Binge-reading Gladys Mitchell: Part 2

9780770104023-us-300I haven’t bothered to count just how many Gladys Mitchell titles in e-format I picked up on impulse the other day, but it looks to be about 50 titles. That should hold me for a while. I did mention that I had picked up Sunset Over Soho (1943) at random as my next attempt, but a gentleman named Mark Fowler, on my Facebook feed as a comment to my announcing Part 1 of this essay, had this to say: “Much as I love Gladys Mitchell Sunset Over Soho is my own personal least favourite of them, and one I would not recommend to anyone starting out on her.” Point taken, Mr. Fowler, and thank you. I was finding it chaotic and hard slogging anyway, although it’s hard to set aside a book where the great rescue at Dunkirk is merely an interruption to the mystery plot. I’ve set aside Sunset Over Soho for the moment and gone with the book that started the whole thing, my paperback copy of Uncoffin’d Clay.

I’m not precisely starting out on Mitchell — I’ve read about a third of her output, over the years — but it might as well be so, because I have uncharacteristically forgotten most of her plots and characters. Over the next few months I expect to keep having the “Oh, I’ve read this before” reaction about midway through some of the volumes. I mention this not because I think my failing memory will amuse you, but because — well, I tend not to forget the details of books, and if I do, it’s generally because they’re not very memorable. So that seems to be my expectation as I’m going in. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

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 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. 

Uncoffin’d Clay, by Gladys Mitchell (1980)

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The first edition (Michael Joseph, 1980). I have no idea what the scarecrow is meant to represent, but it’s nothing from the book.

This one I had read before; I expect it was in the 80s when the PaperJacks edition came out. The basic premise is that a wealthy Arab sheikh and his family purchase an old estate in rural Dorset and there is a good deal of resentment in the neighbourhood because they don’t fit in well. This builds up to the Arab’s son Hamid sustaining a serious injury in a “man-trap”, an antique device for snaring poachers, and the disappearance of the estate’s land agent. Mrs. Bradley takes a hand and sorts out the death of the land agent, a blackmail plot that culminates in another murder, and assigns responsibility for various bad acts.

Now, I have learned over the years that as mystery writers age, their last few books are frequently quite poor. Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr; I’ve remarked before that these writers should probably have stopped a few books before they actually did, since they tarnished their own reputations with their final efforts. Just about the only major mystery writer I can think of offhand who maintained a high level of quality all the way was Rex Stout; he died literally days after publishing his magnificent final novel, A Family Affair. That’s a long build-up to explain why I was surprised that although this book was written three or four years from the end of a long life, this book is (a) coherent, and (b) quite readable.

That may be damning with faint praise, but Mitchell is an author who in the past I have found to be not always coherent and readable. Given that the author was in her late 70s when she produced this volume — and churned out two books a year until her retirement four years from this title — I wasn’t expecting much. As I read along, I kept thinking, “Wow, this is actually a very straightforward book.” No wild flights of fancy, no plot trails abandoned in mid-stream, everything relates to the central storyline, no characters who step off-stage for long periods and then come back with an important role … A to B to C, problem, investigation, solution, tidy ending, boom. Nothing especially memorable but none of the incoherency I was half-expecting.

There are some bits I found odd. One of them is that there is a narrator character who is a little bit peripheral to the action; this differs from my experience of Mitchell’s storytelling mode (omniscient third-person), although as I progress through her work I may learn differently. I found this character to be quite bland in many ways, essentially there to tell the story and be the recorder but not the Watson. There is one little thing that niggled at me. This gentleman is staying with his brother and sister-in-law for story purposes, as is reasonable, and the only interesting thing about him is that, without actually saying so, he appears to be sexually attracted to his sister-in-law. In fact it seems as though his relations realize it but he does not. The authorial work involved in producing this understanding is certainly skilled, but then at the end of the book it goes nowhere. The situation is not resolved and to my knowledge the narrator will never be heard of again. So I was left thinking, “Hmm, what’s that about?”  We’ll probably never know. Mitchell just wanted to write about two men in love with the same woman, and one of them married her.

20496500Another odd thing is that the sheikh himself is never seen or heard in the course of the novel, and — well, I don’t know about you, but I rather think he ought to have been onstage at least once, don’t you think? It’s as though the author is desperate to leave him out as a suspect at the cost of keeping offstage what might have been a fascinating character. Is that she felt she couldn’t manage to depict the sheikh accurately? I was particularly curious about why he had chosen to buy a large estate in rural Dorset, since it later turns out that he wasn’t very welcome there, but we don’t have any chance to understand his motivations. Apparently he raises horses and wants to do so on large tracts of land, to the locals’ dismay. It’s as though there was an unspoken assumption that rural Dorset is such a fine place to live that it overcomes any inconvenience involved in the sheikh abandoning his native habitat and coming to live among people who pretty much hate him.  “As for the local nobs, well, I suppose they’ll accept him in the end, if only because of his money, but at present he’s a parvenu and a foreigner and there’s enough of the old prejudice left in most people for the persistence of a belief that ‘the wogs begin at Calais’.” Perhaps they should have reflected that “wogs” with lots of money don’t actually need to care about the acceptance of the local nobs. But it would have been nice to know if the sheikh was self-aware or merely uncaring.

I performed my usual thought-exercise of trying to see if the plot made sense from the murderer’s point of view. In this case — well, not much. There’s nothing actually counterproductive about what the murderer does, but it’s not especially useful in the cause of concealing whodunit. Nothing is really all that difficult to figure out and there is a plot development near the end that makes it quite obvious who is trying to conceal what, and how. And the development itself is a matter of public record. The ending is rather flat because of that plot development — whodunit is clear, but what will happen is “probably not much”.

