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

WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

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

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

13187293416What’s this book about?

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

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

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

C. Daly King

C. Daly King, apparently at sea

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

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

3472877575Why is this worth reading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

daly-king

C. Daly King

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

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

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

My favourite edition

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

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

 

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

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

Dorothy L. Sayers and the excelsior principle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers

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

So what was she getting at?

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

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

NPG x2861; E.C. Bentley by Howard Coster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Prisoner’s Base, by Rex Stout (1952)

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_nA group of bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and each publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout. Stout’s stories about Nero Wolfe are called by fans the corpus and I’ll use that locution here.

WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

Prisoner’s Base (1952): A Nero Wolfe Mystery

rspb1963-1fWhat is this book about?

It’s an average day in the brownstone: Wolfe and Archie have recently been squabbling about a lack of work, and there is tension in the air. While Wolfe is in the plant rooms, a good-looking young woman arrives. Perhaps she’s a prospective client, but she’s … eccentric. She knows enough about the routine at the brownstone to arrive when Archie is alone, she doesn’t want to reveal her name, and she wants to pay $50 a day to rent the south room for a week.  While she’s locked in the south room awaiting Wolfe’s disposition, an elegant lawyer arrives and offers Wolfe $5,000 to find a young woman named Priscilla Eads who is about to turn 25; next week she will assume ownership of a ten million dollar corporation, Softdown Towels. Perry Helmar shows Wolfe photographs of Priscilla Eads that reveal her to be — the lady in the south room.

Easy money, right? But Wolfe does feel a small responsibility to the young lady whom Archie is championing. Instead of turning Priscilla over to the lawyer, he offers her two choices. Either she can pay him $10,000 for not turning her over to the lawyer while she enjoys a week in the south room, or she can have a head start until tomorrow morning, when he will talk to Perry Helmar, the lawyer. Priscilla chooses the head start, takes her bags, and leaves in a frosty temper.

prisbase5_fsThe next morning, before Wolfe’s self-imposed deadline expires, Inspector Cramer arrives and informs Archie that two murders occurred last night. One was the murder of one Margaret Fomos, whose bag and keyring were missing. She worked as a maid at the home of Priscilla Eads. The other murder was that of Priscilla Eads.

I’ll try to tell you very little beyond this point; I think you’ll want to read this book, and I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment. Suffice it to say that when Wolfe learns that Archie is being questioned about Priscilla’s murder, he leaves the brownstone and travels to the police station to spring his assistant.  You know it’s serious when Wolfe has to leave the house for any reason. I’ll say that one of the murders in this story brings Archie as close to being emotionally affected by his work as you will ever see him. And Wolfe performs one of the greatest feats of ratiocination in the corpus. Hell, anywhere in Golden Age detection, which I’ll speak about below.  The story ends in a very satisfying way and Archie has an opportunity to discharge his accumulated emotional upsets with a display of his strength and physical prowess.

For years, that’s how I thought the book ended, rather abruptly but satisfyingly. Then I learned that there’s a final very brief chapter that ties everything together beautifully that appeared in the first edition and then was omitted from most paperback editions, probably accidentally. You can find it at this link provided thoughtfully by the Wolfe Pack, just one of the many reasons to be grateful to this fan organization’s diligence and scholarship.

200px-Stout-PB-1Why is this book worth your time?

To begin with, if you’re at all interested in being entertained by detective fiction, this is a Nero Wolfe novel and you should have read it already. So there’s that. ;-) The Nero Wolfe corpus is of such a uniformly high standard of intelligence and good writing that I was unable to do my usual “five most favourite/five least favourite” — because I don’t have any least favourites. They’re all great books, and every five or ten years I re-read the corpus just to remind myself of what great books they are.

