Dulcie is pretty much there to be a sex addict and get murdered. Cuth is there to be a non-specific religious nut. His motive for killing Dulcie is that she “revealed her nakedness to him”; this might actually have been a worthwhile subplot if Marsh had thought to mention it before Cuth kills himself. The entire riding stable subplot is just more bullshit.

And then we have the Pharamond family. They are certainly interesting and vivid characters, but what is their function in the novel? Not very much at all, unless you count their acting as protective coloration for Louis — but that’s supposed to be a secret. The key to their existence is revealed in the last sentences of chapter 8, where Julia Pharamond reveals that she is a Lamprey by birth. Ah, yes, the Lamprey family, subject of Surfeit of Lampreys (1940) and apparently so favoured by Marsh as examples of her characterization skill that she brings Mike Lamprey back in later books as a constable and here suggests that the Pharamonds are just Lampreys in disguise. Well, yes, the Lampreys/Pharamonds are vivid. But what they also are, in plot terms, is useless until required. They are zany and unpredictable, and Marsh apparently feels that this allows her to suggest that they’ll do just about anything, and that gives her convenient ways of moving the plot forward. (Young Bruno unaccountably decides to jump an impossible fence on a borrowed horse, which is his entire function in the novel.) Other than that, the entire family has nothing to contribute to the plot; they are, in fact, colourful background decoration.

So — all three major plot elements are just so much bullshit. What about characterization? As I’ve just noted, the Pharamonds are vivid and unusual and dramatic. But characterization is supposed to be contributing not only to the atmosphere but to the plot, to the design of the novel as a whole. They have to be real people with real motives and intelligence, and those motives and intelligence have to be merged with the activities of the plot in a realistic way. And in that sense, every character in this book is complete cardboard. Everyone in the drug-smuggling end is ridiculous, and acting against their own best interests in a way that serves the plot but not themselves. The Pharamonds are literally dragged in from a different novel where their cognates, the Lampreys, spend the whole book being giddy and witty and charming. (If you recall the original novel, the Lampreys actually have nothing to do with the murder plot as it all ends up.)  Marsh couldn’t be bothered to create a new family so she reworked an old one. Do you have any inkling of Jasper’s mathematical background? Neither do I, because all that happens is that Marsh says he’s a mathematician.  Cuth’s preoccupation with primitive Christianity and his raging alcoholism are his only personal characteristics — we don’t see him ride or manage the stables or do anything except drink and orate — which provides the motive for murder and the relaxed moral standard that allows it to happen simultaneously. In fact, everyone is said to have an occupation but no one ever does it in front of us. Most tellingly, Dulcie is implied to be a young woman of extreme sexual availability; what 1977 would have called a “nympho” and we in 2014 might describe as a “sex addict”.  She wouldn’t really have an idea of who the father of her child is. And yet is it not remarkable in the book that she leaves Ricky Alleyn completely unsullied by any sexual advance? Handsome upper-class young man, reasonably virginal, unaccompanied by a female partner — should be easy pickings for the voracious Dulcie. But she leaves Ricky alone. That’s because her nymphomania is the convenient kind that gets the plot going and then disappears.

The only people who are reasonably well-rounded and fully depicted characters, in fact, are Ricky and — that’s it, Ricky. The Alleyns are sketches to remind us of their previous appearances, Fox is almost off-stage, and everyone on the island is a cardboard phoney. And even Ricky has little in the way of fleshing out.  We know a little bit about his emotions, there is information about how he finds Julia Pharamond completely entrancing, but as a living human, he’s at least half cardboard. And for someone who is supposed to be likeable, I found him quite priggish and uptight. There are a number of descriptions of him writing, and we gather that he is writing a novel, but we know nothing about it. My experience of young men who are writing their first novel is that they will buttonhole complete strangers and bore them to exhaustion with the complete story of their work to date, but no, Ricky says nothing. I’ll say more about this in a moment, but for now just remember that even the most completely detailed character in the book is not quite as real as he could have been.

So far, the plot is bullshit and the characterization is cardboard. What’s left is the writing. Here, because Marsh has been doing this for 29 books, she has some tricks upon which she can fall back. Twice, Marsh embraces the pathetic fallacy and has an actual rainstorm start when trouble is brewing. There are occasional vivid turns of phrase, nice moments of description, cleverly-chosen descriptive words that give the reader a picture in an economical way. Mrs. Ferrant, for instance, is described as a blanchisseuse de fin, a fine antique phrase that sums up her work (and at one point we actually smell ironing, which is more believable than most of the characters get). “Ladies a basket” is a phrase that you must read the novel to grasp, but believe me, this phrasing is effective. There is a charming description of a painting upon which Troy is working that actually rings true; we have the picture of what she’s doing and we see it.

