The Crack in the Teacup, by Michael Gilbert (1966)

The Crack in the Teacup, Michael Gilbert (1966)This is a little outside my usual time boundaries; I usually prefer to look at Golden Age mysteries until perhaps 1940. But, you know, Michael Gilbert did write a handful of classic mysteries very much in the Golden Age manner — Smallbone Deceased (1950) and Close Quarters (1947) come to mind — and this particular volume, The Crack in the Teacup, did actually get nominated for a Gold Dagger for best novel. I think it’s possible you’ll like this book as much as I have.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of crime fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others; I discuss elements of plot and construction although don’t lay out the answers in so many words.  If you haven’t already read this novel, reading this essay means it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

51dUs0fCDwL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_What’s this book about?

In the town of Barhaven, an hour outside of London, a young solicitor, Anthony Brydon, comes across two chuckers-out from the local “Pleasuredrome” violently assaulting a teenager.  He intervenes and takes on the teenager’s case and thereby learns more than he ever knew about local corruption. Gradually, bit by bit, he begins to uncover a massive conspiracy involving local government, planning authorities, and the money to be made by buying farmland that the local government is about to authorize for building.

As the stakes increase, the action gets murderous and culminates in a series of exciting and explosive events, including the outcome of a hotly-contested local election and the solution to a couple of mysterious deaths that have happened along the way.

Why is this worth your time?

I’ve looked at books by Michael Gilbert before, Close Quarters (1947) and Petrella at Q (1977). But they are different from each other and both are different from this volume; Gilbert had a knack for writing different kinds of stories.  Close Quarters is a classic work of Golden Age detection, with maps and a crossword puzzle that must be solved to lead to an important clue. Petrella at Q is part of a much more realistic look at the activities of Patrick Petrella’s rise through the ranks of the Metropolitan Police in a set of police procedural stories.

The Crack in the Teacup, Michael Gilbert (1966)This book is a standalone piece and Gilbert wrote this same kind of story a number of times. Essentially it’s about an innocent well-meaning man who finds himself in possession of important details about a criminal scheme of some kind. He is unfairly treated and persecuted, frequently physically, and he leads a one-man campaign to bring his enemies to justice. It’s a variation on the “quest” story; recently I talked about the “puzzle adventure” sub-genre and I suspect that this may fall close to that category. Gilbert sets his puzzle adventure, however, not against global conspiracies or religious combatants, but on the small scale of the government of a small town. The action is less explosive and the stakes are smaller but the climaxes are, to me, just as satisfying.

The Crack in the Teacup, Michael Gilbert (1966)I refreshed my memory of this book the other day and thought that it would most appeal to someone who does certain kinds of work. Gilbert was a well-known lawyer and I think lawyers would like this book; so would anyone who works in government, or for a government agency or a private sector agency, and understands the interaction between government and for-profit enterprises. It’s about the kind of low-level corruption that occasionally enriches people who supply local governments, or benefit from their licensing schemes, and you will grasp the broad strokes even if the details can be a little obscure.

Part of what makes this particular volume enjoyable is that it’s excellently written. There’s a non-mawkish subplot about Anthony Brydon meeting and wooing a smart young woman that is woven delightfully into the story. And there are a couple of characters, notably a local political firebrand, who are excellently portrayed so that we get a clear idea of their limitations as well as their virtues. Most people are neither all good nor all evil, and this gives the book a sense of reality that is more refreshing than other authors’ works of this sort.

The Crack in the Teacup, Michael Gilbert (1966)The final chapter is a clever little reversal that makes the reader wonder if anything really useful actually happened; what good is it to do the right thing? Again, more philosophy than one expects from a small-scale thriller such as this.

This is a very enjoyable read and there are a few other stand-alone novels about bureaucracy gone sour from this period of Gilbert’s writing that are also entertaining, especially if you are involved in a similar activity in real life. The title apparently comes from a poem by W.H. Auden: “And the crack in the tea-cup opens A lane to the land of the dead.” I think he’s saying that large consequences come from small beginnings.

The Crack in the Teacup, Michael Gilbert (1966)

A note on editions

This is not to my knowledge available in an electronic edition, at least in Canada. ABE only shows one copy as of today, a first edition for about US$60. Amazon, however, would be delighted to sell you a paperback for about CDN$15 and has perhaps 16 copies available. This is definitely a case where I would try my local used bookstore; this book has been in fairly recent mass-market paperback editions in both England and the US (therefore Canada also) and I see various Michael Gilbert titles all the time; Perennial Library did a lot of his titles in the 80s and 90s. Keep your eyes open for a bargain.

