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.

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: My five most/least favourite John Dickson Carr novels (Part 1 of 2)

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A group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue looking at a different Golden Age mystery writer each month; Tuesdays in March, 2016 will be devoted to John Dickson Carr.

My five most and least favourite John Dickson Carr novels

(and why I think so)

It’s been a while since I sat down to the pleasant contemplation of a large group of interesting mysteries with the task before me of identifying my five most favourite/least favourite books within the group. There are a few things that have to come together. First there has to be a fairly large body of work from which to select; second, a somewhat uneven quality of work so that there actually are good and bad books; and finally, there has to be a reasoned way of making a decision. By this last I mean that it has to be possible to discern what the author in question had as strengths and weaknesses, and to look for books where the strengths are mostly present and the weaknesses are mostly absent.

CARR1

John Dickson Carr

John Dickson Carr, of course, meets all these criteria. He has such a large body of work that I’ve given myself the pleasure of splitting this task into books published under his own name and that of his principal pseudonym, Carter Dickson. (Part 2, on Dickson, will be published later this month, and I’ll go back and add links.) JDC has a decidedly uneven quality of work, such that he has a few magnificent years when he’s at the top of his form, and his later books show a steep decline that is obvious.

In terms of strengths I’ll suggest the following.  JDC’s writing is the most interesting to me when it has these qualities: (1) A strong well-thought-out puzzle structure, which is usually for him based on a locked-room/impossible crime scenario. (2) A balance among setting, characterization, and plot, so that there are interesting characters doing interesting things against an interesting background, all well-written in their way but nothing overwhelming the book in any of those directions. (3) Some sort of creepy quasi-supernatural element; or, if not supernatural, something that creates a sense of menace or impending doom. This is something that JDC handled extremely well and he had excellent skills at creating these elements within the solid logical structure of a detective novel.

As far as weaknesses go: (1) JDC’s sense of humour and mine are rather different; I don’t think he wrote humour well and there is a kind of sniggering adolescent quality to his jokes that I find distasteful. So for me the less humour, the better. (2) Occasionally JDC’s books are unbalanced in one direction or the other. Sometimes the setting takes over and you wind up reading an evocation of his historical research. Sometimes the characters are merely sketched in, and you don’t care what happens to them. And sometimes the plot is so convoluted and difficult that it overwhelms any kind of realism, because there are simply so many plot points that must be gotten across.  And (3) — this one is hard to describe — I occasionally get the feeling with Carr’s work that there’s more in his head than he managed to get on the page. It’s as though he feels he’s given me enough information to understand what he’s getting at, but I haven’t managed to grasp it without re-reading multiple times. I admit this one could be just me being inattentive, but it’s happened enough times to me with Carr’s work that I suspect it’s not all on my side.

With those in mind, here are my choices. I’ll paraphrase myself when I performed this exercise with Ngaio Marsh: as always in situations like this, your mileage may vary. My own experience tells me that I cherish one of JDC’s novels because I read it at a young age and it made a deep impression on me that is perhaps not borne out by the quality of the work itself. Sometimes we like things for reasons that would mean little to anyone else; I like mysteries that take place in bookstores and tend to mark them higher. I cannot gainsay your feelings, folks, and I won’t dare to try. If you have a reason for liking a book that you particularly like, that’s fine with me. Merely allow me mine, is all.

My five most favourite John Dickson Carr novels

And, as you will soon note, in reverse numerical order. My favourite JDC novel is at the end of this list.

carr575. The Dead Man’s Knock (1958)

This is the story of a crumbling marriage between two people who each think the other is having an affair. He’s a college professor (and expert on the work of Wilkie Collins) whose supposed mistress, the voluptuous and vicious Rose Lestrange, is found in a locked room with a sharp dagger plunged into her heart. Meanwhile there’s a series of nasty practical jokes that came very close to murder.  Is Rose Lestrange’s death connected with mysterious notes that Wilkie Collins left about a locked-room mystery he proposed to write? Dr. Fell sorts it all out. I think this book is quite well-balanced among plot, setting, and characterization; the characters seem more human than is usual for JDC and you can believe that people committed acts for the very human reasons that are provided, rather than merely to further a puzzle plot. As well, the supernatural overtones are held to a minimum, which makes the practical joker’s subplot more realistic to me. I didn’t find the mechanics of the locked-room mystery ultimately very satisfying, but there’s a lot more humanity in this novel than many of Carr’s other mysteries.

n465194. The Sleeping Sphinx (1947)

Upon his release from the armed forces, Donald Holden discovers that he’s been presumed dead, which makes his relationship with his fiancee, Celia Devereaux, considerably more strained. Celia’s sister Margot died in peculiar circumstances about a year ago, after a dinner party at which everyone wore the death mask of a historical murderer. Everyone seems to be hinting to Holden that Celia’s mental stability is less than perfect … someone has opened up the disused office of a fortune teller in order to conduct some sort of tryst … and someone or some thing is moving the coffins around inside a sealed mausoleum. While Donald and Celia get to know each other all over again, Dr. Fell investigates and explains Margot’s death as well as all the other mysteries. This one meets my three criteria for a strong puzzle, excellent balance among the story elements, and a strongly creepy atmosphere. Added to which, this is one of the few GAD mysteries where Carr allows himself to be somewhat more frank about sexual matters than was commonly the case; the ideas of hysteria and a concomitant sexual dysfunction are key elements to understanding the motives in this novel.  I think it was very brave of Carr to put it in and very laudable of him to have gotten it right, instead of making up the details to suit the story.

