Binge-reading Gladys Mitchell: Part 2

9780770104023-us-300I haven’t bothered to count just how many Gladys Mitchell titles in e-format I picked up on impulse the other day, but it looks to be about 50 titles. That should hold me for a while. I did mention that I had picked up Sunset Over Soho (1943) at random as my next attempt, but a gentleman named Mark Fowler, on my Facebook feed as a comment to my announcing Part 1 of this essay, had this to say: “Much as I love Gladys Mitchell Sunset Over Soho is my own personal least favourite of them, and one I would not recommend to anyone starting out on her.” Point taken, Mr. Fowler, and thank you. I was finding it chaotic and hard slogging anyway, although it’s hard to set aside a book where the great rescue at Dunkirk is merely an interruption to the mystery plot. I’ve set aside Sunset Over Soho for the moment and gone with the book that started the whole thing, my paperback copy of Uncoffin’d Clay.

I’m not precisely starting out on Mitchell — I’ve read about a third of her output, over the years — but it might as well be so, because I have uncharacteristically forgotten most of her plots and characters. Over the next few months I expect to keep having the “Oh, I’ve read this before” reaction about midway through some of the volumes. I mention this not because I think my failing memory will amuse you, but because — well, I tend not to forget the details of books, and if I do, it’s generally because they’re not very memorable. So that seems to be my expectation as I’m going in. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

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, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. 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. 

Uncoffin’d Clay, by Gladys Mitchell (1980)


The first edition (Michael Joseph, 1980). I have no idea what the scarecrow is meant to represent, but it’s nothing from the book.

This one I had read before; I expect it was in the 80s when the PaperJacks edition came out. The basic premise is that a wealthy Arab sheikh and his family purchase an old estate in rural Dorset and there is a good deal of resentment in the neighbourhood because they don’t fit in well. This builds up to the Arab’s son Hamid sustaining a serious injury in a “man-trap”, an antique device for snaring poachers, and the disappearance of the estate’s land agent. Mrs. Bradley takes a hand and sorts out the death of the land agent, a blackmail plot that culminates in another murder, and assigns responsibility for various bad acts.

Now, I have learned over the years that as mystery writers age, their last few books are frequently quite poor. Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr; I’ve remarked before that these writers should probably have stopped a few books before they actually did, since they tarnished their own reputations with their final efforts. Just about the only major mystery writer I can think of offhand who maintained a high level of quality all the way was Rex Stout; he died literally days after publishing his magnificent final novel, A Family Affair. That’s a long build-up to explain why I was surprised that although this book was written three or four years from the end of a long life, this book is (a) coherent, and (b) quite readable.

That may be damning with faint praise, but Mitchell is an author who in the past I have found to be not always coherent and readable. Given that the author was in her late 70s when she produced this volume — and churned out two books a year until her retirement four years from this title — I wasn’t expecting much. As I read along, I kept thinking, “Wow, this is actually a very straightforward book.” No wild flights of fancy, no plot trails abandoned in mid-stream, everything relates to the central storyline, no characters who step off-stage for long periods and then come back with an important role … A to B to C, problem, investigation, solution, tidy ending, boom. Nothing especially memorable but none of the incoherency I was half-expecting.

There are some bits I found odd. One of them is that there is a narrator character who is a little bit peripheral to the action; this differs from my experience of Mitchell’s storytelling mode (omniscient third-person), although as I progress through her work I may learn differently. I found this character to be quite bland in many ways, essentially there to tell the story and be the recorder but not the Watson. There is one little thing that niggled at me. This gentleman is staying with his brother and sister-in-law for story purposes, as is reasonable, and the only interesting thing about him is that, without actually saying so, he appears to be sexually attracted to his sister-in-law. In fact it seems as though his relations realize it but he does not. The authorial work involved in producing this understanding is certainly skilled, but then at the end of the book it goes nowhere. The situation is not resolved and to my knowledge the narrator will never be heard of again. So I was left thinking, “Hmm, what’s that about?”  We’ll probably never know. Mitchell just wanted to write about two men in love with the same woman, and one of them married her.

20496500Another odd thing is that the sheikh himself is never seen or heard in the course of the novel, and — well, I don’t know about you, but I rather think he ought to have been onstage at least once, don’t you think? It’s as though the author is desperate to leave him out as a suspect at the cost of keeping offstage what might have been a fascinating character. Is that she felt she couldn’t manage to depict the sheikh accurately? I was particularly curious about why he had chosen to buy a large estate in rural Dorset, since it later turns out that he wasn’t very welcome there, but we don’t have any chance to understand his motivations. Apparently he raises horses and wants to do so on large tracts of land, to the locals’ dismay. It’s as though there was an unspoken assumption that rural Dorset is such a fine place to live that it overcomes any inconvenience involved in the sheikh abandoning his native habitat and coming to live among people who pretty much hate him.  “As for the local nobs, well, I suppose they’ll accept him in the end, if only because of his money, but at present he’s a parvenu and a foreigner and there’s enough of the old prejudice left in most people for the persistence of a belief that ‘the wogs begin at Calais’.” Perhaps they should have reflected that “wogs” with lots of money don’t actually need to care about the acceptance of the local nobs. But it would have been nice to know if the sheikh was self-aware or merely uncaring.

I performed my usual thought-exercise of trying to see if the plot made sense from the murderer’s point of view. In this case — well, not much. There’s nothing actually counterproductive about what the murderer does, but it’s not especially useful in the cause of concealing whodunit. Nothing is really all that difficult to figure out and there is a plot development near the end that makes it quite obvious who is trying to conceal what, and how. And the development itself is a matter of public record. The ending is rather flat because of that plot development — whodunit is clear, but what will happen is “probably not much”.

1769220Mrs. Bradley is by now reduced to a stock character; apparently Mitchell feels she is so well known that she merely has to demonstrate her idiosyncrasies once or twice during the course of the book and that’s it. So she cackles with laughter, her beautiful voice is remarked upon, and she’s not even referred to as “Mrs. Croc”; taken for granted. Mrs. Bradley is accompanied by her secretary Laura, who in this iteration is largely silent and off-stage while Mitchell overworks her omnipresent narrator.

