Not The Top Ten: Ellery Queen

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

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

Most overrated novel

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

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

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

Most underrated novel

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

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

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

The novel containing the best hook

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

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

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

The novel containing the best murder method

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

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

The novel containing the best motive

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

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

The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending

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

The novel you should avoid 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Eight of Swords, by John Dickson Carr (1934)

13022855Recently I had occasion to mention this book in the context that it is one of John Dickson Carr’s novels that is frequently overlooked; I recommended it in a comment to a novice Carr reader who has shouldered the huge task of reading all of Carr and assessing it in a blog devoted entirely to the topic, The Green Capsule. When I happened upon my copy of The Eight of Swords, I decided to re-read it — after what I have to confess is many, many years having passed between my last reading and this one — and bring you my report.

There are things about this book that have stuck in my memory clearly over the interval of some 30 years, but I’ll be honest, this is not quite as good a book as I remembered. It is certainly an interesting story that has an interesting premise but suffers from a large flaw of construction. Although you may not enjoy it one hundred percent, if you are a student of Carr you will definitely find it interesting.

WARNING: This essay concerns a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. You may learn more than you care to about a number of John Dickson Carr novels, but I don’t intend to reveal any significant plot points. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

f07a03263b6476d4f7458e895d84cc3cWhat is this book about?

Chief-Inspector Hadley of Scotland Yard takes a personal interest in a bizarre story about the Bishop of Mappleham, a well-known amateur criminologist, and the Bishop’s recent encounter with a poltergeist — mostly because the Bishop has been staying at the home of one Colonel Standish, the Chief Constable in Gloucestershire. Standish is a partner in the firm that is about to publish Hadley’s memoirs (this is the month before his retirement, although this fact is apparently forgotten later in the series), so when he asks the Assistant Commissioner for assistance, Hadley somewhat reluctantly takes a hand. The poltergeist has thrown red ink all over a local Vicar in a room in the Colonel’s home, and the Bishop was on the spot. The Bishop has also been understood to slide down a banister in the main hall and has assaulted a blameless housemaid, accusing her of being a crook known as Piccadilly Jane.

930182Dr. Gideon Fell (Carr’s series detective) has recently returned from America, via the ocean voyage described in 1934’s (the same year) The Blind Barber. He shows up in Hadley’s office disguised, for his own amusement, as a comedic faux-Viennese psychoanalyst. Colonel Standish is also Fell’s publisher, but this is not the only coincidence. Fell’s homeward voyage also included the Bishop’s son, Hugh Donovan, a charming young man who has ostensibly been studying criminology in New York but who has never cracked a book, and spent his time drinking and chasing women. The Bishop and his son are about to meet, in the presence of Fell, Hadley, and Colonel Standish, when the Colonel receives a telephone call from his estate. Mr. Septimus Depping, who lives in the Guest House on the Colonel’s property, was murdered the previous evening. And a copy of what is later found to be a tarot card, the eight of Swords, is lying by the body.

It seems as though Mr. Depping, although passing as a gentleman in the neighbourhood, has recently retired from a life of crime in New York. In the vicinity is one Louis Spinelli, a former criminal associate of the deceased. Also in nearby Hangover House is well-known mystery writer Henry Morgan and his wife Madeleine. And in the Colonel’s home is his wife, a staid lady known as “Maw” known for her rectitude, and his son Morley, who is engaged to Depping’s daughter Betty, who has been wired to return from Paris upon the discovery of her father’s body.

unknownIn order not to spoil your enjoyment, there is not much I should tell you about the activities of the evening of the murder — or, rather, the first murder. Those of you who are familiar with Carr know that there will be plenty of clues which appear to point one way and actually mean quite the opposite; these include a buttonhook, the aforementioned tarot card, a clumsy disguise, a secret passage, and a dinner that was mysteriously eaten, but not by its intended recipient.

Midway through the narrative, Hugh Donovan falls in love with the Colonel’s daughter Patricia, who is described as a “luscious little ginch”. It is clear by the manner of her introduction that she is innocent of all wrongdoing and there only to be a romantic interest for the Bishop’s son; the narrator out-and-out says so. (And, for those of you who know Carr well, I will add that this is true. She is innocent.) Mr. and Mrs. Morgan and the newly-formed couple investigate the crimes together, although they are not entirely privy to the thoughts of Dr. Fell or the Bishop. There are two more murders and an exciting evening of murderous pursuits in the moonlit countryside before Dr. Fell brings home the crime to a rather surprising perpetrator, and then a number of innocent people and the police join together to explain it all in the last chapter.

Why is this book worth your time?

John Dickson Carr (here, JDC) is one of the foremost figures in the Golden Age of Detection; frankly, I recommend you read his work from start to finish of his career, although some will interest you more than others. This book is automatically worth your time because it was written by Carr. Some of his books are principally interesting as failures (I’m thinking here of the final handful of his novels) and some, like this, are qualified successes. But they are still worth your time; a mediocre JDC novel is better than the finest efforts of a lot of other Golden Age writers.

This is the fourth novel JDC wrote about Dr. Gideon Fell, a character based apparently upon the public person of G. K. Chesterton, in the space of two years (1933/34). And in this context it’s interesting to look at the general flavour or approach of each of these novels.

Carr had already written four novels about Henri Bencolin, all of which had a strong air of spooky violence unleavened by much comedy. Also in the same year as The Eight of Swords he published the first two novels about Sir Henry Merrivale (as by Carter Dickson), both of which have a strong air of spooky violence unleavened by much comedy. In fact, yes, he published five novels in 1934 (the fifth is Devil Kinsmere, a historical adventure, as by Roger Fairbairn, which sank with very little notice); possibly the most productive year in JDC’s career.

ee79ab5084ca775a98de63b5f88a6d49The first four Fell novels from 1933/34 do show a kind of progression, though. 1933’s Hag’s Nook has the same emphasis on menace and spooky goings-on in the dead of night, with a huge emphasis on atmosphere, as much of his other work to this time. 1933’s The Mad Hatter Mystery, though, is the first sign of something a little different. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that while Mad Hatter is a great success as a mystery, there is a peculiar air hanging over the novel of tragicomedy. I’ll use that word because “bathos” is not quite right; this is not an unintentional lapse from one modality to another, it’s merely that JDC appears to be trying to introduce a comic element to a novel but making it similarly creepy to the rest of his work. See the illustration on Dell #706 set into this paragraph? The corpse’s hat is too big for him, and this is directly from the book. It looks … tragicomic, and there are a number of other instances of that unusual genre form in this book (including the ending, where the murderer insists on confessing even though Dr. Fell has indicated he would prefer not to solve the mystery).

The third Fell novel, from 1934, The Blind Barber, I think everyone would agree is one of JDC’s most significant excursions into the very small sub-genre of mystery farce. Wikipedia says it is “generally felt to be the most humorous of Dr. Fell’s adventures,” and I agree, although it does not approach the low-comedy excesses of, say, The Cavalier’s Cup and other later adventures of Sir Henry Merrivale. I have to add that my limited research facilities were not able to precisely determine which book came out first in 1934, but it is certain that they would have been written within months of each other.

6573986169_ae8008afea_mBlind Barber moves at breakneck speed, with many ridiculous adventures made more difficult by the frequent drunkenness of most of the characters. And it is all very fast and very funny, much like the screwball comedies of the 1930s; that was a popular style at the time. 1934 is the same year that produced It Happened One Night. One of the things I find very jarring about Blind Barber (I have elsewhere identified it as my least favourite book published as by Carr) is that this insane level of farce is balanced off by an innocent woman being brutally beaten to death with a blunt instrument, and apparently everyone’s having much too good a time to care. It’s as though Carr remembers every once in a while that, “Oh yeah, this is a murder mystery” and makes the murder bits a little more gruesome and a little more bloody, then returns to people being drunk and running around. There is a difficult logic problem concealed within the book, and it is highly satisfactory in that respect, but the trappings of it are to me very distasteful. I should add that many, many people think that this is a great book and your opinion is likely to be the opposite of mine, because they think it’s hilarious. Your mileage may vary. Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that this book is about 9/10ths comedy and 1/10th horrific mystery and leave value judgements aside.

