Quick Look: Still Waters, by E. C. R. Lorac (1949)

Still Waters, by E. C. R. Lorac (1949)

Still WatersWhat’s this book about?

Artist Caroline Bourne is nearly fifty and wishes to relocate to the country for a “serene old age”. She purchases a small farm in Lansdale (between Lancaster and the Pennines in England) and an associated bit of land containing a disused quarry, now filled with water, and a cottage beside it. She involves her young cousin Kate Hoggett and Kate’s husband Giles to work the land while she restores the entire estate, including an art studio. (Giles Hoggett is known to the Lorac aficionado through his active assistance to Inspector Macdonald in two earlier cases in the area, as a kind of local Watson.) But Caroline’s path to acquiring the farm is not smooth; the auctioneer seems strangely reluctant to accept her bids, and it’s only due to an expensive car getting trapped in a muddy farm road that she doesn’t have well-heeled and determined competition in the auction. But she prevails … except that strange things are now happening in the neighbourhood, and seem to be focused on a missing farm labourer and the dark water of the flooded quarry. There’s also the mysterious behaviour of the new owner of local Hauxhead Castle, who commissions Caroline to do a brochure promoting the castle in its new role as an expensive hotel; but doesn’t seem to care if the brochure is produced.

Inspector Macdonald has dropped by early in the book to catch up with his old friend Giles and takes a hand when the local constabulary proves itself unable to find the missing labourer. MacDonald, Giles, Kate, Caroline, and the local police investigate a number of small mysterious occurrences in the rural farming community, with all its country ways, until a surprising crime is brought home to the guilty — and the still waters are settled.

Why is this worth reading?

E. C. R. Lorac (the major pseudonym of Edith Caroline Rivett, who also wrote as Carol Carnac) is an acquired taste and a difficult one for which to provide. Lorac novels are hard to get and expensive; really, ripe for reprinting, if anyone can find the originals from which to reprint. (I’m aware of a gentleman who has been collecting her 71 first editions for decades and still needs eight to complete the set, three of which he doesn’t expect to ever find.) She wrote — I want to call them “gentle” mysteries. Inspector Macdonald was her major detective, but she also wrote about Inspector Ryvet and Chief Inspector Rivers, all of whom are pretty much the same. They are honest, straightforward, morally upright gentlemen who work hard to catch criminals but are also human beings who form friendships among the people they investigate and take pleasure in everyday things that have nothing to do with murder. The stories sometimes involve fairly brutal murders, but there is always a leavening of people involved who are both interesting and non-criminal. It is somehow clear to the reader that certain characters should not and cannot be suspected — they are, to use an overworked word, “nice”. Her books always have nice people in them; friendly, intelligent, everyday people who find themselves brushing up against criminals. In this case they are primarily farmers.

Lora’s writing is really very good. There’s an interesting choice of language throughout; for instance, on the first page, I learned a new word, “shippon”, a kind of farm outbuilding. The conversational tone is well-written; descriptions are clear and direct. And there is a very nice overall tone that is hard to describe — let’s call it “gentility”. This is a writer who is writing with intelligence and a strong sense of social place, and addressing an audience with intelligence who wants to know about that social structure. She does it by telling you about it and by showing you how it works, in an engrossing and yet economical way. You don’t lose sight of the plot, but you do find some enjoyable byways down which to wander for a moment.

There is a lot of interesting material in this particular volume about the difficulties of agriculture in post-war Britain; quotas for this and that, getting planning permission to renovate a cottage and permission to buy building materials, even the right to employ workers to do renovations. There are also currency restrictions, high import duties, food rationing, and the impossibility of filling out the paperwork to make it all happen. And this is the sort of thing I do enjoy reading about in detective fiction; the little details of life that are different from my own present-day existence. I’ve never lived with food rationing but it seems to have produced a very healthy generation … we could probably all use a little post WWII austerity in our lives 😉 The details of the crime, however, will not occupy you for long. This particular volume, uncommon with Lorac I assure you, postpones any kind of actual criminality until quite a way into the volume and unfortunately the suspense is neither well-built nor dramatically relieved. The criminal plot is so slight as to make this almost a novel about the people and the place, and not a murder mystery. Again, this is not what Lorac is usually all about; her murder stories are usually as bloody and direct as anyone else’s.

I’m not familiar with all the volumes, but this is one of a set of stories that the author told set against the background of rural Lansdale, and Giles Hoggett is at this point a recurring character. (There’s a nice moment where the local bobby realizes that Giles has the ear of his superiors and sets out to outdo the amateur detective.) There’s a somewhat explanatory Foreword addressed to the fictional Giles and Kate, but apparently speaking to two real-life people who are their models. Anyway, I had an odd moment when I first read this book, thinking that I had somehow bought the same book under two different titles. Not so. There’s at least one other Lorac novel in my library that has a remarkably similar plot and characters, called Let Well Alone; so similar that I confused them for a moment.

My favourite edition

I’ve only ever seen the edition at the top of this post, Collins White Circle Crime Club 256C, although my edition is perhaps earlier since its cover price is 1/6. However, I haven’t mastered the many details of Collins White Circle editions; this could be from any Commonwealth country and be simultaneously published with the above edition. The “C” in 256C, the serial number on the spine, could stand for Canada or indeed anything at all, I just don’t know.  What I do know is that this cover design is fairly constant with a large range of Collins White Circle Crime Club paperback editions, with the twin hooded figures used as the standard cover art.  I think this is so that the title-less covers could be printed and shipped to, say, Toronto or New Delhi to have the titles imprinted on locally-printed books … again, just a guess, but I’ve seen the occasional edition with a red title that is obviously a surprint. The design of the two figures has a great Art Deco feel; I always find my heart beats a little faster when I see it from across the room in a bookstore because I might be about to find a really scarce title. Almost all the titles in this series are at least worth a look and some can be very valuable.

