Book scouting for mysteries: An unlikely juxtaposition

51bvz910z0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The name of mystery writer George Bagby came up in my Golden Age of Detection Facebook group yesterday, and it brought something to mind that I thought I’d share with my readers … who might like to make a little money book scouting if the opportunity arises.

George Bagby was a pseudonym for Aaron Marc Stein, who received the Grand Master Award from MWA in 1979.  He wrote four different series over his long career, under his own name as well as by George Bagby and Hampton Stone.  The Bagby series is about
2cfa3db80045d40e135f39f508ff59d7Inspector Schmidt, a New York City cop who has a sidekick named … George Bagby, mystery writer.  (Like my post of yesterday, a little bit meta.) As Hampton Stone, he wrote about Jeremiah Gibson, a New York ADA. There’s a series about a construction engineer named Matt Erridge as by Aaron Marc Stein, and another series about a pair of archaeologists who are also amateur detectives under his own name as well.

Stein, under whatever name, is not generally considered to be in the first rank of mystery writers; I’d suggest he has a strong position in the second rank but opinions vary. He was certainly a hard worker and wrote a lot of books; many of the George Bagby novels are generally available in paperback for a few dollars.

21159451520The point of this post, though, is that if you can find a copy of the first edition of a single one of his books — Pistols For Two from 1951 (from the series about the archaeologists, under his own name) is selling as of today on ABE for $400, $500, and $650 (and for copies which are NOT of an excellence one would expect for those hefty sums). And this for an author whose other books generally don’t bring a tenth of those prices.  Why?  It’s all about the cover art.  According to the volume, the artist’s name is Warhaw — but it’s really the only mystery dust jacket designed by Andy Warhol before he revolutionized the art world. (Added a week later; this is not the case, as a more knowledgeable person notes in the comments below.  John Norris knows his stuff and his blog is an excellent source of information on rare books.) So this volume might be one of your few chances to afford a genuine Andy Warhol print.

41wnCDBcI0L._CR83,0,333,333_UX175Yes, Andy Warhol used to design book covers, in an identifiably naive style that I think is quite charming; he did the typography as well. He also did other kinds of commercial illustration to keep Campbell’s soup on the table, including shoe ads for New York department stores. Any of his book jackets is worth a lot of money these days. Possibly the oddest Warhol
Amy Vanderbilt Cookcbookspieces that you should keep your book-scouting eyes open for are two volumes from the same author; Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Cookbook and Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette.  The little illustrations of how to cut up lemons to decoratively garnish fish, or where to seat the officiating clergyman at the parents’ table at a wedding dinner, were drawn by Warhol and sometimes others. (These little drawings are sometimes called “interstitial art”.)

h-ANDY-WARHOL-COOKBOOK-640x362It’s important to know that not every edition of either of these books has the Warhol drawings — check the first pages to make sure that his name is there (as Andrew Warhol). For these two in particular, you won’t make much money; they’re more widely available and much less valuable. But you can leave them lying around to impress your friends with your original Andy Warhol drawings!

 

 

 

Phoebe Atwood Taylor gets a little meta

51fWHVJ4tOL._SX292_BO1,204,203,200_I thought I’d share with you a quote from a mystery I was re-reading lately … I always enjoy it when characters in detective fiction talk about the conventions of detective fiction.  This is from Proof of the Pudding, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1945).  Asey Mayo, Cape Cod’s “Codfish Sherlock”, is talking to a young woman in Chapter 6.

“… just like the prohibition gangsters that went to the movies so’s to pick up dazzling’ new ideas from mob pictures, murderers today learn quite a lot from stories. They don’t often leave fingerprints around much any more — they’ve even learned to wipe off their trigger-finger print. An’ they don’t rush off an’ leave their victim clutchin’ a convenient swatch of Harris tweed in his limply outstretched hand, either.”
“I’ve always wondered deeply about that tweed angle,” Lois said. “I mean, I’ve got a Harris topcoat I had the year before I went to college, and I defy anyone to jerk a swatch of it off in the best of health, let alone in a dying moment. It simply couldn’t be done. I always thought it would be more accurate if someone’s Harris coat was found with a couple of detached fingernails imbedded in it. They’d certainly give way before the average tweed would. …”
… “No, this don’t conform to book pattern. In fact, Doc Cummings and I cling to the notion that if you run into book clues it mostly only means that someone had access to a lendin’ library. They read about the clues somewheres, an’ left ’em on purpose to snarl you up. A really smart murderer ought to do the same, usual, common everyday things he always does before he commits his crime — an’ the same, usual, common everyday things afterwards, too. A lot of elaborate preparations an’ fancy workin’ up of alibis isn’t bright. For no matter how smart you are in buildin’ things up and weavin’ things into intricate nets, like, there’s always someone smarter who can tear things down an’ pull ’em apart.”

There’s a good deal more on the topic of exotic lipstick shades, cigarette butts and lingering traces of perfume at murder scenes.  I hope to have something useful to say on the overall topic of Phoebe Atwood Taylor in the near future, but I couldn’t resist sharing this little piece with you.

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Great Detectives (Part 4)

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great DetectivesThe Great Detectives: Ellery Queen

Introduction

As part of a group effort by The Tuesday Night Bloggers, I’ve previously discussed four of my favourite Great Detectives — three created by Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Cool & Lam in Part 1 and Doug Selby in Part 2, along with Robert van Gulik’s Dee Jen-Djieh from 6th century China. Part 3 was devoted to the Typhoid Mary of Cabot Cove, Jessica Fletcher.

Today’s effort is devoted to Ellery Queen, a detective about whom I’ve had a lot to say in the past. So much so that in fact The Tuesday Night Bloggers spent November, 2015 talking about him, and I had a lot to say. If you’re interested in what I had to say about some interesting editions, Ellery Queen and broad brand and continuation works, my five  most/least favourite novels, some novels that I distinguish for reasons that are not the usual ones, or a bunch (1), (2), (3), (4) of individual novels, follow the links in this sentence. If you want the general background, there’s an excellent and very detailed Wikipedia article at this link. And here, as previously, I will refer to the fictional character as Ellery Queen and to the two cousins who created the character as EQ.

img_42-04-09-ellery-queen-spot-adMy topic today is Ellery Queen, the Great Detective. I’m pretty sure this is the only topic I selected for this month’s posts with the Tuesday Night Bloggers that may actually be in the book of Great Detectives that inspired us … According to Anthony Boucher, “Ellery Queen IS the American detective story.” You will find a very complete explanation of everything that anyone would ever want to know about any aspect of EQ and Ellery Queen, at Ellery Queen: A Website on Deduction, an example of web-based writing excellence. (Devote a few hours some day to reading it through; it’s an immense treasure trove of information.) Here’s my take why Ellery Queen is a great detective.

51sHSxFJv2L.SX316.SY316Ellery Queen was created in 1929 for EQ’s entry into a literary contest and attained publication in 1929. That means, in literary terms, that The Roman Hat Mystery was coming into existence at the same time that S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance mysteries were massively dominating the North American literary market. The Benson Murder Case is from 1926, The ‘Canary’ Murder Case from 1927, The Greene Murder Case from 1928 and The Bishop Murder Case from 1929. It’s also perhaps important to remember that the first two films based on the Van Dine novels came to the screen in 1929 with William Powell as Philo Vance; The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case. And they were a big hit — by all reports I can find, the first three Philo Vance novels outsold any other detective fiction by a huge margin in 1926-1928.  It’s hard to assess at this great distance exactly how big a hit, and how environment-forming they would have been for the EQ cousins, but it seems clear that Ellery Queen was pretty much based on Philo Vance.

MV5BNjczNzQ0Njc1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTI5MDgwMjE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_I think that makes sense in the context. It’s easy to understand how the marketplace responds to a huge cultural game-changer. At that point in the history of detective fiction in the U.S., there hadn’t really been a male writer who had such a disproportionate effect on the marketplace. Van Dine became a kind of literary superstar who was guaranteed to sell; if you wanted your detective creation to sell, you might do worse than model him on the latest superstar.

