The Knife Slipped, by Erle Stanley Gardner (2016/1939)

cover_bigMy regular readers may already be familiar with the fascinating story behind this novel. It was found among the papers of the late Erle Stanley Gardner and the story of how it now comes to be in print is probably an entire essay by itself — in fact you can read about it here in the blog of my friend Jeffrey Marks, who’s currently writing a much-anticipated biography of Gardner. Jeff cleverly put two and two together and identified the manuscript as having been rejected by Gardner’s publisher at Morrow as the second novel in the Cool & Lam series. Thayer Hobson, according to Jeff, thought there wasn’t enough character development for both Cool and Lam, and also that the novel was “too risqué for the audiences”. (See below for the details.)

So the novel was written in 1939. That’s my best guess, because the volumes before and after are cited in Wikipedia as having been published in January 1939 and January 1940, respectively. After Jeff Marks brought it to the attention of Hard Case Crime, it was published for the very first time a few days ago (December, 2016). Hence the unusual date after the title above.Truthfully, its first edition is December, 2016. But it is quintessentially of 1939.

There’s a lot of fascinating stuff here for fans of Cool & Lam, but I suspect if you read this novel you may well become a Cool & Lam fan even if you weren’t before.

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

What is this book about?

Donald Lam is a skinny little runt who is smart as a whip and down on his luck. He’s staying employed at the shabby little detective firm of Cool & Lam at the whim of Bertha Cool, an extra-large matron with chubby fingers that glitter with diamonds; she has a mind like an adding machine and a mouth like an open sewer. Sorry. There’s just something about Gardner’s writing in this book that makes me use language like that; I think that’s more metaphors in one paragraph than I usually use in a longer piece. But all the language in this book is short and punchy and terse and vulgar, and it’s left me wanting to get a lot of pulp-fiction metaphors out of my system.

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An early representation of Bertha Cool in Pocket #228

Anyway, Bertha is keeping Donald on a short leash. In their first meeting, 1939’s debut novel, The Bigger They Come, he more than proved his worth but took Bertha out of her comfort zone. Donald demonstrated, in that novel, that his disbarment had deprived the bar of an excellent lawyer, when he manipulated a little-known loophole in the law to allow someone to literally get away with murder. Bertha knew that Donald’s talents could make her money; she just had to find a way for their clashing personalities to get along.

Bertha is keeping Donald short of money, but he’s not starving, merely hungry. That makes him grateful to accept assignments like the one that arises after mother-and-daughter clients Mrs. Atterby and Mrs. Cunner hire Bertha to find out the identity of the buxom blonde that Edith Cunner’s husband is keeping in an apartment. However, that’s just the start. After Donald tracks down Mr. Cunner and the blonde, and makes friends with the building’s pretty switchboard operator, Ruth Marr, he finds out that Cunner has yet another apartment under another name. Ruth has a crush on Cunner, and Cunner spends an evening with a steady stream of police officers and firemen who drive up to his place in official cars, stay a few minutes, and leave.

The plot is fascinating, so I won’t reveal much more. There is, of course, a murder; the police are looking for Donald and Ruth Marr, whom it seems have been framed. It seems as though Cunner is connected to a city-wide corruption scheme, and there are already political reformers on the case. Bertha smells money and decides to … well, I’ll let her tell it to Donald.

“Bertha said, … ‘He called the police and told them I was trying to blackmail him.’
‘Were you?’
‘Not exactly. Bertha was trying to cut herself a piece of cake, and –‘
‘And what?’ I asked.
‘And the knife slipped,’ she said.
‘But I suppose it’s my finger that’ll be cut,’ I said.
‘For Christ’s sake, Donald, don’t be such a pansy! In this game you’ll be getting in jams all the time. Get the hell out of here and lie low until I can find out what it’s all about. Bertha won’t be idle, lover. Right now I’ve got something by the tail, and I don’t know whether it’s a bear, a lion, or just a bunch of bull.'”

Delightfully put, and it turns out not to be bull. There’s actually a twin plot structure to this; Bertha is pursuing the money off-stage, and Donald (and Ruth) are running around for our amusement, trying to stay out of the hands of the police while finding out more about what’s going on and pursuing the identity of the murderer. Finally Donald comes to a crucial realization about the clothing choices of a mysterious visitor to the soon-to-be corpse and identifies the murderer; Bertha swoops in and finds a way to extract the maximum amount of money from the situation.

In the final chapter, Bertha informs Donald that he has to leave town for a while, essentially so that the solution to all the crimes can come out the way she wants it, without the inconvenience of Donald’s testimony. “Remember, lover, what Bertha Cool said. She wouldn’t cut herself a piece of cake without seeing that you had a slice.” So she makes arrangements for Donald to “follow a witness” to Honolulu on a cruise ship so that he can take life easy … and reveals that she knows more about the situation than Donald has suspected when Bertha makes the trip even more attractive; the witness is a beautiful young woman with a crush on Donald (who describes herself as a “nymphomaniac”). “… Bertha Cool deftly speared a French pastry and transferred it from the platter to her plate. Her eyes were twinkling with humor. ‘Now try to say “no,” you little bastard,’ she said.”

Why is this book worth your time?

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Erle Stanley Gardner

It’s probably pretty clear that I’m a big Cool & Lam fan; I used to say I’d read all 29 of them, but now I’m happy to say that I’ve read all 30 (and I dearly wish there was another box full of manuscripts in an archive somewhere). I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my blog that, to me, the Cool & Lam novels represent ESG’s attempt to have more fun with his writing. Perry Mason is always an officer of the court, but Donald Lam actually spends the night with women, and Bertha Cool slaps women around about once a book and swears like a trooper. The Cool & Lam novels are just as fast-moving as Perry Mason’s adventures, and there’s a fairly high amount of detection involved in the stories; just that they’re a little sexier and a little more vulgar.

 

This particular volume is fascinating, at least to me, because I can see the direction in which ESG could have taken Cool & Lam from this novel. To be honest, this novel is quite a bit “harder” than the volume that actually took its place as the second Cool & Lam adventure, and more so than any volume at the top of my memory. In this one, Donald is about to be murdered when he beans his opponent with a rock and nearly kills him; Donald empties the man’s wallet (calling the money “sinews of war”) and leaves him in a ditch unconscious with the murder gun slipped into his holster. Bertha allows the real murderer to escape in exchange for large amounts of money, deliberately stirring up trouble with city politics in the process, and sends Donald to Honolulu so he won’t have to testify to the inconvenient truth. This is NOT Perry Mason pronouncing sententiously that he’s an officer of the court. This is Bertha Cool delivering a lecture on how city politics works (at the end of chapter XII) that will curl your hair with its cynicism and accuracy. She describes a middle class woman to her face as a bitch, a slut, and a tart in the course of three sentences; near the end of the book she hits a middle-aged woman “flush on the jaw” — “like a man”. And there is no love lost between Bertha and Donald; as noted above, when Bertha is cutting herself a slice of cake, she doesn’t care if the knife slips and cuts Donald.

In fact I’m at a loss as to why this novel was rejected for lack of character development of the main characters, although I think that ties into the second reason it was rejected. There actually is a lot of character development here, it’s just that it’s very risqué for the audience of 1939. Donald spends the night with a female witness — to my mind, unusual for 1939, at least that it’s pretty clearly stated that she’s available for sex — and quixotically tries to rescue her from the consequences of her romantic inclinations. (There’s a lovely moment of writing where a woman describes herself as a “nymphomaniac”, or what we would today call a sex addict, but Donald realizes that she’s been sold a line by a man who wanted to break their engagement  … and he doesn’t tell her, merely allows the reader to see that he knows what happened.)