How expensive are these? Well, there isn’t a single paperback copy available that I can find for sale on the internet — on ABEbooks, three copies of the first edition in orange boards from 1949, none with a jacket, all Good or better, trading between $45 and $50, without considering postage. Ouch – but a first in jacket might be $300 or more.  A paperback copy of the other Lorac title I mentioned, Let Well Alone, will set you back $16 to $18 without considering postage, and this should be a roughly equivalent price to this title. I should add that this publisher’s editions are notoriously fragile and the best purchase for one of these is one in good condition. My own reading copy, which someone scotch-taped to hold on the loose front cover, I paid $4 for and would probably not take $10 today; all these books are scarce and I will probably re-read this in ten or twenty years, so I’ll just keep it.  Happy hunting!

Quick Look: The Judge Sums Up, by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1942)

The Judge Sums Up, by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1942)

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Collins White Circle (Canada) #87, first paper, 1944

What’s this book about?

Mr. Justice Unwin is summing up a great deal of evidence at the trial of Peter Gaskell for the murder of Walter Drage. In an extended flashback, he sums up the evidence by, for, and against the prisoner. Gaskell and Drage were staying in a rural hotel, Gaskell recovering from a breakdown from overwork. They both became involved with the same pretty young girl, and at the end of a week the evidence ends in a great mass of detail about the last hours leading up to Drage’s body being found at the bottom of a seaside cliff. We meet and hear from chambermaids, a hotel manager, various other guests at the hotel. We become very familiar with the ways in which barristers at trial are guided and corrected by the judge as to the admissibility of various kinds of evidence. We peek into the thoughts and preoccupations of the jurors, learned counsel, and even the judge himself, who apparently solves crossword clues in one part of his mind while summing up with another.

As Mr. Justice Unwin approaches the last phase of his summing-up, having left the reader with the impression that Mr. Gaskell is going to be found immediately guilty by the acquiescent jury, he has a mild heart attack and the trial goes into abeyance until he recovers.

The second half of the book depicts the activities of investigator Morley Aston, who travels to the hotel with the intention of overturning the case against Gaskell. As we meet people whom we’ve previously seen testify, and hear them tell their stories in a different context and manner, a completely different picture of the events of that fateful day begins to form in the reader’s mind. As Aston investigates, he collects sufficient evidence to bolster a surprising new theory about the murder case; this is explained to the reader in a long chapter, and the final moments are devoted to an unusual ending to the trial, once the Justice returns to the bench.

Why is this worth reading?

J. Jefferson Farjeon has recently enjoyed a resurgence of interest, thanks to the republication of his Mystery in White by British Library Crime Classics to delighted critical and public reception. And rightly so, judging by this volume. It is a very intelligently written work of classic detective fiction and I highly recommend it. I haven’t gone into too much detail about the events of the book; I think it’s very unlikely that most of my audience will have already read it, which is not the case with many of the books about which I’ve written. This is such a clever little mystery that I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment once you do manage to find a copy (there’s every chance this will soon be reprinted).

You will note on the cover illustration of the first paperback edition (and pretty much the only paperback edition, as far as I know) that the judge has noticed a single word that “has given him a new approach the problem of guilt or innocence”. This is in fact true; unfortunately I worked out the word to which the cover refers and it helped me work out the approximate solution before the end of the novel. It spoiled my enjoyment just a little, because it was truly an elegant and detailed solution that had been painstakingly created to take the trial evidence and turn it on its head. I think of this kind of novel as a “snowglobe mystery” — halfway or two-thirds through the book, the author gives the plot a shake and all the familiar features and inferences of previous events are transformed into something with a different, nearly opposite meaning. Perhaps it’s that I have a fondness for this kind of plot, which is difficult to manage. But if you enjoy Golden Age Detection classics I think you will enjoy, and be surprised by, this book. So pardon me for not telling you much about it; just this once, trust me. If you like Anthony Berkeley and Christianna Brand and Freeman Wills Crofts, you’ll like this book too.

And if you haven’t managed to work out the crucial word, the judge’s thoughts explain its importance in the final sentence.

My favourite edition

I’ve only ever seen the edition at the top of this post; I have a rather more bedraggled copy than shown here. Collins White Circle paperbacks were not well made, for the most part, and many have disintegrated over the years. I’m aware of about three other editions including the first, which has an undistinguished type-only cover, and a strange publication as an insert into a Philadelphia newspaper in bedsheet format. There don’t seem to be any beautiful editions; the Collins White Circle has at least the charm of being ugly in a naive retro way.

Quick Look: Nine Times Nine, by Anthony Boucher (1940)

Nine Times Nine, by Anthony Boucher (1940)

nine_times_nice_coverWhat’s this book about?

Matt Duncan is an impoverished writer who’s just been let go from the Los Angeles WPA writers’ project (it would take an entire article to explain this idea to the millennial reader; Wikipedia has one here). He runs into a wealthy school friend and rapidly finds himself working as an assistant to Wolfe Harrigan, a professional debunker of phoney religious cults; meanwhile Wolfe Harrigan’s beautiful niece Concha is attracting quite a bit of Matt’s attention, even though she’s engaged to his wealthy school friend.