 

 

 

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

Too Many Cousins (1946) Douglas G. Browne

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

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

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this book about?

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

Humphrey Bogart with moustache

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

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

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

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

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

Too Many Cousins, 1946

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this book worth your time?

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

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

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

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

Too Many Cousins, Douglas G. Browne (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gray flannel suit

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

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

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

1948 suit with bolero jacket

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

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

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

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

Other voices

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

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

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

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

A note on editions

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

No paperback editions to my knowledge exist.

 

 

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

Panic in Box C, by John Dickson Carr

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


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

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

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not in so many words reveal whodunit, but I have discussed elements of the murder that will almost certainly make the identity of the murderer clear to you. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this novel about?

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

Panic in Box C, John Dickson Carr

A later Carroll & Graf paper edition.

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this book worth your time?

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

That being said — this one is pretty bad.

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

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

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

  1. A strong well-thought-out puzzle structure, which is usually for him based on a locked-room/impossible crime scenario.
  2. A balance among setting, characterization, and plot, so that there are interesting characters doing interesting things against an interesting background, all well-written in their way but nothing overwhelming the book in any of those directions.
  3. Some sort of creepy quasi-supernatural element; or, if not supernatural, something that creates a sense of menace or impending doom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A note on editions

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

Other opinions

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

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

 

 

 

The Deadly Sunshade, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1940)

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Popular Library #126

The Deadly Sunshade, Popular Library #126

The Deadly Sunshade (1940) is the sixteenth in a series of mystery novels about Asey Mayo, the “Codfish Sherlock” of Massachusetts, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (PAT). It has PAT’s characteristic breakneck bumper-cars plot structure — Asey begins by being surprised by a murder and everyone races around at top speed in all directions until he solves the case. But, since it’s 1940, there are interesting undercurrents of espionage and wartime hardships and social disruption.

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 (specifically, N or M? by Agatha Christie). 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 novel about?

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, a Norton reprintAsey begins at home, dealing with his cousin Jennie Mayo and the wonderful Mrs. Pussy Belcher, known to everyone as Picklepuss because she runs Aunt Pussy’s Perfect Pickles. Picklepuss and Jennie have been inflamed by a radio personality (one Rounceval Jones) with a talk show and have joined the Woman’s League to Defend America at all Costs with Action; they are collecting guns and are urging women to become well-armed against the apparently imminent point when Cape Cod will be invaded from Europe.

Asey is against the idea of arming the women because the accident rate will outweigh the benefits. Well, okay, also because he’s sexist, but I think the events of the book justify it; immediately after he insists that the women obtain licenses for the guns and be far more careful with them, a bullet whizzes past his ear, fired from nearby sand dunes. (Later the local doctor reports his wife has also accidentally fired at him.) Then he gets a phone message from an epicentre of local issues, Mrs. Newell, who asks him to meet her at the Yacht Club because it’s a matter of life and death. Apparently it was — by the time he arrives, she’s lying dead on the beach under a bright umbrella, poisoned with atropine.

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The Deadly Sunshade, Foul Play Press edition from the 1980s

As I noted, this starts everyone in the book running around in all directions at top speed. Asey forms a little group of apparently like-minded people around him, all who have an interest and most a motive, and he caroms around among them like a pinball. The reasoning behind all this activity is usually reasonable … okay, sometimes reasonable and sometimes just silly. But it keeps your mind occupied with diverting sub-plots like why is someone burying Mrs. Newell’s knitting bag in a sand dune, and is it true that the Commodore of the Yacht Club is raising money for the club under false pretences, and why did his son misdiagnose Mrs. Newell’s atropine poisoning as sunstroke. And of course, many of her ex-suitors and occasional providers of expensive jewelry are nearby at the Yacht Club.

Meanwhile Picklepuss and many other housewives are running around with guns ostensibly patrolling the beaches against the prospect of enemy submarines. After a number of chases and bizarre complications, Asey is taken hostage by a well-armed woman sharpshooter (who has been brought in to teach the women to shoot). In the process of lying on the floor under armed guard, staring at some quilt patterns, Asey has the crucial realization about Mrs. Newell’s knitted mittens pattern and realizes whodunit and why, just in time to forestall some terrible developments.