Here’s a little passage that I think is very revealing of Bertha’s character:

“Bertha Cool said, ‘Let’s quit beating around the bush. What’s her husband doing, cheating around, going to whorehouses, or keeping a mistress?’ …
Mrs Atterby said reproachfully, in a low voice, ‘I always use the word “houses of prostitution” in talking to Edith, Mrs. Cool.’
‘I don’t. I call ’em whorehouses,’ Bertha said acidly. ‘It’s easier to say. It’s more expressive, and it leaves no room for doubt.'”

In the same conversation, Bertha delivers this little speech:

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, cut out the weeps! By God, you’d think your husband was the only man on earth who ever stepped out. They all do — those that are able. Personally, I wouldn’t have a man who was true to me, not that I’d want him to flaunt his affairs in my face or to the neighborhood, but a man who doesn’t step out once in a while isn’t worth the powder and shot to blow him to hell.”

And she also mentions casually that married men are lousy lovers, and she’s tried two of ’em. Having read all 29 books, I don’t remember any other instance in which Bertha mentions having had lovers.

I think there’s plenty of Bertha, but perhaps not enough Donald here. And that’s perhaps because the quality of writing in this book, in terms of subtle characterization and descriptive writing, is well among the strongest of any of Gardner’s work. Gardner knew better than to tell — he only showed, for the most part. (We’ll except the last few novels he wrote in the late 60s, though.) Here, the showing of Donald’s character is subtle and enlists the reader’s help to fill in the blanks. If you’re not paying attention, you miss the conclusions you’re supposed to draw. When you read the book, try to figure out what Donald’s actual attitude is towards Ruth Marr, start to finish throughout the book. To me, it makes Donald seem more like a fallible human being who is capable of holding two different attitudes towards the same woman at the same time. But in order to realize what’s going on, you have to pay attention to what his motivations are — and Gardner never tells you those, he only shows you.

For me this book is fascinating because there is an indefinable difference between the 29 canonic novels and The Knife Slipped. Starting with the title, which doesn’t match the cadence of the others. This Bertha is more aggressive, particularly about the business she accepts; my recollection is that later on in the series she wants nice quiet divorce work rather than political or murderous minefields. This Donald is more on the economic knife-edge, although it’s earlier in his career; later in the canon he also tends to sleep on the couch rather than bed the damsel. Certainly the agency’s secretary Elsie Brand is quite different here and not the ally to Donald she later becomes.

I can sort of understand why a cautious editor might not want to publish a book that displays Bertha Cool as a greedy overweight amoral quasi-criminal. To be honest, her personality only really has one note in this book. To me it is a fascinating and rich note, but she doesn’t change in the course of the novel. Donald’s personality is displayed in a subtle and intelligent way, at least to me, but I’ve had the benefit of reading 29 other novels in which he’s featured. It’s entirely possible that my appreciation of this novel is coloured by the other 29. If your (or that editor’s) view is that there’s no character development, I’d be hard-pressed to gainsay it.

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Dell 541 (left) and its reissue, #1541 (right), in which the girl has more clothes on and Donald’s still not peeking

What is certain is that everything is a bit more crude — no, a lot more crude. I can’t prove it, but I believe ESG never went as far as saying “whorehouse” in any other novel. Bertha’s amoral view of politics and government is quite strong stuff for 1939, I think, at least coming from an author like Gardner whose stories were fit for the prudish editor of Black Mask. Oh, sure, women are frequently unclothed in Donald’s vicinity, but he never actually goes much beyond passionate kisses. And as you can see in a nearby illustration, they usually have more of their clothes on. To be fair, there is a suggestion in the final paragraphs of 1941’s Double or Quits that Elsie Brand and Donald have had sex. But that’s merely because Elsie laughs at a nurse’s warning that Donald might be “abnormally stimulated” by a caffeine injection. In this book, a girl with whom Donald has spent the night (passed out) walks in on him in the bathtub and hands him a glass of tomato juice, “as utterly casual about it as though I’d been sitting in a chair at a lunch counter”, then walks out wordlessly.

 

There are plenty of these sorts of little jarring differences of tone in The Knife Slipped, and I have to say that figuring out what’s different was quite a bit of the pleasure for me with this book. If you’ve already read your way through A. A. Fair, I suspect that will be quite pleasurably for you as well.

There’s another part of this book that is quite pleasant to contemplate and that’s the amount of sheer detection in it. Bertha and Donald are smart people who know what it means to be a detective. They know, for instance, that the police will routinely stake out their offices. They know that if you’re a man wanted by the police, the last place they’ll be looking for you is a department store tearoom. They know that a man in a tuxedo never gets stopped by the police, and that an overweight dowager in an evening gown with fists full of diamond rings can get past an apartment manager like nobody else. And they are both capable of understanding the precise meaning of a witness’s description of a pair of men’s pants where the police do not, which lets them solve mysteries where the police cannot.

Summing up: I think you’ll enjoy this book a lot, although perhaps not as much as I did unless you’re already very familiar with the other 29 Cool & Lam novels. There is a certain crude energy about it that is exhilarating; the writing is great, the plotting is excellent, and for me the characterization was fascinating. The loose ends of the plot are tied off in a very satisfying way in the final moments of the book. It’s funny, vulgar, and occasionally exciting (the scene where Donald is about to be murdered by a corrupt official is excellent).  My friend Jeff Marks, an expert in all things Gardnerian, puts this in his “top 10 of the Cool/Lam cases, and perhaps even in the top 5.” I’ll go a little further; this is one of my top three Cool & Lam cases, and even in my top ten of all of Gardner’s work. Sad that it hasn’t been a part of the Cool & Lam oeuvre from 1939, but this late publication in 2016 fully deserves its place as what we might call “number 1.5” in the full 30 volumes.

My favourite edition

There’s only one paper edition currently, from Hard Case Crime, December, 2016. It’s shown at the top of this column with cover art depicting the 21st century burlesque artist Dita von Teese, heaven knows why. I am frankly planning on buying a couple of mint copies of this first edition, sealing them up and laying them away. I recommend you do too — you won’t lose money on it.

 

Close Quarters, by Michael Gilbert (1947)

close-quartersThis volume has come to mind a couple of times recently, mostly because I did a post on a clerical mystery and it came up in the comments. Then I found my 1952 Hodder & Stoughton 2′ edition (paper-bound, about the size of a digest magazine like EQMM, with an illustration by Jarvis of a shocked clergyman. I’ve shown it here) and thought I’d show off my nice copy and reaffirm my approval of this excellent debut novel by Michael Gilbert. Please pardon my terrible photography but I wanted to show you this funky old edition and couldn’t find an instance on the internet I could scoop to show you.

This was first published in 1947 but has the flavour of an earlier time, to be sure. This is an old-fashioned mystery indeed, what with its numerous plans of the geography of a clerical Close — like a gated community surrounding a cathedral that houses all the attendant clerics and hangers-on. And there is an actual cryptic crossword contained within the pages, that must be solved to reveal a clue. This might be one of the last works of detective fiction to contain a geographic plan without any hint of irony whatever; a delightful hearkening back to the Golden Age.

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

What is this book about?

51r3ucwctol-_ac_us160_In the first chapter, the Dean of Melchester Cathedral is lying awake worrying. His sleepless night allows him to painlessly introduce us to both the Close itself and its cast of inhabitants, and a few of their ongoing problems. Someone is persecuting Appledown, the head verger, with some vicious anonymous letters. And the other morning someone put an overlay on the flag raised in the morning saying “Boozey old Appledown”, to the great amusement of the choirboys charged with flag duty. And then there’s the recent accidental death of Canon Whyte, who fell more than a hundred feet from a high tower. The Dean has to balance everyone’s schedules to cover absences and holidays, and is having a troublesome time doing so. The widow of the late Canon Judd refuses to leave the home to which she is no longer entitled. The Dean’s sleepless night is fully occupied with troubles.

