The Birlstone and other gambits

GroombridgePlace01

Groombridge Place, the real-life counterpart of what Doyle called “Birlstone”.

The other night I was re-reading an old mystery from the 1930s and muttered to myself, “Oh, pfui, this is the Birlstone gambit.” A family member in the room, who is probably accustomed to me talking to myself, said, “Huh?  What’s the Birlstone gambit?” And so a conversation was born, and hence this post.

I’m afraid before I start I must go much, much further than my usual spoiler warning. Ordinarily I warn people about my discussion of a specific book because they may spoil their enjoyment of the book if they haven’t read it yet.  Here, I’m going to be discussing the patterns of plots of Golden Age mysteries — various structures that underlie certain mysteries that are not related to each other but which repeat as what I’ll call “gambits”. Gambits are related to “types” of mysteries, like “locked room” or “Had I But Known”, but they relate more to the way in which the plots are constructed.  You’ll understand more as you get into it.  The point is, if you keep reading, you’re going to be better able to recognize certain repeating structures of murder mysteries regardless of who wrote them or when they were written.

I will be revealing the solution of certain well-known mysteries that either originated these gambits or are famous for having used them. If you are well-read in detective fiction, you will already be familiar with the solution to, say, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But if not, your enjoyment will be spoiled irreparably.  Really I only mean this post for the enjoyment of very well read mystery fans; be aware, and please be prepared to pass on to other reading if there’s a possibility I’ll spoil your enjoyment.

Here, alphabetically by author (so that there will be no chance of you making an accurate guess based on proximity) are the novels that will specifically be spoiled for you by reading the following article.  

  • Blake, Nicholas: The Beast Must Die (1938)
  • Brand, Christianna: Tour de Force (1955)
  • Carr, John Dickson: The Sleeping Sphinx (1947)
  • Christie, Agatha: After the Funeral (1953)
  • Christie, Agatha: Death on the Nile (1937)
  • Christie, Agatha: Hallowe’en Party (1969)
  • Christie, Agatha: Peril at End House (1932)
  • Christie, Agatha: The Hollow (1946)
  • Christie, Agatha: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)
  • Dickson, Carter (John Dickson Carr): The Plague Court Murders (1934)
  • Dickson, Carter (John Dickson Carr): The Red Widow Murders (1935)
  • Doyle, Arthur Conan: The Valley of Fear (1915)
  • Flynn, Gillian: Gone Girl (2012)
  • Hawkins, Paula: The Girl on the Train (2015)
  • Lorac, E.C.R.: Still Waters (1949)
  • Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? (1969-1970) et seq.
  • Van Dine, S. S.: The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
  • Wentworth, Patricia: The Catherine Wheel (1949)
  • Wentworth, Patricia: The Chinese Shawl (1943)
  • Wentworth, Patricia: The Silent Pool (1954) 

The nomenclature I’ve used to label these gambits is not necessarily the earliest such example, or the best, or the best-written. Frankly, it’s just how I have personally come to think of them over the years; a kind of mental shorthand, if you will. You will not find many of these gambits so labeled anywhere else. If it makes you happier to think of these ideas as tropes or even cliches, feel free. Does it seem like half of them were invented by Agatha Christie? Well, that’s why she was a great mystery novelist.

The Birlstone Gambit

doyleart32893289In this gambit, A is found dead and B is a suspect. A has died in such a way as to render the body unrecognizable; B frequently provides corroborating evidence as to the identity of the corpse.  The corpse, however, is actually that of B, and A has taken his place at the time of death. The gambit probably originated with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Valley of Fear (1915), or at least he made it his own; this has henceforth been known as the Birlstone Gambit, after Birlstone Manor House, the scene of the action in that novel. I like the way it was handled by Christianna Brand in Tour de Force (1955).

Recognizing this gambit: B sometimes displays an odd lack of knowledge of the details of B’s life, or alternatively knows too much about the details of A’s life. It’s usually cast such that B is better placed (wealthier, happier) than A, and there’s a strong motivation for A to disappear.