The Egyptian Cross MysteryAnd so Ellery Queen was the protagonist of his first nine mysteries between 1929 and 1935. Each book starred Ellery Queen and was published as by Ellery Queen. Each title fit a specific format: The X Y Mystery, where X is a nationality (Egyptian, Siamese, Spanish) and Y is a concrete noun (Hat, Coffin, Orange). I won’t go into this in great depth, because I’ve had a lot to say about it in reviews of specific books, but these nine books were a huge game-changer in detective fiction. They presented difficult plots whose hallmarks were strongly logical problems set against a backdrop of a baffling murder. And they showcased Ellery Queen as the brilliant amateur who solved them. The EQ cousins immediately took a huge presence in the marketplace, buoyed by their talent for self-promotion, and all of a sudden there were two different sources of Golden Age detection; the UK and the US.

Ellery’s personality here is, as I noted, pretty much based on Philo Vance. That means, to quote Van Dine himself from Benson:

He was a man of unusual culture and brilliance. An aristocrat by birth and instinct, he held himself severely aloof from the common world of men. In his manner there was an indefinable contempt for inferiority of all kinds. The great majority of those with whom he came in contact regarded him as a snob.

But there is a humanity in the young Ellery that is entirely missing from the pompous dandy of the early Philo Vance. In Greek Coffin, he is brash and overconfident, and has a dramatic public failure; it’s as a result of this that he swears never to reveal his thinking during a case until he is completely certain he’s solved it.  Now, I have to admit, from the point of view of the construction of a detective fiction plot, that’s really very convenient.  If the writers can keep the tension mounting until it’s time for Ellery to Reveal Everything, then it makes for a much more readable book. The sensible part of me wants detectives to share their thought processes as they move along, partly because, you know, what if they get hit by the proverbial bus, and partly because it makes it easier to solve for lazy me ;-). But from EQ’s perspective it’s a good choice.

29b_DoubleI think this earliest Ellery is the one that forms the basis for much of what we see as time moves forward in the EQ oeuvre. Later on in the Wrightsville era, Ellery has emotions and he takes considerably more interest in the emotional situation of his suspects; he occasionally begins to fall in love with them (Double, Double, Paula Paris, Calamity Town, and the character in an [unspoilered] early novel who ridiculously becomes radio-based love interest Nikki Porter in the closing paragraphs).  Sometimes he dislikes them (The Origin of Evil, for instance). Sometimes they pretty much bore him except for the logical problems with which they present him (The Finishing Stroke).

31e_kingIn what I think of as the “Hollywood period”, when EQ were trying to sell scripts to the movies, Ellery’s personality becomes plastic and malleable — anything he’s needed to be or do, he’ll be or do, because the cousins’ primary focus is hitting it big as scriptwriters. But then there’s a long period in which Ellery has just almost no personality at all. The astonishing events at the end of The King Is Dead, for instance, just seem to roll off his back without much comment or interest. In the last few books, after a long period of his having been ghosted by other authors, it’s hard to say if Ellery is even interested in what’s going on around him on any level at all. The events of A Fine and Private Place are apparently so uninteresting that he can’t be bothered to do anything about solving the mystery, like search for evidence which is there to be found.

Moran_EQMM-Cover-Fall-1941I suspect that in the post-Wrightsville period, the EQ cousins could legitimately assume that everyone who wanted to read about Ellery’s adventures already knew as much about him as they needed to know. The radio show, nine or ten films, the Ellery Queen name on the masthead of EQMM, even the later television series saw to that. He’s a detective, he’s brainy, his father is a police officer and he solves crimes.  He didn’t really need to have emotions — at one point in the Wrightsville/Hollywood period, he actually is so upset that he wants to quit being a detective, and heaven knows that would have been disastrous to the series. So after a certain point he simply stopped having them.

But what kind of Great Detective is Ellery Queen?  In my view, there are a few basic kinds of cases that seem to suit him best (or, of course, actually suit the cousins who constructed the character and the stories).

  1. face-to-face-paperbackEllery is possibly best known for solving “dying clue” mysteries; at least, it’s a regular feature of many EQ short stories and at least two good novels (The Scarlet Letters and Face to Face). In the “dying clue” format, a murder victim has just enough time and consciousness left to leave some sort of cryptic reference to his/her killer. When Ellery realizes the real meaning behind the clue, and that it can only refer to one person (because dying people are apparently preternaturally intelligent about that sort of thing, considering and rejecting all kinds of possible dying clues — cf. The Last Woman In His Life) the story is over. So if the reader gets to the clue’s meaning before Ellery does, the story is solved.
  2. There’s a format that appears to be restricted to the short story form that is similar to the dying clue style, in which Ellery is confronted with a situation in which either A, B, or C commits the murder. Ellery must identify the one-and-only-one killer by observing or deducing that only one of the three individuals is not ruled out and thus is the only possible candidate.  (Only suspect A is tall enough to have seen something from the window and thus is the killer.)
  3. Dutch Shoe Mystery1There was a style in Ellery’s earliest days that seemed to vanish later in his career, possibly because they were very difficult plots to construct.  That’s what I think of as the “long, long logical chain” story, like Greek Coffin or Dutch Shoe or Halfway House, in which Ellery (for instance) makes a series of interdependent deductions about the murderer based upon one or two tiny clues.  So from the evidence of a broken shoelace and a few dents in some linoleum, Ellery deduces a hidden relationship between two people and solves the entire murder. These are very satisfying structures for those of us who enjoy this sort of mental exercise, but I bet they didn’t find much favour with the less logical reader.
  4. EQ-OriginPB2There’s a well-known Ellery Queen style of case that I’ll call the ABC format — perhaps best exemplified by The Finishing Stroke and Cat of Many Tails, and not as pleasantly in books like The Origin of Evil and Ten Days’ Wonder. We know that the crimes are linked because something is found upon the murder scene that links them (in The Finishing Stroke, a series of little index cards with weird notations), or there is a device that appears to indicate that the victims are selected merely because of, say, their occupation (Double, Double). Is it a demented serial killer or is someone merely trying to mislead the police and conceal a single crime with a group of others? Ellery figures out the meaning of the way in which the victims are linked and solves the case.
  5. the-greek-coffin-mystery-1960-illus-james-meese-1In closing, perhaps the best-known story format with which Ellery Queen is linked is “the false solution, then the true”. Ellery’s skills seem uniquely suited to cases in which a lesser mind might find a chain of logic that leads to the incorrect killer, but there’s just that one little niggling bit of evidence that doesn’t fit … So first Ellery solves the crime, sometimes in a way to which the reader has been led down a tempting garden path, and then he solves it again correctly the second time and we have a dramatic finish. I think the best example of this is Greek Coffin but really this pattern repeats throughout Ellery’s long career.  Sometimes Ellery merely pretends to solve the case in order to lure the real murderer into making an error (Greek Coffin); sometimes it’s that the wrong solution is easier to pin on an unpleasant person and the correct solution would place the guilt on the shoulders of someone “nice” (at least two novels I can think of, but they’d be spoiled for you so I won’t name them). One of my favourite cases of Ellery’s involves a situation where the false solution, then the true, both point to the same person for different reasons; another is where Ellery persuades everyone to accept the false solution because the truth would ruin someone’s life (and the crime was actually an accident).

hutton-wayneTo sum up — I think if you stood on a street corner and asked passers-by to name a famous male detective, of course you’d get a huge response for Sherlock Holmes. But I think primus inter pares for the remainder of male literary detectives would be Ellery Queen.  The character’s enormous and vastly widespread penetration into every area of the fictional sphere — movies, TV, books, games, radio programmes, jigsaw puzzles, computer games, postage stamps, comic books — has lasted since 1929. It’s a little sad that the EQ estate hasn’t licensed any continuation activities (especially since the cousins were so keen to rent out the Ellery Queen name during their lifetime — the list of ghosted books is a long one) but I think there’s just enough life left in this Great Detective to take him into the 21st century and beyond.

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Great Detectives (Part 3)

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great DetectivesThe Great Detectives: Jessica Fletcher

Introduction

As part of a group effort by The Tuesday Night Bloggers, I’ve previously discussed four of my favourite Great Detectives — three created by Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Cool & Lam in Part 1 and Doug Selby in Part 2, along with Robert van Gulik’s Dee Jen-Djieh from 6th century China.

angela-lansbury-murder-she-wroteToday’s contribution is a character whom some of my regular readers may disparage as being artificial, or cardboard, or merely entirely implausible — Jessica Fletcher, a widowed mystery writer from Cabot Cove, Maine, portrayed by Angela Lansbury, who starred in 264 episodes of a television programme called Murder, She Wrote between 1984 and 1996.  Between 1997 and 2003 there were four made-for-TV movies; between 1989 and 2018, there have been approximately 48 spin-off novels as by, for the most part, “Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain”. (The “approximately” is because Gin and Daggers was released twice, in two editions, in 1989 and 2000; the second edition corrected errors in continuity with the TV series, such as Jessica being unable to drive a car.)

