An Expert in Murder, by Nicola Upson (2008)

An Expert in Murder, Nicola Upson
For whatever reasons, I have found in the past that I am not all that interested in the lives of mystery writers, even the well-known ones. There is a popular idea that you can learn things about fiction by finding comparisons between events in the author’s real life and those in her characters and plots. I have to say I’m skeptical, although it’s occasionally a kind of speculation in which I’ve indulged. Most of the real-life mystery writers I’ve known, and I’ve met quite a few in my day, are professionals at the craft of writing as well as its art. As a friend who shall remain nameless once put it to me conversationally, “People think I use their characteristics in real life and put them into books. If they only knew it’s so much more useful to just make shit up.”

Thus when I heard that someone had come up with the idea of writing a series of mysteries featuring Josephine Tey, well-known mystery writer of the 1930s, as the detective, I didn’t work up much enthusiasm. I’ve been disappointed in the past by a couple of novels that purport to put real-life mystery writers in the path of fictional murders, notably Dorothy and Agatha: A Mystery Novel by Gaylord Larsen from 1990 (meretricious and awful). I have not cared to speculate about where Agatha Christie was during those missing days in 1926 and so a novel that has her involved in political intrigue or murder during those days does not find a willing suspension of belief within me. Other attempts to convince me of the detective skills of various celebrities have also left me cold. Call it a quirk.

An Expert in Murder, Nicola Upson
And so when I picked up, nearly at random, the first volume of seven novels by Nicola Upson — An Expert in Murder, today’s topic — I wasn’t expecting a whole lot and was prepared to set it aside if it was what I was expecting.

There are generally two ways in which I can tell I’ve just read a really good book. One is if I finish the book and immediately, without pausing for breath, start to read it from the beginning just to savour the pleasure again. I had that pleasant experience recently with The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by the erudite Martin Edwards. In a literal sense, unputdownable.

The other way is if I finish the book and immediately, without pausing for breath, get on the internet and order as many of the author’s other books as I can find. And that’s what happened to me today with Nicola Upson. I enjoyed this book so much that I wanted a lot more of the same, and immediately. This is the kind of reading material I’m always looking for and never finding.

An Expert in Murder, Nicola Upson
As to why that is — happy to oblige. Certainly there is more than one reason. But given the above comments, I thought I should say first and foremost that this is the book that has changed my mind about the potential for putting real-life 20th century characters into fictional books. It totally works here, in my opinion.

I didn’t know much about Josephine Tey before I started this novel — well, not more than the average mystery bookstore proprietor, which is more than most people. Tey, I knew, was notoriously reclusive about her personal life.  Immediately after I finished this novel I went to Wikipedia and confirmed a couple of dates, but I tried to see exactly where real life stopped and fiction began. To my pleasure I found that while the author had tried to portray the personality of Tey as it was known, there was a great deal of fuzziness about the rest of the details and occasionally outright substitution of a fictional character for a real person. I learned from the afterword, for instance, that a major character in the book should have been named as John Gielgud — it was he who played the lead in Richard of Bordeaux, but the character in the book who does so is, I believe, nothing much like him personally. And I like that. I don’t need to read about an ersatz Gielgud in a mystery, where he cannot possibly be the victim or the murderer; I like what Upson did here and it made for a very pleasant read. To hearken back to my writer friend, she made shit up, and she did it well.

An Expert in Murder, Nicola Upson
So, yes, the detective here is Josephine Tey and for once that is not a silly or meretricious idea. Her personal circumstances are somewhat invented and somewhat real, but I truly believe the spirit of Tey is there.

The writing is smart; in fact intelligence shines through behind nearly every paragraph. The characterization is intelligent and a little bit spare, without overmuch detail so that verisimilitude arises naturally rather than being forced on you. The plot is clever, and Upson has the knack of getting you interested in the people and what’s going to happen to them.  Good writing, good plotting, good characterization, all add up to a very readable book.

All things considered, I intend to pick up the next couple of paperback copies of this novel that go through my hands, just because I want to give a couple of friends something good to read; perhaps that’s the highest praise I can offer. To be honest, I’m not liking the second book in the series as much as this one, and I have a little bit of trepidation about the remainder of the series, but … An Expert in Murder is delightful and I think you’ll enjoy it.

