The case of the cynical synthesis


E.R. Punshon (note the ears!)

It’s always interesting to me when an author breaks the fourth wall and speaks, within the confines of a work of fiction, about how or why one writes. Many mystery writers seem to do it, and I’m not sure why, but there’s generally an authentic tinge of “behind the scenes” that fascinates me.

Four Strange WomenThis is from Four Strange Women by E.R. Punshon (1940). Punshon is certainly a minor figure in the history of detective fiction; what I like to call a first-rate second-rate author, who was popular in his day but whose books have, until recently, passed out of print and remained there. The speaker, Mr. Eyton, is a professional journalist who has reported on the murder that takes place in the opening chapters. But he has a bit of a hobby; he’s writing something along the lines of some recent (imaginary) best-sellers, Musings in British Gardens and Dreaming ‘Midst the Flowers; apparently prosodical thoughts on the topic of being outdoors. Eyton’s is Twilight Thoughts Beneath the Trees.

“I am writing a book. … I’ve been working on it for some time,” Mr. Eyton explained. “Whenever I can, I take my bicycle and go to the forest. I describe what I see; above all, what I feel. That’s the secret,” he said, wagging his finger at Bobby. “Any one can see. Few can feel; at least, I mean, few know what they feel until the author tells them. Explain to the average man exactly what he thought when he saw the sunset, the rabbits at play, head the wind rustling through the trees, that’s the secret of success.”

“But suppose,” Bobby objected, “he didn’t feel a blessed thing — except wondering if he could get there before closing time?”

“Ah, the homely touch.” Mr. Eyton beamed approval. “My dear sir, it is, in fact, the public who never felt anything, who couldn’t feel anything, at whom an author aims — that is, if he wishes for a large circulation. You see, it pleases people to know what they would have felt if, in fact, they had felt it. You follow me? … Of course, you mustn’t startle your reader by anything he couldn’t recognize as his own ideas if he ever had any. All is there.”

3620803._UY400_SS400_I think this relates to a favourite quote of mine about detective fiction, which I am chagrined to say I have more than once misquoted over the years, apparently changing it to suit my unconscious needs. Let me take this opportunity to set the record straight and apologize. This is the accurate quotation from page 303 of Q.D. Leavis:  Collected Essays by Q.D. (Queenie) Leavis (her seminal work, Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) is available freely here) on the topic of the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers.

“And in the matter of ideas, subject, theme, problems raised, she [Sayers] similarly performs the best-seller’s function of giving the impression of intellectual activity to readers who would very much dislike that kind of exercise if it were actually presented to them; but of course it is all shadow-boxing. With what an air of unconventionality and play of analysis Miss Sayers handles her topics, but what relief her readers must feel — it is part no doubt of her success — that they are let off with a reassurance that everything is really all right and appearances are what really matter.”

Does this sound like a cynical synthesis? Punshon (in a mystery) is saying that best-sellers fake emotion for people who aren’t equipped to have emotions, and Leavis is saying that mysteries fake intellect for people who aren’t equipped to have intellect. So the synthesis would be that popular fiction in general is faking something or other for the benefit of deficient readers, and therefore the more assiduous your reading, the larger must be your lack of some essential personality component. Yikes. I read more than anyone in my everyday life, and apparently it’s because I’m more stupid and insensitive than anyone I know. But at least I learned about my shortcomings from a novel 😉


Queenie Leavis

My first reaction was that the whole thing seemed very sneering and supercilious, and to be completely honest I’ve valued Mrs. Leavis’s observation for years precisely because it was so tart and acid. (Queenie Leavis is rather like what Dorothy Parker would have been like if she’d been very thoroughly educated in literary theory.) Perhaps it’s a function of advancing decrepitude, or perhaps it’s having recently pinpointed that one desirable function of detective fiction is indoctrination, or the introduction of the reader to information about how society works, but I find these days I am more willing to accept that works of fiction should shoulder the load of educating today’s population about how to manage their emotions and to function within society. Heaven knows nothing else seems to be able to.

As a gloss upon my recent discussion of indoctrination, let me offer Mrs. Leavis’s comment, from Fiction and the Reading Public:

“The modern reader is at once struck by the body of traditional lore the [Elizabethan] people must have possessed which served instead of the ‘knowledge’ (i.e., acquaintance with a mass of more or less unrelated facts, derived principally from an elementary school education and the newspaper) that forms the background of the modern working-man’s mind.”

And note that this volume was published in 1932, pretty much the middle of the Golden Age of Detection. Mrs. Leavis seems to be unhappy that popular fiction transmitted “more or less unrelated facts” at the time they were being communicated, but to today’s reader they are not unrelated; they are all part and parcel of a long-ago age with butlers and pukka sahibs and bodies in the library, with very little in the way of social overlap to today’s context.

It is perhaps distressing and inappropriate that today’s adolescent absorbs social mores as part of the subtext of a poorly-written book about a girl who falls in love with a sparkly vampire, but at least it’s via a book and not a music video or a MMO. Perhaps I’m prejudiced in favour of books, being so heavily invested in them, but it does seem that they are produced by people who are trying to observe human nature and society in general and reproduce the more interesting or useful bits while telling a story — AND they use the written word to do so, which has the effect of expanding one’s ability to communicate with others more precisely. It’s more useful to tell someone their actions are pathetic if both of you know what the word “pathos” means.

So what if mysteries are designed to present me with examples of logical thought structures that I cannot hope to achieve in real life? Very few people’s real-life situations are populated by people who would, for instance, use an audio recording to fake an alibi while they’re off murdering someone. Far more realistic is the common news story that someone has been murdered by a stranger to obtain a ridiculously small amount of money, using a gun or a knife or a blunt instrument, and generally speaking it’s not very interesting or informative (unless you are Truman Capote), merely sad. Detective fiction, in fact, preserves the important social meme that some people do actually try to commit subtle and serious crimes that are meant to remain undetected, and we’d better be on the lookout for them; not everyone can be a Hercule Poirot or a Jane Marple, but we can continue to acknowledge the need for such persons to detect these subtle crimes. And we can take pleasure in experiencing stories of their adventures.

And if, as Mrs. Leavis remarks, we are let off the trouble of truly deep thought by a reassurance that everything is really all right — perhaps it’s the continuing repetition of the meme that some problems (mysteries) exist that require the application of intense thought in order to “solve” them that we are gaining, and that this is a valuable frame of mind to maintain as a common understanding. I might not be able to figure out who killed Roger Ackroyd, but that story helps me to understand that there are thought patterns out there that can be learned, attained, and mastered that would have let me equal Poirot’s achievement in doing so. In the meantime, it’s not a terrible thing that I should be reassured about the essential rightness of the world in the background.

I’ll close off these musings with a final thought. What I seem to be describing is a system where mystery writers are cynical in order to reassure readers that the world itself is not a terrible place. Is this a good thing? Would we be better off with finding a mode of intellectual activity that required us to actually develop intellectual skills that identify crimes rather than continuing to experience those skills by observing a fictional detective and pretending we followed right along? Or are the exigencies of modern life such that we’ll develop those skills if and when we need them, and meanwhile it is appropriate merely to remind ourselves that those skills exist in an enjoyable way?  I suspect I know where my readers’ loyalties lie, but I’m prepared to be surprised if my readers care to do so in the comments.

My apologies also to Erle Stanley Gardner, who inspired the title.





The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Dorothy L. Sayers and the gold lamé wedding gown

Tuesday Night FebruaryA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in March will be devoted to John Dickson Carr.



Dorothy L. Sayers and the gold lamé wedding gown


Since this is our final Tuesday with Dorothy L. Sayers for a while, I trust my readers will forgive my wandering a bit on this topic. While working on blog posts for this month, I’ve tried a couple of times, unsuccessfully, to try to figure out why I don’t really enjoy the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers. I’m getting closer.

fe6692ed9873eb2ee77c0f6da7d3e414A few years back, I rather thought it was because she’s an arrogant writer, and that’s a quality I don’t find interesting. Arrogant, for me, is creating a 30-page letter as a crucial element of Clouds of Witness in stilted and rather prissy French — and then being surprised when her publishers want to provide a translation. Similarly, I think it’s pretty arrogant to have a crucial verbal exchange in Gaudy Night take place in Latin, although there’s nothing in it that affects the detective work.