Murder, She Wrote, Prescription for MurderNow, say what you will about her believability as a character, or the astonishingly high murder rate of Cabot Cove — 264 hours of network TV plus 8 hours of movies plus 48 novels, all of which were published after the TV series went off the air and continued for thirty years afterwards, adds up to a durable character who has a great big fan following. The TV series has never been out of syndication since it went off the air, to my knowledge, and has been released on home video in its entirety. Think about it for a minute. It’s extremely unusual to have 48 spin-off novels published after a TV show goes off the air, let alone have them published in hardcover first editions; very few other television programmes have ever managed to sustain the public’s interest for nearly 30 years after going off the air. Only Star Trek and Doctor Who even come close to surpassing Murder, She Wrote’s scale of market penetration.

Why is Jessica Fletcher such a great detective?

1395591810-0To be honest, as she’s presented in the TV programme, Jessica is not such a great Great Detective. She has the knack of being at the right place at the right time, and she certainly is a person who notices small things in her environment and remembers them at the right time to put two and two together. By and large, though, quite a few of her cases are not solved by methods that would be approved by, say, Ellery Queen.

Elman_Jessica-Fletcher-Still-with-FlashlightFor instance, a favourite method of bringing Jessica to the mystery’s solution was to have her realize that the murderer had mentioned something that meant that s/he had to be at the scene of the crime, or in some way had told a lie about his/her whereabouts at the time of the murder.  Yes, that takes a little deductive reasoning, but really it just means Jessica was up against a stupid murderer.  Another method that found frequent approval with the screenwriters was Jessica collaborating with the police to set a trap for the murderer because they didn’t have enough evidence to convict the killer and needed a lot of self-incrimination. Sometimes the trap is based on fake evidence. That’s not the standard of detection that made Ellery famous.

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Richard Levinson (left) and William Link

But for every one of those half-hearted endings, there was another episode that would possibly surprise an experienced mystery reader with its cleverness.  The series was, after all, created by Richard Levinson and William Link (and Peter Fischer) — Levinson and Link created the mystery series Columbo, Mannix, Ellery Queen, and Blacke’s Magic. The writing partnership received the Ellery Queen Award (for outstanding mystery-writing teams) in 1989.  And one of their scripts for a stand-alone made-for-TV movie, the great Rehearsal for Murder, won the Edgar Award in 1983.

Jessica.Fletcher.phoneSo you might not be surprised to know that there’s a clever locked-room mystery as the basis of a Season 1 episode (We’re Off To Kill the Wizard), or that M,SW viewers regularly pronounced themselves baffled until Jessica told them whodunit at about minute 54 of every episode. By and large, the scripts have intelligence and contain interesting puzzles. Levinson & Link’s involvement with the series dwindled as time went on and the puzzles got less difficult, but in the early years even John Dickson Carr aficionados may find themselves challenged by a few of the scripts.

UnknownWhere they generally fall down is plausibility. We’ve all chuckled at the huge murder rate in tiny Cabot Cove, where accepting a dinner invitation from Jessica was tantamount to either suicide or a life sentence for murder. Certainly mystery writers have to go around the world to promote their books, especially for someone like Jessica Fletcher whose books are regularly made into movies (see season 1’s Hooray for Homicide, where Jessica is suspected of killing a producer who turned her first mystery into a B-grade horror movie). But everywhere she goes, from Saskatchewan (Showdown in Saskatchewan, season 4) to Moscow (From Russia With Blood, season 5) to cyberspace (A Virtual Murder, season 10) Jessica’s presence is like the kiss of death for someone. At least 264 someones, making Jessica Fletcher the Angel of Death around the world.

murder-she-wrote-season-1-16-tough-guys-dont-die-harry-mcgraw-jessica-fletcher-jerry-orbach-angela-lansbury-review-episode-guide-list

Jessica Fletcher and Harry McGraw (Jerry Orbach)

Frankly, the producers of M,SW experimented with the format of the programme in a way that would likely have killed any other series.  Beginning in season 6, Lansbury needed a respite from the onerous production schedule of 22 episodes a year, and the scripts began featuring guest stars leading stories without Jessica involved, except in introductory and closing “bumpers”. (For instance, The Grand Old Lady from season 6 repurposed an unused script from Ellery Queen and featured the detecting skills of a young American reporter who looked and acted a lot like Ellery Queen.) A few of these guest detectives were popular with the viewers; Keith Michell as roguish insurance investigator Dennis Stanton was nearly spun off into his own series, and Jerry Orbach as seedy private eye Harry McGraw actually made 16 episodes of the short-lived spin-off The Law and Harry McGraw in 1987-1988. Jessica did a crossover episode with Magnum P.I. and occasionally did a two-part episode, but for the most part the series stayed comfortably and safely within the 60-minute format, and you could just about set your watch by the discovery of the body and the revelation of the murder in each episode.

hqdefaultPossibly in order to bring some freshness to the work for Angela Lansbury, within the boundaries of the series she played a hard-drinking cousin of Jessica’s with an English accent a couple of times; occasionally the mystery plots were more focused on espionage and international plots, and travel to exotic locations like Hong Kong and Italy was a feature of the last few seasons.

Moran_MSW-CastThe producers later stopped the guest star policy but it seemed evident (to me at least) that Lansbury’s heart wasn’t in the work any more and the final few seasons were desultory. The last years’ scripts had many examples where Jessica was certainly there, but not really necessary to solve the mystery; either that or the reason for her being on the scene was so specious as to be entirely beyond belief.  She actually solved one mystery over the phone. Jessica’s friends relatives (especially the repeating character of her nephew Grady) occasionally took up the slack of detection and let Jessica mostly relax and be an armchair detective.

What was responsible for her popularity?

Jessica_FletcherIt’s safe to say that one of the reasons why Jessica Fletcher attained such great durability is that the series was originally designed to appeal to middle-aged TV viewers. That age group was not well-served by appropriate entertainment in the 1980s and have become even less interesting to television producers in the intervening years. But with Jessica Fletcher, the middle-aged lady who wasn’t afraid to get her hands bloody investigating a murder, the older viewer found a comfortable home.  Jessica radiated confidence and was always at home in a variety of situations; when she found herself dealing with something new, like virtual reality headsets or switching from a typewriter to computer to write her books, she waded in and got the job done.

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Adrienne Barbeau (left) played Maude’s daughter Carol on the sitcom Maude (1972-1978)

Another often cited-reason for Jessica’s popularity is that, especially in the early years, the producers very wisely filled the episodes with guest stars who were familiar to the viewer from other TV and movie appearances, but not huge stars — what one reviewer called the “Love Boat” gambit.  In my house when M,SW was on, the TV room was a hubbub as my family tried to identify exactly where they’d seen the actors before.  “That’s the guy from …” or, “Didn’t she play the X on such-and-such?” There’s a huge list on Wikipedia of M,SW guest stars found here, which included 13 Oscar winners. But many of the guest stars were actors whose careers were declining and who were used more for their nostalgic references than their acting abilities.

0*mDh9v8IaEmifBNdqThe first-rate second-rate guest stars provided a kind of mental anchoring for the audience; a kind of familiarity that let people know that, yes, it might be a story about murder but you know that it’s just light-hearted fun, because gee, that guy was one of the Brady Bunch, wasn’t he? As a general rule, the more famous the actor the less likely it was that their appearance would see them revealed as a victim or a murderer; they would generally manage to keep their reputations unsullied. Some actors appeared more than once in different roles, and some apparently relished the chance to play the killer. Here’s your trivia question — which actor/actress who was the title character in a different detective series appeared three times on Murder, She Wrote and played the killer twice? (Feel free to answer in the comments.)

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Nearly every episode ended with Jessica’s laughter.