For the most part, though, the dialogue is awful and completely overwritten. Ricky’s internal monologue — which is necessary since for most of the novel he is alone and has no one to whom to speak aloud — is especially awful, ridiculous old-fashioned metaphors more suited to an elderly person than a young recent graduate. “Blow me down flat,” thought Ricky, “if I don’t case the joint.” Ugh. This is indeed slang, but slang from another day and time. There are a number of such instances, including Syd’s insistence on calling his home his “pad”, over and over again. I was about that age in 1977 and, believe me, the word “pad” never crossed my lips in any context outside of ice hockey. This might have been an appropriate locution in, say, 1959 or 1962, but 1977? We were long, long past that “groovy” point then. Any time there is slang, it rings false. (At one point Fox compares Dulcie to a “tom”, which would I think have been dated slang even in 1959.) What is clear is that Marsh appears not to have bothered to listen to anyone of the correct age speaking aloud for at least a decade and maybe longer. She was at this point 82 years old and chose to depict characters of this age of her own volition, so full bad marks for getting it so totally wrong. So March’s writing style is not, like her plotting and characterization, wholly abysmal. But her inability to capture the speech patterns of anyone under 60 years old causes as many sticking points as her other issues.

So — plotting zero, characterization zero, writing about 20 percent. This brings me to the overarching question — why exactly was this book written? What was Ngaio Marsh trying to accomplish?

The simplest answer, of course, is that she was trying to earn money by writing. I have to say that in my experience it is unusual for an author of any description in any genre to have any other motivation for writing a book; writing is a time-consuming and thankless task (especially when you have people like me looking at your work closely, which must be unpleasant) and I have only ever known people to do it for money. But if one looks at her most recent output, her previous 20 years of writing has been spent writing standard straightforward detective novels — with the exception of 1968’s Clutch of Constables, which has Troy as its viewpoint character for the only such novel other than 1947’s Final Curtain. Why should she suddenly bring Ricky Alleyn to full existence as opposed to something which would have been incredibly easy — write another Roderick Alleyn novel? Why should she take the chance of failure, which she actually, to my mind, experienced here, when she had a clear path to an easy solution?

I think I have an idea of what happened. I am indebted for the key thought that inspired this idea to a lady named Lucy Sussex, a member of a Facebook group devoted to Golden Age mysteries to which I belong. Ms. Sussex (a stranger to me) posted as follows: “Met someone who knew Ngaio Marsh. ‘She was so mannish.’ And stylish, turning up for rehearsals of the student theatre she directed at the University of Canterbury in a Daimler, and wearing furs. ‘But she was only interested in the boys.'”

I was turning that over in my head. “But she was only interested in the boys.” Yes, that’s believable. She certainly started her career by being in love with her creation, Roderick Alleyn, although she rather took away his obvious halo in later years … And then it hit me. Of COURSE she wanted to write about Ricky; she wanted to have the experience of a love affair with a 25-year-old man.

Once I conceived of the idea that Marsh was trying to create another young man with whom to be in love, this whole novel clicked into place for me. Of course the plotting is ridiculous — its only function is to display young Ricky in various heroic lights, such as spontaneously deciding to investigate suspicious drug-related goings-on, and his final kidnapping and mild torture at the hands of Syd and Gil Ferrant. Of course the characters are cardboard; they’re only there to create situations in which Ricky can be admirable. Ricky falls in love with a slightly older woman and forgets himself so far as to make a physical pass at her? Quite understandable, if you look at it from the point of view of an elderly lady who wants young men to act like that around her. Ricky is a fledgling writer? Perhaps we now know why. Ricky is dutiful to his parents (he writes home about every day or so, it seems), morally upright (bordering on priggish), intellectually gifted, handsome, well-dressed, polite — a young man with every conceivable virtue. This idea also explains a number of things that do not happen in this book, principally among them Dulcie’s inexplicable disinterest in Ricky’s sexual availability. Of course it never crosses her mind — Ricky must remain unsullied because Marsh is in love with him. The only purpose of every action and every person in this book is to display Ricky Alleyn in a good light. Ricky’s love for a married woman means he remains single. Ricky’s Scooby-Doo-level investigative failures can get cleaned up by his dad; Ricky’s involvement with an unpleasant hippie type can be cleaned up by his mom. I even foresee that Ricky’s entry-level fiction was meant to be mentored in a future volume by, say, a glamorous middle-aged established writer of charming appearance with whom he falls somewhat in love …

And, of course, this doesn’t work. Marsh may have been delighted with her creation, but the reader really is not and cannot be. That’s because Marsh’s idea of a 25-year-old man is someone who is apparently 50 and a moralistic prig. Ricky does not appear to be rebelling against his parents in any way, as is common among children of authority figures like police officers; he doesn’t for a moment consider trying drugs or having sex with Dulcie. He doesn’t daydream about how to get Julia Pharamond drunk and have sex with her. He treats his parents like best friends and police officers like jolly chums — like no 25-year-old ever. He goes away to a picturesque location that contains a delightful woman, and manages to stick to his working schedule.

There is one peculiar moment in this novel that amused me greatly, but for all the wrong reasons. Ricky decides to take a little holiday and follows Syd on his drug-smuggling routine. Ricky ends up in a cafe and, insanely, cuts a hole in a newspaper so that he can putatively observe Syd’s movements without being seen or noticed. Syd comes into the cafe, sits himself at a distance and apparently injects himself with heroin surreptitiously at the table. (I leave it to your common sense to decide if that is the most unrealistic action ever; for me, it’s close. Cafes have bathrooms in which such things can be done and most people would be aware of this.) As Syd is leaving, Ricky’s arrangement with the newspaper is discovered by his landlord, M. Ferrant, who is also on the scene. Ferrant joins Ricky for a drink, and the following exchange takes place:

He took the copy of Le Monde out of Ricky’s nerveless grasp and stuck his blunt forefinger through the hole. “Quite fascinating what you was reading, seemingly. Couldn’t take your eyes off of it, could you, Mr. Alleyn?”