The Lion’s Mouth Gambit

Peril_at_End_House_First_Edition_Cover_1932A decides to murder B; A creates a situation where it looks as though someone is trying to kill A. After a few faked attempts on A, B is murdered by A, apparently by someone trying to kill A. Sometimes A continues to fake attempts on his own life to convince detectives that B was killed in error for A; sometimes A puts his hand in the lion’s mouth and makes a great show of hiring a detective to identify the killer of B. To my mind this was best handled in Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House in 1932.

Recognizing this gambit: A usually benefits a great deal by the death of B, to A’s mock surprise.

The Distinctive Garment Gambit

0950711f7e25a0734232811e47bb0e8dThis is rather similar to the Lion’s Mouth Gambit. There are two similar patterns to this one. In one, A decides to kill B. There’s a distinctive garment that is associated with A, and B is found dead wearing that garment. A has killed B, and it’s assumed that B was killed by someone who thought they were killing A. In the main variant, the actual murderer is C; A provides the garment to B unbeknownst to C, and C actually does make a mistake and kills B, having mistaken B for A.

In Christie’s Peril At End House in 1932, the garment is a shawl; it’s also a shawl in Patricia Wentworth’s The Chinese Shawl (1943) and in her The Silent Pool (1954) it’s a coat with a pattern of huge checks in vivid colour.

Recognizing this gambit: The minute you hear of a distinctive garment (for men, it can be a hat) you should be listening for people who want to wear it; they’re about to die.

The Most Likely is Least Likely is Most Likely Gambit 

Hollow-WhiteCircleThis gambit was a specialty of the great Anthony Berkeley. Essentially, A has a strong motive to kill B. When B’s corpse is found, A is in such a position that the blood is literally dripping from his hands. The experienced reader knows that the most likely suspect is always the least likely suspect, and that there is some X out there who has set this up.  The VERY experienced reader knows that when someone is the least likely suspect, they are the most likely suspect; A looks as guilty as possible because they’re actually guilty.  My favourite of these is Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (1946) but she also worked a variant of this in 1937’s Death on the Nile. Berkeley’s variants are frequently arranged so that the most likely suspect is, after much investigation by Roger Sheringham, ultimately found to be the killer and hasn’t set anything up at all.

Recognizing this gambit: When A points out, midway through the murder investigation, that had he wanted to kill B, he could easily have done it in a much less obvious way and escape detection, you should pay close attention.

The Complicit Victim Gambit

the red widow murders, carter DicksonIn this gambit, A wishes to kill B. A creates a situation such that, unbeknownst to anyone except A and B, the two arrange a plot so that B will be able to, for instance, kill C with the assistance (alibi, etc.) of A. But halfway through the plot, A kills B (which was A’s plan all along) and, because B has helped to arrange the circumstances of his own death, A hopes to escape detection through impossibility. I like the way this was handled by John Dickson Carr (as by Carter Dickson) in The Red Widow Murders (1935) but there are many other examples.

The-kennel-murder-case-1933Sometimes the assistance of B in his own death is accidental. There’s a sub-gambit of this that I’ve given its own name: the Elizabeth of Austria Gambit. In 1898, that noble lady was stabbed by an anarchist with a thin blade, and managed to walk unassisted to her cabin on a boat, where she died. I use this to stand for the cases where A kills B and then, unbeknownst to A, B continues to move around and lock himself into rooms and the like, and muddies up the path to A’s having murdered him. Principal among these is S. S. Van Dine’s The Kennel Murder Case (1933).

Recognizing this gambit: you have to recognize that the plot is quite simple if the deceased person has cooperated cheerfully in setting the scene of their own demise, and then figure out who might have convinced them to do that.

The Somebody Else’s Problem Gambit

a8f966f5701d90d5fb1f82a450a8c7dcBack in the 1980s, the late mystery novelist Greg Kramer and I used to earn small sums by writing and producing live murder mystery games over the course of a Saturday in Vancouver, culminating in a banquet in which All Was Revealed. (And may I add here that actor Curtis Armstrong, who played a supporting role in Moonlighting, is the finest real-life detective we ever encountered; a natural-born Sherlock.) There’s probably a novel or two based on the crazy stories Greg and I created for those games, but one gambit that we used over and over was a character to whom we referred as the SEP, or Somebody Else’s Problem.