Is this my most favourite episode in the corpus? That takes a little explanation. Some years ago I was involved in an online colloquium about the corpus where people contributed e-mails to a round-robin discussion of each of the books in chronological order for three weeks. (Something not unlike the Tuesday Night Bloggers.) I volunteered to moderate a discussion of this particular volume — which may be better known to some under its British title, Out Goes She — and I can’t remember taking anything so seriously for a long while. I read and re-read that book exhaustively and produced an enormous amount of material about various of its themes, including the role of women in 1952 American society (touched on here in the business sense), the language of the book, Archie Goodwin as seen within the Romantic tradition, etc.  I probably produced more words that week to prompt discussion than there are in the book! So it’s not perhaps my absolute favourite, but it is the one I know forwards and backwards.

This is not the most dramatic book Stout ever wrote, to be sure. Most Rex Stout fans have other books that they prefer, frequently ones like The Doorbell Rang or what’s known as the Zeck Trilogy. Honestly, I find those a little tiny bit overwrought. For me, Archie and Wolfe are at their best on a small, intimate scale, solving human problems for human beings; gangsters and government take away that intimacy and make the actions ring less true. This story has always rung very true for me, pretty much because it’s one of the few times that Archie actually cares about a female suspect. He flirts with them, he teases them, he romances them, but it’s clear that he regards their confidences to be Wolfe’s property and their favour to be entirely temporary. Here, Archie has a strange relationship with an attractive woman involved in the case because she is neurotic, and he seems to somehow understand her neurosis and be able to work with it where no one else can. They are forming the beginnings of an adult relationship that may actually extend beyond the confines of this volume … if it weren’t for the fact that she becomes the third victim. And Archie gives full rein to his full romantic self. Not romantic in the sense of hearts and flowers, but Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

imagesThis is Archie at his best. He feels his actions have put all the victims in danger, concatenating from his refusal to fight harder to hide Priscilla Eads in the south room for a week, and now he’s in a cold fury trying to make it up to the corpses by cooperating with the police. This is an Archie whom we do not often see. It has occasionally happened that his attractive female clients have been murdered before his eyes (Bess Huddleston, for instance); this is the one time he takes it to heart and allows his emotions to guide his actions. For me it’s a challenging moment in the corpus and one that shows Archie at an extreme. And yet the writing is so smooth and clear that it carries you along; the process for the reader is that we hear Archie’s interior monologue and his exterior interactions, and we realize what he’s not telling people (if we’re paying attention). You have to deduce what Archie is feeling, and not necessarily by paying attention to what he’s saying. I enjoy that process.

Another reason I like this book a lot is that, as I said above, Wolfe performs one of his greatest feats of deduction, worthy of John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen. And again, it’s so beautifully written, and so clear, that you don’t realize how clever it is. It’s what I call a third-level clue format.

At the first level of such logic is what I’ll call the Murder, She Wrote solution. This is where Jessica notes, as the one and only necessary clue to solve the mystery, that one suspect says something that reveals knowledge that only the murderer can have; that structure repeats again and again in the M,SW archives. That’s a positive clue. For an example of level two, I’ve written recently about one of the Thin Man films, The Thin Man Goes Home, in which the murderer does something ordinary but the fact that it is done in an ordinary way reveals that he knows that the second victim is already dead. This is a negative clue; you have to realize what didn’t happen.

nw201969-2-aThe present case is, for me, one of the few examples of level three, the equivalent of the logic that underlies a mystery at the level of Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery or John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge … telling you about it would spoil it, and for many readers it just sneaks right under their radar. Essentially the reader is operating under a misapprehension as to why and when something happens, and it’s only when Wolfe realizes what could have happened that he is able to solve the case. I have to add that this is not a locked-room mystery, or more than glancingly the same as the Byzantine murder plots that underlie Carr and Queen et al.  What I’m saying here is that there is not really a central clue that is broken and thereby reveals the solution; instead Wolfe has to examine all the suppositions that underlie what is “known” about the case, and when he finds one that is not as assured as it seems, that that leads him to the solution. You and everyone else will overlook the supposition that is not what it seems, and that’s why this is so hard to solve. And Wolfe (with Stout’s connivance) makes it all look simple.

This is Wolfe at his best. He is grumpy and irascible here, but he also demonstrates a great deal of regard for Archie. Although I have to admit that Wolfe does actually leave the house quite often, this is one of the times that he does it in order to rescue Archie, and those are few and far between.

