Last Ditch, by Ngaio Marsh (1977)

Last Ditch, by Ngaio Marsh (1977)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #007


last-ditchAuthor:

Ngaio Marsh, whose Wikipedia entry is found here. This volume is 29th in a series of 32 novels written between 1934 and 1981 featuring Inspector Alleyn of the C.I.D. in England. At the time of publication, Ms. Marsh — later Dame Ngaio — would have been 82 years old. (Her final book was published when she was 87.)

Publication Data:

The first edition is from Collins Crime Club, 1977. This novel has been continuously in print since its first publication, to the best of my knowledge, and a number of paperback editions have been widely distributed in both the United States and Great Britain: I am aware of at least a Dutch translation and there are almost certainly more. My review is based on an electronic edition of recent date; I own a couple of paperbacks but couldn’t lay my hands on them.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read WILL discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery AND it will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.

6f141e67aa75ebe1c19d6cab332bb8beThis book was published 43 years, and 28 novels, after the first publication of an adventure of Inspector Alleyn. At this point we are reintroduced to Ricky, Mr. and Mrs. Alleyn’s first-born and only child, who was about five in Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954). Ricky has now graduated from university and intends to become a writer — of fiction, it seems, although of what sort is not made entirely clear. In order to allow himself some time and space to work on his book, Ricky has, during the “Long Vacation”, taken a rustic room in the fishing village of Deep Cove, on a small island on the far eastern coast of the UK, in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Ferrant and their son, young Louis.

How this situation came about was that Ricky’s parents, Inspector Alleyn and his wife, the celebrated painter Agatha Troy Alleyn, traveled on a sea voyage with a family called the Pharamonds, a moderately wealthy and somewhat outré family who live year round in Deep Cove for taxation purposes. Jasper, a mathematician, is the head of the family; his wife Julia is beautiful and zany, and their young daughters Selina and Julietta are somewhat undisciplined. Jasper’s young brother Bruno also lives in their large house, as do Louis Pharamond and Carlotta, his wife. Louis is an overly well groomed gentleman of leisure with unspecified business interests in Peru. The Alleyns learned that Ricky wanted to find an out-of-the-way spot in which to write, and they ask the Pharamonds to arrange it. Since Mrs. Ferrant does fine laundry for the Pharamonds, they know her and recommend her.

Also in the small village is a riding academy headed by Cuthbert “Cuth” Harkness and his niece Dulcie, a large-built young woman with wide-ranging tastes in sexual partners. Among them seems to be one Syd Jones, a New Zealand import who lives in a “pad” on the outskirts of town.  Dulcie is a talented equestrienne (Marsh’s word, not mine) and maintains the riding stables because Cuth is more interested in a local primitive Christian-esque religious movement of which he is the leading light. Syd does menial work around the stables and, as we later learn, is one of Dulcie’s sexual partners.

As the story begins, Ricky is being introduced to the limited delights of Deep Cove by the Pharamonds (and is instantly besotted with the married Julia). As they arrive at the stables, Cuth is in the process of ejecting Dulcie from his household, because she is both pregnant and uncommunicative about the responsible male. The Pharamonds spontaneously take Dulcie in and give her lunch and offer her a place to stay. Ricky leaves after lunch and encounters the repellent Syd, who invites him back to his pad. Ricky is surprised to meet Dulcie there.  Syd is, we learn, a painter with a great deal of opinion about his talent; Ricky’s mother, of course, is Agatha Troy, and Syd ends up scraping acquaintance because he supports himself by, we are told, offering free samples of a certain brand of paint to celebrated painters like Troy. In further travels on the tiny island, Ricky also becomes suspicious of his landlord, who appears to be too wealthy for a plumber and is doing something mysterious off the island, in private conference with the oleaginous Louis Pharamond. Some days later, Ricky has a run-in with Syd and accidentally steps on a tube of paint, to Syd’s enormous dismay. Syd has made an appointment to see Troy and offer her paint, and of course is dragging along his own crude work for her to see. Syd is ill, with what might be the after-effects of drugs, and Troy ends up feeding him lunch and introducing him to her husband, incognito as a CID officer.

Ricky is invited by the Pharamonds to go riding; immediately upon arrival, they learn that Dulcie has returned to her uncle’s home and they are fighting again. Young Bruno takes the opportunity to do a daring thing and jumps the stable’s prize horse over an extremely difficult fence, without permission or supervision; Cuth is scandalized at the potential for damage to his valuable horse and the family party rides away sedately. They ride off to a local pub some distance away and return in a leisurely way, only to learn that Dulcie has apparently ridden her own wild-eyed mount over the same difficult jump and been trampled and killed in the process.

The stage is now set for Inspector Alleyn to take a hand (having been kept informed of all relevant events by dutiful and frequent letters from Ricky); he wishes to investigate the death of Dulcie Harkness because the police force believes that Syd is involved in a drug-smuggling gang that is using his tubes of paint in order to transport quantities of “hard drugs” (either heroin or morphia). Before Alleyn takes a hand, though, Ricky decides on his own account to find out what Syd is up to and trails him to a nearby seaport, where he is discovered peeking at Syd through a hole in a newspaper by Mr. Ferrant, his landlord, who seems amused. After a violent thunderstorm, Ricky is pushed into the water between a boat and its dock and is very nearly killed.

Inspector Alleyn arrives and begins to investigate. Dulcie’s death, it seems, may have had something to do with a length of wire that may or may not have been stretched in a way that caused her horse to fall. Alleyn and Fox, though, are much more interested in drug smuggling and only seem to get to know the Pharamonds as interesting locals. Ricky continues to investigate on his own and is taken captive by Syd and Mr. Ferrant, who plan on exchanging Ricky’s continued good health for inactivity on the part of Inspector Alleyn and the police. Due to some cleverness of Ricky in the wording of the note he is compelled to write, the police soon figure out that he is at Syd’s, break in, and arrest Syd and Mr. Ferrant. They plan on more arrests in connection with the drug smuggling, but first all the dramatic personae have been bidden to a command performance at Cuth’s religious establishment. During another violent thunderstorm, Cuth preaches an incoherent and mostly inaudible sermon; the guilty party then rushes off and commits suicide. Syd, in need of a fix, implicates the main head of the drug smuggling operation, who promptly disappears. And Alleyn packs up his son and takes him home to his family.

6774801408Why is this book worth your time?

This book is not worth your time. In fact it’s not really worth having in the house, unless you have a wobbly piece of furniture that needs propping up with a book to be level. To paraphrase Monty Python, “This is not a book for reading. This is a book for laying down and avoiding.”

As to exactly how and why this is the case — well, there are three major problems with this book, in the general areas of plot, characterization, and writing. But the problematic overarching aspect is why this book exists in the first place. I propose to deal with the three large problems and then address the supervening issue of concept.

There are three elements that combine to produce the plot of this novel. The first is the drug-dealing/drug-smuggling efforts of Syd, Mr. Ferrant and Louis Pharamond; second, the activities of the riding stable and its denizens Dulcie and Cuth; and finally the actions of the Pharamond household.

I’ve recently remarked in the course of a review of Georgette Heyer’s Duplicate Death, found here, that Golden Age detective writers seemed to have a haphazard grasp of the economics and mechanics of drug smuggling. This book is a perfect example; what’s happened is that Marsh decided to have a drug-smuggling plot and invented the details of how one works — unfortunately without any reference to reality. Folks, this book was written in 1977. In 1971, “The French Connection” was showing people how drug smuggling actually works; literally, tons of drugs were being shipped into port cities disguised as shipments of canned vegetables or tanker-loads of liquid sugar. It was common knowledge that the economics of drug-selling on a large scale made it necessary for drug-dealers to find ways to bring huge quantities into their home countries; we’re talking 16-wheelers, airplanes and container ships devoted to drug smuggling, and tens of millions of dollars were changing hands in the process. And here, Syd Jones is transporting a quantity of drugs that would literally fit into a capsule — perhaps the size of a couple of cold capsules — inserted into the bottom of a paint tube and carried around by hand. In Heyer’s book, I remarked that her drugs were ten times too expensive, worked ten times as effectively, and is ten times as addictive. Here, the drugs are about a thousand times too expensive, being depicted in one-one-hundredth the quantity that would actually do anyone any good to smuggle, and the smuggling operation is being managed by people with a blithe disregard for any potential legal consequences. It’s all complete bullshit.

To begin; this mythical island is at the extreme eastern edge of Great Britain, close to the French coastline. No one in either country apparently bothers with more than perfunctory customs operations — bullshit. The head of this organization is apparently willing to stake his unincarcerated future on the transportation mechanism of having tiny capsules of drugs being hand-carried around by Syd Jones, who might as well be wearing a sign around his neck that says, “Evil Drug-Taking Hippie”. More bullshit. The economics of the situation require the ownership of an entire company that does nothing but produce artist-quality paints and pay someone to give them away to professional artists as a kind of promotional scheme. Great steaming PILE of bullshit; in fact, ridiculous bullshit. If you own a company that legitimately produces paint, and the economics of the situation are such that it’s cost-effective to insert tiny capsules of cocaine or heroin into the bottoms of some of the tubes — why on earth don’t you just ship the damn tubes of paint where you want them to be? If the British customs authorities are sufficiently stupefied as to ignore activities on an island just about within swimming distance of France, why would you expect them to be able to detect parcels containing drugs sent by a legitimate business? Everyone in this operation, in fact, is acting like a complete nitwit. The drug barons don’t kill Syd, which would actually be sensible; they try to kill an innocent bystander, Ricky, who might be getting too curious about their operation. Mr. Ferrant’s activities would undoubtedly be of great interest to anyone taking even a remote interest in the detection of smuggling and other such crimes; he travels around for no reason at all and spends far more money than would be available from his putative plumbing business. Yet someone who is depicted as an intelligent and promotable police officer, living in the same town for four years, Constable Plank — no idea. And no one even considers for a moment that his significant lack of acuity is due to his having been bribed or subverted. Bullshit. Meanwhile Louis Pharamond swans about in perfectly tailored riding clothes like some Colombian drug baron, with unspecified “business interests” in faraway Peru, and everyone just buys it. Bullshit, bullshit, BULLSHIT.

So the drug-smuggling plot is bullshit. Considering the riding stables — there is barely a reason why they would be able to economically exist. We see the Pharamonds and Ricky having lunch at a kind of resort which is like night and day to the village (it made me think of the playground of the wealthy in northern Sardinia as compared to the horrible reality of hardscrabble farming in southern Sardinia), so apparently visitors to the resort might like to go riding. But that’s not how I’d like to put my economic future at risk, on the off-chance that tourists might drop by. Nothing is said about transporting horses back and forth off the island (which would actually be a more useful way of transporting drugs) but a riding stable on an island is starting from a deep economic well; food, hay, tack, all has to be shipped in at some expense. In fact it’s clear to me that Marsh didn’t actually give this any thought. She wanted a riding stable to be there, so there was one, regardless of the economic circumstances that would have to be in place for it to exist. It is intimated that Dulcie is a good rider who could somehow compete, but she seems uninterested in anything except her wall-eyed horse, which is a motivator for the plot. In fact Dulcie is pretty much there to be a sex addict and get murdered. Cuth is there to be a non-specific religious nut. His motive for killing Dulcie is that she “revealed her nakedness to him”; this might actually have been a worthwhile subplot if Marsh had thought to mention it before Cuth kills himself. The entire riding stable subplot is just more bullshit.

And then we have the Pharamond family. They are certainly interesting and vivid characters, but what is their function in the novel? Not very much at all, unless you count their acting as protective coloration for Louis — but that’s supposed to be a secret. The key to their existence is revealed in the last sentences of chapter 8, where Julia Pharamond reveals that she is a Lamprey by birth. Ah, yes, the Lamprey family, subject of Surfeit of Lampreys (1940) and apparently so favoured by Marsh as examples of her characterization skill that she brings Mike Lamprey back in later books as a constable and here suggests that the Pharamonds are just Lampreys in disguise. Well, yes, the Lampreys/Pharamonds are vivid. But what they also are, in plot terms, is useless until required. They are zany and unpredictable, and Marsh apparently feels that this allows her to suggest that they’ll do just about anything, and that gives her convenient ways of moving the plot forward. (Young Bruno unaccountably decides to jump an impossible fence on a borrowed horse, which is his entire function in the novel.) Other than that, the entire family has nothing to contribute to the plot; they are, in fact, colourful background decoration.

So — all three major plot elements are just so much bullshit. What about characterization? As I’ve just noted, the Pharamonds are vivid and unusual and dramatic. But characterization is supposed to be contributing not only to the atmosphere but to the plot, to the design of the novel as a whole. They have to be real people with real motives and intelligence, and those motives and intelligence have to be merged with the activities of the plot in a realistic way. And in that sense, every character in this book is complete cardboard. Everyone in the drug-smuggling end is ridiculous, and acting against their own best interests in a way that serves the plot but not themselves. The Pharamonds are literally dragged in from a different novel where their cognates, the Lampreys, spend the whole book being giddy and witty and charming. (If you recall the original novel, the Lampreys actually have nothing to do with the murder plot as it all ends up.)  Marsh couldn’t be bothered to create a new family so she reworked an old one. Do you have any inkling of Jasper’s mathematical background? Neither do I, because all that happens is that Marsh says he’s a mathematician.  Cuth’s preoccupation with primitive Christianity and his raging alcoholism are his only personal characteristics — we don’t see him ride or manage the stables or do anything except drink and orate — which provides the motive for murder and the relaxed moral standard that allows it to happen simultaneously. In fact, everyone is said to have an occupation but no one ever does it in front of us. Most tellingly, Dulcie is implied to be a young woman of extreme sexual availability; what 1977 would have called a “nympho” and we in 2014 might describe as a “sex addict”.  She wouldn’t really have an idea of who the father of her child is. And yet is it not remarkable in the book that she leaves Ricky Alleyn completely unsullied by any sexual advance? Handsome upper-class young man, reasonably virginal, unaccompanied by a female partner — should be easy pickings for the voracious Dulcie. But she leaves Ricky alone. That’s because her nymphomania is the convenient kind that gets the plot going and then disappears.