1769220Mrs. Bradley is by now reduced to a stock character; apparently Mitchell feels she is so well known that she merely has to demonstrate her idiosyncrasies once or twice during the course of the book and that’s it. So she cackles with laughter, her beautiful voice is remarked upon, and she’s not even referred to as “Mrs. Croc”; taken for granted. Mrs. Bradley is accompanied by her secretary Laura, who in this iteration is largely silent and off-stage while Mitchell overworks her omnipresent narrator.

To sum up: I used to characterize certain types of mysteries as “time-passers” and this is one of them. It will suffice to meet the needs of someone who requires a constant source of detective fiction that will divert them but not really challenge them; this may well be damning with faint praise, but honestly I mean this more kindly than that. I don’t call it a “time waster”. It’s perfectly all right to meet people’s needs by writing an unchallenging book in a long, long series; people expect the mixture as before, and that’s what they get here. It’s just that there is nothing that will remain with you after you close the book.

 

 

 

 

Binge-reading Gladys Mitchell

Part 1: The Worsted Viper, by Gladys Mitchell (1943)

51hkUNzfaVL._SY346_When you accumulate a really significant number of books — let’s say five digits’ worth — you do things that seem incomprehensible to people whose accumulated books consist of a shelf of dusty college textbooks, three Stephen King paperbacks with beach sand between their pages, and a coffee table book about Lady Di. This story starts a few weeks ago when I was in my local thrift shop and picked up a 1986 Canadian paperback edition of one of the final few Gladys Mitchell mysteries for $2.

“That looks interesting,” said my companion, “Is she any good?” Dangerous words to a book reviewer. I imagine that many of my readers have faced a similar problem. It is certainly quite all right to admire the work of … let’s say any Golden Age of Detection author who is not one of the Big Four. The problem comes when you try to answer the question of “good”. All these books have relative merits and accompanying drawbacks and it’s likely that your inquisitor has never heard of any other GAD author to whose work you might draw a comparison. Finally I decided that utility was the best guide for my response.  My companion would not be likely to invest the time to finish the novel I was holding (Uncoffin’d Clay from 1980) and was unlikely to pursue the issue at a library. “She wrote this one when she was quite elderly,” I said, “You probably wouldn’t find it amusing. She wrote a shitload of mysteries over a long career, but I’ve never personally been enthusiastic about most of them. She has a kind of … incoherent quality that is not easy to get over.”

9780770104023-us-300“Oh,” said my companion, “Okay, guess I won’t borrow that one.” And the talk turned to other things. But over the next few days, my mind kept returning to Gladys Mitchell. She’s on my list of authors whose books I will always buy, even if I’m not planning on reading them immediately, because (a) she’s always been scarce and hard to get, and (b) I know that people will always want them. A great part of Mitchell’s output, probably two-thirds of it, has never been published in paperback in North America; in my long experience constantly dealing in such things, I’ve never had more than half her books go through my hands in any affordable format. A Canadian publisher named PaperJacks did a handful of Mitchell’s last few books in small-format paperback (with a linking photo illustration of someone who reminds me more of Jessica Fletcher than Mrs. Bradley). I expect they were inexpensive to license, and no one else seems to have wanted to publish them in paperback, so they’ve become more valuable than their appearance promises. My $2 investment may pay off with $5 or even $10 in the future. So I’ll buy them, but as I now recalled, I very rarely bother to read one.

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Gladys Mitchell

It occurred to me that if I were to actually form a taste for Gladys Mitchell, I would have some 50 or 60 titles to read. I’m always crabbing about having too many books on my To Be Read pile, but truthfully much of my reading these days is more dutiful than pleasurable. If I can find an author who’s got a big backlist whose work I enjoy, so much the better. So I looked on-line. My readers will, I’m sure, have already anticipated what I found; a clever publisher (Thomas & Mercer of Seattle, WA) has made the Gladys Mitchell mysteries available through Amazon Publishing. All of them. And if you have Kindle Unlimited, they’re free.

So I got them all.

There’s really no justification. All I can say is, for years and years I was vaguely aware that Gladys Mitchell had written a hell of a lot of novels that I’d never seen, and I guess I panicked.  I’ll have to go back and check to make certain that, like Pokemon, I have them all, but presently my e-reader is stuffed to the gun’l’s with obscure Gladys Mitchell novels.

My readers can probably expect that, over the next while, like a python digesting a pig, I’ll have more to say about Gladys Mitchell en masse; I’ll certainly be trying to tease out linking themes and threads from her work on a larger scale. But when an unabashed bibliophile comes home with a large haul, the temptation is to savour a few choice bonbons off the top, as it were. So I’ll first give you a few initial reactions, since I’ve read a handful of these over the past week. You will be amused to know that I dipped into these based entirely upon their titles; what sounded interesting? Here’s the first of my finds.

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 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 Worsted Viper by Gladys Mitchell (1943)

This made me think of a couple of other books; it’s 50% Witch Miss Seeton by Heron Carvic, and 50% E. Phillips Oppenheim (or some other early practitioner of the desultory thriller). Essentially Mrs. Bradley confronts a witchcraft cult that is killing “women of the streets” and leaving a linking device on the bodies; a worsted viper. Mrs. Bradley musters the aid of the police and a small group of personal friends and solves the crime in a book that has many of the features of the 1910s/1920s thriller; at one point she’s shot at with a poisoned dart. If it had been “sinister Orientals” instead of “sinister witchcraft practitioners”, it would have been perfectly 50% Carvic and 50% Sax Rohmer.