“Look here,” Ricky said. He put his hand up to his face and felt its heat. “I expect you think there was something a bit off about–about–my looking–about. But there wasn’t. I can’t explain but–”

“Me!” said Ferrant. “Think! I don’t think nothing.”

He drained his glass and clapped it down on the table. “We all get our little fancies, like,” he said. “Right? And why not? Nice drop of ale, that.” He was on his feet. “Reckon I’ll have a word with Syd,” he said. “Quite a coincidence. He come in the morning boat, too. Lovely weather, isn’t it? Might turn to thunder later on.”

Now, when I read this passage, I immediately thought that Ferrant had decided that Ricky was gay and sexually attracted to Syd; it’s the only thing that makes sense. Because it couldn’t possibly be that Ferrant was telling Ricky that he was about to warn Syd that Ricky was actively investigating their drug-smuggling activities, could it? That would be insanely stupid. I agree that Syd is perhaps too rough and uncultured for the priggish aristo Ricky, but that’s why Ferrant says, “We all get our little fancies, like.” Ferrant is a man of the world and understands the exigencies of gay relationships in 1977; sometimes you have to scope out a prospective partner through a hole in a newspaper as you sneak around observing his actions.

Unfortunately, I seem to be the only person to whom this interpretation occurred. It certainly does not seem to have occurred to Marsh, because she means Ferrant’s comments to be menacing and full of foreboding, judging by subsequent events. And it wasn’t until I realized that Marsh was in love with Ricky that I realized she couldn’t possibly conceive of him having a homosexual attraction, since Ricky was meant to be saving himself for Marsh herself. In many ways it makes perfect sense that Ricky is gay. Overprotective parents in the extreme — a kind of delicate feminine quality to his nature — priggish, uptight, and only willing to be seen to be sexually interested in unavailable married women. My version of how this book continues is that Ricky decides that Syd is his perfect bit of rough, makes a pass, gets beaten up for his pains, and then spends the rest of the book dragging his father into the drug plot so as to exact revenge. That is a less priggish and more realistic Ricky, just not one that an 82-year-old woman in love with her character could contemplate.

So once I realized that this entire novel was a love song written to, and about, the impossibly perfect Ricky Alleyn, I understood it in a different light. It is still unrealistic, unattractive and annoying; now, though, it has those qualities for different reasons.  It is incredibly creepy to read when you realize that an 82-year-old woman is creating a 25-year-old love object for herself and disguising the love letter as a murder mystery. It is essentially a fraud upon the mystery-reading public; it is meretricious and inappropriate and makes me feel a little bit sick to my stomach. And for the life of me, I don’t know why she didn’t continue. From the point of view of a mystery reader, she could have continued to write Ricky novels; she produced three more atrocious novels about Alleyn Sr. in the next five years. I can only hope that her publishers insisted that she return to writing mysteries that had a chance of selling.

I suppose I should have merely left this lie as being a poor mystery novel written by a very elderly lady at the end of a long, long career. But now that I’ve dug into it and given it quite a bit of thought, I realize that it’s not just a poor mystery novel. It’s an atrocious mystery novel that reveals more about Ngaio Marsh personally than I EVER wanted to know, and I feel like I need a long hot shower. I feel like I’ve just accidentally found her stash of porn in a bottom drawer. Do yourself a favour; if you have an unread copy of this lying around the house, throw it away.

pd407Notes for the Collector:

A Near Fine copy of the 1977 first edition, from Collins Crime Club, will cost you somewhere between $30 and $40 plus shipping. I looked at a couple of other Marsh novels from the same period, and this seems like a reasonable range of prices, nothing out of line. I should say that I have generally found that bad books by well-known authors are sometimes more difficult to find and therefore more expensive; in this case, Marsh’s last six or seven books were quite poor so they all seem to be trading in a similar range.

I cannot really say that there is a distinguished edition of this book; nothing really stands out in terms of design over its entire history and multiple paperback editions. (I rather like the Dutch paper edition shown here, but it’s nothing special.) You might as well buy yourself a first, if you feel you must own a copy of this awful book. I’d offer you mine, but I’ve already tossed it.

 

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

n60581Author:

Ellery Queen is a fictional detective in the books by Ellery Queen … who is  a fictional writer.  The fictional writer whose name is on a set of novels from 1929 to 1971 was actually two people, cousins generally known as Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, whose joint Wikipedia entry is found here. As Wikipedia makes clear here, quite a few books ascribed to Ellery Queen were actually written by other authors; this one, however, is certainly the product of Dannay and Lee. Dannay also managed the affairs of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (the original version of this post erroneously suggested that it was Dannay and Lee in tandem), and the Ellery Queen name appears on the cover of many books of anthologized short stories reprinted from the magazine. Complicated, isn’t it? There’s also an old-time radio program, a series of vintage movies, a television series, comic books, a game or two, and even reference books about the character and the authors.

