The Birlstone and other gambits

GroombridgePlace01

Groombridge Place, the real-life counterpart of what Doyle called “Birlstone”.

The other night I was re-reading an old mystery from the 1930s and muttered to myself, “Oh, pfui, this is the Birlstone gambit.” A family member in the room, who is probably accustomed to me talking to myself, said, “Huh?  What’s the Birlstone gambit?” And so a conversation was born, and hence this post.

I’m afraid before I start I must go much, much further than my usual spoiler warning. Ordinarily I warn people about my discussion of a specific book because they may spoil their enjoyment of the book if they haven’t read it yet.  Here, I’m going to be discussing the patterns of plots of Golden Age mysteries — various structures that underlie certain mysteries that are not related to each other but which repeat as what I’ll call “gambits”. Gambits are related to “types” of mysteries, like “locked room” or “Had I But Known”, but they relate more to the way in which the plots are constructed.  You’ll understand more as you get into it.  The point is, if you keep reading, you’re going to be better able to recognize certain repeating structures of murder mysteries regardless of who wrote them or when they were written.

I will be revealing the solution of certain well-known mysteries that either originated these gambits or are famous for having used them. If you are well-read in detective fiction, you will already be familiar with the solution to, say, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But if not, your enjoyment will be spoiled irreparably.  Really I only mean this post for the enjoyment of very well read mystery fans; be aware, and please be prepared to pass on to other reading if there’s a possibility I’ll spoil your enjoyment.

Here, alphabetically by author (so that there will be no chance of you making an accurate guess based on proximity) are the novels that will specifically be spoiled for you by reading the following article.  

  • Blake, Nicholas: The Beast Must Die (1938)
  • Brand, Christianna: Tour de Force (1955)
  • Carr, John Dickson: The Sleeping Sphinx (1947)
  • Christie, Agatha: After the Funeral (1953)
  • Christie, Agatha: Death on the Nile (1937)
  • Christie, Agatha: Hallowe’en Party (1969)
  • Christie, Agatha: Peril at End House (1932)
  • Christie, Agatha: The Hollow (1946)
  • Christie, Agatha: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)
  • Dickson, Carter (John Dickson Carr): The Plague Court Murders (1934)
  • Dickson, Carter (John Dickson Carr): The Red Widow Murders (1935)
  • Doyle, Arthur Conan: The Valley of Fear (1915)
  • Flynn, Gillian: Gone Girl (2012)
  • Hawkins, Paula: The Girl on the Train (2015)
  • Lorac, E.C.R.: Still Waters (1949)
  • Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? (1969-1970) et seq.
  • Van Dine, S. S.: The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
  • Wentworth, Patricia: The Catherine Wheel (1949)
  • Wentworth, Patricia: The Chinese Shawl (1943)
  • Wentworth, Patricia: The Silent Pool (1954) 

The nomenclature I’ve used to label these gambits is not necessarily the earliest such example, or the best, or the best-written. Frankly, it’s just how I have personally come to think of them over the years; a kind of mental shorthand, if you will. You will not find many of these gambits so labeled anywhere else. If it makes you happier to think of these ideas as tropes or even cliches, feel free. Does it seem like half of them were invented by Agatha Christie? Well, that’s why she was a great mystery novelist.

The Birlstone Gambit

doyleart32893289In this gambit, A is found dead and B is a suspect. A has died in such a way as to render the body unrecognizable; B frequently provides corroborating evidence as to the identity of the corpse.  The corpse, however, is actually that of B, and A has taken his place at the time of death. The gambit probably originated with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Valley of Fear (1915), or at least he made it his own; this has henceforth been known as the Birlstone Gambit, after Birlstone Manor House, the scene of the action in that novel. I like the way it was handled by Christianna Brand in Tour de Force (1955).

Recognizing this gambit: B sometimes displays an odd lack of knowledge of the details of B’s life, or alternatively knows too much about the details of A’s life. It’s usually cast such that B is better placed (wealthier, happier) than A, and there’s a strong motivation for A to disappear.

The Lion’s Mouth Gambit

Peril_at_End_House_First_Edition_Cover_1932A decides to murder B; A creates a situation where it looks as though someone is trying to kill A. After a few faked attempts on A, B is murdered by A, apparently by someone trying to kill A. Sometimes A continues to fake attempts on his own life to convince detectives that B was killed in error for A; sometimes A puts his hand in the lion’s mouth and makes a great show of hiring a detective to identify the killer of B. To my mind this was best handled in Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House in 1932.

Recognizing this gambit: A usually benefits a great deal by the death of B, to A’s mock surprise.

The Distinctive Garment Gambit

0950711f7e25a0734232811e47bb0e8dThis is rather similar to the Lion’s Mouth Gambit. There are two similar patterns to this one. In one, A decides to kill B. There’s a distinctive garment that is associated with A, and B is found dead wearing that garment. A has killed B, and it’s assumed that B was killed by someone who thought they were killing A. In the main variant, the actual murderer is C; A provides the garment to B unbeknownst to C, and C actually does make a mistake and kills B, having mistaken B for A.

In Christie’s Peril At End House in 1932, the garment is a shawl; it’s also a shawl in Patricia Wentworth’s The Chinese Shawl (1943) and in her The Silent Pool (1954) it’s a coat with a pattern of huge checks in vivid colour.

Recognizing this gambit: The minute you hear of a distinctive garment (for men, it can be a hat) you should be listening for people who want to wear it; they’re about to die.

The Most Likely is Least Likely is Most Likely Gambit 

Hollow-WhiteCircleThis gambit was a specialty of the great Anthony Berkeley. Essentially, A has a strong motive to kill B. When B’s corpse is found, A is in such a position that the blood is literally dripping from his hands. The experienced reader knows that the most likely suspect is always the least likely suspect, and that there is some X out there who has set this up.  The VERY experienced reader knows that when someone is the least likely suspect, they are the most likely suspect; A looks as guilty as possible because they’re actually guilty.  My favourite of these is Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (1946) but she also worked a variant of this in 1937’s Death on the Nile. Berkeley’s variants are frequently arranged so that the most likely suspect is, after much investigation by Roger Sheringham, ultimately found to be the killer and hasn’t set anything up at all.

