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!

 

Quick Look: The Case of the Fenced-In Woman, by Erle Stanley Gardner

The Case of the Fenced-In Woman, by Erle Stanley Gardner (1972)

30228What’s this book about?

Well-known criminal defense lawyer Perry Mason takes the case of a man who finds, due to a series of improbable circumstances, that he is sharing title to his new house with a beautiful woman who has run a five-strand barbed-wire fence down the middle of the house and is living in her half, doing various annoying things to try to drive him out and get back at her hateful ex-husband. Although the fence splits the swimming pool in half, it’s not clear which side of the house is involved when a dead body is found sprawled on the surrounding concrete. Perry (and his team of secretary Della Street and private eye Paul Drake) must defend both the homeowners in court; when he finds himself with a briefcase with his name printed on it in gold, filled with stolen bonds, he’s in almost as much trouble as his clients. It takes Perry a while to realize all of the ramifications of this briefcase but, when he does, he brings the crime home to a surprising murderer and a very surprising accomplice.

UnknownWhy is this worth reading?

I have to admit, I’ve laughed about this book for a long time. It was the last Perry Mason novel to be published during the author’s 80-year lifetime (one further novel by Gardner was published posthumously) and Gardner to me had seemed to echo a number of other elderly Golden Age writers whose last few books were of disappointing quality (Christie, Marsh, etc.). And I also must admit I had half composed my review before I sat down, as is my habit, to skim the book in one final burst before sketching out my comments.

Part of this writes itself.  Gardner has a consistent pattern in the Perry Mason books. Something unusual — the story hook — happens to an innocent person and he or she consults Mason for help. The story hook is something that is meant to pique the interest of the reader and present a problem that putatively will be solved by the end of the book. Why is someone paying a pretty girl to gain weight? Why did someone steal a man’s “bloodshot” glass eye?  Why is the dog in the house next door howling all night?  Well, this story hook, with the house divided by barbed wire, is just … ridiculous. Gardner tries to explain it by dragging in a divorce court judge with a sense of humour, but essentially, you just have to hold your nose and buy into it, or else put the book down.

So I was chuckling to myself as I went through the first third of the book, because the story hook really IS silly. It’s also a bit meretricious, because the beautiful woman part-owner of half the house makes a point of parading around in skimpy lingerie and swimsuits (to try to entice the man into making a pass, at which point she sues him for the other half of the house, I think) — and you can almost see the cover of the paperback, can’t you? The second third of the book caught me up a bit, though. In Perry Mason novels, Act II is reserved for the client(s) doing something stupid and self-incriminating that drags Perry into ethical minefields, and Perry frequently starts fooling around with the evidence so that no one really knows what happened anyway. Act III, of course, is always courtroom drama.

Well, I think I’d forgotten just what went on in Act II of this novel, which involves Perry making a flying trip to the casinos of Las Vegas, chasing a witness. There’s a chapter that details exactly how the profession of shill works (a beautiful young woman employed by the casino is friendly and enticing to gamblers while they’re gambling, then vanish when they put away their wallets, and another beautiful girl steers them out the door). Perry actually goes through the hands of two shills while he’s keeping an eye on his witness. Then Perry is caught with the briefcase filled with stolen bonds — and someone has monogrammed his name on it in gold. The police take everyone back to LA for Act III, Perry figures out what actually happened, and his clients are found not guilty.

c16399But as I skimmed, I started to realize that there are things in this book that are quite cleverly handled. Certainly the characterization is at the same low level of most other novels in the series; Gardner had apparently absorbed the dictum that if you create any realistic characters in a murder mystery, they stand out and distract the reader. But the plot is fast-moving, even if it doesn’t quite make sense all the time (Perry races off to Vegas for no really good reason, when detectives are available). The clever things are very mystery oriented and they start with a nice little piece of deduction about how a man would put his arm into a swimming pool to get something. Then there is the chapter on casino shills, which is interesting information and offers some fun moments with Perry interacting with the two women.

At the end of the book, Perry gets his clients acquitted by throwing suspicion on a third party, but no one is sure really whodunit. Perry sits back with his clients and Lieutenant Tragg and performs a clever piece of extended analysis on the planted briefcase that reveals a very surprising character’s involvement in the crime.  And honestly, I have to confess, it went right over my head the first time I read this book, I recall.