As I said, there’s a progression here. Hag’s Nook is 10 parts horror/mystery, 0 parts comedy. Mad Hatter is 8 parts horror, 2 parts comedy; Blind Barber is 9 parts comedy, 1 part horror. You will not be surprised to know that Eight of Swords is 5 parts comedy, 5 parts horror.

eightswordsUnfortunately, and this is the major problem with the book, the first half of the book is entirely comedy and the last half is entirely a horrific mystery. The transition is jarring and doesn’t work, and the two halves of the novel seem disjointed from each other. Eight of Swords starts out with every promise of being a Wodehousian comic novel. The Bishop is a broadly-drawn comic figure who hilariously thinks that international crime is everywhere. And yet, those are precisely the people who kick off a screwball comedy plot by,for once in their lives, being right, as happens here. The bishop’s son has to justify an expensive education in investigative criminology when he spent all his time drinking and chasing women. There is a young woman who, it’s pretty much said by the author, is there to be the sexy piece attached to the narrator. There’s lots of drinking, the mystery writer character is making hilarious observations about the nature of murder mysteries, and proposing straw-man solutions to the mystery. Everything you know about Carr’s recent work suggests that Eight of Swords is going to continue to be as farcical as Blind Barber right through to the second half, but boom! all of a sudden the entire tone of the book changes. Dr. Fell essentially stops paying attention to the farcical bits of the plot, and those characters, and walks around looking broody because he already knows whodunit. There’s a fairly artificial build-up to a set of interlocking meetings in the dead of night, a guy gets shot through the head at the precise moment when he’s heaving up his dinner, and the rest of the book is about a squalid lot of gangsters and low-lifes who all get killed in violent and unpleasant ways.

s-l300-1There are a bunch of holes in the plot, frankly. No one ever mentions exactly how it is that the lowlife gangster who is the victim has managed to rent a house from the Chief Constable of the county within the boundaries of his estate. There are certain issues with respect to passports that I find hard to swallow, and also that Scotland Yard was so entirely ignorant with respect to the whereabouts and identity of prominent American criminals. JDC does not, to my mind, understand the motivations of American gangsters very well, and there are some very implausible assertions about the nature of one character’s romantic attractiveness that are impossible to verify.

But once JDC gets into the world of actual murder, he is his usual self. I’m fairly sure you will find the solution to the mystery is really unexpected. Whether you think it’s entirely fair is another thing entirely. I think it is barely fair … but it depends upon you drawing inferences from a set of facts that are wildly at variance to the way they are being represented, and it’s very difficult. Most crucially to the fairness aspect, the essential deductions are not about physical objects, but people’s motivations for doing various activities. The most crucial such motivation would have been much easier to discern if we had had an autopsy report that explained a definitive situation about the corpse; I won’t say what it is but it was absolutely within the forensic capacities of 1934. So this is rather cheated into place, which is not terrible but it’s not what we expect from JDC, who when he pays attention to these things is downright diabolical in his attention to detail.

28116978-_uy200_There is an amusing footnote about the use of language here. JDC describes a young woman as a “ginch” and proceeds to define this term for the reader over the course of a couple of pages; she is sexy and forward and unaffected, apparently. I was curious about this word and went looking for its origin; to my surprise and amusement, it was apparently defined by Carr himself (see the Oxford Dictionary here). In Canada, the term has become associated with the specific style of men’s underwear known as “tighty whities”, but this is far from global usage.

basic_8swordsI also took the trouble to look up the divinatory meaning of the tarot card, the eight of swords; it is nothing like the meaning Carr ascribes to it, and it doesn’t seem to look like he describes it either. The most common style is depicted within this paragraph. JDC must be quoting from something, though, Dr. Fell describes the card quite precisely. So there’s probably a source unavailable to me, and it must have been quite esoteric.

john-dickson-carr

John Dickson Carr

There’s one very amusing piece in this book which deserves to be more widely thought about. Carr frequently breaks the fourth wall in this book — everyone in the final chapter admits that they are in the final chapter, and one character notes that “[t]he public will only glance at this chapter, to make sure it hasn’t been cheated by having evidence withheld.” That actually did amuse me. The other little cute piece is where the mystery writer character Morgan talks about his own novels, and of course the temptation here to hear the voice of Carr in his character is irresistible.

Here, Morgan talks about his series of novels, and honestly they sounded rather like elegant cozies of today. You see, his series character has spent at least six mystery novels in pursuit of killers within the highest reaches of the British government (“the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in The Inland Revenue Murders. I was only letting off a little steam in that one.”). The Bishop’s son remarks that he likes Morgan’s novels better than:

“… the ones that are so popular by that other fellow — what’s his name? William Block Tournedos. I mean the ones that are supposed to be very probable and real, where all they do is run around showing photographs to people.”

Morgan looked embarrassed.

“Well,” he said, “you see, to tell you the truth, I’m William Block Tournedos too. And I thoroughly agree with you. That’s my graft.”

“Graft?”

“Yes. They’re written for the critics’ benefit. You see, the critics, as differentiated from the reading public, are required to like any story that is probable. I discovered a long time ago the way to write a probable and real story. You must have (1) no action, (2) no atmosphere whatever—that’s very important—(3) as few interesting characters as possible, (4) absolutely no digressions, and (5) above all things, no deduction. Digressions are the curse of probability . . . which is a funny way of looking at life in general; and the detective may uncover all he can, so long as he never deduces anything. Observe those rules, my children; then you may outrage real probability as much as you like, and the critics will call it ingenious.”

Well, in the roman a clef sense, I think you will agree that a three-named mystery writer in whose novels no deduction ever takes place has to be Freeman Wills Crofts, King of the Humdrums. (As opposed, as I understand it, to G.D.H. Cole, Queen of the Humdrums. 😉 But I digress.) This is an absolutely killing troll on Crofts, in those pre-Twitter days, and I think it is very revealing. It shows that Carr sees his work clearly, unsentimentally; he knows he’s good at writing those creepy exciting mysterious novels, and people like them, but the critics don’t take them seriously, and they take Crofts seriously. I expect the two men were friendly enough at the dinners of the Detection Club, but their styles are quite opposite and it must have galled Carr to have to work much harder for the same sales.

8309345-_uy200_To sum up, I have to say that other people are well known to like Carr’s sense of humour more than I do. He’s rather in the vein of British seaside postcard humour, which I’m not too pompous to appreciate, but my issue is always that he mixes it with a really ghastly level of violence. But even if you do like his humour more than I do, you will come up short halfway through this book as it goes away and is replaced by the mood of a 1934 British episode of The Sopranos. The book needed to contain humour and action in about this 50:50 ratio, but to have them mixed evenly throughout the process so that each leavened the other. The puzzle is clever, the answer is surprising, and there are JDC’s usual writing skills in plotting and action to entertain the reader. Not one of his best, but not really one of his worst either.

14781997929My favourite edition

I prepared this piece while using the edition from Collier, AS466V, shown at the head of this text. My copy proved to be a little too fragile to want to use in this way and I switched to the undistinguished Zebra paperback from 1986.

If I were looking for a funky edition, I’d be looking for the 1943 trade-size edition from Detective Novel Classic / Novel Selections, shown nearby, which appears to be around US$20 as of today in a Good state. The cover is interesting, the typography is elegant, and the illustration actually depicts the card as it’s described in the book. Other than that, the lady in the orange shift being menaced by an epee is fun, and the Robert Maguire illustration is very collectible. This is Berkley G-48 from 1957, near the top. Pity there’s nothing in the book about a lady menaced by anything at all.

