Four unpleasant children (Part 2 of 2)

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

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

What’s this rant about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Four unpleasant children (Part 1 of 2)

box of books

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

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

badseed

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

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

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

What’s this rant about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

9780006131625-us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death of an Old Girl, by Elizabeth Lemarchand (1967)

51jjX-d5qQL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Death of an Old Girl is the first of a series of mysteries featuring CDI Tom Pollard of Scotland Yard and his assistant Sergeant Toye. The series ran for 17 volumes between 1967 and 1988 and exhibited many characteristics of Golden Age detective fiction; there’s a certain gentility and good nature that shines through these novels but not at the expense of interesting plots.

This volume came to me unexpectedly as I scoured a used bookstore; I haven’t seen any Lemarchand at my usual haunts for quite some time; although I recall the volumes that were in paperback as having been much more prevalent 20 years ago, they don’t show up often these days. About half her books were never published in paperback and will give you more trouble to find; this one is more common.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of crime 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 discuss elements of plot and construction although I don’t lay out the answers in so many words.  If you haven’t already read this novel, reading this essay means 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. 

UnknownWhat’s this book about?

The scene is Meldon School for Girls, a venerable institution for teenage girls that has recently undergone some updating. A new headmistress with more modern ideas is making changes, much to the displeasure of a coterie of Meldonian Old Girls. The ranks of the old guard are led by a wealthy spinster, Beatrice Baynes, who has an outsized bee in her bonnet about change in general and in particular the sudden modernization of the Art Department by young Miss Cartmell, its new instructor.

In the course of Old Girls Reunion weekend, passions come to a head. After some tempestuous interactions with staff and relatives, Miss Baynes’s murdered body is found stuffed into a puppet theatre off to one side of the Art Room at Meldon. Pollard and Toye are brought in to make sense of the many motivations for this crime and bring it home to what might be a surprising perpetrator.

Unknown-1Why is this book worth my time?

Generally when I try to bring a book to your attention, it’s because it has some feature that is worth your time. Sometimes I’ve tried in the past to convince you that a less-than-stellar book deserves your time because of its historical significance, or prefiguring of another, better novel; many reasons other than mere quality.  With this volume, I’d merely like to suggest that you will enjoy it — reason enough, I trust.

This book is a debut effort by a novelist who has absorbed the general airs and graces of the Golden Age of Detection of the 1920s and 1930s, taken them to heart, but updated them to the period of the 1960s. What made me think so is that, like the 1920s and 1930s, this book contains no graphic violence, no objectionable language, and very little that would offend anyone. The murder takes place offstage (except that the corpse is found hidden behind a little stage, ha ha) and all other crimes are non-violent and moderately forgivable. Perhaps we could call this the ancestor of the modern cozy, although expressed to the Scotland Yard detective format of a previous age.

51majp2SJZL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Death of an Old Girl was published at a time when almost no one was writing — or really reading — this kind of book as popular fiction. I think it’s interesting that it had sufficient in the way of readability and sheer pleasure to get published at a time when this sort of nostalgic exercise was not popular.

There is not much here to trouble the attentive reader who wishes to solve a murder. Pollard and Toye are rather bland and Inspector-French-like nonentities with sketched-in family and personal lives. When they arrive, they reconnoiter, investigate obvious suspect #1, move to #2, on to #3 and in that context reveal some underlying realities behind the murder and unmask a slightly surprising murderer. (I think all my readers will find their way to suspecting #3 but some will not make the leap to the identity of the murderer, #4.)

The people whom I can really see enjoying this are readers who hanker for that nostalgic exercise, a kind of applied blandness that has its adherents among people who want to read unchallenging fiction. All the people here are “nice” except for the few who are “not nice”, and those few are pretty much caricatures. The only not nice person is the murderer, who manages to conceal his/her not-niceness under a bland facade.

