A Murder in Thebes, by Paul Doherty (1998)

Note: This book was originally published as by “Anna Apostolou”; the author whose work it is has many pseudonyms but is generally known as either Paul Doherty or P. C. Doherty. It is now published as an e-book under Paul Doherty.

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 and come quite close to giving away a central secret. 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. 


I’m never quite sure how to feel about authors with a huge output of published writing. I’ve had bad experiences with Gladys Mitchell just lately — similarly Edgar Wallace, Elizabeth Linington, and John Creasey. Simenon leaves me relatively cold, although his skill is evident. But Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr, and Agatha Christie are always interesting to me. It’s too simplistic to say that if an author produces a huge number of volumes they must automatically be a hasty and poor writer. It does sometimes make me approach a prolific writer with caution, though.

And that’s the frame of mind I brought to the work of Paul Doherty, who has written, by Wikipedia’s last count, more than 100 mysteries; I believe all or nearly all of them can be categorized as “historical”. I read a few of his earliest books back in the 80s, but have forgotten very nearly everything about them; at that point in time I was already surfeited with Ellis Peters’s adventures of Brother Cadfael (yes, you read that right, I’m not a fan; I think they’re ersatz and bland) and didn’t feel I needed more mediaeval hijinks in my life.  When you couple that with the idea that I only occasionally read anything written after I was born, you can understand why I’ve only experienced about 5% of his output, if that.

But then I discovered that, as Anna Apostolou, Doherty had written a couple of mysteries featuring Alexander the Great. Now, I’ve always had a huge interest in Alexander the Great; I’ve read a bunch of books about him, sparked off by the excellent novels of Mary Renault, and will always pick up anything about him, fiction or non-fiction. When I happened across a copy of #2 in the series, A Murder in Thebes, I thought, what the heck? How bad can it be?

I say this because my pessimism for once had no payoff.  I found, to my pleasure, that while this is not a novel for the ages, it’s very competent and smartly done, and Doherty (whom Wikipedia tells me is an expert on Alexander the Great in his own right) has hit most of the right notes along the way.

The story is actually about sister-and-brother Israelite detectives Miriam and Simeon Bartimaeus; they are fictitious and the conceit is that they were sent to be educated by Aristotle along with Alexander. Miriam is an intellectual with a “determined mouth” who acts as a kind of … well, let’s say “private eye” for Alexander, who apparently keeps running into locked-room murders unknown to history.  Some other characters are actual historical figures in the correct time and place as we know from history; the events in this novel and most of its characters are imaginary, though.

5176BX692ALI suppose you can’t write 100 mysteries without having, if not a formula, then at least a pattern.  This one was easy to see, and the book is well-constructed.  The A plot is the murder case that involves someone killing Alexander’s officers during the siege of Thebes (and after Alexander takes the city); apparently there’s a spy among them in the pay of Persia, known as the Oracle.  Most of the book is devoted to the identification and unmasking of the spy/murderer and, honestly, since I spotted the central clue pretty much within seconds of its transmission, the problem didn’t occupy my mind much. (I will merely say I’ve owned dogs; I got the right answer for mostly the wrong reasons, so that little clue will mislead you.)

The B plot is involved with “The Iron Crown of Oedipus”, a sacred relic of Thebes in its own shrine with attendant priestesses.  The crown itself is fixed to a post, and the post is surrounded by pits of fire, pits of poisonous snakes, and pits of spears. In fact, it’s an “impossible crime” situation; the chief priestess knows how the crown can be removed (without the use of tools, which are blasphemous and sacrilegious in the context) but nobody else is aware.  When the crown vanishes, just before Alexander needs to wear it publicly to confirm his acquisition of Thebes by Macedon, Miriam has to figure out who took it and how.

The reader will not be surprised by this puzzle either, if s/he ‘s paying attention; there are a couple of very broad hints that seem a little anachronistic and thus obvious even to a reader of limited experience with detective fiction.  I’ll accept that Doherty is a historian and thus I’ll suspend my disbelief about what he says was a common toy among Theban children and Macedonian soldiers. But honestly, it might just as well have had a neon arrow in the text saying, “Big ol’ clue right here.” There was just no reason to include its repetitive mention otherwise.