 

The Knife Slipped, by Erle Stanley Gardner (2016/1939)

cover_bigMy regular readers may already be familiar with the fascinating story behind this novel. It was found among the papers of the late Erle Stanley Gardner and the story of how it now comes to be in print is probably an entire essay by itself — in fact you can read about it here in the blog of my friend Jeffrey Marks, who’s currently writing a much-anticipated biography of Gardner. Jeff cleverly put two and two together and identified the manuscript as having been rejected by Gardner’s publisher at Morrow as the second novel in the Cool & Lam series. Thayer Hobson, according to Jeff, thought there wasn’t enough character development for both Cool and Lam, and also that the novel was “too risqué for the audiences”. (See below for the details.)

So the novel was written in 1939. That’s my best guess, because the volumes before and after are cited in Wikipedia as having been published in January 1939 and January 1940, respectively. After Jeff Marks brought it to the attention of Hard Case Crime, it was published for the very first time a few days ago (December, 2016). Hence the unusual date after the title above.Truthfully, its first edition is December, 2016. But it is quintessentially of 1939.

There’s a lot of fascinating stuff here for fans of Cool & Lam, but I suspect if you read this novel you may well become a Cool & Lam fan even if you weren’t before.

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

What is this book about?

Donald Lam is a skinny little runt who is smart as a whip and down on his luck. He’s staying employed at the shabby little detective firm of Cool & Lam at the whim of Bertha Cool, an extra-large matron with chubby fingers that glitter with diamonds; she has a mind like an adding machine and a mouth like an open sewer. Sorry. There’s just something about Gardner’s writing in this book that makes me use language like that; I think that’s more metaphors in one paragraph than I usually use in a longer piece. But all the language in this book is short and punchy and terse and vulgar, and it’s left me wanting to get a lot of pulp-fiction metaphors out of my system.

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An early representation of Bertha Cool in Pocket #228

Anyway, Bertha is keeping Donald on a short leash. In their first meeting, 1939’s debut novel, The Bigger They Come, he more than proved his worth but took Bertha out of her comfort zone. Donald demonstrated, in that novel, that his disbarment had deprived the bar of an excellent lawyer, when he manipulated a little-known loophole in the law to allow someone to literally get away with murder. Bertha knew that Donald’s talents could make her money; she just had to find a way for their clashing personalities to get along.

Bertha is keeping Donald short of money, but he’s not starving, merely hungry. That makes him grateful to accept assignments like the one that arises after mother-and-daughter clients Mrs. Atterby and Mrs. Cunner hire Bertha to find out the identity of the buxom blonde that Edith Cunner’s husband is keeping in an apartment. However, that’s just the start. After Donald tracks down Mr. Cunner and the blonde, and makes friends with the building’s pretty switchboard operator, Ruth Marr, he finds out that Cunner has yet another apartment under another name. Ruth has a crush on Cunner, and Cunner spends an evening with a steady stream of police officers and firemen who drive up to his place in official cars, stay a few minutes, and leave.

The plot is fascinating, so I won’t reveal much more. There is, of course, a murder; the police are looking for Donald and Ruth Marr, whom it seems have been framed. It seems as though Cunner is connected to a city-wide corruption scheme, and there are already political reformers on the case. Bertha smells money and decides to … well, I’ll let her tell it to Donald.

“Bertha said, … ‘He called the police and told them I was trying to blackmail him.’
‘Were you?’
‘Not exactly. Bertha was trying to cut herself a piece of cake, and –‘
‘And what?’ I asked.
‘And the knife slipped,’ she said.
‘But I suppose it’s my finger that’ll be cut,’ I said.
‘For Christ’s sake, Donald, don’t be such a pansy! In this game you’ll be getting in jams all the time. Get the hell out of here and lie low until I can find out what it’s all about. Bertha won’t be idle, lover. Right now I’ve got something by the tail, and I don’t know whether it’s a bear, a lion, or just a bunch of bull.'”

Delightfully put, and it turns out not to be bull. There’s actually a twin plot structure to this; Bertha is pursuing the money off-stage, and Donald (and Ruth) are running around for our amusement, trying to stay out of the hands of the police while finding out more about what’s going on and pursuing the identity of the murderer. Finally Donald comes to a crucial realization about the clothing choices of a mysterious visitor to the soon-to-be corpse and identifies the murderer; Bertha swoops in and finds a way to extract the maximum amount of money from the situation.

In the final chapter, Bertha informs Donald that he has to leave town for a while, essentially so that the solution to all the crimes can come out the way she wants it, without the inconvenience of Donald’s testimony. “Remember, lover, what Bertha Cool said. She wouldn’t cut herself a piece of cake without seeing that you had a slice.” So she makes arrangements for Donald to “follow a witness” to Honolulu on a cruise ship so that he can take life easy … and reveals that she knows more about the situation than Donald has suspected when Bertha makes the trip even more attractive; the witness is a beautiful young woman with a crush on Donald (who describes herself as a “nymphomaniac”). “… Bertha Cool deftly speared a French pastry and transferred it from the platter to her plate. Her eyes were twinkling with humor. ‘Now try to say “no,” you little bastard,’ she said.”

Why is this book worth your time?

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Erle Stanley Gardner

It’s probably pretty clear that I’m a big Cool & Lam fan; I used to say I’d read all 29 of them, but now I’m happy to say that I’ve read all 30 (and I dearly wish there was another box full of manuscripts in an archive somewhere). I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my blog that, to me, the Cool & Lam novels represent ESG’s attempt to have more fun with his writing. Perry Mason is always an officer of the court, but Donald Lam actually spends the night with women, and Bertha Cool slaps women around about once a book and swears like a trooper. The Cool & Lam novels are just as fast-moving as Perry Mason’s adventures, and there’s a fairly high amount of detection involved in the stories; just that they’re a little sexier and a little more vulgar.

 

This particular volume is fascinating, at least to me, because I can see the direction in which ESG could have taken Cool & Lam from this novel. To be honest, this novel is quite a bit “harder” than the volume that actually took its place as the second Cool & Lam adventure, and more so than any volume at the top of my memory. In this one, Donald is about to be murdered when he beans his opponent with a rock and nearly kills him; Donald empties the man’s wallet (calling the money “sinews of war”) and leaves him in a ditch unconscious with the murder gun slipped into his holster. Bertha allows the real murderer to escape in exchange for large amounts of money, deliberately stirring up trouble with city politics in the process, and sends Donald to Honolulu so he won’t have to testify to the inconvenient truth. This is NOT Perry Mason pronouncing sententiously that he’s an officer of the court. This is Bertha Cool delivering a lecture on how city politics works (at the end of chapter XII) that will curl your hair with its cynicism and accuracy. She describes a middle class woman to her face as a bitch, a slut, and a tart in the course of three sentences; near the end of the book she hits a middle-aged woman “flush on the jaw” — “like a man”. And there is no love lost between Bertha and Donald; as noted above, when Bertha is cutting herself a slice of cake, she doesn’t care if the knife slips and cuts Donald.

In fact I’m at a loss as to why this novel was rejected for lack of character development of the main characters, although I think that ties into the second reason it was rejected. There actually is a lot of character development here, it’s just that it’s very risqué for the audience of 1939. Donald spends the night with a female witness — to my mind, unusual for 1939, at least that it’s pretty clearly stated that she’s available for sex — and quixotically tries to rescue her from the consequences of her romantic inclinations. (There’s a lovely moment of writing where a woman describes herself as a “nymphomaniac”, or what we would today call a sex addict, but Donald realizes that she’s been sold a line by a man who wanted to break their engagement  … and he doesn’t tell her, merely allows the reader to see that he knows what happened.)