The Nine Wrong Answers by John Dickson Carr, Corgi Books 1325, 1956

3. The Nine Wrong Answers (1952)

This is a non-series novel in which young, broke, and fairly stupid New Yorker Bill Dawson inveigles himself into a position where he agrees to travel to England impersonating Larry Hurst, the heir to a large fortune. Larry is promptly poisoned; Bill tries to fulfill his part of the bargain by leaving immediately for London and meeting with Larry’s wealthy wheelchair-bound uncle, Gaylord Hurst once a week. But Uncle Gaylord and his vicious manservant Hatto are not fooled and begin to play murderous games with Bill. After another death, Bill confronts the very surprising villain in a dramatic denouement. Again, a strong puzzle plot with a truly surprising ending; an excellent balance of story elements; and the escalating conflict between Bill and Gaylord Hurst that provides a nearly unbearable tension by the end of the novel. The element of this story I liked the most is where Carr breaks the fourth wall nine times during the book with footnotes, saying, in essence, “I know you’re thinking I’m trying to fool you in this particular way, but I’m not.” Meanwhile he is pulling the wool over your eyes in nine other ways, all of which are detailed in the final chapters.

images2.The Black Spectacles aka The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939)

The subtitle of this novel is “Being the psychologist’s murder case”, and I think it’s a major clue to the type of entertainment you receive. Wealthy Marcus Chesney believes that the testimony of eyewitnesses is unreliable, and invites witnesses to be present while an event takes place, not only in their view but in that of a movie camera. It’s intended that each witness will answer ten written questions after the event, which appears to be the faked poisoning of Chesney using a large green capsule by a masked and disguised figure wearing black spectacles, who promptly vanishes. To everyone’s surprise except the experienced Carr reader, Chesney is dead, the masked figure has vanished into thin air, and no one can agree on any of the answers to any of the ten questions, including what time it was. It’s my favourite story hook in all of Carr. Meanwhile, in the nearby village of Sodbury Cross, Chesney’s niece Marjorie is suspected of poisoning some children with chocolates in the same way as historical criminal Christiana Edmunds. Gideon Fell investigates the crimes while waiting for the movie film to be developed. At its first showing, the climax of the book is reached and Fell identifies the murderer. The puzzle is the star here, although the characterization has a good deal of merit (it assumes that lots of ordinary people would be familiar with the the Chocolate Cream Killer, but I can live with that). There are not many overtones of the supernatural and I think Carr could sustain the reader’s interest quite well without them, as he proves here.

1271711. The Crooked Hinge (1938)

This might be one of the instances where I have a fondness for a book because I read it when I was much younger and it had a profound effect on me. Definitely this one did … I read this when I was about 16 and can remember having a mostly sleepless night because my dreams involved the fingers of the mechanical hag reaching out for me! But really, folks, I think this is one novel where HDC brought it all together and it clicked. Spooky atmosphere?  Top of his game. Puzzle story, magnificently thought through and difficult but not impossible to solve. Perhaps not the most memorable characterization but the plot surrounding the puzzle is wonderful; complex, interesting, and with lots of elements that don’t necessarily contribute to the puzzle but further the action. The pace is great, the book is beautifully constructed — all in all, this is the one I try to hand people when they want a good place to start with JDC.

My five least favourite John Dickson Carr novels

Also in reverse numerical order. My least favourite novel is at the end of this list.

fire burn 025. Fire, Burn! (1957)

John Dickson Carr wrote some great historical mysteries; this isn’t one of them. He certainly had a great deal of knowledge and expertise about the ins and outs of London society in 1829, and that’s the big problem with this book for me; everything is in there. He’s so proud of how much he knows about this topic that there are seven pages of notes at the end of the novel for all the stuff he didn’t manage to cram in! Yes, I learned a lot. Yes, it’s accurate and interesting. But my feeling is that here, Carr lost track of the idea that you actually have to have an interesting novel to sustain all the research and this one is slow, simplistic, only marginally believable, and BORING.
73164514. The House at Satan’s Elbow (1965)

I regard this novel as the precise point at which it became clear that Carr’s writing powers were henceforth to be on the decline. I’m not old enough to have read this when it first came out (I was about ten in 1965) but I do remember hitting it in my teenage quest to read everything that the greatest writer EVER had ever written (smiling now at my youthful passions).  And I remember thinking, “Wow, that one is really not very good at all.” Which it isn’t. There is a point in Chapter 10 in which a minor character is casually said to have an unusual talent — she can perfectly imitate anyone’s handwriting. I found that hard to accept as a teenager, and today it’s just the point at which I close the book and move forward with something else to read, because that’s just bullshit. Or as I call it elsewhere, “mystery cement” (put in to make the puzzle harder). This book has all the elements of classic Carr — ghostly hugger-mugger in the dead of night, a puzzle, unusual characters. But the elements never coalesce to form a decent readable book. This is what I was talking about when I mentioned that sometimes Carr’s novels don’t always make it entirely onto the page; there’s a good mystery in here somewhere, but Carr didn’t manage to write it.

