Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, by S.S. Van Dine (1928): Some thoughts

In the last couple of days I’ve been following a discussion in my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection (you can find it here, although you may have to join the group to see anything). As you’ve probably already guessed, group members were discussing Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, an article from the September 1928 edition of The American Magazine.  

Although I’ll quote extensively from this article, you can find a copy of it here and I recommend the full article to your attention.  The rest of this piece will assume that you have indeed gone and read it.

why-men-drinkIn the process of considering the various arguments, I realized that although I’d certainly read Van Dine’s 20 Rules, it had been so many years that I’d forgotten the article entirely. I thought it would be interesting to have another look at it and share the results here.

The first thing that comes to my mind is, in an introductory paragraph before he approaches the rules themselves, Van Dine outlines what he’s trying to do. And there are two things that are fairly crucial here. One is that he’s talking specifically about the “detective story” and the other is, as he says in the opening sentence, that “The detective story is a game.” In fact, he compares it to my favourite game, bridge.

Gaudy_nightNow, I’ll just ask you to agree with me that “detective story” has a very particular meaning, and it’s differentiated from other similar concepts like “crime story”, “spy story”, etc. First, a detective story must, ipso facto, contain a detective. I think you’ll agree that there must be a crime within the story that is investigated (“detected”) by that detective, and by and large that crime is murder. For the most part that crime is solved in the course of the story by the detective, and the criminal is brought to justice. This all seems very simple and straightforward, but I’ve learned in the past that when you’re dealing with slippery ideas it’s best to define your terms. Certainly there are detective stories not concerned with murder (Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers comes to mind) and occasionally a criminal gets away or “cheats the hangman” by committing suicide, etc. But for most detective stories, there’s a detective and a murder and a solution and a criminal.

e837293de9a79e7c468db088cea80a1a--cluedo-table-plansWhether or not detective stories are a “game” is something that I’ve seen discussed, and participated in discussing, practically to the point of screaming when the topic arises. So I will merely say that many, many people consider detective stories to have the nature of a game, a kind of battle of wits; but I don’t believe the definition of “detective story” should be restricted in this way, so as to entirely outlaw non-ludic approaches.

What follows purports to be “laws” governing the creation of a detective story. When I started looking at these 20 rules of Van Dine’s, I thought “Hmm, some of these aren’t rules.” And indeed, some of them aren’t. Quite a bit of the content of Van Dine’s article is two other things: (1) material that will enable you to discern if something is a detective story or not, and (2) material that lets you know which elements of detective stories Van Dine doesn’t like, or thinks are overdone.

Here’s a transcription of my notes as I read through the 20 Rules. You might want to open a copy of Van Dine’s original article in another window and follow along.