The only people who are reasonably well-rounded and fully depicted characters, in fact, are Ricky and — that’s it, Ricky. The Alleyns are sketches to remind us of their previous appearances, Fox is almost off-stage, and everyone on the island is a cardboard phoney. And even Ricky has little in the way of fleshing out.  We know a little bit about his emotions, there is information about how he finds Julia Pharamond completely entrancing, but as a living human, he’s at least half cardboard. And for someone who is supposed to be likeable, I found him quite priggish and uptight. There are a number of descriptions of him writing, and we gather that he is writing a novel, but we know nothing about it. My experience of young men who are writing their first novel is that they will buttonhole complete strangers and bore them to exhaustion with the complete story of their work to date, but no, Ricky says nothing. I’ll say more about this in a moment, but for now just remember that even the most completely detailed character in the book is not quite as real as he could have been.

So far, the plot is bullshit and the characterization is cardboard. What’s left is the writing. Here, because Marsh has been doing this for 29 books, she has some tricks upon which she can fall back. Twice, Marsh embraces the pathetic fallacy and has an actual rainstorm start when trouble is brewing. There are occasional vivid turns of phrase, nice moments of description, cleverly-chosen descriptive words that give the reader a picture in an economical way. Mrs. Ferrant, for instance, is described as a blanchisseuse de fin, a fine antique phrase that sums up her work (and at one point we actually smell ironing, which is more believable than most of the characters get). “Ladies a basket” is a phrase that you must read the novel to grasp, but believe me, this phrasing is effective. There is a charming description of a painting upon which Troy is working that actually rings true; we have the picture of what she’s doing and we see it.

For the most part, though, the dialogue is awful and completely overwritten. Ricky’s internal monologue — which is necessary since for most of the novel he is alone and has no one to whom to speak aloud — is especially awful, ridiculous old-fashioned metaphors more suited to an elderly person than a young recent graduate. “Blow me down flat,” thought Ricky, “if I don’t case the joint.” Ugh. This is indeed slang, but slang from another day and time. There are a number of such instances, including Syd’s insistence on calling his home his “pad”, over and over again. I was about that age in 1977 and, believe me, the word “pad” never crossed my lips in any context outside of ice hockey. This might have been an appropriate locution in, say, 1959 or 1962, but 1977? We were long, long past that “groovy” point then. Any time there is slang, it rings false. (At one point Fox compares Dulcie to a “tom”, which would I think have been dated slang even in 1959.) What is clear is that Marsh appears not to have bothered to listen to anyone of the correct age speaking aloud for at least a decade and maybe longer. She was at this point 82 years old and chose to depict characters of this age of her own volition, so full bad marks for getting it so totally wrong. So March’s writing style is not, like her plotting and characterization, wholly abysmal. But her inability to capture the speech patterns of anyone under 60 years old causes as many sticking points as her other issues.

So — plotting zero, characterization zero, writing about 20 percent. This brings me to the overarching question — why exactly was this book written? What was Ngaio Marsh trying to accomplish?

The simplest answer, of course, is that she was trying to earn money by writing. I have to say that in my experience it is unusual for an author of any description in any genre to have any other motivation for writing a book; writing is a time-consuming and thankless task (especially when you have people like me looking at your work closely, which must be unpleasant) and I have only ever known people to do it for money. But if one looks at her most recent output, her previous 20 years of writing has been spent writing standard straightforward detective novels — with the exception of 1968’s Clutch of Constables, which has Troy as its viewpoint character for the only such novel other than 1947’s Final Curtain. Why should she suddenly bring Ricky Alleyn to full existence as opposed to something which would have been incredibly easy — write another Roderick Alleyn novel? Why should she take the chance of failure, which she actually, to my mind, experienced here, when she had a clear path to an easy solution?

I think I have an idea of what happened. I am indebted for the key thought that inspired this idea to a lady named Lucy Sussex, a member of a Facebook group devoted to Golden Age mysteries to which I belong. Ms. Sussex (a stranger to me) posted as follows: “Met someone who knew Ngaio Marsh. ‘She was so mannish.’ And stylish, turning up for rehearsals of the student theatre she directed at the University of Canterbury in a Daimler, and wearing furs. ‘But she was only interested in the boys.'”

I was turning that over in my head. “But she was only interested in the boys.” Yes, that’s believable. She certainly started her career by being in love with her creation, Roderick Alleyn, although she rather took away his obvious halo in later years … And then it hit me. Of COURSE she wanted to write about Ricky; she wanted to have the experience of a love affair with a 25-year-old man.

Once I conceived of the idea that Marsh was trying to create another young man with whom to be in love, this whole novel clicked into place for me. Of course the plotting is ridiculous — its only function is to display young Ricky in various heroic lights, such as spontaneously deciding to investigate suspicious drug-related goings-on, and his final kidnapping and mild torture at the hands of Syd and Gil Ferrant. Of course the characters are cardboard; they’re only there to create situations in which Ricky can be admirable. Ricky falls in love with a slightly older woman and forgets himself so far as to make a physical pass at her? Quite understandable, if you look at it from the point of view of an elderly lady who wants young men to act like that around her. Ricky is a fledgling writer? Perhaps we now know why. Ricky is dutiful to his parents (he writes home about every day or so, it seems), morally upright (bordering on priggish), intellectually gifted, handsome, well-dressed, polite — a young man with every conceivable virtue. This idea also explains a number of things that do not happen in this book, principally among them Dulcie’s inexplicable disinterest in Ricky’s sexual availability. Of course it never crosses her mind — Ricky must remain unsullied because Marsh is in love with him. The only purpose of every action and every person in this book is to display Ricky Alleyn in a good light. Ricky’s love for a married woman means he remains single. Ricky’s Scooby-Doo-level investigative failures can get cleaned up by his dad; Ricky’s involvement with an unpleasant hippie type can be cleaned up by his mom. I even foresee that Ricky’s entry-level fiction was meant to be mentored in a future volume by, say, a glamorous middle-aged established writer of charming appearance with whom he falls somewhat in love …

And, of course, this doesn’t work. Marsh may have been delighted with her creation, but the reader really is not and cannot be. That’s because Marsh’s idea of a 25-year-old man is someone who is apparently 50 and a moralistic prig. Ricky does not appear to be rebelling against his parents in any way, as is common among children of authority figures like police officers; he doesn’t for a moment consider trying drugs or having sex with Dulcie. He doesn’t daydream about how to get Julia Pharamond drunk and have sex with her. He treats his parents like best friends and police officers like jolly chums — like no 25-year-old ever. He goes away to a picturesque location that contains a delightful woman, and manages to stick to his working schedule.

There is one peculiar moment in this novel that amused me greatly, but for all the wrong reasons. Ricky decides to take a little holiday and follows Syd on his drug-smuggling routine. Ricky ends up in a cafe and, insanely, cuts a hole in a newspaper so that he can putatively observe Syd’s movements without being seen or noticed. Syd comes into the cafe, sits himself at a distance and apparently injects himself with heroin surreptitiously at the table. (I leave it to your common sense to decide if that is the most unrealistic action ever; for me, it’s close. Cafes have bathrooms in which such things can be done and most people would be aware of this.) As Syd is leaving, Ricky’s arrangement with the newspaper is discovered by his landlord, M. Ferrant, who is also on the scene. Ferrant joins Ricky for a drink, and the following exchange takes place:

He took the copy of Le Monde out of Ricky’s nerveless grasp and stuck his blunt forefinger through the hole. “Quite fascinating what you was reading, seemingly. Couldn’t take your eyes off of it, could you, Mr. Alleyn?”

“Look here,” Ricky said. He put his hand up to his face and felt its heat. “I expect you think there was something a bit off about–about–my looking–about. But there wasn’t. I can’t explain but–”

“Me!” said Ferrant. “Think! I don’t think nothing.”

He drained his glass and clapped it down on the table. “We all get our little fancies, like,” he said. “Right? And why not? Nice drop of ale, that.” He was on his feet. “Reckon I’ll have a word with Syd,” he said. “Quite a coincidence. He come in the morning boat, too. Lovely weather, isn’t it? Might turn to thunder later on.”

Now, when I read this passage, I immediately thought that Ferrant had decided that Ricky was gay and sexually attracted to Syd; it’s the only thing that makes sense. Because it couldn’t possibly be that Ferrant was telling Ricky that he was about to warn Syd that Ricky was actively investigating their drug-smuggling activities, could it? That would be insanely stupid. I agree that Syd is perhaps too rough and uncultured for the priggish aristo Ricky, but that’s why Ferrant says, “We all get our little fancies, like.” Ferrant is a man of the world and understands the exigencies of gay relationships in 1977; sometimes you have to scope out a prospective partner through a hole in a newspaper as you sneak around observing his actions.

Unfortunately, I seem to be the only person to whom this interpretation occurred. It certainly does not seem to have occurred to Marsh, because she means Ferrant’s comments to be menacing and full of foreboding, judging by subsequent events. And it wasn’t until I realized that Marsh was in love with Ricky that I realized she couldn’t possibly conceive of him having a homosexual attraction, since Ricky was meant to be saving himself for Marsh herself. In many ways it makes perfect sense that Ricky is gay. Overprotective parents in the extreme — a kind of delicate feminine quality to his nature — priggish, uptight, and only willing to be seen to be sexually interested in unavailable married women. My version of how this book continues is that Ricky decides that Syd is his perfect bit of rough, makes a pass, gets beaten up for his pains, and then spends the rest of the book dragging his father into the drug plot so as to exact revenge. That is a less priggish and more realistic Ricky, just not one that an 82-year-old woman in love with her character could contemplate.

So once I realized that this entire novel was a love song written to, and about, the impossibly perfect Ricky Alleyn, I understood it in a different light. It is still unrealistic, unattractive and annoying; now, though, it has those qualities for different reasons.  It is incredibly creepy to read when you realize that an 82-year-old woman is creating a 25-year-old love object for herself and disguising the love letter as a murder mystery. It is essentially a fraud upon the mystery-reading public; it is meretricious and inappropriate and makes me feel a little bit sick to my stomach. And for the life of me, I don’t know why she didn’t continue. From the point of view of a mystery reader, she could have continued to write Ricky novels; she produced three more atrocious novels about Alleyn Sr. in the next five years. I can only hope that her publishers insisted that she return to writing mysteries that had a chance of selling.

I suppose I should have merely left this lie as being a poor mystery novel written by a very elderly lady at the end of a long, long career. But now that I’ve dug into it and given it quite a bit of thought, I realize that it’s not just a poor mystery novel. It’s an atrocious mystery novel that reveals more about Ngaio Marsh personally than I EVER wanted to know, and I feel like I need a long hot shower. I feel like I’ve just accidentally found her stash of porn in a bottom drawer. Do yourself a favour; if you have an unread copy of this lying around the house, throw it away.

pd407Notes for the Collector:

A Near Fine copy of the 1977 first edition, from Collins Crime Club, will cost you somewhere between $30 and $40 plus shipping. I looked at a couple of other Marsh novels from the same period, and this seems like a reasonable range of prices, nothing out of line. I should say that I have generally found that bad books by well-known authors are sometimes more difficult to find and therefore more expensive; in this case, Marsh’s last six or seven books were quite poor so they all seem to be trading in a similar range.

I cannot really say that there is a distinguished edition of this book; nothing really stands out in terms of design over its entire history and multiple paperback editions. (I rather like the Dutch paper edition shown here, but it’s nothing special.) You might as well buy yourself a first, if you feel you must own a copy of this awful book. I’d offer you mine, but I’ve already tossed it.

 

Toward a definition of the “police procedural”

691455-police-investigationMy most recent post, “The End of the Golden Age?“, attracted more comment and attention than anything I’ve ever displayed here (offhand, I’d say the comments section is four times the size of the article).  Thank you to the pundits who took the trouble to share their facts and opinions.

In the course of that discussion, one smaller point arose; it seems as though there was a great deal of difference of opinion as to what constitutes a “police procedural” novel, and when and by whom the first ones were written. Although I don’t think I’m the type to generate controversy merely for its own sake, it does seem like this is something that can be hashed out to the profit of scholarship; I intend to propose a definition and some boundaries based on my experience and personal preferences, and then stand back and (I hope) watch my better-informed peers tell me exactly where I’ve gone wrong.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t consider analyzing works that I don’t have immediately to hand, or know so well that I can talk about their details without a reference copy to check. However, I generally only discuss one work at a time; this piece, of necessity, has to deal with dozens of works and although my collection is large, it’s not perfect. There are works mentioned here that I have only heard discussed, but I’m sufficiently aware of their details that I know they have to be part of this analysis. So this is not meant to be authoritative; this is meant to be what I’d call at the office a “concept draft”. I am already aware that parts of my initial contribution are inadequate, and it’s meant to be filled out in a discussion by others.

Definition

I’ve always found that a good place to start to define a term is by looking at how other people define it and then teasing out the underlying logic. To that end, here’s Wikipedia’s definition of “police procedural”:

“The police procedural is a subgenre of detective fiction which attempts to convincingly depict the activities of a police force as they investigate crimes. While traditional detective novels usually concentrate on a single crime, police procedurals frequently depict investigations into several unrelated crimes in a single story. While traditional mysteries usually adhere to the convention of having the criminal’s identity concealed until the climax (the so-called whodunit), in police procedurals, the perpetrator’s identity is often known to the audience from the outset (the inverted detective story). Police procedurals depict a number of police-related topics such as forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation.”