So instead of inviting you to laugh at this poor effort by an octogenarian writer, I decided it would be more honest to tell you that the old maestro really did have some skills. Yes, the hook is ridiculous. But once you suspend your disbelief, and stop looking for characterization, you will find an interesting plot with some well-hidden clues and a surprise at the end. Much more okay, overall, than I’d remembered.

cce4c1e6d73b74c237f13fb155c3f290My favourite edition

Very few books published in 1972 have a cover that I would call attractive; it was not a great period for book design. My favourite edition is really the cheerfully vulgar Pocket Canada edition shown to the left. Pocket Canada did an edition of the final few Mason novels that was executed with their usual lack of production values — two models, wearing as little as possible, sprawled on a seamless with something resembling the weapon, with the type sprayed over the top without a care as to how people actually look at books in stores. Those were the days, weren’t they? This is actually one of the Mason novels that can take some time to acquire, if you don’t use eBay or Abe — many people find a reading copy via a book club imprint is the only copy they can find.

 

Quick Look: Petrella at Q, by Michael Gilbert

Petrella at Q, by Michael Gilbert (1977)

3810843What’s this book about?

This volume is actually a collection of short stories that were published in various outlets, including EQMM, between 1972 and 1977. I certainly haven’t gone back to the original publication; it seems to me off-handedly that these would be difficult to read in a stand-alone version since the linking information is rather scant.  I suspect that some editing may have been done to make the book more “novel-like”; I don’t mind that, but purists may want to go back to the originals.

The stories are about Patrick Petrella, the protagonist in five other volumes of short stories and one novel by Gilbert between 1959 and 1977. Petrella is at this point rising through the ranks of the Metropolitan Police (London, UK) on his way to his eventual achievement of Detective Chief Inspectorial rank. At this point in his career he has a wife and young child and is involved in the kind of “everyday peculiar” problems that every large police force must face. Here he deals with small robberies, a missing baby, petty theft, shoplifting, etc.  The stories have a great deal of charm and intelligence in the writing; we like Petrella and want him to succeed, and we get to see a kind of police procedural approach to generalized crime in society. He generally does succeed, against sometimes heavy odds, although at one point he nearly derails his own career by misinterpreting the actions of his superiors. In the final story Petrella faces off against a particularly evil criminal known as The Pole and wins, although at great personal cost to his family. He actually resigns but the final moments of the book detail two of his superior officers who think it’s likely they can convince him to withdraw his resignation, and they intend to make the effort.  (Given that there are three more volumes in the series, I think it’s safe to say they succeed.)

This volume contains an introduction by Gilbert about Patrick Petrella that is of interest to the student and will make the book easier to get into.

5320080727Why is this worth reading?

Michael Gilbert is an excellent writer who had the misfortune to be able to work in a number of different styles and backgrounds; as a result, he was difficult for publishers to pigeonhole and he possibly hasn’t had the promotional opportunities available to someone who is writing a long series about one individual. His first mystery, Close Quarters (1947) introduced us to Inspector Hazelrigg, and all the books in this series are exceptional; one, Smallbone Deceased (1950), is generally seen as a classic.  Petrella has a similar background of London police work. In the 1990s Gilbert started writing espionage novels both in a couple of series and as stand-alone entries; his stand-alone work is by far the largest portion of his output.  Personally I prefer his mysteries to his espionage work but he has adherents in both areas.

This collection of short stories is definitely a worthwhile addition to the body of work of the police procedural. Some cases for Petrella involve crimes that are petty; some are very serious. Once or twice there is humour, notably in the story about overcharging for car repairs, and one story about a group of young petty criminals has such a sad ending that it stuck with me for days. There’s one story about a clergyman working in a very poor area of London which is remarkably perceptive and unflinching in its approach to how ministers serve their flocks and the resources upon which they draw to do so (and you will probably be smiling at the end). The final story as I mentioned is quite exciting and violent and would make a great film, I think.

If you enjoy the British take on the police procedural and want a volume of uniformly good short stories to while away some moments, I recommend this and its companion volumes.  And if you want Gilbert’s best books, I endorse the selection of Smallbone Deceased but I’ll also mention a great favourite of mine, the unusual Death in Captivity (1952), a classic puzzle mystery that takes place among Allied soldiers in a prisoner of war camp.  And his first book, Close Quarters, is so Golden Age that it even has a cryptic crossword to solve as part of the volume.