I actually think the reader is supposed to grasp the central premise of what’s going on; it’s an interesting idea, that the author should build in opportunities to make the reader feel better about his/her intellectual gifts.  After you put two and two together — well, okay, I’d figured out the killer and I’d figured out the puzzle, and I felt very clever for a moment. It’s not an experience I often have with detective fiction, and it would have been very unusual to have it with, say, Christie, Carr, or even Gardner upon my first reading of their works way back when. I suspect I might be able to solve other volumes in this series, and others of Doherty’s many series, without too much strain, and while that seems superficially an attractive prospect it does rather pall when I contemplate the great books which have so cleverly pulled the wool over my eyes and provided me with more pleasure by fooling me.  Your mileage may definitely vary, and I know Doherty has a lot of adherents, so perhaps I’m extrapolating far too much from a single example.


I’m not sure why Doherty inserted the distancing mechanism of having the central characters as Israelites … for me it doesn’t work as well as merely having a Macedonian do the job. I suspect it has something to do with offering the reader a female character with whom to identify and having her not be, as one might say, overly troubled with sexual activity. Miriam protects children and the innocent and wields great power as a favourite of Alexander, and reacts angrily for the most part when she is sexually harassed.  I just find it hard to accept that a female from what today is called Israel would be in that position; it strains my suspension of disbelief somewhat.

The part that Doherty really has nailed on the head is the character and situation of Alexander. I’ll be blunt and say that I was expecting Alexander to have been de-gayed for the lowest common denominator of reader; not so, and full marks for having Hephaestion described as Alexander’s companion and lover, and kissed once in a while to boot.  Indeed, the everyday socialization of what we would think of today as “kinks” is a part of the narrative, and not in a sniggering or heteronormative way either; it’s part of everyday Macedonian life and this murder too, since many of the male characters have male partners and casual lovers, and cross-dressing is an accepted idea that bears upon the plot without being meretriciously paraded.

Similarly, this is not your average cozy, in the sense that as the book begins, Alexander breaks the siege of Thebes and captures the city, killing many of its inhabitants and enslaving the remainder. We’re not spared the stacks of dead bodies and the terrible smell and floating ash of their funeral pyres; there’s also a rough-and-ready cure for diarrhea offered by Alexander. The punishment for just about everything is death. The characters lead lives, at that everyday level, that seem appropriate for the time and place without any sops to 21st century morality.  (Neither do any characters decry the backwardness of their own existence, thank goodness.)

All things considered, I enjoyed this. It’s a nice easy mystery story based firmly and accurately in historical knowledge — and you don’t “walk out humming the research,” as occasionally happens with other historical mystery writers. The characters are simply drawn and pleasant to contemplate and there is the “impossible crime” aspect, although not much of a one to be honest.

Would I go out and get more of these? I hope to track down the remainder of the Alexander series, certainly, but I would have done that anyway just to see how the rest stack up. I think I’ll spare myself his mediaeval mysteries for the moment; while I’m sure it would be delightful to have a further hundred books to add to my To Be Read list, I just can’t face all that mediaevality (with the disembodied face of Derek Jacobi floating in my mind, exclaiming pompously, “But this is positively mediaeval!”). It is, however, a sharp lesson to me not to be so fast to assume that because a writer is fast, his quality suffers. This is a well-written book with good characterization and an excellent balancing of the plot structure and I’ve read a lot worse — a LOT worse — in the cozy genre.





And Be A Villain, by Rex Stout (1948)

77592And Be A Villain was also published under the UK title More Deaths Than One. The American title bestowed by its author is a snippet of quotation from Hamlet: “… one can smile and smile, and be a villain.” The British title is a snippet from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol: “For he who lives more lives than one, more deaths than one must die.”

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 more than you care to know about the titular novel, although IN THIS POST I do NOT reveal the identity of the murder or crucial details.  I’m doing this post in conjunction with my fellow blogger JJ, at “The Invisible Event“, who carried on a conversation with me about the same novel, a transcript of which is found here. That discussion reveals EVERYTHING. If you haven’t already read this mystery and read either post, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame; it’s an excellent book. So please go and read the book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

1991252What is this book about?