To sum up: I used to characterize certain types of mysteries as “time-passers” and this is one of them. It will suffice to meet the needs of someone who requires a constant source of detective fiction that will divert them but not really challenge them; this may well be damning with faint praise, but honestly I mean this more kindly than that. I don’t call it a “time waster”. It’s perfectly all right to meet people’s needs by writing an unchallenging book in a long, long series; people expect the mixture as before, and that’s what they get here. It’s just that there is nothing that will remain with you after you close the book.






If any of my friends is wondering why their perfectly reasonable comments were not published on my blog in the last year or so — it’s because I am too technically incompetent to have realized that they were sitting there waiting for me to approve. Some published themselves and some did not. I’ve just found a storehouse of interesting comments, most from people whose comments I value. My sincere apologies to everyone whom I’ve seemed to have snubbed, that was not my intent at all. I shall do better in the future!


Intertextuality and indoctrination: Why do we read Golden Age detective fiction?

Settle in, this will be a long one 😉 I do not intend to give away too much specific information about any particular work of detective fiction, so no spoiler warning will be required, just this once.


Some months back I published an essay on intertextuality and detective fiction, suggesting that it was one of the reasons we liked to read Golden Age detective fiction (henceforth “GAD”). In that essay I used the term “intertextuality” (which has different meaning depending on whose work you’re reading, so please refer to what I’ve said there if it’s important) to refer, among other things, to the idea that every solution to a puzzle mystery shapes every other solution to every other puzzle mystery. And I noted that this is the kind of thing to which Raymond Chandler may have been referring in the following quotation:

“It is no easy trick to keep your characters and your story operating on a level which is understandable to the semi-literate public and at the same time give them some intellectual and artistic overtones which that public does not seek or demand or, in effect, recognize, but which somehow subconsciously it accepts and likes.

Emphasis mine. What I’ve suggested is that the reading public may not be able to recognize intertextuality in its GAD, but it likes it.

I also promised you a disquisition on “indoctrination”, which I think is another crucial “intellectual and artistic overtone” that goes into the enjoyment of Golden Age detective fiction, but I didn’t define it. I said that it’s one of the two reasons that I actually DO think that people read detective fiction; I’ve since come up with a third, for which I use the general heading of “ingenuity”.  So, so far, the three “I”s of detective fiction.

Why Do People Read Detective Fiction?

bloody_murderJulian Symons, in his ground-breaking 1972 history of detective fiction, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel suggests — and I am very loosely paraphrasing here — that people read detective fiction because they like the way that the genre breaks order and then restores it at the end. The crime is committed (order is broken), the detective investigates, and order is restored when the criminal is caught and punished. It is true that detective fiction, if it hopes to be taken seriously qua detective fiction, must solve any mysteries that it has raised during the course of the story; “law and order” will generally prevail, especially in the context of GAD. I’ve always found this suggested motivation of the restoration of order hard to accept on more than an intellectual level; frankly, it never echoed with me viscerally. Did you ever pick up a murder mystery and think, “Oh, good, now I get to see order broken and restored!”  No, neither did I.

I’ve been looking for reasons that make more sense about why people read detective fiction. My mind kept returning to the idea that GAD detective fiction in general is one of three immutable genres; that is, every story in GAD is almost exactly the same at a very basic level. (The crime is committed, the detective investigates, the criminal is caught and punished.) Of all the genres I can think of, there are only two others of which this is the case; romance and pornography. Science fiction and westerns, adventure and fantasy, espionage and thrillers and “chick lit”, all of these genres have plots and characters that range widely and are impossible to predict. But in the three immutable genres, the basic stories are always the same.

So if the story is always the same, then what must be differentiating good GAD from bad is some other quality that is carried within the story, or around the story, or above the story — essentially, something not-story. Symons suggests that it’s the restoration of order, and previously I’ve suggested that intertextuality is at least one such quality.

At this point, I went looking on the internet for what people say is the reason they read GAD. I found some of that, to be sure. But what I found within the boundaries of that search was a great deal of material about why women read cozy mysteries. I say “women” not in some overlooked residue of sexism, but because I was impressed by the sheer omnipresence of women’s commentary outweighing men’s by about 99% to 1%. And there are an awful lot of women writing about what it is that they like about cozy mysteries. I started to get interested.

There’s a primitive level of reaction to their chosen literature, by the least literate stratum of aficionados, that I’ve actually seen represented as “Well, I love the plots and the characters.” (As opposed to heaven knows what else — theme?) This is enthusiastic but not very useful because all books have plots and characters. But since the mystery genre is the written word, its aficionados are more literate than many, and I soon found a reasonably high level of discourse on the Internet.

10e1b3c02220a489a82fcf2175a32f3e--nook-books-read-booksOne comment on Goodreads I found particularly interesting: “Why are we particularly interested in the sleuth’s job/craft/hobby?…We could certainly research knitting/cooking/cats on any website. So what makes the combination of characters, occupation and mystery so interesting–and so addictive?”

I think this is the quote that allowed me to make a connection between the cozy mystery and GAD, in terms of why people read it. I started to look at the qualities of GAD that the present-day reader might suggest draws them to the sub-genre. Over and over again, it’s the puzzles and/or the characters. Oddly, to my rough-and-ready estimate after encountering hundreds of mystery readers over the years, the men like the puzzles and the women like the characters (and I emphasize, this is nothing more than a generality). But a lot of GAD fans like locked-room and impossible mysteries, all plot and no character, and a lot of GAD fans revere the great romances of Peter and Harriet and Troy and Alleyn and who, like Dorothy L. Sayers, were “tired of a literature without bowels”.

That allowed me to reduce down to the simplest level by striking the responses that had to do with plots and characters. All books have those things, and there has to be something about those plots and characters that lets us tell good ones from bad ones. What was left, from my commenter on cozies, was … “occupation”. The sleuth’s “job/craft/hobby”.

