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.

bill-boyd

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-and-steffi-duna

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-and-sidney-toler

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-and-steffi-duna-1939

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. Free-Classic-Movies.com will let you watch as much of it as you can stand for nothing!

 

Intertextuality and detective fiction

“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.”

Raymond Chandler, from an April 16, 1951 letter to Bernice Baumgarten (his editor at Brandt and Brandt Literary Agency)

UnknownThe other day I was reading a blog post by a friend, JJ at his blog The Invisible Event, on the topic of how various detective stories are quite similar each to the other: the post is called “When Inspiration Becomes Theft”. JJ makes a first cut at parsing the problems involved in two kinds of similarities found in works of detective fiction.  Sometimes the stories are related to real-life crimes: he mentions Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express as referencing the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping case.  And sometimes the stories are related to each other: he mentions Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) and its similarities to the 1934 film, The Ninth Guest, based on a 1930 book, The Invisible Host (by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning).

Unknown-1As sometimes happens, JJ’s interesting discussion sent me off in a direction quite far removed from the original inspiration. This is because I’ve been doing a lot of speculation lately about a number of approaches to questions like why people read murder mysteries / detective fiction / crime fiction, what they are learning when they do it, and what is likely to happen in the future with this genre.

Here’s a word that’s been rattling around in my head for a while: intertextuality. It’s defined in various ways in various places (I suspect this is because its use was begun by semioticians in the 1960s, Kristeva and Barthes, and now it has different meanings in post-modern contexts).  I have three shades of meaning for it as it applies to detective fiction, but first here’s a standard definition that will get you on the right track; thanks, as always, to Wikipedia.

Intertextuality is the shaping of a text’s meaning by another text.  Intertextual figures include: allusion, quotation, calque, plagiarism, translation, pastiche and parody.

But as Wikipedia also notes, “As philosopher William Irwin wrote, the term “has come to have almost as many meanings as users, from those faithful to Kristeva’s original vision to those who simply use it as a stylish way of talking about allusion and influence.”

I’m going to use it in a particular way here to talk about detective fiction, and note that I’m making distinctions among three kinds of intertextuality.

  1. Real life shapes detective fiction; detective fiction shapes real life, and some detective fiction shapes other detective fiction.

    md199363009As noted in The Invisible Event and elsewhere, some detective fiction is inspired by/steals from other detective fiction and/or real life crimes — and vice versa.  Murder on the Orient Express contains an intertextual reference to the Lindbergh kidnapping. In another mode of this intertextual relationship, Elizabeth Linington’s Greenmask! is a story whereby an old J. Jefferson Farjeon novel inspires a “real-life criminal” (in a novel) to copy the methods of that book’s murderer in order to divert suspicion from himself and send the police chasing a non-existent serial killer.  There are at least two cases on record where high-school students have been inspired by Stephen King’s Rage (as by Richard Bachman) to take their fellow students hostage at gunpoint. This intertextuality process can be like the formative process of cliches and tropes; if enough other texts refer to a crime, or a mystery, or a criminal, that concept becomes a cliche. Modern-day detective fiction is intertextual in its marketing; two intertextual references that I’ve seen on book covers recently are “This will delight P.D. James fans” and “This criminal is a modern-day Raffles!”
  2. Each book in a series of novels about the same detective shapes the other books in that series.

    a320e69e73270af80c1e19e5b689aba2The second variety of intertextuality in detective fiction is internal; the best example is my own observations on the Miss Silver novels of Patricia Wentworth, where the same descriptions of the same pieces of clothing, and the same supporting characters, appear again and again in novel after novel. I think it’s safe to say that this is associated with the way in which series characters are created and built. It may be that Sherlock Holmes started it all, with the Persian slipper of tobacco, the supportive Mrs. Hudson, and the ever-present hypodermic for cocaine.  Certainly I am not alone in being able to draw a rough freehand map of Nero Wolfe’s office and properly place the red leather chair … and Kinsey Millhone is constantly accompanied by her all-purpose black dress and her Volkswagen Beetle.

  3. Every solution to a puzzle mystery shapes every other solution to every other puzzle mystery.

    AC6_13975779961The final variety of intertextuality is most interesting to me because it appears to be a peculiar property of detective fiction. That is, at least in terms of detective fiction / puzzle stories / Golden Age mysteries and others that choose to follow in their footsteps, every mystery assumes in its solution that the reader is intertextually familiar with the solution to every other existing mystery, and the author makes an implicit pact with the reader that the solution to this particular volume will not repeat any “trick” or effect or subterfuge that has been demonstrated in any other story. Without getting into detail, the reader is quite safe from reading a brand-new mystery where the answer to “who killed a child-murdering kidnapper in the confines of a snowbound vehicle” is “everyone” — that’s because that’s already been done, and quite well too. More to the point, authors know it and readers know it, and each knows that the other knows it. And since the author knows that the readers know it, the author cannot produce a version of this old book where, say, a blackmailer is murdered aboard an airplane by everyone else aboard. “It’s been done!” the reader will cry, and quite rightly too.  But the justification for this cry is Type 3 intertextuality.