41q+ZB-iWkL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_And yet everything I’ve heard about this lady suggests that she was not the arrogant type at all. I’m not exceptionally versed in her biography; I’ve read Such A Strange Lady but little else. What Martin Edwards had to say about her in his excellent recent work on the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder, (buy one here!) agrees with my impression that she was kind of a galumphing British country lady, swathed in gigantic ill-fitting tweeds and subject to emotional outbursts and sudden enormous bursts of energy. I can’t maintain that “arrogant” is a word you apply to someone who insists upon the complex nonsensical ritual including Eric the Skull that was necessary to become a member of the Detection Club. That sounds more to me like that peculiar turn of phrase, “jolly hockey sticks”, indicating “boisterous enthusiasm”.


Queen Victoria started the trend for “white satin and orange blossoms” for a wedding gown.

I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that DLS used the Peter and Harriet storyline as a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy, where her romantic life finally came out the way she wanted it. (Including her own statement quoted by Barbara Reynolds, via Wikipedia, that she created Lord Peter as a wealthy man to give herself the pleasure of spending his fortune for him.) But was Sayers herself ready to move within the social circles attendant upon marriage to a peer of the realm? I rather doubt it, actually. She was the daughter of a country doctor who worked hard to get a superb education at an excellent school, and in real life she married an unsuccessful Scottish journalist. She might have made a superb wife for a don, or a country doctor; however, I’ve always felt that the woman who insisted that her stand-in, Harriet Vane, would get married in gold lamé, a fabric beloved of drag queens and trailer trash, lacked an essential instinct, or understanding, that would allow her to succeed in the higher realms of society.

I also think that DLS realized it, too. The idea that she would be so thoroughly and repellently patronized for her dress sense by the equivalent of Peter’s sister-in-law is where the idea of Helen came from for her books; in order to make Helen a figure of fun and opprobrium in the novels, she had to have realized that that’s what would have happened to a real-life Harriet Vane who “married above herself”.

But was my instinct correct? I had occasion to go back to the original text of Busman’s Honeymoon recently, and I came across the exact quote about gold lamé; only, to my surprise, there were two references.  The Dean in a letter to Miss Edwards says “she looked like a Renaissance portrait stepped out of its frame. I put it down first of all to the effect of gold lamé,”, and this is the piece I’ve always remembered.  But Helen, Duchess of Denver, later says in a letter to Lady Grummidge that Harriet “had enough sense of propriety not to get herself up in white satin and orange-blossom; but I could not help thinking that a plain costume would have been more suitable than cloth of gold. I can see that I shall have to speak to her presently about her clothes, but I am afraid she will be difficult.”

3af9425bfae0b2d65f2fcc8ecd0fcad3Now, “cloth of gold” may have been a phrase I’d read a couple of times, but it had never quite stuck before.  I had had in my mind that Harriet was wearing a kind of fabric that was newly being manufactured at the time … as Wikipedia defines it, a shiny fabric “woven or knit with thin ribbons of metallic yarns”. The classic gold lamé evening gown is one worn by Marilyn Monroe, and I’ve shown you a picture of it to the left. Thin, glittering, and very expensive fabric that moulds to the body. And I think it’s this level of expensive-looking luxury that I always had in mind, although admittedly I would have assumed that Harriet would have covered her shoulders and neckline. I figured DLS had chosen an expensive and glamorous fabric with about the same lack of knowledge as caused her to make bloomers about Peter’s choices in wine and motorcars.

bb685c566e6e9a49e6812db700067010Cloth of gold, however, is a whole other fabric, in my mind. According to Wikipedia once more, it’s woven with a gold-wrapped or spun weft; the core yarn, though, is usually silk. This material “is mentioned … as a fabric befitting a princess” and it has an association with mediaeval gowns. I’ve shown you one to the left that’s the best reference I could find. As a fabric, I think cloth of gold has more of a formal feel, and it has distinct overtones of the upper classes; under Henry VIII, its use was “reserved to royalty and higher levels of nobility”.

So in other words — far from being the gauche and over-dramatic statement that would have caused Harriet to rightly be patronized by Helen, Harriet — and thus DLS — was on the right track entirely. A woman who had been acquitted of murdering her lover is not suitable for white satin and orange-blossom, since to put it bluntly she’s demonstrably not a virgin. And yet it’s clear later on in Busman’s Honeymoon that Harriet, now Lady Peter, realizes that if she doesn’t take on the trappings of the aristocracy quickly and effectively, Helen will be able to use it against both herself and Lord Peter. I’ve spent 30 or 40 years thinking that the material of Harriet’s wedding dress was a terrible misstep and very revealing of DLS’s lack of understanding of the fine details of social usage at the highest levels. And it turns out that instead Helen and I got it all wrong; DLS knew what was going on and I didn’t.

So, I owe Dorothy L. Sayers a little bit of a re-examination as well as something of an apology. As penance, even though we’re now done with DLS, I’m going to go back and re-read the four novels where Harriet and Peter slowly fall in love. Another 30 years might go by before I publish a full recantation, admitting that Peter and Harriet are lovers for the ages — but I’m getting there slowly!


Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, by William S. Baring-Gould (1969)

Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, by William S. Baring-Gould (1969)

NeroWolfeWhat’s this book about?

Most aficionados of detective fiction are familiar with the exploits of Nero Wolfe, the corpulent private detective who directs the activities of his associate Archie Goodwin in some 70 recorded cases written by Rex Stout (and a handful of licensed continuations by Robert Goldsborough). Nero Wolfe has been the subject of two films, four radio series, and two television series — you can read all about him in his Wikipedia entry here.

This book is what used to be called an “appreciation” — perhaps it still would be. It consists of a recapitulation of the plots of all extant novels and short stories as at the date of publication. Both Rex Stout and the series were still alive at this point and my first paperback edition is missing information about the final three novels, a couple of short story accumulations, and all of Robert Goldsborough’s continuation novels. As well, since all the stories take place against a common background of Wolfe’s New York brownstone and a recurring cast of characters, the volume accumulates what is known of persons, places, and things that figure in what has become known as the “corpus“. Corpus is a play on words referring to Wolfe’s bulky body and the complete oeuvre of his fictional adventures. As the back cover blurb on my first paperback edition (shown above) indicates, this is “a handbook for informed appreciation, a compendium and a chronology”. There is nothing here that attempts to bring any new understanding to where the character comes from, or to deepen your understanding of Nero Wolfe’s place in detective fiction; this is merely an assembly of facts and citations.

f643024128a041cb24846010Why is this worth reading?

It’s not.

This is because we now have Wikipedia and the internet; anyone can now indulge him- or herself in whatever level of information and speculation they wish about the exact dimensions of Wolfe’s office, the placement of his red leather chairs, how many cookbooks precisely are on the shelves of his chef Fritz, etc. The publication dates and plot summaries of every single Nero Wolfe volume are available from Wikipedia and a number of other websites. There are single-purpose Wolfe-oriented discussion groups (one of which I helped moderate for a few years), organizations like the Wolfe Pack operate websites and have physical meetings, etc. The functions of this volume have been entirely superseded by the internet.

In fact, I’m kind of at a loss to know why this volume was published at all, although until Penguin reprinted it in trade paperback format I used to sell a lot of used paperback copies of the Bantam edition to Wolfe aficionados at fairly high prices. There is nothing in this book that one cannot glean from reading the novels themselves and, honestly, the novels are much, much better written and more lively. If you have read the books, then you don’t need plot recaps. If you haven’t read them, well, there is a faint likelihood that it will be of benefit to you to know what you’ve missed, but isn’t it better to merely obtain a list of the books and tick them off as you go? And if you for some unfathomable reason cannot live without knowing the dimensions of Wolfe’s office — his fictional office, I hasten to add, and subject like everything else in the corpus to the vagaries of Rex Stout’s constant forgetfulness of minor details — then that information can be gleaned from the novels themselves, and you can spend an evening if you so desire in drawing up a floor plan and trying to imagine what the waterfall picture looks like. This volume, incidentally, does not contain such a floor plan.

But if you are a Nero Wolfe fan, and you have tracked down a copy of Where There’s A Will complete with photographs, and you have spent a month’s rent on a first edition of Corsage, and have a copy of every Tecumseh Fox mystery and Alphabet Hicks mysteries and the Dol Bonner mystery, and Double for Death in the mapback edition, and the book/movie The President Vanishes, and the Nero Wolfe Cookbook, and all the Goldsborough novels, and and and — then you will not strain at the gnat, relatively speaking, that is this volume. You can acquire a copy on Abebooks for under $10 as of this writing. One of the entries for the hardcover first says “A ‘must’ for any serious Rex Stout collection.” And that sentiment brings me to my point.

