The October 8 Challenge!

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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.

Vintage Challenge Scorecard

Mystery of the Dead Police, by Philip MacDonald (1933)

Mystery of the Dead Police, by Philip MacDonald (1933)

PM-Police2Author:

Philip MacDonald, although this book was originally published as by “Martin Porlock”. Philip MacDonald was a well-known Golden Age writer who came to prominence with a clever book called The Rasp, in 1924.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1933 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; second under “L”, “Read a book that has been made into a movie.” This qualifies twice: The Mystery of Mr. X in 1934 and The Hour of 13 in 1952.

Publication Data:

Even so simple a question has a complicated answer here. This book was originally published in 1933 in the UK as X v Rex as by “Martin Porlock”. It has been suggested that it was later published as The Mystery of Mr. X under the author’s best-known name of Philip MacDonald, which would probably be some kind of movie tie-in edition (see above), but I am wholly unable to confirm this and I advise my readers to take good care before quoting me. It has certainly been published as the edition at the top of this post and numerous others in the United States as Mystery of the Dead Police as by Philip MacDonald. The edition shown above is Pocket Books #90 from 1940 which I believe is the first U.S. paper edition. Most publications these days appear to have stabilized as Mystery of the Dead Police, perhaps because most new editions are American.

MacDonald seemed to have an affinity for the letter “X”; his publishers seemed to have a positive delight in changing the titles of his books. You should be aware that this book has nothing to do with Warrant for X, another MacDonald book/film property that I’ve addressed here; I have more to say about MacDonald and his work there.

2196About 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. 

From the standpoint of 2014, it’s hard to remember a time when there wasn’t really such a thing as a “serial killer” plot. We are currently inundated by them, to the tune of a couple of prime-time television programmes, dozens of films, and enough good and bad novels to sink a yacht. Back in the day, though, before the term “serial killer” was invented — Wikipedia is not entirely sure, but the English-language phrase is “commonly attributed to … the 1970s” — we had novels and films about concepts like “psycho killer”, “Jack the Ripper”, “blood lust”, etc. I believe you’ll agree with me that the concept first became cemented in the language because of the activities of Jack the Ripper. No one really wrote a lot of fiction about Jack the Ripper (barring Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger in 1913) and relatively few people wrote novels about “lust murderers” until about the time of this novel (1933). By 1936, upon the publication of Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders, the concept had become solidified sufficiently to be the subject of one of Christie’s famous twists. But in 1933, there was a clean patch of untrodden snow upon which writers were free to scrawl whatever they wished. 

imagesSo it is difficult from the modern perspective to write about these books because the people who wrote them and read them had a different set of words they used in order to categorize them. It’s hard to trace the development of the serial killer novel back into a time when there was no such thing. In 1933, although as I’ve said such themes were not common, there was an occasional novel about the activities of an insane person who commits a series of crimes for what seems to the reader to be an insane reason. The course of the novel is something like a modern procedural, where we see the activities of crime fighters attempting to (a) figure out the linking theme that governs the killer’s choice of victims, and/or (b) use knowledge about the killer (including an awareness of that linking theme) in order to predict the next victim and thus intervene and capture the killer.

Philip MacDonald apparently enjoyed this theme sufficiently to write at least two similar novels, Murder Gone Mad and Mystery of the Dead Police. Both are about a series of violent murders committed by an individual who is insane, as above. In Murder Gone Mad (I don’t have a copy in front of me) it’s random members of a small British town, and the killer is someone who is concealing their madness and functioning quite well. In Mystery of the Dead Police it’s uniformed police officers, and the killer is less completely functional.

The first such murder takes place in the small town of Farnley; someone fakes a burglary call at the local manor and, when all active constables are called out, someone enters the police station and kills the desk officer. After that, the scene of the crimes moves to London, where someone is killing an on-duty officer every couple of days.  The tension mounts over the course of the novel until Scotland Yard forms an alliance with a consultant, Nicholas Revel, to trap Mr. X and bring him to justice.

Meanwhile, there’s another plot entirely going on in the background. Mr. Revel might be a criminal; he is certainly extremely wealthy and young and handsome, and he apparently hangs around with members of the underworld. We meet a young woman, Jane Frensham, cherished only daughter of Sir Horace Frensham, who happens to be in charge of Scotland Yard. Jane is on-again-off-again engaged to Christopher Vayle, a beefy alpha-male-type young aristocrat. Vayle gets drunk at his regimental dinner and decides he has to have a policeman’s helmet from which to drink; after he biffs the man on duty in the neighbourhood, the stunned constable is killed minutes later by Mr. X. Vayle is prosecuted for the death — but, strangely enough, Revel shows up and gives Vayle a complete alibi, corroborated by someone we learn is a henchman of Revel’s. (I have to admit, I might be confusing the details here with one of the films. The Mystery of Mr. X certainly makes it clear exactly how this process happens and cements it in your mind by linking it to an interesting character, the henchman who poses as a garrulous Cockney cab driver.)

