My Christmas list: Some incredibly scarce mysteries

I blame it on the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. I believe I went through those books at an early age with a single-mindedness known only to those of us with OCD because of the little number in the upper right-hand corner of the cover; I knew my mission in life was to read them all, and I could prove I’d read them all by keeping track. I’m sure if I were to become as famous as Stephen King, some future Ph.D. student would be writing a Ph.D. thesis about my cheap notebook (which, alas, no longer actually exists, but I can see it vividly) with a numbered list of the titles, a few words about the relative merit of each one, and a triumphant tick-mark indicating that I had added that title to my life list. And then my notebook expanded to cover Nancy Drew. And Trixie Belden. And Tom Swift. And then Perry Mason, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and and and.

Fifty years later, after a lifetime of devotion to tracking down scarce books that I haven’t yet read, my life list is long and relatively complete. But over the years there are a few books that have eluded me because they’re scarce and valuable.

13187293416C. Daly King, Obelists At Sea (1932)

Some years ago, Dover brought out an edition of King’s stories, The Curious Mr. Tarrant, and an inexpensive edition of Obelists Fly High. I read those quickly, and thought, “Great, where are the rest?” Nowhere to be found. I’ve borrowed a copy of Obelists At Sea for an evening’s read 35 years ago, but don’t remember much except I liked it a lot and want to own a copy — and also of the even rarer Obelists En RouteCareless CorpseArrogant Alibi and Bermuda Burial. If someone would like to bring those back into print, I’ll buy them. King was a brilliant constructor of impossible crimes and classic, formal puzzle mysteries.

5598154156Fredric Brown in the Detective Pulps (1985)

Fredric Brown made his day-to-day living setting type, and that was my avocation in my youth, so I’ve always had a special fondness for this crazy, wonderful writer who wrote warm-hearted hard-boiled mysteries and strange science fiction. In 1985, Dennis McMillan brought out a multi-volume limited edition (350 copies) of his collected stories from the pulps; I’ve had a few of the volumes pass through my hands over the years, but I just want to own a complete set and run my hands over the spines every so often, if you know what I mean. 

1238185_10201322272112137_2063310835_nE.C.R. Lorac, Tryst for a Tragedy (1940)

There certainly are a lot of Lorac/Carol Carnac titles I’ve never read, perhaps as many as two dozen, but Tryst for a Tragedy is impossibly hard to get. I won’t bore you with the details, but there are probably fewer than ten copies of this book anywhere in the world at this point. She was a great writer of tight, smart mysteries, and she hasn’t received as much attention as she deserved from the critics and the public in general.  I only hope I get the privilege of reading all of her books over the rest of my life; this one will probably be my final achievement. (I’ve lifted the illustration from my Facebook friend Geoffrey McSkimming, who’s an author in his own right and the most knowledgeable person about Lorac’s work I know.)

dellTOLDINPICTURES2George Harmon Coxe, Four Frightened Women (1939, this edition 1950)

I have a couple of copies of this book, including Dell #5, the first real mapback, but I want the edition from Dell’s extremely limited “Told in Pictures” edition — they planned four titles and produced only two. As you’ll note, this edition was produced in what we might call “comic-book format” — one of the very earliest examples of what we know today as
dellTOLDINPICTURES2intgraphic novels. The book itself is undistinguished but Dell turned this edition into a unique cultural artifact and I’ve always wanted to own one. The cover for this edition, by the way, is by the great illustrator Robert Stanley. (And as is often the case, I am again indebted to BookScans for their wonderful visual resource.)

17590607693Miles Burton, Death on the Boat-Train (1940)

This scarce volume — I found a VG first in jacket on the internet today for about $2,000 — will stand for all the many volumes by John Rhode/Miles Burton that I haven’t read, and his picture on the front is merely the icing on the cake. He was a very prolific author but his books seem to have passed into obscurity within months after their publication and into complete desuetude with his death. I’m trying to make up for lost time with this author; very few of his many books achieved paperback publication and, by the time I realized what I was missing, I mostly couldn’t afford the hardcover firsts that I saw go by. I do have hopes that someone will bring him back into print soon, since his work is about to pass into the public domain in Canada in 2016.

dell0278First and 2nd Dell Book of Crossword Puzzles (Dell #205 and #278)

No, I’m not crazy. These particular volumes are like the Holy Grail of collectible paperbacks because they are the two Dell mapbacks that everyone needs to complete their set. I’ve never seen a copy of these volumes and only found out what they looked like recently (thanks again, BookScans). For obvious reasons it’s hard to find a copy of ANY crossword puzzle book that’s mint and
dell0205unmarked; I think these are so scarce precisely because there’s not many things more useless than a completed crossword puzzle book, and so lots of these were (shudder) thrown away. I don’t care about doing the puzzles; I want this because then I could finally say that I’d owned every Dell mapback.

How much are these? Very hard to say, since so few are available (there isn’t one for sale today on AbeBooks and I haven’t seen one for quite a while). Comparatively speaking, though — a copy of Told In Pictures #2 as seen above might set you back $200. Any copy of either these volumes might bring you, depending on condition, anywhere from $500 on up. That’s my best educated guess; I saw one of these for sale in a Californian book catalogue years ago for $400.

Do I really want these for Christmas? Oh, probably not, unless you’ve recently won a large lottery and you’re looking around for ways of making me happy. I do prefer the thrill of the chase, and there is still a little part of the back of my mind that insists it’s going to find a box of mint vintage paperbacks in some small-town thrift shop for a quarter apiece. I’ve had some good finds over the years, but these are probably beyond me … but what you can take from this is that even after you’ve read your way through every author whom you can presently name, there will still be rarities and delights for you to savour. So I hope Santa leaves you all kinds of great old mysteries, and a couple for me as well … and we’ll keep looking in the new year, won’t we?

If you’d care to leave a comment about which books YOU think are the most highly desirable that you’ll never own, I’m always curious about what attracts devoted readers. And who knows, we may hook you up!


Ten interesting Agatha Christie novels

agatha-christieTo commemorate the 125th birthday anniversary of Agatha Christie (September 15, 2015) her estate commissioned a world-wide poll to find out what’s the World’s Favourite Christie. You can find the results here at, as well as interesting background and links to other interesting stuff. However, I’ll reproduce an ordered list here for your convenience.

  1. And Then There Were None (which has sold more than one hundred million copies)
  2. Murder on the Orient Express
  3. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  4. Death on the Nile
  5. The ABC Murders
  6. A Murder is Announced
  7. 4:50 From Paddington
  8. Evil Under the Sun
  9. Five Little Pigs
  10. Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case

This announcement was followed closely by an article in the Guardian by well-known crime/thriller writer Val McDermid wherein she claimed that The Murder at the Vicarage — which you will note didn’t make the list — is “the best Christie as opposed to the most popular”. You can read it for yourself here. McDermid talks about her childhood experience with this particular book as her introduction to detective fiction, and that she had read it again and again.  This  makes me think that, like my childhood experience with John Dickson Carr‘s The Red Widow Murders that has given me a lifetime’s affection for what is essentially a mediocre thriller, her childhood experience might be colouring her opinion. But TMATV is really a very, very good mystery, unlike Red Widow.

Both pieces caused a small flurry of discussion in my Facebook group devoted to Golden Age detection. There was the usual back-and-forth about the relative positioning of novels on the list, or the presence or absence of a particular title. What it made me think about was what was being championed. McDermid was clear that she wanted to talk about “the best-written Christie” whereas the Christie estate called it “favourite”. Similarly my colleagues and friends in Facebook and the blogosphere had worthwhile things to say about a number of Christie novels and suggestions for what their own top-ten list might contain.

Agatha-Christie-pictured--002I thought it might be useful to take a more consumer-oriented look with a slightly different focus, based on my self-selected role as a “curator” of such things. Sometimes I conceive of my role as a kind of consumer advocate, to be sure; “This book is worth your time/money/effort and this one is not.” But I also think part of my role is to bring to a knowledgeable readership things which will not necessarily make the top ten list, like novels with flaws or problems, but which reveal something interesting about the author, or are an attempt to try something new — even a magnificent failure here and there.