  1. Mostly correct, although it assumes that detective stories contain detectives, mysteries, and clues. I’d suggest the reader must have AN opportunity to solve the mystery before the detective announces the solution and should be in possession of all necessary information; deductions are another matter entirely.
  2. I’m not entirely sure what this means, but I suspect it has to do with mysteries that feature an unreliable narrator, like at least one Agatha Christie novel that I bet all my readers are muttering the name of at this point. Whatever Van Dine means, I’m not sure I care to bar anything from the detective story, and I like stories with an unreliable narrator.
  3. 51Cil1Cm-yLJust plain wrong, and plainly merely a dislike of Van Dine’s. If the A plot is a murder mystery, the B plot can be anything the author desires, and I think Patricia Wentworth demonstrates that romance works quite well.
  4. Ditto, although Rule 1 applies.
  5. Mostly correct, although Trent’s Last Case is an example of where this premise can fail. There’s an entire school of humorous detective story writers that would disagree also.
  6. Agreed, at least with the first sentence. The rest is either obvious or a statement of the kind of book Van Dine likes to read.
  7. I agree there usually should be a murder, although I offer Gaudy Night again. I am pleased to see Van Dine note that Americans (remember, this was published in The American Magazine) wish to bring the perpetrator to justice. The quote is from Act 1, Scene 5 of Hamlet and might be rephrased as “Murder is always horrible.” I think personally a lot of mystery writers and detective story writers tend to forget that murder is horrible, and I’d like us all to remember that; we’re a bit desensitized these days by television programmes that are thinly disguised torture porn.
  8. HangmanI completely agree, although I have no issue with stories that raise the spectre of supernatural activities as long as they are debunked completely by the end. Vide John Dickson Carr and Hake Talbot.
  9. Just plain wrong, and plainly merely a dislike of Van Dine’s. He assumes that his way of telling the story is the only way. I believe, however, that it’s a tenet of good fiction writing in a general sense that there should be a single protagonist, or a single individual with whom the reader identifies. So this is a generalized quality of good writing and not merely of good detective stories. For the rest of it — I give you The Moonstone, with its multiple narrators.
  10. Absolutely correct, although “in whom he takes an interest” might be overstating the case.  John Dickson Carr, in The Grandest Game in the World, put it as “any character whose thoughts we have been allowed to share.” I also disagree with that stricture; I wrote about it three years ago in a review of New Graves at Great Norne by Henry Wade. See also Rule 11.
  11. 1682156-inline-inline-2-a-real-life-butler-weighs-in-on-downton-abbeyWrong, wrong, wrong; merely Van Dine’s personal dislike, and snobby and elitist to boot. If Rule 10 is correct, Van Dine is saying here that servants cannot play a prominent part in the story; the way this reads, Van Dine thinks servants or menials are not “worthwhile” and capable of offering a spirited chase to the detective (or, perhaps, that they don’t have thoughts worth sharing). That’s a statement of his ideas about social class, but it should have nothing to do with detective stories.
  12. 95dec7a7d8f170fa5f4024758664a26fPossibly correct, in terms of guiding the “indignation of the reader,” but why bother making this rule? Half of the output of Freeman Wills Crofts disproves it, to name but one author.
  13. Correct; what Van Dine is saying here is that detective fiction is neither adventure fiction nor secret-service romance. It’s just a definitional issue. I gather he doesn’t care for those sub-genres.
  14. Correct, with the same stricture as I applied to Rule 8.
  15. I agree with at least the first sentence, although I think that the number of people who actually solve Golden Age mysteries before reading the final chapter is much, much smaller than Van Dine seems to think. The last sentence of this goes way beyond the evidence he’s offering and although it seems reasonable, I’d like to sit down and argue this out with a couple of well-read friends. Yes, there are readers who spurn the “popular” novel but read detective stories. But to assert that this is because of the possibility that the reader can possibly solve the mystery before the fictional detective is far, far too all-encompassing a statement to suit me. Frankly, I think it’s far more likely that they — we — read Golden Age detective stories because they eschew emotional content and we prefer that kind of emotion-free story. It may be a bug and not a feature.
  16. UnknownIt’s certainly true that Van Dine wrote his own books as if he agreed with this extraordinary statement; they mostly lack atmosphere and description (although Benson turns on subtly worked-out character analysis and Bishop and Dragon rely on creepy atmosphere for part of their charms). It rather makes me sad to think that he thought so little of the intelligence of readers and/or the writing abilities of his fellow writers that he thought it impossible to write a book with descriptive passages, character analyses, and atmosphere that would still perform all the functions of a detective story. Instead he prefers to pigeonhole detective stories and make them equivalent to a “ball game or … a cross-word puzzle”. I really dislike this idea; I want more. In fact I want as much atmosphere and description and characterization as I can get, along with the mystery, and I feel that many writers who wrote after Van Dine give it to me.
    My understanding is that many Golden Age detective story writers felt that in-depth characterization was inappropriate because it gave the reader a way of bypassing the correct “game” structure and instead allowed them to pick the murderer by his/her psychological profile — or, simply put, that the murderer was the person whose character the author most wanted you to understand. Well, as Van Dine himself notes, there are people who get their “answer out of the back of the arithmetic” and whether or not detective stories are a game, they’re not playing properly.  Too bad, but let’s not cater to that lowest common denominator.
  17. Just plain wrong (had he not read the Father Brown stories featuring Flambeau?) and I suppose a personal prejudice. There’s at least one novel by Anthony Berkeley that turns this on its head.
  18. 37dec98c957979fa20eadf6394380fc2Although I agree for the most part, I can think of at least one Sherlock Holmes story that disproves this idea conclusively and, frankly, there’s no reason for it to be a “rule”. If Van Dine is playing a game, and if the logical chain of events leads to accident or suicide and is fairly before the reader, how can this be wrong?
  19. Again, this is Van Dine distinguishing between detective stories and secret-service tales and war stories. The part that interests me is the two final sentences here; I think the emphasis on gemütlichkeit is misplaced, given Rule 7’s emphasis on the horror of murder. The last sentence is quite astonishing and I’m not sure I quite understand what Van Dine was getting at. If there are readers who have everyday experience with puzzle mysteries, I think I’m happy not to be one of them. And as an outlet for “repressed desires and emotions”? I think anyone who uses detective stories as that kind of outlet needs psychiatric help. Is he suggesting that people read detective stories because they want to commit crimes in their everyday life — or even solve them? Perhaps I’ve misunderstood; no doubt my readers will lead me to the light in their comments.
  20. imagesI must note right off the bat that Van Dine threw this in to make the numbers up to 20 Rules; he says so. That being said, this is nothing more than a list of ten things that Van Dine thinks are out of style. and in no sense a “rule”. It amused me to consider that (a) is so different in 2018 that, if you did manage to find a cigarette butt on the scene of a crime, not even considering DNA evidence from saliva, there are so few people who actually smoke these days that your criminal would stand out like a sore thumb. I’m not sure what (g) is referring to. For the remainder of these I can actually think of at least one specific story to which Van Dine would object; one is Poe’s Thou Art The Man. I’ll leave that exercise for the reader, for fear of spoilers.