Anthony Boucher

Anthony Boucher

Well, there’s enough to be sorted through there to occupy me for quite a long post, I think. I will note that Wikipedia, in the same article, suggests that “In 1956, in his regular New York Times Book Review column, mystery critic Anthony Boucher, noting the growing popularity of crime fiction in which the main emphasis was the realistic depiction of police work, suggested that such stories constituted a distinct sub-genre of the mystery, and, crediting the success of Dragnet for the rise of this new form, coined the phrase “police procedural” to describe it.” The paragraph finishes with the “citation needed” tag indicating that the statement is unsubstantiated by a citation; I have found in the past that these tags are signposts to statements that may or may not be accurate when researched thoroughly.  I have no access to Boucher’s New York Times work of 1956 to verify this one way or the other, but it does sound like the kind of neologism he was capable of coining; I’ll provisionally accept it until I see evidence to the contrary. The important point here is that the phrase itself was invented in 1956; anything before that point cannot be retroactively labeled, but, if it fits the definition, must be called a “proto-police procedural”.

Wikipedia’s definition focuses on differentiating the procedural from the “traditional detective novel” and “traditional mystery”; what it’s saying is that the plots of procedurals contain multiple strands (unlike the straight-line plot of many detective novels) and that they are “often” told in the style of the inverted detective story. Let’s see if we can sort out a few strands of logic from this, and I’ll add a few of my own.

  1. Police procedurals depict the activities of a police force as it investigates crimes. Frequently this means that the story is told from the point of view of multiple police officers.
  2. Police procedurals depict a number of techniques that police officers use to do their work (forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation). These techniques are represented accurately and based on research into real-life techniques.
  3. In police procedurals, the (putative) identity of the criminal is sometimes indicated to the reader long before the end of the story — and sometimes not.
  4. Police procedurals are meant to be realistic, or to seem realistic; the characters in the story are human, with both faults and talents, and the events of the story depict failure as well as success.
  5. In police procedurals, police officers are frequently depicted as having personal lives and relationships that may or may not become intertwined with their investigations.
  6. In police procedurals, the work of police officers is depicted such that, as a group, they will be involved with multiple crimes at the same time in various stages of the process.

With these six principles in mind, let’s examine a number of possibilities that have been suggested as being possible members of the category, holding them up to these boundaries and seeing if they pass or fail. Police procedural stories can be told in different media forms (novels, short stories, films) and thus I haven’t eliminated any story because of the medium in which it was presented.

Examples for Consideration

(a) Various “Humdrum” practitioners and early stories generally thought of as detective novels, all published before 1947

As noted above, even if any of these stories meets the six criteria above, they could not be, strictly speaking, “police procedurals” because the term was not yet invented. They might qualify as “proto-procedurals”.

Specific suggestions (from the comments on my recent Golden Age post, Wikipedia, and other Internet-based sources) include:

  • The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts (1920) and others of his novels including The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936) and Six Against The Yard (1936)

The Cask

The Cask (and others of the adventures of Inspector French) seems to me to be very close to a proto-procedural, but I think ultimately it fails. I’m going to rely on the authority of Curtis Evans, author of Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery and an expert on Crofts’s work, who states in the comments to my Golden Age post below that “Crofts didn’t know beans about police procedure, to be honest”. My sense is that, although many of the criteria of the procedural are met more closely than many other authors’, his books therefore fail criterion #2. In addition, in my opinion, the Inspector French novels are tightly focused on this gentleman and don’t contain enough information (or especially viewpoint observations) about his subordinates’ investigations to meet criterion #1.

I’ve read almost all of Crofts and have generally considered him to have written “detective stories” — which I define as stories about the activities and thoughts of a detective who is detecting a crime — rather than proto-procedurals.  I’ve never read Six Against The Yard; I gather that it is a group effort of the Detection Club wherein a fiction writer creates the story of a crime and then a commentator talks about how the crime’s investigation would be approached by real-life police officers. Crofts’s contribution, I understand, is one of the six fictional stories.

I’ll pause here to suggest that many, many works of the Golden Age mystery can be differentiated by parsing criterion #1. Many such works chronicle the investigations of a detective who is employed by a police force, but the story is closely focused upon that single police officer and thus, to me, are detective stories rather than proto-procedurals.  Consider, for instance, the Inspector Alleyn stories of Ngaio Marsh; these are stories about Alleyn himself. Inspector Fox never speaks in his own voice and all other police officers in the books are nonentities. This to me is a crucial differentiation.

Crofts’s Inspector French stories also appear to fail criterion #6 in that only one crime is investigated at a time, but I don’t regard this as crucial. In stories of the period, it seems to me that Scotland Yard’s procedure is represented as assigning an officer to a single case and allowing him to pursue it until it is resolved, without asking him to attend to other duties. If this story were set in the United States, and the activities of the police were depicted as they are here, I think it would be more clear that it failed criterion #6.

  • The Duke of York’s Steps as by “Henry Wade” (Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher) (1929) and others including Lonely Magdalen (1940)

duke of yorks stepsHere, I’m going to have to let my readers speak. I honestly believe I have read The Duke of York’s Steps, decades ago, but its details are completely lost to me. I had its major elements recalled to me by this review of it, in an interesting blog called At the Scene of the Crime, but since I don’t own a copy of the book and am unable to immediately refresh my memory, this is all I can offer. Similarly I’m relatively unfamiliar with the rest of this author’s stories.

  • McKee of Centre Street by Helen Reilly (1934) and others of her Inspector McKee novels

mckeeAlthough I have read my way through Reilly’s oeuvre, it was many years ago, I’ve forgotten quite a few of the details, and I don’t have copies of most of her books at hand to refresh my memory. (There’s a daunting pile of more than a hundred boxes in my spare room where I have a bunch of her paperbacks, I’m sure, but I’m probably not going to reach them for a decade or so unless by happy accident.) I have to say that a book whose detective is named in the book’s title seems to me to be quite focused upon that individual and not upon the stories of his staff. I do recall, though, that McKee’s subordinates have names, faces, and personalities, which is unusual for works of the period. I’m unable to say whether or not this particular novel meets criterion #1, but that’s where I would be focusing my assessment. Similarly, my memory tells me that the details of investigative technique are glossed over and not presented except as results; “The fingerprints came back” sort of thing.

In a general sense, I never thought of Helen Reilly as being interested in police procedure; to me, she’s part of a group of authors, mostly women, who write what I think of as “brownstone mysteries”. These are set among the upper classes and we are meant to learn as much about their clothes, furniture, personalities, daily lives, and sexual peccadillos as we are about the activities of police officers.

  • The “Fire Marshal Pedley” stories as by “Stewart Sterling” (Prentice Mitchell), including Five Alarm Funeral (1942).

MN-FiveI’ve read a number of these novels and, although I am sympathetic to the idea that they are closely related to the police procedural in form, I have to say that ipso facto a police procedural must be about police officers.  These stories therefore fail criterion #1.

Although it was not mentioned in the context, I’ve found a reference to “a series of nine stories [as by Sterling] in the legendary magazine, Black Mask, which were labeled “Special Squad” stories. The 1939-1942 series highlighted different “special” squads from homicide to the bomb squad. I have yet to read any of the series but the descriptions make them sound like examples of early police procedurals.” I also have not read any of these stories.

  •  Pietr-le-Letton (The Strange Case of Peter the Lett) by Georges Simenon (1931), the first Inspector Maigret story

3a_Maguire_inspectormaigretI’ve never been sure why this long, long series of stories is not automatically assigned into the police procedural category; possibly their only reason for non-inclusion is that they are focused quite strongly on Inspector Maigret. But I suspect another reason is, simply, that they are not American, and the sub-genre of the police procedural is felt to be an American invention — mostly by American critics and commentators, I may add. This is not a blind spot restricted to the police procedural; another such baffling American appropriation is the noir genre, even though the name itself is borrowed from French.

I haven’t enjoyed much about these novels, to the great dismay of my friends who are aficionados; I don’t know much about them and, after reading a handful, haven’t continued to track them down. (I lived in Paris for a short time; they seem realistic, but to me a bit dull. And they were not improved for me by reading them in French; the level of language, however, is suitable for the intermediate linguist and you will learn some interesting slang if you keep at it.) Nevertheless my recollection is that they strongly represent the individual characters and viewpoints of Maigret’s subordinates. Maigret himself has a personal life that threads strongly through the books; Madame Maigret has her own case, at one point. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of procedure presented. However, psychology and the art of the investigative interview are indeed part of police procedure. There’s a case to be made that these are proto-procedurals, I think, but I’ll defer to people who know more about them than I.

  • Edgar Wallace

Frankly, I’ve never been able to stomach more than a bit of Wallace; I know he’s important to the crime fiction genre, it’s just that each individual book loses my attention about chapter 3 and, try though I might, I cannot resuscitate it. They all seem to be indifferently written and although the individual activities of each plot appear to be potentially exciting, they are telegraphed so obviously that I inevitably find myself skipping to the final chapters and thinking, “Yes, just as I thought.” At any rate, I’ll have to leave the analysis of Wallace’s inclusion in this genre to those more knowledgeable, and strong-willed, than myself. I very much doubt, though, that Wallace researched anything at all beyond the level of reading newspapers and other people’s detective stories, and I’d be assessing these primarily based on criterion #2.

I’m not particularly aware of which works of Wallace might be considered as proto-procedurals; suggestions are welcome.

  •  Inspector West Takes Charge, by John Creasey (1940), the first Roger West novel

4108096Similarly, I’ve never been able to take much of John Creasey; to quote Truman Capote, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” I have to say that authors like Freeman Wills Crofts and Henry Wade are far more able to hold my attention than Creasey and Wallace, no matter how much spurious excitement they try to inject into their books; Creasey and Wallace, to me, far more accurately deserve the appellation “humdrum”. If any of my readers have managed to finish this or any other Creasey volume, feel free to comment. (And before you take keyboard to hand to berate me, yes, I gave a bunch of his books a good try, a couple from each of his series, and they leave me cold.)

(b) Specific authors and/or stories that have been identified as being police procedurals, in the period 1947-1960

The first five entries in this list — Dragnet, Lawrence Treat, Hilary Waugh, Ed McBain and Dell Shannon — seem to me to be absolutely essential to an understanding of the modern police procedural, regardless of where you decide for yourself the sub-genre started.

  • Dragnet (radio series, 1949-1957)

DragnetThrough the excellent work of the Old Time Radio Researchers Group and through the medium of archive.org, you can experience every available episode of this radio program by accessing this link. The researchers of the OTRRG are meticulous in providing the best available recordings and the accompanying essay is worth your attention, perhaps even more than the Wikipedia article.

I believe the radio version of Dragnet is a significant contribution — if not the first example — of what we’re trying to define here as the police procedural. To the best of my knowledge, it meets every one of the criteria I’ve outlined; although nos. 5 and 6 may be less thoroughly met, the de-emphasis of the personal lives of the detectives might be an attempt to differentiate the program from its more high-strung competitors, and the listener may feel that experiencing these brief stories on a weekly basis may be a way of indicating that the team of detectives works on all kinds of crimes but merely tells one story at a time.

Note that, above, Anthony Boucher is quoted as saying that his invention of the term “police procedural” is partly based on the success of Dragnet. I’m ready to accept that Dragnet is the seminal work of the police procedural and its popularity influenced Waugh, McBain and Shannon to create works in this vein to meet the public’s desire for more stories of this nature.

  • V as in Victim by Lawrence Treat (1945) et seq.

1149863330I don’t have a copy of this at hand and cannot comment, since my memory of it and his other books with similar titles is some 20 years in the past. I will say that I haven’t gone back to re-read these books because my recollection tells me that I didn’t enjoy them very much the first time around. It must be said, though, that I didn’t realize at the time that they were important to the sub-genre of the police procedural and, the next time a volume comes to hand in his “[Letter of the alphabet] as in [Alliterative noun]” series, I’ll give it a good shot.

  • Last Seen Wearing by Hillary Waugh, (1952)

MissingCoEdWaugh1952I’ve re-read this novel within the last couple of years when a copy crossed my path but have no copy immediately at hand. I admit that I had this book stored in my head as the answer to the trivia question, “What book started the police procedural?” but, like so many of these ideas, I stored up the datum years ago and never bothered to examine it in the way I’m here getting rolling. I believe I grasped the idea by reading Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder, which refers to it favourably.

This book chronicles the investigation of the disappearance of a young woman student from her small college campus. I think the reason why this novel was considered so important at its time was that it attempted to approach the crime novel differently; it is a real-time chronicle of an investigation where you are aware of everything that the police are thinking at the time that they are thinking it. All evidence is available to you, as are all inferences drawn from it, and the police go down false trails, are occasionally stymied, and misinterpret evidence that they later re-examine with a different idea in mind. The identity of the criminal is obvious at about the three-quarters point and this person is a minor character in the novel; the police do not interview or approach the criminal until they have accumulated enough evidence to make an arrest.

I think part of the reason I enjoyed this book so much is that it offers the reader the same kind of experience as the classic detective story; we are given excerpts from a diary kept by the victim early in the book, and after accumulating evidence that points in various directions, a re-examination of the diary proves significant. The reader is misled just as thoroughly as are the police and there is a nice “aha!” moment available when you realize the perspective from which you have to read the diary’s language. I’m being coy here to protect your enjoyment if you haven’t read this book; you should read it, and I think you will enjoy it. Another reason I thought this book was different than its contemporary detective novels is that the activities of the police are presented in painstaking and very nearly boring detail, something like the efforts of the Humdrum school exemplified by Freeman Wills Crofts; more is made, though, of false trails and false leads, and the police are portrayed as being somewhat less competent and intelligent than in the works of Crofts.

Police officers have told me that if the public actually knew how boring police work truly is, there wouldn’t be a cop show left on television. Waugh manages to make boring details interesting. Regardless of whether it’s the first police procedural or not, it is an important novel in this genre and deserves your attention.

  • Cop Hater, by “Ed McBain” (Evan Hunter), (1956), the first novel in the 87th Precinct series

cop-hater-by-ed-mcbainIt may well be that the fifty-four 87th Precinct volumes of Ed McBain are the first thing that readers (and viewers) think of when they think of police procedurals.  The franchise has survived the death of its creator; I am informed that there may well be another television reboot of this series in the near future (as of 2014) and they have generated more material as a media platform than even the Dragnet series, I believe. Certainly most critics would agree that they are the highest-quality materials available in this genre. They are sensitive, intelligent, beautifully written, realistic, unexpected, quirky, technically accurate, and ground-breaking in the extreme.