Ultimately, though, it was all about Angela Lansbury. She seems to have struck a chord with the audience, male and female, who apparently found her overwhelmingly upright morality attractive. Lansbury, of course, can really act — by the end of the series, she probably could have done scenes in her sleep, but she managed to bring talent if not huge energy to even the most desultory of scripts. When she stopped doing the character, it never recovered.

af18bb24a431a4c418ff6f0a4365a690Whatever the reason for her continued popularity, it’s quite an achievement that Jessica Fletcher’s brand has extended to the present day. I don’t think there’s an enormous presence to Jessica Fletcher, but in this day of reboots and remakes, I think it’s interesting that no one has floated the idea of bringing back Jessica as, say, a much younger woman, or a woman of colour, or even just another middle-aged actress whose career is fading and who could use a comfortable niche on the TV schedule. The books are still going strong, mostly due to library sales, and I think they will continue to do so … whether we ever see Jessica Fletcher on screen again is another matter. I’d certainly watch a reboot.

 

Money in the Morgue, by Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy (2018)

Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy, Money in the MorgueProbably my regular readers are already familiar with the reason this book exists. Ngaio Marsh died in 1982, after publishing 32 novels about Roderick Alleyn, second son of a baronet and a police inspector with Scotland Yard. She left behind three short chapters comprising the introduction to the present volume, as well as “a page of rough notes”; the notes did not apparently solve the murder or provide a motive and stipulated that all the action of the book takes place over the course of one night.

The daunting task of fashioning a book out of this sparse beginning was given to Stella Duffy, who shares a number of personal characteristics with the late Dame Ngaio. Duffy is originally from New Zealand, moved to London, works in theatre, writes detective fiction, and was awarded an OBE. As Duffy elsewhere remarked, “I would have been a bit miffed if they had asked someone else.” I agree it seems like a natural match.

I must here note that the “call to adventure” came from David Brawn, who is “estates manager” at Harper Collins. Brawn was responsible for the continuance of Hercule Poirot as by Sophie Hannah in 2014, in The Monogram Murders (about which I commented here).  Brawn and what are now two Poirot novels by Sophie Hannah have received my criticism in the past — I’m still quite creeped out by the existence of an estates manager at a major publishing house and have been quite disparaging about the whole idea here. In that article I damned with faint praise the work of Stella Duffy, who has continued to entertain me with her writing, and expressed my displeasure with the idea that Ngaio Marsh needed in any sense to be continued.

Stella Duffy

Stella Duffy

Ladies and gentlemen, I have changed my mind, and I apologize to all concerned. If David Brawn can bring books like this to the public, he himself deserves an OBE, and Stella Duffy deserves the Gold Dagger. This is the best continuation novel I’ve ever read. Duffy has combined a real grasp of Marsh’s traditional themes, preoccupations, and even language with the ability to write like Marsh and, may I add, Marsh at her best. Ngaio Marsh at her best means somewhere around 1940 to 1945, and that’s when Marsh set this book (and Duffy continued and finished it). If you are that kind of Ngaio Marsh fan and you haven’t got time to read the rest of this, here’s the conclusion I want you to reach: buy this book immediately because you will enjoy it very much.

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 discuss elements of plot and construction although I do not lay out the answers.  If you haven’t already read this novel, reading this essay means 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. 

Ngaio Marsh and Shakespeare

Ngaio Marsh and friend

What is this book about?

Inspector Alleyn is in New Zealand, at a point in World War 2 when its invasion by Japan is forecast as a strong possibility.  The recovering soldiers and local patients at Mount Seager Hospital include Alleyn, who is doing a quiet little job of investigation involving some coded radio transmissions and pretending to be an invalid as cover; he has been in the hospital but not really part of it. The pulse of the experienced reader will quicken faintly as the opening pages reveal a rough map of the grounds of the hospital grounds and buildings.

nz20The everyday activities of the hospital involve a number of staff members: handsome young Dr. Hughes and crabby old Sister Comfort, Father O’Sullivan the unctuous vicar and various nurses and workers, and most especially the convalescing patients, all take their orders from the serene and authoritative Matron. A number of things happen roughly simultaneously at the outset of this night. The death of young Sydney Brown’s grandfather has caused him great distress, and his bereavement is being mitigated. A fat and pompous government payroll clerk, Mr. Glossop, has to spend the night at the hospital due to bad weather and needs to lock his cash in the Matron’s safe. One young and pretty nurse, the less than chaste Rosamund Farquharson, has won the enormous sum of one hundred pounds betting on an outsider at the races, and has also been relieved of it by Matron to put it in the safe for safekeeping. And there is a welter of personal relationships and romantic frustrations and sins small and large that are hinted at in the opening chapters.

Since the title of this book is Money in the Morgue, the experienced reader will not be surprised to learn that both the money and the Matron disappear quite soon into the book, although her body shows up in short order. Alleyn reveals his police credentials and, with the assistance of Sergeant Bix of the New Zealand Army substituting for his usual assistant Inspector Fox, takes charge of the case.

The plot’s the thing here, and since the action of the book takes place over such a short period of time, just about anything I say will spoil your enjoyment. I’ll merely note that Alleyn, in his usual display of gentlemanly uber-competence, solves every crime in sight before the break of dawn, some of which will not have made themselves plain to the less perceptive reader, and rights every wrong that needs righting. There is a very surprising climax followed by a series of short scenes in which all the loose ends are tied off.

Ngaio Marsh, 1940s

Ngaio Marsh, 1940s

Why is this book worth your time?

Ngaio Marsh was one of the four Queens of Crime of the Golden Age, we are often told, although I consider her fourth among that quadrumvirate after Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham. I had a try at talking about my five most/least favourite of her novels here; I’ve written about her paperback editions in general, from a collector’s standpoint, here, here, and here. And I went into great detail about Hand in Glove (1962) here and Last Ditch here (as part of my 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read series, which may give you all the idea you need of my opinion LOL).

I mention all this to drive traffic to my blog (smiling) but also to bolster the idea that, yes, I’ve read everything Ngaio Marsh ever wrote, multiple times, and given her work a lot of thought over the years. Some of her books are great; some of her books are awful. From my point of view, the ones that are great are generally speaking (a) written in her best period, roughly 1937’s Vintage Murder to 1947’s Final Curtain, (b) set in her native New Zealand, of which there are only four (and one is awful).

Marsh’s best writing is marked by a few general qualities. Since she was deeply engaged in the theatre — I won’t say that her best books are set against the theatrical background, because that is to my mind regrettably not true, but when Marsh grasps the three-act structure of a good play and applies it to her work, it escapes the dreaded Marshian second-act sag as Alleyn interviews all the witnesses one by one. (My friend Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog calls this “wallowing in the Marshes”.) She understood how this structure works and, when she got it right, she got it right. My experience is that she didn’t often get it right but when she did, it’s almost always in a book she wrote between 1937 and 1947 or so. Stella Duffy gets it right here. The sag is cleverly leavened by action that arises organically out of the situation … the interviews still happen but they’re not a deadly slog, as Marsh could sometimes manage.

The other quality that Marsh occasionally got right, and thereby lifted her work from average to extremely good, is more difficult to describe. It is a property of most well-written books, but it’s extremely important in detective fiction, which is highly plot driven. In long-winded terms; first Marsh creates believable characters who do things for believable reasons. Then she makes the things they do further the plot — and since those things are done for believable reasons, the reader can accept that they happened. Little or no suspension of belief is required. If you believe in the people, you believe in the plot, even though the plot is paramount. And then it becomes a very satisfying experience to be surprised at the REAL meaning of some of those actions — because they have become believable for a different, yet believable, reason. This is the sort of thing that happens when you have a well-hidden criminal, as you do in this book. Mr. X does action Y, and it seems as though he did Y because we see that he is the kind of person who would do that. It later turns out that he did Y for different reasons, ones that further the criminal plot; and thus there are new reasons to believe that he did Y. To me it’s one of the most satisfying ways of approaching a detective novel. You see the setting and the characters and the actions, and you think you know what you’ve seen. Then the author shakes the snow globe and, holy moly, all your assumptions were wrong and everything means something else that is also wholly believable. I think in the present volume this is all down to Stella Duffy’s plotting skills, and they are superb.