Recognizing this gambit: When A points out, midway through the murder investigation, that had he wanted to kill B, he could easily have done it in a much less obvious way and escape detection, you should pay close attention.

The Complicit Victim Gambit

the red widow murders, carter DicksonIn this gambit, A wishes to kill B. A creates a situation such that, unbeknownst to anyone except A and B, the two arrange a plot so that B will be able to, for instance, kill C with the assistance (alibi, etc.) of A. But halfway through the plot, A kills B (which was A’s plan all along) and, because B has helped to arrange the circumstances of his own death, A hopes to escape detection through impossibility. I like the way this was handled by John Dickson Carr (as by Carter Dickson) in The Red Widow Murders (1935) but there are many other examples.

The-kennel-murder-case-1933Sometimes the assistance of B in his own death is accidental. There’s a sub-gambit of this that I’ve given its own name: the Elizabeth of Austria Gambit. In 1898, that noble lady was stabbed by an anarchist with a thin blade, and managed to walk unassisted to her cabin on a boat, where she died. I use this to stand for the cases where A kills B and then, unbeknownst to A, B continues to move around and lock himself into rooms and the like, and muddies up the path to A’s having murdered him. Principal among these is S. S. Van Dine’s The Kennel Murder Case (1933).

Recognizing this gambit: you have to recognize that the plot is quite simple if the deceased person has cooperated cheerfully in setting the scene of their own demise, and then figure out who might have convinced them to do that.

The Somebody Else’s Problem Gambit

a8f966f5701d90d5fb1f82a450a8c7dcBack in the 1980s, the late mystery novelist Greg Kramer and I used to earn small sums by writing and producing live murder mystery games over the course of a Saturday in Vancouver, culminating in a banquet in which All Was Revealed. (And may I add here that actor Curtis Armstrong, who played a supporting role in Moonlighting, is the finest real-life detective we ever encountered; a natural-born Sherlock.) There’s probably a novel or two based on the crazy stories Greg and I created for those games, but one gambit that we used over and over was a character to whom we referred as the SEP, or Somebody Else’s Problem.

00422813607212c7a4f38ab57ca34796Essentially we gave a single character a crucial fact and told the actor to conceal it by being annoying. A woman with a high squeaky voice who wanted to tell you the details of her recent encounter with aliens; an elderly man with a severe drinking problem and a failed marriage who wanted sympathy.  Most of the players weren’t prepared to put in the work to dig that crucial fact out of such an annoying person and tended to encourage their teammates to do so, with greater or lesser success. But you couldn’t solve the case without getting that little fact possessed only by the SEP.

In mysteries in the print medium, this is a more difficult element to maintain; it’s usually done by creating a character whom no one believes or whose evidence is “clearly” incorrect.  Agatha Christie did this best, I think, in 1953’s After the Funeral but also in 1969’s Hallowe’en Party.

Recognizing this gambit: when a character is either so grating that you don’t want to read about them, or you’ve become convinced that their evidence is unreliable, that’s the person who knows what actually happened, if you can only dig it out of them.

The Unreliable Narrator Gambit

9780008164997Just lately, this has become a big thing in the literary world with the huge success of Paula Hawkins’ 2015 debut novel, The Girl on the Train and 2014’s Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Essentially the protagonist represents a situation to be a certain way in the earlier part of the book and then, over the course of the action, reveals that she’s been “lying” to the audience and the truth is quite different. Successful films were made from both these books and seem to have spawned a spate of imitators.

Blake1In GAD, of course, this concept is represented by the magnificent novel by Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and the equally clever The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake (1938).

Recognizing this gambit is very difficult. Essentially you have to mistrust what you are reading from the very beginning and always have the potential for an unreliable narrator in your mind. If the narrator says something that seems to gloss over an essential fact — “I did what little had to be done” — focus in on that.

The Scooby-Doo Gambit

Scooby-DemonShark-05-Unmasked

plaguecourtA situation is outlined that contains a supernatural or creepy element; something that tends to keep people away from a certain building, or area, or room. It might be the rumour of a ghost or other monster. Upon investigation, it turns out that the supernatural element has been deliberately falsified and bolstered so as to keep people away from a criminal activity.  “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been

still-watersfor you meddling kids!” In other words, every single episode of the cartoon Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and its sequelae, but also many different novels by writers like John Dickson Carr (many times, but I like 1934’s The Plague Court Murders and 1947’s The Sleeping Sphinx). Carr had a stronger emphasis on the supernatural; other practitioners created less spooky and more outright threatening situations to cover crimes like smuggling, such as E.C.R. Lorac’s Still Waters (1949) and Patricia Wentworth’s The Catherine Wheel (also 1949).

Recognizing this gambit: Frankly, if it’s a ghost, the tradition of GAD is that it has to be revealed by the end of the story as not being of supernatural origin (except that one Carr story LOL).  So if you see a story element that involves people being warned away from the Spooky Old Woods — it’s a Scooby plot.

*****

635508844151936194-BasilRathbone-SherlockHolmesI know my friends and fellow GAD enthusiasts are champing at the bit to tell me their own gambits. Feel free, with appropriate spoiler warnings. I would suggest that a “gambit” per se is something that’s used in more than one book and by more than one author, but I’ll be interested to know your thoughts.  If I’ve gone wrong, feel free to say so.  And if you have a better title for one of my gambits, I’d love to hear it!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Chinese Shawl, by Patricia Wentworth (1943)

8cab35653a74e396c5cbad7820a339b7.jpgI had a small stroke of luck a few weeks ago and found a handful of Patricia Wentworth titles in a charity shop that included a couple of my personal favourites; it seemed like an opportune time for some re-reading and reconsideration.

I’ve read The Chinese Shawl (1943) before, many times in fact since I first discovered the Miss Silver novels. Miss Silver for me has become a kind of “cup of warm cocoa”, a familiar world where all the young women are beautiful, all the young men are handsome and gallant, and Miss Silver solves everything while knitting and emitting the occasional hortatory cough. For those of you not familiar with Patricia Wentworth’s oeuvre, she wrote 32 novels about Miss Silver, a retired governess who became a professional private detective, between 1928 and 1961. The novels usually have a romantic subplot where a nice young woman with long eyelashes finally hooks up with a wealthy young man and heads to the altar. I’ve written about Miss Silver before, and in quite some detail here in an analysis of Miss Silver Comes To Stay (1949), so if you want my generalized look at all 32 novels that’s where to look.

