Too Many Cousins, by Douglas G. Browne (1946)

Too Many Cousins (1946) Douglas G. Browne

Too Many Cousins, Douglas G. Browne; the Dover trade paperback edition

I recently reacquainted myself with this book courtesy of my fellow GAD blogger at the excellent crossexaminingcrime who yesterday discussed another book (The May Week Murders) by Douglas G. Browne. I was prompted to comment and confessed that I didn’t quite remember the details of this book. But later that afternoon I saw my copy of the Dover edition in a stack of books, picked it up, and was very pleased to remember the pleasure I took in this book when I first read it. So I thought I’d make a few comments here to let you see if you were interested in reading it yourself.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this book about?

In Too Many Cousins, a 1946 story by Douglas G. Browne, six cousins are the surviving descendants of a wealthy Victorian who inherit when his last wife finally dies. (The elderly Mrs. Shearsby was much younger than her late husband.) Mrs. Shearsby has a life interest in his fortune which upon her death devolves per stirpes to multiple branches of his family. It might be that not all the cousins are content to wait patiently for their inheritance; as the story opens, three of the cousins have died in recent months and the other three are nervous. The three deaths may have been accidental but it’s an unusual coincidence even so.

Humphrey Bogart with moustache

Humphrey Bogart looking like what I imagine to be “Mephistophelean”.

Harvey Tuke (who apparently bears a striking resemblance to Mephistopheles) is a powerful official in the public prosecutor’s office and learns of this string of deaths through an odd gentleman who is a master of obituaries; he prepares them in advance and follows them, and is the only one to have noticed the Shearsby coincidence. Tuke investigates and learns the story of the cousins, investigates the deaths, and gets to know the surviving cousins, at least one of whom has escaped accidental death recently.

Mr. Tuke has also been spending time with the three cousins, who are not much involved in each others’ lives. One of them is Mrs. Tuke’s assistant in her war efforts; Mlle Cecile Boulanger helps the aristocratic Yvette Tuke (neé Garay) work on behalf of the French Navy (it’s the end of the war, perhaps 1945). Immediately after Tuke’s encounter with the concerned obituarist, Cecile tells him about having received a hard push into traffic and escaping death by the skin of her teeth — she proves to be one of the three prospective heirs.

Another of the three surviving cousins, Mortimer Shearsby is a chemist at a company that produces artificial fabrics — currently for the war effort, although they began by producing artificial silk. He and his wife Lilian have both worked at Sansil and come into contact with an unusual poison, sodium nitrite; which is of interest because another of the three deceased cousins apparently poisoned herself accidentally with sodium nitrite. But Mortimer and Lilian insist that sodium nitrite is easy to get hold of, and unfortunately that seems to be the case. (Its poisonous properties here I think must be imaginary, or else Browne has misattributed the effects of one chemical to another for reasons of public safety.)

Mortimer and Lilian are vulgar little middle-class bourgeois, but the third cousin is more to the social taste of Tuke and his beautifully-dressed wife Yvette; Miss Vivien Ardmore is well-dressed, well-mannered, and everything about her is in good taste. Yvette Tuke and Vivien recognize kindred spirits and become friendly. Vivien is very social and entertains a lot; she seems to have a lot of impromptu parties.

Too Many Cousins, 1946

Too Many Cousins, an American edition from Macmillan (1953). The illustration reminded me of early Andy Warhol book jacket art although I don’t think this is his work.

Oddly enough, one deceased cousin, a professional writer, recently produced a story called “Too Many Cousins” — and then called it back from his publisher, insisting that it could not be published. So there’s a hunt for the manuscript. There’s also a hunt for Uncle Martin, another potential heir, who vanished long ago and is generally considered deceased except … Mr. Tuke may suspect something to the contrary.

After establishing the characters, the book segues into six separate skeins of investigation: the suspicious deaths of the three cousins and the possibility that one of the remaining three may have had something to do with any of those deaths. So the full attention of the law is turned upon all six threads, and Mr. Tuke stays in touch with the survivors.

The second half of the book is very much concerned with who could have been where when, and how they might have traveled there. Timetables are generated; alibis are tested. In the course of tracing someone’s movements, the police become aware that a petty criminal has somehow become involved at the periphery of this case, possibly because he’s blackmailing one of the principals. When his body, poisoned with sodium nitrite, is found in a storage room during a party at Vivien Ardmore’s home, it doesn’t take long for Tuke to point the police in the right direction; although the victim has prudently done so as a precaution and the case would have been solved anyway.

In the traditional manner, Tuke explains the details to the interested obituarist; the elderly lady dies, and all the remaining heirs come into their long-awaited money.

Why is this book worth your time?

If I may be permitted to quote myself from someone else’s blog, here’s the comment I left about this book yesterday at crossexaminingcrime.

“LOL oh my it’s been a lot of years since I read [Too Many Cousins]. I remember being surprised at whodunit but not feeling cheated … and that there was some clever characterization along the way. But I apologize for not being able to remember much more than that.”

That kind of sums it up on a superficial level. The solution is perhaps surprising but if you’ve read the book carefully, you should be prepared for it; there are plenty of clues if you are paying attention. There was indeed some clever characterization but, ultimately, the plot was not sufficiently memorable to stay in my mind for what might have been twenty years.

That being said — I enjoyed the hell out of this the second time around and I’m not sure why I didn’t remember it from my first reading.

Too Many Cousins, Douglas G. Browne (1946)

The UK first edition of Too Many Cousins (MacDonald, 1946).

Possibly my earlier dismissal of this volume has to do with the idea that, over the years, the things in which I find pleasure in detective fiction have changed. In my early years I was fascinated by puzzles and detection. Lately it seems as though my attention is more focused upon the period itself. I enjoy the details of everyday life in 1946, both the grand sweep of world events and the evanescent and temporary things that catch the attention of a nation and concatenate through into popular fiction. As you have probably already imagined, there’s a lot of social detail for me to enjoy in this book.

The mystery itself is not all that mysterious, although I imagine I, upon my first reading, as well as most of the potential readers of this volume upon their first encounter will have been unable to identify the murderer and that person’s methods with any degree of precision.  Browne has actually constructed quite a clever murder plot but there are a couple of problems with how it is presented that make it less interesting than it actually is. They’re quite simultaneous issues: (1) that while there may be too many cousins, not enough of them have survived to make the field of suspects sufficiently large, and (2) that Browne takes the stand that really only one of the cousins is sufficiently … I’ll say “low-class” … to have actually committed a murder. Rather than spoil things for you, I’ll just say that this is either a smokescreen or an easy way to pick out the murderer without doing much thinking about the method. So it’s possible to have a strong suspect for murder and half the method without having been able to pierce the really very clever clueing and identify how the murders were committed; I expect I would have felt like I’d solved the mystery for the most part, which is a little unsatisfying, without having had either the wit or the ability to do so.

In terms of social history, there are two main threads of this book that I found very enjoyable. The first is that this book is relentless about describing people and their possessions, particularly their clothes but also their homes and accessories, in a way that lets you form conclusions about what type of person they are. I always enjoy this, although I suspect that at the distance of some 70 years the details of why smoking a Larranaga cigar makes you more discerning than if you smoke other brands have slipped by the wayside.

The other large thread of this book is some fairly explicit statements of the way that social class works in England. I don’t know that the book ever says anything about class per se. What it does is make observations about people (clothes, homes, and accessories as noted above) in such a way that (a) you know that the author is a person of the upper classes and assumes that you are too, and (b) is quite snotty about people and things who have the misfortune to not belong to the upper class. Browne indeed selects two characters, Mortimer and Lilian Shearsby, and pillories them mercilessly for the crime of being hard-core bourgeoisie.

Here’s a description of Lilian Shearsby that gives you most of what I’m talking about (a little long, but its detail is part of its charm):

“… [S]he was a tall woman. Harvey’s first impression of her was that she was also a handsome one. She had the good looks of well cut features — a short nose and upper lip, fine arched eyebrows, a pointed and determined chin. But her complexion, if left alone, would have been pasty, and her carefully waved hair was a nondescript brown. Art had been called in to enliven nature, and a lock over her forehead was bleached yellow. Behind rimless pince-nez pale grey eyes flitted about with quick little movements, like the eyes of a mouse or bird. Unlike her husband, who wore a baggy tweed suit under his overcoat, Mrs. Shearsby was a thought overdressed. Her green coat and skirt, tailored to reveal a good figure, were set off by too many clips and bracelets, her little green hat was an exaggeration of a current mode, and her high-heeled shoes of patent leather were too smart for the costume and the occasion. Under her arm she carried an enormous green bag.”

In other words she’s aping the clothing of her social betters but not getting the details right. Don’t you love the subtle bitchiness of “a thought overdressed”? Browne also gives us fashions of which he actually does approve:

“Vivien Ardmore had perhaps no claim to beauty; her features were irregular, her nose too long, her scarlet mouth too wide; but her fine eyes were widely set, and she obviously had intelligence. Her expression, a little hard in repose, was lightened and transformed when she smiled. An admirable figure was admirably set off by a tailor-made coat and skirt of light grey flannel. On her pale gold hair, elaborately waved, perched a tiny grey hat with white flowers. White gloves, a white handbag, and stockings and shoes which suggested neither economy nor utility completed an ensemble upon which Mrs. Tuke cast an approving eye. Miss Ardmore’s glance at Yvette returned the compliment.”

Gray flannel suit

Woman in a gray flannel suit that reminded me of Vivian Ardmore

Douglas Browne either had a strong eye for women’s fashion or the benefit of a consultant who did; I suggest that the way in which Miss Ardmore and Mrs. Tuke each acknowledge the other’s wartime chic with approval (“neither economy nor utility” had a special meaning in the days of the “utility suit”) is not something a male ordinarily notices.

The author is also scathing upon such details of bourgeois life as being sufficiently vulgar as to name your house Aylwynstowe — no, I’m sorry, I have no idea as to why that’s vulgar, but it’s clear from the authorial tone that it is — and to fill its over-manicured garden with gnomes which, okay, that I get. Browne is particularly scornful about a garden bench inscribed “A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot”; I can understand dimly that this is a version of the house-proud lower classes of the modern day who patronize with approval any commercial establishment that begins with “Ye olde …” but for the life of me I can’t figure out why he’s so down on this particular line from the poetry of Thomas Brown (the original verse suggests that God manifests himself in gardens). Later in the same chapter he calls Mortimer’s activities in his garden “godwottery” so there must be something about that particular quotation that has an association lost to the modern day, or at least to the resources of the internet. Or else Browne is just using it as a kind of shorthand to everything he dislikes about bourgeois gardens.