be25693c48d45ebfc4eb87f06429f0303. Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956)

There’s a lot wrong with this book, but one of the major things is that the protagonist is … well, let’s say “hard to accept”. For me Patrick Butler is made of the purest cardboard, and if you take out all the padding about “I am never wrong” and “I always defend the innocent,” there’s bugger-all that makes any sense as a human being. Here, the spooky atmosphere is almost entirely absent and replaced with salacious leerings at a halfwitted female stage performer with a “funny” French accent which requires Carr to write ridiculous dialogue throughout the book. Everyone runs around at top speed for no real reason. And the mystery element depends on something that is so damn stupid … it’s just ridiculous. (And it depends entirely upon this being a book. If it was a film, the mystery would be over in 30 seconds.) This is a book about cardboard characters doing stupid things against a boring background.

61ZsBl62poL._UY250_2.The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936)

I’m on dangerous ground here, because the very eminent mystery critic and John Dickson Carr expert Douglas G. Greene — hell, he literally wrote the book on Carr, found here — thinks this is a great book. So I’ll say right off the bat, he’s probably right and you should take his word for it rather than mine. My issue with this book is personal. When I was reading my way through JDC’s complete works, this was the last one remaining on what birders call their “life list” … and this was before the internet, and before International Polygonics republished it. So I ended up paying what I recall as a huge amount of money for what was at that time the only paperback edition from Dolphin in 1962. I unwrapped the parcel from a faraway bookseller with trembling hands, because this was the very last John Dickson Carr I’d ever get to read … and oh my god it was boring. Stupefyingly, dreadfully, yawn-provokingly boring. This is, in fact, non-fiction, although JDC brought fictive techniques to it. But since it is a retelling of historical fact, he wasn’t allowed to twist characters and events to make the narrative a little more exciting. Yes, again, as I noted in my comments on Fire, Burn! above, Carr knew a LOT about historical fact. But no amount of historical accuracy could bring this corpse back to life for me. For me, this was like reading a textbook for a course you didn’t want to take but had to. I finished the book in an evening and set it aside forever, extremely disappointed.

6573986169_ae8008afea_m1.The Blind Barber (1934)

There are people who like John Dickson Carr’s sense of humour, which depends largely upon a broad sense of farce reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, or perhaps P. G. Wodehouse. When he can restrain it (as in, for instance, the ghost train sequence in the Carter Dickson title The Skeleton in the Clock) it can provide a useful silly interlude within a larger, more serious story, and relieve some tension only to let it start building again. But here, there is nothing other than pure unadulterated farce, leavened with horrific and bloody violence. The principal figure of fun is an elderly alcoholic puppeteer — I don’t think alcoholism is something to encourage people to think is funny, in this context. Everyone in this book drinks a lot and does silly things against their own best interests in order to further the plot and keep it moving so fast that you aren’t supposed to notice that really, nothing useful is going on. And the most annoying part for me is that, early on, a minor character says something about the official actions in regard to the murder that, as far as I’m concerned, ruins the ending. The reader was told that something had happened and the solution depends on that not having effectively happened. (I’m again on dangerous ground here because I don’t have a copy at hand to give you chapter and verse; this is my memory speaking.) This book isn’t as funny as Carr thinks it is, the mystery is a cheat, the characters are unrealistic in the extreme, the violence is unnecessarily horrible, and a lot of the humour is based on how funny alcoholics are. Ugh.

A note on omissions

I’m sure it will surprise some people to realize that there are two very significant John Dickson Carr novels that are not on my list of favourites: The Three Coffins and He Who Whispers. Most commentators on JDC would, I think, at least have those in their top ten. I have to say that if I had done ten favourites rather than five, He Who Whispers would have been a solid sixth place and Three Coffins might have been ninth or tenth.

51EbYUCUfNL._SY445_He Who Whispers has a lot of great things about it; notably it’s one of the instances where JDC was frank about sexual matters, and I have to think that improves the book when compared to the rank and file of his work. For me — and I know I differ from almost everyone on this — the vampire element just doesn’t work. Perhaps it’s something about me personally, but it was perfectly clear to me from the outset that the crime was not committed by someone with magical powers and so the reader had to look at what actually happened without JDC in the background making moaning noises and saying, “Oooooo, scary stuff over here!”.  The puzzle is clever, the writing is good, it’s just this particular volume didn’t work for me from the get-go because I didn’t believe the premise.

three-coffinsThe Three Coffins is another one with the same problem for me. Do I have something against vampires? Maybe so. All I know is, Carr can bring me to the point of screaming out loud when he writes about, say, the mechanical hag in Crooked Hinge, and here the vampire stuff is just silly. The reason why this book would make it into my top ten list is because of the magnificent chapter where Dr. Fell stops the action, breaks the fourth wall, and delivers a lecture about how locked-room mysteries work. It truly is great. And I think it would have been even better in a work of non-fiction, because what it does for me is slow the action of this novel to a complete and grinding halt from which it never really recovers. Act 1 raises a lot of questions, then there’s a lecture about, essentially, how to read the book, then Act 2 goes off on a tangent about the second crime, then Act 3 is so full of explanations that it’s just three chapters of lecturing by Dr. Fell. Without spoiling it for anyone, I have never liked the reason why no one except Dr. Fell can figure out the second murder; it just doesn’t seem possible to me that everyone overlooked that certain something. The characterization is simplistic (“good” people and “bad” people are easy to identify). And once you clear away the guff about people rising from their graves, what you really have is a book where most of the backstory is crammed into the final third of the book in order to explain the first two-thirds; readability is sacrificed to the goal of making the first third of the book spooky as hell and inexplicable.