Here, therefore, is my list of “Ten interesting Agatha Christie novels”. I will say emphatically that these are in no particular order; in fact, they’re all about equal. Perhaps if you’ve finished someone else’s choices for the top ten you might move on to these. And of course I’ll provide a reason as to why a particular volume might pique your interest. The top ten are in no danger of being ignored, but these you might have overlooked.

119865642_6books_375265cThe Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

I’ll step right up to the plate and agree with Val McDermid. This is the first Miss Marple novel and it is the one in which her character is the most “pure”; she is described as being “dangerous”. This is not the fluffy and slightly scattered little old lady of later years. This is a woman with a mind like a steel trap and an acute sense of the squalid lives and minor-league wickedness of nearly everyone in her vicinity. And it is, as I’ve remarked elsewhere recently, a novel of manners. Okay, not Jane Austen, but certainly the central focus of the book is a scandalous love affair.

christie_crooked-houseCrooked House (1949)

A non-series standalone mystery with a truly surprising plot twist at the end. Christie herself spoke of it as one of her personal favourites and it’s one of mine also. There’s not much to it, plot-wise; a wealthy patriarch supports a large family of eccentrics and when he is murdered, there’s a long list of suspects.  It has a similar solution to an earlier Ellery Queen novel that I will not closely identify, just to say that it’s clear that Christie didn’t do this first. But she cleverly uses the reader’s assumptions against him/her.

482b49a5680ac8ced684e8847696fa26Death Comes as the End (1945)

This is a historical mystery set in ancient Egypt, and it reads surprisingly well. Christie was at this point married to archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, so I’m ready to believe that the details are correct. What is surprising and pleasant about this novel is that it is very restrained about those details; it’s not so much about the details of Pharaoh’s court but more like where and how food is kept in a large household of the period. The mystery is not difficult but the book is quite engaging.

UnknownEndless Night (1967)

I’m sure many experienced readers will disagree with this being on anyone’s “best” list. It’s not on mine either. This is, however, a book with a plot twist that is overshadowed by Christie having used it before, but which is still a solid hoodwinking of the reader. It is flawed, partly by Christie having not really understood at this late point in her life what young people were taking for granted and partly by most people having first experienced it through a ghastly filmed version that ruthlessly sucked the intelligence out of the work. But I encourage its naysayers to give it another look; the concept is great, the writing is head and shoulders most books she wrote at this late stage, and it showed she was ready to try something new and different.

Unfinished_Portrait_First_Edition_CoverUnfinished Portrait (1934)

As by Mary Westmacott. Simply put, this is what an Agatha Christie novel reads like when she hasn’t put a murder into it; a story about a shy girl who is in the middle of a divorce who comes to terms with her past. You may think this has something in parallel with Christie’s own life. I think it’s interesting that she wrote this nearly simultaneously with Murder on the Orient Express. I’m not going to claim that Christie was in any sense held back by writing about series characters, but I think much of her non-series work has a more casual tone that suits her writing skills very well.

SpidersWebFinalweb1Spider’s Web (2000)

As novelized by Charles Osborne. I would actually recommend that you seek out a theatrical production of this play on video, if you can find one; it was originally written as a play specifically for Margaret Lockwood and it’s a wonderful starring vehicle for a 30-something actress. It’s also an interesting experience for a Christie aficionado because it recycles ideas and materials from a handful of other Christie short stories and novels, and it’s fun to think, “Oh, THAT’s from that short story about the movie star…”  The mystery is clever and the characterization is excellent. The Charles Osborne version seems to postpone all the tension in the book to a series of revelations at the end of the novel, boom boom boom like a fireworks display, but the play is balanced and fun. I do regret the addition of the character of the adolescent girl — generally, not an appealing aspect to an on-stage production for me — but apparently Margaret Lockwood’s real-life daughter was supposed to play the role.

12-hollowThe Hollow (1946)

This is a Poirot novel in which Christie later mentioned she wished she hadn’t included Poirot. I’m not sure if this would have made it better or worse. I do think this could have been a magnificent novel if she had taken more care in writing it. The character of Henrietta Savernake is beautifully written and wonderfully realistic; so much better-written than the rest of the novel that it’s quite jarring.  In particular the character of Lady Angkatell is … well, to me, just awful. Cardboard with a sign around her neck that says “eccentric peeress”. One great character, one terrible character, all adds up to a sadly flawed novel. But the central premise, the identity of the murderer, takes me back to an Anthony Berkeley novel I read not too long ago in which the author is playful with the idea of the “least likely suspect”. I think people have overlooked just how clever this novel is in that respect. Robert Barnard joins me in esteeming this one.

8849123536_95d37523a0The Big Four (1927)

As I noted above, I do like the occasional magnificent failure. This failure isn’t even really magnificent, but it is of interest to the student of vanished literary sub-genres. This is a novel of “international intrigue and espionage”, with which we certainly do not associate Agatha Christie as an expert. But this is a bizarre and highly melodramatic thrill-ride which I don’t believe anyone is meant to take seriously, and this particular type of novel pretty much vanished at about this time. It’s rather like E. Phillips Oppenheim or Edgar Wallace; vast international criminal conspiracies and the highest political stakes, and poor Hercule Poirot seems rather out of place. This is also cobbled together out of a set of short stories, which doesn’t happen much these days; it produces wild shifts in tone and atmosphere and these things disconcert the reader. The high points are the presence of Vera Rossakoff and the only appearance of Poirot’s twin brother Achille.

UnknownN or M? (1941)

The material in this novel of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford interests me because it’s one of Christie’s few attempts to deal directly with World War II. Poirot and Marple, we know, did not serve their country in any way other than solving mysteries while the constabulary was at war. The Beresfords did their bit as government agents, however, and this novel contains quite a bit of background colour about daily life in wartime, with rationing and black-out curtains and all. Unfortunately Christie chose to focus on the espionage aspect rather than a straightforward mystery and the result is somewhat tepid and inevitable. (If there is a wartime British novel wherein the triumph over German spies is not a 100% certainty, I’d like to see it.)

Ten Little Niggers (1939)

Let me say right off the bat, I don’t like that word any more than you do. But given the fact that it is the original title of the book that the Christie estate has just finished declaring is the favourite Christie novel (now known as And Then There Were None), and it’s sold 100,000,000 copies, I think it should be a point of honour for the true Christie student to track this down and see how this book originated. I have said elsewhere and will repeat here that I don’t think it is a good idea to censor history. It is important to say, when we are forced to use that distasteful word, that it is merely to remind ourselves that people used to use this word and we do not use it today; simply put, we have to know what we hate about this word’s meaning and history in order to combat it more effectively. If we bowdlerize it out of the literature then we run the risk of future generations thinking of this sort of linguistic bullying as something new and fresh, rather than something that has been disparaged by correct-thinking people in the intervening generations.

That being said — once its title was mercifully changed, this is a superb novel. If you have only seen adaptations on television, you’d be well advised to go back and find out how it all got started because, indeed, it was made much more cheery for stage and video productions. In the original, there is no happy ending; there is no love story. And there are more murders committed or disclosed in this one novel than in any other Christie title, or indeed a random half-dozen Christie titles added together. All the characters are unpleasant criminals and there’s a kind of morbid pall, and fear of retribution, that hangs over the novel very effectively.

And so I’ll throw this open to my audience. What Agatha Christie novels do you particularly cherish that have been left off top ten lists? What have we all overlooked in Christie’s work that we ought to have read?