1948 suit with bolero jacket

This less-than-perfectly-chic lady reminded me of Lilian Shearsby.

Buried in all this keen observation of clothes and furniture are some actual clues to the mystery, and to be honest they are beautifully buried. If after reading this volume you think back to what you might have noticed, there’s a casual remark by a background character that could have given you the entire murder plot, if you’d only paid attention; but it is buried in a great section of keen observation about social class and you are lulled into thinking that this background character is more of the same. I like that kind of clueing a lot.

There’s also something that underlies the entire book that in a way reverses your learning about the social situation. As is clear from the perspective of 2018, 1946 in England was a time of great social upheaval. We may enjoy the sly digs that Browne makes at the middle classes and their airs and graces, but I suspect that 1946 was close to the end of an era in which such distinctions mattered as much as they do in this story. If you think of the England of 1962 in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side and how Miss Marple relates to her young employee Cherry Baker from The Development — Cherry is quite happy to be herself and doesn’t want to be of Miss Marple’s class, unlike here where Lilian Shearsby hates Vivian Ardmore because she is effortlessly aristocratic.

Ultimately what I enjoyed the most about this book was that the actions of the characters grew organically out of their personalities, and their personalities were very detailed and specific in order to let you know who could and could not have done the murder. For me, that places this book specifically at the end, or past the end, of the Golden Age; if this had been written in 1926 rather than 1946, there would have been a lot more about train schedules and the 4.03 express from Nether Puddleby and a lot less about how a viscountess can buy people’s loyalty with autographed photographs of herself. This mystery is not very tough as a mystery because the author is telegraphing his punch; there are not many suspects and only one reasonably red herring. (Tuke himself remarks at the end that the solution is simple and that he tried to overcomplicate it.) But as a novel of manners, a novel about how different social classes rubbed together at the end of WWII — delightful. And a little bit sad, because the world of upper-class privilege that Browne writes about is about to vanish along with this style of mystery.

Other voices

None of the usual suspects among my fellow GAD bloggers have examined this book, and the only look was a quick one here by the eminent Martin Edwards at Do You Write Under Your Own Name?. When the President of the Detection Club says “I felt that, once the main characters were introduced, the book faltered somewhat. Never mind too many cousins, there were too few suspects,” I’d be apt to agree with him 😉 I just went on at more length, that’s all 😉

Sergeant Cuff in the Saturday Review of October 31, 1953, says: “Death takes British heirs; Mr. Tuke, govt. lawyer, plays detective, has fun. Cast agreeable, realistic; handling suave, literate. Can’t go wrong here.”

As noted above, my friend armchair reviewer at crossexaminingcrime wrote a piece on a companion volume. I found it interesting and she has enticed me to find The May Week Murders because, well, call it an idiosyncrasy but I’m a sucker for a mystery about a tontine.

If you’re interested in the details of what women were wearing in 1940, here is a resource I found fascinating on the details of the utility suit/victory suit. I swiped one of their photographs which seemed to me to echo the less-than-perfect chic of Lilian Shearsby.

A note on editions

I venture to say that just about the only edition you’ll ever be able to get your hands on is the trade paperback from Dover that is pictured at the head of this piece. It is readily available through the usual sources, possibly including your local used bookstore. I note that there is a book club edition of the American printing and this should also be easily available from antiquarian sources for a reading copy. If you want a first edition, you might expect a current (2018) price to be perhaps US$30, as always depending on condition.

No paperback editions to my knowledge exist.

 

 

Panic in Box C, by John Dickson Carr (1966)

Panic in Box C, by John Dickson Carr

Panic in Box C, by John Dickson Carr: X1587, Berkeley Medallion (1968): First paperback edition


Panic in Box C
 (1966) is the twenty-third in a series of 24 mystery novels about Dr. Gideon Fell, by John Dickson Carr (JDC). The adventures of Dr. Fell frequently centre around locked-room mysteries and impossible crimes; this book would probably be considered an impossible crime story. It is certainly a difficult puzzle mystery and contains many elements that will be familiar to JDC’s many fans (of which group I have been a member for decades).

Previously I have discussed specific JDC books here and here and JDC in general here and here  and here.  If you do a search on my blog for John Dickson Carr or Carter Dickson, his major pseudonym, you’ll also find links to other bloggers’ work about JDC and I think you’ll find them of interest.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not in so many words reveal whodunit, but I have discussed elements of the murder that will almost certainly make the identity of the murderer clear to you. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this novel about?

The story begins on board R.M.S. Illyria heading towards New York. Philip Knox, a historian, and Dr. Gideon Fell are both embarking on separate lecture tours of the United States. They spend the first chapter introducing the reader to themselves and the next few introducing the reader to famous actress Margery Vane (who’s also entitled to be known as Lady Tiverton) and her entourage, including her handsome young boyfriend Lawrence Porter and her faithful secretary Bess Harkness. A shot rings out and misses everyone by a mile, but it amplifies the sense of imminent disaster that Carr so skilfully builds.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson Carr

A later Carroll & Graf paper edition.

Everyone ends up at a Connecticut theatre where the wealthy Vane is both establishing a theatre and endowing a company of players, at the theatre where she long ago played her first roles. Philip Knox meets his estranged wife Judy, and the two seem to have rekindled their romantic interest. Meanwhile Margery’s personal life and the personal lives of the Margery Vane players, including the hot-tempered lead, Barry Plunkett and his beautiful lead actress girlfriend, Anne Winfield, are intersecting and heating up. And people are exchanging stories about a tragedy that happened at the theatre twenty years ago.

During the dress rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet, Margery Vane is locked in Box C of the theatre alone, saying that she wants to experience the play by herself. During the performance there is the twang of a crossbow and, as will be no surprise to the experienced reader, Miss Vane is found in the locked Box C, pierced by a crossbow bolt. Below the box on the ground floor are found some valuable pieces of Vane’s jewelry wrapped up with a newspaper cutting about the recent suicide of someone who acted at the theatre back in her heyday. And across the theatre, under Box A, is a crossbow that had gone missing from the lobby.

As is also unsurprising in the genre, nearly everyone around Vane had a motive to kill her, whether financial or emotional. This includes Judy Knox, who apparently had a run-in with Margery Vane some twenty years ago and is still the object of Vane’s dislike, although no one knows (or perhaps will say) exactly why. Many of the company were on stage, or immediately off stage, at the time of the murder; seven people were in the theatre itself watching the rehearsal, and some can alibi each other, but nothing is certain.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrLawrence Porter is the obvious suspect, because just before her death Margery Vane had wanted to have him arrested for stealing her jewelry, but we soon learn that he has a cast-iron alibi — during the time when he wasn’t onstage, he was shooting craps in a back room with a couple of other actors. This leaves the detectives with no clear-cut suspect and things become more complicated when an elderly alcoholic from the earliest days of the theatre announces that he saw a masked man dressed all in black who fired the crossbow from the stage and then vanished through a concealed trap door.

Dr. Fell rumbles around asking apparently inconsequential questions, and muttering about Honus Wagner (an old-time baseball player) until, after various interviews and searches for evidence, he figures out the identity of the criminal. There is an exciting scene at the end where the murderer is killed just before a second murder can take place, in the Crazy House at the local amusement park, and then a final wrap-up scene where Dr. Fell and local policeman Lt. Spinelli explain all the loose ends.

Why is this book worth your time?

My regular readers will already know most of my answer to this question. As I’ve said about quite a few mystery writers, their work is significantly important to the mystery genre and if you wish to know how mysteries work, or what good ones look like, every single thing that authors like John Dickson Carr wrote is worth your time. You can learn more about writing from Carr’s lesser works than you can from the best offerings of lesser writers.

That being said — this one is pretty bad.

I’ve said before that many famous Golden Age writers perhaps should have stopped writing a few books before they actually did. Christie and Marsh and Queen didn’t need to burden us with their final few efforts, by and large; they’re embarrassingly poor and most GAD critics are tired of apologizing for them. (“Yes, Agatha Christie was a great, great writer and Passenger to Frankfurt is a gigantic turd. Those can both be true at the same time.”)

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrJDC’s point of no return seems to be pretty much the book immediately before this one, 1965’s The House at Satan’s Elbow. I wouldn’t now call his decline a steep one (although I have done so before, I’d like to step it back); there’s nothing so incoherent as Passenger to Frankfurt or Photo Finish or The Last Woman In His Lifefor instance. There is much that is boring but not much that is that silly.

Some time ago, I outlined the three things that a JDC novel needs to contain to be among his best work:

  1. A strong well-thought-out puzzle structure, which is usually for him based on a locked-room/impossible crime scenario.
  2. A balance among setting, characterization, and plot, so that there are interesting characters doing interesting things against an interesting background, all well-written in their way but nothing overwhelming the book in any of those directions.
  3. Some sort of creepy quasi-supernatural element; or, if not supernatural, something that creates a sense of menace or impending doom.

I think it’s accurate to say that nothing JDC wrote after 1965 manages to contain all these three things done to the best of his ability — and the present volume has almost nothing that qualifies.

#3 is almost entirely absent; in fact Carr goes out of his way to flatten or suppress elements that could give rise to that. The suicide’s face mask of his younger self? That could have been superbly creepy, but it’s entirely offstage and we are only told about it. #2 is sadly out of alignment; many of the characters are pure cardboard and many of the interesting things that they are doing, or see done, have absolutely nothing to do with the structure of the book. For instance, there’s an entire chapter that consists of almost nothing except a bunch of people bellowing the lyrics to the football-related “fight songs” of various American universities and being very rude to each other. I’ll go into this in a little detail further on.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrAs far as #1 goes, I will say that the actual puzzle structure holds together quite well; I understand how the crime was committed and I’m pretty sure it slipped right by me on my first reading of this, decades ago. There are a couple of problems with it, though, that wouldn’t be found in JDC’s work of 20 years earlier. The book would have been essentially over if Lt. Spinelli had done his damn job properly and thoroughly questioned every single person in the theatre about what they were doing, and with whom, when the crossbow twanged. Surely, SURELY the person upon whom the murderer’s alibi depends would have spoken up; I understand the reason that we’re given for that not having happened, but I don’t buy it. The pressure is just not there. When that person is nearly killed at the end of the book, they still have no idea of what it is to which they could have testified and no real pressure to say otherwise has been applied.