At her best, between about 1937 and 1947, Marsh’s ear for her own writing was very keen. Perhaps it was merely that she had an editor who held down the worst of her later excesses; perhaps this editor also encouraged her to occasionally step out. Marsh had moments of writing, quite often about the beauties of New Zealand, that were downright lyrical; Colour Scheme (1943), for instance, is filled with descriptions of the countryside and the vegetation and the weather (and the hideously powerful fumaroles) that beautifully set the scene and add delightfully to the atmosphere. Wikipedia appears to assert that the Marshian fragment completed by Stella Duffy was written in 1946 and I can see many reasons why this would be so. Her previous two novels had been set in wartime New Zealand (Colour Scheme and Died in the Wool) and this seems to follow right along; the same location, the same premise, the same framing story of Alleyn writing letters to Fox and Troy. Anyway, I think her writing style at this point was at its most effective height. She was writing elegant prose for intelligent people, with a good ear for dialogue and strong powers of characterization and description.

WWII nurses

These nurses reminded me of what the nurses and matron of this story might have had to dress like as they did a tough and messy job — crisp outfits and starched caps.

When I read this volume, I felt immediately that the writing style was actually from that period; Duffy has picked up on that perfectly and really carried it through with great restraint. I gather from an interview that she found words and phrases in Marsh’s oeuvre that had been repeated and tried to use them. Just a great idea. Ordinarily I don’t mind if a continuation writer doesn’t sound so much like the original writer as long as she thinks like the original writer. Here, Duffy has really matched and occasionally exceeded Marsh’s prose at her most intelligent, and yet restrained herself from adding her own voice, for the most part. My attention was caught by a tiny snippet about Miss Farquharson being mocked for a non-NZ accent when ordering a drink — that sounded like Duffy herself. I mention that because it’s the only time I had the thought of Duffy and not Marsh herself writing this.

And now I have come to the part for which Stella Duffy deserves all the praise and then some. If all she got was the first three chapters of this and a page of notes then all I can say is, she’s got a hell of a career ahead of her as a Golden Age continuation writer if nothing else. There is a central twist in this book that is killingly clever as it reverses your expectations; it’s thoroughly foreshadowed and almost obvious once you go back and look to see where you’ve been led astray. Frankly, fooled I was and fooled I was happy to be. I enjoy books like this and they have that true Golden Age quality of story-telling, a delightful reversal that’s a twist in the tale. This is something that Marsh only occasionally reached and there are not many of her novels that are this clever and thus this enjoyable in terms of the criminal plot.

All the characters are believable, and I am happy to say that they are believable in the sense of it being 1946. Duffy doesn’t make the error of ascribing modern-day points of view to characters for whom they are anachronisms. In fact as I read through the book, I kept being reminded of characters from other Marsh novels. Bix and Fox are pretty obvious cognates, rather a “tip of the hat” kind of thing. There are Matrons and nurses and handsome young doctors in The Nursing Home Murder, she knew that background. Pompous Mr. Glossop reminded me of a couple of other characters in other novels (perhaps Death at the Bar), angry little men whose job, plot wise, is to keep people on edge and confrontational. There are other Maori characters in Vintage Murder (this book name checks a Maori doctor we first met in Vintage Murder) and Colour Scheme, a mixture of good and bad like all populations. Evasive Father O’Callaghan made me think of a minor character in Overture to Death; the unpleasant Sister Comfort made me think of a major one. The added fillip in the present volume is that there is just the faintest, most delicate tinge of lesbianism in a comment in Chapter 35 that doubles the meaning of a central relationship in the book … which to my mind is an elegant echo of the faint and delicate tinge of lesbianism in Ngaio Marsh’s own life. (I hasten to add, to my mind it’s just a rumour and probably not true. Not that that’s a bad thing, just that it wasn’t her thing.) Certainly it is in Duffy’s own life; she is married to a woman. So I’m willing to believe she knows what she’s laying down here and, for me, it was precisely the right amount. Another “tip of the hat”.

So many nice things in this book; I could go on and on. The grand revelation of the book is pulled back just the tiniest bit from being truly explosive, but you know, Marsh herself wasn’t very good at coming up with a explosive finish. There’s some great work with the tiniest details of life during food and rubber rationing; just enough to remind the reader when they are. Similarly the niceties of linguistic New Zealand are handled just as cleverly here as Marsh did herself; “I reckon you’d better rattle those dags if you’re going to get a shoofti at it … ” to me is the equivalent of Dead Water‘s “‘Oh, Patrick!’ ‘Don’t say ”’Ow, Pettruck!”'” in its conveyance of accurate everyday NZ usage.

So many things to like, indeed, that I’m astonished to think that, you know, I want more of this. And that truly is a surprise. With Sophie Hannah’s resurrection of Poirot, I merely want that to stop, or for Hannah to work on a project more suited to her considerable talents. This one is done so well that I want Stella Duffy to write a whole new series of Alleyn adventures, based on no Marshian notes at all. I can’t believe I just typed that, but, yeah; I think I would enjoy the hell out of that. In the meantime I’m going to get my hands on a lot of other Stella Duffy mysteries.

A note on editions

Of course there is only one edition of this book at the moment; I got this in electronic format the day it came out, which was yesterday. Yes, I’m a fast reader LOL. So if you want to read this you have the choice of a hugely overpriced electronic version or a reasonably priced first-edition hardcover that still costs twice what the electronic version does. Honestly, this is such a good book, I’m going to go out and get one or even two copies of the first edition and lay them down for the future; I think this book will appreciate.

 

 

 

Too Many Cousins, by Douglas G. Browne (1946)

Too Many Cousins (1946) Douglas G. Browne

Too Many Cousins, Douglas G. Browne; the Dover trade paperback edition

I recently reacquainted myself with this book courtesy of my fellow GAD blogger at the excellent crossexaminingcrime who yesterday discussed another book (The May Week Murders) by Douglas G. Browne. I was prompted to comment and confessed that I didn’t quite remember the details of this book. But later that afternoon I saw my copy of the Dover edition in a stack of books, picked it up, and was very pleased to remember the pleasure I took in this book when I first read it. So I thought I’d make a few comments here to let you see if you were interested in reading it yourself.

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. 

What is this book about?

In Too Many Cousins, a 1946 story by Douglas G. Browne, six cousins are the surviving descendants of a wealthy Victorian who inherit when his last wife finally dies. (The elderly Mrs. Shearsby was much younger than her late husband.) Mrs. Shearsby has a life interest in his fortune which upon her death devolves per stirpes to multiple branches of his family. It might be that not all the cousins are content to wait patiently for their inheritance; as the story opens, three of the cousins have died in recent months and the other three are nervous. The three deaths may have been accidental but it’s an unusual coincidence even so.

Humphrey Bogart with moustache

Humphrey Bogart looking like what I imagine to be “Mephistophelean”.

Harvey Tuke (who apparently bears a striking resemblance to Mephistopheles) is a powerful official in the public prosecutor’s office and learns of this string of deaths through an odd gentleman who is a master of obituaries; he prepares them in advance and follows them, and is the only one to have noticed the Shearsby coincidence. Tuke investigates and learns the story of the cousins, investigates the deaths, and gets to know the surviving cousins, at least one of whom has escaped accidental death recently.

Mr. Tuke has also been spending time with the three cousins, who are not much involved in each others’ lives. One of them is Mrs. Tuke’s assistant in her war efforts; Mlle Cecile Boulanger helps the aristocratic Yvette Tuke (neé Garay) work on behalf of the French Navy (it’s the end of the war, perhaps 1945). Immediately after Tuke’s encounter with the concerned obituarist, Cecile tells him about having received a hard push into traffic and escaping death by the skin of her teeth — she proves to be one of the three prospective heirs.

Another of the three surviving cousins, Mortimer Shearsby is a chemist at a company that produces artificial fabrics — currently for the war effort, although they began by producing artificial silk. He and his wife Lilian have both worked at Sansil and come into contact with an unusual poison, sodium nitrite; which is of interest because another of the three deceased cousins apparently poisoned herself accidentally with sodium nitrite. But Mortimer and Lilian insist that sodium nitrite is easy to get hold of, and unfortunately that seems to be the case. (Its poisonous properties here I think must be imaginary, or else Browne has misattributed the effects of one chemical to another for reasons of public safety.)

Mortimer and Lilian are vulgar little middle-class bourgeois, but the third cousin is more to the social taste of Tuke and his beautifully-dressed wife Yvette; Miss Vivien Ardmore is well-dressed, well-mannered, and everything about her is in good taste. Yvette Tuke and Vivien recognize kindred spirits and become friendly. Vivien is very social and entertains a lot; she seems to have a lot of impromptu parties.

Too Many Cousins, 1946

Too Many Cousins, an American edition from Macmillan (1953). The illustration reminded me of early Andy Warhol book jacket art although I don’t think this is his work.