Currently, Wolfe Harrigan is investigating a religious figure calling himself Ahasver, the Man In Yellow, whose “Temple of Light” is developing a huge following. Sure, it looks like another loony-tunes cult, but Ahasver is raking in a lot of money and developing a lot of fanatical converts. The Temple of Light has a cursing ritual that it enacts in order to bring disaster to its enemies, called the “Nine Times Nine”. When Wolfe Harrigan is the latest recipient of the curse, he laughs; but the next day, Matt Duncan looks up from the croquet lawn to see a man in a yellow robe in the study with Wolfe Harrigan. Harrigan’s sister is sitting outside the study, and she didn’t see anyone leave … all the doors and windows are locked from the inside. But Wolfe Harrigan’s murdered body lies on the floor and no one knows what happened. Lieutenant Marshall of the LAPD investigates, with the help of his wife, who’s a retired burlesque dancer (coincidentally, she’s reading the locked-room chapter from John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins at the time), and learns that, at the exact time of the murder, Ahasver was lecturing to a group of his followers miles away. It takes the talents of Sister Ursula, amateur detective and member of the Sisters of Martha of Bethany, to figure out the answer to this difficult locked-room mystery.

4476825990Why is this worth reading?

Anything by Anthony Boucher is worth your time, to be honest. Boucher — yes, the guy after whom they named the BoucherCon mystery convention — was a prominent critic (for the San Francisco Chronicle) and mystery writer, expert on Sherlock Holmes, creator of mystery-oriented radio programmes, and also an expert on science-fiction. And in general he was a polymath; one of those people who knows everything about a few things and a lot about everything in general. He only published seven mystery novels, but each one of them is intelligent, inventive, and brain-crackingly difficult. Boucher only wrote two Sister Ursula novels, of which this was the first; the other, Rocket to the Morgue, is a fascinating roman a clef set against the background of the actual science-fiction writers group of which Boucher formed a part. Both were first published as by H. H. Holmes (who was an actual turn-of-the-century murderer in Chicago), but Boucher’s other five mysteries came out under his own name.

I won’t say much about the mystery itself here, for fear of spoiling your enjoyment. Trust me, it is a genuine locked-room mystery, and you can imagine that if Boucher had the nerve to suggest to the reader that the locked-room chapter from The Three Coffins would be worthwhile reading, you can bet that he came up with a solution that will make you slap your forehead at the end of the book. If you follow the plot very closely and don’t allow yourself to be fooled by preconceptions, you will possibly be close to the solution at the end; it’s a satisfying and smart answer to a difficult puzzle.

il_570xN.672463820_t2nxBut there are other reasons why this book is worth your time. For one thing, Boucher gives us a wonderful glimpse of West Coast U.S. society just at the U.S.’s entry into the Second World War; these pseudo-religious cults used to be a regular thing in Southern California, and Boucher has produced a delightful insider’s view. The characterizations are charming and, while some of them might be difficult to believe (it’s not likely that burlesque artists marry policemen and settle down, and this is just as unlikely as a mystery-solving nun) they hang together and definitely interest the reader. In fact this novel has a lot about people and how they react to stressful situations. I think it’s safe to say that the mystery is the strongest point of interest in the book, but the background interactions are fun too.

One small point I did notice particularly; Boucher is one of the few mystery writers of the time to introduce a homosexual character, Robin Cooper, into this work (someone who wouldn’t yet identify as a “gay man”, but that’s what we see). Yes, the portrayal is of an effeminate “swish” who’s in cahoots with Ahasver; pretty offensive to the reader of 2015. But two things stand out. One is that there’s a homosexual character at all which, believe me, was very rare in this time and place for a mystery novel. The other is that, interestingly enough, Boucher gives us a glimpse of the social context and tells us that not every 1940 adult was so simplistic as to partake of knee-jerk homophobia.  Listen to this little passage, from page 199 of the IPL edition:

[Lieutenant Marshall is speaking to Matt Duncan] “But Mr. Cooper still interests me. I’ll go further — I am fascinated by our sweet little Robin.” “Why, Lieutenant!” Matt imitated the cherub’s birdlike cadences. “It’s a good act. It’s a honey of an act. But it is an act, and it slipped at the end. He’s no ecstatic hanger-on of the Ancients. He knows what he’s about; and unless my guess is way off, he’s probably about as influential as any member of the Temple.” “You think so? Him?” “The stupid tendency of the normal male is to discount everything said or done by one who seems effeminate. You think, ‘Nuts, he’s a swish — the hell with him.’ It’s about as clever a front as you can pick. Smart lad, our Robin.”

Still not especially politically correct or even enlightened, but further down the path than one might have expected.

I know you’ll enjoy this novel, if you just relax and let it roll along. If you are like me and always want to try to solve the mystery, you’ll find this one quite difficult but not absolutely impossible. And you will also enjoy the milieu of 1940s California, and Boucher’s insightful eye for social change and ear for dialogue. There’s also a romantic subplot, some interesting observations on religious belief, and Sister Ursula, who to me should have been the hero of a few more Boucher novels.

My favourite edition

ninetimesholmesI am given to understand that the first edition of this book was issued without a dust jacket, probably because of wartime paper restrictions. (Added a few days later: I listened to the wrong bookseller — see the comments section below.  The paper restrictions idea was mine alone, and it was wrong.  I’ll add a photo of the first edition’s jacket in the middle of this post for the reader’s edification.)