2965085482My favourite edition

I don’t think there are any exceptionally beautiful editions of this book; the muddy blues and greens and 1970s typography of the first edition are not especially well conceived. (It’s depicted above.) My own copy is from the Perennial British Mystery series, shown here, a paperback imprint of Harper and Row and has a vaguely surrealistic flavour about it because of the human face where the Thames should be.

As of today’s date on Abebooks, there’s an inscribed first edition for about US$100 plus shipping; I’d be interested in owning that if I was a Gilbert completist.  But my reading copy will do me just fine.

 

 

 

Quick Look: Too Many Women, by Rex Stout

I’ve been rather lazy about blogging lately, although I have to blame the pressures of work. I just don’t have a lot of time right now to write the huge chewy treatises that are the reason I got into GAD (Golden Age of Detection) blogging in the first place. It’s not that I’ve stopped reading genre fiction, far from it. But I’m accustomed to working in a leisurely way on a 5,000-word essay and, while I have a number in various stages of done-ness, I note to my surprise it’s been five weeks since I published anything.

I think the pump needs a little priming, and so I’m going to see if I can offer brief comments on books that are passing through my hands (I have a spare room filled with books that puts me a couple of boxes away from an episode of Hoarders and so books pass through my hands a LOT).  So let’s see how this goes:

Too Many Women, by Rex Stout (1947)

260px-Stout-TMW-1What’s this book about?

I’ll have to assume you’re familiar with Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, as narrated by the irrepressible Archie Goodwin.  If not, go and correct that mistake immediately (and in chronological order, if possible); these are magnificent stories.  In this one, Wolfe sends Archie undercover at the huge Kerr-Naylor Engineering Corporation to investigate the hit-and-run death of one Waldo Wilmot Moore, employed as a correspondence checker. The very handsome Moore had attracted the attention of the wife of the company’s president, as well as the favourable glances of a room full of women employed as typists and stenographers. He was loved by women and hated by men. Archie goes in as a new employee with a flimsy cover story and soon runs up against Mr. Kerr Naylor — mid-level executive with impeccable family credentials whose mean-spirited attitude towards his fellow humans horrifies Archie, and whose abstemious vegetarian diet horrifies Wolfe. When Kerr Naylor also gets a little run down 😉 Archie intensifies his efforts and solves the case. In the meantime he runs up against an assortment of women to whom he reacts in his characteristic way.

rstoomanywomen0581Why is this worth reading?

Any Nero Wolfe novel is definitely worth reading, and that’s my starting position. They’re all better done than your run-of-the-mill detective novel; the prose is sparkling and the characterization is delightful.

In this outing, Archie is more than usually involved with women suspects and/or women informants, ranging from pretty secretaries who can’t spell right up to the middle-aged wealthy lady in mink who wants Archie to replace Waldo Moore as her — well, “escort” gives you the wrong idea. Let’s say “close personal friend”. But the high point of the book is the characterization of the acidulous Kerr Naylor, who takes Archie to what in 1947 was called a “health-food restaurant”, Fountain of Health. Naylor orders “a raw unholy mess” called “Today’s Vitanutrita Special” and follows it up with Pink Steamer — hot water with tangerine juice. Archie orders three apples and a glass of milk and saves the story for later, to annoy Wolfe.

Oh, and this is one of the novels where Archie and Wolfe are having a spat and thus making it more difficult for each other to solve the case. I expect this is because the solution would not occupy either of them very long, and this book is quite slender as it is. That merely means, for a writer of Stout’s excellence, that the story is fairly tight and moves quickly; not the brownstone’s finest moment, but none of the volumes are a disgrace.

As I noted above, I recommend that you experience these books in chronological order if you can; this is middle-period Stout, which contains what are perhaps his finest moments, but this is only a B or B+ outing.  If you read it out of order, you won’t be disappointed, but a chronological reading will allow you to build up goodwill for ordinary excursions in between the truly fine works.

Toomanywoman2My favourite edition

My favourite edition is definitely my beautiful, near-mint copy of Bantam 722, a worn copy of which is the picture shown to the left. It illustrates for me that a copy of just about any book in near-fine condition is worth paying a premium to acquire, because the value will increase as long as you maintain the quality. I paid about $35 for mine perhaps 20 years ago, and I note a similar copy on AbeBooks today listed at $157 plus shipping.  Ah, if only they all appreciated like that!

Other than that, the first edition is attractive and then there is a large morass of similar editions from Bantam, with very little to tell them apart from other volumes.