It’s when someone paints a rude message in letters two feet high slandering Appledown once again that the Dean feels he must take a hand. He pulls a few discreet strings at the higher levels of Scotland Yard and has his own nephew, Sergeant Pollock, a budding young C.I.D. officer, come for a visit whose unofficial and hush-hush purpose is to investigate the anonymous letters.

51h1sobzqel-_ac_ul320_sr240320_Pollock, a thoroughly nice and respectful young man, soon identifies that the Cathedral’s Close is what we would know as a “closed circle”; because of the geography, it’s possible to  say with certainty that the blackening of Appledown’s name has been undertaken by someone who lives within the Close. Very shortly thereafter, a body is found, and Pollock’s investigation steps up its intensity with the addition of his superior from Scotland Yard, Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, who leads the remainder of the investigation.

Among helps and hindrances, the unspeakable Mrs. Judd sees fit to keep track of the daily lives of her neighbours with the aid of a telescope, and while her eyesight is not what it could be, she still provides valuable information. The lives of all the Close’s inhabitants are gone into, in detail, and reveal various surprises; some unsavoury, some amusing. A mysterious crossword puzzle discovered among the effects of the late Canon Whyte provides a clue to the location of some vital documents. There is another death, and this one is a little more brutal and unpleasant than most of the Golden Age; the stakes become much higher. Various more facts come quickly to light, and finally Inspector Hazlerigg makes an arrest and explains everything to the fascinated Dean in the final chapter.

Why is this book worth your time?

1807452It occurred to me as I was thinking about this book that the best way of describing its position in the broader sweep is as the perfect homage — and farewell — to the Golden Age. Although this book was published in 1947, we do not find out until the last three lines of the book that its date was the “summer of 1937”. To wit:

“Pollock tiptoed out. He felt an overmastering desire for a steak — done red — and a pint of milk stout. Since it was the summer of 1937 he got both without difficulty.”

Parenthetically, that says a lot, doesn’t it? My sense is that in 1947 one could get neither because food rationing was still firmly in place.

I have no idea what Michael Gilbert (1912-2006) was actually thinking when he wrote this, his first novel in a long writing career; to me, he was writing a commercial product that he felt would sell, but one which revealed a great knowledge of the highways and byways of Golden Age mystery plotting and a great affection for the genre. What he accomplished was to create a series character in Inspector Hazlerigg who lasted at least six novels, until 1953, and who was the lead detective in the well-known classic Smallbone Deceased (#4, in 1950).

6426This is a love song to Golden Age mysteries gone by, what with the lovingly detailed maps, an actual crossword puzzle, and the determination early on that the Close is, well, closed. Gilbert was signaling here that, yes, he loved this old form and would proceed to write a bunch more Golden Age mysteries (including a brilliantly clever book about a murder in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp, 1952’s Death in Captivity). So it was a vain effort, in a way, since the true Golden Age mystery was on its deathbed in the 1950s. But we got six excellent mysteries out of his homage.

105297717_amazoncom-close-quarters-9780600200819-michael-gilbertGilbert’s career changed direction in 1959 with the publication of Blood and Judgment, (a novel; see the comments below) about Inspector Petrella of Scotland Yard. I briefly discussed another volume in this series here. This series were still puzzle stories, after a fashion, but at this point Gilbert had successfully embraced the best intentions of the kitchen-sink school and/or a kind of social realism. Petrella’s streets were dirtier and grittier than Hazlerigg’s by a long shot. Later Gilbert moved into the area of the spy novel (or rather the intelligence agent novel) with the creation of the elderly Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens, among other characters; he wrote a lot of non-series novels and short stories.

One tiny little genre that he returned to again and again was the small field of the “men’s adventure novel” — think Nick Carter, Killmaster, and a kind of muscular and aggressive novel where things blow up and the strong-jawed hero gets the girl. Yes, Gilbert wrote those novels, but he wrote them omitting most of the explosions and with a healthy dose of reality governing the action; intelligent observation and a sensible approach to human nature are his hallmarks. There are a number of novels of his that can be described as “one lone wolf takes on a corrupt organization”, and I’ve always found him a dependable provider of that particular plotline, much like Dick Francis. 1966’s The Crack in the Teacup is an excellent example.

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Michael Gilbert

He even wrote a companion piece to the current volume; 1984’s The Black Seraphim takes place against a similar location and background but has a considerably more modern feeling about it. At this point in his career Gilbert was in full command of his style and could vary it to meet the needs of his chosen subject matter; now he is far beyond the repressed virtues of the Golden Age mystery. The Night of the Twelfth (1976) is a really well done and occasionally horrific novel about a serial killer of young boys; 1980’s Death of a Favourite Girl has a very surprising and sexually frank ending. Gilbert was one of a few authors who maintained his full command of his art up until he retired.

The point of this particular novel, though, is that it’s an absolutely classic Golden Age mystery as the first novel of a writer who went on to write some top-notch novels in a more modern idiom. It’s really, really well done. There is some excellent character work — for instance the horrible Mrs. Judd, who is drawn with a broad brush, but whose unpleasant presence is necessary to the plot. You will truly believe that she spies upon her neighbours with a telescope. The book is full of moments of gentle humour mostly based on observation and character, and about tiny moments in the everyday lives of real people. Oh, and Gilbert wipes the eye of Dorothy L. Sayers in at least one respect. Sayers’s representation of how people solve cryptograms and such puzzles (in The Nine Tailors,  Have His Carcase, and a boring short story), is painful and mawkish; it’s like a solution guide being mouthed by cardboard puppets. Michael Gilbert, on the other hand, can have you overhearing two people who are working together to solve a cryptic crossword and having fun doing it, and at the same time, for American readers and non-cruciverbalists in general, explaining the principles gently and easily without making a big deal of it.

The solution to the mystery is difficult but not absolutely impossible for the reader; always a pleasant experience to be fooled on some but not all of the answer. You will be diverted by the high quality of the writing and amused by the economical but effective characterization. You will also have the pleasure of having a first-hand description of some recondite practices and habits of the clerical inhabitants of a tiny closed community, from the point of view of a keen-eyed observer with a great sense of humour. I recommend you start here and read your way through the entirety of Mr. Gilbert’s work; through re-encountering this great novel, I think I’ll have another read through his oeuvre myself!

Death of His Uncle, by C.H.B. Kitchin (1939)

9794058efda64200cd4824583e86f71fI’ve recently moved into a larger place with more space for bookshelves; concomitantly, I’ve been enjoying the process of unpacking a few hundred boxes of books, some of which haven’t seen the light of day for more than 20 years. In the next little while, you can expect me to be making happy discoveries of books that I’m finding pleasant to re-read, as they come serendipitously to hand.

This volume attracted me because I opened it up and immediately hit upon a quote that was so astonishingly well linked to some issues about which I’ve been pondering that, well, I had to re-read it immediately. (I’ll share it with you near the end of this piece.) Then when I found out a little more about the author and realized what a fascinating book this is, I knew I had another winner to share.

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

What is this book about?

imagesBritish stockbroker Malcolm Warren has solved two mysteries already as an amateur detective, and when an Oxford acquaintance, Dick Findlay, asks him to take a hand in investigating the disappearance of Findlay’s uncle, a middle-aged suburban householder, Warren believes he knows what to do.