Cards on the fable: Mysteries written by bridge players

acedeathcardfrontI’m a bridge player and a mystery reader, and to me it doesn’t seem odd that there should be a natural affinity between playing serious bridge and appreciating a well-written mystery. (And doing difficult crosswords, but that’s another article.) Both require similar skill sets; the ability to notice small clues, draw inferences from them and form a theory that leads to a conclusion. Yes, really, playing bridge is like that if you’ve done it a long time. “Hmm, my left-hand opponent didn’t even twitch when I played the queen of diamonds, so I deduce his partner has that particular king. Therefore Lefty is more likely to have the spade king, and I’m going to finesse him for it.” That’s the same kind of thought pattern that solves fictional mysteries. There’s a similar pleasure in both milieus; the “Aha!” response to solving a problem can be very enjoyable.

4912745286_8d10008dd8Contract bridge was in its infancy during the Golden Age of Detection, of course, since it was invented in 1929. But immediately upon its introduction into polite society, contract bridge became extremely popular among writers of detective fiction and hence among their characters. How often, for instance, do an ill-assorted set of houseguests in a country-house mystery stand up from quarrelling at the dinner table to play bridge for a few hours, with people taking their turn as dummy and wandering in and out of Sir Cedric’s library accompanied by an astonishing variety of weapons and motives? Agatha Christie was a good social bridge player, or at least to my mind she knew enough about it to know the vagaries of how different people keep score, and what happens when you bid and make a lucky grand slam. Cards on the Table is where she has most to say about bridge, but there are many other mentions.

james_bond_03_moonrakerIn fact a number of fairly well known writers (both of mysteries and general fiction) were bridge players to greater or lesser degree, either known to us biographically or merely by things they say in their books. Somerset Maugham, for instance, was a bridge fiend and an excellent player; to a lesser degree, but apparently very highly skilled, was Edmund Crispin (Bruce Montgomery). Philip MacDonald is said to have been an enthusiastic player. Ian Fleming thought so much of bridge that he inserted a well-known bridge problem into one of his James Bond novels (the “Culbertson hand” in Moonraker, where one player has the majority of
34549face cards yet cannot take a single trick). A couple of mystery writers have set a book against a background of the game; Georgette Heyer‘s Duplicate Death (1951) (discussed in detail by me here) is better known than Anne Archer‘s 1931 Murder at Bridge but both take place at a large card party. And well-known Sherlockian pastiche writer Frank Thomas wrote two elementary (sorry) textbooks on contract bridge using Holmes and Watson as a bridge partnership. They’re actually good textbooks for a beginner.


Omar Sharif at the table

Writers as a category, though, have not produced any great bridge players, it seems. Politics (Dwight Eisenhower and Deng Xiaoping), business (Warren Buffett and Bill Gates) and cinema (Omar Sharif, a top-ranked player who has represented three countries in international competition, and Chico Marx) have all generated great bridge players. But although certainly there are good writers who are good bridge players, no one appears to have reached the top rank of bridge players after achieving success in writing.

btmThe other way of going about it is to start as a bridge expert and write a great mystery. And believe me, folks, that’s never happened. I’m not sure why it is, but expert bridge players seem to have the writing equivalent of a tin ear when it comes to generating detective fiction or indeed any kind of fiction at all. Matthew Granovetter is a well-known American bridge player now living in Italy, and has written many interesting bridge texts and columns, but his three bridge mysteries have been ghastly. GHASTLY. I discuss his 1989 novel I Shot My Bridge Partner here; suffice it to say it made my list of “Mysteries to die before you read”.  There are many others equally awful, now that self-publishing is more common, even more of them, and I’m not sure why. Is it that bridge players think that mysteries are a kind of formula fiction, where you flesh out the activities of a game of Cluedo and meanwhile throw in a bunch of backstage information about bridge tournaments? I’ve seen that a number of times and it never works. I’ve talked before about how minority groups find it useful to use a mystery as a way of telling a story set in their particular milieu, in what I call the “information mystery” format. But those information mysteries have some “guts” to them because the minority stories are fresh and important and dramatic. The maximum stakes of winning or losing a bridge tournament were pretty much exhausted in that antique variety of film, the college football movie of the 1930s, and the two plot threads seem impossible to balance in intensity. Ah well.

41R4aESvkYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Being as obsessive as I am about reading all the mysteries, of course over the years I’ve tracked down dozens of mysteries about bridge written by bridge players. Unfortunately there are no really good ones. In fact the more famous the bridge player the more horrible the mystery, it seems. Terrence Reese and Jeremy Flint are two very famous bridge players who both competed for England at the highest international level, but their 1979 bridge/mystery/thriller novel, Trick 13, is tooth-grindingly painful to read. Reese was well known to be incredibly focused at the bridge table (there’s a famous story about his friends hiring a woman to walk nude around the table while he was playing a hand, and he didn’t notice) and wrote dozens of bridge textbooks; this novel reads as though it was written by someone who had been told how humans tend to act but who had never actually met any. Except for the parts where a woman is spanked with a hairbrush, which are regrettably salacious and smack of someone’s personal knowledge. Ugh.

268678Don Von Elsner was a very good bridge player and it may well have been that he would have found success as a mystery writer if he’d found a way to focus on the puzzle mystery. He had most of what he needed; a sense of how to sprinkle humour through his plots, an understanding that you had to tell a story before you gave bridge lectures, and the ability to occasionally create a reasonably good character.  Unfortunately in the early 60s when he was writing, what publishers wanted was spy novels, so he wrote spy novels with a bridge background about the adventures of one Jake Winkman: bridge player, low-level spy, and enthusiastic heterosexual. He achieved publication in mass-market paperback by a major publisher, so someone was reading these back in the 60s, but they don’t stand up well. The books focus more on sex than violence and the spying is minimal. (One of his plots, about a Commie code being transmitted via the spot cards in newspaper bridge hands, is just ludicrous.)

353927812Dorothy Rice Sims certainly stands out in the history of bridge, although unfortunately not especially for her contribution to mystery writing. Mrs. Sims may indeed have become famous to bridge players originally because of her marriage to a national bridge champion, P. Hal Sims, and their subsequent winning of the second national mixed-pair championship in the US (and then their shared participation in a very important public bridge competition). But her fascinating biography — read the bare bones of it here in Wikipedia — includes the invention of an entire area of bridge theory, that of the “psychic” bid. She played literally at the dawn of bridge when no one really knew what they were doing, but everyone was anxious to discern what the best “rules” for bidding and play were; except Mrs. Sims. Her philosophy was literally to make things up on the spur of the moment (she wrote a book called How to Live on a Hunch, or, the Art of Psychic Living) and her ground-breaking book, Psychic Bidding, was published after her multiple championships. The next year she collaborated on 1932’s Fog, a thriller taking place aboard an ocean liner, with experienced thriller writer Valentine Williams; I don’t think it’s going too far overboard to suggest that Mr. Williams did most of the heavy lifting. The book is interesting; I’m hampered by not having a copy at hand to refresh my memory, but I recall thinking it was at least competent and enjoyable reading.

2595722This brings me finally to the most successful writer of mysteries and writer on bridge, S. K. (Skid) Simon. Skid Simon collaborated with Caryl Brahms, a newspaper writer and ballet columnist, on the first of eleven comic novels in 1937, A Bullet in the Ballet. This novel immediately catapulted them to the front rank of a writing style which they pioneered, the madcap mystery — Julian Symons would have categorized them as Farceurs. A murder takes place in the eccentric ranks of the ballet company of Vladimir Stroganoff, a zany Russian-born impresario, and Inspector Quill of Scotland Yard must untangle financial, political, and unusual sexual motives before solving the crime. The book was a best-seller in the UK in its year (partly because it was unusually frank about the sexual preferences of certain of the ballet dancers) and generated a career for the pair writing comedic takes on various historical situations before Simon’s untimely death at age 40. I’ve never cared for this particular four-volume series about Quill and Stroganoff, because they seem a little overwrought to me, but they certainly have their adherents.