00422813607212c7a4f38ab57ca34796Essentially we gave a single character a crucial fact and told the actor to conceal it by being annoying. A woman with a high squeaky voice who wanted to tell you the details of her recent encounter with aliens; an elderly man with a severe drinking problem and a failed marriage who wanted sympathy.  Most of the players weren’t prepared to put in the work to dig that crucial fact out of such an annoying person and tended to encourage their teammates to do so, with greater or lesser success. But you couldn’t solve the case without getting that little fact possessed only by the SEP.

In mysteries in the print medium, this is a more difficult element to maintain; it’s usually done by creating a character whom no one believes or whose evidence is “clearly” incorrect.  Agatha Christie did this best, I think, in 1953’s After the Funeral but also in 1969’s Hallowe’en Party.

Recognizing this gambit: when a character is either so grating that you don’t want to read about them, or you’ve become convinced that their evidence is unreliable, that’s the person who knows what actually happened, if you can only dig it out of them.

The Unreliable Narrator Gambit

9780008164997Just lately, this has become a big thing in the literary world with the huge success of Paula Hawkins’ 2015 debut novel, The Girl on the Train and 2014’s Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Essentially the protagonist represents a situation to be a certain way in the earlier part of the book and then, over the course of the action, reveals that she’s been “lying” to the audience and the truth is quite different. Successful films were made from both these books and seem to have spawned a spate of imitators.

Blake1In GAD, of course, this concept is represented by the magnificent novel by Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and the equally clever The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake (1938).

Recognizing this gambit is very difficult. Essentially you have to mistrust what you are reading from the very beginning and always have the potential for an unreliable narrator in your mind. If the narrator says something that seems to gloss over an essential fact — “I did what little had to be done” — focus in on that.

The Scooby-Doo Gambit

Scooby-DemonShark-05-Unmasked

plaguecourtA situation is outlined that contains a supernatural or creepy element; something that tends to keep people away from a certain building, or area, or room. It might be the rumour of a ghost or other monster. Upon investigation, it turns out that the supernatural element has been deliberately falsified and bolstered so as to keep people away from a criminal activity.  “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been

still-watersfor you meddling kids!” In other words, every single episode of the cartoon Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and its sequelae, but also many different novels by writers like John Dickson Carr (many times, but I like 1934’s The Plague Court Murders and 1947’s The Sleeping Sphinx). Carr had a stronger emphasis on the supernatural; other practitioners created less spooky and more outright threatening situations to cover crimes like smuggling, such as E.C.R. Lorac’s Still Waters (1949) and Patricia Wentworth’s The Catherine Wheel (also 1949).

Recognizing this gambit: Frankly, if it’s a ghost, the tradition of GAD is that it has to be revealed by the end of the story as not being of supernatural origin (except that one Carr story LOL).  So if you see a story element that involves people being warned away from the Spooky Old Woods — it’s a Scooby plot.

*****

635508844151936194-BasilRathbone-SherlockHolmesI know my friends and fellow GAD enthusiasts are champing at the bit to tell me their own gambits. Feel free, with appropriate spoiler warnings. I would suggest that a “gambit” per se is something that’s used in more than one book and by more than one author, but I’ll be interested to know your thoughts.  If I’ve gone wrong, feel free to say so.  And if you have a better title for one of my gambits, I’d love to hear it!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Someone’s going to want that some day”: Book scouting, part 2

Charity shop booksA few weeks ago I published part 1 of this … let’s call it a “how-to”, as in How to Become a Book Scout. As I look back, there were two halves to it. One half talked about what books to buy, with instructive examples from my recent foray to a charity shop, and the other half talked about what to do with the books once you had them.

The half about what books to buy — that part was solid. I think there’s a market for the books I buy, and in the intervening weeks I’ve given more thought to giving my readers some rules of thumb to use in order to profitably buy books. Those few strictures, I’ll pass along in a minute.