51HoKXRCNKLMy most recent re-reading of The Chinese Shawl produced a somewhat different thought pattern than my usual pleasant nostalgia, though, and I wanted to share it with you. Essentially I realized that over the years in my mind I have developed a kind of idealized mystery novel template in the back of my mind; something against which I hold up Golden Age mysteries and see where they fail to live up to my hoped-for experience. But when it occurred to me that I had never really tried to determine what that idealized mystery novel looked like, I knew I had the beginnings of an article for you.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, I’ll be revealing every crucial element of the above-captioned book, including the identity of the murderer and all relevant plot details. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

2650783What is this novel about?

Beautiful young Laura Fane comes up to London from the country in January, 1943 because it is soon to be her 21st birthday. We learn about some complicated family issues dating back decades, but in essence Laura inherited a house from her father that is being lived in by her father’s wealthy former fiancée, the formidable Agnes Fane — who was also the father’s cousin at the time of their engagement. Laura’s father broke it off after falling head over heels in love with Laura’s mother. Agnes then went out riding on her high-spirited horse, fell, and has spent the intervening years in a wheelchair. There has been a split in the family ever since; the proud and self-possessed Agnes never spoke to Laura’s father again.

Before he died, the month Laura was born, her father gave a 21-year lease of the house to Agnes. Agnes has lavished money and attention upon the place and paid Laura a considerable amount under the lease; now she wants to own the house. Laura meets Agnes’s adopted daughter, the strikingly beautiful Tanis Lyle, and learns that Agnes wants Laura to come and visit, heal the family breach, and sell the house to Agnes. Tanis is a classic villainess; she entraps young men and toys with their affections, then breaks their hearts and casts them aside. Agnes is completely devoted to Tanis, despite a failed marriage and a young son who remains conveniently “away”, and wants to leave her the house.

95cea3d5e3f3fd2596a6b4c6f51444341587343Laura also meets one of the many young men in Tanis Lyle’s orbit, the handsome young airman Carey Desborough, who is recovering from a crash and may not be able to fly again. Carey was once engaged to Tanis but she broke it off. As frequently happens in Wentworth novels, Carey and Laura fall immediately in love and are clearly on their way to the altar, but Tanis decides that, no, she hadn’t broken off the engagement after all.

When Laura arrives at the house that she’s never seen, it’s with the twin problems of not wanting to sell the house to Agnes and trying to find a way of marrying Carey Desborough without being called out by Tanis as a man-stealer. So there’s some tension in the household when Laura comes to stay.

9780060810474-ukThe house has other inhabitants; the full-time dwellers are Agnes’s dull and dumpy cousin Lucy (chapter 4 starts off with a genealogical chart for anyone unable to follow the familial relationships), and Agnes’s long-time maid Perry and other staff, but there is a wing full of wartime evacuees and another house guest — Miss Silver, an old school-friend of Lucy and Agnes. Tanis has created a house party full of anxiety and jealousy among many of her suitors and their current romantic partners (when she re-announces her engagement to Carey, which is merely a ploy for this poisonous young woman to get her own way); when Tanis’s ex-husband shows up and makes a scene, the tension levels are raised even higher.

Laura has brought with her a family heirloom, an antique black and heavily embroidered Chinese shawl that she wears to dinner. She accidentally forgets to bring it upstairs with her one night; the next morning, Tanis is found dead in the hallway the next morning, shot in the back, and Laura’s Chinese shawl has vanished.

Wentworth_Chinese_ShawlAt this point the official investigation begins under Superintendent Randal March, who had once been a schoolboy under Miss Silver’s tutelage. I’ll go more deeply into the details below, but essentially a number of suspects present themselves to the attention of the police. Some are excellent suspects, like the crazy ex-husband; some are merely obvious, like a few couples whom Tanis was splitting up by “taking” the male, apparently merely for practice. And then a number of primary characters are more or less equally under suspicion, with no known motive.

Since Miss Silver has been present in the house the whole time, she’s in an ideal position to investigate, and does so at the request of Agnes. Miss Silver sorts out the impossible suspects and focuses upon the likely ones, sorting out a few misguided young people along the way in her inimitable fashion. Although warned by Miss Silver in advance, a slatternly servant who attempts to blackmail the murderer is herself murdered; very soon thereafter Miss Silver listens to the murderer confess and steps in to save the next proposed victim from the same fate.  And then everyone whom the reader wants to get married, or stay married, accomplishes that in a coda.

ce32ed3581ecad5f86276ef24794ed15Why is this novel worth your time?

It’s definitely worth your time if you like the particular admixture of detective fiction with light romance that was Patricia Wentworth’s specialty. As I said above, for me it’s the literary equivalent of a cup of cocoa; Wentworth has the knack of being able to convince us to suspend our disbelief and just accept that two nice young people fall in love with each other against the background of a puzzling murder mystery.

The mystery itself is not enormously difficult, probably because there are only a few possibilities. If the reader accepts that Tanis picked up the shawl in the dead of night to keep herself warm, and then was shot, it would be because she had been mistaken for Laura. And there are only really three people who have any reason to kill Laura for the sake of what must have been a family-based grudge, as Miss Silver outlines in the second-last chapter.

And this is where my idealized murder mystery began to take shape. I was considering writing about this novel and thinking, “Now, my favourite kind of mystery is one where there is one suspect for the consideration of the police, and another for the dullest of readers, and another for the quite perceptive reader, and finally the actual murderer, whom only the most acute reader will identify. And that’s what’s happened here.”

The ex-husband is soon eliminated conclusively as a suspect, even to the imagination of a John Dickson Carr; he’s strapped to his hospital bed under full-time 24/7 nursing care. So there are two Tanis-besotted young men and their aggrieved young wives who hate Tanis, for the dullest of readers. Miss Silver sorts the second couple out around Chapter 35. In Chapter 36 we learn something that Miss Silver has always known but has not yet told the police OR the reader, which is a little unfair — Agnes Fane is not confined to her wheelchair, but merely prefers that the severe limp bestowed by her riding accident not be seen. But she walks around the house in the middle of the night.  And this, of course, immediately places her at the head of the perceptive reader’s suspect list. (In Golden Age mysteries, anyone in a wheelchair is immediately suspect of being able to get around without one, am I right?)