Madeleine Fraser is the host of a 1948 version of the talk show; this one is on radio and is a hit. Twice a week she welcomes guests who all sit around and chit-chat with her and co-host Bill Meadows on a topic putatively of interest to the listening audience. One fateful day, the topic is betting on horse racing. Among the guests are a professor of mathematics, to talk about statistics, and Cyril Orchard, who runs a racing tip sheet. In order to please one of the sponsors — a soft drink called Starlite, The Drink You Dream Of — at a certain point in every program’s proceedings everyone pours a glass of Starlite and comments on how refreshing it is, et cetera. (An early form of product placement.) Unfortunately for both the sponsor and the racing fraternity, when Mr. Orchard drinks his glass of Starlite, he falls down dead from cyanide poisoning, on the air.

Irascible private investigator Nero Wolfe needs money and decides to send his assistant Archie Goodwin to Ms. Fraser and her organization — associates, her manager, sponsors’ representatives — in order to drum up a fee for taking the case. The sponsors are anxious to pin blame on anyone and anything but Starlite and agree to foot the bill. Wolfe then embarks upon a program familiar to Stoutian aficionados; he calls all the suspects together in his home, and questions them exhaustively on every aspect of the death. Then he identifies small inconsistencies in the group story and sends Archie out to investigate them individually, with Archie paying special attention to any beautiful young woman involved in the case.

Stout-ABAV-2In the audience that day was 16-year-old Nancylee Shepherd, who “organized the biggest Fraser Girls Club in the country”. Miss Shepherd is what’s called a bobbysoxer, although not in the text, and her favourite intensifier is “simply utterly”. Although she is pert and sassy (more than verging on obnoxious), she is no match for Nero Wolfe, who pries a crucial observation out of her.

Wolfe goes quite a long way towards the solution but reaches a point where he can go no further — so he stirs the pot by faking a document that sends Madeline Fraser and her entourage into high gear. Someone reacts by poisoning a chocolate candy from a box of another sponsor, Meltettes, and a second person is murdered. The circumstances of this murder give Wolfe most of what he needs.

And-Be-a-Villain-Montreal-Standard-5-7-49_fsIn a separate but important sub-plot, Wolfe receives an ominous telephone call midway through the case from someone whom he knows to be a very powerful figure in organized crime; a man named Arnold Zeck. Zeck suggests politely that Wolfe withdraw from the case; Wolfe refuses, but the request gives him inferences that he uses later to solve the case. He spends about 18 hours in his office chair pushing his lips in and out, thinking; he’s solved the case and is deciding just how best to bring off the revelation. In classic Wolfe fashion, he brings everyone together (police and suspects) at his brownstone, explains his chain of logic, identifies the killer and collects his fee.

MoreDeathsThanOne-UK4_fsIn the final brief chapter, Wolfe receives another call from Zeck, who congratulates him on solving the crime without bringing a specific aspect of it to police or public attention. Wolfe thanks him, and says, “… when I undertake an investigation I permit prescription of limits only by the requirements of the job. If that job had taken me across your path you would have found me there.” “Then that is either my good fortune or yours,” says Zeck, and hangs up. The reader familiar with the Wolfean corpus understands this to be the first volume in a trilogy about the collision of Wolfe and Zeck. The second appearance is in 1949’s The Second Confession, in which Zeck sends gunmen to destroy Wolfe’s plant rooms, and the third is the magnificent climax, 1950’s In the Best Families, in which Wolfe finds it necessary to go to extraordinary lengths to defeat Zeck once and for all.

AndBe-UK-Panther_fsWhy is this book worth your time?

As I frequently remark in this context, this is a book by an author who is one of the most important writers of detective fiction of the 20th century. Anything with Rex Stout’s name on it is worth your time; even his earliest rubbish, so you can understand how he got to the top of his profession. Anything with Rex Stout’s name on it as part of the body of work (with specific reference to Wolfe, this has become known as the corpus, referencing Wolfe’s large bulk) about Nero Wolfe is especially worth your time; reading every volume of the corpus is to most people a delightful experience because of the ongoing and ever-changing yet constant relationship between Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin.