FA-A36015-2I got off onto a long track of delightfully useless internet research about what precisely Mitchell meant by “worsted viper”. I had rather thought it was like a handmade stuffie that blocks draughts at the bottom of a door, made to look like a metre-long snake but along the lines of a sock monkey. (There’s a P.D. James mystery in which such an object plays a part; “Hissing Sid”.) But Chapter 5 tells us this:

“… was a toy snake made or worsted in the way that children make woollen reins on a cotton reel with four tin-tacks, so that its body was solid and circular. Some beads had been sewn on here and there, and its head, which was made of two pieces of soft leather stuck together with thin glue, was horribly and cleverly an imitation of the flat broad head of the English viper, which is without the head-shield common to most specimens of poisonous snakes.”

I’m still not sure what’s meant precisely about how this is made — some kind of small-scale macrame with fine wool? I believe “or” in the first sentence to be a typo; “worsted” is “a fine smooth yarn” so this snake was made OF worsted. At first I considered that there might be a process akin to tatting called “worsting” but I think it’s just a typo. And that is how one wastes 90 minutes on the internet, by the way. 😉

Anyway — quite a bit of the book is told through the POV of three young women, one of whom is Laura Menzies. Laura, as I recall, appears quite a bit throughout Mrs. Bradley’s oeuvre as being a “jolly hockey sticks” young athlete who manages the strenuous bits that Mrs. Bradley could not reasonably be expected to undertake. Here, she and her faithful chums Kitty and Alice are expert boat-women on holiday who touch on the periphery of the murders, and most of the action of the book takes place on or near the water. Mrs. Bradley’s niece-in-law Deborah performs a very similar “hearty young athlete” role in other books (I’ll have to confirm this) and does so here as well.

There is a lot about this book that didn’t live up to reasonable expectations. For some reason I kept expecting the witchcraft plot to be a fraud, rather like a Scooby-Doo outing where there’s really a smuggling plot going on in the background. But no, it’s witchcraft all the way. I was rather disappointed that one central issue of the book was clued with something that I recognized instantly, but which apparently was meant to be a major reveal at the climax; it was so obvious to me (I speak a particular foreign language) that I thought it must be a red herring. But no, it’s flat-out what it looks like. There are long passages told by characters who discover various deceased prostitutes; these people never appear again and there’s no real reason for them to be in the book.

There are also a couple of very odd things about this book and I’m still not quite sure how I feel about them. One is that there is a really interesting focus upon female sexuality, to such an extent that I thought, “Whoa, there’s more sex here than in half the Golden Age.” There are some perfectly reasonable observations about sexuality in the book, at least for the context of the 1940s when this book was published. There’s some quite frank talk about what the body of a prostitute reveals about her occupation, and the above-noted niece-in-law Deborah has sex with her husband twice in Chapter 10 when they’re alone on a boat. This is certainly referred to in oblique and obfuscatory terms, but they’re definitely Doing It; the only thing missing is a row of asterisks.

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Diana Rigg as Mrs. Bradley, from the only television productions of Mitchell mysteries; this beautiful lady is entirely inappropriate to play a woman of such legendary ugliness that she is referred to as “Mrs. Croc”.

As to why this is so odd — well, it’s a kind of trick. We wouldn’t blanch at finding a passage in a 1940s private eye novel that indicates that married couples or prostitutes actually have sex. Here it seems shocking because so much of the language and style of this book are based in the 1920s; we are led to expect the prudery of, say, Dorothy L. Sayers trying to shock her readers with Lord Peter saying “Hell!” and we get a much less unbridled sexuality. The other odd part is that as I understand it Miss Mitchell remained an unmarried teacher for all her long life and yet seems to have quite an understanding of, specifically from Chapter 10, the languorous afterglow after vigorous sexual activity. She does not, however, have an accurate view of — and I’m kind of guessing here as to what precisely she’s talking about — the idea that you can identify a sex worker’s trade by examining her body.  Check this out, and remember that Mrs. Bradley is not only a psychiatrist but of necessity a medical doctor:

“Mrs. Bradley looked at the cheap and tawdry clothing, the worthless jewellery, the almost complete absence of underclothing, the high-heeled shoes and cobweb stockings, and then turned to look at the body from which these poor lendings had come. … [Mrs. Bradley says:] “Not much doubt how she made her living, either, Inspector. There are various indications ….”

Indeed. I’ll leave the physiological determination to the reader, but I suggest that Miss Mitchell is talking through her cloche. “Various indications” — pfui.

mitchell_worsted_viper_newWhat interested me is that sexuality is actually a kind of focus of the book, and I’m not sure why. It doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the mystery’s solution. I noticed that every time one of the female characters gets dressed or undressed, particularly when swimming around boats (which happens a lot) there’s a little moment where she’s described as changing.  “She explained, pulling on, as she did so, slacks and a sweater over her vest and knickers.” “She slipped off her pyjamas, put on her bathing costume, and went out to test the temperature.” Once I noticed it, I saw it everywhere in the book; women change clothes in front of the reader. We don’t see male characters treated similarly, although to be fair there are very few instances where male characters in the book go swimming. I don’t have enough of Mitchell’s oeuvre in my recent memory yet to be able to say whether this is common or unusual, but I’m going to keep my eyes open as I go through my recent haul.

The other unusual thing I noticed that piqued my interest is that, quite late in the book, an unusual character is introduced. As I noted above, the bodies of prostitutes are being scattered about by the witchcraft cult, and for the most part they are left in yachts and houseboats. The innocent owners of these craft are introduced, discover the body, and then pretty much vanish, but they get a goodly chapter of characterizational writing before they do.