And that, as you can imagine, was temporarily baffling to me, until I took a step back and realized that, yes, the modern cozy is focused on the occupation of the protagonist. Whether it’s a series about a yarn store or a dog grooming business or a cookie bakery, there are literally hundreds of series of novels about a woman running her own business. Was this a focus on what I have called elsewhere the “information mystery”, where the reader is given a behind-the-scenes look at an unusual background in the course of solving a mystery?

Although I personally enjoy the information mystery form, I can’t accept that this is a huge motivation for people to read mysteries. I’ll cut some of my logical trail short here and suggest that the quality that the respondent identified in the specific was “occupation”, but what this is really about, in larger scale, is “the transmission of social information”. Aha! People read mysteries because they transmit social information.

Parenthetically, I realized that the cozy mystery is actually designed to allow its readers the experience of agency: that is, they get to live vicariously in the persona of someone who has the desire and ability to control their surroundings. The woman who runs a yarn store and solves mysteries has the ability to take a few days off in order to investigate her neighbours — not a common experience in today’s economic environment. So that’s a very specific transmission of social information.

The kind of transmission of social information that I think people enjoy about GAD — and enjoyed, in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s — is subtle. It seems to consist of a repeating pattern; a GAD author has a “voice” that is making authorial observations in the background while the mystery plot is playing itself out in the foreground. The author is, in a sense, teaching the reader how society works, according to the author’s point of view. If the reader likes the author’s voice, and/or agrees with the observations, then the reader will continue to read that author’s books.

Here’s an example to show you what I mean; from Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962).  First a quote from Chapter 1-II, an internal monologue by Miss Marple, then an explanation.

“[T]here had been Amy and Clara and Alice, those ‘nice little maids’ arriving from St Faith’s Orphanage, to be ‘trained’, and then going on to better paid jobs elsewhere. Rather simple, some of them had been, and frequently adenoidal, and Amy distinctly moronic. They had gossiped and chattered with the other maids in the village and walked out with the fishmonger’s assistant, or the under-gardener at the Hall, or one of Mr Barnes the grocer’s numerous assistants. Miss Marple’s mind went back over them affectionately thinking of all the little woolly coats she had knitted for their subsequent offspring. They had not been very good with the telephone, and no good at all at arithmetic. On the other hand, they knew how to wash up, and how to make a bed. They had had skills, rather than education.”

be85ca85cd891c86d13e7e3dd9933cdcI must acknowledge here that Miss Marple is speaking about the past, so although the date is 1962, she’s talking about the ’20s and ’30s. There is so much social information within this single paragraph that it’s almost too much to go through, but here are some bullet points that illustrate what Agatha Christie is saying about Miss Marple’s society — indoctrinating the reader — in that paragraph:

  • Orphanages contained young women who received an education that was suitable for their lowered station in life; they weren’t trained to be teachers or doctors, but servants. Such people in training received lower wages than their trained counterparts.
  • It’s socially acceptable for a member of the middle or upper classes to compare a member of the lower classes to a “moron”. Miss Marple is a “nice person” and she does it.  (Technically it indicates an IQ between 51 and 70, or possibly a mental age of between 8 and 12.)
  • Orphanages are associated with Christian religious organizations named after saints. Although the word “charity” is not used here, it’s likely that Miss Marple saw the training process that she was administering as being connected with church-related charitable work. Orphanages exist because there are sufficiently large numbers of children without parents that they must be managed in an organized way by society.
  • Fishmongers still called themselves that, and had young male assistants; similarly, grocers had young male assistants. These young men were of the lower social orders and it was suitable for them to associate romantically with female orphans/maids. People still ate enough fish that a small village would have a store entirely devoted to selling fish.
  • Supermarkets were not yet known and the economic pattern of a village was such that one went to separate stores for fish and “groceries”.
  • The provision of gardening services at certain estates (the “Hall”) was sufficiently economically viable as to allow young men of the lower classes to work as “under-gardeners”.
  • Certain residences are so well-known that they take a capital letter to distinguish them from others.  The Hall employs under-gardeners, and presumably their supervisory gardeners; therefore it has grounds that require full-time employees to maintain them, and someone can afford to pay them to do that.
  • “Walking out” is a nebulous process that we would know today as “dating”, but it had the implication of constancy. If you were “walking out” with someone you were progressing towards marriage, or at least towards having children.
  • It’s appropriate for elderly middle/upper-class women to knit handmade woollen clothing for the infants of the lower-class maids who had been in their employ. The word “subsequent” indicates that they left Miss Marple’s employment when they got married. Knitting is an appropriate occupation for a member of the leisure class that employs household servants to “wash up”.
  • Adenoidectomy and widespread use of antibiotics to cure adenoidal infections had not yet become commonplace. Having an “adenoidal” voice or presence was somehow undesirable and apparently associated with the lower classes.
  • If someone knows how to “wash up”, it indicates they have experience at washing dishes by hand. Dishwashing machines were not apparently used in the home.
  • Elderly ladies without a large income can afford to have a personal maidservant in their homes. It might be that Miss Marple is trading off lower wages with the training function that she is supervising.

And many more, most less securely expressed. (Why is it associated with the lower classes to be poor with arithmetic? Etc.) Of course, no author actually sits down to tell you these things; they form part of the unspoken backdrop and the author at the time of writing assumed you know these things.