Reading the corpus gives you an accretion of detail that allows you to experience fully the references in each specific volume. As Wolfe fans can testify, you see the same elements again and again, in similar contexts — by the time you open your 30th volume, you’ll already know why it’s important who gets to sit in the red leather chair in Wolfe’s office, and why it’s useless to bring clients to see Wolfe between four and six in the afternoon. (He’s in the plant rooms cultivating his orchids.)

AndBe7_fsIf you needed more reasons, this is one of the very best volumes in the series. There are 47 books in the series, and I think it’s arguable that this is in the top ten (although not the top five). All three volumes of the Arnold Zeck trilogy are superior; there are not many instances in the corpus where an element of the story carries over from one volume to another — Zeck, Orrie Cather, Wolfe’s daughter/Montenegro — and all such instances have a heightened level of excellence.

But what, in Stoutian terms, defines a heightened level of excellence? That takes a little explanation. I think of each Nero Wolfe piece (I’ll use this term to refer to novels, novellas, and short stories) as having three levels: micro, meso, and macro.

md20734549133As Nero Wolfe enthusiasts know, one of the most enjoyable things in the corpus is the ongoing relationship between Archie and Wolfe. They constantly bicker. Archie must badger Wolfe to work and rein in his spending; Wolfe indulges himself by frustrating Archie, either romantically or by refusing to tell him about progress on cases. There are constant explanations of the daily routine of the brownstone that they (and chef Fritz and “orchid nurse” Theodore) share; how those routines are broken occasionally but mostly observed. I think of this as the micro-level of each piece.

andbeavillainThe meso-level is concerned with the case itself; Archie and Wolfe learning about people connected with the ongoing case, although they’re unlikely to ever meet again. This is the level of clients, witnesses, and murderers. It’s also the level of Wolfe’s supportive team of private investigators and friends: Saul, Orrie, Fred, Dol Bonner, Lon Cohen, etc.  The meso-level is usually the most important level in any given Wolfe piece but most of it vanishes with each new work. The patterns, however, remain. In each new book it’s a different young female suspect whom Archie takes dancing at the Flamingo Club, but it’s always the Flamingo Club.

Finally, the macro-level has to do with long story arcs — for instance, Wolfe’s personal friendship from childhood with restaurateur Marko Vukcic (proprietor of the famous restaurant Rusterman’s) which begins in Too Many Cooks (1938) and ends so sadly in The Black Mountain (1954). The macro-level can also be about world events and circumstances that have an overarching impact upon Wolfe’s world; for instance, during World War II, Wolfe consults for the US government without fee. It’s important to note that the macro-level is not truly present in every single Nero Wolfe story but, as you will see, I suggest that its presence is what lifts a story from the ordinary level of excellence to a heightened brilliance.

md1044970895So every story has the micro- and meso- levels; the excellent stories all share some involvement at the macro-level. Here the macro-level is represented by this volume’s membership in the Zeck trilogy; if you’ve read the other two volumes, you know that Wolfe undertakes one of the greatest challenges of his life in the defeat of Arnold Zeck.  Zeck is Wolfe’s Moriarty, if you will; no other male challenges the detective to this extent. (There are a handful of Irene Adlers, though.) There are other social issues that are illustrated, notably the inner workings of the radio industry and the phenomenon known as bobby-soxers; Wolfe always has to contend with social institutions that are beyond his control when the zeitgeist impinges upon his private world. But the macro-level is definitely Wolfe’s encounter with what we later call organized crime. There’s also quite a bit of information about Wolfe’s attitude towards the income tax and why he hates paying it, but it’s the first third of Wolfe’s interaction with Zeck that is the mark of distinction here.