If you think about it, this kind of self-referential intertextuality (Type 3) is peculiar to the literary tradition that started with Golden Age detective fiction, at least when you compare it to other large-scale genres. Romance stories, for instance, are quite the opposite; every story of young love exists in a kind of romantic bubble, where the young lovers — and with any luck, the reader — all exist outside real life. No other love stories are invoked. Westerns resolve into a handful of sub-types (settlers versus Indians, gunmen versus other gunmen, etc.) but there is very little intertextuality in the stories each to the other. And while the worlds of science fiction are many and all wildly different, it is an uncommon exercise for one writer to create within the universe of another, as if a Dune-ean sandworm were to attack the Los Angeles of Blade Runner. But in detective fiction, this Type 3 intertextuality of solutions is embedded at a very basic level, and in a way that no other genre of fiction either requires or displays.

Admittedly there is a kind of intertextuality that operates above the level of genre fiction. Romances don’t require you to admit the existence of any or all other romances, but if the author mentions Romeo and Juliet, it will not be misunderstood. Neither will it be misunderstood to mention the star-crossed lovers in a Western, a mystery or a science fiction novel; their intertextuality is at a scale that transcends genre.  Similarly there is a kind of type 3 intertextuality that is below the level of usefulness and is generally ignored.

c700x420Yes, it is  accepted intertextuality that one writer does not copy the solution of another writer’s mystery; but there are some areas of situational intertextuality that have become more like sub-genres than any kind of rule-breaking. If Chapter 2 of your mystery reveals that an elderly millionaire has invited eight of his quarrelling relatives to his snowbound country estate, changed his will, and given his staff notice, you will not be surprised when he’s murdered. But you should also not be offended by the fact that he’s been murdered with the same blunt instrument, or poison, or pistol as the last six such Golden Age mysteries you read where that situation happens. You might be surprised in Chapter 19 if the corpse has been stabbed with an icicle of frozen blood that promptly melts and confuses estimations of the time of death, but I daresay you will not be surprised to learn that that’s been done a couple of times before. If you set out to write — or deliberately set out to purchase and read — a Golden Age country house mystery, the list of reasonable methods, characters, motivations, and locations available is quite small. Mystery writers cannot help repeating them; in order to avoid suggestions of that intertextuality that is plagiarism, they generally try and make them as different each from the other as possible. Patricia Wentworth’s Wicked Uncle (1947) and Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead (1934) are practically the same book in many, many ways, but I don’t think they support an allegation that Wentworth was in any sense trying to “copy” Marsh. They’re just both country house mysteries about the same kinds of people committing the same kind of crime in the same kind of location.

Epilogue

And why have I been so fascinated by all three types of intertextuality? Well, after my lengthy burbling, you may have forgotten the quotation from Raymond Chandler with which I started this post. For detective fiction, what are the “intellectual and artistic overtones which that public does not seek or demand or, in effect, recognize, but which somehow subconsciously it accepts and likes”? Based on demand, I’m going to suggest that intertextuality — at least types 2 and 3 — meets that definition. I’ll go as far to suggest that it is an important part of the reason why detective fiction continues to be published. Most readers haven’t the faintest idea of what intertextuality is, and yet subconsciously they accept it and like it.

bloody_murderI’ve been really digging into an old reference book, Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder, and finding that I continue to disagree with much of what he had to say about detective fiction. (I may well publish a long article in the near future called something like “Where Symons Got It Wrong” ;-).) I’ve always felt there was something vaguely bogus about his contention — and if I do him wrong in summarizing it, I’m sure I’ll hear about it — that we read detective fiction because we enjoy seeing a state of peace and order being broken and then restored by authority.  Honestly, I’ve been reading mysteries for 50 years and I’ve NEVER felt like that.

The two reasons that I actually DO think that people read mysteries took a long time for me to figure out; I’m not sure if they comprise a complete list, just that they seem to be characteristics that to me explain a lot of why people read mysteries.  One is because they like the experience of intertextuality (all three types) and the other is because they like … a concept I’ll call indoctrination.  I look forward to discussing that one at length in the near future, and I’ll merely leave the name as a hint of things to come.

 

A quick note on opposites (Crosses, Coffins, and Oranges)

WARNING: This post concerns works of detective fiction, which means that part of their 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 these novels, 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. 