Janssen_Reading Mysteries for Romance Lord Peter WimseyI’ll suggest that every mystery from the Golden Age of Detection contains such material, spoken and unspoken. And of course immediately I expect you’re thinking, “Well, every single book I’ve ever read does that.” Undeniably so. What I’m suggesting is that this is a particular reason why people enjoy reading Golden Age mysteries. Whether the plot and characters are illustrating a “pure puzzle” plot or Peter is proposing to Harriet on an Oxford bridge in Latin, the authorial material about how society works — what I call “indoctrination” — is always present and, I’ll suggest, forms a significant part of the reader’s enjoyment. (I’ve called it “indoctrination” because it imparts “doctrine” — the rules and processes of social behaviour at a certain time and place.)

imagesMy understanding is currently that this takes place specifically in mysteries because people read mysteries in order to “figure out” the plot. If there’s a corpse on the library hearthrug, and a button lying nearby, the reader knows because of the mystery form that that button is significant and must be explained before the end of the book. The size and shape of the button will tell the detective and the reader whether the button comes from a glove or a raincoat. And when the raincoat is discovered from which that button has become separated — the astute reader will be reading carefully to note if that button comes from the right or left face of the garment, because the astute reader knows, as a matter of societal information, that men’s and women’s raincoats have the buttons on opposite sides. Usually the author finds a way to have one character explain the difference between men’s and women’s raincoats explicitly, for the benefit of the reader, if it’s important to the determination of the identity of the murderer. British raincoat habits are not automatically known by readers in, say, Tahiti. But there’s always a level at which the author assumes that the reader shares an understanding; we all know that buttons are generally from human clothes and not, say, from pets or vacuum cleaners or books, to mention three things that could have a legitimate function in a library.

1930s-dinner-party-©-Bert-Morgan-PG-3As we get further and further away from the publication date of a mystery, the number of unspoken assumptions grows larger and the amount of background knowledge required must usually be accumulated from other reading. Take, for instance, the idea that when dining at an aristocratic country house, there is an explicit but unspoken precedence that takes place as people enter the dining room. People of higher social rank enter before people of lower social rank. This process is referred to as “going in” — the third daughter of an earl, being an “Honourable”, goes in before a famous but untitled movie star. And the younger daughters of impoverished earls are sometimes very zealous about their exact place in the social order if it happens to be higher than that of wealthy commoners.

Nearly a century later, it is almost necessary to explain the concepts of higher and lower social rank to someone born in the 21st century, who has absorbed from the cradle the credo that everyone is created equal. In the GAD context, it can be thought of as an attack on the established social order to “go in” before someone of higher rank; certainly if the author tells us that Mr. Jones pushed his way into the dining room ahead of Lady Bumbershoot, we know something important about how Mr. Jones feels about the social conventions IF we know that the correct order of “going in” is important to the people involved.

Whether or not the social gaucheries of Mr. Jones have anything to do with the later murder of Lord Bumbershoot is a matter for the author, of course. But the reader of a murder mystery is conditioned to examine such things to see if the author is telling them something that bears upon the mystery. Suppose that Lord Bumbershoot left a half-completed letter on his writing desk suggesting that he and his wife had been gravely insulted by some unidentified person’s behaviour. That will not be a clue to anyone who doesn’t know about “going in”; the person aware of the “going in” rules will suspect Mr. Jones. The truly experienced GAD reader will, of course, look for someone other than Mr. Jones, who is perhaps a red herring in this context. What I’m getting at is that the “going in” rules form a part of the plot and are important to the characters; but if you don’t know what they are or even that they exist, you won’t be getting the maximum amount of information from the author about the plot necessary to solve the mystery.

Ultimately, the constant reader of GAD amasses a large amount of social information that may or may not be useful in the context of any particular mystery novel. Perhaps in a different novel, people go in to dinner without anyone remarking upon who goes in before whom, or why. That particular piece of indoctrination isn’t relevant to this novel, but perhaps the fact that British pubs closed early on Sundays, or that gas rationing was in place during the Second World War, may have something to do with the mystery’s solution. Sometimes you’re told specifically; sometimes it’s assumed you know without being told.

I’m going to suggest that we read GAD partly in order to collect these little snippets of indoctrination and that we enjoy that process enough to keep us returning to the GAD form. We may think, “Oh, if *I* was living in England in the 1930s, I would know not to push into the dining room in front of Lady Bumbershoot.” We might speculate on the whys and wherefores of early closing day and wonder how it would affect our everyday lives, or whether the potential loss of one’s hereditary title due to an undisclosed illegitimacy would be sufficient motive for murder. It can be a kind of cultural archaeology; trying to understand, in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night, why it is that female scholars are treated differently than male scholars — or indeed what it is that “illegitimacy” meant in a modern time when many people’s parents are not married. We think about how it might affect our romantic relationships in 1930s England if the object of our affections were of a different social class — or the same gender.

police and fire awrds 1938 in oldham
cc ah mayall.And for the person who reads a lot of GAD, as I think most of my readers do, there’s another kind of pleasure available; that of “mastery”. It’s pleasant to realize without being told that Mr. Jones should not have pushed into the dining room ahead of Lady Bumbershoot, and why. In a meta-sense, it’s pleasant to be aware that if Jones’s faux pas is important to the murder plot, the author will make sure you are aware that Lady Bumbershoot has been insulted, and precisely how — then in your attempts to solve the mystery, you can focus on more relevant things, like the button on the hearthrug (without having to look up the meaning of “hearthrug” like a millennial might have to).

I wonder if I’m reading too much into this provision of background social information; as I noted, it’s certainly a part of every novel. But I think it’s peculiarly a part of the mystery genre because the informed reader tries to assess the meaning of events and objects in respect to the mystery plot in every such story. I’ll maintain that indoctrination is at least worth considering as one of the reasons why people still read mysteries from 90 years ago, and enjoy them, and keep the best ones in print.

When I did my piece on intertextuality, I left the reader with a hint that a future piece would be this one about indoctrination. I’m happy to say that I’ve identified a third term that begins with the letter “I” that I regard as an element that explains in part why people read mysteries; ingenuity. You may have an idea already what I’m getting at, but I intend it to be the subject of a future article. In the meantime, your comments on the concept of indoctrination are welcome below.










Brief notes on a few to avoid

As I had occasion to remark recently, I haven’t been enjoying the Golden Age of Detection lately. I suspect that after decades of diligent and obsessive reading, it may well be that I’ve read everything worth reading and now there’s nothing left but the dregs … or it could be merely that I’ve had a long run of bad luck with book acquisition and book choices.

Rather than spend a lot of time going into just one volume I disliked and why, I thought I’d sum up a few recent disappointing experiences. I hasten to add that, as a contributor to DorothyL once furiously reminded me, yes, I am aware that people worked hard on these books and what novels did I ever publish anyway? How dare I not like specific books, and for … reasons? It may well be that the book that did not please me would please you, and possibly for the same reasons. So please take these comments with a grain of salt. My belief is that my opinions don’t change anyone’s mind who would have purchased (or not purchased) a particular book anyway. And from most of these authors I have had pleasure in their other works, so there’s that.