This specific volume introduces the principal characters of Detective Steve Carella and his “deaf-mute” wife Teddy (whom he marries at the end of this first volume).  Three detectives at the 87th Precinct of fictional city “Isola” are murdered in a very short period of time, and Carella investigates; the personal lives of the detectives are just as important as the details of investigation, forensics, etc. The central premise of the novel is a clever one that, like so much else in detective fiction, was first invented by Agatha Christie but is used here in an inventive way. The book was filmed in 1958. The reading public supported this franchise through 54 volumes until the author’s death in 2005 and many readers still cherish the central characters as — well, as close to friends as a fictional character can be.

  • Case Pending, as by “Dell Shannon” (Elizabeth Linington), (1960), the first novel in the Lt. Luis Mendoza/LAPD series

336416Although it’s clear that critics, commentators, and the everyday reader would unquestioningly assign the title of “police procedural” to this series, my instinct is to disagree. However, I cannot differ sufficiently to be determined to exclude them from the definition, although they certainly fail my criterion #2. Linington did no more research than would be involved in uncritically reading the work of other novelists or listening to retired police officers shoot the shit in a bar. Nevertheless it is clear that they were conceived by the author and accepted by her readers as police procedurals, and in that sense I will agree with their inclusion in the definition. They’re police procedurals, it’s just that they’re very, very poor ones. They’re similar to the 87th Precinct series as long as you don’t require common sense, writing skill, technical accuracy, correct syntax, or originality, and you are prepared to put up with an unbelievable amount of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, jingoism, religious bigotry, and generalized disdain for almost everyone who isn’t a white, Christian, American, heterosexual upper-class male Republican with far-right political views. I’ve given an early book in this series a thorough analysis, found here, and it goes into greater detail about precisely why and how these books are offensive.

  • Fabian of the Yard (1954-1955), possibly the first British TV police drama.
  • Gideon’s Day, as by “J.J. Marric” (John Creasey), (1955), the first George Gideon novel
  • The “Chief Inspector Harry Martineau of Scotland Yard” series by Maurice Procter, beginning with Hell is a City (1954) and ending in 1968

I’ve never viewed any episodes of “Fabian of the Yard” or read the stories of Maurice Procter, to my recollection; I’m told they would probably qualify in this category. I’ve read a couple of the George Gideon novels and viewed a couple of episodes of the ’60s television productions and the 1958 film within the franchise; as I said above about the rest of Creasy’s work, I didn’t find these stories all that worthwhile. However, it’s possible that they are important works in the history of the British police procedural.

(c) Post-1960, further novels in existing police procedural series and/or new works

969290-gfWhatever the merits or criteria for inclusion within the definition of “police procedural”, all of these works post-date Boucher’s definition of the genre and are generally considered to fall within its boundaries.  I include them here for the information of anyone who is coming late to this genre and wishes to experience works that are generally considered to be good examples of this form. I can’t say that I would recommend that anyone deliberately read their way through the work of Elizabeth Linington, but chacun à son goût. (I read most or all of them at a very young age when book club editions of her work were omnipresent and I was living in an environment not oversupplied with English-language libraries.) I highly recommend the 87th Precinct novels, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and whatever works of Baantjer you can find in English. Some of the television series listed below may not qualify because the police officers only investigate one case at a time; you may or may not find this significant. I have tried to list television series which are generally considered to be of superior quality and you can make your own decisions.

  • Dragnet (television series, 1951-1959; 1967-1970; 1989-1990; 2003)
  • The “Sgt. Ivor Maddox” series by Elizabeth Linington, beginning with Greenmask (1964).
  • The “Vic Varallo” series by “Lesley Egan” (Elizabeth Linington), beginning with The Borrowed Alibi (1962).
  • A long list of 87th Precinct novels as by “Ed McBain”, 1956-2005, as well as made-f0r-TV movies, a television series, comic books, etc., connected with this franchise (see Wikipedia for a complete article).
  • The New Centurions by Joseph Wambaugh (1970) and other novels.
  • Hill Street Blues, an American television series that ran from 1981-1987.
  • NYPD Blue, an American television series that ran from 1993-2005.
  • Police Story, an American television series that ran from 1973-1978.
  • The Wire, an American television series that ran from 2002-2008.
  • Prime Suspect, a British television series that ran from 1991-2006.
  • A number of Australian series including Blue Heelers (1994-2006) and Water Rats (1996-2001).
  • The Dutch-language novels of A. C. Baantjer (and a well-received television series) about a police team led by officer De Cock (in English, “cook”), 1963-2008.
  • The “Martin Beck” novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, from Roseanna (1965) to The Terrorists (1975).

If I were to dig more deeply into this topic than I already have, I would be investigating modern television and film productions more thoroughly. There are a number of different television series that may or may not qualify; many of them would fail for me on criterion #6, in that programmes like Castle (2009-at least 2014) focus on a single case at a time. The three series beginning with CSI seem to me too focused upon the forensic-science aspect of police work, but that might be coloured by the fact that I’m unable to watch David Caruso for more than 30 seconds without reaching for my remote control. Others that come to mind include the huge Law and Order franchise with its various spin-offs and the Indian television series C.I.D. (1998 to at least 2014). And, indeed, almost any of the huge number of television series based around the activities of police officers may or may not qualify, and would require closer attention.  Wikipedia lists a huge page of “police television dramas“, and I’m not familiar with many of them.

 Preliminary conclusions

It seems likely to me at this point in my analysis that the premiere episode of the radio program Dragnet, on June 3, 1949, is likely to be the first thing that fits the complete six-point definition of “police procedural” found above — even though, as I said, the term wasn’t invented until 1956. There are many stories before that point in time that very nearly qualify.  As is common in these situations, it may not actually be very useful to pinpoint this or that work as being the crucial work; possibly the most important thing that happened in this context was Anthony Boucher’s coining of the phrase itself, which solidified the concept as a sub-genre of detective fiction. The rest may merely be material for a timeline.

I’m not sure whether I will get any comments on this at all; my readers can be a quirky bunch and only comment when it suits them. But this is the first time I’ve presented material with which I’m not absolutely familiar and asked for comment from those better-informed than I am, so feel free to have your say, ladies and gentlemen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

n60581Author:

Ellery Queen is a fictional detective in the books by Ellery Queen … who is  a fictional writer.  The fictional writer whose name is on a set of novels from 1929 to 1971 was actually two people, cousins generally known as Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, whose joint Wikipedia entry is found here. As Wikipedia makes clear here, quite a few books ascribed to Ellery Queen were actually written by other authors; this one, however, is certainly the product of Dannay and Lee. Dannay also managed the affairs of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (the original version of this post erroneously suggested that it was Dannay and Lee in tandem), and the Ellery Queen name appears on the cover of many books of anthologized short stories reprinted from the magazine. Complicated, isn’t it? There’s also an old-time radio program, a series of vintage movies, a television series, comic books, a game or two, and even reference books about the character and the authors.

2633Publication Data:

This volume is the fourth Ellery Queen novel to be published by the cousins. The first nine books in the series each have a number of common features; there is a nationality in the title, here “Greek”; there is an introduction written by someone known only as “J.J. McC.”, now not considered canonical, and the famous “Challenge to the Reader”.  This challenge stops the action of the book and speaks directly to the reader, asserting that every piece of information necessary to solve the mystery is now in the reader’s hands. This is, in fact, the case; this volume is a strict-form puzzle mystery as I have elsewhere defined this term. One interesting conceit of this particular book is that each chapter has a single-word title; examination of the table of contents reveals that the initial letters of the chapter titles, considered acrostically, spell out “The Greek Coffin Mystery By Ellery Queen”.

The book was first published in 1932 by Frederick A. Stokes in the U.S. and a little later by Gollancz in the UK.  The first paperback edition is Pocket #179, seen at the head of this post. Many paperback editions exist; this book has only sporadically been out of print since its publication. It is now available in multiple e-book formats.

The Greek Coffin Mystery, 1960 - illus James Meese-1Although I have a VG copy of the first paper edition shown above, I actually used an e-book from an unknown source as my reference copy for this review (I found it in my files and have no idea where it came from, possibly as part of a gift of a bundle of e-books from a colleague); pagination is impossible to guarantee and I have chosen to not give page citations.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read may discuss in explicit terms the events of this murder mystery in GREAT detail. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.

IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THIS BOOK, STOP HERE AND GO READ IT BEFORE YOU RETURN. YOU WILL THANK ME. I can’t be any clearer — your first reading of this book should be unsullied by any knowledge of its contents, and the less you know in advance, the happier you will be. 

index-3_1The story begins with the death of wealthy Greek-American art dealer and connoisseur Gregor Khalkis; for once in a murder mystery, there’s nothing suspicious about the death. He’s been suffering from heart troubles for years that have left him blind and under the full-time care of a physician. It’s the disappearance of Khalkis’s will that is baffling everyone; five minutes before the funeral it was there, after the funeral it’s vanished. The house is searched, to no avail, and Mr. Woodruff, the family lawyer, calls in District Attorney Pepper. More searching, and no results. No secret passages or hidden compartments in the furniture or walls; no evidence that it was destroyed. Apparently the disappearance of the will is connected with its provisions, and someone’s desire to return to an earlier testamentary disposition of the Khalkis estate … but no one can figure out what happened. Finally Pepper calls in Ellery Queen, who deduces that the only possible location is inside the only object that’s left the house unsearched — Mr. Khalkis’s coffin. He convinces the authorities of the validity of his logic and they obtain permission to dig up the coffin. Unfortunately the coffin doesn’t contain the will. What it does contain is the strangled body of an ex-convict, a convicted forger named Grimshaw, jammed in on top of the late Mr. Khalkis. 

We soon meet the household and learn that Grimshaw had been admitted to a private interview with Khalkis shortly before their deaths. Khalkis has household staff (including the beautiful British secretary, Miss Brett, who might be romantically involved with Khalkis’s handsome young nephew Alan), relatives (including his mentally handicapped cousin Demmy, who acts as a kind of valet for the blind Mr. Khalkis) and the various employees of his art gallery and other business operations.

Ellery directs the activities of his father, Inspector Queen of the New York Police, with the assistance of DA Pepper, and a large group of officers immediately begin to learn everyone’s every movement. As is common in such fictional situations, it soon becomes apparent that most of the people in Khalkis’s life had recent acrimonious interactions with him, and many of them may well have had interactions with the deceased forger. Promptly upon the start of investigations, multi-millionaire Wall Street baron James Knox, friend of both the President and the late Mr. Khalkis, insists upon being briefed upon progress; Ellery announces that the case is solved. <gasp>

index-5_1A few chapters previously, the people around Ellery were baffled by his insistence on performing a number of experiments with the contents of a tea-urn in Khalkis’s office, and the surrounding used teacups, lemon, et cetera. He boils water, pours it out, measures amounts — no one understands what’s going on, and they think he’s losing his grip. As well, Ellery seems curiously interested in Mr. Khalkis’s neckties; he’d had some new ones delivered for the use of his handicapped cousin in executing his valeting duties. Ellery doesn’t explain until this point, when he reveals that, first of all, the details surrounding the neckties reveal that Mr. Khalkis has spontaneously regained his vision, and second, that two mysterious people who visited Khalkis in his study the night before his death were not actually two people, and that Khalkis had gone through an incredible rigamarole to make it seem as though two other people had been there. This idea, Ellery reveals, is the result of his analysis of tea-cups and tea water. And therefore — Khalkis murdered Grimshaw.

Immediately upon this revelation — about halfway through the book — two things happen. One is that Miss Brett reveals that, oopsie, she forgot to mention that the used teacups were differently arranged than when they were found by Ellery, and Knox reveals that there was indeed a third man in that meeting with Khalkis and Grimshaw.  How does he know?  Knox was the third man.

At this halfway point in the novel, Ellery’s house of logical cards collapses and he sinks into depression; this event actually affects the remainder of his career and all subsequent books that feature him. He determines that because he has revealed the results of his analysis and been disproven, he will never again speak about his investigations until he is absolutely, completely certain of the identity of the murderer (rather like Saul’s conversion on the road to Tarsus). Although it’s not referred to specifically in later volumes, his detective career is forever changed by this event; it also changes the way in which his work is presented. When you think about it, it’s not sensible for a detective to hide the progress of his investigations from the police; this situation was apparently set up by the authors to create a structure for future novels that would delay the solution until the end of the book.

Knox now starts the second half of the plot in motion.  He had been dickering with Khalkis for the right to purchase a Da Vinci painting that had previously been thought to have been destroyed. But Grimshaw had become involved by going to Knox, announcing that he had stolen the Da Vinci some years ago for Khalkis, and Khalkis had apparently been unable to pay him for his labours. Finally Khalkis had agreed to make out his will in favour of Grimshaw and in the interim gave him a promissory note. Khalkis, Grimshaw and Knox had all met and drunk tea on that fateful evening, and then some unknown person had tampered with the physical evidence in order to lead Ellery away from the truth. Ellery soon determines that that unknown person must logically have been in partnership with Grimshaw.

Knox refuses to hand over the Da Vinci and announces that he’ll deny having it in his possession — and that it’s a copy anyway. Ellery then realizes that his deduction of Khalkis having recovered his sight was also incorrect; instead, handicapped Demmy is revealed to be colour-blind. Ellery grimly acknowledges his mistakes and gets back to work on solving the case.