9780515030525-usSo in chapter 39 the blackmailing maid is killed by a shadowy figure, and immediately after in chapter 40 Laura hears and surprises Agnes Fane in the act of walking around the house. In chapter 41, dull cousin Lucy comes to rouse Laura yet again, because Agnes has had some sort of health crisis and Lucy needs help getting her a doctor without letting anyone know (because these sorts of things should be kept in the family). Lucy babbles on to Laura about the night Tanis was murdered, and the reader is increasingly convinced that Lucy is not quite saying outright that Agnes shot Tanis in mistake for Laura. And since this fits the plot so far, we don’t quite know what’s coming next but we expect that Agnes will have to pay for her crimes.

And Miss Silver has roused Carey Desborough to back her up physically, because only she knows that the murderer is really cousin Lucy, who is nuttier than a fruitcake. (Lucy wants to kill Laura and blame everything on her so that she and Agnes will live happily ever after with Tanis’s offstage young son.) So this penultimate chapter surprises the reader yet again. Lucy is the killer whom only a few will legitimately suspect.

Miss Silver provides a tiny clue which lets you know that, yes, you could have figured it out if you had been superhumanly observant. She boils it down to three suspects (Agnes, her maid Perry, and Lucy) who may conceivably have a grudge against Laura, and notes that Lucy is the only one who is short-sighted. “Laura had been wearing a black lace dress. Tanis had changed into black pyjamas and a heavy black silk coat. Only a very short-sighted person to whom all black materials look alike at a little distance could have mistaken that heavy silk for so different a material as lace.” And so that becomes the if-and-only-if condition that identified the short-sighted Lucy as the murderer, which Randal March calls “acute — and how feminine!”

517QMEd1LmLIt’s actually a cheat, since at no previous time has Wentworth remarked that Lucy is short-sighted. She has noted, though, that Lucy reads a lot of thrillers and tries to act like she doesn’t, so perhaps that is hint enough.

However, it did seem as though Wentworth was working towards layering the book in such a way that the identity of the murderer would really be a surprise, and doing so in the way I’ve noted works well. Another mystery writer has commented along the same lines, although my memory fails me as to exactly whom that was. You create a suspect who is obviously guilty and whom the police arrest, then one a little less guilty-looking for the duller reader, a well-hidden suspect for the smarter reader, and a very slender path leading to the only correct answer for the smartest few.

What else, I wondered, has Wentworth done here from which I might extract certain basic principles of mystery construction?

imageWell, there is something here that I only find among the best-constructed mysteries — and it’s the reason I had to abandon spoilers and Tell All, in order to get this across. Essentially there is an underlying structure in this book where the physical facts and actions of the characters combine to produce a puzzle; but all the physical facts and actions of the characters share a kind of thematic bond. The book is “about” something.

Let me show you what I mean with reference to this particular book. The event that starts all the other balls rolling is that, many years ago, Laura’s father broke his engagement with Agnes because he had fallen in love with Laura’s mother and ran away with her. Twenty-one years later, Laura herself breaks up the engagement of Carey and Tanis — at least, from the point of view of Agnes. Imagine you’re Agnes for a moment. You were thrown over by Laura’s father 21 years ago, and now your beloved ward is going to be thrown over by her fiancé at Laura’s behest. So the emotional betrayal of the past is echoed by the emotional betrayal of the present.

0af638dafb7bc2a7071b8939503939b4.jpgI have to say, as a reader I find this kind of mystery to be a very satisfying reading experience. I look for thematic echoes like this in mysteries and very frequently do not find them, although they are the everyday stuff of what I term “literary fiction”. Even more interesting to me is the idea that these echoes result in a mystery plot that grows out of character and not mechanical necessity.

Here, it’s entirely possible that Agnes has gone crazy enough to try to shoot Laura (and mistakenly gun down Tanis). Why? Because we understand that Agnes’s betrayal 21 years ago has affected her entire life. We know she is proud and that her broken engagement essentially left her a lifelong spinster, unable to trust men. And Agnes has raised Tanis in such a way that she herself is entirely untrustworthy in romantic matters. She steals other women’s beaux and then casts them aside, she makes and breaks marriage engagements without scruple. You can understand why Tanis is the way she is, because you can understand why Agnes is the way she is. And the whole plot flows from those two characters.

Sure, it doesn’t sound like much to an audience capable of understanding the byzantine relationships of Game of Thrones, or even The Young and the Restless. But think about it in detective fiction terms. Take, for example, The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen (1934). There is pretty much zero in the way of psychological realism; the activities of the plot are entirely subordinated to making the set-piece that is the surroundings of the corpse make any sense. Why would someone come up with a murder plot that requires the murderer to insert two long spears through the clothing of the corpse, all of which is reversed? There’s no reason that doesn’t have the theme to Looney Tunes playing in the background. Whereas here — why, for instance, does Agnes want to own the house so badly? Because she wants it as a legacy for Tanis, and even Tanis’s son after her death. She wants to give her something permanent that will always be there, unlike men LOL. Everything rings true, because you can understand why the characters feel that way.

Detective-Book-Patricia-Wentworth-The-ChineseI’m not saying I dislike Chinese Orange, by the way, just that I much prefer it when a mystery has some element of … psychological necessity, if you will. I like detective novels even more when they contain an attention to detail such that every sub-plot contains the same thematic element. Here, people’s lives worsen when they interfere with romantic relationships, or their own romantic relationship is damaged or broken. Not only are Tanis and Agnes and Laura and Carey all affected by the broken engagement 20 years ago, husbands who dally with Tanis get suspected of murder by their wives, and vice versa. The puzzle is not as difficult as Chinese Orange but there is a good balance between plot and characterization here, and I enjoy that.

There are a few problems, of course. Wentworth here cheats a few times, notably in not providing sufficient evidence about the exact circumstances of Agnes and Lucy. And Lucy is pretty far-fetched as the ultimate murderer; Agnes is the one with all the steely determination who could pull that trigger and then kill the servant to hide her crimes. It’s hard to understand how Miss Silver herself could have known both these women from children and yet not realized that either was capable of murder; she was either less piercingly smart than she usually is, which isn’t possible 😉 or she was giving them the benefit of a doubt, which is not really the firmly upright Miss Silver.