Skid Simon, though, is much better known to the bridge world than the mystery one; he was one of a small group who created the British-born bridge bidding system known as Acol. I’m not sure how to describe the magnitude of this achievement; it was a revolutionary thing in its day and created the foundation for decades of competition at the highest levels of international play, including the foundations of the careers of Terence Reece and Jeremy Flint.  Simon also wrote a brilliant bridge textbook in 1945, Why You Lose At Bridge, that is still useful today; it focuses on the psychology of bridge players and how they learn what they know about bridge. And it does so in a very amusing way; Simon invents humans like the garrulous Mrs. Guggenheim to take the place of the faceless Easts and Norths that populate many bridge texts.  His text will last a long time; it even has utility for games other than bridge.

41KMA5WMC6LAnd I have to say, in terms of a mystery with bridge in it, the Brahms/Simon collaborations are not on the map; there’s literally no bridge at all. So if you’re looking for a murder mystery that is set against a background of duplicate bridge, I have nothing to offer that I think you’ll really enjoy, I’m sad to say. If you want to read a mystery that has bridge in it that isn’t by a professional player, I recommend the works of Susan Moody about bridge teacher Cassandra Swann; there is a nice balance between bridge and mystery, Susan Moody has a great sense of humour, and she can actually write — she knows how to structure a book to make it flow, without being predictable. Okay, it’s a bit hard to imagine why a bridge teacher keeps getting involved in murders but I personally have been able to suspend my disbelief; I wish she’d write a few more.

Please, please, do not write and tell me about your cousin’s former bridge partner in rural Wisconsin who self-published a bridge mystery. I’ve read a couple of those, perhaps even that specific one, and trust me — I am doing the authors a favour by not reviewing them. So far the field of self-published bridge mysteries has been marked by a uniform awfulness, in my experience, and the experience of shooting those particular fish in that small barrel is not one I relish. Yes, it is impressive to have mastered the strip squeeze; I haven’t managed it. The place for that sort of anecdote is half-time break at a tournament, not grinding the action of a murder mystery to a complete dead stop while you explain your brilliance for ten pages. And, generally speaking, if one wants to write a murder mystery it helps to have read a couple first. Don’t whip out the unreliable narrator gambit or the long-lost twin brother as if I’ve been living under a rock for fifty well-read years. I went through three or four of these no-hit wonders a few years back and until someone writes the breakout novel, you can safely avoid everything that’s not from a major publisher.

1081529Similarly, I am absolutely not interested in any of the handful of cozy bridge mysteries in various series, some of which I’ve also read. On The Slam by Honor Hartman about the little old widow (#1 in a series!) who decides to learn bridge until an unpleasant neighbour is murdered at the table will stand for all of them, as far as I’m concerned. It might possibly be of use if you were having trouble understanding some of the most basic principles of bridge, since it handles them lightly and clearly and for the most part leaves them alone. The mystery itself might trouble a bright fourteen-year-old to solve before the police do; you will not be unduly strained. I gave this book to a dear friend who was very elderly at the time, and in roughly the same situation.  She returned it to me almost immediately with a withering glance, saying, “What PAP.” I have to agree. Generally, any book whose cover proclaims “Bridge tips included!” is suggesting a paucity of attention to the mystery in the process.  And all the Goodreads comments that suggest the positive virtue that you don’t actually have to know anything about bridge to read this book — are missing the point. That’s a bug, not a feature. The book should make you want to learn, not be pleased that you don’t know how.

If you are a bridge player who wants to read a mystery, I suggest that you either go with Susan Moody or avoid the topic of bridge entirely as a basis for a mystery. And if you want to know how to play a better game of bridge, I emphatically recommend S. J. Simon’s Why You Lose at Bridge.

Static detectives and evolving detectives

A-private-detective-001A question popped up today within the pages of my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection; a gentleman has been asked to lecture to a group of writers about series mysteries and asked for our thoughts.  Thanks, Dan Andriacco, for prompting my thinking processes; I had more to say than would be appropriate in that terse context, and so I’ve moved my efforts here.  I hope my thoughts will be useful to you and your group. I am assuming that this group intends to write mysteries that are sold to publishers for large sums of money, and thus my considerations are addressed more to marketability than to artistic considerations.

First of all, one ground rule; I believe that “series mysteries” require “series detectives”, so I’m going to address the idea of series detectives and use them interchangeably with series mysteries. Series mysteries, of course, are pretty much written by the same author about the same protagonist(s); some sort of detective figure who solves various cases (exceptions definitely exist for any of these terms).  A few names at random are Jane Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Jessica Fletcher, and Ellery Queen. The most important thing in a series is its detective character; if that doesn’t catch the interest of the reading public, you won’t be selling a very long series.

I can certainly understand why writers would want to know more about series detectives. As I understand it, no major publisher will currently look at a stand-alone mystery from a fledgling author. One author told me that she had been told that she’d better come in with a written outline for at least an eight-book series, and that package should contain a publishable manuscript for volume 1, detailed outlines for volumes 2 and 3, detailed character sketches for the detective and any continuing characters, and a sketch plan for where volumes 4 through 8 should take the protagonist. My first reaction was, “Wow.” My second reaction was, “Thank goodness.”

I’ll explain that last snarky remark 😉 but first I have to divide series detectives into two major groups, because the two groups have different characteristics and are treated differently. I’ve invented these terms, but let’s call them static detectives and evolving detectives.

NSY S1E4.avi_snapshot_01.27_[2013.06.29_00.42.49]Static detectives are how series detectives began in the earliest days of detective fiction; back in the days when writers were staking out the basic principles of detective fiction by making it up as they went along, the reading public wanted exactly the same experience of the detective character in each story. The detective is pretty much the same person at the same level of personal development at every stage of every novel. Sherlock Holmes never changed in any major detail. He did not apparently age. He did not fall in love, court the object of his affections, and get married, and produce children who enter the family detective business.  He never suffered any major trauma that caused him to renounce his former avocation halfway through his series and devote his further efforts to being a storefront social worker, or move to Paris. Or, indeed, change his apartment or his deerstalker or his Persian slipper or have those bullet holes in the walls filled in.  Nothing ever changes. Occasionally a continuing character like Watson gets married, but their relationship does not change much.

In many instances other than Holmes’s, the life events of subsidiary characters in the lives of static detectives sometimes form the basis for specific novels — the detective is the maid of honour at her girlfriend’s wedding at which the best man is murdered. One of Nero Wolfe’s detective assistants is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and Wolfe must take the case.

bs-16-06-DW-Kultur-And of course evolving detectives are the other ones. I can’t precisely identify the first evolving detective, but I think there’s a strong case for the first important one to have been Lord Peter Wimsey. In the course of Dorothy L. Sayers’s oeuvre, Wimsey started as a single dilettante / wealthy aristocrat / Wodehouseian Silly Ass, met Harriet Vane, had a number of exciting adventures with her, grew as a human being and a fallible man, and finally married Harriet and produced children. I believe that one of the reasons why this series has had an enduring major presence in the history of detective fiction is that readers, many of whom seem in my experience to be female, enjoy very much the process of watching the romance, proposal, and honeymoon and are prepared to experience it again and again, re-reading the books again and again. Peter and Harriet are a great love story with detective interruptions, to misquote the subtitle of Gaudy Night, and the readers loved to see him change. He grew more subtle and more powerful as time went on. Today’s champion of the evolving detective is Elizabeth George, but Anne Perry is giving her a run for her money, and I bet a bunch of other authors with whom I’m not familiar are also on the best-seller list with this kind of Great Big Romantic Series.

In Lord Peter’s case the subsidiary characters did not change much at all; Bunter doesn’t change one iota during the course of the novels. People get older, like Viscount St-George, and the characters react to world events. But the subsidiary characters are used to serve the development of the character of the detective. Either they remain absolutely static, like a rock of stability to whom the detective turns in times of personal crisis, or they have dramatic things happen to them, like being murdered or accused of murder.

So those are the definitions, and you can probably at this point pick up any mystery novel with which you’re reasonably familiar and say, “Oh, this is a static detective,” or “This is an evolving detective.” At least I hope so; it’s pretty straightforward. Occasionally a static detective makes the jump to an evolving detective, like what happened when Dorothy L. Sayers decided to give Lord Peter some “guts”, as I remember she put it.

