The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Great Detectives (Part 4)

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great DetectivesThe Great Detectives: Ellery Queen


As part of a group effort by The Tuesday Night Bloggers, I’ve previously discussed four of my favourite Great Detectives — three created by Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Cool & Lam in Part 1 and Doug Selby in Part 2, along with Robert van Gulik’s Dee Jen-Djieh from 6th century China. Part 3 was devoted to the Typhoid Mary of Cabot Cove, Jessica Fletcher.

Today’s effort is devoted to Ellery Queen, a detective about whom I’ve had a lot to say in the past. So much so that in fact The Tuesday Night Bloggers spent November, 2015 talking about him, and I had a lot to say. If you’re interested in what I had to say about some interesting editions, Ellery Queen and broad brand and continuation works, my five  most/least favourite novels, some novels that I distinguish for reasons that are not the usual ones, or a bunch (1), (2), (3), (4) of individual novels, follow the links in this sentence. If you want the general background, there’s an excellent and very detailed Wikipedia article at this link. And here, as previously, I will refer to the fictional character as Ellery Queen and to the two cousins who created the character as EQ.

img_42-04-09-ellery-queen-spot-adMy topic today is Ellery Queen, the Great Detective. I’m pretty sure this is the only topic I selected for this month’s posts with the Tuesday Night Bloggers that may actually be in the book of Great Detectives that inspired us … According to Anthony Boucher, “Ellery Queen IS the American detective story.” You will find a very complete explanation of everything that anyone would ever want to know about any aspect of EQ and Ellery Queen, at Ellery Queen: A Website on Deduction, an example of web-based writing excellence. (Devote a few hours some day to reading it through; it’s an immense treasure trove of information.) Here’s my take why Ellery Queen is a great detective.

51sHSxFJv2L.SX316.SY316Ellery Queen was created in 1929 for EQ’s entry into a literary contest and attained publication in 1929. That means, in literary terms, that The Roman Hat Mystery was coming into existence at the same time that S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance mysteries were massively dominating the North American literary market. The Benson Murder Case is from 1926, The ‘Canary’ Murder Case from 1927, The Greene Murder Case from 1928 and The Bishop Murder Case from 1929. It’s also perhaps important to remember that the first two films based on the Van Dine novels came to the screen in 1929 with William Powell as Philo Vance; The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case. And they were a big hit — by all reports I can find, the first three Philo Vance novels outsold any other detective fiction by a huge margin in 1926-1928.  It’s hard to assess at this great distance exactly how big a hit, and how environment-forming they would have been for the EQ cousins, but it seems clear that Ellery Queen was pretty much based on Philo Vance.

MV5BNjczNzQ0Njc1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTI5MDgwMjE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_I think that makes sense in the context. It’s easy to understand how the marketplace responds to a huge cultural game-changer. At that point in the history of detective fiction in the U.S., there hadn’t really been a male writer who had such a disproportionate effect on the marketplace. Van Dine became a kind of literary superstar who was guaranteed to sell; if you wanted your detective creation to sell, you might do worse than model him on the latest superstar.

The Egyptian Cross MysteryAnd so Ellery Queen was the protagonist of his first nine mysteries between 1929 and 1935. Each book starred Ellery Queen and was published as by Ellery Queen. Each title fit a specific format: The X Y Mystery, where X is a nationality (Egyptian, Siamese, Spanish) and Y is a concrete noun (Hat, Coffin, Orange). I won’t go into this in great depth, because I’ve had a lot to say about it in reviews of specific books, but these nine books were a huge game-changer in detective fiction. They presented difficult plots whose hallmarks were strongly logical problems set against a backdrop of a baffling murder. And they showcased Ellery Queen as the brilliant amateur who solved them. The EQ cousins immediately took a huge presence in the marketplace, buoyed by their talent for self-promotion, and all of a sudden there were two different sources of Golden Age detection; the UK and the US.

Ellery’s personality here is, as I noted, pretty much based on Philo Vance. That means, to quote Van Dine himself from Benson:

He was a man of unusual culture and brilliance. An aristocrat by birth and instinct, he held himself severely aloof from the common world of men. In his manner there was an indefinable contempt for inferiority of all kinds. The great majority of those with whom he came in contact regarded him as a snob.

But there is a humanity in the young Ellery that is entirely missing from the pompous dandy of the early Philo Vance. In Greek Coffin, he is brash and overconfident, and has a dramatic public failure; it’s as a result of this that he swears never to reveal his thinking during a case until he is completely certain he’s solved it.  Now, I have to admit, from the point of view of the construction of a detective fiction plot, that’s really very convenient.  If the writers can keep the tension mounting until it’s time for Ellery to Reveal Everything, then it makes for a much more readable book. The sensible part of me wants detectives to share their thought processes as they move along, partly because, you know, what if they get hit by the proverbial bus, and partly because it makes it easier to solve for lazy me ;-). But from EQ’s perspective it’s a good choice.

29b_DoubleI think this earliest Ellery is the one that forms the basis for much of what we see as time moves forward in the EQ oeuvre. Later on in the Wrightsville era, Ellery has emotions and he takes considerably more interest in the emotional situation of his suspects; he occasionally begins to fall in love with them (Double, Double, Paula Paris, Calamity Town, and the character in an [unspoilered] early novel who ridiculously becomes radio-based love interest Nikki Porter in the closing paragraphs).  Sometimes he dislikes them (The Origin of Evil, for instance). Sometimes they pretty much bore him except for the logical problems with which they present him (The Finishing Stroke).

31e_kingIn what I think of as the “Hollywood period”, when EQ were trying to sell scripts to the movies, Ellery’s personality becomes plastic and malleable — anything he’s needed to be or do, he’ll be or do, because the cousins’ primary focus is hitting it big as scriptwriters. But then there’s a long period in which Ellery has just almost no personality at all. The astonishing events at the end of The King Is Dead, for instance, just seem to roll off his back without much comment or interest. In the last few books, after a long period of his having been ghosted by other authors, it’s hard to say if Ellery is even interested in what’s going on around him on any level at all. The events of A Fine and Private Place are apparently so uninteresting that he can’t be bothered to do anything about solving the mystery, like search for evidence which is there to be found.

Moran_EQMM-Cover-Fall-1941I suspect that in the post-Wrightsville period, the EQ cousins could legitimately assume that everyone who wanted to read about Ellery’s adventures already knew as much about him as they needed to know. The radio show, nine or ten films, the Ellery Queen name on the masthead of EQMM, even the later television series saw to that. He’s a detective, he’s brainy, his father is a police officer and he solves crimes.  He didn’t really need to have emotions — at one point in the Wrightsville/Hollywood period, he actually is so upset that he wants to quit being a detective, and heaven knows that would have been disastrous to the series. So after a certain point he simply stopped having them.

But what kind of Great Detective is Ellery Queen?  In my view, there are a few basic kinds of cases that seem to suit him best (or, of course, actually suit the cousins who constructed the character and the stories).

  1. face-to-face-paperbackEllery is possibly best known for solving “dying clue” mysteries; at least, it’s a regular feature of many EQ short stories and at least two good novels (The Scarlet Letters and Face to Face). In the “dying clue” format, a murder victim has just enough time and consciousness left to leave some sort of cryptic reference to his/her killer. When Ellery realizes the real meaning behind the clue, and that it can only refer to one person (because dying people are apparently preternaturally intelligent about that sort of thing, considering and rejecting all kinds of possible dying clues — cf. The Last Woman In His Life) the story is over. So if the reader gets to the clue’s meaning before Ellery does, the story is solved.
  2. There’s a format that appears to be restricted to the short story form that is similar to the dying clue style, in which Ellery is confronted with a situation in which either A, B, or C commits the murder. Ellery must identify the one-and-only-one killer by observing or deducing that only one of the three individuals is not ruled out and thus is the only possible candidate.  (Only suspect A is tall enough to have seen something from the window and thus is the killer.)
  3. Dutch Shoe Mystery1There was a style in Ellery’s earliest days that seemed to vanish later in his career, possibly because they were very difficult plots to construct.  That’s what I think of as the “long, long logical chain” story, like Greek Coffin or Dutch Shoe or Halfway House, in which Ellery (for instance) makes a series of interdependent deductions about the murderer based upon one or two tiny clues.  So from the evidence of a broken shoelace and a few dents in some linoleum, Ellery deduces a hidden relationship between two people and solves the entire murder. These are very satisfying structures for those of us who enjoy this sort of mental exercise, but I bet they didn’t find much favour with the less logical reader.
  4. EQ-OriginPB2There’s a well-known Ellery Queen style of case that I’ll call the ABC format — perhaps best exemplified by The Finishing Stroke and Cat of Many Tails, and not as pleasantly in books like The Origin of Evil and Ten Days’ Wonder. We know that the crimes are linked because something is found upon the murder scene that links them (in The Finishing Stroke, a series of little index cards with weird notations), or there is a device that appears to indicate that the victims are selected merely because of, say, their occupation (Double, Double). Is it a demented serial killer or is someone merely trying to mislead the police and conceal a single crime with a group of others? Ellery figures out the meaning of the way in which the victims are linked and solves the case.
  5. the-greek-coffin-mystery-1960-illus-james-meese-1In closing, perhaps the best-known story format with which Ellery Queen is linked is “the false solution, then the true”. Ellery’s skills seem uniquely suited to cases in which a lesser mind might find a chain of logic that leads to the incorrect killer, but there’s just that one little niggling bit of evidence that doesn’t fit … So first Ellery solves the crime, sometimes in a way to which the reader has been led down a tempting garden path, and then he solves it again correctly the second time and we have a dramatic finish. I think the best example of this is Greek Coffin but really this pattern repeats throughout Ellery’s long career.  Sometimes Ellery merely pretends to solve the case in order to lure the real murderer into making an error (Greek Coffin); sometimes it’s that the wrong solution is easier to pin on an unpleasant person and the correct solution would place the guilt on the shoulders of someone “nice” (at least two novels I can think of, but they’d be spoiled for you so I won’t name them). One of my favourite cases of Ellery’s involves a situation where the false solution, then the true, both point to the same person for different reasons; another is where Ellery persuades everyone to accept the false solution because the truth would ruin someone’s life (and the crime was actually an accident).

