Murder and Zucchini, Part 2

41VRyageRJLA little more than two years ago, I published a not-very-serious piece about zucchinis in murder mysteries.  You can find it here.  In it, I talked about an obscure mystery by John Rhode called Vegetable Duck in which a maid/cook scrapes out the inside of a zucchini and replaces it with minced mutton, parsley, onion, herbs, and a little dripping, a wartime recipe known as vegetable duck. Sounds tasty, actually!! Right up until it ends up being poisonous to the poor victim.

VegDuckWell, in that post, I suggested that I wasn’t aware of any specialized tool with which to do that job and, gentle reader, now I am. The illustration nearby is of a zucchini corer that you can currently acquire on Amazon for a fairly reasonable price.

I’m still interested in the rare occurrences of natural poisoning by cucurbitacin, a toxin that naturally occurs in zucchini … but I may just have to get myself a zucchini corer and try a recipe.  If you’re interested in a serious look at this book, by the way, my friend John Norris at his blog Pretty Sinister Books did the definitive review in 2012.  Hope they bring this back into print some day!!

 

A brief look at Michael Gilbert

Michael Gilbert (young)

Michael Gilbert in his younger days

As I mentioned the other day, I have acquired enough Michael Gilbert novels in the last while to devote an entire post to them en masse. Lately I picked up an armful of paperbacks, and I went out and supplanted that with e-books as my fancy took me. As you will soon see, when I want to read an author, I want them ALL.  I’m still waiting on a few, but I’m determined to read everything of his, it’s all that good. And I had at least one discovery of a great novel that I hadn’t read before.

There’s an excellent tribute to and biography of Gilbert here, by Martin Edwards, who took over editing the CWA anthologies from him and obviously feels the same way about this writer as I do — a brilliant man whose death in 2006 cost the world a great writer of the old school. You’ll find a full bibliography here.

707228I’ve already had quite a bit to say about a couple of his books: The Crack in the Teacup (1966), Petrella at Q (1977), and his first mystery, Close Quarters from 1947. I think it’s clear that this discussion will be coloured by the fact that, just in general, I really like Gilbert’s writing style and I’d overlook a lot of minor flaws because he tells stories that I enjoy reading. So if you’re looking for any vitriol about this particular author, you’re not likely to hear it from me. He’s an excellent writer and I recommend you read your way through him start to finish. As a stylist, he writes the elegant prose of a lawyer, which he was; I understand he used to write his fiction on the train as he traveled to and from London to his office.

close-quartersThere are at least three different types of story that Gilbert writes; the trouble is, it’s not easy to boil them down into categories with succinct and tidy labels, at least for me. As well, Gilbert didn’t usually write long series of books; the most in a series is six. He’s one of the few writers who attracts my attention with a volume of short stories. It’s kind of a peculiarity of mine —  I’m just not all that interested in other authors’ short stories because usually they’re written to make or illustrate a single point, and once I get it, there’s no more flavour. But Gilbert writes volumes of linked stories and they seem to carry a full-length narrative for me. Anyway, he has a few series, lots of non-series novels, and volumes of short stories. To quote Martin Edwards, “He is never dull, he never writes the same book twice.” The story types are anything but rigid; it’s more like he has a couple of preoccupations that show up in many of his novels (the law, for instance, and struggling against injustice) and then he’s wonderfully inventive and inter-relative about the rest.

51KZf83GNSLSo think of these as loose ways to organize Gilbert’s work. As I’ve said, there are preoccupations — the law, justice, courtroom drama, triumph of the little man — and a few types. The three main types I’ve noticed are:

  • Straightforward puzzle mysteries, often with Inspector Hazelrigg but there’s a lot of standalone novels that hearken back to the Golden Age. There’s also a strong thread of courtroom drama in many of his later works but it’s not restricted to this type.
  • One man fighting against great odds. As I said, it’s not easy to describe these, but The Crack in the Teacup is a good example. Sometimes the protagonist is damaged by an powerful antagonist and spends the book getting his own back; sometimes the protagonist sees injustice and merely wants to see justice triumph. Although there is definitely a case for calling the stories about Inspector Petrella police procedurals, I ended up thinking of them in this category because Petrella is constantly battling against both criminals and the police apparatus. There’s also a bunch of stories in this category that have a background of inter-corporate warfare.
  • Political and/or spy thrillers. I tend not to read this style of book as a rule but Gilbert is such a good writer he can carry me along; he understands politics and even his most rollicking adventure stories, like The 92nd Tiger, have underlying truths in them.