In the next while, Revel uses this entree to Vayle and thereby to Jane Frensham in order to seduce Jane and meet her father socially. Since everyone in London is mesmerized by the Mr. X killings, Sir Horace is entirely consumed by the case and looking for suggestions; Revel piques his interest. It seems also as though Revel is planning some kind of criminal act but the details are certainly not clear, nor even is Revel guaranteed to be participating. We are told about the activities of a gentlemen who is extremely carefully disguised as a down-on-his-luck clubman, who gets together with other lowlifes in pubs and talks about … something.  But we’re not guaranteed at any point that Revel is in disguise, merely that someone is.

Sporadically through the book, we have also been given the ramblings of the killer himself, writing in a journal.  We learn something about why he does what he does, and certainly a lot about how, but we don’t have enough information to identify him or precisely why he has selected policemen as his victims. It becomes clear that the killer is, in modern terms, decompensating mentally, and stepping up the level and violence of his murders.

Revel makes a number of suggestions that Sir Horace finds very useful in the hunt for Mr. X. It seems to be that the unspecified crime to be committed by the disguised man is not going to be committed, unless the activities of Mr. X cease. Meanwhile — and this is a significant theme in the book — Vayle realizes that Jane has fallen in love with Revel and reacts very badly, threatening violence to Revel and creating social contretemps. Jane comes to understand that she has fallen for Revel; Sir Horace doesn’t quite understand what’s going on but will allow Jane to make her own choices, it seems.

Revel and Sir Horace set a trap for the killer, using Vayle as the figure of the policeman who is the bait. Together they trap the killer, arrest him, and find his diary, proving beyond doubt the identity of Mr. X. In something of a reversal of the reader’s expectations, we learn tangentially that a large robbery has taken place; Revel leaves town and Jane reunites with Vayle. Revel is last heard of when he sends them a wedding present.

Why is this book worth your time?

Mystery of the Dead Police would be a significant book even if it were only an early example of the modern serial killer novel. It’s fascinating to follow the development of the theme over the decades; at this point, the killer is “insane” and his actions cannot be predicted or even more than barely logical. In the 1950s, there was a growing awareness that some such murderers in real life, like the Boston Strangler, were motivated by some twisted sexual motive. And in the 70s and beyond, of course, the modern serial killer might be represented by Hannibal Lecter; a brilliantly insane figure who has rejected the ability of society to control his actions. But this is 1933, and thinking has only gone as far as imagining that the series of murders is committed by an insane person for a relatively inexplicable reason.

There’s another reason to source this book and enjoy it for yourself; it is really very well written, and one of its strengths is that it’s an example of a writer striking out, trying to find new forms and ways of telling a story. E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case (1913) contains a section near the beginning where the world’s newspapers are seen to react to the death of industrialist Sigsbee Manderson in a series of headlines, which was quite innovative for its day. This volume contains segments where the reactions of various levels of society to the activities of Mr. X are displayed in brief paragraphs, mainly for the amusement of the reader.

For instance, chapter 22 consists of small segments each from a different point of view. The first segment explains that every segment of society is concerned about Mr. X; Mr. X writes a letter to the newspapers and everyone reacts. The next segments are from the point of view, respectively, of Sir Horace, the Prime Minister, Mrs. Rawle of 14 Laburnum Road, Upper Sydenham, a General at the War Office, a couple of Mr. Revel’s henchmen, a superintendent of police under Sir Horace, Mr. X himself, three rank-and-file policemen, and finally Sir Hector again. Each segment is merely a few paragraphs long, more or less; characters like Mrs. Rawle are not so much introduced as allowed to speak characteristically for a few moments, then vanish from the novel.