So: Wolfe at his best, Archie at his best, an intimate plot, an astonishing puzzle and a surprising solution. Definitely worth your time, and a good book with which to introduce people to the brownstone.

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Nero Wolfe continuation novels by Robert Goldsborough

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_nA group of bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and each publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout.

Nero Wolfe continuation novels by Robert Goldsborough

51ATl2tNWtL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_In the last few months, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the continuation novel. Perhaps it was prompted by the reading I had been doing, around the time I was preparing a large post on Ellery Queen, one of the widest-ranging brands in the history of detective fiction, including quite a bit on how continuation novels work. (You can look at it here if you’re interested.)

I do remember, though, that the publication of Robert Goldsborough’s
51Yixsdn1EL._AC_UL320_SR208,320_first continuation novel featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, 1986’s Murder in E Minor, was the first time I’d ever really noticed the phenomenon. I’d seen it before, of course, particularly in the science-fiction field. But there was a bit of hubbub in the publishing world about this particular bit of continuation work because, as I understood it from a distance, a rather sizeable contingent of (New York-based) Wolfe fans objected to the idea that Nero Wolfe should be continued at all. It was the first time anyone had ever expressed
41YqtpApQWL._AC_UL320_SR222,320_an opinion that wasn’t in favour of continuation novels, as far as I’d ever heard, and it was a nine days’ wonder in bookselling circles.

Robert Goldsborough, now in his late 70s, had been a writer all his professional life, first as a reporter and then later on the editorial staff of Advertising Age magazine.  The story is that he wrote Murder in E Minor to amuse his invalid mother, never intending that it should see publication; one thing led to another
Coincidence2_fsand the Stout estate licensed that particular novel, and then a bunch more by this author.

The moral and ethical ramifications of continuation novels are not very interesting to me because, unlike the administrators of Rex Stout’s estate, I am not in a position to do anything about my opinions and so they are merely idle speculation. In general, though, people who think that fictional characters should be allowed to die with their creators are not usually the ones who own valuable copyrights and/or administer literary estates;
77118they can license the work and nobody can stop them. Apparently other contentious fans felt that no one could ever possibly live up to the high standard set by Rex Stout in his writing. Frankly, I agree. I didn’t see that a continuation author necessarily had to be stupid and uncaring, though, and I maintained an open mind before I got hold of a copy of Murder in E Minor.

This novel (1986) had an interesting central tiny clue that revealed the solution to Nero Wolfe and then to us;
1024767I won’t say what it is, but if you have read the entire corpus of Wolfe novels, you will recognize it from another novel, albeit in a different form. In other words, Goldsborough took the central clue from another Stout novel and fiddled with it in order to produce the central clue of his novel. I thought this was clever, and showed that there was a sincere attempt to capture the flavour of Stout’s plotting. If you have read the entire corpus, this novel at least is certainly worth your time, although I cannot say whether it will annoy you or amuse you.

783122dc791e766877fcf1ecb9ddda08-w204@1xSix more novels followed in quick succession; these attained wide distribution through being issued in “cheap editions” through a large American book club and, based on the numbers that passed through my hands in this edition and in paperback, seemed to be moderately popular. These novels occasionally dipped into the waters of politics and current events, and I hasten to note that this also is something that Rex Stout did himself, in novels like A Right To Die and The Doorbell Rang.

1650x2550srSome people disagreed with the idea of Archie and Wolfe changing with the times, and preferred that they remain frozen in some 1950s limbo. Well, that wasn’t Stout’s view either (the events of the final Stout novel, A Family Affair, certainly show that Stout was prepared to alter the ongoing cast of characters). Others complained that Goldsborough was “making Archie and Wolfe do things they would never do.” What that appears to mean is that these fictional characters have some kind of internal consistency and that Goldsborough had somehow violated
51Tn598qj3L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_it. Again, I disagree; I think Goldsborough ably walked the fine line between “We can’t do anything that hasn’t already been done” and “We have to introduce new situations or else the characters stagnate.” Goldsborough didn’t innovate anything wildly contrarian, such as marrying off any of the characters or having Fritz cook hamburgers or Nero Wolfe take up racquetball. Neither did he slavishly repeat the themes and solutions of Stout. Instead, he wrote mysteries that had as their background things like date rape, right-wing
51O3m3Ubo1L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_university professors, televangelists, and media moguls; perhaps not exactly what Stout would have done, but he would have been taking on similarly difficult and up-to-the-minute topics.