Venetian bookstoreBut first I wanted to comment on what I had to say about what to do with your scouted books once you buy them. As frequently happens these days, I’m going to have to walk all that back; that would have been a good guide to how to be a book scout if the year were, say, immediately before the invention of Amazon and eBay — call it 1993. All I can say is, I didn’t realize I was so out of date when I was writing it. At that point in time I was a veteran book scout; I can’t say I was enormously financially successful at it, but I occupied a useful niche in the bookselling industry. I will add that the ability to frequently come up with a volume for which a particular bookseller had a customer was a popular one among booksellers, and I think it’s reasonable to say I had “most favoured nation” status among a handful of booksellers, many of whom had become friends. I scouted books for them; they scouted books for me.

What I neglected to take into consideration was the massive disintermediation of the book industry that’s become available since the internet. So to make a long story short — yes, you can still be a book scout. All that’s changed in the interim is that, instead of your forming a relationship with a local bricks-and-mortar bookseller or two, and earning a few bucks on the side, you have to go into business for yourself selling the books through eBay or some other website.

The murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, John Dickson Carr

Dolphin C 369, 1962, 95-cent cover state

In part 1 I used the example of a paperback copy of The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey by John Dickson Carr, a 1936 retelling of a 1678 murder case (so sometimes filed as “true crime”).  It’s a scarce volume that should only appeal to serious students of John Dickson Carr or detective fiction in general, or historians. 30 years ago, if I did occasionally happen upon that scarce paperback copy (Dolphin, 1962, shown here) I might have been able to get $50 for it; no other reading copies could be found unless you bought books by mail, a sometimes chancy process.

Today I can get a copy of the IPL reissue from 1989 from ABE shipped to me in Canada for as little as, seriously, $3.98 plus $3.98 shipping. eBay is a little different; its cheapest offering is $5.23 with free international shipping. That means if you’re competing on price, you just about have to pay zero for the book, since any profit will be eaten up by shipping. That’s not a great business model.

So in order to compete, you have to offer something that “coasbooks” of eBay, they of the $5.23 with international shipping, apparently does not; and that, frankly, is the most important of the strictures I mentioned above with reference to buying books to resell.  The most important quality you can bring to this effort is knowledge.

the murder of sir Edmund Godfrey, John Dickson Carr, 1936

The International Polygonics edition, cover art by Edward Gorey

If I did have a copy of Sir Edmund Godfrey, which I don’t believe I do at the moment, and I wanted to sell it, here’s what I’d do; I’d read it carefully and write a piece on my blog about it, discussing where it fell in Carr’s oeuvre and how it measured up to his other historical works, and at the end offer my personal copy at such-and-such price to the first person who asked for it in the comments. And such-and-such price would be, to be honest, twice what I’d actually paid for it plus shipping.  I wouldn’t compete on eBay. Unlike coasbooks, I don’t need to sell dozens of copies of anything, or thousands of titles a day; I only need to interest one person in taking my copy off my hands at what actually is a fair price. Because my customer would be buying not only the book but the knowledge that goes with it.

the bride of Newgate, John Dickson Carrcoasbooks is not prepared to tell you that John Dickson Carr was a pioneer of historical mysteries, or the names of the others he wrote and where to find more information about them if you’re curious. It’s VERY unlikely to know that there are at least two cover states for the Dolphin and thus if yours says $1.25 you have a second printing or later; and that the IPL edition has an introduction by Douglas Greene, and here’s who Douglas Greene is (he wrote the book on Carr, literally). (See comments; I made an error the first time around on this.) And as far as your personal opinion of the book in question — that’s what brings the boys to the yard, as it were. Be an expert, and share your expertise, and the book-buying public will learn to trust you and prefer you.

Murder without Icing, Emma LathenIn bricks-and-mortar bookselling, there’s a process called “hand-selling”. Give me two minutes and I can find out SOMETHING about you to which I can tie a specific murder mystery … if you work in a law office or you like ice hockey or baking or cats. The place you’re from, your favourite TV show, whatever. “You’re a legal secretary?  Here’s a book where a legal secretary finds a skeleton in a deed box.” (Half of you know the answer to that one without looking — go ahead, tell me in the comments LOL.) I sell you the book by hand, because I have the knowledge to do that.

These days, given the disintermediation of the book industry, I would take a different tack — I’d hand-sell a specific book to a wide faceless audience by giving away my knowledge. And if I get an urgent and potentially lucrative demand for four or five copies of The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey through having written an article about it, well, I know where to find them and apparently they don’t.