Events now progress more rapidly.  The investigation receives an anonymous tip that the manager of Khalkis’s art gallery, Gilbert Sloane, is actually Grimshaw’s brother. The police discover that an empty house in Khalkis’s neighbourhood was the temporary resting place of Grimshaw’s corpse (until the murderer had the bright idea of disposing of it in the coffin) and they discover a shred of the burned will in a furnace in the empty house, confirming that the missing will indeed left the huge Khalkis estate to Grimshaw. This means that Sloane will actually inherit through his brother; they find a key to the empty house concealed in the Sloane home. Everyone rushes to the Khalkis Gallery to arrest Sloane — and he’s been shot. Superficially it looks like suicide, but Ellery makes a deduction that proves it to be murder. And everything grinds to a halt, because Ellery cannot find a thread of the tapestry upon which to pull in order to make progress with the case.

index-221_1Miss Brent reveals herself to have been an agent of the British Museum, employed to track down the Da Vinci; she’s hired by Knox to help him with his executor’s duties on the Khalkis estate. And the British Museum is about to pull the lid off the case unless Ellery solves it in a hurry.  Soon, the missing promissory note shows up — half of it is used as the paper upon which a blackmail note is typed. The actual typing of this note is of interest; there’s a tiny typographical error that is shown to the reader but not further explained.

At about this point, the above-mentioned “Challenge to the Reader” breaks the flow of the action; you now have in your possession enough information to solve the mystery and identify Grimshaw’s partner and the murderer.  I will from this point on be reticent about what happens; I haven’t yet told you anything that would make any difference to your ability to solve the murder, since if you read the book everything will be available to you.  But henceforth, I will cut back drastically on my comments for fear of spoiling things for you.

It is safe to say, though, that there is a common theme in nearly all Ellery Queen stories that is repeated here; the false solution, then the true. At this point, Ellery makes an announcement about who is guilty of precisely what; this leads to a series of events that brings us to the final solution. Ellery has set a trap for the real killer, and I wager that you will be very, very surprised by the answer, which is revealed dramatically with Ellery being shot in the shoulder and the murderer dying in a hail of gunfire at the end of Chapter 33. Chapter 34 consists of Ellery recuperating from his wound and explaining everything, in great detail, to an assembly of suspects and investigators.

04b_GreekWhy is this book worth your time?

The year of publication of this book is 1932.  In 1932, Agatha Christie had published a mere dozen novels, but including one of the most difficult mysteries ever written (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Ngaio Marsh was two years away from her first book; Margery Allingham was at the beginning of her career; John Dickson Carr had not yet published a Gideon Fell or a Henry Merrivale novel; Anthony Berkeley had published a number of excellent books including 1929’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case — and the “Golden Age” mystery was in its early stages. It was not completely newborn; perhaps adolescent; still finding its way, outlining the ideas that define the form, the boundaries of the genre, its passions, its likes and dislikes, its enthusiasms and hatreds. S.S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox had both published sets of rules as to what detective stories should and should not be; clever writers like “Ellery Queen” were casting off the old strictures and extending the boundaries of the form.

This particular story has to be one of the most difficult strict-form puzzle mysteries ever written and, frankly, they don’t make ’em like this any more. This book has more sheer logic and detection in it by the halfway point than in the entire oeuvre of your average cozy author; and by the end of the novel, more difficult chains of logic than the entire oeuvre of ten cozy writers. This book was written at a time when readers did not cavil at being faced with an extremely difficult puzzle and it has, over the years, maintained its place as one of the finest examples of such a puzzle. I haven’t worked out the ramifications of this in great detail, but I’ll suggest that this is one of Queen’s top two books — the other being The Chinese Orange Mystery — and one of the top 25 puzzle mysteries ever written. Just don’t make me name the other 23, please!

When I’m analyzing a puzzle mystery, there’s a process I go through that is crucial to determining its level of quality. Simply put, once I know whodunnit, I go through the novel again from the murderer’s point of view and see if everything makes sense. And I think you would be surprised at how often things just do not make sense when I do that. For instance, I recently looked at a poorly-written mystery by Frances Crane, The Applegreen Cat. (My analysis is here.) Among other problems, the plot consisted of a mystery that was difficult from the point of view of the reader — but ridiculous from the point of view of the murderer, who apparently deliberately waited until the country house was filled with house guests before embarking upon a killing spree among the servants. Another example is an early novel of Harlan Coben’s whose name slips my mind along with most of the details. Three-quarters of the way through the book, the protagonist discovers that the murderer has a cabin  in the woods filled with evidence, and this provides everything needed to bring the book to a close. The problem is, as I realized even before reaching the end of the novel, no murderer in his right mind would have left all that tasty evidence in place, sitting in an empty cabin for anyone who happened by. It’s rather like one of those plots where the murderer has the detective at his mercy, but stops to deliver a complete detailed confession before disposing of his nemesis. It helps out the book a lot, but lowers the murderer’s IQ by 50 points in an instant.

If you go through the process of analyzing things from the murderer’s point of view, everything in this book continues to make perfect sense. The murderer’s motives are clear; they make sense and continue to make sense once you know what they are. The only thing that trips up the killer is a trap set by the detectives that is also based on something that the murderer needs to see happen. The tiny clues left by the murderer are tiny accidents; they aren’t taunts left by the killer, or foolish oversights, but something small and careless like closing a door when it shouldn’t have been closed, or not predicting that a character may confess something that is not in his best interests in order to cooperate with the police. And there are not many puzzle mysteries about which this can be said. Nothing depends on coincidence, chance, acts of God or ridiculous motivation. Just about the only logical flaw in the entire novel is the size of the fragment of the will that is found in the furnace of the empty house, and the fact that it contains precisely the information that is needed to move forward; this is a bit of a stretch, but, you know, it could happen. All the clues you need are fairly there, and the Challenge to the Reader is accurate.

The other part of this book that is beautifully crafted is the false trail that the reader is meant to follow. I read this book as a teenager and I remember the sense of exultation with which I came to the conclusion that the authors wished me to reach; I’d spotted the tiny clues, I’d noticed the snippets of dialogue, and I’d realized what they meant. I felt smart. By golly, this mystery business wasn’t so hard after all, I thought. And then I realized that I’d been well and truly fooled, and that was what the authors had meant to happen. Up until that point, I’d merely failed to solve the mystery, or I’d guessed sort of randomly at a possible solution. This time I’d tried to solve the mystery, and I’d been fooled. And it may well be this book that started me on a lifetime of challenging my wits against those of the author.

In short — this is one of the finest strict-form puzzle mysteries that you will ever have the pleasure of failing to solve. In the past, for the benefit of a friend who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of encountering this mystery, I’ve taken a cheap paperback and torn it in half at the point at which the Challenge to the Reader appears, in order to give my friend the chance to give this mystery the attention it deserves without the opportunity to spoil it by peeking. There are not many mysteries worth doing that with. If you enjoy the experience, and you see a cheap paperback copy go by, pay it forward for a friend.

Notes for the Collector:

As of this writing, AbeBooks has on offer a Good copy of the first edition, inscribed by Frederick Dannay to his sister-in-law, for $500, and two unsigned copies of the first for $236 and $250. The second edition will set you back $175, and a copy of the first UK from Gollancz is listed for about $60. I am aware of an interesting edition from International Readers League in 1933, with a street map and floor plan of the Khalkis house (like the ones reproduced here, which are also in the first paper edition), and Abe has a copy for $75.

Some crazy person on ViaLibri wants $500 for the Bestseller Mystery/Mercury edition of 1941, and I can only think that it has about $490 in cash tucked between the pages. Amereon reprinted this title in 2001 and I can’t think why this particular book is bringing prices in the $75 range for an undistinguished hardcover with no jacket.

In paper, the 1942 first paper edition from Pocket is quite collectible because it’s a low-numbered book in that pioneering series, collected by many, even though, as you can see from the illustration at the top of this post, the cover art is downright unattractive — muddy, unexciting and dull. (When you look at the gaudy but exciting cover of The French Powder Mystery from the same company at about the same time, you wonder if the publishers were trying to make the Greek Coffin look boring!) Mine is a relatively nice copy and what appears to be a similar one on Abe is listed for $20; I’ve seen many copies of this book and many of them appear to have vertical creases in the cover, rolling, etc. There is a Penguin greenback available, of which there are many collectors, and many other editions.

1808330There’s a Cardinal edition that has a great piece of “girlie leg art” on the cover and, for once, it actually depicts a scene from the book. One quirky favourite edition of mine has always been a uniform set of Signet paperbacks from the early 70s with a tightly-kerned Helvetica title and cover art of a pretty model posed within a box, holding an oversized prop that has something to do with the plot.  Possibly this has something to do with the fact that in many cases this was the first edition that passed through my hands; at this remove, they look quite camp. Your mileage may vary. The point is that, depending on what your budget and collector’s instincts might be, there’s something for you. My own recommendation would be the signed first, which is quite scarce with any signature, and for smaller budgets the best copy you can afford of the Pocket edition, unless you like “girlie leg art” in which case the Cardinal edition may suit you best.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1932 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; third under “D”, “Read a book already read by another challenger.” This volume was reviewed on February 17, 2014 at a blog called “Classic Mysteries”; the review is found here. For a chart outlining my progress, see below.

Vintage Golden Card 001

Dead Ernest, as by Alice Tilton (Phoebe Atwood Taylor) (1944)

Dead Ernest, as by Alice Tilton (Phoebe Atwood Taylor) (1944)

$_3Author:

Phoebe Atwood Taylor, writing as Alice Tilton. The Alice Tilton pseudonym was reserved for the eight novels featuring amateur detective Leonidas Witherall, “The Man who looked like Shakespeare”; this is the seventh.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1944 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fourth under “L”, “Read one book with a man in the title.” The titular Ernest is the victim in this novel. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

Publication Data:

The first edition is US, Norton in 1944.  First UK edition is Collins, 1945. Many editions exist; the paperback I used is depicted at the top of this post and is from Foul Play Press, 1992.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

Leonidas Witherall is known to one and all in his small New England community as “the man who looks like Shakespeare”. He’s also well-known in civic circles, he’s the owner and headmaster of a prominent boys’ school — and, a fact known to few, he’s also the writer of radio’s Lieutenant Haseltine series. “Haseltine to the res-cue!”  (Indeed, the exploits and habits of Haseltine and the beautiful Lady Alicia are a constant theme in Witherall’s adventures. We never exactly understand any of Haseltine’s story lines, but they sound hokey, simplistic, and repetitive.) As the story begins, Witherall is in his study desperately trying to complete the latest Haseltine adventure and being pestered by his housekeeper, Mrs. Mullet, a sturdy middle-aged woman who is constantly expressing her “candied” opinion. She’s trying to tell him a number of important things that later he wishes fervently he’d understood, but he brushes her off and she leaves.

Almost immediately, two drunken deliverymen insist that Leonidas is to receive the delivery of a deep freeze (a household freezer), which they unload into his kitchen. Nearly simultaneously, a gorgeous violet-eyed blonde (named Terpsichore, but known to one and all as Terry) in an evening gown rings Leonidas’s front doorbell and insists that he is the person for whom she has been paid to sing “Happy Birthday” — which she promptly does. Leonidas then discovers that the deep freeze contains the corpse of Mr. Ernest Finger, whom he has just hired as the latest French language instructor at his boys’ school and who is related to his neighbours, the Finger family.

It’s hard to describe exactly what happens for the remainder of the novel; a bald recital of the facts of the movements of the characters would have my readers tugging at my sleeve and saying, “Um, WHY exactly would they all want to attend a policeman’s supper during such urgent and dangerous circumstances? Why exactly do the neighbours keep popping into the kitchen on errands? What combination of circumstances exactly left Mrs. Mullet tied up in Leonidas’s basement and only able to identify her assailant by the stitch that produced his hand-knit socks?” It’s pretty clear that it’s the murderer who is trying to get Leonidas in trouble and accused of the Finger murder, but what does moving the corpse around erratically have to do with it? (Accompanied by many, many jokes about the Finger family name; comments about “the moving Finger” and “I’ve had those Fingers in my hair all day” abound.)

Honestly, if I told you what happened, you wouldn’t be interested in reading the novel because you would, probably rightly, think that it was ridiculous and never bother to pick it up.  It IS ridiculous. Nearly everything that happens is ridiculous, zany, and improbable in the extreme. Essentially what happens is that Leonidas puts together a small crew of associates and they all race around like crazy people, reacting spontaneously to things that happen in the vicinity while they try to solve the murder of Mr. Finger and keep Leonidas from being arrested for it — or anyone else in the crew, many of whom have reason to have done violence to Ernest. Indeed, in all the books, this is the pattern; Leonidas assembles a crew that usually contains a beautiful young woman, a handsome young man, a ditzy but highly competent housewife, a child with no conscience, and a couple of salty-tongued members of the lower classes. This particular novel features lower-class Mrs. Mullet prominently, who here is constantly acting out the actions of the beautiful Lady Alicia as she attempts to aid the gallant lieutenant, and her daughter Gerty, who wishes to be known as Sonia. (Well, wouldn’t you?)

Finally, everyone takes a leaf from Haseltine’s adventures as Leonidas invokes the constant factor in the Haseltine stories; the principle of Cannae. “Cannae,” chant all the good guys simultaneously since they are all Haseltine devotees, “is the historic battle between the Romans and the Carthaginians, fought in Apulia in the year 216 B.C., in which the small, weak army of Hannibal cut the incomparable forces of eighty-five thousand proud Roman legionnaires to pieces.” (The action stops for a moment while they discuss whether the word is “pieces” or “shreds”. They continue …) “By means of an ingenious strategical concentration, it caught the enemy from the flank with calvary and surrounded him. Clausewitz and Schlieffen of the Prussian General Staff elaborated the idea of Cannae into a general theoretical doctrine, and then compressed the doctrine into an exact strategical system: Blitzkrieg.”  This exact speech recurs in every single Witherall novel and signals that Leonidas is about to solve the mystery, ensure the arrest of the criminal, and cause everything to end happily. Which he does and they do. “Bathed in the refulgent glow of the setting sun, Haseltine clasped the Lady Alicia to his manly bosom.” And Leonidas and Mrs. Mullet exchange a set of little jokes about what to call the next Haseltine adventure, which will be based on recent events — not “The Moving Finger” or “Deep Freeze”, but “Dead Ernest”.

6263Why is this book worth your time?