A note on editions

I read an electronic edition of this book but I think the most attractive cover is immediately above, a Harper Perennial paperback from 2009; a nice piece of artwork showing a young woman in a long brown coat. I am very surprised that AbeBooks is listing copies of the true first, which I believe to be Faber & Faber 2008, at about the US$85 range; similar prices for the Harper hardcover, first US. That’s about twice what I would expect these to be selling for and I have no idea why; maybe book collectors liked this book as much as I did. I tend to buy first editions of books that I believe will have a long-term appeal to readers, and this would qualify.




LitRPG and other ludic fiction

Columbo and DogI’m always fascinated when someone comes up with a new take on an old sub-genre, or inverts an old sub-genre to create a new one. An example of how this can work is the howcatchem — the audience knows quite well whodunit, but wants to see how Lieutenant Columbo will bring home the crime to its perpetrator. That one is a variation on the open mystery, where we don’t always know if the perpetrator will be caught. The howcatchem is not a huge sub-genre, but writers know that audiences are prepared to find that story fascinating as long as it pays off at the end in the way they expect.

wheatley_covercolorOne sub-genre from the end of the Golden Age of Detection was the dossier mystery, which is rather like a whodunit; instead of being entirely written in prose, there are photographs, documents, and actual objects (like a postage stamp or a piece of “bloody” fabric in a glassine envelope) bound or glued into the text. The final chapter was always sealed to prevent premature peeking, and the reader had to exercise some fine
hair_wheatly2colorobservational skills to note that, for instance, the jacket sleeves on one character were too long in a photograph, or there were marks on a handwritten letter indicating water droplets. The originals of these are currently esteemed by collectors and the dossier mystery has enjoyed occasional revival every so often. You might think of it as a cross between a novel and a pop-up book, or some other form in which the reader actually has to manipulate the contents of the volume physically in order to get a complete reading of everything available. Julian Symons in his history of the detective genre Bloody Murder felt that the creation of the dossier novel marked the point at which the classic detective novel became something of a cliche and the crime novel began to arise; certainly the dossier mystery is structured more like a game than an all-prose book.  Perhaps we might think of it as one of the earliest precursors of today’s topic, ludic fiction. (“Ludic,” meaning “game-like” or “about games”.)

19535293488_2Branching away from the Golden Age for a moment, many of my readers will be familiar with a peculiar sub-genre known as a gamebook, especially if they know that what’s meant is more commonly known as a CYOA or “choose your own adventure” novel. The book written in the second person (“You’re heading home after a hard night at the factory …”) and is divided into numbered sections; you start at #1 and read until you come to a decision point, at which point the book offers you choices.  “If you investigate the strange sound, turn to 34; if
51J1viA39lLyou proceed directly home, turn to 187; if you stop at the gas station, turn to 51.” Each choice leads to a small set of different outcomes, some of which end your experience abruptly; the experienced reader will be aware of reading strategies that involve bookmarks or thumbs inserted at decision points. I have a couple of paperback gamebooks written about Sherlock Holmes, although they’re not very interesting. Many of the best entries in this sub-genre were written by Steve Jackson and not all of them are for children.

17736There are very early precursors at the beginning of sound films with a sub-genre that essentially no longer exists, the college-based football movie. Biff the hero has to outsmart the wicked gamblers and make it back to Riverdale in time to play in the Big Game, which is depicted in excruciating detail and in glorious black-and-white. I don’t really think it survived the 1930s as a sub-genre but you’d be amazed at what a lot of those movies there are. The Marx Brothers parodied them in Horse Feathers (1932).

Silent_Hill_film_posterBut all these sub-genres predate the internet and the computer age, and that’s when things really started to get interesting. Essentially a number of tiny niche sub-genres of fiction sprang up that had to do with the interface between games and stories. Clue, Doom and Silent Hill, among many others, are all movies based on games; the novelizations associated with such films are books about movies about games. (Yes, it gets complicated.) A few years ago I wrote about one such movie, Battleship, which takes that relationship between story and game and extends it beyond the breaking point.