Warren, with Findlay in tow, traces the last few days of Dick’s uncle Hamilton, who apparently took a vacation in Falmouth, embarked on an unusual
8037927program of activities, and finished up by removing all his clothes (and wig) upon a deserted beach and committing suicide. After a thorough investigation of the uncle’s last days, an increased knowledge of the vanished gentleman’s heirs and relatives, and everyone’s various romantic interests, Warren writes a long letter to his friend, Detective-Inspector Parris of Scotland Yard, and answers all the loose ends and outstanding questions.

I’ve deliberately avoided giving very much detail because quite a bit of the pleasure of this charming book is following Warren’s investigation of the details of the case; the less I say, the better.

Why is this book worth your time?

There are a number of reasons why this enjoyable book is worth your time; the idea that it’s charming is a major part of it, of course. Although its publication date of 1939 is somewhat later than most of this category, I think this is a “don’s delight”; a Golden Age mystery written by a highly literate person for highly literate people.

For instance, in the opening pages of the book, Malcolm Warren (the first-person narrator) reveals that he has an interesting talent; he can improvise on the piano after the fashion of various classical composers. (“This,” I would say after considerable pressure, “is a Beethoven Air with Variations. This is a César Franck Choral Prelude. This is a Brahms Intermezzo,” etc.) Of course the less-than-donnish reader like myself is flattered to think that such an intelligent person could assume I could tell the difference between a Brahms Intermezzo and Three Blind Mice — although since the music isn’t actually audible, readers like myself tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. Similarly the narrator plays bridge, is a connoisseur of sherry, hobnobs with titled people, and is invited to country-house weekends.

1988The story, aside from being written in elegant language, is quite smart. Kitchin takes the time to establish his narrator as a fallible human with likes and dislikes, and the result is that this is someone by whose opinions and experiences you will be amused even when the book takes the occasional sag. Sometimes he even puts those sags in — Warren takes some personal time to have dinner with his sister, to no narrative purpose whatever save that it makes him seem more realistic. Unlike many other amateur detectives, Warren has a job at which he works, and co-workers with whom he interacts. Everything works together to give you a well-rounded portrait of the narrator. And because you see the narrator as human, you understand how and why he makes his occasional errors; they slow down the detection, but it’s more realistic and much more enjoyable. The book meanders every once in a while and is better for it.

15807059142Without spoiling too much for you, the plot is simple and clear. Warren investigates the last days of the vanished uncle, finds out what his plans were (including some which he was keeping from his friends and relations), figures out exactly where he ended up, and brings the guilt home to the appropriate person. Of course there are surprises along the way. One concerns an object which the reader has lost track of through never thinking about it — sorry if this is enigmatic, but I’d prefer to maintain your surprise. Think of this as the equivalent of the object which Peter Wimsey realizes is missing from the opening scenes of Five Red Herrings; except in this case the detective is equally as forgetful as the reader. I didn’t succeed in beating Warren to the solution, and I have to confess I wasn’t trying very hard. I was enjoying the plot and the writing so much that I simply relaxed and let it all happen, and that’s a very pleasant experience.

I promised you a quotation from the book that I found extraordinarily relevant to my recent interest in how societal matters and mores are revealed within the pages of Golden Age detective fiction: it’s rather long, but bear with me, please.

“I have always maintained that when an ordinary member of the public is confronted with a crime or a mystery, he bases his conduct on the detective stories he has read. I have read a good many detective stories and find them a sedative for the nerves. Oddly enough, what I like in them isn’t so much the puzzle of the plot, still less sensational hairbreadth escapes, but precisely the element which you would least expect to find in such stories — the humdrum background, tea at the Vicarage, a morning in an office, a trip to Brighton pier — that microscopic study of ordinary life which is the foil to the extraordinary event which interrupts it. A good detective story, I have found, is often a clearer mirror of ordinary life than many a novel written specifically to portray it. Indeed, I think a test of its goodness is the pleasure you can derive from it even though you know who the murderer is. A historian of the future will probably turn, not to blue books or statistics, but to detective stories if he wishes to study the manners of our age. Middle-class manners perhaps. But I am old-fashioned enough to enjoy the individualism of the middle class.”

It’s always pleasant when a character in a detective story starts to speculate about the workings of detective stories! I agree completely with Kitchin; I derive a great deal of pleasure from detective stories because of their microscopic study of ordinary life. In this volume, for instance, we learn the precise number of courses of dinner (two) during which one converses with the diner at one’s right hand before turning politely to the diner upon your left. And in a similar degree of granularity, here’s a fine point of social class which I was happy to learn. The narrator is staying in a wealthy country house in a bedroom “nearly the size of his flat”. He finds “[a] notice in a gold filigree frame [which] told me that dinner was at half-past eight — half an hour later than it had been in the Wimbledon house — half an hour higher on the social scale.” That’s the stuff I love to learn from Golden Age novels and there is plenty of it here.

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C.H.B. Kitchin

The other thing that urged my immediate re-examination of the entirety of Clifford Kitchin’s work is when I did a little investigation of this author to bring to you here. To my surprise, I learned that he was rather like his narrator (both were known for improvising at the piano), with one large difference — Kitchin was what we would today term gay, and lived for many years with a male domestic partner. He was a wealthy barrister who was “out” in the most upper-class of gay men’s society of the time; high-ranking politicians, artists and poets, the wealthy, and some well-known novelists. That was a point of similarity that immediately fascinated me and explained some of the attitude that I found underlying the narrator’s dispassionate observations. Although it’s dangerous and frequently unsupportable to speculate about an author based merely on his fiction, it seemed to me that there’s a faint air of the “outsider” about the narrator and perhaps the author; Warren observes keenly and wryly, but he doesn’t seem to ever be truly a part of the society in which he participates. I believe this is well known as a hallmark of gay fiction. You’ll find some interesting glosses on Kitchen’s biography in Wikipedia here, and from a gay POV here.

Kitchin’s reputation in detective fiction rests primarily upon his first of four Malcolm Warren mysteries, 1929’s Death of My Aunt. I’ve obtained a copy of that and another Warren mystery, Crime at Christmas, and may well be doing more Kitchin analysis in the near future (Crime at Christmas seems very timely!). I wanted to mention that his other non-mystery novels were very highly regarded and “writerly”, and although I’m not reading much these days that isn’t genre fiction, this volume was so well-written and interesting that it may just tempt me to step outside my comfort zone. Praise indeed! I hope you find the time to get a copy of this excellent volume. None of the four mysteries appear to be available in electronic format and the fourth title, The Cornish Fox, appears to be both scarce and expensive. (Also timely is my family’s need to find me appropriate Christmas gifts! I’ll drop a word in Santa’s ear, perhaps.)

The Warrielaw Jewel, by Winifred Peck (1933)

unknown-1Recently I read my first of the two mysteries by Winifred Peck (Lady Peck), Arrest the Bishop? (1949). My review is found here and I really enjoyed it.

I just wanted to mention that I also acquired an e-copy of Lady Peck’s other mystery, The Warrielaw Jewel; finished it the other day and thoroughly enjoyed it also, for roughly the same reasons. The characterization is interesting, the plot … well, the puzzle is a little predictable, and I very much doubt most of my readers will be
unknownmuch troubled to figure out the basic “trick” that underlies the book, but I enjoyed the experience of watching the author tie off all the loose ends.

This volume has one of my favourite conceits of the Golden Age, the “Challenge to the Reader”. The writing is amusing and intelligent; Lady Peck is not only a keen observer of women’s clothes but everything else besides.
unknown-2Good plot, great characterization, good writing, and lots of fun. You can find the book on Amazon here, and I recommend you curl up with it soon. And when unknown-3you hit the Challenge to the Reader, see what you can come up with!