Nevertheless, as I say, both these books have lots and LOTS of fans. They may not be to my specific taste, but they might be to yours, so you should definitely give them a try.

 

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Dorothy L. Sayers and the gold lamé wedding gown

Tuesday Night FebruaryA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in March will be devoted to John Dickson Carr.

 

 

Dorothy L. Sayers and the gold lamé wedding gown

 

Since this is our final Tuesday with Dorothy L. Sayers for a while, I trust my readers will forgive my wandering a bit on this topic. While working on blog posts for this month, I’ve tried a couple of times, unsuccessfully, to try to figure out why I don’t really enjoy the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers. I’m getting closer.

fe6692ed9873eb2ee77c0f6da7d3e414A few years back, I rather thought it was because she’s an arrogant writer, and that’s a quality I don’t find interesting. Arrogant, for me, is creating a 30-page letter as a crucial element of Clouds of Witness in stilted and rather prissy French — and then being surprised when her publishers want to provide a translation. Similarly, I think it’s pretty arrogant to have a crucial verbal exchange in Gaudy Night take place in Latin, although there’s nothing in it that affects the detective work.

41q+ZB-iWkL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_And yet everything I’ve heard about this lady suggests that she was not the arrogant type at all. I’m not exceptionally versed in her biography; I’ve read Such A Strange Lady but little else. What Martin Edwards had to say about her in his excellent recent work on the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder, (buy one here!) agrees with my impression that she was kind of a galumphing British country lady, swathed in gigantic ill-fitting tweeds and subject to emotional outbursts and sudden enormous bursts of energy. I can’t maintain that “arrogant” is a word you apply to someone who insists upon the complex nonsensical ritual including Eric the Skull that was necessary to become a member of the Detection Club. That sounds more to me like that peculiar turn of phrase, “jolly hockey sticks”, indicating “boisterous enthusiasm”.

QueenVictoriaWedding_2

Queen Victoria started the trend for “white satin and orange blossoms” for a wedding gown.

I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that DLS used the Peter and Harriet storyline as a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy, where her romantic life finally came out the way she wanted it. (Including her own statement quoted by Barbara Reynolds, via Wikipedia, that she created Lord Peter as a wealthy man to give herself the pleasure of spending his fortune for him.) But was Sayers herself ready to move within the social circles attendant upon marriage to a peer of the realm? I rather doubt it, actually. She was the daughter of a country doctor who worked hard to get a superb education at an excellent school, and in real life she married an unsuccessful Scottish journalist. She might have made a superb wife for a don, or a country doctor; however, I’ve always felt that the woman who insisted that her stand-in, Harriet Vane, would get married in gold lamé, a fabric beloved of drag queens and trailer trash, lacked an essential instinct, or understanding, that would allow her to succeed in the higher realms of society.

I also think that DLS realized it, too. The idea that she would be so thoroughly and repellently patronized for her dress sense by the equivalent of Peter’s sister-in-law is where the idea of Helen came from for her books; in order to make Helen a figure of fun and opprobrium in the novels, she had to have realized that that’s what would have happened to a real-life Harriet Vane who “married above herself”.

But was my instinct correct? I had occasion to go back to the original text of Busman’s Honeymoon recently, and I came across the exact quote about gold lamé; only, to my surprise, there were two references.  The Dean in a letter to Miss Edwards says “she looked like a Renaissance portrait stepped out of its frame. I put it down first of all to the effect of gold lamé,”, and this is the piece I’ve always remembered.  But Helen, Duchess of Denver, later says in a letter to Lady Grummidge that Harriet “had enough sense of propriety not to get herself up in white satin and orange-blossom; but I could not help thinking that a plain costume would have been more suitable than cloth of gold. I can see that I shall have to speak to her presently about her clothes, but I am afraid she will be difficult.”

3af9425bfae0b2d65f2fcc8ecd0fcad3Now, “cloth of gold” may have been a phrase I’d read a couple of times, but it had never quite stuck before.  I had had in my mind that Harriet was wearing a kind of fabric that was newly being manufactured at the time … as Wikipedia defines it, a shiny fabric “woven or knit with thin ribbons of metallic yarns”. The classic gold lamé evening gown is one worn by Marilyn Monroe, and I’ve shown you a picture of it to the left. Thin, glittering, and very expensive fabric that moulds to the body. And I think it’s this level of expensive-looking luxury that I always had in mind, although admittedly I would have assumed that Harriet would have covered her shoulders and neckline. I figured DLS had chosen an expensive and glamorous fabric with about the same lack of knowledge as caused her to make bloomers about Peter’s choices in wine and motorcars.

bb685c566e6e9a49e6812db700067010Cloth of gold, however, is a whole other fabric, in my mind. According to Wikipedia once more, it’s woven with a gold-wrapped or spun weft; the core yarn, though, is usually silk. This material “is mentioned … as a fabric befitting a princess” and it has an association with mediaeval gowns. I’ve shown you one to the left that’s the best reference I could find. As a fabric, I think cloth of gold has more of a formal feel, and it has distinct overtones of the upper classes; under Henry VIII, its use was “reserved to royalty and higher levels of nobility”.