Why is this novel worth your time?

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The Deadly Sunshade, 1st US edition (Norton, 1940). Note the sticker.

Phoebe Atwood Taylor is like well-aged single-malt Scotch. If you have a taste for her work, you make sure to put yourself in the way of as much of it as possible; if the taste makes you shudder, you should certainly find something else to read. PAT’s novels always take place at high speed and minimal coherence, and there is quite a bit of the narrative that is intended to make you chuckle. These are the screwball comedies of mystery. If you’re a devotee of, say, the dry-as-dust timetable mysteries of Freeman Wills Crofts, you may well be repelled by PAT’s entire oeuvre (especially by her eight books as by Alice Tilton, which are even more breakneck and hilarious).

But if you are amused by such things, as I am in the case of PAT, you will read all her books and notice a few things that seem to recur. The plot structures are all very similar, as previously noted. Asey forms a little group of people around him who aid him with solving the mystery or keeping its insane side-effects under control. I’ve noticed, though, that there are a few types that seem to recur in that little cadre.

Phoebe Atwood Taylor, The Deadly SunshadePrincipal among them is a “competent housewife”. There’s a sensible woman who is in the middle of a group of people who are not very sensible, and she’s attempting to maintain order and keep the house running in the midst of chaos. Then there’s usually some single-minded people who are trying to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. There’s a plucky young woman who has faced adversity and is unjustly suspected of murder; she usually helps Asey out first-hand, and/or a handsome young man who is in trouble but you know he has a good heart.

Also frequently, there is a nasty bitch who delights in stealing other women’s husbands and whatever money isn’t nailed down; her male equivalent is a cranky middle-aged man who controls other people’s money and is unjustly denying it to them, or making it impossible for them to get it. Another repeating type is a family of people who are somehow off-kilter … a middle-aged couple who are eccentric and have eccentric children.

And nearly always, the local colour characters. There’s a network of people in Quanomet and Skaket who don’t interact with “people from away” but have all been intermarrying for hundreds of years, and they are all somehow related. So Jennie Mayo can always tap into a community resource and locate someone’s quaint relative who can come up with just the right element to resolve a plot twist.

I’m not saying all these stock characters are in each and every book (and certainly not in this particular volume); some, like PAT’s “world-weary soprano” character (yes, really) appear only a few times, but enough that you recognize them as repeating from other stories, with different names. But one reason to read your way through all 24 volumes of Asey Mayo stories (and the eight Alice Tilton books about Leonidas Witherall, “the man who looked like Shakespeare”) is for the pleasure of recognizing these recurring characters and seeing just how PAT has turned them into new faces for this new story. It’s kind of like commedia dell’arte. There are even repetitive elements of the plot that are in the nature of lazzi; someone always drives too fast on the back roads of Quanomet without lights, Asey always chases the murderer on foot and trips, and someone attempts to dispose of an incriminating or inconvenient object by burying it in a sand dune or throwing it in a pond, under the hidden scrutiny of a puzzled Asey.

So if you read the whole 32 volumes, you’ll understand what I mean. No single volume is absolutely representative but, taken together, they all form a picture of PAT’s stable of stock characters — and her obvious pleasure in writing about them.

I think this volume is also worth your time because it’s one of a few stories where a mystery writer takes an essentially light-hearted series character and involves them directly with World War 2.  I did say that I was going to give away a little bit about Agatha Christie’s N or M? and that’s about all I’ll say; Tommy and Tuppence interact with an espionage-based plot that involves Fifth Columnists and spies. It’s the same here, Asey Meets The Fifth Column, although you could be excused for overlooking it; honestly, the spy subplot doesn’t become apparent or functional until the final pages of the denouement because PAT has concealed it so well. There’s a function to some of the war-news radio broadcasts that may escape the unwary reader.

md22521949944But if you read only the wartime PAT efforts, as I have done recently, another pattern starts to emerge. It seems as though PAT saw herself as a kind of unofficial propagandist on behalf of the war effort. In this volume, from 1940, it’s only about the possibilities of espionage and a possible enemy naval presence off the seacoast. Yes, she uses it as a plot element to poke a little fun at listeners who got inflamed by a radio talk show to form the Woman’s League to Defend America at all Costs with Action. But there’s something underneath the fun-poking that seems a little more serious. Two old duffers in the Yacht Club are a background ostinato of “Sea power! No, air power!” Everyone listens to the war news on the radio. By the time PAT reaches 1942 and The Six Iron Spiders, as I talked about the other day, one character is informing Asey sanctimoniously that rubber is a sacred trust for the nation and it’s everyone’s duty not to waste it by racing around at high speed. First aid classes and spotter duty are irksome and chafing, but everyone is always ready to pitch in and do them. And Jennie Mayo becomes a human dynamo who apparently means to single-handedly win the war.