2633Publication Data:

This volume is the fourth Ellery Queen novel to be published by the cousins. The first nine books in the series each have a number of common features; there is a nationality in the title, here “Greek”; there is an introduction written by someone known only as “J.J. McC.”, now not considered canonical, and the famous “Challenge to the Reader”.  This challenge stops the action of the book and speaks directly to the reader, asserting that every piece of information necessary to solve the mystery is now in the reader’s hands. This is, in fact, the case; this volume is a strict-form puzzle mystery as I have elsewhere defined this term. One interesting conceit of this particular book is that each chapter has a single-word title; examination of the table of contents reveals that the initial letters of the chapter titles, considered acrostically, spell out “The Greek Coffin Mystery By Ellery Queen”.

The book was first published in 1932 by Frederick A. Stokes in the U.S. and a little later by Gollancz in the UK.  The first paperback edition is Pocket #179, seen at the head of this post. Many paperback editions exist; this book has only sporadically been out of print since its publication. It is now available in multiple e-book formats.

The Greek Coffin Mystery, 1960 - illus James Meese-1Although I have a VG copy of the first paper edition shown above, I actually used an e-book from an unknown source as my reference copy for this review (I found it in my files and have no idea where it came from, possibly as part of a gift of a bundle of e-books from a colleague); pagination is impossible to guarantee and I have chosen to not give page citations.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read may discuss in explicit terms the events of this murder mystery in GREAT detail. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.

IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THIS BOOK, STOP HERE AND GO READ IT BEFORE YOU RETURN. YOU WILL THANK ME. I can’t be any clearer — your first reading of this book should be unsullied by any knowledge of its contents, and the less you know in advance, the happier you will be. 

index-3_1The story begins with the death of wealthy Greek-American art dealer and connoisseur Gregor Khalkis; for once in a murder mystery, there’s nothing suspicious about the death. He’s been suffering from heart troubles for years that have left him blind and under the full-time care of a physician. It’s the disappearance of Khalkis’s will that is baffling everyone; five minutes before the funeral it was there, after the funeral it’s vanished. The house is searched, to no avail, and Mr. Woodruff, the family lawyer, calls in District Attorney Pepper. More searching, and no results. No secret passages or hidden compartments in the furniture or walls; no evidence that it was destroyed. Apparently the disappearance of the will is connected with its provisions, and someone’s desire to return to an earlier testamentary disposition of the Khalkis estate … but no one can figure out what happened. Finally Pepper calls in Ellery Queen, who deduces that the only possible location is inside the only object that’s left the house unsearched — Mr. Khalkis’s coffin. He convinces the authorities of the validity of his logic and they obtain permission to dig up the coffin. Unfortunately the coffin doesn’t contain the will. What it does contain is the strangled body of an ex-convict, a convicted forger named Grimshaw, jammed in on top of the late Mr. Khalkis. 

We soon meet the household and learn that Grimshaw had been admitted to a private interview with Khalkis shortly before their deaths. Khalkis has household staff (including the beautiful British secretary, Miss Brett, who might be romantically involved with Khalkis’s handsome young nephew Alan), relatives (including his mentally handicapped cousin Demmy, who acts as a kind of valet for the blind Mr. Khalkis) and the various employees of his art gallery and other business operations.

Ellery directs the activities of his father, Inspector Queen of the New York Police, with the assistance of DA Pepper, and a large group of officers immediately begin to learn everyone’s every movement. As is common in such fictional situations, it soon becomes apparent that most of the people in Khalkis’s life had recent acrimonious interactions with him, and many of them may well have had interactions with the deceased forger. Promptly upon the start of investigations, multi-millionaire Wall Street baron James Knox, friend of both the President and the late Mr. Khalkis, insists upon being briefed upon progress; Ellery announces that the case is solved. <gasp>

index-5_1A few chapters previously, the people around Ellery were baffled by his insistence on performing a number of experiments with the contents of a tea-urn in Khalkis’s office, and the surrounding used teacups, lemon, et cetera. He boils water, pours it out, measures amounts — no one understands what’s going on, and they think he’s losing his grip. As well, Ellery seems curiously interested in Mr. Khalkis’s neckties; he’d had some new ones delivered for the use of his handicapped cousin in executing his valeting duties. Ellery doesn’t explain until this point, when he reveals that, first of all, the details surrounding the neckties reveal that Mr. Khalkis has spontaneously regained his vision, and second, that two mysterious people who visited Khalkis in his study the night before his death were not actually two people, and that Khalkis had gone through an incredible rigamarole to make it seem as though two other people had been there. This idea, Ellery reveals, is the result of his analysis of tea-cups and tea water. And therefore — Khalkis murdered Grimshaw.

Immediately upon this revelation — about halfway through the book — two things happen. One is that Miss Brett reveals that, oopsie, she forgot to mention that the used teacups were differently arranged than when they were found by Ellery, and Knox reveals that there was indeed a third man in that meeting with Khalkis and Grimshaw.  How does he know?  Knox was the third man.