What’s interesting for a writer is, first of all, that the choice of a static or an evolving detective affects the way that the book should be structured; and second, that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures.

As far as how the book should be structured — I’ll suggest that my friend, above, got the right advice from her agent. If you are trying to sell a series detective today, it doesn’t really matter if it’s static or evolving, but you have to demonstrate to your prospective publisher that you know what you’re going to be doing eight books from now and are capable of committing to it. There’s no point in them putting together huge cardboard displays for bookstores that say, “The latest Harley Footsnoot mystery!!” if there are only ever going to be two Harley Footsnoot mysteries because you’re out of ideas. And the reason why they want the last five roughed out for them is, perish forbid, you get hit by a truck and they have to hire Eric van Lustbader to finish the series 😉

If you’ve decided you want to write an evolving detective, you absolutely must know what’s going to happen eight books from now; this is what the publisher will want to know. It’s also the kind of thinking that the reader has a right to expect that you’ve done when you start. If you want to tell the long story of a slow courtship, or how detective Harley Footsnoot realizes that her first husband is wrong for her but his best friend is her true love, over a dozen novels, I want to know that you know what happens in the long story arc and how it happens. You have to structure the first eight books before you write the second one; that way, if you need something to happen in book two that reverberates in book six, you’re always there in advance.  You cannot just make it up as you go along; you’ll produce an unsatisfying series.

And if you want to write a static detective, these days, that’s just fine too. Despite my saying above that it was a tradition from the beginnings of the genre, it’s still very much used today in the entry level of series cozies. Harley Footsnoot is a single mother, she runs a yarn store, and seems to get involved with a lot of local murders that somehow involve yarn. One of her two boyfriends is a cop and the other one is a handsome professor.  Can you see how this goes?  The books are always the same, Harley never changes, she can’t decide between her two boyfriends who themselves never change, and the yarn store rolls along at the same level. So what the publisher wants to see is how you’re going to come up with eight vaguely reasonable murder mystery plots that have something to do with yarn.

The idea that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures works this way.  First, for an evolving detective; you have to know where you are in the character’s development over a dozen novels.  For instance, the one I invented, the detective divorcing her first husband and marrying his best friend over a dozen books — somewhere around book three or four, you need a book where the detective’s husband does something untrustworthy that causes her to first consider that she might end up divorcing him. How that affects the structure of the book is that you have to have a murder plot that is based around trustworthiness.  Say, a small software company turns out to have someone unexpected looting its bank accounts from the inside. The evolving Harley Footsnoot gets to think about trust while she’s solving the case, and how it has reverberations in her own life, because she might be just as oblivious to untrustworthiness as the CFO whose husband stole her passwords.  And readers like this sort of thing very much; they will be pleased that you have created these interconnections between the detective’s personal life and her cases.

e02ab6050512e31c95ab58bf702f3a8eFor a static detective, you need to give a different kind of consideration to structuring the plots. Brainstorm for a minute and see if you can think of eight different murders that have something to do with a yarn store. Well, an employee of the yarn store has a double life and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … someone opens up a yarn store across the street and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … a noted yarn collector comes to town to sign her book about yarn, gets murdered, and Harley is suspected … that’s three, and I’m fresh out. My point is that it gets more and more ridiculous that eight mysteries should happen in the same little town and all of them connected with yarn. Just like the good people of Cabot Cove should have been very, very reluctant to have dinner with Jessica Fletcher, it’s nearly impossible to keep doing the same type of plots over and over. She might be static as a character, but she can’t be as a detective.

If you’re going to write eight books or more about a static yarn expert, you have to structure the life of the detective so that she moves around. Don’t put her in a yarn store — that’s your fantasy life talking, not novelistic necessity. Instead, think of a reason why she interacts with different yarn situations. For instance, she is in charge of acquisitions for the world’s only yarn museum, run by a wealthy eccentric. So she goes to San Francisco and visits a yarn collector, she goes to London for a yarn exposition, she goes to rural Louisiana to acquire a collection of antique yarn. The structure doesn’t have to involve physical motion; for instance, one great static detective was Emma Lathen’s Wall Street banker, John Putnam Thatcher. Each book took him into a different area of business; automobiles, biotech, real estate. He was always meeting new groups of people who had a murder to deal with, but at the same time his group of workers (perfect secretary Miss Corso, and his three wildly different subordinates Trinkham, Bowman, and Gabler) remained dependable and unchanging subordinates.

So both evolving and static detectives have sets of static subsidiary characters who rarely change. The difference is that in a static book, the excitement and emotions come from strangers, and the continuing characters are the refuge (and the readers’ favourites). In an evolving book, the excitement and emotions come from continuing characters, and frequently the strangers are the refuge (the bitter unhappy detective throws herself into her work).

But it’s important to note that your static subsidiary characters need to have a constant utility in the plot; you can’t just give your detective a best friend because everyone has a best friend. Remember how Static Harley had two boyfriends, a cop and a professor?  That’s because the professor is always doing research for her and coming up with crucial information to move the plot forward, and the cop bends the rules and gets her information she shouldn’t be able to access (arrest records) and protects her physically if people get violent. Holmes had Watson because he needed someone to whom to speak aloud, so that the reader could follow his thoughts to some extent. But Watson was also a doctor, and that occasionally came in handy with fainting clients or on-the-spot autopsy reports.

There’s one other crucial difference between static and evolving detectives that may affect a writer’s decision to focus on one or the other style; it might depend on how generally cheerful a person she is. That’s because static detectives are allowed to be happy — evolving detectives cannot be. Even Harley Footsnoot’s switch to marrying her first husband’s best friend cannot be allowed to flourish in perfection; either he gets killed in book eight (which results in her third marriage in book sixteen), or she discovers that he too has terrible flaws that cause her to be agonized for another eight books before deciding to go it alone and lonely.  If you run a yarn business, though, you frequently get the opportunity to spring your brother-in-law from jail in the second-last chapter and then the book ends as you explain at a jolly family picnic how you figured it all out from the mismatched yarn strands. If you’re naturally a depressive type, you might want to do your mental health some good by working on books where people are occasionally happy.

So why, when my friend told me she’d been asked to plan eight books in advance, did I think, “Thank goodness!”?  Because I read — until I pretty much gave up reading most modern mysteries, for reasons not unconnected with these ideas — far, far too many books where the author lost his way. Evolving detectives who just sit around and are gloomy without learning anything from it (I’m talking to you, ScandiNoir authors). Static detectives where the 32nd consecutive murder at the same charming Cape Cod B&B should have had the proprietor locked up on general principles years ago.  Evolving detectives who hardly bother with the murder plot because they’re too busy quarrelling with their romantic partners; static detectives who apparently ignore the necessities of everyday life at the drop of a hat to go off and track down a clue. Evolving detectives with personal lives that make Dynasty look sedate, and which would likely get them suspended from the police force; static detectives whose perfect lives are wish-fulfillment fantasies of motherhood, business ownership, and the Kama Sutra with her chiseled cop hubby. And very particularly the protagonist’s best friend who is chubby and a figure of fun, but at the 2/3 point of the novel says something witty that turns out to give the detective the idea needed to solve the case. Because every subsidiary character will have a strong function in the plot that will allow them to be memorable without making them two-dimensional. Not like the works of some authors (I’m talking to you, Charlaine Harris) whose books are so cluttered with subsidiary characters left over from other books, and with no functions at all, that there’s barely room for anything other than a round of howdy-dos.

If you plan eight books ahead, you will know where you are at all times in the progress of your evolving detective’s tumultuous life, and you won’t clutter the books with vivid but useless characters. And in the progress of your static detective, you’ll have arranged to have plots that naturally take the protagonist into contact with lots of strangers who murder each other, while the detective’s home life remains non-violent and cozy. You will have planned out the continuing characters so that they’ll be useful and consistent and do what you need them to do. And you might actually get my $8.95 in a bookstore — times eight.