The Egyptian Cross Mystery.4-1Sorry to have been absent for a while.  I’m currently working on a larger piece about the nature of detective fiction … consider this your teaser preview. 😉  In the meantime, here’s something that struck me this morning as I was leafing through a copy of Ellery Queen’s The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932).

I’ve never cared much for this book … to me it’s a bit overwrought, with the dramatic cross-country chase at the end showing all the signs of being arranged by the author and not the characters. And the poor old crazy guy who thinks he’s Egyptian is more to be pitied than suspected; he’s rather been wedged in there to add a reason for the title. Nevertheless there are some lovely bits of logical detection and this book has the honour of being the only murder mystery of which I’ve ever heard that features the game of checkers (draughts).  And if you re-read the page immediately before the Challenge to the Reader, you’ll find that the central clue is my very favourite type of all — something that isn’t there.  Most people can draw an inference from an object that’s present, but few are equipped to realize the significance of an object that’s absent.

three-coffinsAs I was flipping through it this morning, I realized that this book is the “opposite” of two other books that it pre-dates. The theme of the three brothers is repeated in John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins (1935), with a very similar backstory originating in a very similar part of the world. But the plot concerning the brothers is — well, let’s call it “turned inside out” in Carr’s novel.  I won’t say more for fear of spoiling your pleasure, but if you read both novels looking for ways that families of three brothers who emigrate from the Carpathian area are similar, you’ll have the ideal “compare and contrast” essay for your English professor ;-).

09g_ChineseAnd the other “opposite” book is one of Queen’s own; The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934). The linking theme is in the case of Egyptian Cross the “tau” or letter T, and in Chinese Orange it’s the idea of “reversal”.  I have to admit my second “opposite” might be considered stretching things a bit; truly Cross and Orange are kind of the same plot, in that all the bizarre circumstances surrounding various corpses have actually been created for the same reason, in order to obscure something that was a necessary and revealing act of the murderer.  Both use the corpses themselves as a necessary part of the dramatic surroundings.  But Orange is almost delicate in its avoidance of bloodshed and inability to identify the corpse, whereas Cross contains a string of decapitations and lashings of blood and violence.

You’ll make your own mind up about whether they’re opposites … interesting to think, though, that Carr and Queen took the same plot point within two years and wrote different novels around it.  I may have to do some more re-reading to see if these gentlemen overlapped ideas in other ways.

 

 

Sweet and Low (1974), by Emma Lathen

Sweet and Low (1974), by Emma Lathen

WARNING: This book is a 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. 

“Emma Lathen” is a joint pseudonym of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart. I may refer to them here as a singular author, but I know the difference. 😉

51a7VsJdTKL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_What’s this book about?

John Putnam Thatcher is senior vice-president of the third largest bank in the world, the Sloan Guaranty Trust. His corporate responsibilities include the assumption of an important seat on the board of directors of a very large philanthropic trust indeed. The Leonard Dreyer Trust is closely affiliated with the Dreyer Chocolate Company, a huge corporate presence that sells what might be a quarter of the chocolate bars in the U.S.  (If you think of this company as Hershey, you won’t be far off the mark.)

Companies that manufacture chocolate bars must of necessity trade on the Cocoa Exchange, which is a high-stakes enterprise like a mini-stock market, intimately connected with predicting what the price of cocoa beans will be at various points in the future. The individuals who master such valuable skills are few and far between, and although Amory Shaw trades on behalf of Dreyer, because of his experience and brilliance, everyone sees him as the Grand Poobah of the cocoa market.

lathensweetThe town of Dreyer, New York is the home of both the chocolate company and a large part of the action of this novel. First a smaller-scale trader appears to have drunkenly fallen into the swimming pool at his Dreyer motel; theories of accident are soon dismissed when Amory Shaw himself staggers onto the floor of the Cocoa Exchange with a knife in his back and dies without speaking. The police investigate Shaw’s fellow traders, attendant brokers, office staff and personal relationships. Meanwhile, Dreyer has chosen this time to launch a major new product, with a huge advertising blitz for the Old Glory bar. Simultaneously, everyone is annoyed with the activities of a pompous and self-absorbed auteur filming the Cocoa Exchange for a documentary for public television. But it falls to Thatcher to take the larger-scale view of events and figure out just what happened and whodunit.

md16292038904Why is this book worth your time?

I do think it is worth your time; if I can say so without angering anyone, this is a first-rate second-rate mystery, and I don’t mean that at all disparagingly. The Emma Lathen novels set out merely to entertain and divert without invoking more than glancingly any major social issues or deep characterization values. The author deliberately avoided anything that would bring this novel into the first rank, but for what it sets out to do, it does it extremely well.This is a lighthearted and wry mystery that will amuse you but never upset you.