Here’s a little passage that I think is very revealing of Bertha’s character:

“Bertha Cool said, ‘Let’s quit beating around the bush. What’s her husband doing, cheating around, going to whorehouses, or keeping a mistress?’ …
Mrs Atterby said reproachfully, in a low voice, ‘I always use the word “houses of prostitution” in talking to Edith, Mrs. Cool.’
‘I don’t. I call ’em whorehouses,’ Bertha said acidly. ‘It’s easier to say. It’s more expressive, and it leaves no room for doubt.'”

In the same conversation, Bertha delivers this little speech:

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, cut out the weeps! By God, you’d think your husband was the only man on earth who ever stepped out. They all do — those that are able. Personally, I wouldn’t have a man who was true to me, not that I’d want him to flaunt his affairs in my face or to the neighborhood, but a man who doesn’t step out once in a while isn’t worth the powder and shot to blow him to hell.”

And she also mentions casually that married men are lousy lovers, and she’s tried two of ’em. Having read all 29 books, I don’t remember any other instance in which Bertha mentions having had lovers.

I think there’s plenty of Bertha, but perhaps not enough Donald here. And that’s perhaps because the quality of writing in this book, in terms of subtle characterization and descriptive writing, is well among the strongest of any of Gardner’s work. Gardner knew better than to tell — he only showed, for the most part. (We’ll except the last few novels he wrote in the late 60s, though.) Here, the showing of Donald’s character is subtle and enlists the reader’s help to fill in the blanks. If you’re not paying attention, you miss the conclusions you’re supposed to draw. When you read the book, try to figure out what Donald’s actual attitude is towards Ruth Marr, start to finish throughout the book. To me, it makes Donald seem more like a fallible human being who is capable of holding two different attitudes towards the same woman at the same time. But in order to realize what’s going on, you have to pay attention to what his motivations are — and Gardner never tells you those, he only shows you.

For me this book is fascinating because there is an indefinable difference between the 29 canonic novels and The Knife Slipped. Starting with the title, which doesn’t match the cadence of the others. This Bertha is more aggressive, particularly about the business she accepts; my recollection is that later on in the series she wants nice quiet divorce work rather than political or murderous minefields. This Donald is more on the economic knife-edge, although it’s earlier in his career; later in the canon he also tends to sleep on the couch rather than bed the damsel. Certainly the agency’s secretary Elsie Brand is quite different here and not the ally to Donald she later becomes.

I can sort of understand why a cautious editor might not want to publish a book that displays Bertha Cool as a greedy overweight amoral quasi-criminal. To be honest, her personality only really has one note in this book. To me it is a fascinating and rich note, but she doesn’t change in the course of the novel. Donald’s personality is displayed in a subtle and intelligent way, at least to me, but I’ve had the benefit of reading 29 other novels in which he’s featured. It’s entirely possible that my appreciation of this novel is coloured by the other 29. If your (or that editor’s) view is that there’s no character development, I’d be hard-pressed to gainsay it.

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Dell 541 (left) and its reissue, #1541 (right), in which the girl has more clothes on and Donald’s still not peeking

What is certain is that everything is a bit more crude — no, a lot more crude. I can’t prove it, but I believe ESG never went as far as saying “whorehouse” in any other novel. Bertha’s amoral view of politics and government is quite strong stuff for 1939, I think, at least coming from an author like Gardner whose stories were fit for the prudish editor of Black Mask. Oh, sure, women are frequently unclothed in Donald’s vicinity, but he never actually goes much beyond passionate kisses. And as you can see in a nearby illustration, they usually have more of their clothes on. To be fair, there is a suggestion in the final paragraphs of 1941’s Double or Quits that Elsie Brand and Donald have had sex. But that’s merely because Elsie laughs at a nurse’s warning that Donald might be “abnormally stimulated” by a caffeine injection. In this book, a girl with whom Donald has spent the night (passed out) walks in on him in the bathtub and hands him a glass of tomato juice, “as utterly casual about it as though I’d been sitting in a chair at a lunch counter”, then walks out wordlessly.

 

There are plenty of these sorts of little jarring differences of tone in The Knife Slipped, and I have to say that figuring out what’s different was quite a bit of the pleasure for me with this book. If you’ve already read your way through A. A. Fair, I suspect that will be quite pleasurably for you as well.

There’s another part of this book that is quite pleasant to contemplate and that’s the amount of sheer detection in it. Bertha and Donald are smart people who know what it means to be a detective. They know, for instance, that the police will routinely stake out their offices. They know that if you’re a man wanted by the police, the last place they’ll be looking for you is a department store tearoom. They know that a man in a tuxedo never gets stopped by the police, and that an overweight dowager in an evening gown with fists full of diamond rings can get past an apartment manager like nobody else. And they are both capable of understanding the precise meaning of a witness’s description of a pair of men’s pants where the police do not, which lets them solve mysteries where the police cannot.

Summing up: I think you’ll enjoy this book a lot, although perhaps not as much as I did unless you’re already very familiar with the other 29 Cool & Lam novels. There is a certain crude energy about it that is exhilarating; the writing is great, the plotting is excellent, and for me the characterization was fascinating. The loose ends of the plot are tied off in a very satisfying way in the final moments of the book. It’s funny, vulgar, and occasionally exciting (the scene where Donald is about to be murdered by a corrupt official is excellent).  My friend Jeff Marks, an expert in all things Gardnerian, puts this in his “top 10 of the Cool/Lam cases, and perhaps even in the top 5.” I’ll go a little further; this is one of my top three Cool & Lam cases, and even in my top ten of all of Gardner’s work. Sad that it hasn’t been a part of the Cool & Lam oeuvre from 1939, but this late publication in 2016 fully deserves its place as what we might call “number 1.5” in the full 30 volumes.

My favourite edition

There’s only one paper edition currently, from Hard Case Crime, December, 2016. It’s shown at the top of this column with cover art depicting the 21st century burlesque artist Dita von Teese, heaven knows why. I am frankly planning on buying a couple of mint copies of this first edition, sealing them up and laying them away. I recommend you do too — you won’t lose money on it.

 

Death of His Uncle, by C.H.B. Kitchin (1939)

9794058efda64200cd4824583e86f71fI’ve recently moved into a larger place with more space for bookshelves; concomitantly, I’ve been enjoying the process of unpacking a few hundred boxes of books, some of which haven’t seen the light of day for more than 20 years. In the next little while, you can expect me to be making happy discoveries of books that I’m finding pleasant to re-read, as they come serendipitously to hand.

This volume attracted me because I opened it up and immediately hit upon a quote that was so astonishingly well linked to some issues about which I’ve been pondering that, well, I had to re-read it immediately. (I’ll share it with you near the end of this piece.) Then when I found out a little more about the author and realized what a fascinating book this is, I knew I had another winner to share.

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

What is this book about?

imagesBritish stockbroker Malcolm Warren has solved two mysteries already as an amateur detective, and when an Oxford acquaintance, Dick Findlay, asks him to take a hand in investigating the disappearance of Findlay’s uncle, a middle-aged suburban householder, Warren believes he knows what to do.

Warren, with Findlay in tow, traces the last few days of Dick’s uncle Hamilton, who apparently took a vacation in Falmouth, embarked on an unusual
8037927program of activities, and finished up by removing all his clothes (and wig) upon a deserted beach and committing suicide. After a thorough investigation of the uncle’s last days, an increased knowledge of the vanished gentleman’s heirs and relatives, and everyone’s various romantic interests, Warren writes a long letter to his friend, Detective-Inspector Parris of Scotland Yard, and answers all the loose ends and outstanding questions.

I’ve deliberately avoided giving very much detail because quite a bit of the pleasure of this charming book is following Warren’s investigation of the details of the case; the less I say, the better.

Why is this book worth your time?