So here’s a bunch of little snippets of opinion about the great number of these I’ve read lately, in no particular order. I’ll try and identify the type.

9418707._UY200_Flash Point (1974). Against great odds. The one veers into the political thriller territory but really is the story of a pugnacious little guy who decides to hold a union official to account for a few hundred pounds and ends up bringing down the British government. Part courtroom thriller, part political thriller, and just a good story with a nice twist at the end.

 

 

 

death-of-a-favourite-girlDeath of a Favourite Girl (1980). Puzzle mystery. Also published as The Killing of Katie Steelstock. A fairly traditional puzzle mystery about the brutal killing of a young TV star who is visiting her home village. Part police procedural, part courtroom thriller, and with some very modern undercurrents that must have been quite risqué for 1980. With a surprising but exquisitely foreshadowed twist ending.

 

 

26183691The Doors Open (1949). Against great odds. Although this one has many of Gilbert’s recurring themes (part courtroom drama, part corporate thriller, part political thriller); essentially the story of an evil person who seeks a long, long revenge and is ultimately thwarted by a good man who wants to see justice done. A very satisfying ending.

 

 

smallboneSmallbone Deceased (1950). Puzzle mystery. Often said to be Gilbert’s finest achievement; certainly it’s got everything you could want in a puzzle mystery. Inspector Hazelrigg investigates the case of a body found in a deed box in a staid and old-fashioned solicitor’s office. You understand the people, you are taught the routines of the daily grind of a solicitor’s office in a painless and intelligent way, and there’s a legal trick that you won’t see coming that underlies a major plot thread. I suspect the ending will surprise you very much; it’s logical but difficult to get to unaided.

squareThey Never Looked Inside (1948). Also published as He Didn’t Mind DangerPart detective story, part against great odds. Major McCann decides to help out Inspector Hazelrigg in the problem of ex-servicemen who are being recruited to commit crimes, and thereby runs up against a huge and vicious criminal organization.

1807483Death Has Deep Roots (1951). Puzzle mystery with a strong thread of courtroom drama. It’s the story of Victoria Lamartine, who was in France during WW2 and became pregnant; her handsome young Lieutenant Wells gets killed by the Germans. Vicky is also taken prisoner and her child disappears. She thinks the Lieutenant’s superior officer, Major Thoseby, might know what happened and spends years trying to find him after the war; she does, and he is murdered. The book details the courtroom process of her solicitors trying to defend her against that prosecution.  I think this is an exceptional book and well worth your time if you like courtroom drama.

9418548Fear To Tread (1953). Against great odds. This is the final Inspector Hazelrigg story but really it’s an “against great odds” story; Mr. Wetherall, headmaster of a boys’ secondary school, uncovers a large-scale black market operation and volunteers to assist the police in breaking it up. Mr. Wetherall is a delightful character and the twist in the ending is very satisfying.

 

 

15129384The Body of a Girl (1972). Puzzle mystery with overtones of the police procedural. Detective Chief Inspector Mercer is a hard man who comes to Stoneferry upon his promotion to DCI and leads the investigation of a corpse found in a well-known lovers’ lane. He also solves a couple of other crimes, some of which will surprise the reader. Mercer is a fascinating protagonist who has more to his character than is immediately obvious; a very satisfying ending.

 

10985075Blood and Judgment (1959). Puzzle mystery. Inspector Petrella, in a full-length outing for once, investigates crimes for which one Boot Howton, a habitual criminal, is on trial. Petrella angers his superiors by coming up with an entirely unexpected line of inquiry into certain of the crimes and an entirely unsuspected criminal.

 

 

 

17345812After the Fine Weather (1963). Political thriller. I’m not fond of this style of story and yet couldn’t stop reading this one; a young woman finds herself in danger because she is the only eyewitness to a secret about a political assassination in the Tyrol. Full of double and triple crosses and harsh political realities, a fast-moving story with plenty of excitement.