“Screwball comedy” in film pretty much began in 1934 with It Happened One Night, according to Wikipedia, but that reference also suggests that the style ended by 1942. It also says screwball comedies  “… often involve mistaken identities or other circumstances in which a character or characters try to keep some important fact a secret.” That sounds like a murder mystery to me. I’ll tentatively suggest that mystery writers who were looking around for new twists on the traditional mystery noted the success of the screwball comedy in film and decided that it would go well as the foundation of a murder mystery plot. And thus began the transmigration of the filmic screwball comedy into the novelistic comedy mystery.

I can’t say that I understand the entire history of the particular sub-genre of the “comedy mystery”. I’m not certain I know of all early examples; I’m aware of a couple of instances, including works by Marco Page (a pseudonym of Harry Kurnitz) like Fast Company that were filmed at about the same time as this book was published. But historians and analysts seem to be interested in very little in the way of comedy mystery before the work of Craig Rice, whose first novel, Eight Faces at Three (1939), began the genre, it seems. Except that if that’s the case, then Phoebe Atwood Taylor beat her to it; Taylor’s first novel as by Alice Tilton, Beginning With a Bash, was published in 1937 and the third in the series in 1939.

It’s hard to tell the impact of a particular writer at such a great distance. We know that Craig Rice was the first mystery writer to appear on the cover of Time (January 28, 1946), and a number of her works were filmed (including Having Wonderful Crime in 1945, the film for which certainly qualifies as some kind of comedy, screwball or otherwise). Phoebe Atwood Taylor doesn’t appear to have been the subject of any media interest that I can locate, and her cross-platform success was limited to a single year (1944-1945) of a radio program, The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall, starring well-known actor Walter Hampden. So I’m guessing that Craig Rice was much more impactful than Phoebe Atwood Taylor. I cannot imagine why no one tried to film any of Taylor’s Witherall adventures when lesser writers’ attempts at screwball comedy were being filmed right and left; it just didn’t happen, and now the moment has passed.

This book, and indeed the whole Leonidas Witherall series, are beautifully crafted examples of screwball comedies in novel form. They are not especially interesting as mysteries if that is your only purpose in reading. The plots are so convoluted and baroque, and move at such a careening clip, that it is impossible to suggest that you will solve the mystery in the usual sense. Usually there is one character who stands out as the only potential suspect; either that, or you take a brief moment to wonder who might have done the murder and think, “Oh, THAT person, I guess.” It’s not usually possible, in a strict and formal sense, to “solve” an Alice Tilton mystery. That requires certain kinds of facts that are not really available to the reader.

For instance, in this case, we do not “see” the actions of the murderer in the sense that we would be able to go back and trace that person’s actions throughout the day, to know where they were when and with whom as witness. Instead, and I don’t think I’m going to spoil your enjoyment of this novel by saying so before you read it, the murderer here is someone who had a reason to put Ernest Finger’s body in a deep freeze and have it delivered to Leonidas Witherall’s kitchen. That action sparks the actions of the plot, but there really is only one person who had a (barely) sane and sensible reason to do such a thing. You can imagine that that limited the list of potential murderers to a single name, which it does here. That will have to be sufficient for those of us who like to have a try at actually solving a mystery; the others will have little about which to complain. There is so much going on here, and so much of it is actually hilarious, that you won’t mind a bit that the mystery ingredient is a bit skimpy.

I’ve enjoyed this whole series and read them all a number of years ago, and they stand up well to re-reading; not all books by the writers about whom I was enthusiastic in my youth have done so. This book is funny in a way that is hard to describe; to me, the closest analogy is the work of P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse is the creator of Bertie Wooster, the quintessential “Silly Ass” in the tradition of Philo Vance, Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion. I’ve read a quotation from Wodehouse to the effect that he was being blamed for writing about the same characters, just giving them new names in each book; Wodehouse announced he was confounding his critics next time by keeping the same names. And this process is very much what happens in these eight books. They are a series of linked character trophes, like Benny Hill or the Carry On movies. There’s a smart and practical housewife whose presentation is that of a ditz. There’s a beautiful girl who is in trouble through no fault of her own. There’s a handsome young man of good family and education who is misunderstood but anxious to help solve the mystery.  And there are a couple of plucky and stupid members of the lower classes, pronouncedly comedic characters, along to do the heavy lifting and offer silly suggestions about alternatives. The author has a limited deck of characters whom she shuffles and recombines; some overlap and recur in the author’s Asey Mayo mysteries under her own name. An ineffectual middle-aged upper-class male who turns out to have a backbone. A young woman who learned competence by serving in the Armed Forces during WWII. A self-sufficient man of great age, a spoiled young wealthy woman, a preternaturally intelligent child — there are more (not all these trophes are represented in this book, I have to add).

Dead Ernest might be thought of as a kind of proto-cozy (oddly enough, this came out the same year as another possible proto-cozy, Craig Rice’s brilliant Home Sweet Homicide). It has some of the same qualities I associate with the modern cozy: violence is offstage and not indicated in any graphic way, there are strong implicit and sometimes explicit moral values, and the narrator is fallible. And that it is meant to be purchased by a female reader. To my mind, the difference is that the modern cozy lost most of the humour of a classic comedy mystery and replaced it with a kind of communication of “gentle” social values. Perhaps the premise that these two genres are related is fallacious; possibly I’ve omitted important intermediate steps. Maybe it’s just that the modern cozy is so cold-bloodedly commercial that any such relationship is possible, because commercial writing will use any cultural tradition it can to sell another book. Usually this involves the merger of the form of the “light comedy mystery” with the purveyance of a great deal of detailed information about, say, knitting; experts in knitting are easier to find than someone who can actually write comedy, so the focus changed as the cozy became more commercial, produced on assembly-line lines. I think it’s likely Taylor was writing for a female audience, but I also know many men enjoy her books (there are only a few men who can survive a regular diet of cozies). So, I’ll leave this to my readers’ speculation; I have no conclusive answers. I don’t know of any attempt that’s been made to trace this kind of literary relationship, but since there are so many doctoral students who have been forced to look at genre fiction because all the interesting work on Jane Austen has been done, perhaps we can expect such a thesis at some near future point. “Origins of the Cozy Mystery: from Craig Rice to Phoebe Atwood Taylor to Ailsa Craig to Marcia Muller, Joan Hess and beyond.” We can but hope.

Ultimately,  I think this book deserves your time because, like its seven fellows in the series, it is literate and intelligent, well-written, and fast-moving. Taylor’s work presents a detailed portrait of a certain period in American history, focused on the domestic economy of Cape Cod in the period during and immediately after WWII. She is a clever and economical constructor of characters; I suggest that the fact that she reused a group of stock characters is evidence that she understood the inherent comedy situations in class conflict (again, this echoes British bawdy humour based on repetitive trophes) and this kind of writing came naturally to her. And she is a wildly inventive and truly eccentric plotter who has the skill in writing necessary to keep her plots moving at breakneck speed without losing the reader. Best of all, you can re-read them two or three times in your lifetime at long-separated intervals and still enjoy them in the same way, for that timeless quality of inspired silliness that brings out the child in us all.

51kjVancsVL._SL500_AA300_

Notes for the Collector:

The first edition (Norton, 1944) is available today from an American bookseller, Fine in a VG to NF jacket, for $65.  A slightly less crisp copy is $40 from a Canadian bookseller. The UK first is Collins, 1945. A number of editions exist; Norton reissued the Alice Tilton novels in hardcover in the 1970s or thereabouts, Foul Play Press did a uniform paper edition including the copy I have re-read (seen at the top of this post) in 1992, and Popular Library did a 1970s edition with a wacky and reasonably irrelevant cover illustration, which I have shown to the left.

Here, I think the first edition is the most collectible; the cover illustration is charming, a drawing of the two drunken deliverymen who make up part of the wacky crew inhabiting this novel. (Why those two, I have no idea; they’re nowhere near being the most important characters in the book.) There is not much of a market for Alice Tilton these days; she seems to go in and out of favour. Considering the nonsense that got made into movies at about the time of publication, I am at a loss to understand why any of these books were never filmed; perhaps because of the one-year tenure of The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall on Mutual in 1944/1945.

By way of contrast, Home Sweet Homicide mentioned above, that came out in the same year, by Craig Rice, NF in NF jacket, is $1,250 plus shipping. I have to say there is a chance the specific value would be affected by having been named a Haycraft-Queen “cornerstone”, and filmed to boot, but this is still  quite a difference from $65 for an Alice Tilton novel. I’m still not sure why the public loved Rice and was indifferent to Taylor, but this will give you a good idea of their value to posterity.

The handful of surviving episodes of the radio program are readily available on the internet for free, here and elsewhere; if you’re interested, I can’t guarantee that any of them contain Agnes Moorhead in her brief stint as Mrs. Mullet, but they’re worth a listen.

Vintage Challenge Scorecard

The Applegreen Cat, by Frances Crane (1943)

The Applegreen Cat, by Frances Crane (1943)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #006

pop_344Author:

Frances Crane, whose Wikipedia entry is found here. This volume is fourth in a series of 26 novels written between 1941 and 1965 featuring private investigator Pat Abbott and his co-investigating wife Jean.  The Abbotts were the subject of at least two radio programmes and probably three (this is VERY complicated — see Wikipedia for details). All 26 novels feature a colour in the title as a linking device for the series. Her reprint publishers, Rue Morgue, have contributed an extremely interesting in-depth biographical piece found here.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1943 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; first under “G”, “Read one book with a colour in the title.” For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

Publication Data:

The first edition is from Lippincott, an American publisher, in 1943. (The jacket is below.) My own copy, seen at the top of this post, is the first paperback edition, Popular Library 344 (1951), with an exquisite cover by Rudolph Belarski that has been repurposed from the cover of a pulp magazine (also see below). Other editions exist, including an edition from Hammond, an appearance as one of three volumes in a Detective Book Club edition, and a 2011  paper edition from Rue Morgue Press, to whom we should be indebted; they’re republishing a bunch of Frances Crane, among other good works.

910About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

Jean Abbott, the narrator, and her detective husband Pat, are in England, and visiting Stephen Heywards’ country house, which also contains a gaggle of visitors and staff. Pat can only be persuaded to take time off his mysterious but apparently crucial war work with the prospect of seeing the Heywards’ Renoirs. It’s wartime, of course, and everything is rationed — which is why it’s so peculiar that an under housemaid, Elsie, is wearing an exquisite pair of nylon stockings that are unavailable to her social betters.  That phrase isn’t used, but it’s very clear how everyone feels. Wartime Britain hadn’t lost any of its embedded class consciousness, it seems. Jean sees Elsie that night, just before she is going out on a date; by chapter 3, Elsie’s dead body is discovered in a punt. On her body is a dart that can be identified as having come from the manor house, because it has been marked with a “transfer from a kids’ book” of an applegreen cat. So the murderer comes from the manor house. And it soon becomes clear that everyone thinks that Elsie has been strangled by mistake instead of Lorna Erickson, “whose stunning beauty and feline malice made her unanimously feared and hated”.  (That’s a rather florid quotation from the back cover of the paperback edition.) 

Almost immediately, another murder attempt takes the life of the head housemaid, a secret tippler who cannot resist having a pull from a bottle of whiskey that has been adulterated with a huge dose of morphine.  Was the whisky intended for Lorna? Hard to say. At this point the book grinds to a screaming halt — Jean is not really in the picture as the police, and her husband, question the suspects one by one. So we are treated to a series of chapters very much like the habitual pattern of Ngaio Marsh, where one by one the potential suspects display their motives, past, and personalities, each to a boring, talky, overwritten chapter. Tennis is played — women’s clothing is observed. Gossip is exchanged, and some characters reveal things about themselves and their past that sane people being investigated as potential murderers would probably prefer to keep considerably more quiet. Jean manages to dig out nearly everything that the reader might consider important or useful about every suspect; that is, if your interest is interpersonal relationships rather than the niceties of who gives who an alibi and how. Finally (the reader will have the sense at this point that this is a long, long overdue action) Lorna is found strangled, events come to a head, and the murderer confesses.

And I have to say, I’ve read a lot of murder mysteries — a LOT of murder mysteries — and the solution to this mystery asks us to believe one of the most ridiculous motives for murder I have ever been asked to accept, and that’s saying something. (Okay, there’s that Agatha Christie where the woman wants to open a tea shop. But that’s about it.) Really, it’s as though Crane realized that she had to tie this off to get in under her word count, so she picked the least likely suspect, provided a hastily-conceived motive, and wrote “the end” with an air of triumph. I cannot accept that there is a person in the world who would commit three murders for this reason; I actually think this motive is not really sufficient to make someone quit their job or quarrel with a friend. Crane recognizes this, I think, and tries to add a few details here and there to make us think that the murderer is insane. But this is a kind of insanity that only really exists in murder mysteries that need a surprise ending; someone who hides their insanity under a mask of competence and does violent things for what are essentially ridiculous reasons.

Why is this book worth your time?

As you may have gathered by now, I don’t really think it is worth your time. Frances Crane wrote a number of good mysteries, but this is not one of them. There’s a serious flaw at the heart of this book; nothing is even remotely realistic. The wealthy squire with two Renoirs and a house full of ill-assorted, antagonistic guests have obviously been collected together for no other purpose than to draw gigantic sacks of red herrings across the trail of the crimes. When you find out the identity of the murderer, you will realize that the criminal events of the book could have been easily committed at a time when there were not nine or ten extraneous guests in the house and, since there is no rational reason for the murderer’s actions, almost anyone else in the vicinity would have been more readily suspected. Crane has to go to great lengths to prevent her narrator from learning anything useful or relevant in time for it to matter, including locking her in her bedroom at a crucial point. The characters lie when it makes the book more interesting and tell the truth when it’s time for things to move forward.

Elsewhere I have retold an antique joke that is funny to seven-year-olds. “What has four legs, wags its tail, and is filled with cement? A dog.” “But a dog isn’t filled with cement!” “Oh, I just put that in to make it harder.” This book is so encased in cement that the reader soon realizes that all the characters frozen in that cement to the hips are made of cardboard. The dog beneath the cement is a mutt who has been bedizened with ribbons, bows, embroidery and that oh-so-crucial pair of nylons, but remains at the heart of it all a dog of no redeeming qualities and emphatically of no interest to anyone. As I was refreshing my memory of this book, I found myself reading the first page or so of a chapter, and when I realized that nothing of any interest or value was occurring (other than the pseudo-development of pseudo-characters), I’d skip the remainder. When you skip half the chapter ten times in a row, you reach the climax quickly, I assure you — and had the author left out the cement, this would have been a ridiculous short story whose shortcomings would be far more apparent.