This book contains a glancing reference in its initial pages that could stand for a lot of offhand phrases and brief observations in this and other books.  It’s just thrown away, but it’s meant to be telling — the speaker is not pleased with Asey and he’s in the room.

“‘The Yacht Club?’ Mrs. Belcher sniffed as she sat down in the rocker. ‘I should think that Asey might find more to do for his country these days than wear white flannels and go to Yacht Clubs!'”

PAT never forgets that the country is at war and neither do her characters.

One thing that I found particularly interesting was the way in which the narrative acknowledges the influence of radio commentators like Rounceval Jones. Jones’s voice is not heard directly in the book, so this is a very minor point, but it did make me chuckle to think that people like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones had WW2 counterparts, agitating for not only the right to bear arms but the duty to do so.

To sum up — there’s the usual PAT high-speed mystery plot and her standard cast of characters, a great deal of good humour, and overtop it all is a medium-heavy dose of We Must Win The War. If this is the delightful taste of single-malt Scotch to you as it is to me, settle into a large armchair to find out what the hell it is about that knitting pattern that gets Asey to the solution.

A note on editions

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The Deadly Sunshade, First UK edition, Collins Crime Club

Phoebe Atwood Taylor was not well served for many years by the paperback market. There was a single uniform edition by the great people at Foul Play Press in the 1980s where they did her entire oeuvre, in a simple and distinct artistic style; this is the edition you’ll have seen everywhere. Countryman Press did most of them about a decade ago but I’m unable to find evidence that this specific title was among their reprints. But before the 1980s you were pretty much restricted to ugly inexpensive hardcover reprints from Norton and Triangle.

This title, though, was one of a few of PAT’s that received the full “Good Girl Art” treatment as part of the early Popular Library line; #126, from 1947, has the corpse in a two-piece swimsuit as the principal design element. A crisp copy of this will hold its value and might set you back US$20.

The first edition has an interesting sticker on it that pinpoints its publication date as December 1940, and that it is BRAND NEW and Not previously published anywhere. But I think the first UK, from Collins Crime Club, puts a delightful British take on the cover art; I’d be looking for this very pretty book in jacket if I didn’t already have a full set of reading copies.

 

 

It’s all my fellow bloggers’ fault: three lazy reviews

Women writers

My fellow mystery bloggers hard at work

It’s been a little while since I’ve been a very regular blogger, I’m sorry to say, and I’m going to take the liberty of blaming some of my recent laziness on the excellence of my fellow bloggers. Allow me to explain. Three times in the last few weeks, I’ve thought, “Oh, that particular piece would make a good blog post, because reasons.” Two books and an old mystery movie, to be precise. So I take the work and go through it a couple of more times, looking for themes, something unusual about this particular item, etc. And then I go and look on the internet and, darn it, someone by whose intelligence I have been impressed in the past has already taken the same item apart and explained it much better than I would have done, and — and this is the killing part — in fewer than a third the words it would have taken me to do it. How galling. 😉

So may I recommend you to a couple of other reviews?

The Six Iron Spiders, Phoebe Atwood TaylorThe Six Iron Spiders, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (she liked to sign herself PAT) from 1942, was well covered by the excellent (and enviably prolific!) Kate Jackson here, in her blog crossexaminingcrime in 2016. Kate notes the idea right off the bat that also made me think the book was interesting; that the civilian war effort is a crucial aspect of the plot as well as of the setting in this story.

WW2 First aid courseAsey Mayo, the “Codfish Sherlock”, is involved with a murder that happens in his own home at a meeting of volunteer first aid attendants being instructed in advanced techniques by Asey’s cousin Jennie. The story proceeds at PAT’s characteristic high-speed pace, with bodies that disappear and reappear and people running in all directions at high speed. The difference here is that everyone speaks through the shared lens of The War at its everyday level for the American populace. Thus high-speed chases are discouraged because tires for one’s personal vehicle are impossible to obtain, and people are constantly doing war-related things like spotting — sitting in a dark place looking for enemy aircraft/submarines — or studying first aid, or doing a kind of orienteering, where everyone agrees to meet in 90 minutes at an encoded location on a list everyone should have memorized.