There are a number of reasons why this enjoyable book is worth your time; the idea that it’s charming is a major part of it, of course. Although its publication date of 1939 is somewhat later than most of this category, I think this is a “don’s delight”; a Golden Age mystery written by a highly literate person for highly literate people.

For instance, in the opening pages of the book, Malcolm Warren (the first-person narrator) reveals that he has an interesting talent; he can improvise on the piano after the fashion of various classical composers. (“This,” I would say after considerable pressure, “is a Beethoven Air with Variations. This is a César Franck Choral Prelude. This is a Brahms Intermezzo,” etc.) Of course the less-than-donnish reader like myself is flattered to think that such an intelligent person could assume I could tell the difference between a Brahms Intermezzo and Three Blind Mice — although since the music isn’t actually audible, readers like myself tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. Similarly the narrator plays bridge, is a connoisseur of sherry, hobnobs with titled people, and is invited to country-house weekends.

1988The story, aside from being written in elegant language, is quite smart. Kitchin takes the time to establish his narrator as a fallible human with likes and dislikes, and the result is that this is someone by whose opinions and experiences you will be amused even when the book takes the occasional sag. Sometimes he even puts those sags in — Warren takes some personal time to have dinner with his sister, to no narrative purpose whatever save that it makes him seem more realistic. Unlike many other amateur detectives, Warren has a job at which he works, and co-workers with whom he interacts. Everything works together to give you a well-rounded portrait of the narrator. And because you see the narrator as human, you understand how and why he makes his occasional errors; they slow down the detection, but it’s more realistic and much more enjoyable. The book meanders every once in a while and is better for it.

15807059142Without spoiling too much for you, the plot is simple and clear. Warren investigates the last days of the vanished uncle, finds out what his plans were (including some which he was keeping from his friends and relations), figures out exactly where he ended up, and brings the guilt home to the appropriate person. Of course there are surprises along the way. One concerns an object which the reader has lost track of through never thinking about it — sorry if this is enigmatic, but I’d prefer to maintain your surprise. Think of this as the equivalent of the object which Peter Wimsey realizes is missing from the opening scenes of Five Red Herrings; except in this case the detective is equally as forgetful as the reader. I didn’t succeed in beating Warren to the solution, and I have to confess I wasn’t trying very hard. I was enjoying the plot and the writing so much that I simply relaxed and let it all happen, and that’s a very pleasant experience.

I promised you a quotation from the book that I found extraordinarily relevant to my recent interest in how societal matters and mores are revealed within the pages of Golden Age detective fiction: it’s rather long, but bear with me, please.

“I have always maintained that when an ordinary member of the public is confronted with a crime or a mystery, he bases his conduct on the detective stories he has read. I have read a good many detective stories and find them a sedative for the nerves. Oddly enough, what I like in them isn’t so much the puzzle of the plot, still less sensational hairbreadth escapes, but precisely the element which you would least expect to find in such stories — the humdrum background, tea at the Vicarage, a morning in an office, a trip to Brighton pier — that microscopic study of ordinary life which is the foil to the extraordinary event which interrupts it. A good detective story, I have found, is often a clearer mirror of ordinary life than many a novel written specifically to portray it. Indeed, I think a test of its goodness is the pleasure you can derive from it even though you know who the murderer is. A historian of the future will probably turn, not to blue books or statistics, but to detective stories if he wishes to study the manners of our age. Middle-class manners perhaps. But I am old-fashioned enough to enjoy the individualism of the middle class.”

It’s always pleasant when a character in a detective story starts to speculate about the workings of detective stories! I agree completely with Kitchin; I derive a great deal of pleasure from detective stories because of their microscopic study of ordinary life. In this volume, for instance, we learn the precise number of courses of dinner (two) during which one converses with the diner at one’s right hand before turning politely to the diner upon your left. And in a similar degree of granularity, here’s a fine point of social class which I was happy to learn. The narrator is staying in a wealthy country house in a bedroom “nearly the size of his flat”. He finds “[a] notice in a gold filigree frame [which] told me that dinner was at half-past eight — half an hour later than it had been in the Wimbledon house — half an hour higher on the social scale.” That’s the stuff I love to learn from Golden Age novels and there is plenty of it here.

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C.H.B. Kitchin

The other thing that urged my immediate re-examination of the entirety of Clifford Kitchin’s work is when I did a little investigation of this author to bring to you here. To my surprise, I learned that he was rather like his narrator (both were known for improvising at the piano), with one large difference — Kitchin was what we would today term gay, and lived for many years with a male domestic partner. He was a wealthy barrister who was “out” in the most upper-class of gay men’s society of the time; high-ranking politicians, artists and poets, the wealthy, and some well-known novelists. That was a point of similarity that immediately fascinated me and explained some of the attitude that I found underlying the narrator’s dispassionate observations. Although it’s dangerous and frequently unsupportable to speculate about an author based merely on his fiction, it seemed to me that there’s a faint air of the “outsider” about the narrator and perhaps the author; Warren observes keenly and wryly, but he doesn’t seem to ever be truly a part of the society in which he participates. I believe this is well known as a hallmark of gay fiction. You’ll find some interesting glosses on Kitchen’s biography in Wikipedia here, and from a gay POV here.

Kitchin’s reputation in detective fiction rests primarily upon his first of four Malcolm Warren mysteries, 1929’s Death of My Aunt. I’ve obtained a copy of that and another Warren mystery, Crime at Christmas, and may well be doing more Kitchin analysis in the near future (Crime at Christmas seems very timely!). I wanted to mention that his other non-mystery novels were very highly regarded and “writerly”, and although I’m not reading much these days that isn’t genre fiction, this volume was so well-written and interesting that it may just tempt me to step outside my comfort zone. Praise indeed! I hope you find the time to get a copy of this excellent volume. None of the four mysteries appear to be available in electronic format and the fourth title, The Cornish Fox, appears to be both scarce and expensive. (Also timely is my family’s need to find me appropriate Christmas gifts! I’ll drop a word in Santa’s ear, perhaps.)

The Guardian pimps out the Golden Age of Detection

This morning I encountered an article from The Guardian written by one Sarah Hughes; you can find it here, and you may want to skim it before you continue (if you care to continue, that is). At first I was merely angry, because my initial reaction was that Hughes was an uncritical cheerleader who merely absorbed what she’d been told by publicity people and regurgitated it into a cheerful puff piece. Then I started to think more clearly about what I had read.

Her thesis, such as it is, suggests that “Crime fiction is turning back the clock to its golden age with a host of books that pay homage to the genre’s grande dame, Agatha Christie, either intentionally or in spirit.”

Some points that this thesis, and the article in general, brought to mind:

  • 162499Sophie Hannah is not a good example of a writer who is “paying homage” to Agatha Christie. While I’m not prepared to go as far as others and say that she’s dug up Christie’s corpse and is assraping it in the public square in return for sacks of money and more celebrity (as you can probably tell, I’m not far from that opinion; my review of the first such continuation is here) , her two recent “continuations” of Hercule Poirot are more like examples of how NOT to pay homage to Agatha Christie. #2, Closed Casket, contains a fart joke. I rest my case.
  • “[R]eprints of 30s and 40s crime classics are continuing to sell well …” Well, first, that’s not the Golden Age; the Golden Age is the 20s and 30s. Second — prove it. That is, prove it without reference to publicity material from any major publisher which has a vested interest in making some people believe that they should get on the bandwagon and purchase reprints of crime classics because everyone else is. I don’t think the reprints are selling “well”; my sense is that, as I’ll discuss later, large publishers with a Golden Age backlist are generating profits where none were available before, but only slight profits. They’re merely selling well enough to repay the minuscule cost of keeping them available in electronic format.
  • The article goes into detail about a lot of new authors who have little or nothing to do with Golden Age mysteries. If, to quote the editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury, a  series by one Plum Sykes is “subversive, wickedly funny and modern”; fine, but those things aren’t really the hallmarks of the Golden Age. The hallmark of the Golden Age is plotting — and not, as a HarperCollins editor suggests, that “the disciplines of the golden age … really centre around plot and character.” Since Golden Age writers specifically and deliberately eschewed characterization, that particular editor doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There’s a lot of rubbish in this article about books that have no relationship to the Golden Age because they’re coming out soon, and that’s the actual point of this article; selling a few books that have nothing to do with the Golden Age.
  • I am sad to learn that “writer and theatre-maker Stella Duffy” has been hired to complete an unfinished novel by Ngaio Marsh. I’m not enormously familiar with Stella Duffy’s work, but she has written a couple of crime novels that I thought were well-written and interesting (see, I do occasionally read something written after I was born!); it’s not Duffy to whom I object. It’s the idea itself; that Ngaio Marsh is merely the latest mystery writer to be continued. If you are a publisher and you seriously think that Golden Age mysteries will sell in quantities that please you, then by all means commission one from a mystery writer.  I have a few friends I can recommend who are very knowledgeable. (Jeffrey Marks has a track record in fiction, wrote a book on how to market genre fiction, and is an acknowledged expert on the Golden Age. And he hits his deadlines.) Dressing up a corpse and having it wheeled around the bookstores by another author is starting to get tiresome. What I really think is that HarperCollins, despite its protestations, is only sure that it can sell books by an author whose name has a high recognition factor regardless of the fact that she happens to have been dead since 1982. And that is not the unalloyed confidence in the material they would have me believe they possess.

But I didn’t write this entirely to slag some silly under-informed writer for The Guardian for doing a puff piece; I actually used to take that paper, all the way to Western Canada, because it has a wonderful crossword puzzle, and I’ll let a few things slide for having received so much cruciverbal pleasure in the past. What I think is happening here is that Britain’s major publishers buy a lot of advertising space. While I would never dare suggest that they paid for this article — that is emphatically untrue, from what I know of The Guardian — I will say that major publishers are probably not unhappy to see a piece addressed to uninformed readers that suggests that those readers will be part of a hot literary trend if they are to buy something that says it’s a Golden Age mystery, and coincidentally here’s a couple of upcoming projects to put on your Christmas list. I get that. It’s part of how books are marketed these days. It should not be a surprise if people who know bugger-all about Golden Age mysteries are selling books by writers who know bugger-all about Golden Age mysteries to readers who, etc.  And they’re attaching the Agatha Christie/Golden Age label to such things in the same way that the Ngaio Marsh label is being attached to Stella Duffy’s next volume. It’s like the label “gluten-free!” on food that never contained gluten; not exactly untrue, but misleading.

You may be surprised that I think Sophie Hannah is quoted as actually having said something sharp and on the money.  I liked it so much, I’ll set it out for you:

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

Now, that, as Lord Peter Wimsey once said, “absolutely whangs the nail over the crumpet.” It’s sort of the inside-out version of what I noted above, the well-known truism that Golden Age mysteries are all plot and not much characterization. People who like strong plots like Golden Age Mysteries. But Hannah here puts it in a way that is much more accessible to the average reader, and much more likely to actually SELL a few than me blethering on for many thousands of words about plot structure and social issues. “Oh,” says Brenda at W.H. Smith, “that famous writer said this kind of book will be fun. I think I’ll give one a try.” What this makes me think is that Sophie Hannah is an intelligent and competent writer who understands the Golden Age mystery, and would probably be able to write a really good one if she were not lumbered with the corpse of Hercule Poirot having to be front and centre. (And probably she could do without people like me making fun of her work; I bet she could write something that would appeal to my Golden Age sentiments and really sell like hotcakes at the same time. I look forward to that.)

I hope that sense of fun comes through in my appreciations of Golden Age mysteries, and I will be trying in the future to bring quite a bit more of that if it’s currently lacking. Thanks to Sophie Hannah for putting this idea in this way; it was something I needed in my toolkit. And it’s something with which my fellow aficionados will agree, I think.

Even James Prichard, Christie’s great-grandson, has something more intelligent to say than anything I’ve read from him lately.

“There’s a terrible tendency to see golden age crime as cosy crime, but I think it’s pretty evident that my great-grandmother found murder a serious and horrific business,” he says. “The reason that these books have lasted and that so many people still read or try to emulate them today is because the plots stand up. People enjoy the puzzle elements in them and they like the fact that you might feel a little uncomfortable, but never so uncomfortable that you can’t go on.”

Remarkable that for once he seems to have the right idea — the plots stand up.

murder_is_easyNow that I’ve followed the time-honoured tradition of a slam, then a bouquet, I’ll finish out the pattern with a closing slam or two. The Guardian chose to illustrate its understanding of how Golden Age mysteries are paid homage to with a photograph of Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple standing beside Benedict Cumberbatch “in an ITV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder Is Easy“. How stupid and insensitive was THAT particular choice? As I’m sure my readers know, Miss Marple was not actually in Murder is Easy — she’s been wedged in there to get a few more viewers, because, you know, Agatha Christie apparently needs help to draw an audience. “Of course we respect Agatha Christie, except we’ll change her bestselling work around as we see fit, because the poor old dear didn’t understand the modern day.” Sounds more like assrape than homage to me.

My final observation has to do with one of the people quoted in this article. David Brawn is the “estates publisher at HarperCollins” who says this:

“One of the main reasons behind the sudden popularity of crime from this period is that modern publishing and new technology allows for shorter runs in printing, which means that we can now mine backlists that would previously have been unprofitable …”

In other words, they’re delightedly mining their own backlist for books where they don’t have to pay the heirs, for one reason or another, to bring in a few extra pence. The part that surprised me, though, is his title as “estates publisher”. There’s an article from The Bookseller here that talks about what that is and how it works. Honestly, you should read it. It sounds like half his job is disabusing literary heirs to a major oeuvre that their dead granny’s literary output deserves a full hardcover re-issue and a film deal, and the other half is encouraging literary heirs to a major oeuvre that they should slap a coat of lipstick and a sexy dress on their deceased granny and hire her out for the aforementioned assraping, with a chorus chanting “Now a major motion picture!”. The whole idea of having an “estates publisher” gives me the cold chills. You might feel the same way.

 

 

 

 

The Dartmoor Enigma, by Sir Basil Thomson (1935)

The Dartmoor Enigma, An Inspector Richardson Mystery, by Sir Basil Thomson (2016); originally published in 1935 as Richardson Solves a Dartmoor Mystery. With an introduction by Martin Edwards (who is the current president of the Detection Club and author of last year’s superb history of the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder).

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

the-dartmoor-enigma-an-inspector-richardson-mystery-by-basil-thomson-1911095765Last week, I ran across a note of a 2016 electronic reissue of Basil Thomson’s eight mysteries. I’ve read quite a few rare mysteries in my day, but I’d barely heard of this author and only had a dim memory that he had had some sort of personal scandal associated with his life. Sir Basil had been quite a guy who, in a long and varied career, had become Assistant Commissioner for Crime at Scotland Yard, before he mysteriously lost his job. As best I remembered, Thomson’s mysteries were not of a level of excellence that had recommended them for paperback republication in later years, but were well regarded. They were also so little known that I had never managed to read one. And he is so obscure that that excellently exhaustive resource, Stop, You’re Killing Me, did not for once contain a list of his entire oeuvre. Now THAT is a little-known author.

So in a moment of curiosity/weakness, considering the tottering heap of my “to-be-read” pile, I picked up the inexpensive e-book of the fifth book of eight at random and thought, “I’ll look at the first few pages…” Famous last words, of course, but I have to say (1) I didn’t put it down, and (2) I went back and got the other seven in the series the same day.  So you can assume in advance I enjoyed this.

What is this book about?