UnknownNearly Nero, by Loren D. Estleman (2017)

This is a volume of comedic short stories about “Claudius Lyon, the Man Who Would Be Wolfe”. Essentially a wealthy and overweight man who is fascinated by the Nero Wolfe stories tries to emulate the great detective by setting up an equivalent household and solving cases for nothing. The short stories are amusing but slight; the humour is vulgar and obvious.

Although it’s clear that the author is immensely knowledgeable about the Wolfe stories, and I understand that he is taking a humorous approach rather than a reverent one, there’s a certain quality of intellect that is sadly lacking. Without getting into detail, there’s a Wolfe novel where he reflects upon the use of a diphthong and thereby solves a case. There’s also a “continuation” novel by Robert Goldsborough in which the solution depends upon a linguistic connection occasioned by a suspect’s last name. The first story in this book has to do with an error occasioned by a homophone, and it’s just so damn crass and obvious, I nearly lost my will to continue. The remainder was pretty much a series of “single trick” stories; once you realize the trick, the story is over. They are not dependent on, or interactive with, the relationship between pseudo-Archie and pseudo-Nero, and indeed the stories could be about anyone.

Stout wielded a rapier and Estleman is swinging a large and very blunt instrument. My judgement is NOT Nearly Nero.

imagesRipped (A Jack the Ripper Time-Travel Thriller), by Shelly Dickson Carr (2012)

This is a book by the granddaughter of GAD Grandmaster John Dickson Carr.  Where he wrote for adults, she is writing for pre-teens. Where he had magnificently researched historical detail, she has apparently memorized the contents of a dictionary of Cockney rhyming slang and uses it obsessively. Where he added a delightful smell of Satanic brimstone to his time-travel mystery novels, she merely knocks off the central premise of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. In short, he could write and she cannot.

I have to say that I took into consideration that the target audience for this novel is a “young adult” and I am certainly not that. It’s not fair to dislike a book for not being written to your level when it wasn’t meant to be. As well, I was sort of hoping that his talent had made it down to her generation, and I think it’s difficult to justify blaming an author for not being her grandfather. That’s a bit unfair. However, I note that Ms. Dickson Carr uses a different name with which to copyright her works; she’s deliberately inviting the comparison and has to live with the consequences.

Anyway, the book is just … relentlessly okay. It has an overall air of moral correctness that is something adults fondly imagine that children like; children are, happily, not usually fooled. The author confesses that she has taken liberties with details of the Ripper’s victims. She has also somehow managed to sanitize the gruesome details without really doing so, if that makes sense; there are descriptions of slashed throats, etc., but you get the feeling the author would really rather be focused on something much nicer. Characters are constantly grimacing and gesturing with their fists to express emotion, because the author has apparently been told it’s not writerly to merely tell the reader what’s happening. But what that emotion is precisely is not clear, and so everyone strides around like a bunch of demented mimes, making no sense. People just don’t act like this; even young adults will know better.

I believe this book to have been self-published, or the equivalent in production from a tiny press. The cover bears an announcement that the book was awarded the “Benjamin Franklin Award” by the “Independent Book Publishers Association”; I was sufficiently curious to look up the website for this and stopped reading when I read “Winning an IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award™ expands your marketability and solidifies your credibility.” It certainly may expand your marketability but trust me, your credibility just went down the tubes. This award is worse than meaningless, it’s misleading; as near as I could tell, the marketing materials are more important than the literary merit. It will be a mark in the future of a book to avoid, for me.

x298The Maze: An Exercise in Detection by Philip MacDonald (1932)

I’d been looking forward to reading this for years; an obscure but well-regarded novel by a favourite author, republished in 2016 as part of the Detective Club reprint series from Collins that has been so successful lately. For a long time, I’d been hearing about this novel as being a triumph of the “pure” detective story. Well, this latest reprint has lifted a 1980 introduction to the novel by Julian Symons, who accurately if incautiously remarks, “… The Maze has the weakness inherent in that desire for a wholly logical crime story, the weakness that we take an interest in the solution to the crime but not in the people who may have committed it.”

Here’s how MacDonald put it in his own introduction from 1932: “In this book I have striven to be absolutely fair to the reader. There is nothing—nothing at all—for the detective that the reader has not had. More, the reader has had his information in exactly the same form as the detective—that is, the verbatim report of evidence and question.”

This is absolutely the case. And the result is a book that balances an exquisitely boring plot with a lack of characterization or, indeed, anything much of interest at all. It’s certainly a fair book, as I’d heard for years, but so is Sudoku. The solution is somewhat unusual, principally because it breaks one of the “rules” that I associate with the Golden Age, but it is neither satisfying nor ultimately interesting. This is why Symons called them Humdrums; it’s a book-length game of Cluedo.

I know Philip MacDonald wrote many, many more interesting books and I recommend any of them except this one. Similarly this seems to be one of the few clinkers in the otherwise excellent choices of Collins’s Detective Club editors. Possibly it’s that it had been difficult to get for a long time and they bowed to pressure for a choice from what is essentially their own backlist. But some of my readers are fond of the pure puzzle form and I am sure they will enjoy this; no distracting characterization or description to get in the way.

28220808All the Little Liars: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery by Charlaine Harris (2016)

This is #9 in the long-running Aurora Teagarden series of cozy mysteries by Charlaine Harris, who still feels compelled to write these despite the flood of huge royalty cheques from True Blood and her other works which would allow her to retire in comfort.  And in what is surely a coup of genius, she’s created yet another series (the Midnight, Texas books and upcoming TV programme) that seems designed as a kind of rest home for the subsidiary characters from her other series who will not die. Please GOD let this be the last Aurora Teagarden novel she writes.