 

The Guardian pimps out the Golden Age of Detection

This morning I encountered an article from The Guardian written by one Sarah Hughes; you can find it here, and you may want to skim it before you continue (if you care to continue, that is). At first I was merely angry, because my initial reaction was that Hughes was an uncritical cheerleader who merely absorbed what she’d been told by publicity people and regurgitated it into a cheerful puff piece. Then I started to think more clearly about what I had read.

Her thesis, such as it is, suggests that “Crime fiction is turning back the clock to its golden age with a host of books that pay homage to the genre’s grande dame, Agatha Christie, either intentionally or in spirit.”

Some points that this thesis, and the article in general, brought to mind:

  • 162499Sophie Hannah is not a good example of a writer who is “paying homage” to Agatha Christie. While I’m not prepared to go as far as others and say that she’s dug up Christie’s corpse and is assraping it in the public square in return for sacks of money and more celebrity (as you can probably tell, I’m not far from that opinion; my review of the first such continuation is here) , her two recent “continuations” of Hercule Poirot are more like examples of how NOT to pay homage to Agatha Christie. #2, Closed Casket, contains a fart joke. I rest my case.
  • “[R]eprints of 30s and 40s crime classics are continuing to sell well …” Well, first, that’s not the Golden Age; the Golden Age is the 20s and 30s. Second — prove it. That is, prove it without reference to publicity material from any major publisher which has a vested interest in making some people believe that they should get on the bandwagon and purchase reprints of crime classics because everyone else is. I don’t think the reprints are selling “well”; my sense is that, as I’ll discuss later, large publishers with a Golden Age backlist are generating profits where none were available before, but only slight profits. They’re merely selling well enough to repay the minuscule cost of keeping them available in electronic format.
  • The article goes into detail about a lot of new authors who have little or nothing to do with Golden Age mysteries. If, to quote the editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury, a  series by one Plum Sykes is “subversive, wickedly funny and modern”; fine, but those things aren’t really the hallmarks of the Golden Age. The hallmark of the Golden Age is plotting — and not, as a HarperCollins editor suggests, that “the disciplines of the golden age … really centre around plot and character.” Since Golden Age writers specifically and deliberately eschewed characterization, that particular editor doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There’s a lot of rubbish in this article about books that have no relationship to the Golden Age because they’re coming out soon, and that’s the actual point of this article; selling a few books that have nothing to do with the Golden Age.
  • I am sad to learn that “writer and theatre-maker Stella Duffy” has been hired to complete an unfinished novel by Ngaio Marsh. I’m not enormously familiar with Stella Duffy’s work, but she has written a couple of crime novels that I thought were well-written and interesting (see, I do occasionally read something written after I was born!); it’s not Duffy to whom I object. It’s the idea itself; that Ngaio Marsh is merely the latest mystery writer to be continued. If you are a publisher and you seriously think that Golden Age mysteries will sell in quantities that please you, then by all means commission one from a mystery writer.  I have a few friends I can recommend who are very knowledgeable. (Jeffrey Marks has a track record in fiction, wrote a book on how to market genre fiction, and is an acknowledged expert on the Golden Age. And he hits his deadlines.) Dressing up a corpse and having it wheeled around the bookstores by another author is starting to get tiresome. What I really think is that HarperCollins, despite its protestations, is only sure that it can sell books by an author whose name has a high recognition factor regardless of the fact that she happens to have been dead since 1982. And that is not the unalloyed confidence in the material they would have me believe they possess.

But I didn’t write this entirely to slag some silly under-informed writer for The Guardian for doing a puff piece; I actually used to take that paper, all the way to Western Canada, because it has a wonderful crossword puzzle, and I’ll let a few things slide for having received so much cruciverbal pleasure in the past. What I think is happening here is that Britain’s major publishers buy a lot of advertising space. While I would never dare suggest that they paid for this article — that is emphatically untrue, from what I know of The Guardian — I will say that major publishers are probably not unhappy to see a piece addressed to uninformed readers that suggests that those readers will be part of a hot literary trend if they are to buy something that says it’s a Golden Age mystery, and coincidentally here’s a couple of upcoming projects to put on your Christmas list. I get that. It’s part of how books are marketed these days. It should not be a surprise if people who know bugger-all about Golden Age mysteries are selling books by writers who know bugger-all about Golden Age mysteries to readers who, etc.  And they’re attaching the Agatha Christie/Golden Age label to such things in the same way that the Ngaio Marsh label is being attached to Stella Duffy’s next volume. It’s like the label “gluten-free!” on food that never contained gluten; not exactly untrue, but misleading.

You may be surprised that I think Sophie Hannah is quoted as actually having said something sharp and on the money.  I liked it so much, I’ll set it out for you:

“I think the resurgence in the popularity of golden age crime fiction is partly down to the fact that we do, at some level, like to have that satisfaction of having a story told to us in a very overtly story-like way,” she says. “Inherent in golden age crime writing is the message: ‘This is a great story and you will have fun reading it’.”

Now, that, as Lord Peter Wimsey once said, “absolutely whangs the nail over the crumpet.” It’s sort of the inside-out version of what I noted above, the well-known truism that Golden Age mysteries are all plot and not much characterization. People who like strong plots like Golden Age Mysteries. But Hannah here puts it in a way that is much more accessible to the average reader, and much more likely to actually SELL a few than me blethering on for many thousands of words about plot structure and social issues. “Oh,” says Brenda at W.H. Smith, “that famous writer said this kind of book will be fun. I think I’ll give one a try.” What this makes me think is that Sophie Hannah is an intelligent and competent writer who understands the Golden Age mystery, and would probably be able to write a really good one if she were not lumbered with the corpse of Hercule Poirot having to be front and centre. (And probably she could do without people like me making fun of her work; I bet she could write something that would appeal to my Golden Age sentiments and really sell like hotcakes at the same time. I look forward to that.)

I hope that sense of fun comes through in my appreciations of Golden Age mysteries, and I will be trying in the future to bring quite a bit more of that if it’s currently lacking. Thanks to Sophie Hannah for putting this idea in this way; it was something I needed in my toolkit. And it’s something with which my fellow aficionados will agree, I think.

Even James Prichard, Christie’s great-grandson, has something more intelligent to say than anything I’ve read from him lately.

“There’s a terrible tendency to see golden age crime as cosy crime, but I think it’s pretty evident that my great-grandmother found murder a serious and horrific business,” he says. “The reason that these books have lasted and that so many people still read or try to emulate them today is because the plots stand up. People enjoy the puzzle elements in them and they like the fact that you might feel a little uncomfortable, but never so uncomfortable that you can’t go on.”

Remarkable that for once he seems to have the right idea — the plots stand up.

murder_is_easyNow that I’ve followed the time-honoured tradition of a slam, then a bouquet, I’ll finish out the pattern with a closing slam or two. The Guardian chose to illustrate its understanding of how Golden Age mysteries are paid homage to with a photograph of Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple standing beside Benedict Cumberbatch “in an ITV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder Is Easy“. How stupid and insensitive was THAT particular choice? As I’m sure my readers know, Miss Marple was not actually in Murder is Easy — she’s been wedged in there to get a few more viewers, because, you know, Agatha Christie apparently needs help to draw an audience. “Of course we respect Agatha Christie, except we’ll change her bestselling work around as we see fit, because the poor old dear didn’t understand the modern day.” Sounds more like assrape than homage to me.