I’m not sure if this next suggestion will strike fear into the hearts of my readers, or perhaps make them guffaw at how far out of my depth I am, or perhaps merely raise a dubious eyebrow, but I’m now working on my own set of rules, as yet undetermined as to number. I hope to bring that to you in the very near future.  Your suggestions are welcome.

 

 

An Expert in Murder, by Nicola Upson (2008)

An Expert in Murder, Nicola Upson
For whatever reasons, I have found in the past that I am not all that interested in the lives of mystery writers, even the well-known ones. There is a popular idea that you can learn things about fiction by finding comparisons between events in the author’s real life and those in her characters and plots. I have to say I’m skeptical, although it’s occasionally a kind of speculation in which I’ve indulged. Most of the real-life mystery writers I’ve known, and I’ve met quite a few in my day, are professionals at the craft of writing as well as its art. As a friend who shall remain nameless once put it to me conversationally, “People think I use their characteristics in real life and put them into books. If they only knew it’s so much more useful to just make shit up.”

Thus when I heard that someone had come up with the idea of writing a series of mysteries featuring Josephine Tey, well-known mystery writer of the 1930s, as the detective, I didn’t work up much enthusiasm. I’ve been disappointed in the past by a couple of novels that purport to put real-life mystery writers in the path of fictional murders, notably Dorothy and Agatha: A Mystery Novel by Gaylord Larsen from 1990 (meretricious and awful). I have not cared to speculate about where Agatha Christie was during those missing days in 1926 and so a novel that has her involved in political intrigue or murder during those days does not find a willing suspension of belief within me. Other attempts to convince me of the detective skills of various celebrities have also left me cold. Call it a quirk.

An Expert in Murder, Nicola Upson
And so when I picked up, nearly at random, the first volume of seven novels by Nicola Upson — An Expert in Murder, today’s topic — I wasn’t expecting a whole lot and was prepared to set it aside if it was what I was expecting.

There are generally two ways in which I can tell I’ve just read a really good book. One is if I finish the book and immediately, without pausing for breath, start to read it from the beginning just to savour the pleasure again. I had that pleasant experience recently with The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by the erudite Martin Edwards. In a literal sense, unputdownable.

The other way is if I finish the book and immediately, without pausing for breath, get on the internet and order as many of the author’s other books as I can find. And that’s what happened to me today with Nicola Upson. I enjoyed this book so much that I wanted a lot more of the same, and immediately. This is the kind of reading material I’m always looking for and never finding.

An Expert in Murder, Nicola Upson
As to why that is — happy to oblige. Certainly there is more than one reason. But given the above comments, I thought I should say first and foremost that this is the book that has changed my mind about the potential for putting real-life 20th century characters into fictional books. It totally works here, in my opinion.