12869054I thought it was interesting to look at this book as an exercise in construction, because that’s so clearly what it was for this neophyte author. Only four main subjects, considered seriatim, and nothing happens to interrupt this vision. I couldn’t help but think along the way that Lemarchand had deliberately restricted the field by not offering us even the dismissal of further possibilities.  A bunch of women are mentioned early on as being supporters of the late Miss Baynes and her dislike of modern art (aka nude sculpture and drawing LOL).  But these women never show up and don’t provide interviews or names, so it’s clear they’re not involved. Similarly the upper registers of the Meldonian hierarchy are pretty much sacrosanct; it’s clear that the new Headmistress is unimpeachably virtuous.

There was some interest I found in the character of Miss Baynes, who reminded me of the crazed anti-sex spinster in Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death, but she’s killed far too early to give more than a hint of her presence. In a way, Lemarchand has made an error that I have seen writing textbooks teach is a bad idea; she seems reluctant to have her characters experience any conflict (so everyone has to be pretty much pleasant to deal with). If Baynes’s rages against modernity had been more on-stage than off-, or if she had had a lieutenant prepared to take up the cudgels against vulgarity and young girls seeing the naughty bits in art, this might have been a more exciting book with a few more false trails and interesting characters.

But we can only review the book we actually read. And so I’ll say that I suspect my readers who are fans of Freeman Wills Crofts will enjoy this book; aficionados of the gentle Silver Age mystery that hearkens back to the classics, for instance. Fans of Dorothy Simpson, later Patricia Wentworth, and early P.D. James will like this; fans of Mickey Spillane and male private eye novels will likely not. It’s a gentle murder mystery that will be fairly easy to solve. The difference between this and the kind of cosy mystery that sets my teeth on edge is that, while the author doesn’t focus strenuously on the pool of blood or the battered corpse, neither does she spray everything with potpourri in an attempt to disguise the blood. She’s merely writing about nice people for nice people, that’s all.

This is a charming little book and you’ll come up for air after a few hours thinking, “Wow, for an unassuming mystery that sure had a lot to offer.” I hope you can find a copy cheaply, you’ll enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

 

Book scouting for mysteries: An unlikely juxtaposition

51bvz910z0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The name of mystery writer George Bagby came up in my Golden Age of Detection Facebook group yesterday, and it brought something to mind that I thought I’d share with my readers … who might like to make a little money book scouting if the opportunity arises.

George Bagby was a pseudonym for Aaron Marc Stein, who received the Grand Master Award from MWA in 1979.  He wrote four different series over his long career, under his own name as well as by George Bagby and Hampton Stone.  The Bagby series is about
2cfa3db80045d40e135f39f508ff59d7Inspector Schmidt, a New York City cop who has a sidekick named … George Bagby, mystery writer.  (Like my post of yesterday, a little bit meta.) As Hampton Stone, he wrote about Jeremiah Gibson, a New York ADA. There’s a series about a construction engineer named Matt Erridge as by Aaron Marc Stein, and another series about a pair of archaeologists who are also amateur detectives under his own name as well.

Stein, under whatever name, is not generally considered to be in the first rank of mystery writers; I’d suggest he has a strong position in the second rank but opinions vary. He was certainly a hard worker and wrote a lot of books; many of the George Bagby novels are generally available in paperback for a few dollars.

21159451520The point of this post, though, is that if you can find a copy of the first edition of a single one of his books — Pistols For Two from 1951 (from the series about the archaeologists, under his own name) is selling as of today on ABE for $400, $500, and $650 (and for copies which are NOT of an excellence one would expect for those hefty sums). And this for an author whose other books generally don’t bring a tenth of those prices.  Why?  It’s all about the cover art.  According to the volume, the artist’s name is Warhaw — but it’s really the only mystery dust jacket designed by Andy Warhol before he revolutionized the art world. (Added a week later; this is not the case, as a more knowledgeable person notes in the comments below.  John Norris knows his stuff and his blog is an excellent source of information on rare books.) So this volume might be one of your few chances to afford a genuine Andy Warhol print.