I think my favourite edition would be U.S. Penguin #553, pictured here. #553 is not, as you might, think, their 553rd book; their numbering system is quite bizarre but this would be one of their first 50 publications, in 1945. I like the deep green that is shared by this line of books; the illustration is cheerfully bad and I like the idea that this is the only such paperback as by H. H. Holmes.

 

 

Quick Look: New Graves at Great Norne, by Henry Wade (1947)

New Graves at Great Norne, by Henry Wade (1947)

51fOz96CZNLWhat’s this book about?

The story begins with a leisurely introduction to the little English village of Great Norne. As we are told in the opening lines of chapter two, “Great Norne had once been a flourishing little port, in the days before railways drew a large part of the profit away from the coast-wise carrying traffic … In the early nineteenth century it had attained its peak population of over five thousand, but it was now down below three, and numbers were slowly but steadily falling.” Wade sketches an economical picture of all levels of society; a foolish elderly woman church organist, the squire of the local manor, fishermen and manual labourers who drink at the dockside pub. When the Reverend Theobald Torridge is discovered dead at the bottom of a flight of dockside stone steps, his legs entangled in some rope, everyone thinks he’s lost his way in the fog and taken a tumble. (And, in order to preserve the clerical reputation, the coroner neglects to mention the broken bottle and general scent of whisky surrounding the late vicar.)

No one seems to think for a moment that this is murder; why, there hasn’t been a violent death in the community since young Ellen Barton committed suicide twenty years earlier. But when Rev. Torridge is accompanied to heaven by Colonel Cherrington, who has apparently committed suicide, and then there are more deaths, including the violent murders of two elderly spinster sisters, Chief Inspector Myrtle must investigate all aspects of all the crimes. Suspicion falls upon one or another of Colonel Cherrington’s family and acquaintances, and the villagers in general, until the common link shared by the victims is realized and the crime is brought home to an entirely unlikely perpetrator.

UnknownWhy is this worth reading?

Henry Wade is not a well-known mystery writer but he is certainly a very good one. My plot summary above doesn’t approach the fully kaleidoscopic view of village life provided in this volume; the first two chapters are devoted entirely to laying down the manner in which this story will be told, where we learn a little about the lives and backgrounds of various residents of Great Norne. This doesn’t sound unusual, but what sets this volume apart is the high quality of the writing.

In fact this is a very gentle mystery, all things considered. I wouldn’t call it a “cozy”, because there is no sense that any unpleasantness is being overlooked or glossed over so as to spare the reader. There are occasionally violent moments and it’s not likely that the average reader will make it through the scene where two elderly women are murdered without at least a little mental discomfort. But gentle — gentle in the sense that everything moves very, very slowly. I thought as I savoured the surprising ending of this volume that it was rather like cooking a live lobster. You put the lobster in water and heat it very, very slowly so that the lobster doesn’t realize he’s meant for dinner; at the end, though, you have a dead lobster and a high-quality meal. The police here are not chasing around in high speed cars — they’re barely doing anything at all except talk with people.  Even though there are a handful of deaths in a short time, everyone goes about their everyday lives and waits for the police to solve the crimes.

Part of this slow, slow build of tension is the very realistic idea that not everyone in the village is wholly concerned with the murders 24/7 to the exclusion of the rest of their everyday lives. People still do their daily shopping and meet friends; they have family problems and money problems. We briefly share the thoughts of many of the residents of the village, their opinions, and we learn enough about many of them to know what lies beneath the surface. We learn that what people think of their fellow villagers doesn’t always share the same benevolence with which the villagers view their own actions. Indeed there is a lovely paragraph in chapter 1 that describes the vicar that will give you the idea both of the difference between internal and external view, and the high quality of the writing:

“The Reverend Theobald Turridge … was, in fact, narrow in outlook and interest, harsh in judgment of his fellow-men, though diplomatically gentle with those who thought and saw as he did … [H]is good looks were spoiled by a weak and obstinate mouth, which he firmly believed to be strong and sensitive. … He was a good preacher … but the congregation showed a growing proportion of older people; the young thought him pompous and an ass, their harsh and critical judgment missing his better points.”

We see how he sees himself, and we see how others see him. Everyone is a mixture of good and bad. A foolish spinster cannot carry a tune, to the great detriment of the church choir, but everyone forbears to say anything because she devotes herself so thoroughly to this good work and obviously loves it. A very humble workman is rude and crude, and gets so drunk that he passes out in his own barrow after a night at the pub, but he provides liquor, food, and companionship for an elderly woman neighbour whom he calls “ma”. And as I mentioned above, the coroner decides to ignore a smell of alcohol and a broken whisky bottle found when Reverend Turridge is found at the bottom of a flight of stone steps, because the coroner felt the elderly reverend deserved to be remembered for his good works. In other words, plot developments arise spontaneously out of a firm grasp of character and a knowledge of how people really act.

thOne of the most delightful aspects of this book is that the murderer is someone whose thoughts we have been allowed to share, in the same minimal way that we have shared the thoughts of other villagers — but because that person’s thoughts were occupied with non-murderous topics at the time, we learn nothing connected with the murder. The murderer, like all the other villagers, has a day-to-day life and things that they consider important with which they occupy their days, and the murderer’s building towards the murders is long and drawn-out. In fact the murderer is concealing the passions which bring about the murders so thoroughly and well that it comes as a complete surprise to both the villagers and the reader when the truth is revealed. Is this fair? I rather thought it was, actually. If you have a serious issue in your own life, you may think about it a lot, but occasionally you are more concerned about whether the rain will stop before you have to walk home, and if someone dipped into your thoughts at that moment, that’s what they’d get. I think this is a legitimate ploy — not quite as deeply buried as, say, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but if you are misled, I think you only have yourself to blame.