In recent months I have been giving thought to “tie-ins”. These are artifacts that are connected with fictional characters but not usually invented by the original creator of that character. I’ve posted an article (found here) about Sophie Hannah’s authorized continuation of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot character, The Monogram Murders. My piece here talks at some length about the relationship between the book and the film of S. S. Van Dine’s The Gracie Allen Murder Case, and goes into the nascent industry of the movie tie-in novel represented by such volumes as Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak. My piece even notes the existence of a Milton Bradley board game called “The Gracie Allen Murder Case Game” marketed as an adjunct to the short-lived film that will set you back a cool $700 or so IF you can find a well-worn copy, which you probably can’t; it’s bloody rare indeed.

In 2015, the movie tie-in paperback has perhaps waned in popularity from its zenith in, perhaps, the 80s and 90s, where it was very nearly obligatory for every film being marketed to boys and young men to come with its accompanying novelization (a kind of prosodic dumbing-down of the plot of the film in simple English), and for films featuring handsome male actors and/or musicians addressed to girls and young women to have an accompanying novelization in slightly higher-level language but more colour close-up photos tipped into the centre. Tie-in novels have rather died down in the subsequent years, but the concept is still going strong in ways you may find difficult to believe. Murder, She Wrote was last broadcast in 1996 (although there were four subsequent made-for-TV movies). Donald Bain, listed as co-author with the imaginary Jessica Fletcher, has published 35 volumes in the series of novels featuring Jessica Fletcher, most in hardcover; two a year for quite a while, including 2015. Thirty-five volumes, still going strong almost 20 years after the last episode of the TV series — quite an achievement.

In a very general sense, a tie-in is a commercial product that is associated with a character, either real or imaginary, but that does not contribute to the original purpose or reason for the celebrity of that character. Jessica Fletcher was the main character of a television series; therefore, novels — as well as lunch boxes, memo pads, aprons, tote bags, coffee cups, and “appreciations” — which feature that character are all tie-in materials.

There are mysteries which purport to be written by celebrities like Martina Navratilova and Willie Shoemaker, and ones which apparently actually were written by Steve Allen. Those are tie-ins to celebrity. There are ancillary novels that accompany various series of films and television; Quantum Leap books, Babylon 5 novels, Indiana Jones adventures, and enough Star Trek novels to sink a Battleship — which also has its own movie tie-in novel. Frankly, the thought of a board game becoming a film which is then turned into a novel fills me with wildly mixed emotions ranging from nausea to hilarity, but mostly I find it bathetic in the extreme. That novel must take awfulness to a new Stygian depth. I have the weird feeling that if I open the novel, I’ll implode and form a new Heinleinian multiverse, or something.

What the tie-in process boils down to, though, is that a writer creates a character; in this case, Nero Wolfe. The character becomes very popular and people are anxious to get, and read, new books in the series. (Or to experience new Indiana Jones films or watch new episodes featuring Jessica Fletcher or, way back when, listen to new radio episodes featuring The Shadow.) The original material doesn’t appear fast enough to suit enthusiastic fans, and this is where tie-in materials start to be created. What also happens, of course, is that the creation of these tie-in materials makes economic sense to someone. If you can create a lunch box for $1 and sell it for $3, fine. But if you can put a picture of Donny Osmond on it and sell it for $7, even if you have to pay Mr. Osmond $1 for the privilege, you are doing very well indeed. A $3 lunch box works as well as a $7 lunch box; what you are saying is that you like Donny Osmond and want your luncheon companions to know that, and it’s worth $4 to be able to say so.

Back in the day, this was a primitive form of branding. The manufacturers of Ovaltine knew that children liked radio stories about Little Orphan Annie and so created mugs for drinking Ovaltine with pictures of Little Orphan Annie on them. Note that in the old days, these things related directly; Ovaltine provided mugs from which one could drink Ovaltine, and this is an elegant closed circle. It didn’t take long to figure out, though, that there were two ways in which this process could be made to pay. One is that the tie-in didn’t have to relate directly to the character; for instance, a Little Orphan Annie colouring book. The other is that sometimes it is worthwhile to create tie-in materials that are nearly worthless and give them to children (and credulous adults) as ways of cementing brand loyalty. Hence, the Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring. If you listened to the radio program and possessed a decoder ring, you would receive secret messages which you could decode — mostly, as I understand it, having to do with the advisability of drinking lots of Ovaltine. If you were a child who was not in possession of the ring, your ring-less status was derided by your friends and it was clear that you were not getting the full benefit of your fannish appreciation of Little Orphan Annie. Children who owned rings were au courant with the cultural zeitgeist, although I doubt they’d have expressed it that way. Either way, children drank more Ovaltine and more than repaid the cost of the nearly worthless rings.

As time marched on and branding became a more sophisticated process, the existence of tie-ins was a signal of a certain level of brand involvement by the parent company. The folks at Disney were the masters of such branding programs. When the very first sketches were being laid down for the first nascent ideas that were to become, say, The Lady and the Tramp — those sketches were also passed to the marketing department to get to work on Lady and the Tramp comic books and plastic toys and lunch boxes and colouring books and dozens of other things. And the number and extent of such tie-in materials signalled the level of investment that the parent company found worthwhile. Lassie and Dan’l Boone had huge ancillary marketing materials in hundreds of categories; a decade later, The Munsters and The Partridge Family took those numbers into the thousands. You could sleep on Munsters sheets and eat Munsters cereal from Munsters bowls, and carry your Munsters lunchbox home from school while wearing your Eddie Munster jacket, read a Munsters comic book, and play with your glow-in-the-dark Munsters toys and games, while signed-in-plate photographs of Butch Patrick and Yvonne de Carlo smiled down from your bedroom walls. There was no limit to the things upon which Munsters iconography could be stencilled — that is, until they went off the air and everyone had to have a Star Trek lunchbox. There’s no money in static branding.

And so I believe that the adults to whom brands and characters were marked with tie-in materials became accustomed to thinking of characters as the appropriate subject of tie-in materials. For something to be culturally significant, it had to be accompanied by tie-in materials; and this brings us finally back to Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street. As I said, there is really no reason for this volume to exist. It is a kind of cooing noise expressing pleasure at the idea of Nero Wolfe. But it was created, and marketed, as “A ‘must’ for any serious Rex Stout collection.” That’s an idea that deserves a little unpacking.

wolfe-plaqueWhat exactly is a “serious” Rex Stout collection? I’d venture to say that it’s one that is worth the most money. But I have been in the position of selling relatively worthless objects at hefty prices — like, for instance, first editions of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street — to people who didn’t want them for some pleasure that they’d receive by reading the book, but merely wished to possess a copy of the book so that they could say they owned one. So that, indeed, they could prove they had a “serious” collection. I think a “serious” collection can be paradoxically defined as the one that contains the highest number of frivolous objects. The less the object has to do with the original character, the more it’s only in the possession of the “serious” collector. The possessors of these serious collections are thoroughly convinced that the money they spent on acquiring them will be recompensed some day, perhaps by an envious younger person who will double or triple the price paid in order to acquire the tie-in object. But for an example of where that goes wrong, I give you (a) Beanie Babies; (b) the egregious and nearly worthless objects known as “collector plates”; (c) the entire output of the Franklin Mint. Did you pay $500 for a copy of a script from the original Nero Wolfe TV program, apparently annotated in Lee Horsley’s handwriting? Kiss your $500 good-bye, unless you can find someone with the same disease you caught; you may have to infect them personally with the importance and significance and sheer gravitas of such a scarce object.

As to why one would have a Nero Wolfe “collection” that consisted of anything more than novels written about Nero Wolfe — your guess is as good as mine. I confess to having owned a “Nero Wolfe” necktie that is vaguely orchidaceous, that I bought at the time of the Timothy Hutton TV series; it’s a nice tie, but I never wore it and gave it to my brother. I bought it because it was attractive, not because it was associated with the program. It cost me about twice as much as it should have. I have a copy of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street that originally sold for 75 cents; I paid $3 for it, and I would expect to get $5, possibly from one of my readers. That’s the used book business; old books are worth what they will bring from a knowledgeable reader. I paid $35 for a bootleg DVD of 1937’s The League of Frightened Men, because I wanted badly to see it; I wasted $35.