MystCoverWhen the gamebook met the computer age, two different things happened. One was the novelization of computer games; essentially, in the same manner as the movie tie-in novel, the events of a computer game were written as prose and published, usually as a paperback original. The other was the invention of the adventure game (think Myst) itself, which was more or less a computer-based
MV5BZGY0MjUwZTktNmM4OS00NmEyLWFmYTYtMDRiNDJjZTM5Y2FhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzg5OTk2OA@@._V1_updating of the choose-your-own-adventure form — with a more formalized version of “saves” to replace having to keep your thumb at paragraph 83. Sometimes the adventure games became novels; sometimes novels became adventure games, such as a long series of Nancy Drew adventure games and a wild version of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express that features a very unexpected twist ending.

981838Just as there are movies based on games, there are also books based on games. I wrote recently about the puzzle adventure, a sub-genre in which the reader follows along an exciting plot line as the protagonist competes in a large-scale puzzle-solving exercise for high stakes (Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, for instance). As noted above, some computer games have been novelized; for instance you can read a fairly faithful version of an old Infocom adventure game called Planetfall in paperback, where the protagonist doesn’t have to keep saving and going
WoW_Box_Art1back to points before he gets killed through ignorance. There are a number of novels that fill in the backstory of the Myst games, and these later became a contribution to a MMO in the Myst universe. An MMO is a Massively Multi-player Online game like World of Warcraft, where hundreds of thousands of players go online every night to kill monsters (and each other) with primitive (and digital) weapons by working in small groups. And of course someone made a movie out of that called Warcraft in 2016, which was then novelized the same year, to fill in more backstory of the particular plot they’d chosen to represent the MMO. Like I said, it gets complicated.

zero-charismaBack in the pre-internet day, I was an occasional player (and even more occasional Dungeon Master) of Dungeons & Dragons, a type of game known as an RPG; Role Playing Game. In D&D, you generate a character for yourself and join other such characters in playing out a fantasy-based game scenario administered by an all-knowing Dungeon Master. Each such character has attributes that are expressed numerically, and events in the game are mediated by rolling dice for random results. It gets very, very complicated, but at a basic level, a stupid character like Axel the Barbarian might have an intelligence of 6 and his smarter associate, Greymalkin the Wizard, an intelligence of 18. Axel’s Strength values, though, would be higher to compensate. Every character has ability scores for Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Then you get into the finer points; if you’re hit with a rock by a child you might take 2 points of damage, which is quickly recovered, but if a Gold Dragon breathes fire on you, you might take 650 points in an instant and “die”.

dekaron-fotoRPGs in the internet age are frequently indistinguishable from MMOs and you are most likely to see the acronym MMORPG commonly used.  There are MMOs that are not RPGs, such as Second Life, and RPGs that are not MMOs, like the paper-based Dungeons & Dragons, but mostly there are MMORPGs. Most MMORPGs of today are currently about Tolkienesque landscapes where warriors and magic-users fight against monsters and evil magicians, but there are many other types; space opera, historic RPGs in various eras (Shogunate Japan, World War II, Ancient Rome), comic book superheroes, global trade, etc. The MMORPG automates the process of dice-rolling and keeps track of various “buffs” (your expensive sword that does an extra couple of points of damage each blow) and “debuffs” (“You have been stabbed by a poisonous blade and will lose 5 points of damage each minute until you take an antidote”) that affect the outcome of play and allow things to move along much, much faster than your Dungeon Master rolling twenty-sided dice behind a screen to figure out if you got hit with a sword or not.

9272bdacef02f937c0b33132905ceb70--new-chapter-cyberpunkAnd that finally brings me to my latest discovery, a brand-new take on ludic fiction. It’s known as LitRPG and it’s starting to be weirdly popular. It’s not exactly what you’d think of as a novelization of a sequence of RPG gameplay: that’s because the fourth wall is constantly being broken to keep the reader updated as to the statistics of the protagonist (and occasionally other characters). You’re in a game and you always know you’re in a game. And that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Here are “the two Commandments of LitRPG” (that I’ve lifted from a website devoted to such things, so it’s their statement, not mine):

  1.  A LitRPG shall involve some type of explicitly stated progression (leveling, report of item finds, quests, etc.)
  2. A LitRPG shall involve a game-type world of some kind that the main character has been involved in.

And here’s the way it works in the text, sometimes:

“I pick up the items and add them to my inventory.
Currency.  500 gold.
Item:  Jeweled Lich Eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul.
Another notification pops across my vision.
Congratulations!  You have just completed the quest ‘Guardian Forest Dungeon.’  You now have an increased alliance with the elves.”