I think of this technique as being an early precursor of what I call “intensively recomplicated” genre novels like, say, John Brunner’s The Jagged Orbit (a dystopian science fiction novel of 1969) where the narrative is multi-stranded and some main characters never encounter each other. It is used to show various types of people reacting to a central event or trend, in this case interracial disharmony in the United States of — exactly 2014, which as I write on New Year’s Day 2014 doesn’t seem so far from reality! Anyway, Brunner was nominated for the Nebula for this novel, and deservedly so. But without the early efforts of writers like MacDonald, this method of storytelling wouldn’t have been possible.

x-screen.4The Mystery Of Mr. X (1934)

This book was first filmed, in a fairly faithful rendition of the two plots if not the recomplicated structure, a year later. It stars Robert Montgomery as Nicholas Revel, Elizabeth Allan as Jane, Henry Stephenson as Sir Horace Frensham and Lewis Stone, the garrulous Cockney cab-driver who plays a major role. The film’s equivalent of Christopher Vayle is played by Ralph Forbes, and Leonard Mudie is seen briefly as Mr. X.

Although I’ve sourced a copy of The Hour of 13 and it is on its way, I haven’t screened it in time for this to be my first post of 2014. I may return to this in the future and update this, if there’s anything truly significant about the remake.

936full-the-hour-of-13-posterJanuary 15, 2014: I’ve now screened The Hour of 13 (1952) a couple of times and thought I’d make a note of it. This may sound paradoxical, but what’s significant is that this movie is very nearly an identical remake of The Mystery of Mr. X except for the cast, and one unusual change; the time period has changed to what might be 1890. The garrulous Cockney cab-driver’s cab is drawn by a horse, for instance. I can’t think of why they would have arbitrarily changed the period. This must have been expensive in sets, costumes and props. It might be that the film company had just done an Edwardian production and found this convenient. Peter Lawford may have wanted to go all costume on us. Who knows?

Peter Lawford is Nicholas Revel, Dawn Addams is Jane Frensham, Michael Hordern is a wonderful Sir “Herbert” Frensham, Derek Bond as this film’s equivalent of Christopher Vayle.  There are minor changes here and there between the filmed versions, but the two are remarkably equivalent — except The Hour of 13 is slightly easier to follow, because they’ve added a scene or two that makes it clear how Peter Lawford’s character works as a jewel thief and just what the stakes are. I haven’t gone to the trouble of comparing exactly, but the climactic scene where Nicholas Revel and Mr. X are battling in an abandoned factory, or some similar building, appears to have been filmed on exactly the same set and even with exactly the same fight sequence, the same desperate scramble not to be decapitated by an elevator car, etc. Peter Lawford is quite charismatic but not up to Robert Montgomery’s high standard. The film overall is uninspired — the acting in general is not convincing and there is an air of dull melodrama throughout — but the studio has given it full value in sets, costumes, etc.

UnknownNotes for the Collector:

This novel has been in print for quite a bit of its long life; it was selected as #19 of the Dell Great Mystery Library in the late 1950s. The copy I read for this review is, as is my habit, pictured at the very top of this piece; it is a copy of Pocket #70 from 1940. A Near Fine copy on Abe is today selling for $40. A Canadian bookseller with more enthusiasm than realism wants $75 for a copy of the 1973 re-issue of the original Collins Crime Club edition, titled X v. Rex as by “Martin Porlock”, and insists that it is scarce; $75 will also get you a copy of the first US edition from Doubleday in 1933, Very Good in an ordinary jacket. I know which one I’d prefer for my $75. The true first can be found on viaLibri for $99 in VG shape; a  copy of the beautiful first paper edition, Collins White Circle, London, 1939, tenth edition in the scarce dust jacket (seen just above, with the standard “two hooded criminals” cover), will set you back $50.

And, of course, there are the usual wacky prices and editions from sources such as eBay and Amazon, mostly, as noted above, from vendors with more enthusiasm than realism. I don’t see copies of Mystery of Mr. X on Amazon but TCM shows it on an irregular basis. You can get a copy of Hour of 13 for $17.96 from Amazon today.

If I were buying a paper copy of this novel to lay down for the future, I think I might look for a pristine copy of the Collins White Circle edition with jacket, even over the early Pocket edition; the British edition is much more visually interesting than the muddy Pocket cover. If the true first is within your reach, by all means, get what you can afford; this is a fairly important book and will appreciate in the future.