So here’s my three rules of 2018 book-scouting.

  1. Knowledge. Know everything you possibly can about the book and
    Christie, Cards on the Table, Tom Adamsall its editions and the author and the rest of the author’s books and the authors that are like this author. If your area of expertise is very narrow — for instance, you know everything there is to know about Janet Evanovich novels, or the editions of Agatha Christie with the covers by Tom Adams, but not much else — great.  Just buy and sell those particular books and tell people what you know about them in the process.  You’ll learn more about Agatha Christie without Adams covers, or the edition of Raymond Chandler with the Adams covers, and start to branch out …
  2. Condition, condition, condition. And here you need to be
    roughly-handled Penguinsruthless. If you see a scarce book that a toddler has used for colouring practice, pass it by. A book with loose pages or equivalent damage is worthless. Some people admit the possibility of “reading copies”, which are trashed copies of books you want to read. I don’t sell trashed copies, nor do I buy them, but I’ll give them away. The corollary is that a book in perfect unread condition is worth more than its well-thumbed cousin and should be priced accordingly. Here is an article on how to describe books for sale; very sensibly put, and if you follow it, you can link to it. But as far as I’m concerned, selling beaten-up books at anything but bargain prices is like leaving the house without combing your hair; that’s not how you want the public to know you.
  3. Buy low, sell high, and work to sell. The first part of that is a
    Book hoardertruism, but there’s a well-trodden path to wasting your time concealed within it. If book scouting is going to be work for you, make it work. If you know you can’t re-sell a book for twice what you paid for it — don’t buy it in the first place. And doing nothing but buying books and never selling any is not, after a certain point, “building up inventory” or anything like that. It’s a few dozen boxes of books away from “a very special episode of Hoarders“. There’s nothing in the slightest wrong with collecting books; in fact I recommend it.  But if you’re going to buy five copies of Sir Edmund Godfrey I suggest you should have at least three customers for it. Collect if you want, but try not to kid yourself that you’re going to sell all your books “some day” if you’d rather die than let that happen. (And, important note: at least in Canada, you have to have a “reasonable expectation of profit” within seven years, I think, to write off book purchases on your income tax. Consult a professional, but don’t hold your breath.)

mind blownMy good friend and perceptive critic JJ at The Invisible Event recently published this gloss upon part 1; since he notes he’s not ranting I will gladly agree ;-). Yes, many times charity shops and Amazon sellers and even garage sale proprietors try to sell books for more than they’re worth, and that is sincerely regrettable and drives me crazy, especially when they won’t accept a reasonable offer for the damn thing. Of course we all want to find a crisp copy of Death of Jezebel in the “Buck a book barrel” instead of the far more appropriate £120 that some lucky bookseller in Lancashire wants as of today. on ABE. What it boils down to is knowledge, point #1 above. It’s absolutely infuriating to see a book in a charity shop that is priced at twice what it should be, I completely agree. But that’s a side effect of the knowledge of what the price should be in the first place. And when it’s half what it should be, I buy it and get the other half for myself.

messy bookshelvesI think JJ puts it very well when he says, “… I want to support the people who work to make them available and the bookshops that sell them. I support second-hand bookshops that actually seem interested in selling the books for affordable prices for the same reason …”. I think if you restrict yourself to taking twice what you paid for something and expenses, you will limit yourself to passing along bargains and people would support you, even when coasbooks is a click away. But the real thing that’s going to get your books sold is knowledge.

In upcoming posts I’ll try to share more of the things I look for when I’m out buying books for resale. And I’m sure there’s going to be a very special episode of Hoarders about me in the not too distant future 😉

 

 

Money in the Morgue, by Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy (2018)

Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy, Money in the MorgueProbably my regular readers are already familiar with the reason this book exists. Ngaio Marsh died in 1982, after publishing 32 novels about Roderick Alleyn, second son of a baronet and a police inspector with Scotland Yard. She left behind three short chapters comprising the introduction to the present volume, as well as “a page of rough notes”; the notes did not apparently solve the murder or provide a motive and stipulated that all the action of the book takes place over the course of one night.