My final observation has to do with one of the people quoted in this article. David Brawn is the “estates publisher at HarperCollins” who says this:

“One of the main reasons behind the sudden popularity of crime from this period is that modern publishing and new technology allows for shorter runs in printing, which means that we can now mine backlists that would previously have been unprofitable …”

In other words, they’re delightedly mining their own backlist for books where they don’t have to pay the heirs, for one reason or another, to bring in a few extra pence. The part that surprised me, though, is his title as “estates publisher”. There’s an article from The Bookseller here that talks about what that is and how it works. Honestly, you should read it. It sounds like half his job is disabusing literary heirs to a major oeuvre that their dead granny’s literary output deserves a full hardcover re-issue and a film deal, and the other half is encouraging literary heirs to a major oeuvre that they should slap a coat of lipstick and a sexy dress on their deceased granny and hire her out for the aforementioned assraping, with a chorus chanting “Now a major motion picture!”. The whole idea of having an “estates publisher” gives me the cold chills. You might feel the same way.

 

 

 

 

Arrest the Bishop? by Winifred Peck (1949)

arrest-the-bishopArrest the Bishop? by Winifred Peck (Lady Peck). First published by Faber & Faber in 1949, but set in 1920. With an excellent introduction by Martin Edwards, an expert on the Detection Club and a fine crime writer in his own right.

I’ve read a lot — a LOT — of old mysteries. Over the years, the cream of the Golden Age has floated to the top, and the higher-quality second-class novels occupy a large stratum immediately below that cream. If I haven’t already read or even heard of an old mystery, chances are there’s a reason for that, and it doesn’t usually bode well for the quality of the book.

The recent groundswell in Golden Age mysteries that goes hand in hand with the availability of e-books has certainly been unearthing all kinds of scarce volumes. Quite a few times recently I’ve done the electronic equivalent of tossing aside a creaky old volume that contained nothing new and had nothing to say … and with nothing that will interest you either. By and large, if I’ve never heard of it, these days it’s usually because it deserves to remain in obscurity. I read them, or at least the first half of them and then a quick skim of the last chapter, but I don’t bore you with them.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached the present volume, lured by the prospect of the usual excellent introductory material by Martin Edwards. I had never heard of Winifred Peck, I’d never heard of this volume, and I’ve been ploughing through a lot of old rubbish lately. My friends, I’m happy to say that this one is a winner.

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

What is this book about?

It’s December, 1920, and the Bishop of Evelake and his wife, the superb Mrs. Broome, are preparing to welcome a large house-party to the very large Bishop’s Palace. There is a coal shortage, and they can’t keep the bedrooms warm enough; there’s a servant shortage, and they’re forced to settle for the insufficient attentions of the egregious and recently-acquired butler Soames. (The elderly housekeeper Moira, who had diligently ruled the roost for 25 years, is installed in an upstairs bedroom, awaiting an urgently-required cancer operation.)

The most difficult part of the house-party, though, will be the guests. There’s a number of young men who are soon to be ordained as clerics; they will dine en famille, but take little part in the imminent goings-on.  Chancellor Chailly and Canon Wye are both expected. Two young parsons should be no trouble; the Bishop’s secretary, Robert Borderer, known to all as Bobs, and an old friend of the family, Dick Marlin (whose wartime service suits him admirably to be an amateur detective). The Bishop’s younger daughter Sue should be as charming as ever.

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This unconnected photo seemed to me to evoke the Bishop’s Palace.

There are two visitors who are guaranteed to cause trouble wherever they go. The Bishop’s older daughter Judith, a famous and high-living beauty, is in the throes of a divorce and thus has been … unhousable … at the highly moral Palace; however, she’s telegraphed to say she is in “terrible trouble” and thus Mrs. Broome insists that she be accommodated along with the rest of the party. The surprising guest is the repellent cleric Mr. Ulder, who is universally loathed and constantly makes trouble for his fellow clerics. He is a habitual drunkard who is as close as a clergyman gets to being a blackmailer, constantly looking for preferment or income by threatening to reveal the dirty little secrets of those around him. (As is usual in mysteries of this era, every potential suspect has a secret they’d like to keep.) When Ulder passes out from illness and drink upon arrival — after Judith has announced that Ulder is privy to a recent scandalous hotel stay with the man whom she intends to marry after her divorce — he is installed in an upstairs bedroom under the supervision of Dr. Lee.

The stage is set and, of course, there is a mysterious death that very night. The clerical establishment lets it be known that they would prefer everything under the rug and decide upon a verdict of accidental death. Unfortunately for all concerned, the local constabulary arrives in the person of Chief Constable Mack, whom the Bishop knows to be “a real enemy of the Church”; hushing things up discreetly will be impossible. Luckily Mack enlists the assistance of the Rev. Dick Marlin, ex-intelligence officer during WWI.

Mack pursues his inquiries in pretty much the wrong direction and the excellent Dick immediately spots the most promising line of inquiry. From the title, you may well guess that the Chief Constable is on the trail of a case against the Bishop, and this is definitely a possibility. Dick, however, has had his detective instincts aroused by an overheard name; he tracks various people’s family connections to their origins and solves the case, revealing a most unlikely criminal. In the best traditions of 1920, a number of sub-plots, romantic and otherwise, come to a happy fruition in the final chapter.

Why is this book worth your time?

peck-winifred-arrest-the-bishop-spine-croppedAs I noted above, I was dubious about this book before I picked it up. I found it so enjoyable from the first pages that I gulped it start to finish in a single sitting. I feel compelled to add that it is very likely that you will have a different reaction; this is one of those books about which it is rightly said, “They don’t write ’em like that any more.” Nor should they, frankly. This is very much a book about time and place and I suspect that no living writer will ever again have the knowledge necessary to bring this off in such a masterful way. Winifred Peck (later Lady Peck) was herself the daughter of a powerful Bishop, and insider information is rarely as well informed about subjects like the running of a Bishop’s Palace as we see here.

Remember that this book was published, and likely written, in 1949, but specifically locates itself in December, 1920, and doesn’t break that context. That’s important to know, because the entire action of the book, and certainly all its characters, are operating to a specialized point of view that might slide right by the modern reader. Simply put, the motives of everyone in the book are assumed, without ever saying so, to be pretty much above-board and for the betterment of humanity, etc. This is prima facie the case because they are members of the clergy and have taken Holy Orders, and the author of this book has ensured that every such clerical character can only act from the best of motives. Once you realize it, it’s like the experience of one of those quirky novels that doesn’t contain the letter “T”, or whatever. Everyone in this book of the higher social orders is GOOD, goodity goody good good, and pretty much the servants are the only characters who can possibly commit crimes. Clerics and their family members could not possibly commit a crime except perhaps by accident or misunderstanding; they might be guilty of cowardice, but never murder. This assumption is shared by everyone in the book, barring perhaps the heretical and anti-clerical Chief Constable, and that’s why this is the central idea of the book. If someone is capable of thinking that the Bishop is capable of murder; if they publish that idea in the newspapers or it becomes common chatter in the pub; then the Bishop will pretty much single-handedly have destroyed the Church 😉 So the title question is a very, very serious one to the Bishop for most of the book. If he gets arrested, he’ll have to resign the Bishopric. And that will affect all the other characters.