At the time, though, I felt that the second through sixth novels were lacking … something. There was some kind of vital spark that had invested Stout’s writing about Wolfe, and while Goldsborough was doing a very competent job at recreating the brownstone and its inhabitants and the
51-wB9iNQ1L._AC_UL320_SR208,320_kinds of things that would occupy them, there was no great drive to … how shall I put this?  … to have these books exist. It’s as though they were contractual obligations, but that Goldsborough had somehow lost the impetus that had brought the first book into being. There, it was clear that Goldsborough really loved Nero Wolfe. Five books later, his ardour had cooled.

And then came book seven, 1994’s The Missing Chapter. This gets a little complex, so bear with me.  The story is about Wolfe’s investigation of the murder of a writer who does continuation novels about a famous detective whose original author has died.  Yes, really. The continuer has angered a number of people (among them his agent, his editor, and his chief critic) in both his professional and personal life and shows up dead. Goldsborough really gets into this one, as perhaps the best qualified writer to talk about crabby fans who call the continuation author out on minutiae, publishers and editors who micro-manage his writing and exploit him personally, and other authors who look down their noses at him for doing continuation novels. There is also a respectful and charming portrait of a couple of prominent members of the Wolfe Pack, one of the classiest groups in the entire fannish world.

I really enjoyed The Missing Chapter and hoped for more of the same, but didn’t realize for a while that publicly making fun of publishers, agents, and fans is not perhaps the best way to ensure your long-term survival in the continuation business. For whatever reason, and I hasten to add that I have zero in the way of first-hand knowledge or fact, Goldsborough stopped writing Wolfe novels.

That is, for 18 years. I think I and everyone else had abandoned the idea that we were going to see another Goldsborough continuation until, all of a sudden, in 2012, we got Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, which is based on a really clever idea. In the first Nero Wolfe novel and dotted in bits throughout the corpus was the story of how Wolfe and Archie came to meet. Goldsborough took those minutiae, thus delighting some of his critics, and wove them into the story of the case where Wolfe and Archie decide to form a long-term association. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and was happy to see Goldsborough back. It had rather felt like this was a story that he had wanted to tell. He had written four books in a different mystery series (entirely his own) between 2005 and 2009 but … well, perhaps the money is better with Wolfe.

There are three further sequels in the pipeline, one as yet unpublished (it’s due March, 2016, and called Stop the Presses!). Murder in the Ball Park was an undistinguished story that took advantage of Goldsborough’s personal interest in baseball; I haven’t yet read 2015’s Archie in the Crosshairs.

I don’t think anyone could seriously say that I am uncritical about mysteries; I have a popular series of reviews I call “100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read” that’s quite acidulous about books I can find reasons to strongly dislike, including the continuation novel of Perry Mason that is the subject of the link. But continuation novels, merely by the fact of their being continuation novels?  I’d prefer to judge for myself. I think the Goldsborough continuations are charming, smart, and well-written and I think if you enjoy Nero Wolfe, you will likely enjoy them.