As a result of both the Chief Constable of Devonshire and Scotland Yard receiving an anonymous letter suggesting that the writer knows the death of the late Mr. Dearborn was caused by a bash in the head rather than his contemporaneous car accident. Chief Inspector Richardson is assigned to the case. The Dartmoor man who died in a car accident soon proves to have been bludgeoned to death. But the victim soon proves to be a complete enigma. He arrived in Dartmoor with a huge sum of money in cash, bought a house, got married — and apparently never existed before he arrived in Dartmoor.

Within a page or two, “The junior chief inspector made his appearance.” We learn nothing about Richardson other than that he is young, having received promotion quickly, and has many fine personal qualities that endear him to his fellow officers. Richardson takes Sergeant Jago in tow and begins his investigation. The local constabulary rather quickly fastens guilt upon a disgruntled ex-employee of the late Dearborn, but Richardson progresses further in short order.

There is not much point in my retailing the activities of the plot here because, frankly, they are the principal virtue of this novel; if I give much of it away, you will enjoy the book much less. Suffice it to say that the deceased’s affairs are considerably more tangled than it would appear at first glance, and that his history appears to contain a film star improbably named Jane Smith, a Borneo gold-mining company, a defalcating young lawyer, and a blameless wife. Richardson tracks down the different threads of the investigation and determines the true identity of the late Mr. Dearborn and also the identity of his murderer, bringing the case to a satisfying close. And in the best Humdrum traditions, there is a smart twist at the end.

1_bacb819f-7bcc-4515-93bf-64e9452f0a2f_grandeWhy is this book worth your time?

A theme that seems to repeat a lot in my reviewing work is my search for charm within the pages of the books I review. It’s a difficult concept to nail down and not very rigorous in its boundaries. Essentially, when I find a book to have charm, it means that the writing is somehow likeable, the story is pleasant to contemplate, the author’s voice is amusing, there are no horrible errors of authorial judgment that I am forced to ignore — and I can close the book with a sense that I have just had a “nice” experience.

When I say this book has charm, and it absolutely does, it doesn’t necessarily have to emanate from the author himself. To be honest, much of the pleasure of this book came from the introduction by Martin Edwards. He understood the book completely, and most of all was able to place it very accurately within a constellation of other authors with whose work I am more familiar. So if I tell you that this is rather like an Inspector French novel by Freeman Wills Crofts, but minus the “timetable mystery” aspect and with the addition of considerable accurate detail about police procedure, you may well understand what that means. This is, indeed, what I’ve called elsewhere a proto-procedural. That is to say, it’s a “detective novel” that focuses on the activities of Chief Inspector Richardson and shows in detail how he works with his fellow officers, but written before the term “police procedural” was invented.

sir_basil_thomson

Sir Basil Thomson

Martin Edwards’ introduction indeed places Thomson precisely in relation to two other GAD writers. Here’s the sentence that says it all: “Thomson’s mysteries are less convoluted than Crofts’, and less sophisticated than [Henry] Wade’s, but they make pleasant reading.” Yes, indeed. There is enough cleverness in this volume to make me smile at the obligatory twist at the end, but, as Edwards says, “… intricacy of plotting — at least judged by the standards of Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, and John Dickson Carr — was not Thomson’s true speciality.” I agree, but to be honest, that was kind of a pleasant relief. This was an uncomplicated tale, well-written and rather unambiguous. If you are the sort of person who actually tries to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed, you may well, as I did, get all the way to the end first (which in my case makes me puff up my chest with pride for the rest of the day, so there you are). Or you may have the almost as pleasant experience of getting 3/4 of the way to the solution but being fooled by the clever final twist. You will still feel as though you have accomplished something.

500My current interests in social history as woven into detective fiction were also very nicely satisfied by this story. There’s quite a bit of material here about social class. In chapter five, for instance, the disgruntled ex-employee Pengelly, a kind of labour agitator, is visited by the police. “Evidently he had been told by the foreman the quality of his visitors; he was on the defensive.” If you know me, you’ll know that my ears pricked up at the word “quality”. But Scotland Yard is not terribly unkind to Pengelly overall, although it does arrest him for a petty crime — Robertson has a word with the foreman at his new place to save his job. Similarly there is a dotty old peeress who is lavish with money and gives someone a £500 note. Honestly, I hadn’t realized there was such a high denomination of British banknote, it must have been extraordinarily rare. That sum would have paid a maid’s wages for a decade. There’s plenty more of these tiny fascinating details, from a young servant-class woman “dressed in her best walking-suit with its rabbit-skin necklet and her latest hat” to the problems of being a young man with an amazing amount of freckles who gets remembered for them wherever he goes. I enjoyed the activity of stopping reading for a moment while I tried to figure out just what was meant by a tiny detail, like visualizing that rabbit-skin necklet.

basil_thomson

Sir Basil Thomson

I did mention above that I dimly remembered that there had been some kind of scandal in Thomson’s life, and I will leave you with this thought. Having this rare old book to read was a pleasure. But having Martin Edwards’s introduction to it really was worth the money because of the  details that he provides, about that scandal and everything else. I do actually want to encourage you to buy this particular edition because of the excellence of the introduction, replete with biographical and personal detail. So I will merely quote one single sentence and let you judge for yourself if you want to find out more.

“In the same year [1925], [Thomson] was arrested in Hyde Park for ‘committing an act in violation of public decency’ with a young woman who gave her name as Thelma de Lava.”

“There!” as PT Barnum might have said. “If that don’t pack them in, I’m a Dutchman!”

I think you will enjoy this pleasant mystery; it is not of the first quality but it is far from the worst. If you like the police procedural or the detective novel, you will broaden your horizons here in an interesting and worthwhile way. You have the introductory remarks of the insightful and expert Martin Edwards to guide you in placing this writer’s work into its precise context with respect to the boundaries of the Humdrum School. Both Dorothy L. Sayers and Barzun and Taylor commented with great favour upon the author. And, holy moly, there’s a woman who “gave her name as Thelma de Lava.” What more could you want?

 

 

The Chinese Puzzle, by Miles Burton (1957)

The Chinese Puzzle, by Miles Burton (1957)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #009

13563606What’s this book about?

In a British seaport town, a constable is summoned to the scene of an assault. The locale is squalid and poor, and the particular lodging house at which the assault took place is owned by one Spotty Jim, well known to the police. A Chinese lodger in the house has been assaulted by another Chinese man using a carpenter’s hammer, although the police are experiencing some difficulty in correctly identifying the assailant and the victim.

Desmond Merrion, the series detective, doesn’t claim to be an “Old China Hand”, although he has spent some time in both Hong Kong and Shanghai. He takes a hand in the investigation at the request of Inspector Arnold and helps to untangle a complicated tale of a Chinese laundry worker with too much money in the Post Office Savings Bank, opium smoking, politics, and murder.

9781627550840_200_the-chinese-puzzleWhy is this worth reading?

Well, you know, it’s not. To paraphrase Monty Python, this is not a book for reading; this is a book for laying down and avoiding.

I could understand this book having been written in, say, 1917 or 1923. Ignorance about Chinese people is a hallmark of the Golden Age and pre-Golden Age literature that portrayed them as the “Yellow Peril”, and pretty young white girls were forever stumbling into the clutches of a Chinese mastermind puffing his opium pipe with his eye on world domination.

33f3aa9e0e5e47d913d3b0304c97ec60There was so much of this literature at the time that in 1929 Ronald Knox, a mystery writer and cleric, made one of his “Ten Commandments” for the writing of a detective story that “No Chinaman shall figure in the story.” My idea is that Knox was reacting against a type of story where a criminal mastermind like Fu Manchu could cause plot developments to happen without the necessity of them being sensible or even possible — “Send a thousand coolies to search the city until the woman is found!” type of thing. The authors were white people writing for an audience of white people, and no real knowledge of Chinese people or customs were necessary because, in 1929, the chance of any reader actually having first-hand knowledge of Chinese culture was pretty much non-existent. Authors like Agatha Christie (“The Lost Mine”) and Conan Doyle (“The Man with the Twisted Lip”) wrote stories about opium dens and Chinese secret societies, apparently without the benefit of any research or personal knowledge. In short, they made it up to amuse readers who would never be any the wiser, or care about the reality of the Chinese experience. And they did it so much that it became a cliche.