Oddly enough, one deceased cousin, a professional writer, recently produced a story called “Too Many Cousins” — and then called it back from his publisher, insisting that it could not be published. So there’s a hunt for the manuscript. There’s also a hunt for Uncle Martin, another potential heir, who vanished long ago and is generally considered deceased except … Mr. Tuke may suspect something to the contrary.

After establishing the characters, the book segues into six separate skeins of investigation: the suspicious deaths of the three cousins and the possibility that one of the remaining three may have had something to do with any of those deaths. So the full attention of the law is turned upon all six threads, and Mr. Tuke stays in touch with the survivors.

The second half of the book is very much concerned with who could have been where when, and how they might have traveled there. Timetables are generated; alibis are tested. In the course of tracing someone’s movements, the police become aware that a petty criminal has somehow become involved at the periphery of this case, possibly because he’s blackmailing one of the principals. When his body, poisoned with sodium nitrite, is found in a storage room during a party at Vivien Ardmore’s home, it doesn’t take long for Tuke to point the police in the right direction; although the victim has prudently done so as a precaution and the case would have been solved anyway.

In the traditional manner, Tuke explains the details to the interested obituarist; the elderly lady dies, and all the remaining heirs come into their long-awaited money.

Why is this book worth your time?

If I may be permitted to quote myself from someone else’s blog, here’s the comment I left about this book yesterday at crossexaminingcrime.

“LOL oh my it’s been a lot of years since I read [Too Many Cousins]. I remember being surprised at whodunit but not feeling cheated … and that there was some clever characterization along the way. But I apologize for not being able to remember much more than that.”

That kind of sums it up on a superficial level. The solution is perhaps surprising but if you’ve read the book carefully, you should be prepared for it; there are plenty of clues if you are paying attention. There was indeed some clever characterization but, ultimately, the plot was not sufficiently memorable to stay in my mind for what might have been twenty years.

That being said — I enjoyed the hell out of this the second time around and I’m not sure why I didn’t remember it from my first reading.

Too Many Cousins, Douglas G. Browne (1946)

The UK first edition of Too Many Cousins (MacDonald, 1946).

Possibly my earlier dismissal of this volume has to do with the idea that, over the years, the things in which I find pleasure in detective fiction have changed. In my early years I was fascinated by puzzles and detection. Lately it seems as though my attention is more focused upon the period itself. I enjoy the details of everyday life in 1946, both the grand sweep of world events and the evanescent and temporary things that catch the attention of a nation and concatenate through into popular fiction. As you have probably already imagined, there’s a lot of social detail for me to enjoy in this book.

The mystery itself is not all that mysterious, although I imagine I, upon my first reading, as well as most of the potential readers of this volume upon their first encounter will have been unable to identify the murderer and that person’s methods with any degree of precision.  Browne has actually constructed quite a clever murder plot but there are a couple of problems with how it is presented that make it less interesting than it actually is. They’re quite simultaneous issues: (1) that while there may be too many cousins, not enough of them have survived to make the field of suspects sufficiently large, and (2) that Browne takes the stand that really only one of the cousins is sufficiently … I’ll say “low-class” … to have actually committed a murder. Rather than spoil things for you, I’ll just say that this is either a smokescreen or an easy way to pick out the murderer without doing much thinking about the method. So it’s possible to have a strong suspect for murder and half the method without having been able to pierce the really very clever clueing and identify how the murders were committed; I expect I would have felt like I’d solved the mystery for the most part, which is a little unsatisfying, without having had either the wit or the ability to do so.

In terms of social history, there are two main threads of this book that I found very enjoyable. The first is that this book is relentless about describing people and their possessions, particularly their clothes but also their homes and accessories, in a way that lets you form conclusions about what type of person they are. I always enjoy this, although I suspect that at the distance of some 70 years the details of why smoking a Larranaga cigar makes you more discerning than if you smoke other brands have slipped by the wayside.

The other large thread of this book is some fairly explicit statements of the way that social class works in England. I don’t know that the book ever says anything about class per se. What it does is make observations about people (clothes, homes, and accessories as noted above) in such a way that (a) you know that the author is a person of the upper classes and assumes that you are too, and (b) is quite snotty about people and things who have the misfortune to not belong to the upper class. Browne indeed selects two characters, Mortimer and Lilian Shearsby, and pillories them mercilessly for the crime of being hard-core bourgeoisie.

Here’s a description of Lilian Shearsby that gives you most of what I’m talking about (a little long, but its detail is part of its charm):

“… [S]he was a tall woman. Harvey’s first impression of her was that she was also a handsome one. She had the good looks of well cut features — a short nose and upper lip, fine arched eyebrows, a pointed and determined chin. But her complexion, if left alone, would have been pasty, and her carefully waved hair was a nondescript brown. Art had been called in to enliven nature, and a lock over her forehead was bleached yellow. Behind rimless pince-nez pale grey eyes flitted about with quick little movements, like the eyes of a mouse or bird. Unlike her husband, who wore a baggy tweed suit under his overcoat, Mrs. Shearsby was a thought overdressed. Her green coat and skirt, tailored to reveal a good figure, were set off by too many clips and bracelets, her little green hat was an exaggeration of a current mode, and her high-heeled shoes of patent leather were too smart for the costume and the occasion. Under her arm she carried an enormous green bag.”

In other words she’s aping the clothing of her social betters but not getting the details right. Don’t you love the subtle bitchiness of “a thought overdressed”? Browne also gives us fashions of which he actually does approve:

“Vivien Ardmore had perhaps no claim to beauty; her features were irregular, her nose too long, her scarlet mouth too wide; but her fine eyes were widely set, and she obviously had intelligence. Her expression, a little hard in repose, was lightened and transformed when she smiled. An admirable figure was admirably set off by a tailor-made coat and skirt of light grey flannel. On her pale gold hair, elaborately waved, perched a tiny grey hat with white flowers. White gloves, a white handbag, and stockings and shoes which suggested neither economy nor utility completed an ensemble upon which Mrs. Tuke cast an approving eye. Miss Ardmore’s glance at Yvette returned the compliment.”

Gray flannel suit

Woman in a gray flannel suit that reminded me of Vivian Ardmore

Douglas Browne either had a strong eye for women’s fashion or the benefit of a consultant who did; I suggest that the way in which Miss Ardmore and Mrs. Tuke each acknowledge the other’s wartime chic with approval (“neither economy nor utility” had a special meaning in the days of the “utility suit”) is not something a male ordinarily notices.

The author is also scathing upon such details of bourgeois life as being sufficiently vulgar as to name your house Aylwynstowe — no, I’m sorry, I have no idea as to why that’s vulgar, but it’s clear from the authorial tone that it is — and to fill its over-manicured garden with gnomes which, okay, that I get. Browne is particularly scornful about a garden bench inscribed “A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot”; I can understand dimly that this is a version of the house-proud lower classes of the modern day who patronize with approval any commercial establishment that begins with “Ye olde …” but for the life of me I can’t figure out why he’s so down on this particular line from the poetry of Thomas Brown (the original verse suggests that God manifests himself in gardens). Later in the same chapter he calls Mortimer’s activities in his garden “godwottery” so there must be something about that particular quotation that has an association lost to the modern day, or at least to the resources of the internet. Or else Browne is just using it as a kind of shorthand to everything he dislikes about bourgeois gardens.

1948 suit with bolero jacket

This less-than-perfectly-chic lady reminded me of Lilian Shearsby.

Buried in all this keen observation of clothes and furniture are some actual clues to the mystery, and to be honest they are beautifully buried. If after reading this volume you think back to what you might have noticed, there’s a casual remark by a background character that could have given you the entire murder plot, if you’d only paid attention; but it is buried in a great section of keen observation about social class and you are lulled into thinking that this background character is more of the same. I like that kind of clueing a lot.

There’s also something that underlies the entire book that in a way reverses your learning about the social situation. As is clear from the perspective of 2018, 1946 in England was a time of great social upheaval. We may enjoy the sly digs that Browne makes at the middle classes and their airs and graces, but I suspect that 1946 was close to the end of an era in which such distinctions mattered as much as they do in this story. If you think of the England of 1962 in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side and how Miss Marple relates to her young employee Cherry Baker from The Development — Cherry is quite happy to be herself and doesn’t want to be of Miss Marple’s class, unlike here where Lilian Shearsby hates Vivian Ardmore because she is effortlessly aristocratic.