In fact, I actually really, really like the Nero Wolfe novels and stories; I’m well versed in their details and chronology. I’ve read every single one, again and again. I can quote chunks of them. But let me confess; I don’t care in the slightest how big the front room is, or how big the globe is, or the dimensions of the waterfall picture. I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t CARE. I like the characters, I like the writing, and I like the spirit and feeling of the books. But by and large, I can tell you — anyone who is trying to convince you that there is something called a “serious Nero Wolfe collection” is trying to take your money. I know this, because I have stood behind the counter of a mystery bookstore and sold people copies of this book, and the Cadfael Companion, and a twee little volume purporting to detail the Wimsey family history, and Agatha Christie tote bags, and Murder, She Wrote coffee cups, at a minimum of 100% markup and, frankly, whatever the traffic would bear. I did that so that I could afford to keep the store’s doors open to make copies of really good, well-written mysteries available to people who wanted to read them, but the people who manufactured the coffee cups have no such excuse.

I have no objection to getting together with like-minded people to discuss the novels and stories, as long as it doesn’t get too out of hand. Most members of organizations like the Wolfe Pack are sensible and intelligent bibliophiles who esteem the same fiction I do, and know the difference between a first edition in jacket of Fer-de-Lance and a TV script that Lee Horsley has scribbled on. In fact, some of my best friends, et cetera. I enjoy finding depths of meaning and a better understanding of American cultural themes and motifs in the books, and I enjoy discussing those things with other people. But if you come to me looking for my $3 paperback of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, I might take $5 but I’ll try to stick you for $12 — and I’m a relatively nice person. Other merchants will not be so kind, and you may end up with a sample of Lee Horsley’s handwriting at vastly inflated prices.

If you think you need to have a “serious Nero Wolfe collection” — try and understand that that really consists of fiction written featuring Nero Wolfe. Be well-read rather than “serious”; buy the novel and not the lunch box. And leave this book alone.

51pwNjGwcbL._SL500_SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My favourite edition

I have a first paperback edition that I skimmed to write this piece, and I’ve had and sold a number of copies of the first edition; since I always made more money from the true first, seen here, I suppose it would be my favourite edition. It’s certainly the one with the best graphic design of any I’ve seen. As of today on Abebooks, a decent copy should set you back somewhere around $25 depending on where you live. Beware of the BCE (book club edition), which looks quite similar but is relatively valueless.

My least favourite volume

I will add here that if you think I was hard on THIS volume, I reserve the utmost scorn and disapproval for a similar volume by one Ken Darby. William Baring-Gould was merely an enthusiastic fanboi before the term existed, albeit a literate and well-read one; Darby regurgitates the same material in worse prose and less exact detail and, to my enormous distaste, stops for a wholly unnecessary chapter to “prove” that any rumours that Messrs. Goodwin and Wolfe are gay are false and vile canards, and says a lot of nasty things about homosexuality in the process. Frankly, I’m gay and had never even considered such an idea; it’s directly contradicted over and over by the Stout-written stories themselves. I gather that the Darby book is out of print and relatively unavailable, and in my opinion it should stay that way, because the author was a vulgar and homophobic toad. I’ll decline to provide you with the title of this piece de merde or even to tag his name; let the book die in its well-deserved obscurity.


The Tragedy of Y, as by “Barnaby Ross” (Ellery Queen) (1932)

The Tragedy of Y, as by “Barnaby Ross” (Ellery Queen) (1932)

BR02b_Tragedy_of_YAuthor: “Barnaby Ross” is a pseudonym adopted by the two gentlemen better known as “Ellery Queen” for a series of four books featuring detective Drury Lane, a wealthy retired actor who has become deaf.

Publication Data: The first edition is from Viking Press, 1932. Many, many editions exist. It’s not entirely clear to me when the publication as by “Barnaby Ross” became as by “Ellery Queen”, but an edition from Frederick A. Stokes in 1941 cites both names on the cover and contains a foreword as by Ellery Queen which appears to explain the transition. A number of paperback editions exist, including early Avon and Pocket editions. For this review I used a searchable PDF copy that came in a bundle from a friend, although I’m not sure exactly from whom or when, and so have chosen to illustrate the topmost section of this review with the edition whose cover I find most attractive, Pocket Books #313.

This is the second of four volumes in the brief Drury Lane series; The Tragedy of X, Y (both 1932) and Z were followed by Drury Lane’s Last Case (The Tragedy of 1599), both published in 1933.

10639765895About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read does not discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery but 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. 

This story begins with the discovery, by a fishing boat, of a nearly-unidentifiable corpse which is carrying a signed and dated suicide note identifying its transport as Mr. Y. (York) Hatter of New York. The York family consists of the late York, a somewhat ineffectual paterfamilias and dabbler in science who is married to the true governor of the family, the hugely wealthy, eccentric, and tyrannical Emily Hatter.  There are four children in the next generation, and everyone lives in the Hatter mansion — home to, as the tabloids put it, the “mad Hatters”. Eldest daughter Barbara is an intellectual and a well-known poet; Conrad is a drunk weakling who married weak-willed Martha and produced two boys, Jackie (13) and Billy (4). Jill, the youngest, is a sensation-seeking debutante who is constantly gracing tabloid covers. And the fourth child, the daughter of Emily’s deceased first husband Tom Campion, is Louisa, who is completely blind, and soon becomes what was in 1932 called “deaf and dumb”. (We are told soon that there is “something evil in the blood” of Emily, since she has given birth to afflicted children by two different fathers; the word is never used, but I gather they mean syphilis, which was incurable in 1932.) Louisa is in many ways the focus of the household, since Emily is fiercely protective of her, and in many ways ignored by everyone else. One final member of the household is the one-legged Captain Trivett, a dependent of Emily’s first husband. He actually lives next door but has complete access to the Hatter home since he is a friend and companion to Louisa.

tragedyofy-avonSoon after the discovery of the body, someone leaves a glass of eggnog containing strychnine out waiting for Louisa; it is actually gulped as a spiteful joke by little Jackie, who nearly dies as a result. The doctor calls the police, to the great anger of Emily, and Drury Lane is asked to take a hand. He lives in a castle (complete with “feudal village” full of 20th century people) overlooking the Hudson in Westchester County and we see his vaguely Shakepearean intimate household; we also meet Inspector Thumm, who brings him the case. They have hardly begun to get to know the facts of the case when Emily is bizarrely murdered. She is found dead in Louisa’s room and some unusual bloody markings on her face soon reveal that she’s been beaten to death with, of all things, a mandolin that is usually found in the library. Other clues include a strip of carpet covered with spilled powder that reveals some footprints; a bowl of fruit with a bruised pear that has been poisoned with bichloride of mercury, but, oddly, indications that although it seems meant for Louisa, it’s well-known she would not have eaten one with bruises. Finally, Louisa herself was in the room and has two observations; she touched the murderer’s cheek and it was smooth, and there was a faint smell of vanilla in the room.

The household’s alibis prove out or do not, as the case may be, and various subplots within the younger generation’s lives begin to manifest. The children’s tutor is apparently in love with Barbara; the footprints were made by a pair of Conrad’s shoes, which are found to be stained with bichloride of mercury. The entrance to the late York Hatter’s laboratory is surrounded by unmarked dust, but there proves to be a secret entrance into the room via the chimney from Louisa’s room. About midway through the book, someone sets fire to the laboratory; the fire is doused, but no one is clear why the laboratory was set on fire. The police are looking primarily at women suspects, because of the clue of the smooth cheek, but admit that a man and woman could be working together.

Emily’s will contains some odd provisions, mostly concerned with ensuring Louisa’s future; Louisa has become a source of income, in a way, since whoever agrees to take care of her will inherit considerably more money. (Emily’s estate is the enormous sum of more than one million dollars.) Drury Lane and the police begin to understand portions of what happened the night of Emily’s death, but some parts of the story seem inexplicable and almost random.