Another problem for me is that I’m not so intimately familiar with the words used to describe the parts of a theatre as I might be, and thus I was labouring under a misapprehension about where people were. Once you grasp where exactly everyone was, and upon what floor of the building, it’s all clearer — and it should have been much clearer to the police. At the end, when everything is being explained, much is made of the fact that a policeman executes the actions of the murderer in a mere 29 seconds.  “Aha!” I thought. “That’s a healthy active policeman, not [for instance] a middle-aged person who is constantly described as a heavy smoker.” But then I realized that although that was true, it simply didn’t matter if the actions had been performed in 29 seconds or 300; the murderer’s alibi would have been essentially unchanged.

The thought that kept occurring to me as I refreshed my memory of this book was that there were a number of things here that hearkened back to earlier JDC novels — it’s as though the writer was dragging things out of his attic to furnish a room, but nothing quite fits or is as well-made as he once thought. For instance, there’s a couple of times during the book when everything quite ridiculously grinds to a halt while JDC adds in a great bolus of historical … stuff.  When Philip Knox meets his estranged wife and seems to fall in love all over again, he expresses his sentiments by — blethering on and on about Stonewall Jackson.  In verse. It is true that Carr knew a LOT about history and his historical novels are highly regarded.  But right about now in his books, he starts packing in great wads of irrelevant historical background that do nothing for the plot except cushion it, like excelsior.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrSimilarly there is a scene at the end set in  the Crazy House that is nowhere near as creepy as a couple of other excursions to such places in earlier Carr novels. It’s clear that he likes writing about fun fairs and amusement parks; they show up a lot in his books.  Here, it’s almost dragged in without rhyme or reason. The murderer is said to be arranging things so that lots of people are in the vicinity but that is soon demonstrated to be ridiculously impossible; the ticket-takers remember exactly who went where.  The scene has nothing connected with the Crazy House and would have been better set at the theatre, but … those settings are in another couple of JDC novels and it worked there. It just doesn’t work here.

I think the biggest problem in the book is everything that has to do with Philip Knox’s estranged wife Judy.  I’m about to give away what might be a crucial plot point here, so be warned. After Philip and Judy split up, she moved to the US and, unbeknownst to him, became a call girl to support herself for some months, then got a job and rose to the top of the magazine industry.  Both Margery Vane and Bess Harkness are aware of her past and Bess at one point starts to call her by her “working name,” Dorothy.  This is what they fought about and this is what Judy and Vane were arguing about immediately before the murder.

Now, you know, nearly everything in this plot line is just complete nonsense. Apparently Judy is worried in the present day that Philip will find out about her past — Philip doesn’t even bat an eye when he finds out. Everyone goes out of their way, officials and bystanders alike, to assure Judy that they don’t care in the slightest and that nobody will be prosecuting Judy for her crime.  (Which, frankly, is absolutely ridiculous. I’d like to see anyone brought into court on a 20-YEAR-OLD prostitution charge, even in 1965; you’d be laughed out of court.)

There’s a little bit at the end that’s very telling in this context. Judy is Telling All to Philip, and here’s what she says about how Margery Vane found out that Judy was a hooker:

“… she saw me with one of her men-friends … I don’t mean boy-friends, just another man of her acquaintance … coming out of my apartment in a place where I couldn’t have been anything except what I was. She didn’t say anything. But she made inquiries, and remembered.”

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrExcept — what the hell is she talking about? If there is such a “place”, it would be a bordello, and those don’t have “apartments”. Judy is apparently trying to convince us that she lived in an apartment building that was so well known for housing prostitutes that merely having an apartment in that building meant you were for hire. But in that case, what is Margery Vane doing there and why isn’t she tarred with the same brush?

No, this is just all so much nonsense, and frankly it’s mean-spirited nonsense too. No one in this case investigates Judy in the way she ought to be investigated, and it seems as though there is an unspoken consensus among Fell and the police that Judy is not the murderer and there’s no need to ask her unpleasant questions to remind her of her sordid past. In addition, much is made of the fact that Judy had quarrelled with Margery Vane on an ocean crossing 20 years ago, immediately after Judy had left Philip. And that very interesting development is dismissed in the final lines of the book: they quarrelled about “nothing at all.”

The mean-spirited part is that Carr is saying a number of things here about sex work, and none of them are very attractive. Apparently it completely ruins your life (except where it doesn’t). It is such a horrible secret that it can cause you to cover up things connected with a murder. Now, I’ve spoken before about my admiration for Carr’s forthrightness about human sexuality in books like The Judas Window, where a young woman stands up in court and says, “Yes, I let my boyfriend take nude photos of me, what’s it to you?” (Paraphrased LOL) He talked about sex in mysteries at a time when no one other than Gladys Mitchell was doing so. Here, though, there’s a certain … sniggering quality about the whole thing that is really unattractive. Perhaps it’s Carr trying to be part of the swinging 60s — perhaps it’s Carr indulging his own fantasy life. But because it’s all just nonsense, it’s clear that he put it in for reasons that weren’t connected with the mystery per se — it just doesn’t stand up. Much like he wanted to talk about the Crazy House and Stonewall Jackson, he wanted to talk about hookers, and none of it contributes anything to the novel.

The bit about Honus Wagner? That goes nowhere near that baseball player. And it’s annoying, because where it actually goes is to a person who does not actually appear in the book and who should be front and centre giving testimony.

So it’s all very sloppy work. The sloppy nature of it is exemplified by something that Carr actually seems to have forgotten until the end of the book. Dr. Fell is chaffed by someone for not having mentioned a rip in some fabric — and believe me, he should have done, it might have been an important clue. There’s another forgotten item too. Much is made of a reference to an old stage play called Sherlock Holmes, in which a specific visual device is used to make the audience think that an actor is in one place when he’s really in another. Well and good. But there’s absolutely no point in including something like that unless, in the current plot, you have someone trying to execute the same thing. Or, rather, they are — it’s just that JDC forgets to tell us that anyone was looking at the time. So that clever little reference is completely wasted and any deductions based on it become unavailable.

Oh, there’s certainly more evidence that JDC was starting to decline — honestly, it’s been depressing to even give the plot this much attention, because I keep finding holes and issues. All I can say is, it’s John Dickson Carr so it’s worth reading … just read it quickly and without too much attention to what’s going on.  Let yourself be carried away by characters and scenes that remind you of other spooky Carr excursions; “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” and you’ll be pleasantly amused.

A note on editions

Like many books dating back to the 1960s, this title was not well-served when it came to nice-looking editions. I rather like the aqua curtains and the alabaster hand wrapped with jewelry in the first US paper edition I used to prepare these comments, shown at the very top of the column.  A copy of the first US or first UK editions seems to be about US$50 as of this writing, which seems about right.  I’ve remarked before that a poor book by a good author is sometimes more difficult to obtain than a well-known title and this would be no exception. A small investment in the first US paper edition in perfect condition may pay off very well in the future for the speculative collector.

Other opinions

(Added some hours later) I carelessly forgot to include some links to material which may also interest my readers.

  • My fellow GAD blogger (and blog friend) at The Green Capsule looked at this book (here) earlier this year: the Green Capsule has set out to read his way through JDC and is doing so in a consistently interesting way.
  • My friend Patrick, in At the Scene of the Crime back in 2011, (here) says “It’s readable, but far from Carr’s best.”
  • The esteemed Marvin Lachman in Mystery*File (here), writing in 1987, is terse but highly complimentary; he thinks there is “effective use of the theatre, both its physical settings, and its lore, to add to an unusually good detective story.”
  • Esteemed mystery blogger and my friend Bev Hankins, in My Reader’s Block, looked at this book in 2011 (here), saying “The mystery is a bit of a disappointment.”

 

 

 

The Deadly Sunshade, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1940)

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Popular Library #126

The Deadly Sunshade, Popular Library #126

The Deadly Sunshade (1940) is the sixteenth in a series of mystery novels about Asey Mayo, the “Codfish Sherlock” of Massachusetts, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (PAT). It has PAT’s characteristic breakneck bumper-cars plot structure — Asey begins by being surprised by a murder and everyone races around at top speed in all directions until he solves the case. But, since it’s 1940, there are interesting undercurrents of espionage and wartime hardships and social disruption.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others (specifically, N or M? by Agatha Christie). I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this novel about?

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, a Norton reprintAsey begins at home, dealing with his cousin Jennie Mayo and the wonderful Mrs. Pussy Belcher, known to everyone as Picklepuss because she runs Aunt Pussy’s Perfect Pickles. Picklepuss and Jennie have been inflamed by a radio personality (one Rounceval Jones) with a talk show and have joined the Woman’s League to Defend America at all Costs with Action; they are collecting guns and are urging women to become well-armed against the apparently imminent point when Cape Cod will be invaded from Europe.

Asey is against the idea of arming the women because the accident rate will outweigh the benefits. Well, okay, also because he’s sexist, but I think the events of the book justify it; immediately after he insists that the women obtain licenses for the guns and be far more careful with them, a bullet whizzes past his ear, fired from nearby sand dunes. (Later the local doctor reports his wife has also accidentally fired at him.) Then he gets a phone message from an epicentre of local issues, Mrs. Newell, who asks him to meet her at the Yacht Club because it’s a matter of life and death. Apparently it was — by the time he arrives, she’s lying dead on the beach under a bright umbrella, poisoned with atropine.

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The Deadly Sunshade, Foul Play Press edition from the 1980s

As I noted, this starts everyone in the book running around in all directions at top speed. Asey forms a little group of apparently like-minded people around him, all who have an interest and most a motive, and he caroms around among them like a pinball. The reasoning behind all this activity is usually reasonable … okay, sometimes reasonable and sometimes just silly. But it keeps your mind occupied with diverting sub-plots like why is someone burying Mrs. Newell’s knitting bag in a sand dune, and is it true that the Commodore of the Yacht Club is raising money for the club under false pretences, and why did his son misdiagnose Mrs. Newell’s atropine poisoning as sunstroke. And of course, many of her ex-suitors and occasional providers of expensive jewelry are nearby at the Yacht Club.