At this halfway point in the novel, Ellery’s house of logical cards collapses and he sinks into depression; this event actually affects the remainder of his career and all subsequent books that feature him. He determines that because he has revealed the results of his analysis and been disproven, he will never again speak about his investigations until he is absolutely, completely certain of the identity of the murderer (rather like Saul’s conversion on the road to Tarsus). Although it’s not referred to specifically in later volumes, his detective career is forever changed by this event; it also changes the way in which his work is presented. When you think about it, it’s not sensible for a detective to hide the progress of his investigations from the police; this situation was apparently set up by the authors to create a structure for future novels that would delay the solution until the end of the book.

Knox now starts the second half of the plot in motion.  He had been dickering with Khalkis for the right to purchase a Da Vinci painting that had previously been thought to have been destroyed. But Grimshaw had become involved by going to Knox, announcing that he had stolen the Da Vinci some years ago for Khalkis, and Khalkis had apparently been unable to pay him for his labours. Finally Khalkis had agreed to make out his will in favour of Grimshaw and in the interim gave him a promissory note. Khalkis, Grimshaw and Knox had all met and drunk tea on that fateful evening, and then some unknown person had tampered with the physical evidence in order to lead Ellery away from the truth. Ellery soon determines that that unknown person must logically have been in partnership with Grimshaw.

Knox refuses to hand over the Da Vinci and announces that he’ll deny having it in his possession — and that it’s a copy anyway. Ellery then realizes that his deduction of Khalkis having recovered his sight was also incorrect; instead, handicapped Demmy is revealed to be colour-blind. Ellery grimly acknowledges his mistakes and gets back to work on solving the case.

Events now progress more rapidly.  The investigation receives an anonymous tip that the manager of Khalkis’s art gallery, Gilbert Sloane, is actually Grimshaw’s brother. The police discover that an empty house in Khalkis’s neighbourhood was the temporary resting place of Grimshaw’s corpse (until the murderer had the bright idea of disposing of it in the coffin) and they discover a shred of the burned will in a furnace in the empty house, confirming that the missing will indeed left the huge Khalkis estate to Grimshaw. This means that Sloane will actually inherit through his brother; they find a key to the empty house concealed in the Sloane home. Everyone rushes to the Khalkis Gallery to arrest Sloane — and he’s been shot. Superficially it looks like suicide, but Ellery makes a deduction that proves it to be murder. And everything grinds to a halt, because Ellery cannot find a thread of the tapestry upon which to pull in order to make progress with the case.

index-221_1Miss Brent reveals herself to have been an agent of the British Museum, employed to track down the Da Vinci; she’s hired by Knox to help him with his executor’s duties on the Khalkis estate. And the British Museum is about to pull the lid off the case unless Ellery solves it in a hurry.  Soon, the missing promissory note shows up — half of it is used as the paper upon which a blackmail note is typed. The actual typing of this note is of interest; there’s a tiny typographical error that is shown to the reader but not further explained.

At about this point, the above-mentioned “Challenge to the Reader” breaks the flow of the action; you now have in your possession enough information to solve the mystery and identify Grimshaw’s partner and the murderer.  I will from this point on be reticent about what happens; I haven’t yet told you anything that would make any difference to your ability to solve the murder, since if you read the book everything will be available to you.  But henceforth, I will cut back drastically on my comments for fear of spoiling things for you.

It is safe to say, though, that there is a common theme in nearly all Ellery Queen stories that is repeated here; the false solution, then the true. At this point, Ellery makes an announcement about who is guilty of precisely what; this leads to a series of events that brings us to the final solution. Ellery has set a trap for the real killer, and I wager that you will be very, very surprised by the answer, which is revealed dramatically with Ellery being shot in the shoulder and the murderer dying in a hail of gunfire at the end of Chapter 33. Chapter 34 consists of Ellery recuperating from his wound and explaining everything, in great detail, to an assembly of suspects and investigators.

04b_GreekWhy is this book worth your time?

The year of publication of this book is 1932.  In 1932, Agatha Christie had published a mere dozen novels, but including one of the most difficult mysteries ever written (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Ngaio Marsh was two years away from her first book; Margery Allingham was at the beginning of her career; John Dickson Carr had not yet published a Gideon Fell or a Henry Merrivale novel; Anthony Berkeley had published a number of excellent books including 1929’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case — and the “Golden Age” mystery was in its early stages. It was not completely newborn; perhaps adolescent; still finding its way, outlining the ideas that define the form, the boundaries of the genre, its passions, its likes and dislikes, its enthusiasms and hatreds. S.S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox had both published sets of rules as to what detective stories should and should not be; clever writers like “Ellery Queen” were casting off the old strictures and extending the boundaries of the form.

This particular story has to be one of the most difficult strict-form puzzle mysteries ever written and, frankly, they don’t make ’em like this any more. This book has more sheer logic and detection in it by the halfway point than in the entire oeuvre of your average cozy author; and by the end of the novel, more difficult chains of logic than the entire oeuvre of ten cozy writers. This book was written at a time when readers did not cavil at being faced with an extremely difficult puzzle and it has, over the years, maintained its place as one of the finest examples of such a puzzle. I haven’t worked out the ramifications of this in great detail, but I’ll suggest that this is one of Queen’s top two books — the other being The Chinese Orange Mystery — and one of the top 25 puzzle mysteries ever written. Just don’t make me name the other 23, please!