From chapter 7 of S.L. Rowland. “Pangea Online Book One:
Death and Axes: A LitRPG Novel.” (2017)


This cover art is an excellent way of understanding LitRPG; the primitive warrior in a rough landscape, but with a superimposed computer screen giving him information.

In other words, the fourth wall is broken and the reader is yet again reminded that the protagonist is within an MMORPG. Also the reader is constantly being updated as to the status of the protagonist’s health and the things he has in his pockets (“inventory”). So in a Big Battle that is meant to be the climax of a LitRPG novel, every time one character attacks another, you know exactly who hit whom with what, numerically how much damage it did, and what the effects on future combat events are likely to be.  (“White Fang strikes the undead monster with her +2 Elven Broadsword, but undead are naturally immune to Elven weapons so its attack is full force.”)

tumblr_inline_mrg5gaRoB61qz4rgpWhat attracted me to this sub-genre initially is that I always think it’s fascinating when a literary movement starts from the bottom up, rather than the top down. I admit that slash fiction got quite out of hand in the ’00s.  This is a modern genre wherein an author “ships” or writes about sexual relationships between well-known fictional characters who weren’t known to have them — for instance, Sherlock Holmes taking Dr. Watson to bed. I knew it in the 70s and thereabouts as fanfic. In the 00s, all kinds of unskilled enthusiasts were writing about how Ensign Mary Sue attracted the attention of Captain Kirk and got rogered on the holodeck, or whatever. They would post slash on fora for each other and developed a critical language that encompassed it (see Wikipedia on Mary Sue). Slash was a brief craze among young women but it remains popular, and “shipping” appears to have made it into the language. And as I noted, slash was generated by those young women themselves. They weren’t sold it by Random House or Amazon. Their enthusiasm for an implausible sexuality may have led them to excess, but they thought of that stuff themselves and they worked hard doing it.  Possibly from slash we’ll get the Mary Higgins Clark of tomorrow. And so I make a point of looking at genres that create themselves spontaneously, as opposed to, say, the cupcake cozy, which appears to me to be a research-based construct of major publishing companies, purveyed to an uncritical and uncaring public.

2bb598129088196cea260629c5f89963Indeed, LitRPG seems to be something which came spontaneously to life. It’s going to be a difficult genre for anyone to understand who hasn’t played in an RPG or an MMORPG, but it has all kinds of interesting characteristics that are not unlike more successful genres. It appears to have arisen primarily in Russian-language materials associated with professional gamers but, as sometimes happens, there’s a bunch of Americans who claim they did it first. And if they weren’t first, by golly they’re going to be the best and get ‘er done on Amazon. To the credit of both countries, the writers recognize the economic advantages of having the books available in English for the English-speaking market. I might be seeing more than is there; my assessment of the materials surrounding the market was very limited. It looks like a lot of young men are having a lot of fun writing and reading these books; they may not be making a lot of money but they’re having a great time and forming a community.

I surveyed a random sample of LitRPG, which in itself is kind of an issue. Quite a bit of the LitRPG I saw is fantasy RPG based (think Tolkien-ish) but there’s a goodly amount from the strongly militaristic game background and some very odd outliers. I have to confess I didn’t think I’d really enjoy living through the adventures of someone in a mechanized combat suit killing things, etc., so I read through some fantasy based ones and called it a day. I’m saying this so you know my sample is skewed and I may not have the full grasp yet.

My first reaction after gulping one of these novels down was “Wow! Not many people other than gamers are ever going to enjoy that, but it was a lot of fun!” At the outset I was prepared to be quite snotty about the amateurish nature of the writing, but I soon realized something. As you can imagine, LitRPG is quite rigorously plot-driven; literally, the protagonist is given a quest or task and must find a way to accomplish it. Characterization is at a minimum. But if you think about it — that’s very similar to the earliest days of the puzzle mystery in the Golden Age of Detection. I admit that Inspector French doesn’t exactly level up when he works out that the criminal’s alibi can be broken, but there’s a process in RPG called “grinding” where you repeat low-level activities a number of times that reminds me very much of French sending out his minions to search for London stores that sell a certain kind of typewriter. So perhaps it’s merely good fortune, or perhaps a clever selection of an appropriate genre for a novice writer, but these young writers with excellent plotting skills and limited characterization skills get the job done quite nicely, for the most part.