This is the 15th outing for John Putnam Thatcher and Emma Lathen now has the recipe down pat. There are a few paragraphs at the beginning about the nature of Wall Street.  We briefly meet some of the cast of continuing characters of Thatcher’s associates at the Sloan; his immediate staff, all of whom have personal characteristics that are useful when exposition is required to the reader, and/or his dunderheaded boss Bradford Withers, who is constantly involving the Sloan in projects beyond his capacity to manage that require Thatcher to step in.

As a very senior executive with a taste for detection, Thatcher involves himself in the murder-related business affairs of such things as a chain of take-out chicken restaurants (Murder To Go), biotechnology companies (Green Grow the Dollars), and professional hockey teams (Murder Without Icing). And since he is required to do so without necessarily knowing anything about things like the Winter Olympics (Going for the Gold) or Persian carpets (By Hook or by Crook), the book’s characters are required quite naturally to explain themselves and their industry to Thatcher and hence to to the reader. It all works really well to produce what I’ve called an “information mystery”, where the reader is given a behind-the-scenes look at an unusual background in the course of solving a mystery.

16119697The authors comprising Emma Lathen are a lawyer and an economist, and they definitely seem to know what they’re talking about in business terms. Their mastery of each industry depicted, including here the Cocoa Exchange, seems extensive and they have the knack of making it clear to you without resorting to huge blasts of information. Things come to the reader naturally by seeing the characters doing things and having them explained to Thatcher. Lathen also has the knack of creating simple characters with only a few traits or drives, but ones which the reader grasps immediately. There is also a strong overtone of, “Well, he may ably run a multi-million dollar chocolate company but he’s a nitwit in this particular respect,” and most readers will find this charming and humanizing.

This particular volume is merely the one that was at the top of my Lathen stacks; there are 24 novels in total, from 1961 to 1997. Some are better than others. A couple of my favourites are Murder To Go and Green Grow the Dollars, partly for personal reasons; both books have the ring of truth from my personal experience, and if you can find one that overlaps your own employment history you will enjoy it very much indeed, I’m sure. Lathen is at her best when she is discussing industry, and so ones like Ashes to Ashes, where the focus is on personalities, aren’t as enjoyable for me.

One more subtle problem is found in this book as well as a couple of others. Occasionally Lathen takes on a large industry and wants to show the reader the full supply chain, as it were; this book has a time-wasting narrative thread about people who actually sell chocolate bars for a living, and it has nothing to do with the murder. It veers dangerously close to the author wanting you to “walk out humming the research,” always a dangerous tendency. Lathen is at her best when she’s got a small cast of characters who are at the heart of the action.

28971Finally, she’s generally referred to as a “witty” writer and I have to agree. Her ability to sketch ridiculous characters is excellent; they’re nonsensical and simplified, but believable. She also has the knack of submerging her writing style to the exigencies of the narrative — avoiding the trap of “look at me, I’m writing!” that I find so difficult when, say, P.D. James goes off on the landscape for a page or two — except every once in a while she lets off a line that is wickedly bitter and funny. She lets you find out that characters are funny by what they say and do, rather than by being told that they are funny, and that’s the most enjoyable way to do it for the reader. Overall her writing style is gentle and intelligent.

This is as good a place to start with John Putnam Thatcher as any; if you enjoy your first one, all of them will be worth your time. I’ve enjoyed them all, and they stand up to re-reading.

6617228-MMy favourite edition

Really, Emma Lathen has not been well served by book designers. The Canadian Pocket edition shown at the top of this post (and which I used for this review) is one of a uniform edition that is relentlessly banal. The US Pocket edition manages to get across “business” and “murder” but avoids “chocolate”, which is a keyword for this book. The first US edition from simon & Shuster, depicted here, manages to get across “chocolate” and a little bit of violence, and the typography is very attractive; I’ll say that’s my favourite, but it’s the best of a bad lot. You can have a reasonable copy of it for US$60, which is perhaps a bit high. The UK first from Gollancz, with an overcomplicated ampersand that makes the reader think the title might be “Sweet So Low”, is about US$20.

There are two versions of the UK Penguin cover depicted here;  I haven’t held this book to be sure, but I suspect that the minimalist version that has the chocolate bar coyly peeping out to the left of a white field has the same photograph of the smashed chocolate bar but continued over on the back of the volume. Really a very poor idea — wraparound covers have definitely got a place in paperback design but the whole idea is that you have to be able to tell what you’re looking at from a moment’s glance on the shelves of a bookstore.

There’s definitely room in the publishing world for a uniform edition of this intelligent author and I hope someone reprints her work with some considered design work.