I didn’t know much about Josephine Tey before I started this novel — well, not more than the average mystery bookstore proprietor, which is more than most people. Tey, I knew, was notoriously reclusive about her personal life.  Immediately after I finished this novel I went to Wikipedia and confirmed a couple of dates, but I tried to see exactly where real life stopped and fiction began. To my pleasure I found that while the author had tried to portray the personality of Tey as it was known, there was a great deal of fuzziness about the rest of the details and occasionally outright substitution of a fictional character for a real person. I learned from the afterword, for instance, that a major character in the book should have been named as John Gielgud — it was he who played the lead in Richard of Bordeaux, but the character in the book who does so is, I believe, nothing much like him personally. And I like that. I don’t need to read about an ersatz Gielgud in a mystery, where he cannot possibly be the victim or the murderer; I like what Upson did here and it made for a very pleasant read. To hearken back to my writer friend, she made shit up, and she did it well.

An Expert in Murder, Nicola Upson
So, yes, the detective here is Josephine Tey and for once that is not a silly or meretricious idea. Her personal circumstances are somewhat invented and somewhat real, but I truly believe the spirit of Tey is there.

The writing is smart; in fact intelligence shines through behind nearly every paragraph. The characterization is intelligent and a little bit spare, without overmuch detail so that verisimilitude arises naturally rather than being forced on you. The plot is clever, and Upson has the knack of getting you interested in the people and what’s going to happen to them.  Good writing, good plotting, good characterization, all add up to a very readable book.

All things considered, I intend to pick up the next couple of paperback copies of this novel that go through my hands, just because I want to give a couple of friends something good to read; perhaps that’s the highest praise I can offer. To be honest, I’m not liking the second book in the series as much as this one, and I have a little bit of trepidation about the remainder of the series, but … An Expert in Murder is delightful and I think you’ll enjoy it.

A note on editions

I read an electronic edition of this book but I think the most attractive cover is immediately above, a Harper Perennial paperback from 2009; a nice piece of artwork showing a young woman in a long brown coat. I am very surprised that AbeBooks is listing copies of the true first, which I believe to be Faber & Faber 2008, at about the US$85 range; similar prices for the Harper hardcover, first US. That’s about twice what I would expect these to be selling for and I have no idea why; maybe book collectors liked this book as much as I did. I tend to buy first editions of books that I believe will have a long-term appeal to readers, and this would qualify.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The case of the cynical synthesis

6583643

E.R. Punshon (note the ears!)

It’s always interesting to me when an author breaks the fourth wall and speaks, within the confines of a work of fiction, about how or why one writes. Many mystery writers seem to do it, and I’m not sure why, but there’s generally an authentic tinge of “behind the scenes” that fascinates me.

Four Strange WomenThis is from Four Strange Women by E.R. Punshon (1940). Punshon is certainly a minor figure in the history of detective fiction; what I like to call a first-rate second-rate author, who was popular in his day but whose books have, until recently, passed out of print and remained there. The speaker, Mr. Eyton, is a professional journalist who has reported on the murder that takes place in the opening chapters. But he has a bit of a hobby; he’s writing something along the lines of some recent (imaginary) best-sellers, Musings in British Gardens and Dreaming ‘Midst the Flowers; apparently prosodical thoughts on the topic of being outdoors. Eyton’s is Twilight Thoughts Beneath the Trees.

“I am writing a book. … I’ve been working on it for some time,” Mr. Eyton explained. “Whenever I can, I take my bicycle and go to the forest. I describe what I see; above all, what I feel. That’s the secret,” he said, wagging his finger at Bobby. “Any one can see. Few can feel; at least, I mean, few know what they feel until the author tells them. Explain to the average man exactly what he thought when he saw the sunset, the rabbits at play, head the wind rustling through the trees, that’s the secret of success.”

“But suppose,” Bobby objected, “he didn’t feel a blessed thing — except wondering if he could get there before closing time?”

“Ah, the homely touch.” Mr. Eyton beamed approval. “My dear sir, it is, in fact, the public who never felt anything, who couldn’t feel anything, at whom an author aims — that is, if he wishes for a large circulation. You see, it pleases people to know what they would have felt if, in fact, they had felt it. You follow me? … Of course, you mustn’t startle your reader by anything he couldn’t recognize as his own ideas if he ever had any. All is there.”

3620803._UY400_SS400_I think this relates to a favourite quote of mine about detective fiction, which I am chagrined to say I have more than once misquoted over the years, apparently changing it to suit my unconscious needs. Let me take this opportunity to set the record straight and apologize. This is the accurate quotation from page 303 of Q.D. Leavis:  Collected Essays by Q.D. (Queenie) Leavis (her seminal work, Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) is available freely here) on the topic of the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers.