Meanwhile Picklepuss and many other housewives are running around with guns ostensibly patrolling the beaches against the prospect of enemy submarines. After a number of chases and bizarre complications, Asey is taken hostage by a well-armed woman sharpshooter (who has been brought in to teach the women to shoot). In the process of lying on the floor under armed guard, staring at some quilt patterns, Asey has the crucial realization about Mrs. Newell’s knitted mittens pattern and realizes whodunit and why, just in time to forestall some terrible developments.

Why is this novel worth your time?

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The Deadly Sunshade, 1st US edition (Norton, 1940). Note the sticker.

Phoebe Atwood Taylor is like well-aged single-malt Scotch. If you have a taste for her work, you make sure to put yourself in the way of as much of it as possible; if the taste makes you shudder, you should certainly find something else to read. PAT’s novels always take place at high speed and minimal coherence, and there is quite a bit of the narrative that is intended to make you chuckle. These are the screwball comedies of mystery. If you’re a devotee of, say, the dry-as-dust timetable mysteries of Freeman Wills Crofts, you may well be repelled by PAT’s entire oeuvre (especially by her eight books as by Alice Tilton, which are even more breakneck and hilarious).

But if you are amused by such things, as I am in the case of PAT, you will read all her books and notice a few things that seem to recur. The plot structures are all very similar, as previously noted. Asey forms a little group of people around him who aid him with solving the mystery or keeping its insane side-effects under control. I’ve noticed, though, that there are a few types that seem to recur in that little cadre.

Phoebe Atwood Taylor, The Deadly SunshadePrincipal among them is a “competent housewife”. There’s a sensible woman who is in the middle of a group of people who are not very sensible, and she’s attempting to maintain order and keep the house running in the midst of chaos. Then there’s usually some single-minded people who are trying to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. There’s a plucky young woman who has faced adversity and is unjustly suspected of murder; she usually helps Asey out first-hand, and/or a handsome young man who is in trouble but you know he has a good heart.

Also frequently, there is a nasty bitch who delights in stealing other women’s husbands and whatever money isn’t nailed down; her male equivalent is a cranky middle-aged man who controls other people’s money and is unjustly denying it to them, or making it impossible for them to get it. Another repeating type is a family of people who are somehow off-kilter … a middle-aged couple who are eccentric and have eccentric children.

And nearly always, the local colour characters. There’s a network of people in Quanomet and Skaket who don’t interact with “people from away” but have all been intermarrying for hundreds of years, and they are all somehow related. So Jennie Mayo can always tap into a community resource and locate someone’s quaint relative who can come up with just the right element to resolve a plot twist.

I’m not saying all these stock characters are in each and every book (and certainly not in this particular volume); some, like PAT’s “world-weary soprano” character (yes, really) appear only a few times, but enough that you recognize them as repeating from other stories, with different names. But one reason to read your way through all 24 volumes of Asey Mayo stories (and the eight Alice Tilton books about Leonidas Witherall, “the man who looked like Shakespeare”) is for the pleasure of recognizing these recurring characters and seeing just how PAT has turned them into new faces for this new story. It’s kind of like commedia dell’arte. There are even repetitive elements of the plot that are in the nature of lazzi; someone always drives too fast on the back roads of Quanomet without lights, Asey always chases the murderer on foot and trips, and someone attempts to dispose of an incriminating or inconvenient object by burying it in a sand dune or throwing it in a pond, under the hidden scrutiny of a puzzled Asey.

So if you read the whole 32 volumes, you’ll understand what I mean. No single volume is absolutely representative but, taken together, they all form a picture of PAT’s stable of stock characters — and her obvious pleasure in writing about them.

I think this volume is also worth your time because it’s one of a few stories where a mystery writer takes an essentially light-hearted series character and involves them directly with World War 2.  I did say that I was going to give away a little bit about Agatha Christie’s N or M? and that’s about all I’ll say; Tommy and Tuppence interact with an espionage-based plot that involves Fifth Columnists and spies. It’s the same here, Asey Meets The Fifth Column, although you could be excused for overlooking it; honestly, the spy subplot doesn’t become apparent or functional until the final pages of the denouement because PAT has concealed it so well. There’s a function to some of the war-news radio broadcasts that may escape the unwary reader.

md22521949944But if you read only the wartime PAT efforts, as I have done recently, another pattern starts to emerge. It seems as though PAT saw herself as a kind of unofficial propagandist on behalf of the war effort. In this volume, from 1940, it’s only about the possibilities of espionage and a possible enemy naval presence off the seacoast. Yes, she uses it as a plot element to poke a little fun at listeners who got inflamed by a radio talk show to form the Woman’s League to Defend America at all Costs with Action. But there’s something underneath the fun-poking that seems a little more serious. Two old duffers in the Yacht Club are a background ostinato of “Sea power! No, air power!” Everyone listens to the war news on the radio. By the time PAT reaches 1942 and The Six Iron Spiders, as I talked about the other day, one character is informing Asey sanctimoniously that rubber is a sacred trust for the nation and it’s everyone’s duty not to waste it by racing around at high speed. First aid classes and spotter duty are irksome and chafing, but everyone is always ready to pitch in and do them. And Jennie Mayo becomes a human dynamo who apparently means to single-handedly win the war.

This book contains a glancing reference in its initial pages that could stand for a lot of offhand phrases and brief observations in this and other books.  It’s just thrown away, but it’s meant to be telling — the speaker is not pleased with Asey and he’s in the room.

“‘The Yacht Club?’ Mrs. Belcher sniffed as she sat down in the rocker. ‘I should think that Asey might find more to do for his country these days than wear white flannels and go to Yacht Clubs!'”

PAT never forgets that the country is at war and neither do her characters.

One thing that I found particularly interesting was the way in which the narrative acknowledges the influence of radio commentators like Rounceval Jones. Jones’s voice is not heard directly in the book, so this is a very minor point, but it did make me chuckle to think that people like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones had WW2 counterparts, agitating for not only the right to bear arms but the duty to do so.

To sum up — there’s the usual PAT high-speed mystery plot and her standard cast of characters, a great deal of good humour, and overtop it all is a medium-heavy dose of We Must Win The War. If this is the delightful taste of single-malt Scotch to you as it is to me, settle into a large armchair to find out what the hell it is about that knitting pattern that gets Asey to the solution.

A note on editions

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The Deadly Sunshade, First UK edition, Collins Crime Club

Phoebe Atwood Taylor was not well served for many years by the paperback market. There was a single uniform edition by the great people at Foul Play Press in the 1980s where they did her entire oeuvre, in a simple and distinct artistic style; this is the edition you’ll have seen everywhere. Countryman Press did most of them about a decade ago but I’m unable to find evidence that this specific title was among their reprints. But before the 1980s you were pretty much restricted to ugly inexpensive hardcover reprints from Norton and Triangle.

This title, though, was one of a few of PAT’s that received the full “Good Girl Art” treatment as part of the early Popular Library line; #126, from 1947, has the corpse in a two-piece swimsuit as the principal design element. A crisp copy of this will hold its value and might set you back US$20.

The first edition has an interesting sticker on it that pinpoints its publication date as December 1940, and that it is BRAND NEW and Not previously published anywhere. But I think the first UK, from Collins Crime Club, puts a delightful British take on the cover art; I’d be looking for this very pretty book in jacket if I didn’t already have a full set of reading copies.

 

 

Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, by S.S. Van Dine (1928): Some thoughts

In the last couple of days I’ve been following a discussion in my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection (you can find it here, although you may have to join the group to see anything). As you’ve probably already guessed, group members were discussing Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, an article from the September 1928 edition of The American Magazine.  

Although I’ll quote extensively from this article, you can find a copy of it here and I recommend the full article to your attention.  The rest of this piece will assume that you have indeed gone and read it.

why-men-drinkIn the process of considering the various arguments, I realized that although I’d certainly read Van Dine’s 20 Rules, it had been so many years that I’d forgotten the article entirely. I thought it would be interesting to have another look at it and share the results here.

The first thing that comes to my mind is, in an introductory paragraph before he approaches the rules themselves, Van Dine outlines what he’s trying to do. And there are two things that are fairly crucial here. One is that he’s talking specifically about the “detective story” and the other is, as he says in the opening sentence, that “The detective story is a game.” In fact, he compares it to my favourite game, bridge.

Gaudy_nightNow, I’ll just ask you to agree with me that “detective story” has a very particular meaning, and it’s differentiated from other similar concepts like “crime story”, “spy story”, etc. First, a detective story must, ipso facto, contain a detective. I think you’ll agree that there must be a crime within the story that is investigated (“detected”) by that detective, and by and large that crime is murder. For the most part that crime is solved in the course of the story by the detective, and the criminal is brought to justice. This all seems very simple and straightforward, but I’ve learned in the past that when you’re dealing with slippery ideas it’s best to define your terms. Certainly there are detective stories not concerned with murder (Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers comes to mind) and occasionally a criminal gets away or “cheats the hangman” by committing suicide, etc. But for most detective stories, there’s a detective and a murder and a solution and a criminal.

e837293de9a79e7c468db088cea80a1a--cluedo-table-plansWhether or not detective stories are a “game” is something that I’ve seen discussed, and participated in discussing, practically to the point of screaming when the topic arises. So I will merely say that many, many people consider detective stories to have the nature of a game, a kind of battle of wits; but I don’t believe the definition of “detective story” should be restricted in this way, so as to entirely outlaw non-ludic approaches.

What follows purports to be “laws” governing the creation of a detective story. When I started looking at these 20 rules of Van Dine’s, I thought “Hmm, some of these aren’t rules.” And indeed, some of them aren’t. Quite a bit of the content of Van Dine’s article is two other things: (1) material that will enable you to discern if something is a detective story or not, and (2) material that lets you know which elements of detective stories Van Dine doesn’t like, or thinks are overdone.

Here’s a transcription of my notes as I read through the 20 Rules. You might want to open a copy of Van Dine’s original article in another window and follow along.