As Asey remarks to himself near the end of the book,

“… it would be hard to plan a murder, and harder to commit one after you’d planned it. You couldn’t ever quite tell where your victim might be, what he might be doing, or how many other people might be watching you from a spotter’s station, or how many people might suddenly fly to the scene on a problem of one sort or another.”

Given the type of plotting that PAT is famous for, no wonder; the more confusion with people running around on secret business, the better. So that was the main point of interest for both of us. I must agree with Kate’s dislike of PAT’s less than charming observations about women in slacks; I can only add in PAT’s defence that generally she was more tolerant of difference than many of her contemporaries, and actually seemed to me to champion a specific kind of ultra-competent womanhood. There are many examples of highly competent women in PAT’s novels, Jennie Mayo herself being a prime example.

Iron spider skillet

An iron spider.

And to answer the question shared by everyone who cannot see the cover art for most editions: “iron spiders” in this case are a Cape Coddy way of referring to cast-iron frying pans. The spider appears to me to have a longer handle and a deeper bottom than similar skillets.

Atomic Renaissance, by Jeffrey MarksIf you want more information about Phoebe Atwood Taylor, this most fascinating writer of fast-moving wholesome Americana, the only reference book worth your time is by a friend of mine, Jeff Marks.  Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s is the only volume to give you the background on this madcap writer. I will forgive Jeff that his blog, The Corpse Steps Out, doesn’t get enough attention because I know that his biographies of mystery writers always take a long time to research and are just fascinating when they get to us … write faster, Jeff!

Murder by the Clock poster, 1931

MURDER BY THE CLOCK, 1931

Next I was going to have a look at an old film from my archives, Murder by the Clock from 1931, based on two works by mystery writer Rufus King. “Oh, good,” I thought idly, “there’s a book AND a movie that I can talk about, and Inspector Valcour deserves some attention.” Cliff Aliperti at his blog Immortal Ephemera, to my horror, had more to say about the movie in his excellent piece found here than I would have done, and — oh, the shame — at even greater length, because he knew about many

Murder by the Clock, Rufus King

Murder by the Clock, by Rufus King (Popular Library #31 from 1944)

filmic things I’d never heard of. Then when I found that my superbly well-read friend John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books had in 2012 done an in-depth look at the book … found here … my review was mentally being wadded into a ball and tossed away. Why bother, when these guys totally get it already? John’s assessment that this book is more like Ross MacDonald than any of King’s contemporaries is just brilliantly insightful, and I like King’s playful way with language just as much as he does. One tiny correction to a comment in John’s column; the William Boyd who plays the lead here is not the same William Boyd as became Hopalong Cassidy. The lead actor here called himself William “Stage” Boyd to distinguish himself from the man who later became Hoppy, and nearly ruined Hoppy’s film career by being involved in a scandal.  Fascinating stuff.  But the two actors had the same name, which made it very confusing.

Murder by the Clock, 1931

A lobby card from Murder by the Clock, 1931

Anyway, the movie has a creepy element injected into it that has nothing to do with the book of the same name, that I understand is taken from a stage play of Rufus King’s. An elderly woman is terrified of premature burial and has had an elaborate system installed  that sounds a booming horn outside the family mausoleum, if she should wake up in her coffin. Shades of Edgar Allan Poe, right? The horn, as you may well expect, goes off at least once during the movie and if you’ve been following along, it will make you jump when it booms. The really amazing thing about this movie, though, is the performance of Lilyan Tashman playing, apparently, She Who Must Be Obeyed. Tashman takes the ball from Theda Bara and runs with it. She is the Vamp ne plus ultra and can apparently rule every heterosexual male in sight with just a whiff of her perfume. Valcourt is made of stronger stuff, though — although the fact that Rufus King was gay may have something to do with his resistance. Lilyan Tashman is a fascinating figure who died only a few years later at age 33, probably from breast cancer, leaving only a handful of fascinating performances by which to judge her. Here, she’s really something. The movie is definitely worth a look for her alone, since the mystery plot will not occupy your mind for long. As of today, you can find it here on YouTube.

Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley

Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley (Penguin #6)

After being outdone twice, I thought I’d have a look at something by a favourite author of mine, Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley (1933). (Published in the US as Dead Mrs. Stratton.) This time I looked first to save myself some time — sure enough, Kate had looked at this book six months ago. Karyn Reeves, at A Penguin a week, also had a look at this one some years back. Both bloggers have insight into what’s going on here and have given us interesting assessments; not much more for me to add. I’m going to have to start unearthing books that are far more scarce!

I agree with Kate Jackson that this is a kind of variation on The Poisoned Chocolates Case, in that Berkeley’s plot makes it clear that the truth about what happened to the completely obnoxious Mrs. Ena Stratton is entirely a function of who happens to be telling the story of her death. The story begins by … well, sort of telling you who commits the murder, but anyone familiar with Berkeley’s over-the-top cleverness knows that it can’t end there. Ena is constantly threatening to kill herself, as one of a vast range of attention-getting stratagems that have infuriated everyone around her, and when she is found hanged after a bizarre party, no one is surprised. Berkeley’s detective, the Silly Ass Roger Sheringham, traces the peculiar course of a chair upon which Mrs. Stratton did or did not stand, as various characters report having moved it here, there, and everywhere around the roof upon which her body is found. It seems as though everyone lies to the police at every opportunity and Sheringham is the only detective in a position to find out what really went on. Again, the experienced Berkeleyite will know that there is always one final twist at the end of the tale, and so it is here. I think you will be ultimately surprised when you learn who did what to Ena Stratton, and when; the final pages hold the final punch.

“Jumping Jenny” is a colloquial back-formation from Robert Louis Stevenson for a hanged woman, which practice thankfully died out some time in the 20th century nearly everywhere on earth. Its male equivalent is the “jumping jack”, the phrase Stevenson used; to my knowledge the exercises that one does in calisthenics classes are named after the jerks and spasms of a person who’s just been hanged. Perhaps your instructor will switch to more strenuous pushups, as mine did when I mentioned this cheerful fact. I need to learn to keep things to myself sometimes. 😉

The Sleeping Sphinx, John Dickson Carr

The Sleeping Sphinx, by John Dickson Carr (Bantam #996)

The reason I mention the bizarre nature of the party is that it has an echo in another great mystery by a great writer. Here, as in John Dickson Carr’s The Sleeping Sphinx (1947), there is a party at which people dress up as “a well-known murderer or his victim.” In Carr’s book, this is two days before Christmas (!). Okay, who has parties like this?

Sheringham notes that the host is a writer of detective stories and that the idea of the party

“… exactly carried out the light-handed treatment of death in his books. There were about a couple of dozen guests, certainly not more, and each one was supposed to represent a well-known murderer or his victim. The idea was not strictly original …”

This seems to me to be saying that at some point in the past someone had given such a party, and not in a fictional sense either. My online searches revealed nothing about who might have done so, but either Carr and Berkeley are referring to the same thing or else Carr is referring to Berkeley, which is likely — the idea has a certain Grand Guignolerie about it that would appeal to Carr. My first instinct is to suggest that both writers seem to be taking for granted that there is a really high standard of literacy extant about readers’ knowledge of famous murderers and what they looked like. At one point Sheringham remarks that Una Stratton had dressed up as Mrs. Pearcey and another guest as Mary Blandy. Pearcey was executed in 1890 and Mary Blandy in 1752 and I cannot imagine that the average person of 1933 would have known what they looked like, or how they dressed. Nor can I imagine going to a party dressed as a famous murderer; even less as a famous victim. It just seems in very poor taste regardless of period. Would you want to go to a party dressed as Sharon Tate or O.J. Simpson?

Cordially invited to meet death, Rex Stout

“Cordially Invited to Meet Death”, a novella by Rex Stout, this newspaper insert edition from 1943

I know from an old Nero Wolfe story, “Cordially Invited To Meet Death”, that there was such a profession as “party-arranger” that encompassed activities like that. Bess Huddleston, in the story, arranges “the Striker dwarf and giant party”, among other such extravaganzas (including an abortive attempt to hire Wolfe to attend a party and solve an imaginary crime). But enticing people to dress up like murderers or victims to have a party is just beyond me. It’s hard to prove a negative, but I hope the Carr/Berkeley reference to such a party is merely a detective writer’s way of establishing mood and not a kind of party that actually existed.