The Murder that had Everything!, by Hulbert Footner (1939)

12540270_10208104766567176_726760561_nWARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

Mystery writer and well-known New York amateur detective Amos Lee Mappin is called in by pretty socialite Peggy Brocklin, whose $40 million have been abandoned before the altar by a disappearing fiance, Rene Doria.  Rene is not from the highest drawer; in fact, he’s a coarsely handsome nobody who’s spent the last four years in Hollywood trying to get into the movies, and he captivated Peggy with his sexual magnetism. A man like that always has more than one woman on the string to provide the large sums of money that fuel his activities, and we soon meet the wealthy and middle-aged Mrs. Vosper, who loaned Doria a valuable piece of  jewelry when he said he was in a jam. Mappin quickly locates Doria, or at least his lifeless body, and nearby in his apartment are three clues. One is a flower — prepared to be worn in a man’s lapel. The second is a strange doodle on a desk blotter, with four dots in the centre of a circle. (Much as you see on the cover of the latest edition, depicted at the top of this review.) And the third is a tiny piece of broken glass that has a strange shape; maddeningly familiar but unidentifiable.

As Mappin continues to investigate, he has occasion to take advice from a couple of well-connected reporters on the society circuit, including Beau Gramercy, whose column can make or break anyone in modern cafe society. Using his extensive contacts in the upper social echelons, Mappin starts to uncover the outlines of something larger than this isolated incident, where a number of handsome impoverished men have been systematically fleecing wealthy women. The detective identifies the mastermind behind these schemes and solves the case.

1363Why is this worth reading?

If you aren’t familiar with the life story of Hulbert Footner, I recommend you to his Wikipedia article found here. I’m a Canadian, and he was too — but I wouldn’t recommend you to his work merely for that, or that he explored the rather remote area of the Canadian Rockies in which I live in 1911 and gave his name to Lake Footner in northwestern Alberta. He was at various time an actor and a dramatist, but eventually settled into writing detective fiction until his death in 1944. This is one of the writers who used to have the most interesting biographic paragraphs on the inside back jacket flap … not much seen these days. That alone might interest you in his work, though.

He wrote two different detective series. His first was from a series of short stories in a “slick” magazine about Madame Rosika Storey that were accumulated into books, and these are perhaps his best-known works. But later in his career he switched over to writing about mystery novelist Amos Lee Mappin, protagonist of this novel, who moved in New York’s cafe society. Both detectives have young women who assist them in something of the Watson role; this is an unusual thing in GAD and gives both series a bit of proto-feminist interest. Really, though, it seems to me as though he was merely writing for a female audience.

dell0074And in terms of a female audience, I thought this book was very interesting. Without revealing too much about the book and potentially spoiling your enjoyment, I can say that the criminality that underlies the book is the getting of money from wealthy women who become emotionally involved with the wrong man. Some of it seems like blackmail, some of it seems like merely … social pressure. It can’t be easy to be young, pretty, and one of the wealthiest heiresses in the world, if you happen to meet a devilishly handsome “bad boy” who sweeps you off your feet.

dell0074backSo the crime here is one in which men prey on women, and Amos Lee Mappin and the young woman who assists him together find out who is guilty and stop the blackmail. An interesting story and an interesting premise for a story at a time when, even though women were reading detective fiction in large numbers, they weren’t finding themselves often represented as either the partners of male investigators or the targets of large-scale criminal operations.

At least, that’s the point I was going to make when I first started to write this review. Because up until then, the picture in my mind was of a charming piece of GAD written in the 1920s. Nothing disturbed my picture of a detective of the early 1920s; everything that was described seemed to be contributing to this picture, whether it was clothes, patterns of speech, and a specific detail that I cannot explain for the sake of your potential enjoyment, but which explains two of the three main clues noted above. Then I realized that this had been published in 1939! It really did surprise me, and I went looking for evidence that this had been written and kept in a drawer for 15 years, or perhaps was a re-writing of an earlier book or story … but no. This book was written in 1939 but if you start the book with the presumption that you are in 1924, you won’t be any worse off.

This, to me, is strange stuff, and I can’t explain it. I mean, more famous authors like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, as they advanced in age and were nearing the end of their careers, wrote books that took place in the year of publication and yet contained the attitudes, vocabulary, and social mores of a time 20 or 30 years earlier. I suspect that the context is long gone that will let me understand how this book achieved publication when it, to me, seems to be completely out of step with its context. I mean, 1939 — the year of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Rawson’s Footprints on the Ceiling, and Stout’s Some Buried Caesar. Okay, this book is not quite antimacassars and voh-de-oh-doh, but neither is it seemingly set in the same social context as any of those novels, all with wealthy women who do pretty much what they choose.