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The jacket of the first edition. The playing cards are nothing more than a mention in an idle paragraph of the book; completely misleading.

Chapter 19 tells the story of Edgar Copley and his sister Romance, who are on holiday so that “Edgar could sail a boat and Romance find peace and quiet”. The unusual thing is that — well, in modern terms, the young woman has a genetic disorder we call Down syndrome. In 1943, “Romance was what the neighbours called ‘not quite normal’ …” and the way she’s described is frankly shocking to the modern sensibility. “For the first five years after the death of his father … Edgar had hoped that Romance might die; but she did not.  She lived on, pallid, large-faced, fleshy, resentful, and childish, until sometimes he wished that he himself could die, if only to be rid of her.” Mitchell refers to her as “the puffy-faced defective”. By the end of the chapter, she has been violently murdered and left aboard their rented yacht.

Now, I keep trying to remind myself that it is unfair to expect that characters created in 1943 should partake of modern attitudes and knowledge; better that they don’t, indeed, so that we don’t forget how short-sighted and prejudiced we used to be.  Well and good. What really bothered me about this is that, in narrative terms, the whole chapter serves no real purpose. The characters are not involved further in the narrative — although there is a distinct suggestion that All Is Not What It Seems with regard to Edgar’s innocence, it essentially goes nowhere. Mrs. Bradley says immediately, “To me, the whole thing is too elaborate a framework within which to plan the murder of one poor mental defective.” This in fact is quite clear to the reader because the entire witchcraft plot would then either be unnecessary or partaking of the central premise of Christie’s The ABC Murders, and at this point in the novel those things are impossible to assert; it’s just too late.

So the whole chapter seems to be just Gladys Mitchell writing a lot of unpleasant description about someone with Down syndrome and then having her killed, in a violent and vicious way. I agree that it’s reasonable that this unenlightened point of view would largely go unremarked in 1943; it’s just really unpleasant to see it trotted out for no real reason except to add a bit of background colour. I can only hope that readers of 1943 found this as unkind and unfortunate as I did in 2017.

Summing up overall, I can’t recommend this as a place for someone to start with the Mrs. Bradley novels; there’s a good deal about this novel that is antique, including the plot structure and the central premise, and at least one authorial attitude that is actively unpleasant. Nevertheless I am determined to either find a better one or write them all off; I’ll continue to report back.

Unknown-1In closing, I wanted to mention that, although this novel was published in 1943, you’d hardly know there was a war on; just not part of the narrative. My next random selection from the works of Gladys Mitchell was quite the opposite. Although I chose Sunset Over Soho entirely by its title, it turns out to also be from 1943 and to contain, astoundingly enough, one major character taking some time out of the plot to go and assist with the evacuation of Dunkirk.  It begins with a corpse being discovered during an air raid, but this one is in a coffin already. I’ll let you know more as my next entry, perhaps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The case of the cynical synthesis

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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 😉

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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.

 

 

 

 

Dance of Death, by Helen McCloy (1938)

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 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. 

UnknownThis book was also published under the name Design for Dying.

I picked up my copy of this the other day — I read it a number of years ago and had forgotten the details in the intervening time. After refreshing my memory I thought it was a sufficiently enjoyable experience to share it with you.

What is this book about?

Katherine “Kitty” Jocelyn is one of the top debutantes of the New York season. She is slender, dark-haired, pale, and lovely, and in constant demand by advertising agencies to endorse everything from cigarettes to Sveltis reducing pills. Her coming-out party has been anticipated by her family for a long time, and every detail has been under the command of the well-known Mrs. Jowett, the premier social secretary for coming-out parties. Her family has devoted all its time and resources to advancing Kitty’s social career for years.

Unknown-1But the coming-out party does not go as planned, in many respects. Kitty herself is so ill on the night of her masquerade ball that the family persuades her cousin to impersonate her; and, as the reader rightly expects in a murder mystery, Kitty’s body is found soon after. The highly unusual features of her death include the facts that her skin has somehow turned a bright yellow, and her body is so hot that it has managed to maintain a higher-than-normal body temperature — despite its being found in a pile of snow.

Dr. Basil Willing is a psychiatrist who consults with the New York police department who becomes interested in the case. His interest is first piqued by the possibility that Kitty’s cousin Ann is being pressured by the family to continue impersonating the famous debutante; Ann appeals for Dr. Willing’s help to return to her everyday existence. Then there is the bizarre cause of death; there’s a great deal of scientific information packed in here about how and why she died and I won’t spoil it for you, but apparently McCloy came up with an interesting and unusual way of killing someone that is based in scientific reality.

Suspicion falls on members of her family, some of the servants, a couple of Kitty’s many suitors, and even a gossip columnist who seems over-involved in Kitty’s life. But it falls to Dr. Willing to pierce the many competing motives and find what turns out to be a murderer who acted for a very prosaic and understandable reason.

Why is this book worth your time?

13552719._UY475_SS475_I’ve elsewhere spoken of the “brownstone mystery”, a personal coinage describing a type of mystery that’s addressed primarily to a female reader; it’s meant to show the household arrangements of the wealthy class (clothes, social lives, furniture, homes, family relationships) while demonstrating to the reader that wealthy people are just as immoral and vicious as all the other social classes. The brownstone mystery flourished in the 1940s and authors like Frances Crane and Helen Reilly specialized in it. I’ll suggest that this is an early example, but to be frank Helen McCloy is a much better writer than, say, Frances Crane and brings her considerable skills to this, her first book. This is a brownstone mystery plus, and it’s the plus that makes it worth reading.