 

 

danger-withinDeath in Captivity (1952). Also published as The Danger WithinPuzzle mystery. One of my favourite of all Gilbert’s novels, this is the story of a murder among Allied prisoners in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp in WW2. I don’t remember ever reading anything that seemed to be so accurate about the details of everyday life in a prison camp, while still providing fascinating material about who might kill a prisoner and why. My only quibble with this book is that the final sixth of the book has quite a different tone and approach than the rest of the book, and I found it somewhat jarring. The solution, though, is excellent. You’ll note from the Pan tie-in edition I’ve chosen to illustrate this that it was made into a film … which I haven’t yet found.

51qo77AYM4L._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_Paint, Gold & Blood (1989). Against great odds. I didn’t find the story of art smuggling all that fascinating, but there’s a wonderful process whereby two schoolboys get their revenge upon a cruel schoolmaster/churchman that is delightful, and there’s a business idea that’s probably worth doing to this day. The portrait of the brilliant young man who invents the idea is the centrepiece of the book; it’s a bit like Young Sherlock and Young Watson. There’s also a use of Samuel Pepys’ personal shorthand as a way of transmitting confidential information; many things to like about this book even if the art smuggling isn’t of much interest.

1721464Sky High (1955).  Also published as The Country-House Burglar. Puzzle mystery. This is a story that John Rhode would have tackled but didn’t have the writing skill to bring to life; essentially a howdunit about a mysterious ex-Army type in a small village whose house explodes one summer night. It’s the characterization and dialogue that make this story the enjoyable book it is. I found the final chapter delightful; it ties off some loose ends in a very happy ending indeed.

 

stay-of-execution-8Stay of Execution and Other Stories of Legal Practice (1971). This is a set of short stories all of which are linked by the practice of law; some courtroom drama, some less than perfect lawyers, et cetera. Only a few of these are simple stories done to illustrate a point; more often than not they are complicated tales that lead you in one direction and then take you to a startling realization in a very satisfying way. Gilbert was, of course, a lawyer in active practice. Some of these stories will only really be satisfying to people who work in that profession, but they will be very satisfied indeed.

51+y2qobEfL.SX316.SY316The 92nd Tiger (1973). Political thriller. As I noted above, I’m an unlikely customer for this sort of novel but found it engaging and very readable. It’s the story of Hugo Greest, a TV actor who is the lead in a series about The Tiger, a karate-chopping womanizing spy. Just as his series comes to its end, Greest is offered a job by the leader of a small Persian Gulf country recently enriched by the discovery of a rare mineral; he is to equip and train a small army for the Ruler. Since he actually speaks Arabic this is not outrageously unreasonable. There’s a plot to supplant the Ruler and Greest, against great odds, stops the coup, rescues the Heir, and gets the girl. Not a shred of reality here, more like an extremely good-humoured James Bond novel or a very hard-hitting Dick Francis novel, but funny and gruesome by turns, and it held my attention.

2857137The Empty House (1979). Political thriller and against great odds. Young Peter Manciple is an inexperienced insurance adjuster assigned to investigate the death of a policy-holder whose car went over a cliff. This turns out to be merely the tip of the iceberg and lead to a plot involving international intrigue, romance, and biological warfare. It’s certainly an interesting story but I found the ending not quite up to Gilbert’s usual desire to leave the reader happy and satisfied; this is a little depressing and squalid.

 

7089.jpgThe Final Throw (1982). Also published as End-GameAgainst great odds. A young and rather dissolute Welshman goes undercover as a fairly incompetent tour guide around Europe in order to expose drug trafficking and organized crime. The stakes become very high when he must locate a down-and-out drug addicted vagrant who has some incriminating documents.

 

 

md22849633937The Etruscan Net (1960). Puzzle mystery with a little bit of everything. Robert Broke is an Englishman in Florence running a small gallery. After touching on a potential case of forgery of Etruscan antiques, he finds himself up against the local Mafia and a ring of spies, and is soon on trial for manslaughter. A brilliant Italian defence lawyer solves the case and ties off all the loose ends. The Florentine background is interesting and it’s clear that Gilbert had some experience there.