The idea of the disloyal servant who Knows Something and tries to blackmail the murderer is a favourite idea of Wentworth’s — it shows up again in identical form in 1955’s Out Of The Past. I think she found it convenient in plotting terms, since it lets you have an exciting Act II without getting rid of any of the main suspects.

I’ve spent a lot of time re-reading Patricia Wentworth in the recent months and I’m really enjoying the process. There is always something diverting that she has to say about social issues, and even domestic economy, an interesting mystery to solve, and a light romantic plot that doesn’t strain credulity. (Well, okay, all those young women with caramel-coloured eyes and huge eyelashes, that strains credulity. But the romance is fine LOL.) And there is the presence of Miss Silver, who represents order and method and everything that is good about being an English gentlewoman. I’ve gone through her books a number of times now and always enjoyed the experience; I recommend her work to your attention.

 

Four unpleasant children (Part 2 of 2)

imagesThe other day, I published the first half of this essay. It was based upon the experience of picking up four mysteries at random from a box of recent acquisitions and finding that they all, to my surprise, contained children — unlikeable, unpleasant, and vaguely sticky children — as principal characters. This will be slightly less of a hatchet job than Part 1, since I actually liked one of today’s books … but I was in a mood to be less than pleased by children in mysteries.

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of crime fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about (1) The Widow’s Cruise, by Nicholas Blake; (2) Grey Mask, by Patricia Wentworth; and some others, including one by Christianna Brand to which I refer obliquely but specifically below, and Agatha Christie’s The Seven Dials Mystery. I discuss elements of plot and construction although I don’t lay out the answers in so many words.  If you haven’t already read these novels, reading this essay means they will have lost their power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read these books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this rant about?

51Cx4OmyUXL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_The third in my unbroken sequence of children in mysteries occurred when I picked up a copy of The Widow’s Cruise, a 1959 novel by the great Nicholas Blake. I provided a very brief biography of this writer some years back here; under his own name of Cecil Day-Lewis, he was indeed Poet Laureate of England (and his son is indeed the famous actor Daniel Day-Lewis).

As his career wound down, he published fewer novels in the series about amateur detective Nigel Strangeways and this is almost the last really satisfying one, I’ll suggest.  (That would be 1961’s The Worm of Death, which has small problems but large brilliancies.) In this outing, Nigel and his life partner Clare Massinger, a sculptor, board the Menelaos to cruise around the Greek Islands in the company of an assorted group of fellow passengers. The two of most interest are a pair of middle-aged sisters, one of whom is Melissa, a wealthy and glamorous widow, and the other a frustrated academic (Ianthe) recovering from a nervous breakdown.

447a5923b4b047fca5a624e0f32b639fOne of the other passengers is a teenage girl who attended the girls’ school where the bitter academic had taught until her breakdown; Faith and her brother are eager to snap at the heels of the former schoolteacher, who is withdrawn and unpleasant. Also in conflict with Ianthe is the scholar Jeremy Street, who is leading the “Greek history” part of the tour aboard the Menelaos; Ianthe’s last rational act before her breakdown appears to have been to publish a scathing review of Street’s scholarship.

UnknownBut it’s not teenage Faith who aroused my dislike; it’s another fellow passenger who is very little seen in the book but leaves an indelible impression. Little Primrose Chalmers, aged about nine, is the child of two psychoanalysts and her hobby appears to be spying on her fellow passengers and writing things down in a notebook. This unpleasant child contradicts her elders, doesn’t appear to realize when people don’t want her around, and appears to regard her fellow passengers as analytic subjects rather than adults to whom one should be respectful. Things build rapidly to a head and one afternoon, after a shore excursion during which Ianthe disappears, missing and presumed dead, Primrose is found face-down in the swimming pool and her notebook is missing. Apparently she saw or heard the wrong thing at the wrong time.

tumblr_lhm2a4iPD31qd7ygho1_1280Just imagining what it must be like to be trapped on a cruise ship with a child spying on you — let alone under circumstances productive of sexual dalliance, over-indulgence in food and drink, bitter arguments with persons on board from one’s past, and scholarly infighting — it all sounds very unpleasant to me. I’m not suggesting that Primrose deserved to be killed, that’s not fair to say at all about a child, but … how shall I put this? … the experienced mystery reader is not truly surprised.

517AXFNBzAL.SX316.SY316For the most part, this is really more a character study than anything else. Blake does a wonderful job of making us see bitter Ianthe and her less than virtuous sister Melissa, the pouty teenage Faith, the pompous but wounded Jeremy Street, and even the minor characters like a Bishop and his wife whom Nigel befriends, and the Greek cruise director, the greasy and highly-sexed Nikolaides. As you reach the conclusion of the book you will realize that you have actually been fooled by a complex and very deliberate plot, and that you have been given a large number of clues as to what actually happened — and you’ve overlooked or misinterpreted most of them.

My blogfriend, the percipient Kate Jackson, looked at this book last year with her usual acuity, and I do think her opinions and mine coincide for the most part. She made a good comparison of the central plot device here to certain of the works of Agatha Christie, and I agree. However, I think there’s even a stronger parallel in a novel of Christianna Brand’s from 1955 (don’t look up this piece by blogfriend Dan at The Reader Is Warned unless you are prepared to have some enjoyment spoiled of both this book and the Brand one).

51Mbiq780FL._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_What I enjoyed most about The Widow’s Cruise was the quality of the writing, which is head and shoulders above Blake’s contemporaries. The prose is elegant and intelligent, the plot is tidy and masterful, and the characterization, as I said, is the strongest point. Just a pleasure to read something this well-written, where intelligence leaks through the pores, as it were. I’m prepared to sacrifice a couple of Primroses for a book this smart and engaging.

4279de94b610700b1002b4e3cac79b7cAnd so I turn from a child who was a victim to a child who ought to have been a victim, as I mentioned yesterday. Grey Mask, a 1929 novel by Patricia Wentworth, is the earliest of my four encounters with the under-21 set and the very first in the long series of novels about Miss Silver, a retired governess who became a private investigator.