Unknown-2There’s a lot here to like. Basil Willing became the protagonist of a dozen mysteries in McCloy’s oeuvre, and while his personality is not as fleshed-out as it would later be, especially with the future addition of the beautiful Gisele to his life, he is an interesting and oddly compelling detective. The murder method is fascinating and apparently realistic. McCloy later became known for the occasional mystery involving a little-known chemical, such as the truth serum in 1941’s The Deadly Truth, and her treatment seems scientifically accurate with just enough detail to interest the reader without being tedious. The details of the Jocelyn household and its underlying difficulties are realistic and uncommon. And finally you will understand the motive for the murder without difficulty, but I rather doubt you’ll ever consider it during the course of the novel. The murder plot is clever and well-hidden but not impossible to work out if you’re paying very close attention.

The idea of one person being forced to impersonate another for economic reasons has been the focus of mysteries a number of times; the one that came to my mind in connection with this instance is Puzzle for Fiends by Patrick Quentin. Here the idea is not made much of and soon disappears, which is a little disappointing. Quentin did it better and you might move on to that volume after this, if you’re curious to see how it’s handled over the course of an entire novel.

I frequently pause to comment upon what we learn about the society of the time and place against which the novel is set, but in this case it’s better if I don’t — almost everything is connected with the murder and I’m likely to say too much. But there is quite a bit here about the nature of the “coming out” process, which is a phrase that in 1938 related to debutantes and not sexual preference, and particularly its economic implications. Fascinating stuff and you’ll enjoy it more if you come to it without hints.

A note on editions

31301106My favourite edition is, as usual, the Dell mapback edition — in this case #33, a very early number from about 1942. The cover art by Gerald Gregg features Dell’s trademark, the pioneering use of airbrush for the illustration showing a marionette being manipulated by a skeletal hand, and the typography is excellent; so is the map by Ruth Belew on the back cover, showing the Jocelyn house. I note that there’s an average copy available on eBay today for US$12 and I think this one would be the most collectible; that’s a good price, to my mind. Most of McCloy’s Basil Willing series until about 1950 are available in mapback editions.

The first edition is by William Morrow and I see that what appears to be a good copy without a jacket is available for about US$50. The person on eBay who wants US$650 for a near fine copy in a VG jacket is possibly delusional, since that’s perhaps three times what it should bring to my knowledge, but who am I to say? There’s also a Gollancz omnibus edition of McCloy’s 1st, 3rd, and 4th Basil Willing novels that includes the interesting The Deadly Truth, mentioned above, and might be the best bargain … except for the recent uniform e-books edition from The Murder Room.

 

 

 

 

When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger (1987)

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 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. 

220px-WhenGravityFailsBantamSpectra1988The universe of the science-fiction mystery crossover is smaller than other crossover genres, and I’m not sure why. As I’ve noticed in the past, just about any other genre can easily piggyback on top of the basic carrier wave of the mystery plotline. A crime is committed, a detective investigates, and the crime is solved; it doesn’t matter if it’s a historical mystery or a romantic mystery, a young adult mystery or a spy mystery, the mystery provides the basic plot structure and the other superimposed genre is what attracts the reader.

I suppose it’s more accurate to say that while there are quite a number of science-fiction mystery crossovers, the number of really readable ones is rather small. Too often, the author has decided to retell a traditional story in science fiction terms, and for every intelligent August Derleth who produces clever re-tellings of Sherlock Holmes stories (the Solar Pons stories), there’s a dozen unskilled practitioners who use our reverence for the Great Detective and knowledge of his character to tell a boring and/or uninspired story. Occasionally there’s an inventive writer who falls into a trap; it’s difficult to tell a locked-room mystery story properly if you have aliens around who can walk through walls, or if time travel is a fact of life. That’s what happens when a competent science fiction writer like Larry Niven tries his hand at a mystery; he doesn’t know enough about mystery to make it work properly. In the past I’ve found the science fiction mystery to contain much more chaff than wheat.

Marid_Audran_When_Gravity_FailsOnce in a while, of course, you find a merging of a specific style of mystery with a specific style of science fiction that works quite well. The private-eye story and/or the film noir movie meshes quite well with the science-fiction dystopia story; the best example is probably Blade Runner (1982), where director Ridley Scott added the trappings of film noir to a story by psycho genius science fiction writer Philip K. Dick and produced a great movie.

When Gravity Fails is another successful cross-over of the private-eye story told against a dystopian backdrop and I earnestly recommend it to your attention. It (and its three sequels) were hard to find for many years, and you needed to be actively searching for it in used bookstores if you hoped to find a copy, but these days it’s available on Amazon and in e-format. So you have little excuse to miss this treat.

What is this book about?

Marid Audran, originally from the Maghreb in Northwest Africa, is a small-time hustler in “the Budayeen”, somewhere unspecifed in the Middle East. The Budayeen is the quarter of a large city where prostitutes, alcohol, drugs, and petty crime are rampant. Marid buys, sells, and uses considerable quantities of drugs; his friends and associates are other less-than-reputable citizens who work as prostitutes, pimps, bartenders, and petty criminals.

imagesMarid was born in what we’d call 2172 (and is possibly in his 20s at the time of the novel); there have been a number of scientific and political developments since our century. The main discovery that affects the book is that people routinely have their brains wired for “moddies” and/or “daddies”. Daddies are insertable chips providing skills, like accounting or a knowledge of conversational German, that augment your own personality; moddies contain entire personalities that replace yours entirely (although daddies can still be used on top of them). In other words, you can get a moddie that will make you into Indiana Jones or Kim Kardashian, and adding daddies will allow you to play the violin while you become that person.