nw131968may2aThe meso-level is the case at hand; who killed Cyril Orchard and why? Wolfe follows his familiar pattern of investigation here as almost always. Wolfe sends out Archie to see the locations and speak with as many of the suspects as possible; meanwhile, Wolfe pressures the suspects into attending a large-scale meeting in his office. Archie reports verbatim conversations back to Wolfe, who finds a loose thread in the tapestry and picks at it until it unravels. This leads to a second murder and, when the murderer thus panics, Wolfe figures out what happens and calls a meeting in his office to identify the killer and end the book. In this book, Wolfe represents that he’s stymied at a certain point and resorts to the stratagem of faking a document in order to prod the suspects into action; this is not his usual inaction, but he wants the money quickly and pushes more than he usually does. Although the document is never used, the pressure pays off dramatically when one of Madeline Fraser’s inner circle of advisors is murdered with a poisoned box of Meltettes, another sponsoring candy. To Wolfe’s mind this narrows the range of suspects to a very small number and he soon identifies the guilty party. The traditional ending in Wolfe’s study, where he calls everyone together and lays out the case (and then Inspector Cramer puts a large hand on the guilty party’s shoulder), here is satisfying and moderately surprising.

md1738271855In the process of solving the mystery, Wolfe uncovers a scheme of organized blackmail that is brilliant.  You really should read the book to get the full picture, but it would work today as well, if not better, than 1948 — requires no evidence or proof of anyone’s misdeeds — and has the good sense to stop after a year of payments. It is a scheme worthy of a kingpin of crime like Arnold Zeck, and Stout achieved a great thing in inventing it. Stout didn’t always depict gangsters well, but his intelligence produced great schemes for them to carry out.

The micro-level is represented by the everyday activities of the brownstone. For instance, Wolfe provides a wonderful meal for a physician who gives him valuable information in return — “fresh pork tenderloin, done in a casserole, with a sharp brown sauce moderately spiced”, with a mention of the extraordinary brandy labelled Remisier, “of which there are only nineteen bottles in the United States and they’re all in [Wolfe’s] cellar.” Archie goads Wolfe into action by planting a story in the newspapers, via Lon Cohen, about how Wolfe has failed to solve the case. Wolfe and Fritz the household chef argue about whether horse mackerel is as good as Mediterranean tunny fish for a veal dish called vitello tonnato. Madeline Fraser gets to sit in the red leather chair in Wolfe’s office.  And at the end of the novel, Wolfe gathers all the suspects in his office and solves the case.

Micro, meso, and macro levels are all present in this excellent volume; I recommend it to your attention and hope you form the same attachment to the adventures of Nero Wolfe as I have.  It’s brought me delight for many, many years.

md13726386061A note on editions

Wikipedia has someone, or a group of people, who has devoted considerable time and effort to outlining the publishing history of every single Wolfe title. I don’t see any reason to re-invent their wheel; you can find that information at the bottom of this page. My own favourite edition is my beautifully near-mint copy of Bantam #824, shown above, with Madeline Fraser in a blue low-cut suit looking at Nero Wolfe. It’s the first US paper edition; the UK paper precedes it but with the variant title as noted at the top of this review.









She Had To Have Gas, by Rupert Penny (1939)

SheHadToHaveGas315As I mentioned in my last post, after struggling hard with Gladys Mitchell, I felt I needed something a bit more … structured to read. A few weeks ago a copy of this Rupert Penny novel was on top of a box of books I was moving… and I spent an hour flipping through it refreshing my memory as to its contents.  So I thought I’d share it with you.

More than five years ago I first looked at a Rupert Penny novel here and another one here last year; I’ll just hit the high spots. Rupert Penny used to be one of the most difficult tastes in mystery reading to satisfy. His books were nearly impossible to get and commanded astronomical prices (in the range of US$500 for ANY hardcover). He was only published in flimsy wartime editions, many of which did not last, and his occasional paperback publications similarly came on the market in small editions and then vanished.