So in other words — far from being the gauche and over-dramatic statement that would have caused Harriet to rightly be patronized by Helen, Harriet — and thus DLS — was on the right track entirely. A woman who had been acquitted of murdering her lover is not suitable for white satin and orange-blossom, since to put it bluntly she’s demonstrably not a virgin. And yet it’s clear later on in Busman’s Honeymoon that Harriet, now Lady Peter, realizes that if she doesn’t take on the trappings of the aristocracy quickly and effectively, Helen will be able to use it against both herself and Lord Peter. I’ve spent 30 or 40 years thinking that the material of Harriet’s wedding dress was a terrible misstep and very revealing of DLS’s lack of understanding of the fine details of social usage at the highest levels. And it turns out that instead Helen and I got it all wrong; DLS knew what was going on and I didn’t.

So, I owe Dorothy L. Sayers a little bit of a re-examination as well as something of an apology. As penance, even though we’re now done with DLS, I’m going to go back and re-read the four novels where Harriet and Peter slowly fall in love. Another 30 years might go by before I publish a full recantation, admitting that Peter and Harriet are lovers for the ages — but I’m getting there slowly!

 

Obelists at Sea, by C. Daly King (1932)

WARNING: This book is a classic 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 book, 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. 

Note that there seems to be some small disagreement among booksellers as to whether this book was first published in 1932 or 1933.  Since my copy of Hubin is not at hand, I’m going with what Penguin says in the frontispiece to the copy from which I prepared this review, October 1932.  

And also note: according to a brief note before the book begins, an “Obelist” is a person of little or no value.

13187293416What’s this book about?

Many of the passengers and some of the crew on the S. S. Meganaut, making a trans-Atlantic journey, are gathered in the “smoking room” to attend an auction of “the numbers”. (Passengers lay wagers upon the number of miles to be traveled by the vessel the next day by bidding for the right to own a specific number; the winner may take in more than a thousand dollars, which was a huge sum in 1932 dollars.) Bidding against each other are the wealthy Mr. Smith, traveling with his lovely daughter, and Mr. DeBrasto, a New York lawyer, for the right to own 648, felt to have the best chance of sweeping the pool; the auction has reached $800 and there is felt to be some acrimony between the two men.

Suddenly a number of things happen one after the other in rapid succession. The lights in the smoking room begin to fade and dim to blackness; a woman’s voice from the doorway bids one thousand dollars; there are sounds of breaking glass and a noise of gunshots. When the emergency lights come on, Mr. Smith is dead on the floor, apparently from a bullet to the heart; Miss Smith is lying in a dead faint from which she cannot be roused, and her valuable pearl necklace is missing.

The aficionado of GAD will be delighted to learn that although Mr. Smith’s corpse contains two bullets, both of which appear to have entered his heart simultaneously through the same hole — he did not die of the bullets but from a poisoned cocktail some minutes before. The same poison has affected the young lady to lesser degree, since she only took a single sip of her drink; she is close to death but remains comatose. A number of people in the smoking room were armed and firing shots; a small rubber bulb that had contained poison is found in the pocket of one of the suspects.

C. Daly King

C. Daly King, apparently at sea

Although most of the rest of the events of the book I should and shall leave for your reading pleasure, the remainder of the plot concerns four world-class psychologists who are traveling on the Meganaut. Each apparently represents a distinct school of psychological thought and they collectively offer a hand to investigate the crimes, each one for a few chapters. (I recommend you speak these next names aloud so you’ll more quickly understand the type of book this is, although occasionally the names are missing a key syllable.) Dr. John B. Hayvier (a behaviouralist) first looks into the crimes in chapters sur-titled “Conditioning”, Dr. Rudolph Plechs’s (of the psychoanalytic school) segment is called “Inferiorities”, that of Dr. L. Rees Pons is called “Dominance”, and finally Professor Knott Mittle’s section is called “Middle grounding” (he apparently represents a kind of centrist viewpoint of the “integrative psychology” school that encompasses the other three theorists). Each approaches these events armed with the knowledge of what has gone before, but colours it through his own theories about human psychology. This extends beyond mere theory; one psychologist administers a timed word-association test to a suspect in order to try to demonstrate guilt or innocence.

In a concluding chapter called “The Criminal: Trial and Error”, the investigating team sets a trap for the guilty party, whose identity should be greatly surprising to the reader. There is a lengthy sequence that explains exactly what happened, how, and by whose hand — some of which is known, but much of which will also be quite surprising — as the book ends.

3472877575Why is this worth reading?