hutton-wayneTo sum up — I think if you stood on a street corner and asked passers-by to name a famous male detective, of course you’d get a huge response for Sherlock Holmes. But I think primus inter pares for the remainder of male literary detectives would be Ellery Queen.  The character’s enormous and vastly widespread penetration into every area of the fictional sphere — movies, TV, books, games, radio programmes, jigsaw puzzles, computer games, postage stamps, comic books — has lasted since 1929. It’s a little sad that the EQ estate hasn’t licensed any continuation activities (especially since the cousins were so keen to rent out the Ellery Queen name during their lifetime — the list of ghosted books is a long one) but I think there’s just enough life left in this Great Detective to take him into the 21st century and beyond.


The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Great Detectives (Part 3)

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great DetectivesThe Great Detectives: Jessica Fletcher


As part of a group effort by The Tuesday Night Bloggers, I’ve previously discussed four of my favourite Great Detectives — three created by Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Cool & Lam in Part 1 and Doug Selby in Part 2, along with Robert van Gulik’s Dee Jen-Djieh from 6th century China.

angela-lansbury-murder-she-wroteToday’s contribution is a character whom some of my regular readers may disparage as being artificial, or cardboard, or merely entirely implausible — Jessica Fletcher, a widowed mystery writer from Cabot Cove, Maine, portrayed by Angela Lansbury, who starred in 264 episodes of a television programme called Murder, She Wrote between 1984 and 1996.  Between 1997 and 2003 there were four made-for-TV movies; between 1989 and 2018, there have been approximately 48 spin-off novels as by, for the most part, “Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain”. (The “approximately” is because Gin and Daggers was released twice, in two editions, in 1989 and 2000; the second edition corrected errors in continuity with the TV series, such as Jessica being unable to drive a car.)

Murder, She Wrote, Prescription for MurderNow, say what you will about her believability as a character, or the astonishingly high murder rate of Cabot Cove — 264 hours of network TV plus 8 hours of movies plus 48 novels, all of which were published after the TV series went off the air and continued for thirty years afterwards, adds up to a durable character who has a great big fan following. The TV series has never been out of syndication since it went off the air, to my knowledge, and has been released on home video in its entirety. Think about it for a minute. It’s absolutely unprecedented to have 48 spin-off novels published after a TV show goes off the air, let alone have them published in hardcover first editions; very few other television programmes have ever managed to sustain the public’s interest for nearly 30 years after going off the air. Only Star Trek and Doctor Who even come close to surpassing Murder, She Wrote’s scale of market penetration.

Why is Jessica Fletcher such a great detective?

1395591810-0To be honest, as she’s presented in the TV programme, Jessica is not such a great Great Detective. She has the knack of being at the right place at the right time, and she certainly is a person who notices small things in her environment and remembers them at the right time to put two and two together. By and large, though, quite a few of her cases are not solved by methods that would be approved by, say, Ellery Queen.

Elman_Jessica-Fletcher-Still-with-FlashlightFor instance, a favourite method of bringing Jessica to the mystery’s solution was to have her realize that the murderer had mentioned something that meant that s/he had to be at the scene of the crime, or in some way had told a lie about his/her whereabouts at the time of the murder.  Yes, that takes a little deductive reasoning, but really it just means Jessica was up against a stupid murderer.  Another method that found frequent approval with the screenwriters was Jessica collaborating with the police to set a trap for the murderer because they didn’t have enough evidence to convict the killer and needed a lot of self-incrimination. Sometimes the trap is based on fake evidence. That’s not the standard of detection that made Ellery famous.


Richard Levinson (left) and William Link

But for every one of those half-hearted endings, there was another episode that would possibly surprise an experienced mystery reader with its cleverness.  The series was, after all, created by Richard Levinson and William Link (and Peter Fischer) — Levinson and Link created the mystery series Columbo, Mannix, Ellery Queen, and Blacke’s Magic. The writing partnership received the Ellery Queen Award (for outstanding mystery-writing teams) in 1989.  And one of their scripts for a stand-alone made-for-TV movie, the great Rehearsal for Murder, won the Edgar Award in 1983.

Jessica.Fletcher.phoneSo you might not be surprised to know that there’s a clever locked-room mystery as the basis of a Season 1 episode (We’re Off To Kill the Wizard), or that M,SW viewers regularly pronounced themselves baffled until Jessica told them whodunit at about minute 54 of every episode. By and large, the scripts have intelligence and contain interesting puzzles. Levinson & Link’s involvement with the series dwindled as time went on and the puzzles got less difficult, but in the early years even John Dickson Carr aficionados may find themselves challenged by a few of the scripts.

UnknownWhere they generally fall down is plausibility. We’ve all chuckled at the huge murder rate in tiny Cabot Cove, where accepting a dinner invitation from Jessica was tantamount to either suicide or a life sentence for murder. Certainly mystery writers have to go around the world to promote their books, especially for someone like Jessica Fletcher whose books are regularly made into movies (see season 1’s Hooray for Homicide, where Jessica is suspected of killing a producer who turned her first mystery into a B-grade horror movie). But everywhere she goes, from Saskatchewan (Showdown in Saskatchewan, season 4) to Moscow (From Russia With Blood, season 5) to cyberspace (A Virtual Murder, season 10) Jessica’s presence is like the kiss of death for someone. At least 264 someones, making Jessica Fletcher the Angel of Death around the world.


Jessica Fletcher and Harry McGraw (Jerry Orbach)

Frankly, the producers of M,SW experimented with the format of the programme in a way that would likely have killed any other series.  Beginning in season 6, Lansbury needed a respite from the onerous production schedule of 22 episodes a year, and the scripts began featuring guest stars leading stories without Jessica involved, except in introductory and closing “bumpers”. (For instance, The Grand Old Lady from season 6 repurposed an unused script from Ellery Queen and featured the detecting skills of a young American reporter who looked and acted a lot like Ellery Queen.) A few of these guest detectives were popular with the viewers; Keith Michell as roguish insurance investigator Dennis Stanton was nearly spun off into his own series, and Jerry Orbach as seedy private eye Harry McGraw actually made 16 episodes of the short-lived spin-off The Law and Harry McGraw in 1987-1988. Jessica did a crossover episode with Magnum P.I. and occasionally did a two-part episode, but for the most part the series stayed comfortably and safely within the 60-minute format, and you could just about set your watch by the discovery of the body and the revelation of the murder in each episode.

hqdefaultPossibly in order to bring some freshness to the work for Angela Lansbury, within the boundaries of the series she played a hard-drinking cousin of Jessica’s with an English accent a couple of times; occasionally the mystery plots were more focused on espionage and international plots, and travel to exotic locations like Hong Kong and Italy was a feature of the last few seasons.

Moran_MSW-CastThe producers later stopped the guest star policy but it seemed evident (to me at least) that Lansbury’s heart wasn’t in the work any more and the final few seasons were desultory. The last years’ scripts had many examples where Jessica was certainly there, but not really necessary to solve the mystery; either that or the reason for her being on the scene was so specious as to be entirely beyond belief.  She actually solved one mystery over the phone. Jessica’s friends relatives (especially the repeating character of her nephew Grady) occasionally took up the slack of detection and let Jessica mostly relax and be an armchair detective.

What was responsible for her popularity?

Jessica_FletcherIt’s safe to say that one of the reasons why Jessica Fletcher attained such great durability is that the series was originally designed to appeal to middle-aged TV viewers. That age group was not well-served by appropriate entertainment in the 1980s and have become even less interesting to television producers in the intervening years. But with Jessica Fletcher, the middle-aged lady who wasn’t afraid to get her hands bloody investigating a murder, the older viewer found a comfortable home.  Jessica radiated confidence and was always at home in a variety of situations; when she found herself dealing with something new, like virtual reality headsets or switching from a typewriter to computer to write her books, she waded in and got the job done.