When I’m analyzing a puzzle mystery, there’s a process I go through that is crucial to determining its level of quality. Simply put, once I know whodunnit, I go through the novel again from the murderer’s point of view and see if everything makes sense. And I think you would be surprised at how often things just do not make sense when I do that. For instance, I recently looked at a poorly-written mystery by Frances Crane, The Applegreen Cat. (My analysis is here.) Among other problems, the plot consisted of a mystery that was difficult from the point of view of the reader — but ridiculous from the point of view of the murderer, who apparently deliberately waited until the country house was filled with house guests before embarking upon a killing spree among the servants. Another example is an early novel of Harlan Coben’s whose name slips my mind along with most of the details. Three-quarters of the way through the book, the protagonist discovers that the murderer has a cabin  in the woods filled with evidence, and this provides everything needed to bring the book to a close. The problem is, as I realized even before reaching the end of the novel, no murderer in his right mind would have left all that tasty evidence in place, sitting in an empty cabin for anyone who happened by. It’s rather like one of those plots where the murderer has the detective at his mercy, but stops to deliver a complete detailed confession before disposing of his nemesis. It helps out the book a lot, but lowers the murderer’s IQ by 50 points in an instant.

If you go through the process of analyzing things from the murderer’s point of view, everything in this book continues to make perfect sense. The murderer’s motives are clear; they make sense and continue to make sense once you know what they are. The only thing that trips up the killer is a trap set by the detectives that is also based on something that the murderer needs to see happen. The tiny clues left by the murderer are tiny accidents; they aren’t taunts left by the killer, or foolish oversights, but something small and careless like closing a door when it shouldn’t have been closed, or not predicting that a character may confess something that is not in his best interests in order to cooperate with the police. And there are not many puzzle mysteries about which this can be said. Nothing depends on coincidence, chance, acts of God or ridiculous motivation. Just about the only logical flaw in the entire novel is the size of the fragment of the will that is found in the furnace of the empty house, and the fact that it contains precisely the information that is needed to move forward; this is a bit of a stretch, but, you know, it could happen. All the clues you need are fairly there, and the Challenge to the Reader is accurate.

The other part of this book that is beautifully crafted is the false trail that the reader is meant to follow. I read this book as a teenager and I remember the sense of exultation with which I came to the conclusion that the authors wished me to reach; I’d spotted the tiny clues, I’d noticed the snippets of dialogue, and I’d realized what they meant. I felt smart. By golly, this mystery business wasn’t so hard after all, I thought. And then I realized that I’d been well and truly fooled, and that was what the authors had meant to happen. Up until that point, I’d merely failed to solve the mystery, or I’d guessed sort of randomly at a possible solution. This time I’d tried to solve the mystery, and I’d been fooled. And it may well be this book that started me on a lifetime of challenging my wits against those of the author.

In short — this is one of the finest strict-form puzzle mysteries that you will ever have the pleasure of failing to solve. In the past, for the benefit of a friend who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of encountering this mystery, I’ve taken a cheap paperback and torn it in half at the point at which the Challenge to the Reader appears, in order to give my friend the chance to give this mystery the attention it deserves without the opportunity to spoil it by peeking. There are not many mysteries worth doing that with. If you enjoy the experience, and you see a cheap paperback copy go by, pay it forward for a friend.

Notes for the Collector:

As of this writing, AbeBooks has on offer a Good copy of the first edition, inscribed by Frederick Dannay to his sister-in-law, for $500, and two unsigned copies of the first for $236 and $250. The second edition will set you back $175, and a copy of the first UK from Gollancz is listed for about $60. I am aware of an interesting edition from International Readers League in 1933, with a street map and floor plan of the Khalkis house (like the ones reproduced here, which are also in the first paper edition), and Abe has a copy for $75.

Some crazy person on ViaLibri wants $500 for the Bestseller Mystery/Mercury edition of 1941, and I can only think that it has about $490 in cash tucked between the pages. Amereon reprinted this title in 2001 and I can’t think why this particular book is bringing prices in the $75 range for an undistinguished hardcover with no jacket.

In paper, the 1942 first paper edition from Pocket is quite collectible because it’s a low-numbered book in that pioneering series, collected by many, even though, as you can see from the illustration at the top of this post, the cover art is downright unattractive — muddy, unexciting and dull. (When you look at the gaudy but exciting cover of The French Powder Mystery from the same company at about the same time, you wonder if the publishers were trying to make the Greek Coffin look boring!) Mine is a relatively nice copy and what appears to be a similar one on Abe is listed for $20; I’ve seen many copies of this book and many of them appear to have vertical creases in the cover, rolling, etc. There is a Penguin greenback available, of which there are many collectors, and many other editions.

1808330There’s a Cardinal edition that has a great piece of “girlie leg art” on the cover and, for once, it actually depicts a scene from the book. One quirky favourite edition of mine has always been a uniform set of Signet paperbacks from the early 70s with a tightly-kerned Helvetica title and cover art of a pretty model posed within a box, holding an oversized prop that has something to do with the plot.  Possibly this has something to do with the fact that in many cases this was the first edition that passed through my hands; at this remove, they look quite camp. Your mileage may vary. The point is that, depending on what your budget and collector’s instincts might be, there’s something for you. My own recommendation would be the signed first, which is quite scarce with any signature, and for smaller budgets the best copy you can afford of the Pocket edition, unless you like “girlie leg art” in which case the Cardinal edition may suit you best.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1932 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; third under “D”, “Read a book already read by another challenger.” This volume was reviewed on February 17, 2014 at a blog called “Classic Mysteries”; the review is found here. For a chart outlining my progress, see below.