If you are an aficionado of the English village mystery, I think you will find this a very fine specimen; the writing is really superb. On nearly every page you will find a beautifully-turned phrase, many of which will make you pause for a moment to appreciate their rightness. The dialogue is spot-on, all social classes having their individual speech patterns beautifully noted and reproduced. The writing is economical — locations and clothing are sketched, not described in detail. But behind it all you have the sense of Henry Wade’s superb command of all the details of the everyday life of an English village of a few thousand souls. He knows where the local squire makes economies and how often the poorest workman can afford to drink gin rather than beer; he knows that the kindness of the doctor’s wife is well hidden behind her teasing of her husband, and that people already knew exactly how much alcohol was consumed by Reverend Turridge. In fact this is a village where everyone knows everyone’s background, history, secrets, and probable future, and Wade knows that in order to be believable, a murder plot must be very, very carefully concealed from one’s fellow villagers. Every character seems authentic; every description seems accurate; and every development seems logical. Given the underlying premise that motivates the murderer, everything is logical and necessary, and this is very often not something I find myself able to say about any murder mystery. Just like the idea that the most expensive clothing is frequently the least embellished, sometimes the best-written mysteries are the ones that move slowly and eschew wildly dramatic plot developments.

I have to say that this sort of book is an acquired taste. Rather like Dickensian-era fiction, where the author took a couple of chapters to tell you the family history and background of the major characters before they were even born, this book is s-l-o-w going. No sex, no explosions, no car chases, and nothing at all really happens until Chapter 3. The police are nonentities with official titles who merely get the job done without troubling the reader to take their characters into account. But as I have come to learn over the years, it takes a very intelligent writer to produce a book like this, without relying on Grand Guignol or terrible madness or even a meretricious focus on sexual peccadillos. And this is an intelligent writer who knows how to keep the reader interested in character and plot actions with which the characters are vitally concerned. Just like that lobster, if you stay in the cool water of the first few chapters, you’ll find that your interest heats up, little by little, until you find yourself at two a.m. just turning pages in order to find out whodunit. And THAT is the mark of a great mystery writer, to my mind. If you don’t have this taste already, I urge you to acquire it.

My favourite edition

Henry Wade is an acquired taste, and you will have to go some distance and lay out some money to acquire it. My own copy is the Perennial Library P807 paperback shown at the head of this post; I have never seen or held another copy of this book, or indeed any Wade novel, except the handful of paperbacks produced in the mid-80s by Perennial Library. A reading copy will set you back $15 or $20 — yes, for the paperback — and I can only hope that this author’s work comes back into print in the near future so that more people will be able to appreciate it.

So I have to say that my favourite edition is the only one I’ve ever seen, with its bright yellow background and a good piece of illustration; I don’t believe I’ve located a reproduction of the first edition’s cover anywhere on the internet, and the reprint hardcover from the 70s above is dully-coloured and doesn’t illustrate any scene from the book.

 

 

Quick Look: Last Will and Testament, by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole (1936)

Last Will and Testament, by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole (1936)

colewilllargeWhat’s this book about?

Elderly Lord St. Blaizey is that classic figure of detective fiction; a man who has quarrelled with his crippled son and heir, fired his private secretary, alienated his wife Helen and his daughter-in-law, and seemingly everyone else in his life, and then dies in mysterious circumstances after falling from his horse. It soon proves to have been murder by person or persons unknown; Dr. Benjamin Tancred, consulting detective, and his friend Paul Graham, the narrator, who have known the family for years, take a hand in the investigation at the request of elderly lunatic Sarah Pendexter. Sarah has had a dream that her brother’s murder was committed by her nephew Rupert, and when Rupert turns out to be the surprise beneficiary of Lord St. Blaizey’s estate, thanks to a suspicious codicil added to the will, it may be that Sarah is not as lunatic at all that. Dr. Tancred talks to the suspects and investigates until the circumstances surrounding a second murder, that of the fired private secretary, makes things more clear to the detective team. At this point it’s more a howdunit than a whodunit and finally Dr. Tancred finds a way to assign the guilt to its proper quarters.

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Why is this worth reading?

Frankly, this book just about isn’t worth your time. The Coles’s detective novels are very, very hard to get these days, and I can’t say I have read more than a handful of the 34 volumes. Certainly these authors are literate and intelligent writers. This book is competent, for the most part. The flow of the novel is even and assured, and the writing occasionally moves above the pedestrian level to wit and even elegance. The language is fine, and the background milieu of rural Cornwall is delightful (and the authors obviously know whereof they speak). But of all the novels of the Coles I’ve read, this is certainly the worst introduction.