Anyway — unless you are over 90 and read this when it first came out, and have a social context in which you can place it, you’re probably going to enjoy this novel; just ignore the copyright date and revel in a time when “cafe society” meant something different than hanging with your crew at Starbucks.

My favourite edition

Full disclosure: Although I’ve had the Dell mapback edition shown above for years, and even read it way back when, I’d quite forgotten about this minor work until Coachwhip was kind enough to send me a review copy of the edition shown at the head of this review. I’m sorry to say that my first love will always be for the mapback, but I have to say this is an attractive modern edition. The typography is attractive and the book has a nice hand-feel to it, in weight and cover finish; I am happy to see that Coachwhip avoids the bad habits of other small presses and sticks to simple cover designs like the one here.  I venture to guess that their edition will be about the same price as a Very Good to Near-Fine copy of Dell #74, the first paperback edition, and will look considerably less lurid on your shelves. So call this one my second favourite, but if there weren’t a mapback, it might be my first.

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Rex Stout, Week 2

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout.

Here they are, alphabetically:

Al, Paperback RevolutionRex Stout in UK Services Editions (Welcome, Al, and thanks for your contribution!)

Kate Jackson, crossexaminingcrimeDepiction of Race in Rex Stout’s A Right to Die (1964)

Tracy K., Bitter Tea and MysteryNon-Wolfe Mystery Novels by Rex Stout

Jeffrey Marks, The Corpse Steps OutFive Favourite Wolfes

Moira Redmond, Clothes in BooksA Crime Against Rex Stout

Noah Stewart, Noah’s ArchivesSome lesser known titles by Rex Stout

Helen Szamuely, Your Freedom and Ours: Rex Stout’s Other Detectives

Again, I’ll repeat my suggestion that if you have a blog and wish to join us, just get in touch.  And if you DON’T have a blog and wish to participate, let me know and I’ll find you a blog to which you can post as a guest.  Anything on the topic of Rex Stout this month will be welcome!

 

Beware Your Neighbour, by Miles Burton (1951)

439WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

Hallows Green is a single street in the British city of Barncaster that contains ten houses.  This is a quiet little street that you probably would never enter unless you had business there … upper middle-class people living in fairly nice houses.  There’s a doctor, a lawyer, a retired professor, a retired admiral, a bank manager, a philanthropic widow, an amateur photographer of some renown, two brothers of independent means who live with their families in houses that face each other. The only unusual people there are Mr. and Mrs. Egremont at number 1, who are popularly supposed to be the Prophet and Prophetess of some strange cult.  But no one bothers their neighbours much and the general atmosphere is that of an oasis of quiet in the city.

Welwyn_Garden_City_cul-de-sacOne by one, the inhabitants of Hallows Green begin to receive strange and ominous messages. All are different — some elaborate, some simple. But all these messages refer to death. Before notifying the police, the retired admiral calls in his amateur detective friend Desmond Merrion to see if he can shed light on the baffling warnings that have come to eight of the ten houses.

Before too long, the amateur photographer’s stock of equipment and negatives are burned, with his back yard shed.  Another resident is bashed with a heavy branch that’s been set in the form of a booby trap. Finally, as the police are called in, two residents of a house are found mysteriously dead. Desmond Merrion works with his long-time associate, Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard, to determine an extremely unusual state of affairs and bring the crime home to a surprising criminal.

Why is this worth reading?

Under Canadian copyright law, the enormous backlist of Miles Burton (and John Rhode, both pseudonyms of Cecil J. C. Street) came into the public domain this year. Since Burton/Rhode novels are one of my current interests, I’ve acquired two dozen of them from archive.org and I’m currently in … well, let’s call it hog heaven. ;-)  Rhode and Burton novels have been difficult and expensive to acquire for many years and I’ve never had more than a dozen of them pass through my hands, at least that I can recall. Now that I can get them in quantity, I’ve had the opportunity to barely begin to get to know this writer, but so far I’m enjoying what I’m reading.