(added 12 hours later) It occurred to me that one of the characters mentions the recipe for “chicken à la Toulousaine”. It’s not difficult and quite tasty: there’s a recipe here.

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I think the lesson is clear that I will have to look further into the recesses of Noah’s Archives to find things about which my fellow bloggers haven’t already spoken. Well, consider me as doing the literary equivalent of spitting on my hands … But it is a pleasure to recommend good work by other bloggers too. Now that I have managed to master the intricacies of the linking function at the top left of this page, I can recommend entire blogs to your attention where I merely cited individual articles before. Go through the three dozen links there and see where your fancy leads you!

 

 

 

 

Deep Freeze, by John Sandford (2017)

John Sandford, Deep FreezeI don’t read much in the way of current best-sellers, but I can’t resist John Sandford whenever he comes out with something new.  I formed the habit some time back — I think coincidentally I picked up just the right book at just the right time. I remember reading Winter Prey (1993) some years after it came out and being struck by the writing, plot, and characterization. In fact I was hooked like a trout and have gone back to read everything Sandford ever wrote, and I have half a bookcase filled with his first editions. Winter Prey is a puzzle mystery in the middle of a long string of serial killer novels, which is probably why it caught my attention, but Sandford knows what he’s doing and writes like a dream.

I’ve written elsewhere about my favourite Sandford novel, Bad Blood (2011), which is an entry in this author’s series about unconventional police officer Virgil Flowers. That one is still an amazing read and I still highly recommend it. I also go into some detail about Sandford and his various series, so if you’re interested, start with that review.

This volume is the tenth Virgil Flowers novel, and it’s another high-quality read. The story is about how Flowers is sent to a small town (Trippton, Minnesota) to investigate the murder of a bank president, pretty much the wealthiest woman in Trippton. Flowers has history in Trippton; a few years back (Deadline, 2014) he investigated a murder that ended up sending most of the local school board to jail for embezzlement and/or murder. The late Gina Hemming had an interesting sex life; she was about to divorce her husband, who apparently has taken to wearing nylons and calling himself Justine, and she has been seeing a beefy Harley-riding escort who sells sexual services under the guise of therapy. She’s also running Trippton’s financial scene with a firm hand and has offended a few locals.

It’s quite clear from the beginning of the book who killed Gina; this is a howcatchem, perhaps most often thought of as the province of Lieutenant Columbo, because we are introduced to the killer in the opening paragraphs and learn just how the deed was done. It’s how it was complicated later by witnesses and other parties that forms most of the basis of the book, and to Sandford’s credit this is also an interesting story.  You’ll feel sorry for the murderer, eventually, and somewhat less sorry for the victim.

John Sandford, Deep Freeze
There’s also an interesting secondary plot that should hold your interest; Flowers is saddled with an out-of-town private investigator who is investigating a local crime that will probably make you laugh. Someone has been opening up Barbie dolls — copyrighted, brand-protected Barbie dolls — and inserting a sound chip into them that makes them sound like they’re having an orgasm when you squeeze their stomach. The altered Barbies (“Barbie-O”) are sold as naughty novelties on various e-platforms and Mattel, the owner of the copyright, is sufficiently furious to send Margaret Griffin out from Los Angeles to put a stop to it.

Trouble is, the manufacture of Barbie-Os is the only thing between a few of the townspeople and starvation, and there’s a great deal of resistance to Griffin’s investigations. Flowers must become involved, although reluctantly since it seems to many people as though this is a victimless crime. His truck is firebombed and he takes a serious beating from a group of women who depend on the Barbie-O income. Eventually Flowers solves that case and stops the further manufacture of the Barbie-O. (I won’t tell you what the inventive product is that these folks come up with next, but it will make you laugh, I suspect, the next time your cell phone buzzes in silent mode.)

There’s a certain inevitability about this book; you know Flowers is going to solve the cases, you just don’t quite know how or when. Sandford is such a good writer that he carries you right along regardless of how much you think you know what’s going to happen. These stories are starting to attain the level of John D. MacDonald, and to me that’s high praise indeed. Sandford is a keen observer of human nature and … well, to me he just gets it. He writes exciting stories that have a healthy leavening of humour and excellent characterization … and these days each new volume is better than the last. Start with Dark of the Moon, the first Virgil Flowers novel from 2007, and keep going if you want to get hooked on a good series of books.

 

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.