There are a number of problems from which this book suffers; one of the most annoying is that this is actually a continuation of an earlier story which formed the introduction of Dr. Tancred, unsurprisingly named Dr. Tancred Begins. Helen Pendexter’s father’s murder formed the basis of that case and both Dr. Tancred and his Watson pretty much fell in love with Helen in the process. Some twenty-five years later (in fictional terms; that volume’s publication predates this one by only a year) we find that Helen has married Lord St. Blaizey’s only son, who was crippled by a tiger while on an anthropological expedition in Africa. I haven’t read the first volume, but it makes me wonder how a young woman whose personality endeared her to the protagonist in volume 1 can change sufficiently by volume 2 to display some pretty unpleasant behaviour. If you actually have managed to read volume 1, you will have problems with volume 2. The publishers (and H.R.F. Keating in his introduction to the “Disappearing Detectives” edition pictured nearby) insist that no knowledge of the previous volume is necessary. I’m suggesting it might actually be counterproductive, and that’s a BIG problem for a mystery.

12493966022I can’t say that it’s especially terrible that the characters in this novel are two-dimensional and unrealistic. That was the fashion of the times and I believe the connoisseurs of the time would have found any attempt at realistic characterization to be not in the best interests of the mystery. But there is a big issue with the characterization. There are two characters in this novel who are, indeed caricatures of reality, just like the rest. But the authors have used these two characters in a very regrettable way.  One is Sarah Pendexter who is so nutty that these days she would invite medication and hospital-based restraint; she provides “information” which she admits is from her “visions” of things that have happened. The other is a homeless man (what was then known as a “tramp”) who provides crucial information but who is, I’ll put it mildly, not a reliable informant. My issue is that these unrealistic characters are constrained to act in irrational ways because the only way in which the plot can be moved forward is by irrational action. To kick off the action of the novel, Sarah has such a violent hatred for her nephew that she tries to hire Dr. Tancred, pretty much, to frame him for murder. And the tramp lies about events for no reason at all, except that it extends the plot by a few chapters while Dr. Tancred traces the lie back to its source. If your plot is so poorly constructed that you have to invent weird characters to make them reasonable, that’s another big problem. Still more problematic is that the authors put crucial information into unreliable mouths; not only is that a tired old trick even in 1936, but it forces the reader to wade through acres of unpleasant craziness to glean the kernel of truth. And the reader does, because we have seen so many times that a character who admits to telling lies is always telling the truth about something that seems improbable.

Dr. Tancred and his dogsbody are colourless doofuses who are so incompetent that we learn about 3/4 of the way through the book that they have misunderstood a fairly important fact about the crime. And again, the only reason for this misunderstanding is that it pads out the novel; their error is caused by not having asked anyone to confirm an assumption Dr. Tancred made. It also seems clear that delaying the action is the function of the second murder. I started to think as I neared the end that this may well have started life as a short story. There’s just not enough story here to fill a novel.

To sum up: the writing is good, the plotting is contrived, the characterization is dire, the background is interesting, and the mystery is undemanding. I know the Coles have better mysteries because I’ve read some; I recommend that you find one. G.D.H. and Margaret Cole are only minor figures in the history of Golden Age Detection, but they are first-rate second-rate writers, if you follow me, and you should have at least a glancing idea of what they’re about. They certainly influenced more memorable writers.

6167341345My favourite edition

I’ve illustrated every cover variant I found for this book, including a couple that I’ve never seen or held. The volume to the left, an early example of the trademark “green ghost” cover art from Collins Crime Club in England, is a delightful entry in this long series; whenever I see this cover art in a bookstore my heart gladdens, because the series is important and occasionally fine. So this would be my favourite. The jacket for the first edition (at the top of this post) is unfortunately quite drab at a time when Collins was doing wonderful covers for other novels by the Coles; I would have expected something a lot more graphic than this effort.

I should mention here that I am indebted to ClassicCrimeFiction.com for the picture of the first edition’s jacket at the top of this post; it’s the only such picture on the entire internet, as near as I could tell, and I have only lifted it from their site because there is no other to show my scholarly readers with a taste for early Crime Club jackets. ClassicCrimeFiction.com is an excellent place to acquire scarce novels such as the present volume, since that is their specialty, and I highly recommend them to your attention. If anyone can get you rare volumes like those of the Coles, they can.

Quick Look: Perry Mason in the Case of Too Many Murders, by Thomas Chastain

Perry Mason in the Case of Too Many Murders, by Thomas Chastain (1989; authorized by the estate of Erle Stanley Gardner)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #008

41eZbYCS4NL._SL500_SX258_BO1,204,203,200_What’s this book about?

Well-known businessman Gil Adrian shoots and kills his dinner companion in full view of a restaurant full of witnesses, then escapes. A short time later Adrian is found murdered in his Hollywood Hills home. His ex-wife is the immediate suspect, and she turns to well-known courtroom wizard Perry Mason. Perry investigates the late Mr. Adrian’s business and romantic entanglements and his very, very busy life, and although his client seems determined to dig her own courtroom grave, he manages to work out what really happened and how, and brings the crimes home to a murderer who has been heretofore not considered by officials as a suspect.

Why is this worth reading?

I could answer this easily by actually answering the question above in a snide way. The first thing that came to my mind when I looked at my standard “What is this book about?” was “About 256 pages too long.” But the real answer to “Why is this worth reading?” is, “It just isn’t.”

Nevertheless, I’ll try be a bit more detailed. When considering whether to — or, these days, when to — issue “continuation” volumes using the characters and oeuvre of a deceased best-selling author, it seems as though the heirs have a couple of things they think are important, but only one at a time. Some estates go for sales, and some for safety. The ones who want sales, like the James Bond franchise, license the character to a lot of interesting writers, some of whom are relatively disastrous and one or two of whom knock it out of the park; once in a while they have a best-seller, and the rest of the time they have some steady sales. The ones who want safety are somehow timid; “We don’t want to actually CHANGE anything about Grandpa’s beloved character, we just want a couple of original stories that don’t contradict anything and don’t offend anybody, because the fans would buy Grandpa’s laundry lists if we bound them.”