October 8 Challenge

Whoops! Some hours ago when I posted this, I forgot to claim it for a square in my own challenge; see below.  This is about square 2D, a group of GAD mysteries linked by a style of detective or detection.  (In fact, two different styles.)



Top 10 Women Detectives in Books

books2-pano_22618In the context of a recent exchange on Facebook with some fellow GAD (Golden Age of Detection) aficionados, the idea of a list of “Top 10 Women Detectives in Books” was conceived, and I incautiously came up with such a list in order to contribute the discussion.  It occurred to me that this would cause people to think of their own lists, which perhaps differ with mine; it seemed more useful to provide an annotated list, giving some reasons. So I thought I’d post here about my suggestions.

Although I came up with this list in a remarkably brief period of time, it seems to hold up; I tried to pick my favourite detectives who stand for a certain style and/or period. I’ll say in general that my list seems to be skewed towards women detectives that I think are “important” in the detective fiction genre, rather than women who are good detectives. Bertha Cool is a fascinating character but not a great detective. I’ll say here, as I said in the context of the Facebook exchange, that I am not very knowledgeable about Victorian-era women detectives and my limited experience may have led me to a faulty conclusion; I’m prepared to accept that Loveday Brooke is not the symbolic figure I imagine her to be from my limited knowledge.

I also wanted to say that I regarded it as important that the characters I suggest are ones who have a reasonably significant presence. Rex Stout‘s creation of private investigator Theodolinda (Dol) Bonner I regard as significant to the genre, but one novel and a couple of guest shots in Nero Wolfe novels are not sufficient to really have an effect. There are others; I chose with an eye to recommending women detectives whose work you can reasonably find in reasonable quantities.

And finally, this list is truly in no order other than when they came to mind. I actually did an initial list of 15 and regretfully omitted some names. In case it’s not clear, these are detectives in books and not television; Jessica Fletcher is in enough books to qualify, but she didn’t make the cut.

1. Sharon McCone

8b2f8ab279fea224f07bd1f77c88978fFor those of you wondering why I haven’t included Sue Grafton‘s Kinsey Millhone on this list, that’s because Marcia Muller got there first. I regard the first Sharon McCone novel, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, (1977), as the first contemporary woman private eye novel — the one that started Sue Grafton and Karen Kijewski and a host of other novelists down the path of the spunky, flawed, and loveable modern single woman private eye. It’s sobering to think, indeed, just how many books and writing careers are dependent upon Marcia Muller’s invention of Sharon McCone. Sometimes the spunky is foremost (V.I. Warshawski, by Sara Paretsky), sometimes the flawed is more prominent (Cordelia Gray, by P.D. James), and sometimes the loveable (any number of modern cozy series) takes over.

It’s interesting to go back to the beginnings of the woman private eye novel of the 80s and 90s and remember that when these books were written, the things that Marcia Muller was writing about were not yet cliches. She was inventing the essential boundaries of the genre, perhaps without realizing it. Her work was obviously successful in that it both sold well and spawned a host — a “monstrous regiment”, as it were — of imitators and people who extended the genre. But Sharon McCone was first.

2. Jane Marple

250px-MarpleI’ll be brief about Agatha Christie‘s Miss Jane Marple (1920-1972); she is one of the finest literary detective creations of all time, male or female. Although I don’t suggest that Christie was influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers, Sayers wrote about the character of Miss Climpson and other elderly women in Unnatural Death: “Thousands of old maids simply bursting with useful energy, forced by our stupid social system into hydros and hotels and … posts as companions, where their magnificent gossip-powers and units of inquisitiveness are allowed to dissipate themselves or even become harmful to the community … She asks questions which a young man could not put without a blush.”

Miss Marple solves mysteries by sorting through her great experience of human nature to find parallels. She is a keen observer of events going on around her, and she has learned that people are quite similar; they do the same things for the same reasons in the same situations. And as an elderly woman, she seems to be able to ask questions that the police cannot, or that they cannot even conceive of asking. She receives the confidences of other women, and taps into a network of female observers the existence of which most males are not aware; she gains the confidence of servants about the inner workings of households. Lower-level members of Scotland Yard routinely discount her efforts but fortunately she has demonstrated her abilities to very highly placed officers, which is why she gets to sit in on crucial interviews. In a way, Miss Marple could be thought of as the head of a bizarrely parallel Scotland Yard, one run and staffed by women.

3. Maud Silver

cropped-author-photoMiss Maud Silver is the creation of Patricia Wentworth, and she appeared in 32 novels between 1928 and 1961. There are many superficial similarities between Miss Marple and Miss Silver. Both are elderly British gentlewomen of the upper-middle or lower-upper classes. But where Miss Marple is anchored in the realities of everyday village life, Miss Silver is operating more at the comic-book level. To begin with, she is a retired governess who went into business for herself as a private investigator — rather like Miss Marple for hire, and that’s a very unrealistic concept at the outset. But the unrealities concatenate. Miss Silver can go anywhere, talk to anyone, and controls every situation in which she finds herself with her steely gaze and frequent reproving cough; she insists upon Victorian-level manners from everyone with whom she interacts. No one ever asks her to leave, no one ever manages to dissemble or prevaricate. In short, she’s a kind of super-hero who inevitably homes in upon the truth and solves the case where Scotland Yard is baffled.

Why I think she’s important to the mystery genre, and not just an ersatz Jane Marple, is that Wentworth had a wonderful skill at creating a certain style of novel that stood as a model for a huge mass of cozy mysteries and even non-mysteries; a series of novels where the repetitive elements overwhelm the individual ones. Every Miss Silver novel contains the same elements repeated again and again, novel after novel. We have a description of Miss Silver’s sitting room, right down to the individual pictures on the walls. Miss Silver’s clothes. Miss Silver’s cough, and her family members, and her faithful servant Hannah. A beautiful young woman with long caramel-coloured eyelashes, who is torn between her love for a handsome young man and something else that underlies a murder plot. There is always a little bit of romance, there is always a foolish character to whom the reader feels superior. There are upper-class people and the servant classes, and Miss Silver travels easily between each. (She usually gets vital information from servants that no one else can obtain.) I think Wentworth led the way in a certain way that many people mistake for what’s called a “formula”. A formula, to me, is where the same plot recurs again and again. Instead this is a way of accreting detail that makes the reader feel comfortable and knowledgeable about what she is reading. “Ah, yes,” we smile to ourselves, “there’s Randal March, I know him, he’s nice. There, she’s quoting Longfellow again. Gosh, I hope Miss Silver’s cough isn’t serious.” I think this accretion, like a nautilus building its shell, is what led the way for other lesser practitioners — many, many lesser practitioners — to write long series of novels that have little content but always the same background details that make the reader think creativity has been exercised. Charlaine Harris is perhaps the most prominent practitioner of that style these days, but there are hundreds of others.

4. Mrs. Bradley

GladysMitchellI have to confess, in the past I haven’t really enjoyed many of the novels by Gladys Mitchell about Dr. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley — 65 of them, written between 1929 and 1984. I’ve found them very uneven, varying wildly between farce and Grand Guignol, and I don’t seem to be one of the people who is charmed by her humour or her cackling manner. But I do know that she is a significant woman detective in the history of the genre. For one thing, she’s a psychiatrist. This is, in 1929, at a time when there weren’t many women doctors of any description, and not many psychiatrists either. The creation of a highly-educated psychiatrist was, in and of itself, a signal that women were to take a significant place in detective fiction and almost a prefiguring of the women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s.

Mrs. Bradley is powerful in ways that not many women detectives are. She is constantly described as significantly ugly, with yellowish skin and unpleasant features and a cackling laugh. This is quite a change from a mass of women in detective fiction who rely upon their looks to get their jobs done, or who merely support the male detective; she doesn’t care what men think of her, and that’s a significant development. She is also what we might call morally unsound; I’m only aware of one other famous detective, Philo Vance, who has no compunctions about bringing about the death of murderers to save the hangman, as it were. She doesn’t wait for men to tell her what the right thing to do is, she merely does it herself. She relies on women to help her solve mysteries; a woman with a woman sidekick, Laura (although her chauffeur George is frequently useful as well) was fairly groundbreaking in mysteries. All things considered, I have to recommend that you consider this long series of books as significant even though I don’t enjoy them myself.