257e343303cdc023ab204c924a88f84eDrury Lane fakes a heart attack in order to move into the house as a convalescing invalid. The discovery of a document in York’s laboratory  explains quite a bit of what happened the night of Emily’s death, and why it happened, but Drury Lane is certain that the murderer still has more actions to perform. One final murder takes place which completes the story for Drury Lane, and he calls together the police and explains everything to them, with the help of extended logical deductions based upon such things as the distance between the powdered footprints on the murder scene; Drury Lane combines these deductions with the other clues to reveal the unexpected identity of the murderer. He also reveals that he has taken a more active hand in the process and that there will be no further acts of violence in what remains of the Hatter family. In fact, he communicates that he has in effect murdered the murderer without actually saying so, and the police, without actually saying so, decide to let him get away with it, as the book ends.

tragedy-of-y-mapWhy is this book worth your time?

Ellery Queen, of course, is one of the all-time masters of a certain kind of detective story. Its hallmarks are logical deduction from physical clues, characters who are somewhat more types than actual fleshed-out characters, and a certain deliberate amount of bizarrie added in order to interest the reader. And the underlying basis of these stories is always a murder plot which at first glance appears both insoluble and very strange. Many of these stories fall into the “impossible crime” or “locked-room mystery” sub-genre; others you might call howdunnits, alibi mysteries, timetable mysteries, and the like. These are the volumes that come provided with a helpful floor plan so that you can trace the paths of characters as you try to imagine them doing what they’ve said they did, and get a grasp of when people’s paths might have intersected. I think of this kind of detective story as the basis for what we presently call the Golden Age. It is certainly true that not all great Golden Age mysteries are this kind of story, but quite a few of them are. Since Ellery Queen is one of the finest practitioners of this type of story, I’ll suggest that just about anything he (or rather “they”, since Ellery Queen is a pseudonym for two writers, but “he” is easiest) ever wrote is worth your time, pretty much automatically.

Ellery Queen novels are easily separated into a handful of periods, and this is from the first, most puzzle-oriented period. The Tragedy of Y was published in 1932, and Queen’s career started in 1929. One can only imagine the spurt of creative energy that produced, between 1929 and the end of 1932, five Ellery Queen novels of the highest calibre and two Drury Lane mysteries as by Barnaby Ross. In fact, both Tragedy of X and Y were published in 1932 — along with The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Egyptian Cross Mystery, making an unbelievable four volumes of complex, difficult puzzle mysteries in a single year. The two remaining novels in the four-volume Drury Lane sequence were published in 1933.

It’s hard to understand at this remove exactly what might have motivated Ellery Queen to move aside from what seems to have been a very successful mystery series to write another mystery series. Of course the answer is money, since this enormous workload was not undertaken lightly; I suspect there’s a strong component of striking while the iron is hot. Francis M. Nevins, Jr.’s 1974 volume on Ellery Queen, Royal Bloodline, tells us that in 1931 “they were persuaded by their agent to take the plunge and make it as professionals or bust” (p. 5). I can see where, in the middle of an economic depression, it would be important to work very, very hard to maintain a living and people did not give up jobs lightly, so they would be impelled to be writing a lot. Yet it’s generally accepted that Ellery Queen is the far more successful character; Drury Lane is considered artificial and cliched and the Drury Lane series was wisely, I think, retired the next year. I suspect that Drury Lane began for the same reason as John Dickson Carr began publishing as by Carter Dickson in the same period, because the authors had been told that the public understood large numbers of books coming out under a single name as a signal of low quality. At this 80-year remove, it seems hard to understand why Ellery Queen would “waste” so interesting and complex a plot on the meagre talents of Drury Lane. Just as I understand that a later Queen novel, Halfway House, could have been titled The Swedish Match Mystery in order to fit into the nationalities series, so I also see that this book could easily have been called The Peruvian Balsam Mystery and recast with Ellery Queen. Oh well — perhaps in an alternate universe.

51NhO8o-QkL._SL500_AA300_And to the student of Queen, there are elements of this book that are fascinating when you consider the repeating of elements throughout the Queen canon. This is the first example of a story which Queen later re-wrote as by Queen, with 1943’s There Was an Old Woman. An enormously wealthy woman, cruel and dictatorial, as the matriarch of a family that has been tainted by syphilis and that has both sane and crazy members — this is all the same. In 1943, Queen was trying to produce novels that would be taken up by Hollywood and filmed, and so the characters in TWAOW are more caricatures than in TTOY, but there is little difference in the basic elements of both books. The wealthy dictatorial patriarch/matriarch, of course, is a mainstay of the detective story — if these wealthy men and women were not around to quarrel with their relatives and catch their secretaries embezzling hours before they change their wills, the detective fiction world would be a sadder, more sparse place. Yes, this theme of the wealthy parent and angry damaged children repeats through Queen’s novels and stories, but it also does so in the work of almost every other Golden Age writer, because … well, it’s just such a useful basis for a story. Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939) — there’s not much difference between Carmen Sternwood and this story’s Jill Hatter, and only little more between Barbara Hatter and Vivian Sternwood. Offhand, I can think of stories from Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and Patricia Wentworth about poisonous wealthy parents and their poisoned unhappy children. Queen himself revisits the same territory of damaged children in 1952’s The King is Dead, although the wealthy damaged parent is in this case the eldest brother.

Mr. Nevins suggests that TTOY partakes of a “motif that [has] come to be distinctively identified with Queen … distrust and despair of human nature”, and cites The Origin of Evil and The Glass Village as later examples of this distrust. Fair enough; there is certainly enough here to make one distrust human nature, from the sluttish yet frigid Jill right down to the uncontrollable sadism and misbehaviour of Billy and Jackie. My own take is that what Ellery Queen was getting at here was his interest in the idea of “tainted blood”. I thought this was interesting as an attempt to introduce some motivation to these characters; of course they’re crazy and unpredictable, their brains have been affected by syphilis. Remember that this was at a time when human behaviourists were attempting to explain psychology by the action of glandular secretions; the idea of being somehow “tainted” and therefore not entirely responsible for one’s actions was a new one, but becoming widespread. In TWAOW, this is played for laughs; in TTOY, it is accompanied with a strong air of sadness and despair. Nevins suggests that this is “as haunting in its own way as the nightmare stories of Cornell Woolrich”; I think I would agree. The Hatter household is dark and brooding and there appears to be no way out of it. The blind, deaf, and dumb Louisa is a bizarre personality at the centre of the household, and is described in relatively inhuman terms as, for instance, uttering a “thrilling animal cry”; she’s referred to as “plump” so often that I had the mental picture of a kind of grub with “still, blank, almost lifeless features, the quivering fingers …”. Her “waving fingers were like the antennae of a bug, oscillating with intelligence, clamouring for enlightenment.” Certainly the reader is meant to feel sorry for Louisa’s restricted life, but I can’t help but feel there is a certain component of creepy horror here as well. Everyone in the house is nearly horrible; even the relatively normal people like the one-legged neighbour and the scatterbrained nurse have problems. The general air of the household is that everyone within it is trapped by blood and money and who cannot be released until the mother, whose venereal disease tainted them all, has died and expiated her sin. I have to say that this is considerably easier to advance as a theory when, say, writing an essay about this novel than it is to consider while reading it. Queen’s intention is certainly not to focus on a philosophical stratum that underlies this book; it’s just a detective story, although a very clever and creepy one. I absolutely cannot go as far as Nevins and say that:

“Although rooted in a genre that has traditionally been oriented to reason, order, and optimism, Y evokes depths of tragic despair that are virtually without parallel in the history of crime fiction.”

Put down the cheerleader’s pompoms, Mr. Nevins, it’s not quite THAT important a book. It is well-written and maintains a consistently eerie air throughout, but even The Big Sleep evokes more poisonous despair with the same plot structure, let alone another few dozen novels with more despair and less syphilis. Nevertheless, this is a darn good dark and troubling mystery.

Nevins then suggests that the other such theme in this book associated with the longer view of Queen’s work is that of “manipulation”. Without getting too deeply into the details, this book involves manipulation of one character by another in order to generate most of the criminal actions of the plot, although not in an obvious or even strong way. Such later Queen novels as Ten Days’ Wonder (1948) carry forward this theme of one character creating a plan that another one carries out; similarly, The Player on the Other Side (1963) co-written with Theodore Sturgeon, and … and on the Eighth Day … (1964),  co-written with Avram Davidson, the theme of one personality following the instructions of another appears. The Player on the Other Side even has a criminal who signs himself with the letter Y — and so we come full circle. It’s definitely a useful basis for a mystery plot; one character has guilt and intent, but not physical involvement, and the other character has the responsibility of committing the crime(s), but usually without the ability or intent to design them. I agree with Mr. Nevins on this point, at least that this theme recurs. I see it only as a useful way of establishing the central spine of a detective story, and he may be giving it more importance in the analysis of the character of the two gentlemen who made up Ellery Queen, but we agree that it’s there and recurs in a number of Queen stories.