The daunting task of fashioning a book out of this sparse beginning was given to Stella Duffy, who shares a number of personal characteristics with the late Dame Ngaio. Duffy is originally from New Zealand, moved to London, works in theatre, writes detective fiction, and was awarded an OBE. As Duffy elsewhere remarked, “I would have been a bit miffed if they had asked someone else.” I agree it seems like a natural match.

I must here note that the “call to adventure” came from David Brawn, who is “estates manager” at Harper Collins. Brawn was responsible for the continuance of Hercule Poirot as by Sophie Hannah in 2014, in The Monogram Murders (about which I commented here).  Brawn and what are now two Poirot novels by Sophie Hannah have received my criticism in the past — I’m still quite creeped out by the existence of an estates manager at a major publishing house and have been quite disparaging about the whole idea here. In that article I damned with faint praise the work of Stella Duffy, who has continued to entertain me with her writing, and expressed my displeasure with the idea that Ngaio Marsh needed in any sense to be continued.

Stella Duffy

Stella Duffy

Ladies and gentlemen, I have changed my mind, and I apologize to all concerned. If David Brawn can bring books like this to the public, he himself deserves an OBE, and Stella Duffy deserves the Gold Dagger. This is the best continuation novel I’ve ever read. Duffy has combined a real grasp of Marsh’s traditional themes, preoccupations, and even language with the ability to write like Marsh and, may I add, Marsh at her best. Ngaio Marsh at her best means somewhere around 1940 to 1945, and that’s when Marsh set this book (and Duffy continued and finished it). If you are that kind of Ngaio Marsh fan and you haven’t got time to read the rest of this, here’s the conclusion I want you to reach: buy this book immediately because you will enjoy it very much.

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 discuss elements of plot and construction although I do not lay out the answers.  If you haven’t already read this novel, reading this essay means it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

Ngaio Marsh and Shakespeare

Ngaio Marsh and friend

What is this book about?

Inspector Alleyn is in New Zealand, at a point in World War 2 when its invasion by Japan is forecast as a strong possibility.  The recovering soldiers and local patients at Mount Seager Hospital include Alleyn, who is doing a quiet little job of investigation involving some coded radio transmissions and pretending to be an invalid as cover; he has been in the hospital but not really part of it. The pulse of the experienced reader will quicken faintly as the opening pages reveal a rough map of the grounds of the hospital grounds and buildings.

nz20The everyday activities of the hospital involve a number of staff members: handsome young Dr. Hughes and crabby old Sister Comfort, Father O’Sullivan the unctuous vicar and various nurses and workers, and most especially the convalescing patients, all take their orders from the serene and authoritative Matron. A number of things happen roughly simultaneously at the outset of this night. The death of young Sydney Brown’s grandfather has caused him great distress, and his bereavement is being mitigated. A fat and pompous government payroll clerk, Mr. Glossop, has to spend the night at the hospital due to bad weather and needs to lock his cash in the Matron’s safe. One young and pretty nurse, the less than chaste Rosamund Farquharson, has won the enormous sum of one hundred pounds betting on an outsider at the races, and has also been relieved of it by Matron to put it in the safe for safekeeping. And there is a welter of personal relationships and romantic frustrations and sins small and large that are hinted at in the opening chapters.

Since the title of this book is Money in the Morgue, the experienced reader will not be surprised to learn that both the money and the Matron disappear quite soon into the book, although her body shows up in short order. Alleyn reveals his police credentials and, with the assistance of Sergeant Bix of the New Zealand Army substituting for his usual assistant Inspector Fox, takes charge of the case.

The plot’s the thing here, and since the action of the book takes place over such a short period of time, just about anything I say will spoil your enjoyment. I’ll merely note that Alleyn, in his usual display of gentlemanly uber-competence, solves every crime in sight before the break of dawn, some of which will not have made themselves plain to the less perceptive reader, and rights every wrong that needs righting. There is a very surprising climax followed by a series of short scenes in which all the loose ends are tied off.

Ngaio Marsh, 1940s

Ngaio Marsh, 1940s

Why is this book worth your time?