“And in the matter of ideas, subject, theme, problems raised, she [Sayers] similarly performs the best-seller’s function of giving the impression of intellectual activity to readers who would very much dislike that kind of exercise if it were actually presented to them; but of course it is all shadow-boxing. With what an air of unconventionality and play of analysis Miss Sayers handles her topics, but what relief her readers must feel — it is part no doubt of her success — that they are let off with a reassurance that everything is really all right and appearances are what really matter.”

Does this sound like a cynical synthesis? Punshon (in a mystery) is saying that best-sellers fake emotion for people who aren’t equipped to have emotions, and Leavis is saying that mysteries fake intellect for people who aren’t equipped to have intellect. So the synthesis would be that popular fiction in general is faking something or other for the benefit of deficient readers, and therefore the more assiduous your reading, the larger must be your lack of some essential personality component. Yikes. I read more than anyone in my everyday life, and apparently it’s because I’m more stupid and insensitive than anyone I know. But at least I learned about my shortcomings from a novel 😉

q-d-leavis

Queenie Leavis

My first reaction was that the whole thing seemed very sneering and supercilious, and to be completely honest I’ve valued Mrs. Leavis’s observation for years precisely because it was so tart and acid. (Queenie Leavis is rather like what Dorothy Parker would have been like if she’d been very thoroughly educated in literary theory.) Perhaps it’s a function of advancing decrepitude, or perhaps it’s having recently pinpointed that one desirable function of detective fiction is indoctrination, or the introduction of the reader to information about how society works, but I find these days I am more willing to accept that works of fiction should shoulder the load of educating today’s population about how to manage their emotions and to function within society. Heaven knows nothing else seems to be able to.

As a gloss upon my recent discussion of indoctrination, let me offer Mrs. Leavis’s comment, from Fiction and the Reading Public:

“The modern reader is at once struck by the body of traditional lore the [Elizabethan] people must have possessed which served instead of the ‘knowledge’ (i.e., acquaintance with a mass of more or less unrelated facts, derived principally from an elementary school education and the newspaper) that forms the background of the modern working-man’s mind.”

And note that this volume was published in 1932, pretty much the middle of the Golden Age of Detection. Mrs. Leavis seems to be unhappy that popular fiction transmitted “more or less unrelated facts” at the time they were being communicated, but to today’s reader they are not unrelated; they are all part and parcel of a long-ago age with butlers and pukka sahibs and bodies in the library, with very little in the way of social overlap to today’s context.

It is perhaps distressing and inappropriate that today’s adolescent absorbs social mores as part of the subtext of a poorly-written book about a girl who falls in love with a sparkly vampire, but at least it’s via a book and not a music video or a MMO. Perhaps I’m prejudiced in favour of books, being so heavily invested in them, but it does seem that they are produced by people who are trying to observe human nature and society in general and reproduce the more interesting or useful bits while telling a story — AND they use the written word to do so, which has the effect of expanding one’s ability to communicate with others more precisely. It’s more useful to tell someone their actions are pathetic if both of you know what the word “pathos” means.

So what if mysteries are designed to present me with examples of logical thought structures that I cannot hope to achieve in real life? Very few people’s real-life situations are populated by people who would, for instance, use an audio recording to fake an alibi while they’re off murdering someone. Far more realistic is the common news story that someone has been murdered by a stranger to obtain a ridiculously small amount of money, using a gun or a knife or a blunt instrument, and generally speaking it’s not very interesting or informative (unless you are Truman Capote), merely sad. Detective fiction, in fact, preserves the important social meme that some people do actually try to commit subtle and serious crimes that are meant to remain undetected, and we’d better be on the lookout for them; not everyone can be a Hercule Poirot or a Jane Marple, but we can continue to acknowledge the need for such persons to detect these subtle crimes. And we can take pleasure in experiencing stories of their adventures.

And if, as Mrs. Leavis remarks, we are let off the trouble of truly deep thought by a reassurance that everything is really all right — perhaps it’s the continuing repetition of the meme that some problems (mysteries) exist that require the application of intense thought in order to “solve” them that we are gaining, and that this is a valuable frame of mind to maintain as a common understanding. I might not be able to figure out who killed Roger Ackroyd, but that story helps me to understand that there are thought patterns out there that can be learned, attained, and mastered that would have let me equal Poirot’s achievement in doing so. In the meantime, it’s not a terrible thing that I should be reassured about the essential rightness of the world in the background.