I can’t say anything about Erle Stanley Gardner’s laundry lists, but the rest seems to be just about what happened here. This book is, in fact, arrogant; it is arrogant because it assumes that the reader is stupid and hasn’t been paying attention.  I think I can explain this without spoiling any enjoyment you might have in reading this if you were recovering from brain surgery and needed something simple for distraction. The whole book is built around a trick; something like John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie, except that this trick is horribly terribly obvious from the first chapter. I think even if you had never read a murder mystery before, but only seen them on television, you would grasp what was being dangled tantalizingly before you as being, to quote the back cover, “a fiendishly twisted puzzle” — “the most baffling case of [Perry Mason’s] career.” No, it’s not. The police miss the idea, the detectives and suspects miss the idea, but to this reader at least it was absolutely obvious, and everyone was off on the wrong track.

After setting the path towards the big reveal, Chastain proceeds to muddy the waters with a few trails of red herrings about the victim’s generally evil tendencies and people whom he’d recently wronged. But all the time, dropping little references to a concept that is the base of the trick. I think you have to have read the book twice (heaven help me, I did) to grasp all the little hinties and word choices. But then about two-thirds of the way through the book, it’s as though Chastain realizes that evidence that satisfyingly demonstrates a criminal’s guilt in a way that is connected to the trick is not going to be possible, but the reader still has to be almost able to solve the crime even though the hints are gossamer-thin, and he has no physical clues to offer. So he starts dropping bigger and bigger hints about the underlying concept, and finally a huge one that ends in Perry Mason saying, “(face palm) By golly, that’s the ticket! I should have realized that 180 pages ago!” Which was when you and I and everyone else over 14 realized it.

41S8VZZ62XL._BO1,204,203,200_But the real problem with this book is that the writer, Thomas Chastain, has what I have to call a tin ear for dialogue and description. It’s not often that this happens to me, but I hit a single word in this novel that struck me as being so off, so impossibly wrong and leaden and regrettable, that it stopped me dead in my tracks and I put the book down for a minute. Paul Drake, Jr. — the book follows the characters of the made-for-TV movies — is, as most of you will remember, a handsome curly-headed cheerful guy who’s a fairly tough PI but scores with the ladies. On page 207 of the paperback, Perry asks him, “Do you think your buddy, Dumas, will notice that you’ve gone?” “I already bade him good night. He won’t miss me as long as his bottle holds out.” My word was “bade”. As far as I’m concerned, Paul Drake, Jr. never “bade” anyone anything EVER. The book is full of big clanging wrongnesses in dialogue like, for instance, Perry using carefree contractions and talking imprecisely. And for the rest of it, the writing is … mushy. The prose is bland, the descriptions are insubstantial and careless, and the characterization is non-existent. Okay, I recognize that Gardner was not known for characterization, but honestly, we don’t know much about most of the characters at all, except from context. It’s like they have one-word character descriptions hanging around their necks and that’s all you get.

So finally I’m into the home stretch and thinking, “Well, he has to do something to make this book come alive, or even gasp for breath. I suppose he’ll work some kind of clever reversal on the ending I foresaw on page 12.” And I came up with a couple of ways that that could be done, and I was actually taking a little interest, when — bang, yeah, it was the ending I foresaw on page 12. I don’t actually throw books across the room, because I usually hope to sell them some day, but holy moly it was tempting. This book is start to finish irredeemably awful.

Thomas Chastain was involved in the Who Killed the Robins Family? game/book/publicity stunt thingie from the early 80s; he co-wrote novels with, of all people, Helen Hayes and Peter Graves. (What we call an “open ghost”.) He wrote a Nick Carter novel, for crying out loud, and one that a critic called “undistinguished”. Wow, you have to work hard to not quite manage to pull off a Nick Carter novel. In fact, Chastain can’t write a lick, and he dragged this project and this franchise down with him. I know that Parnell Hall, an excellent writer, wanted to take over the franchise — if you’re interested, look at the first couple of Steve Winslow novels as by J. P. Hailey, because he told me that’s how he repurposed the novels they didn’t buy. They read very oddly but very satisfyingly once you know the secret, and I bet you will join me in wishing that he would have taken over the franchise instead of Chastain. As it is, Chastain wrote one more of these (TCOT Burning Bequest) and the print franchise died an unhappy death. I would suspect that his performance here was under the strict and stern guidance of the estate — it just seems like that to me, because it’s all so damn bland — so I bet he tried his best. But what an ignominious end this was to such a great franchise!

My favourite edition

Very few editions exist, thank goodness; to the best of my knowledge, one hardcover (Yes! For the library trade) and one paperback.  Both are shown here and both are undistinguished. The hardcover edition reminds me of the colours and layout of the Chastain-written Robins family book that was everywhere one summer in the 80s. I actually hope no further editions are published. It’s difficult to find a mint copy of the hardcover with the original sticker on the front saying “Perry Mason returns!” so that might be my favourite; I think I have one in a box somewhere and some collector will want it someday to complete her Perry Mason collection. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Quick Look: Where There’s a Will, by Rex Stout

Where There’s a Will, by Rex Stout (1940)

24073PWhat’s this book about?