Ngaio Marsh was one of the four Queens of Crime of the Golden Age, we are often told, although I consider her fourth among that quadrumvirate after Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham. I had a try at talking about my five most/least favourite of her novels here; I’ve written about her paperback editions in general, from a collector’s standpoint, here, here, and here. And I went into great detail about Hand in Glove (1962) here and Last Ditch here (as part of my 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read series, which may give you all the idea you need of my opinion LOL).

I mention all this to drive traffic to my blog (smiling) but also to bolster the idea that, yes, I’ve read everything Ngaio Marsh ever wrote, multiple times, and given her work a lot of thought over the years. Some of her books are great; some of her books are awful. From my point of view, the ones that are great are generally speaking (a) written in her best period, roughly 1937’s Vintage Murder to 1947’s Final Curtain, (b) set in her native New Zealand, of which there are only four (and one is awful).

Marsh’s best writing is marked by a few general qualities. Since she was deeply engaged in the theatre — I won’t say that her best books are set against the theatrical background, because that is to my mind regrettably not true, but when Marsh grasps the three-act structure of a good play and applies it to her work, it escapes the dreaded Marshian second-act sag as Alleyn interviews all the witnesses one by one. (My friend Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog calls this “wallowing in the Marshes”.) She understood how this structure works and, when she got it right, she got it right. My experience is that she didn’t often get it right but when she did, it’s almost always in a book she wrote between 1937 and 1947 or so. Stella Duffy gets it right here. The sag is cleverly leavened by action that arises organically out of the situation … the interviews still happen but they’re not a deadly slog, as Marsh could sometimes manage.

The other quality that Marsh occasionally got right, and thereby lifted her work from average to extremely good, is more difficult to describe. It is a property of most well-written books, but it’s extremely important in detective fiction, which is highly plot driven. In long-winded terms; first Marsh creates believable characters who do things for believable reasons. Then she makes the things they do further the plot — and since those things are done for believable reasons, the reader can accept that they happened. Little or no suspension of belief is required. If you believe in the people, you believe in the plot, even though the plot is paramount. And then it becomes a very satisfying experience to be surprised at the REAL meaning of some of those actions — because they have become believable for a different, yet believable, reason. This is the sort of thing that happens when you have a well-hidden criminal, as you do in this book. Mr. X does action Y, and it seems as though he did Y because we see that he is the kind of person who would do that. It later turns out that he did Y for different reasons, ones that further the criminal plot; and thus there are new reasons to believe that he did Y. To me it’s one of the most satisfying ways of approaching a detective novel. You see the setting and the characters and the actions, and you think you know what you’ve seen. Then the author shakes the snow globe and, holy moly, all your assumptions were wrong and everything means something else that is also wholly believable. I think in the present volume this is all down to Stella Duffy’s plotting skills, and they are superb.

At her best, between about 1937 and 1947, Marsh’s ear for her own writing was very keen. Perhaps it was merely that she had an editor who held down the worst of her later excesses; perhaps this editor also encouraged her to occasionally step out. Marsh had moments of writing, quite often about the beauties of New Zealand, that were downright lyrical; Colour Scheme (1943), for instance, is filled with descriptions of the countryside and the vegetation and the weather (and the hideously powerful fumaroles) that beautifully set the scene and add delightfully to the atmosphere. Wikipedia appears to assert that the Marshian fragment completed by Stella Duffy was written in 1946 and I can see many reasons why this would be so. Her previous two novels had been set in wartime New Zealand (Colour Scheme and Died in the Wool) and this seems to follow right along; the same location, the same premise, the same framing story of Alleyn writing letters to Fox and Troy. Anyway, I think her writing style at this point was at its most effective height. She was writing elegant prose for intelligent people, with a good ear for dialogue and strong powers of characterization and description.

WWII nurses

These nurses reminded me of what the nurses and matron of this story might have had to dress like as they did a tough and messy job — crisp outfits and starched caps.