I’ll close off these musings with a final thought. What I seem to be describing is a system where mystery writers are cynical in order to reassure readers that the world itself is not a terrible place. Is this a good thing? Would we be better off with finding a mode of intellectual activity that required us to actually develop intellectual skills that identify crimes rather than continuing to experience those skills by observing a fictional detective and pretending we followed right along? Or are the exigencies of modern life such that we’ll develop those skills if and when we need them, and meanwhile it is appropriate merely to remind ourselves that those skills exist in an enjoyable way?  I suspect I know where my readers’ loyalties lie, but I’m prepared to be surprised if my readers care to do so in the comments.

My apologies also to Erle Stanley Gardner, who inspired the title.

 

 

 

 

The Dutch Shoe Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1931)

dutchSome blogfriends are working their way through the great American mystery writer Ellery Queen book by book, a prospect which interested me sufficiently to chime in on a discussion of this volume at least.  I intend to add links to their work on this book as I become aware of it; I just wanted to mention that, as always, my work is based on my own analysis (since I haven’t yet seen theirs).

I will note here that I’ve
EQ & the Murder Ringalso screened the movie that was loosely based upon this novel, Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring (1941), starring Ralph Bellamy as the great detective. The novel is not cited in the credits. Here, the phrase “loosely based” is stretched to its limits; I merely wanted to alert my readers to the existence of what might be termed a movie of this novel. Feel free to not track it down, it’s rubbish.

In an attempt at clarity, I use “Ellery Queen” to refer to the detective character and “EQ” to refer to the cousins, Messrs. Dannay and Lee, who wrote the books.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this mystery novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

The Dutch Shoe Mystery, by Ellery Queen

What is this book about?

TheDutchShoeMysteryEllery Queen is trying to figure out a tricky point concerned with the time of death of a diabetic, and drops in on his friend, Dr. John Minchen, for a consultation at Minchen’s offices in the Dutch Memorial Hospital. After they dispose of the question, the doctor invites Ellery to witness an operation.

Abigail Doorn, the elderly patron of the Dutch Memorial, has fallen and ruptured her gall-bladder; since she is also a diabetic, she requires the services of the hospital’s finest surgeon, Dr. Janney, to save her life, and the operation is imminent in the main operating theatre. Ellery is queasily interested in seeing the surgery; the two meet various hospital personnel and members of Mrs. Doorn’s family, awaiting the results.

03c_DutchA hush falls over the operating theatre as the doctors, gowned and masked, enter. The patient is brought in — but the doctors soon realize something is wrong. Mrs. Doorn was strangled with a piece of wire before her body was wheeled into the room.

Ellery takes immediate charge of the scene and stops anyone from entering or leaving while the police are on their way. Two immediate skeins of investigation present themselves. Mrs. Doorn’s immense fortune is the mainstay of a great deal of work at the hospital, and also supports her family. It soon appears as though a mysterious figure had been impersonating Dr. Janney in the minutes before the operation.

A discovery which interests Ellery more than any of the police is that of a bundle of clothes which were apparently used by the person impersonating Dr. Janney. Of most interest is a pair of white duck trousers that have been basted to temporarily raise the hems, and a pair of shoes with a number of interesting features, including missing tongues and a broken lace that has been mended with adhesive tape.

22991After suspicion has been thrown on various people affiliated with the hospital, and upon various members of Mrs. Doorn’s family, there is another murder that seems to clarify things for Ellery. He performs a piece of extended deduction about the condition of the shoes and pants, then about a piece of furniture in the room where the second murder takes place, and sends for a mysterious document that he knows exists. There is a stirring denouement in which Ellery announces a very surprising solution to the murders, and then the document is produced as complete justification for his theory.

Why is this book worth your time?

Dutch Shoe Mystery1This book gets an automatic pass into your library simply because, well, it’s an Ellery Queen novel. If you’re at all interested in the Golden Age of Detection, anything by EQ is important and the first dozen or so are absolutely crucial. In the 1930s EQ led the pack of many similar writers writing puzzle mysteries upon the Great Detective model of S.S. Van Dine; the plots are complicated and difficult and the erudition is sprinkled throughout. EQ set the goalposts for good mystery writing in the United States for a long time, both in their own novels and the significant contribution that is Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in order to understand the branding of mystery tropes, you have to understand Ellery Queen.