The Maisie series, starring Ann Sothern (1939-1947)

MaisieThe Maisie series, starring Ann Sothern, is a series of ten films released between 1939 and 1947. They are as follows:

  • Maisie (1939)
  • Congo Maisie (1940)
  • Gold Rush Maisie (1940)
  • Maisie Was a Lady (1941)
  • Ringside Maisie (1941)
  • Maisie Gets Her Man (1942)
  • Swing Shift Maisie (1943)
  • Maisie Goes To Reno (1944)
  • Up Goes Maisie (1946)
  • Undercover Maisie (1947)

At the height of Sothern’s association with this role, she was also starring from 1945 to 1947 in The Adventures of Maisie on CBS Radio (and later with the down-market Mutual in 1952, and further in syndication, which I understand for so short a radio series indicates some exceptional quality that delivers an audience). The role seems to have determined the course of her entire career; after Maisie, she starred in two sitcoms for CBS, Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show, and garnered three Emmy nominations. Then she appeared as the voice of Gladys Crabtree in My Mother the Car, Gladys being the deceased mother whose spirit has somehow transmogrified into a 1928 Porter touring car.  This sitcom is generally considered to be either the worst or the second worst TV program of all time (first being Jerry Springer). Finally, Sothern was nominated for an Academy Award for best Supporting Actress for The Whales of August (1987), standing out among an exceptional cast, including Bette Davis and Lillian Gish.

Maisie’s (movie-based) character is that she’s a wisecracking burlesque showgirl from Brooklyn with a spirit as big as all outdoors, and a heart of solid gold. Perhaps the other way around. At any rate, Maisie mostly starts out having just lost her job and down on her luck. She meets a guy who annoys her, but for whom she appears to feel some kind of romantic attraction. Simultaneously, she enters a new environment in which she is a breath of fresh air in some respect — kind of like the plot of most Shirley Temple movies. Maisie’s plainspoken ways break down emotional reserves and misunderstandings that have been hampering progress, everything ends happily and Maisie gets the man, although he conveniently disappears before the next movie. Apparently during WWII this was more common than it is these days; well, no, I’m kidding. It’s just that, at the beginning of every Maisie movie, all previous plot developments get retconned out of existence and new ones freely take their place. So Maisie doesn’t really have a history; it’s more like an attitude.

I certainly understand why Maisie was career-making for Ann Sothern; it was a role that appears to have struck a chord with the public and heaven knows she made it hers. I think the fact that it started in 1939 had something to do with it, but it’s hard to say just what. We know that 1939 was an amazing year for films, perhaps the best year ever, and I think that was a year that formed people in the habit of going to the movies two or three times a week, because they were just so damn good. 1939’s list of movies includes Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, The WomenGone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and quite a few important mystery films, including Another Thin Man, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (yes, I’m serious), and Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (yes, I’m serious).  It was also the first rumblings of WWII in the United States, and I’ll suggest that Maisie’s plucky spirit and get-down-to-work attitude were felt to be a help to the war effort, if you know what I mean. Maisie does a lot of war work during WWII, alternating between riveting and entertaining the troops, etc. So I imagine she was a kind of symbol for women; Maisie had her priorities ostentatiously in order and didn’t mind going nose to nose with people who weren’t pulling their weight. After the war, as the series petered out, Maisie was more often the agent of Cupid, working to get two good-hearted young people back together after a romantic misunderstanding. It rather seemed like it had outlived its usefulness until it transferred to radio, where they essentially told the same set of stories again.

Warning: If you read beyond this point, you may find out more about the plot of the first movie in the series, Maisie (1939) than you want to know, and a bit about some others.  If you haven’t seen these films, you may wish to stop here and preserve your ignorance in favour of future enjoyment. Consider yourself warned. 

Maisie_FilmPosterI originally became interested in the series because I happened to capture #1 on my PVR, from Turner Classic Movies, and found that it had some minor detective content. Maisie is stranded jobless in a small town in Wyoming and finagles her way into a position as live-in maid on a ranch, against the wishes of her soon-to-be romantic interest, cowboy boss Robert Young. She is the servant to the ranch owner’s wife (Ruth Hussey, who does a wonderful job), a slick city orchid who is superficially attentive to her wealthy husband but is really committed to her lover, city slicker John Hubbard.  Maisie finds the boss’s wife locked in the arms of her boyfriend by accident; the boss’s wife decides that Maisie must go, and she cooks up a story about how Maisie is romantically involved with the boss, which simultaneously torpedoes Maisie’s job and her engagement to Robert Young. So she leaves.

The boss then commits suicide but in such a way that it looks like homicide, and Robert Young is put on trial. Maisie is far away and only finds out about the trial in time to arrive barely before sentencing, but she can’t persuade the judge that Robert Young is innocent — until the boss’s lawyer comes up with an envelope that he had been told to deliver to Maisie. It’s a complete explanation, Robert Young goes free, and Maisie inherits the ranch and lots of money, to the well-deserved chagrin of the widow. We are meant to believe that Maisie is about to marry Robert Young, but as I said, he disappears before the next movie and all the money is gone.