Indeed, there are actually characters in these narratives who are literally labeled as NPCs (non-playing characters), which is a great idea that should have been adopted for the puzzle mystery. That means that only specific characters could be suspects and that old Mrs. Twitterbury who runs the local teashop is merely there to add local colour, and you can be guaranteed she didn’t kill Lord Oldandrich. NPCs are there to add colour and the protagonist knows it, so the audience knows it too and doesn’t get emotionally invested when an NPC gets killed.

The LitRPG authors usually go to a good deal of trouble to create a framing story that is not merely “Generic kid plays a game and this is how it goes”, but adds some urgency or higher-stakes outcome to the situation.  For instance, one protagonist has his consciousness downloaded into an RPG in order to escape an asteroid that’s going to strike earth and kill him and almost everyone else. Another one is playing for economic reasons; his daughter needs a heart transplant and this is the only way he can make the money. My first LitRPG  experience (quoted above; S.L. Rowland’s Pangea Online Book One: Death and Axes, 2017) has a framing story very much like what I expect to be next year’s hit movie, Ready Player One; a young orphan starts out toiling in the lowest levels of the data mines and ends up owning most of cyberspace and Getting the Girl. I’m not sure where these novice writers learned how or why to add this framing story, but I’d say the best ones have it and it’s an elegant technique that is frequently beyond the grasp of amateurs.

And plotting itself is meant to meet the expectations of people (mostly young men with good reflexes) who play a lot of MMORPG. At the outset of games/novels, your character must do low-level things like meet the locals and dispatch unfriendly creatures like … rats. As the protagonist increases in stature and experience, he can interact more seamlessly with the NPCs and fights with progressively stronger enemies (“minibosses”). The classic gaming structure leads to a final “boss fight” with the most powerful entity in the narrative. The boss fight often has an element whereby the protagonist must possess a certain object in order to defeat the final boss (the “sacred sword of the Ancients” or suchlike), or must have teamed up with a certain other character for a joint attack, or in some way met a prerequisite before the final battle. This structure naturally lends itself to a plot-driven novel in a way that is easy for novice writers to execute; gamers know this structure instinctively and, based on their experience of what makes the most satisfying narrative, arrange that whatever it is that the protagonist is fighting at his current level of experience is sufficiently strong itself to put up a good fight but not usually kill the protagonist. It kind of writes itself: a level 35 elf battles three level 32 orcs, not three level 2 fluffybunnies or a level 268 telepathic dragon that spits battery acid.

There seems to be a firm determination that every LitRPG book created shall be part of a series, which is another similarity with Golden Age detective fiction. I’m not sure why there’s an implicit assumption that the character of the protagonist is sufficiently interesting to carry the story, but perhaps this is merely why the best authors create the framing stories noted above and expect those to carry the reader.  Will the hero get his daughter a heart transplant and move forward? (Generally, yes indeed, and has a bigger problem in volume 2.)

I strongly suspect that LitRPG will have little appeal for people who haven’t already played MMORPGs but I found a great deal of simple pleasure to be had in this form; it might be naive in a literary sense but it has energy and enthusiasm.  The plots all move forward pleasingly at a high rate of speed, and there’s always something new and dangerous right around the corner.

51JdHvHLIULIf you’re interested you can find out more by searching for “LitRPG” on Amazon or your preferred bookseller; most of these books are not easily available in printed formats but almost entirely for the Kindle et al. I did enjoy the book I found serendipitously, Pangea Online Book One: Death and Axes, from S.L. Rowland — it was free for Kindle Unlimited and a mere CDN$4.98 if you’re so inclined. If you have a bright nephew of 11 or so who plays MMORPGs, by all means get him a copy; it’s the equivalent of a simple Heinlein juvenile. I read my way through quite a few of these in a week or ten days, trying to isolate some generalized observations, and they’ve all rather blurred together, but honestly I didn’t find many clinkers — just the ones for which I didn’t care due to the subject matter being “future war” or “urban jungle”. If you’re a gamer you’ll know the kind of thing you like already and you should be able to pick it up cheaply. And if your idea of a good time is being the tank for your party while the rest of your crew kills the skeletons and picks up the loot, you’ll love these books.



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.