Adrienne Barbeau (left) played Maude’s daughter Carol on the sitcom Maude (1972-1978)

Another often cited-reason for Jessica’s popularity is that, especially in the early years, the producers very wisely filled the episodes with guest stars who were familiar to the viewer from other TV and movie appearances, but not huge stars — what one reviewer called the “Love Boat” gambit.  In my house when M,SW was on, the TV room was a hubbub as my family tried to identify exactly where they’d seen the actors before.  “That’s the guy from …” or, “Didn’t she play the X on such-and-such?” There’s a huge list on Wikipedia of M,SW guest stars found here, which included 13 Oscar winners. But many of the guest stars were actors whose careers were declining and who were used more for their nostalgic references than their acting abilities.

0*mDh9v8IaEmifBNdqThe first-rate second-rate guest stars provided a kind of mental anchoring for the audience; a kind of familiarity that let people know that, yes, it might be a story about murder but you know that it’s just light-hearted fun, because gee, that guy was one of the Brady Bunch, wasn’t he? As a general rule, the more famous the actor the less likely it was that their appearance would see them revealed as a victim or a murderer; they would generally manage to keep their reputations unsullied. Some actors appeared more than once in different roles, and some apparently relished the chance to play the killer. Here’s your trivia question — which actor/actress who was the title character in a different detective series appeared three times on Murder, She Wrote and played the killer twice? (Feel free to answer in the comments.)


Nearly every episode ended with Jessica’s laughter.

Ultimately, though, it was all about Angela Lansbury. She seems to have struck a chord with the audience, male and female, who apparently found her overwhelmingly upright morality attractive. Lansbury, of course, can really act — by the end of the series, she probably could have done scenes in her sleep, but she managed to bring talent if not huge energy to even the most desultory of scripts. When she stopped doing the character, it never recovered.

af18bb24a431a4c418ff6f0a4365a690Whatever the reason for her continued popularity, it’s quite an achievement that Jessica Fletcher’s brand has extended to the present day. I don’t think there’s an enormous presence to Jessica Fletcher, but in this day of reboots and remakes, I think it’s interesting that no one has floated the idea of bringing back Jessica as, say, a much younger woman, or a woman of colour, or even just another middle-aged actress whose career is fading and who could use a comfortable niche on the TV schedule. The books are still going strong, mostly due to library sales, and I think they will continue to do so … whether we ever see Jessica Fletcher on screen again is another matter. I’d certainly watch a reboot.


The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Great Detectives (Part 2)

The Great Detectives: Two court officials

Erle Stanley Gardner’s Doug Selby and Robert van Gulik’s Dee Jen-djieh

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great DetectivesIntroduction

I’ve summarized the reason for my series of posts in part 1, found here: a group of GAD bloggers will be telling people about their favourite Great Detective and I’ve taken on a full slate of ten detectives.  Well, when you read a lot, you have a lot of favourites; it was hellish to keep it to ten, and in the process of negotiating who got to write about whom, I had to relinquish the opportunity to blether on about, for instance, Miss Maud Silver.  (But I know my friend Moira will do a great job.)  The latest roundup of links to other bloggers’ work is found here — I will update this as I get more information.

My own Part 1 was about Perry Mason and the detective firm of Cool & Lam, both the product of the hardworking and enormously productive Erle Stanley Gardner (known here as ESG). In fact Gardner wrote about many, many series detectives and I number more than three among my favourites: for instance I talked here about Gramps Wiggins, whom I’m sorry to say was seen in only two novels. If I’m going to get ten detectives into four Tuesdays, though, I’m going to have to keep my nose to the grindstone; and so today, courtesy of the recent four-day weekend and some extra writing time, is my second look at two Great Detectives. My third favourite is District Attorney Doug Selby, about whom I get to write today, and I’ll also add a little appreciation of Dee Jen-djieh, a detective of 7th century China, whose detective stories were written by expert Sinologist Robert van Gulik.

Believe me, I feel kind of silly in linking ESG’s Doug Selby, who worked in 1940s California, with Judge Dee, who worked in the mid- to late 600s in China. Their participation in their own court systems is what links them tenuously together, but truly they have virtually nothing in common — except that the books in which they feature are very good and worth your time.

District Attorney Doug Selby

9781671002630-ukRecently I wrote about two of ESG’s series detectives; Perry Mason, the defence lawyer, and Cool & Lam, the private investigators. The third face of the triangle of judicial attention to murder cases is the state prosecutor, and that role is best filled by Doug Selby. It’s interesting to note that Perry Mason has PIs (Paul Drake) and prosecutors (Hamilton Burger) with whom to contend, and Cool & Lam are pestered by prosecutors and lawyers — each series tells a murder story from a different point of view.

51AK97dcFUL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_But where we know virtually nothing about Perry Mason as a person, Doug Selby is a fully realized person and his personal life is centre stage in the nine volumes about him. As the series begins, with 1937’s The D.A. Calls It Murder, Selby and his associate Rex Brandon have just won election as District Attorney and Sheriff respectively in “Madison City”, California — based on the actual city of Ventura, but in those days a more rural location — on a “reform” ticket, defeating a corrupt administration. The crooked politicians are constantly maneuvering against Selby and frequently do so through their newspaper, the Blade; Selby was supported by the Clarion and works with Sylvia Martin, the local reporter, to get his story told against the Blade‘s propaganda efforts. Selby is somewhat linked to Martin romantically, but also there’s a doomed love story when, in the second volume, Selby convicts a young hell raiser in the Stapleton family and ruins them socially. Beautiful Inez, the criminal’s sister, goes off and becomes a lawyer herself in order to make Selby respect her, and this highly-charged love triangle has echoes throughout all the volumes.

25236894Another fascinating character in the series is Alphonse Baker Carr, sleazy criminal lawyer. “A.B.C.” is Selby’s arch-enemy and rather like the anti-Perry Mason, and there’s a long storyline with A.B.C. that echoes through the final seven books of the nine. Essentially the Blade is out to get Selby and force him to resign, so that the corrupt politicians can take power again. They dog his footsteps and expose what they perceive to be his weaknesses; meanwhile, A.B.C., on the side of his criminal clients, throws up obstacles on the other side of his cases.

d-a-goes-to-trial-pb-407-erle-stanley-gardner-6th-prt-1949-646197f534cefca83504e68a746713ccIn the meantime, Selby and Rex Brandon, straightforward and good-natured sheriff, fight their way through unusual cases and apply old-fashioned police methods to new-fangled cases. Selby is a great character, perhaps one of ESG’s greatest successes. He’s fallible but excellent; as a mystery writer of my acquaintance once observed, the kind of person whom I’d like to have investigate my own murder. He seems very moral and upright but also very human, and finds the constant onslaught of abuse from the Blade hard to take. But his observational skills as a detective are excellent; he rather combines the functions of Paul Drake, who digs up the clues, and Perry Mason, who interprets them and forces the legal system to accept his view of them. I looked at volume #8, 1948’s The D.A. Takes A Chance, here — I recommend you read all nine in order, because the story builds to an elegant and dramatic conclusion in volume #9.

v1.bTsxMTU5NjUxNDtqOzE3NzI5OzEyMDA7NzY4OzEwMjQThere was a single made-for-TV movie in 1970, They Call It Murder, based on book #3, The D.A. Draws a Circle. It starred Jim Hutton as Doug Selby; Hutton later went on to play Ellery Queen in the eponymous TV series. They Call It Murder is … okay, but uninspired. But the books are great work.

Dee Jen-djieh

Judge Di (c. 630 - c. 700) of the T'ang court

Judge Di (c. 630 – c. 700) of the T’ang court

First of all — let’s get the spelling right. Robert van Gulik wrote before the introduction of a standardized orthography for representing Chinese in English, and his Dee (family name) Jen-djieh (personal name) would today be spelled as Ti Jen-chieh by users of the Wade-Giles script and Dí Rénjié in the most widely used system of today, Pinyin. This is important because, as some of my readers will be surprised to learn, the eminent Judge Di was a real historical person. So if you go looking for information about “Judge Dee” you’ll only be referred back to van Gulik; “Di Renjie” will get you a lot more information. (You might also look for Ti Jen-chieh and Di Renjiay.) I will call van Gulik’s character Dee and the historical personage Di.

810CKYghySLThe historical Di practiced as a district magistrate from 663 to 678, first under the direct rulership of members of the Tang Dynasty and later under the “monstrous” concubine, Lady Wu, who ruled “de facto or de jure” from 665 to 705. Lin Yutang remarked (in his biography of Lady Wu):

“Among the people he [Di] is more popularly known as the judge who invariably tracked down the criminal. As a judge who often went about in plain clothes to detect crime, he made the astounding record of always solving crime mysteries which had puzzled and frustrated other judges and magistrates.”