I think one of the big problems here is that Frances Crane appears to have no experience with, or indeed any realistic idea of, the background or people about whom she is writing. Indeed she doesn’t seem sure of very much at all. Pat and Jean end up in Britain for vague and largely unexplained reasons — with wartime travel restrictions in place to the point where you can’t get a taxi from the station to the manor. Her upper-class Brits have mental attitudes and social mores more like small-town Americans; no one is concerned about things with which they should be concerned, and is preoccupied instead with who can beat whom at tennis (this is in 1943 when the war was at its height; it’s mentioned, but it’s less important than tennis victories). Yes, there are blackout curtains, but pulling them doesn’t have much to do with the war and more with establishing alibis or taking people away from their alibi witnesses. Pat Abbott is a cypher in a crisp Marine uniform. I very much doubt that Crane had ever seen a Renoir; I’m not even sure that she has ever seen people playing tennis. The servants’ only purpose in the book seems to be to die so that the upper-class people can be suspected of their murders, without actually having to sacrifice an interesting character. Crane appears to have little mental grasp of her large English manor house — the details of the rooms are blurry and indistinct, and it’s hard to tell the floor plan from the writing. If this had been a mapback edition, the artist would be inventing half the layout of the house.

Crane’s habitual fascination with women’s clothing and household decoration has lost its sparkle here. Even the pair of nylon stockings that starts the criminal plot rolling turns out, on the last page of the novel, to have been a cheat. I was expecting to read details of just how the boundaries of clothing coupons meant that women had to repurpose their clothing in specific ways in order to remain fashionable; instead of the minutely observed details in other books, here we just get a French blue suit with a cherry-red sweater worn by the hostess, but no idea about why this is interesting in any way. It doesn’t reveal her character, it doesn’t show her attitude to fashion, it’s just what she has on. In at least one other instance, Crane commits a cardinal writing sin.  She describes a character’s outfit and tells us why this means she is a certain type of person — but there is no link between the two. We’re not shown, we’re told, and not even very competently.

Ultimately, to sum this up — it’s just nonsense. The stage is set, nine or ten suspects pop up, talk for a chapter each, then are dismissed. There are three murder victims about whom no one seems really upset, a lot of hugger-mugger of detection that takes place mostly offstage, and some sketchy and vague descriptions of rooms and clothes. And the murderer is a crazy person with a crazy unbelievable motive. If you want to read an interesting Frances Crane novel, try The Golden Box; there’s some meat there to replace the cement.

25721346-5664312675_0abea1d2b1_o1Notes for the Collector:

A VG copy in VG jacket of the first edition of this novel will cost you approximately $75; I don’t regard this as a significant piece of the history of detective fiction, but I know that people collect all kinds of things, including Frances Crane firsts.  I don’t need one of these to the tune of $75, but your mileage may vary.

My own copy is, as I noted, a really lovely copy of Popular Library #344, with the Belarski cover. (The image at the top of the post is scavenged from the internet.)  My copy is close to Fine; tight, clean, unmarked, unrolled and with bright colour.  There’s a copy available from various internet booksellers for $45 that doesn’t sound as good as mine. Frankly, I think this is a much more collectible volume; people are collecting runs of Popular Library, Belarski covers, and volumes of the Abbotts. This is a key volume in a number of senses. I wouldn’t take $60 for mine and I expect it to appreciate. If you can find a beautiful copy of PL #344, that’s the one I would recommend collecting.

As promised, I have shown you the original Belarski cover art for G-Man Detective; note the differences, in that for the paperback edition a row of books has been omitted, and the flying dagger has been turned into a dart marked with an applegreen cat. I was unable to identify the specific date of publication of this magazine and it may actually be that the paperback art was repurposed into the magazine cover — I doubt it, but it’s possible. Anyway, if you find a copy of the magazine for sale, it’s likely to set you back about $35. Needless to say, no one in the book is described as wearing an off-the-shoulder peasant blouse and this may well show someone from a story in the magazine — or not.

Vintage Challenge Scorecard

The Maisie series, starring Ann Sothern (1939-1947)

MaisieThe Maisie series, starring Ann Sothern, is a series of ten films released between 1939 and 1947. They are as follows:

  • Maisie (1939)
  • Congo Maisie (1940)
  • Gold Rush Maisie (1940)
  • Maisie Was a Lady (1941)
  • Ringside Maisie (1941)
  • Maisie Gets Her Man (1942)
  • Swing Shift Maisie (1943)
  • Maisie Goes To Reno (1944)
  • Up Goes Maisie (1946)
  • Undercover Maisie (1947)

At the height of Sothern’s association with this role, she was also starring from 1945 to 1947 in The Adventures of Maisie on CBS Radio (and later with the down-market Mutual in 1952, and further in syndication, which I understand for so short a radio series indicates some exceptional quality that delivers an audience). The role seems to have determined the course of her entire career; after Maisie, she starred in two sitcoms for CBS, Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show, and garnered three Emmy nominations. Then she appeared as the voice of Gladys Crabtree in My Mother the Car, Gladys being the deceased mother whose spirit has somehow transmogrified into a 1928 Porter touring car.  This sitcom is generally considered to be either the worst or the second worst TV program of all time (first being Jerry Springer). Finally, Sothern was nominated for an Academy Award for best Supporting Actress for The Whales of August (1987), standing out among an exceptional cast, including Bette Davis and Lillian Gish.

Maisie’s (movie-based) character is that she’s a wisecracking burlesque showgirl from Brooklyn with a spirit as big as all outdoors, and a heart of solid gold. Perhaps the other way around. At any rate, Maisie mostly starts out having just lost her job and down on her luck. She meets a guy who annoys her, but for whom she appears to feel some kind of romantic attraction. Simultaneously, she enters a new environment in which she is a breath of fresh air in some respect — kind of like the plot of most Shirley Temple movies. Maisie’s plainspoken ways break down emotional reserves and misunderstandings that have been hampering progress, everything ends happily and Maisie gets the man, although he conveniently disappears before the next movie. Apparently during WWII this was more common than it is these days; well, no, I’m kidding. It’s just that, at the beginning of every Maisie movie, all previous plot developments get retconned out of existence and new ones freely take their place. So Maisie doesn’t really have a history; it’s more like an attitude.

I certainly understand why Maisie was career-making for Ann Sothern; it was a role that appears to have struck a chord with the public and heaven knows she made it hers. I think the fact that it started in 1939 had something to do with it, but it’s hard to say just what. We know that 1939 was an amazing year for films, perhaps the best year ever, and I think that was a year that formed people in the habit of going to the movies two or three times a week, because they were just so damn good. 1939’s list of movies includes Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, The WomenGone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and quite a few important mystery films, including Another Thin Man, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (yes, I’m serious), and Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (yes, I’m serious).  It was also the first rumblings of WWII in the United States, and I’ll suggest that Maisie’s plucky spirit and get-down-to-work attitude were felt to be a help to the war effort, if you know what I mean. Maisie does a lot of war work during WWII, alternating between riveting and entertaining the troops, etc. So I imagine she was a kind of symbol for women; Maisie had her priorities ostentatiously in order and didn’t mind going nose to nose with people who weren’t pulling their weight. After the war, as the series petered out, Maisie was more often the agent of Cupid, working to get two good-hearted young people back together after a romantic misunderstanding. It rather seemed like it had outlived its usefulness until it transferred to radio, where they essentially told the same set of stories again.

Warning: If you read beyond this point, you may find out more about the plot of the first movie in the series, Maisie (1939) than you want to know, and a bit about some others.  If you haven’t seen these films, you may wish to stop here and preserve your ignorance in favour of future enjoyment. Consider yourself warned. 

Maisie_FilmPosterI originally became interested in the series because I happened to capture #1 on my PVR, from Turner Classic Movies, and found that it had some minor detective content. Maisie is stranded jobless in a small town in Wyoming and finagles her way into a position as live-in maid on a ranch, against the wishes of her soon-to-be romantic interest, cowboy boss Robert Young. She is the servant to the ranch owner’s wife (Ruth Hussey, who does a wonderful job), a slick city orchid who is superficially attentive to her wealthy husband but is really committed to her lover, city slicker John Hubbard.  Maisie finds the boss’s wife locked in the arms of her boyfriend by accident; the boss’s wife decides that Maisie must go, and she cooks up a story about how Maisie is romantically involved with the boss, which simultaneously torpedoes Maisie’s job and her engagement to Robert Young. So she leaves.

The boss then commits suicide but in such a way that it looks like homicide, and Robert Young is put on trial. Maisie is far away and only finds out about the trial in time to arrive barely before sentencing, but she can’t persuade the judge that Robert Young is innocent — until the boss’s lawyer comes up with an envelope that he had been told to deliver to Maisie. It’s a complete explanation, Robert Young goes free, and Maisie inherits the ranch and lots of money, to the well-deserved chagrin of the widow. We are meant to believe that Maisie is about to marry Robert Young, but as I said, he disappears before the next movie and all the money is gone.

This is really the only detective/mystery content I could identify in the whole series, worse the luck. I watched them, at least as far as #8, with an eye to a potential piece not unlike this about their detective content. Since that’s pretty much it for interesting content, I was going to put it aside. But I have to say this. I’m not sure I could have stood the final entries in this series; the whole thing is just too darn depressing.

Maisie_Was_a_Lady_FilmPosterOkay, not depressing at the level of UK kitchen sink drama or Russian expressionism or Italian postwar cinema. But depressing. Chillingly depressing. Ann Sothern is plucky, but man oh man, is that the knife edge upon which people like her used to balance? Not really knowing where their next meal was coming from if they didn’t finagle their way into a job? Because that’s what happens in the Maisie series, over and over. Maisie loses her job and is about to — well, I have no idea, unless it’s starvation added to prostitution or a similar life of crime. She never gets to it, thank goodness. But she is pretty much about to be what we would think of as a homeless person, and she finds herself among a group of people who are similarly down and out. There is one entry, 1940’s Gold Rush Maisie, in which she is taken in by what I believe is called a family of Okies; these people have nothing but an old car and enough food to make it through a day or so. No money, no education, no social services, and possibly not even a change of clothes. I admit it is not too hard to believe that Maisie is imminently going to rally people to work together to improve their collective lot, but still, I mean, good heavens! This is not a light comedy about a Brooklyn showgirl, this is more like The Grapes of fricken’ Wrath. Now, I don’t mind that kind of entertainment, when I sign up to see it.  What I do object to is being told that I am about to see light entertainment with occasionally a song and dance, and being taken to the depths of despair.

And once that became plain, each entry began to demonstrate an affinity for melodrama and pathos, followed closely by bathos. In Ringside Maisie, for instance, her boxer friend is knocked out and comes to blind; only his life’s savings will finance the brain operation he needs, and that will put paid to his ambitions to follow in his father’s footsteps and open a small country store. In the next one, Maisie Gets Her Man, everyone we meet is completely broke and desperate; everyone rallies together to follow a cherubic guy who turns out to be a con artist who cheats everyone out of the pittances they have, then leaves town. Maisie Was a Lady has her as a maid to the daughter of a wealthy but emotionally cold family who is so screwed up that she does her darndest to commit suicide. I think the last few entries in the series are a bit more lighthearted, but honestly, I just don’t want to take the chance.

Annex - Sothern, Ann (Maisie Gets Her Man)_01_DSI can’t think that this was meant to be light entertainment in the way it’s presented nowadays. I think the social context is missing that would tell us that this series is an entry in a different sub-genre, one that we don’t quite understand in the same way any more. What this appears to me to be is a kind of cross between Blondie (who started out the same, as a brash flapper) and the lush romantic entanglements of Douglas Sirk’s 50s overwrought domestic melodramas. Perhaps this was a big-screen version of the exquisitely ridiculous radio soap operas of the day, like Aunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories or Backstage Wife, but I’ve never been able to listen to more than a few minutes of either of those before reaching my limit. Whatever it is, to my taste, and I suspect most 2013 viewers, it is a mix of sub-genres that contains far too much life-and-death drama and doesn’t adequately recompense the viewer with comic or musical relief. There is little or no detection content that would interest the majority of my readership. (The Wikipedia entry tells me that, in the final entry of the series, 1947’s Undercover Maisie, she becomes a Los Angeles cop, but an exceptionally incompetent one, and all detection is done by someone else.)

The way I see it, all these films are about a character, and that character never changes throughout the course of the films. In fact, the audience would be disappointed if Maisie did change in any way. Therefore, the natural story elements are preserved by having other characters change in an appropriate way around her, and usually on a simple and predictable path — poor to rich, bad to good, wrong to right. I have no data on the audience for whom these were designed, but I speculate that it was uneducated and primarily female; women with no money and no power who enjoyed Maisie wading into emotionally overwrought situations and sorting out people who were on the wrong track. Maisie was always just a little brassy and a little overdressed and a little florid, and I think this appealed more than lame evening gowns and brittle social comedy would have done.

So whether you will enjoy this series or not depends on your capacity to tolerate soap opera, pseudo-social commentary, overwrought romanticism, and/or Ann Sothern. Mine revealed itself to be limited to eight-tenths of the oeuvre; your mileage may vary.

The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine (1938) (#005 of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #005

$(KGrHqZ,!oQF!K6tt)S5BQK)+QwFlQ~~60_35The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine (1938)

Author:

S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) was, in the late 1920s, one of the best-selling authors in the United States.  In 1939, he died “of a heart condition exacerbated by excessive drinking”. He published 12 mysteries between 1926 and 1939 that featured Philo Vance, a foppish aesthete and amateur detective, and was also a well-known writer on such topics as Nietzsche and aesthetic philosophy. Many of his books were made into films and he also wrote a dozen mystery “short subjects” for the screen. His best-known biography, Alias S. S. Van Dine, says that he got started writing mysteries when he was confined to bed recovering from a cocaine addiction.  His life and work are interesting and complex, and summarizing it in a single paragraph cannot do it justice: I recommend the biography, and the Wikipedia entry for both Van Dine and Philo Vance.