Last December, I did a post here about how I would like to read, for Christmas, some extremely unobtainable volumes whose properties combined scarcity and value. Obelists at Sea was one of those books. As far as I know, there is a single paperback edition, Penguin #160, which was published in England in 1938. Since this pre-dates the first North American paperback (Pocket #1 was published in New York in September, 1939), and Britain had extensive paper drives during World War II, its scarcity is easy to understand. The hardcovers are even more valuable due to rarity and age; a near-fine copy of the Knopf first edition (with black Art Deco design on silver cloth — gorgeous!) with the super-rare jacket is offered today on ABE for US$850 and the two available paperbacks are about US$50 each.

A very kind British reader of my letter to Santa got in touch and offered me a copy of Penguin #160 from his personal collection.  I will repay his generosity by not mentioning his name because he’d be inundated with requests for similar great favours, but I will simply thank him with this review.  My copy won’t be leaving my shelves any time soon!

I actually did have a copy of this in my hands once before; my friend, the Edgar-winning author L. A. Morse, whose book collection is exceptional, let me sit in his home and read his first edition over an evening and I gobbled it down, retaining only an impression of what I’d read and few of the details. That was in the 1970s and I was delighted to re-encounter this delightful book because, as you can imagine, I’d forgotten most of the details.

Yes, this is a very difficult mystery to solve, and I don’t think the average reader will manage it. I certainly didn’t, even the second time around. And it’s not exceptional in its “fair play” aspects. One key clue that would immediately solve the mystery is held back by it being enciphered for police secrecy, and the officer who receives it neglects to decode it until the case is solved. There are some complications to the plot, like the two bullets that enter the same wound, that seem more designed to astound the reader and snarl the solution to no purpose.

But there are a couple of things about this book that are so interesting that it seems that this scarce book lives up to its reputation. One is that it has on every page the very rare feeling that the author is having a great deal of fun writing this book, and that’s just a great thing to read, because it communicates to the reader and provides pleasure. I do not mean that this book is about a trans-Atlantic journey of the nature of John Dickson Carr’s The Blind Barber. In no sense is this a farce; but the names of the psychologists, Drs. (com)Plechs and B. Havier for instance, should give you the flavour of the charm of this book. There’s also a character named Mr. Younghusband and another whose name is I. Gnosens — innocence.  There is very little realism that’s being attempted here, and that makes it slightly easier to take that the reader must accept that the victim was shot twice but died of being poisoned, et cetera. This book is fun, but not silly.

obelists_sea_coverSpeaking of fun; apparently the definition of “obelist” differs with each of King’s three Obelists mysteries. (The third is the unbelievably scarce Obelists En Route, which I am told takes place on a train. Someday I hope to find out.) In Obelists Fly High, for instance, it’s defined as “someone who views with suspicion”. Well, when you make up words, you get to define them however you like!

The other thing that’s interesting about this book is the way in which the four competing schools of psychology are depicted and contrasted. The author was a well-known psychologist who had written a 1932 volume called The Psychology of Consciousness that apparently led the way in its field — he knew what he was talking about. No doubt if you were a world-class psychologist in 1932, this novel would have been absolutely hilarious, and King apparently had to make it clear at the time that he was absolutely not mocking real people with his psychologist characters. I’m not sufficiently educated in the history of psychology to completely understand what’s going on here, but I imagine the theories and ideas that are tossed around in the course of this mystery were very cutting-edge for 1932. In this aspect this book is a “don’s delight”; we’re privileged to overhear the shoptalk of advanced scientific theorists being applied to a rather far-fetched plot structure. But not too seriously; one of the four is hesitant to accept the concept of consciousness at all, and keeps saying so.

daly-king

C. Daly King

And all things considered, this book is very satisfying. When you learn the identity of the murderer, your reaction is likely to be something like my own: “Oh, rats, I missed that completely!”  Yes, the author’s antics have misdirected you completely and you didn’t think about where people were at a crucial time. Well done, Mr. King.

So — a fun book, with a lovely sense of humour underlying it; an exotic mystery with extremely unusual amateur detectives investigating it; and an extremely difficult puzzle mystery at the heart of it all. I wish you the best of luck in finding your own copy. Given the current interest in classic Golden Age mysteries, I certainly hope an enterprising publisher can acquire the rights to these great mysteries by C. Daly King and make it possible for more than a lucky few people to read them.

The most unobtainable of all of King’s work is a very sad story. Apparently his sales were not very good and he finished a mystery in about 1941 that was never published, because he was dropped by his publishers. But it should give us the hope that someday someone will bring us THAT novel.

My favourite edition

Trust me, any edition of this that you manage to acquire will be your favourite; until and unless this gets reprinted, it will probably be the only one you ever see. For a book hound like me to hold only two copies in 50 years makes it likely that you’re not going to find one at the Junior League Thrift Shop; if you do, you’ll probably have to fistfight a bookseller to get it out of the store.

But if you’ve just won the lottery, the first American edition, with the striking design in black ink on silver cloth, is just lovely. If you had it in original jacket, that would be delightful. In the meantime, I really do like my copy of Penguin #160. Early greenbacks have a kind of literary dignity with their uniform design that did not translate well to the aspirations of American publishers, and they are always nice to look at.

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Dorothy L. Sayers and the excelsior principle

Tuesday Night FebruaryA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in February will be devoted to Dorothy L. Sayers.