The only strongly annoying part of this book, in fact, is the character of Drury Lane himself. Let’s face it, he’s a slumgullion of cliches, starting with his name itself. Mr. Lane is a cardboard character who has been marked with deafness not out of any organic understanding of how this would affect someone’s personality, or desire to make the reader understand anything about the nature of deafness, but merely as an interesting trait to attract and retain the reader’s attention. (I admit that the final volume of the four, Drury Lane’s Last Case, brings deafness to the table, but in a kind of meretricious way as merely a plot point explaining an action.) I can’t help but speculate how much more interesting this book would have been with Ellery Queen trying his hand against the Addams-family menage under the roof of the Hatter mansion. Another smaller flaw is that, with the death of the matriarch Emily, the novel’s strongest antagonistic character moves offstage and no one is really there to take her place; this makes the second half of the book rather inactive and smooth, somewhat to its detriment.

All things considered, though, this is a difficult and intelligent puzzle plot, for people who like that sort of thing — I certainly do. Although the Queenian convention of the Challenge to the Reader is absent here, you can readily stop precisely at the chapter heading of “Epilogue” and you will be in possession of every fact you need with which to produce a complete solution of the mystery. If you can successfully pretend that Ellery Queen is generating the long involved logical chains that lead to the solution, you’ll be very pleased with this book in almost every respect. It is difficult, puzzling, surprising, creepy and atmospheric, and an important novel by an important mystery writer.

12026482914Notes for the Collector:

The most interesting take on cover art is perhaps the foreign-language edition pictured nearby, complete with strategically-covered naked breasts (sigh). I believe that the original editions as by Barnaby Ross, pre-dating the admission that the author was indeed Ellery Queen, would be the most valuable, and of course the first edition would have pride of place. I note that today a VG copy without jacket is selling for $150, and this seems about right; it might be anywhere from $300 to $700 with a jacket, depending on scarcity. I’m fond of quite a few of the paper editions of this book; most notably, of course, as I said above, Pocket #313, with the purplish hues and abstract cover; a VG copy of the first edition will cost you about $7 plus shipping. But the Avon editions featuring, in T-337, “girl with large breasts in a nightgown” — this would have to be the plump and middle-aged Louisa, I think — and #450’s  “cat-eyed girl with anachronistic pixie cut” are also good camp value and either, in Near Fine or Fine shape, may cost you less than $25 in a local bookseller’s or an online market.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1932 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “N”, “Read one book written by an author with a pseudonym.” This certainly qualifies; it was originally published as by “Barnaby Ross”, which is a pseudonym of “Ellery Queen”, a pseudonym concealing two real people. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.



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.


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, 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 end of the Golden Age?

CluedoToday I was scanning some blogs I enjoy when I came across a brief post on At The Villa Rose in which the author says, in reference to Crime and Detective Stories (an irregular journal that usually contains fascinating non-fiction articles about detective fiction) #67, “I could have done without Mike Ripley dissing traditional mysteries, though.”

Mr. Ripley is then quoted as saying:

“The idea of a novel as an artificial puzzle, a literary parlour game or an extended cryptic crossword did not appeal to me: then or now. I am firmly of the opinion that the so-called Golden Age of that sort of English detective story ended in 1949 when it was replaced by the board game Cluedo. Not, in my opinion, a moment too soon.”

Well, I beg to differ for a number of different reasons, partly because I’ve coincidentally been reading a 1926 article by Willard Huntington Wright — better known to mystery connoisseurs as S. S. Van Dine, author of the Philo Vance novels — called The Detective Novel in which he appears to specifically disavow the relationship of the detective story to the cryptic crossword.

Helen Eustis

Helen Eustis

Many years ago, I remember reading The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis, published in 1946, and said to myself, “Well, THAT was the end of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.” I remember thinking that it seemed to me the the first time that what then might have been called “abnormal psychology” formed a crucial part of the solution to a mystery, and that it was the first mystery where the solution might not have been understood by one’s maiden aunt (and certainly would have met with violent disapproval). I’m not absolutely sure that that novel remains my choice to signal the end of the Golden Age; I’m starting to think that it was more of a slow, gradual fade-wipe between one style and another. And I’m also not prepared to say authoritatively that The Horizontal Man is the first such novel (I’d want to re-read Solomon’s Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer and do quite a bit more research); that’s just a memory of my moment of awareness that the Golden Age actually did come to an end.

012-01I could be persuaded that the beginning of the end was prefigured by the 1936 publication of “Murder off Miami” by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links — the first “dossier novel”, which seems to me to more accurately represent Ripley’s point about the detective novel being reduced to a kind of abstract game experience. And yet, if that is the case, how are we to feel about Ellery Queen’s “Challenge to the Reader”, wherein the fourth wall is broken and the mystery is revealed to be, after all, an artificial puzzle? 

2132_7f90There’s an article in Wikipedia called “The Golden Age of Detective Fiction” which offers Julian Symons as a reference such that the Golden Age was “the Twenties and the Thirties” and suggests that Philip Van Doren Stern’s article, “The Case of the Corpse in the Blind Alley”, from 1941, “could serve … as an obituary for the Golden Age.” I was considerably amused by the “talk page” accompanying that article where some pompous little oaf waggles his finger and says that, because a Yahoo discussion group thinks it’s 1910 to 1960, so it must be or else “Wikipedia will have egg all over its face.” And yet the very blogging challenge in which I’m participating, the “Vintage Mystery Bingo” challenge, agrees with 1960 as the cut-off date. Honestly, I think 1960 is just ridiculous. These people are confusing the continued publication of puzzle mysteries with their membership in a literary movement. This is rather like insisting that, because people still continue to ride horses, therefore the horse and buggy are still a viable form of transportation. I suspect that a great deal of the reason that the Yahoo discussion group wants the boundary to extend to 1960 is because they want to discuss books that they enjoy, and some of them fall outside any logical boundary; just because Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie began working in the Golden Age doesn’t mean their entire oeuvre defines the Age ipso facto. I’d prefer a more logical boundary than mere personal preference.

eustis1I’ve been giving these issues some thought lately, mostly because this blog’s most recent post has enjoyed a great deal of discussion in the comments section about the Humdrum School, and the fascinating insights have provoked me to consider the idea that the decline of the Humdrums and the decline of the Golden Age go hand in hand. In fact, I’m in the throes of some kind of insight that has to do with an X/Y axis, where one line moves from realism to fantasy and the other moves from the detective’s POV to that of the criminal. It might be that “the end of the Golden Age” might merely be the point at which the balance tipped from preferring the POV of the detective to preferring the POV of the criminal — and another balance tipped from a preference to realism towards a preference to fantasy. (Today, I think, the marketplace’s domination by the cozy represents a return swing towards the POV of the detective but now presented in a fantasy modality.)

However, I will throw this question out for discussion. Do you think there is a particular event that precisely defines the end of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction? If it’s a particular book, which one? Perhaps that might be a year, or a range of dates; what might that be? And if you think that 1960 is the correct date, why on earth do you think so?

Postscript, later the same day: And, as if upon cue, another mystery-oriented blog I follow, Beneath the Stains of Time, today had a post wherein the opening sentence is “The year 1920 is generally accepted as a semiofficial starting point for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, which witnessed the debut of Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the rest, as they say, is history.”  And I’ll accept that very sensible statement backed with sensible evidence.  So the starting point is 1920; thank you TomCat!

What is a cozy mystery?

Keep-Calm-and-Read-a-Cozy-MysteryRecently I had the pleasure of reading an entry in a great blog by Curtis Evans, an excellent writer who is also, like me, interested in the general area of the Golden Age Mystery. I strongly recommend his books to your attention; I’ve learned a lot from Mr. Evans and he always makes me think!