41wnCDBcI0L._CR83,0,333,333_UX175Yes, Andy Warhol used to design book covers, in an identifiably naive style that I think is quite charming; he did the typography as well. He also did other kinds of commercial illustration to keep Campbell’s soup on the table, including shoe ads for New York department stores. Any of his book jackets is worth a lot of money these days. Possibly the oddest Warhol
Amy Vanderbilt Cookcbookspieces that you should keep your book-scouting eyes open for are two volumes from the same author; Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Cookbook and Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette.  The little illustrations of how to cut up lemons to decoratively garnish fish, or where to seat the officiating clergyman at the parents’ table at a wedding dinner, were drawn by Warhol and sometimes others. (These little drawings are sometimes called “interstitial art”.)

h-ANDY-WARHOL-COOKBOOK-640x362It’s important to know that not every edition of either of these books has the Warhol drawings — check the first pages to make sure that his name is there (as Andrew Warhol). For these two in particular, you won’t make much money; they’re more widely available and much less valuable. But you can leave them lying around to impress your friends with your original Andy Warhol drawings!

 

 

 

Phoebe Atwood Taylor gets a little meta

51fWHVJ4tOL._SX292_BO1,204,203,200_I thought I’d share with you a quote from a mystery I was re-reading lately … I always enjoy it when characters in detective fiction talk about the conventions of detective fiction.  This is from Proof of the Pudding, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1945).  Asey Mayo, Cape Cod’s “Codfish Sherlock”, is talking to a young woman in Chapter 6.

“… just like the prohibition gangsters that went to the movies so’s to pick up dazzling’ new ideas from mob pictures, murderers today learn quite a lot from stories. They don’t often leave fingerprints around much any more — they’ve even learned to wipe off their trigger-finger print. An’ they don’t rush off an’ leave their victim clutchin’ a convenient swatch of Harris tweed in his limply outstretched hand, either.”
“I’ve always wondered deeply about that tweed angle,” Lois said. “I mean, I’ve got a Harris topcoat I had the year before I went to college, and I defy anyone to jerk a swatch of it off in the best of health, let alone in a dying moment. It simply couldn’t be done. I always thought it would be more accurate if someone’s Harris coat was found with a couple of detached fingernails imbedded in it. They’d certainly give way before the average tweed would. …”
… “No, this don’t conform to book pattern. In fact, Doc Cummings and I cling to the notion that if you run into book clues it mostly only means that someone had access to a lendin’ library. They read about the clues somewheres, an’ left ’em on purpose to snarl you up. A really smart murderer ought to do the same, usual, common everyday things he always does before he commits his crime — an’ the same, usual, common everyday things afterwards, too. A lot of elaborate preparations an’ fancy workin’ up of alibis isn’t bright. For no matter how smart you are in buildin’ things up and weavin’ things into intricate nets, like, there’s always someone smarter who can tear things down an’ pull ’em apart.”

There’s a good deal more on the topic of exotic lipstick shades, cigarette butts and lingering traces of perfume at murder scenes.  I hope to have something useful to say on the overall topic of Phoebe Atwood Taylor in the near future, but I couldn’t resist sharing this little piece with you.

 

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

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great DetectivesThe Great Detectives: Ellery Queen

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great DetectivesThe Great Detectives: Jessica Fletcher

Introduction

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

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

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

Why is Jessica Fletcher such a great detective?

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

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

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Richard Levinson (left) and William Link

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

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

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

murder-she-wrote-season-1-16-tough-guys-dont-die-harry-mcgraw-jessica-fletcher-jerry-orbach-angela-lansbury-review-episode-guide-list

Jessica Fletcher and Harry McGraw (Jerry Orbach)

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

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

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

What was responsible for her popularity?

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

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

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

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

ddf757ad0e42f70deb47fa8cefce6c4c--angela-lansbury-season-

Nearly every episode ended with Jessica’s laughter.

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

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