All the Little Liars is a festival of minor characters from the previous books in the series, which seems to be the mainstay of this writer’s career. There is so much nonsense from other volumes weighing down this book that one has to focus really hard on the slight and ridiculous criminal plot. Occasionally Harris’s work has a freshness and energy, not to mention excellent characterization, but this is just tired and tiresome. The plot concerns a teenage girl who identifies as LGBTQ — the young woman is treated respectfully but the protagonist’s young male relative is sexually assaulted by a trucker while hitchhiking, which seems to happen for no plot-related reason that I can grasp. It’s contradictory and vaguely unpleasant to contemplate. The book is pretty much unreadable, at least to me. I know that Harris has many, MANY fans who will take this amiss, and they would possibly suggest that perhaps I have not tried hard to appreciate her work. Believe me, I have tried. But over the years her books have become slighter and slighter in plot and heavier and heavier in characterization to no purpose that I am no longer able to shovel aside the heaps of bumph to get to the meat that is barely there.

There have been six low-budget Vancouver-based made-for-television productions of books from this series and doubtless this is meant to be fodder for yet another film. Aurora Teagarden is impossibly perfect and so it was apparently appropriate to have her portrayed by the impossibly perfect Candace Cameron Bure. This actress is a former child star and there’s just something ABOUT her — she’s like a Stepford wife who’s practised hard and learned how to smile a lot, and I find her impossibly creepy to watch. The films themselves are fairly close to the novels, but there’s a smell of bologna in the air at all times and you just know that nothing unpleasant will ever happen that isn’t completely resolved by the two-hour mark.

As I was checking the dates, etc., for this piece I learned to my horror that a tenth volume in the series is expected in September of 2017. I may wait for it to come out in paperback before I avoid it 😉

9310142The Velvet Hand, by Helen Reilly (1953)

This book has been sitting staring at me to one side of my desk now for months. I’ve been trying and trying to think about something nice to say about this book, and I can’t. It’s been out of print almost since it was published, and for once, I think the paperback market was correct to refuse it. It’s another book of which I’d been aware for years and never come across a copy; just disappointing, that’s all. Rather a waste of time for Inspector McKee and me.

It’s a poor example of what I have elsewhere called the “brownstone mystery”, where the main function of the plot is to carry the reader through observations about how upper-class people live, complete with details of clothing, furniture, and bitchiness. The mystery here will not trouble anyone with experience in reading Agatha Christie; in fact the solution was so obvious that I discarded it early on and was working my way through exactly how the answer had been double-twisted. Pfui, as Nero Wolfe says.  SPOILER ALERT: This is, in fact, a variation on the Birlstone Gambit, and since that was last successfully done by Ellery Queen in 1935, it’s long past time in 1953 that it was retired.  END SPOILER

51c8rYTmg-L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Death in the Middle Watch, by Leo Bruce (1974)

I really, really like a lot of Leo Bruce’s novels about schoolmaster Carolus Deene, but I cannot warm up to this at all. There’s a lot of satirical material here. This includes the promotion to the main stage of the repellent Mr. and Mrs. Stick, the married couple who “do” for Deene, whose low-class antics are usually relegated to the sidelines. Most of this stuff just isn’t funny and I constantly wanted to fast-forward through the comedy. Almost all of the characters are played for laughs and the detective spends most of his time sneering at how bloody awful all the suspects are being. The plot itself is — well, it’s sort of an inside-out version of a rather famous story by Agatha Christie. The reason that Deene and the Sticks are on a cruise is completely unbelievable, the characters are shuffling through the timetable one-dimensionally … the late great Mr. Bruce seems to have phoned this one in. The shipboard comedy mystery combination inevitably brings to mind John Dickson Carr’s The Blind Barber, which I personally believe is an awful book by a great writer; perhaps the comparison is more accurate than I’d realized.

10444918The Big Grouse, by Douglas Clark (1986)

Elsewhere I have talked about the “police procedural” form as being novels about the activities of a group of police officers, who work together on one or many cases simultaneously. Their personal lives are usually intertwined with their cases. This series is a long-running one about the activities of Chief Superintendent Masters and his team who investigate murders in a matey and jokey way, except when it comes to the crunch. Many of their cases have to do with strange poisons and scientific/pharmacological backgrounds.

I’ve enjoyed a bunch of these in the past, notably Premedicated MurderThe Gimmel FlaskRoast Eggs and a few others. This one, though, is where the 70-something author takes on what doubtless he called “women’s lib”. The team receives its first female member, Detective Sergeant Tippen. Masters, of course, is supportive and correct; however one middle-aged member of his team is of the old school which calls women “petal” and expects them to automatically make tea and clear the table after. The distasteful part of this is that it seems to be suggested that if DS Tippen doesn’t play along with this, she’ll have made an error.

Usually Clark’s mysteries are complicated and subtle; everyone is baffled until CS Masters Figures It All Out from One Tiny Clue. This one is rather odd; almost of the Intuitionist school, as I understand it. Masters is convinced, for no real reason that I can see, that a man has been murdered. He deduces the general whereabouts on very slender evidence, and figures out that there is a body, and precisely where it is, on what amounts to magical thinking. Then there’s one clever bit of scientific information about ducks nibbling the body and being poisoned by the substance that poisoned the human. It’s absolutely obvious who the killer is, as it usually is in Clark’s stories (hint: the one who has access to the weird chemicals).

On a recent re-reading, I realized near the end that I had been skimming through the less-than-pleasant personal interactions of the detectives to get to the mystery plot, and then skimming through the mystery plot because it wasn’t very believable. That’s a bad combination of instincts to skim. This particular volume is relatively inoffensive, it’s just more than a little dull, and with a tinge of unpleasant social attitudes towards women in the workforce. I’ll call this one “less than recommended”.


I hope to have not offended my regular readers too much; ultimately what these things all boil down to is questions of taste. I’m not unhappy that yours might vary from mine, but I do hope you find these notes useful.