His recent post was on the topic of the “cozy mystery”, and contained an interesting video clip featuring Jim Parsons and Craig Ferguson talking about what, to them, constitutes a cozy. Curtis’s post and its attendant comments section have piqued my interest enough to provide me with material for a post of my own on “what is a cozy?”, and I have to acknowledge my debt to his work. I’ve actually mentioned cozies in my own reviews lately, suggesting that Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asey Mayo mysteries are “proto-cozies”, as is Craig Rice’s “Home Sweet Homicide”. (“Proto-cozies” meaning books that came before the invention of the term “cozy” but which seem to fall within the boundaries of that term.) But when push came to shove, I couldn’t come up with a definition of the cozy with which I agreed unreservedly — save perhaps “I know it when I see it.” This hearkens back to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, in which he commented on pornography:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

Nevertheless, definitions can be useful tools for deciding whether one is dealing with good art or bad art. For instance, it is not legitimate to criticize hard-core pornography for being sexually arousing, since that is what it sets out to do for an audience which wants it to do that. It is certainly possible to criticize it for being bad art since, to quote another court case, pornography “appeals to the prurient interest” and lacks “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific values”. I believe there are many similarities between pornography and cozy mysteries, strangely enough, although they seem superficially to be polar opposites.  If pornography is the display of sex without love, one might say that cozy mysteries display murder without emotional investment … one might suggest that cozies are a pornography of mystery.  I don’t think this is a particularly useful definition of the cozy, just one that appeals to me. I speak of cooking shows as being “food porn” and soap opera as “relationship porn”, so you can take it within that broad context. Most often, I merely know a cozy when I see one and have not given my understanding of the term much thought.

in the process of understanding a literary term, it’s best to find a common definition and examine it critically to see where one agrees or disagrees. I found a definition on the internet that seemed like a good place to start.

“Cozy mysteries are light mysteries, usually without strong language or graphic violence. The main character is an amateur sleuth who lives in a small town with other people you could envision having as neighbours or friends.”

Well, I can agree with this up to the word “sleuth”, in a broad-strokes way. Although the small town form is common, it is not universal; I’m sure there are urban cozies. I think what this definition is trying to get at is that the action of the book takes place in a small, closed community, but I’ll suggest this closure is more about social aspects than mere geography. For instance, a murder that takes place involving all the highly expert knitters in a large city would qualify; an expert knowledge of knitting would be the defining factor. This definition will do for a start, but there’s certainly more to investigate.

The Wikipedia entry for “Cozy mystery” is mostly useless since, unusually for Wikipedia, it relies on idiosyncratic and unprofessional writing in a single blog for most of its definitions.  ( is principally marked by enthusiasm for the sub-genre, not any kind of critical analytical skills.) It does, however, point us to a New York Times article, “Murder Least Foul”, by the intelligent if occasionally misguided Marilyn Stasio; here, she raises a number of fascinating ideas.  First she outlines some loose boundaries for the genre (I have paraphrased):

  • No gore. Violence is kept to a minimum and described discreetly.
  • Amateur status is preferred in a sleuth, who is often a woman with an interesting occupation.
  • The crime takes place close to home, or within a confined community in which the victim, suspects, and sleuth are all known to one another.
  • The settings are never sleazy; the atmosphere is designed to give pleasure and comfort.
  • The characters are driven by personal motives.
  • The hero does not get beaten up during the investigation, although romantic entanglements are permissible. Cozy sleuths have a clear mandate to get involved in complicated personal relationships, but authors are even more discreet about sex than they are about violence.

cozyAnd she then competently disposes of the “article of faith” that the cozy is an updated version of the traditional British detective story. Stasio accurately (at least as far as I’m concerned) pinpoints that Golden Age mysteries are about plots and “In the contemporary cozy … deduction takes second place. … By oversimplifying the plot through the elimination of its trickier puzzle elements, cozy authors have also reduced the complexity of the crime-solving process and diminished the detective’s intellectual role in that cognitive process.” I believe this hearkens back to a classic observation by the eminent critic Mrs. Q. E. Leavis, to the effect that the writing of Dorothy L. Sayers presented the appearance of intellectual activity to readers who would very much dislike that activity were they forced to actually undergo it. One might call this “thought porn”, to continue my earlier theme. My experience of modern cozies is that they rarely allow the reader the opportunity to think about the plot and characters in an analytical way; instead, they summarize that thought as having occurred in the mind of the detective and the reader thinks, “Oh, yes, that’s exactly the way I would have worked it out if I had bothered to think about it.” Except it isn’t, because these readers rarely would have bothered to think about it or would have been capable of the logical process had they so bothered.

What Stasio appears to be saying, in my terms, is that cozies de-emphasize the plots and punch up characterization — usually, the personal life, business life, and romantic entanglements of the protagonist — and “story-telling”, by which cozy aficionados apparently mean the purveyance about huge gouts of information about largely irrelevant topics. I agree that very little detection is actually left in the cozy mystery. The detective has an intuition, or the criminal blurts something out that only the guilty party could know, or her cat keeps miaowing whenever it passes the door to the root cellar. And John Dickson Carr spins in his grave again and again.

Modern cozies are usually “about” something. I have in the past distinguished the sub-genre of the “information mystery“, whereupon an author who knows (or has researched) a great deal about, say, glassblowing creates a book where the detective and victim and all the suspects are immersed in the milieu of glassblowing, and only a glassblowing expert will be able to solve the mystery. Superficially, many — perhaps most — cozies are information mysteries, or purport to be information mysteries. The classic such cozy is Carolyn Hart’s creation of her “Death on Demand” series, where the protagonist is the proprietor of a murder mystery bookstore.  (Since I used to do precisely that work, I have to say that Ms. Hart’s version is highly romanticized and relatively uninformed, but what the heck, it’s making her much more money for romanticizing the work than it used to make me for actually doing it and I wish her well with it.) These days, though, cozies appear to be about … well, women’s things. Handicrafts, needlework, cooking, clothing design, interior decoration, household economy, and the supervision of preternaturally intelligent dogs, preternaturally intelligent cats, and pesky children. The problem has become, for me, that the provision of information per se has largely turned to the provision either of elementary tutorials or unsubstantiated opinion. You either get something like basic knitting 101 (accompanied by a smattering of language from the higher levels to give you the idea that there is more to learn and the author knows all about it) or you get the author’s opinion on how best to run a bed-and-breakfast, nursery, or small-town newspaper (with the same smattering of higher-level language). In the same sense that cozies assume the form but not the function of the puzzle mystery, the information cozy assumes the form but not the function of the information mystery.

cozy-fireplace-lSo if it doesn’t have plot, and it doesn’t have information, what does the modern cozy have? It’s only rarely appropriate to make a sweeping generalization about an artistic topic, but I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that the modern cozy’s readers would suggest that “it’s the people. You know, you really get to care about [fill in name of spunky lovable heroine] and her chubby best friend and her Weimaraners, Agatha and Dashiell.” This is what the reader seems to think — at least, that’s what I used to hear again and again when I stood behind the counter at an equivalent to “Death on Demand”.

And in this respect I think there are two things going on here. I think there is a considerable dash of wish fulfilment going on. The typical middle-aged female reader wants to believe that, were it not for the accidents of birth, finances, geography and genetic inheritance, she would be perfectly capable of running a cunningly-decorated yarn store in a quaint rural village, trying to decide romantically between the police chief and the editor of the local newspaper while she solved volume after volume of mysteries that had some implausible relationship to yarn. And, I have to say immediately, there is nothing wrong with reading as a form of wish fulfilment. Any reader who is presently guffawing at the implied insult to middle-aged women should remember that very few middle-aged male aficionados of the private-eye novel are capable of beating someone up, or even walking around the block quickly. And mystery writers have to put food on the table the same as the rest of us. If they have found a fertile vein of ways to separate middle-aged women from $7.99 two or three times a month, who can gainsay them? (Hardcover cozies are 99% for the library market, I think.) So the reader gets to fantasize about what it’s like to run a small business without having the skill or ability or backing to actually do so. She gets to be vicariously sassy and flirty and well-spoken, perfectly dressed and coiffed, to have handsome romantic suitors, obedient intelligent and well-adjusted children, and telepathic and helpful pets. And apparently she enjoys this exercise so much that she repeats it obsessively. Cozy mysteries make up a huge volume of the approximately 11% of the new-book market labeled “Mystery” in publishers’ catalogues — perhaps as much as 50%. That’s because, as my experience tells me, middle-aged women who buy cozy mysteries buy a LOT of them.