Ultimately what I enjoyed the most about this book was that the actions of the characters grew organically out of their personalities, and their personalities were very detailed and specific in order to let you know who could and could not have done the murder. For me, that places this book specifically at the end, or past the end, of the Golden Age; if this had been written in 1926 rather than 1946, there would have been a lot more about train schedules and the 4.03 express from Nether Puddleby and a lot less about how a viscountess can buy people’s loyalty with autographed photographs of herself. This mystery is not very tough as a mystery because the author is telegraphing his punch; there are not many suspects and only one reasonably red herring. (Tuke himself remarks at the end that the solution is simple and that he tried to overcomplicate it.) But as a novel of manners, a novel about how different social classes rubbed together at the end of WWII — delightful. And a little bit sad, because the world of upper-class privilege that Browne writes about is about to vanish along with this style of mystery.

Other voices

None of the usual suspects among my fellow GAD bloggers have examined this book, and the only look was a quick one here by the eminent Martin Edwards at Do You Write Under Your Own Name?. When the President of the Detection Club says “I felt that, once the main characters were introduced, the book faltered somewhat. Never mind too many cousins, there were too few suspects,” I’d be apt to agree with him 😉 I just went on at more length, that’s all 😉

Sergeant Cuff in the Saturday Review of October 31, 1953, says: “Death takes British heirs; Mr. Tuke, govt. lawyer, plays detective, has fun. Cast agreeable, realistic; handling suave, literate. Can’t go wrong here.”

As noted above, my friend armchair reviewer at crossexaminingcrime wrote a piece on a companion volume. I found it interesting and she has enticed me to find The May Week Murders because, well, call it an idiosyncrasy but I’m a sucker for a mystery about a tontine.

If you’re interested in the details of what women were wearing in 1940, here is a resource I found fascinating on the details of the utility suit/victory suit. I swiped one of their photographs which seemed to me to echo the less-than-perfect chic of Lilian Shearsby.

A note on editions

I venture to say that just about the only edition you’ll ever be able to get your hands on is the trade paperback from Dover that is pictured at the head of this piece. It is readily available through the usual sources, possibly including your local used bookstore. I note that there is a book club edition of the American printing and this should also be easily available from antiquarian sources for a reading copy. If you want a first edition, you might expect a current (2018) price to be perhaps US$30, as always depending on condition.

No paperback editions to my knowledge exist.

 

 

Panic in Box C, by John Dickson Carr (1966)

Panic in Box C, by John Dickson Carr

Panic in Box C, by John Dickson Carr: X1587, Berkeley Medallion (1968): First paperback edition


Panic in Box C
 (1966) is the twenty-third in a series of 24 mystery novels about Dr. Gideon Fell, by John Dickson Carr (JDC). The adventures of Dr. Fell frequently centre around locked-room mysteries and impossible crimes; this book would probably be considered an impossible crime story. It is certainly a difficult puzzle mystery and contains many elements that will be familiar to JDC’s many fans (of which group I have been a member for decades).

Previously I have discussed specific JDC books here and here and JDC in general here and here  and here.  If you do a search on my blog for John Dickson Carr or Carter Dickson, his major pseudonym, you’ll also find links to other bloggers’ work about JDC and I think you’ll find them of interest.

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 in so many words reveal whodunit, but I have discussed elements of the murder that will almost certainly make the identity of the murderer clear to you. 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. 

What is this novel about?

The story begins on board R.M.S. Illyria heading towards New York. Philip Knox, a historian, and Dr. Gideon Fell are both embarking on separate lecture tours of the United States. They spend the first chapter introducing the reader to themselves and the next few introducing the reader to famous actress Margery Vane (who’s also entitled to be known as Lady Tiverton) and her entourage, including her handsome young boyfriend Lawrence Porter and her faithful secretary Bess Harkness. A shot rings out and misses everyone by a mile, but it amplifies the sense of imminent disaster that Carr so skilfully builds.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson Carr

A later Carroll & Graf paper edition.

Everyone ends up at a Connecticut theatre where the wealthy Vane is both establishing a theatre and endowing a company of players, at the theatre where she long ago played her first roles. Philip Knox meets his estranged wife Judy, and the two seem to have rekindled their romantic interest. Meanwhile Margery’s personal life and the personal lives of the Margery Vane players, including the hot-tempered lead, Barry Plunkett and his beautiful lead actress girlfriend, Anne Winfield, are intersecting and heating up. And people are exchanging stories about a tragedy that happened at the theatre twenty years ago.

During the dress rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet, Margery Vane is locked in Box C of the theatre alone, saying that she wants to experience the play by herself. During the performance there is the twang of a crossbow and, as will be no surprise to the experienced reader, Miss Vane is found in the locked Box C, pierced by a crossbow bolt. Below the box on the ground floor are found some valuable pieces of Vane’s jewelry wrapped up with a newspaper cutting about the recent suicide of someone who acted at the theatre back in her heyday. And across the theatre, under Box A, is a crossbow that had gone missing from the lobby.

As is also unsurprising in the genre, nearly everyone around Vane had a motive to kill her, whether financial or emotional. This includes Judy Knox, who apparently had a run-in with Margery Vane some twenty years ago and is still the object of Vane’s dislike, although no one knows (or perhaps will say) exactly why. Many of the company were on stage, or immediately off stage, at the time of the murder; seven people were in the theatre itself watching the rehearsal, and some can alibi each other, but nothing is certain.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrLawrence Porter is the obvious suspect, because just before her death Margery Vane had wanted to have him arrested for stealing her jewelry, but we soon learn that he has a cast-iron alibi — during the time when he wasn’t onstage, he was shooting craps in a back room with a couple of other actors. This leaves the detectives with no clear-cut suspect and things become more complicated when an elderly alcoholic from the earliest days of the theatre announces that he saw a masked man dressed all in black who fired the crossbow from the stage and then vanished through a concealed trap door.

Dr. Fell rumbles around asking apparently inconsequential questions, and muttering about Honus Wagner (an old-time baseball player) until, after various interviews and searches for evidence, he figures out the identity of the criminal. There is an exciting scene at the end where the murderer is killed just before a second murder can take place, in the Crazy House at the local amusement park, and then a final wrap-up scene where Dr. Fell and local policeman Lt. Spinelli explain all the loose ends.

Why is this book worth your time?

My regular readers will already know most of my answer to this question. As I’ve said about quite a few mystery writers, their work is significantly important to the mystery genre and if you wish to know how mysteries work, or what good ones look like, every single thing that authors like John Dickson Carr wrote is worth your time. You can learn more about writing from Carr’s lesser works than you can from the best offerings of lesser writers.

That being said — this one is pretty bad.

I’ve said before that many famous Golden Age writers perhaps should have stopped writing a few books before they actually did. Christie and Marsh and Queen didn’t need to burden us with their final few efforts, by and large; they’re embarrassingly poor and most GAD critics are tired of apologizing for them. (“Yes, Agatha Christie was a great, great writer and Passenger to Frankfurt is a gigantic turd. Those can both be true at the same time.”)

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrJDC’s point of no return seems to be pretty much the book immediately before this one, 1965’s The House at Satan’s Elbow. I wouldn’t now call his decline a steep one (although I have done so before, I’d like to step it back); there’s nothing so incoherent as Passenger to Frankfurt or Photo Finish or The Last Woman In His Lifefor instance. There is much that is boring but not much that is that silly.

Some time ago, I outlined the three things that a JDC novel needs to contain to be among his best work:

  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.

I think it’s accurate to say that nothing JDC wrote after 1965 manages to contain all these three things done to the best of his ability — and the present volume has almost nothing that qualifies.