I’ve had quite a bit to say over the last few years about the work of Patricia Wentworth; The Clock Strikes Twelve (1944); The Dower House Mystery (1925) (a non-Miss Silver mystery); Poison in the Pen (1954); and a long piece about Miss Silver Comes To Stay (1949) that contains quite a bit of general observation about her entire oeuvre. I’m thinking of another more major piece in the future (in that regard, does anyone know why you would want to poison an innocent caterpillar?) but in the meantime it’s been pleasant to dip into the many mysteries she currently has available thanks to e-books. I’ll let those other pieces speak for themselves, if I may.

6a00d834515bbc69e2019101ea6a4f970c-600wiHowever, this is Miss Silver’s first outing, and honestly I suspect it was nearly her last. It took nearly ten years for the author to create a second Miss Silver novel and there were well more than a dozen non-series novels in the interval. I think it’s clear that Miss Silver got re-worked a little bit in the interval. She’s more aggressive here, less self-effacing, and, if you’ll pardon a more modern metaphor for this antique character, she’s more in your face. It’s the only book in the entire series where Miss Silver is heard to speak using contractions.

51B6LNvU-FLGrey Mask comes from a more antique tradition, and one that will not be well known nearly a century later. Essentially this comes from a style of novel that asks the reader to believe that (a) there is a secret society devoted to a large-scale cause, usually political, personal, or financial gain; (b) the people involved in this secret society wear masks at their meetings so that they won’t recognize each other if they meet mask-less; and (c) innocent and brave young people, frequently with troubled romantic lives, are constantly getting mixed up with these societies and bringing them to an unpleasant end. Indeed, you may have already read one of these (Agatha Christie’s 1929 novel, The Seven Dials Mystery) or seen this repetitive element used in film or television (for instance, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut and a vast array of direct-to-video gialli about witchcraft and female frontal nudity).

9781453223628-book-coverSo in 1929, when this was written, I suspect it may have been about the final point in time in which the reader was meant to take this seriously. This book, like all such books, chronicles the involvement of an innocent young person with the masked secret society; the innocent person decides that s/he is going to find out just what’s going on and do the job that the police cannot. Here it is Charles Moray, who four years ago had his engagement broken by the beautiful Margaret Langton. He travels the world, trying to forget (yes, the book is pretty much at this level of cliche) and upon his return he finds out that Margaret is a member of a masked secret society that is … blackmailing people? It’s not absolutely clear. But any clandestine meeting of people where everyone gets a mask and a number has got to be more than vaguely criminal. So Charles decides to take on Grey Mask, the leader of the group, and win back Margaret.

Wentworth_Patricia_Grey_Mask2Meanwhile, and this is what brought this so unfavourably to my attention, a new character arrives. Margot Standing is approximately 18 years old, fresh from a European finishing school, and the beautiful blonde daughter and heir of a wealthy shipping magnate who was recently lost at sea.  There’s a lot of money at stake and Grey Mask has his/her eyes on controlling Margot’s inheritance, so plans begin to take shape.

But Margot — oh, my, Margot. Oh, my. Apparently she’s been living in an extremely limited environment for the past decade or so, possibly one for the mentally challenged. She acts like an unsophisticated girl of about 12; she is credulous, pleasure-seeking, slightly rebellious, lazy, and oh, so stupid. Unbelievably stupid. Walking-into-traffic stupid. One of the first things she does is reply to a want-ad that is clearly designed to lure girls into the white slave traffic . She has no sense of self-preservation and apparently no sense that anyone would want to injure or inconvenience her. Why? Well, mostly because …

“A glance in the mirror never failed to have a cheering effect. It is very difficult to go on being unhappy when you can see that you have a skin of milk and roses, golden brown hair with a natural wave, and eyes that are much larger and bluer than those of any other girl you know. Margot Standing’s eyes really were rather remarkable. They were of a very pale blue, and if they had not been surrounded by ridiculously long black lashes, they might have spoilt her looks; as it was the contrast of dark lashes and pale bright eyes gave her prettiness a touch of exotic beauty. She was of middle height, with a pretty, rather plump figure, and a trick of falling from one graceful pose into another.”

What happens is that every single eligible male and a few who aren’t fall immediately in love with her, and wealthy aristocrats are competing for the right to buy her dinner and listen to her burble about whatever is on what passes for her mind.

9780446301350So that’s half the plot right there; Margot charms everyone. The remainder consists of Margot doing things that are unimaginably stupid and to the immediate benefit of Grey Mask and the group of conspirators, and then Margaret and Charles quite obviously falling in love all over again (but first, of course, he has to find out why she jilted him). And there’s a small percentage about Miss Silver acting rather in the role of private investigator Paul Drake from the Perry Mason series, whose job it is to pop up every now and then and provide information about who lives where and what they did last night. Miss Silver actually does save the day at the end, after some moderately surprising plot developments, and rescues Margaret and Charles from their imprisonment in a soundproof cellar. You will not be surprised to know that Grey Mask is someone who has not previously given any signs of the ability to be the mastermind of a powerful criminal organization — and has been fooling everyone for years.

51XlQmHKasL.SX160.SY160I suppose for me Margot was the sticking point. Frankly, if you have a plot that allows you the freedom to have just about anyone — passers-by, delivery boys, taxi drivers, waiters — be in the pay of your secret society, you don’t need the active cooperation of your victim in walking directly into every trap in sight. Similarly if you’re trying to keep Margot disguised and out of the hands of the secret society, it doesn’t help that she lets her secret slip to every man who talks to her politely for five minutes. She is a fifth wheel in the budding re-romance of Margaret and Charles, she eats all Margaret’s food and can’t afford to replace it, and is constantly gushing about how fabulous all the men in sight are and whether they are romantically interested in her. In later decades and milieux she might have found herself a preppy, bon chic bon genre, or a Sloane Ranger. But in this volume she’s a pompous little Valley Girl before her time. It’s unpleasant to consider that a wealthy man would have left his daughter so completely unequipped to meet the exigencies of modern life; her idea of work is apparently asking her father’s lawyer to give her money.  And I rather think this is the kind of person the Communists wanted to stand up against a wall and shoot; I’m somewhat more sympathetic now.