Before I get into my second reason, let me segue for a moment. I think I have an original observation with respect to the purchasing of mysteries that is known to publishers but not articulated by readers. If you look at the cover of, say, the latest Carolyn Hart mystery, it always says clearly that this is “A Death on Demand Mystery”. Inside the volume, you will find a chronological listing of all the ‘Death on Demand” novels in the series. You will find many readers of these volumes suggest that they prefer novels in series because of the chance to get to know the characters over time, watch how they grow and change, etc. What I have never seen mentioned is the possibility that this preference is a kind of small-scale symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many, many times I have observed middle-aged book-buying customers who insist that they simply must acquire every single volume in their favourite series, seemingly for the sake of “completing the set”. I have occasionally heard them suggest that they really don’t even LIKE the particular series any more, it’s just that they’re in the habit of buying and reading the latest such-and-such, so they keep hoping they’ll get more interesting … Other publishers directly label the volumes “#6 in the blah-blah series”, or helpfully provide tick-boxes beside each volume in the interior list so that you can be sure you have all 6, or 11, or 28 volumes of the saga. I’ve known men to be like this too. I myself have a strong aspect of not wanting to rest until I’ve tracked down every, say, Perry Mason novel. But with women customers and cozies I recall it as more frequently and more distinctly OCD-like. I can’t prove it, but it’s interesting to think about.

The second thing that the modern cozy has, in a way that delineates the boundaries of the genre, is more difficult to pin down, but I may have identified an underlying factor. Commentators cited above have identified factors like the lack of on-stage violence and the “pleasure and comfort” to be obtained from the physical surroundings. Superficially these might be considered as facets of the wish-fulfillment fantasy aspect I noted above, but I think there’s a little bit more to it than that. Certainly these aspects are ways in which the reader wishes the world would revolve around her, or arrange itself for her pleasure. But I think there’s even something deeper going on.

Years ago, I read a 1975 science-fiction novel by John Brunner, The Shockwave Rider. In it, he casually tosses off in a sentence the idea that a character’s job is superficially to run an educational service, but the underlying sales concept is that the educational materials are meant to reassure middle-aged and elderly people that the world has the same values it did when they were young adults. That idea stuck with me and I think it has a broad range of validity — certainly it explains the existence of TimeNewsweek and Fox News to me.

I think this idea also explains part of the appeal of cozy mysteries; that they are meant to communicate to readers that the moral landscape is still the same as it was when they were younger. Graphic visual representations of violence on the evening news? Not in cozies. Widespread sexual diversity and rejection of traditional family structures? Not in cozies. Women’s achievements devalued, the role of domestic household manager mocked? Not in cozies. Women in traditional roles and family structures unable to predict, manage, or control events in the world around them that have strongly bad effects on themselves and their families? Not in cozies. Everything in cozies is the same way it’s always been; everything is manageable and all mysteries and problems are solved in 192 easy-to-read pages.

In cozies, the female protagonists have an implicit understanding of the rules of their world that is shared by all the “good” characters but not the bad. Most of these implicit understandings have to do with the value of women in society; specifically, the value of unmarried women with careers, the value of women as breadwinners and sole family support, and the value of women as the axis of their (traditional nuclear) families. It’s not an accident that the adventures of Kinsey Millhone are set 15 or 20 years before their publication date. And one common theme in the fairly large sub-genre of Victorian/Edwardian era cozies is a ridiculous grafting of modern feminist principles into antique contexts. “This is the thinking and courage that I would display if I were a Victorian upper-class lady,” we are meant to think, “I would FIGHT to be taken seriously by men and have a profession and treat the servants as equals,” when actually that behaviour would have had the woman in question packed off to a lunatic asylum. But it makes a good wish-fulfillment fantasy.

Marilyn Stasio suggests that (a couple of specific cozy authors) “deserve credit for opening up the domestic mystery to major social issues like child abuse, rape, and mental illness.” Those authors certainly did that, but I think Stasio here has hold of the wrong end of the stick. The authors in question used those themes, certainly, just like “straight novelists” and even earlier mystery writers did before them. It’s not unusual in the slightest to use powerful crimes as the basis of murder mysteries. Murder is a serious business. But it seems to me that cozy writers used those situations in order to tell their audience the way in which to think and, more importantly, feel about these issues — passing on the extension of traditional values to a new generation without making it seem unusual or exotic. We should feel violently angry with people who abuse children, we should feel like taking revenge upon rapists, and we should feel sorry for the victims of mental illness. White middle-class women should feel that middle-class people of colour are their complete equals. Women should feel equal to men, they should feel like competent guides of their children and feel as though they are on a level playing field in business with men. And the way in which these feelings are engendered in the reader is as sub-text. The housewife-detective who runs a yarn store has a best friend, store helper and neighbour who is Korean-American. We’re not told that the protagonist feels her to be equal, that attitude simply permeates their interaction. No one has to explain that it is crucially, vitally important to identify who in the neighbourhood murdered a neighbour — because every reader knows that anything that is potentially dangerous to the family is an absolute priority to eliminate. In the modern cozy, we don’t identify mentally ill people so that we can put them in an asylum, we get them into treatment and courses of pharmaceuticals.

I’ve remarked elsewhere that I dislike the modern cozy because it treats murder as something that happens off-stage, non-violently, and without upsetting the reader. The “light mystery”, as Stasio puts it, to me is repellent because it’s communicating that although the fact that a murder has been committed is felt to be bad and necessary to “solve”, one doesn’t need to ground one’s outrage in the mere fact that someone has been violently killed. It’s sort of understood that murders are regrettable but it’s kind of fun to investigate them. I draw the line between the “light mystery” and the “comedy mystery” — I don’t get worked up about the victims in, say, Craig Rice or Alice Tilton novels, because it’s clear that all that’s intended is humour. But I really want there to be more moral outrage expressed that someone in a modern cozy has stabbed a local gossipeuse, however repellent and morally unsound she may have been. This to me is a major flaw of the modern cozy. The sub-text is saying that it’s okay not to have to look at the dead body of a crime victim, probably because you would find it upsetting and nauseating. But I’m saying that you have to look at the body because it is precisely that act that will fill you with the moral outrage necessary to want to take an active hand in solving the crime. 99% of the time in the modern cozy, the victims are evil, wicked, morally unsound and frequently criminal. And 99% of the time in the real world, those people are punished, if at all, by the legal system. I believe we have to hate the fact that someone takes that law into their own hands, and so I think the cozy is contributing to a world in which the taking of the law into one’s own hands is overlooked or even condoned.

It would be fair to comment here that I seem to be defining the cozy mystery in terms to suit myself because it’s pretty clear that I don’t really like cozy mysteries. It’s a common practice to set up a straw-man definition and then find reasons why the thing you’ve defined is a bad thing. I admit there’s a certain part of that which must ring true, because it’s clear that I don’t really like cozy mysteries. I’ll be fair and say that they are not written for me, or even remotely like anything that I am accustomed to read for pleasure. I like lots of plot and little characterization; these are the opposite. But I think it’s also fair to say that cozy mysteries have something that underlies them that, if carried to its logical conclusion, is bad for society. It is bad for us to think that violence must take place off-stage so that we won’t be offended or revolted by it; if violence happens in front of us, we will do more to stop it. It is bad for us to absorb our moral values from the sub-text of commercial fiction without any context that makes it clear that we are doing so. It is bad for us to think that we are thinking when what is actually happening is that we are feeling.


And quite personally, I think it is bad for society to take the useful and diverting process that is the puzzle mystery — something which trains people to think logically, solve puzzles, look beneath the surface, deduce, and punish crime even at great cost — and suck the life out of it, leaving nothing but meretricious emotional displays, an ability to pretend that reality is much more pretty than it actually is, and a complete lack of thought. So I will not accept, as Stasio also refuses to accept, that the modern cozy is the updated version of the traditional Golden Age mystery. Instead, I am more confirmed in my now-examined belief that the modern cozy is “mystery porn”.

Postscript: It used to be in the 1990s that you could unerringly spot a paperback cozy on the stands because its cover art was some sort of domestic scene that had a skull worked into the picture in some cunning way, as a trompe l’oeil piece of some sort or simply plunked in the corner. If it weren’t for the fact that tastes in artwork have changed, we could have simply pointed to “books with skulls on the cover” and I wouldn’t have had to produce 3,800 words on what is a cozy.  Drat.