  1. Mostly correct, although it assumes that detective stories contain detectives, mysteries, and clues. I’d suggest the reader must have AN opportunity to solve the mystery before the detective announces the solution and should be in possession of all necessary information; deductions are another matter entirely.
  2. I’m not entirely sure what this means, but I suspect it has to do with mysteries that feature an unreliable narrator, like at least one Agatha Christie novel that I bet all my readers are muttering the name of at this point. Whatever Van Dine means, I’m not sure I care to bar anything from the detective story, and I like stories with an unreliable narrator.
  3. 51Cil1Cm-yLJust plain wrong, and plainly merely a dislike of Van Dine’s. If the A plot is a murder mystery, the B plot can be anything the author desires, and I think Patricia Wentworth demonstrates that romance works quite well.
  4. Ditto, although Rule 1 applies.
  5. Mostly correct, although Trent’s Last Case is an example of where this premise can fail. There’s an entire school of humorous detective story writers that would disagree also.
  6. Agreed, at least with the first sentence. The rest is either obvious or a statement of the kind of book Van Dine likes to read.
  7. I agree there usually should be a murder, although I offer Gaudy Night again. I am pleased to see Van Dine note that Americans (remember, this was published in The American Magazine) wish to bring the perpetrator to justice. The quote is from Act 1, Scene 5 of Hamlet and might be rephrased as “Murder is always horrible.” I think personally a lot of mystery writers and detective story writers tend to forget that murder is horrible, and I’d like us all to remember that; we’re a bit desensitized these days by television programmes that are thinly disguised torture porn.
  8. HangmanI completely agree, although I have no issue with stories that raise the spectre of supernatural activities as long as they are debunked completely by the end. Vide John Dickson Carr and Hake Talbot.
  9. Just plain wrong, and plainly merely a dislike of Van Dine’s. He assumes that his way of telling the story is the only way. I believe, however, that it’s a tenet of good fiction writing in a general sense that there should be a single protagonist, or a single individual with whom the reader identifies. So this is a generalized quality of good writing and not merely of good detective stories. For the rest of it — I give you The Moonstone, with its multiple narrators.
  10. Absolutely correct, although “in whom he takes an interest” might be overstating the case.  John Dickson Carr, in The Grandest Game in the World, put it as “any character whose thoughts we have been allowed to share.” I also disagree with that stricture; I wrote about it three years ago in a review of New Graves at Great Norne by Henry Wade. See also Rule 11.
  11. 1682156-inline-inline-2-a-real-life-butler-weighs-in-on-downton-abbeyWrong, wrong, wrong; merely Van Dine’s personal dislike, and snobby and elitist to boot. If Rule 10 is correct, Van Dine is saying here that servants cannot play a prominent part in the story; the way this reads, Van Dine thinks servants or menials are not “worthwhile” and capable of offering a spirited chase to the detective (or, perhaps, that they don’t have thoughts worth sharing). That’s a statement of his ideas about social class, but it should have nothing to do with detective stories.
  12. 95dec7a7d8f170fa5f4024758664a26fPossibly correct, in terms of guiding the “indignation of the reader,” but why bother making this rule? Half of the output of Freeman Wills Crofts disproves it, to name but one author.
  13. Correct; what Van Dine is saying here is that detective fiction is neither adventure fiction nor secret-service romance. It’s just a definitional issue. I gather he doesn’t care for those sub-genres.
  14. Correct, with the same stricture as I applied to Rule 8.
  15. I agree with at least the first sentence, although I think that the number of people who actually solve Golden Age mysteries before reading the final chapter is much, much smaller than Van Dine seems to think. The last sentence of this goes way beyond the evidence he’s offering and although it seems reasonable, I’d like to sit down and argue this out with a couple of well-read friends. Yes, there are readers who spurn the “popular” novel but read detective stories. But to assert that this is because of the possibility that the reader can possibly solve the mystery before the fictional detective is far, far too all-encompassing a statement to suit me. Frankly, I think it’s far more likely that they — we — read Golden Age detective stories because they eschew emotional content and we prefer that kind of emotion-free story. It may be a bug and not a feature.
  16. UnknownIt’s certainly true that Van Dine wrote his own books as if he agreed with this extraordinary statement; they mostly lack atmosphere and description (although Benson turns on subtly worked-out character analysis and Bishop and Dragon rely on creepy atmosphere for part of their charms). It rather makes me sad to think that he thought so little of the intelligence of readers and/or the writing abilities of his fellow writers that he thought it impossible to write a book with descriptive passages, character analyses, and atmosphere that would still perform all the functions of a detective story. Instead he prefers to pigeonhole detective stories and make them equivalent to a “ball game or … a cross-word puzzle”. I really dislike this idea; I want more. In fact I want as much atmosphere and description and characterization as I can get, along with the mystery, and I feel that many writers who wrote after Van Dine give it to me.
    My understanding is that many Golden Age detective story writers felt that in-depth characterization was inappropriate because it gave the reader a way of bypassing the correct “game” structure and instead allowed them to pick the murderer by his/her psychological profile — or, simply put, that the murderer was the person whose character the author most wanted you to understand. Well, as Van Dine himself notes, there are people who get their “answer out of the back of the arithmetic” and whether or not detective stories are a game, they’re not playing properly.  Too bad, but let’s not cater to that lowest common denominator.
  17. Just plain wrong (had he not read the Father Brown stories featuring Flambeau?) and I suppose a personal prejudice. There’s at least one novel by Anthony Berkeley that turns this on its head.
  18. 37dec98c957979fa20eadf6394380fc2Although I agree for the most part, I can think of at least one Sherlock Holmes story that disproves this idea conclusively and, frankly, there’s no reason for it to be a “rule”. If Van Dine is playing a game, and if the logical chain of events leads to accident or suicide and is fairly before the reader, how can this be wrong?
  19. Again, this is Van Dine distinguishing between detective stories and secret-service tales and war stories. The part that interests me is the two final sentences here; I think the emphasis on gemütlichkeit is misplaced, given Rule 7’s emphasis on the horror of murder. The last sentence is quite astonishing and I’m not sure I quite understand what Van Dine was getting at. If there are readers who have everyday experience with puzzle mysteries, I think I’m happy not to be one of them. And as an outlet for “repressed desires and emotions”? I think anyone who uses detective stories as that kind of outlet needs psychiatric help. Is he suggesting that people read detective stories because they want to commit crimes in their everyday life — or even solve them? Perhaps I’ve misunderstood; no doubt my readers will lead me to the light in their comments.
  20. imagesI must note right off the bat that Van Dine threw this in to make the numbers up to 20 Rules; he says so. That being said, this is nothing more than a list of ten things that Van Dine thinks are out of style. and in no sense a “rule”. It amused me to consider that (a) is so different in 2018 that, if you did manage to find a cigarette butt on the scene of a crime, not even considering DNA evidence from saliva, there are so few people who actually smoke these days that your criminal would stand out like a sore thumb. I’m not sure what (g) is referring to. For the remainder of these I can actually think of at least one specific story to which Van Dine would object; one is Poe’s Thou Art The Man. I’ll leave that exercise for the reader, for fear of spoilers.

I’m not sure if this next suggestion will strike fear into the hearts of my readers, or perhaps make them guffaw at how far out of my depth I am, or perhaps merely raise a dubious eyebrow, but I’m now working on my own set of rules, as yet undetermined as to number. I hope to bring that to you in the very near future.  Your suggestions are welcome.

 

 

An Expert in Murder, by Nicola Upson (2008)

An Expert in Murder, Nicola Upson
For whatever reasons, I have found in the past that I am not all that interested in the lives of mystery writers, even the well-known ones. There is a popular idea that you can learn things about fiction by finding comparisons between events in the author’s real life and those in her characters and plots. I have to say I’m skeptical, although it’s occasionally a kind of speculation in which I’ve indulged. Most of the real-life mystery writers I’ve known, and I’ve met quite a few in my day, are professionals at the craft of writing as well as its art. As a friend who shall remain nameless once put it to me conversationally, “People think I use their characteristics in real life and put them into books. If they only knew it’s so much more useful to just make shit up.”

Thus when I heard that someone had come up with the idea of writing a series of mysteries featuring Josephine Tey, well-known mystery writer of the 1930s, as the detective, I didn’t work up much enthusiasm. I’ve been disappointed in the past by a couple of novels that purport to put real-life mystery writers in the path of fictional murders, notably Dorothy and Agatha: A Mystery Novel by Gaylord Larsen from 1990 (meretricious and awful). I have not cared to speculate about where Agatha Christie was during those missing days in 1926 and so a novel that has her involved in political intrigue or murder during those days does not find a willing suspension of belief within me. Other attempts to convince me of the detective skills of various celebrities have also left me cold. Call it a quirk.

An Expert in Murder, Nicola Upson
And so when I picked up, nearly at random, the first volume of seven novels by Nicola Upson — An Expert in Murder, today’s topic — I wasn’t expecting a whole lot and was prepared to set it aside if it was what I was expecting.

There are generally two ways in which I can tell I’ve just read a really good book. One is if I finish the book and immediately, without pausing for breath, start to read it from the beginning just to savour the pleasure again. I had that pleasant experience recently with The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by the erudite Martin Edwards. In a literal sense, unputdownable.

The other way is if I finish the book and immediately, without pausing for breath, get on the internet and order as many of the author’s other books as I can find. And that’s what happened to me today with Nicola Upson. I enjoyed this book so much that I wanted a lot more of the same, and immediately. This is the kind of reading material I’m always looking for and never finding.

An Expert in Murder, Nicola Upson
As to why that is — happy to oblige. Certainly there is more than one reason. But given the above comments, I thought I should say first and foremost that this is the book that has changed my mind about the potential for putting real-life 20th century characters into fictional books. It totally works here, in my opinion.

I didn’t know much about Josephine Tey before I started this novel — well, not more than the average mystery bookstore proprietor, which is more than most people. Tey, I knew, was notoriously reclusive about her personal life.  Immediately after I finished this novel I went to Wikipedia and confirmed a couple of dates, but I tried to see exactly where real life stopped and fiction began. To my pleasure I found that while the author had tried to portray the personality of Tey as it was known, there was a great deal of fuzziness about the rest of the details and occasionally outright substitution of a fictional character for a real person. I learned from the afterword, for instance, that a major character in the book should have been named as John Gielgud — it was he who played the lead in Richard of Bordeaux, but the character in the book who does so is, I believe, nothing much like him personally. And I like that. I don’t need to read about an ersatz Gielgud in a mystery, where he cannot possibly be the victim or the murderer; I like what Upson did here and it made for a very pleasant read. To hearken back to my writer friend, she made shit up, and she did it well.