Vintage Golden Card 001

The Applegreen Cat, by Frances Crane (1943)

The Applegreen Cat, by Frances Crane (1943)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #006

pop_344Author:

Frances Crane, whose Wikipedia entry is found here. This volume is fourth in a series of 26 novels written between 1941 and 1965 featuring private investigator Pat Abbott and his co-investigating wife Jean.  The Abbotts were the subject of at least two radio programmes and probably three (this is VERY complicated — see Wikipedia for details). All 26 novels feature a colour in the title as a linking device for the series. Her reprint publishers, Rue Morgue, have contributed an extremely interesting in-depth biographical piece found here.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1943 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; first under “G”, “Read one book with a colour in the title.” For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

Publication Data:

The first edition is from Lippincott, an American publisher, in 1943. (The jacket is below.) My own copy, seen at the top of this post, is the first paperback edition, Popular Library 344 (1951), with an exquisite cover by Rudolph Belarski that has been repurposed from the cover of a pulp magazine (also see below). Other editions exist, including an edition from Hammond, an appearance as one of three volumes in a Detective Book Club edition, and a 2011  paper edition from Rue Morgue Press, to whom we should be indebted; they’re republishing a bunch of Frances Crane, among other good works.

910About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

Jean Abbott, the narrator, and her detective husband Pat, are in England, and visiting Stephen Heywards’ country house, which also contains a gaggle of visitors and staff. Pat can only be persuaded to take time off his mysterious but apparently crucial war work with the prospect of seeing the Heywards’ Renoirs. It’s wartime, of course, and everything is rationed — which is why it’s so peculiar that an under housemaid, Elsie, is wearing an exquisite pair of nylon stockings that are unavailable to her social betters.  That phrase isn’t used, but it’s very clear how everyone feels. Wartime Britain hadn’t lost any of its embedded class consciousness, it seems. Jean sees Elsie that night, just before she is going out on a date; by chapter 3, Elsie’s dead body is discovered in a punt. On her body is a dart that can be identified as having come from the manor house, because it has been marked with a “transfer from a kids’ book” of an applegreen cat. So the murderer comes from the manor house. And it soon becomes clear that everyone thinks that Elsie has been strangled by mistake instead of Lorna Erickson, “whose stunning beauty and feline malice made her unanimously feared and hated”.  (That’s a rather florid quotation from the back cover of the paperback edition.) 

Almost immediately, another murder attempt takes the life of the head housemaid, a secret tippler who cannot resist having a pull from a bottle of whiskey that has been adulterated with a huge dose of morphine.  Was the whisky intended for Lorna? Hard to say. At this point the book grinds to a screaming halt — Jean is not really in the picture as the police, and her husband, question the suspects one by one. So we are treated to a series of chapters very much like the habitual pattern of Ngaio Marsh, where one by one the potential suspects display their motives, past, and personalities, each to a boring, talky, overwritten chapter. Tennis is played — women’s clothing is observed. Gossip is exchanged, and some characters reveal things about themselves and their past that sane people being investigated as potential murderers would probably prefer to keep considerably more quiet. Jean manages to dig out nearly everything that the reader might consider important or useful about every suspect; that is, if your interest is interpersonal relationships rather than the niceties of who gives who an alibi and how. Finally (the reader will have the sense at this point that this is a long, long overdue action) Lorna is found strangled, events come to a head, and the murderer confesses.

And I have to say, I’ve read a lot of murder mysteries — a LOT of murder mysteries — and the solution to this mystery asks us to believe one of the most ridiculous motives for murder I have ever been asked to accept, and that’s saying something. (Okay, there’s that Agatha Christie where the woman wants to open a tea shop. But that’s about it.) Really, it’s as though Crane realized that she had to tie this off to get in under her word count, so she picked the least likely suspect, provided a hastily-conceived motive, and wrote “the end” with an air of triumph. I cannot accept that there is a person in the world who would commit three murders for this reason; I actually think this motive is not really sufficient to make someone quit their job or quarrel with a friend. Crane recognizes this, I think, and tries to add a few details here and there to make us think that the murderer is insane. But this is a kind of insanity that only really exists in murder mysteries that need a surprise ending; someone who hides their insanity under a mask of competence and does violent things for what are essentially ridiculous reasons.

Why is this book worth your time?

As you may have gathered by now, I don’t really think it is worth your time. Frances Crane wrote a number of good mysteries, but this is not one of them. There’s a serious flaw at the heart of this book; nothing is even remotely realistic. The wealthy squire with two Renoirs and a house full of ill-assorted, antagonistic guests have obviously been collected together for no other purpose than to draw gigantic sacks of red herrings across the trail of the crimes. When you find out the identity of the murderer, you will realize that the criminal events of the book could have been easily committed at a time when there were not nine or ten extraneous guests in the house and, since there is no rational reason for the murderer’s actions, almost anyone else in the vicinity would have been more readily suspected. Crane has to go to great lengths to prevent her narrator from learning anything useful or relevant in time for it to matter, including locking her in her bedroom at a crucial point. The characters lie when it makes the book more interesting and tell the truth when it’s time for things to move forward.