5418And so the Dutch historian van Gulik found references to Judge Di and translated a volume known loosely as Dee Goong An. This was published in English in 1949 as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee and was the beginning of van Gulik’s many novels and short stories about Judge Dee, which he wrote from 1951 until 1968. van Gulik also translated and published a 13th century casebook for district magistrates, called T’ang-yin-pi-shih (Parallel Cases From Under The Pear Tree), from which he harvested many of the key elements of his Judge Dee plots.

x500So other than being a historical personage known for his detective skills, why is Judge Dee a great detective? There are a number of reasons why I enjoy his adventures very much. One is simply strangeness. I’ve remarked elsewhere that I enjoy finding out the minutiae of everyday life in 1930s England from reading Golden Age Detection novels; in the Judge Dee stories, everyday life in the second half of the 7th century in China is astonishingly different than my everyday life, and it’s fascinating to see the differences and the similarities.

ec7c898106057d3daf6082444ef5b372--deeOne thing that van Gulik found difficult was the transition between the Chinese literary tradition and the Golden Age model. In the Chinese originals, for instance, the identity, history, and motive of the criminal is stated right up front — making them all inverted detective stories instead of whodunits. The Chinese originals frequently feature supernatural elements; ghosts, visits to the Netherworld, etc., and bizarre elements like the testimony of animals and household objects. The original stories were part of a literary tradition that embraced … well, call it a “passionate interest for detail”…  and so there are many digressions, including poetry, Confucianist instruction, philosophy and religious discussions, etc. The Chinese loved novels with huge casts of related characters, and complex familial relationships; as well, they were accustomed to reading about exactly how the criminal was executed in great and gruesome detail.

x500So van Gulik had a great deal of work to do in order to re-cast his stories into a modality that would be acceptable to the Western audience. The testimony of animals and kitchen utensils is gone, as are most of the elements that we would see as digressions from the story line. Yes, there are supernatural elements in van Gulik — just as there are supernatural elements in John Dickson Carr. Judge Dee appears to believe in ghosts, but doesn’t rely on their testimony or allow them to do anything much more than guide him to places where actual evidence is found. Much of what Judge Dee does in his stories is detective work of a kind that would not be too bizarre to a modern audience. For instance, in The Chinese Bell Murders, he deduces that a student could not have strangled his mistress because his long fingernails “of the sort affected by the literary class” would have left marks on her throat that were not seen upon examination.

van Gulik artwork

A courtroom scene, illustrated by van Gulik himself. Note the flail and rod in the hands of the attendants; not just for show.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of the Judge Dee stories are the courtroom scenes; 7th century China had a legal system that was far, far different than our own. Judge Dee had very nearly absolute authority within his courtroom and acts as judge, jury, defence lawyer, prosecution lawyer, and weigher of evidence all at the same time. Dee was entitled to use torture in the courtroom to elicit confessions (such as in The Chinese Nail Murders) and is sometimes required to (Chinese court procedure forbade conviction without confession) but generally, in the best Perry Mason tradition, Dee relies on careful questioning and close observation of behaviour. He’s frequently solved the case himself before it comes to court, and he runs his courtroom in order to demonstrate to the populace the guilt of the villains.
And where Perry Mason has his private eye Paul Drake, Judge Dee has a small group of investigators around him who serve as his eyes and ears in levels of society where he cannot penetrate, even while disguised. Sergeant Hoong, Ma Joong, Chiao Tai, and Tao Gan are all individuals with human qualities and failings, who have sexual and familial relationships, enjoy good food, and are constantly seeking adventure and excitement. Dee himself frequently disguises himself as a member of a lower class of society and goes out to investigate his cases; he’s occasionally required to demonstrate his mastery of sword-fighting and boxing.

9780226848754_p0_v1_s550x406As a person, Dee has many personal qualities that will be attractive to the modern audience. As a strict Confucian, he respects his ancestors; Dee regulates his household sternly but with both mercy and generosity. Dee has three wives, about whom we don’t learn much, although he acquires Third Wife in the course of one of the novels. We only know that he has three sons and a daughter from a casual mention in a short story. Dee’s relationships with his subordinates are correct but friendly; Dee is interested in the people around him and their lives, and interacts socially with many levels of society. And he’s what we might think of as a “good” judge; he cares strongly about finding the right answer and punishing the guilty. It’s frequently hard to figure out what’s going on in his mind, but it would be a pleasure and a privilege to sit down with him and discuss his cases.

I recommend that you experience van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories not in the order in which they were written, but such that you follow the chronology of Dee’s life as he moves upwards through the judicial ranks. You will find this chronology in Judge Dee at Work (1967) as a postscript.


Khigh Dheigh (left) as Judge Dee in the 1978 made-for-TV movie.

edbda5af07a0dfe4286274317c356ae7Other authors have written stories about Judge Di; Frédéric Lenormand has written at least 18 French-language stories that have yet to be translated into English, and other novelists both Chinese and non-Chinese have speculated about the character. There are (terrible) television series, and films — notably a weird 1974 made-for-TV movie called Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders, a sought-after collectible, but also three excellent recent Chinese-language productions produced and directed by Tsui Hark (2010, 2013 and 2018).

61HCF1BKN5L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_There are also other books about van Gulik, who was a fascinating polymath with many interests — his expertise in Chinese erotic drawings means that all the Judge Dee volumes have his drawings as part of the publication, and there’s always a nude woman depicted. I’m greatly indebted for a lot of this brief piece to a large and excellent volume by J. K. Van DoverThe Judge Dee Novels of R.H. van Gulik, where he traces the connection to
51R7JAQizoL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_various modern-day detectives in a fascinating and erudite way. It truly is everything you need to know and quite a bit more to think about, and I recommend it to your attention if you can find a copy. Any unreferenced quotes in this piece are to this book, and I’m grateful to Van Dover for organizing my thoughts quickly and easily. I’ve read other material about van Gulik, including what that brilliant Dutch mystery writer Janwillem van de Wetering had to say (Robert van Gulik: His Life, His Work (1987); van de Wetering also published a volume in 1997 called Judge Dee Plays His Lute, which I have yet to read)Van Dover has everything you’ll ever want, both top-level fact and deep background, and says it all best.







The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Great Detectives (Part 1)

The Great Detectives: Two by Erle Stanley Gardner

Perry Mason, Cool & Lam

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great Detectives

I’ve taken some time away from the Tuesday Night Bloggers recently but I’m happy to be back contributing to a large-scale joint project about Great Detectives (to coincide with the release of the book 100 Greatest Literary Detectives).  Every Tuesday for the next while, a group of bloggers will be telling people about their favourite Great Detectives and I’ll hope to be right there beside them with a full ten of my favourites over the course of this month.  Mine are mostly unlikely to be added to the list of 100 Greatest Literary Detectives but, for one reason or another, I think my choices have greatness within them. I’ll add a link here to the contributions of others when I find out exactly where they are. (The roundup of links is found here.)

Erle Stanley Gardner

Today’s entries were both detectives created by the prolific Erle Stanley Gardner (whom I’ll shorten to ESG). You can find ESG’s Wikipedia entry here; I have to mention that my friend Jeffrey Marks (who wrote the definitive biography of Craig Rice) is bringing out a new biography of ESG to which I’m looking forward with considerable interest! Perhaps he’ll forgive me, though, if I hit the high spots in advance.

ESG taught himself law, passed the bar and practiced at the same time as he wrote more than a million words a year for the pulp magazines. That’s where he developed his writing style and an incredible discipline that had him turning out four books a year under his name and various pseudonyms for many years; between short stories and novels, his huge bibliography is a volume all its own (from Kent State University Press in 1968). The first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws from 1933, sold 28,000,000 copies by 1948 and in the mid-50s, ESG novels were selling at the rate of 20,000 copies a day. There were movies and TV series and TV movies and radio programmes based on his work, and every kind of ancillary Perry Mason merchandise you can imagine, from comic books to lunch kits.

Barbara Hale as Della Street and Raymond Burr as Perry Mason

Barbara Hale as Della Street and Raymond Burr as Perry Mason

Perry Mason

It’s likely that everyone who grew up in an English-speaking country within reach of a television set has the image in their head of Raymond Burr as Perry Mason. From 270+ episodes of the long-running TV series, a long-running radio programme and more than 80 novels, we know a lot about his character; Perry Mason is a criminal lawyer who fights hard for his clients and the more difficult a situation is, the more he seems to enjoy it.

In the novels, there’s a kind of standard pattern (dare I say “formula”) for how his cases work themselves out. At the outset, Mason becomes interested in a case because of some unusual or striking feature — the story hook. Things develop rapidly and there’s pretty much always a murder for which Mason’s client is arrested. Mason investigates everyone and everything, with the help of his faithful secretary Della Street and private eye with offices down the hall, Paul Drake. Eventually it turns out that the District Attorney, Hamilton Burger, has one view of the case and Perry has to discern a different pattern from the same facts in order to bring home the crime to the true criminal. Frequently at the last minute, he always does so and exonerates his client.

Perry Mason, The Case of the Caretaker's Cat (1935)

Perry Mason, The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat (1935)

At one point in The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat (1935) Burger says, “You’re a better detective than you are a lawyer. When you turn your mind to the solution of a crime, you ferret out the truth.” This is true, although at times Mason is excellent at pulling legal tricks out of his sleeve to confound his opposition.