As of today, ABE Books has none of the first editions available, and the very rare paperback copies from the 1940s are US$75 to $100. I had a scarce Collins White Circle paperback edition of Sealed Room Murder that I recall brought me $75 some years ago. But then the excellent Ramble House brought all nine of his books back as print-on-demand trade-format paperbacks and the GAD world could finally read its way through Penny’s oeuvre. To the best of my knowledge, She Had To Have Gas was published once in 1939 by Collins Crime Club, and that was it until Ramble House reprinted it. My copy has a curious error; the back cover is a blurb for a different Rupert Penny novel, Cut And Run. But in the way of POD, possibly mine is one of a very few such misprints.

For those of you who have never encountered Rupert Penny’s work — well, his focus is definitely on the “impossible crime” story in the manner of the Humdrum school. In Penny, the puzzle is all, and characterization is not much in evidence. The novels are structured around really difficult puzzles that theoretically are “fair play” , in that Penny asserts that the reader is given all necessary information to make a solution possible.  To that end, I believe all his novels contain the Queenian conceit of the “Challenge to the Reader”; the novel comes to a halt while the author breaks the fourth wall and poses some questions that the reader should be able to answer (but, frankly, is unlikely to be able to).

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?

It is October, 1938 in the small town of Craybourne and we are introduced to Mrs. Agatha Topley, a somewhat meek widow and first-time landlady who is having a problem with her only lodger, a slatternly Londoner named Alice Carter. Miss Carter is behind on her rent and Mrs. Topley needs the money. Alice has introduced her frequent male visitor as her cousin, Mr. Ellis, and Mrs. Topley has written him a note to urge him to mention the matter to Miss Carter. Since she hates to cause a fuss, she hopes this will be sufficient.

When Mrs. Topley returns from a shopping excursion, she immediately loses her temper. Her lodger has apparently taken charge of Mrs. Topley’s cherished radio and moved it into her room, since it’s playing at full blast. Miss Carter’s door is locked and she’s not answering. When Mrs. Topley smells gas, her anger turns to panic. She pushes a chair in front of the door and peeps through the transom window, only to see Miss Carter’s body shrouded in the bedclothes, with a rubber tube disappearing beneath them.

Mrs. Topley immediately runs to get the local policeman and a few minutes later they return to find — the bed is empty and all Miss Carter’s possessions have vanished.

Meanwhile, mystery writer Charles Harrington is puzzled about the seeming disappearance of his niece Philippa and discusses the problem with his friend, the Chief Constable. Philippa has requested a huge sum of money (£5000, which in 2017 terms would equal the purchasing power of roughly US$320,000) and refuses to say why. The Chief Constable enlists the assistance of policemen Tukes and Best (whose girlfriend is Philippa’s maid) and both cases are investigated. Apparently Philippa got romantically entangled with a sleazy actor who has been blackmailing her …

The police quickly follow some clues and make a grisly discovery at the actor’s studio — the body of a young woman missing her head, hands and feet. The body is clad only in undergarments and the wrists and neck are concealed by tennis racquet covers. It’s not clear whether the corpse is that of Philippa or Alice Carter but everyone fears the worst for both girls.

At this point Penny’s series detective Inspector Beale, accompanied by journalist Tony Purdon, becomes involved. Assisted by Tukes and Best, they investigate. You should experience the details of the investigation for yourself, but as noted above, the action stops at page 200 and the author poses three questions. If you can answer them, you’ve solved the case. If not — Inspector Beale explains everything in the final chapter and unmasks the criminal, whose identity should prove to be very surprising to the average reader.

14675Why is this book worth your time?

If you’re an aficionado of the classic puzzle mystery, Rupert Penny is for you; particularly if you prefer your difficult logic problems unencumbered by excessive realism in the characterization department. The plot is not especially original, but Penny learned from the best. This particular volume has elements that reminded me of Freeman Wills Crofts (the minute-by-minute timetable involved in Alice Carter’s disappearance), Ellery Queen (I’ll merely mention the decapitations in The Egyptian Cross Mystery), John Dickson Carr (a certain sexual liberation of one of the female characters that may remind you of The Judas Window) and even, dare I say it, Agatha Christie (an aspect of the solution that I expect will surprise most readers, but I cannot identify which of her titles because I’d give the whole thing away).