03l_DutchThat being said, even in that first nonet of the “Nationalities” series, some are primus inter pares and some are also-rans.  This book is chronologically the third written by the cousins: Roman Hat was 1929, French Powder was 1930, Dutch Shoe was 1931, and then, kaboom, a deluge of great mysteries. EQ published 4 mysteries in 1932 and 4 in 1933, four of them as by Barnaby Ross, and they’re all worth your time. An important EQ reference title, Royal Bloodline from 1974 by Francis M. Nevins, Jr., says that in 1931 the cousins “were persuaded by their agent to take the plunge and make it as professionals or bust”. I think it’s reasonable to assume that that plunge took place between the publication of Dutch Shoe and whatever volume came next. The cousins worked like dogs for the next two years to get their careers off the ground.

So let’s say that Dutch Shoe is the last of the Nationalities series to have any tinge of … I won’t call it “amateurism” because those books are not amateurish. But there is a small difference between someone who has a “day job” and writes, and someone whose writing pays the bills. Professionals try to write what sells (rubbish like 1938’s The Four of Hearts, for instance) whereas your day job supports you while you try out different ways of telling your stories.

971588Here, it’s interesting to see what EQ had not yet learned how to do. They hadn’t yet perfected the idea of “the false solution then the true”, which would blossom so dramatically the next year in Greek Coffin (1932). They hadn’t yet established Ellery’s reluctance to talk about the solution to a mystery before he was willing to commit to it (Greek Coffin and 1958’s The Finishing Stroke will tell you why) — and really this idea is present in everything else they ever wrote about Ellery Queen, because it’s so useful in a storytelling context for mysteries. It’s a reason why the plot should automatically build towards a dramatic climax, and the cousins must have blessed the day they thought of it.

For me, this novel is quite “stripped down”. Ellery still has large elements of pompous Philo Vance-ean twit, but we don’t get much of the angst about ruining people’s lives in the course of solving a mystery in which Ellery wallows later in his career. There’s truly a minimal amount of clueing, per se; the shoelace, the basted pants, a timetable, a map of the hospital floor, and that’s about it. Nothing like a corpse with spears stuck into its clothing, or a naked corpse in a full-length cape, or a crucified headless corpse; a dead old lady lying on an operating table. The rest is all investigation of people’s whereabouts and character. It’s not surprising that most of the hospital professionals and the victim’s family members have something to hide — this is, after all, a mystery. There’s chapter after chapter of “Ellery talks to another suspect”; here’s where he was, here’s why he might have wanted to kill Mrs. Doorn.

7156995._UY200_There’s not much … excitement here. The solution of the mystery is based entirely upon two things; deductions based on the shoes/pants, and deductions based on circumstances associated with the second murder (the position of a cabinet). As Ellery says in the blow-off, “the shoes and the trousers told me everything but the name … the cabinet told me the name. And it was all over.” No car chases, no forest fire. Ellery then deduces that a certain document must be in existence, and the revelation of its identity is the last line of the book. If you’re looking for action, this one is a dud.

There are two ways in which this novel is yet another variation on a recurring theme; I’m indebted to the Nevins text cited above for the overarching Queenian theme of “manipulation”. I can’t be too specific about what happens here, but there is a plot element in which one character directs the criminal actions of another, and this is a repeating element in many, many EQ stories: Ten Days’ Wonder (1948), The Player on the Other Side (1963), and 1932’s The Tragedy of Y, for instance.

The Tragedy of Y actually combines both recurring Queenian themes, as does Dutch Shoe from a year earlier; the second element is the story of a wealthy family ruled by an elderly matriarch where members of the family are “poisoned” and evil. In Tragedy of Y it’s the taint of syphilis, in 1943’s There Was an Old Woman it’s hereditary lunacy. The Doorn family in this novel is perhaps a prototype for these later examples; here, Abigail’s son is an overweight, profligate roue but her daughter is relatively normal, and the poison is merely money. Abigail Doorn’s character is perhaps more closely modelled on Hetty Green than later novels’ characters.