An Expert in Murder, Nicola Upson
So, yes, the detective here is Josephine Tey and for once that is not a silly or meretricious idea. Her personal circumstances are somewhat invented and somewhat real, but I truly believe the spirit of Tey is there.

The writing is smart; in fact intelligence shines through behind nearly every paragraph. The characterization is intelligent and a little bit spare, without overmuch detail so that verisimilitude arises naturally rather than being forced on you. The plot is clever, and Upson has the knack of getting you interested in the people and what’s going to happen to them.  Good writing, good plotting, good characterization, all add up to a very readable book.

All things considered, I intend to pick up the next couple of paperback copies of this novel that go through my hands, just because I want to give a couple of friends something good to read; perhaps that’s the highest praise I can offer. To be honest, I’m not liking the second book in the series as much as this one, and I have a little bit of trepidation about the remainder of the series, but … An Expert in Murder is delightful and I think you’ll enjoy it.

A note on editions

I read an electronic edition of this book but I think the most attractive cover is immediately above, a Harper Perennial paperback from 2009; a nice piece of artwork showing a young woman in a long brown coat. I am very surprised that AbeBooks is listing copies of the true first, which I believe to be Faber & Faber 2008, at about the US$85 range; similar prices for the Harper hardcover, first US. That’s about twice what I would expect these to be selling for and I have no idea why; maybe book collectors liked this book as much as I did. I tend to buy first editions of books that I believe will have a long-term appeal to readers, and this would qualify.

 

 

 

Calamity at Harwood, by George Bellairs (1945)

UnknownThis volume piqued my curiosity and I thought I’d give it a try. I’d read some George Bellairs novels years ago and, as I dimly recalled, not thought much of them. But with the current resurgence in Golden Age of Detection e-books, Bellairs’s early works have become more available and I decided to see if I’d missed anything interesting.

Bellairs wrote 50-some novels, most featuring Inspector Littlejohn of Scotland Yard, between 1941 and 1980; this is the fifth Littlejohn mystery.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this novel about?

It’s 1939 and England has just entered World War II. We are first introduced in a brief prequel to Mr. Solomon Burt, né Bernstein, as he approaches a kind of housing development for which he has been responsible. He bought up a Georgian manor house from its impoverished heir and turned it into eight luxurious flats that rented from £350 to £500 a year. Burt had completely renovated the building, added a swimming pool and tennis courts and all the modern conveniences, relying on the house’s proximity to frequent trains to London to attract well-to-do tenants. And indeed, within a month, all eight are rented, one by Mr. Burt himself.

However, all is not well in the Harwood manor. During the renovations, the house was plagued with a series of accidents; the water pipes burst and an ornamental ceiling falls in. The ancient denizens of the local pub insist that the place is haunted by the ghosts of long-ago hellions of the Harwood family. But after all the flats are occupied, a series of bizarre occurrences galvanizes the household. “Three days after the outbreak of war” — so, the early days of September, 1939 — the kitchen of the Carberry-Peacocke family is seemingly destroyed by a poltergeist (“all the crockery and china scattered, broken on the floor, the chairs and tables overturned, the refrigerator inverted in the middle of the room and the electric stove in the sink”). Similarly, other tenants are plagued with the constant rattle of dice in the room where Regency-era Harwood fops had “gambled away the family funds,” a West End actress is sufficiently bothered by constant streams of hot and cold air that she breaks her lease, and another tenant is disturbed by the constant noise of what sounds like a pump handle.

Although the Carberry-Peacockes are amateur psychic researchers and thus delighted, no one else is happy. Things come to a head when, apparently, the poltergeist spends half the night harassing the tenants and then three masked and costumed villains remove Mr. Burt from his bed at 3 a.m., strip him naked, and throw him in the icy swimming pool. They vanish, and Burt makes his way back towards his own quarters — but does not survive the night, since he’s found at the bottom of some stairs with a broken neck.

Inspector Littlejohn is called upon to investigate. He  (and his comedy-relief associate DS Cromwell) soon learns that many of the inhabitants of the luxury flats are not what they seem and one or two appear to be Nazi spies or collaborators. The activities of the resident poltergeist are resolved rather quickly, but the identification and nullification of enemy agents occupies the rest of the book. Burt is merely the first victim in a surprisingly high number of deaths; the spies who haven’t killed themselves are taken in charge and most are destined to be hanged by the state for espionage. In a coda, Littlejohn is given three days off to nurse a knock on the head, because “Lord knows when you’ll get another holiday. Things are warming-up and we’ll want all our forces ….” (Remember the publication date of 1945; this was an odd sort of Had I But Known fillip.)

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Why is this novel worth your time?

By and large, it’s not worth your time at all, if you want to consider it as a murder mystery and keep it to that. I have occasionally described the lesser talents who populated the lower regions of the Golden Age of Detection as “first-rate second-rate writers”; this author is a second-rate second-rate writer, alas, and this effort is just dull.

Bellairs starts out with some hints of promise in setting up the central story hook — poltergeists are attacking the inhabitants of a converted Georgian mansion. We, as experienced mystery readers, are all aware that this is what I call the Scooby-Doo premise; the poltergeists are of course diverting attention from some sort of criminal enterprise and it’s up to Inspector Littlejohn and the Scooby gang — sorry, Scotland Yard — to pierce the supernatural veil and expose the criminal activities. So that’s rather what I was expecting as I went through the first third of this. Unfortunately and kind of oddly, it turns out that very nearly everyone in this mansion is Not What They Seem, very close to the level of Scooby-Doo plot lines. I trust I won’t be surprising you by the idea that there are no such things as poltergeists and, yes indeed, it was Nazi spies all the time. The part that I found annoying was that there were so many people involved in this huge criminal enterprise that it literally didn’t matter who did carry out the poltergeistly activities or murder Mr. Burt, it could have been anyone with a spare moment, and thus any attempt by the reader to figure out what’s going on is useless. This is not a mystery you solve, it’s one to which you are told the answer.

George Bellairs, mystery author

George Bellairs (detail from a dust jacket)

There are some strange issues of construction that bothered me too. What it ultimately boiled down to is that it felt to me like this novel had been written in misaligned pieces. The author constructed the first third of the novel quite ably, laying the groundwork for what promised to be a competent mystery. Poltergeists, suspects, a few well-laid clues like casually mentioning where the former owner had gone to live. Your basic Scooby plot, and I was starting to wonder which of the tenants might have Something In Their Past … Then just as Inspector Littlejohn takes over the case, it becomes a kind of Inspector-French-with-water kind of Humdrum where the author hasn’t really thought through what it is that detectives DO, and so there are no extraneous lines. That’s a very brief segment, thank goodness, and it immediately turns into what occupies the action for the remainder of the book; the hunt for Nazis. Really, it’s not a mystery at all; once the threadbare curtain of the poltergeist is laid bare about the middle of the book, it’s rather like a straightforward adventure story in which the rather bland Littlejohn represents the avenging fury of Britain against the Nazis. He gets them all, they die, boom, the end.

I don’t mind that kind of story once in a while, especially when you’re looking for the social context in GAD, as I so frequently am. It was annoying, though, to have it suggested that I was getting a small-h humdrum mystery and instead end up with an episode of Spy Smasher. Calamity at Harwood as the title makes it sounds like, you know, country-house aristo is killed before changing his will. Nuh-uh. I have to tell you, at one point in this book an elderly handicapped woman is killed violently and in an almost careless way by one of the criminals, who dies in the process. By the end of this book, more than ten people have died, whether violently, accidentally, or suicidally. This is not Professor Plum in the Billiard Room with the Revolver, but it’s presented that way at first, and it’s jarring to make the transition to the spy plot. But Nazi Spy Ring at Harwood would have given it away a little too soon…

It’s almost like Bellairs decided that he needed to produce something to rouse the troops and that a simplistic story where spies are caught and killed would be visceral and satisfying to the reader. At one point he goes out of his way to portray a British collaborator as a weak-willed idiot who wilts under the slightest pressure and gabbles out the whole plot. Not very realistic, but apparently the contemporary reader was thinking approvingly of his/her wholehearted patriotism in contrast to this craven sell-out. In the second half of the story, all the subtlety is gone; it’s just a series of trails where Littlejohn tracks down a specific person and they’re apprehended, and/or die.  Usually in a way that shows their complete lack of character and moral fibre.

There is a specific reason, though, why ultimately this book landed in the second-rate second-rate category. I’m not sure whether it’s accidental or deliberate, but we are led in the early parts of the book to understand that certain characters experience genuine surprise and shock at some events. The author says that they do. Well, not to get into it too deeply, but later on it’s clear that those characters must have known what was going to happen and would not have been surprised in the slightest. That’s just cheating. Sure, you can be an unreliable narrator; I like books like that, including a famous one by Agatha Christie. But you cannot be both a reliable and unreliable one in the same book. It’s either careless or insulting — thinking that I wasn’t capable of remembering what you’d said about the character’s reactions by the time I reached the end.

There were some distinctly interesting points in the social context of the book, though, and I found them sufficiently worthwhile to make up for a lot of the nonsense that was going on in the main plot. Not a very good recommendation, and I expect you won’t find there’s enough interest in the background to make up for the pedestrian foreground.

George Bellairs, Calamity At Harwood, 1945

What do we learn about the social context?

There’s some fascinating stuff about the war in England, I thought. I wondered for a moment how it could be that this desirable mansion remained uncontaminated with evacuees, especially since the village is said to be full of them and there’s at least one empty apartment in the mansion, but that is explained by Mrs. Stone, the mansion’s housekeeper, mentioning that their particular evacuees had been quarantined with measles before arriving. There’s quite a bit about the local village being filled with evacuees, but it doesn’t seem to bring them into things as witnesses. Mrs. Stone blames the unavailability of ham and eggs upon their ravenous descent on the village’s food stocks, as she sullenly serves up sausage and brussels-sprouts for breakfast.