Take a deep breath: this will be complicated. Nero Wolfe has been overspending and a new case drops into his lap that will pay the bills. June, May, and April (oldest to youngest) are three sisters. June is a famous author whose husband is Secretary of State; May, a brilliant chemist, is the president of Varney College; and April is a celebrated star of stage and screen. When their wealthy older brother Noel dies, his will’s provisions for distribution of his multiple millions leave the sisters aghast; he’s left it all to what they are too mealy-mouthed to call his mistress, femme fatale Naomi. The sisters come to Wolfe to broker some kind of agreement — it’s not the money, they all say, it’s the scandal. Meanwhile, Noel’s widow Daisy is a bizarre figure. She had been a great beauty until the late Noel shot off a stray arrow and hit her in the face. She apparently lost an eye and is terribly scarred, but nobody knows for sure because she has worn a veil ever since. Daisy arrives at the brownstone and announces that she doesn’t care about the scandal, she wants to squash Naomi like a bug in public. The family conference deteriorates.

n61493Very shortly thereafter, we learn, in what will be a surprise to very few by now, that Noel was actually murdered and everyone is a suspect who was at his country house that weekend; all the people mentioned above plus a couple of State Department guys, a lawyer or two, a swain for the intoxicating April, and June’s two early-20s children. Everyone is gathering (for no better reason than to scrap it out en masse, it seems) and Nero Wolfe actually leaves the house to meet with them all. Many, many plot complications ensue in short order; the experienced reader will not be surprised to learn that if you have a person whose features are always veiled, don’t be terribly surprised if someone impersonates her in the course of a murder mystery. The intense activity culminates in Archie Goodwin’s discovery of the second victim, about 90 seconds before Wolfe hightails it out the door so as not to be detained by the police and miss dinner.

Wolfe quickly talks to many of the principals but it’s not till he works his way down to Sara, June’s young daughter, and learns that someone has tried to steal a bunch of old photographs that she took the day of the murder, that he gets a vital piece of information. Coincident with Inspector Cramer showing up at the brownstone with a warrant to arrest him as a material witness, Wolfe delivers the murderer instead and gets to stay home counting his fee.

409f094176c73647da1f66f30edcbbc0Why is this worth reading?

Occasionally I am willing to recommend books just because they are by a certain author, mostly because, well, if you are seriously interested in this Golden Age Detection stuff then you need to have read everything this person wrote — because it’s important. Some of these are, off the top of my head, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout.   So all the work of Rex Stout gets an automatic recommendation from me. Even if it’s a lousy book, it’s still important to understand where it fits into his entire oeuvre because you have to assume that everyone else who wrote at that time and henceforth will be familiar with it.

That being said, there are not many Stout books that are dreary to plough through; even given my relaxed standards and great affection for his work, this is a pretty good book. It’s a lot of fun; there is a cheerful spirit that underlies it throughout and it almost seems as though Stout had a good time writing it. The plot moves at a HELL of a clip, darn close to the pace of a Phoebe Atwood Taylor novel or a Craig Rice story about Jake and Helene Justus. When you look back, the entire novel takes place in a completely compressed time frame that almost seems like 24 hours or so. There are lots and lots of vivid subsidiary characters, Nero Wolfe actually leaves the house on work! and, let’s face it, this book has a veiled scarred lady and three extraordinary sisters named June, May, and April. If there is anyone that’s ever put this book down halfway through, I’d like to know why and how.

b78e1e402bd573e96d98ad955f0a515aThere is also some really good writing in this book. Stout has a little writing trick I’ve noticed. He tends to not describe rooms and locations unless something is actually going to happen that requires you to know what the location looks like. So about halfway through the book when he goes into detail about what is where in something like a rec room in a mansion, with a wet bar, the Stout fan’s ears prick up just a tich. But the precise writing of that section of the book was a pleasure to re-experience. Certainly the lives of the characters and their personalities are larger than life. But there is some nicely observed writing where Archie, who has “a month ago paid a speculator five dollars and fifty cents for a ticket to Scrambled Eggs” and professes himself a big fan of April’s work, nevertheless has a moment where he sees her truly: “she came in and pressed her hands to her temples like the heroine at the end of the second act …”.

And of course the brownstone itself is eternal. Barring Johnny Keems, who … well, it’s best to read these books in chronological order, isn’t it? Wolfe is peevish and unpredictable, Archie is faintly lecherous and keenly observant, Saul, Fritz, and Fred are their usual selves, and the red leather chair is in its accustomed place. All’s right with this world.

6bd2ef9cb824cd475ba920f2a38dff3cMy favourite edition

This has in the past been a very difficult book to find in print. It’s a long story and I’m not sure I understand it all, but when Bantam acquired the Nero Wolfe novels to print as paperbacks, it was forced to leave this one book in the hands of Avon, who reprinted it sporadically and let it lie until Bantam finally acquired it. Added to which, there is a clue in the book of a group of photographs. In the first edition, and in the edition to your left, and not very many other editions, that set of photographs is reproduced in a small and fairly useless form (in the Avon edition it’s tipped in between pages 162 and 163). In most later editions, at least until fairly recently, the photographs were absent.

Anyway, my favourite edition is the one you see to the left, Avon 103, part of a brief experiment they did with putting picture frames around their book covers.  Because of its scarcity, I used to find all the editions of this book very beautiful, because they meant I would shortly be quite a bit wealthier (depending on edition); mystery bookstores used to have a long waiting list for any reading copy of this book, and the vile green undistinguished edition above could bring me $20. Those days are gone!