A secondary development is that sex reassignment surgery has become routine; Marid doesn’t care if you were born one sex and became another, and it’s not uncommon for people to start a transition and stop halfway, as a “deb”. Marid’s girlfriend began life as a male, and many of his friends have followed similar paths; no one cares what your sexual preference is until they can make money by furthering it.

Marid is unusual, in this society, because he was born a male and remains so, and refuses to have his brain modified to accept moddies and daddies. However, when a series of brutal murders among Marid’s acquaintance begins in the Budayeen, he is forced to become involved. One of the major figures in the Budayeen, crime boss Friedlander Bey, at first suspects Marid of the murders. When that is resolved, Friedlander Bey forces Marid to become his private investigator, at a rate of pay too high to refuse, and to get expensive experimental brain modifications that allow him the widest possible choice of moddies and daddies.

The criminal is killing and mutilating his victims apparently under the influence of a particularly sadistic moddie, possibly one that combines various aspects of various historical serial killers. Marid uses a number of moddies during his investigation, including at one point becoming Nero Wolfe (!) and failing to persuade a hanger-on to chip in as Archie Goodwin. Nero Wolfe and Marid’s own considerable intelligence lead him first to the actual killer and then to the shadowy figure who has been directing the killings.

Why is this worth your time?

images-1As I noted above, the field of the science-fiction mystery — the readable portion — is very small. I’ve enjoyed a few over the years, but there’s more bad ones than good ones. Either the science-fiction aspects overwhelm the mystery story, or vice versa; it’s a tough balance to get right.

George Alec Effinger got it right in this novel, and he did so in a technically very accomplished way. When you’re trying to immerse someone in an unusual environment and time-frame, like 19th century England or 22nd century Africa, you give the flavour by showing how the protagonist reacts to what HE considers to be everyday objects and events around him and letting the reader draw her own conclusions. There’s two ways in which this process usually fails. Either the writer makes the horrible error of getting the details wrong (the 19th century English protagonist looks at his wrist watch) or the writer does an unreadable data dump in the opening chapters to bring you up to date on what you can’t already know. (“Jane knew that the invisible force fields, standard equipment in every flying car since the 2100s, would protect her in the crash.”) The delicate balance is achieved when the protagonist manages to make remarks about what’s going on around him that allow the reader to catch up, without being obvious or introducing a naive character who is in the narrative merely to be told things. Effinger gets this one absolutely bang-on. Not too much, not too little, and it takes a while to get up to speed on why and how things happen, but it’s a very pleasant experience racing up the learning curve. I always enjoy science fiction novels when they manage this perfectly, and very few do.

The other part that Effinger got right is that the structure of the book follows a typical film noir pattern, without pulling its punches. The ending is sad and quite depressing, but it’s gutsy and honest. And there’s a quotation at the beginning of the book that Effinger has nailed in bringing his protagonist into being: from Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder”.

“… He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world … He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”

Unknown-1Marid Audran, despite (or perhaps because of) constant drug and alcohol intake and some fairly obvious character flaws, is the kind of viewpoint character that makes a very pleasant evening’s reading. He’s fascinating, complex, and not all one thing. His surroundings are, to quote Star Wars, “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.” The writing is excellent; Effinger’s ability to take you into a different world is superb.  This is one of the novels I’d recommend to people who don’t like the idea of science-fiction mysteries, possibly due to the same bad experiences I’ve had in the past. And I recommend it to you as a good mystery.

There are extensive references on the internet to this novel being a classic of cyberpunk, a seminal cyberpunk novel, etc. I’m not sure if I can agree 100% with assigning this novel as cyberpunk, but the differences are small. I suppose, like detective fiction, if you have something that “transcends its genre” then it is claimed as a representative of the “higher” art form rather than the “lower”. Not all cyberpunk novels mix film noir stories with futuristic dystopic backgrounds, but since this novel does, I’ll grant you it fits. I think it’s more interesting as a mystery than that, especially since it contains a very knowing nod to Rex Stout, but you can decide for yourself. Certainly cyberpunk was very hot in 1987 and it’s entirely possible that Effinger set out to write one.

Effinger was, unfortunately, both an uneven writer and a short-lived one. He actually wrote two full-length sequels to this volume, but they do not live up to the promise of the first. A Fire in the Sun (1989) and The Exile Kiss (1991) each represent a decline from the previous volume, mostly because Effinger’s finale for the first volume wrote him out of continuing the same life for his protagonist. There was a projected fourth volume that was only a few chapters at the time of Effinger’s untimely death; they look even worse, and that’s sad. I’d almost recommend you read this volume and stop; it’s brilliant in and of itself.

A note on editions

epscifi82_list__78713.1433603782The true first is the hardcover from Arbor House in 1987; you’ll see it above with an uninspired yellow cover and a mawkish illustration. The most expensive version, though, is a jacketless hardcover with 22 carat gold touches on the binding that includes “Collector’s Notes”; Easton Press did this in 1993. Honestly, I can’t figure out why. You can have the first, signed, today for US$125 before postage, etc., and that’s the most collectible one I’ve ever seen. I applaud the instinct to publish some science fiction in archival-quality editions, but this one is gaudy and overdone, to my eye, and the illustrations have nothing to do with the book.

I did this review with a beaten-up copy of the Bantam Spectra first paper edition seen at the top of this column, which is the edition by which I was gobsmacked back in ’87 when it came out. I expect my mental picture of Marid Audran will always be coloured by it. Other editions have followed, including at least one graphic novel, and the novel is currently available in an e-format. You should have no trouble finding your own; I recommend a durable copy since this book stands up to re-reading.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some thoughts on Herbert Resnicow’s mysteries

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 Herbert Resnicow. In no instance here do I reveal the identity of a murderer, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read Resnicow’s works, 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 his books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. (The second-last paragraph mentions the two volumes by name that I think you will enjoy the most.)