What’s really interesting is that, if you follow the strict canon of the novels only, what we learn about Perry Mason as a person is — very nearly nothing. We know he likes “thick filet mignon steak with French-fried onions” and “hot soup … and garlic bread”, or “au gratin potatoes” — in The Case of the Crooked Candle he mentions “green turtle soup … nice sizzling steaks, and salad, with a dish of chili beans on the side and tortillas”. This knowledge of his food preferences is because there’s almost always a scene in a restaurant, where Perry and Della catch up on the case over food while Paul Drake has to run back to his office with a hamburger to go.

The Case of the Crooked Candle (1944)

The Case of the Crooked Candle (1944)

And that’s about it. We learn at one point that he lives in an apartment, but what it looks like — nothing. He drives powerful cars, dresses well and is attractive to women. And very occasionally Perry expresses that he enjoys such pursuits as ocean cruises, deep sea fishing, relaxing on a beach or in the desert in the company of Della Street. He has no personal friends, family, personal history, or back story. Not once in 80 novels did Perry’s “old school friend” ever show up looking for representation; no alma mater, no former girlfriends, zip. He’s well known to maitres d’ and parking attendants and taxi drivers as a big tipper but we know so little about him personally, we don’t even know his favourite colour.

Warren William as Perry Mason

Claire Dodd as Della Street, Warren William as Perry Mason, Eddie Acuff as Spudsy Drake; The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936)

The six early black-and-white films are not considered canonic, although they are amusing and a little shocking — certainly it’s unusual to see Perry get married and leave Della alone on the honeymoon to take on a case, or see him rhapsodizing about the culinary arts. And Paul Drake has an earlier incarnation as “Spudsy Drake”, comedy sidekick (best played by the laconic Allan Jenkins). No one considers these films to be the “real Perry”.

TCOT Drowsy Mosquito (1943)

TCOT Drowsy Mosquito (1943)

If you’re looking for a single volume that will tell you everything you need to know about Perry Mason as a person, I recommend his very first outing: 1933’s The Case of the Velvet Claws, where he’s at his most hard-punching and physically active. There you will learn everything about him that’s ever said, except during his romantic interludes with Della, which are exemplified in the fascinating 1943 volume The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito. As a man dealing with beautiful women, try TCOT Fan-Dancer’s Horse from 1947; he’s on display as a house guest in 1936’s TCOT Sleepwalker’s Niece. And to see his detective skills in full view, try TCOT Crooked Candle (1944) or TCOT Green-Eyed Sister (1953), which showcases his command of forensic science.

The Bigger They Come (1939)

The Bigger They Come (1939)

Cool & Lam

ESG was so productive that he issued this series initially under his pseudonym of A. A. Fair. The private investigation firm of Cool & Lam is only on view in the 30 novels which make up that particular series, but we know more about both the protagonists from the first chapter of the first book (The Bigger They Come, 1939) than we ever learn in 80 Perry Mason novels.  At the beginning of that book, “sawed-off runt” Donald Lam is unemployed and starving, but Bertha Cool sees something in him (that he’s a good liar, at the outset) and hires him for her detective agency.

Benay Venuta, from the unsold pilot for Cool and Lam

Benay Venuta, who played Bertha in the unsold pilot for Cool and Lam

Bertha Cool is introduced as being “somewhere in the sixties, with grey hair, twinkling gray eyes, and a benign, grandmotherly expression on her face. She must have weighed over two hundred.” (Donald later revises that estimate upwards.) “She evidently didn’t believe in confining herself to tight clothes. She wiggled and jiggled around … like a cylinder of currant jelly on a plate. But she wasn’t wheezy, and she didn’t waddle. She walked with a smooth, easy rhythm.” In Chapter 2 she mentions the sad story of her cheating husband (the only time we ever hear it) and mentions, “Sure, I do anything — divorces, politics — anything. My idea of ethics in this business is cash and carry.” She has a foul mouth and a complete lack of conscience, but she likes to cut herself a slice of whatever cash is in her vicinity.

Donald Lam is, as the judge who’s prosecuting him for murder in chapter 13 remarks, “frail in his physical appearance, apparently young, innocent and inexperienced”. (He’s said to be 5’6″ and about 130 pounds soaking wet.) Nevertheless he has, with “consummate brilliance”, “jockeyed the authorities of two states into such a position that they are apparently powerless to punish him for a cold-blooded, premeditated, and deliberate murder, his part in which he has brazenly admitted.” You see, Donald qualified to be a lawyer but never practised; he’s smart as a whip and knows a few legal tricks that most lawyers have never thought of. He grew up small and had to learn how to fight with his brain. “Donald Lam” isn’t his real name, but we never find out what that is.

Spill_the_Jackpot_11Over their 30 outings together, Bertha is the muscle and Donald is the brains. Bertha controls the purse strings but soon realizes that she makes more money with Donald than without him — she takes him into partnership and he’s constantly driving her crazy, especially by spending money to make things happen when she prefers to pinch every penny, but she begrudgingly admits he gets the job done and makes them both money. The formula is that Donald gets mixed up with the case and a beautiful woman involved with the case simultaneously, and has to dodge fistfights and violence while working out whodunit, usually in the nick of time.

Cool & Lam unsold pilot

Benay Venuta as Bertha Cool & Billy Pearson as Donald Lam in the unsold pilot for Cool & Lam

There was a TV pilot made for a Cool & Lam program in 1958, based on Turn On The Heat (1940) when Perry Mason was at the height of its TV popularity, but it never went anywhere.  A pity; this unconventional pair of detectives gets to the solution of 30 mysteries before the police, and their adventures would have made interesting television.

If you want the raw Bertha and Donald, before a veneer of sophistication overtakes them in later novels, I recommend The Bigger They Come; you’ll also find a recent discovery, a previously-unpublished Cool & Lam novel from 1940 called The Knife Slipped, to be of interest. If you want to see Donald actually win a fistfight, that’s Double or Quits; he studies fighting in Spill the Jackpot and Gold Comes in Bricks but still continues to get beaten up whenever he’s in a fight. And Donald spends time in Colombia (Crows Can’t Count) and Mexico (All Grass Isn’t Green).

Bats Fly at Dusk, Cool & Lam

The Dell mapback edition of Bats Fly at Dusk

Bertha takes two cases on her own while Donald is off fighting in WW2; Bats Fly at Dusk and Cats Prowl at Night, although Donald’s presence is felt by telegram. The entire series is worth your time, if you want to see legal legerdemain mixed with gangsters, shady schemes, beautiful women and the pugnacious Sgt. Frank Sellers (who asks Bertha to marry him at the end of Cats Prowl at Night). The language is frequently salty and Donald’s bedroom antics with witnesses (and Bertha’s secretary Elsie) are quite salacious, but there’s a hard core of detection at the centre that will satisfy even those keen on the puzzle mystery.

I’ve already gone on too long to impose on you with a biography of my third favourite ESG detective, hard-punching district attorney Doug Selby, hero of ESG’s D.A. series; that will have to be for next time. (some hours later) Next time came sooner than I thought: Here is part 2, about Doug Selby and Judge Dee.



The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Book scouting John Dickson Carr (Part 2 of 2)

12784234_10206990403411371_1309856526_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue looking at a different Golden Age mystery writer each month; Tuesdays in March will be devoted to John Dickson Carr.

Book scouting John Dickson Carr (Part 2 of 2)

Part 2 is covers under JDC’s main pseudonym, Carter Dickson. Part 1, with illustrations of paperbacks as by John Dickson Carr, can be found here.

Pocket Books had a close association with both JDC and Carter Dickson in his earlier years and I think they did a particularly good job on his Carter Dickson titles. Pocket’s surrealism period is represented here with a few beautiful entries, and Pocket also provides my all-time favourite Dickson or Carr cover, The Red Widow Murders, with the corpse clutching the Ace of Spades against a background the colour of dried blood (Pocket #86). There are some good Dell mapback covers — Dell #108, Death in Five Boxes and Dell #65, Scotland Yard: Department of Queer Complaints are examples of the lush airbrushed abstract style pioneered by artist Gerald Gregg, and the spectacular “cobra” cover for He Wouldn’t Kill Patience. The Pan/Great Pan editions of Dickson from the UK are both lovely and very collectible. Just in case your heart stopped for a moment at the sight of a Dickson title you’d never seen, Cross of Murder is the UK retitling of Seeing is Believing. Sorry.

One thing to keep your eyes open for when you’re out scouting; some of the Bantam editions of John Dickson Carr titles were abridged, an ugly and reprehensible practice. The paperbacks themselves are still collectible as being in the first thousand or so Bantam titles, but you’ll find that students of detective fiction will be more anxious to have an unabridged version. Real collectors, of course, want all the editions, thank goodness!

8849365236_52126b715e_bThe best scouting tip I can give you is to keep your eyes open for copies of Avon #nn7 (un-numbered, but their seventh title), The Plague Court Murders. This one is interesting for a number of reasons. I have a copy of this surprinted with an indication that it sold for 29 cents in Canada, which I think definitely makes it the first Canadian edition and an interesting little bit of socioeconomic history. The Dickson aficionado will be amused to see that the cover tells you that the star of the book is Chief Inspector Masters (!) instead of Sir Henry Merrivale. And finally, you can distinguish the valuable first printing from the relatively less prized later editions by checking the endpapers.  Avon unnumbered firsts have “globe” endpapers (see above); later editions do not. Your discovery of a copy of this book will be sweet, but knowing the difference between editions will make your experience sweeter. How much sweeter? As of today, a later edition on ABE goes for US$15 and the first — cited with globe endpapers — is US$43 for a Good copy and US$65 for a Very Good copy from a very good bookseller.