I don’t believe this “sinless clerics” point of view could have been maintained much beyond 1920; certainly not if the book had been set in 1949, well past the time when people were willing to believe without evidence that all clerics were completely incapable of murder. I suspect that no Golden Age author who didn’t have to face a clerical family over Christmas dinners would have been able to conceive of such a basis for a mystery, let alone carry it off. But Lady Peck manages it and does so with complete dedication.  She believes all these characters are automatically innocent and thus we must as well. This is the sort of historical accuracy of viewpoint that I often look for and rarely see.

peck-winifred

Winifred Peck

The characterization is not superb; there are a few characters who stand out as having some life to them but by and large these are stereotypes. In fact there is one character who serves almost no real function in the novel (the Bishop’s secretary) and this rather makes me think that this is a kind of roman a clef. The character of Mrs. Broome, the bishop’s wife, is really well done. I was irresistibly reminded of Agatha Christie’s Lady Angkatell in 1946’s The Hollow … and, no, I’m not suggesting Lady Peck owes Dame Agatha anything, they’re merely similar. If this is a roman a clef, then Mrs. Broome would be the author’s mother and Judith, the flibbertigibbet and very nearly immoral sister, would then be the author’s sister; I don’t know enough to tell one way or the other. If the characters are taken from her family, then she might owe an apology to her father. The Bishop is portrayed accurately, if unflatteringly, as a man with an inadequate personality who may have committed a sin if not a crime. Again, I was reminded of the fact that this book came out in 1949 but was set in 1920. If it had been published in 1920, there would have been a lot less characterization and a lot more plot, since that was the tenor of the times for mysteries. No character would have been characterized as subtly as the author presents the Bishop; it’s much more literate than mysteries were in the 1920s. There are all the trappings here of the 1920s mystery, including timetables and lists of suspects setting out their motives and opportunities, and no indication that the author had ever read a mystery published after 1930. It’s just that more attention has been paid to characterization.

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Monseigneur Ronald Knox

The author’s family is worth a volume in itself (and there actually is one by her niece, found here). Briefly put, her maiden name was Knox. Her father was the Bishop of Manchester, one of her brothers was the editor of Punch, and another brother is well known to Golden Age mystery readers; Monseigneur Ronald Knox, who wrote six well-received mysteries and who was both a well-known Sherlockian and an early member of the Detection Club. In 1929, Ronald wrote the 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction, found here. It was delightful to me to learn about this author’s family, since there’s probably an entire essay available to write someday tracing the family’s mystery-writing similarities … what a pity that of her 26 books, Lady Peck only wrote two mysteries.

The language of this book is wonderfully erudite, even when considered with the higher educational standards of the Golden Age. It’s not often I have to stop to look up not one but two completely unfamiliar uses of language (collet monte and advowson, if you’re curious); the dialogue is not entirely believable but it has a great vivacity in its variety of expression. I have to say, there’s a consistent undertone in this book such that English people are automatically superior to the Irish; it’s subtle and nowhere really overt, but it is there and it’s a little unpleasant to contemplate. Yes, it was the attitude of the times, and we can find it easy enough to forgive, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t notice it and deprecate it. Everyone who commits a criminal act in this book is of Irish origin, and we can only wish the author had done better with that.

As usual, the introduction by Martin Edwards adds a great deal of value to the book; he goes into detail about things I’ve only touched on here, and surprised the hell out of me when he told me about the author’s family (it actually made me much, much more interested in what I was about to read). He suggests that this qualifies as a “Christmas mystery” — I can’t say there is much here about Christmas per se, but some of the action of the plot is occasioned by the presence of a heavy snowfall, so perhaps I’ll agree. I’m starting to feel that every book introduced by the erudite Mr. Edwards is automatically worth my time; so far, every one a winner.

To sum up — not a great mystery but a really interesting novel, filled with the accurate observations of someone who lived in a bygone and vanished milieu. This book is something a little different from the run of the mill mystery of its 1920s setting, and its evocation of 1920 in a Bishop’s Palace is delightful. I very much enjoyed this book, I intend to acquire the other of Lady Peck’s mysteries as soon as possible, and I hope you will find the same pleasure in this volume that I did.

My favourite edition

pod-cover-dsp-arrest-the-bishopThis book is so rare that I couldn’t even find an illustration of the first edition to show you; I’m unable to say whether the recent edition by Dean Street Press reproduces the jacket of the first edition, but I think it’s very likely, given the unusual typography. (Putting the title of a book in quotation marks on the cover was a bygone fashion that died out long, long ago.) You can find the recent Dean Street Press edition here, in a trade paper edition or Kindle. Since there isn’t a copy available of the first (and probably only) edition in hardcover for less than US$50 from ABEBooks, I recommend you get the modern one. As I’ve indicated above, the introduction by Martin Edwards makes it even more desirable.

Sealed Room Murder, by Rupert Penny (1941)

sealroommurderIn a review from four years ago of another Penny mystery, found here, I’ve spoken of just how scarce and expensive the works of Rupert Penny have been, historically. His nine mysteries (one as by “Martin Tanner”) have all commanded immense prices in the booksellers’ marketplace; the one paperback I ever found, seen to the left, sells today for more than US$100. And the first editions are astronomical.

It’s hard to understand why, at this remove. Their high prices used to be based on scarcity, since there were so few copies of any Penny novel ever printed, and only seldom any paperback editions. Everyone was crazy to read them because they were so scarce. Now they’re all available from Ramble House in a POD edition in trade or hardcover formats. As a connoisseur of such scarcities, once I managed to acquire them … they just don’t seem to have the excellence one would expect. They’re a little bit off the wall and a little bit incompetent, simultaneously. This specific volume, however, does seem to have stood the test of time and may just be the best one.

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

What is this book about?

Douglas Merton is the nephew of the owner of a firm of private enquiry agents, and works for his uncle as what we would today call a private investigator. The firm is hired (in August, 1939, just before the outbreak of WWII) by the wealthy, unpleasant, and hugely overweight Mrs. Harriet Steele, for the purpose of finding out which of the unpleasant relatives in her household has been playing some rather nasty pranks upon her and her possessions. Mrs. Steele, we soon learn, was — many years and many, many pounds of avoirdupois ago — once the love object of Douglas Merton’s uncle when he was much younger and both were music hall performers. Hence the uncle’s willingness to take the case, although the firm’s focus is generally a more sedate insurance practice. Uncle Thomas is distinctly out of love with the 215-pound Harriet, but feels he owes her one from the days when he was a comedian and she was part of a roller-skating act.

The household consists of the widowed Mrs. Steele and her brother George, also a retired music hall performer, and the late Mr. Steele’s large group of relations; a mother and three sisters, one of whom is a widow with two adult children. What with a few servants, the list of possible suspects is nine people long. One of those nine has been doing unpleasant things like cutting a large hole in Mrs. Steele’s expensive mink coat, and pouring ink on a drawerful of expensive underthings. Merton’s job is to move into the unhappy household and find out who is doing these things and possibly why.

Because of that plot device so beloved of mystery writers, the strangely-conceived will of the late Mr. Steele, Mrs. Steele must provide room and board for all of her husband’s relations as long as they choose to live in her big old house. If Harriet dies, they split the deceased Mr. Steele’s large estate among themselves. If they leave, they lose their interest in the estate. It soon becomes apparent to Merton that Harriet hates her relatives and they return her hatred with compound interest, but no one can afford to leave. There’s a considerable amount of infighting among the unhappy family members also.

In fact, the plot goes into considerable detail about who hates whom and why, and their past histories, etc. The wicked pranks continue, including the defacement of some parquet flooring of which Harriet is very fond, and as a result she has had the lock on her bedroom door changed. Merton is not close to discovering the culprit; his investigations are more into the relationships among the family members, and he’s sidetracked by falling in love with Harriet’s beautiful young niece Linda.

2528One night, Merton and Linda are both decoyed down into the cellars, by forged notes purporting to be from each other; each is knocked unconscious and Harriet’s clothes are mostly removed. (I mention this because it is very unusual for the lurid Good Girl Art cover of a paperback of the period to be accurate to the story, as you can see at the head of this essay.) They spend the evening locked in the cellar and when they’re discovered in the morning, it’s to the news that Harriet has been stabbed to death the previous night by someone using enormous force. And, in a plot device so beloved of mystery readers, Harriet’s corpse is found inside her locked bedroom, all the keys of which are accounted for. It’s a classic locked-room mystery.