This is really the only detective/mystery content I could identify in the whole series, worse the luck. I watched them, at least as far as #8, with an eye to a potential piece not unlike this about their detective content. Since that’s pretty much it for interesting content, I was going to put it aside. But I have to say this. I’m not sure I could have stood the final entries in this series; the whole thing is just too darn depressing.

Maisie_Was_a_Lady_FilmPosterOkay, not depressing at the level of UK kitchen sink drama or Russian expressionism or Italian postwar cinema. But depressing. Chillingly depressing. Ann Sothern is plucky, but man oh man, is that the knife edge upon which people like her used to balance? Not really knowing where their next meal was coming from if they didn’t finagle their way into a job? Because that’s what happens in the Maisie series, over and over. Maisie loses her job and is about to — well, I have no idea, unless it’s starvation added to prostitution or a similar life of crime. She never gets to it, thank goodness. But she is pretty much about to be what we would think of as a homeless person, and she finds herself among a group of people who are similarly down and out. There is one entry, 1940’s Gold Rush Maisie, in which she is taken in by what I believe is called a family of Okies; these people have nothing but an old car and enough food to make it through a day or so. No money, no education, no social services, and possibly not even a change of clothes. I admit it is not too hard to believe that Maisie is imminently going to rally people to work together to improve their collective lot, but still, I mean, good heavens! This is not a light comedy about a Brooklyn showgirl, this is more like The Grapes of fricken’ Wrath. Now, I don’t mind that kind of entertainment, when I sign up to see it.  What I do object to is being told that I am about to see light entertainment with occasionally a song and dance, and being taken to the depths of despair.

And once that became plain, each entry began to demonstrate an affinity for melodrama and pathos, followed closely by bathos. In Ringside Maisie, for instance, her boxer friend is knocked out and comes to blind; only his life’s savings will finance the brain operation he needs, and that will put paid to his ambitions to follow in his father’s footsteps and open a small country store. In the next one, Maisie Gets Her Man, everyone we meet is completely broke and desperate; everyone rallies together to follow a cherubic guy who turns out to be a con artist who cheats everyone out of the pittances they have, then leaves town. Maisie Was a Lady has her as a maid to the daughter of a wealthy but emotionally cold family who is so screwed up that she does her darndest to commit suicide. I think the last few entries in the series are a bit more lighthearted, but honestly, I just don’t want to take the chance.

Annex - Sothern, Ann (Maisie Gets Her Man)_01_DSI can’t think that this was meant to be light entertainment in the way it’s presented nowadays. I think the social context is missing that would tell us that this series is an entry in a different sub-genre, one that we don’t quite understand in the same way any more. What this appears to me to be is a kind of cross between Blondie (who started out the same, as a brash flapper) and the lush romantic entanglements of Douglas Sirk’s 50s overwrought domestic melodramas. Perhaps this was a big-screen version of the exquisitely ridiculous radio soap operas of the day, like Aunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories or Backstage Wife, but I’ve never been able to listen to more than a few minutes of either of those before reaching my limit. Whatever it is, to my taste, and I suspect most 2013 viewers, it is a mix of sub-genres that contains far too much life-and-death drama and doesn’t adequately recompense the viewer with comic or musical relief. There is little or no detection content that would interest the majority of my readership. (The Wikipedia entry tells me that, in the final entry of the series, 1947’s Undercover Maisie, she becomes a Los Angeles cop, but an exceptionally incompetent one, and all detection is done by someone else.)

The way I see it, all these films are about a character, and that character never changes throughout the course of the films. In fact, the audience would be disappointed if Maisie did change in any way. Therefore, the natural story elements are preserved by having other characters change in an appropriate way around her, and usually on a simple and predictable path — poor to rich, bad to good, wrong to right. I have no data on the audience for whom these were designed, but I speculate that it was uneducated and primarily female; women with no money and no power who enjoyed Maisie wading into emotionally overwrought situations and sorting out people who were on the wrong track. Maisie was always just a little brassy and a little overdressed and a little florid, and I think this appealed more than lame evening gowns and brittle social comedy would have done.

So whether you will enjoy this series or not depends on your capacity to tolerate soap opera, pseudo-social commentary, overwrought romanticism, and/or Ann Sothern. Mine revealed itself to be limited to eight-tenths of the oeuvre; your mileage may vary.