5. Bertha Cool

66209135_129882075306Bertha Cool was a professional private investigator (and business partner of Donald Lam) in a series of 29 novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, published between 1939 and 1970. She is significant as a detective not for her skills, which were ordinary, but for the type of person that she was, at a time when there were no other such positive characters in any kind of genre fiction. Bertha was big and fat, swore like a trooper, was aggressive and demanding in business dealings, and wasn’t afraid to get into physical fights with other women. (I am unaware of any instance where she gets into a fistfight with a man, but my money’s on Bertha.)

Bertha Cool is a rich and deep character and in order to last 29 volumes she must have had some resonance with the reading public. I think she’s a very unusual character for her time and place and deserves her place among great detectives — she alone could manage the antics of Donald Lam, keep him focused and driving towards a goal. And at the same time she “acted like a man” at a time when few women stood up for themselves in business, especially something like the private eye business.

The accompanying photograph is of actress Benay Venuta, who once made a pilot television programme for a proposed Cool and Lam series which never made it to air. She’s not quite as hefty and aggressive as my vision of Bertha, but there’s little appropriate visual reference material available that suits me.

6. Hilda Adams

critique-miss-pinkerton-bacon5Hilda Adams, R.N., is the creation of Mary Roberts Rinehart; she first came to the public’s attention in Miss Pinkerton, published in 1932, although I note she was actually part of two pieces from 1914 (see the bibliographic listing here). Miss Pinkerton was made into a successful film in 1932 as well, starring Joan Blondell as the crime-solving nurse. Here, she stands as a better example of a certain type of woman detective than Mignon Eberhart‘s Sarah Keate, but I value both these series for the same reasons (I’ve talked about the Sarah Keate films elsewhere). Prominent critic and blogger Curtis Evans suggested that Hilda Adams or Sarah Keate “are somewhat problematical (especially the latter)”. But I think I can make a case for their inclusion that might surprise him.

This idea could be explained at length in a blog post all its own, but I’ll try to make a long story short. My sense is that the creation of a crime-solving nurse character was an attempt, either conscious or unconscious, to bring into detective fiction an underserved market of young women of the lower and middle classes. In 1932, “nurse” or “teacher” were, for most women, the highest-status occupations available; “nurse romances” have been in existence almost since the days of Florence Nightingale, and they were meant to feed fantasies of lower-class women meeting and marrying higher-class men (by being as close as possible to the men’s status). But there had not yet been a mystery series character with whom these young women could identify, and of whom they could approve. Miss Pinkerton crossed the nurse romance with the detective novel, and the idea took hold. Nurse Adams might well be the long-ago ancestor of an immense number of modern-day light romantic cozy mysteries with simplified plots and I think for that reason she is a significant figure in the history of the woman detective. (I believe there are earlier “nurse mysteries”; for instance, 1931’s Night Nurse, with Barbara Stanwyck, might barely qualify, since there’s a crime involved. But the focus is on nurse rather than detective in most of them; Miss Pinkerton focuses on the detection. I’d be willing to believe there are earlier examples with which I’m not familiar, but Nurse Adams was the most successful.)

7. Nancy Drew

nancy-drew2Nancy Drew, written by the dozens of men and women who were published as Carolyn Keene, just about has to be on any list of great women detectives. I’ve said elsewhere that I have issues with this character. She exhibits all the moral certitude of a homeschooled member of a religious sect; she bullies her friends into doing dangerous things, and constantly sticks her nose in when it’s not appropriate or even polite. And she treats Ned Nickerson like crap, considering that it’s so painfully obvious that she’s a virgin that it’s not even worth mentioning. Ned never gets to third base as a payoff for picking up Nancy at the old haunted mansion on the outskirts of town, time and time again.

But Nancy Drew, bless her interfering heart, is on the side of the good guys and was responsible for making multiple generations of young women believe that they, too, could be detectives, or indeed anything they wanted to be. Her simple message, that a logical approach coupled with dogged perseverance solved all problems, echoes today. And if you asked 100 passers-by for the name of a female detective, I think you’d get about half “Miss Marple” and half “Nancy Drew”. That alone makes her worthy of inclusion on this list.

8. Loveday Brooke

dd6e49d1f60445bd80b926a16692b6edLoveday Brooke was a “lady detective” created by Catherine Louisa Pirkis whose stories appeared in the Ludgate Magazine in and around 1894. I have to say that my scholarship is not sufficient to be able to say anything truly original about this character; I’ve certainly read the stories and enjoyed them. I know that a Victorian-era woman detective has to be on this list as the precursor of all the others, but I’m not sufficiently widely read to know if Loveday Brooke is truly the one that should stand for the others, and I’m prepared to be corrected by people who know more about this topic than I do.

I do think that Loveday Brooke was created as a kind of curiosity for the reading public at the time, but the ramifications of such a creation have been truly extraordinary. In 2014, when this is being written, I believe there are about twice as many novels published every year in the mystery genre that have female detectives rather than males, and many thousands of them; all of this flows from the efforts of Ms. Pirkis and her fellow writers and we have to honour them by an inclusion in this list. I’ll look forward to the comments of others upon my choice.

9. Flavia de Luce

Flavia_on_Bike_Master_VectorsI’m not sure how to categorize or describe Flavia de Luce, except perhaps as an “original”. Flavia is the creation of Alan Bradley and has been the protagonist of six novels between 2009 and 2014; in the first book (winner of multiple awards, including the Agatha, Arthur Ellis and Macavity) she is eleven years old, in 1950, living in the village of Bishop’s Lacey in England, and aspires to be both a chemist and a detective. A “child detective” in itself is sufficiently unusual in the history of detective fiction as to be significant. The fact that the books are charming, delightfully written, intelligent, and frequently powerful — and completely avoid the saccharine or mawkish tropes that frequently crop up when adults write in the voice of a child — makes them even more valuable.

I have to say that Flavia de Luce is perhaps the least solid entry in this list; I’m not actually sure that she contributes anything to the history of women detectives in and of herself. But the books are so charming and well-written and intelligent, and Flavia herself is such a complete and fully-rounded character, that I could not resist including her. If she’s displaced a more worthy candidate, so be it; read these books anyway.

10. Kate Delafield

KatherineVForrestThis detective might be the least familiar name on my list. Kate Delafield is a lesbian homicide detective in Los Angeles, created by Katherine V. Forrest, and the protagonist of nine detective novels between 1984 and 2013. It has to be said that these books are not the best-written entries on this list; they have a certain awkwardness and emotional flatness that is sometimes hard to ignore. Why they are significant is that they are a ground-breaking look at the lives and social milieu of lesbians, written by a lesbian for a lesbian audience, and they are in polar opposition to the meretricious “lesbian confession” paperback originals written mostly by men in the 1950s and 1960s. Those books were ridiculous; these are realistic.

Katherine Forrest was among the first writers to realize that the mystery genre could be used to tell the stories of social minorities by making the detective an insider in that minority. Just as the books of Chester Himes gave readers the opportunity to see what it was really like to live in Harlem as a person of colour, and the Dave Brandstetter novels of Joseph Hansen did the same for gay men, so Kate Delafield’s investigations reveal how lesbians live, work, think, and love. They are important because they were among the first such novels to merge the story of a female minority with the genre traditions of the mystery, and they revealed to many other writers (the entire huge output of Naiad Press, for instance) that it was possible to legitimately tell real lesbian stories using the mystery form and other genre traditions. These days, this has been widely imitated by writers within many other minority traditions, some parsed very finely; Michael Nava tells the story of a Hispanic gay man dealing with HIV issues within the larger gay community, for instance, in a series of powerful mysteries. But Katherine V. Forrest broke this ground for lesbians and became a model for many other minority voices.