The murder itself is discovered at the 143-page mark of a 219-page book, but you can see it coming a mile away; the combination of the desire to inherit and the mutual acrimony that fills the household lead irresistibly to murder. Given that Merton can fill in Inspector Beale and his sidekick Tony Purdon more completely than any Scotland Yard detective can usually expect, the actual detection doesn’t take very long and the crime is solved, once Inspector Beale figures out how the locked-room mystery was constructed.

Why is this worth your time?

sealed-room-murderThis book will be of particular interest only to a few small groups of readers, and I can identify them for you easily. If you’re addicted to the classic “locked room mystery”, you may have already heard of this and tried to find it. The solution to this is exceptionally difficult, but scrupulously fairly clued within the novel.  Reading this novel will be pretty much essential to tick off your list of the most significant Golden Age locked room mysteries.

If you’re a fan of the Golden Age mystery in general, you may enjoy this; you won’t be ecstatic, but you will be amused. It has rather the flavour of a Ngaio Marsh novel; I say this because the focus is on the personalities of a group of unpleasant people trapped in a restricted setting, strung together with a mawkish and not especially believable love story, and Marsh has written that mystery more than once. (Overture to Death comes to mind.) It also reminded me of Marsh because there is a big sag in the novel as the author introduces the characters and their individual personalities and backgrounds, and the action more or less slows down to a crawl while the stage is set. Marsh is well-known, at least to me, for that problem of construction. However, unlike Marsh, the sag in Sealed Room Murder happens before the commission of the murder; in the traditional Act One/Two/Three structure of this novel, Act One is far too long, Act Two is uncharacteristically abbreviated, and Act Three is a mere 20 pages in which Inspector Beale Explains It All.  This is a contrast to Marsh and some of her contemporaries, where the murder happens early on and Act Two is long and drawn-out as the detective interviews all the suspects.  So the construction is not especially good, but at least it’s different than the usual run of such mysteries.

However, the fan of the classic Golden Age mystery will find everything here to delight the connoisseur of the form. There is a map of the house, and a couple of detailed maps of the locked bedroom; a chart of how and where various people’s possessions were lost or damaged, possibly by the prankster; and, in the book’s finale, no fewer than three diagrams showing exactly what was done and how. There is also the classic “Challenge to the Reader”; at a specific point, the author breaks the fourth wall and poses three questions to the reader. (My advice is that knowing the answers is not likely to help you very much; the first two, at least, are irrelevant to the determination of guilt. But you probably won’t be able to answer them unless you know howdunit.)

One of my strongest interests in Golden Age detective fiction these days is social history; I find that the most interesting thing in these novels for me these days is not so much whodunit, or as here howdunit, but how much it costs to bribe a housemaid (a “fiver”, which doesn’t sound like much but actually might be a couple of weeks’ wages for a servant), and what you wear when you are a 5’2″ 215-pound woman with lots of money, and not very good taste.

Penny has been accused elsewhere, and I’d certainly chime in on the pronouncement, of being a tone-deaf writer. He writes in complete English sentences, but his plots are always much more important to the narrative than his characterizations and his characters are often cardboard people doing ridiculous things to further a complicated plot. But he occasionally hits the characterization nail squarely on its head, as here:

“She was bulky, but not positively bulging. Her fair hair, its colour patently artificial, peeped out coyly from under her blue hat. Below her unbuttoned beaver coat was a white frock which drew attention to her heavy bosom by a series of irritating tucks and pleats. Her eyes were green, set rather deep and unpleasantly hard. She regarded you as if she were calculating the price of your honesty, but that may have been because she was short-sighted. Her lips were designed to minimize the fullness of her face, and vividly matched her enamelled fingernails; her hand felt sticky, and she exuded a noticeable scent of lilac.”

And a few lines later, in a delightful turn of phrase, “her voice a rich contralto erected upon a cockney subsoil.” Honestly, I had a clearer picture of the unpleasant Mrs. Steele than I have of the protagonists of many current cozy mysteries.

There’s another beautifully observed moment of female dress in a chapter very near the end. Merton sees a slatternly housemaid kneeling on some stairs and observes: “I couldn’t help but notice, with distaste, that she rolled her stockings in the American fashion so that they finished very little above the knee.” Okay, that one completely loses me — do English women roll them much higher, so that men cannot see the tops of them (or those mysterious objects, suspender-belts)? There’s a class-based hairsplitting going on here that I can’t grasp. But it shows that Penny was at least trying to display some accuracy in depicting some tiny point of “which classes wear which clothes when” that would be meaningful to his audience. Unless among women’s fiction of the period or assiduous social reconstruction, those sorts of distinctions are likely to never be available to the modern audience.

Yes, Penny may legitimately be thought of as being a tone-deaf writer, mostly because his plots are just so damned improbable. The characters must act in ridiculous ways, motivated in the most absurd ways, because they have to act to make the mechanics of this plot work. I won’t give you any of the details of what happens here in a puzzle sense, because that is the main pleasure of the novel for most of its consumers, but really of all the ways that human ingenuity could kill this unpleasant lady and hope to get away with it, the actual method used here is … insane. There is no way that sensible humans put together things in this way. And I can’t say if it’s only a characteristic of the two books by this author that I’ve looked at in depth, but in both plot structures there is a repeating element whereby the plot’s complexity is doubled by the chance actions of a non-murderous character. That has a strong odour of what I call “mystery cement” — put in to make things harder. You can’t make believable characters, or even remotely believable characters, by having them act like maniacs to make the plot twists come off.

But I must say there is some hellishly complicated plotting here. All the necessary elements are presented to the reader, some more subtly than others. (Believe it or not, there’s a secondary one in the description of Harriet quoted above; she’s short-sighted.) I’m not sure if the murder plot would actually work the way it’s described, but it’s not ridiculously impossible; once you have it, it’s easy to see how Penny created the weird family around it and brought it to life.  It’s not the subtlety of Agatha Christie, where plot and character mesh so delicately, but it is a first-rate second-rate subtlety that is rare for this writer.

I won’t say that you will read Penny for the excellence of his prose, or the insightfulness of his social observations; nevertheless those things are there, in this novel more than others. I will say that you might read Penny because he’s a very rare author in the locked-room mystery category, and a minor classic (at the B- or C+ rank) of a minor Golden Age author.  And I suspect you might even enjoy him, if you relax and overlook the clunkiness and improbabilities!

My favourite edition

My favourite edition is the Collins White Circle Canada paperback shown at the top of this essay; I love the cheerfully lurid and delightfully unsophisticated CWCC covers and this is a prime example. The bondage aspect makes this particular edition quite collectible and I see one today on ABE for a total of about US$100 including postage. I don’t actually have this edition at this point in time, although I have owned a copy; I scooped this picture from the internet. My own edition is the Ramble House trade paper in bright chartreuse shown above.

There is a single hardcover in jacket of Penny’s The Talkative Policeman today and honestly, I am surprised to see it as low as US$155 (120 pounds) plus shipping from the UK. I expect the low price is due to it being a second edition. No other hardcovers appear to be currently for sale.  The facsimile jacket of the first edition of this novel shown above is merely a tantalizing hint at something that doesn’t come on the market often — I’d think in the US$500 range. Compared to that you could have a copy of all nine of the Ramble House reprints and a bottle of good Scotch to drink while you’re reading them, but suit yourself.