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: My five most/least favourite John Dickson Carr novels (Part 1 of 2)


A group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue looking at a different Golden Age mystery writer each month; Tuesdays in March, 2016 will be devoted to John Dickson Carr.

My five most and least favourite John Dickson Carr novels

(and why I think so)

It’s been a while since I sat down to the pleasant contemplation of a large group of interesting mysteries with the task before me of identifying my five most favourite/least favourite books within the group. There are a few things that have to come together. First there has to be a fairly large body of work from which to select; second, a somewhat uneven quality of work so that there actually are good and bad books; and finally, there has to be a reasoned way of making a decision. By this last I mean that it has to be possible to discern what the author in question had as strengths and weaknesses, and to look for books where the strengths are mostly present and the weaknesses are mostly absent.


John Dickson Carr

John Dickson Carr, of course, meets all these criteria. He has such a large body of work that I’ve given myself the pleasure of splitting this task into books published under his own name and that of his principal pseudonym, Carter Dickson. (Part 2, on Dickson, will be published later this month, and I’ll go back and add links.) JDC has a decidedly uneven quality of work, such that he has a few magnificent years when he’s at the top of his form, and his later books show a steep decline that is obvious.

In terms of strengths I’ll suggest the following.  JDC’s writing is the most interesting to me when it has these qualities: (1) A strong well-thought-out puzzle structure, which is usually for him based on a locked-room/impossible crime scenario. (2) A balance among setting, characterization, and plot, so that there are interesting characters doing interesting things against an interesting background, all well-written in their way but nothing overwhelming the book in any of those directions. (3) Some sort of creepy quasi-supernatural element; or, if not supernatural, something that creates a sense of menace or impending doom. This is something that JDC handled extremely well and he had excellent skills at creating these elements within the solid logical structure of a detective novel.

As far as weaknesses go: (1) JDC’s sense of humour and mine are rather different; I don’t think he wrote humour well and there is a kind of sniggering adolescent quality to his jokes that I find distasteful. So for me the less humour, the better. (2) Occasionally JDC’s books are unbalanced in one direction or the other. Sometimes the setting takes over and you wind up reading an evocation of his historical research. Sometimes the characters are merely sketched in, and you don’t care what happens to them. And sometimes the plot is so convoluted and difficult that it overwhelms any kind of realism, because there are simply so many plot points that must be gotten across.  And (3) — this one is hard to describe — I occasionally get the feeling with Carr’s work that there’s more in his head than he managed to get on the page. It’s as though he feels he’s given me enough information to understand what he’s getting at, but I haven’t managed to grasp it without re-reading multiple times. I admit this one could be just me being inattentive, but it’s happened enough times to me with Carr’s work that I suspect it’s not all on my side.

With those in mind, here are my choices. I’ll paraphrase myself when I performed this exercise with Ngaio Marsh: as always in situations like this, your mileage may vary. My own experience tells me that I cherish one of JDC’s novels because I read it at a young age and it made a deep impression on me that is perhaps not borne out by the quality of the work itself. Sometimes we like things for reasons that would mean little to anyone else; I like mysteries that take place in bookstores and tend to mark them higher. I cannot gainsay your feelings, folks, and I won’t dare to try. If you have a reason for liking a book that you particularly like, that’s fine with me. Merely allow me mine, is all.

My five most favourite John Dickson Carr novels

And, as you will soon note, in reverse numerical order. My favourite JDC novel is at the end of this list.

carr575. The Dead Man’s Knock (1958)

This is the story of a crumbling marriage between two people who each think the other is having an affair. He’s a college professor (and expert on the work of Wilkie Collins) whose supposed mistress, the voluptuous and vicious Rose Lestrange, is found in a locked room with a sharp dagger plunged into her heart. Meanwhile there’s a series of nasty practical jokes that came very close to murder.  Is Rose Lestrange’s death connected with mysterious notes that Wilkie Collins left about a locked-room mystery he proposed to write? Dr. Fell sorts it all out. I think this book is quite well-balanced among plot, setting, and characterization; the characters seem more human than is usual for JDC and you can believe that people committed acts for the very human reasons that are provided, rather than merely to further a puzzle plot. As well, the supernatural overtones are held to a minimum, which makes the practical joker’s subplot more realistic to me. I didn’t find the mechanics of the locked-room mystery ultimately very satisfying, but there’s a lot more humanity in this novel than many of Carr’s other mysteries.

n465194. The Sleeping Sphinx (1947)

Upon his release from the armed forces, Donald Holden discovers that he’s been presumed dead, which makes his relationship with his fiancee, Celia Devereaux, considerably more strained. Celia’s sister Margot died in peculiar circumstances about a year ago, after a dinner party at which everyone wore the death mask of a historical murderer. Everyone seems to be hinting to Holden that Celia’s mental stability is less than perfect … someone has opened up the disused office of a fortune teller in order to conduct some sort of tryst … and someone or some thing is moving the coffins around inside a sealed mausoleum. While Donald and Celia get to know each other all over again, Dr. Fell investigates and explains Margot’s death as well as all the other mysteries. This one meets my three criteria for a strong puzzle, excellent balance among the story elements, and a strongly creepy atmosphere. Added to which, this is one of the few GAD mysteries where Carr allows himself to be somewhat more frank about sexual matters than was commonly the case; the ideas of hysteria and a concomitant sexual dysfunction are key elements to understanding the motives in this novel.  I think it was very brave of Carr to put it in and very laudable of him to have gotten it right, instead of making up the details to suit the story.

The Nine Wrong Answers by John Dickson Carr, Corgi Books 1325, 1956

3. The Nine Wrong Answers (1952)

This is a non-series novel in which young, broke, and fairly stupid New Yorker Bill Dawson inveigles himself into a position where he agrees to travel to England impersonating Larry Hurst, the heir to a large fortune. Larry is promptly poisoned; Bill tries to fulfill his part of the bargain by leaving immediately for London and meeting with Larry’s wealthy wheelchair-bound uncle, Gaylord Hurst once a week. But Uncle Gaylord and his vicious manservant Hatto are not fooled and begin to play murderous games with Bill. After another death, Bill confronts the very surprising villain in a dramatic denouement. Again, a strong puzzle plot with a truly surprising ending; an excellent balance of story elements; and the escalating conflict between Bill and Gaylord Hurst that provides a nearly unbearable tension by the end of the novel. The element of this story I liked the most is where Carr breaks the fourth wall nine times during the book with footnotes, saying, in essence, “I know you’re thinking I’m trying to fool you in this particular way, but I’m not.” Meanwhile he is pulling the wool over your eyes in nine other ways, all of which are detailed in the final chapters.

images2.The Black Spectacles aka The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939)

The subtitle of this novel is “Being the psychologist’s murder case”, and I think it’s a major clue to the type of entertainment you receive. Wealthy Marcus Chesney believes that the testimony of eyewitnesses is unreliable, and invites witnesses to be present while an event takes place, not only in their view but in that of a movie camera. It’s intended that each witness will answer ten written questions after the event, which appears to be the faked poisoning of Chesney using a large green capsule by a masked and disguised figure wearing black spectacles, who promptly vanishes. To everyone’s surprise except the experienced Carr reader, Chesney is dead, the masked figure has vanished into thin air, and no one can agree on any of the answers to any of the ten questions, including what time it was. It’s my favourite story hook in all of Carr. Meanwhile, in the nearby village of Sodbury Cross, Chesney’s niece Marjorie is suspected of poisoning some children with chocolates in the same way as historical criminal Christiana Edmunds. Gideon Fell investigates the crimes while waiting for the movie film to be developed. At its first showing, the climax of the book is reached and Fell identifies the murderer. The puzzle is the star here, although the characterization has a good deal of merit (it assumes that lots of ordinary people would be familiar with the the Chocolate Cream Killer, but I can live with that). There are not many overtones of the supernatural and I think Carr could sustain the reader’s interest quite well without them, as he proves here.

1271711. The Crooked Hinge (1938)

This might be one of the instances where I have a fondness for a book because I read it when I was much younger and it had a profound effect on me. Definitely this one did … I read this when I was about 16 and can remember having a mostly sleepless night because my dreams involved the fingers of the mechanical hag reaching out for me! But really, folks, I think this is one novel where HDC brought it all together and it clicked. Spooky atmosphere?  Top of his game. Puzzle story, magnificently thought through and difficult but not impossible to solve. Perhaps not the most memorable characterization but the plot surrounding the puzzle is wonderful; complex, interesting, and with lots of elements that don’t necessarily contribute to the puzzle but further the action. The pace is great, the book is beautifully constructed — all in all, this is the one I try to hand people when they want a good place to start with JDC.