29010So Margot is carrying the weight of the plot and just cannot stand up to it. If you find yourself unable to countenance Margot, as I was unable, then you will not enjoy this book very much since it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen from the outset. The day will indeed be saved, the lovers will reunite, and the villain will be killed while trying to escape. I did have a moment’s pleasure thinking of what Miss Silver might have made of this lazy nitwit as a governess but I think Miss Silver would have more sense than to waste her effort. There is not much here but the bare bones of what Miss Silver would become in the future; she’s the only person in the book I wanted more from.

EUni12TPatricia Wentworth made the error of introducing repellent children at least once more; Vanishing Point, from 1953, features a young girl who is simultaneously an invalid and a plucky young thing with dreams of becoming an author. The result may leave the reader needing insulin because of a sugar overdose. But I haven’t heard anything from most of my regular commenters about other awful children in detective fiction. Does no one remember the xiphopagous twins from Ellery Queen‘s The Siamese Twin Mystery? The impossibly perfect offspring of Lieutenant Mendoza in the works of Dell Shannon? Horrible little Billy and Jackie from Queen’s The Tragedy of Y? Agatha Christie is full of them: the Girl-Guide-aged taxi dancer in Christie’s The Body in the Library, or Hallowe’en Party, with two repellent little girls (one sweet, one sour); the little ballerina in Crooked House, or the pudgy and unpleasant victim in Dead Man’s Folly; Pippa Hailsham-Brown from Spider’s Web or Linda Marshall from Evil Under The Sun. That creepy little group in Margery Allingham‘s The Mind Readers; brats in Erle Stanley Gardner‘s TCOT Empty Tin, Deadly Toy and Spurious Spinster — and that’s just with thinking about it for ten minutes.  There’s possibly a long series here!!

 

 

 

 

Four unpleasant children (Part 1 of 2)

box of books

Not the actual books; this, however, is an illustration from a tutorial on how to pack books, which I have found useful.

Recently I purchased a couple of boxes of mystery paperbacks; the editions ranged from the 40s to the 90s and the novels themselves were a mixed bag of good, bad, and indifferent.  (They included about 15 of the works of Leslie Ford, so expect something about her oeuvre at some near future point.) Almost all of them I’d read before, just wanted to have them on my shelves. I was dipping into one and then another, for a quick skimming re-read, hoping that some volume would strike a chord of excellence or failure and I could get a blog post out of it.

badseed

Little Rhoda, from “The Bad Seed”, filmed in 1956.

I do intend to get a couple of blog posts out of this box of books, but I had an experience that was not quite my normal reaction to a single mystery, and I thought I’d share it.  Essentially I hit four books in a row that all had children in them as featured characters, ranging from plot complications to murder victims. I had so much to say I had to divide it into two parts; I won’t be long delayed with the second part, I assure you.

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of crime fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about (1) Death and the Dutch Uncle, by Patricia Moyes; (2) Spinsters in Jeopardy, by Ngaio Marsh; and perhaps some others. I discuss elements of plot and construction although I don’t lay out the answers in so many words.  If you haven’t already read these novels, reading this essay means they will have lost their power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read these books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this rant about?

1023138This started when I picked up an old volume of Patricia Moyes that I dimly remembered having read 20 or 30 years ago; Death and the Dutch Uncle (1968). I read most of Moyes’s novels about Inspector Henry Tibbett of Scotland Yard and his charming wife Emmy when they were brought out in a uniform paperback edition in the early 80s by Henry Holt (see left); I’ve written about her first novel here. Most of the details were gone — frankly, this is why I re-read things, because it takes me a while to remember the book and I enjoy the process.  But I did remember that this particular volume had left me with a bad taste in my mouth; just not why that was.

“Hmm,” I thought as I progressed. “This isn’t the standard Golden Age style mystery, this is more like a mild espionage story, or perhaps a tale of international intrigue. Not really suited to Henry and Emmy, but Moyes is not being too serious here so it manages to keep me reading.  I wonder what it was that annoyed me so much the first time?  I don’t see any signs of it.”

16051797Then I hit the character of little Ineke de Jong, a Dutch child who is “eight and a half” and the grand-daughter of an important character, and the whole book came back to me with a rush. She is pushy, arrogant, demanding, and has “rosy cheeks, china-blue eyes, and flaxen hair tied with two blue ribbons …”. Her presence in the novel as a character is designed, I think, to allow various bad guys the chance to put pressure on her grandfather. I expect it’s entirely possible that many people would regard this precocious and aggressive child as being charming and cute; I can’t think of anyone I’d try to get away from faster.

Certainly there is a point to creating a character that you think your audience is going to enjoy. As the cover blurb for this novel suggests, Patricia Moyes put the “who” back in whodunnit, according to the Chicago Daily News at least. You get to convey information or build a platform for a plot point, and divert the reader by giving her a likeable character to provide that information/be that platform. From my point of view, though, when it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work at ALL. The remainder of this book was irretrievably spoiled for me because the damn kid set my teeth on edge and I hated reading about her.

9780345022479-usThis is a bit of a self-indulgent book in more than this way. As is evident from many of her other books, Moyes liked to write about European locations and, frankly, she usually does it well. She has a nice way of giving you knowledge without making you think you should have brought a guidebook along. Apparently there is something that she found charming about the Netherlands, both urban and rural; the urban part was fine, but her take on the countryside was saccharine and kind of insulting. There’s a moment where three elderly Dutch bumpkins misunderstand Henry that is not quite pleasant to read even though it’s supposed to be comical. Moyes is also kind of condescending about the general level of intelligence of London-based petty criminals and doesn’t find much to like about hotel staff either — these are two major threads in the early part of the book. And in a move that might have seemed cute and meta (but given the level of grumpiness that had already been provoked in me by little Ineke I found merely annoying), Moyes has represented Henry’s police contact in the Dutch force as being Inspector Van Der Valk. Ooh, meta and intertextual. I might have been prepared for that in a different context, but not this book, it seems.