Dorothy L. Sayers and the excelsior principle

Unknown“I finally felt that I was unpacking large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails …”

from Why Do People Read Detective Stories? by Edmund Wilson, The New Yorker, October, 1944

Despite the fact that I’m starting off with a quote from Edmund Wilson, perhaps the most well-known foe of the traditional detective novel, no, this is not a hatchet job about Dorothy L. Sayers. It is reasonably well known among my acquaintance among GAD aficionados that I’m not a big fan, but recently I had occasion to re-read her work pretty much from scratch.  And in the way of such re-examinations twenty or thirty years later, I got a different idea than I’d had when I was younger.

NaturalExcelsor_xThe main reason I didn’t enjoy reading DLS when I was younger, as I recall, was because of the presence of a great deal of … let’s call it excelsior, for the moment. (Which is defined as “softwood shavings used for packing fragile goods or stuffing furniture”, if you were wondering.) Simply put, DLS stuffs her books with great volumes of extraneous material that apparently has nothing to do with the mystery or its solution. Some of it I think would be called “characterization”, some is “social history”, some is background material.

When I first started thinking about this piece, I thought I’d test my hypothesis. I selected a DLS title at random from my shelves, which contain all her titles; my hand found The Nine Tailors. I opened the book at random and found … well, unfortunately DLS has divided this work into chapters in a way that has more to do with campanology than common sense, and so “The Fourth Part” begins on page 123 of my paperback edition; that’s the best guidance I can give you.

The particular segment begins “Well, now, ma’am,” said Superintendent Blundell. It continues for a grand total of 2527 words (yes, I actually counted) and involves three separate conversations with three witnesses and the mention of about twenty named individuals, most of whom play no further part in the story. Superintendent Blundell interviews the housekeeper of the titled Thorpe family, the disagreeable and snobbish Mrs. Gates, and then gets corroborating evidence from the shrewish Mrs. Coppins and the schoolmistress Miss Snoot, about the precise placement of funeral wreaths on Lady Thorpe’s coffin. Someone has moved them in order to introduce an extra corpse into the gravesite.

The point of this 2527 words is to establish the following, which actually is the last sentence of the segment: “… [T]hat brought the time of the crime down to some hour between 7:30 p.m. on the Saturday and, say, 8:30 on the Sunday morning.” Twenty-four words. The other 2503 words concern the opinions and personalities primarily of Mrs. Gates, who has extensive and unpleasant opinions about the placement of funeral wreaths with respect to the social status of the wreath-giver, the financial circumstances of Mrs. Coppins’s family that brought her to give an expensive wreath of pink hot-house lilies in January, and the fact that the only schoolboy sufficiently mischievous to have moved either Mrs. Gates’s or Mrs. Coppins’s wreaths, one Tommy West, had a broken arm at the time. 24 / 2527 = 1% content, 99% excelsior. In case it’s not clear, I think this is what Edmund Wilson was getting at.  His bent and rusty nails are here the time period during which the second corpse was surreptitiously buried.

Now, it is not for me or indeed anyone to say that fiction must be written economically. Most murder mysteries could be summed up in about a page if that were the case, and that would not be an enjoyable process. But a ratio of 99% excelsior to 1% rusty nails seemed rather excessive to me in my younger days. I’d always held the view that DLS’s works contained a far too small ratio of signal to noise, as it were. And there is almost zero signal here. Mrs. Gates, Mrs. Coppins, Miss Snoot and Tommy West could have been entirely eliminated from the narrative without any damage to the activities of the plot. I am not asserting that I wanted that to happen; the reader has a pleasant moment of dislike for the pompous Mrs. Gates, and has only wasted a quarter of an hour on the 2500 words of … burble.

I have had a lot of experience with good detective stories that contain extraneous material, ranging from fascinating to burble. Perhaps the most famous example was John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, where the action grinds to a halt while the characters break the fourth wall and talk about how locked-room mysteries work. A favourite of mine, Clayton Rawson, regularly veers off within his books for geometry problems and disquisitions on the history of “blue men” and “headless ladies” and all kinds of things. Edmund Crispin introduces humorous disquisitions on unpleasant characters in English literature. One might almost say that extraneous material is a hallmark of the best detective fiction. There is a caveat here, though; most of the extraneous material touches upon and/or illustrates the topic of the mystery. JDC has that chapter about locked-room mysteries because they’re involved in a locked-room mystery. When Clayton Rawson talks about how carnival sideshow acts are created, it’s because the mystery is set within a carnival. The niceties of social class as portrayed in DLS’s placement of funeral wreaths on a coffin do not seem to contribute anything to a story about jewel theft and campanology. (They emphatically contribute to our knowledge of the social history of the 1930s, I must add.)

Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers

But, dammit, I thought, Sayers was widely read in detective fiction; she was a reviewer and critic and best-seller. I don’t say that a place on the best-seller list provides an automatic assumption of literary quality; Danielle Steele and James Patterson are evidence to quite the contrary. Nevertheless DLS did bring a considerable amount of academic background in the analysis of literature to this process, and I cannot think that she was writing like this by accident. She was capable of identifying the central thread of her story, and theoretically she could eliminate material that didn’t contribute to it. If she didn’t, we have to assume she wanted it there.

So what was she getting at?