My five least favourite John Dickson Carr novels

Also in reverse numerical order. My least favourite novel is at the end of this list.

fire burn 025. Fire, Burn! (1957)

John Dickson Carr wrote some great historical mysteries; this isn’t one of them. He certainly had a great deal of knowledge and expertise about the ins and outs of London society in 1829, and that’s the big problem with this book for me; everything is in there. He’s so proud of how much he knows about this topic that there are seven pages of notes at the end of the novel for all the stuff he didn’t manage to cram in! Yes, I learned a lot. Yes, it’s accurate and interesting. But my feeling is that here, Carr lost track of the idea that you actually have to have an interesting novel to sustain all the research and this one is slow, simplistic, only marginally believable, and BORING.
73164514. The House at Satan’s Elbow (1965)

I regard this novel as the precise point at which it became clear that Carr’s writing powers were henceforth to be on the decline. I’m not old enough to have read this when it first came out (I was about ten in 1965) but I do remember hitting it in my teenage quest to read everything that the greatest writer EVER had ever written (smiling now at my youthful passions).  And I remember thinking, “Wow, that one is really not very good at all.” Which it isn’t. There is a point in Chapter 10 in which a minor character is casually said to have an unusual talent — she can perfectly imitate anyone’s handwriting. I found that hard to accept as a teenager, and today it’s just the point at which I close the book and move forward with something else to read, because that’s just bullshit. Or as I call it elsewhere, “mystery cement” (put in to make the puzzle harder). This book has all the elements of classic Carr — ghostly hugger-mugger in the dead of night, a puzzle, unusual characters. But the elements never coalesce to form a decent readable book. This is what I was talking about when I mentioned that sometimes Carr’s novels don’t always make it entirely onto the page; there’s a good mystery in here somewhere, but Carr didn’t manage to write it.

be25693c48d45ebfc4eb87f06429f0303. Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956)

There’s a lot wrong with this book, but one of the major things is that the protagonist is … well, let’s say “hard to accept”. For me Patrick Butler is made of the purest cardboard, and if you take out all the padding about “I am never wrong” and “I always defend the innocent,” there’s bugger-all that makes any sense as a human being. Here, the spooky atmosphere is almost entirely absent and replaced with salacious leerings at a halfwitted female stage performer with a “funny” French accent which requires Carr to write ridiculous dialogue throughout the book. Everyone runs around at top speed for no real reason. And the mystery element depends on something that is so damn stupid … it’s just ridiculous. (And it depends entirely upon this being a book. If it was a film, the mystery would be over in 30 seconds.) This is a book about cardboard characters doing stupid things against a boring background.

61ZsBl62poL._UY250_2.The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936)

I’m on dangerous ground here, because the very eminent mystery critic and John Dickson Carr expert Douglas G. Greene — hell, he literally wrote the book on Carr, found here — thinks this is a great book. So I’ll say right off the bat, he’s probably right and you should take his word for it rather than mine. My issue with this book is personal. When I was reading my way through JDC’s complete works, this was the last one remaining on what birders call their “life list” … and this was before the internet, and before International Polygonics republished it. So I ended up paying what I recall as a huge amount of money for what was at that time the only paperback edition from Dolphin in 1962. I unwrapped the parcel from a faraway bookseller with trembling hands, because this was the very last John Dickson Carr I’d ever get to read … and oh my god it was boring. Stupefyingly, dreadfully, yawn-provokingly boring. This is, in fact, non-fiction, although JDC brought fictive techniques to it. But since it is a retelling of historical fact, he wasn’t allowed to twist characters and events to make the narrative a little more exciting. Yes, again, as I noted in my comments on Fire, Burn! above, Carr knew a LOT about historical fact. But no amount of historical accuracy could bring this corpse back to life for me. For me, this was like reading a textbook for a course you didn’t want to take but had to. I finished the book in an evening and set it aside forever, extremely disappointed.

6573986169_ae8008afea_m1.The Blind Barber (1934)

There are people who like John Dickson Carr’s sense of humour, which depends largely upon a broad sense of farce reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, or perhaps P. G. Wodehouse. When he can restrain it (as in, for instance, the ghost train sequence in the Carter Dickson title The Skeleton in the Clock) it can provide a useful silly interlude within a larger, more serious story, and relieve some tension only to let it start building again. But here, there is nothing other than pure unadulterated farce, leavened with horrific and bloody violence. The principal figure of fun is an elderly alcoholic puppeteer — I don’t think alcoholism is something to encourage people to think is funny, in this context. Everyone in this book drinks a lot and does silly things against their own best interests in order to further the plot and keep it moving so fast that you aren’t supposed to notice that really, nothing useful is going on. And the most annoying part for me is that, early on, a minor character says something about the official actions in regard to the murder that, as far as I’m concerned, ruins the ending. The reader was told that something had happened and the solution depends on that not having effectively happened. (I’m again on dangerous ground here because I don’t have a copy at hand to give you chapter and verse; this is my memory speaking.) This book isn’t as funny as Carr thinks it is, the mystery is a cheat, the characters are unrealistic in the extreme, the violence is unnecessarily horrible, and a lot of the humour is based on how funny alcoholics are. Ugh.

A note on omissions

I’m sure it will surprise some people to realize that there are two very significant John Dickson Carr novels that are not on my list of favourites: The Three Coffins and He Who Whispers. Most commentators on JDC would, I think, at least have those in their top ten. I have to say that if I had done ten favourites rather than five, He Who Whispers would have been a solid sixth place and Three Coffins might have been ninth or tenth.

51EbYUCUfNL._SY445_He Who Whispers has a lot of great things about it; notably it’s one of the instances where JDC was frank about sexual matters, and I have to think that improves the book when compared to the rank and file of his work. For me — and I know I differ from almost everyone on this — the vampire element just doesn’t work. Perhaps it’s something about me personally, but it was perfectly clear to me from the outset that the crime was not committed by someone with magical powers and so the reader had to look at what actually happened without JDC in the background making moaning noises and saying, “Oooooo, scary stuff over here!”.  The puzzle is clever, the writing is good, it’s just this particular volume didn’t work for me from the get-go because I didn’t believe the premise.

three-coffinsThe Three Coffins is another one with the same problem for me. Do I have something against vampires? Maybe so. All I know is, Carr can bring me to the point of screaming out loud when he writes about, say, the mechanical hag in Crooked Hinge, and here the vampire stuff is just silly. The reason why this book would make it into my top ten list is because of the magnificent chapter where Dr. Fell stops the action, breaks the fourth wall, and delivers a lecture about how locked-room mysteries work. It truly is great. And I think it would have been even better in a work of non-fiction, because what it does for me is slow the action of this novel to a complete and grinding halt from which it never really recovers. Act 1 raises a lot of questions, then there’s a lecture about, essentially, how to read the book, then Act 2 goes off on a tangent about the second crime, then Act 3 is so full of explanations that it’s just three chapters of lecturing by Dr. Fell. Without spoiling it for anyone, I have never liked the reason why no one except Dr. Fell can figure out the second murder; it just doesn’t seem possible to me that everyone overlooked that certain something. The characterization is simplistic (“good” people and “bad” people are easy to identify). And once you clear away the guff about people rising from their graves, what you really have is a book where most of the backstory is crammed into the final third of the book in order to explain the first two-thirds; readability is sacrificed to the goal of making the first third of the book spooky as hell and inexplicable.

Nevertheless, as I say, both these books have lots and LOTS of fans. They may not be to my specific taste, but they might be to yours, so you should definitely give them a try.




Nothing But the Truth, by John Rhode (1947)

WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

2772What’s this book about?

Rupert Burtonshaw of Mytton House, a solicitor in the county town of Yarminster, has been hosting his neighbour and client, Henry Watlington, to dinner. Watlington likes his bottle and as the end of the evening approaches, it’s clear that he is in no shape to do anything further that evening. Nevertheless they are discussing Burtonshaw’s objective, that of reconciling the wealthy Watlington with his errant son, Cecil.

Although the hour is late, there’s a knock on the door and a Yarminster policeman is announced, P.C. Fawkes. He’s discovered Watlington’s chauffeur Ellers, drunk in charge of Watlington’s limousine, passed out at the wheel. This is surprising, since Ellers is known to be a teetotaller, but the discovery of the dregs of a bottle of whiskey in his pocket seems to close the case. P.C. Fawkes volunteers to drive the muzzy Mr. Watlington home to Pomfret Hall and then take Ellers into custody, and leaves his bicycle in Burtonshaw’s charge when he does.


John Rhode (Maj. Cecil Street)

At Watlington’s own Pomfret Hall the next morning, however, Mr. Watlington is nowhere to be seen, nor is Ellers. Elders staggers into the kitchen early in the morning, covered in earth and leaves and soaking wet. His story is … well, he doesn’t quite know what happened, but he woke up in the woods with a splitting headache lying under some rhododendrons, and staggered home. The limousine and Mr. Watlington have vanished, and P.C. Fawkes is also found to have been mysteriously stupefied (and his cape and cap stolen) the night before.