October 8 Challenge

I’m submitting this for my own “October 8 Challenge” under the heading of “Write about a group of GAD mysteries linked by authors of a single sex.” Yes, I think it bends the rules; if you wish to put a semi-colon after the word “authors”, feel free.  This piece is about GAD and gender, so since I’m in charge, I’ll accept this. 😉  As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m trying to stimulate creativity, not strict adherence.


The October 8 Challenge!


The October 8 Challenge — Golden Age Mysteries!

As I’ve mentioned here recently, over the next year I’m offering my friends, mentors, and peers in the Golden Age Detection blogosphere a chance to focus their writing — not on individual Golden Age mysteries, but upon topics that span different authors, themes, etc. You can find that post here, and I recommend it for background.

Here is the “Bingo card” and the “rules”, such as they are. As I’ve said, I hope to stimulate your creativity, not your obedience; if you need to break these rules to produce an interesting essay, feel free to do that. The challenge will run from October 8, 2014 to October 8, 2015. I will keep track of any essay that is brought to my attention as being an entry in this challenge; if all else fails, by editing and re-editing this post, but in some way everyone’s efforts will be collected in this blog.

On October 8, 2015, I’ll be asking all interested parties (contributors and my readers) to select essays that they feel were best. The three participants who receive the most applause will each receive a small token of my esteem; a collectible paperback from my large collection, and I will do my best to tie the specific book to the theme of the essay.

You can create a line of four squares horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. The idea of a “Bingo” was selected to stimulate you to get some work done, not to make you write something in which you’re relatively uninterested; I’d rather see one great essay than four ordinary ones. The other criteria:

  • Each group of books must represent the work of at least two different authors.
  • Each group of books must contain at least three volumes.
  • Volumes of collected shorter stories are welcome as long as all the stories fit the selected criterion.
  • Ambiguous words like “theme” or “location” are meant to be interpreted generously.
  • The books you select should, generally speaking, have been published before 1950. Please don’t misuse the privilege, but if a book written after 1950 directly relates to your chosen theme, feel free to include it as part of the group. The primary focus should still be upon GAD books and authors. (I expect that A-1, about a single series character with multiple authors, will almost always include books written after 1950.)

As I’ve said, please feel free to interpret these criteria liberally. If you have a great idea for an essay that breaks the rules, then break the rules. When you complete an essay that you intend as an entry, please leave a note in the comments section here; those of you who are fellow members of the GAD group on Facebook can certainly communicate with me there. I’ll keep track of the entries and display links to them all in the way that seems best; at this point, I’m not sure whether I’ll need an enormous apparatus or a simple one, so let me deal with this as seems best. Not to worry, I want people to read your work, so I’ll do my best to steer them to it.

Your comments and questions are very welcome and I’ll do my best to respond.

If you click on the colourful chart below, it will expand to full size.

October 8 challenge chart


The October 8 Challenge — an explanation

october8Over the past months I’ve very much enjoyed participating in Bev Hankins‘s Golden Age detection-oriented “Vintage Mystery Bingo”. She’s created a Bingo card with squares that you fill in by reviewing a particular kind of book, such as “Read a book published under more than one title” or “Read one locked room mystery”. I’ve found that it helps me focus on getting some reviewing done, certainly, since I now no longer wait for inspiration to strike as I take a book at random from my shelves. I’ve been more directed in 2014, and it’s been a very productive year. The Bingo challenge also has encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone — in fact, there’s one square marked “Read one book outside your comfort zone”. I can’t brag about that one since I haven’t filled it in yet, but I’ve definitely stepped outside my comfort zone in many respects. So thank you, Bev! You can read about Vintage Mystery Bingo here — it’s deep in the heart of Bev’s excellent blog, My Reader’s Block, found here. And I think I’ll be going back for the 2015 version!

Another member of the Golden Age Detection blogosphere, Moira Redmond — whose book blog, Clothes in Books, is found here — caught my attention with an original idea. Moira’s focus, as you can tell, is that she looks at books with an eye to the clothes that characters are described as having worn, and that’s an interesting idea right there. Recently, though, Moira looked at a series of Golden Age mysteries that are linked by a theme; that of the poison pen letter. And that started me thinking.

It occurred to me that many of my peers and mentors in the GAD blogosphere focus on reviewing individual books; certainly I’ve been doing that too. But it seems that a lot of my readers have been especially interested when I’ve discussed groups of books; my posts on the general topic of cozy mysteries and police procedurals have attracted a lot of attention and comments. I am very fond of reading reviews of individual GAD novels, certainly. It’s how I find new authors and new books to stack beside my bed in my about-to-topple pile of to-be-read books. The erudition and analysis represented by the bloggers in the blogs listed on the left-hand side of my blog is absolutely amazing, like a university-level course in analysis and discussion of GAD. I don’t dare name individuals for fear of forgetting someone, but trust me, just work your way down my blogroll and you’ll be astounded. And yet, most of them focus on individual novels.

Now, I know that many of these folks have an appreciation of not only the depth available in looking at an individual novel, but the breadth and span of how these books fit together as a genre. The everyday discussions, both serious and humorous, in the Golden Age Detection Facebook group to which many of us belong, tell me that these folks know about schools or clusters of mysteries as well as being able to dig deep into an individual novel. And in the past, I’ve often had the experience of picking a book off my own shelves for an hour of re-reading, and thinking, “Oh, this book reminds me of this book,” and going back for a linked volume, and another, and another …

In short, Golden Age mysteries can be seen as a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, if you will, where books are linked by theme, or period, or place, or style, or authors, or characters. And while I love reading about individual books, I suspect that my brilliant friends, mentors and peers in the GAD blogosphere can embrace breadth as well as depth and bring their intellectual powers to analysis of the way that GAD books fit together in groups. And so I determined, after some consultation, to give them that opportunity if they choose to take it up.

Hence, the October 8 challenge. Now, I chose that date for a couple of reasons. One is that I won’t easily forget it — it’s my birthday ;-).  The other is that I share that birth date with another member of the GAD blogosphere who has become a friend, Edgar-Anthony-and-Agatha-nominated author Jeffrey Marks. (I have to confess that he is younger and better looking than I, but it’s still the same damn birthday LOL.) Among his other interesting volumes of both biography and fiction, Jeffrey’s fascinating book, Atomic Renaissance, gives us portraits of women mystery writers of the 1940s and 1950s, giving details of their lives and work; not focused on individual novels but a wide breadth of work from some disparate women writers. Atomic Renaissance is the kind of research I enjoy reading, and it will stand as an example of the kind of research and thought I hope to encourage. You can buy your own copy here, and I think you should do so! (This free plug is your birthday gift, Jeff <grin>.)

So, in honour of Jeffrey and his work, and my advancing age and memory loss, I will bring you a year’s worth of essays from whoever cares to participate, running until October 8, 2015.  I’ll give you the details in another post today; with Bev Hankins’ permission, I’ve lifted her idea of the Bingo card, but made it only 4×4. The second post today will give you the “rules”, such as they are; I don’t intend to be rigorous about this. What I hope to encourage is creativity, not obedience. As people contribute essays, I’ll keep track of them in one post (depending on volume, one post per month, or perhaps per season). And at the end, I will ask all the contributors to judge who will receive first, second, and third place. And those three writers will receive a small gift from my large collection of antiquarian paperbacks; nothing enormous, just a token to represent excellence.

I have to say, I can’t wait to see what happens! My associates in the GAD blogosphere have all excited me and delighted me in the past, and I hope you will continue to do so; let’s instruct and delight each other over the next year with a focus on breadth as well as depth of insight. Any questions or comments, I’ll do what I can to address; feel free to mention them below.

(Speaking of memory loss, to which I’ve confessed above, the original version of this post stupidly confused Moira Redmond and Margot Kinberg, both of whom have fascinating blogs on GAD topics. No excuse, just me being dumb. My sincere apologies, and I’ve fixed my reference.)