Herbert_ResnicowThe works of Herbert Resnicow have recently become available to me — okay, I opened a dusty box in “Noah’s Archives” and there they were, held firmly in place beneath the weighty output of Ruth Rendell. As is my habit, I picked one up to flip through in order to remind myself of his work, and eight books later, I thought I’d make some notes. 😉

I mention my personal process only to indicate why I’ve chosen to go against my habit. Generally when I look at an

9780380692781-usauthor, I choose a single book and examine it in depth as a way of talking about a broader view; the author’s themes or preoccupations as exemplified within the pages of one of his/her works. In the case of Resnicow, I found not that much that can be examined in depth and so I thought I’d look at everything at once to see if there was anything of interest that could be teased out with a wider viewpoint.

Resnicow’s oeuvre

Herbert Resnicow’s publication history began in 1983 with The
9780380699230-usGold Solution
, which was a finalist for the Edgar for Best First Novel. There were four more novels in five years in the Gold series, about the adventures of a middle-aged Jewish married couple who trade barbed insults and solve crimes, rather after the model of Mr. and Mrs. North, Nick and Nora Charles, and a host of other married sleuths.

In 1985, he began a second series about a male attorney and his romantic partner, a female university dean, against a background of crossword puzzles and having crossword blanks as part of the story, to be filled in by the reader so as to provide clues to the mystery for the perspicacious.  There were five of these in two years, with the collaboration of well-known crossword compiler Henry Hook (who here has exceeded even his usual brilliance in many instances by constructing puzzles that meet the needs of the plot).

UnknownIn 1987 and 1990, Resnicow published two novels about Ed Baer and his son Warren, a financier and a philosopher respectively. The first of these was The Dead Room and I’ll suggest it’s one of his best known books: it’s the one that appears on lists of locked-room mysteries including the relevant Wikipedia article.

In the latter part of his brief career, he published five novels with famous co-authors: two with Edward Koch, and one each with Fran Tarkenton, Tom Seaver, and Pelé. I must confess I haven’t seen these in a long time and would have been unlikely to re-read them; the celebrity names are uppermost in large type and Resnicow’s name is presented as “with”. I’m not sure it’s fair to call this “ghost-writing” if your name is actually on the book; a writer friend of mine once referred to this as “withing” and that word suits me just fine. Resnicow was a “wither” for celebrity mysteries and there are five of them.

Gold-CurseWhat you’ll find in his work

As I said, I flipped through a bunch of these in a short time, although I’ve certainly read all these volumes and more previously. I re-read all five crossword mysteries and the first two Gold volumes, and The Dead Room. My archives appear not to contain a copy of the second Baer novel, The Hot Place, and I think I shall have to remedy that; I remember it as being quite readable.

The Gold novels set the tone for much of Resnicow’s remaining work. Alexander Gold and his wife Norma are introduced to a mystery that involves some sort of impossible situation. There is a motivation supplied for the Golds to solve the mystery, either financial or in order to save someone from being unjustly convicted of the crime. And the circumstances of the crime are … well, “impossible” is perhaps more precise than I can be in these circumstances. Let’s say it usually seems as though no one could have reasonably committed the crime and then the experienced Golden Age reader will know what’s coming.

md1077001541I don’t think the “impossible crime” puzzles at the centre of these novels are as clever as others do. I have to say, though, that the critical faculties which my fellow bloggers bring to the defence of Resnicow’s abilities are sufficiently significant that I can’t ignore them, and honestly I feel a little guilty for not liking these as much as my peers. Smart and insightful people think these puzzles are clever, and all I can respond is, “didn’t seem that way to me”. I suspect my faculties have been dulled over the years by overexposure to the particular brand of cleverness that produced these plots … or perhaps I’m just not smart enough to see what others see. For a really detailed look at Resnicow’s career from someone who esteems him more highly than I do, I recommend my blogfriend TomCat’s 2011 opinion at Beneath the Stains of Time.

9780345322821-usIn the background of each Gold novel is some consideration having to do with the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Gold. Mr. and Mrs. Gold are nice. Indeed, they are what one would call “good people”; they care about each other and trade barbs and witticisms with the ease of a long relationship with strong bonds of affection (but it’s clear that either would die for the other). They take care of each other, help their friends, and are valuable and productive members of society.

And that’s kind of a problem for me. In modern genre studies there’s a concept that has arisen from the bottom up (rather than as the product of, say, academic thought that gets translated down-market to mere fans ;-)); the Mary Sue. This is seen as a common cliché of wish-fulfillment in fan fiction; an “idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ensign Mary Sue, age 16, single-handedly saves the Enterprise with a bobby pin and starts dating Captain Kirk, etc. And it’s linked to the slightly more academic concept of self-insertion, whereby “a fictional character who is the real author of a work of fiction appears as an idealized character within that fiction, either overtly or in disguise.” The author writes him/herself in as the star of their own story; in academic terms, the character is the raisonneur. Here it seems quite clear to me that Mr. Gold is based on Resnicow himself, as is the male protagonist of the crossword novels. If you read the biographical details in TomCat’s piece linked above, I think you will be even more convinced that this is probable.