A quotation about mysteries from Fran Lebowitz

“Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

In my lifetime, I’ve read one zillion mysteries. This is not because I care about who did it. I don’t care. And I almost never figure it out. I don’t have that kind of mind at all. I don’t care who did it. I have reread mysteries numerous times and I don’t even remember who did it. I’ve read all the Agatha Christies. I’ve read all the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout. He wrote many of them, but not enough for Fran. I’m always hoping to find one I’ve never read. It’s the same as the New Yorker’s dream of finding an extra room in your apartment that you didn’t know was there. One thing I like about mysteries is that they end. Which is true of so little else.”

12901176_10156759506600230_7491903967036767053_oFrom an interview in the New York Times of this week.  I had the privilege of meeting this insightful thinker many years ago in Toronto and having lunch with her and a bunch of publicists, quite by bizarre accident. We talked principally about clothes — she has an unusual approach to clothes and always wears approximately the same thing — and murder mysteries. I can see that she would find something to love in the Nero Wolfe stories — they’re both completely immersed in being New Yorkers!

The Golden Age of Detection Drinking Game

In the course of a light conversation (in the comments section) among some Golden Age of Detection aficionados of my acquaintance, I volunteered to write the criteria for a drinking game which referred to … well, let’s not call them “cliches”, but rather commonly-found words and situations in old detective novels.  Below is my first attempt. I heartily welcome additions and emendations from knowledgeable parties.

article-2025634-00f278c5000004b0-47_468x3223Take a drink:

  • When anyone says: “But he was already dead when I got there!”
  • When anyone says, “Of course I didn’t actually SEE him/her, but I know they were there.”
  • When the narrator casually mentions a little-known short-cut between two far-apart locations.
  • When someone casually mentions a relative who vanished more than 20 years ago. (If it’s a twin, take two drinks.)
  • When the narrator casually mentions how much two suspects resemble each other.
  • When a Scotland Yard officer has to disqualify himself from the investigation because of his personal relationship with a suspect or the victim, and call in an amateur.
  • When anyone described as an amateur detective is said to have investigated more than three cases.
  • When a police officer casually mentions an unusual object that was found by the corpse and dismisses it as random coincidence. (If it’s in the title of the book, take two drinks.)
  • If someone disables a car, or cars. If the word “magneto” or “syphon” are used in the context, take two drinks.
  • If there is a murder during a masquerade ball or costume party and everyone sees the murderer but is unable to identify him/her.
  • 105When the victim changes his/her will within 24 hours of death. If they don’t sign the new will, take two drinks. If the new will disinherits their previous heir, take two drinks. If the new will leaves everything to an unknown legatee, take two drinks. If the new will is a forgery, take two drinks. If the new will is forged by the lawyer of the deceased, take three drinks.
  • If everyone has to live in the same house because of the will of a deceased person.
  • When someone mentions a mysterious poison unknown to science, and/or curare. If someone has a large supply of such a substance in plain view that they obtained while traveling in a faraway place, take two drinks.
  • When the victim quarrels with more than two relatives within 24 hours of death. Add one drink for every relative quarreled with beyond two.
  • When the victim is said to have gone on a mysterious errand within 24 hours of death but no one admits to knowing where.
  • If a party line or telephone operator provides a clue.
  • When the crime scene is adjacent to a well-stocked gun room and/or a laboratory filled with poisons.
  • If a dressmaker visits a private home in order to fit, alter, or deliver a woman’s garment. If the dressmaker overhears a clue or reveals one, take two drinks. If the dressmaker is referred to as “my little woman”, take two drinks.
  • If a crime is committed in order to possess a quantity of radium.
  • unknown-2If the body has been mutilated beyond description and later turns out not to be the person everyone thought it was. If the person whom everyone thought it was turns out to be the murderer, take two drinks.
  • If any two characters have attended the same public school. If one of them is the detective, take two drinks.
  • If the detective refers jocularly to a previous case and there is a footnote giving the title and date of the novel concerned.
  • If any house guest is given a tour of the garden.
  • If there is a plot point involving being out of petrol, or lacking petrol, or theft of petrol. If petrol must be obtained by purchasing it from a quaint rustic, take two drinks.
  • Gypsies (if the police suggest that they are guilty of murder without any evidence, take two drinks)
  • Any time anyone is referred to with a military officer’s rank without a last name. If he is described as being “red-faced”, take two drinks. If he is also the Chief Constable of the county, take two drinks.
  • 787d1da389f119a704f3bceb64cf0b7aIf “the ladies” automatically leave the dining room after dinner.
  • If a specific “cigarette end” is identified as having been smoked by a specific person by dint of its brand alone.
  • When wild game is served at dinner that has been killed by a member of the household.
  • If someone’s fingerprints are taken and the detective mentions that it’s “only a matter of form”.
  • If a servant is required to carry hot water to a bathroom.
  • Any time anyone is referred to by their job title rather than their name, such as “Cook” or “Vicar”.
  • When the butler is a blackmailer. If the housemaid/housekeeper is also obviously in possession of a mysterious secret, take two drinks. If the chauffeur and/or the gardener is also obviously lying about something, take three drinks. If more than two of these servants die, finish the bottle and close the book.
  • Take one drink each time the following words/phrases are mentioned:
    •      “A thousand years”, in reference to someone’s ancestry
    •      “Damme!”
    •      “Doing the flowers”
    •      “Draw it mild”
    •      “Not proven” (as the Scottish verdict)
    •      “Piercing scream”
    •      “The fishing”, specifically with reference to the right to fish on a certain river.
    •      “Trick cyclist” (for psychiatrist)
    •      A phrase in a foreign language in front of the servants/police so as to be confidential. If someone says “Pas devant les domestiques,” take two drinks.
    •      A reference to someone’s religious beliefs and/or practices being “too High”
    •      Any epithet in Greek or Latin. If it’s “Eheu!” take two drinks
    •      Biarritz
    •      Bigamy
    •      Blitz, The
    •      Cavaliers and/or Roundheads
    •      Chemin de fer.  If it’s called “chemmy” take two drinks.
    •      Chin-chin
    •      Clew, with that spelling
    •      Cloakroom
    • 3751967_orig     Clothing coupons / food rationing
    •      Cocaine (if referred to as a “white drug” take two drinks)
    •      Daimler
    •      Disinherited or disinheritance
    •      Dower House
    •      Elevenses
    •      Entail (in the testamentary sense)
    •      Fête
    •      Footman
    •      Gentleman’s gentleman
    •      Great War, The
    •      Green baize door
    •      Ha-ha (as a landscaping feature)
    •      Hedgerow
    •      Hothouse peaches
    •      Illegitimacy. If it’s referred to as “the wrong side of the blanket” or a similar euphemism, take two drinks.
    •      Jack Ketch
    •      Jumble sale
    •      Kedgeree
    •      Kukri and/or kris
    •      Limehouse
    •      Marriage lines
    •      Master criminal
    •      Michaelmas — if in reference to daisies, take two drinks
    •      Murder Game, The
    •      Nancy (as a reference to effeminacy)
    •      Oriental (if the modifier “sinister” is appended, take two drinks)
    •      Padre
    •      Poacher
    •      Pooh-pooh
    • c78bfd5bcba45e5ef0d2e146923422e3     Pukka sahib
    •      Racing demon
    •      Servant problem
    •      Shaving brush
    •      Simony
    •      Syphon (with reference to alcoholic drinks)
    •      Tapestries
    •      Treacle
    •      Tugging a forelock
    •      Tweeny
    •      Vegetable marrows
    •      Wellies
    •      Women’s Institute
  • card_game_circa_1930sTake one drink each time a scene is set:
    •      In the billiard room (if the phrase “knock the balls about” is used, take two drinks)
    •      During a game of bridge (if this is “after dinner” take two drinks; if it’s merely called “contract” take two drinks)
    •      In a rural pub in which more than two people are heard to speak in dialect. If someone says “Eee, bah gum” take two drinks. If someone uses the letter “z” instead of “s”, take two drinks; if they say “zur” for “sir”, take three drinks.
    •      In the village shop. If something is purchased during the scene, take two drinks. If that purchase would not be available in a modern supermarket, take three drinks.
    •      A gazebo or summerhouse. If someone overhears a conversation therein, to the astonishment of the people having the conversation, take two drinks.
    •      A scientific laboratory in a private home.