Although I’ve suggested that Penny in general prefers to avoid in-depth characterization, this volume has some nice touches. The landlady Mrs. Topley, although offstage for most of the book, is a crucial witness to the events of the first chapter and if you hope to solve this mystery, you’ll have to understand both what she did and why she did it. And for once this is not unfair; her actions and reactions arise organically out of the text and she’s presented in sufficient detail that you won’t feel cheated when you learn what you overlooked.  You may even feel sorry for the widow who can’t bring herself to ask her lodger for the back rent due to an excess of gentility. Inspector Beale and his friend Tony are rather “jolly chums”, chaffing and teasing each other in the manner of public-school boys; you might find them a bit too carefree about the facts of brutal murders, but honestly I found this more believable than if they wrapped themselves in a shroud of gloom.

And there are some amusing asides from the character who is a mystery writer. I always enjoy seeing mystery writers put mystery writers into their books as characters, and here Charles Harrington has a bit to tell us about the business:

“Charles Harrington … had contrived twenty-three such works, and the plot for the twenty-fourth was in course of construction. His sales averaged thirty thousand copies per book, including the United States and editions down to half a crown, and as well there were at least five magazines of repute which would take a short story whenever he cared to offer one, and send him by return a cheque for round about forty guineas. … He had a good car, and servants, and every year he invariably passed one month in Scotland and one on the Continent; and all these things cost money.”

Harrington also supports his niece Philippa to the tune of £20 a month at a time when a young woman could survive on £50 a year if she got bought a lot of dinners by young men. He also has what seem to be genuine feelings about his missing niece. I have a feeling that Penny himself was not finding detective fiction so lucrative as his invented character, since he published no short stories and no cheap editions to my knowledge; perhaps this is the same instinct that made Dorothy L. Sayers live vicariously by allowing Lord Peter Wimsey to buy first editions and fancy motorcars with a lavish hand. It’s also mentioned that the sleazy actor twice tried his hand at detective fiction, which invariably piques the interest of the alert reader, but no further details of his efforts are given.

The puzzle at the core of this volume is a very difficult one. One essential element — and I’ll try and describe this without spoiling your potential enjoyment — requires the reader to connect two different viewings of the same physical object and identify a crucial difference. Again hoping not to spoil a different book, this certainly reminded me of John Dickson Carr’s The White Priory Murder because you need to form a picture in your mind of what you’re seeing and not just accept the description. You’ll probably find yourself at the denouement flipping back to an earlier page and thinking, “Oh, yes, he DID say that about that object, didn’t he? Damn, I missed that.” There’s another crucial aspect that requires one of the detectives to jump to a conclusion and for the murderer to gratefully agree and bolster the erroneous conclusion with some hasty lying, which is tough to spot. I didn’t solve this one, although frankly I rarely do, and if the pleasure of a difficult puzzle like this is of primary importance to you, you’ll enjoy reading this book slowly and carefully.

There are a number of interesting sidelights on social issues that are small but, to me at least, satisfying. Mrs. Topley, for instance, considers the various ways in which “three and six” could make a difference to her everyday life, including funding her contributions to the Christmas Club and getting in a quarter ton of coal before the price goes up. There are details of the grubby undergarments worn by the dismembered corpse that will interest my friend Moira of the excellent blog Clothes in Books (but very little else that will pique her interest, frankly), and quite a bit of background on the ways and means of gas in terms of household heating as well as suicide/murder. (How many minutes does it take to smell gas? You’ll find out.) There’s also an interesting moment or two about the state of the scientific art with respect to blood analysis in 1939.

But make no mistake, this is not a classic for the ages. By virtue of the difficulty of the underlying puzzle, it’s definitely a cut above a time-passer, but there’s a pervasive air of cardboard throughout that allows the characterization to be sufficient to conceal the murderer, if you follow me. The characters do what they’re said to do because the author says so, and not because Penny has troubled to construct them so that they will logically do those things.  Let me merely say that this is a first-rate second-rate mystery.

However, if you’re looking for a really difficult puzzle and don’t require much realism in its presentation — this is definitely a book for you.  Enjoy!



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)


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.





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.



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.