#3 is almost entirely absent; in fact Carr goes out of his way to flatten or suppress elements that could give rise to that. The suicide’s face mask of his younger self? That could have been superbly creepy, but it’s entirely offstage and we are only told about it. #2 is sadly out of alignment; many of the characters are pure cardboard and many of the interesting things that they are doing, or see done, have absolutely nothing to do with the structure of the book. For instance, there’s an entire chapter that consists of almost nothing except a bunch of people bellowing the lyrics to the football-related “fight songs” of various American universities and being very rude to each other. I’ll go into this in a little detail further on.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrAs far as #1 goes, I will say that the actual puzzle structure holds together quite well; I understand how the crime was committed and I’m pretty sure it slipped right by me on my first reading of this, decades ago. There are a couple of problems with it, though, that wouldn’t be found in JDC’s work of 20 years earlier. The book would have been essentially over if Lt. Spinelli had done his damn job properly and thoroughly questioned every single person in the theatre about what they were doing, and with whom, when the crossbow twanged. Surely, SURELY the person upon whom the murderer’s alibi depends would have spoken up; I understand the reason that we’re given for that not having happened, but I don’t buy it. The pressure is just not there. When that person is nearly killed at the end of the book, they still have no idea of what it is to which they could have testified and no real pressure to say otherwise has been applied.

Another problem for me is that I’m not so intimately familiar with the words used to describe the parts of a theatre as I might be, and thus I was labouring under a misapprehension about where people were. Once you grasp where exactly everyone was, and upon what floor of the building, it’s all clearer — and it should have been much clearer to the police. At the end, when everything is being explained, much is made of the fact that a policeman executes the actions of the murderer in a mere 29 seconds.  “Aha!” I thought. “That’s a healthy active policeman, not [for instance] a middle-aged person who is constantly described as a heavy smoker.” But then I realized that although that was true, it simply didn’t matter if the actions had been performed in 29 seconds or 300; the murderer’s alibi would have been essentially unchanged.

The thought that kept occurring to me as I refreshed my memory of this book was that there were a number of things here that hearkened back to earlier JDC novels — it’s as though the writer was dragging things out of his attic to furnish a room, but nothing quite fits or is as well-made as he once thought. For instance, there’s a couple of times during the book when everything quite ridiculously grinds to a halt while JDC adds in a great bolus of historical … stuff.  When Philip Knox meets his estranged wife and seems to fall in love all over again, he expresses his sentiments by — blethering on and on about Stonewall Jackson.  In verse. It is true that Carr knew a LOT about history and his historical novels are highly regarded.  But right about now in his books, he starts packing in great wads of irrelevant historical background that do nothing for the plot except cushion it, like excelsior.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrSimilarly there is a scene at the end set in  the Crazy House that is nowhere near as creepy as a couple of other excursions to such places in earlier Carr novels. It’s clear that he likes writing about fun fairs and amusement parks; they show up a lot in his books.  Here, it’s almost dragged in without rhyme or reason. The murderer is said to be arranging things so that lots of people are in the vicinity but that is soon demonstrated to be ridiculously impossible; the ticket-takers remember exactly who went where.  The scene has nothing connected with the Crazy House and would have been better set at the theatre, but … those settings are in another couple of JDC novels and it worked there. It just doesn’t work here.

I think the biggest problem in the book is everything that has to do with Philip Knox’s estranged wife Judy.  I’m about to give away what might be a crucial plot point here, so be warned. After Philip and Judy split up, she moved to the US and, unbeknownst to him, became a call girl to support herself for some months, then got a job and rose to the top of the magazine industry.  Both Margery Vane and Bess Harkness are aware of her past and Bess at one point starts to call her by her “working name,” Dorothy.  This is what they fought about and this is what Judy and Vane were arguing about immediately before the murder.

Now, you know, nearly everything in this plot line is just complete nonsense. Apparently Judy is worried in the present day that Philip will find out about her past — Philip doesn’t even bat an eye when he finds out. Everyone goes out of their way, officials and bystanders alike, to assure Judy that they don’t care in the slightest and that nobody will be prosecuting Judy for her crime.  (Which, frankly, is absolutely ridiculous. I’d like to see anyone brought into court on a 20-YEAR-OLD prostitution charge, even in 1965; you’d be laughed out of court.)

There’s a little bit at the end that’s very telling in this context. Judy is Telling All to Philip, and here’s what she says about how Margery Vane found out that Judy was a hooker:

“… she saw me with one of her men-friends … I don’t mean boy-friends, just another man of her acquaintance … coming out of my apartment in a place where I couldn’t have been anything except what I was. She didn’t say anything. But she made inquiries, and remembered.”

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrExcept — what the hell is she talking about? If there is such a “place”, it would be a bordello, and those don’t have “apartments”. Judy is apparently trying to convince us that she lived in an apartment building that was so well known for housing prostitutes that merely having an apartment in that building meant you were for hire. But in that case, what is Margery Vane doing there and why isn’t she tarred with the same brush?

No, this is just all so much nonsense, and frankly it’s mean-spirited nonsense too. No one in this case investigates Judy in the way she ought to be investigated, and it seems as though there is an unspoken consensus among Fell and the police that Judy is not the murderer and there’s no need to ask her unpleasant questions to remind her of her sordid past. In addition, much is made of the fact that Judy had quarrelled with Margery Vane on an ocean crossing 20 years ago, immediately after Judy had left Philip. And that very interesting development is dismissed in the final lines of the book: they quarrelled about “nothing at all.”

The mean-spirited part is that Carr is saying a number of things here about sex work, and none of them are very attractive. Apparently it completely ruins your life (except where it doesn’t). It is such a horrible secret that it can cause you to cover up things connected with a murder. Now, I’ve spoken before about my admiration for Carr’s forthrightness about human sexuality in books like The Judas Window, where a young woman stands up in court and says, “Yes, I let my boyfriend take nude photos of me, what’s it to you?” (Paraphrased LOL) He talked about sex in mysteries at a time when no one other than Gladys Mitchell was doing so. Here, though, there’s a certain … sniggering quality about the whole thing that is really unattractive. Perhaps it’s Carr trying to be part of the swinging 60s — perhaps it’s Carr indulging his own fantasy life. But because it’s all just nonsense, it’s clear that he put it in for reasons that weren’t connected with the mystery per se — it just doesn’t stand up. Much like he wanted to talk about the Crazy House and Stonewall Jackson, he wanted to talk about hookers, and none of it contributes anything to the novel.

The bit about Honus Wagner? That goes nowhere near that baseball player. And it’s annoying, because where it actually goes is to a person who does not actually appear in the book and who should be front and centre giving testimony.

So it’s all very sloppy work. The sloppy nature of it is exemplified by something that Carr actually seems to have forgotten until the end of the book. Dr. Fell is chaffed by someone for not having mentioned a rip in some fabric — and believe me, he should have done, it might have been an important clue. There’s another forgotten item too. Much is made of a reference to an old stage play called Sherlock Holmes, in which a specific visual device is used to make the audience think that an actor is in one place when he’s really in another. Well and good. But there’s absolutely no point in including something like that unless, in the current plot, you have someone trying to execute the same thing. Or, rather, they are — it’s just that JDC forgets to tell us that anyone was looking at the time. So that clever little reference is completely wasted and any deductions based on it become unavailable.

Oh, there’s certainly more evidence that JDC was starting to decline — honestly, it’s been depressing to even give the plot this much attention, because I keep finding holes and issues. All I can say is, it’s John Dickson Carr so it’s worth reading … just read it quickly and without too much attention to what’s going on.  Let yourself be carried away by characters and scenes that remind you of other spooky Carr excursions; “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” and you’ll be pleasantly amused.

A note on editions

Like many books dating back to the 1960s, this title was not well-served when it came to nice-looking editions. I rather like the aqua curtains and the alabaster hand wrapped with jewelry in the first US paper edition I used to prepare these comments, shown at the very top of the column.  A copy of the first US or first UK editions seems to be about US$50 as of this writing, which seems about right.  I’ve remarked before that a poor book by a good author is sometimes more difficult to obtain than a well-known title and this would be no exception. A small investment in the first US paper edition in perfect condition may pay off very well in the future for the speculative collector.

Other opinions

(Added some hours later) I carelessly forgot to include some links to material which may also interest my readers.

  • My fellow GAD blogger (and blog friend) at The Green Capsule looked at this book (here) earlier this year: the Green Capsule has set out to read his way through JDC and is doing so in a consistently interesting way.
  • My friend Patrick, in At the Scene of the Crime back in 2011, (here) says “It’s readable, but far from Carr’s best.”
  • The esteemed Marvin Lachman in Mystery*File (here), writing in 1987, is terse but highly complimentary; he thinks there is “effective use of the theatre, both its physical settings, and its lore, to add to an unusually good detective story.”
  • Esteemed mystery blogger and my friend Bev Hankins, in My Reader’s Block, looked at this book in 2011 (here), saying “The mystery is a bit of a disappointment.”