Elsewhere I have retold an antique joke that is funny to seven-year-olds. “What has four legs, wags its tail, and is filled with cement? A dog.” “But a dog isn’t filled with cement!” “Oh, I just put that in to make it harder.” This book is so encased in cement that the reader soon realizes that all the characters frozen in that cement to the hips are made of cardboard. The dog beneath the cement is a mutt who has been bedizened with ribbons, bows, embroidery and that oh-so-crucial pair of nylons, but remains at the heart of it all a dog of no redeeming qualities and emphatically of no interest to anyone. As I was refreshing my memory of this book, I found myself reading the first page or so of a chapter, and when I realized that nothing of any interest or value was occurring (other than the pseudo-development of pseudo-characters), I’d skip the remainder. When you skip half the chapter ten times in a row, you reach the climax quickly, I assure you — and had the author left out the cement, this would have been a ridiculous short story whose shortcomings would be far more apparent.

I think one of the big problems here is that Frances Crane appears to have no experience with, or indeed any realistic idea of, the background or people about whom she is writing. Indeed she doesn’t seem sure of very much at all. Pat and Jean end up in Britain for vague and largely unexplained reasons — with wartime travel restrictions in place to the point where you can’t get a taxi from the station to the manor. Her upper-class Brits have mental attitudes and social mores more like small-town Americans; no one is concerned about things with which they should be concerned, and is preoccupied instead with who can beat whom at tennis (this is in 1943 when the war was at its height; it’s mentioned, but it’s less important than tennis victories). Yes, there are blackout curtains, but pulling them doesn’t have much to do with the war and more with establishing alibis or taking people away from their alibi witnesses. Pat Abbott is a cypher in a crisp Marine uniform. I very much doubt that Crane had ever seen a Renoir; I’m not even sure that she has ever seen people playing tennis. The servants’ only purpose in the book seems to be to die so that the upper-class people can be suspected of their murders, without actually having to sacrifice an interesting character. Crane appears to have little mental grasp of her large English manor house — the details of the rooms are blurry and indistinct, and it’s hard to tell the floor plan from the writing. If this had been a mapback edition, the artist would be inventing half the layout of the house.

Crane’s habitual fascination with women’s clothing and household decoration has lost its sparkle here. Even the pair of nylon stockings that starts the criminal plot rolling turns out, on the last page of the novel, to have been a cheat. I was expecting to read details of just how the boundaries of clothing coupons meant that women had to repurpose their clothing in specific ways in order to remain fashionable; instead of the minutely observed details in other books, here we just get a French blue suit with a cherry-red sweater worn by the hostess, but no idea about why this is interesting in any way. It doesn’t reveal her character, it doesn’t show her attitude to fashion, it’s just what she has on. In at least one other instance, Crane commits a cardinal writing sin.  She describes a character’s outfit and tells us why this means she is a certain type of person — but there is no link between the two. We’re not shown, we’re told, and not even very competently.

Ultimately, to sum this up — it’s just nonsense. The stage is set, nine or ten suspects pop up, talk for a chapter each, then are dismissed. There are three murder victims about whom no one seems really upset, a lot of hugger-mugger of detection that takes place mostly offstage, and some sketchy and vague descriptions of rooms and clothes. And the murderer is a crazy person with a crazy unbelievable motive. If you want to read an interesting Frances Crane novel, try The Golden Box; there’s some meat there to replace the cement.

25721346-5664312675_0abea1d2b1_o1Notes for the Collector:

A VG copy in VG jacket of the first edition of this novel will cost you approximately $75; I don’t regard this as a significant piece of the history of detective fiction, but I know that people collect all kinds of things, including Frances Crane firsts.  I don’t need one of these to the tune of $75, but your mileage may vary.

My own copy is, as I noted, a really lovely copy of Popular Library #344, with the Belarski cover. (The image at the top of the post is scavenged from the internet.)  My copy is close to Fine; tight, clean, unmarked, unrolled and with bright colour.  There’s a copy available from various internet booksellers for $45 that doesn’t sound as good as mine. Frankly, I think this is a much more collectible volume; people are collecting runs of Popular Library, Belarski covers, and volumes of the Abbotts. This is a key volume in a number of senses. I wouldn’t take $60 for mine and I expect it to appreciate. If you can find a beautiful copy of PL #344, that’s the one I would recommend collecting.

As promised, I have shown you the original Belarski cover art for G-Man Detective; note the differences, in that for the paperback edition a row of books has been omitted, and the flying dagger has been turned into a dart marked with an applegreen cat. I was unable to identify the specific date of publication of this magazine and it may actually be that the paperback art was repurposed into the magazine cover — I doubt it, but it’s possible. Anyway, if you find a copy of the magazine for sale, it’s likely to set you back about $35. Needless to say, no one in the book is described as wearing an off-the-shoulder peasant blouse and this may well show someone from a story in the magazine — or not.

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