All the evacuees, indeed, are represented in the person of one Charlie Agg, a perky Cockney with a horrible line in racist backchat. (The victim is referred to “the Jew-boy … who’s croaked in his swimmin’-pool.”) This is strange because Agg’s few paragraphs of the narrative involve him defending his fellow Londoner, the late Mr. Burt, as having been victimized by these ‘orrid countryfolk. Inspector Littlejohn seemingly doesn’t hear the racism and I think, since Agg’s moment on stage goes precisely nowhere, that he’s meant as sort of background colour. Perhaps that was acceptable in 1945.

There’s a little bit about the blackout sprinkled through the book and, in the coda, Littlejohn takes his wife to the cinema, where they see an M. of I. film showing how idle talk assists foreign agents. I’m not intimately involved with the details of what happened when in WW2, but it made me a little suspicious that Bellairs might have been applying the regulations and attitudes of 1945 to the book which he so deliberately set in 1939. Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me. I get the feeling that excitement was more important to Bellairs than historical accuracy.

Near the end of the story, there’s a weird little moment where Littlejohn offers his friend and colleague of the French police, M. Luc, the hospitality of his home in case the war in France results in a German victory. It’s all expressed in very odd language, almost encoded, with many crucial things being unspoken. I can’t remember any of Bellairs’s other novels so I can’t say whether this is some sort of foreshadowing of stories past or to come, but it did seem like it. It’s hard to remember at this distance that although it might have seemed secure in a book published in 1945 that the Allies were going to be victorious, it wasn’t yet a slam-dunk.

It was the domestic details that interested me the most. There are eight apartments, occupied in total by perhaps a dozen people. Yet the apartments are said to be built without kitchens (although food can be prepared, kettles boiled, etc.) and Mrs. Stone “came daily to cook for such as desired it”. Wow. In other words, private chef to eight households, with no other help around the place except that of her fairly useless husband. I suspect more staff would have laid the burden of their presence upon the actions of the plot, particularly the poltergeist bits, so they were inconvenient and left out. The character seems too generally incompetent to be in charge of more than one or two individuals. Yet Littlejohn seems to think he can get her to “rustle something up” with half-an-hour’s notice.

The activities of the poltergeist involve destruction of a lot of foodstuffs, in the throwing around of flour and eggs and appliances; no one bemoans this specifically, so it seems as though this takes place before food rationing. I’m not sure how big a refrigerator would have been in 1945; apparently they can be “upended and flung across the room” and not bring into question how many people were involved in that exercise.

German spies, propaganda poster
And we learn quite a bit about … well, I’ll call it the “fifth column” even though no one the book uses that phrase. Apparently Germany was aware long before it ever got involved in war that it was going to need deep-cover agents in England (and everywhere else, it seems). During the war, elaborate cover stories were prepared to get German agents into England in a convincing way, and this book is based on some of those elaborate stories. Very much, indeed, like Agatha Christie’s N or M? from 1941. Honestly I used to approach this with a grain of salt, but judging by the imagination that went into Christie’s and Bellairs’s take on it, and those of other contemporaneous authors I’ve read, okay, I’ll buy it. People were substituted for other fairly well-known people and plans were laid far, far in advance. Makes it difficult for the reader to know who could potentially be who, but at least the story moves along at a brisk clip.

To sum up: not enough murder mystery, and not really worth your time unless you are prepared to put up with a lot of espionage bumph in order to glean a few interesting sidelights on the social conditions in wartime Britain.

A note on editions

Like most early George Bellairs novels, this used to be ferociously expensive and hard to find. It was never in paperback to my knowledge. As of today’s date there are precisely three copies available of the US first (and only) edition for sale on AbeBooks, all for more than US$100 and one is an ex-library copy. Bellairs’s original British publisher of the true first edition was Gifford, which was not of the first rank and whose editions are all hard to find; I’ve never seen this or any other Bellairs title from his early years. I rather like the illustration of the ghost and the dancing refrigerators on the Gifford cover. Mysterious Press in the US brought this edition out as an e-book in 2014 and made it available to people other than bibliophiles with deep pockets, for which we should all be grateful.  I have no idea what the young gentleman on the cover is smirking at; it doesn’t evoke anything from the book to my mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LitRPG and other ludic fiction

Columbo and DogI’m always fascinated when someone comes up with a new take on an old sub-genre, or inverts an old sub-genre to create a new one. An example of how this can work is the howcatchem — the audience knows quite well whodunit, but wants to see how Lieutenant Columbo will bring home the crime to its perpetrator. That one is a variation on the open mystery, where we don’t always know if the perpetrator will be caught. The howcatchem is not a huge sub-genre, but writers know that audiences are prepared to find that story fascinating as long as it pays off at the end in the way they expect.

wheatley_covercolorOne sub-genre from the end of the Golden Age of Detection was the dossier mystery, which is rather like a whodunit; instead of being entirely written in prose, there are photographs, documents, and actual objects (like a postage stamp or a piece of “bloody” fabric in a glassine envelope) bound or glued into the text. The final chapter was always sealed to prevent premature peeking, and the reader had to exercise some fine
hair_wheatly2colorobservational skills to note that, for instance, the jacket sleeves on one character were too long in a photograph, or there were marks on a handwritten letter indicating water droplets. The originals of these are currently esteemed by collectors and the dossier mystery has enjoyed occasional revival every so often. You might think of it as a cross between a novel and a pop-up book, or some other form in which the reader actually has to manipulate the contents of the volume physically in order to get a complete reading of everything available. Julian Symons in his history of the detective genre Bloody Murder felt that the creation of the dossier novel marked the point at which the classic detective novel became something of a cliche and the crime novel began to arise; certainly the dossier mystery is structured more like a game than an all-prose book.  Perhaps we might think of it as one of the earliest precursors of today’s topic, ludic fiction. (“Ludic,” meaning “game-like” or “about games”.)

19535293488_2Branching away from the Golden Age for a moment, many of my readers will be familiar with a peculiar sub-genre known as a gamebook, especially if they know that what’s meant is more commonly known as a CYOA or “choose your own adventure” novel. The book written in the second person (“You’re heading home after a hard night at the factory …”) and is divided into numbered sections; you start at #1 and read until you come to a decision point, at which point the book offers you choices.  “If you investigate the strange sound, turn to 34; if
51J1viA39lLyou proceed directly home, turn to 187; if you stop at the gas station, turn to 51.” Each choice leads to a small set of different outcomes, some of which end your experience abruptly; the experienced reader will be aware of reading strategies that involve bookmarks or thumbs inserted at decision points. I have a couple of paperback gamebooks written about Sherlock Holmes, although they’re not very interesting. Many of the best entries in this sub-genre were written by Steve Jackson and not all of them are for children.

17736There are very early precursors at the beginning of sound films with a sub-genre that essentially no longer exists, the college-based football movie. Biff the hero has to outsmart the wicked gamblers and make it back to Riverdale in time to play in the Big Game, which is depicted in excruciating detail and in glorious black-and-white. I don’t really think it survived the 1930s as a sub-genre but you’d be amazed at what a lot of those movies there are. The Marx Brothers parodied them in Horse Feathers (1932).

Silent_Hill_film_posterBut all these sub-genres predate the internet and the computer age, and that’s when things really started to get interesting. Essentially a number of tiny niche sub-genres of fiction sprang up that had to do with the interface between games and stories. Clue, Doom and Silent Hill, among many others, are all movies based on games; the novelizations associated with such films are books about movies about games. (Yes, it gets complicated.) A few years ago I wrote about one such movie, Battleship, which takes that relationship between story and game and extends it beyond the breaking point.

MystCoverWhen the gamebook met the computer age, two different things happened. One was the novelization of computer games; essentially, in the same manner as the movie tie-in novel, the events of a computer game were written as prose and published, usually as a paperback original. The other was the invention of the adventure game (think Myst) itself, which was more or less a computer-based
MV5BZGY0MjUwZTktNmM4OS00NmEyLWFmYTYtMDRiNDJjZTM5Y2FhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzg5OTk2OA@@._V1_updating of the choose-your-own-adventure form — with a more formalized version of “saves” to replace having to keep your thumb at paragraph 83. Sometimes the adventure games became novels; sometimes novels became adventure games, such as a long series of Nancy Drew adventure games and a wild version of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express that features a very unexpected twist ending.

981838Just as there are movies based on games, there are also books based on games. I wrote recently about the puzzle adventure, a sub-genre in which the reader follows along an exciting plot line as the protagonist competes in a large-scale puzzle-solving exercise for high stakes (Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, for instance). As noted above, some computer games have been novelized; for instance you can read a fairly faithful version of an old Infocom adventure game called Planetfall in paperback, where the protagonist doesn’t have to keep saving and going
WoW_Box_Art1back to points before he gets killed through ignorance. There are a number of novels that fill in the backstory of the Myst games, and these later became a contribution to a MMO in the Myst universe. An MMO is a Massively Multi-player Online game like World of Warcraft, where hundreds of thousands of players go online every night to kill monsters (and each other) with primitive (and digital) weapons by working in small groups. And of course someone made a movie out of that called Warcraft in 2016, which was then novelized the same year, to fill in more backstory of the particular plot they’d chosen to represent the MMO. Like I said, it gets complicated.

zero-charismaBack in the pre-internet day, I was an occasional player (and even more occasional Dungeon Master) of Dungeons & Dragons, a type of game known as an RPG; Role Playing Game. In D&D, you generate a character for yourself and join other such characters in playing out a fantasy-based game scenario administered by an all-knowing Dungeon Master. Each such character has attributes that are expressed numerically, and events in the game are mediated by rolling dice for random results. It gets very, very complicated, but at a basic level, a stupid character like Axel the Barbarian might have an intelligence of 6 and his smarter associate, Greymalkin the Wizard, an intelligence of 18. Axel’s Strength values, though, would be higher to compensate. Every character has ability scores for Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Then you get into the finer points; if you’re hit with a rock by a child you might take 2 points of damage, which is quickly recovered, but if a Gold Dragon breathes fire on you, you might take 650 points in an instant and “die”.

dekaron-fotoRPGs in the internet age are frequently indistinguishable from MMOs and you are most likely to see the acronym MMORPG commonly used.  There are MMOs that are not RPGs, such as Second Life, and RPGs that are not MMOs, like the paper-based Dungeons & Dragons, but mostly there are MMORPGs. Most MMORPGs of today are currently about Tolkienesque landscapes where warriors and magic-users fight against monsters and evil magicians, but there are many other types; space opera, historic RPGs in various eras (Shogunate Japan, World War II, Ancient Rome), comic book superheroes, global trade, etc. The MMORPG automates the process of dice-rolling and keeps track of various “buffs” (your expensive sword that does an extra couple of points of damage each blow) and “debuffs” (“You have been stabbed by a poisonous blade and will lose 5 points of damage each minute until you take an antidote”) that affect the outcome of play and allow things to move along much, much faster than your Dungeon Master rolling twenty-sided dice behind a screen to figure out if you got hit with a sword or not.