In my younger, grumpier years, I thought she was merely in love with the sound of her authorial voice and felt that her readers were as well. There is a considerable body of fannish comment on DLS that suggests that that is precisely the case; DLS fans, and there are a lot of them, just love to embark on a journey into the mechanics of becoming a phony spiritualist with Miss Climpson, or learning the principles that underlie a Playfair cipher, how to pick a lock, etc. Most of these excursions to me seem stuffed to the gunwales with excelsior (the “born-again” activities of the former burglar who teaches Miss Murchison how to pick locks are a repellent example). I felt that for whatever reason, the Wimsey stories were not my style; I set them aside and smiled mechanically when people at my bookstore told me how much they loved them.

I came to this month’s worth of disquisition on DLS, though, with a more open mind than perhaps I had had in the past. It rather seemed that if so many people liked the Wimsey stories, and didn’t find them to be stuffed with excelsior, and this sentiment was shared by some of my fellow bloggers whose opinion I respect, well — there had to be something I was missing.

NPG x2861; E.C. Bentley by Howard Coster

The author who shall not be named here. But he gave his middle name to a style of verse!

Then I had a flash of insight, caused by my having occasion to re-read a 1913 book considered one of the primary texts of detective fiction. I’m not going to name it, because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment should they not have read it yet, but I will provide a quote that I found quite meaningful in this context. And those of my readers who are familiar with this text will know exactly what I’m talking about, I trust. The detective is examining the room of a suspect.

“Two bedroom doors faced him on the other side of the passage. He opened that which was immediately opposite, and entered a bedroom by no means austerely tidy. Some sticks and fishing-rods stood confusedly in one corner, a pile of books in another. The housemaid’s hand had failed to give a look of order to the jumble of heterogeneous objects left on the dressing-table and on the mantelshelf—pipes, penknives, pencils, keys, golf-balls, old letters, photographs, small boxes, tins, and bottles. Two fine etchings and some water-colour sketches hung on the walls; leaning against the end of the wardrobe, unhung, were a few framed engravings. A row of shoes and boots was ranged beneath the window. [Detective] crossed the room and studied them intently; then he measured some of them with his tape, whistling very softly. This done, he sat on the side of the bed, and his eyes roamed gloomily about the room.
The photographs on the mantelshelf attracted him presently. He rose and examined one representing [suspect] and [victim] on horseback. Two others were views of famous peaks in the Alps. There was a faded print of three youths—one of them unmistakably [suspect]—clothed in tatterdemalion soldier’s gear of the sixteenth century. Another was a portrait of a majestic old lady, slightly resembling [suspect]. [Detective], mechanically taking a cigarette from an open box on the mantel-shelf, lit it and stared at the photographs. Next he turned his attention to a flat leathern case that lay by the cigarette-box.
     It opened easily. A small and light revolver, of beautiful workmanship, was disclosed, with a score or so of loose cartridges. On the stock were engraved the initials [suspect’s initials].”

My readers who are familiar with this work will already be nodding their heads, because they recognize that somewhere in that morass of tiny details is a single detail that gives the detective a clue which brings him closer to his solution. And then, in a way which I understand is a characteristic of an author who is trying to hide a clue, at the end of the paragraph is a surprising revelation (the revolver). The idea is that the tiny clue vanishes from the reader’s mind because the immediate surprise supplants it. At the end, the reader can go back and say, “Oh, by golly, there WAS a such-and-such in the suspect’s bedroom, I just forgot about it because I was so focused on that revolver.”

In other words, you conceal the clue by burying it in excelsior and then distracting the reader’s attention.

2940With that in mind, my realization is that this is the kind of thing that DLS was trying to do. It’s not merely excelsior for the sake of it, she’s actually burying clues in it. However, there are a couple of differences. I’d say that about 75% of The Nine Tailors qualifies as pure excelsior, which is considerably more than the 1913 work quoted above. And frankly, it is hard to find the very, very few clues to the mystery that are buried within it like rusty nails — because there are so few of them. The Nine Tailors does not actually have many clues; instead it has quite a bit of psychology about who is the type of person to have committed the crimes, and why, and a lot of speculation as to how the murder could actually have been carried out. (A modern novel based on this scenario would have had a terse comment from the autopsy surgeon a few chapters after the body is discovered, and half the puzzle would have been solved in a flash, I think, if indeed the murder scenario would stand up to such scrutiny.) But it seems to me that this is what DLS was doing. She got far too fond of her talent to create excelsior, with funny accents and dimwitted rustics and the antics of the servant classes about which she could be snobby. And Wilson’s “bent and rusty nails” of clues are not much use in coming to the solution of the mystery, to be honest. Lord Peter really works most of it out by being in the wrong room at the right time, and solving a very difficult cryptogram that depends upon a knowledge of change-ringing.

This exercise, though, has taught me something of a lesson. The exercise of trying to place DLS’s writing style in context has been revealing — she is following upon the track of the older author whose name I have not mentioned. I find this contextualization reassuring; it has made me realize that she wasn’t really stepping out and creating an entirely new kind of detective fiction, but merely adapting her personal writing style to the traditions of the genre. And if it takes her 2500 words to say nothing useful at all — well, it’s taken me slightly fewer than 2500 words to say very little about her work, and I can refrain from complaining if you can!