So in the late 1920s, it was already quite passé to write about mysterious slant-eyed adventuresses luring innocent young white men into a Limehouse opium den. Besides, there weren’t that many Chinese people living in Britain at that point anyway. “The 1921 census figures put the Chinese-born resident population at 2,419.” (From Wikipedia, here.)

chinee-laundryman-never-sleeps1.pngIn the ensuing decades, Britain restricted Chinese immigration and treated Chinese workers and seamen very poorly, forcibly repatriating thousands of Chinese seamen back to Asia after WWII. Most of the Chinese people in Britain in the ’50s were employed in the declining “Chinese laundry” industry and the burgeoning Chinese restaurant industry. In 1951 there were 12,523 Chinese in Britain, and in 1961 the Chinese population was 38,750 — they apparently invented the “takeaway” style restaurant which is now dominated by a later wave of South Asian immigrants.

And in 1957, “Miles Burton” (Maj. John Street, who also wrote as John Rhode) wrote this piece of nonsense.  To start with, the names of the Chinese people themselves are made up out of whole cloth; one of the principal characters is Ah Lock, which is nowhere near a realistic name for a Chinese person. (Something like calling a character “John Smithsky” or “John Smithovich”, I think.) (**See the end of this post: I’ve added a comment that indicates I was wrong about two things in the preceding sentences.) All the white people are constantly making general remarks about the nature of the Chinese personality — “Chinese are apt to scrap among themselves at the slightest or no provocation.” “The others are always chattering away like so many monkeys, but Ah Lock very rarely said a word.” “Most Chinese men are remarkably clever with their hands.” The book is full of such generalizations.

And their command of English is ghastly. Here’s a fairly characteristic passage.

Chu Shek nodded. “That light. They no come back till half-past five. Me all alone. Wife she go sit in gardens. She say flesh air good. Me no likee sit do not’ing.”

“That light” is meant to indicate “That’s right.” Ugh. Sure, this is pidgin English, but these people have been surrounded by white English speakers for years; pidgin should have been far behind them at this point. Apparently the author found it amusing to write, though, so it fills the book. Chu Shek is another nonsensical made-up name. Another fairly major character is a man named Lo Fat, and the author invites you to snigger along with him at how, by golly, this means something quite different in English. And the man isn’t fat! Hilarious.

As I’ve noted previously, Street pays a lot of attention to social class; a common preoccupation for Golden Age mystery writers, it seems. He is on familiar ground when he is talking about the precise social distinctions that separate rural farmers and tradespeople from their “social betters” up at the Manor, and why a doctor’s widow can lord it over a storekeeper’s widow, et cetera.

This book, though, is just … ugly. Really ugly. It’s clear that Street thinks that there’s nothing wrong in comparing Chinese workers to monkeys. And it’s clear that he knows little or nothing about how they speak, or what they think about, or what motivates them. The characters execute their functions in the book with no regard to realism — because Street doesn’t care about them as people. To him, they’re monkeys. They don’t fit into the English class structure because they are below it.

soapine-boston-publ-libraryThere’s an unspoken but obvious assumption underlying the narrative that white people are superior to Chinese people, and it penetrates every level of society. The shared understanding of the white people is that if they go to Asia, they can become an “old China hand” by being able to understand a few words of Cantonese or Mandarin and making business arrangements with the locals. But when Chinese people from Hong Kong — who were putatively entitled to British citizenship — come to Britain, unless they are extremely wealthy they are relegated to doing white people’s laundry and crewing their ships. The Chinese people are expected to make all the adjustments to whites, learn English, and put up with whatever scorn white people care to heap upon them.

Here’s the comments of a (white) lady at the Post Office asked to comment upon one of the Chinese people who paid into the Savings Bank: “He always came to me, for I seemed to be able to understand his few words of funny English better than the others.” It’s clear from her tone that she regards her customer as the equivalent of a child or a mentally handicapped person. And when a Chinese man who works for the “Anglo-Chinese Aid Society” shows up, Inspector Arnold notes:

“… Mr. Ling Tam … was a comparatively young man, remarkably well dressed and wearing tortoise-shell spectacles. Apart from his features, which were unmistakably Oriental, he might have been an English professional man. Somewhat relieved by his appearance, Arnold asked him to be seated.”

chineselaundry03There is much, much more of this; it permeates the book like a bad smell. Honestly, I just couldn’t read a lot of it. It takes an awful lot for me to be unable to finish a murder mystery, but upon my first attempt at this book, I was so frustrated and angry that I just skipped through the middle section of the book and read the ending. Which, incidentally, is permeated with more racism and generalizations about the Chinese character. When confronted, the murderer confesses — because, as Desmond Merrion says, “I was gambling on the Oriental temperament, which has a strongly defeatist element in it. … faced by a sudden and unexpected accusation, an Oriental nearly always collapses. And once he has collapsed, his native fatalism prevents him from recovering.”

1

George Bernard Shaw – but I couldn’t resist the picture

I suppose I’ve gone on far too long about the disgraceful attitudes and comments that fill this book. The picture that formed in my mind is of an elderly white male, wallowing in white middle-class privilege, near the end of his writing career, who decides to write about a group of people about whom he knows nothing. Nothing. So he just makes it up to amuse his audience, because, heavens, it’s not like anyone Chinese could ever master English sufficiently to read this book. Chinese people are sub-human, and you can say anything you want about them (in a constantly pompous and lecturing tone) because their feelings don’t matter.  I would have been barely willing to accept this level of pompous ignorance in the context of 1927; it was the general lack of knowledge of the times. In 1957, it’s disgraceful. The author just didn’t bother to find out anything about an entire race of people before he turned them into performing monkeys to amuse his audience.

It’s never crossed my mind before to suggest that a book be banned; I disagree with the whole idea. We need to see the mistakes that have been made in the past so we don’t repeat them, and covering them up allows them to breed in the darkness. But if some enterprising publisher takes on the complete works of John Rhode/Miles Burton, I hope that somehow reprinting this particular volume gets overlooked. This is an ugly, nasty, squalid little book and I hope no one ever reads it again.

*********************************************

ERRATA:

**The day after posting this, Shahrul Hafiz, a Facebook friend in my Golden Age Mysteries group, mentioned that “the name of Ah Lock, Ah Chong, Ah Meng, Ah Mei and others are very common calling name for Chinese people in Malaysia. Their real name maybe Tan Chee Lock, but most would prefer to call Ah Lock or Ah Chee or Chee Lock or in formal situation Mr. Tan. Nothing wrong or uncommon about calling Chinese people, Ah Lock.” So I was clearly wrong on that one, although I will say in my defense two things: one is that I’d never heard of anyone named Ah-anything although I lived for 35 years in Vancouver, which has a huge Asian population, and second … this is more tenuous … that the individuals concerned are said in the novel to have been born in Hong Kong and aren’t from Malaysia.  But those are poor excuses for having been wrong, and I apologize.

I was sufficiently curious to look at whitepages.com; in their 300 million listings f0r North Americans, there are none for “Ah Lock” but two for “Ah Lok”, none for “Chu Shek”, and there is a 101-year-old man in New York named “Lo Fat” (long life to you, sir!). There are, however, enough people whose names are quite close that I can accept that these names are not just syllables that Street pulled out of the air.

I’ve changed how I represented the author’s name here.  His full name was Cecil John Charles Street, and I made that Cecil Street, but he preferred to be known as John Street.