The ones I’ve recently acquired have mostly been titles from the latter part of Burton’s career like this one. After having gone through a handful of them in a glorious couple of days, I’ve noticed a repetitive plot structure that seems to be frequently, but not always, present. It has to do with a criminal deciding to commit a crime and constructing a bogus situation that will pin the guilt upon some nearby person; the real criminal doesn’t appear until near the end of the novel after the detective notices that some tiny things don’t add up.  I’m happy to say that this is NOT one of those. I found this one the most satisfying of the handful I’ve recently gobbled, and I enjoyed it quite a bit; the criminal is someone at whom the reader has had a chance to look, and I think that’s important. I was also pretty much completely hoodwinked by the plot, which I find enjoyable.  Yes, this book requires some suspension of disbelief, but not more so than many Golden Age mysteries.

There was also some interesting moments of social history, always a great interest of mine in the context of GAD.  Like so much of GAD, the finest of inferences about topics of social history are not always available to a modern audience who have lost the context. It is not quite clear to me why Mrs. Egremont wearing sandals in public is somehow linked to her being … “not our sort, dear,” although I hasten to add that that’s not a direct quote.  There are some lovely moments in the thoughts of an aging philanthropist and worker of good deeds who reflects that she cannot afford to replace her assistant and so the assistant’s budding romance must be nipped in the bud. The precise shades of social distinction between various retired professionals are unspoken but definitely there; apparently retired admirals trump retired lawyers in the leadership sweepstakes.  And the single-minded gentleman who spends his days and nights thinking about photography is given the same kind of amused tolerance as modern Britons give, say, the twitcher (bird-watcher) or the railway anorak (I hope I have those terms correct!).

Oddly enough, I had a weird flash of a very unlikely author for comparison; Mary Roberts Rinehart. MRR did these closed-circle streets very well, but in a completely different way. Her “cul de sac” novels like The Album (1933) focus on heightening tension and a kind of claustrophobic shrinking of the characters’ viewpoints to a smaller and smaller area. Burton’s Hallows Green’s inhabitants, for the most part, are everyday folks with ordinary and fairly happy lives; there are children and servants and a life outside the street. Rinehart’s books focused on gloomy landscapes that produced emotional stress and violence (an old lady is murdered with an axe in The Album). Burton follows a different path, where the happiness of everyday life is interrupted by bizarre and inexplicable events that soon lead to violence. It’s easier for an ordinary person to empathize with the peaceful neighbours of Hallows Green, I think, but I was surprised at the amount of tension that the author managed to induce. You really do want to know who is doing these things, and why.

It’s impossible for me to go on about Miles Burton without mentioning the excellent work of my blog-friend Curtis Evans, who literally wrote the book on this author in 2012. I’m coming to my own conclusions now that I’m having a chance to read Burton/Rhode for myself, but I have to say that those opinions will have been influenced by Masters of the Humdrum Mystery. Go get a copy (click on the title) and read for yourself; I think it is what has gotten me so interested in Cecil John Charles Street lately.

My favourite edition

I read this in an electronic edition freely available from archive.org and there doesn’t seem to be any “cover art” associated with that. As you can imagine, there haven’t been many editions and this volume seems to have been published pretty much in its Collins first edition (seen above) and then neglected. So my favourite edition thus far is the one I got freely from archive.org, now that it’s January 2016 and it’s in the public domain in Canada and Australia.  I know this situation is different in the United States and Great Britain and it may not be legal for you to obtain this free e-book; please proceed accordingly.

With that in mind, I note that there actually is a 2013 trade paperback edition which is spelled Beware Your Neighbor available. I do not believe that this company has the legal right to publish that book and so I won’t enable you to find it. The title is misspelled, the cover is ugly, and, frankly, the description of the book is completely incorrect in every detail. If you’re going to commit an act of literary piracy disrespectful of the author’s heirs, you should at least do it with a little class.