Hope you don’t get too drunk!


Law of the Pampas (1939)

law_of_the_pampas_posterJust lately I’ve discovered the pleasures of a new-to-me TV channel, “Silver Screen”, whose mission seems to be, “Let’s keep the programming budget as close to zero as possible.” So I’ve been experiencing the pleasures of a lot of rubbishy old films that few people other than me take seriously.

I’ve been enjoying a lot of elderly Westerns of no particular merit, including entries in the long-running Hopalong Cassidy series. In 1939, when Law of the Pampas was made, there were no fewer than four Hoppy movies (there were SEVEN made in 1943, which must have been exhausting), and in total there are sixty-six of them. Say what you will about their quality, 66 films equals a long-running and durable brand — and you knew who Hopalong Cassidy was without being told, didn’t you? That’s what interests me.

rm5qzy7xWilliam Boyd plays Hoppy, and Russell Hayden is along for the ride as sidekick Lucky Jenkins. Hoppy always had two sidekicks; one handsome young cowboy, and usually the grizzled old Gabby Hayes as comedy relief. Here Hayes is absent and the comedy relief role is filled by “Argentinian” Sidney Toler.

The story is simple enough. Our heroes to go Argentina to deliver some prize bulls to rancher Pedro DeCordoba; Pedro has been having troubles, what with two of his children dying in “accidents”. Nobody pins down the source of trouble to Sidney Blackmer’s evil American son-in-law “Ralph Merritt”, who is eliminating other potential heirs to the estancia, until Hoppy’s suspicions are aroused. Steffi Duna plays Chiquita, Blackmer’s misguided mistress who thinks she’ll marry Ralph and rule the roost, and Sidney Toler plays Fernando Ramirez, the ranch foreman. Hoppy remembers he’s seen the son-in-law’s face on an American wanted poster and brings him to justice, in an exciting finish that looks like every other Western chase sequence you’ve ever seen — but with bolas as well as six-guns.


William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy

Why is this oater worth your time? Well, you will probably not be intellectually troubled by the mystery plot, which has a kind of inevitability about it from the start. It’s not completely obvious, as is often the case in Hoppy’s outings, but it’s clear who the guilty party is from the start. (Sidney Blackmer could easily have had “Bad Guy” written on his forehead in Sharpie.) There is a tiny bit of originality in that it takes place in “South America” — although everyone speaks English and the sets look exactly the same as all the other American-set Hoppy films. “The King’s Men” do a turn as singing cowhands, which is silly and fun, and B-player stalwart Anna Demetrio has some nice moments as Toler’s big fat wife Dolores.


Russell Hayden, sidekick, and Steffi Duna

Neither will you be troubled by trying to decipher the characterization; there really isn’t any. Hopalong Cassidy at this point was so well known to his primary fan base of children that all he has to do is show up and not do anything evil or mean. The script is written so as to explain to you everyone’s role upon their first appearance and all you have to do is settle back and wait for the inevitable.


Anna Demetrio (L), Sidney Toler (R)

What really interested me was that this film was made in 1939; Sidney Toler was at that time deeply involved in headlining the Charlie Chan series. Essentially he played a South American cowboy and a Chinese-Hawaiian detective in the same year, and to my eye and ear he plays both roles with exactly the same facial expressions and accent, despite his Missouri origins. In fact Toler made eight films in 1939, playing ranch hands, gauchos, Charlie Chan, a shady lawyer, a Chinese racket-buster and an intrepid judge. Quite an accomplishment.


Sidney Blackmer (L), Steffi Duna (R)

Also of interest to me was the performance by Steffi Duna as the Chiquita of easy virtue. When she arrived in Hollywood in 1934 from Hungary — yes, Hungary — she played a long succession of Hispanic characters, slinky Euro-trash, and even an “Eskimo” (in 1934’s Man of Two Worlds). You really had to work hard in those days to submerge your origins and make a living as a B-movie actor!

This film is available in various places for free; it seems to have somehow fallen out of copyright. will let you watch as much of it as you can stand for nothing!