And finally, there’s an editorial note in Chapter 17 that specifically notes that Dutch Shoe takes place chronologically before even Roman Hat, the first volume published. This might actually be the first adventure of Ellery Queen … showing promise of greatness yet to come, but not manifesting much of it yet. Not much action, not much characterization; lots and lots of logical deduction from small clues and the occasional false note. You should read it, but you’ll enjoy others of the Nationalities series a lot more.

What do we learn about the society of the time from this book?

There are a number of interesting elements here for the social historian; some major, many decidedly minor.

I am still trying to figure out the meaning of a casually capitalized word tossed into the Foreword, as by unseen framing character “J.J. McC.”: “… this is my reward for engineering the publication of his Actionized memoirs”. Readers, on “Actionized”, I am stumped. I had rather thought it was some personal development movement like Pelmanism but my research has led me nowhere. Your comments are welcome.

One minor character is the head of the Obstetrical Department, Dr. Pennini. Dr. Minchen is explaining the bad relationships among the staff, and mentions that Drs. Pennini and Janney don’t get along.

“Not petty, Ellery.  You don’t know Dr. Pennini, or you wouldn’t say that. Latin blood, fiery, the vengeful type, she’s certainly far from –”

“What’s that?”

Minchen seemed surprised. “I said she was the vengeful type. Why?”

Ellery lit a cigarette with elaborate ceremony. “Naturally.  Stupid of me. You didn’t mention …”

In other words, in 1931, an exceptionally intelligent logician doesn’t consider the possibility that a doctor can be female. Fascinating as a pointer to how things were; after meeting Dr. Pennini, Ellery then proceeds to make a couple of sexist remarks, including quoting Euripides: “I hate a learned woman.”  There are a couple of examples in the long bibliography of EQ where there’s a woman character who is treated with an unpleasantly virulent misogyny, most notably Delia Priam in 1951’s The Origin of Evil; this would be one of the earliest, but luckily it doesn’t last long in this volume.

The relationship among amateur detectives, police officers, and the newspapers is an interesting one in this book. There appears to be an implicit assumption that the newspapers are entitled to access to police officials, and are always admitted to crime scenes to take pictures and the like; more interesting because it’s tacit. One newspaperman is allowed pretty much a complete entree behind the scenes and repays the favour by not writing negative stories during the course of the investigation. But there’s a brief moment where we see that other newspapers are calling for Inspector Queen’s resignation for his obvious failure, etc.

The reader has to remember that at the time of publication of this book, insulin was only ten years old; the management of Type 1 diabetes was not what it is today, to be sure. I suspect that the details of surgery on a diabetic are accurate for 1931, and that really is very interesting; it was much more life-and-death than it is today, to be sure.

And another tiny puzzling phrase: “[so-and-so] must be guarded as if he were the Maharajah of Punjab. I want a detailed report of the identity, conversation and subsequent movements of every soul who comes within ten feet of him!”  This Maharajah may have been the young man of the Victorian Era who spent his early years pretty much under house arrest; I’m not sure that his restrictive lifestyle was a household word in 1930s USA. Possibly this was just a generalized comment regarding how closely wealthy people are guarded; possibly this is a reference to the guarding of the Koh-i-Noor diamond and people who owned it. Hard to say.

There are a couple of examples in this book where a reasonable amount of research is unable to reveal exactly what the authors had in mind with a specific reference; it’s sad to think that in less than a century, our information about such things has deteriorated to this extent. In another 50 years we may have to have a cultural glossary attached to GAD just to understand things like telephone party lines, rubber rationing, and the niceties of interaction with servants (or servants themselves).

Notes on editions

My favourite edition, I think, is shown above; the later cover variant of Pocket 202 with the group of startled masked doctors against a yellow background. Delightfully lurid.

The first edition is the “Queen of diamonds” edition also shown above; as of today, there only appears to be one such for sale on Abe. This is a copy signed by Manfred Lee in terrible shape, with no jacket (“fair” in this context means, “barely saleable”); the dealer is asking US$250. Hard to say what that means a better copy would bring, signed or unsigned.

md1308691993There’s one interesting paperback edition from Signet in 1968; the cover nearly eschews illustration entirely and spends three-quarters of the cover in text, pretty much repeating the function of the traditional “Challenge to the Reader”. I think it’s quite appropriate for a novel like this, where the focus is almost entirely on deduction, to be marketed as such; a remarkable example of truth in book design, which doesn’t happen often.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.