1081179436So I ploughed through to the end and, yes, it was just as annoying as I’d remembered. Henry and Emmy perform feats of courage and athleticism that are perhaps somewhat beyond the norm. The story line is complicated by people who perform criminal acts of needless complexity and extent, and Ineke (of course) gets kidnapped with Emmy. Everyone is saved, the young lovers are reunited, and there’s an epilogue that neatly ties off all the loose ends.  Nothing here is really what I’d call a mystery, it’s more like the sedentary middle-aged version of a light espionage novel.  Three out of ten; most of her others are better.

9780006131625-us

Next I turned to Ngaio Marsh’s Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953); I’ve got a number of copies of this lying around, I’m sure, but I always try to pick up my favourite edition with the posed photograph of the “corpse” whenever I see one (see left). This book may well be familiar to a large percentage of my regular readers and there’s a bit of background here.  Marsh’s series detective, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, gets married during the course of the 32-novel series to the impossibly perfect Troy Alleyn; together they produce little Ricky Alleyn. I’ve already had quite a bit to say about 1977’s Last Ditch, in which a young adult Ricky gets involved in a drug-smuggling plot; it’s part of my series called 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Readfound here. That book is absolutely horrible. This earlier volume features Ricky as a ghastly young tyke of about six, and is very close to that level of awfulness.

5077968098_be818fef4c_bThe plot finds Alleyn and his family traveling in Roqueville, France because Alleyn has unaccountably decided that he can better investigate the origins of a narcotics ring while trailing his wife and child. Ridiculous, of course, but necessary to the story. Troy, his wife, wants to visit a local cousin, the oddly-behaved P. E. Garbel. As they travel to Roqueville by train, a coincidence occurs that is downright miraculous; a blind flies up at just the right moment and Alleyn witnesses what appears to be a murder in the very chateau he seeks to investigate in connection with the drug ring. In another astonishing coincidence, one of the Alleyn family’s fellow train passengers (one of the titular spinsters) needs an emergency operation for appendicitis and all the other doctors in the area are at a conference (don’t you hate when that happens?). Dr. Baradi, one of the leaders of a witchcraft cult headquartered at the Chateau of the Silver Goat, must perform the operation. And yes, the plotting is just as ruthlessly utilitarian as I’m making it sound. If something is interfering with Alleyn getting involved with the witchcraft cult, whoosh, away it goes, on the headlong way to Act II.

SpinstersInJeopardyThe chateau is filled with drug addicts of the upper levels of British and French society; one of Troy’s fellow painters, a raddled movie star whose career is on the downhill slide, the cult’s other leader Mr. Oberon, a pair of brainless but nice young Brits (Robin and Ginny), etc. Among these cultists are a couple of rather odd spinsters, to make the title work. Everyone lies around all day in a stupor induced by the overuse of cannabis, to which they are all “addicted” (hereabouts it appears to have qualities much like heroin). Very shortly after Alleyn first investigates the chateau, little Ricky is kidnapped. Through an exhibition of … I’ll call it astonishingly intuitive police work, Alleyn rescues his son with the assistance of a local chauffeur, Raoul, and Raoul’s fiancee, the voluptuous and faintly moustached Teresa.

Marsh-SpinBMeanwhile the book has been building to Act III in which the witchcraft cult is going to spend Friday night getting hopped up on marijuana and sacrificing the one virgin left in the building; Ginny, the youngest spinster of all. You will not be surprised to learn that Alleyn penetrates the witch cult and reveals his presence at the most dramatic moment possible; he solves a murder, proves who’s behind the narcotics ring, and rescues everyone who needs to be rescued.

9780515087185-us-300There’s a lot to dislike about this book, I found. The helpful locals, Raoul and Teresa, are “simple peasant types” and while it’s not overly emphasized, it’s clear that they’re in the book as comic relief; their language is nowhere near as hilarious as Marsh seems to think. The drug ring, as I’ve noted before with Marsh, is ridiculously conceived. It just doesn’t seem very sensible to try to camouflage a heroin factory by running it out of a crumbling chateau where you sacrifice virgins on the weekends; someone is bound to notice something, you know? The masterminds, for whom the penalties for their crimes may include death, are remarkably unwilling to confront or challenge Alleyn and rely upon kidnapping little Ricky at an early stage of proceedings — to give him something to worry about. If there’s anything more designed to draw attention to your operation than kidnapping the son of the detective investigating you, I cannot imagine what it might be (it would have to involve fireworks LOL). And it’s actually unpleasant to think that Inspector Alleyn could allow his family and especially his extremely vulnerable child to be involved with a den of Satanist drug dealers. I mean, come on. The kid gets kidnapped and rescued and the family still hangs around. This story requires more suspension of disbelief than a bungee jump.

9780006165309-us-300Little Ricky, as you can imagine, represents one of the reasons I’ve never had children. I actually do think Ngaio Marsh is a writer of considerable skill and intelligence, and she has a great deal of ability to make the reader see her characters as people. I believe that she is showing Ricky as a six-year-old, subject to the emotions and reactions of a child — and it’s that that I don’t like about this book. Marsh is working hard to make this child appealing and realistic and what it makes me want to do is close the book, pour myself a Scotch, and go confirm the restrictive covenant with my condo management company that guarantees no children and no pets. The child is chatty, follows his parents around like a homing pigeon, and requires constant reassurance about nearly everything in his environment, like a recently housebroken cocker spaniel. Now, to be fair, he actually gets kidnapped and might be expected to be a bit needy upon his return. But Ricky’s is the kind of anxiety that shows up whenever Marsh wants to make Troy and Alleyn look like good parents; when the action truly starts, he’s conveniently and thoroughly asleep. (And he’s only six, but he’s absorbed the British principle of the stiff upper lip.) If I had found myself stranded with the Alleyn family in that situation, by the hundredth repetition of “Why, mummy?” I would have joined the witchcraft cult and sacrificed Ricky.

51Cx4OmyUXL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_My next two lucky dips I’ll chronicle 4279de94b610700b1002b4e3cac79b7c
in the very near future; in one, a young girl is killed in an excellent Nigel Strangeways mystery by Nicholas Blake, and in the other, the reader only wishes the young girl is killed in a less than excellent Miss Silver mystery by Patricia Wentworth.

Meanwhile, in the comments below, who are your favourite awful children in detective fiction?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 agathachristie.com, 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.

26f29cards1-461847

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.