After a general search and quite a bit of plot entanglement, a “road patrol” employed by the Automobile Association unlocks the door of an A.A. telephone box some fifty miles from Yarminster. The dead body that falls out of the box, with “every bone in his body broken”, starts the plot in motion in earnest, and Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn is assigned to the case. His friend Dr. Priestley, the series detective, takes a more active role than usual.  I’ll slide over the details to preserve your enjoyment, but an investigation of the long-ago history of Yarminster discovers a deeply hidden motive and the correct criminal is finally brought to justice.

Why is this book worth your time?

I don’t discuss the identity of the murderer, but the next section will discuss some things that underlie this book that you may prefer not to know; explanations of some of the puzzling bits in this novel. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 


The pleasures of a new and prolific author to read!


I’ve been reading a lot of John Rhode/Miles Burton novels lately, dozens of them in the past couple of months; they’ve recently come into the public domain in Canada and I’ve found heaps of them at The Internet Archive ( It’s an interesting privilege to be able to read so much of an author’s work when I’d never encountered much of it before, and I’ve rather been wallowing in the pleasure.

This author is one of the leading lights of the Humdrum School of detective fiction, and I’ve started to identify the limited range of Rhode’s inventive powers that make him a Humdrum. This is not disparaging. As far as I can tell, he knew what he was good at and what made his audience happy, and he wrote that. Not a problem for me.

4158mN5joyL._SX369_BO1,204,203,200_He wrote four or five books a year for decades; I would be more surprised if he had NOT had a couple of basic plot structures that he kept repeating with different situations and characters. He seems to have been fond of mechanical traps and “infernal machine” plots, where someone rigs up a device that kills when the murderer is at a safe and alibied distance. Another one might be paraphrased as “two characters both benefit from someone’s death but no one knows they’re working together.” And then there’s the very common structure that underlies this novel. “Someone from the past has a reason to seek revenge upon the victim and puts together a complicated plot to hide his motive.”

1940s-fashion-for-menThat last structure makes for an interesting novel, but it’s not the kind of thing that a reviewer can usefully talk about. The first third of the novel sets up a situation where most of what you “know” is later proved to be either (a) an incorrect assumption, or (b) an effect produced by the murderer to leave an incorrect impression in your mind. Most of the rest of the book lets you know that, by golly, that murderer certainly was thorough and diligent and created a huge plot to get away with murder. But there’s not much in the way of clues; just finding a different way of looking at the facts. And if I tell you how to look at them, I’ll spoil your pleasure. This book is worth your time, but I can’t really tell you why.  It is a pleasant time-passer that has some clever things in it; it is gentle and sensible and polite, and everyone ends up happily in the end except the murderer, who is sent to the gallows. I liked it and found it pleasant, and in a year I probably won’t be able to tell you a thing about it.

So instead, I’ll talk about why this particular volume interested me in terms of social history. I’ve been thinking about social history a lot with respect to Golden Age detective fiction lately, and I frequently am finding it more diverting than many Humdrum plot structures once you figure out what’s going on. In this type of book, one doesn’t compete with Dr. Priestley to see who can solve the crime first; one sits back and watches Dr. Priestley solve it and enjoys the process. So my mind has plenty of room to think about social history while I’m watching Dr. Priestley at work. 😉

Here, there are three things that struck me as interesting.

  1. The Automobile Association

An A.A. box

As I understand it, the Automobile Association maintained a network of “road patrol” people who drove around looking for people with car problems and helping them — if they were members of A.A. They also maintained a network of locked telephone boxes where members could phone for assistance. It’s not clear to me whether these phones could only talk to an A.A. operator or whether they were just regular telephones, but I think the former. Otherwise, people would break into them and make free phone calls (no, not in 1947 they wouldn’t. That way lies anarchy).

UnknownSo when you became a member of A.A., you apparently were issued a key that would allow you to open the door of an A.A. box and phone them for assistance. I was trying to imagine the sheer good fortune that it would take to arrange to have an accident or mechanical trouble within easy walking distance of an A.A. box … hard to say. I’ve read novels where people walk a couple of miles to get to one and request help. It also makes me wonder about the general state of mechanical readiness of the average car in 1947. Did they break down so often that there was need of a huge corporate apparatus to backstop the system? Did no one let strangers use their land lines to call for help? Was this a large expense, or was the price kept quite low and the costs of the system divided among a huge number of users? It’s still in operation in Canada, certainly, but they don’t operate a private telephone system, of course, nor these cute little kiosks.

It also made me think that having a dead body fall out of a locked A.A. box was very transgressive. Not what one wants to find if you’ve already had a flat tire to ruin your day. And there’s an opportunity for an interesting deductive element here; the person who hid the body must have been an A.A. member. Unfortunately that’s never followed up, which makes me think that there must have been a hell of a lot of those keys around.

2. Artificial tanning

724160189_oThere’s a mention in Chapter 13 of:

“… There are, I believe, preparations on the market which produce artificial tanning.” “Quite right, Jimmy,” Hanslet murmured. “We’ve all seen the advertisements: ‘Handsome men are slightly sun-burnt’.”

I was lucky enough to find one of the advertisements, which I’ve reproduced nearby. I always find this interesting because the gradations of skin colour for white males that are considered “handsome” differ wildly from era to era. Sometimes untanned skin is a sign of the wealthiest class and apparently as here sometimes it’s the outdoorsy type who is celebrated. There’s also a growing awareness of skin cancers that changes perceptions into the 21st century. But I wasn’t aware that cosmetic preparations for males were sufficiently well-known in 1947 as to be a matter of common knowledge, and even more surprising to me that someone doesn’t remark how effeminate is the use of such a product. Of course, they’re discussing the impersonation of a South African farmer, not social advancement.


3. Drug use

In this book there are two drugs used as major plot points: one is hashish and the other is “pentothal” — the “truth drug”. To the best of my knowledge, Rhode got everything about these drugs quite wrong.

He suggests that the smoking of hashish results in about 12 hours of complete befuddlement ending in unconsciousness and retrograde amnesia; having lived in the 70s as a university student, I can tell you that that’s not the case in the slightest. 😉 And may I add that that would be rather a hard sell as what’s been called a recreational drug. There’s very little recreation in that; Rhode regards it as a kind of home-grown sleeping pill.

Similarly Rhode has a very rosy view of the effects of pentothal, in that when Dr. Priestley administers some to the murderer in a glass of whiskey, the result is an hour’s worth of complete willingness to tell the truth about the murder plot, followed by, again, a convenient retrograde amnesia. Um, no, not as far as modern science is concerned.

Pentothal_vintage_package_-_truth_serumBoth the “effects” that Rhode claims for these drugs are really, really convenient for the plot — particularly the use of pentothal, which telescopes the final chapters into a manageable length by completely obviating the need for evidence.

adam eve tree fruitIt’s pretty horrible that, although Dr. Priestley says particularly that the murderer’s utterances are of no evidential value whatever, there’s a general acceptance that the police are entitled to use these revelations because the murderer has forgotten saying them. None of that nasty “fruit of the poisoned tree” in Rhode’s legal system, conveniently. After the murderer babbles the details for an hour, it’s a quick trip to the gallows and the inherent legal issues are forgotten.

There are two interesting points to this. One is that, although John Rhode was well known for getting the details of things right, particularly including complex mechanical and/or chemical traps that are central to some of his novels, he completely failed to get the details of the drugs right here. This probably has to do with the illegality of the drugs concerned; he may have actually seen and touched hashish, since he appears to report its characteristic smell correctly, but he can’t possibly have used it or talked to anyone who had.

tumblr_ni39l2wWLx1sy1cyao1_r1_500Given that he was making it up as he went along, there seems to be a peculiar double standard operating here that is unstated but powerful. Essentially, it’s that the use of drugs by private citizens for recreational purposes is criminal and morally unsound (hashish), but the use of drugs by private citizens for reasons connected with crime-solving (truth serum) contains no moral issues and is, as Dr. Priestley says, “merely a demonstration of the effects of pentothal” upon an unknowing subject. The end apparently justifies the means here. This is a cognitive dissonance that doesn’t appear to have registered in the slightest upon the reader, or author, of 1947.

10366707345My favourite edition

As previously, I read this in an electronic copy I obtained from; this copy seems to have associated itself with cover art for a book with the same title but from a few years ago, which is annoying and inexplicable. If the copyright situation in your home country permits, you may find the book here.

There really is only one print edition of this book, to the best of my knowledge; the first and last is from Geoffrey Bles, London, in 1947, although it appears to have been reprinted in 1949.  A Near Fine first edition in a Very Good jacket will today set you back just under $100 US once you include postage from New Zealand, but you can have a reading copy without a jacket for perhaps US$40.

Past Offences (March, 2016 collects reviews from the media of 1947)

I am delighted to finally be able to contribute something to the excellent blog, Past Offences, because this month’s group topic is 1947. (I very rarely am thinking sufficiently far in advance to make something like this happen, so this has been a happy serendipity.) You can read a number of reviews of material from 1947 by following links in the comments section here, soon to include my own contribution. I do think this is an excellent idea; you are better able to appreciate fiction of a specific year by considering it in a broader context and this idea of a group topic for a specific year is an excellent one.