 

511jGyH9bPL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The Night of the Twelfth (1976). Puzzle mystery and one of the most frightening books I’ve ever read — it’s about a serial killer who tortures, rapes, and murders young boys. The main part of the book takes place in the milieu of Trenchard House School, a boys’ school; a few senior boys and junior masters are the principal characters. Gilbert ably threads the difficulties of a very serious underlying plot and lifts the boys’ characters far, far above the Boys’ Own Paper level, helped by one who is the son of the Israeli ambassador and is accustomed to violence. A surprisingly intelligent book with a horrifying ending that had me on the edge of my chair.

51k-s5u8ttL.SX160.SY160Ring of Terror (1995). Political thriller and much more. I wanted to end this on a high note; before this year I hadn’t read any of the three novels in a series about Luke Pagan and Joe Narrabone, and so I only obtained the first one, Ring of Terror. It’s my best discovery of any of this bunch, almost all of which I had read before — just a great novel. It’s a historical novel set in 1913 about young Luke Pagan whose knowledge of Russian makes him extremely valuable to the Metropolitan Police (and to the Home Secretary, one Winston Churchill). Pagan is set to investigate Russian immigrants; some anarchists, some merely criminals, and some entirely innocent — the stakes are very, very high and the story is exciting. I thought as I was midway through the book that this is the type of story that Gilbert was born to write. His command of the period is sufficient to convince me he’s done his research; we know the outlines of the politics involved but, like Churchill’s role, there will be much here that is new to the reader. Gilbert was not afraid to talk about the nasty, violent, and squalid as part of where he had to go with this book, and it’s a rather brutal reality for the protagonist, but it made for a fine and exciting story. Plot, characterization, and writing are all excellent. If I’d ever done a “Top 10 Michael Gilbert novels” list I would have had to revise it all downwards after finding this gem.

Michael Gilbert (later years)

Michael Gilbert in later years

To my surprise there are still a bunch more, but I think I can mop up in a smaller post some time soon. I hope you try Ring of Terror on my recommendation, if you want the male version of Anne Perry with great writing skills, and if you like novels about a protagonist fighting against great odds, that’s Gilbert’s specialty and there are a bunch of titles here for you.

One final note: I wanted to mention that although it is my usual practice to show you the book from which I wrote the piece, that is not the case here. There are so many interesting editions of Michael Gilbert that I wanted to show you a few of the more interesting ones, but they are pictures I scavenged from the internet.

 

 

 

 

Apologies (part 2)

Earlier this year, in August, I published an apology to those of my friends and readers who had taken the trouble to comment on my blog and who had not found those comments published — I was too technically incompetent to realize that comments had been waiting to be published and had to manage hundreds of them in a single go.

For those of you who were snickering at my incompetence, I might as well get this on the table … it’s taken me months to figure out how to add new titles to my list of interesting blogs. I nearly got there a couple of times but was defeated by clicking in the wrong place, or adding things to the wrong place, or being just too dumb to grasp what it was I was doing.

Today, as I’ve been promising myself for quite some time, I sat down and figured it out.  I have therefore added many blogs by people whose opinions I have enjoyed and respected and even commented on myself — let alone those of my friends who have done me the honour of recommending people to MY blog and must have been wondering why the hell I haven’t returned the favour.  Mea culpa maxima and it was merely incompetence, honest. In a couple of cases it’s been embarrassing to consider how long I’ve gone without returning the favour — my apologies to a number of people will be provided directly, I think.

I’m posting this as a kind of mass apology but also to add that if I have missed anyone’s blog with whom I’ve interacted in the last while, please, PLEASE let me know.  I might as well get my full incompetence out there and say that somewhere I have a list of blogs to be added, and I can’t find it.  If you think your blog should be here, well, it probably should, so just tell me before I forget how to add things again 😉

Now that 2018 is nearly upon us, my new year’s resolution is to publish more and take care of the backlog of half-written posts languishing in the “Drafts” section.  But first I wanted to make it right with my friends and readers.  So thank you, everyone, for your kindness in providing me with your opinions and your attention; I hope to return the favour by guiding people to your excellent blogs!!