9780345327321-usI’m not saying that Resnicow does this in any way objectionably; in fact, it’s quite cute and naive. However, I think it is commonly understood that novels based on a Mary Sue protagonist are usually quite boring, and that’s certainly something to consider here. If the impossible crime is the A plot, then the B plot is — well, it’s not much of a plot of all, it’s mostly characterization. The Golds and their best friends are charming and delightful, but nothing really bad ever happens to them, and not much happens to change them or their personalities. They don’t grow, and this is a characteristic of Mary Sues. Now, fans of Nero Wolfe like myself can stand the idea of a B plot about personalities who don’t change much. But unless you are a writer of the quality of Rex Stout, the B plot tends to fade away, and that’s what I find happens here. I remember the A plots quite clearly after 20+ years, but all but the simplest recollection of the Golds’ personalities had gone.

the-dead-room1The two novels about a father-and-son amateur detective team where the father is a businessman and the son a philosopher seem to me to be Resnicow’s best work; at least, The Dead Room has considerable critical acclaim. I certainly liked it, partly because there is some tension between the protagonists. The story is very strong and is an impossible crime mystery, although with a modern twist; it takes place in an anechoic chamber at the headquarters of a stereo manufacturer. I have to say, though, that I solved this one without thinking very hard about it, which frankly surprised me. I’m not very good at solving these plots, even though I’m very interested in how they’re constructed; when I get one first crack out of the box, it’s a signal to me that either I have a bent for this kind of story or it’s not well done.

md1077051789I actually liked the solution of The Gold Deadline the best of all, and here TomCat and I are in agreement, it seems. The book itself has tinges of homophobia (although to be clear it’s actually biphobia about the unpleasant victim), but the central premise is an ass-kicker. The victim is alone in a theatre box during a performance, under observation and someone is guarding the only door to the box. How the crime is committed will doubtless surprise you but it’s really clever, a contrivance at the level of a Death of Jezebel or The Chinese Orange Mystery. 

The five Gold novels and the two about the father-and-son team, the Baers, are the best of the lot; the other nine are distinctly minor.

3185460The five crossword novels feature a couple similar to the Golds, except that one is the world’s most esteemed crossword composer unknown to anyone. They have a number of good things about them, principal among which is four or five original puzzles per book created by the late great Henry Hook. I’ve read plenty of other crossword mysteries and I have to say these might just be the best crosswords ever found in a mystery. They are integral to the plot — you really should solve them as you move through the book in order to understand what’s going on. They are difficult but not impossible to solve, at the level of a New York Times Sunday puzzle. And in at least one instance Hook created a new kind of puzzle which he gives many names; I’ll call them Crossonics, because the sounds of the words are important to the context of the novel.

Unknown-1The most successful of the five to me is the entry about a group of cruciverbalists who are the stars of a New York crossword club, Murder Across and Down. This is the only one where the addition of crosswords actually makes sense to the plot and the crosswords’ solutions have a bearing on the solution. Other than that, there are various specious excuses under which Resnicow assembles precisely six suspects (why six, I wonder? Ellery Queen got by with three) and has them solve and/or create puzzles. Other plots range from far-fetched (six heirs to a cruciverbalist’s will, six candidates for a plum job) to the absolutely ridiculous (a nonsensical Russian spy plot that involves coded messages in the daily crossword puzzle of a newspaper). This last one reminds me of an equally preposterous bridge spy/mystery novel by Don Von Elsner in which codes are transmitted via the bridge column … just not a very good idea.

Murder_City_HallThe worst thing about these is that really they are not mysteries that are solved, per se. I believe all five share the common thread that the murderer is induced to reveal his/her guilt by the process of solving or setting a crossword. Sure, there are clues to guilt that are noted after the fact, but … what it all boils down to is the old “set a trap and the murderer falls into it”. Not plotting for the connoisseur. I have to say that the characterization is well-done throughout these novels; Resnicow does an excellent job of helping us keep the six suspects distinct each from the other.  The Crossword Hunt is particularly good, where Resnicow lets us see six job candidates and then at the end reveals why five of them shouldn’t have gotten the job — for reasons we’ve seen, but may not have thought about. The author shows an excellent grasp of psychology here. But ultimately these five suffer from the same problem as all “crossword mysteries”; it’s nearly impossible to make crosswords a necessary part of the plot of a mystery without structuring the book with impossibilities.

9780688067168-usAnd as for the five withed novels, the less said about those the better.  I did read these on their first publication and they are … competent examples of commercial writing. It’s hard to say if his collaborators contributed anything at all to the novels except their names and a couple of “shooting the shit” sessions to provide background; I rather think not. It’s just that, as Phoebe Atwood Taylor found with Murder at the New York World’s Fair, when half the book has to be there for reasons which have nothing to do with the mystery, and you really need the money for the book, the mystery suffers. The two books with Ed Koch I recall to be particularly egregious; they are determined to present Koch in the best possible light regardless of how much it strains credulity. If the authors had dared to tell the truth about Koch’s everyday life and political manoeuvrings, they would have been much more interesting and less “safe”, and a lot more readable. As they are, they’re what booksellers think of as instant remainders. (Apparently Resnicow died before he did much with the second Koch title beyond an outline, but he gets credit.)

PeleIf you do decide to try Resnicow’s work, I suggest the Gold novels and the two Baer novels, of course, but probably The Dead Room and The Gold Deadline will be sufficient to give you the highlights.

To the best of my knowledge, most of these books are unavailable in electronic editions. You can see that the crosswords would be tough to make available; all five of the Gold novels are available from Kindle Unlimited but I don’t see any evidence of the Baer novels or the “with” novels having made the E-transition. The Dead Room I used to see everywhere as a used paperback, but here in Canada it was issued by Worldwide Library, a prolific subsidiary of Harlequin. Amazon or ABE should get you any of the others you need, though.