9272bdacef02f937c0b33132905ceb70--new-chapter-cyberpunkAnd that finally brings me to my latest discovery, a brand-new take on ludic fiction. It’s known as LitRPG and it’s starting to be weirdly popular. It’s not exactly what you’d think of as a novelization of a sequence of RPG gameplay: that’s because the fourth wall is constantly being broken to keep the reader updated as to the statistics of the protagonist (and occasionally other characters). You’re in a game and you always know you’re in a game. And that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Here are “the two Commandments of LitRPG” (that I’ve lifted from a website devoted to such things, so it’s their statement, not mine):

  1.  A LitRPG shall involve some type of explicitly stated progression (leveling, report of item finds, quests, etc.)
  2. A LitRPG shall involve a game-type world of some kind that the main character has been involved in.

And here’s the way it works in the text, sometimes:

“I pick up the items and add them to my inventory.
Currency.  500 gold.
Item:  Jeweled Lich Eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul.
Another notification pops across my vision.
Congratulations!  You have just completed the quest ‘Guardian Forest Dungeon.’  You now have an increased alliance with the elves.”

From chapter 7 of S.L. Rowland. “Pangea Online Book One:
Death and Axes: A LitRPG Novel.” (2017)

ace50eca80706ae1dff28766a855fa22--brody-reborn

This cover art is an excellent way of understanding LitRPG; the primitive warrior in a rough landscape, but with a superimposed computer screen giving him information.

In other words, the fourth wall is broken and the reader is yet again reminded that the protagonist is within an MMORPG. Also the reader is constantly being updated as to the status of the protagonist’s health and the things he has in his pockets (“inventory”). So in a Big Battle that is meant to be the climax of a LitRPG novel, every time one character attacks another, you know exactly who hit whom with what, numerically how much damage it did, and what the effects on future combat events are likely to be.  (“White Fang strikes the undead monster with her +2 Elven Broadsword, but undead are naturally immune to Elven weapons so its attack is full force.”)

tumblr_inline_mrg5gaRoB61qz4rgpWhat attracted me to this sub-genre initially is that I always think it’s fascinating when a literary movement starts from the bottom up, rather than the top down. I admit that slash fiction got quite out of hand in the ’00s.  This is a modern genre wherein an author “ships” or writes about sexual relationships between well-known fictional characters who weren’t known to have them — for instance, Sherlock Holmes taking Dr. Watson to bed. I knew it in the 70s and thereabouts as fanfic. In the 00s, all kinds of unskilled enthusiasts were writing about how Ensign Mary Sue attracted the attention of Captain Kirk and got rogered on the holodeck, or whatever. They would post slash on fora for each other and developed a critical language that encompassed it (see Wikipedia on Mary Sue). Slash was a brief craze among young women but it remains popular, and “shipping” appears to have made it into the language. And as I noted, slash was generated by those young women themselves. They weren’t sold it by Random House or Amazon. Their enthusiasm for an implausible sexuality may have led them to excess, but they thought of that stuff themselves and they worked hard doing it.  Possibly from slash we’ll get the Mary Higgins Clark of tomorrow. And so I make a point of looking at genres that create themselves spontaneously, as opposed to, say, the cupcake cozy, which appears to me to be a research-based construct of major publishing companies, purveyed to an uncritical and uncaring public.

2bb598129088196cea260629c5f89963Indeed, LitRPG seems to be something which came spontaneously to life. It’s going to be a difficult genre for anyone to understand who hasn’t played in an RPG or an MMORPG, but it has all kinds of interesting characteristics that are not unlike more successful genres. It appears to have arisen primarily in Russian-language materials associated with professional gamers but, as sometimes happens, there’s a bunch of Americans who claim they did it first. And if they weren’t first, by golly they’re going to be the best and get ‘er done on Amazon. To the credit of both countries, the writers recognize the economic advantages of having the books available in English for the English-speaking market. I might be seeing more than is there; my assessment of the materials surrounding the market was very limited. It looks like a lot of young men are having a lot of fun writing and reading these books; they may not be making a lot of money but they’re having a great time and forming a community.

I surveyed a random sample of LitRPG, which in itself is kind of an issue. Quite a bit of the LitRPG I saw is fantasy RPG based (think Tolkien-ish) but there’s a goodly amount from the strongly militaristic game background and some very odd outliers. I have to confess I didn’t think I’d really enjoy living through the adventures of someone in a mechanized combat suit killing things, etc., so I read through some fantasy based ones and called it a day. I’m saying this so you know my sample is skewed and I may not have the full grasp yet.

My first reaction after gulping one of these novels down was “Wow! Not many people other than gamers are ever going to enjoy that, but it was a lot of fun!” At the outset I was prepared to be quite snotty about the amateurish nature of the writing, but I soon realized something. As you can imagine, LitRPG is quite rigorously plot-driven; literally, the protagonist is given a quest or task and must find a way to accomplish it. Characterization is at a minimum. But if you think about it — that’s very similar to the earliest days of the puzzle mystery in the Golden Age of Detection. I admit that Inspector French doesn’t exactly level up when he works out that the criminal’s alibi can be broken, but there’s a process in RPG called “grinding” where you repeat low-level activities a number of times that reminds me very much of French sending out his minions to search for London stores that sell a certain kind of typewriter. So perhaps it’s merely good fortune, or perhaps a clever selection of an appropriate genre for a novice writer, but these young writers with excellent plotting skills and limited characterization skills get the job done quite nicely, for the most part.

Indeed, there are actually characters in these narratives who are literally labeled as NPCs (non-playing characters), which is a great idea that should have been adopted for the puzzle mystery. That means that only specific characters could be suspects and that old Mrs. Twitterbury who runs the local teashop is merely there to add local colour, and you can be guaranteed she didn’t kill Lord Oldandrich. NPCs are there to add colour and the protagonist knows it, so the audience knows it too and doesn’t get emotionally invested when an NPC gets killed.

The LitRPG authors usually go to a good deal of trouble to create a framing story that is not merely “Generic kid plays a game and this is how it goes”, but adds some urgency or higher-stakes outcome to the situation.  For instance, one protagonist has his consciousness downloaded into an RPG in order to escape an asteroid that’s going to strike earth and kill him and almost everyone else. Another one is playing for economic reasons; his daughter needs a heart transplant and this is the only way he can make the money. My first LitRPG  experience (quoted above; S.L. Rowland’s Pangea Online Book One: Death and Axes, 2017) has a framing story very much like what I expect to be next year’s hit movie, Ready Player One; a young orphan starts out toiling in the lowest levels of the data mines and ends up owning most of cyberspace and Getting the Girl. I’m not sure where these novice writers learned how or why to add this framing story, but I’d say the best ones have it and it’s an elegant technique that is frequently beyond the grasp of amateurs.

And plotting itself is meant to meet the expectations of people (mostly young men with good reflexes) who play a lot of MMORPG. At the outset of games/novels, your character must do low-level things like meet the locals and dispatch unfriendly creatures like … rats. As the protagonist increases in stature and experience, he can interact more seamlessly with the NPCs and fights with progressively stronger enemies (“minibosses”). The classic gaming structure leads to a final “boss fight” with the most powerful entity in the narrative. The boss fight often has an element whereby the protagonist must possess a certain object in order to defeat the final boss (the “sacred sword of the Ancients” or suchlike), or must have teamed up with a certain other character for a joint attack, or in some way met a prerequisite before the final battle. This structure naturally lends itself to a plot-driven novel in a way that is easy for novice writers to execute; gamers know this structure instinctively and, based on their experience of what makes the most satisfying narrative, arrange that whatever it is that the protagonist is fighting at his current level of experience is sufficiently strong itself to put up a good fight but not usually kill the protagonist. It kind of writes itself: a level 35 elf battles three level 32 orcs, not three level 2 fluffybunnies or a level 268 telepathic dragon that spits battery acid.

There seems to be a firm determination that every LitRPG book created shall be part of a series, which is another similarity with Golden Age detective fiction. I’m not sure why there’s an implicit assumption that the character of the protagonist is sufficiently interesting to carry the story, but perhaps this is merely why the best authors create the framing stories noted above and expect those to carry the reader.  Will the hero get his daughter a heart transplant and move forward? (Generally, yes indeed, and has a bigger problem in volume 2.)

I strongly suspect that LitRPG will have little appeal for people who haven’t already played MMORPGs but I found a great deal of simple pleasure to be had in this form; it might be naive in a literary sense but it has energy and enthusiasm.  The plots all move forward pleasingly at a high rate of speed, and there’s always something new and dangerous right around the corner.

51JdHvHLIULIf you’re interested you can find out more by searching for “LitRPG” on Amazon or your preferred bookseller; most of these books are not easily available in printed formats but almost entirely for the Kindle et al. I did enjoy the book I found serendipitously, Pangea Online Book One: Death and Axes, from S.L. Rowland — it was free for Kindle Unlimited and a mere CDN$4.98 if you’re so inclined. If you have a bright nephew of 11 or so who plays MMORPGs, by all means get him a copy; it’s the equivalent of a simple Heinlein juvenile. I read my way through quite a few of these in a week or ten days, trying to isolate some generalized observations, and they’ve all rather blurred together, but honestly I didn’t find many clinkers — just the ones for which I didn’t care due to the subject matter being “future war” or “urban jungle”. If you’re a gamer you’ll know the kind of thing you like already and you should be able to pick it up cheaply. And if your idea of a good time is being the tank for your party while the rest of your crew kills the skeletons and picks up the loot, you’ll love these books.