Publication Data:

This is the second-last of 12 novels, from 1938, and was the last novel published in the author’s lifetime. The Winter Murder Case, released posthumously, was conceived as the basis of a movie featuring Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie.  It seems unarguable that this book was conceived and produced with a similar motive in mind, as a vehicle for popular radio star Gracie Allen, who was known for publicity stunts.  The film version was released in 1939, a year before Allen ran for president of the U.S. and received 42,000 votes.

The first edition is from Scribner’s in 1938; first UK is from Cassell, also in 1938.  First paper is the edition you see above, released as The Smell of Murder by Bantam, 1950, #756. To my knowledge this is the only time that a Van Dine novel was issued under any other title. (Philo Vance books follow a pattern of titles: The (six-letter word) Murder Case, and I gather that originally this title was meant to be merely Gracie.)  Other editions exist, including a paperback from Otto Penzler’s line, and the entire text of the novel is online from Project Gutenberg.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it. 

Philo Vance and his associate S. S. Van Dine, chronicler of his exploits, are assisting District Attorney Markham with a case focused on gangster Benny the Buzzard. Vance and Van Dine are out in the country when they encounter a young woman (Gracie Allen) employed by a perfume company, the In-O-Scent Corporation, as assistant to George Burns, here represented as a perfumier. Ms. Allen is what would today be known as a ditz; her conversation is replete with non-sequiturs and she is surrounded by a general air of goofiness. Vance apparently finds her charming. The action soon focuses on a nightclub called the Domdaniel where not only do a group of gangsters hang out — I almost called them a coterie, which gives you an idea of how Van Dine’s language rubs off on the reader — but Gracie’s brother is employed as a dishwasher. (It is not likely that the brother’s character in the book is meant to have anything to do with Allen’s real-life brother, but it is worth noting that in 1932/33, the Burns/Allen radio appearances contained a year-long search for Allen’s supposedly missing brother as a publicity stunt.  Contemporary audiences would be likely to have this more at the top of their minds some five or six years later.)

The activities of the gangsters, escaped convicts, etc., are focused on the Domdaniel nightclub and the first dead body is identified as that of Allen’s brother. There is a character involved with the gangsters, a Mr. Owen, who stands out because of his anguished and rather Nietzschean philosophy (the author’s first success was with a volume called What Nietzsche Taught, and the action grinds to a halt whenever Owen and Vance begin to chat) and the rather muddled plot concerns a secret entrance to the nightclub’s office, an escaped convict, and various manoeuvrings concerning a poisoned cigarette that smells of “jonquille”.

After some tedious gangster-focused material (the author apparently knew nothing about real gangsters) that is periodically interrupted by Gracie Allen saying cute and silly things, Vance solves the crime and arranges that an associated reward should go to Allen; Burns proposes to Allen in the final pages.  Vance also encourages the murderer to commit suicide, a Nietzschean echo of an earlier book, The Bishop Murder Case.

As noted, there is a filmed version of this novel which was released in 1939. Gracie Allen receives first billing over Warren William’s efforts as Philo Vance (referred to by Gracie as “Fido”) and many poor-quality prints exist of this film if you’re interested in seeing it. The film ignores most of the more complex material of the book and instead is a starring vehicle for Gracie, including an opportunity for her to sing a novelty song (“Snug as a Bug in a Rug”) where she runs the first lines of many popular songs together, apparently mistaking the link between tune and lyrics.

tumblr_llemg8HRrr1qceuzao1_500Why is this so awful?

I haven’t got a copy of Alias S. S. Van Dine handy but my recollection is that like many authors who strike it big, the author established spending habits early in his career that required labour to sustain. In 1932/32, for instance, he churned out a dozen short mystery stories that served as the basis for a series of short films (about 20 minutes) starring Donald Meek as Dr. Crabtree, Criminologist. As we progress along his career towards his death in ’39, though, his earning options grew fewer. He was no longer turning out four Philo Vance novels in three years as he did between 1933 and 1935; he released his last “true” Vance novel in 1936, The Kidnap Murder Case, and there were two years before the release of this piece of work.  In fact he was casting about for money, I think. He did have income coming in from filmed versions of his work; again, about one a year. But he had a very expensive penthouse in Manhattan and a dilettante’s lifestyle to support, one not unlike that of Philo Vance.

Part of the reason why his income was decreasing was because his work was, not to put too fine a point on it, getting worse and worse. There is an often-quoted line by Julian Symons in his history of detective fiction, Bloody Murder, which runs “The decline in the last six Vance books is so steep that the critic who called the ninth of them one more stitch in his literary shroud was not overstating the case.” And this book is his eleventh.

To the modern eye, frequently, there is little to choose between Philo Vance at his best and worst. Such tricks as having an alibi established by a specially-made phonograph record were inventive in 1927 but vieux jeu today. Certainly, connoisseurs of the locked room mystery appreciate the door-closing mechanism in The Kennel Murder Case as well as the Benson, and there is inventiveness and intelligence behind quite a bit of all of the first six novels. It has been said that The Bishop Murder Case is an early and essential precursor of the modern serial killer novel, but written at a time when the concept of a serial killer did not yet exist.

What is really hard to take, though, is the pompous nitwit who is at the centre of it all, Philo Vance. This is the detective about whom Ogden Nash wrote “Philo Vance/needs a kick in the pance.”  Wikipedia has a full article on him that goes into great detail, but I can find no better commentator than Dashiell Hammett reviewing the first Vance novel:

“This Philo Vance is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition and his conversational manner is that of a high-school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary. He is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that any one who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory; he managed always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong.”

Yes, it’s unfair to judge the mysteries of yesteryear by the standards of today. Yes, literary styles were different then. And yes, mysteries were in their infancy and one cannot expect the same level of sophistication as available to a modern writer who has the inventiveness and trickery of a century upon which to draw. But honestly, Van Dine was not much of a writer. Philo Vance is a ghastly annoyance with whom you must deal if one wants to try one’s hands against his clever plots (or his stupid ones since, for instance, Greene’s murderer is pretty much the only suspect left alive at the end). And judging by the alacrity with which the filmed versions calmed down Vance’s pomposity, I think most people would agree that one reads Van Dine to get past Vance for the intricacy of the solutions.

So we have a trajectory of an author whose best-selling days are behind him and who is scraping around trying to find well-paid work in Hollywood. And we have the beginnings of something that is a much more common and well-developed phenomenon in this day and age — product placement.  And when they collide, this is the result.

445467522The movie industry was just waking up to the possibilities of tie-in materials. At about the same time, Whitman Publishing did a series of novels for young people with names like Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx and Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak. Whitman later went on to publish many series familiar to children in the 1950s and 1960s, with cheap pictorial board covers and names like Walt Disney’s Annette and the Mystery at Moonstone Bay; not much in the way of change, merely new faces.

This volume is something quite special, at least I think it is. You’ll note that Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx contains no author’s name upon the jacket; the author was more or less irrelevant to the experience. But a merger of Philo Vance and Gracie Allen is a cross-over perhaps not quite as impressive as, say, Spiderman versus Superman, but an amalgamation of two media platforms nevertheless, and this is unusual for such an early time as 1938. This is not an age where the crossover is common, either by shuffling two icons together into a story or taking a single franchise into a quite different platform. Its examples are unusual and worth noticing.

gracie-allen-murder-case-smUltimately, that’s why this belongs in my Die Before You Read section; it’s a very early example of the crossover novel, and it fails more thoroughly than any other in my recollection. Bonita Granville and the Mystery of Star Island, let’s face it, was a piece of disposable trash aimed at pre-teen girls. It might even be an early example of slash fiction, albeit the authorized version. It doesn’t really matter if the novel had any literary quality because it didn’t need to, and thus its author remained mercifully anonymous. But when you take a well-known intellectual like Willard Huntington Wright and put his writing talents at the service of a radio comedienne, well, you already have a brand mismatch. Vance is known for being smart, Gracie’s known for being dumb. Putting the two together in a single novel is a waste of talent; his fans won’t appreciate her, and vice versa. And all the attempts to try to make it work — don’t work.

And so the book is excruciating. Since everything in the plot has to be engineered to keep Gracie in the scene as much as possible, allowing her to exhibit multiple virtues but giving her absolutely no vices, the plot becomes merely ridiculous. Everything — logic, common sense, characterization, human qualities — is sacrificed to the need to show off Gracie Allen. You’ll notice in the plot outline above, I haven’t really said very much about the plot. That’s mostly because very little of it makes much sense. It’s easy to tell that the writer intended this as the basis of a screenplay (I think of this as a “reverse novelization”) because there aren’t all that many locations used; the Domdaniel nightclub recurs again and again, and other obviously interesting locations like, for instance, George Burns’s perfume factory are ignored because they would be expensive to shoot. For the rest of it, well, there are gangsters, and Van Dine had no ear for how gangsters talk or who they are. They are merely physical descriptions with labels like “chanteuse”, “boss”, “underling”.  And there is a silly murder method based on a poisoned cigarette. And there is Gracie Allen making silly jokes and non-sequiturs, and Vance having a quite unnecessary fondness for her on first sight. Nothing makes sense and nothing rings true.

In short, this is tawdry and meretricious and altogether unfortunate. It really makes one think that, like so many other authors, Van Dine should have quit mysteries before releasing his last few, or perhaps that he should merely have settled for the screenplay income and not released this as a novel also. After his death, his estate felt more free to tamper with the asinine character at the base of all this, and the 1940s brought a considerably more ordinary Vance to prominence in radio for many years.  There was a market for a detective brand named Philo Vance, it just wasn’t the one the character’s creator had much to do with.  But the author was busily ruining his own brand before he died, and it was rehabilitated by others. If modern television is looking for competition for Sherlock Holmes in his various incarnations, this is one brand that could, I believe, be rehabilitated successfully. Just not by doing cross-over stuff with it.

There is a further reason why this volume in particular rather than, say, the 12th in the series (the Sonja Henie vehicle) I have pinpointed for my Die Before You Read series, a specific defect of literary quality unique to this volume.  It’s because of what Colin Watson calls, in Snobbery With Violence, the Silly Ass quality.

Philo Vance and Peter Wimsey and Reggie Fortune and Albert Campion and even Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham all qualify as the Silly Ass detective (but only Vance is American, which tells you something).  Watson describes it as:

“[A] young man in smart clothes, sickly grin and monocle, whose vocabulary was as limited as his means and expectations were supposed to be substantial. He was generally depicted as having difficulty in understanding the import of what other people said to him. When making his own laboured but idiotically affable contribution to dialogue, he would … address his companion as ‘old bean’.”

A well-known type in the early history of detective fiction. But two things occurred to me in considering the Silly Ass character type in relation to this particular novel. The first is that, in order to work, the Silly Ass has to be surrounded by characters who are not actually Silly Asses, in order for the Silly Ass’s mannerisms to be more attention-getting.  For every Peter Wimsey there needs to be a Charles Parker against whose backdrop he can glitter.

And the second is that, in every reasonable sense, Gracie Allen has assumed the mantle of the Silly Ass. Read the above quote again with that in mind.  “[D]ifficulty in understanding the import of what other people said to him”? Exactly. The Silly Ass was pretty much over when Philo Vance worked it to death, and other comic talents mined its base metal for new alloys.  Like Gracie Allen, who transmogrified it into the Ditzy Young Woman.

But, as I noted in point one — the one thing you need if you have a Silly Ass is a Not-Silly-Ass.  In fact, the one thing you do not need is the modernized version of your own protagonist as Ditzy Young Woman.  There is no staid presence against whom they can play, and so they merely try to out-amuse each other until the piece of fiction is over.  This is not very enjoyable to consider in the abstract, since there is no opportunity for the interrelationship to contribute to any plot structure, and in this concrete case it’s simply boring and silly, like two seven-year-olds shrieking “Look at me! Look at me!”.

If you actually want to read a Philo Vance novel after this, I’d recommend The Bishop Murder Case, which as noted above is actually a proto-serial killer novel at a time when the phrase didn’t exist. The ‘Canary’ Murder Case — yes, there is a single quote mark surrounding the word “Canary” and yes, that is how the book’s title is represented if you’re a purist — is also interesting for its very early puzzle-mystery contributions to the construction of an alibi. And if you want to see one of the films, The Kennel Murder Case is considered the best, but I actually also highly recommend The Bishop Murder Case because Basil Rathbone’s only outing as Philo Vance is not to be missed.

Notes For the Collector:

Abebooks.com has a Very Good copy of the first edition for $500, which seems a bit high to me: other similar copies are listed from $235 to $350, and less crisp copies from around $90 up.  The only copy on Abe of the first paper edition shown at the top of this review is listed at $20.  My own copy is in much better condition than the one shown; I would say it’s VG+ and I might price it for retail sale at $20 to $25.  I always think the variorum title is worth having, especially since Van Dine is so rigorous about naming his books.

Since the text of the novel is freely available for the interested reader, this novel is certainly not scarce. A poor book in a well-known series is often scarce, but this book is also available in print-on-demand format. Unlike most of my Die Before You Read series, various copies of this book might appeal to collectors interested in Burns and Allen, Philo Vance completists, and even collectors of Bantam paperbacks. It’s not easy to find a crisp one of these and although the cover illustration doesn’t appear to be Gracie Allen, this would qualify as a movie tie-in to some collectors.

pic1583568_mdA DVD copy of the film version is available on Amazon for $22 as of this writing; I have never seen it screened on television. I was fascinated to learn that as a tie-in to the tie-in of the filmed version, Milton Bradley released a board game that looks to be a cousin of Clue. I’ve never seen this object in real life and I suspect that if you like this sort of thing, this particular item would be VERY collectible if it was accompanied by the novel and film.