When I read this volume, I felt immediately that the writing style was actually from that period; Duffy has picked up on that perfectly and really carried it through with great restraint. I gather from an interview that she found words and phrases in Marsh’s oeuvre that had been repeated and tried to use them. Just a great idea. Ordinarily I don’t mind if a continuation writer doesn’t sound so much like the original writer as long as she thinks like the original writer. Here, Duffy has really matched and occasionally exceeded Marsh’s prose at her most intelligent, and yet restrained herself from adding her own voice, for the most part. My attention was caught by a tiny snippet about Miss Farquharson being mocked for a non-NZ accent when ordering a drink — that sounded like Duffy herself. I mention that because it’s the only time I had the thought of Duffy and not Marsh herself writing this.

And now I have come to the part for which Stella Duffy deserves all the praise and then some. If all she got was the first three chapters of this and a page of notes then all I can say is, she’s got a hell of a career ahead of her as a Golden Age continuation writer if nothing else. There is a central twist in this book that is killingly clever as it reverses your expectations; it’s thoroughly foreshadowed and almost obvious once you go back and look to see where you’ve been led astray. Frankly, fooled I was and fooled I was happy to be. I enjoy books like this and they have that true Golden Age quality of story-telling, a delightful reversal that’s a twist in the tale. This is something that Marsh only occasionally reached and there are not many of her novels that are this clever and thus this enjoyable in terms of the criminal plot.

All the characters are believable, and I am happy to say that they are believable in the sense of it being 1946. Duffy doesn’t make the error of ascribing modern-day points of view to characters for whom they are anachronisms. In fact as I read through the book, I kept being reminded of characters from other Marsh novels. Bix and Fox are pretty obvious cognates, rather a “tip of the hat” kind of thing. There are Matrons and nurses and handsome young doctors in The Nursing Home Murder, she knew that background. Pompous Mr. Glossop reminded me of a couple of other characters in other novels (perhaps Death at the Bar), angry little men whose job, plot wise, is to keep people on edge and confrontational. There are other Maori characters in Vintage Murder (this book name checks a Maori doctor we first met in Vintage Murder) and Colour Scheme, a mixture of good and bad like all populations. Evasive Father O’Callaghan made me think of a minor character in Overture to Death; the unpleasant Sister Comfort made me think of a major one. The added fillip in the present volume is that there is just the faintest, most delicate tinge of lesbianism in a comment in Chapter 35 that doubles the meaning of a central relationship in the book … which to my mind is an elegant echo of the faint and delicate tinge of lesbianism in Ngaio Marsh’s own life. (I hasten to add, to my mind it’s just a rumour and probably not true. Not that that’s a bad thing, just that it wasn’t her thing.) Certainly it is in Duffy’s own life; she is married to a woman. So I’m willing to believe she knows what she’s laying down here and, for me, it was precisely the right amount. Another “tip of the hat”.

So many nice things in this book; I could go on and on. The grand revelation of the book is pulled back just the tiniest bit from being truly explosive, but you know, Marsh herself wasn’t very good at coming up with a explosive finish. There’s some great work with the tiniest details of life during food and rubber rationing; just enough to remind the reader when they are. Similarly the niceties of linguistic New Zealand are handled just as cleverly here as Marsh did herself; “I reckon you’d better rattle those dags if you’re going to get a shoofti at it … ” to me is the equivalent of Dead Water‘s “‘Oh, Patrick!’ ‘Don’t say ”’Ow, Pettruck!”'” in its conveyance of accurate everyday NZ usage.

So many things to like, indeed, that I’m astonished to think that, you know, I want more of this. And that truly is a surprise. With Sophie Hannah’s resurrection of Poirot, I merely want that to stop, or for Hannah to work on a project more suited to her considerable talents. This one is done so well that I want Stella Duffy to write a whole new series of Alleyn adventures, based on no Marshian notes at all. I can’t believe I just typed that, but, yeah; I think I would enjoy the hell out of that. In the meantime I’m going to get my hands on a lot of other Stella Duffy mysteries.

A note on editions

Of course there is only one edition of this book at the moment; I got this in electronic format the day it came out, which was yesterday. Yes, I’m a fast reader LOL. So if you want to read this you have the choice of a hugely overpriced electronic version or a reasonably priced first-edition hardcover that still costs twice what the electronic version does. Honestly, this is such a good book, I’m going to go out and get one or even two copies of the first edition and lay them down for the future; I think this book will appreciate.

 

 

 

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.