 

Binge-reading Gladys Mitchell: game over

Really, I must apologize. I was completely determined to read my way through Gladys Mitchell’s enormous backlist of detective fiction (60-plus volumes). I had visions of a long series of posts in which I would discern Mitchell’s central themes, report back on her preoccupations, and present a picture of Mrs. Bradley (her series detective).

research-buried-in-booksI just can’t do it.

I have the electronic equivalent of a teetering To Be Read pile filled with her works, greater and lesser. I keep dipping into one and then another, hoping to find something that sets off a spark of interest. And you know, I’m sure it’s my failure as a human being, but I just can’t manage it.  I don’t like her writing style, I don’t like her characters. Most of her story hooks seem contrived and pedestrian; the mystery-oriented sections of her plots mostly don’t bear up under scrutiny. Half the books have something to do with boats and boating, and I am like Hercule Poirot, preferring to remain safely on shore. The stories are occasionally incoherent and I wake up a few minutes later, thinking, “Just who the hell is she talking to at this point?” Mrs. Bradley herself is mostly a collection of mannerisms wrapped in yellow skin; Mrs. Bradley’s hearty associate Laura Menzies is ghastly, like the girls’ school prefect from hell. I must have dipped into about 30 of them and put them all aside thinking, “Oh, lordy, maybe there’s a better one somewhere in the pile.” I haven’t found one.

And here let me specifically apologize to the erudite readers who paid me the courtesy of being interested in my opinions about Gladys Mitchell. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s clear that you like her writing more than I do, and I respect that; I don’t think you have poor taste, it’s pretty clear that I do. There’s something about Gladys Mitchell, or me, and the two of us are immiscible. I have decided to do you all the favour of not beating the topic to death in a vain attempt to keep my promise — it was mostly made to justify my acquisition of so many e-books at one fell swoop.

21839047I will leaven this damning with some faint praise. There are a couple of titles that I liked; had this effort continued, I might have written about St. Peter’s Finger, Death at the Opera and Laurels are Poison with approval. The cores of these mystery novels are capably-constructed detective plots, which is something I pretty much require in a mystery, and while they are not superb, they are very well done.

There is at least one novel that will probably be an entry in my “100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read” series, the completely insane Sunset Over Soho.  It contains a paragraph that attempts to communicate that two characters are having sex which is one of the most unintentionally hilarious things I have ever seen in print; like someone describing how to participate in an activity that they’d never actually experienced but only been told about.

Unknown-1Mitchell, indeed, seems to have been more forthright about sexuality than most of her contemporaries; people have sex in or out of wedlock, which I expect would have shocked most of the Humdrums, and if they’re married they enjoy it. I have to praise her for being ahead of her contemporaries in this respect; the pure puzzle mystery is not known for sexual realism and she moved the sub-genre forward bravely.

Conversely, Mitchell was somewhat philosophical, with a bent to what we would today call the right — her views on eugenics are very abhorrent to today’s readers and were rather shocking to the contemporaneous ones, I suspect. Her unpleasant attitude towards a character with Down’s syndrome certainly shocked me. To her credit she doesn’t stop the action for two characters to have a discussion about her political views; she buries them, like she buries her observations on class and class structure, in the background and subtext. Lots of small moments added up to a picture of a writer who wouldn’t have dined at my table and remained philosophically unscathed.

But I think it’s better to leave off Gladys Mitchell; if I can’t do the research, I shouldn’t shoot my mouth off based on an incomplete reading. I admit that pile of unread e-books will bother me, but so would forcing myself to continue.

And so I shall return to something more to my taste, again with apologies to both Mitchell and her fans, who are many.  I do have a major piece on a Rex Stout novel about Nero Wolfe (And Be A Villain) coming up, in conjunction with my friend JJ whose GAD blog at The Invisible Event is constantly a pleasure. We’ll be doing a full-of-spoilers analysis, so be warned. (One day later, I’ve edited this for accuracy, see the comments below.) In the meantime, to clear my palate, I think I need something of the zero-characterization, all-puzzle style. Where’s that Rupert Penny novel I was looking at idly a few weeks back?

14675

 

 

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)

15997402.jpg

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.

 

 

 

 

Apologies

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.

Preface

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.